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There seems to be a trend today of being extremely critical, bordering on complaining, and calling it something like “constructive criticism”. (I’m sure it’s not a trend today, but always has been. I just hear it a lot now.) It’s the people that no matter what you do, how much heart you put into something, how much you care, they always say something like, “That was great, BUT….”. I know for some people when they offer critique, they mean it in a spirit of love and encouragement. But often, when there is always a “BUT”, what was meant as positive critique just comes across as complaining, or being overly critical.
When Scripture speaks of letting no unwholesome talk come out of our mouths, or of our language being seasoned with salt, I’m afraid we have made that too narrow. We use those texts to keep our teenagers from cussing or using language that might be socially unacceptable. While I affirm “clean” language in the traditional sense, I’m more and more convinced those texts also speak to the spirit with which we speak to one another.
So, just some encouragement today to take inventory of your language. I’m doing the same. For every piece of constructive criticism that we offer, we ought to counter it with loads and loads of positive encouragement. Every time we are set to give someone some critique to “make them better”, let’s check if it is truly in a spirit of love, and if it is even worth offering. There are plenty of critics in the world, but not near enough encouragers. I don’t want to be known as the critic. If you think something positive about someone, or something they did, don’t hold it in. Tell them about it.
DISCLAIMER: This post is not in response to anyone or anything said to me. Seriously. It was just on my heart today. Peace, friends.
“Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up…” – I Thessalonians 5:11
Death came to His body, therefore, not from Himself but from enemy action, in order that the Savior might utterly abolish death in whatever form they offered it to Him. A generous wrestler, virile and strong, does not himself choose his antagonists, lest it should be thought that of some of them he is afraid. Rather, he lets the spectators choose them, and that all the more if these are hostile, so that he may overthrow whomsoever they match against him and thus vindicate his superior strength. Even so was it with Christ. He, the Life of all, our Lord and Savior, did not arrange the manner of his own death lest He should seem to be afraid of some other kind. No. He accepted and bore upon the cross a death inflicted by others, and those others His special enemies, a death which to them was supremely terrible and by no means to be faced; and He did this in order that, by destroying even this death, He might Himself be believed to be the Life, and the power of death be recognized as finally annulled. A marvelous and mighty paradox has thus occurred, for the death which they thought to inflict on Him as dishonor and disgrace has become the glorious monument to death’s defeat.
– written in the 4th century by Athanasius of Alexandria in On the Incarnation (emphasis mine)
“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”
– Hebrews 2:14-15
Sometimes when I speak with Christians, I get more of the sense that the general held belief is that God is the problem. Jesus dies to free us from God, so the story sounds. Jesus dies to win over God. But, the story of Scripture seems to keep pointing to the fact that humanity has pledged allegiance and given adoration to dark forces, to evil, to death, to satan. Evil is the problem, not God. Jesus dies not to win over God, but to reveal the loving and forgiving God. (Remember, Hebrews 1:3 says Jesus is the EXACT representation of God.) And evil kills Jesus, not God. God in Christ dies the death that evil humanity pours out to free us from the great superpower that we have given ourselves over to. God in Christ is buying us back from slavery.
God is not the problem. Evil is the problem. Our sin is the problem. Our giving evil and satan rule over our lives is the problem. God in his love saves us from ourselves, from our sin, from our idolatry, from the one who has held the powers of sin and death and kept us in slavery, that is the devil. As C.S. Lewis would put it, there was a deeper magic from the dawn of time of which satan was unaware. The White Witch has been defeated.
The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. – I John 3:8
Yesterday at Hunter Hills we wrapped up a series on the book of Galatians. As Paul is gliding to an end of this impassioned letter, he gives us one last glimpse of what’s at the center of the gospel: the cross and the community created as a result (i.e., New Creation).
Sometimes we get bogged down in the details of Paul’s arguments and theology, and we seem to miss the climax of his letters. For example, I remember plenty of sermons about Romans 1-12, maybe 13, but I don’t remember any from the remaining 3 chapters. It’s as if we get there and think, “Well, Paul is just giving a few one off statements and sending greetings. Nothing to see here. Move along.” But, the more I read Romans and Paul, the more I think Romans 15:7 is the climax. All of his deep theology and arguments lead to this: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” That’s it. You want to be spiritual? You want to be a part of God’s world? Then welcome one another.
I see the same thing in Galatians. There are deep thoughts about the Law and faith, Hagar and Sarah, Issac and Ishmael, circumcision versus uncircumcision, and it all drives to these simple points: “Faith expressing itself in love”, “Serve one another”, “Carry one another’s burdens.” In other words, let your communal life reflect the reality of God’s New Creation. Let your communities be formed in the way of the cross; the way of selfless love.
You want to be a “radical follower of Jesus”? It’s really quite simple: love God, love your neighbor as yourself.
So, the real key here is, as we said yesterday, “Don’t talk about it, be about it.” And that’s why I’m writing this. I want to remind my church family, and invite any others reading this, to join us in “being about it”. We are working this week to pick 3. That is, 2 people in the church (not your best friends!), and 1 who is not a member of a church (preferably a neighbor), and we are going to live out this “one another” life that Paul describes. We are going to seek to be people of New Creation. Pick 3, and find a way to “serve one another”, “forgive one another”, “carry one another’s burdens”, “encourage one another”, “love one another”, etc. You determine what this looks like. You don’t have to evangelize and baptize a neighbor. It can be quite simple. It could be an encouraging note, baking bread for a neighbor, cutting someone’s grass, forgiving someone…you get the idea.
This week, let’s be about it. Let’s love God, and love our neighbor as ourselves. And Paul says in Galatians when we do this, we fulfill the Law of Christ. Sounds like good news to me.
A brief break from preparing for a sermon and a class to get something out of my head…
Yesterday I got to attend my 5 year old’s (George’s) kindergarten program. I loved it. I love him. Just watching him sing those songs, do the hand motions, tell us what he wants to be when he grows up (an artist?! Really?!), hear him tell us what he learned in kindergarten…well, it was enough to make a grown man cry. In fact, it did. I found myself choking back tears, so proud, so full of love.
And as I was sitting there marveling at the depth of love I have for him, and then feeling the same today when I see my 3 year old Henry marching at his school parade, or hearing my 2 year old Katherine laugh at the lunch table, this thought hit me: If God made me capable, human and broken as I am, of loving my children THAT much, then how much more does God love me?
I think we make faith and church so hard some times. We make things so complex. And there is a time and a place to go deep and ponder the heavier things, perhaps. But what if today you just paused for a moment and thought about that God comes to us as an eternal parent? That’s the picture he gives us, and then describes himself as full of steadfast love for his children. And then we have these human relationships to catch just small glimpses of that love. I don’t know about you, but for me that changes everything.
I have many doubts and in my heart sometimes I feel confused about God and who he is. I wonder sometimes what to tell others about God. Then I catch glimpses of my children and think God’s love is fuller, deeper, wider, longer, and more infinite than that. That gives me hope, deep hope.
Ok, back to that sermon now…
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.
– Acts 7:51
I came across this text flying home Saturday, and it startled me. Can you imagine Stephen standing before these zealous Jews and having the audacity to tell them that they are “forever opposing the Holy Spirit”?! These people who have dedicated their lives to the study of Holy Scripture and looking for the things of God are now told they are in direct opposition to the things of God. Based on some heated church meetings I’ve been unfortunate enough to be a part of, I’m not surprised this escalated so quickly to throwing stones in the ancient world.
But it is easy to be on this side of history and see how the Jews were wrong, and even to pity them for being so far off from the truth. The difficult thing is that when we so often see the Jews (or the “circumcised” as Paul will call them in Galatians) on the wrong end of things, they almost always have Scripture on their side. If they were to engage in a debate like we have in modern times, they would destroy Paul because they can “book, chapter, verse” with the best of them. Scripture is pretty clear on their end, problem solved, end of discussion. And then I think of how many times I’ve been in their shoes, or the church collectively has, and Stephen would say, “Why are you forever opposing the Holy Spirit?!”
They had Scripture on their side in Galatians when they wanted these gentile converts to be circumcised. They had Scripture on their side in Acts when they wanted these gentiles to look and act like faithful Jews after they came to believe the story of Jesus (read Acts 15, “It seems good to the Holy Spirit and us…”). We had Scripture on our side when we didn’t condemn slavery, advocate for the rights of women, and some even quoted Scripture to segregate the races. And then I think about all of the things in my life that caused me to throw up boundaries and exclude others when I had “Scripture on my side” (or at least thought I did): divorce and remarriage, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, my particular understanding and practice of baptism, the role of women…you name it.
So I’m preparing to preach Galatians this Sunday, and in the wonderful New Interpreter’s Bible commentary, Richard Hays says this, “Paul and Barnabas, on the other hand, were pressing for a radical innovation, a community whose identity was grounded solely in the story of Christ’s death and resurrection.” And I would add to that, those who then embody the selfless love of Christ in their life together. What if this became our standard, and then we read the Bible through that lens? Or maybe the way Jesus would say it is, put love of God and love of neighbor first, and then prayerfully sort the other stuff out.
Before I’m accused of “forever opposing the Holy Spirit”, I’m going to prayerfully weigh everything through the story of the selfless, self-giving love of God shown in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and the call to love others in the same way. I don’t want to be so tied to my particular understandings that I miss the work of the Spirit that is right before me. Would you join me in making that the rallying call of Christianity? It just might be what is needed to advance the kingdom of God in America today.
Yes, it will be messy. It is harder this way. The boundaries aren’t always as clearly defined. But I think the payoff will be the advancement of the story and way of Jesus in the world, which is the point of all of this anyway.
I’ve been reading through Richard Hays’ new book Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. This is a wonderful book about how the gospel writers were so formed by the Old Testament texts that they continually “echo” them in their writings. With that, Hays points out the parable of the mustard seed in Mark 4. Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of God is like a small mustard seed that sprouts into a large shrub in which the birds of the air come to rest. This appears to be an allusion to Ezekiel 17:23
On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.
Sounds similar to the mustard shrub from Mark 4 when Jesus says, “so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Except, there is one striking difference. The mustard shrub isn’t a noble cedar by any stretch. In fact, my understanding is that the ancient Jews would never plant a mustard seed in their garden because while it was a useful plant, it would take over and you couldn’t get rid of it. So it grew in the wild. Kind of like the Kingdom of God I guess.
I’ve been preaching through Luke with my church, and it is fascinating how surprising the kingdom of God is. God comes into the world in the man Jesus, and he’s born to an insignificant poor family in an insignificant town called Bethlehem. The only reason we know that town is because Jesus was born there. When the Messiah is born, he’s placed in a feeding trough and shepherds come to worship him. Along with shepherds come outsiders, magi. The Jewish elite (their “theologians” if you will) don’t recognize God’s Messiah, tax collectors and sinners become his friends and followers, and he goes to the broken and marginalized to heal them and bring good news. He’s not wiping out Rome with an army, he’s healing crippled women on the Sabbath in the synagogue.
The gospel stories say many things, and one of those is that the kingdom of God is surprising. It’s not found in the places you often expect. It’s not in the palaces of Rome, or in the seminaries of Jerusalem. It’s among the hurting, the small, the broken, the unlikely, the sinners, tax collectors, the Roman centurions. It’s not in the expected noble, towering cedar. It’s found in tiny unlikely mustard seeds.
We go about our daily lives, whether we realize it or not, searching for God. We are looking for meaning, purpose, value, etc. The problem is, we often look in places that you would think to find a kingdom and a god, like money, power, nobility, and the like. But do we ever go about our days attentive to the surprising places we may find God? When we think of joining God in his mission of restoring and setting all things right, do we only think of the “big” scenarios? Or do we pay attention to the often overlooked “small” moments.
In the interaction with a cashier at a routine checkout line at the grocery store. In the face of the poor man outside the gas station. In the eyes of our children. Among the awkward kid in class no one else will talk to. With that obnoxious person that interrupted us. With the difficult student in our class that drives us nuts.
The kingdom of God is often in surprising places. And if we want to join Jesus in his mission of restoring sight to the blind and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, then maybe we need to start paying attention to those small and seemingly insignificant moments throughout our day.
Maybe we need to quit looking at giant cedars and start noticing tiny mustard seeds.
When I look around at the pain and suffering in the world, trite Christian one liners just won’t cut it. “All in God’s timing.” “Pray harder.” “Just have faith.” “God has a plan for your life.” Etc.
These are well meaning statements, and I appreciate them. But there is a time to wail, weep, and mourn to God. In those moments, I turn to Scripture’s gift of Lamentations. And perhaps on the other side of lamenting there is joy and praise, but always a deeper sense of faith and trust in God, and his steadfast love and faithfulness.
May this bless any of you today walking through suffering, grief, pain, sin, or anything that life brings your way. Even in the midst of darkness and God-forsakenness, God is there. Grace and peace, brothers and sisters.
He has made my teeth grind on gravel,