Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Get Real
Ash Wednesday
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

(shared with the people of Friendship Church, February 25, 2004)

This past Sunday afternoon, Mike Cheney and I had to go to Loveland on an errand. That’s simple enough, isn’t it? We just had to take I-275 up to Loveland, make a few turns, and we’d be where we needed to be.

Somewhere around Milford, Mike said, “Hey, pull off here. There are some things I want to show you.” Since we both knew our way around and this would only be a minor detour, I readily agreed.

But you can guess what happened. We got thoroughly lost. There was one road I know that we must have either been on or crossed five times. Forty minutes into our little side excursion, we realized that we had succeeded in making a gigantic circle and still weren’t sure how to get to our original destination.

While I did gain some comfort from finally meeting a person with as poor a sense of direction as I have, I had to agree with Mike about the lesson we’d learned. “Next time,” Mike said, “we’d better bring a map.” Or, at least, I thought, we should ask for directions.

Life on this earth is a journey. God’s Word, the Bible, says that it’s a journey through a foreign land. Our real home is in heaven with God. If we’re to make it through this life and get to our ultimate destination, we dare not go through this life without a map, without direction from God.

Lent is a season devoted to our getting real with God and recommitting ourselves to getting our directions from Him. We know that this life is only practice for the real life that awaits us beyond the grave. We won’t get this life perfect. Our sin will get in the way of that. But we can be moving in the right direction. Our hearts can be in the right places. We can be moving toward God.

And make no mistake: This is deadly serious business. A young boy was excited to be taking a beach vacation with his family. His parents were excited for him too. But during the trip to the beach and even after they’d arrived at their condo, they warned their son, “Billy, the ocean is big and powerful. We want you to have fun here. But remember, never venture into the water unless one of us is with you. Never go to the beach without telling us where you want to go.” It can be deadly when you and I ignore God’s directions for us. It’s deadly when we rely on anything or anyone more than God. It’s deadly when we quit moving toward God. It brings eternal death when we try to earn God’s love or other people’s appreciation.

In our Bible lesson for this evening, Jesus warns us about one of the false directions we can take in life, thinking that we know what we’re doing. Jesus tells us that we need to quit fibbing to ourselves, as Mike and I did when we got lost last Sunday. And we need to stop fibbing to God and the world. We need to get real.

Above all, Jesus tells us tonight, we need to get real when, as He says, it comes to “practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” Piety, dictionaries tell us, is religious devotion. People who make a show of their religious devotion are moving in the wrong direction. They think that by convincing others (or themselves) of how devoted they are to God, they’re doing things God’s way. But Jesus says they’re more lost and separated from God than people who’ve never heard of God or darkened the door of a church building.

So, Jesus says, when you give charity to the poor, don’t make a show of it; do it quietly.

When you pray, don’t pray out in the public square, using flowery words; even public prayer is meant to be communication as intimate as what goes on between a husband and wife.

When you give up food in order to focus on God, don’t begin every sentence with, “I’ve been fasting now for five days...”; instead privately empty yourself of your dependence on the things of this world so that you can fill up on God.

And don’t use your money so that you can live like a sated lab rat; instead, use the riches God gives to you to glorify God and love others.

Jesus doesn’t condemn these actions. God likes it when we give to the poor, when we pray, when we fast, and even when we spend and save money. But Jesus says, God wants us to do these things in the right ways, for the right reasons. If we do any of these acts in order to be noticed or applauded for how wonderful we are, Jesus says, we’ll get precisely the reward we seek. Other people will say nice things about us. They may even give us honors and erect plaques in the town square. But inside, out of the glare of public scrutiny, our hearts will be as dark and selfish and far from God as the hearts of the local pornographer, prostitute, drug dealer, or murderer.

In Psalm 51, ancient Israel’s King David, having been confronted by the prophet Nathan for committing adultery and murder, tells God, “You desire truth in the inward being...” It’s only when we get real with God that our hearts and wills become tuned to Him and He can give us direction for our lives.

In just a few moments, I’m going to ask you to take a short amount of time and write on the little half-sheets we gave you as you arrived tonight. On those sheets, I want you to write those things in your life that may be preventing you from loving God and loving your neighbor completely. I don’t want you to show what you write to anyone. Instead, I want you to fold those sheets and put them in your pocket or your purse or your wallet. And then, sometime each day throughout this Lenten season, I ask you to pull out that half-sheet and tell God something like, “Lord, without You, I’m lost. Through prayer, Bible-reading, worship, and fellowship with other believers, give me Your direction. Show me how I can overcome these things that are preventing me from living life Your way.”

God is anxious to give us direction as we journey through life. But, He won't force direction on us; we need to ask Him for it.

Tonight I want to tell you that no matter how lost you may feel, God can change the direction of your life. Turn to Him each day, be honest with Him, be real about your hurts and hopes, your sins and your failings, and He will fill you with life, purpose, and peace. Tonight, as this Lenten season begins, let’s ask God to help us to not be religious and instead, be completely devoted to Him. Let’s resolve each day to turn to God and become the people God made us to be!

Sunday, February 22, 2004

The Friendship Vision,
Faith on Fire:
Change, For God's Sake
Acts 18:1-11

(shared with the people of Friendship Church, February 22, 2004)

A young pastor had just finished delivering his first message at a new church. Afterwards, a member approached him and said, “That was a really dull sermon.” All week long, the pastor was haunted by that comment. The next Sunday, the same man approached him and said, “That message was one of the shallowest I’ve ever heard.” By the third Sunday, the young pastor was shaken, his self-esteem about as low as it could get. Craving affirmation, he asked this same man, “Did today’s message help you at all?” The man told him, “That was the worst one yet. You didn’t say anything worthwhile.” Crushed, the pastor pointed the man out to the church council president and asked about him. “Oh, don’t pay any attention to him,” the council president said, “He just repeats whatever he hears everybody else saying.”

Criticism is part of this life. And, it’s a fact that in order for us to grow in our personal relationships with Jesus Christ, in order for us to be useful to God and others, in order for us to fulfill our missions in life, we will usually have to endure criticism.

In the whole history of the Church, God has used the criticism of others to make His people’s faith stronger and to help His Church reach out to others with God’s love. In today’s Bible lesson, the first century preacher and evangelist Paul travels to the Greek city of Corinth, the center of Greek business and politics. When Paul arrived in Corinth, he did the sensible thing—he carried the good news of Jesus to the people most likely to be open to it first, his fellow Jews. But after trying and trying to tell them that Jesus had fulfilled the Old Testament’s promise of a Savior, Paul just ran into one critical, disbelieving comment after another.

Frustrated, Paul “shook the dust from his clothes,” his culture’s way of saying, “Forget about you,” and said, “From now on, I’ll just hang out with and share the Good News of Jesus with non-Jews, Gentiles.” He even moved into the house of a non-Jew who believed in the God proclaimed by the Jews and who had come to follow Jesus.

When Paul did that, amazing things happened! First, the leader of the synagogue, a devout Jew, came to faith in Christ, along with his family and slaves. The company of believers in Jesus—Jewish and Gentile—began to grow in numbers and one night, Paul received a vision telling him to, “Go for it! Tell everybody about Jesus Christ because there are many people here just waiting to be told that all who believe in Jesus don’t face eternal separation from God. They hunger to know that God loves them and wants to have them with Him forever!”

Paul learned, as we must learn, that as hurtful as criticism may be, it cannot destroy the follower of Jesus. In fact, if we will let God do it, He can use others’ criticism to bring positive changes in our lives. We see this in three ways in our Bible lesson.

First: We see that we can learn from criticism. God can use even unfair criticism to help us grow. Today is the actual birthday of one of my heroes, George Washington. As a young man, hungry for glory and fame, Washington led an ill-conceived attack by colonial soldiers during the French and Indian War. Not only were many of the men under Washington’s command slaughtered, he barely escaped with his own life. Prominent people in Britain and the American colonies all wanted to see the young Washington court martialed or hanged for his rashness. If Jay Leno or David Letterman had been around, Washington would have been humiliated and forced from public life forever. Instead, Washington learned from his critics. He took a look at himself and gave up being a glory-hound. Honors and accolades came to Washington later in his life precisely because he put his duty ahead of those things. He’d learned from his critics.

In our Bible lesson, Paul listens to the critics who savage him and decides to change tactics. He began sharing Jesus’ offer of new life for all who turn away from sin and let Him be the Boss of their lives with people he might otherwise have ignored.

Second: From our lesson, we see that our critics can strengthen our resolve. When we’re criticized for doing the right thing, we can either cave into peer pressure or we can reaffirm our resolve to do the right thing. Criticism forces us to take a new look at our actions and values. Our college-age daughter loves the internship she's doing right now, loves the work, loves the class on organizational leadership she’s taking, is getting to know some wonderful people. But she catches flak all the time from lots of her fellow interns because, while not condemning anybody else, she refuses to be on the prowl for sex or booze or drugs. There have been times when she has had to decide to do the right things in the face of withering criticism...and worse. But the criticism has only strengthened her resolve to live her life God’s way and that makes us very proud...and very grateful.

When Paul caught criticism from his fellow Jews for proclaiming Jesus, he became more firmly resolved to share Jesus, even if it meant changing his target audience and his tactics.

Third: We see that criticism should lead us to seek comfort from our fellow believers in the Church. That was certainly true for Paul, as he found a whole city ready to hear the Good News of Jesus he wanted to share. It’s true today!

When little Bobby was a boy, his farm home in Iowa was all abuzz when an uncle, a missionary to China home on furlough, came to visit. Bobby never forgot the moment when this godly uncle put his arms around the boy’s shoulders and said, “So, this is Bobby? Bobby, I have been praying for you and I am sure that one day, you will be a well-known preacher of God’s Word.” The boy grew up and moved to California. In spite of critics who condemned him, Bob became certain that God wanted him to change the way the Church usually reached out to others with the love of Christ. At an Orange County drive-in movie theater, he and his wife started a new church. Often, when critics hounded him and there was no money to pay the bills, Bob was sustained by the encouragement he’d received long before from his uncle. It’s a good thing because the ministry of Robert Schuller and his Crystal Cathedral Church have touched millions around the world with the love of Jesus Christ!

My prayer is that Friendship Church will also be a fellowship of believers that gives encouragement to people as they face their critics and adversaries in life!

When criticism comes to the follower of Jesus, we can learn from it, we can be strengthened in our resolve to do things God’s way, and we can seek comfort from the community of believers. When we let God do these three things in our lives, we will grow, we will change for God’s sake. Knowing this, the first prayer we can offer when a critic comes after us is not, “God, make this criticism go away,” but “God, help me to change for the better in the face of this criticism.” (Hard as that is!)

A few weeks ago, Ann asked me, “Mark, what will you do if you lose this election?” I told her, “You know, I’ve thought about that and I’ve decided that I’ll just go back to being a regular old preacher.” Ann smiled and said, “Honey, you may grow old. But you will never be just a regular preacher.”

I’m not sure what she meant by that, but I got to thinking: that’s true for all who follow Jesus. The Bible says that God has made everyone who follows Jesus brand new. God’s Spirit has come to live inside of us and our call is to keep changing...for the better, turning from sin and death and getting pumped full of God’s life, love, and goodness. We may all grow old, but we never need to be just "regular" believers. If we will let the God we know in Jesus Christ be the Lord and God of our every moment, He can help us to learn from our critics, to be strengthened in our resolve to follow Jesus, and gain comfort from other believers as each day God makes us newer and better than we were the day before! We can change...for God's sake and by God's power.

[The story of the young pastor is told by Philip Longfellow Anderson in his book, The Gospel in Disney: Christian Values in the Early Animated Classics (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2004).

[The true incident of George Washington's humiliating defeat resulting from poor judgment is told in many biographies. My personal favorite is Patriarch by Richard Norton Smith.

[My memory of Robert Schuller's encounter with his missionary uncle---told in Schuller's book on prayer, among others---was refreshed by a sermon written by Michael Foss.]