Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Not a Magic Trick--Sermon from 11/14

Simon, or as some called him, Simon the great, was an impressive fellow. He was able to do all sorts of things that looked miraculous. People thought he was amazing because he was able to astonish them with the sorceries that he was able to perform. He was able to do things that people did not believe to be humanly possible. Many people said that he had been endued with special power from God. And then, Phillip, and then the apostles, came into town.

Phillip came into town and preached the gospel. Simon believed and was baptized. Soon after Simon was following Phillip everywhere that Phillip went. What Simon noticed was that Simon had powers that he could not replicate. Phillip healed people. Simon could not. Phillip cast out demons. Simon the Sorcerer could not.

At some point, after making his living doing sorcery, doing supposedly miraculous acts that nobody could replicate, it must have seemed like a major strain for him when Phillip came around. All of the sudden throngs of people were drawn to Phillip, and his business was going down quickly.

Well, after Phillip was successful for a little while, the church sent in the “big guns” of the church to inspect and support his ministry. They discovered that Phillip had led many folks to Christ and baptized them, but that they had not received the Holy Spirit. So the apostles started praying with them that they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. We are left to assume the reception of the Holy Spirit was evidenced probably by speaking in tongues. Simon the Great was impressed by this power.

Somewhere along the line, Simon decided he was going to ask these apostles a question. He asked them if he could purchase from them the power that they had, so that he could get people to receive the Holy Spirit as well.

When the apostle Peter heard Simon the Sorcerer say this he was livid. And the apostle Peter being the apostle Peter, he did not mince his words. In plain English Peter said, “You and your money can go to hell”. He went on to tell him to repent and to be freed from his poisoned heart that was full of bitterness, and his iniquity, or sin. A heart full of bitterness, in the Old Testament law, it seems, is a reference to being led astray by idols. So Peter is saying that Simon’s asking to buy the powers given to the apostles by the Spirit is sin and idolatry. As might have been much of his life up to this point. After that, Simon asks Peter to pray for him, and the mission trip in Samaria seems to come to a close. And this little snippet of history ends.
Very simply put, what God is teaching us through this short passage is three things. First, the gifts of God are not for sale. Second, the grace of God is not a magic trick. Third, we need to remember what Galatians says when it teaches, “Be not deceived, God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows, that shall he also reap.”

If you would bear with me, I want to focus primarily on the second point, that the grace of God is not a magic trick. I think as we explore this concept we might touch on the other two.

You see, I think a lot of time, to our detriment, we often mistake magical thinking for faith. And, I think we need to stop.

Will Willimon says that when we attempt to have a magical faith we choose to, “attempt to control God through certain techniques or formulas.”

A simple way to see this at work is to look at one of the stories that a man named Mark Twain created about a young boy in the middle of the 1800s named Huckleberry Finn. Huck Finn was a little ornery, and a free range kid of sorts. He was kind of looked after by his father, and various other people around town from time to time. One of the fun things as you read about the adventures of Huckleberry Finn is that he is a little bit of a trickster, and always looking for an angle to get ahead.

At one time he decided he would test out if he could really believe in prayer. What he chose to do was to get an empty shoe box. He would put it under his bed. And then, he would pray that God would fill it with gold. He prayed. And he prayed. And he prayed until he fell asleep. He woke up the next morning. He looked under his bed. The box was empty. He concluded that prayer did not work.

Huck Finn chose to treat prayer as a magic trick to make him rich. When he could not get what he wanted he concluded that it did not work. Huck wasn’t searching for Jesus. He was searching for a technology to fill his shoe box with gold.

The gospel does not work that way. But we do not have to look far to have people try and convince us that it does. Turn on TBN for a day, and you will find so called Christian workers convincing people that if they just send him a little bit of seed money, than he will send you his anointed prayer cloth that will give you all sorts of miracles that will make you healthier, wealthier and wiser. For a few measly dollars given in faith he will say, he will send you this cloth that can perform miracles. He is saying, in effect, that he will do a magical little miracle for you for the right place.
If you ever see this on television, I want you to do what Peter did. I want you to get your phone. I want you to call the number. And I want you to tell the people who answer that they and their money can go hell unless they repent. And then I want you to hang up.

But television preachers and Huck Finn are not the only ones to employ magical thinking in attempts to get what they want. We employ magical thinking to manipulate God to benefit us as well.

Sometimes we do this when we come forward on an altar call. We have no intention to submit our lives to Christ. We have no plan to spend our lives in a relationship with Jesus. But we come forward to say a little prayer that the preacher gives us to ask Jesus to come into our heart. And we leave church thinking that we said the magic words to make God happy. And now we can forget about God for the rest of our lives because our eternal destiny is secure.

Friends, the Bible says that there are many people who come to God and say, “Lord, Lord”, but do not enter God’s eternal kingdom. I think some of those people are people who treat the sinner’s prayer as a magic trick to get them out of hell instead of as a tool to surrender their lives to Christ and have an eternal relationship with him.

Others of us believe that if we do some Christian practice in some certain way than we can do just the right thing or say just the right words to make our lives better or easier or earn some blessing we are seeking. We think that if we just show up to church more that bad things won’t happen to us. We think that if we just pray in the right way, with just the right words, or for just the right amount of time that we will find the magic key to get God to give us what we want. Or if we tithe that somehow God will find a way to make us rich because we were so good to give God HIS 10 percent. It is like if we say abra cadabra, we will get what we request. Or like God is a genie who is exists to grant us unlimited wishes. This kind of thinking is also what passes for Christianity in much of the 21st century western world.

Often this not only works in getting something from God, we tend to use magical thinking to explain our hardship as God “getting” us for “getting out of line”. We get an unexpected bill in the mail, and we think it is God’s way of telling us he is mad at us for not showing up to church enough. We trip and sprain our ankle, and we wonder if we had our quiet time if God would have protected us from having that happen.

It is not only easy for individuals to have this mindset, it easy for churches to fall into this way of thinking as well. Churches often think that if they get just the right pastor, then everything will be well with their church. And when things go wrong, they think they must have failed in finding the pastor God wanted for them, or they are ready to send that pastor down the road for one with a bigger and better skill set.

Pastors think that if they implement just the right program, then God will bless them. Or if they make just the right decision, or do the ministry with the correct model, then they will cease to have attendance problems and never run budget deficits. Pastors, like Simon, want to be successful and have a good reputation for growing a church. So, Christian marketers set up “purpose-driven church” workshops or “break the 200 barrier” meetings where pastors can pay to learn all the tricks to make their church the biggest, most influential church in town. And pastors pay hand over fist to get through the door in the hopes that the workshop will make them the next local ministry rock star.

This kind of thinking where we hope to manipulate God to get what we want from him for our benefit is idolatry. It is not faith or trust. It is not worship. It is kneeling at the self-serving altar of me and mine. Nothing more, and nothing less.

When we seek to manipulate the Lord like this it is treating God like he is our servant instead of our master. It is acting as though God exists to grant our wishes, instead of us committing to serve his purposes. When we make faith in God about finding ways to convince the Lord to make us happy, healthy wealthy instead of us loving God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, we have sinned. We have put ourselves on the throne, and we have relegated God to the point of cosmic bellhop, our step-and-fetch-it, our errand boy. When we act this we are confessing ourselves as Lord, not Christ.

Peter told Simon he had attempted to purchase a “gift of God” which was, as was emphasized by the word being used three times in this passage, to be “received”. God’s blessings are not something we deserve. They are something we are given. God grace is not something we grasp, it is something we are offered as a free gift. When we use magical thinking in our spiritual life we reject God’s free gift, and we tempt to earn and purchase what can only be given.

You see here is the problem when we attempt to purchase God’s blessing through silver coins or saying just the right prayer or going through just the right ritual, or finding just the right program or leadership technique to get your church to go to the next level. We make faith in Jesus about treating Jesus as an object to be manipulated instead of a Lord to be loved. God wants a relationship with us, but we just want the resources we want from him.

Once God becomes the being you manipulate to get what you want, you cease to be in a relationship with Him. And what God wants, more than anything, is for you to have a relationship for eternity with Him. God want you to stop striving, and manipulating and seeking to earn God’s acceptance and grace and love. He wants you to accept and receive that grace as gift, a free gift, that you could never to do anything to earn, steal, or grasp, but which is there for the receiving if you come with open hearts and open arms.

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