We who say we love God...

Sunday, January 29, 2012

We who say we love God: why are we not as anxious to be as perfect in our art as we pretend we want to be in our service of God? If we do not try to be perfect in what we write, perhaps it is because we are not writing for God after all. In any case it is depressing that those who serve God and love Him sometimes write so badly, when those who do not believe in Him take pains to write so well…

The fact that your subject may be important in itself does not necessarily mean that what you have written about it is important. A bad book about the love of God remains a bad book, even though it may be about the love of God. There are many who think that because they have written about God, they have written good books. Then men pick up these books and say: If the ones who say they believe in God cannot find anything better than this to say about it, their religion cannot be worth much.

- Thomas Merton, from a meditation set down on 14 August 1947

(with thanks to Jeff Childers)

"Do Not Merely Listen to the Word"

Sunday, January 1, 2012

This is a sermon I preached this morning at New Life Church of Christ in Cleburne, Texas. Feedback is welcome and appreciated.

Words are important. Everybody sitting in this room knows the power of words, whether you realize it or not. You can lift somebody up with words, whether you tell them that they look nice today…or you could be bringing good news – “You’re hired!” “You’re going to be grandparents!” “I’m happy to say that the tumor is not cancerous.” “I’m proud of you.” “I love you.” “You look nice today.” Words can lift us up. It’s why we answer the telephone when it rings, or get happy when we receive a hand-written letter, or yes, even a text. When I was a young person I couldn’t understand why the old people wanted to sit around at the table after eating and talk. I didn’t want to talk; I wanted to go play. But now I know that growing up doesn’t mean you no longer enjoy playing – it means you enjoy talking to people that you love that much more. Words are important, and we know that in the church. It’s why we don’t just sing tunes (although I think that might be nice to do now and then), we sing songs that glorify God and encourage one another. We dedicate 20 minutes OR MORE (but not much more, right?) to a sermon – again, something I wasn’t quite on board with as a kid – because we think it’s important to hear a word from God.

I have a ministry mentor that I have learned a lot from, both about life in church and about making my way through this world, and he loved to say that words create worlds, that preaching and teaching and just talking to people about Jesus is way more than just a casual conversation, but that we all take the place of the prophets when speak a word from God. Have you ever stopped to think about what that means? We dare to say that we speak God’s word. It makes me nervous just thinking about it. I get nervous every week that I preach as I prepare my sermon, not because I’m afraid of speaking in front of people, though that still grips me sometimes, but because I’m speaking on behalf of the God who created a world through his own speech. And I know that you know by now that ministry is not just done by those who wear the title, it’s done by every one of you, and I encourage you once in a while just to have a sense of wonder and awe about speaking about God. This God who was hovering over the waters and spoke and all of a sudden things began to happen and matter came into being all because of a word.

Words can hurt, too. James reminds us of that when he tells us that the tongue is like a rudder on the ship, controlling the whole thing. He says that words are sparks that can ignite an entire forest fire, that’s how important words are. “I’m sorry, we think you were a very qualified candidate, but we decided to go in a different direction. We’ll keep your resume on file.” “I have bad news. The cancer is very advanced.” “I have bad news. You are unable to have children.” “Did you see what she’s wearing? There’s no way she can pull that off.” “I think maybe we should just be friends.” “Your mother and I love you very much, but we’re not going to be living together anymore.” Words can hurt. Sometimes, we don’t want to answer the phone, because it could be bad news. Sometimes, all it takes is one or two words to bring us down – maybe for a long time. Maybe forever.

It’s good to be reminded of this as well in the church, isn’t it? Not only are we responsible for comforting those who are hurting, but beyond that, sometimes we forget that we are the ones bringing others down. We gossip about each other – it’s one of those things that we all say that we hate, but we all do it anyway, every single one of us. Your words could be hurting somebody, even if they don’t hear what you say. I think it’s very important for all of us to stop once in a while and realize what kind of power we have. It’s the kind of power that once we notice it, it’s very tempting to use for our own selfish purposes. Just like words have power to create worlds, they have power to bring them crashing right back down. I’d like to believe that we’re the kind of people that would interpret that power as a responsibility.

I believe I’ve made my case. Words are important. They have power, they have weight. If you can speak, you have the power to life people up and tear people down. Let’s read some more about words.

22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. 26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

[James 1:22-27; 2:14-19, 26]
Okay, everything I just said about words? Words are useless if they’re not backed up. James spells it out real simple for us right here. If somebody has no clothes and no food, and you tell them, “God be with you, I hope you find your clothes and food that you need”…what have you done for them? Absolutely nothing. Your words are empty and useless and void if they’re not accompanied by some sort of action. If I say that I’m going to give you something, and then I keep it for myself, I’ve done you no favor. In fact, I might have actually hurt you a little bit, because you were counting on me and I let you down. It doesn’t just have to be about giving. If I say that you can call me any time of day if you need to talk, and then whenever you call, I let it go to voicemail because I don’t want to talk to you, what good has that done? There are a million examples. If I say out loud that Christianity has called me to live a better life, but the only difference between me and any other person out there is that I have someplace to be on Sundays and Wednesdays, what have I done? I pointed out just a little bit ago that we do a lot of talking here…and that’s a GOOD THING. When it turns into a bad thing is when we let it be all talk and no action. Did you know that the original word for church implies action? It means that we have a mission, and it’s not just to go into all the world and invite people to our thrice-weekly services. We go and make disciples, people who follow Jesus and do and act and speak as he did, helping the widows and orphans and hungry and needy and thirsty and imprisoned, standing up for those who can’t stand for themselves, giving hope to the hopeless, doing acts of justice and mercy. Faith is not just about words. It’s about giving up on ourselves for the sake of others, and it’s something we talk about a lot, but I bet if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit we never actually get around to doing a lot of it.

I guess you’re wondering how I’m going to tie this into New Year’s. This is the third year in a row I’ve preached here on or around New Year’s Day, and that’s mostly just a coincidence. Last year I got up and I said, all of these resolutions that we do, it’s all about ourselves. I want to lose weight. I want to be in better control of our finances. And so on and so on. But the Gospel isn’t about self-improvement, and it’s not a self-help manual. I said those things last year, and I had a couple of people say to me, “I can’t believe you’re against New Year’s resolutions.” Well, that wasn’t really the point. Of course it’s great that you want to get your life in order, and if New Year’s is the motivation you need to get into gear, then that’s fantastic. I do get a little bothered, though, that some of the resolutions we spend our time and energy on don’t really reflect what we’re all about. I hear people say things like, “I need to get my relationship with God right,” and what they really mean is that they should spend more time praying and reading their Bible. That’s great – please don’t hear me say it’s not. I happen to know that there are more than a few people in here that spend hours every day reading Scripture and praying, and you know what? We could probably all still stand to do that even more. There’s a little tiny part of me, though, that wonders if that’s really the point. Are we really called to do more reading and praying? I would argue that’s the part we don’t have a lot of trouble with. With the amount of time we spend reading God’s Word, you would think that we would get the message, which is to get out and be a part of our Father’s business in this world, but we’re so focused on our objective, whether that’s spending an hour on it every day or finding new insights we’ve never noticed before or reading the whole book in 365 days, that we forget that the very words we are reading are telling us to GO. BE. JESUS. IN. THE. WORLD. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder. Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.

I want to play you some audio. This is a story about a man who is mugged, and instead of fighting back, gives up his coat. You may be surprised to hear where the story goes. It’s a beautiful tale.

I don’t know if Julio Diaz is a Christian. He doesn’t say. I do know that on that day he acted like Christ. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us this instruction:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

[Matthew 5:38-42]
Most of us are familiar with these words, and honestly, we treat them like hyperbole. Jesus doesn’t really mean to give up your coat or to walk two miles. Let me tell you something. In Jesus’ day, in Roman occupied Jerusalem, it was a law that a Roman soldier could force any citizen to carry his gear and equipment for a mile if he so chose. And the Jews in that day, proud as they were, thought that it was within their right to refuse, especially on the Sabbath. After all, this was Jerusalem, the land founded on YHWH’s principles (sound familiar?). Jesus goes the other way with it. Don’t just walk that begrudgingly, plotting or imagining your revenge the entire way. Be gracious. Go an extra mile, and in so doing, you will reveal yourself to be a Christ-follower.

That is my New Year’s resolution. I want to be like Julio Diaz, or more specifically, I want to be like Christ. Maybe you’re at a point in your spiritual journey where what you need is more time spent in God’s Word. God be with you. We want to walk alongside you if that’s what it takes. I’ve been putting together some Bible reading plans for our kids as they work on their LTC projects, and I’m happy to share those with you as well. However, I suspect that there are some of you who need to be challenged. If you’re reading God’s Word already, then you know what it says to do. Maybe you just haven’t gone out and actually done it yet. Make that your resolution. You know, a popular resolution is lose weight, and that’s a noble goal for sure.

It’s a long story about why Jodi and I watch this show, it has to do with one of our old neighbors, but we watch The Biggest Loser every week. I don’t necessarily recommend it. It’s trash TV. Manufactured drama, the challenges each week are exactly the same, sometimes the whole show is just a huge advertisement for a certain brand of turkey or treadmill. But I found some truth in it. They were showing one of the contestant’s before videos, where they basically talk about why they’re overweight and what their favorite foods are and all of that. Well, this man loved double cheeseburgers, and he would regularly eat 2 or 3 of these big huge burgers with grease falling off and everything, and he stopped eating for a second, looked at the camera, and he said, “I know this is bad for me, and I know I should be healthy, but I don’t want to start working out because I’m afraid that I’ll lose the taste for this burger, and that’s not something that I want.” The man didn’t want to let go of his cheeseburgers, even though he had diabetes and heart problems and he was way too overweight, and the thing is, he knew in his head that it was bad for him, but he wasn’t willing to give it up. Have you ever felt that way with sin? You know, the reason sin exists and is so prevalent is basically because it’s fun. You’re supposed to want to sin; that’s how The Accuser works. Maybe you’ve got a favorite sin, and sometimes you say to yourself, “I know this isn’t right, and I know I should stop, but I don’t want to because I’m not willing to let go of this.” Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.


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