Sunday, October 03, 2010

Never Ashamed of THE Message That Can Change Everything!

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

2 Timothy 1:1-14 (NRSV)
This morning, I want to share with you a dream for our community which God has been inciting me to pray for and work for.

Sharing it with you frightens me a little. Not even preachers want to be seen as religious kooks.

But, in our second lesson for today, Paul says: “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” So, here’s the dream: Starting with the people of Saint Matthew, all of us praying in repentance and belief in Jesus, I dream that God will bring every person in Logan and Hocking County into a vibrant, life-changing, relationship with Jesus Christ.

I don’t know how far-fetched that dream may be. I don’t know how long it might take for it to come to pass. But I dream of a time when every woman, man, girl, and boy in Saint Matthew and in our community will be totally surrendered to Jesus Christ.

This dream goes way beyond a vision of packing church buildings with bodies. It looks to a time when all of us who call Hocking County home take hold of the life with God offered only through the crucified and risen Jesus. This dream takes seriously a promise that God gave to His Old Testament people, one that belongs to all who today dare to follow God-in-the-Flesh, Jesus Christ. You can find it in 2 Chronicles 7:14. Please read that passage from our pew Bibles with me now:
“If My people who are called by My Name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”(NKJV)
Isn’t it time we experienced those blessings in our community?

Isn’t it time we threw off the palls of spiritual lukewarmness, of going along to get along, of prayerlessness, of purposelessness, of being nice rather than being Christian, and instead, embraced the spirit of power, love, and self-discipline that God wants to give to every person for whom Jesus Christ died and rose?

Isn’t it time we invited Christ to transform our lives, businesses, schools, sports, marriages, and homes?

Second Chronicles 7:14 is a blank check which God desperately wants churches like Saint Matthew and individual Christians like you and me to cash.

God wants to transform our lives. He wants us to experience God’s presence, love, and power even in the challenges and tragedies that come to us in this imperfect world. He wants the same thing for all our neighbors and friends and family members.

It was to encourage the young pastor Timothy be a prayerful, repentant agent of God’s transforming power that Paul wrote 2 Timothy, the Bible letter from which today’s second lesson comes.

When Paul wrote it, he was imprisoned for the crime of claiming that Jesus was the King of the world. This notion didn’t set well in an empire where the Roman emperor was seen as both the king and as a god.

In spite of his imprisonment, Paul tells Timothy to never be ashamed to share the Christian message. Jesus offers what no one and nothing else can offer: New and everlasting life with God.

Folks: Never be ashamed of that message! Never water it down! Never mix it in with the prevailing religious attitudes of the culture or with whatever the police of political correctness may, at any given time, be pushing!

Stand firm in confessing what Jesus taught, that He is the way and the truth and the life and that no one comes to God the Father but through Him!

Money won’t give life.

Drugs won’t give life.

Buddha won’t give life.

Allah won't give life.

Nor will science, or psychology, or warfare, or nationalism, or a nice house, or religion.

Many of these things may have their places. But only one God can save us: the God made known to the world in Jesus. Stand firm in the truth of Jesus, Paul says, because Jesus has not given us a spirit of cowardice, but a spirit of power and love and self-discipline!

In a world in which the devil orchestrates a confusing array of little gods meant to pull us away from Jesus, it can be hard to hold onto Jesus and the gifts only He can give. In 1996, Marissa Cunningham, a native of Panama, was a law student at Rutgers University. She had just been through a divorce and was raising her daughter alone. Her future was threatened by her seeming inability to find a summer internship that would allow her to graduate. More than that, Marissa Cunningham felt empty, oppressed by a deep gloom. At times, she considered suicide.

One day, while walking down a street in Brooklyn, she saw a sign on a storefront: BOTANICA. Marissa knew that Botanica was a kind of fortune telling based on a form of Caribbean witchcraft called Santeria.

Desperate, this brilliant young woman entered the building and arranged an appointment with the curandero, a witch doctor. She saw him several days later. He told Marissa all sorts of things about her past, all of it true.

(This shouldn’t surprise us, by the way. The devil cannot know our futures, because the devil is not God. But as an unseen spiritual being who observes us and wants to take control of us, the devil does know all about our past. Those under the devil’s power, like the witch doctor are able to use our current circumstances to leverage us away from faith in God. This is exactly what the devil tried to do to Jesus during Jesus’ wilderness temptations, you’ll remember.)

Marissa was understandably impressed by the witch doctor’s knowledge. So, she agreed to come back two days later…with $90. The witch doctor would then sacrifice a chicken for her and bury it at a cemetery. That, he said, would get rid of all Marissa’s problems. As crazy as it sounded, Marissa was willing to try anything.

Yet, she wondered if she was doing the right thing. She decided to stop by the office of a church the next day. She asked to see a pastor. None of the pastors on staff were in. But, a staff member who had grown up in Haiti and knew about Santeria—Isn’t it funny how God puts coincidences together like that sometimes?—spoke with Marissa. She invited Marissa to a Bible study happening that night.

Marissa was wary. She had grown up in a church and didn’t think that Christianity had anything to offer. She went to the study anyway, arriving late, forced to sit in the only chair left, next to a character who Marissa, the social climber, would ordinarily have avoided. During a break, Marissa and this man, John, struck up a conversation. John showed empathy for Marissa and then pointed her to a passage in Ephesians 6. It said, “For our struggle [and that includes all the struggles you and I might have brought with us this very morning. Our struggle] is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil…”

John told Marissa that the blood of a chicken couldn’t help her through her darkness. Only Jesus, Who shed His blood on the cross and rose to reclaim life for sinful human beings, could give her the day-in-, day-out hope she craved.

After that, Marissa skipped her appointment with the witch doctor and embraced Christ as her God. The things that caused Marissa to be afraid didn’t suddenly go away, of course. But Jesus took her fears off of her back and took them onto Himself, setting her free to live. “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” That’s what Marissa experienced in Jesus!

Folks, we are surrounded by Marissas, people without hope, imprisoned by sin, by addictions, by depression, by loneliness. We live among people searching for better lives.

And sometimes, we are Marissas ourselves.

All of us in our community and in Saint Matthew need to know two truths. First, we need to know the truth about sin, as revealed in the Ten Commandments:
  • that God alone is God and that God’s Name is holy*; 
  • that life is precious, including the lives of our parents, children, spouses, and neighbors and we must honor God’s gift of life**; 
  • that sexual intimacy is a gift from God to be opened only by those engaged in a marriage of a woman and a man***; 
  • that we are to honor the property of others****; 
  • that we are to help our neighbors keep their good names*****.
We also need to know a second truth: In spite of our common inability to keep God’s commands, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

The first truth tells us that we don’t deserve eternity with God. The second truth though, tells us that God gives as a free gift the very thing we don’t deserve and can never earn.

God lifts all who receive His forgiveness and who trust in Christ into a never-ending relationship with the God Who made us and loves us.

Only the Church—that’s you and me--is entrusted with seeing that the world hears, knows, and experiences these two transforming truths.

They aren't easy to share, which is why most Christians never get around to telling their spiritually-disconnected friends about Jesus. It seems that we’re more afraid of having the world dislike us than we are of not honoring the God Who created us and went to a cross for us.

But Paul says that we must not be ashamed. We must not be afraid to experience others’ displeasure with God’s truth. God is looking for Christians who are willing to be disliked—even hated—for their faith in Christ, so that all have a chance to know and experience God’s love.

My daily prayer is that God will fill the entire Saint Matthew family with God’s “spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline,” so that we can do what Jesus has charged us to do.

Paul tells us today that God has entrusted a great treasure to us—the treasure of God’s truth, the truth of new life for all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ. May we open that treasure for ourselves and for our neighbors so that the dream of a Logan and Hocking County made new by Jesus Christ can start to happen.

God says: “If My people who are called by My Name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

Starting today. Starting this moment, let’s all dare to pray that God’s forgiveness and healing will come to us personally, to Saint Matthew, and to our community.

And may we be bold in telling the truest story the world has ever known, the story of Jesus, our crucified and risen King!

*These are among the concerns of the First through Third Commandments.
**These are concerns associated with the Fourth, Fifth, and Tenth Commandments.
***This is the concern of the Sixth Commandment.
****This is a concern of the Seventh and Ninth Commandments.
*****This is a concern of the Eighth Commandment.
For a great discussion of the Ten Commandments and meaning of each, see Martin Luther's Small Catechism, one translation of which can be found here.

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