Let Us Tell The Story


Here are my thoughts for this Sunday, 26 February, Transfiguration Sunday.

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If it has not been evident by my past writings and statements, let me state it now that I am not all that crazy about “seeker-sensitive services”, “megachurches”, or the current trend towards “a prosperity gospel.” I do not see how we can serve the Lord or advance the Gospel message when we concentrate on removing all signs of Christ in our churches or we seek to bring people into church with the promise that there will be something at the church that they can do anytime they want to. Nor can we change the Gospel message from a promise of hope and redemption to one of reward for effort and virtue.

Yet, these are the things that we are doing in our churches today. We have removed the Cross and references to Christ from our services for fear of scaring away those who have never heard of Christ. We have modified our music to be more what the seekers are likely to hear during the week; we have modified our music to be more performance than participation. Again, all in the name of not wanting to scare off those who don’t know of Christ or the power that church hymns bring to the individual.

We use models of church growth based on the growth of megachurches where, as I understand it, the goal is to create “mini-churches” within the main body of the church. Each of these “mini-churches” is based on common interests of the members of the church. So it is possible to have a variety of social activities going on at the church, each in the name of bringing people closer to Christ. But the descriptions that I have heard make it sound more like a collection of social activities rather than a gathering for worship and prayer.

And the message that is broadcast through many of these churches is one that God will reward you for your efforts; God will reward you for leading a virtuous life. It is more “Christians are supposed to be wealthy and healthy; if you are not, then there is something wrong with you.”

We are reminded that this approach to the Gospel message was the impetus for John Wesley to rebel against the Church of England and its lack of consideration for the poor and downtrodden of 18th century England. We are reminded that Jesus began his ministry “in Nazareth, where He had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to preach good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to release the oppressed,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (1)

But this is not the message that most people hear in church today. As a result, as Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, “even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2)

Clarence Jordan, the noted Southern preacher “translated” that passage in Cotton Patch Gospels as (starting from verse 1), “So then, since God has shared this responsibility with us, we are not going to chicken out. And what’s more, we’re making a clean break with shameful secrets and with playing the imposter. Nor are we going to twist the Scriptures. On the contrary, by coming out plainly for the truth we lay ourselves, in God’s presence, squarely on the conscience of every man. So even though our good news is unclear, it is unclear only to those whose lives are falling apart at the seams. They have let the god of things blind their faithless minds so that the illumination of the glorious news of Christ, who is the very image of God, could not penetrate them.” (3)

Whether you read the version in the lectionary or Clarence Jordan’s translation, I think the answer is very clear. We cannot answer the questions asked by those who seek answers in ways that mirror the world around them. They, speaking of the seekers, are expecting those answers since their minds are still in the world around them, the god of this world as Paul writes or the god of things as Clarence Jordan writes.

Even the disciples were like these seekers of today. When Jesus took Peter, James and John with Him to the mountaintop and they saw Jesus received the blessing of God (4), Peter’s first reaction was to build a monument to the event. This would have been an act typical of the world in which they lived. Encounters with God always resulted in some sort of monument. But Jesus counseled the three not to do or say anything because it was not time. As the commentaries point out, the fulfillment of Jesus’ ministry would not be done until Jesus went to Calvary. To celebrate the Transfiguration as the fulfillment of the ministry would be an incomplete celebration.

But that is what many people do today; they celebrate the presence of Christ before the suffering because they do not want to hear about the suffering. They do not want to see the fulfillment of the Kingdom of Heaven as something that requires sacrifice and an event yet to come; in our modern day instantaneous society, what is happening now is more important that what may come. Do not speak of sacrifice or what is to come; tell me what I need to know now. And make it simple so that I do not have to think about it. All this does is create a new religion that though it calls itself Christian is a perversion of the true meaning.

What should we be seeking? As Elijah walked down the road and his meeting with God, Elisha ran after him, afraid of what is to come. Elisha expresses many of the fears of today’s seekers for his mentor and leader was about to leave him, putting the burden of the ministry and the prophecy on his (Elisha’s) shoulders.

Elisha’s cry was for a double share of Elijah’s spirit. In that society, the principle heir received a double portion of the father’s goods. Elisha wanted that concept to apply to the transfer of spirit as well. As the reading from the Old Testament (5) indicates there were many prophets who could have easily become Elijah’s successor. It can be assumed from what transpires in the later chapters of 2 Kings that Elisha’s request was not done out of pride but rather out of humility. He wanted to be the man of God who would follow Elijah’s model. His request indicated that it would take the God-given spiritual power that Elijah had received.

But the seekers of today, though grasping at the “cloak of Elijah”, are doing so out of pride rather than humility. How can they understand what Elisha wanted when they are being told only half of the story?

Our challenge today is not to fall into the trap that so many churches and pastors have fallen into; we cannot simplify the message when it means changing the message. We must tell the Gospel message and we must act out the Gospel message through our words, our deeds, and our lives.

It will be alright in this process to use new music but let the music hold the power of the Gospel; let the music express the power and glory of Christ, not simply chant a few verses that have no meaning or message. It is alright to change the way in which we worship; let us not change the power that can be expressed and felt in a genuine worship of our Lord and Savior.

Let us tell the message of the Gospel; let us offer words, deeds, and actions that tell the poor and downtrodden that they are not forgotten; let us offer words, deeds, and actions that tell the sick and dying that healing is coming; let us offer words, deeds, and actions that tell the prisoners of the world, those in prison, those oppressed, those in the jail of their mind, that freedom is near. Let us tell the world the story that brought us to this place; let us tell the Gospel message that there is hope and promise.

Luke 4: 15 – 19 (with the internal quote coming from Isaiah 61: 1 – 2)

  • 2 Corinthians 4: 3 – 4
  • 2 Corinthians 4: 1 – 4 (Cotton Patch Gospels by Clarence Jordan).
  • Mark 9: 2 – 9
  • 2 Kings 2: 1 – 12
  • What Will They See?


    It has long been noted that this country goes through stages of evangelical revivals.It would appear that this is one of those stages.This is a time of great questioning, brought about by the Indian Ocean tsunami, the hurricanes that ripped through the Gulf Coast of this country and the on-going war and terrorism that seems to be a daily occurrence.

    The people read the first part of Matthew 24: 6 (“You will hear of wars and rumors of wars”) and look around them.They hear the many preachers on television proclaiming God’s wrath will be directed towards those who have angered Him.They see the popularity of the Left Behind series and begin to think that this may be a good time to rethink one’s life.

    Of course, most people will not look at verses 4 and 5 (“For many will come in my name, claiming ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many.”)And in their fears, they will not read that Jesus closed verse 6 with “but see to it that you are not alarmed.”

    There is no doubt that many people today are looking for solace but the question must be, “will they find it in today’s church?”They see in many churches an exclusiveness which shuts them out; they see in many churches a hypocrisy that mirrors the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ time.How can they go to a church that claims to follow Jesus but walks in the footsteps of his persecutors and critics?

    The growth of megachurches today suggests that they have the answer.Clearly they are welcoming many of those called “seekers.”But are they providing the Gospel or just providing a social outlet for these individuals?People seek answers to questions they do not understand and they are willing to go wherever they can find those answers.So it is not likely that they will see that what these megachurches offer is not really what they are looking for.

    It is the same thing with the rise in what is called the “prosperity Gospel.”God shines his blessings on those that are righteous and lead the good life; it is clear that those who are poor or homeless must be sinners because God would never let a righteous individual be that way.It was this attitude that Jesus fought against in his mission through Galilee.It was this attitude that led John Wesley to begin the Methodist revival in the 1700’s.One’s life does not reflect sin nor do we always see the sin in one’s life.

    At some point, we must realize that the church today must offer that which people are really looking for, the hope and promise stated in the Gospel.Consider the Gospel reading for today. (1)  A paralyzed man wanted to get to Jesus because he had heard of Jesus’ healing powers but the crowds around the place where Jesus were so great that those bringing him could not get through.But this man’s desire to be near Jesus was so great that his friends took him to the top of the building and dug a hole through the roof so that they could lower him down.

    The challenge that churches today face is stated in the Old Testament reading for today. (2)  Speaking to the Israelites, Isaiah says to not remember the old things or consider the old things but remember that God was about to do something new.If the way we bring people into the church is to turn the church into a gigantic social club, then we are doing nothing new.If we hold to the old ways, insisting that the way things have always been done will work in the coming days then we are doing exactly what Isaiah said not to do.If we preach a version of the Gospel that blames sin for one’s social standing, then we haven’t learned anything from what the Bible says or what the church has done in the past.

    The paralyzed individual was lowered down to Jesus and Jesus commended him for his faith, telling him that his sins were forgiven.He also commanded him to pick up his mat and go home.The Pharisees could not accept this, for one’s sins dictated one’s health.Jesus offered a new world, a new way; one that the Pharisees could not see, understand or accept.

    There is no doubt that we have to reach out to those in the population who have never been to church or have not come in a long time.But do we offer them what they already have or do we offer them something new.Do we offer them social programs in the name of the church or do we offer the Gospel, the promise of hope for tomorrow?

    Our challenge is to not look back for solutions for tomorrow’s problems; our challenge is not to think in terms of today for that which will come tomorrow.Our challenge is to accept Christ as our personal Savior and to let his presence in our lives be seen by others.Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, notes that it was God who established us with Christ and anointed us.That is what people will see.

    The challenge we face is to let the Holy Spirit be present in our lives and to let the Holy Spirit be evident to others.I will admit that I cannot offer a quick and easy solution that will allow this to happen.It happens on an individual basis but when it happens everyone knows.As it noted in the Gospel, “they were all amazed and glorified God, saying ‘We have never seen anything like this!’” (3)

    Mark 2: 1 – 12

    • Isaiah 43: 18 – 25
    • Mark 2: 12

     

    Seek the truth


    Ordinarily, with this being the second Sunday in February, I would be writing about the Boy Scouts and the God and Country award. It was the study for and the completion of the God and Country award in 1965 that started me on the path that I have walked this past 41 years.

    But the Scriptures this week don’t lend themselves to talking about the Boy Scouts. Second, the decisions of the Boy Scouts about who can be an adult leader and who can earn the Eagle award (which, by the way, I never did) have lead me to disavow any association with that once proud organization. The decisions that the Boy Scouts of America made were made out of fear and ignorance and have very little scientific validity. And that is what the Old Testament reading (2 Kings 5: 1 – 14) and Gospel (Mark 1: 40 – 45) for today are about. Leprosy was once one of the most feared diseases of the ancient times. Like all disease, people had no idea what caused it or how someone got sick. But leprosy added to these fears the additional stigma of disfigurement. A leper was feared because they were not only sick but hideous and frightful to look at. Fear was often the most common reaction by the public.

    But, like most diseases today, we know the cause of leprosy and how to treat it and cure it. But there is a disease, perhaps a virus, that runs through all of society that produces the same results as disease did in Biblical times. It is the disease of fear and ignorance and it produces great amounts of hatred and intolerance.

    Think back to the early 1980’s when the AIDS epidemic was first beginning. We knew nothing about the disease and we made comments that it was God’s retribution for the lifestyles of those affected. Then Ryan White got sick. Ryan White was a twelve-year old hemophiliac who contracted AIDS. He and his brothers did not fit the profile of the typical AIDS patient and we had to wonder why God would inflict such a punishment on a family. Then we learned that one could get AIDS through a blood transfusion. But that didn’t help Ryan, who was ostracized by the parents of the other children in his elementary school. These parents, out of ignorance and fear, demanded that their children be protected from Ryan and his disease. Yet, it should have been Ryan’s parents who should have called for protection from the other children; for children bring all sorts of maladies and illnesses to school with them each day and any source of infection was a threat to Ryan’s health, not the other way around.

    Parents are fearful that their children will not get into the right schools. But instead of working to make sure that their children learn, they demand that the schools bend to their wishes and insure that their children will pass. We now have children who spend more time preparing and taking tests than we do learning and critically thinking about the world around them. We are becoming expert test takers but we know nothing about the world in which we live.

    We do not understand the violence in the Middle Eat that has occurred over the past few days because of the Danish editorial cartoons. We think of the right to free speech as automatic and do not understand that not everyone has that right. In addition, because we hold such a laissez-faire attitude about religion in this country, we cannot understand how someone would react in the manner that many Muslims are doing right now. I am not condoning violence by anyone; I think it is wrong but the responses over the past few weeks point out how much fear and ignorance play in our lives.

    We view other cultures warily simply because we do not know anything about them. We see their responses in our eyes and cannot understand why they do not react like we do. And our reaction turns to hatred because other cultures refuse to act as we would. We cannot accept the fact that not everyone believes in or understands our Western concepts of freedom and democracy.

    Our own day-to-day lives are dominated by fear. We are conditioned to believe that we could be attacked any day by any group from any direction. And we are told that we need to sacrifice our rights and liberties in order to placate this fear.

    We need to stop and think about what is going on in this world. We need to look around us and see what is happening. Instead of acting negatively or out of fear, we need to pause and consider what we are going to do. Look at how Naaman reacted when Elisha told him to go wash in the River Jordan seven times. He could not believe that the waters of the River Jordan were sufficient to cure him; there were other rivers far greater and better suited for a man of his importance.  His was a reaction of ignorance, not one of a man seeking to be cured of a major illness. But his aides and servants pointed out that, if Elisha had commanded Naaman to do something difficult, Naaman would have done it without questioning it.

    In this world where hate and ignorance so dominate our lives, it is time to stop spreading the virus. It is time to break away from what has dominated our lives and walk another path. The leper came to Jesus seeking that new chance and sought to become clean and free of disease. He came of his own accord and he sought Jesus; that is what we are called to do today.

    Repentance is to begin again, to denounce the old way and begin a new way. Paul writes of running a race that only one can win. In the old world, that is true. But in a world in which Jesus has entered, all can win. But it is up to us to work for that goal. We cannot allow ignorance to define our lives; we cannot allow hatred to grow because we are afraid.

    In the Gospel of John, we are reminded that it is the truth that will set us free, free from sin and death. The truth is found in Jesus, not in the darkness that surrounds hatred and ignorance.

    Listen to your heart this day and open your heart for Jesus. Let the Holy Spirit come into your life so that your work and direction are guided by the flame of the Holy Spirit, not the darkness of the world.

    When Did You Know Jesus?


    Here are my thoughts for this Sunday morning.
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    When did you first know Jesus? I am not speaking of that moment in Sunday school when you first read about Jesus, the Christmas story, the Easter story, or any of the other stories that are so much a part of Sunday school. Rather, I am asking about the time when you first know Jesus in your heart and that He was your personal Savior. This moment, of course, is perhaps the most personal question that one can ever be asked and one that takes some time to answer.

    For some, this answer is much like Paul’s encounter with Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus.

    As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

    “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

    “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

    The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything. (1)

    While, for others, the encounter with Jesus Christ is more like John Wesley’s encounter that evening in the Aldersgate Chapel in May of 1738.

    In the evening, I went very unwilling to a society in Aldersgate Street were one was reading Luther’s “Preface” to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt that I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

    No matter what happened that night, it is clear that the nature of Methodism changed. What was essentially a social movement where people tried very hard to get into heaven through their works on earth became the implementation of the Gospel message here on earth. As Craven Williams wrote,

    Aldersgate was critical to Wesley. Aldersgate confirmed the meaning of being “plucked from the burning” at Epworth. At Aldersgate, John Wesley experienced the conversion experience which altered the shape of his entire ministry. He described that experience by saying, “My heart was strangely warmed.” (“Strangely warmed” It is not a fire in the fireplace, but “strangely warmed” may just be close enough to a fire to demonstrate my point.) What did the “Heart Strangely Warmed” experience at Aldersgate mean to John Wesley? It gave Wesley the assurance that he, even he, could be saved; saved completely, and know with certainty that he had been saved. (2)

    But what about the people described in the Bible? When did they come to know Christ as their Savior? And what is it about the way they learned of Christ that applies to what we should be doing today?

    In the Gospel message for today (3), we read that Jesus went to the home of Simon Peter and Andrew. While there he healed Simon Peter’s mother. And that evening people began to bring “all who were sick or possessed with demons.” (4) And the next day, Jesus told his disciples that they should go to the neighboring towns and proclaim the Gospel message.

    The first people who came to know Christ were those who were sick or in some sort of distress. The Gospel message was to proclaim the Good News, heal the sick, let the blind see and the lame walk, and to free the oppressed. By his first actions, Jesus announced His presence to the world and the world began to come to him.

    Not all the world came at the beginning of this mission. There were those in the Israelite community still expecting a Messiah in the traditional sense; a Messiah who would deliver the people from the tyranny of rule that they lived under. They were expecting a Messiah with great power, a mighty king who would lead vast armies to defeat the enemies of the Israelites.

    But the Gospel message that Jesus preached and lived was not one of power and might but rather one of service and humility. It could only be accomplished if Jesus was a real person who could empty himself and become nothing. There was no pride or honor in what the Gospel message was about; there was nothing in what the Gospel message called for that one could boast about.

    As Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians (5), what in the Gospel is there to boast about? One who

    lives the life of the cross can hardly find anything to boast about.

    It is our nature to boast; boasting is the one way that we can overcome the limits the world sets for us. But if we live in this new age of death and resurrection, one inaugurated by the cross, there is no need to boast. The old answers are no longer sufficient for the new age of Christ.

    Christ proclaimed His Gospel message and carried out what he said he would do. He said he would heal the sick, help the lame to walk, the blind to see, and bring hope to the oppressed to the downtrodden. The Old Testament reading for today (6) speaks of the power of what the message was, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told to you from the beginning?”

    And that is where we come in. We have known, we have heard and it has been told to us from the beginning that Jesus is the Christ and our Savior. Now it is up to us to take the message out into the world. We have come to know Christ because we were ready and our hearts were open. Like Paul, the obligation to carry the Gospel message forward has been laid on us.

    No longer are we asking the questions about who we are or what our purpose in life will be; the world around us is incapable of supplying the answers. The questions that are asked of us are the ones that come from the cross and they have nothing to do with the present age or time. They are questions about how we will present the Gospel to people around us.

    There are those who have never known Jesus, in literary or theological terms. They will only come to know Jesus through our works, our examples, and our presence. They will only come to know Jesus by, as Isaiah proclaimed, by what they see and hear.

    We who have accepted Christ cannot simply boast about what it is we have gained; we must, like Wesley, move forward with the assurance that what we are doing is the culmination of the Gospel message in our time.

    Now is the time that you really need to know Jesus. You do that by opening your heart and letting the Holy Spirit illuminate your life. It may be that you already know Jesus. Perhaps you encountered Him on your own road to Damascus; perhaps you encountered Him in some version of the Aldersgate Chapel; or perhaps you encountered Him through the people you work and play with every day. For you, then the message is to take that knowledge out into the world; for you then, the task is to proclaim the Gospel message in your thoughts, your words, and your deeds.

    Now is the time to know Jesus in the most personal way. And if you know Jesus, it is up to you to let others come and know Jesus.

    1. Acts 9: 3 – 9

    2. Craven E. Williams, President – Greensboro College, http://www.gborocollege.edu/prescorner/fires.html
    3. Mark 1: 29 – 39
    4. Mark 1: 32
    5. 1 Corinthians 9: 16 – 23
    6. Isaiah 40: 21 – 31