Sunday, March 27, 2016

Therefore, Run: An Easter Sermon

Therefore, Run
When Jennifer and I were dating, there would be moments, when she was wanting me to hurry up or stop being distracted in the office supply section in the store, where she would urge me to hurry up and move along. And, at some point, putting on my best Forrest Gump voice, I would yell at her from down the aisle, in an embarrassingly loud voice, “I am running Jenny” and then I would awkwardly run to catch up with her. I have made a habit of doing this kind of thing as we have went along in our marriage, even when I was training for my 5k last year and the year before. Why not? Making a fool of myself is one of my most endearing qualities.

The act of running has an interesting story in Biblical history. I did a word study on the concept this week. For the average Jewish person, running was not behavior that was engaged in for sport or to maintain or build physical health. Sometimes running was done to flee temptation (Joseph), and was often engaged in with military conflict. Running was often used metaphorically for something that was done in haste.
One of my favorite Scriptures says that young men will be able to “run and no be weary”. (Isaiah 40)

Yet, there was a sense, especially by the time of Jesus, that running was often considered undignified. You see, you would be wearing a robe, and in order to run and not trip you would have to pull up your robe and expose your legs, which was considered a little shameful, a little embarrassing. This is one of the things that makes the parable of the Prodigal Son so powerful. At that point in history, if a son was discovered to have squandered his inheritance among the Gentiles, he would be drug in front of the leaders of the community, they would grab a bowl, break it, and tell the young man that he was now cut off from his people for his shameful behavior. Public humiliation. Yet, with the Father’s running to the prodigal, the Father short circuits the shaming of the Son by taking the shame upon himself.

In Christ, God has come running to us. Stooping to us. Taking our shame upon himself, so that we can have a new life, a renewed hope, through placing our faith in him, trusting him with our lives by surrendering our lives to his authority.

Anyway, all of this is helpful to know when we get to resurrection accounts in the Gospel of John. Why? Because everyone is running with the accounts of the resurrection. John 20:2 says that Mary Madgalene runs from the empty tomb to find Peter and John. She tells the men about the empty tomb, and they run as well. John tells us that he got there first, but tells us that Simon Peter goes barreling into the tomb as soon as he gets to the scene. Then they leave. The grave clothes are there, but the body is not? What are they to make of this?

We are left to wonder that too. And part of what we are to make of this event has to do with the response of those first three witnesses of the resurrection: Mary, Peter, and John. When they hear of the open tomb, they cannot help but run. They run from the grave, and they run to it.

Are we to believe that this running would have been shameful? I don’t know. I think what we are to hear is that they simply did not care. This news that Jesus’s tomb was empty, that he may have been risen from the dead, that God has turned the world rightside-up through raising Christ from the dead, this was worth running to, even if they looked goofy, embarrassed or shamed themselves.

Two thousand years from that first Resurrection morning, to empty tomb, my friends, is still worth running to. It is the pivot point in history. The message of new life, of hope, of life after death, of the victory of our conquering King Jesus is still urgent for you, for me, for our friends and our family, and for our world. It still has the power to set prisoners free, to make the broken whole, to reconcile enemies and to bring joy from ashes, and hope from despair. The empty tomb still has the power to change lives. I know, as imperfect as I am, it has and is changing my life.

During Lent, we have been studying Hebrews to immerse ourselves in understand the greatness of Jesus Christ. We have learned over and over again, our need for the Jesus who loved us enough to come to us in human form, to live a perfect life, to die on a cross, to rise again in victory, and to ascend to sit at the right hand of God.
We have contemplated all of this, and now on Easter morning, we are confronted with Hebrews 12, and the “now what?” in light of the resurrection. Jesus has died and risen. He has suffered for us. He has offered us new life. Now what?

The author of Hebrews invites us to get running!

Now, Hebrews is written to Hellenistic Jews. Jews that were not native to all of the national history and customs of the Land of Israel, but folks who had tried to follow the Scriptures in exile spread out all around the ancient world. In the Greek world, athletic competition was common. And one of those competitions had to do with running. Running competitions has ties to military in ancient Greece and Rome.

Marathon, for example, was a messenger who ran from the battle field to announce the victory of the Athenians over the Persians. He came bringing good news. There were no phones or television then of course, so news of battle news was passed on through messengers that relayed the news, running from place to place. These messengers were called evangels when they had positive reports. Thus to be an evangelist is a person relaying good news about a victory that has been won. And evangelical is one who is a person who believes in the good news of victory in Christ, and lives in faith about that good news.

He compares the story of faith among God’s people to a relay race run in full view of all of the people of history. In Hebrews 11, as we looked at last week, the preacher who preached the content of the book of Hebrews gets on a roll. He begins to recount the history of the people of God. They have followed God in faith. Seth. Moses. Abraham. Noah. Isaiah. David. The prophets. The judges. Each ran the race. The lived by faith. Like relay racers, they passed the baton to the next generation. And each generation, one way or another, lived carried on that faith and passed it on to the next generation. Sometimes better. Sometimes worse.

And now, having the benefit of knowing about the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the baton is passed to us. And all of the saints that have come before us make up a cloud of witnesses. And that cloud of witnesses shouts to us, in light of the good news we have to live and to share about Jesus Christ, they shout RUN!

How are we to run?
The author of Hebrews gives us some very helpful advice of how we are to live, of how we are to run the race, in light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

1.    Fix our eyes on Jesus
The resurrection reminds us that our faith is not in religion, or an organization, it is in the leadership of our Lord Jesus Christ. In light of the resurrection we run to him! We fix our eyes upon who Jesus is. We say, because Jesus died for me, I am going to live for him. Our life becomes about loving the way Jesus loved, being strong and bold for truth the way Jesus was, and remembering that Jesus is the standard that we hold everything against. His resurrection proves he is greater than anyone. His resurrection shows that he has power over sin, death, and the evil one. So our focus should be on what he wants us to do, and where he wants us to go. Get focused on Jesus and what is going on around him.

2.   Throw off sin
Jesus died so that you can be victorious. Not so that you could wallow around in sin, and have it tie you up and tie you down. If we have faith that Jesus is risen, that trust then spurs us on to living with a trust that God’s way is better than our way, and that the wisdom of the Word is greater than the wisdom of the world.
If you truly trust, believe in, and love Jesus, your life will be marked by eliminating the self-centered, destructive, sinful life you have left behind. You will begin to trust that God knows what is best for you better than you think you do, and you will begin to eliminate from your life those things that stand in opposition to Christ and your soul.
3.    Throw off anything that gets in the way

In the movie UP!, there is this endearing dog that is devoted to the main characters in the story. Unfortunately, what happens is that the dog is easily distracted. He is puttering along, doing good things, and then he sees a squirrel. And he goes chasing after that squirrel and gets distracted from the things he is meant to do.
In light of the resurrection of Christ, your life is about one thing. Sometimes sin gets in the way. Both other times we are just so easily distracted with a million different things that we are impeded from being the transforming, world-changing, neighbor-reaching, community building people Christ has called us to be. We can be like the dog, that lets the squirrels around us get in the way of truly living a victorious life in Christ.

We get stuck doing things in our lives that keep us from private devotion or worship, or public worship here. We get distracted from the needs of our neighbors with our own business and our cell phones. Sin is always gets in our way of running the race well. But there are good things that can steal our focus too.

4.   Persevere

A life lived trusting God means that we need to persevere. There are times when walking with Christ is just difficult. Maybe we experience a dark night of the soul. Or maybe circumstances steal our motivation to stay faithful to Christ. Remember, at this point, that we are running a race. There are moments that we may want to quit. It is imperitive we don’t. We have a great cloud of witnesses cheering for us. We know through the resurrection that victory is ours. Let us not abandon trusting the Way of Jesus because of temporary discomfort. Persevere!

5.    Endure opposition and hardship
Both from the evil one, and from others around us, running the race of faith is difficult. You will be attacked for doing what Jesus tells you to do. They attacked him too, the author of Hebrews says here, but stand strong. You will endure suffering for doing the right thing. Your kindness will not always be returned. You will be pushed aside. Keep pushing. Keep running. If you are doing anything important, there will be people who will oppose you, who will stand against you, who will seek to drag you down. RUN. KEEP RUNNING.

6.   Consider who you are running to
Run to Jesus. Consider what he went through to win you, and how little you endure in comparison. Consider what Christ did for you, and how much loved you. And then remain faithful, remain loyal to him by believing, trusting, and living for him, under his authority, in obedience to him

7.    Run!
Run to Jesus. Easter shows us the war is won. We still face battles, obstacles, and challenges. But Jesus is our champion. Run with him. Run to him. Run for him. Run to Jesus and live victoriously.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Good Friday Message: At the Foot of the Cross

At the Foot of the Cross
What would you say at the foot of the cross, as Jesus breathed his last? The air having left his lungs. The spear having pierced his side. What would you say when this nearly naked man was being drug down from the cross, his blood still drip, drip, dripping from the wood into a puddle by your feet?

What would you say?

What would you say at the foot of the cross? What would you say there after you watched this man who you had heard of as a great teacher of his people was arrested, betrayed by one of his own disciples? This Jesus, having being grabbed from a graveyard as he prayed, the residue of blood on his brow from him having sweat blood in prayer? What would you say?

What would you say as you watched the faithful followers of Jesus move away from him after his arrest? After you saw them run away, some of them, if you trust in the truth of Mark’s gospel, as I do, without their clothes. These disciples, that he had poured his life into, when he asked them to pray for him, they kept falling asleep. What would you say?

What would you remembering that Jesus was brought before the Jewish authorities, them seeking to undermine his ministry? What would you say as you observed all the obviously false accusations about him? What would you think when they asked him if he was the Messiah, the Son of God and he said, ““You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” And then they said they were going to kill him. The gave him the death sentence? What would you do?? What would you say?

What would you say at the foot of the cross having watched all of this happen as the blood drip, drip, dripped down in a puddle by your feet.

What would you say? What would you say as you watched the Jewish leaders bring Jesus before Pilate? As Jesus stood before Pilate, Pilate asks Jesus if he is King of the Jews. And Jesus says, “you have said so”. Pilate has reservations and gives the people a choice on who to crucify, a criminal named Barabbas or Jesus? And the crowd, under the influence of the religious leaders among them cries for Jesus to be crucified, and for Jesus to set free.

What would you say?

Pilate’s wife comes to Pilate. She begs and pleads with him not to kill Jesus. Not to send him to the cross. She has had a dream. The dream told her he is an innocent man.
What would you say, knowing all this, if you were that soldier at the foot of the cross? What would you say as the blood came drip, drip, dripping down from the wood of the cross into a puddle by your feet as the people are taking Jesus’ lifeless body off of that cross.

What would you say as they whipped Jesus on that whipping block with that cat of nine tails, with pieces of bone, and rock and metal embedded in that whip, pulling out pieces of flesh each time they whipped him. Whipping him 39 nine times because if they whipped him 40 times it was supposed to be fatal? What would you say if you were a soldier there, watching all of that?

What would you say if you saw him attempting to carry his cross, not complaining, as he went through the streets walking toward Golgotha, the place of the dead. And then as Simon, the Cyrene, was pulled out of the crowd, began to carry the cross for Jesus as he stumbled up to the top of that city? What would you say?

What would you say as the placed his battered, beaten, and whipped body upon that rough hewn piece of lumber, slivers embedding themselves in the scars and the sores, blood spurting out as they nailed, nailed, nailed him to the cross. His hands and feet pierced. And then they lifted him up into the air.

While he hung there he breathed heavy. Most people on the cross die of suffocation. Their bodies slide down the cross and compress their lungs, making them incapable of breathing. In order to survive, they must push themselves up the cross, scraping themselves against the wood, in order to catch a breathe. This is why the other men at the cross had their legs broken. Once their legs were broken they can no longer push themselves up, and they suffocate. By the time they get to Jesus, he was already dead.
What would you say if you were at the foot of the cross, the blood of Jesus drip, drip, dripping on the ground next to you, forming a puddle at your feet?

What would you say as you listened to Jesus at the foot of the cross?

What would you think as you watched him suffer and he said, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do” As they mocked him, spat at him, gambled for his clothes, and sentenced him to death. Perhaps he was even speaking to that soldier at the foot of the cross, stoicly doing his job, and perhaps he was even speaking to all of us as we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God? What would you say at the foot of the cross?

What would you think at the foot of the cross when you heard Jesus say to the thief crucified next to him that, “Today you will be with me in paradise?”

What would you say?

What would you say at the foot of the cross as Jesus told the disciple John and his mother Mary that they were now Mother and Son, seeking to take care of his mother and his friend as he hung up on the cross, hardly recognizable, barely able to sputter out the words he needed to say?

What would you say?

What would be going through your mind at the foot of the cross of Jesus when he cried out from Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Praying faithfully the prayer of the suffering he learned as a child.

What would you think when Jesus said that he was thirsty, there at the foot of the cross?

What would you say as Jesus proclaimed that he accomplished all that he wanted to do, as he looked up to heaven and said, “It is finished”?

What would you say as you heard Jesus say “Into your hand I commend my Spirit” as he was up there on the cross, and he had his last, wheezy death rattle and then froze stone cold dead on that cross?

And then, just when Jesus stopped breathing, the earth shook, the rocks began to split in two, the veil of the temple tore in two, and graves began to split open, and dead people began to start walking around, temporarily alive again. People that had been dead for a long time. Appearing to loved ones. Perhaps proclaiming Jesus as Lord.
What would you say if you were at the foot of the cross, with the dead body of Jesus hanging over you, and blood of Christ drip, drip, dripping down below you on the ground into a puddle by your feet.

Because, in a way, we are all today, at the foot of the cross. We are all observing Jesus’ death, even from several centuries distant from that moment. We all come to Christ through the cross, if we are to know him at all. We all must deal with what to say, what to do at the cross.

We all need to come to the cross, and take stock of our lives here, where Jesus died for our sins while we were still opposing him. And we need to ask ourselves, what really matters here.

Do our worldly accomplishments, how much money we have, how many trophies we have, how many titles we have really matter when we are standing at the cross? Is that really going to matter as Jesus is crying out, suffering to pay the price for our sins?

Take your petty arguments and grudges that you have had with your friends and family and neighbors. Take them to the foot of the cross. And as Jesus is wheezing and bleeding and a drop of his blood falls on your face, as he suffers and dies to give you new life and to teach you how to love God and your neighbor, take your arguments and grudges to the foot of the cross, and ask yourself, do they really matter there, as Jesus is dying for your sins and your transgressions, even as you turn away from him.
What would you say, as you stood at the foot of the cross, Jesus’s blood dripping down from the cross, forming a pool of blood at your feet?

I hope you would, and I hope I would, as I saw Jesus pay the price for the world’s sin, as he gave his life for a sacrifice for all of humanity who would believe, as he gave his blood to give you the free gift of salvation, I hope you would look up at this forgiving and suffering savior, who could have conquered the world but instead gave his life as a ransom for many, I hope you would say, I hope you will say with me and saints throughout the ages as we join our voices with the soldier at the cross, “Surely he was the Son of God”.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Book Review of 40/40 Vision by Greer and Lafferty

40/40 Vision: Clarifying Your Vision at Midlife
by Peter Greer and Greg Lafferty
ISBN 978-0-8308-4434-0
IVP Books
Reviewed by Clint Walker

As evidenced by previous posts, I am in my forties. Although I have yet to buy a convertible, and I have no desire to trade in my forty-something wife in for two twenties, there is a sense in which I am beginning to think about where my life is going to be headed for the second half of my earthly existence.

In 40/40 Vision Peter Greer and Greg Lafferty speak of the 40 year mark and the midlife stage as a crossroads. How people like me navigate this stage, they argue, is imperative. Midlife, the authors argue, is a crossroads that defines the narrative of a person's life. For those who have struggled, it is a time to pull life together and move in a different direction. For all persons, it is a time to reevaluate the trajectory of one's life, and make the necessary adjustments for the future.

Each chapter in this book, after the introduction, focuses on a different issue in midlife. Each chapter encourages the reader to evaluate, adjust, and make the most of their lives in the present and future. Even more, as the title communicates, the authors want people to stop floating along, and move forward in the second half of life with vision, purpose, and passion.

Book Review of Changing World, Unchanging Mission by M. David Sills

Changing World, Unchanging Mission: Responding to Global Challenges
by M. David Sills
ISBN 978-0-8308-4430-2
IVP Books
Reviewed by Clint Walker

The world is not the same as it used to be. Although our call as Christians to "go into all the world" is unchanging, the world that we are going into is changing exponentially. Because our world is constantly changing, the craft of missionary outreach must adapt some of its methods to continue to communicate the ancient message of Jesus. M. David Sills addresses some of the challenges that missionaries are facing and will be facing, and offers insight on how to address the concerns those new issues in Changing World, Unchanging Mission. 

As a person that loves, supports, and advocates for missions, I find this book interesting and informative. If I were a international missionary dealing with the rapid changes on the global mission field, I would find this book indispensable. It is well written. Sills approaches concerns in different regions of the world (the southern hemisphere for example), in adapting for different educational levels (oral learners), as well as different methods of relating to supporters (churches as sending agencies).

I am so thankful that there are people out there thinking about such matters, about how to communicate about them to the Christian community, and I am thankful to IVP for publishing a book about this aspect of mission work as well.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Book Review of Great Commission, Great Compassion by Paul Borthwick

Great Commission, Great Compassion: Following Jesus and Loving the World
by Paul Borthwick
ISBN 978-0-8308-4437-1
IVP Books
Reviewed by Clint Walker

I have read several books on united God's command to be compassionate through acts of mercy and justice with the command to make disciples and evangelize. I applaud them all, although after reading many of these kinds of books, I have become overly familiar with the material they share. Great Commission, Great Compassion, however, is different.

One thing that I noticed about this book is that its target is more formational that informational. While sharing the biblical foundation for both the Great Commission and the Great Commandment, Paul Borthwick also give word pictures and numerically organized practices to form his readers heart to live out the call to share the gospel in word and deed.

Then, after communicating need and forming the hearts of its readers Great Commission, Great Compassion moves its readers toward an concrete action plan. This action plan, called "lifestyle imperatives" combines spiritual disciplines of folks that are truly mission minded with concrete lifestyle changes that allow persons to engage in mission. Starting with simply being teachable and looking at the world differently, Borthwick moves people toward hospitality, generosity, advocacy and action.

This would be a great resource to teach from. Points of the book can be easily committed to memory, and the processes here are helpful in developing a step by step plan of growth in a "whole gospel" Christian. Great Commission, Great Compassion deserves a wide readership.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Mid-Life Musings: Part 1

I pull up to the playground outside the school. My daughter sees the van arrive. She begins to run. She sprints all the way across the playground. She grabs her backpack. She starts telling me all about her day, the gift she was given by a friend. We exchange hugs and kisses. We sing children's worship songs as we head to daycare. Mattea likes "This Little Light of Mine" right now. We get out of the car at Teri's house for daycare. She wants me to give her a wild ride, so I pick her up and throw her over my shoulder. I bounce her and spin her. She cries out joyfully and giggles. I set her down with her feet on the ground. She gives me a  kiss as she lifts her back foot up. I let her run in and yell goodbye. She doesn't hear. She is on to the next thing. I walk back to my van, but not without stopping and savoring the moment briefly. I have to stop and savor moments every once in a while. I have to savor a few moments each day just to discipline myself to remember that life is beautiful.

I get home and I check the mail. There are a couple of review books in the mailbox. I wonder if I had ordered both of them for review, or if they just sent them to me to review anyway. One of the books is about Kierkegaard. I love Kierkegaard, but I have not studied him nearly enough. Then I look at the information on the back cover of the book. It says that Kierkegaard died at the age of 42. This catches my attention. I think about how Kierkegaard accomplished so much in 42 years, and how I have really not accomplished much of what I had hoped to accomplish by the time I was 42. I wanted to write a book. I have wanted to get a doctoral degree. Not sure I am smart enough to do either of these things anymore, if I am honest with myself. I wanted a life and ministry that was marked by more visible, measurable success. It is easy to look back. To scold myself for not being more. Or, for at least trying not to be more. 

I have taken measure of my life at different points by paying attention to what my heroes, and at what age they did it. Calvin wrote the Institutes at 26. Martin Luther King Jr. led the bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama when he was 26. He died when he was 39. Luther was almost 34 when he nailed the 99 Theses to the Wittenburg Door. I look at these accomplishments, and I ask myself, what have I done to make an impact like that? What should I have done to make my impact on the world?

I have a friend and ministerial colleague named Mike. We were born the same month. Ten years ago we were sitting in coffee shops planning a youth mission trip to Gulfport, MS. He was recently divorced, and serving as an Mission Coach for our denomination (think D.S. in Methodist life). He brought on another person onto our leadership team, and they began to fall in love and get married. His kids were just finishing up high school. Hard to believe that was 10 years ago. I think, by the time he was my age, he was an area minister, and I am still struggling to get people to show up on Sunday to a dying church in a dying town in the middle of the plains, and I have not made nearly enough progress in turning it around.

Then I think, if I was somewhere else, I would not be having my 3 year old running to me in the morning, giggling about her "wild rides", and chattering to me about nothing at all. If I was climbing and striving for something else, I might have missed these moments, even if I was present for them.

And so, in my heart and mind, a battle is waged. A battle between the husband and father that wants to be present for his wife children in way that leaves a meaningful legacy for them, and a driven man and pastor that feels like he is running behind in making his meaningful mark in the world. 

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Quotes from Called by Labberton

"What we believe matters, but it is evident by how we live." p. 70

"We are not saved by our actions, but  we are saved for our actions, to become those that make God's life in Jesus Christ visible." p. 71

"When seeking to hear God's call, we can't serpate the inner from the outer life" p. 74

Book Review of Called by Mark Labberton

Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Christ Today
by Mark Labberton
ISBN 978-0-8308-3683-3
IVP Books
Reviewed by Clint Walker

A few years ago, I went to a conference on missional church development. While I was at that conference, Mark Labberton spoke. I had heard about a few of his books, bought one, but had not read any of them. As he kicked off the conference, I was impressed with his thoughtfulness and depth. I was also impressed that when I briefly approached him in order to get information about a citation he made during the presentation, he took interest in my life and ministry. He seemed to truly have a pastor's heart, even though he had been elevated to a minor Christian celebrity by taking the helm of one of the most influential seminaries in the world. And so, as I left the conference, wanting to learn more from Dr. Labberton, so I bought this book IVP was aggressively marketing entitled Called. I was not disappointed.

As I read through this book, I was impressed, moved, and challenged. Although I have lived out my sense of call to vocational ministry for a few decades now, I was challenged to revisit what it means to be called by Jesus as his servant. I was also encouraged to prayerfully reconsider how I was living out my call, and begin to refocus.

This book, however, is not just for helping pastors refine and understand a call to full-time church work. Called is a battle cry to each and every believer to realize that they are called by Jesus, and to begin to actively and uniquely live out their faith as their authentic selves in the place where God has planted them.

Labberton addresses the phenomenon of being called by Jesus from a number of different perspectives. First, he spends some time teaching about ways that all believers are called by Christ. We are called to follow and obey Jesus if we call ourselves Christians for example.

Next, we examine the contour of what being called to follow Jesus looks like. It requires, we are taught, a different way of looking at the world and looking at our lives. We are also taught that if we embrace the call of Christ we need to be prepared to identify with the marginalized and suffer ourselves, among other things.

In the final chapter, Labberton encourages his readers to use some helpful tools to put some more specificity on what God may be calling individual disciples to do, and who he may be calling them to become.

This is a book I am going to put on my "active reading" shelf, and come back to over and over again. Called is a book that has the potential to revitalize and refocus one's vision for ministry.