2 Corinthian 2:12-17 – God Prepares the Way, Not Me

“When I went to Troas to preach the good news about Christ, I found that the Lord had already prepared the way.  But I was worried when I didn’t find my friend Titus there. So I left the other followers and went on to Macedonia.
I am grateful that God always makes it possible for Christ to lead us to victory. God also helps us spread the knowledge about Christ everywhere, and this knowledge is like the smell of perfume.   In fact, God thinks of us as a perfume that brings Christ to everyone. For people who are being saved, this perfume has a sweet smell and leads them to a better life. But for people who are lost, it has a bad smell and leads them to a horrible death.
No one really has what it takes to do this work.  A lot of people try to get rich from preaching God’s message. But we are God’s sincere messengers, and by the power of Christ we speak our message with God as our witness.” (Contemporary English Version)
 
            God is the One who calls people to himself.  God is the powerful sovereign ruler of the universe who prepares the way for people to proclaim the good news of deliverance in the name of Jesus.  God is the Being who dominates the Holy Scripture.  God is the main and principal actor in the unfolding drama of redemption of the Bible.  God is the Great Shepherd who calls, gathers, assures, forgives, teaches, leads, and sends people throughout the ages.  God is the diligent and careful farmer who enables the knowledge of Jesus to spread across the earth and cause a bloom of grace to flower.  God is the divine florist who produces the sweet smell of salvation from the rancid field of relational separation.
            You see, my friend, that unless we capture the vision of a God who orchestrates and animates his self-revealing to others,  you and I will muck around this world trying to live the Christian life in the misguided notion that leading others to Jesus Christ is on our shoulders – that somehow our ability, or lack thereof, determines whether another person is delivered from their brokenness and finds God.
            Oh, my goodness.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Those who are estranged from God, like vulnerable lost sheep in the world, are called by the shepherd, not us.  We simply go in the enablement of God’s power and blessing to pick up lost sheep and carry them back to the fold.
You and I are messengers, couriers from God with a life-giving message of forgiveness and deliverance for all whom the Lord calls – and His voice can be heard across the entire world.
We are field-hands who enter the harvest and enjoy the gathering of fresh grain into God’s great storehouse of grace.  You and I did not make anything grow.  God was really behind the planting, the growth, the given rain, and the producing of fruit.  In many ways, we’re just along for the tractor ride.
Many Christians put far too much emphasis on themselves – what they should and could be doing, as if the salvation of others depended on them.  But God is behind every good and beautiful thing in this earth.  Learning to trust his leading and power makes all the difference in a world needing Jesus.

 

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought me to the beginning of this day.  Preserve me with your mighty power that I might be an instrument in your grand orchestra of salvation, blowing the sound of Jesus Christ in melodious sounds of deliverance; with the breath of the Holy Spirit giving the wind.  Amen.

Acts 5:33-42

            People talk about things which are important to them.  Even quiet and introverted individuals will speak at length, barely taking a breath, if you get them on a topic they are passionate about.
            Today’s New Testament lesson has the Apostles speaking incessantly about someone they love to talk about.  In fact, the Apostles (the original disciples of Jesus) talked so much about what they loved that the Jewish ruling council of the time (the Sanhedrin) wanted to shut them up by killing them.  But a wise member of the council saw the foolishness of this and persuaded them against it.  Instead, the council gave the Apostles a thorough whipping, warned them to stop talking all the time, and let them go.
            There is a time to listen, and there is a time to speak.  The Apostles could not keep silent.  They considered their beating an act of solidarity with their Lord Jesus and went right on talking.  The text says: “Every day they spent time in the temple and in one home after another.  They never stopped teaching and telling the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.”
            The joy of knowing Jesus – crucified, risen, ascended, and coming again – is such a full experience that one cannot help but talk and speak about him incessantly.  Even in the face of persecution, the ecstasy of knowing Christ transcends physical pain and suffering.
            Consider the Apostles, and think about the church today.  There are places throughout the world where the scenario of constant chatter about Jesus is taking place with joy, despite the presence of persecution.  There are also places, mainly in America, where talking about Jesus does not even take place in the church building where believers gather to worship, let alone out in the public square.
            The great tragedy of the contemporary Western church is that you can talk about only the weather, the latest sports, political happenings, and get away with never speaking about Jesus.
            Today, allow two different emotions to sway your prayers and speech.  First, allow the joy of the Lord Jesus to fill you and give you freedom to speak his Name and the grace he gives to others.  Second, allow a sorrowful lament to rise from your heart and speak it out loudly before God concerning the great silence of the church in the West.

 

Loving Lord Jesus, you save completely those who come to you by faith.  Thank you for the work of forgiveness and healing that takes place in your Name everyday in the world.  Yet, I also lament the many confessing believers in your Name who never speak of the good news in their everyday conversations, even at church.  Lord, have mercy.  Christ have mercy.  Lord have mercy, and grant us peace.  Amen.

Romans 15:14-21

            Paul was an apostle, that is, a person commissioned by God and sent to the Gentiles – people other than the Jews.  Through Peter, and then Paul, the good news of Jesus spread to persons that were beforehand considered unreachable.  Paul saw himself as having no limits as to who could hear and respond to the gospel of forgiveness in Jesus Christ.  He understood himself as standing between heaven and hell, interceding and pleading on behalf of people who need their lives changed through Christ.
 
            It is quite possible that there are persons in our sphere of influence in which we think that they would never respond to the message of Christ’s redemption.  In this holiday season of the year, in which we remember God’s loving gift in the humility of God becoming man, it is far too easy to lose sight that at that Christmas party, family gathering, and interaction with that person in the long shopping line, there are those who need Jesus – and we will never know if God is wooing them to himself unless we share life with them.
 
            Perhaps we need to see ourselves as Paul did – standing in the gap and always trying to find ways to proclaim the gospel to people who require deliverance from empty ways of life.  That cousin or uncle, that co-worker or friend, and that neighbor or new acquaintance, can be forgotten by us as to their ultimate and most real need to discover faith.  We, my friends, are the conduit that God has ordained to bring his life-giving message to people all around us – people for whom we might have already written off as unreachable.
 

 

            We praise you, O God, for the ministry and success of your servant, the Apostle Paul, through whom we who are Gentiles owe our own faith and calling.  Grant us a vision like his, the conviction and commitment to pursue it, and the grace which confirms and prospers it.  Amen.

Isaiah 59:1-15


            “Truth stumbles in the public square.”  That is the prophet Isaiah’s summary phrase of ancient Israel’s moral situation.  He wrote to a post-exile community that was still reeling from losing their land and finding their way among the rule of others.  They were not a free people – by a long shot.  And their deliverance from Gentile dominance was not coming anytime soon, for a reason.  They still had not really dealt with their own problems.  They wanted salvation without confession, and freedom without repentance.  But Isaiah reminded them that their separation from God was a result of their violence, deceitfulness, and corrupt system of justice.  The Jews were neither pursuing peace, nor the common good.  There would be no deliverance apart from facing those sins and renouncing them.
             Without a virtuous citizenry, truth stumbles in the public square.  That is, if national morality and personal ethics are absent, truth erodes and any system of laws and justice devolve into a morass of selfish agendas and lack of concern for all persons.  People might haggle and disagree on what is the best way forward for a given nation, but if they do not begin with the foundation of truth and virtue, then violence is the ultimate outcome because people want what they want and do not give a damn about anything else.  They will kill and covet, but they will not get what they want since their motives are unethical and immoral.
             This is why the spiritual tools of prayer and fasting, confession and repentance, faith and public moral action must be the underlying conscience of a nation.  Without virtue, truth may stumble but will always be present to speak to power.  Government is designed as an institution to promote the common good of all citizens.  If divine intervention is necessary, the proper course of action is acknowledgment of transgressions.  
             Sovereign God, you are the invisible ruler among the nations.  Our sins are many and they bear witness against us that sound judgment has left the room.  Christ, have mercy upon us, and grant us your peace through the blessed Holy Spirit.  Amen.

1 Corinthians 9:19-23

19 I am not anyone’s slave. But I have become a slave to everyone, so that I can win as many people as possible. 20 When I am with the Jews, I live like a Jew to win Jews. They are ruled by the Law of Moses, and I am not. But I live by the Law to win them. 21 And when I am with people who are not ruled by the Law, I forget about the Law to win them. Of course, I never really forget about the law of God. In fact, I am ruled by the law of Christ. 22 When I am with people whose faith is weak, I live as they do to win them. I do everything I can to win everyone I possibly can. 23 I do all this for the good news, because I want to share in its blessings.
 
            What will it take?  What will it take to win the world for Jesus Christ?  What will it take to win your neighbor?  What will it take to win your relative, co-worker, or friend?  It will take becoming a slave.  That is, winning others to see the glorious and incredible good news of forgiveness and new life in Jesus takes giving up our rights and our freedoms in order to have a ministry of presence.  We have to be around other people in order to win them.  That’s why winning the party-crowd takes going to the bar.  It’s why winning young moms takes sitting with them at the park while the kids play.  It is why it takes being present among people in the community in order to reach them, instead of wishing that people will magically show up at church in order to experience our friendliness.
 
            The turn of thought that we need is this:  Other people do not need to show up on our turf and become like us.  Instead, we need to show up on their turf and become like them.  If it weren’t in the Bible we would think it blasphemous to say such a thing.  But there it is, and we must wrestle with its implications for our lives.  So, what needs to change?
 

 

            Merciful God, you want to cut me into the action of what you are doing in the world.  Help me live wisely among those who don’t yet know you, so that they can see the light of Christ in me, hear the words of Christ from me, and experience the salvation of Christ.  Amen.

Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23

            “From east to west, the powerful LORD God has been calling together everyone on earth.”  This is not a minor theme in the whole of Scripture; it is a major aim of God to reach all kinds of people throughout the entire world.  A healthy way of looking at the entirety of the Bible is that it is an unfolding drama of redemption in which God does whatever it takes to restore a fundamentally broken world.
 
            For the psalmist, this meant that Israel, although a distinctive people with a divine purpose, did not have the corner on God’s redeeming ways.  It has always been God’s will to bring Gentiles as well as Jews to himself.  In other words, no one group of people has the corner on God.
 
            If Christians want to participate with God in his redemption of the earth, the psalmist says, “The sacrifice that honors me is a thankful heart.  Obey me, and I, your God, will show my power to save.”  Gratitude and obedience are the sacred paths that open up God to others.  These two attitudinal activities please the Lord and provide a means for Him to call others to faith.  May it be so in your life and mine.
 

 

            Saving God, you have been powerfully calling people from emptiness to real life since the fall of humanity.  Thank you for work of deliverance.  I give myself to you for your continued pursuit of others, through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Pronoun Trouble

 
 
One of my favorite Warner Brothers cartoons is the 1952 “Rabbit Seasoning.”  Check out the hilarious dialogue between Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck:
Bugs Bunny [to Elmer]:  Would you like to shoot me now or wait till you get home?
Daffy Duck: Shoot him now! Shoot him now!
Bugs Bunny: You keep outta this! He doesn’t have to shoot you now!
Daffy Duck: He does so have to shoot me now! [to Elmer]: I demand that you shoot me now!
[Elmer shoots him.]
Daffy Duck: Let’s run through that again.
Bugs Bunny:  Okay.  [in a flat tone]: Would you like to shoot me now or wait till you get home?
Daffy Duck: [flat tone] Shoot him now, shoot him now.
Bugs Bunny: [flat tone] You keep outta this. He doesn’t hafta shoot you now.
Daffy Duck: [with sudden passion] Ha! That’s it! Hold it right there! [speaking to the audience]: Pronoun trouble.  [to Bugs]  It’s not: “He doesn’t have to shoot *you* now.” It’s: “He doesn’t have to shoot *me* now.” Well, I say he does have to shoot me now! [to Elmer]  So shoot me now!
[Elmer shoots him.]
 
            Pronouns are important.  I am not trying to be some weird grammar nerd (although I would be okay with that reference).  What I am attempting to get at is that the use of pronouns in the way Christians talk and write belies how we view ourselves, our world, the church, and, even God.  If we are not careful, pronoun trouble will get us sidelined from God’s agenda for the church.
 
            For example, a person comes up to the pastor and says something like “we don’t like _____.”  Go ahead and fill in the blank.  It could be anything.  The gun goes off.  The important thing to note is that an individual is speaking on behalf of a group, or the entire congregation.  That says a lot about the person.  It says that not only is the person taking on a grandiose position of assuming that he/she knows what everyone else is thinking, but, maybe even more significantly, this person does not differentiate him/her self from the group.  The person is so enmeshed in the group or system that speaking as an individual is not practiced.  Many people within the church need the ability to step back and discern what it is they actually need and want, then be able to state “I would like to see ______.” 
 
            Let’s take the opposite kind of example.  A parishioner approaches another congregant and emphatically states something like, “my needs are not getting met here, so I am going elsewhere.”  In this case, the individual is too detached from the larger congregation and can only use the personal pronoun.  The parishioner needs to adopt some plural pronouns in order to better connect with others.  The real problem is one of not having a sense of community and the role that the individual plays within it.  There is too much of a focus on self and not a missional sense of working together to achieve a noble cause.
 
            So, then, there are here two approaches to be avoided.  On the one hand, some congregations can be so entrenched in a particular system and way of doing things that they cannot imagine doing things differently.  “We have always done it this way” are the seven deadly words of the church.  On the other hand, there is the solitary person who can never quite seem to think of others but constantly evaluates everything done in the church through the filter of what she can get out of it for herself. 
 
            How Christians talk of others outside the church is also of much importance.  “They” and “them” are pronouns that can easily be used to refer to some nameless people that we do not want within the fellowship.  It is prescient to keep in mind that a pronoun refers to a proper name.  Who are “they?”  Are “they” really a threat?  It would be much better to define who we are talking about and why. Sometimes pronouns are not the best way to talk to each other.  “The missions team would like to reach young urban professionals with the gospel of Jesus” is better than an amorphous “we do not want them in our church services.”
 

 

            I hope you get the picture here.  Pronouns are important.  Their proper use can either further the mission of the church, or they can get us into trouble.  Pay attention to language, because it has been given to the church as a sacred trust.