Unbelievable Joy

Advent 2013…Joy: Isaiah 35.1-10

As I reflected this passage, I was struck by this overwhelming picture of great joy that Isaiah paints for us. It’s a joy that in many ways is incomprehensible where all of creation can’t help but shout over the salvation that the LORD brings. Nothing on earth can compare…sporting event, concert, celebration of any kind…all pale in comparison.

I shared a tweet this past week, “The pursuit of happiness is a far cry from the everlasting joy of the kingdom…only the latter truly satisfies the longing of our souls.” As the guys and I talked about the sermon, the question was asked, “What’s the difference between happiness and joy?” Great question. Happiness has a lot to do with circumstances. It tends to be more momentary, more fleeting. It’s rooted in the physical. That’s why the pursuit of happiness is a vain pursuit…it never lasts and is always fleeting. It tends to focus on self…building my own earthly kingdom.

But joy, the joy that Isaiah talks about, true kingdom-joy, like kingdom-peace, goes down to the soul. It is lasting and mostly independent, but not totally separate from current circumstances. Positive circumstances may cause you to reflect on that joy (return of exiles to Zion, believer being baptized, unbeliever finally trusting in Christ), but the presence of that joy can be felt and experienced even in the midst of suffering (very negative circumstance).

Where does that joy come from? What causes creation to rejoice with joyful shouting? The movement from death to life. What causes those returning to Zion on the Highway of Holiness, the redeemed and ransomed, to rejoice with everlasting joy? Again, the movement from death to life.

And I think the experience of our joy is tied to our experience of the kingdom. The Israelites in Isaiah’s prophecy rejoice greatly because they have come from death to life, from captivity to freedom, from darkness and despair to hope and light. Our experience of joy is tied to the degree to which we see the gospel as good news. When we think less of our sin, grace really isn’t that big a deal, but when we see the enormity of our transgression against God, then grace is an occasion of great joy, joy that allows us to rejoice in suffering, that gives us that deep settledness that all is well with my soul. It’s the joy of Jesus…a joy that is independent of circumstance.

This story challenges us to pursue true joy…the joy of the kingdom, the joy that comes from knowing that we have been rescued by the King. And as we learn to recognize more and more fully God’s saving grace and the reality of His kingdom, then we experience more and more fully joy even in the midst of the trials, pain and suffering of this life.

My prayer for us this week is that we might more fully realize Unbelievable Joy because of our Unbelievable Savior.

Until next time…stay salty.

To hear an mp3 of this sermon, visit us at: http://www.centralchristian.org. You can also follow us on twitter: @mattdumas1969.

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Equip the Saints

Ephesians 4.1-16.

As I reflected on this passage, I was struck by the idea of equipping the saints for the work of service/ministry. Paul makes a big deal about the unity that we have in the body (the church – one body, one Spirit, etc.). Somehow this one body is given gifted leaders and brought together for a purpose…for a mission…and that is the work of service/ministry. So who are the works of service directed toward? And within the body, who is responsible for carrying them out? When we say we are an equipping church, what does that mean?

I shared two tweets this past week about this topic… “Equipping the saints is helping believers see life as ministry” and “Equipping the saints is preparing the troops for warfare in the trenches.” Both tweets are variations on the same theme. You see, Paul says here that gifted leaders equip the saints…who are the saints? Well, if you have trusted in Jesus, then you are in the saint category. And what are we being equipped for? Works of service. OK. What does that mean?

Often when this passage is taught, the idea is propagated that we need to train children’s workers to work with children, small group leaders to lead small groups, outreach folks to share the gospel, etc. And those things are all definitely a part of equipping as we work toward the goal of maturity, but I would say many of those functions have an internal focus. They are an integral part of building up the body. Those are good things, and we need folks serving in those areas…but those are also equipping ministries. What are they equipping for? Works of service. But let me challenge you. Who receives those works of service? Is it believers only. I hope not. Paul includes evangelists in the list. Let me propose that our primary ministry is outside the walls of a building at a particular address. It’s in the marketplace and in the schoolyard. It’s with our families and our friends. It’s when we walk outside these doors. Being an equipping church means that we are like the gym. You come to the church to train…to prepare for the fight, to get ready for the big race. And after doing your bag work, the speed and agility drills, maybe a little foot work…once you walk out those doors, ministry starts. Too often we limit our concept of ministry to a church campus. We come to church to be fed…and then what. We check off the church box and head out for lunch. During the week we have our work or school boxes, our family boxes, our alone time boxes, etc. Each separate. Ministry happens when I’m at church or in small group or doing a service project. It doesn’t bleed into any other area of our lives. It shouldn’t be that way. We have to blow up our boxes. We need to see all of life as ministry. Opportunities abound to share the gospel, to enter into another person’s story, to minister to their needs, and to introduce them to the Story.

But the works of service are a communal project. It’s as the body works together using its gifts that it matures. See the idea of the body being built up includes both internal and external growth. And we keep working at it until Jesus comes back. Two other things that struck me from this passage…the importance of the truth, the faith to the health of the body (children tossed here and there…remember the friendly fire we talked about last week from those within the body who want their ears tickled) and the centrality of love. They are tied together. Truth – sound doctrine – and love. It’s the only way to have biblical unity. Without truth, without the one faith, there is nothing that unites us. Without love, we cannot reflect Jesus. Love is the main apologetic. It’s also the goal of unity and maturity.

As I thought about my own life, it reminded me of when Jack and I decided to try tae kwon do. The first day we entered the dojo, it was clear that the goal was for us to be black belts. Even thought there were a number of them present, the sensei didn’t consider his job done until we all crossed the finished line. Until we all attained to the unity of the…chi??? The idea in this passage is very similar…it’s not about one us making it to maturity. It’s a group project. The job’s not done until we all attain to the unity of the faith…

But what about you? What do you do with this? You have listened to the messages thus far and have believed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and that through believing you have life in His name. You have realized that the whole of scripture is about loving God and loving people. You are excited about becoming a disciple of Christ and making disciples as the Word of God takes root in your life. You see its power to transform and guide your life. Now comes the hard part. You realize that the earthly expression of God’s truth in this present age is the church, and God has placed you here. You have to join these other strangers, some of whom just seem strange, standing around you in this place and somehow become one cohesive body, so that together we can storm the gates of hell and rescue the captives as sons and daughters of the King, who ourselves have been rescued.

This story challenges us toward unity within the body, marked by truth in love. Interestingly enough, the body only works properly as each member does its part. It also challenges us toward loving and ministering to those outside the body. So how about it? Will you come with me and race toward the finish line together?

My prayer for us this week is that we take seriously loving God and loving others, making disciples of all nations, proclaiming the truth, and doing the work of ministry.

Until next time…stay salty.

For an mp3 of this sermon, visit us online at: http://www.centralchristian.org. You can follow me on facebook or twitter: mattdumas1969.

 

Loving God, Loving Others

Matthew 22.34 But when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered themselves together. 35One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, 36“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37And He said to him, “‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ 38This is the great and b foremost commandment. 39The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ 40On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

As I reflected on this passage, I wondered why loving God was considered the great commandment, I mean why must we be told to love God. Doesn’t that come naturally, or shouldn’t it? And if not, why doesn’t it? And why is it so hard to love other people?

And as I talked to some friends of mine this week about this passage, it hit me why I must be told…no scratch that…commanded to love God with all that I am. Genesis 3. You see in Genesis 1 & 2 we have this beautiful story of creation, where all of the universe is the work of a benevolent Creator who lovingly fashions a world that He describes as good, even very good. He makes a man and woman, our first parents, in His own image from dust of the ground and breathes into their nostrils the breath of life, and they become living beings. And He gives them charge over all the earth. Think of it. A perfect world with no death, no corruption, no hatred, no ugliness of any kind. A perfect relationship with God and with each other.

Enter the serpent in Genesis 3. Through deceit and manipulation he convinces our first parents that being image bearers is not enough. Having dominion over the earth is not enough. No, they really want to be their own gods. And they fall for the lies of the enemy and forgetting the benevolence of their loving Creator and not being content to simply be image bearers and stewards of creation, they seek to be their own gods. And all of creation suffers the repercussions of their betrayal as perfection becomes deeply marred and the image of God tainted. Sin enters the world and death through sin. And now the love of God is no longer innate, love of self would become predominate and competition with others a part of the legacy of the fall.

So what was once natural…loving God and loving people…has become very unnatural. And frankly, impossible, given our fallen state. But even in the midst of our rebellion, God provided for our redemption…hope for a way back. It was a risky proposition. It would cost Him everything. His own Son would have to die, but in so doing He would redeem the world that He had made, and so He gave them the promise of Genesis 3:15, the Head-Crushing, Seed of the Woman, who would one day ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, cleanse the temple, face down the political and religious elite, be beaten and crucified, then buried; three days later He would rise from the dead and ascend to the right hand of the Father awaiting the day when He would once again ride into Jerusalem, this time on a white horse… In the meantime, having accomplished redemption and having provided the way back to the Father, His Spirit is at work building His kingdom, rescuing one person at a time.

As I thought about my own life, examples of my failure to love God as evidenced by my failure to love others are multiplied. It’s evident in my selfish attitude toward my family (just ask them). It’s obvious when I look down on others or begin to judge their motives, which happens more often than I would care to admit. It’s plain to see when I’m too busy to be interrupted. But there are flashes of obedience when I see the pain of others and my heart is broken. When I become angry at the injustices done to others. When I share the gospel because I know that it’s the only hope that we have.

But what about you? Where are challenged to love others more? Are you spending time with the Lord, seeking to love Him with all that you are?

This story challenges us not to be like the Pharisees who have made the love of God a game of trivial pursuit, who have made loving others an optional exercise, but to be more like our Savior who made loving God and loving people central, who demonstrated His love for His Father by loving us who were made in His image.

My prayer for us is that we would grow in our love and devotion to God and that that would become evident as we look for opportunities with our classmates, with our neighbors, with our friends, with our family, with our co-workers to love others in very real and practical ways, to point them to the hope we have in Jesus, so that we might make loving God and loving people central.

Until next time…stay salty.

You can listened to an mp3 of this sermon online at: http://www.centralchristian.org.

 

Intimidating assessment

I recently started taking classes again at a local university. It’s been awhile since I’ve sat through a college class, and this is my first introduction to philosophy. One thing I’ve discovered through this experience…you never get over the fear of taking a test. I’m 43 years old, and I’ve lived through a lot of tense situations, including a 60ft all down the side of Long’s Peak. I should “know” better. There are lots of things in life to be anxious about…marriage, kids, jobs, etc. But tests still scare me. So I can’t imagine the hopeful terror of having Jesus evaluate my church. Welcome to Revelation 2-3.

Seven churches. Seven different evaluations, but all following a similar path: characteristic of Jesus, something the church is doing well, something the church is not doing so well, warning about failed improvement, and reward for overcoming. Of the seven churches, two (Smyrna and Philadelphia) are entirely positive evaluations (positive is a relative term when you consider that both of these churches are facing significant persecution); and one of the seven (Laodicea) is lacking any affirmative commendation. The overall condition of the church is questionable. To this group of churches, John writes this letter (on behalf of Jesus) as a very strong exhortation. He is writing to spur believers on to greater perseverance, to be overcomers. He is not writing to assure weak believers of their salvation. The battle is real, and he is calling everyone to be all in.

Don’t give up. Don’t give in. Jesus wins. That’s what the book of Revelation is all about. The temptation of the early church, for these seven churches, and for the church today is to look at the world we find ourselves in and to either withdraw from the world or be conformed to it. Revelation offers a third way. Engage it. Head on. Run after Jesus.

Until next time…stay salty.

Mission Impossible

Have you ever been asked to do something so seemingly outrageous and beyond your ability that you’re only option was to pray? Abraham’s servant (Let’s call him Eliezer.) can relate. In Genesis 24, Abraham requests that his most trusted servant, Eliezer, take an oath to find a wife for his son Isaac among Abraham’s relatives back in Paddan Aram. In an age before google maps and on-board navigation, finding the area where Abraham’s relatives lived would be difficult enough, but add to that the likelihood that once said maiden is found that she would be willing to leave her family and travel to a distant country to marry a man she’s never met, and you really do have an impossible mission.

But Eliezer heads out anyway. As the journey begins, he prays that the LORD would be merciful to his master Abraham and grant him (Eliezer) success on his quest. He asks for an unusual sign to designate the chosen mate, (not unlike what Gideon asked for hundreds of years later with the fleece) which was that the woman to whom he asked a drink of water would in turn offer to water his camels as well. To us that may not sound like a remarkable request, but given the fact that watering the camels could have been a very arduous task requiring several hours worth of work, the willingness of a young maiden to undertake it would indeed be noteworthy.

Lo and behold Rebekah shows up. She offers not only to get Eliezer a drink, but also to water his camels as well! He dares to hope. Then he finds out that she is a relative of Abraham’s! Looks like success. But now comes the tricky part where he needs to ask Rebekah (and permission from her brother Laban and mother Bethuel) to return with him. Will she do it? Without hesitation, Rebekah says, “I will go with him.” Much like Abraham’s willingness to leave his family and go, now Rebekah will do the same thing. Eliezer is so blown away by the LORD’s hand at work, that he repeats the story several times in the narrative, and the faithfulness of God is on display.

My wife questioned whether asking for a sign is evidence of a lack of faith…good question. But I believe that the willingness to follow God and do what He wanted motivated Eliezer to request a sign. The same is true for us. The next time we are given an impossible mission, and our our desire is to follow where God is leading, but it doesn’t seem clear, may we ask for a sign, for clear direction for the path ahead. And then let’s celebrate God’s faithfulness in directing our steps.

Until next time…stay salty.

Surprise!

Surprises. Some people love them. And some people hate them. For me, I’m always a sucker for a good surprise. I don’t like the predictable, the routine, for very long. I enjoy change. Not all of it feels good at the time, but it’s one of the ways that God is shaping my character. James says, “Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials…” Trials, suffering, difficult circumstances all bring about change of some sort. A greater orientation towards God, or a running further from Him. Growing in the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control), or becoming more mired, sinking deeper in bitterness and despair. The church in Jerusalem was at one of these critical junctures.

In Acts 10, Peter and Cornelius both receive visions; Peter’s opens him up to the prospect of going to visit Cornelius, a Roman centurion (aka Gentile). Cornelius’ vision instructs him to send for Peter to hear the gospel. Peter makes the trek, Cornelius and his house are converted and there is great rejoicing. But then Peter comes back home. The believers in Jerusalem are not only surprised that Peter went to visit Cornelius, they are also shocked and a little perplexed (bordering on anger). What was Peter thinking? But Peter explains how the Holy Spirit had come upon this group of Gentile believers the same as it had come upon them. Who was Peter to stand in the way of God’s work? At that point, the Jerusalem church rejoices (albeit a bit tentatively) that God has brought salvation to the Gentiles.

Why were the Jewish Christians surprised? Should they have been? They didn’t have to be. From the beginning of the Jewish nation, with Abraham, God had promised that through him all the nations of the world would be blessed. Moses tells the Israelites coming out of Egypt that they are a kingdom of priests – the same imagery that Peter uses of the church in his first letter. The intent was always salvation/blessing for the world, for all the nations, through the one. Israel was to be a lighthouse. But something went horribly wrong.

God had commanded the Israelites to separate themselves from the evil practices of the nations, to bring judgment on those who had multiplied wickedness in the land. Israel was not to learn their ways. But she was to represent God to the nations. In Ezekiel, God reminds the remnant that God chose them not because they were worthy of being chosen – they weren’t the best or the brightest or the most attractive or the most righteous – He chose them because He chose them. He loved them because of who He is, not because of who they were or what they had done (sound familiar – He is incredible!). But they forgot and supposed that they were worthy of being chosen and that they had exclusive rights to God’s love. And so, instead of being a kingdom of priests, a lighthouse to the nations, of reflecting God’s amazing love for all mankind, they became an impenetrable fortress; and they despised the outsiders.

In Luke, Jesus begins to challenge the disciples view of who God loves and who Jesus came to save. This section in Acts continues that instruction. And God wants this fledgling church to accomplish what Israel was unwilling to do. He wants them to go out and share the message of God’s incredible, all-consuming love with a lost and broken world. In sharp contrast, the story of Bar-Jesus presents an interesting parallel and commentary on the Jewish nation at this point – opposing the apostles who are going out to reach the Gentiles, being blinded and fighting against God.

So what about you? Are you surprised by the breadth and depth God’s amazing love? Are you blown away by His desire to save even those who you may despise? What are you going to do about it?

Until next time…stay salty.