sum of the sermon – love is a battlefield: be strong in the Lord (2)

 

“Well now way back in the Bible, temptations always come along. There’s always somebody tempting, somebody into doing something they know is wrong. Well they tempt you, man, with silver, and they tempt you, sir, with gold. And they tempt you with the pleasures, that the flesh does surely hold. They say Eve tempted Adam with an apple, but man I ain’t going for that. I’m goin’ for the …”

Perhaps you recognize those lyrics. They make up the middle verse of the song Pink Cadillac by Bruce Springstein.

Or maybe you recognize those lyrics because that’s the song you sing every day. Every day you’re goin’ for the ________ (you fill in the blank).

This is part of being human, a fallen being, isn’t it? No responsible person gets a pass. We all are tempted in many ways and at many times. Sometimes blatantly; sometimes with subtlety. But, as Christians we know, no matter in what form it comes to us, we’re called to:

… be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. (Eph. 6.10)

We know what our Lord expects of us regarding temptation. His special messenger to us, James, puts it concisely and with some serious motivation for us:

Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. (James 1.12)

The question now, of course, is how to resist temptation. How to be strong in the Lord by turning away from darkness and toward light, toward him.

James doesn’t leave us wondering. He laid out a captured copy of our Enemy’s battle plans against us and spread it out on the table for us to see. Here they are … with his word of warning to us at the end:

… one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. Do not be deceived, my beloved. (James 1.14-16)

We need to take a good, hard look at what’s being said here. If we’ll do so, we’ll find a great deal of help for us to be “strong in the Lord” in our resistance of the darkness that would have its way with us.

Do not be deceived. Keep a good look out. And as you do so …

Look within. That is, take note of what you desire. Just because you desire something doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. What is it you desire to think, say. or do? Why do you desire this? Desire isn’t temptation, and neither desire or being tempted is sin, but we know sin starts with both. Desire coupled with temptation just might not be a green light to go for it, but a flashing warning sign that says: “Bridge Out! Dead End.” So look within and then pray honestly to our Father regarding your desires.

ook ahead. Have you got so caught up with seeing only what’s right in front of your hood ornament that you can’t see down the road? Think seriously about where your desire could lead you. Could it lead you to a place you never would have dreamed of going and would never have wanted to visit? Choices and decisions made in the moment can have huge consequences, consequences that could domino and pile up on you. So, determine to take the long view and allow that to help guide you in the here and now.

And by all means, look beside you, for beside you is Jesus Christ.

… I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age. (Matt. 28.20)

Remember he’s right here with you. He knows your desires. He know what is tempting you. He knows the suffering temptation can cause within you. And he’s here to help you to be strong.

Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Heb. 2.18)

Go now. Go “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.”

sum of the sermon – love is a battlefield: be strong in the Lord

 

Most of you have probably seen the videos that have gone viral of late of people accepting “The Ice Bucket Challenge.” It’s a gimmick to raise awareness of – and funds for – the fight against Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known to a previous generation as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

I accepted the challenge – dump a bucket of ice water on yourself – and I’ve set aside a contribution to the ALS Association. I challenge you to do the same (at alsa.org).

But this morning I challenge you to consider what it means to “be strong in the Lord.” For that is precisely what each of us here is called to become. “Strong in the Lord.”

Just what does that phrase say to you? What image does it conjure up in your head?

Let’s ask the person who first used it: an apostle of God. His name was Paul. And when Paul thought about “being strong in the Lord” his mind instantly went to an image of war. (Eph. 6.10 NRSV) It’s an image of a soldier fully equipped to do battle with the enemy. (Eph. 6.11 NRSV)

Being “strong in the Lord” is deadly serious business; it’s a battlefield!

In that sort of scenario, you are, if nothing else, fully-focused. There are things you just don’t do (like carry things you don’t need). And there things you do no matter what (you “behave appropriately”). cf. Rom. 13.12b-13a NRSV. For it goes without saying: it’s a matter of life and death.

Now let me ask you: how do you picture yourself when it comes to being “strong in the Lord;” when it comes to your engagement in spiritual warfare?

I can’t see your answer, but I can relate to you what I sometimes hear.

“I want to be strong in the Lord, but I’m just not feeling it. I want to be spiritual and I start out doing well, but I seem to quickly fizzle out. What am I doing wrong?”

Does that sound like you? What it looks like is hand-to-hand combat and the battlefield is your mind. God has put his Spirit in us to permeate our mind and work out his will in this world. However, our enemy, Satan, opposes God and us. His plan of attach is to reverse God’s intended nature of things by using the world and its ways to impact us sensually, taking control of our mind and dominating our spirit. The contested ground, the ground where the battle will be either won or lost, is in our mind.

Through the years I’ve had occasion to talk with combat-hardened veterans of military service. Sometimes I’ve asked them what being truly ready for battle is all about. More often than not they do something like this (“tapping their head”) and say something like “keeping your head in the game.”

One time, I had a young veteran – one of the current generation raised on video games like Call of Duty – look me right in the eye and say:

“They lied to me. There’s nothing quick, easy, or fun about killing a man.”

I’ll leave it to you to sort all of that. Including what all that young man must have wrestled with (and still does).

But I think what he said nailed it. It comes down to what we’re thinking and our expectations. Make no mistake about it: our part in the battle – the fulfillment of our duty to God – will be won or lost in our head.

“What am I doing wrong?,” you ask.

It’s likely the way you think about things. Or more precisely, the way you don’t think about your expectations.

How many of us have been duped by the Devil to think our maturity in Christ can, and will, come quickly? How many of us live under Satan’s deception that being a Christian is supposed to come relatively easily? How many of us have been deluded to believe – and diluted in our faith – to suppose that life in God must be fun?

I tell you the reality of it is more like the difference between the look in the eyes of the fresh, new recruit who has never “seen the elephant” and the eyes of the battle-hardened veteran who has seen it all … again, and again, and again.

I challenge you: name one thing that’s solid and central about Christian faith that happens “quickly.” There’s nothing there. It takes time. A lot of time. A lifetime.

Precious little – if anything – about believing, truly trusting God, is “easy.” Faith is “the proof of what we don’t see.” (cf. Heb. 11.1b CEB) What, pray tell, is easy about that?

And “fun?” While joy is certainly part of the fruit that God’s Spirit grows in/on us, that word was never intended to carry the full freight load of what it means to follow after God and his will. If so, someone forgot to tell our Lord, our mentor, our model, the Man of Sorrows. No, strong Christians make use of all the colors in the box, not just happy yellow. They can, and do, “weep with those who weep” and they can, and do, grieve over their sins.

“What are you doing wrong?” It’s likely a matter of the battle going on in your mind. You have a set of assumptions and expectations that have no place on the battlefield, and you’re in the Army now, mister; get your mind right!

Put on the full armor of God! Every day the sun comes up is a day there is an enemy at the gates and evil in the air. (Eph. 6.13 NRSV) Gear up with faith in God, hope in Christ, and love by the Spirit. (1 Thes. 5.8 NRSV) Your life – and the lives those around you – depend on it. And march into battle with the assurance that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, will see us through to our destiny with him, in him and for him. (1 Thes. 5.9 NRSV)

Who today will take up the challenge? Who will get their mind right by turning a deaf ear to the Devil’s propaganda? Step right into the ranks of the legions who call Jesus “Lord.”

sermon notes – maintaining the unity of the Spirit: Q & A

 

The past several Sundays at MoSt Church I’ve been preaching regarding the unity we share as Christians as a result of the work of God’s Spirit. The last two sermons, centered on Ephesians 4.4-6, were closely linked to the sermon preceding them (based on Ephesians 4.1-3). These two sermons seem to have generated a number of questions. And so, my sermon today will address several questions that some have had regarding these sermons.

And, uncharacteristically, I have manuscripted this sermon, the entirety of which follows. One note: my delivery of the sermon doesn’t necessarily follow the manuscript, but the manuscript does record the essence of what I’m trying to get across in this sermon.

So, let’s start by reading Ephesians 4.1-6 once more … very closely, carefully, thoughtfully, humbly, and with prayer.

I … beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4.1-6 NRSV)

Q. Why preach these sermons on unity? And now?

A. Our elders called on me to do so and I serve them in Christ’s name. They detect the need among us and so I am ready to help them feed the flock of which we all are a part (cf. 2 Timothy 4.2). The body of Christ always needs to hear about unity; it is a subject difficult to visit too often.

Q. Are we talking about: (a) unity within our church family, (b) Churches of Christ, or (c) all Christians everywhere?

A. That would be “d,” all of the above, for we are “all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3.28). What holds true for one field holds true for them all.

Q. The Bible is a big book. Why believe the “Seven Ones” of Ephesians 4.4-6 define our unity?

A. Such is the natural reading of the flow of thought in Ephesians 4.3-6. Vs. 3 mentions the unity we share and vs. 4-6 immediately follows as a precise description of the pillars that hold up the roof of unity.

This understanding is anything but original or “new”; it has been the view of many Christian thinkers, scholars, preachers, teachers, and writers across the ages.

Q. The Lord’s Supper isn’t mentioned as one of the “Seven Ones” of Ephesians 4.4-6. Aren’t all Christians to share in such?

A. Given the apostle Paul’s choice of words concerning the body and its importance to faith in his discussion of the Supper in 1 Corinthians 10.16-11.1,17-34, it seems natural to conclude that the Supper is a part of the one faith’s declaration and celebration of the one body. That is, the Supper, though not explicitly named, is implied in the life of the one body lived out together in faith.

Q. What?! You think there are Christians outside of “Churches of Christ?!”

A. Of course! Allow me to call several witnesses to the stand.The combined testimony of Scripture, reason, church history, and personal experience is clear and powerful.

First, our Lord Jesus himself speaks of principles related to thinking so (cf. John 3.8; 10.16; etc.).

Second, reason tells us that when our Lord said the way is “narrow” (Matthew 7.13-14) that he did not mean infinitesimally so (as is the case if one considers the world’s population and limits the size of Christianity to buildings with a sign out front that says “Church of Christ” on them).

Third, Christ’s church – the one body – has existed for nearly two millennium now, but “Churches of Christ” as we know them today did not even exist until the 1800’s. Are we to believe there were no Christians on the earth for 1,500+ years? Did the Lord’s promise that his kingdom wouldn’t end, falter or fail? Phht!

And fourth, who doesn’t know people they consider full well to be one with Christ –  exemplary even of what a Christian is to be in the development of the fruit of the Spirit in them – and yet, who are not a part of “Churches of Christ?”

Further, when we preach for all Christians to come together on Christ and his word alone, to whom do we think we’re speaking? Are we just talking to ourselves?

And so: are there Christians outside of “Churches of Christ?” Yes, and the question is now seen for what it is: at best it is unobservant and thoughtless, and at worst it is more nearly absurd, insulting, and revolting! If you think not, try asking some of your earnest, Christ-seeking friends how they hear this question.

Christ’s church is made up of all of the saved, but Christ’s church and the people known as “Churches of Christ” are not synonymous terms. The former includes the latter, but is by no means limited to it. We must be Christ-like – not libertarian or sectarian – in our thinking, as well as in our behavior.

Q. Who exactly are the saved?

A. We believe salvation is through Jesus Christ (John 10.9) and no one else (Acts 4.12). We have many clear examples given to us by the Spirit in Scripture as to how people came/come to be Christians (e.g. – Acts 16.30-33). And we know all who make such a start with Christ are to spend all of the rest of their days growing in Christ’s grace and knowledge (2 Peter 3.18).

But, ultimately, God alone knows who are, and who will be, the saved for God alone is Judge and Mercy-Giver (cf. Romans 9.15). We should rejoice to leave this role to him! As you have heard me say many times through the years: “I’m happy to let God do the sorting.” We dare not come to think we’re big enough to play God (the first sin, as old as Adam and Eve in the Garden).

As we who seek Christ all seek to walk toward God together, let’s avoid the ditches on both sides of the road: the ditch that counts obedience as something of an optional matter (Matthew 7.21) as well as the ditch that equates merely human doctrines and doings with the very teachings of God, thereby laying heavy, human expectations on people’s backs (Matthew 15.9).

It is enough that the saved are in God’s good hands and all who seek God should seek to walk hand-in-hand as they can.

Q. Is there a difference between what is necessary for salvation and what is necessary for fellowship?

A. Yes. God alone can save and does so with perfect knowledge, while we humans recognize fellowship on the basis of very limited knowledge. Think of some of the many differences just within the Churches of Christ – we don’t write everyone else off to hell (do we?) just because there are differences between us great enough to make full, outward fellowship extremely difficult or even unworkable at times. And so then, there are matters of salvation and matters of fellowship. They are two different things.

If this troubles you, think of what our Lord said to his disciples when they complained that another was doing much good but, did not keep company with them (Mark. 9.38-40). Or think about Paul and Barnabas going their separate ways over John Mark and yet, both being used by God to further his kingdom’s work (cf. Acts 15.38-40).

Q. “We’re not the only Christians; we just want to be Christians only.” Where’d that come from?

A. This comes to us from both grief and good.

The grief? The utter disgust over the divided state of greater Christendom planted the seeds of the thought and has cultivated the yearnings of a multitude across time: “Surely there must be a better way than this sorry state of affairs of a multitude of divisions among believers!”

And what is the good? The revealed mind of God through his word to us in Scripture gave such to us: to do all in the name of the Lord; nothing more, nothing less (cf. Colossians 3.17). This is the far better way.

Q. You mentioned Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell last week. Who cares what they thought?

A. I do and you should, too. Why? Because they were used by God as developers of our heritage’s roots, these two men helped shape our thinking today. Being godly, scholarly men who investigated the meaning, application, and maintenance of Christian unity their whole lives with intense research, deep thought, constant prayer, and with a wealth of personal experience, they remain worthy teachers of us all still today. Do take the time to carefully consider Hebrews 13.7 on this.

I would add a word of caution: make no mistake about it, there is a strong stream of anti-intellectualism that runs not just through the minds of many within our heritage, but through our entire country as well, and this must be resisted. Where people do not want to know about their past or where they do not care to hear from those who influenced them to be as they are today, intellect will only deteriorate and Christian faith will suffer much for it.

Q. Why can’t all believers see everything the same way? Within Churches of Christ, at the very least?

A. This is a false and damaging expectation to carry around with us in this life for it presumes the exact opposite of what Scripture tells us, namely that here and now we Christians “know only in part” (1 Corinthians 13.9a). We are destined to see things here only “dimly.” First, because we’re individual human beings. Second, because each individual conscience is developed to a different degree in light what it has been exposed to, and enlightened to, of the will of God. And so, perfect agreement between us all is an absolute impossibility.

And that’s okay, because we are not called to uniformity, but unity in the Spirit. Note our role: we are called to maintain the unity that God’s Spirit has given, not manufacture uniformity by the work of our own hands. The unity of the Spirit makes room for diversity where the human spirit bent on uniformity does not.

And recall what we’ve already noted: we are extremely finite and flawed beings, meaning we often find ourselves not content with God’s “Seven Ones” (Ephesians 4.4-6) and often go off in a meaningless quest for the 70, 700, or 7,000 that God’s Holy Spirit did not give us. May God have mercy.

Q. How can we get along with and work with each other if we don’t agree on everything?

A. The same way a healthy marriage between a husband and wife functions: on the basis of continual, loving attitudes and actions of submission toward each other (Ephesians 5.21). No husband and wife agree on everything, nor do healthy ones expect to do so. They know their unity and faithfulness is not dependent on such. Every healthy marriage is not merely a strong statement so, but serves as a witness for, and encouragement to, earnestly seek unity.

It is the same way with the church, the church with Christ. This is the wisdom that we seek: to live our lives together practically in Christ in unity. This is not a dream; it is doable. Where Christian unity does not exist it is not because it has been tried and found wanting, but because it has simply not been honestly tried and pursued.

Just as in a godly, spiritually-healthy marriage “… what matters is faith working through love …” (Galatians 5.6), it is so with the unity of the Spirit in Christ’s church. May the church, the bride of Christ, discover this again and again, and rejoice in it greatly, making it her ceaseless quest, day by day!

Q. What can/must MoSt Church do in order to do an even better job of maintaining the Spirit’s unity?

A. Ephesians 4.1-3 gives us much of the answer. We can seek with all of our being to allow the Spirit’s growth in each of us these four vital elements: humility, gentleness, patience, and love. There is enough in those four words alone to keep us all occupied quite well all day long, every day. So let us pursue them! Memorize them. Reflect on them. Pray regarding them. And let us practice them every we can.

As well, we can work at growing in respect and care for individual conscience on ever matter.

We can strive for a common vision of the Spirit’s “Seven Ones,” deliberately laying aside our baseless and unnecessary expectations of 70, 700, or 7,000 things.

We can get busy, and continue to be busy, working together, for few people who work hard together with a common vision divide.

We can pray: “Let all that is denominationalism and division within us, and outside of us, die!”

We can, with a will, leave the things that God alone can do, to God for him to do.

We can stress what we’re called by the Spirit to agree on, and not stress out over what we’re not called to agree on.

We can deliberately and frequently speak well of each other, pointing out the good we seen in each from God, and refrain from assumption, judgmentalism, and gossip.

We can focus on the action laid out for us by the Holy Spirit in Ephesians 4.4-6 (the “Seven Ones”) and determine to see developed in us in increasing measure the attitudes that accompany the “Seven Ones” (Ephesians 4.1-3), that is: humility, gentleness, patience, and love.

And the greatest of these is love.

And so, let us hear what the Spirit says to the churches, and to us:

I … beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4.1-6 NRSV)

And so, having heard the Spirit’s call as to what can agree on and how, let us pray:

Father God, you are One! And so, in Christ’s name give each of us grace to respond to you here and now, and in every day to come, to maintain the unity that your Spirit has provided for us all. Loosen our grip on anything that is not of you, steering us clear of the ditches on both the right and the left. We would have you sharpen our focus on the one body; your one Spirit; our one hope to which you have called us; our one Lord; the one faith; the one baptism; and you, our only Father, God. All of this we ask for the honor of your name. For the betterment of our lives together as your people, united by your Spirit. And for the sake of a united witness to all who are yet to believe. Amen.

bits & pieces: part of my sermon this morning

 

7 reasons why we need to engage in steady prayer with God

1. so our awareness of our need of God does not diminish -
Luke 18.1 (“necessity … to pray always”)

2so we can face whatever we face in life well -
Romans 12.12 (“be patient in suffering”)

3so our perspective of God can grow -
Ephesians 3.20-21 (“more than all we can ask or imagine”)

4. so our world will enlarge, not shrink -
Ephesians 6.18 (“praying for all the Lord’s people”)

5so as to nurture a thankful spirit within ourselves -
Colossians 4.2; 1 Thessalonians 5.17-18 (“thanksgiving … give thanks”)

6so we’ll ever recall this life is not all about us -
James 4.2-3 (“wrong motives … to squander what you get on your pleasures”)

7to become more trusting of our Father, God -
1 John 5.14-15 (“bold confidence … before him”)

on giving thanks; a very brief sermon

 

Give thanks.

This is good. Very good. May we only grow in the practice of it.

But, let us always remember that giving thanks is not an end in itself.

Our giving thanks to God is meant to move us toward giving grace to others.

For while God does not need our thanks (he is not “in need” of anything), he does desire his creation to be good to the rest of creation.

To live in harmony, peace, and blessing.

To love as he loves.

And so today, if you are thankful you have …

* food … then pray for the hungry and seek to feed others;

* clothing … then petition God for those who are without and clothe others;

* a place out of the elements … intercede for those who are homeless and support low-cost housing;

* a legal and ethical means of making a living … pray for the unemployed and the wrongly employed, work hard at your job, and assist others as you can;

* family and friends … talk with God for the lonely and abandoned, caring for them with your time and attention.

* freedom to worship without persecution … plead with God for the persecuted and love your enemies.

Give thanks. This is good. May such grow daily all the more in us.

In terms of expression, and not only emotion. In ways of action, and not merely intention. In means of care, not just concern.

For our God is good.

And so, let us be good to all.

All the time.