Thursday, September 26, 2013

Escaping the Anaconda

Since at least 1998, an email has been making the internet rounds.  It claims to be from a manual given to Peace Corps volunteers, and it’s entitled, “What to Do If Attacked By an Anaconda.” 

*      1. If you are attacked by an anaconda do not run. The snake is faster than you are.

*      2. Lie flat on the ground. Put your arms tight against your sides, your legs tight against one another.

*      3. Tuck your chin in.

*      4. The snake will come and begin to nudge and climb over your body.

*      5. Do not panic.

*      6. After the snake has examined you, it will begin to swallow you from the feet and always from the end. Permit the snake to swallow your feet and ankles. Do not panic.

*      7. The snake will now begin to suck your legs into its body. You must lie perfectly still. This will take a long time.

*      8. When the snake has reached your knees slowly and with as little movement as possible, reach down, take your knife and very gently slide it into the side of the snake's mouth between the edge of its mouth and your leg, then suddenly rip upwards, severing the snake's head.

*      9. Be sure you have your knife.

*      10. Be sure your knife is sharp.

*      anaconda, do not run; the snake
           I know this will disappoint some of you, but that list is a myth.  Snake experts will tell you that an anaconda doesn’t swallow anything alive; it squeezes them to death, then swallows.  Sad to say, if you get attacked by an anaconda, I have no advice for you at all.  But think about how the instructions end: “Be sure you have your knife.  Be sure your knife is sharp.”  I don’t know how to prepare you for an anaconda attack.  But today, I do have a much more important--and helpful--warning.  We’re in a series now on what it means to be the church.  We’re looking at seven letters Jesus wrote to seven churches in the first century…letters that I believe were intended for all churches in all times, including ours.  And we’re asking the question, “Based on what Jesus said to that church, what would He say to us today?”  This Sunday, we'll take a look at Rev. 2:12-17, in which Jesus tells us what we REALLY need to watch out for.  Want to make sure your knife is sharp?  I'll see you Sunday. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Don't Be Afraid

Do you know what command is found most frequently in Scripture?  “Fear not.”  It’s what God told Moses before he went to confront Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the world.  It’s what Isaiah told king Hezekiah when an army hundreds of thousands strong was on its way to invade tiny Judah.  It’s what the angels said to the shepherds on the night of Christ’s birth.  And it’s what Jesus said to a church in modern-day Turkey 2000 years ago.  We’re studying the seven letters found in chapters two and three of Revelation because I believe that Jesus meant them to encourage and warn and instruct all of His churches until He returns.  As we get ready to celebrate 50 years of our church’s existence, and as we get ready to start some exciting new things, I think we need to see what these ageless letters have to say to us.

            This second letter (Rev. 2:8-11) was written to the church in the city of Smyrna. Smyrna was a large city, with over 200,000 inhabitants.   Smyrna was also a wealthy city, because it had a long history of loyalty to Rome.  Perhaps that’s why, during the lifetime of Jesus (23 AD), the Roman Senate voted to allow the Smyrnans to build a temple for the worship of the Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar.  Emperor worship was compulsory throughout the empire.  All you had to do is go once a year to one of these temples, burn a handful of incense and say “Caesar is Lord.”  For the average Roman citizen, this was no problem.  They believed in dozens of gods; why not add Caesar to the mix?  They thought of it more in patriotic than religious terms; for them, it was like pledging allegiance to the flag or taking one’s hat off when the national anthem was played.  But for the Smyrnan Christians, this was a huge fact of life.  Smyrna was proud of its status as an extremely patriotic city.  To have a small group of people who refused to pay homage to their emperor was intolerable. 
            Jesus mentions three things the Smyrnan Christians were going through.  First, He mentions “afflictions.”  That same word is translated “persecution” in v. 10.  Second, He mentions poverty.  Why would the Christians be poor in a city that had great wealth?  Because the Christians were seen as unpatriotic heretics, most of them couldn’t find work.  Third, he mentions slander from a “synagogue of Satan.”  Now, before you conclude that there is serious anti-Semitism going on here, remember that this is a letter dictated by Jesus, a Jew, and written down by John, a Jew.  Judaism was seen in many parts of the empire as a respected alternative religion, and therefore in many places, Jews received certain benefits.  They could, for instance, opt out of emperor worship without being prosecuted.  Some scholars believe that a group of Jews in Smyrna, jealous and hateful toward the Christians, were telling the government, “These people may have Jewish blood, but they’re not Jews.  You shouldn’t give them the same exception you give to us.”  That may be one of the ways they slandered the church.

              In view of all this, how could Jesus say, "Don't be afraid?"  And how does He expect us to respond to the things we fear most?  We'll explore these questions and others this Sunday.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Long Lost Love Letters

In November of 1944, the height of World War II, Lt Joseph Matthews wrote a letter to his wife, who lived in Greenwich Village, New York City.  In the letter, he shared the kind of intimate thoughts that a couple in love feel for one another.  He told about a mutual friend in the army with him at the time.  He assured her he was okay. And he signed off with, “God is with you.  I love you.”  The letter never reached his wife.  Earlier this year, it arrived at its address, where the current resident, a 27 year old New York woman, opened it.  She was immediately captivated by the letter, and became determined to find Lt Matthews and his wife.  This past May, she managed to locate Matthews’ daughter, who confirmed that the handwriting on the letter was definitely her father’s.  Both he and his wife had passed away, but she and her sister were overjoyed to receive this long-lost note.  No one knows where it had been for nearly 70 years. 
            Put yourself in the position of those daughters.  How exciting would it be to read a letter written by your dad to your mom when they were both in their early 20s?  Wouldn’t you want to know everything it said?  Wouldn’t you treasure every word?  Now think about this: What if God wrote a letter to our church 2000 years ago?  Would you want to read it?  Would you want to interpret it carefully, so that you knew exactly what God was saying to us?  The truth is, God did write a letter to this church 2000 years ago.  In fact, He wrote seven letters to this church, and to all of His churches.  Most people think of Revelation as a book about the end of the world.  But there is more to the last book of the Bible than trying to figure out who the tenth horn of the beast represents.  All this year, we’ve been talking about how to represent Christ well in a non-Christian culture.  But we need to acknowledge that nowhere in Scripture are we told to do this alone.  God created the Church for a reason.  As we here at WBC get ready to celebrate 50 years since our founding, and as we look forward to putting in place some important changes through our Westbury 20/20 plan, I think it’s important for us to talk about what a church is supposed to be.  That’s where these seven letters, found in Rev. 2-3, come in.  For the next seven weeks, all the way up to our 50th anniversary, we'll be looking at these letters on Sunday mornings.  What was Jesus saying to these churches?  What is He saying to us today?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Point of it All

School just started a couple weeks ago.  One of my least-favorite memories from my school days were the infamous big projects that teachers assign.  Somewhere, in some long-forgotten textbook they use in education schools—probably authored by Heinrich Himmler—there is the suggestion that kids don’t learn best from reading books and listening to lectures and taking tests.  They need to do some big projects.  So we have, for instance, Science Fairs.  Here’s a tip for teachers: Kids hate the big projects.  We don’t really learn anything.  We put it off until the last moment, throw something together, then pray for the school bus to run over us the morning of the science fair so we won’t have to face the wrath we deserve for doing a terrible job.  You know which kids DON’T hate big projects?  The ones whose parents did the projects for them.  So you have little Timmy, who wins the Science Fair.  Little Timmy, who can’t even tie his own shoes, has managed to build a working internal combustion engine.  He has charts and graphs that look like they were produced by a Fortune 500 marketing firm and a power point presentation narrated by Morgan Freeman.  And you stand next to him with some earthworms in a Dixie cup full of dirt, and a few notes written with a sharpie on the back of a pizza box.  And here’s the worst part of all:  Little Timmy has the nerve to boast and brag and lord it over you and every other third grader that he won the Science Fair.  This is infuriating and unjust, because everyone knows his engineer father and graphic designer mother did all the work.

For the last several weeks, we’ve been talking about hope as we've studied 1 Corinthians 15.  Our hope is in Jesus Christ.  Because of Him, we know where our life is headed.  Our destiny is so incredible, it by far outweighs the very worst that can happen in this life.  Yet if we’re not careful, our hope can turn into triumphalism.  We can become like little Timmy: arrogant, self-righteous hypocrites who look down on the rest of the world because we’re headed for Heaven…when the cold truth is, we didn’t do anything to deserve this hope we have.  So what is the point of it all?  What difference should this hope make in the way we live?  That’s what v. 58 is about.  We'll explore v. 58 this Sunday in my sermon, and talk about how our hope should change the way we live.