Favorite Movies of 2017

Consistently, I always deliver my best movies of the year late because it takes awhile to see all the films that I think may be contenders.  Here we are in April 2018 with the best movies of 2017.

Note:  Have not seen “The Post” and “Phantom Thread” and a few others that may have be in the running.

10) A Ghost Story- This is a quiet and meditative film that certainly will not be for every taste but I connected with it on a deep level.  Writer and director David Lowery has made an intentionally slow-moving tale about love, loss and grief.  At the center of the film are two lovers (played by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck) who are separated by death.  Mara’s character goes on living in the house (at least for a time) that their love affair played out in. Affleck becomes a ghost, complete with a white sheet over his head, and he watches Mara in her pain while not being able to connect any more.  The story doesn’t just stop at this juncture.  It reaches for grand metaphysical heights spanning time and the different lives who end up living in this very space or on the land.  All of these lives commonly sharing this small sliver of reality.  In the middle of the movie is an epic, drunken monologue delivered by Will Oldham that adds color to the thoughtful themes.  No doubt this is the monologue of the year that waxes poetic on the meaning of life or lack thereof.

9)  Brigsby Bear- I hesitate to tell anyone much about this movie because when I watched it, I did not know anything about the plot.  This is a great film that never really got a fair shake.  Funny, surprising, original, and yes, strange, “Brigsby Bear” follows the perception of James Pope (Kyle Mooney) as his world changes rather drastically.  Not only that, this is a movie that celebrates and glorifies the process of making a film with collaborative friends.  Features a non-Luke Skywalker role for Mark Hamill.  If you watch the very beginning, you will think I’m crazy but stick with this one.  Highly recommended.

8)  The Killing of a Sacred Deer- In a movie that gave me the creeps, Colin Farrell plays Dr. Steven Murphy who as a doctor lives a decent life.  He lives with his wife Anna Murphy (Nicole Kidman) and kids.  Directed and co-written by Yorgos Lanthimos, Dr. Murphy is soon presented with an unthinkable moral conundrum requiring an ultimate sacrifice when a teenage boy he has served as a mentor too turns sinister.  The camera hovers above the characters with long tracking shots down white hospital corridors reminding us of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”.  Every minute of running time this movie goes on becomes more unnerving and the stakes terrifying.

7)  I, Tonya- Destiny has chosen me to like this film a lot because the entire project reminded me of the Coen Brothers.  Stupid criminals doing even dumber crimes.  “I, Tonya” has the dubious distinction of being based on a true story…well, depending on which version of the true story we happen to believe.  The latter point speaks to the genius of Steven Rogers’ screenplay.  Using a docudrama format, he has crafted a story that weaves in multiple perspectives on the now infamous drama of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan.  He and director Craig Gillespie openly mock the entire sport of figure skating but still have the audience come away with feeling tremendous empathy for Harding.  At one point, the movie stuns by indicting American culture in the rush to judgment and villainization of Tonya Harding.  This is a wickedly funny drama with the tone reminiscent of the Coen Brother’s good work.  Top rate performances from Margot Robbie as Harding and Oscar-winner Allison Janney as her abusive mother.  A surprisingly great film.

6)  Wind River– Taylor Sheridan is a writer/director who seems to be re-mixing and re-imaging the American Western.  He has written a trilogy of films with western-type themes that are all fantastic:  Sicario, Hell or High Water, and now Wind River.  Jeremy Renner portrays Cory Lambert who is a veteran tracker with the Fish and Wildlife Services.  He offers his assistance to the FBI investigation of the vicious murder of a young Native American Woman.  The film is not a murder mystery per se but there is a slow building tension as the audience discovers more details about the sadistic crime at the center of the story.  A big theme that Sheridan is communicating is the trope of predator and prey.  One of the re-imagined ideas featured is how Sheridan turns that concept completely on its head.

5)  Dunkirk- From the beginning, I must confess that I’m a Christopher Nolan fanboy.  I have enjoyed all of his films and would probably rate “The Prestige” as his weakest (but still pretty good).  Since writer/director Nolan plays so much in the science fiction world, I was surprised to hear him taking on a World War 2 period piece.  It has gotten to the point with World War 2 where I’m wondering how many more films we need on this subject from Hollywood but I’m please to report that “Dunkirk” is another great Nolan picture.  This is a movie where the suspense is unrelenting from beginning to end.  Capturing the miracle of the Dunkirk evacuation, Nolan focuses on the private ships sailing to rescue the British troops stranded on the beach in France, the troops on the beach awaiting the Nazi army to break through at any moment and British planes in the sky.  A sense of dread is all around.  Will the British army be wiped out effectively handing Germany’s forces a key victory in the struggle?  Nolan uses three separate timelines as a device to forward his plot.  The genius of the screenplay is how all of these timelines converge at the climatic moment.  After watching this, you will feel exhausted but I’m willing to bet you will be thankful for this experience.  This is a perfect movie to couple with “Darkest Hour” which shows the politics behind “Dunkirk”.

 4)  Lady Bird- From the opening scene where we witness a conversation between mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) and daughter Christine aka Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) as they drive down a California highway and Lady Bird suddenly opens the passenger side door of the moving vehicle while throwing herself out, we know we will be in for a quirky take on growing up. “Lady Bird” features a strong performance from Ronan as she navigates the perilous territory of high school and preparation for adulthood.  This is a funny movie, absolutely and it has such moving insight into the teenager process that is brought to life by truly great acting.  Sharp writing and directing (first behind the camera) by Greta Gerwig give this film a personal feel which is why it feels honest and timeless. As a Christian, I found a theme of faith in this movie very fascinating.  The story features Lady Bird as a senior at a Catholic High School.  At the end, her conception of what she feels as “home” is sincerely thought-provoking and powerful.  Not that this film is preachy. It is too good for that.  One of the better coming of age movies I have seen.

3)  mother! No doubt that this one will be controversial on my list.  “mother!” is one of the most divisive movies of 2017.  I wrote a review here and said:  ““Mother!” is a head trip of a movie that is contained to a singular house but reaches for grand metaphysical truth.  A story that is an environmental parable at heart but also well-versed in theology as it explores the nature of God.  An explosive indictment of humanity that centrally revolves around the toxicity in which domineering men treat women and abuse them.  The boiling anger all around the edges of this picture simmers at first until it builds into a mighty crescendo of rape, debauchery, theft and extreme violence.  By the time the fiery apocalypse comes around at the conclusion, a fate that is hinted at from the very first frames of the film, the viewers may well have made their moral peace with this decisive act of judgment.”  A bold and uncompromising movie from Darren Aronofsky.

2)  Logan- 2017 featured one of the best comic book genre films since Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”.  Taking place in Fox’s X-Men universe and specifically in the series of Wolverine movie (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Wolverine), “Logan” is the very best of them all.  Director James Mangold finally decided to not pull any punches and go for the R-rating to feature the Marvel character who has adamantium claws shoot through his hands at will.  Hugh Jackman reprises his familiar role with his best turn yet.  At the inception of the story, Logan is hiding out in Mexico with his old mentor, Professor X (the great Patrick Stewart).  The USA has gotten hostile toward mutants and there is a giant wall on the southern border as we see in an early shot.  Logan, Professor X and a mysterious young girl receive word of an Eden for mutants that exists in Canada.  This is where the movie becomes a road film as the group journeys through America north to try and find Eden.    Of course, a team of mercenaries is tracking them.  “Logan” is filled with well-choreographed action sequences, car chases, loaded with subtle (and not so subtle) political themes and centers around a mutant struggling with what it means to be a hero.  A brilliant film, “Logan” should be a game-changer for future movies in the comic book genre.

1)  Get Out- The best film of 2017 is a master class in storytelling while weaving in powerful and convicting themes. “Get Out” is a horror film that serves as a racial and social class critique on how an entire community is not only treated but perceived.  First time director Jordan Peele (who also wrote the screenplay) has crafted an engrossing, thrilling, and shocking debut.  It is a movie that is very relevant for the times we live in but also feels like a film that will be discussed long after its release. One of the best performances of the year was Daniel Kaluuya who plays Chris.  The girlfriend, Rose (played by Allison Williams) invites Chris home to meet her white parents for the weekend which births a growing sense of extreme unease.  Months after seeing this movie, I cannot get it out of my head.

Honorable Mentions:  The Florida Project, Detroit, Darkest Hour,

 Movies watched in 2017:

  1. Life
  2. Logan
  3. Split
  4. Get Me Roger Stone
  5. Beauty and the Beast
  6. Get Out
  7. Kong: Skull Island
  8. Ghost in the Shell
  9. The Circle
  10. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
  11. Spiderman: Homecoming
  12. Alien: Covenant
  13. The Lost City of Z
  14. The Big Sick
  15. The Case for Christ
  16. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
  17. Baby Driver
  18. Patton Oswalt: Annihilation
  19. The Wizard of Lies
  20. The Dark Tower
  21. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
  22. War Machine
  23. Wind River
  24. A Ghost Story
  25. The Beguiled
  26. Justice League
  27. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2
  28. mother!
  29. Detroit
  30. Dunkirk
  31. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  32. Stranger Things 2
  33. Stronger
  34. American Made
  35. Dave Chapelle: Equanimity
  36. Battle of the Sexes
  37. Dave Chapelle: The Bird Revelation
  38. Stephen King’s It
  39. Blade Runner 2049
  40. Suburbicon
  41. The Killing of a Sacred Deer
  42. Lady Bird
  43. Last Flag Flying
  44. Roman J. Israel, Esq
  45. Kingsman: The Golden Circle
  46. The Mountain Between Us
  47. The Florida Project
  48. Breathe
  49. War for the Planet of the Apes
  50. Brigsby Bear
  51. Coco
  52. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
  53. The Punisher (Netflix) Season 1
  54. Una Mujer Fantastica (A Fantastic Woman)
  55. The Disaster Artist
  56. Darkest Hour
  57. Call Me By Your Name
  58. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
  59. Downsizing
  60. The Shape of Water
  61. Murder on the Orient Express
  62. Fargo (FX) Season 3
  63. Song to Song
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Coen Marathon: Inside Llewyn Davis

Play me something from Inside Llewyn Davis.”

“You mean like flying cars, hotels on the moon, Tang? You mean like move to the suburbs, have kids?  …If that’s what music is to you, a way to get to that place, then yeah, it’s a little careerist and it’s a little square and it’s a little sad.”

“Where’s its scrotum, Llewyn?”

______________________________________________________________

If you knew someone who had an immensely powerful dream about becoming a career musician and you realized the odds they were up against in consummating that vision, this would be the movie you would want to show them.  After a multi-month hiatus from my Coen Marathon, I finally got around to re-watching the Coen’s melancholy and fascinating take on the Greenwich folk rock music scene of 1961 in New York.  “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a complex film to approach because of the ambiguity of the lead character (as portrayed by Oscar Isaac of Poe Dameron fame).

He sings at the beginning “Hang me, oh hang me” which includes the lyrics:  “wouldn’t mind the hangin except layin in the grave so long.”  The lowkey but wonderful soundtrack is another teaming between the Coen Brothers and T Bone Burnett (of “O’ Brother Where Art Thou” fame).  Llewyn Davis has talent but as an industry gatekeeper will say later in the film, “I don’t see much money here.”  Davis keeps pursuing his dream while moving around to different friend’s couches.  Being beat up in alleyways outside of performance theaters happens a few times.  An ex-girlfriend, Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan) hates his guts and is pregnant.  The baby could be his.

There is a unique brilliance to “Inside Llewyn Davis” where other critics would complain about a lack of character arc.  Davis is not exactly a guy that an audience wants to root for and this is not a story about him overcoming odds to win fame and fortune.  Stubbornly, he presses forward with his musical aspirations navigating the claustrophobic hallways of New York apartment buildings, staying in friend’s small apartments and hitchhiking across country with a jazz group that includes the Coen regular, John Goodman.  Another layer is added here:  what exactly is Davis doing all this for?  Does he want fame and fortune?  Is it just about the art or music?  The Coens lead character is an enigma.

Being that this is a Coen lead character, the brothers certainly enjoy tormenting him but maybe not as much as they did to Larry Gopnik in “A Serious Man”.  Being beat up, not having an adequate winter jacket and being denied by movers in the music industry brings some degree of empathy.  One of the more quirky Coen supporting characters is a cat who keeps showing up in Davis’ life.  Another character, perhaps as an analogy to Davis himself, holds up the cat at one point and says, “where’s its scrotum, LLewyn?”

After a performance in New York at the tail end of the film, Davis walks out into an alley just as we see a younger guy sitting down on a stool and playing guitar on stage.  Strapped around his neck is a harmonica and the vocals we instantly recognize as the most timeless of voices.  That man, inserted for just a brief moment in the movie, would go on to define an entire genre of music and a cultural generation.

Davis’ dream is an illusion.  A vision that is out of his grasp no matter how long he may chase it.  The dream is a car, speeding away down the street and turning the corner out of sight while someone else’s music becomes the soundtrack.

Lester Lauding Level:  3.5 (out of 5)

Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):

No Country for Old Men (review here)

Fargo (review here)

A Serious Man (review here)

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (review here)

The Big Lebowski (review here)

True Grit (review here)

Miller’s Crossing (review here)

The Hudsucker Proxy (review here)

Raising Arizona (review here)

Burn After Reading (review here)

The Man Who Wasn’t There (review here)

Blood Simple (review here)

Inside Llewyn Davis

Barton Fink (review here)

Intolerable Cruelty (review here)

The Ladykillers (review here)

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Jesus Vs The Empires: Sermon on John 12:12-19

***This is a sermon I preached on Palm Sunday on March 25, 2018 at Seed Church.  You can listen here.

Say:

This message is called Jesus versus the empires.

Happy Palm Sunday to everyone.  The triumphal entry into Jerusalem before the cross and the empty tomb- the two most significant events in the history of the world- is what we are looking at today.

A large crowd welcomes Jesus going to Jerusalem by laying down palm branches as the homeless King rides on a donkey.  A lot of electricity was in the air as Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead and because of that (and other reasons), the Pharisees and their co-conspirators were plotting to kill Jesus.

We will look at this account verse by verse and then talk about the differing empires that Jesus is challenging.

Mean:

Verse 12:  The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.

Jesus and this large crowd that had been following him around had come from Bethany.  Bethany is about 1.5 miles to the east of Jerusalem on the south eastern slope of the Mount of Olives.  Matthew’s gospel tells us (Matthew 21:1-3) that Jesus sent two of his disciples and told them:  ‘Go into the village in front of you,  and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her.  Untie them and bring them to me.’  Jesus asked them to do this on the Mount of Olives when they were at Bethphage.  Matthew, Mark and Luke are very similar in Jesus asking His disciples to get a donkey for Him.  These accounts go further stating that as they were untying the donkey, the owner asked them what they needed it for.  Their response was, ‘The Lord has need of it.’

There was a tremendous buzz around Jesus and a growing popularity.   John 11:45 tells us that many Jews (and presumably Gentiles) were believing in Jesus.  Maybe this was one of Jesus’ ministry high moments.  A lot of response to His message and people joining His spiritual kingdom.

The large crowd was hanging out with Jesus at a dinner with Lazarus in Bethany.  Everyone wanted to see and talk with Lazarus.  The account of Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead was spreading like wild fire.  The anticipation would have reached a crescendo when they heard that Jesus was coming for the Passover celebration.  Jesus was greeted by Passover-type multitude and they came pouring out of Jerusalem’s eastern gate to greet Jesus.

Excitement and word of mouth were informing people that Jesus’ was coming to Jerusalem.

Verse 13:  So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, crying out, ‘Hosanna!  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!’

The crowd had cut fronds from the palm trees to add to their celebration of Jesus coming to Jerusalem for Passover.  Palm trees, in that time, lined the road from Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives.  In Psalm 92:12, the palm tree is a symbol of the righteousness and spiritual flourishing of God’s children.  Holding the palm branch with myrtle and willow branch and shaking it is referenced back in Leviticus 23:40 as how Israel during the Feast of Tabernacles expressed joy.  So the people lining the road outside of Jerusalem and waving these branches were celebrating that salvation had come and triumph.  Here is where many people, including many of the disciples, misunderstood.  Their idea of triumph was overthrowing Rome.  A popular Jewish conception of the Messiah in this Day was a figure sent by God to end the Roman rule and Israel’s oppression under the Romans.

If Jesus had just raised a guy from the dead, a part of the massive excitement was that they believed that this guy had the powers.  He was the super hero.  He was going to fulfill their conception of taking power back, over throwing Rome and establishing a new earthly kingdom.  If Jesus could raise people from the dead, what were the limits as to where this thing could go?

When they began their chant of Hosanna, the two crowds had become united.  The crowd from Bethany and the crowd from Jerusalem.  A merging.  A mass of people rejoicing in what they believed was a coming triumph of the Messiah King who would re-establish the Davidic dynasty.

The phrase, “Hosanna!’  They shouted means ‘save now’ or ‘save, pray’.  A person who declares this is asking God, convinced that the proper time for full deliverance had come.  Hosanna!  Save now!

They also shouted, ‘Blessed is He who is coming in the name of the Lord!’  This phrase is from Psalm 118:26.  It is a very common Psalm that is quoted in the New Testament and is a Messianic Psalm.

They also hailed Jesus as the King of Israel, their great joyous hope of being the mighty miracle worker who would re establish the throne of David.

Verse 14-15:  And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, ‘Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.’

Jesus riding on a donkey is a fulfillment of prophecy from Zechariah 9:9.  The daughter of Zion is understood to be Jerusalem and and its inhabitants.

The donkey is a symbol of peace.  The Prince of Peace riding on a donkey.  The horse is commonly associated with war.  The Prince of Peace comes to bring salvation so the daughter of Zion will not be afraid.

A note about the donkey.  The donkey is not a symbol of weakness and as a matter of fact, it was used by kings before Jesus.  Notice how the crowds are not saying, ‘Oh, blessed is Jesus the lowly.’  They are saying, ‘the king of Israel!’

In this ancient world, the donkey was viewed with a symbol of kingship as early as the third millennium BC.  There are references to kings and donkeys in Sumerian texts.  Archaeologists have also dug up donkeys hitched to royal chariots in the tombs of Ur.

 In the Bible (Judges 12:14) Jair the Gileadite is described as having 30 sons who rode of 30 donkeys corresponding to 30 cities ruled by each.  Absalom rode a mule in 2 Samuel 18:9.  When Solomon was anointed as the king, he rode a mule in 1 Kings 1:38.

Horses would most certainly symbolize a ready for battle type posture but just because Jesus was riding a donkey, does not mean this takes away at all from His identity and image as the King of Israel.  He did not refuse this crowds worship or accolades.

Verse 16:  His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to Him.

And now we come to the disciples who did not understand any of this.  If Jesus has this extraordinary power, even raising people from the grave, why was he riding on a donkey (presumably unarmed) symbolizing peace?  If the Romans were going to be defeated, they didn’t need palm branches.  They would need weapons and horses.  If they wanted to defeat the empire, it would be a brutal battle.  In this moment, John’s gospel describes them as lost (not spiritually).  Those closest to Jesus would not realize this fulfillment of prophecy and the staggering meaning behind this episode in Jesus’ life until He was glorified.

Verse 17-18:  The crowd that had been with Him when He called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness.  The reason why the crowd went to meet Him was that they heard He had done this sign.’

John swings his narrative back to the crowds and mentions again that the people in the crowd who had seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead continued to bear witness.  In other words, they could not stop talking about this event and word was spreading like wildfire.  Members of the crowd, pilgrims that had come to Jerusalem for the Passover, went to meet him as well because they heard He had done this deed.  There was a convergence of the crowds.

I read a book last year (audio book) called “Did Jesus Exist?  The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth’ written by Bart Ehrman.  As a committed agnostic who is not a believer in Jesus, he argues thoroughly and persuasively for the historical existence of a homeless man in first century Palestine.  One of the more interesting things he says in the book is that Jesus had the reputation of being a miracle worker.  Now, obviously, Ehrman does not believe in miracles but he argues people who encountered Jesus back then totally believed that Jesus could do them.  Scholars have to have an explanation as to why Jesus became so famous.

This convergence of the crowd were many people who didn’t see the miracle but who believed that Jesus had done it based on the word of mouth and Jesus’ reputation back then.

Verse 19:  So the Pharisees said to one another, ‘You see that you are gaining nothing.  Look, the world has gone after him.’

The killjoys of our triumphal entry party were already at work planning to have Christ killed.  Their power was threatened.  The way the crowds were responding to Christ and believing in Jesus had the Pharisees worried that they would lose standing with Rome.  The Lazarus miracle had them furious and that rage was based in fear of what would happen if Jesus’ work continued.  Their statement here may suggest that radical Pharisees were trying to convince more moderate Pharisees that Jesus was bad news.

Matter:

What is Jesus doing here?  He rides into Jerusalem with, by all accounts, a large crowd on a donkey.  This was not a coincidence.  In other gospel accounts, Jesus asked his disciples to go and secure a donkey for Him to ride. Jesus was mindful of the symbolism of Peace (Him being the Prince of Peace) while horses connotated war.

The triumphal entry of Jesus that we celebrate every year prior to the incredible events of Good Friday and Easter was a challenge to empire.  Jesus was pitting himself against empire.  Jesus versus the empires of the world.

This is further shown by the Pharisees response.  The religious leaders were freaking out.  Crowds and people were gravitating toward Jesus.  Their power was being directly threatened.

Throughout Jesus’ life, He was a threat to the powers of the world.  When Jesus was born, a despotic and psychotic King Herod killed baby boys under the age of 2 because Herod had heard a king had been born in Bethlehem and he would have His soldiers slaughter babies to hold onto his Roman throne.

During the sermon on the mount, Jesus taught to turn the other cheek when His followers are struck.  There are a few different readings and interpretations of Jesus teaching.  One of them doesn’t seem widely understood but makes sense within the culture.  Let’s say you were going about your business one day and a Roman soldier came up and struck you for no reason and knocked you down.

If this happened to you, you would think about two options.  1)  You cower in fear at the soldier above you and don’t dare get up.  2)  You get up and attack the soldier which would very likely get you killed.

Jesus was suggesting another way.  Stand up but don’t react violently.  An act of defiance against the empire.

In John chapter 4, Jesus met the woman at the well.  Obviously he was a Jew and she was a Samaritan.  It was a cultural taboo for them to be speaking.  This is an account that a lot of us have heard presented in the past but I don’t think speakers/ teachers quite have this right.  Usually this passage is presented as a slut-shaming toward this Samaritan woman.  Jesus says she has had 5 husbands and she is currently not married to the guy that she lives with.  This woman is often portrayed as a loose woman running around town with all these guys.  However, notice a couple of things:  one about the passage and another about the culture and the status of women.

Jesus in this passage never condemns this woman for any behavior that she exhibited  The final thing is:  keep in mind that women in this society had no rights.  They were not trusted as reliable court witnesses.  Women in this culture had little to no recourse to divorce their husbands.  Our church has been going through Corinthians.  During that series, we had seen that Corinth men could go to a temple, have their time and a woman didn’t have much recourse to divorce a man who was doing this.  On the flip side, if a woman were to behave this way, she could be stoned to death or the man could absolutely divorce her.  And a man could divorce a woman for any reason pretty much. Food cold at dinner.  Grounds for divorce.  Talking back. Grounds for divorce.  When a woman was divorced, she often was thrown out of the house and didn’t have anywhere to go.  She would be in poverty.  This was a very Patriarchal society.

So, five guys had thrown this woman out (divorced her) and now she was living with a guy maybe as a means to have shelter.  So is Jesus condemning her?  Here is what he says, ‘Go, call your husband and come here.’  The woman says, “I have no husband.’  Jesus says, ‘ I know you have had 5 husbands and are now living with a guy who is not your husband.”  He never condemns her but he acknowledges her story and the abuse she has felt in this culture.  Jesus in this account is challenging cultural empire.  The bare bones definition of a culture is ‘a way of life’.  A culture has ideas, philosophies, and assumptions that they make about life, gender, race and about people.

At the beginning of John 4, the Pharisees are hot on Jesus’ tail so he ducks out and intentionally goes to Samaria to meet this woman.  He is flagrantly challenging cultural authority and rebelling against.  He is criticizing cultural empire.

There were empires in Jesus day obviously.  Rome was an occupying force and the Jewish people and oppressed community.  Samaritans often had things worse then the Jews.  The Pharisees and Sadduccees had a religious empire that they carefully navigated to maintain their power.  Cultural empire divvied out who had power, influence and authority and who had none of those things.

Our time has empires too.  We live in a massive empire.  Bigger then the world has ever known.  And we should be thankful for that.  It is not a bad thing all the time.  Our country spends more on our military then any other country, I think by 20 times more then the next competitor.  We have bases all over the world.  The reach and influence we have is astounding.

Not only is there military might, we have a massive global influence.  Trade.  Movies and music being exported to other countries.  Western philosophies and ideas going global.  The internet makes the reach beyond what any person would have thought a hundred years ago.  There is good there for sure but also ideas getting exported such as our materialistic obsessions and our hedonism.

There is a macro empire, our political country and its standing in the world, a cultural empire that makes assumptions about where people stand based on whether they are rich or poor or black or white or male or female.  Then there are personal empires.  The things that we value truly in the center of our being.  Our idols.  The things we hide and lie about.  The addictions and demons we have a hard time escaping.

Well, today is the day of the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem.

Thesis:  The homeless guy from Nazareth is coming for our empires while riding on a donkey and our only response should be unconditional surrender.

 Struggle:

He is coming to challenge the empires.  He is coming to overthrow the tables.  He is coming to dismantle and take apart the wicked structures, beliefs and vices that we have held on to and participated in.  Everything will be rearranged.  Things will be made right.  Nothing will be the same.

I remember this lyric from a song by Beck from the song ‘Sea Change.’  He sings, ‘in the sea change, nothing is safe.’  I love this as a undertow of the ocean can be strong and suck you out to see.  The tides of the ocean can direct you any which way.  So much is out of your control and the weather can change quickly.  Everything can be washed away in an instant.

Now, this is a struggle to come to terms with.  We love our idols.  We love the empires that we have structured in our souls.  What is there in the core of your soul?  Greed.  Selfishness.  Racism.  An immoral relationship.  A porn addiction.  A sense of massive discontentment until you get that next big thing.

Some of these things we know are damaging to ourselves and others but just like back in Jesus’ day where a city constructs walls around its perimeter to guard the metropolis, we construct our own walls via justification to protect these things that we know are bad and other things that we want to continue to do because they are fun and we think we can get a lasting satisfaction from them.  Some of these vices are tricky to navigate because they could involve good things.  Greed, for instance, can be tricky to deal with in the area that we live.  Taxes are up.  Housing costs are up.  So many of us scramble and try to work hard (and sometimes long hours) so we can get a more comfortable life for our families.  And that is a good thing.  However, where is the line where a solid and good value like working hard becomes an ultimate thing and begins to intrude on the sacred areas of our life:  our relationship with God, our families and our communities.

Other things we have complicated responses too.  One of the things in my life is dealing with anger toward a situation that happened a few years ago because a boss at a previous place of employment literally called my current employer and told lies about me.

Now, you see how I can justify the anger.  What happened to me was wrong and yet when I think about it, even to this day, I just get furious about it.  And you know what Jesus is saying to me and this empire that I have built around my soul and my justification to continually just be angry about it?  ‘Let it go.  What happened was wrong and it is right to be angry for a time.  But to continue to harbor and focus on this anger is going to be destructive to you and distract you from the things that you should be focusing on right now.  Let it go.’

Gospel:

What empires in your heart need to be challenged and thrown down?

There is a big buzz word right now, deconstruction.  People are talking about deconstructing their faith or other ideas.  People believe things and perhaps come to a point where they start to question the assumptions.  In the case of our empires, we have believed things that our culture has preached to us all our lives.  Billions and billions dollars of advertising that we have seen or consumed over our lives have led us to accept a reality and believe things.  Much of what we have believed in our American cultural universe and empire are lies and a warping of deeper truths.  Jesus’ kingdom is upside down to the values of worldly empires.

Jesus wants to come in and deconstruct these poison assumptions that we have made.  The materialism, the greed, the selfishness, the violence of our culture, the lack of seeing sex as a sacred gift, the obsession with hedonism and endless pleasure are all things that Jesus wants to deconstruct.

One of the issues with deconstruction, particularly with deconstructing faith, is that once you deconstruct something sacred like faith, what are you left with?  A lot of people deconstruct things and then have nothing to turn too.  Everything is swept away.

When Jesus deconstructs your empires, He will never leave you with nothing.  You may have to let go of things that are painful to get rid of.  Change is extremely hard.  However, when Jesus casts down and dismantles our worldly empires, He will start to build something new in its wake.  Jesus, among many things, was an apocalyptic preacher.  A lot of people think that apocalypse is an ending, which it is, but it is also a new beginning.  What is old passes away and here comes what is new.

Some of you are following Jesus and love Jesus but there are still areas that you need to give over to Him.  Maybe some of you have never surrendered to Jesus as Lord and Savior.  You have never welcomed His proverbial triumphal entry into the core of your soul.

It is time to surrender our empires to the guy from Nazareth riding on a donkey.  The King that has told us about a kingdom that is from another place but is breaking into this world through the work Jesus is doing in the lives of those that follow Him.

A surrender to this King is an avenue to find lasting hope, meaning and joy in this chaotic world that we live in.

 

 

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The Weight of Glory Sermon: 2 Corinthians 4:7-18

**The following is a sermon I preached at Seed Church on February 25, 2018.  You can listen to the message here.

Verses 7:  But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 

 The Apostle Paul just got done talking about the glorious light of the gospel as he and other believers proclaim Jesus.  Now, the Apostle talks about the very common vessels which proclaim the good news.  Jars of clay.  In most homes in the ancient Middle East, there were common earthenware vessels or vases.  These were inexpensive and easily broken.  Stored in these vessels might be common everyday items for that day and sometimes human waste.  These would be contrasted against metal vessels or glass ones.  Metal could be repaired and glass could be melted down and used for another purpose.  The earthenware vessels were cheap and again, easily broken and often when they were broken, they were discarded.  Consider the contrast that Paul is using as an analogy here to himself and us.  Human beings are frail and we are easily broken but God delights in empowering us to share His gospel and kingdom values.  This relationship and exchange proves the surpassing power and glory is from God as He works in and through the ordinary and easily broken to change the world.

The word glory gets thrown around a lot.  Let’s define it.  Glory is ‘high renown or honor won by notable achievements…magnificence or great beauty.’  This would be like when you get a new shirt or new clothes.  When you go to work and people notice you and compliment you, you may feel a little bit glorious.

We may feel like jars of clay which would be the opposite of glorious.  Ordinary and easily broken.  How can we as believers make a difference?  Because God is at work, shining his light through all of us as the jars of clay that we are and showing His glory in this strange way.

 Verse 8-10:  We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.

 These verses are incredible.  This is not a man writing talking about his surrender to Jesus and subsequent happy life where he becomes affluent and everything starts going amazingly well in his personal life.  These are the words of a man going through hell on earth in some of these circumstances and writing to a church that he loved but would identify with this grief, pain and suffering.  From this writing, it almost seems like he is on the razor’s edge, doesn’t it?  He is saying he would absolutely fall into despair if not for knowing Christ.

Paul has to die to himself.  Die to his own personal desires to carry forward what God has for him to do and the message God has for him to preach.  This identifying with Jesus’ death in the body, as Paul puts it, allows Jesus to be fully manifest in his life to carry him forward even in the darkest of times and most painful of experiences.

Paul went through a lot of painful experiences while on his missionary journey’s sharing the gospel.   Here is a summary (a resume if you will), in his own words, of the suffering he went through for the gospel:

Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one.  Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers;  in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.  And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.”  From 2 Corinthians 11:23-28.

Who wants to sign up?

Verses 11-12:  For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.  So death is at work in us, but life in you.

In doing Paul’s work and with the Corinth church joining him in sharing the gospel, death is all around in very specific ways as a consequence of the message they are trying to get out.  They are challenging Greek and Roman gods and religions.  They are challenging the notion of empire as they are bowing their knee to Jesus and not to Caesar.  Death is all around and their physical bodies may succumb at any point and with any persecution incident that may arise.  Through living through these trying times, Paul and these early Christians can contemplate and greatly identify with Jesus’ death.  Paul ominously notes ‘death is at work’ and could come seemingly randomly at any time but Paul adds that life is at work too.  Believers have been awakened to the gospel.  Their spiritual lives in Christ are being renewed by this holy message.  There is bad news all around for the believers but at the core of their souls, there is better news.  The greatest of news.

Verses 13-14:  Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into His presence. 

At the beginning of verse 13, Paul is loosely quoting Psalm 116:10 and therefore is identifying himself with the faith of the Psalmist while under a lot of suffering.

The Psalmist writes in that same chapter, verse 3:  ‘The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.’  Then the Psalmist goes on by saying that he called upon the name of he Lord.

Obviously Paul was familiar with this Psalm and most of the Old Testament.  He was communicating to these fellow believers that striving to have faith among incredible suffering was nothing new but had been a struggle for fellow believers before.

Then Paul mentions the hope of the resurrection.  There is a reason why we as Christians trust in Christ and proclaim His holy gospel.  God will raise us also with Jesus and we will be brought into His presence.  Resurrection is a gateway to immortality in the presence of the true God.

Evangelicals have been criticized for being escapist, rightly in my opinion.  In preaching and teaching, there has been an emphasizing on getting out of this world rather then trying to make a difference here and try to implement Jesus’ kingdom values in our lives and communities of faith.  To be fair, Paul sounds a little escapist in his verse.  However, we should consider the context.  We talked about Paul’s persecution and everything he was going through.  Going through this intense of suffering and painful experiences, it may be understandable for someone to greatly look forward to their own resurrection and being in the presence of Jesus post-mortem.

Verse 15:  For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

Grace is such a crucial element in Paul’s presentation of the gospel.  By proclaiming Christ, Paul obviously had the message of mercy- we escape the eternal consequences of our sinfulness.  In other words, what we deserve is not what comes about because of the work of Jesus.  Grace is a different aspect of the gospel from mercy.  Grace is unmerited favor.  We get or inherit what we don’t deserve.  Things are even better then merely being spared certain consequences.  We inherit something, the kingdom of Jesus, in which the author of Hebrews exclaims that followers of Jesus are co-heirs with Christ.

Writing here, Paul says as grace extends to more people it will increase the thanksgiving to God.  This is amazing.  Paul and his fellow believers are going hell and suffering to get this gospel message out so more and more people can experience this radical grace.  So the whole world, prayerfully, would experience the grace of Jesus.  Even within this context and first century world of suffering and pain, it would translate to greater thanksgiving for who God is and what He has done on our behalf.

CS Lewis in his famous sermon ‘The Weight of Glory’ talks about how God views us which is vitally important, at the heart of what grace is and should elicit a lifestyle of thanksgiving:

I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself, it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important. Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except in so far as it is related to how He thinks of us. It is written that we shall ‘stand before’ Him, shall appear, shall be inspected. The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God. To please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son — it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.”

Verse 16-18:  So we do not lose heart.  Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.  For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comprehension, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.  For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

The early Christians and Paul are not losing heart even though they may die at any time and their body wastes away as the years go by.  Compared to eternity with God, Paul compares the intense persecutions to a slight momentary affliction.  Believers in Christ are focused on the whole picture.  A transcendent God and His kingdom that has broken and is breaking into the world.  Christians believe in a kingdom unseen and a heavenly realm and God as a Spirit.  This is the eternal weight of glory.  Each Christian, by following Christ, has this weight that becomes a part of our spiritual DNA.  The Spirit opens our hearts and makes us mindful of what really matters.

Matter:

So how does this matter to us today?  How does an early Apostle and missionary’s intense commitment to spreading the gospel while experiencing some of the worst persecution imaginable fit in with believers today?  What about us being jars of clay and sensing deep in our souls this weight of glory while desiring everyone to experience God’s grace?

This matters because we are not all that different from Paul and those early Christians.  Thankfully, we don’t experience the same persecution they did but we still have pain and grief in our lives. We still have struggles in trying to comprehend the fleeting reality of life and our inevitable deaths.

The gospel that the Apostle Paul is still relevant to ourselves and our culture.  The vital message of grace being still life changing and the avenue to find hope and peace with God.

Thesis:  Even though we may feel ordinary and have the same frailties as any human being, God can still work through us as we seek to bring His message of grace to this dark world we live in.

Struggle:

Like Paul and the Corinth believers, we feel afflictions in our lives.  We sense death and decay around us in our bodies and in our culture.  If we are honest, when we turn on the news these days, some of the words that Paul uses here in this passage may come to our minds.  The stories circulating in media can be perplexing and tempt one to despair when we consider our culture.  A lot has changed in the world since Paul and the Corinth church existed but the capacity for darkness has not.

We have yet another school shooting that has happened in Parkland, Florida.  Grief, outrage, suffering and unspeakable pain is broadcast through our televisions and social media feeds.  In April, it will be 19 years since the Columbine massacre in 1999.  This keeps happening in our culture.  Not just at schools but at country western concerts, at churches, at movie theaters and other places.

The big debate in our culture right now is about guns.  Obviously a contentious issue.  We are not going to wade into the gun debate from the pulpit here at Seed Church as we have people from across the political spectrum that attend here and we want everyone to feel welcome.  Ultimately, we are about Jesus and we want everyone whether conservative, liberal, libertarian, socialist or communist to hear His gospel.  The Bible obviously doesn’t speak about guns.  Whether you are for gun rights generally or favor more restrictions and regulations are firearms, maybe we can all agree on one thing this morning.  There is something at the spiritual core of our society that is really, really wrong. At the spiritual center of our society is something dark, perverted, twisted and evil.

Like Paul dealing with forces of darkness in his time and even forces of darkness in the spiritual realm like what Brian Bailey talked about last week:  Satan literally blinding people to the truth of the gospel, we have these forces wrecking devastation in our culture.  People are blinded to avenues of hope, peace and justice.

Nothing is going to be the one silver bullet to such a complex problem and there are many areas that need to be addressed to get to a place where are society is healthy however since we deal with the spiritual here at Seed, we should deal with this aspect of the problem.  Doesn’t it seem like one of the issues at the center of this massive problem is the general devaluing of life?  I mean, students getting continually gunned down in schools sometimes just warrants a few days of media coverage and then everyone moves on and it happens again.  What does that show about what we value?

Unborn children, are their lives valued?  How about elderly people that come to be seen as a burden to take care of rather then as members of the family?  The dehumanizing element is everywhere.  It is in our politics where if you are a liberal, you are tempted to view conservatives as the enemy.  As an evil group of people that is going to destroy the country.  If you are a conservative, you are tempted to view liberals similarly.  We dehumanize people we disagree with on policy.  As a side note:  social media seems to be pushing these things farther and farther.  As long as America exists, there will be disagreements about politics.  That is in the nation’s DNA however there is a way to do this without turning the opponent or friendly competition into Hitler or Satan incarnate.

With race, we have long had problems.  Stereotyping people of another race irrationally. Our economic system where there are winners and losers and how do we treat those losers?  How are lower classes viewed?  All of this becomes a system of dehumanization.  When we get online, we can cycle into our own groups and vent our outrage and righteous fury at the other groups we believe but, may never say out loud, are inferior.

Now, you are probably thinking to yourself that you see all this going on.  We see the contentious in the media and online.  We see these dark elements in society and you say to me or more say to yourself, ‘I’m just a jar of clay.’  ‘I am ordinary.’  ‘I’m not a celebrity and I’m nobody special.’  Yes, and look around the room.  So are all of not most of us.  We are easily broken, frail, weak and sinful so therefore spiritually weak.

If we are jars of clay and this is our status, what literally can we do about this massive perverse darkness at the center of our culture?  How can ordinary people make any kind of a difference?   Can you really do anything about school shootings, these horrific tragedies and crimes, and the sheer rage that impacts so many in our country right now?

Moreover as Christians we do sense this weight of glory that Paul talks about.  We know and believe that this life is not all there is.  We know that God’s Kingdom is breaking through and one day will be fully manifested when Jesus comes back.  There is something at is transcendent to this world and universe that we find ourselves in.  We attempt to have the perspective of the unseen, of eternal things, as a guide to find hope and meaning today.  But often times this weight of glory we turn into a burden.  We shame ourselves and feel guilty that we cannot do more to bring this message of Christ’s gospel to this culture of ours that at times seems to be spiraling out of control.  We beat ourselves up and proverbially keep telling ourselves that we are just ordinary.  An earthenware vessel and nothing more.

Gospel:

Fortunately for us, Paul doesn’t just stop with our description as jars of clay.  He also says, ‘…to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.’  We always forget that God’s kingdom values are often upside down from this world’s.  As kids when you picked your kickball team at recess, you would often want to choose he very best player first, right?  You would pick the person who could kick the ball the furtherest or could play great defense.  Well, God doesn’t always choose the most talented or most gifted.  A lot of the time He chooses earthenware vessels.  Billy Graham was not technically one of the greatest speakers ever but he ended up preaching the gospel to more people then anyone else in history.  Some scholars believe Moses may have had a speech impediment.  Jonathan Edwards, the well known Puritan pastor and giant in American history, used to reportedly read sermons monotone.  Rosa Parks was 42 years old when she said, “Today, I’m not going to the back of the bus.” They were all jars of clay but God had them do extraordinary things.

Again, in reality we probably will not attain the heights of those people.  This will cause us to feel ordinary.  But in the end, with God’s work and with this weight of glory that we sense as Christians, are we really ordinary?  Is the person sitting next to you ordinary?  Here is CS Lewis again from his same sermon:

“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner — no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

Here is what we can do.  How many people do you engage or interact with on a daily basis?  Your family members, your literal neighbors, your co-workers, people at the grocery store, others you meet at a party or volunteer work that you do.  What if you let Christ empower you with His grace in your daily, ordinary interactions with others?  Paul says in this passage ‘….as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving.’  Who is that one co-worker that really pisses you off?  How can you show them grace this week?  How about grace to your spouse and kids?

The goal being that it would exalt and overwhelming attitude of thankfulness to God.  When we receive grace, unmerited favor or things that we do not deserve, it tends to move us into a posture of thanksgiving.

Let’s be idealistic hippies for a moment.  What if we became a community that received the grace of Christ and in turn were empowered by the Holy Spirit to give grace to those in our lives?  What if others were inspired by this display because they saw the hope and meaning in life that can come by living this way for Jesus?  And what if this perspective spread across our culture so at the center of our culture was not a dehumanization of the other but a perspective of thankfulness that they are our neighbors in this place live?  What if the scorn, hyper partisanship and rage that exists in our culture right now was replaced by a thankfulness to God because of His grace?  A thankfulness that we are alive.  A thankfulness that we live here in this country.  A thankfulness for God that loves us, died for us and rose again.

It’s a dream.  A pipe dream probably but with God, anything is possible.  It starts here with us.  The jars of clay extending grace and celebrating the value of thankfulness.

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2 Corinthians 1:12-24

***The following is a sermon I preached at Seed Church on my birthday, January 21, 2018.  You can listen here.

Intro:

Some background on the Corinth church before we launch into the passage for today.  The city of Corinth is in modern day Greece.  You can actually go to the modern day city of Corinth but the ancient city is about 2 miles to the southwest.  Corinth was a port city so, as you can imagine, there were lots of different people coming and traveling through Corinth.

The Apostle Paul had come to Corinth in AD 51 and ministered there for about 18 months with Silvanus and Timothy (Acts 18).  From there, the missionary team went on to Ephesus where Paul wrote the real 1 Corinthians which is lost to history.  Then Paul wrote a second letter to Corinth which is our 1 Corinthians.  A third letter to Corinth was the severe letter or the ‘letter of tears’.  Finally a fourth letter to the Corinthian church was written which we know as 2 Corinthians.  The Corinth church was also corresponding with Paul in between those letters as well.  A long and complicated history between the parties but fair to say that Paul did love this church and wanted to see them flourish in their faith in Christ.

Macedonia is mentioned in this passage which is north of Corinth and in the northern Greece area.  This is near where Thessalonica would be as well as Philippi to the east.

Judea is where modern day Israel is and where Jerusalem lies.

Say:

After sharing some empathy regarding suffering for Christ at the beginning of his letter, Paul then launches into an issue that had surfaced in the Corinth church.  Judaizers or Jewish Christian leaders had come in and challenged the Apostle Paul because his travel plans had changed.  Because of this change, they were questioning other parts of Paul’s gospel message.  This wasn’t merely a theological disagreement as Paul would accuse them later in his second Corinthian letter of preaching a completely different Jesus.

Mean:

Verses 12-14:  ‘Now this is our boast: our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves  in the world, and especially in our relations with you, with integrity and godly sincerity.  We have done so, relying not on worldly wisdom but on God’s grace.  For we do not write you anything you cannot read or understand.  And I hope that, as you have understood us in part, you will come to understand fully that you can boast of us just as we will boast of you in the day of the Lord Jesus.’

Paul’s word for ‘boast’ here can also be translated ‘proud confidence’ like in the NASB.  29 of the 59 uses of the word in the New Testament are used in 2 Corinthians.  The apostle uses boasting in a positive and negative context in his writings.  In the positive sense, like in this passage, connotes a legitimate confidence in what God has done in someone’s life.  Paul was being attacked by false teachers who evidently were winning their case with some Corinth congregants against Paul.

Paul appeals to conscience and on this topic, he is different then the Stoic philosophers of the day.  He isn’t necessarily saying that conscience is always the voice of God.  He is considering the conscience to be a human faculty (God created all things good in Genesis 1 and people bear the image of God).

He is saying his conscience is clean.  He has behaved with integrity and godly sincerity.

It appears that the false teachers or rivals were trying to say that Paul was contradicting himself in his writings and teachings.  Paul simply says, with his confidence, ‘for we do not write anything you cannot read or understand…’ Paul is saying in his previous messages that his writing and teachings were clear, he means them and suggests they were straightforward on living a gospel centered life.

Verses 15-16:  ‘Because I was sure of this, I wanted to come to you first, so that you might have a second experience of grace.  I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia and to come back to you from Macedonia and have you send me on my way to Judea.’

 For these verse’s let us recall the last series on 1 Corinthians and specifically 1 Corinthians 16:5-7 where Paul writes that he intends to visit them again after passing through Macedonia.  He talked about staying the winter there and having them help on where he would journey next.  That didn’t work out so Paul in these verses was trying to change his plans so that he may come and see them first.

The phrase ‘second experience of grace’ is an interesting comment.  Some of your translations may have the word ‘grace’ translated as ‘pleasure’.  This could mean the friendship and affection that Paul had for the people at Corinth and likewise.  He genuinely wanted to see them.  However, I think it is also likely that this is referring to the blessing of being taught by an apostle.  Paul was the Billy Graham of their day.  Also, Christianity was rather new on the scene and churches were hungry to learn from Paul.  To get instructions from him on how to live out this Christian thing was of paramount importance.

Verses 17-20:  ‘Was I vacillating when I wanted to do this?  Do I make my plans according to the flesh, ready to say ‘yes, yes’ and ‘no, no’ at the same time?  As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No.  For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No, but in Him it is always Yes.  For all the promises of God find their Yes in Him.  That is why it is through Him that we utter our Amen to God for His glory.’

Paul starts out asking a rhetorical question.  Is he vacillating according to the flesh?  He implies that this is a ‘no’.  There are circumstances that come up on his missionary journeys that are beyond his control.  There is a Greater person in charge of his life.  With the false apostles accusing him of changing his plans and then presumably not caring about the Corinthians, Paul is stating that he has his focus set on the spread of Jesus’ gospel as God directs him.  Paul even reminds them that God is faithful and that  his word is faithful as well.  Simply, sometimes plans change in the world.  The apostle is saying he does not make plans according to the flesh or the double mindedness of a worldly man who is saying yes and no at once.  He is committed to Corinth but outside circumstances change the plans.

Paul brings up his fellow ministers, Silvanus and Timothy.  Silvanus was a leader in the Jerusalem church who in Acts 15:22 was carrying a change in leadership decision from the Jerusalem council to Antioch.  Silvanus is Silas in Acts.  He became Paul’s companion on the second missionary following the dispute between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41).  When the two men reached Lystra, Timothy who had a Jewish Christian mother and a Greek father, was recruited to join the team.  Therefore, Silvanus and Timothy were both with Paul when he first came to minister in Corinth.

In verse 20, Paul reminds his audience about the faithfulness of God.  All of God’s promises result in yes because God is true and faithful.  So congregants utter their amen to God for those promises to come to fruition in Christ ultimately for His glory.

Verse 21-22:  ‘And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put His seal on us and given us His Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.’

Paul appeals to his work spreading the gospel.  It is God who has established Paul and his team with the Corinthian believers.  The Greek word for ‘to establish’ is used in a legal sense in the papyri of a guarantee which states that certain commitments will be carried out.  Paul mentions that they are anointed which was a rite of commissioning in this day.  And the anointing, in context, refers to an anointing by the Holy Spirit.

While Paul is still defending himself from the false apostles who are challenging him on several points including his change of travel plans, he seems to escalate from arguing that God has established his ministry to a salvation sense…God has put His seal upon Paul and the other ministers.

The seal in this culture is a deposit made by a buyer to a seller as a guarantee that the full amount will be paid over time.  It is the down payment.  The Spirit in the minister’s hearts is that guarantee of payment in full with the Kingdom to come.

Verses 23-24:  But I call God to witness against me- it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth.  Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.’

Paul is declaring to the Corinthians that he has pure motives in changing his travel plans.  He states that God is his witness.  He also sheds a little bit of light on why his travel plans changed and he refrained from coming to Corinth according to schedule.  He wanted to spare them perhaps from a serious disciplinary action.  Recall that prior to 2 Corinthians writing, Paul wrote the severe letter or ‘letter of tears’ rebuking the Corinth church.  Also, ahead in chapter 13:1-4; 10, Paul invokes a threatening tone toward those practicing immorality.  So, in a sense, Paul is stating that ‘you are lucky I’m not coming there.’  Quickly, he adds some nuance by saying that he is not trying to lord it over their faith but says he has their ultimate joy in mind (wanting to see them living out Christ’s gospel) and for them to stand firm in the faith.  A faith that was consistently being tested by the suffering and persecution which Brian Bailey spoke on last week.

Matter:

So, why does Paul having his travel plans change matter?  Furthermore, having Paul being accused by Judaizers or another group of Jewish Christians of not being sincere in his holistic message because the travel plans had changed, what does that mean for us today?

Obviously, we all have plans change in life.   You have probably all heard the famous John Lennon quote from the song ‘Beautiful boy (darling boy)’ where he says , ‘life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’  Plans change even when we intend to do great things for the Kingdom of Jesus just like Paul was doing in spreading the gospel.  We can have the best of intentions but there is so much in life that we cannot and do not control.  There are higher plans and predetermined outcomes that we are not always privy too.  The mind of God remains largely a mystery and the decisions of our lives, sometimes not shaped purely by our individual choices but by circumstances that come our way that we have to navigate through.

In seeing that Paul. while doing a righteous and necessary thing, can have his plans changed by circumstances outside of himself, we can see:

Thesis:   Praying that God’s will be done means moving forward with what you know but ultimately recognizing that it is God that makes things happen.

In other words, you can make your plans but Providence may muck those plans up.  Other places in Scripture tell us: Proverbs 16:9 tells us:  ‘In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.’ (NIV)

‘Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’’ James 4:13-15, NIV

There is a tension we have to realize in life.  If we do make choices or have a free volition, it is very limited and narrow in scope.  Many things in life we do not have any control over and Providence, working among other elements of our lives, directs beyond our control.

Struggle:

This is hard to come to terms with because most, if not all, of us are Americans.  A big thing that we are raised to believe in this culture is that we are the shapers of our own destiny.  Picking ourselves up by our individual boot straps and working hard will carry us to success (defined by a materialistic culture) and toward whatever our dreams may be.  Is this actually true?  Does this actually represent real life?  While we celebrate freedom and liberty in our individual lives, how much of either do we actually really have?

In the church, of course, we have this age old debate on Calvinism and Arminianism and by that we mean a debate on pre-determinism versus free will.  How much are we really free to make plans without forces outside ourselves carving a path for us.  Ultimately, Providence intervening.

What is interesting is this debate on predeterminism is not just in the church but is debated now among secular philosopher and they characterize their philosophy as the universe conspiring against you.  You cannot choose your genetic makeup and what diseases or illnesses you may be susceptible too.  You cannot choose your parents or the socio-economic condition you are raised in.  You cannot choose your race and how different races are perceived in different cultures across the world.  Your free choices and freedoms are narrowly limited.  A shrinking menu of things you can choose for yourself based on Providence and the options Providence gives us.

Providence or events that happen out of our control can be a double-edged sword.  We can perceive them as being good or bad or maybe perhaps neutral.

We like the good stuff but when we perceive bad elements forcing our hand, things being out of our control is hard to come to terms with.

If we are honest, this drives us crazy because a lot of us want control.  The powerful drug of control that gives us the illusion that we can affect things that are not ours to affect.  This is scary stuff, right?  What happens when you feel out of control of circumstances?  What happens when your plans are dashed and you have to go back to the drawing board?  How does that affect you?  How does that affect your relationships with your friends and family?  What does it do to your faith in God?

I struggle with wanting control a lot of the time on Sunday mornings.  I have plans to leave the house at 9:40am in order to get to church.  I also have a 3 year old and a 1 year old.  How often do you think the plans on the time to leave change?

When you gather to watch a Seahawk game and late in the game, we have a chance to win and the team lines up for the field goal.  You can’t control the field goal kick as much as you want it to go through the uprights to win us the game rather then going wide right.

Seed Church is about to go through a change of plans.  As was announced last week by Pastor Jeff Krabach, Brent Rood is going to be retiring from ministry in March.  Brent and Christy feel called by God to a new chapter of their lives and Seed will enter a new chapter as well.  For a lot of us, not what we expected and I think we all universally loved Brent’s teaching but change comes just as it did for the Apostle Paul in our passage.

When we try and white knuckle something we cannot control, what happens to us?  When we try and control someone else so they will do what we want?  If we are a small business owner and a contract or key investor that are hard to replace go away, what is our reaction?  When there is a political situation that comes around but you are just one vote and you can’t control how others vote?

Think of these poor people in Hawaii whether they live on the island or were others on vacation.  An alarm goes off and you think you have half an hour to live until a nuke strikes.  People were lowering their children into sewer drains to try and protect them.  What control did they have over what they thought was going to be the end of their lives?

Sudden job losses.  Getting unexpectedly sick or having a chronic injury.  Life can throw painful challenges at us that alter all our plans.  Our choices become extremely narrow and limited at the arrival of unexpected events.

When our plans in life get altered, this can bring anxiety.  A lot of us aren’t good with change and we grow worried at the changing landscape of our lives.  Anxiety is a state that can steal our joy and distract us from important things in life.

How do we cope in this fallen world?  How do we deal with our anxiety?  What hope do we have?

Gospel:

One of the things that we have to do is let a lot of things go.  Let it go.  It sounds simple.  Cliche even but I would argue this is incredibly difficult to practice.  When I say, ‘let it go’ I’m not saying become a hippie (although hippies are cool) and just say, ‘whatever man’ and don’t care about anything.  No.  We have to think through and recognize the things in our life that we cannot control and let go.  The things and plans that we do have some control over we, of course, pursue and work hard.  As we all know, our culture is incredibly fast paced.  We have work and ministries we are involved in and our families and we often bounce around to all these different events.  It has become difficult to get a quality quiet time with Bible reading, prayer and meditation so that we have the opportunity to bring some of these changes in life before God and think deeper about them.

The primary thing we need to keep in the forefront of our minds is Paul’s instruction in our passage this morning, ‘For all the promises of God find their yes in him.’  This world can change and be chaotic.  With us and other people, our minds and plans can change all the time but God’s promises to you will never change.  What are His promises?  From our passage again, God establishes us in Jesus, anoints us (which is a special sacred ritual), puts a seal upon us and gives us the Holy Spirit (also called a Comforter in Scripture) as a guarantee.  When we come to Jesus repenting of our sin and desiring him to be our Lord and Savior we become His child and these promises from God are for us.  Not just for heaven but for right now in this world as God is building His Kingdom.  Will we let go of the things we cannot control and place our proud confidence in the God who directs our paths?

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Love with No Strings Attached: 1 John 4:7-12

This is a sermon I preached at Seed Church on July 31,2016.  You can listen here.

Our summer sermon series has centered on the topic of ‘Incarnational Living’. Pastor Brent Rood kicked off the series talking about what this sort of living means for the Christian. Phil Higley followed with a message from James on social compassion and that true religion is to look after the widow and the orphan.

What is the incarnation? Karl Barth writes in ‘Dogmatics in Outline’: “The nativity mystery ‘conceived from the Holy Spirit and born from the Virgin Mary’, means, that God became human, truly human out of his own grace. The miracle of the existence of Jesus , his ‘climbing down of God’ is: Holy Spirit and Virgin Mary! Here is a human being, the Virgin Mary, and as he comes from God, Jesus comes also from this human being. Born of the Virgin Mary means a human origin for God. Jesus Christ is not only truly God, he is human like every one of us. He is human without limitation. He is not only similar to us, he is like us.”

Therefore, ‘Incarnational Living’ for us Christians who want to imitate Jesus’ spirit of going and genuinely living among our neighbors showing social compassion, being a representative of the holy gospel and, what we are going to think about today, loving with no strings attached or unconditional love.

Please turn to 1 John 4:7-12.

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another . No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and His love is perfected in us.’

Background: The writer of 1 John was a part of a Johannine community that existed around the ancient city of Ephesus. There were two major camps at play within this early Christian community based on the teaching and witness of John. There were Jewish-Christians who had expressed a commitment to Jesus but also felt a loyalty to Judasim- to the Law. They may have felt it difficult to accept the Messiahship of Jesus. The second group were Hellenistic Christians who had emerged from a pagan religious background and were influenced by Hellenistic ideas of salvation or Gnosticism (an early rival of Biblical Christianity). This group would have found it hard to accept the full humanity of Jesus.

The gospel of John was written first and was the last gospel written. Then these letters of John were written. The theology contained in these Johannine gospel and epistle is heavily Christological as you have probably noticed as you have read through them.

This community of Christians took care of one another even while being massively persecuted. One will also notice the focus on having correct doctrine but also the importance of unity. John also persuasively addresses the vitalness of Jesus’ unity with God and with us and finally, the importance of righteousness and love in a believer’s life.

With doctrinal errors and persecution all around, one of John’s primary emphasis’s here is love.

Let’s look at our passage today verse by verse:

Say:

Verse 7 and 8: ‘Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.’

A straight forward command for believers in this community to love one another with unconditional love. John is saying that the demand for believers to love each other is grounded in the nature and character of who God is. God is the source of all unconditional love.

Verse 9: ‘In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into he world so that we might live through Him.’

God sent Jesus to die for our sins on the cross as an ultimate demonstration of His unfailing and unconditional love. Not only is that true but we can also live through Christ which perhaps indicates the simultaneous purpose of God sending Christ and also the result.

Verse 10: ‘In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.’

God initiates unconditional love while we were sinners and far from Him. He demonstrated His love by sending Jesus to be a propitiation meaning the wrath or judgment or justice that we deserved and that was coming for us, was diverted and placed upon Jesus on the cross.

Verse 11: ‘Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.’

Again, John communicates that the source of love is God. God is also our inspiration to love and also our empowerment.

Verse 12: ‘No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and His love is perfected in us.’

We obviously have not physically seen God but when we love- unconditionally- God’s unmistakeable presence is known by both parties. Because of the power of Christ and the work of His Holy Spirit, God can show up in community, friendships, and relationships when agape love is sincere and genuine.

Let’ s dig deeper to explore what this passage means.

Mean:

Going back to the start of the passage in verse 7 and 8 and 9, John is clearly making the connection with the expression of unconditional (agape) love having its source in God. The Greeks treated love and its expressions, with language, a little clearer then we do. I could say, ‘I love pizza’ because I do. I could also say, ‘I love Michelle’. Now, hopefully those sayings mean two drastically different things although I’m using the same word. The Greeks had different words for love which makes it clearer to us.

***Eros- The Greek word for love means ‘sexual passion’.

***Philia- This Greek word for love refers to friendship or brotherly love or sisterhood love.

***Storge- This Greek word refers to love, affection between parents and children. Also can refer to someone’s love of their country or their favorite sports team.

***Agape- The type of Greek love that means ‘unconditional love’. Love with no strings attached. Thomas Aquinas defined this as to ‘will the good of another.’
Agape is the word that John is using here throughout this passage. God is love. The author and Creator of this sacred expression. The apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13:13 ‘So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love’ a passage I’m sure that most of us are familiar with. Faith and hope are important virtues. They are vital but the supreme value is love. Jesus summed up the entire law and will of God simply saying ‘Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.’ All throughout Scripture, God reveals His love and faithful saints strive to embody this love as representatives of God’s kingdom.

In the John passage, if there is not evidence that we are striving to love one another, care for one another, hold each other in high esteem, and sacrifice for one another- all of the different values that show love- then we cannot claim to know God or to be born again (or John’s phrase here: born of God). We would have missed the central value and expression of God’s holy Gospel. Having love in our soul’s for the community of believers and the world is the primary evidence of someone having genuine faith in Jesus.

John uses the word ‘manifest’ in us regarding love. He sent His Son so that we can live through Him. Live here is almost certainly in reference to reversing the charted course of spiritual death. Christ is the way to live and see the effects of the Fall reversed. In the Greek, live is in the aorist tense and is ingressive which indicates this is the beginning of an ongoing process. Live, however, may also speak toward a purpose or goal in life. Something to live for. We finished up he book of Ecclesiastes not too long ago which dealt with existential dread, purpose, what matters in life. Well, John is giving us a big goal and target here in 1 John. Love one another as this practically flows from the work of Jesus in our lives.

John continues. We did not love God first. He loved us first and sent Jesus as the propitiation for our sins. Daniel Akin states in ‘The New American Commentary’: ‘This marvelous act was prompted not by man’s love for God but God’s love for man, so that ‘the sending of God’s Son was both the revelation of His love and indeed the very essence of love itself. It is not our love that is primary, but God’s free, uncaused and spontaneous. All our love is but a reflection of his and a response to it. The origin of love lies beyond human effort and initiative. Left to ourselves, we would not love Him. We would hate Him and oppose Him. It took His boundless, sacrificial love to break our hearts of stone and bring us to Himself.’ God shows His love through propitiation.

I explained about propitiation before. This is a crucial belief and element of Christianity because it simultaneously shows God’s love and His justice. Unfortunately today (and certainly during times of the past) this idea is under attack even from professing Christian theologians. Brian McClaren, and others on the progressive end (in the emergent village) in his book ‘A Generous Orthodoxy’ and some of his writings in blogs questions penal/ substitutionary atonement which goes along with the idea of propitiation. Christ taking the penalty for our sins is a core issue of the gospel. It also is an issue of justice. We cry out for justice and for wrongs to be made right. That is a core aspect of Christ’s death on the cross. It is an empowerment for us to love as God has loved us. Christ’s death is also a legal declaration of Christ taking upon Himself our sins (diverting God’s justice) and moving us to being justified in God’s sight which is essentially most of Paul’s argument in the book of Romans. This is crucial to the Christian faith, as John is mentioning in this passage, God is demonstrating His love for us through this sacrifice and is directly using this event to empower us to love God, to love our community and to love others.

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. God went this far to demonstrate, if His love was this powerful, this all encompassing, this life changing, than we ought to strive to love others in the same way- with no strings attached.

Thesis: When we choose to love as God does, we will experience pain and suffering. This is what is involved with the highest form of love. Do we love the people in our lives sacrificially in this manner.

Matter: The challenge for us is that we live in a world/ culture that often only ‘loves’ based upon what we can do for them. This is love with strings attached. I’m probably dating myself here and I don’t really know why this song popped into my head while writing this sermon but let’s go for it: 1986. Janet Jackson. Song: ‘What Have You Done For Me Lately?’

‘Used to be a time when you would pamper me

Used to brag about it all the time

You’re friends seem to think you are so peachy keen

But my friends say neglect is on your mind

Who’s right?

What have you done for me lately?

Used to go to dinner almost every night

Dancin til I thought I’d lose my breath

I never ask for more than I deserve

You know it’s the truth

You seem to think you’re God’s gift to this earth

I’m telling you no way

What have you done for me lately?’

I actually filled with cheesy pop songs this morning. ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ by The Supremes has these lyrics:

‘You can’t hurry love/ no, you just have to wait/ she said that love don’t come easy/ it’s a game of give and take.’ The view of love as a give and take. A back and forth. In other words, political. If we keep a list of all these things that we do for somebody else and then argue that we are owed something in return, is that sacrificial love? No, it’s not.

Seeing this definition of love from John is crucial because we live in a world that is upside down from how things are supposed to be. The notion of love in a highly materialistic culture has become vapid, shallow, and meaningless.

Struggle: Our culture often preaches in direct ways and many subtle ways that we love people based upon what they do for us. Having somebody on our arm that gives us a higher status or more popularity in the eyes of society. Loving someone exclusively because of an upper class lifestyle they can provide. In other words, I have this long list of demands and if someone doesn’t meet all or most of them, they are out.

The musician Derek Webb sings hauntingly, ‘I love what I can control….so I don’t love very much.’ And if our loves in society cannot be predicted by us or micromanaged, do we actually love? Do we love when things are risky or even more severely in American culture, when we are inconvenienced? If we are rattled from our comfort, shaken from our preconceived notions, then are we actually going to take the effort to love?

Since our society has gone off the rails in practicing a sacrificial kind of love and has replaced it with a self-interested and self-absorbed love, it may be helpful to further define the love that John is talking about in our epistle today. One of my friends actually had a great definition of love and he probably got this from a book somewhere but he defines love like this: ‘Love is a learned response to commitment that is tested by time.’ Deep. I like that this acknowledges love as a commitment, first and foremost, but also that love is something that grows. We learn more and more as we respond to commitment and are tested by the trials of time.

Last week, Jimmy Mallory while introducing AJS, defined love as seeking the highest good for someone for the longest period of time. This resonated with me too. I may not always know what is good for me and might desire things that are bad for me. That is the strength of having Michelle, Naomi, my parents and community in my life. If love is here, than we are all seeking the greatest good for one another according to the will of Jesus.

When we think of love, we mostly probably are thinking in the context of marriage or a romantic relationship and it certainly applies there. In dealing with the challenges of marriage, any couple has to practice sacrificial love and an empathy to actively listen and understand where the other person is coming from during a storm or trial within the relationship.

But John’s unconditional love here in this epistle doesn’t just apply to romantic relationships. This also applies to friendships and our community and our society. John is actually talking about this very thing in the passage we are looking at today. We are to love one another within our community and this is paired with Jesus’ charge that summed up the law was to unconditionally love our neighbors. Do we love people within our community based upon what they can do for us? Do we love the people who annoy us or cause us problems and how do we love them? In our community, do we love people with different political beliefs than us?

Being the church at Seed, we need to practice this sacrificial love as we strive to be a light for Christ and pursue justice in our little corner of the world. John, Paul and other Biblical authors assign love as the highest value, the preeminent category of being connected with Jesus and living the Christian life.

We struggle with sacrificial love in our society because hate is all around us in the world in both overt ways and in more subtle ways. We see all kinds of examples of hate based upon someone hurting us or hurting our family. Where I work, there is a personality that is, shall we say, difficult to deal with. I’m quite positive that everyone in the office has struggled with hating this person including myself. This is a type of personality that will go through all the work that someone is doing up to and including even going through one’s garbage. Now, this is annoying but I have nothing to hide so I take the ultimate position of ‘if this person wants to waste their time and life doing this, well, have at it.’ When she does find something incriminating on someone in the office or something someone has done wrong, it is an immediate reporting of the incident to the boss. As you can imagine, this ruffles feathers constantly and creates a great deal of toxicity. The thing that makes me mad though and struggle with agape love is not necessarily her wrath or accusatory nature (even for things which are blown way out of proportion) it is the irrationality of even trying to have a conversation about what happened and what the facts are. That is what makes me want to give up and not have a conversation and say, ‘whatever?!?’ It takes a strong connection with God, prayer and trying to see the world as Christ does in order to unconditionally love people like this. It is an ongoing struggle in my life.

Outside of work environments or the communities that we are a part of, we also see what the lack of love does to our culture at large. When we do not love our neighbors by not listening and not being empathetic, we cannot claim that we are living incarnationally. On a societal level, when we see communities of people who have actively been hated, experienced rampant injustice often with no recourse, we see the fractures, fault lines and devastating fallout of what comes out of that.

In our news, which I’m sure we all have seen these past few years, are these disturbing videos of brutality and violence happening to our brothers and sisters in the African-American community. And now we have seen police officers targeted for simply doing their jobs. This is not just a problem. It is a nightmare of epic portions. Our media seems to want to divide people up- we are either for or against cops -OR- for or against protestors (most of which are absolutely peaceful). The media and certain personalities further try and divide by seemingly making it impossible to be against unwarranted violence and brutality against e African American community and against violence toward police officers. Can’t we be horrified by both?!?

The crux of this issue though is a sickness in the soul. We live in a society that in many respects is drinking from a poisoned well on race relations. Sin and hatred are certainly an individual thing but the matter can also be societal. If Christians know a few things, one of those things is that we can hang a law on the wall, civil rights acts and voting rights acts, but a law hanging on a wall does not necessarily change people’s hearts. A law does not change a fallen soul.

History is an informer of the present. Oppression, brutality and violence being perpetuated against a community of citizens (image bearers of God) creates these fractures in our culture. Broken community. Divisions. Hatred.

Roughly 250 years of slavery. About 77 years of Jim Crow laws. Segregation. Separation. History informs our present circumstance. Horrific violence against people didn’t just start with the advent of cameras on cell phones. It has been going on for a long time.

I used to dismiss a lot of these issues regarding race. I would think to myself that people are way over exaggerating situations that happen or I would think that horrible situations that we see in the news are just outliers. In some of my worst thoughts, I would say that, ‘well, this community has these certain issues and they bring this upon themselves.’   By thinking those things, I have had to repent and I was wrong,

I was not loving sacrificially or incarnationally. When friends or acquaintances or others are telling me that there is something really wrong going on and I stick my head in the sand and ignore it, I can’t claim to love them.

Tim Keller, on Twitter a couple weeks back, tweeted out this: ‘The opposite of love is not anger (or for our purposes hate), it’s indifference.’ I don’t care. Apathy. To have our brothers and sisters in the African-American community tell us that there our problems that they face and for us to ignore that call is indifference and therefore, not agape love.

I will never know what it is like to be a black man in America but the closest I can get is to listen to somebody who has that experience and does know what it is like. Listening carefully and thereby being Incarnational, is aspiring to this high form of love that John is calling us too.

Cornel West, a sometimes controversial figure, had a brilliant tweet a few weeks back which said: ‘Interrogate your hidden assumptions’. What do we really believe in the core of our souls?    What are our reactions to people even people different then us? Do we have irrational reactions? What is the motivating force behind why we think of people the way that we do?

Hope: The motivating force for the Christian should be a connection to the gospel of Jesus, the very source of sacrificial love so that we in turn can love this way. John says elsewhere in his epistle that if we do not love our brothers or sisters, we walk in darkness. A genuine sign that we know God is to love. Regarding the recent issues in our society, there is not much politicians can do. They cannot hire an army of bureaucrats to walk around, peering into the souls of everyone looking for racists or haters. The only cure for hate is by being transformed by Jesus, experiencing his demonstration of love as he died for our sins and being empowered to live toward others in this matter.

Whether there are issues in society, at work with difficult personalities or in a marriage that is struggling, God moves us to love unconditionally. We cannot love like this on our own because this kind of love is exclusive to God. We human beings, including myself, will always struggle to love with strings attached. With the help of God’s Spirit, we can attain a higher level.

There is so much going on in our world right now. People may be afraid of politics stuff, coups in other countries, violence in our own society, instability in our world. The world is always a scary place. Most of us are not worth hundreds of millions of dollars or billions. We don’t have positions of strategic influence in political leadership so what can we do?

We can love everyone in our life with this love that John talks about. Your spouse, your kids, your friends, your church community, your neighbors and co-workers. We can raise our children with the values of agape love and exhort them to see the world as Jesus does. It’s our own, small corner of the world here but we can be impactful with the help of God.

 

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Flee from Immorality: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

I preached this sermon on April 2, 2017 at Seed Church.  You can listen here.

Intro:

How many of you are 1990s children and grew up in this area listening to Kube93? Remember the song by ‘Salt N Pepa’ that is titled ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’? I’m dating myself a little bit but that is exactly what we are going to do this morning.

Jimmy Mallory did a sermon two weeks ago about sexual immorality defiling the church at Corinth which is 1 Corinthians 5. One specific incident involved a man who was sleeping with his father’s wife which I asked Jimmy about further after the message that most scholars agree that this was probably a woman who was the man’s stepmother. Pastor Brent Rood spoke last week about lawsuits against believers from other believers and how people should try and resolve disputes inside the church rather than through secular courts. Now, Paul comes back around to the sexual immorality issue in chapter 6:12-20.

Background on Corinth:

Corinth being the capital city of the Roman province of Achaia was a port city. It was on a narrow strip of land that connected Peloponnesus with the Greek mainland. There were ports all around. The ancient city was built on a trapezium shaped terrace at the foot of a large rocky hill known as the acrocorinth. The hill rose 1886 feet above sea level.

Obviously being a port city with many shipping ports around, lots and lots of different kinds of people would come through. People having been out at sea for awhile would come into one of the ports near Corinth.

Now, here is the relevant part to what we are talking about today. There was a big temple in Corinth dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite. Corinth was renowned in the area for their worship of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love. At the top of the almost 2,000 foot hill was a temple dedicated to the worship of Aphrodite. This was a temple with a lot of money. Sea captains and other crew were notorious for coming into Corinth and blowing their money at this temple. Historians will note that wealthy Greeks would purchase slaves and donate these slaves to the temple as a religious offering. An estimated 1000 prostitutes would be working out of this temple including women and young boys. It wouldn’t just be sea captains and crew members climbing the steps on that hill but married men in that culture as well.

Given that this was the culture in ancient Corinth, this was the context that Paul was writing too and challenging.

Verse 12: ‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say- but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’- but I will not be mastered by anything.

Paul more than likely is quoting people within the Corinth congregation saying, ‘I have a right to do anything’. However, not everything may be beneficial to the Christian and their faith in God. Paul is big on Christian liberty however Christian liberty does not mean I should do whatever I want. Sound kind of familiar to Paul’s other writings? (Should I sin so that grace may increase?). The last part of the verse touches on a familiar teaching of Paul’s. He consistently exhorts people to self-control all throughout his epistles and here he gives a warning that anything (even things that are good) can become masters to us where we are not fully in control and are serving something that we have fashioned as an idol in our lives. We would be at the service of a thing in our lives rather than being in control and rejoicing in the thing or gift that God has given us.

Verse 13: You say, ‘Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.’ The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.

Here the Corinthians were getting clever. They are trying to justify their sexual immorality by making an analogy with food. Food is physical and eating and digestion are biological.   Normal. There is nothing really special about eating. We need food for our bodies and it is great when we get to eat food that tastes good. The Corinthians were trying to make a similarity here with sexuality. Sex, many of them argued, is just a physical, biological act that feels good. Eating food feels good so what is the big deal about us sleeping around? There may have also been a philosophical dualism here rooted in Gnosticism. Remember that Gnosticism, an early rival of Christianity, believed as one of its core tenants that material reality is evil. Spirit is the element that is pure. The Corinthians, by believing this, could make a connection between eating and sex. Both are physical acts and therefore are rooted in evil materialism that God would destroy so what is the big deal about partaking?

Paul counters by introducing the idea that our physical material bodies, though they will fade away and be destroyed, belong to the Lord and are for the Lord. He rejects the notion that what we do with our bodies is unimportant.

Verse 14: By His power God raised the Lord from the dead, and He will raise us also. Paul goes for the big argument in illustrating God’s care for the body. God physically rose Christ from the grave. Paul says we will be raised so he fully embraces the idea that God has a high regard for the body. Since God has a high regard for the body, there is a sacredness and spiritual component to the physical act of sex.

Verse 15: Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ Himself? Shall I take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! He Furthers his argument here that there is a spiritual component to the act of sex and takes it even further. We are all a part of the body of Christ with different talents, gifts and abilities. Being that we are intrinsically linked to Christ, if we commit sexual immorality, we are joining Christ to a prostitute. Extremely strong analogy from Paul. The Greek for ‘never’ is also very strong. This word could also be translated: may it never be so.

Verse 16: Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, ‘The two will become one flesh.’

Paul continues to build on his strong prohibition against immorality. He rhetorically argues against uniting Christ with a prostitute and now references the very beginning of humanity and the Scriptures in Genesis 2:24 where Adam and Eve are joined together as one flesh. Obviously here, Paul is using this as a warning. One does not to be joined together with a prostitute where they would become one flesh. So the flow of his argument is we join Christ’s body to that of a prostitute and then we ourselves become ‘one flesh’ with a prostitute.

Verse 17: But whoever is united with the Lord is one with Him in spirit.

If we are believers and thereby following Christ, it should make sexual immorality unthinkable because, as Paul is saying here, we are aligned with God’s spirit and we are one with God. That fact should change our thinking and philosophy about sexuality. Also, Gnostics again would have believed that the material world is evil and spiritual world is pure. Look at what Paul is doing again in this flow of the argument. He is saying what we do physically is linked to our spirituality in an inseparable way and that we can be one with God’s spirit which he Corinth crowd would have heard as, ‘oh, I don’t need to escape this material world to obtain a spiritual purity. I can have that right now through Jesus and His Spirit.

Verse 18: Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.

Flee! Runaway from. Be honest with yourself about temptation and do not go near. Paul references other sins here. If you kill somebody, that is outside of your body. If you steal from somebody, that is outside your body. Sexuality is the most intimate thing we can do with another person. Therefore, Paul is highlighting and exhorting against sexual immorality because of the seriousness of the sin.

Verse 19-20: Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

According to Israel, God’s Spirit dwelt in a physical temple. The holy of holies. This is where the high priests could go to hear from God. Post cross and post resurrection, at Pentecost and like a mighty wind, the Spirit descended upon all believers in Jesus. Anyone who claims Jesus as Lord has the Holy Spirit within them. Our bodies are temples for God’s Spirit. A radical idea here and one that helps us to really take seriously the boundaries that God has laid in regard to sexuality.

Transition: Of course, it is not easy to think and behave sexually the way that God in Scripture asks us too. Most of us have strong sexual desires and that is the way God made us. In a society that is post-Sigmund Freud, philosophies in society regarding how to think about sexuality are incredibly numerous and diverse.

Matter:

In a lot of messages I have heard on sexual immorality around the church in general usually involve a lament about how our culture is turning into Sodom and Gomorrah. A speaker will talk about a time in the past where people upheld Christian virtues about sex and there wasn’t this rampant hook-up culture and glorification of casual sex or sex outside of marriage. It is safe to say that a time like this never existed. People have been having sex out of wedlock, committing adultery or other sexual sins since the fall. We heard messages during the Ecclesiastes series that we did here at Seed revolving around ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ and the ‘folly of believing in the good ole days.’ No such thing. We have not been different from the Corinth church really.

What has changed in our culture is perhaps people’s outward thinking about sexual mores. Since the sexual revolution, people are more open and honest about having different views then the (what we will say) traditional viewpoints of sexuality that came from Scripture, the Puritans and other religious groups. So it is not like the activity has changed but cultural attitudes toward the activity have. Many people, especially in our culture, have the ‘no judgment’ attitude toward sexuality.

I ran across an article in Time Magazine which described the changing mores of society beginning with the sexual revolution in 1964 or thereabouts: ‘…a nation awash in sex: in its pop music and on the Broadway stage, in the literature of writers like Norman Mailer and Henry Miller, and the look- but-don’t-touch boudoir of the Playboy Club, which had opened four years earlier. ‘Greeks who have grown up with the memory of Aphrodite can only gape at the American goddess, silken and semi nude, in a million advertisements,’ the magazine declared. But of greatest concern was the ‘revolution of (social) mores’ the article described, which meant that sexual morality, once fixed and overbearing, was now ‘private and relative’- a matter of individual interpretation. Sex was no longer a source of consternation but a cause for celebration; its presence not what made a person morally suspect, it rather its absence…’. And therefore no judgment upon people’s choice in lifestyles. People became more open and honest regarding things they did in private that they used to be more hush-hush about.

Fast forward to our society and it is almost a rite-of-passage for older teens and college students to participate in hookup culture. Pornography is more assessable than ever on the worldwide web. People can easily have sexual experiences by themselves with a computer screen in our day and age.

In thinking about the way our society approaches sexuality and how we actively think about sexuality, I thought of the book ‘Bowling Alone’ by Robert Putnam. Putnam is a political scientist and dabbles in sociology and he teaches at Harvard. In this book, he talks about how in American society we have come increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors and even our democratic structures. Yes, he wrote this in 2000. He talks about how lonely, isolated and alienated many people feel.

Why do I bring this up when discussing sexuality? Because sex is the most intimate thing that you can do with another person. A lot of people today are participating in a hook-up culture where there is no relationship. It is a one-night stand or sexuality that is outside of even loving or being committed to someone in any way. With pornography being so easily viewed, a lot of people are opting to have sexual experiences alone in front of their computers and outside of any relationship.

When we look outside of America to Japan, there is something troubling going on in relationships within their culture. One of the saddest articles I have ever read was from ‘The Guardian’ in October 2013. Japan has a very low birth rate these days. The article was about an increasing amount of young people who felt like relationships were not worth it. Too troubling. They can’t be bothered. So young people in Japan are expressing their sexuality with virtual reality girlfriends or anime porn. Disconnected, alienated from meaningful commitments or human love.

Why do I bring all this up? Because across our world, many people do not know how to think about sex. When I say that, it is almost like a joke right? Post-Freud in our society, anything can become an innuendo. Who wants to philosophize about sex? Most want to indulge in sex.

It is safe to say that our world’s relationship to sexuality is messed up. The church is not immune. We are a part of his world and influenced by the world. Sexuality is all around us everywhere. How do we flee immorality as Paul asked us too? How do we think in a godly way about sexuality as Paul lays out in this passage rhetorically?

The Apostle Paul is giving us a way to think about sex in this passage and exhorting us to behave in a godly way.

Thesis: Paul mentions the importance of remembering that sex, as God created it with the first two human beings (Adam and Eve), is about oneness in a marriage relationship. He upholds that our bodies are temples that belong to God and we are not our own. Therefore, we need to flee any sexual immorality that tempts us.

Struggle:

We struggle to apply this teaching because like the Corinthians, we forget about the sacredness of sex. We can be influenced by the world in thinking that sex is just biological. That it is just a good feeling caused by neurochemicals which flood many areas of our brain during sex. However, the Christian view of sex is so much more than that. If our bodies are temples that belong to God and then we get married, bodies that become one with our spouse during that physical expression, how do we hold this in our hearts and minds while navigating a world where there is sex all around and not only that but ungodly expressions of sexuality? As Jimmy mentioned in his sermon a couple weeks back, Christians risk becoming antiquated or old fashioned or laughably out of date regarding our views of sex. This is inevitable.

Those of you who are single, it is especially difficult. These days, when we are dating, people just assume that you are sleeping with the person you are dating and you really want to, let’s be honest. 95% of people, per a USA Today survey, have pre-marital sex. Obviously a vast majority. The message from our culture is that if you are not married, you should have sex. Why not? You don’t know when you are going to meet your spouse so why not engage with something that feels good and can connect you to someone else?

Adultery is generally more looked down upon in our culture but there is an increasing acceptance of it. There are couples that talk about open marriages and I ran across an article in Vox this week that’s premise was being more understanding about leaders (especially politicians) who are unfaithful because they are away from home a lot. Staying sexually monogamous is viewed by some in our culture as being unrealistic.

With our culture going this way, how should we as the church think about sexuality? Is God a cosmic killjoy? Keeping us from pleasure and happiness telling us ‘don’t do it!’ ‘Don’t do it!’? We really struggle with fleeing immorality as Paul asks us too and we think these thoughts in our minds. We want to feel good. Why would God deny us that?

During this series on 1 Corinthians, Brent has mentioned that he is picking on liberal license a lot because usually he rails on legalistic conservatism. I thought today I would rail on both because what is better than making everybody mad, right? The thinking on both sides regarding sexuality strays from Biblical teaching.

On one side, we have how the conservative legalists treat sexual immorality and those who fail to flee it. How sexual immorality is treated here is somewhat like a weapon to induce shame and guilt on people with no inclusion of the gospel. The church, not Seed, but the Evangelical church in general has often been very bad on this point. I became a Christian as a teenager and I remember the abstinence until marriage talks that I would hear from different speakers. Often these teachers, who meant well, would talk about if one had sex before they were married then they were ‘damaged goods’? The implication being that one’s marriage would not be top-notch or might be horribly effected because a partner was not a virgin when they entered the marriage relationship. So people have felt perpetually ashamed and carry around guilt and all of this could very negatively affect a marriage with a person viewing themselves as dirty or damaged goods. That, of course, is a lie. There is no gospel there. There is no grace. And many times, those of us who are hardcore in the camp of repeatedly pointing out how others are not fleeing sexual immorality are not exactly feeling immorality ourselves, right? Jesus said in the sermon on the mount that if someone lusts after a person that is not their spouse, they have committed adultery in their hearts. That makes everyone guilty. We are all in need of grace.

Now, having picked on the conservative side, let’s come over to the liberal side. Many on the liberal side like to fashion themselves as ‘non-judgmental’ toward people’s sexual activities. Live and let live is an attitude that people have. Rules or boundaries seem to constraining but here is the thing….everybody has boundaries. We could find the most liberal person in Seattle and they would believe that something is sexually immoral according to their own view of morality related to sex. For instance, hopefully they would view an adult having sex with a child as being evil. I hope we all do. That is a boundary for sexuality. People who think polygamy is a bad idea, well, that is a boundary. These days, we hear a lot of reporting on college campuses about defining ‘consent’ and many people argue if someone is completely drunk, they cannot give consent and if a person slept with them in that state, it would be rape. That is a boundary. That is a moral. So we all have boundaries. It is just a matter of where we draw the line.

Gospel:

This brings us back around to Paul. The apostle asks us to have a sacred view of sexuality as Christians. He references Genesis 2:24 in this passage. The two, in marriage, shall become one flesh. The two are one. Their bodies belong to one another in marriage. Paul says that a sexual sin committed is one that rattles us because it is a sin against our own body. Not only that, it is akin to joining the body of Christ with a prostitute. Again, this is extreme language. Why is Paul, in God’s inspired Word, so hardcore about this?

Think about your identity as a child of God, a person God loves. You are absolutely unique in DNA, personality, things you like to do, etc from any other person that has ever existed. Your spouse has the same status. They are also unique and different in all those ways. When you two come together, in marriage, what you have is original from every other couple. Your way of being physically intimate and expressing that love, however you like to do that and don’t tell me, is original and special compared to any other couple. For those of you who are single, when you get married in the future, you will have something uniquely special as well.

Why does Paul charge us to flee sexual immorality? Because the goal is to protect that special thing that you have with your husband or wife or if you are single, what you will have someday. This involves Christians thinking deeper about sex than the average person in the culture and recognizing the spiritual aspect of it.

We as Christians are not hedonists seeking to maximize our own pleasure for ourselves. Our bodies belong to God as Paul writes here. We are not our own. However, if we are within that marriage relationship that God created for sexual expression, enjoy. Remember that the grace of Jesus can cover over any past sin. There is no guilt, no shame and so, those of us with pasts, we can move forward ideally having great marriages and a close knit relationship as we embrace the gospel of Jesus.

The world can be a crazy place. Horrible things are in the news headlines all the time. Work can be stressful. Dealing with other people, not so easy. The ideal for marriage and for physical love is that this is a sanctuary for you and your spouse away from the madness that is the world. Knowing this should spur us on, with God’s help to protecting the exclusivity of our relationship and being vigilant about that.

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