Power and Authority … God’s Way

Posted by on January 31, 2010 under Sermons

What do you expect from your elders? What do you want them to do?

What do we expect of our shepherds? What do we expect of overseers? A simple answer might be “leadership.” But leadership is a general term. Leadership has common traits, but it functions differently in business than it does in government. It functions differently in a family than it does in a committee.

For our purposes, let’s ask the following: Who is being led? What are we being led to? What sort of authority do leaders have? Is it legal, is it official, what is it?

Mark 10:35-45 – Observations:

  • What do James and John expect? James and John have nothing but respect for Jesus’ authority. They have all faith that Jesus has authority, but they also expect that that authority will benefit them.
  • For James and John, authority grants favors and hands out power and title. James and John want Jesus to respond to their interests. They have defined the authority to suit their ambitions and goals.
  • Jesus says that the rulers of the Gentiles “lord it over” their people. Ultimate authority and autocratic power was the norm in many of the pagan cultures. Rome had a military, positional power structure. The emperor was given the title of “first-citizen” and “magnificent.”

  • Jesus says “Not so with you.” Notice this! Jesus departs from the ways of the world. He sets aside aspirations and expectations of other power structures. Executive, positional, even representational power structures are not appropriate. In God’s family there is a different type of power and authority.
  • The first and greatest is the servant of all.
  • This is the model of power and authority that the Son of Man modeled. He did not come to be served, but to serve. And it is a sacrificial service, not just PR.
  • Read Mark 10:46-52. Notice that Jesus asks Bartimaeus the same question he asked James and John. “What do you want me to do for you?” The Sons of Thunder asked Jesus to “Lord it Over” them and to help them “Lord It Over” others. Bartimaeus asks for mercy. He wants to see. He seeks the Son of Man who serves others.

Do You Understand What Jesus Is Teaching Us?

  • We can make the same mistake that James and John did; we will if we default to the worldly models about power and authority. Our problem is not that we Lord it over one another, sometimes we want others to Lord it over us. That doesn’t mean we want to do what they say, it’s just easier to regard the elders and supreme authorities so that we can justify rebellion or discontent. When those ideas about power and authority get into our thinking listen to Jesus saying, “Not so with you!”

  • This may explain why it is possible to make leadership a burden rather the sort of joy it can be (1 Peter 5 and Hebrews 13:17). Over the years I have spoken to burned out elders. What burned them out was the unreasonable demands of sheep who refused to grow. What sort of concept of power and authority did they have?

  • What we expect of our elders depends on what sort of sheep we want to be. If we are independent sheep then we need a shepherd who sits on a board of trustees. A group that we can influence to give us positions on the right or the left. With that sort of thinking we may even try to balance the eldership so that we have an equal set of liberals and conservatives. We may want to control to the number who serve so that we do not upset the balance of power. Can you hear Jesus – “The rulers of the land Lord it over one another, and the people Lord it over them, NOT SO WITH YOU!”

  • What do you expect of your leaders? What do you want for your shepherds?

A few years ago the elders asked “What do you expect us?” I can recall an answer that one of you gave: “I want you to come pray for me like you did with John Carson.”

When we say that this is what we want our elders to do, then we are looking for spiritual leaders – not trustees of an institution. Shepherds who care for the flock, overseers who are stewards of God’s household – the spiritual household, not the bricks and beams.

What happens next …

Our elders are talking to men that you have named. Those men are counting the cost and seeking wisdom. This is a special process of growth. In time the names of those men will be submitted to you for your support. That is a humbling thing. They will be putting themselves before us and asking from feedback. What a challenging and delicate thing that is.

Our current elders are leading us through this. They are relying on God’s wisdom and Spirit.

We Want Guests – But Not That Way!

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A couple of weeks ago, a thief “visited” a part of our facilities. He/she used a tool to gain access in the dark, and this person or persons produced an inconvenient mess. While we delight in having visitors, this is not the kind of visit we have in mind.

However, this type of visit teaches us some valuable lessons of the proper kind. Be careful to learn the lessons that encourage God’s purposes, not our anger and resentment.

First, no one needs awareness, repentance, forgiveness, and spirituality more than does this person or persons. Hopefully, there are matters that you know and understand that he/she does not know or understand. May the knowledge and understanding of the Christian be transferred, not the damage/hurt of the thief/thieves.

Second, one who would steal does not think or see as does the person in Christ. It was interesting to listen to the comments of Christians. It was quite obvious that Christians do not have the perspective of those who would be thieves. Those in Christ simply do not think like those not in Christ. One of the blessings/benefits of being in Christ is the transformation that leaves the old way of thinking behind.

Third, those in Christ simply do not attach the significance to things (or to self) as do those out of Christ. In Christ, one learns and understands that a love of things and selfishness results in consequences that extract terrible prices. The slavery of materialism and selfishness is a horrible form of slavery that focuses only on the temporary.

Fourth, Christianity constantly asks you, “Who do you genuinely wish to be as a person?” May none of us ever reduce “who we are” to “what we possess.” What is valuable at the moment may later become our curse. Do not let what you have be your curse. The person who steals loses more than he or she takes. The one who “takes” from others (by deception, force, or being sneaky) loses self. What are you worth to you?

Portrait of a Shepherd

Posted by on January 24, 2010 under Sermons

painting c1665 by Johannes Vermeerpaint-by-number of Vermeer paintingThe church has been given a resource of wisdom with the two descriptions of church leaders in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3. While these are by no means the only Scriptures important to understanding church leadership, they do stand out. It is as if we move from a general description of leadership to a portrait. This is no color-by-number pattern, Paul paints with a full blended pallet with tints and shades to describe to his student ministers what sort of leadership growing, healthy congregations need. His art also tells a story as he explains why each bright virtue matters not only for one generation, but those to come.

Unfortunately, we have abused these portraits. We have not appreciated them as they deserve. We have turned the wisdom from an apostle into a legalistic list. We have kept good men who match the portrait from serving because of arguments over the strictest interpretations. The result often being that good men who match the portrait step aside peacefully to avoid causing trouble. We have not paid attention to the artist’s other works (2 Corinthians 3:6), he teaches us to take in the Spirit of the word which is living, active and transforming. Rather we have focused on the letter of the law which kills. We have processed these portraits into a sort of case law that we use to veto the appointment of elders. We have used them as the means to filibuster instead of addressing what is sometimes the real issue: conflict and reconciliation. Instead of taking in the rich color and connected texture of the portraits, we have flattened and dulled them into a set of disconnected issues. Doing so allows us to attach our own agendas and anxieties to the Scripture in order to nervously control power and authority.

Mission Illustration

Would we do that? Unfortunately we have. I am not saying that any of us necessarily want to, but we all know how it has been done – and perhaps we’ve done nothing about it. I have heard that some men who were obvious leaders were kept from serving (or kept themselves from serving) because they only had one child. Why is that an issue? Because the Scripture says “children” which is plural. That sort of reading ignores the intent and meaning in favor of a grammar. Likewise, we have avoided understanding what is meant by the phrase “one woman man.” I will admit that it isn’t easy, but too often we have made it far too simple and we have ignored the variety of circumstances (death, divorce, polygamy, infidelity) that this text could be referring to. But the real question is, “Why does it matter that he is a one-woman man in the first place?” Our problem isn’t that we have wrestled with this text, we haven’t wrestled enough with it. Scripture is never static or stale. It is always challenging us to grow even as our culture changes around us.

So what are the better ways to appreciate these portraits? How shall we read these texts? Why were they written in the first place and what do they mean? The portrait is a portrait of three things …

  • Stewards of God’s House – The structure of God’s church is organic. It is not mechanical or architectural. The church is not a set of building blocks or an engine. It is a living thing. It grows through nurture. The steward nurtures this house. He nurtures it with healthy teaching …

  • Living Curriculum (Virtues) – The portrait is an image of what the healthy teaching looks like in one’s life. It is not data or code or law, it is practice. Studying for a driver’s license and passing a test is not the same thing as driving. Good drivers have good habits.

  • Model the Faith (Reputation and Character) – thus the family details, The Devil’s Trap – Wisdom and maturity are needed – To Save a Life – Reminder that hypocrisy keeps people from God. Those who claim to be Christians but do not practice the truth or take it very lightly keep others from accepting the faith.

The Portraits are Mirrors – We are all held to this standardRockwell self-portrait

When we look at the portraits, do we see how they become a mirror, or a mold? We are all being called to fit this description. We are not exempt from being blameless or living right within our family. We are not exempt from being hospitable or setting an example. We are not exempt from being morally upright and peaceable.

These portraits were not just painted for leaders. They were painted for all of us to show us how to live. Do not distance yourself from these virtues. Don’t stop at looking for them in others, but seek to find them in yourself. Pray for God’s Spirit to work in you to make you righteous.

The Powerful Spirit That Triumphs!

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In the fifty plus years I have worked with congregations, one question plagued me in every congregation: “What can we do?” Needs and opportunities always are greater than resources. More money is needed. More room is needed. More parking spaces are needed. More teaching materials are needed. More teachers are needed. More ministries are needed. More outreach is needed. More volunteers are needed. More involvement is needed. More leadership is needed. It never ends! Always more is needed!

I used to think that “if we could just obtain that (or be able to do that)” everything would be okay. However, what I thought was the key only promoted more growth (a good thing) that generated new stress produced by new needs and opportunities.

Last week a conflict arose, quietly was resolved, and passed with few noticing. Two ministries that are growing and serving urgent needs planned to use the same space at the same time. Thankfully, it was discovered that two good works were on a head-on collision. One ministry devised and used an alternate plan that enabled both ministries to meet and serve the needs of both groups. This was done so quietly that most thought it was planned to happen as it did.

Why? Why was there no uproar, no hurt feelings, no confrontation, or no accusations that “our ministry is more important than yours”? Love said both ministries are equally important. Love said, “Let’s make it work.” Love said, “Our ministries are not in competition-each serves the over-all objective of helping people.”

Will we-even with good intentions-always avoid internal conflicts? No! Even with our best efforts and best coordination, there will be times when collisions occur. We will never demonstrate how much we love each other in moments when all is well AS we demonstrate in moments of potential crisis. It is in the potential crisis “that never existed” that it becomes obvious how much we love each other! May love for each other and Jesus Christ always reign among us! May our love declare, “We belong to Jesus!”

Healthy Teaching, Godly Living

Posted by on January 17, 2010 under Sermons

Titus’ Charge on Crete

  1. Troublemakers in the church are causing division.
  2. Paul left Titus on Crete to straighten out what was unfinished.

Titus’ Unfinished Business

  1. Appoint elders in every town.
  2. Someone who is blameless.
  3. An overseer must be blameless as the steward of “God’s house.”

A Good Grasp on the Gospel

  1. So he will be able to encourage others with healthy teaching.
  2. So he will be able to convince antagonists.

God’s Household: Chapter 2

Steward of God’s House

    1:7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach.

Godly Living

  1. Avoid controversies, arguments, and quarrels (humility and gentleness)
  2. Avoid foolish desires (grace and righteousness)
  3. Doing good for others

least effective: arguing/debating

most effective: teaching/influencing

Why Do We Select Elders?

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Why are we selecting elders? More to the point – how does that process make us feel? Excited, worried, relieved, hopeful, or skeptical? How we answer may depend on what concepts of leadership we attach to church leadership.

Secular Concepts of Power and Authority:

  1. Government [The Official] – I can recall as a young man attending the congregation at Winslow [Arkansas] that there was a hope that one day we would appoint elders. I remember that the attitude was that we were somehow incomplete without elders. As if we were building a house and the roof had not been shingled or the walls had not been painted. Once we “installed” our elders, then the project would be finished. But we always had leadership and spiritual counsel despite not having elders. I have since come to realize that this concept was the Government Official way of looking at elders and deacons. Like the U.S. Constitution, the Bible specified certain qualifications of officers. And our government, or church, was incomplete without delegates to fill the role. Who was less important than what.

  2. Democratic [The Representative] – Of course this is logically associated with another concept. That of the representative who reflects your positions. I am glad that we live in a nation where the people bear the ultimate responsibility for leadership. I think it’s a good system even if it isn’t perfect. However, that representative form of leadership isn’t always a fair comparison to the way leadership functions among God’s people. Why?
    1. God’s people are ruled by a King. Christ is Lord.
    2. Leadership in our nation provides a place and an opportunity to live, in the church we are being led in how to live. The goal is different. God’s leaders in any nation have the same goal, to shepherd the flock and to provide the healthy teaching that enables the body to grow in godliness.
    3. We want leaders who teach us how to live (not just someone who represents my views).
    4. There are no parties among the elders. (In their Covenant of Conduct, the elders have addressed this. Unlike the board of directors of our city, there is no report on the vote. Why? Because the elders are unified and they want us to be as well.)
  3. Ranks and Slots – I remember my father telling about the different ranks he held in the military. I was surprised to learn that the achievement of rank was not simply meritorious, though that had something to do with it. In my young man’s view of the world, I wanted to know how he would move all the way to the top (because I knew he could be a general) but he tried his best to explain to me that it was more about a slot opening up and then there would be a selection. We are not concerned about filling empty slots on the elder roster. We are not looking to replace soon-to-be-retired shepherds. In the Lord’s church there are as many leaders as needed. 4 or 40. 3 or 333. Just as the church has no finite size, there is no finite size to the group that we call “the eldership.”
    • The dynamics of how they work together might change if we had 15 versus 75. But the principles and core agreements on what it means to co-lead with the function described in Scripture does not change. (See the covenant)
  4. Customer Service – Who we go to when we are unhappy and dissatisfied – The complaint department. Honestly, this is one of the reasons why many men and their families do not want to serve as shepherds. The role of shepherding becomes a burden rather than a joy. This isn’t to say that we cannot go to our leaders and share our concerns and tell them how our hearts break and how our souls hurt. Doing so might lead to change and it could enable the shepherds to understand how they should lead. But when we expect that our concerns should determine the leadership of the elders and the direction of the church, then we have mistaken the shepherds for customer service agents. The goal of a customer service department is to keep customers satisfied and apologize for the discomfort of customers. But shepherds might respond with comfort or challenge – maybe both – which leads us closer to God.

  5. Educational – Someone who has all the answers to the most difficult Bible questions like “Where did Cain get his wife?” or “Can you have a kitchen in the church building?” Intelligence and information are good. They are much better than ignorance. But there is another capacity called wisdom that is important in the Lord’s household.
    • Arran Fernandez is on his way to being the youngest student admitted to Cambridge in 237 years. He is just 14, and the brilliant young man is a whiz at math. He could probably outdo all of us. I love it that he has a goal to be a research mathematician and says his ambition is to find a solution to the Riemann hypothesis – the unsolved theory about the patterns of prime numbers that has baffled mathematicians for 150 years. I hope he does it. But who is going to teach me how to be a better father and husband? Who will teach me how to preach and lead? I need more than data and prodigies. I need wisdom – a function of experience, maturity and the spirit of God.

The original question was why are we selecting elders? A Biblical Alternative: How does the church find its leaders? What are those leaders for? (Their function …)

  1. Recognizing spiritual leaders in a group is a normal sign of growth.

    Read Acts 6:1-7 – There was a need in the growing church. The church had become more diverse and they were meeting the needs of more people. The Twelve were responsible for the distribution of food, but they were also especially responsible for the ministry of the Word and prayer. Instead of holding all that authority, they shared it. And once again the church, even this diverse church that was made up of different cultures, attitudes, and troubled with a little bit of conflict – even this church became the instrument that God used to call out leaders for the needs of the church.

    And the church was blessed again: The proposal to add seven new leaders to serve in the distribution of food pleased the whole group. Conflict gave way to agreement in the Holy Spirit. Notice the conclusion of the episode: “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.” The word of God spread because leadership was shared.

    In Paul’s letter to Titus, he encourages Titus to seek out and recognize godly leaders so that the congregation may grow in godliness. Not so he can complete his work and finish the project by installing a set of elders. The work of God’s Spirit in a community is to always recognize those people who live out healthy teaching so that they can mentor and nurture others to do the same. [Older men, younger men; older women, younger women.]

  2. The church is the instrument that God uses to call leaders for the needs of the church.

    God does not have to use the church, but his Spirit works through the community of faith in a graciously cooperative way to meet the needs of the people, not only by providing them leaders but by providing them the opportunity to call out and recognize those leaders. In this way all the church, not just those named leaders, become keenly aware of how God has gifted and equipped the church to participate in life together and in His mission.

    In Acts 6 the church is not so arrogant or dull to assume that naming leaders is nothing more than an administrative task. They believe that the activity of God and the Spirit of Christ is directing the choice.

    The whole body has a sort of “oversight” when it comes to “scoping out” overseers. When the Twelve tell the church to “seek out” seven leaders, the word for “seek out/choose” is taken from the same root word that gives us the word for overseers/bishops. To “scope out” means to concern oneself with something. It means watching out for something. In this case, the church is watching out for those who can “lead for the need.”

    Leadership responds to the needs of God’s people for guidance and service. The choosing of leaders is not an effort to give someone a place of prominence. It is an effort to provide leaders who can serve the needs of the church and steward the church’s mission.

    Acts 1 and Acts 6 describe the recognition of different types of leaders, and Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3 also describe the selection of types of leaders. But one thing is common: all of these leaders are not merely filling a slot; they serve a function in the life of the Christian community so that the church may grow in Christ and go forward in the mission.

  3. Leadership in the church is functional, not official.

    Leadership arises from the community’s quite mundane but utterly necessary needs. The function of elders is to teach us how to live. They are models of the Christian life.

    Serving as an elder is not filling an office. It isn’t a seat on a board of directors. The elder has an important function in the life of the church. In 1 Timothy 3, Paul describes the work of overseeing as a noble work. It is work that is good for the church.

  4. Leadership in the body of Christ is shared.

    Church leaders are empowered by the Spirit. Notice that one of the criteria for choosing the seven in Acts 6 is to find men who were full of the Holy Spirit. This phrase acknowledges that God’s Spirit is what leads and empowers the church to participate faithfully in the mission of God. Leaders who are not saturated with the Spirit will have their own agenda, or they may worry that the burden of leadership is all on their shoulders. But a leader filled with the Holy Spirit understands that Christ is the Chief Shepherd and the burden of leadership is shared with other leaders in harmony with the Spirit of Christ.

How all of these principles shape our current process …

  1. We are confident that the West-Ark congregation is capable of being the instrument that God uses to identify and recognize men of Christ-like character and filled with a godly spirit. As sheep, we recognize our shepherds.
  2. So, the initial phase of this process (January 17 to January 24) involves every baptized member of this congregation. We want each of you to take a nomination form and write the names of the men who you regard to be shepherds.
  3. What we are asking you to do is to name those men who you consider a shepherd and who you would recommend to the rest of the congregation as shepherds.
    • Don’t worry whether anyone else names the same men you do.
    • Don’t think you shouldn’t name someone if someone else has already named them.
    • Don’t think you shouldn’t name someone if no one else names them.
    • We ask you to reflect your own convictions after prayer and study.
    • Who are your shepherds? Where’s your “Eldo”?
    • This is neither a popular vote nor a simple nomination for office. Those men that many of you regard as a shepherd, indicate something that our current elders will certainly consider. The process doesn’t end with this nomination, it just begins.
  4. Since we are convinced that God’s Spirit is working through this entire process, we ask you to give this serious and prayerful consideration.
    • You really need more to go on than just choosing someone because he will be “your man in office” or because you think he’s a cool guy or you want to balance power because you know who your friend is nominating and you think you know how that will effect the church.
    • Those are trivial and faithless approaches to searching out shepherds. We can do better than that. God’s in control and let’s open ourselves to His will.
    • We want you to sign the form so that we know that we are getting a real response. No one is going to chastise you for what you put on that form. And no one is going to see it except for the few of us who are tabulating this. No one is interested in who you do or do not choose. Because all we are asking you to do is name the men who lead you spiritually – right now. You can name your shepherds.
  5. After January 24th when all the forms are submitted, the current elders will shepherd the top nominees. They will approach them and discuss their interest in serving as elders. (Of course that doesn’t prevent you from encouraging the men you want to name; you may do so.) Now, as the current elders work with these men who’ve been named, they will be equipped by the “response” you have given them. Remember, the current elders are also God’s instrument in this process. They are working cooperatively with the flock.
  6. So, your first task is to pray, study, and recommend those you recognize as good shepherds. Fill out the form, sign it, and get it into the drop boxes before the end of the day on January 24. This is our opportunity to be a part of what God is doing to provide leadership for His people. This is how we ought to live our lives and our life together – as though God is always working.

“Wish I Could Have Been Abraham!” — Really?

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Abraham performed some of the most astounding acts of obedience that occurred in scripture! Yet, scripture does not use Abraham as an outstanding example of obedience, but as an exceptional example of faith.

“Oh, I wish I could be Abraham!” Really? “Yes!” Do you mean you wish you had what Abraham had materially, or do you mean you wish you could develop the faith that led Abraham to do what he did?

Do you mean you wish you could leave your homeland and your family, recover from mistakes, make huge material sacrifices for a self-centered nephew, tell your son (Ishmael) good-bye, knowingly be prepared to kill your son whom God promised (Isaac), and have serious conflict with your spouse?

Abraham had an astounding faith in God which resulted in astounding obedience. However, without that remarkable faith there could not have been the remarkable obedience. Because he had that faith, he simply did what naturally expressed his trust in God. His faith demonstrated itself through his obedience. As James said:
“You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected (completed) …” James 2:22, NASV

Walking with God in genuine trust commonly requires great costs. Spiritual maturity is neither simple nor easy. No matter what we do as Christians, salvation always will be a product of God’s mercy and grace. Never will it be a matter of what we have done for God, but what God did for us in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Grace for All Ages

Posted by on January 10, 2010 under Sermons

You must teach what is clearly healthy teaching. Teach the older men to always be thoughtful, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and healthy in faith, in love and in patience. Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach by setting a good example. Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be responsible with matters in the home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will criticize the word of God.

“Dear Titus …”

  • Paul released from prison (63 A.D.). Visits mission sites.
  • Later writes to Titus who is on Crete.

Why did Paul Write?

  • 1:5 – Two Things Titus should be doing. The reason Titus was left on Crete
  • 1:10-16 – Troublemakers on Crete
  • 3:12-15 – Titus has “until winter.” Then he must leave. Limited Time!

What will become of the church on Crete? Who will lead them?

Sound Doctrine = Healthy Teaching.

What is the function of elders? Character and virtues are listed, but why are these mentioned? Consider the function and role of elders/bishops/shepherds – they teach us how to live. It is incarnational.

I remember my Grandma Curtis …

    – Zatha Mae Blumenberg from MN. Moved to WF as a teen. She was Cuckoo Grandma. Because of the clock. Her little house with little rooms on a corner of two little streets. The little kitchen, so narrow. It was like an afterthought and there was a step down into it.
    – PB cookies in the glass decanter with the fork marks on top. Tab Soda beneath the sink. She had an old phone on the sitting room desk, and a little metal calendar that the date changed when you flipped it over. In the back yard was the little seat for the frogs. And the Cuckoo clock. To see the bird come out was a big event.
    – The quilting bee. Saved fabric scraps. All were there – aunts, cousins, mom.
    – A strong woman in difficult times. Depression – the grape foam, the water that had been saved. Family crises – she was an anchor. Her own father deserted her and her family. She was the heart of her own family – this little woman with German parents. She was a poet. Her boys were overseas in the war and she expressed her fears and feelings in a poem my mom has. My mother admired her.
    – She gave every granddaughter a quilt that she had made in the last two years of her life. Things in her modest little house were labeled for after her death. She knew there would be arguing over her things, but she refused to let it tear her family up.
    – My first hospital visit. She was dying. She convinced me everything was okay. As though she were not sick. She was “reverent in the way she lived,” even as she died.

These people were teachers, but also lessons. Older men and women who modeled healthy, godly teaching for the younger men and women they knew.

Living Curriculum:
– Paul’s advice to Timothy on Crete: Forget the debates, don’t get anxious and worried.
– Don’t suppose that you have to have better, snappier curriculum than your opponents. Develop a living curriculum!

  1. Older men who model the healthy teaching
  2. Older women who model the healthy teaching and are not given to vices that create stereotypes.
  3. These will mold and shape the generation of younger men and women.
  4. You also, set a good example for them all, but especially the younger men.
  5. Everyone, even the household servant, ought to live out the grace of God in healthy, holy ways – and the Way of God will be catch people’s attention

Grace for All Ages, Genders, Classes:
– Why? Why do it like this? Wouldn’t it be better to develop a formula for salvation? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to create a code of behavior? [It’s interesting that one of the earliest extra-biblical documents, the Didache, is not canonized]
– We are not called to be rule-keepers. We are called “to live sensibly, righteously, and godly in this present age.” (2:12)
– Lists of rules can change from generation to generation. They change with styles and cultures. They are not absolute. Smoking has been taboo in the south, but you say not a word against it in Kentucky churches! As a teen I heard sermons and lessons against dancing, but these lessons were written for a generation before me. Lessons spoke of “what dancing led to” – and I often pointed out that there’s no more “leading to.” My generation skipped dancing and started with “the what it leads to.”
– Rules and lessons can become outdated or inappropriate in some circumstances – but self-control, righteousness, and godliness are always appropriate!
Why? Because they spring from the transforming message of the gospel of Christ. His sacrifice and his expected return (Read 2:11-14)
– Whether we are young or not so young, whether we are men or women, whether we are rich and independent or poor and indebted. No exceptions! All of us are called to demonstrate the power of God to change lives in ways that fit our role and situation.
– That takes more than rules it takes character. And the gospel of Grace, the healthy teaching, produces healthy lives.

Who’s the Living Lesson that you remember. Who’s the Living Lesson you see?

  1. Look at them and ask, how does the grace of God makes them “zealous for good works?”
    – Older men, older women – don’t retire from faith! Serve us!
    – Younger women, learn from the older women – learn to love your family!
    – Younger men, let’s be wise, let’s start living for more than just looking forward to cashing in our investments!
  2. Then ask, how does it train me to be like them. How can I follow them as they follow Christ?
  3. Let God shape you into a living lesson for this present age.

First Things First

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Intro: “Start your new year right. Get a turkey for $26.95.” I didn’t know that a good start to a new year was as simple as an affordable turkey. I didn’t know it was that easy. But I believe that an affordable turkey, as good and as tasty as that may be, just isn’t the universal key to starting off the year right. Surely there are some things that are more important.

In the opening weeks of 2010, you and I are going to be presented with options and offers that will start our year out right. It may be any number of things focused on our health, our weight, our mental attitude, our relationships, our finances, our entertainment. Many of these will be fine offers and generally good. They may connect to some important things in our life, but some of them are just turkeys, because they are not really the “First Things” that matter the most.

What is the secret to understanding what is first? It seems like the urgent or the prominent push aside the important. Jesus was once asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” It was a test, and not a bad one. His answer would reveal what he consider to be of first importance:

Matthew 22:34-40 – Two greatest commandments: God and Others. Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19
It really is this simple to identify the first things. Putting the first things first however, can be more challenging …

  1. The Challenge of Balance – The call to love God is total. Love God with all of our heart, soul, strength, and mind. There is no part of who we are that is left out. In fact, our social network is included. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. So even in our relationships with others at every level, we are to love.
    • We can become unbalanced and that keeps us from putting first things first:
    • Suppose I give my whole heart to God and my soul seeks to magnify him. I may really do that and yet if I have not put first things first in my mind I may give in to worry and self-doubt or depression.
    • Suppose I give my mind to reflecting on God and I meditate daily on his teachings and spend time in prayer. I may really do that but if in my heart I have not put first things first, then my emotions and my passions may be my own rather than God’s.
    • Suppose that in my heart and mind both, and even in my soul, God and the things of God are first, but my strength – my time, energy, and resources, are not sold out to God. I am unbalanced in putting first things first.
    • Here’s the good news – God is one, and he can balance us and we can be one in putting first things first.
  2. The Challenge of the Urgent – The greatest commandment begins with a call to listen. We are distracted by many things. The urgent things in our world demand our attention. They are not bad things, they may even be very good things, but are they FIRST THINGS?
    • When Jesus instructs us to love the Lord our God with all of heart, soul, strength, and mind I do not see much mention of stuff.
    • This is the most difficult time to focus on resolutions and new beginnings because the urgent wants us to look back. We have to go back through receipts from 2009, we will spend hours, maybe days and weeks just trying to wrap up last year and then we will find that this year is nearly a quarter gone!
    • Urgent things may or may not be important. They may be idle, worthless, or ensnaring distractions. Or they may be important things that are indeed vital, but they should not be first.
    • There are urgent things that do matter – Our finances, our work, our health to name some of the most common. Notice that these are not specifically mentioned – rather all that is mentioned is our heart, soul, strength, and mind.
    • We ought to give thanks for our means and be faithful in how we use our wealth no matter how much or how little we have. But it is not a first thing. If we put it first, God will not follow it, but it will follow God.
    • We ought to give thanks for our work if we have work to do – employed or not. We can seek out work, change careers, but this is not a first thing. If we put it first, God will not follow it, but it will follow God.
    • We ought to give thanks for our health, however much we have. We ought to pray if we are sick. We love God with all of our strength, but the commandment never promises how much we will have. If we put health first, God will not follow it, but it will follow God.

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. – Matthew 6:33-34

Putting Second Things Second …
The second greatest commandment is like the first: Love your neighbor as yourself. Our family, friends, church, can be a source of great strength, but they can also be the center of distress. We still have to put first things first. We can love others in ways that may seem right, but they can be unhealthy. If we love God first, then we begin to regard others as God does. We notice them as men and women made in his image. His children that he loves. It allows us to see how we might love others appropriately and how we might be loved by others.

A truthful community that strives to put God first is vital to putting God first. If we do put first things first, then second things will be put second – not third and fourth. I can love God with all my heart soul strength and mind, but that teaches me to love others.

You cannot master this in a 20 minute time frame. This is the beginning of a journey. Who travels with you?01.10.10 is a good day to put first things first. Just as 01.11.10 will be and so will 10.10.10. Or any other day at all, because if the First Things are First in our life, all the other things follow – I didn’t say that would just magically be taken care of, I mean that they will follow.

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. – Matthew 6:33-34

No Condemnation – Seriously!

Posted by on January 3, 2010 under Sermons

(Reference comics and editorials about 2009 ending.)

I feel as though 2009 has been condemned. Like a broken down building with a huge warning sign on it. Like a cabinet of tainted food. Condemned.

It’s ironic that the media should condemn 2009. They were the chroniclers of the so-called disaster and seemed to emphasis the severity of problems. Odd now that they should look back with such condemnation.

Was this year really more horrible than previous years? For some it may have been. For others, maybe not. Economically we’ve been better, but it wasn’t as if we all should have been surprised by it. You have to pay the piper. But economics isn’t everything.

For our congregation, there have been blessings. [We have added to the staff – Youth Minister, Children’s Minister, Interns: These are signs of healthy growth. 15 families, that’s 43 people – placed membership, 11 baptisms – thank God for this.] And yet, we’ve had our challenges too. But to jump to condemnation of the whole year because of challenges and troubles? Why would we do this?

It reminds me of the old story about a man who ran a filling station at the edge of town. People moving into that town would ask the man, “We’re settling into the city. Can you tell us what it is like?” And the man would reply, “Moving eh? Moving from where? What was it like where you came from?” And to those people who said, “We are coming from one of the worst cities. Unfriendly, rude people live there. Everything about the city is so frustrating. Nothing ever goes right. The leadership of the city are inept.” The man would reply, “Yeah, well that’s pretty much what you are going to find in this city ahead of you.” And to those people who said, “We are coming from one of the best cities. Friendly, decent people live there. There’s always something good going on. The leadership of the city is hard working, not perfect, but they have good hearts.” The man would reply to them, “Yeah, well that’s pretty much what you are going to find in this city ahead of you.”

I wonder how those who have condemned the year past can really have a sense of hope about the coming year. One writer said, “It can’t get worse.” Well, I don’t think he’s trying hard enough.

What 2010 will be for you, what it will be for us, will depend on what we do with the spirit of condemnation. What we do with condemnation all depends on whether or not we are in Christ.

Read Romans 8:1.

Can I say again what this text says so plainly: “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” I need to say this again, we need to speak it to one another because as soon as I say this, some of you will say to yourselves, some of you will hear from others, or some spirit of guilt and cynicism will say, “Well that’s all true, but then there’s this …” We will make some exception: No condemnation – except me. We have been set free in Christ, but we return to being shackled and enslaved. That’s the spirit of condemnation and guilt. That’s the voice and the work of the accuser.

Some resist this pronouncement of God’s graciousness and freedom. The concern is that people will take advantage of it and do whatever they want. We cannot control people, and the solution is never to limit God’s grace.

God did not set us free just so we could do whatever we want. He freed us from sin and condemnation because sin is not our master. And yet, there’s another way that we run back into slavery. We worry that God’s grace isn’t enough. We shackle ourselves to sin through our worry, our regret, and our failures. We keep digging up the past and trying to resurrect what God has put to death. Instead of living like saved people we worry whether we are saved.

We need to hear and proclaim that there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus because the enemy is tricky. The enemy will accept slavery on any terms. If our self-indulgence and self-gratification enslaves us, that’s fine with the enemy. If our self-doubt and self-incrimination enslaves us, then that’s fine with the enemy. You will find that the enemy accepts any terms that lead to our condemnation.

But there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ! Are you in Christ? Then you are not condemned. Your time, your gifts, your life is not condemned. It is redeemed. If we are in Christ Jesus, then our fellowship, our congregation is not condemned – and there should not be condemnation if the spirit of Jesus rules. Rather we live and sing the song of the redeemed.

So What?

  1. Stop carrying the old junk around. Accept the new life God gives you.
  2. Put First Things First. (More on that next week.)