Thursday, August 28, 2008

All I've got for you is Jesus...

When I was in seminary, one of the sayings I frequently heard from my counseling professors was that "we have a big Bible." We have many & large struggles in this life: sickness, suffering, death. Temptations and addictions. Eating disorders and relational disorders. Depression, anxiety, fear. Deep marital strife. Shallow relational connections. Sexual struggles of all kinds. And I find that in talking to people in times of significant struggle it's hard sometimes to believe myself what is true--that God is at work, that somehow he is in control and committed to bringing good out of the bad in the lives of his children. And in those moments it's easy to forget that we have a "big Bible," one that actually has something, in fact a lot of things, to say to those who struggle. It speaks to the fearful, the addicted, the sinning, the depressed, the dying. It speaks to us in our struggle with sin, whatever the particular genre of sin that might be in our own particular lives. And it speaks to us in our suffering, the common denominator of so many of our struggles with the hard edges of our health, our brain chemistry, our situation, our relationships. For all the glory of God's good work in the world and in the lives of his children, the Bible, this great story of salvation, comes to us in the midst of all the real brokenness of our real lives. So we really do need a big Bible, and we really do have a big Bible. And that's a big gift.

But there's another side to all this as well. The Bible, for all it's "bigness," has one grand Center, one main theme to which all the stories, all the letters, all the exhortations and laments and praise all point. One thing stands at the heart of the Bible. In fact, one person--Jesus. The help that the Bible provides is always help that's centered not in technique, but in a relationship with Jesus. For example, the Bible has a lot to say about marriage. Some of which comes in the "marriage passages" scattered throughout--instructions to husbands and wives, teaching about sex and relational roles and love and respect. But then the Bible also says so much else about loving our neighbor, loving our enemy, reigning in our tongue, forgiving from the heart, forsaking our crazy agendas for making ourselves the center of the universe--all of which comes into play for a married person in relationship with his or her spouse.

But very little of this could be considered any kind of "technique." Because it's all rooted first not in our attempts to get our lives straight, but in a broken relationship with God that can only be restored through being connected to Jesus who died and rose again for the forgiveness of our sins and the healing of our relationship with God. And it is only through living in this relationship, this relationship of grace, that any of the particular struggles and sufferings of our lives can be addressed with any kind of lasting help. This living relationship with Jesus is what Paul calls being "united to Christ." When a person comes to faith, he passes from death to life, from being alienated from God to being in Christ, united to Christ, joined to him. And all the exhortations to wise & godly living that the Bible contains are all aimed at those who are in fact united to Jesus. That relationship is the foundation of any real and lasting change in our lives.

So back to the title of this post. At the end of the day, "big" Bible in hand, I really only have one thing for my friends and family and church and myself. All I've got for you is Jesus. "How am I going to survive in this marriage? I'm losing hope." All I've got for you is Jesus. Let's talk about communication skills. Let's talk about how you make decisions together. Let's talk about your anger. But what's going to give you the ability to begin to curb your tongue? To soften your angry heart? To forgive in the midst of real wrong? To love and not simply tolerate your spouse? Only the transforming presence of Jesus who is at work in you and your marriage. How are you going to die to your own agenda for your marriage or your health or your kids or your career? Only if you're learning to love God over self, learning to trust Jesus and not yourself, learning to, by the Spirit, put to death the misdeeds of the body (Romans 8:13).

All I've got for you is Jesus. And I'd be lying to tell you otherwise. All I've got for myself is Jesus, and I'm lying to myself when I tell myself otherwise. But, and here's the good news in ministry to others and in my own struggling and suffering, Jesus really is enough.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Stealing & Giving

"You shall not steal." Exodus 20:16
The eighth commandment, like all of the 10 Commandments, has both a negative prohibition and a positive implication. First the negative: no stealing. Don't take what belongs to someone else. Pretty straightforward. It includes all kinds of theft: breaking into someone's house and taking their stuff; purse snatching; fudging on your tax return; wasting time on the internet when you are on the clock at work; stealing someone's ideas or words and passing them off as your own; illegally downloading songs from the internet or copying cds; possibly even finding pictures on websites, copying them, and posting them on your blog like the one here--I'm not sure what the rules are about that.

So, the implications of not stealing pervade all aspects of our lives, from the headline thefts that make the news to the many mundane ways in which we're tempted to take what does not belong to us. And behind this commandment is the fact that personal property matters to God and so it is to rightly matter to us as well. In fact, loving our neighbors (Jesus' summation of commandments five through 10) involves loving their stuff by not taking it from them.

But that's not all. It's not enough only to avoid what the commandments prohibit, because they also encompass the positive aspects of what God calls us to in loving Him and loving our neighbor. And this commandment tells us that it's not enough to simply refrain from stealing from our neighbor, but we are to use our own resources for the good of our neighbors, to concern ourselves not only with our own flourishing but to also be committed to the flourishing of our neighbor as well. Paul gets at this in Ephesians 4:28, when he calls the thieves among us to give up our stealing and embrace generosity:
"Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need."
What's the principle here? We are to actively care for the needs of those around us and even to commit ourselves to honest labor so that we are not only able to meet our own needs but also able to help meet the needs of others. This, I think, is the sticking point of the eighth commandment for most of us. Why is it often so hard for us to embrace this fact, that we are called to a life of generosity to others and openhandedness with our money, our possessions, our stuff, our time? It might be our greed and covetousness--the subject of the 10th commandment. Or it might be a lack of trust in our God. The economy is struggling--how can I be generous? I have children and a mortgage and food costs are soaring--how can I be generous? I live on a fixed income and I'm not sure I've put enough away for my retirement--how can I be generous? I'm only a college student and I'm trying to scrape together enough to buy books--how can I be generous?

You see, we're afraid. Afraid God won't provide, afraid He won't take care of us, afraid of the uncertainties of life. God does call us to live wisely--but He also calls us to live generously as we rest in the generous care of our Father for us. Jesus has a lot to say about trusting our Father for our needs. Remember Matthew 6 in the Sermon on the Mount. Don't be anxious about your life, what your will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Look at the birds--your Father feeds them though they don't sow or reap. Look at the lilies of the field--they don't spin or sew and your Father clothes them. Don't you know you are much more valuable to your Father than the birds and the flowers? Therefore don't be anxious.... "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you" (v. 33).

But can we trust that? Trust our Father? Trust Jesus and his words to us? How do we know he understands our struggles, knows our needs, will act generously to us? Here's what Paul said to the Corinthians when he exhorted them to give generously to the needs of others:
"But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also.... For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich" (2 Corinthians 8:7,9)
How can we be set free not only to refrain from stealing but to actively share with other, meet their needs, be generous? Only by knowing the generosity of our Father to us in Jesus. Jesus laid aside his riches, made himself poor, in order to meet our need, to make us rich in relationship with our Father, to adopt us into God's family, to give us an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. In other words, not only did Jesus not steal from us, he gave himself for us to generously meet our ever need. May that generosity of our God for us free us to be generous to our neighbor as well. Amen.

Friday, August 8, 2008


The Seventh Commandment says this: "You shall not commit adultery." And most people, whether their actions live up to their beliefs or not, do believe that adultery is wrong. But why? Why is this such a basic and important reality that it has a place in the ten commandments? Why is this such a fundamental issue for us and for God who gave us this commandment?

On the surface, it's easy for us to see that this commandment protects something important to our social fabric. Families can't thrive, or in most cases even survive intact, if there is not a commitment on the part of the married couple to be faithful to each other. The very substance of marriage is that the relationship between a husband and wife is to be exclusive. In a wedding service, the very first words said by the couple come in the form of the words of intent. They stand at the front of the church, with the bride's father between them, and the father doesn't sit down until he hears the groom say "I will" to this question: "Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her in sickness and in health, forsaking all others to be faithful only to her, so long as you both shall live?" And then he waits to hear his daughter affirm this vow as well. And then he can sit down--knowing that this new couple is promising to be faithful to each other.

But back to our more fundamental question. Hardwired into us is an understanding that this kind of faithfulness matters. And matters not just because it's good and necessary for the flourishing of society and individual families--which it is--but matters at an even deeper level to us. We know that faithfulness isn't just a good social construct, but a part of the way things are meant to be. The way things should be. In fact, the way God designed things to be. And here's the point--God did in fact design things this way, and he did so not arbitrarily, but as a reflection of himself, of his own character. We are called to faithfulness, and we long for faithfulness, because God himself is faithful. Faithfulness is part of his character, part of who he is. So much so, in fact, that he chooses to be faithful to his people even when they are unfaithful to him.

One of the most graphic and dramatic illustrations of this comes in the book of Hosea. God's people have been unfaithful to him, and he calls Hosea, a prophet, to confront his wayward people. And he uses Hosea's own marriage as an illustration of his own love for his unfaithful people. He tells Hosea to marry Gomer, a prostitute, and to show her enduring, faithful love in spite of her unfaithfulness. After they are married and have children, she is unfaithful to him, commits adultery, and leaves. And God tells Hosea to take her back, to stay faithful in spite of her sin against him. "And the LORD said to me, 'Go again, love a woman who is an adulteress, even as the LORD loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods....'"

Why does faithfulness matter? Fundamentally because our God is a faithful God--faithful to his people in spite of their sin. Gracious, in fact. So faithful, in fact, that he sent Jesus, his Son, to live a perfectly faithful life, to be betrayed by his people, to die at the hands of our unfaithful hate, and to rise again for our forgiveness and new life. The fabric of our relationship is woven throughout with the threads of God's faithfulness--and he calls us to respond by being faithful in return, faithful to him, faithful to each other, and coming back up to the surface of the seventh commandment, faithful to our spouses.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Do not murder...

"You shall not murder."--Exodus 20:13
   This scene of Cain murdering Abel is from the 1432 Ghent Altarpiece, and it's a vivid reminder that murder, the subject of the sixth commandment, has been an issue for humanity since the very first family.
  On the surface, the sixth commandment is straightforward and doesn't engender much debate--all societies have some sort of prohibition against murder.  And murder is the best translation of the Hebrew word.  In the Old Testament there are several words related to killing, and it is clear that some kinds of killing are presented as not only not wrong, but even appropriate in certain situations.  This word covers what we would classify as murder, but also can include cases of accidental killing.  This commandment does not prohibit killing in warfare or capital punishment, both of which are recognized by Scripture as legitimate under certain conditions.  
   So, on the surface there seems little pointed about this commandment for most of us--we know we shouldn't murder, and it is unlikely that most of us ever will.  So we're off the hook.  Or are we?
   Not quite.  The implications of this commandment go much deeper than the outward act of murder in two ways.  First, we've got Jesus' penetrating analysis of the law in Matthew 5:21-22.
 "You have heard that it was said to those of old: 'You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.'  But I say to to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire." 
 What's he getting at?  Murder, like every sin, springs from the heart and can fester in our hearts even if it never translates into an act of violence against another person.  When hate takes root in our lives, we are guilty of breaking the sixth commandment, of murdering our neighbor in our hearts.  So... every bitter thought, every indulgence in a sweet morsel of gossip, every cold look, every snide remark, every dismissive comment, every time we inwardly smile at the misfortunes of another... murder.  Who is guilty?  Who breaks this commandment?  Who needs rescue and mercy and grace?  We do.
  But that's not all.  Each of the ten commandments has bearing on our lives in two ways--in what they prohibit, and also in what they, by extension, enjoin upon us.  So, not only are forbidden to take the life of another, or bring damage or injury, we are also called to act for the good of our neighbor, for his peace, his flourishing, his health.  Not only do we not rob our neighbor of his life, we are responsible for positively guarding his life as well.  Scripture is full of God's heart, for example, for the poor, the oppressed, the widow, the orphan.  Those marginalized by society are to be cared for by God's people.  Jesus taught this clearly and pointedly, painfully even, in Matthew 25.  He tells of the last judgment, when the "sheep and the goats" are separated.  And the one group will inherit eternal life, and the other eternal curse.  And that judgment, in this sermon, hinges on the care of those in need.  Those who receive life are commended for caring for the needy, and those who receive judgment withheld care for those in need.  Here's what he says to those who are condemned:
"...I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'  Then they will answer, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?'  Then he will answer them, saying, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'"
What's he saying?  Not that care for the needy and mercy earn salvation, but that they are certainly to be the fruit of salvation--the fruit of a life forgiven and transformed by the love of Jesus.  Jesus comes to us as we are lost in our sin, but he does not leave us there.  He is about the work of turning us, as we've said often in our Exodus sermon series, into "love God and love neighbor kinds of people."