Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A New You: Holy Sweat


My least favorite advertising campaign these days is by Lowe’s, which says, “Never stop improving.”  I hate that because I get tired of always having a running list of things that need to be repaired or renovated or replaced in my house.  I wish I could get to a point where I say, “Done!  No more work to do here!  The house is perfect!” But that day will never come.  And that is true of us as well: As long as we live in this world, there will be something we need to change.   

We’re talking all this year about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in the real world.  Periodically, we’re checking in on Peter, the most famous of Jesus’ disciples.  We talked about how Peter was able to walk on water because Jesus said He could, and we looked at how each one of us is qualified by that same Lord to make a difference in the world, if we use our spiritual gifts to serve Him.  Today, I’m starting a series called “A New You.”  Imagine someone were to ask you, “What is salvation?”  Most likely, you would answer, “It means that when I die, I don’t pay for my sins, because Jesus already did.  I have a home in Heaven bought by the grace of God.”  That’s true, but the New Testament definition of salvation is much bigger than that.  When you read the New Testament (not just Christian gospel tracts and sermons) you see the primary thing God saves us from isn’t Hell…it’s ourselves.  Richard Blackaby puts it this way: “The essence of salvation is an about-face from self-centeredness to God-centeredness.”  Salvation is an event: Once you believe in Jesus, you are His forever.  But it’s also a process, and that is what most of the New Testament is about: Not just saving souls from Hell, but transforming each of us from selfish fools into people who love God and others first.  As Lowe’s says, Never stop improving.   

So right now, think of something about your character you wish were different.  Is there anything about you which, if it were to change for the better, your family and friends would thank God for it?  Is there anything about yourself which brings you guilt and shame?  Be specific. The good news is, that’s something God is already working on.  In this series, we’ll talk about our part in that process. But in this sermon, I want to start by looking at a key event in Peter’s life that changed the way he thought about how transformation happens (Mark 9:2-10).

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Made for More: The Beloved Burden

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This Sunday, we’re wrapping up our series on finding God’s purpose in your life, the role He created you to fulfill in His Kingdom plan.  We’ve spent most of this series looking at spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 and last week in chapter 14.  We’ve talked about how to identify the gifts God has given you, and that we find our purpose by serving.  Today, I want to talk about what comes next.  In the movie “Castaway,” Tom Hanks plays a Fed Ex employee who is stranded on a deserted island for four years.  He gets home and finds that the woman he loved now has a husband and a child.  The last scene of the movie shows him traveling out to a rural area to deliver the one package he saved all those years, which washed up on that island with him.  No one is home, but he writes a note saying, “This package saved my life.”  On his way out, he stops at a nearby intersection.  A truck pulls up, and a pretty lady gets out and asks if he needs help.  He says he’s trying to determine where to go next.  She points to each of the four directions of that crossroads and tells where each road ultimately leads: California, Canada, etc.  As she drives away, he realizes she’s the recipient of the package.  The movie ends there.  We don’t know which road he chose. 

Spoiler alert!

A lot of people don’t like the indefinite nature of that ending.  But that’s true to life.  In life, we face a series of crossroads.  This Sunday, for instance…I want to tell you three possibilities for your life from this point forward.  One, you can go on to live your life the way you want, without any connection to God.  I know where that road leads: Destruction.  We were created for a relationship with Him; without that, we are like fish who decide to try to survive on dry land.  Two, you can try to live the life you want with God’s help.  In other words, you can choose to be religious, to believe in Scripture and attend church and pray, but ultimately chase after you own goals and dreams, and hope that God will help you.  Frankly, I think that’s the way many if not most American Christians live.  God is just a resource they call upon to bring them success and happiness.  That road leads to a constant wrestling with God, and frequent disappointment.  Or three, you can live the life you were created for.  You can say, “Lord, I renounce my own plans, preferences and hopes.  You made me and you love me.  I trust you to determine the course of my life.  I want to follow you.”  At the end of this message, I will talk about practical next steps if you want to choose that path.  

But first, I need to give you a warning.  There is a danger that, in thinking of how God created each of us with an amazing, important destiny, we will begin to see ourselves as characters in a fairy tale.  Like young Arthur pulling Excalibur out of the stone, or Cinderella bumping into her fairy godmother, we may think that the plan of God is this wonderful thing that, once we find it, will propel us to “happily ever after.”  The truth is that following the plan of God is going to be difficult.  It will be much easier in the short run to follow your own plans, to simply do what your desires tell you to do.  God’s plan for your life will include some things you would not have chosen for yourself if given the opportunity.  And to illustrate that for us, I want to look at Paul himself, the man who wrote the chapters we’ve been studying, and at two unwanted gifts God gave him that became beloved burdens in his life.  We’re going to look at two times when Paul spoke of gifts that God had given him (Eph 3:7-9, 1 Co. 7:1-7); not only are they not what you and I would describe as “spiritual gifts,” they aren’t what Paul would have chosen for himself.  What does that say to us about following God's plan?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


Made for More: The Truth is Out There

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In one little town long ago, all the churches decided to have a combined worship gathering.  Since the Baptist church had the biggest building in that town, they volunteered to host the meeting.  But some were worried, because the pastor of that church was an gray-haired preacher from the old school.  Some called him a “hard-shell” Baptist.  He’d never been particularly friendly to the other churches or their pastors.  So everyone gave a sign of relief when the old man got up at the beginning of the service and said, “Someday, brothers, we’re all going to be in Heaven together.”  Then he said, “The Catholics will be there, led by the pope.  The Methodists will be there, led by John Wesley.  The Lutherans will be there, led by Martin Luther.  And the Baptists will be there, led by Jesus.” 
            We laugh, but we Christians have often made more noise about what divides us than what we have in common.  Today, we’re going to be talking about one of those issues that divide God’s people.  Why?  First, because it’s in the biblical texts about spiritual gifts.  One of my goals for this year is that every member of our church would discover his or her role in God’s Kingdom.  Part of that role has to do with how God has gifted you.  And we can’t ignore the fact that one of the gifts mentioned in our texts is the gift of tongues.  The second reason we need to talk about this is that it reveals something very important about the heart of God.  We’ll get to that at the end. 
            But first, let’s look at a little biblical and historical background.  Fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead, the little group of His remaining followers were gathered in Jerusalem for a Jewish holiday known as Pentecost.  Suddenly, a violent wind rushed through the place, and flames appeared over the heads of each of the apostles.  They found themselves speaking languages they had never been taught.  Since it was a holiday, there were Jews from all over the Mediterranean region there, and they heard these men speaking in their native languages.  They ran to see what this was all about.  Peter took the opportunity to speak the Gospel to this massive crowd, and 3000 people accepted Christ.  That was the explosive birth of the Church, the day God’s Holy Spirit came to dwell in every one who follows Christ.  There were two other times in the Book of Acts where people spoke in a language they had not learned.  In the Church of Corinth, as we discussed at the beginning of this series, people seemed to think that speaking in tongues was a sign of greater spirituality and power, perhaps because they came from a pagan background, where oracles were seen as the way one heard the voice of God.  So Paul wrote chapters 12-14 to show that not everyone can speak in tongues.  Every person has a gift, and every person is important to the Body of Christ.  Then, this issue virtually disappeared for nearly 2000 years. 
            In 1906, William Seymour, the son of slaves who had studied at a Bible college in Houston, was preaching a revival in Los Angeles, when suddenly people began speaking in tongues.  The revival lasted for nearly a decade.  It was the birth of the modern Pentecostal movement.  Today, Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity is the fastest-growing branch of our faith.  Yet for the last hundred-plus years, many other Christians have looked down on this movement.  Some call them “Holy rollers.”  Some even say it’s demonic.  Some believe in a doctrine called cessationism, that says speaking in tongues was given by God for a sign during the apostolic age, but once the Bible was completed, it ceased.  Just a few years ago, our own denomination declared that anyone who speaks in a “private prayer language” could not serve as a missionary.  And you may have noticed that our spiritual gift surveys don’t have anything about speaking in tongues.  Then again, other Christians point out that anytime God has done something new, the Church has had a hard time accepting it.  For instance, when our own Baptist predecessors arose in the 17th century, they were severely persecuted for believing that people needed to be baptized by immersion as believers, instead of by sprinkling as infants.  I remember a seminary professor saying, “Baptist preachers sometimes worry that their church is going to turn Pentecostal.  I say that’s nothing to worry about.  It’s easier to put out a fire than it is to wake the dead.”
            That leaves us with some questions: What is speaking in tongues?  Is this something we should all be seeking?  And what does this tell us about the heart of God?  My firm conviction is that all that matters is what God has to say about the issue in His Word.  And the definitive chapter on this subject is 1  Corinthians 14.   Let’s start with vv. 1-4. 
            What is speaking in tongues?  According to v. 2, what Paul is describing here is not the same thing as what happened on the day of Pentecost.  On that day, people of other nations understood the languages that were being spoken.  But here, Paul says no one understands.  V. 4 says it’s meant to edify ourselves.  In other words, it builds up our own faith, but doesn’t build up the church.  I don’t have this gift, but I believe it is real.  I have heard from people who do speak in tongues, who say it gives them a sense of peace and a wonderful feeling of closeness to God. It’s not a trance they fall into; they can control when they do it. For most, it’s something they do in private, just them and the Lord.  Not only do I not see anything wrong with that, I think it is a terrible mistake to demonize it.  Paul himself had this gift (v. 18).  And in v. 39, he expressly says we should not forbid people to use it.  However, I need to say two things in disagreement with our Pentecostal brothers.  First, nowhere in Scripture does it say that every believer in Christ will be able to speak in tongues.  That’s the whole point of chapters 12-14: We each have our own gifts; we are not all the same.  Second, it is clear from this chapter that those who speak in tongues should do so in private.  Paul says from the start of this chapter that prophecy is a gift to be used in public, because it can warn and strengthen God’s people.  But tongues don’t serve that same function.  Vv. 23-25 tell us to think about the poor unbeliever who happens to stumble into our worship service.  If we’re all speaking in some unknown language, he’ll think we’re out of our minds.  But if he hears a clear, biblical message of repentance, it can change his life forever.        
            Should I seek the gift of tongues?  For that answer, we need to go back to the end of chapter 12:  But eagerly desire the greater gifts.  And now I will show you the most excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. Do you recognize that last sentence?  If you’ve ever been to a wedding, you’ve probably heard it read.  Most people don’t realize that 1 Corinthians 13 wasn’t written specifically about romance and marriage.  It was written in the context of a church fight.  Paul was saying, “It’s fine if you want to ask God to give you this gift or that gift, but let me tell you what is better: Why not ask Him to teach you how to love?”  When Jesus was asked to sum up the commands of God, He said it all boiled down to loving God and loving our neighbor.  Speaking in tongues can be a tremendous gift from God.  But it doesn’t help God’s mission in the world, and it doesn’t help others.  Back to chapter 14, Paul says in v. 12, “If you’re so eager to have spiritual gifts, why not yearn for gifts that build up the church?”  And again, in reference to vv. 23-25, God’s Word clearly commands us to think of the outsider when we’re planning our worship services.  I think about a guy I know, who was exploring the possibility of following Jesus.  He doesn’t live anywhere near here, so I recommended some churches in his part of Houston.  And he said to me, “I’m just afraid that I’m going to walk in, and they’ll be handling snakes and foaming at the mouth.”  It hit me that, for a non-religious person, the idea of walking into a church can be terrifying.  Now the good news is that, a few weeks ago, I was preaching during the 11:00 service, and a text message popped up on my ipad that said, “Good news!  I’ve accepted Christ and got baptized!”  It was him, and it was all I could do to not shout “Woohoo!” right in the middle of my sermon.  People who don’t know Christ are not going to just wander into our churches, or start listening to Christian radio, or randomly pick up a Bible.  We have to show them love.  If you want to seek something, why not seek more of God? Why not say, “Lord, help me to know you better?”  Why not pray, “Lord, show me how to love people like you do, and be a factor in helping them go from lost to saved?”  Are you praying that way?  If, in the midst of seeking God and serving people in His name, God chooses to give you a private language that the two of your share, praise God for it.  But either way, you’ll be fulfilling your purpose. 
            What does all this tell us about God?  Some of you might be saying to yourselves, “This has nothing to do with me.  I’ve never spoken in tongues.”  Well, neither have I.  But I have had many times when I was reading the Bible, or reading the words of a Christian author, or listening to a sermon or a testimony, and I felt an intense, almost overwhelming sense of God’s presence. It was a foretaste of Heaven for me.  For others, that’s not how God connects to them.  They struggle to get through a chapter of the Bible, and can barely stay awake for a sermon, but they draw close to God when they’re out in the outdoors, or when they’re singing, or praying, or helping others.  My point is that, whether it’s through a secret prayer language or some other means, God gives us all the gift of His presence.  And that’s what’s remarkable about God.  You see, all religions have this in common: They all say, “God is hard to get to.  Here’s a list of things to do and things to avoid.  Stick to the list, and if you’re really good at it, you stand a chance.” Then Jesus comes along and says, “No, God’s not like that.”  In Jesus, God came to us.  He died for our sins, and opened the door to a personal relationship with God, then rose again.  Then He sent the Holy Spirit, God accessible to everyone who calls on His name.  So it’s not about what we do.  God comes to us.  We just need to welcome Him in.  For most of us, sadly, that only happens when we’ve tried everything else. 
            I think of my friend Bryant Lee.  He came and shared his testimony with our deacons a month ago.  Bryant grew up in a gang-infested neighborhood near St Louis.  When he became an adult, he converted to Islam.  He said Islam attracted him because the Muslims were the only ones who were trying to shut down the crackhouses and run off the pimps.  He joined the army, and married a fellow soldier.  Then, when they were stationed in Kansas, a woman in their apartment befriended his wife.  His wife started attending church with this woman, and later accepted Christ.  Bryant was furious about this.  He decided he was going to kill that pastor.  So he went to church with her one Sunday with a bayonet in his pocket.  His plan was to walk up to the front of the church at the end of the service and take him out.  It was a Pentecostal church; the preacher was talking about speaking in tongues.  Bryant thought, “This guy is crazy.  Now I really want to kill him.”  But suddenly, unexpectedly, something grabbed him on the inside.  He began weeping, desperate to know this Jesus his wife had met.  When the preacher extended the invitation, Bryant went forward, just like he had planned.  But instead of taking that man’s life, he gave His life to Jesus.  Today, Bryant is a Christian pastor.  Two things about that story: One, that all began when one woman showed love to Bryant’s wife.  Now an entire family knows Jesus, and through them, hundreds of lives are being touched.  What non-Christians are you currently, actively showing love to?  Two, our God is relentless.  You may not be contemplating murder, but He’s calling you all the same.  You were made for more than an ordinary life.  Are you experiencing His abundant love?

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Made for More: Forgotten Heroes

Forgotten Heroes
1 Corinthians 12:14-26

            Amy Adams is one of the most respected and popular actresses in films these days.  But last June, she made big news for something besides her acting.  She was flying first class from Detroit to Los Angeles, and as she boarded, she noticed a soldier sitting in coach.  She went to a flight attendant and told her that she wanted to trade places with the soldier, giving up her spot in first class.  She did this all very quietly; the soldier himself didn’t even know who his benefactor was.  Suddenly, he found himself being ushered beyond the curtain into the coveted land of reclining seats and hot towels and five-star food.  But an ESPN reporter happened to be in first class, and witnessed the event.  She quickly posted about it on Twitter, and before long, what Adams had done was headline news.  It was one of those rare stories in which a person who courageously keeps us safe, and gets no attention for it, traded places (if only for a few hours) with a person who gets far more attention than she wants.  But the irony is that it was so temporary.  Quickly, things went back to the way of the world.  Amy Adams became even more famous, even if she wasn’t seeking that.  And we still don’t know that soldier’s name.  Few soldiers are household names; most of us can’t even name the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  No EMTs, social workers, or infectious disease researchers are famous, either.  Nor are people who teach in inner-city schools, police officers, or foster parents.  These people and others like them are forgotten heroes.  They rarely if ever receive any credit or fame, but our society would disintegrate without them.   
            We have plenty of forgotten heroes within the church, too.  We’ve been talking about spiritual gifts, and last week, we talked about some gifts that get a lot of attention in churches these days.  But in my estimation, only a small percentage of God’s people have those gifts; probably less than 10%.  There are so many other gifts.  I can’t list them and define them all Sunday, first of all because we don’t have time and second of all, because there is literally no comprehensive list of spiritual gifts in the Bible.  But I do want to name some of these gifts.  Perhaps I will name one you have.  Remember, we’ve provided a spiritual gift survey you can take, but ultimately we find our gifts by serving, by volunteering to meet needs.  In the second part of the message, we’ll look at what 1 Corinthians 12 has to say to you and me.  I hope to see you Sunday!