Thursday, June 27, 2013

Redeeming the Time

Michael Jordan: "Failure."

Years ago, when Michael Jordan was still playing basketball, he appeared in a shoe commercial (Click the link above to view the thirty-second spot). But this time, instead of showing slam dunks and fist-pumping, it showed Jordan getting out of his car before a game, while he said the following in voice-over: “I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”  The point I took from the spot is that while he missed often, at least he took the shot.  While he lost sometimes, at least he played the game.  From the standpoint of Kingdom work, the real tragedy is not when we try something great for God and fail; it’s when we fail to try.  How often do you and I have the ball in our hands with the clock ticking down…and we hold the ball, afraid to shoot, afraid to fail…until the buzzer sounds.  We're afraid to engage someone who needs the Gospel, because we know it will be awkward and uncomfortable to talk about spiritual things.  We ignore someone with serious physical or emotional needs because we just don't want to get involved.  Or God brings someone into our orbit, and we don’t even think to see them as someone who needs the love of Christ.  We're so caught up in our own stuff, we see them as simply people to deal with quickly so we can move on to the next item on our agenda.

We’ve been studying the book of Colossians for a month and a half now, and we’ve learned a lot about being holy; being different in a way that draws people to God.  Now we are at the end of the letter.  Paul just has his final greetings to specific people after this; what we’ll read this Sunday (4:2-6) is the last thing he says to the whole church.  For his final word, Paul tells us to be careful so that we don’t miss those moments when God passes us the ball.  Look at the second half of v. 5, making the most of the opportunity. The Greek literally says “redeeming the time.”  He's talking about what some have called "divine appointments." 

I like the way Henry Blackaby puts it in Experiencing God: Whenever you encounter someone who shows an interest in spiritual matters, drop whatever you are doing and spend as much time as necessary with that person.  We are not spiritual creatures by nature, so if a person is interested in spiritual things, that means the Holy Spirit is working on them right now.  God has just passed you the ball, and it’s your chance to do something wonderful.  But what can we do in order to be ready for these moments, so we don’t miss these opportunities?  That's what we'll talk about this Sunday. 


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Test of Holiness

 A few years ago, I was out running errands on a Saturday and stopped to get gas.  I zipped my credit card through the card reader, entered my zip code, and then saw a message that said, “Card not accepted.”  I tried again.  This time, the message said, “Pay inside.”  I was instantly irritated, because I was in a hurry, and now I would have to interact with a human being.  But I went inside and explained my predicament to the man behind the counter.  First of all, he didn’t seem sufficiently sorry for the inconvenience I had experienced.  He offered no apology, no “Machines…what’re you gonna do?”  He didn’t offer me some free ding-dongs to assuage my fury.  He simply asked, “How much gas do you need?”  I said that I didn’t know.  I just needed to fill up.  He said he couldn’t do that.  He needed to know an exact amount before I started pumping.  I said, “Look, I’ve done this before.  I leave my credit card with you, you turn on the pump, I come back here and sign when I’m done.”  He said that wasn’t possible.  Essentially, he was telling me I was wrong.  I was a liar or a fool, or both.  And he did this in poor English, which made it even more irritating.  As an aside, when I am angry, I don’t think rationally.  In fact, I think in ways that are comically absurd.  For instance, in that moment, I took his poor English as a personal affront, as if forty years earlier, as a boy in Pakistan, he intentionally refused to learn English simply so that he could annoy me someday. Finally, I gave in and made up some arbitrary amount of money I thought I would need to spend to fill up my car and he dutifully punched in the amount, swiped my card, and asked for my zip code.  He then said, “I can’t accept this card.”  Well, that did it.  This was obviously intentional on his part.  I took back my card and said, “You just lost my business.”  I said it loud enough that other people in the store could hear.  I sincerely hoped that the guy ion the store who was carefully choosing some Corn Nuts to go with his Big Red would say, “Well, if that perfectly reasonable fellow won’t patronize this establishment, perhaps I should take my business elsewhere as well.”  I stormed out.  Later, I related this story to my wife.  My wife—who is supposed to take my side in all things—said in an irritatingly gentle voice, “You know we just moved, right?  So perhaps you used our old zip code instead of our new one…”  I knew then that she was right.  I had yelled at a perfectly innocent Pakistani.  I was the jerk.
Here is why that story matters: We tend to think of holiness in terms of religiosity and morality.  The standards can be rather arbitrary, depending on who you talk to.  I know that when I was growing up, I judged the sincerity of a person’s Christianity by how often they went to church, whether they read the Bible regularly, and whether they drank alcohol or used foul language.  Your own standards of judgment might have been slightly different.  But when someone asked Jesus to reduce the Christian faith into its most basic form, He said there were two commands that every other command was subordinate to: Love the Lord and love your neighbor.  And in fact, those two commands are inextricably linked.  According to 1 John 4:20, if you don’t love your fellow human being, you don’t love God.  In other words, the way we treat people is the true test of holiness.  And on that Saturday afternoon, I failed.  It really didn’t matter that I had been to church that Sunday, got up that morning and spent time in the Word, or that I didn’t have any alcohol in my system, or that I didn’t use any curse words.  The way I treated the man in the gas station rendered all of that moot.  I was a hypocrite at that moment.  There was no holiness in me. 
            Our relationships matter to God.  And as we continue to study Colossians, this handbook on holy living, we come to this passage (Colossians 3:18-4:1) that deals with some of our most important relationships.  There are longer passages that deal with these issues, particularly Ephesians 5 and 6.  But here, very briefly, we see one key concept for each of these important relationships.  The point is not that if you’re a truly holy person, you’ll have perfect relationships; but that your holiness should be evident in how you treat the people you spend the most time with.  It would have been very easy for me to respond graciously to that man in the gas station; that’s what makes that story so embarrassing for me.  But it’s much harder to be consistently holy in the way I treat my wife, my kids, and the people with whom I work, because they see me every day for hours a day; they see me in a variety of situations. They see the parts of me no one else gets to see; the stuff I tend to hide from the rest of you.  They see my true character.  So this Sunday, we'll take a look at our most important relationships through the eyes of Colossians.  We'll see the standard God holds us to.  And as an additional bonus, you'll get to see me deal with a couple of highly controversial topics--the closest thing you'll ever see to a preacher walking a high wire without a net! 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Real-World Holiness

Many American manufacturers are going to great lengths to protect themselves from getting sued. As a result, many companies now include stunningly obvious warnings about their product. Every year the Wacky Warning Labels Contest selects what it calls "the most absurd and silly warning labels attached to everyday products."

Here were the winners for the 2012 contest:
  • The Grand Prize Winner was for a 7-inch decorative globe with the following warning label: "These globes should not be referred for navigation."
  • The Second Prize Winner was for an electric razor for men with the following warning label: "Never use while sleeping."
Past winners have included the following warning labels:
  • "Remove child before folding"—a warning label on a baby stroller
  • "Does not supply oxygen"—a label on a common dust mask (2011 Contest Winner)
  • "Never operate your speakerphone while driving" - on a hands-free cell phone product called the "Drive 'N' Talk"! (2010 Contest Winner)
  • "Danger: Avoid Death"—a warning label on a small tractor
  • "Harmful if swallowed"—a warning on a brass fishing lure with a three-pronged hook
  • "This product moves when used"—a warning on a popular children's scooter
  • A rotary tool includes the following warning label: "This product is not intended for use as a dental drill"
  • "May cause drowsiness"—a warning label for Nytol One-a-Night sleeping aids, submitted by Van Morris
Rules are a part of life.  Unfortunately, people think they can reduce the Christian faith to a list of rules: "Do this.  Don't do that.  Don't eat that.  Don't watch that.  Don't associate with them."  But that's not holiness; it's legalism.
Ironically, legalism turns out to be much easier than true holiness.  Anyone who is sufficiently motivated can follow a list of rules.  But it takes the power of God to be loving, kind, forgiving, humble, patient, and joyful.  The people who conspired to kill Jesus were very good at following rules, but they weren’t holy.  Jesus followed the commands of Scripture to the letter, but He had something more.  So if we want to become the people God created us to be; if we want to live in a way that is distinct and compelling, that draws other people to God, then the answer is NOT to simply set up a list of rules and try really hard to follow them.  That has traditionally been the way religion teaches a person to be holy, but it doesn’t work.  Paul talks about this in the last verse of Colossians 2: Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.  In other words, if you try hard enough to follow rules, you might succeed in looking a little more moral.  But you’ll still be the same person on the inside. 
Frankly, this is one reason why Christians get so discouraged.  They say, “I was so excited when I accepted Christ.  I really thought I was going to be a new person.  But I still get angry and hurt people when I fly off the handle.  I still have these selfish, lustful thoughts that I’d die if anyone found out about.  I still can’t bring myself to forgive that person who hurt me all those years ago.  And I still sometimes get disappointed with God for not giving me the life I wanted.  I go to church and I’ve learned not to cuss, so it may look like I’m living the Christian life.  But it only looks that way.”  Fortunately, God’s response to those who resonate with what I just said is NOT “Try harder.”  Instead, in Colossians 3 He offers us a process of how to grow into the holy character we all long for.  As you read this chapter, don’t look at it as a list of rules.  Instead, it’s a compelling vision of what holiness looks like in the real world.  It really boils down to a three-step process, one we'll explore in our sermon this Sunday.