The Invitation of Lent

God of wilderness and water,
your Son was baptized and tempted as we are.
Guide us through this season,
that we may not avoid struggle,
but open ourselves to blessing,
through the cleansing depths of repentance
and the heaven-rending words of the Spirit. Amen.

source

Explanation of Lent

The season of Lent began just a few days ago, on Ash Wednesday. Lent is long season in the liturgical calendar, lasting 40 days from Ash Wednesday until Holy Saturday, just before Easter Sunday. (There are six Sundays during this season which are not included in the total because every Sunday is a reminder of the resurrection of Jesus and therefore cause for feasting and celebration, not fasting and lamentation.)

Lent is a paradox, a season of seeming contradictions. It is a time of darkness and mourning – looking inward – and yet it is a season for hope and reconciliation. The word “Lent” itself means “springtime” – a time for green growth and newness, while at the same time our spirits are being called away to the desert to face our true selves for who they really are.

Jesus himself experienced this desert-intensity, a stripping away all of his earthly dependencies in order to commune with God. Lent is fashioned after the 40 days of temptation Jesus faced. We read about it in Mark chapter 1 today. Verse 9 through 11 tell of the momentous baptism of Jesus, where the voice of the Spirit is heard clearly by all announcing, “This are my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” And immediately after this, (12) “the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, (13) and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.”

In our own spiritual formation, we will experience blessings as well as temptations and hardships, both ‘wild beasts’ and ‘angels.’ (Life with God Bible)

Moving to the Question

It’s easy to diminish Lent by only talking about what we are giving up, or by eating a few too many paczkis on Fat Tuesday or focusing too eagerly on Fish-Fry-Fridays. But the call of Lent is so much greater than giving up meat or chocolate or Facebook for a few weeks. Lent is a call to return to God. [slide] Lent invites us to ask ourselves, “How have I wandered from God?” …because, let’s be honest, we’ve all wandered…And “How can I return to God more fully?”

The Mask

The desert-season of Lent is both frightening and freeing, an invitation to strip away all of the layers of self-protection we’ve accumulated over the past year; to take off our masks we have called “perfection” or “accomplishment;” to be honest about our facades – admitting we’re not as good as we’ve painted ourselves to be. And I think you would agree: It’s terrifying to have those layers pulled back. We don’t want to admit we’ve been less than honest. We don’t want to be exposed. (I mean, it’s like that nightmare you have where you’re speaking in front of a crowd and look down to realize you’re not wearing any clothes! The absolute worst. Look at how many products exist to help us physically fool ourselves and others…spanx, everything in the make-up aisle, Instagram filters.  

I don’t know about you, but I struggle to identify my true self. I am so used to living in my “false self,” a role I’ve constructed to protect myself from harm and to earn love and admiration, an identity that is absolutely exhausting to maintain and yet essential for the ego I’ve erected.

One of my favorite authors on spiritual formation is Robert Mulholland, once a professor at Asbury seminary. In his book Invitation to a Journey, he writes this:

“The process of being conformed to the image of Christ takes place primarily at the points of our unlikeness to Christ’s image…The Spirit of God may probe some area in which we are not conformed to the image of Christ. That probing will probably always be confrontational, and it will always be a challenge and a call to us in our brokenness to come out of the brokenness into wholeness in Christ. But it will be a costly call, because that brokenness is who we are.” p 37

Lent invites us to get back on the journey toward God, to let Him tenderly pull back the layers of our false selves of “productivity” and “perfection,” and to be transformed into Christ’s likeness for the sake of the world.

During our Ash Wednesday Service we read from the Prophet Joel, a passage I’d like to revisit now:

Joel 2:12-13 12

Yet even now, says the Lord,

   return to me with all your heart,

with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;

13     rend your hearts and not your clothing.

Return to the Lord, your God,

   for he is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,

   and relents from punishing.

I had to look up the word “rend,” wondering what in the world it could mean to “rend our hearts and not our clothing.” Rend means to tear into two or more pieces, to rip apart. In the Old Testament one way the people of God would show their remorse and repentance was to literally tear apart their garments, to physically pour soot and ashes on their heads and faces, to look as mournful on the outside as they felt on the inside. The problem was – and is – it’s so easy to go through these motions. It’s easy to pick a fast during Lent, to come to church every Sunday, and to drop a few bucks in the plate, to sponsor a child. And yet we wander. Our hearts are far from God. The call of Joel 2:12 (according to Eugene Peterson) is to “change your life, not just your clothes.

Lent is a time to get real with God and with ourselves. It’s a chance to disrupt our routine, to add a new discipline or remove a habit in order to pay attention to God. If you haven’t already chosen a spiritual discipline for Lent, I encourage you to spend time alone with God this week and let Him point you in the right direction. He’ll ask you to look your brokenness right in the eye – to observe your struggle with gluttony or your addiction to media or your obsession with perfection or your need to have all the answers or your battle with anxiety – and He’ll invite you to a new path. Maybe it’s a fast of some sort. Maybe it’s a new prayer discipline. Maybe it’s practice of daily confession.

Whatever it is, I promise you the invitation is to “come out of the brokenness into wholeness in Christ.”

To the Table

We encounter this very same invitation each time we come to the Lord’s Table, the sacramental table of Jesus’ body and blood. This is a place where we all come – in all our stages and phases of brokenness, as honestly and repentant as we can manage, to partake in this gift of grace. This table is about confession. This table is about thanksgiving. This table is about the boundless love of God.

Overflowing Joy

These past many months I have been marveling at the sweetness of God. I have experienced His presence, His nearness with me almost constantly in a way more intimate than before. Rather than only noticing God at work around me – in conversations or in nature – my spirit is simply aware of Spirit, comfortably communing together.

I have been learning to recognize my limitations, giving myself grace and permission to embrace a rhythm of rest in my everyday rather than filling every moment with frantic productivity. I’m really good at being productive. I love working.  I love brainstorming and then instantly nailing down the details. I have a drive to do everything with excellence, especially my grad school homework. And while all of those things are good in and of themselves, if they are not tempered with self-acceptance, they can be harmful. When my productivity and goal-striving become efforts to prove myself and receive love in return, I have wandered away from my inherent worthiness.

Thus, I have entered into a season of “good enough is good enough.” I give myself time constraints for writing papers or reading books and what gets done is all I get done for that done. Somehow, miraculously, all assignments are completed, my grades remain S+ (“satisfactory plus” as was the kindergarten grading scale), and glory upon glory I have time and space for the people I love and the life God is calling me to participate in. This is good.

Perhaps the sweetest gift of all in these past few months has been the surprising gift of a second pregnancy! Kevin and I had questioned whether or not we would be able to conceive a second child after Kirsten’s birth, having dealt with five years of infertility. There had been no birth control usage in the months after Kirsten was born and by the time she was 18 months old, we were recognizing the need to come to terms with having only one biological child. As we came to a place of sincere contentedness, we were happy and at peace with what God had granted us, making zero efforts to time conception.

On Friday, October 13th, I randomly took a pregnancy test after Kevin and I had said how hilarious it would be if I was pregnant after all that “coming to grips” talk. Sure enough, those two pink strips shone clearly, and I laughed out loud. When Kevin got home, I was trying to wait nonchalantly for the right moment to tell him the news, but he spoiled my lead-up, instantly declaring, “You’re pregnant aren’t you?!” We smiled and hugged and laughed. And decided to keep our little secret between the two of us for the first few months. It was lovely.

I am now 22 weeks pregnant with Baby Girl, due in June 2018. We are absolutely delighted that God saw fit to grant us another girl – a sister for Kirsten! I wept tears of joy the day after our anatomy ultrasound as I contemplated the sweet love of God, the way He continually surpasses my plans or expectations. Ever since I was young, I had wanted to have two daughters. Fearful of disappointment,  I kept that desire to myself, never asking God for what I deeply longed for or sharing it with my husband. God knew, though, and in His abundant grace saw fit to grant us two precious daughters.

Everything about this second pregnancy has been characterized by joy and peace, virtues I have been hungry for since those desert days of barrenness. Looking back, I am so thankful He didn’t grant me my wishes in my timing. Because of those extra years, I have had time to experience more spiritual formation and come into confidence in my gifts and calling. I probably never would have said yes to God’s beckoning me for pastoral ministry, but as it stands now, He is equipping me to preach and raising me up as a leader of the next generation of female disciples – my own daughters! Kevin and I will be celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary in May, and wow! am I am grateful for all those sweet years we had to grow up together. I’ll be finishing graduate school in July and ordination next June (glory be!) And what a gift it will be to have two girls in school together in the future. Everything about this life is gracious and so, so generous.

God has certainly filled me to overflowing.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 15:13

Against Spiritual Arrogance, Ignorance, or Complacency

In Mark chapter 1, Jesus is calling for repentance and for earnest followers.

“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

and

“Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people.”

 

Perhaps many of us here today have already responded to Jesus at some point in our past. Maybe it looked like coming to the altar when a preacher invited sinners to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus. Maybe you prayed a “sinner’s prayer” and found yourself a Christian. Maybe you were already advanced in age or perhaps you were just a little child, as I was, praying with mom and dad to receive Jesus as my Savior at 5 years old. It’s also likely that your conversion experience looked very different from either of those experiences (because there’s no magic formula), or that maybe you don’t consider yourself a follower of Jesus yet. No matter where you are in your spiritual encounter with God, I ask you to lean in this morning and listen closely for the Holy Spirit’s prompting. I have no way of knowing what the Spirit is calling you to today, but I am convinced He is calling each of us to something, and in all honesty that calling might be challenging. So hold tight when things get uncomfortable, I promise there is hope.

 

To begin with I’d like each of us to reflect on Jesus’ words from Mark 1, to repent and follow him. Where are you at in the “following” of Jesus? Did you start moving in the direction of Christlikeness at one point? Are you still following? Are you still repenting? It’s also so easy to grown apathetic or complacent or idle in our following of Jesus. Life gets in the way. Life is painful and messy. People hurt us, we hurt people. Work is exhausting. Being home is lonely. And repentance and following Jesus disappear from sight.

 

The truth of spiritual formation and this Jesus-life is that it’s not a one-time thing. It’s continual and dynamic, requiring constant attentiveness. The garden is an excellent metaphor for the spiritual life. We prepare the soil and plant the seeds, but the work doesn’t end there. We daily tend to the seedlings, watering and pulling weeds, thinning the plants to provide the best growth environment. And as the plants mature, growing fruit, there’s still constant attention needed, right? The weeds never stop growing, the weather is unpredictable and threatens drought or floods, dangerous winds or hail that could destroy a crop. Fungus or pests could eat away at a perfectly healthy piece of fruit, slowly destroying the entire plant. The work never ends, but it’s so worth it. The process is rich and rewarding and the harvest is more delicious than anything you could buy at the store. Gardening requires attention and discipline, a rich rhythm that enhances your own life as you tend to your plants. A life of following Jesus is the same. So let’s ask ourselves:  How have I grown spiritually in the last week? In the last month? In the last year? And be honest with yourself, I mean, really honest. Don’t sugarcoat things for the sake of your subconscious. Once we begin to pull away the dead overgrowth and the choking weeds in our heart, I believe we’ll find signs of in our spirits, and we’ll be able to welcome the Spirit of God to work with us and make something beautiful of the stagnant mess we’ve made.

 

Friends, no matter where you are in the journey with or away from Jesus, I believe He is asking me to call you to repentance this very day. Ours sins or missteps may not look obvious. We may be doing such a good job of living a “Christian” life that we have fooled even ourselves. In fact, many of our stories, both yours and mine, might look a lot like the prophet Jonah’s.

 

When we opened the service today, we read from the book of Jonah. Would you go ahead and open your Bibles again to that passage (p 655)? It’s near the middle of the Bible, a small book of only a few chapters. We’re going to re-read chapter 3 verses 1-5:

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” 3 Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. 4 Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

 

And now for a little background on this Nineveh and Jonah situation.

Nineveh was the sprawling capital city of the Assyrian Empire. It was prophesied in Jonah’s day that Assyria would one day conquer the land of Israel. Not cool if you’re an Israelite, am I right? And on top of that, this empire was just plain evil. The Ninevites were idolatrous and known for heinous acts of violence and cruelty. Their evil lifestyles is the reason for God sending a prophet to them demanding their repentance OR ELSE. God was threatening to completely destroy their prized city if something didn’t change.

 

Jonah was a follower of God, and God, in all his omniscient humor, saw fit to commission him to bring a hard-hitting message to some seriously evil people. The Ninevites were basically Jonah’s arch enemies. Jonah hated everything about God’s call to him, and he revolted again and again. He ran from God, he hid, he went in the exact opposite direction, he nearly drowned. Finally Jonah relented and followed through with God’s command to prophesy to Nineveh: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” And LO AND BEHOLD Nineveh responded. This cruel people group, including their powerful king, repented immediately and fasted and prayed and begged God for mercy. And to Jonah’s dismay, God granted his mercy. And Jonah hate every second of it. THIS WASN’T FAIR. Nineveh was terrible and evil and deserved to be destroyed.

 

True.

But God has mercy on whom he has mercy. Amen and Amen.

Sorry Jonah. But that includes your mercy for on worst nightmare.

 

So how exactly are we like Jonah?

 

In the introductory material to the book of Jonah in the Life with God Bible, Barbara M. Musselman writes,

“God is on a quest to forgive people and reconcile them to himself. […] He takes a chance on brutal and spiritually ignorant Nineveh and, even more intriguing, on malicious and spiritually arrogant Jonah. God insists on showing mercy to whomever he pleases.”

 

As I read Barbara’s descriptions of the spiritual ignorance of Nineveh versus the spiritual arrogance of Jonah, I couldn’t help but feel squirmish, like God was asking me, “Which are you – ignorant or arrogant?” And I believe God wants me to ask the same question to you. Are you living in spiritual ignorance, blissfully naive to your need for reconciliation to God? Or have you got your spiritual-act together? Are you living in spiritual arrogance. Who have you ignored or mistreated? Who do you think is undeserving of God’s mercy? Which person or people group is utterly abhorrent to you? Be honest with yourself and with God.

 

Some of you might be skirming in your seats right now, completely uncomfortable with the possibility that you might be spiritually ignorance or…even spiritually arrogant.

 

If you’re willing to lean into the discomfort and respond to the poking of the Spirit inside of you, I would invite you now to move in a new direction, to turn over the arrogant or ignorant or complacent soil of your spiritual life and let God call you to new groth.

 

But how?

 

I think the Psalm for today answers that question quite well. Psalm 62 (page 409) calls us to practice some seriously challenging spiritual disciplines – silence and solitude – on a regular basis. We must set aside time to be still and wait for the Lord in silence. This is where the transformation begins. These moments alone with the Spirit are the remedies for our arrogance or our ignorance.

 

Verses 9 and 10 of Psalm 62 reinforce the message of God’s unequitable mercy and the smallness of our humanity in comparison to Him.

 

9 Those of low estate are but a breath,
those of high estate are a delusion;
in the balances they go up;
 they are together lighter than a breath.
10 Put no confidence in extortion,
and set no vain hopes on robbery;
if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.

 

Whether your name is Jonah or you’re more of a Ninevite.

No matter your race or the race of the people on the edge of town;

Despite your spotless record or the heinous crimes committed by those in state prisons;

Regardless of your job title or lack-thereof; your savings account or church giving records; the number of underlines in your Bible or the fact that you haven’t prayed an honest prayer in your life – here is the conclusion of the matter:

God is about the business of being with us, each one of us. He is constantly pursuing us to invite us to repentance and reconciliation.

 

Whether you’ve felt a strong conviction already today or not, the call begins with silence. We each must get alone with God and then….shut up. Don’t talk to him, just sit and listen. Devotional books and journaling and prayer and scripture reading are all good and necessary to spiritual growth. But I commend you to do the hardest thing and to sit in silence with God. It’s hard….so hard, because being alone and quiet allows for the inner demons to crop up, the frantic thoughts to swirl, the anxiety to increase. But if we practice this discipline (and I need this as much as anyone here), we’ll cultivate spacious in our hearts, rich soil in which God can expose the unhealthy things you’ve kept hidden. He’ll call you to repentance and He’ll call you to action. And we need to be ready and willing to get up and follow Him.  

 

So I exhort you, brothers and sisters: go home and seriously examine your daily schedule and make time for silence and solitude with God. You can make time, just ten minutes a day, I promise you. The way we spend our time reflects your priorities. And if you find yourself needing some help in reorienting your schedule, Pastor Kevin or I would be more than willing to help you in the process.

 

As we go today, feel a bit disquieted and uncomfortable, I would like to close with this  Franciscan Benediction

 

May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our hearts.

May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, hunger, and war, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done, to bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.

Registration: Yoga for Advent

Join me for a 4 week yoga class centered around the Advent of Jesus Christ. A time of slowing in the midst of our culture’s Christmas bustle…a time to breath deeply. This will be a Gentle Yoga practice with deep sustained postures and breath exercises.

Yoga for Advent
Thursdays 6:30-7:15pm
Nov 30-Dec 21

Cost is $25 (or pay the “normal” $30 and I’ll donate $10 directly to Heartbeat of Monroe!)

——
Taught by registered Holy Yoga instructor, Melanie Eccles
Location: Monroe Free Methodist Church (3928 E. Dunbar Rd. Monroe, MI)

Eternal Preparedness

God of captives and pilgrims,
you brought your people home from despair
and gave them a land of freedom and plenty.
Look in mercy on us your servants,
deliver us from the prison of selfishness and sin,
and bring us home to justice, sharing, and compassion,
the realm you promised all the world
in Jesus Christ the Savior. Amen. (source)

 

Today we are going to examine our lives in light of eternity. The four lectionary texts call us to recognize our need for God (Psalm 70), to be hopeful in salvation through Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection (I Thess 4), and to live out God’s heart for justice (Amos 5) in order to be eagerly prepared for Jesus Christ’s return (Matt 25).

 

Psalm 70 Verses 4-5 in the NRSV

4 Let all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you.
Let those who love your salvation
say evermore, “God is great!”

5 But I am poor and needy;
hasten to (help) me, O God!
You are my help and my deliverer;
O Lord, do not delay!

 

David, the Psalmist, is in some serious dismay. He has vengeful enemies who scoff at him and delight in shaming him. But he turns his gaze from those who “seek his life” to the One who can save his life. He recognizes his need for God and delights in his salvation. Verse 5 speaks of David’s humility. He says, “But I am poor and needy;”

 

Friends, I think humility is our first step toward God and I think it’s required of us each and every day. How often do we go about life without recognizing our need for God? (snarky) We feel a bit proud of the Christian life we’ve been living, of the way we’re caring for our family, or that at least we don’t have “those” problems (whatever problems we most despise in others…). And with these attitudes we    reject    God.

 

So ask yourself as honestly as you can manage:

Do I need God?

How am I poor?

How am I needy?

 

In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (page 836) Paul gives us the abbreviated version of the Gospel good news of Jesus. He says in verses 13 -14  

 

13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of humankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.

 

Paul is saying, LOOK! THERE’S HOPE! Death is the not the final straw! We will be raised again to new life to spend eternity on the New Earth in which Jesus will reign as Lord! Amen and amen! Let it be so!

 

In verse 18 Paul closes by saying, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” That sounds all fine and dandy, I mean, hope is a good thing, but I wonder, is it actually encouragement if we’re not prepared? Do we have hope if we’re not living in humility and seeing our constant, desperate need for God and for building his kingdom?

 

Jesus’ parable about the ten virgins in Matthew 25:1-13 (page 702) depicts a bleak picture of those who claim to be his followers and yet neglect to be prepared for his return. Ask yourself honestly, “Is this me? Am I unprepared?”

 

I have never really understand this parable before reading the the IVP Bible Background Commentary on it this week. First I learned the word translated “virgin” in the NIV is actually referring to bridesmaids in a bridal party. “Being a bridesmaid was a great honor;” the commentary says, and “to be insultingly unprepared and shut out of the feast was the stuff of which young women’s nightmares were made.” The pinnacle of the wedding celebration would occur at at night. After 7 DAYS of wedding festivities (yes, DAYS), it was the bridesmaids’ supreme duty to stand prepared with large torches (not small, handheld lamps like I pictured before) waiting for the groom. The Groom would arrive to be escorted by the bridesmaids’ torchlight back to his bride, whom they all in turn would escort to the groom’s house. Five of these 10 women fell asleep and didn’t bring extra oil to keep their torches lit, resulting in their excommunication from the party.

 

In this parable Jesus implies his divinity to the listeners, referring to himself as the Bridegroom, and exhorts them to be anticipating his return. He was indicating that one day he would ascend back to heaven to dwell with the Father, and until the day of the New Earth when He would reign as Lord, we must be busy preparing his for his return.  

 

But what does that preparing look like?

 

Well, the Prophet Amos tells us what it’s not.

 

Amos 5:18-24

18 Woe to you who long
for the day of the Lord!
Why do you long for the day of the Lord?
That day will be darkness, not light. (if you’re not prepared)

Verse 20 Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—
pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?
21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me. (do we stink?)
22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
23 Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps (or pianos or guitars).

I think this prophecy is as applicable today to our middle class American churches as it was in 755 BC. The lands of Judah and Israel were disgusting God by their mechanical, religious celebrations and their mistreatment of the poor. In my Life with God Bible one of the notes says, “Although the Israelites performed their rituals of worship, their lack of love for those around them revealed the superficiality of their worship.” Ouch. I don’t know about you, but that’s like a punch in the gut for me. How often do we worship in this place and then go out and avoid those who disgust us or focus on our own goals in life or neglect to extend hospitality? Too often.

 

Remember that message of humility from Psalm 70, recognizing our need for God? I think we’ve gotten too comfortable, much like Judah and Israel. Material wealth abounded in their day and their kingdoms were expanding (sound familiar?) Again a note from the Life with God Bible: “This prosperity led them to forget their God and his laws.” Is our prosperity leading us to apathy in our love for God, a lack of love for others, concerning ourselves instead with our “American dreams” of owning a house and nice cars and 47 inch plasma tv and the new iPhone 10 retirement plans?  

 

Do    we    even     need    God?

 

Verse 24 of Amos 5 is the linchpin of our salvation, it’s how to be prepared for eternity:

 

But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-ending stream!

 

The Life with God Bible, says, “God cares about how we live our lives. By protecting justice, by generosity, simple living, and holy relationships, we will find ourselves living with God and extending his Kingdom” rather than our own.

 

As we enter the season of holiday hubbub, of overspending, and over-decorating, perhaps you will join me in practicing the discipline of simplicity. Let’s decide to have our hearts be singly focused on God and his kingdom, rather than pursuing our own dreams and desires. We don’t need to keep up with anyone else’s standard of Christmas presents. Let’s go against the grain of American Christmas. Let’s simplify our gift wrapping by giving more to the poor and needy like ICCM and Heartbeat. Talk with your family about changing the standard and having a simple Christmas, honoring God.

 

Let’s live out our salvation and be prepared for Christ’s return by getting rid of the excess and repenting of our pride, and turning humbly to God in our daily need.

 

As we go today, I send you with this benediction:

 

May the Spirit of God disrupt us in our comfort and force us from our apathy,
May He form in us Christ’s perfect love,
And fill us with authentic desire to worship God and build his kingdom
Until the day of his return. Amen.

Freedom from Anxiety: a new perspective of Psalm 23

This is the sermon transcript from Sunday, October 15, 2017 at Monroe Free Methodist Church. If you’re interested in listening to the audio visit: http://www.monroefmc.com/resources/sermon-audio/


This morning I want to invite you to re-imagine Psalm 23 and how life might change if we actually believed its words. What would happen if we allowed Jesus to shepherd us? What if we trusted him to lead us to wide open pastures of safety? What if we released fear, totally and completely? What if we allowed him to serve us as his honored guest? What if we believed that his love is in constant pursuit of us?

It would change everything.

St. Augustine wrote in the 4th century, “When you say, ‘the Lord is my Shepherd’ no proper grounds are left for you to trust in yourself.” The call, then, of Psalm 23 is to set down our right to be afraid and our right to go wherever we want to go, and instead to follow the Shepherd. We will only be protected and cared for if we allow Jesus to lead us.

The past two weeks I have been meditating on the words of this Psalm thanks to the song we sang earlier this morning. (I hope you’re enjoying it as much as I am.) The Lord has graciously led me to a new understanding of what the words mean for my life, the ways He is offering me protection and freedom. This line has been particularly meaningful as I face my own fears: “You prepare a table right before me in the presence of my enemies. Though the arrows fly and the terror of night is at my door, I trust you, Lord.” Perhaps some of you can relate to struggles with anxiety, a fear that is nearly paralyzing. Over the past few weeks I have been facing my own anxieties. Nightmares crop up in my dreams and my body reacts with itchy hives reminding me of the stress it’s under. Now, hear me, friends, I am not saying any of this for sympathy but to share my journey toward peace and to invite you to move in that direction with me.

What if you and I were to picture the Lord preparing a great feast in our honor and inviting us to sit at the table? And what if as we sat down and picked up our forks we looked out the window and saw the Enemy – the thing each of us fears most? Maybe your fear is a person or maybe it’s a fear of failure or a fear of being exposed as a fraud or a fear of death. When you see your Fear, the first reaction might be to begin to tremble or to take cover under the table or to run and hide or maybe even to fight that Fear Enemy. But the truth is, friends, you don’t have to engage your arsenal of defense mechanisms when you’re seated at the Lord’s Table. The Lord wants you to sit down and enjoy his hospitality and his presence, to notice the Fear outside the door – yes, but then to release it to his care.

We read of the Lord as Table Host in three separate passages this morning:

  • Isaiah 54:6 “ the Lord prepares a feast for all peoples”
  • Psalm 23:5 “ you prepare a table before me”
  • Matthew 22 “ the parable of the wedding banquet

The Lord is the ultimate example of hospitality. According to the imagery drawn for us today in these passages, we learn that the Lord’s hospitality includes these four elements: an invitation, provision of food, generosity, and safety.

The invitation of the Lord is filled with desire. He pursues his guests, even the undeserving ones ,like the wedding host did in Matthew 22 and as verse 6 of Psalm 23 says. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” The word mercy used in that verse is the Hebrew word “hesed” meaning a “love that never quits.” According to my Life With God Study Bible, “This is a love that doesn’t just follow, but always pursues us. To perceive God’s love as pursuing rather than begrudged deepens our ability to trust.” What if we believed that the Lord’s invitation to his table isn’t out of pity but out of genuine desire to be with us?

Secondly we see the Lord’s hospitality as including a lavish meal. He “prepares a table” (in Psalm 23:5) and makes a feast of rich food and expensive wine (in Isaiah 25:6) and sets out the choicest meats in Matthew 22. Part of hospitality is simply providing for the needs of the guests, but the Lord goes above and beyond with the best spread of food – all of your favorites, because he knows you like a Shepherd knows his sheep.

Thirdly, the Lord anoints our heads with oil, bestowing on us the gift of honor. I learned in the Bible Background commentary that in ancient times, fine diners were sometimes anointed with oil by their hosts. This was a luxurious and generous gift, first of all because the oil itself was expensive. But consider for a moment the dry desert climate of the those living in Old Testament cultures and think of effects it had on their skin. The oil was a way to lavish honor on a guest by offering their complexion a fine sheen. Plus the fragrance present in the oils gave the guests and the room a pleasant aroma. The anointing was a way to say, “You are a valued guest. Let me demonstrate my love for you through this small but meaningful indulgence.”

Finally, when we respond to the Lord’s hospitality to join him at the table, He will provide safety and security for us. When we look out the window and see the enemy ready to attack us or we are faced with our crippling anxiety, we can look into the eyes of our Shepherd-host and know we are safe at his table. As I was pondering my own fears and what freedom would look like for me, I pictured the story of the passover in Exodus 12 where the Israelites are told to stay inside their homes and to paint the blood of the passover lamb around their doorframes. Verse 23 says, “When the Lord goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.” I imagine my freedom looking this way – me sitting at the Lord’s table, enjoying his delicious meal, and his loving company, and his generous anointing, and noticing out my window the thing I fear most. But instead of being swallowed by the Fear, I acknowledge my emotions and I let it pass by my door. I am safe at the table of the Lord.

Now that we are beginning to understand the Lord’s hospitality and what Psalm 23 invites us to, what’s our response going to be? I think the answers lie in Philippians 4:6-8, some of my favorite verse in Scripture. “4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Friends, the fears or concerns in our life “are to be addressed not by worrying about them, but by developing habits of prayer and rejoicing.” (Life with God Bible)

So our first response to the Lord’s hospitality is to rejoice always – for the Lord, our Shepherd is always worthy of our praise.

Secondly, we have to make our requests known to the Lord. We must tell the Lord about our anxiety and fear. This by itself disarms the stronghold on our lives.

Third, we must be thankful. We must be aware of the Lord’s presence in our lives, pay attention to his hospitality – how he welcomes us, notice his generosity to us, and see his pursuing love. A few weeks ago I was in Meijer and saw milk was on sale for something like $1.29 a gallon. My first response was to say, “The Lord loves me so much sometimes.” Now I know that’s kind of silly, first of all because it’s just milk, but secondly, because the Lord loves me so much all the time. But I’ve taken a liking to saying that phrase more and more, recognizing all the little ways the Lord shows his love for me. It’s like he’s bringing me home flowers, showing me his committed pursuit in the form of small gifts that are my favorite things. We must all be on the look for the little ways the Lord is loving us.

Finally, after we respond to the Lord’s hospitality with rejoicing and requesting and thanksgiving….GET THIS…He gives us the Peace of Christ to guard our hearts and minds. He Loves us so much sometimes. :)

 

Friends, as you go today, let me declare the words of the Message paraphrase of Philippians 4:7-8 as our benediction.

Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.

The Wounds of the Church

I’ve been hearing a growing number of my Christian friends adopting a “no need for church” spirituality. When I stop to listen to their stories, I can easily understand why people feel like this is a justified way of Christian living: it’s safer to live outside of a community that may cause us pain. The Church is supposed to pour soothing balm on our already-fragile spirits, but the sad truth is it’s often the Church herself who wounds us. The people who call themselves Christian (yes, including me and you) live hypocritical lives or inflict harsh judgment on others. The Church sometimes does more harm than good, and many Christians are saying, “I’m better off without Her.”

If you have been a victim of the Church (any church) and her unredeemed actions, please, Friend, receive my sincerest apology on Her behalf. I am sorry if someone has spoken untruths about you or uttered ill-will against another. I am sorry if your service has ever gone unappreciated or your talents untapped. I am sorry if anything I’ve said or done in haste has caused you pain. Please forgive me, and please forgive the Church.

You see, we are all in the process of being saved (I Corinthians 1:18), but the full sanctification of our fallen humanity has not yet been realized. The process of sanctification is about becoming holy, allowing the image of Christ to be formed within us and being motivated by Christian love. We cannot learn to love if we are not living in community, letting people see us for who we really are and allowing them to love us anyways.

I must admit, sometimes the Church seems to be farther from the goal of Christian love than ever, and I can attest to how difficult it is to be part of something which causes us pain. But I exhort you, Friend, to make corporate weekly worship part of your Christian spiritual discipline. The Church is dysfunctional, yes, but it is the physical representation of Jesus Christ on earth. Corporate worship is about being the Body of Christ. (The Latin root “corpus” means “body.”) We need one another in order to do the unifying work of worship together and we need to be present to participate in God’s ministry of reconciliation.

So thank you, friends, for showing up on Sunday mornings…even when you’d prefer a few extra hours of sleep or when you don’t particularly care for the music or when you hear mediocre sermons. Thank you for choosing to push past the minor irritation with that guy who chomps his gum or the girl who seems to give you the stink eye. I pray God ministers his great healing among us as we continue to climb over the invisible fences we’ve erected to protect our fragile hearts.