Brave in the New World | It’s Complicated | Matthew 19:1-12 | Week 7


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BRAVE IN THE NEW WORLD: It’s Complicated      Matthew 19-1-12

We are finishing up a series we’re calling “Brave in the New World.”  Over the last two months, we’ve been tackling difficult issues, socially, and trying to figure out what it looks like to live as a follower of Jesus in this new world.  How many of you would agree that the world is changing quite rapidly?  Actually that’s not just a feeling; a sociologist studied our cultural moment.  They’re saying that things are changing at a more rapid pace than they have ever changed before.  That’s not just a visceral reaction, that’s a reality, according to sociologists.

Last week we talked about the Scriptures and science.  We talked about this perceived dichotomy, chasm, between what the Scriptures say and what science says.  We actually said that you don’t need to choose between Scripture and science.  You can actually be someone who loves the Bible and loves telescopes and microscopes and that’s an okay and a good thing.  In fact, that’s the way it’s designed.

Today we’re going to end this series by talking about sexuality.  As I’ve thought about this, I don’t know if there’s a more contentious, debated, and emotional subject in our culture today.  Here’s what I want to promise you: 1) I want to promise to do my best to wrestle with what the Scriptures actually say.  2) I want to do my best to be an equal-opportunity offender.  If halfway through you’re like yes and amen, just wait.  And opposite.  If halfway through you’re like I’m not sure I like this guy, just wait.  I promise that everybody will walk out of here thinking I didn’t go far enough on whatever perspective they have on this issue.  3) I want to say I’m not standing up here because I have all of the answers, I just drew the short straw.  Just kidding.  I don’t have all the answers.  I’m a sojourner, I’m a struggler, just like you are.  I want to do my best to wrestle with what the Scriptures actually teach about this subject.

We live, like I said, in a cultural moment where things are changing in regards to sexuality quicker than they have ever changed.  In 2008, President Obama was interviewed by Pastor Rick Warren.  He stood up on Rick Warren’s stage at Saddleback Church in southern California, and very clearly said that he was opposed to gay marriage.  In 2015, gay marriage was legalized all over the U.S., and a lot of the voices that were very adamantly against it were then for it.  Today, around two-thirds of the people in our country would say, “I’m for gay marriage.”  Two-thirds.  I just tell you that to show how quickly that tide has turned in our cultural moment.  We’ve seen the transgender movement catalyzed.  While that seems like a new phenomenon, I just want to tell you, it’s not.  The surgeries associated with it and the transition possible is new, but the desire isn’t.  It’s been around for a long time.  Even right now, you could go to the TLC channel on your television and you could watch multiple shows about polygamy….in our day and our time right now.  Sexuality is a complicated thing.  Right now in downtown Denver, there’s a gay pride march going on…..and there’s churches out there picketing.  And we’re sitting in here, talking about it all.  There’s tension, isn’t there?

My goal, this morning, is not to give an entire discourse on sexuality or a complete diagnostic of our cultural moment, that would be fun and interesting, but it would take hours and hours and hours.  I’m not going to talk about the politics behind the sexual revolution of the 1960’s and where that’s left us.  I’m not going to talk a lot about the transgender movement.  I’m not going to talk a lot about the debate between gender and sexuality.  All of those things are things we COULD talk about.  What I want to talk about this morning is how do we as a church wrestle with this issue of sexuality, specifically homosexuality and the LGBTQ community as a whole.  What’s our perspective on that?  What’s our direction in that?  How do we respond to that?

There’s no shortage of debate.  Unfortunately, there’s also no shortage of pain.  If you were to do an interview of young people across the U.S., there’s a number of ways that they would describe the church.  They’d say we’re hypocritical.  They’d say we’re judgmental.  Then in the top three things they’d say about the church….they’re anti-gay.  They’re homophobic.  I don’t know about you, but as a follower of Jesus, that just absolutely breaks my heart.  Here’s my question:  What do the Scriptures teach and how can we, as a church community, chart a course that will serve us well moving forward into this brave new world where we continue to hold onto the Scriptures and say, we believe that the Scriptures are God’s word to us AND we believe that there’s a world out there that God has called us to passionately love.

If you have your Bible, open first to Genesis 2.  In order to talk about sexuality, we have to start at the very beginning of the story.  If you were here last week, you heard us talk about the differences between Genesis 1 and 2.  Genesis 2 starts to dive a little bit deeper into what does it mean to be human.  One of things that it means to distinctly be human is that we were made for connection with one another.  Listen to the way that the Scriptures say it in Genesis 2:18 — Then the Lord God said, “It is not good {If you’ve been reading straight through the poem in Genesis 1, you get to Genesis 2.  Genesis 1…..seven times it’s good, it’s good, it’s good….seventh time, it’s VERY good.  Then in Genesis 2, it’s not good.  What changed?  Nothing.  Sin did not enter the picture yet.  God looks at his creation and says it’s not good….}  that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”   Now, before we get bent out of shape on this word “helper,” let me just give you a little bit of background.  It’s this word in the Hebrew, ezer.  It’s used twenty-one times in the Scriptures.  Two times it’s used to describe Adam’s wife, in this text.  Three times it’s used to describe other people.  Sixteen times, out of the twenty-one, in the Scriptures, this word “helper” is used to describe God.  He’s our helper.  It literally means “powerful advocate.”  It means rescuer.  Somebody who comes alongside a weaker party to strengthen them, that’s what it means.  God says, “Listen, Adam, I made you a helper that’s fit for you,” but here’s his point: people were created for relationships and designed for intimacy.  Every single person that walks the face of the globe longs for intimate connection with other people.  Longs to be known.  Longs to be valued.  Longs to be loved.  That’s a universal….you have never laid eyes on somebody who wasn’t designed for relationship and wired for intimacy.  Take that in for a second.

So when Simon and Garfunkel write a song like “I Am a Rock,” right?  I’ve built walls // A fortress deep and mighty // That none may penetrate // I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain // It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain // I am a rock // I am an island   {Ryan sings the song.}  Here’s the thing, Simon and Garfunkel knew it was all a sham.  They ended there song by saying:  And a rock feels no pain // And an island never cries    They knew it wasn’t possible to shut down relationship and intimacy they longed for.

As we see in this Genesis narrative, one of the ways humanity tends to the longing for intimacy is through marriage.  It’s the way that God met that longing for Adam in the garden—he created Eve. I want to be very specific in saying it’s ONE of the ways.  Because I think in the church—I don’t think, I know because I’ve talked to enough of you—it can be a really, really difficult place to be a single person.  We elevate marriage really, really high…..actually, higher than the Scriptures elevate marriage.  You do know that Jesus was the most whole person to ever walk the face of the planet, do you not?  He was unmarried.  So, if marriage is the pinnacle for human existence, Jesus never reached it.  Okay?  Number one.  Number two, can I just say what my heart is? I long for a day where it’s easier for a single person to find community in a church than it is for them to find a hookup online.  That’s my heart.  I long for that.  That’s not the case now, but I long for a day when that is the reality.

So, God says you were wired for intimacy, you were wired for relationship; one of the ways I’m going to give you to meet that need is through marriage.  Will you flip over to Matthew 19:1-3 with me?  In the beginning of this message we talked about the way that science and the Scriptures are not at odds with each other; the world is created with design and so are human beings.  There’s a design and there’s a design for this thing called marriage, one of the ways that God meets the longing for intimacy and relationships in humanity.  There’s two times we have recorded that Jesus taught about marriage.  Ironically, both of those times {Matthew 5 and Matthew 19} he’s talking about divorce.  Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan.  And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.  And Pharisees came up to him and tested him {As we’ve been in this Brave In The New World series, what we’ve seen is a lot of the ways people tried to test Jesus are still contentious issues today.  The world is changed, but the issues we wrestle with have remained the same.}  by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”

I think these two words, any cause, should actually begin with capitals.  Any Cause.  Because they’re having a debate.  There’s a cultural debate that’s going on.  You have two rabbinic parties that were going head to head.  You had the party of Hillel.  He was sort of a more liberal rabbi.  Hillel taught that you could divorce your wife for any reason.  She burns the toast—divorce her.  She stops pleasing you—divorce her.  You don’t like the way she looks anymore—divorce her.  ANY. CAUSE.  Then you had another rabbi named Shammai.  Shammai said, no, you can’t divorce your wife for any cause, only for being unfaithful.  The breaking of the marriage covenant.  The breaking of the marriage vow.  These were the two camps.  There question was: Jesus, who do you side with?  Sort of more liberal Hillel or more conservative Shammai?  Which is it, Jesus?  Here’s the thing, and don’t miss this.  Jesus sides with the more conservative Shammai, because he is so adamantly committed to the value of women, to the protection of women, that they wouldn’t just be cast out for burning the toast.  He goes no, no, no, no, no, I side with Shammai because I side with women.

Then he continues — He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?  So they are no longer two but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.”  I’d like to propose to you that in this text Jesus gives a very, very clear design for marriage. Let’s unpack it.  He says he creates them male and female, so he would say marriage is designed for two heterosexual people to come together.  Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two….   Wasn’t designed for more than two.  Wasn’t designed for polygamy, monogamy is God’s design.  Keep that in mind.  …the two shall become one flesh   There’s this idea of covenant.  Like we’re committed to each other—the good and the bad, rich and poor, sickness or health.  Like we’re in this together.  Finally he says, let not man separate.  It’s designed to be a permanent arrangement.

According to Jesus, God’s design for marriage is heterosexual, monogamous, covenantal, and permanent.  That’s his design.  It’s pretty clear.  It’s also the historic stance of the church for the last two thousand years.  It’s why you could systematically walk through this and find instances that God says either “I’m against this” or “This never works out well.”  Let me give you one.  The most contentious issue in our day and our time—homosexuality.  It’s the first one Jesus addressed…a man and a woman.  Here’s the way Paul says it in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10  —  Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?  Do not be deceived:  neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.  Notice that homosexuality and sexual impurity are in a category with a number of things, but it’s there.  Here’s why it’s there: It’s there because it goes against the design that God clearly laid out for marriage from the beginning.  So anything that goes against this design would be considered sin.

Now, here’s the time where I just want to hit Pause.  Timeout.  If you’re ready to cue confetti, hold it.  If you’re ready to throw tomatoes, throw them at Dan or hold them.  Here’s the problem, you guys.  We live in a broken  world.  If you’ve ever felt ashamed of your body; if you’ve ever had an affair; if you’ve ever looked at a person in lust; if you’ve ever looked at pornography; if you’ve thought you don’t measure up sexually; if you’ve kept a secret from your spouse; if you’ve failed to enter into a relationship because of fear; if you’ve taken advantage of another person; if you haven’t allowed yourself to be fully known by your spouse; if any of those things apply to you, your sexuality is broken.  I hope I’ve just implicated everybody in this room!  I certainly implicated myself, and as a heterosexual male who’s never slept with anybody other than my wife, my sexuality is broken.  All of ours is.  All of our sexuality is broken in some way.  Yours is, mine is.  Just read through Genesis 2 and 3.  This world is not the way God intended it to be.

Okay, so here’s the question, you guys, here’s the question.  It’s the question I don’t here people asking.  How does God respond to our brokenness?  How does He respond to our broken sexuality?  In all the reading I’ve done about this over the last few months, really intensely and specifically, but over the last few years, I have not found anybody doing an exposé of these issues.  So I’ve clearly said, here’s what I think God’s design is for marriage.  Heterosexual.  Monogamous.  Covenantal.  Permanent.  That’s his design.  What happens, though, when the design is broken?  How does God respond when the design doesn’t hold up?  Here’s a key principle and we’ll see it displayed here in just a moment, but I want you to write it down before we jump into it in a lot of detail.  God always meets us where we are, not where he wishes we were.  God ALWAYS meets us where we are, not where he wishes we were.  We could describe this as accommodation, sometimes in the Scriptures.  Right?  God says, “I didn’t design you, Israel, to have a king.”  They’re like, we want a king.  He’s like, it’s going to go really bad for you.   They’re like, we want a king.  And he says, okay, here’s a king.  Did you know that God says multiple times, “I never wanted you to have sacrifices.”  This isn’t about sacrifices.  What’s the whole book of Leviticus about then?  He goes I know the culture you’re in, you needed it, I didn’t need it.  I never wanted it.  I wanted you to be people of mercy and justice.  YOU needed it, not me.  He always meets us where we are, not where he wishes we were.

Matthew 19:7-8, case in point:  After Jesus has just given the design for marriage…..They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?”    Ryan’s summary:  Jesus, you have just waxed eloquent about the design for marriage.  Really beautiful.  We’re with you.  We’re for it.  It’s so good.  Could you explain one thing to us, Jesus?  If that’s your design, why did you give divorce?  Because that clearly goes against your design—one man, one woman, one flesh, for life.  We knock the Pharisees for a lot of things, but they stuck the dismount here.  That’s the right question to ask.  Why would you give accommodation for divorce if it was never part of your design?  How many think that’s a really good question?  We are tracking on that together.  Your follow-up question might be what’s the deal?  God, aren’t you going against the grain of what you said you want?  Yes, yes he is.  God goes against his own design in giving the Israelites the ability to divorce.  No other way to read that passage.

Then he says let me tell you why, because my guess is you’re wondering.  My guess is you’re going, what do we do with that?  He goes okay, hit pause, let me tell you why.  He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”    Just because God gave it, doesn’t mean he wanted it.  He makes accommodation because of things that go wrong in marriage, whether it’s an affair, or an addiction to pornography, or some way that your heart grows hard and covenant is broken.  Jesus doesn’t just cast people aside because their hearts are hard.  He meets them where they are.  He gives them the best that he possibly can given the reality of their situation, because God always deals in reality.  It’s the best he can give some people, given the circumstances of their life.  The best he can give some is divorce, and he gives it even though it’s not his desire.  Which by the way—I’ll take a quick timeout here and say that should cause all sorts of questions to be stirred up in our mind and they’re the right questions.  What does God do with things like gay marriage?  What does God do with….fill in the blank, fill in the blank, fill in the blank.

Can I add another layer of complexity?  {One person said yes, so I’m going to take that little….} Did you know that there are times in the Scriptures when God doesn’t just ALLOW the breaking of his design, there are times when he commands the breaking of his design?  Let me show it to you.  It’s called Levirate marriage.  It’s described in Deuteronomy 25:5 — If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger.  Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her.  How many of you, if this law was intact, would have wanted to have more of a say over who your brother married?  Yeah, me too!  What’s going on here?  Why in the world?  Presumably this other brother’s married—if you want to read a really interesting story, read through Genesis 38 sometime this week, because we have this in the patriarchal line.  We even have this in the Jesus line, read Matthew 1 if you want to do an interesting study on that in Tamar.  But…..what’s going on?  God is commanding polygamy.  Why? In this situation, if this woman…..her husband passes away before they have children, she’s going to be outcast.  She’s going to be put into the streets.  She’s going to be forced into prostitution.  It’s going to be a hellacious life for her.  So while God says polygamy isn’t my design, it’s better than a woman being cast into the streets and being taken advantage of.

I hope we’re starting to wrestle with the title of this message—It’s Complicated.  It’s not just complicated culturally, it’s complicated biblically.  Think about this, King David, a man after God’s own heart—the only person it’s said that about in Scripture—had seven wives.  Just to be clear, you can never find a situation in Scripture where polygamy works out well for anyone.  Just want to make it as clear as I possibly can.  You also cannot find a passage in Scripture that condemns it.  The New Testament makes some prohibitions.  If you do have multiple wives (or multiple husbands), you cannot be an elder in the church.  But that’s the only prohibition given.  Why in the world would God allow this kind of fracture, COMMAND this kind of fracture to his design?  Here’s why—God values people over his design.  People are the most important thing to God.  He knows a polygamous relationship is going to be difficult.  That’s an understatement!  But it’s better than somebody getting taken advantage of, like the way this woman would have.  The design was made for people, not the other way around.

Lest I don’t fully do my job as a pastor—a lot of you are going you aren’t, that’s fine, we can disagree on that—what we need to recognize is that there are instances where God says I will break my design in order to value people and then there are instances where he says I will not break my design.  Let me give you one example.  1 Corinthians 5:1-2 — It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife.  And you are arrogant!  Ought you not rather to mourn?  Let him who has done this be removed from among you.  He’s saying that someone’s sleeping with their step-mom.  They’re in the church. They’re proud of it.  You need to remove them from the church because of the atrocity of what’s being done.  Paul will go one to say at the end of 1 Corinthians 5, I’m not talking about the world out there, I’m talking about the church!  We need to be concerned with our sexuality and tackle that one first.  We might summarize his statement like this:  While God may command you to marry your sister-in-law, he will not accommodate you if you want to sleep with your step-mom.  {I didn’t see anybody writing that down.}

The Scriptures are really, really clear in condemning sexual immorality—or what we might call promiscuity or what we might call sex outside of the bonds of marriage.  It’s important to note just how seriously the early church took this.  The early church was known for three primary things that made them distinct in the Roman Empire.  1) They cared for the sick and the dying.  2) They were generous with their money.  3) The husbands were sexually faithful to their wife.  It was revolutionary in the early church.  Christians adamantly rejected sexual promiscuity and it was one of their primary, MAIN platforms as a church.  But please notice, if you go back and flip one chapter back to 1 Corinthians 4, all the other things that Paul condemned along with sexual immorality and homosexuality.  He rebuked greed, and we’re not trying to legislate that, are we?  Idolatry.  Abuse.  Drunkenness.  And people that take advantage of others.  All in the same category as this issue of sexuality.

Can I just get on my platform a little bit?  It’s a small platform.  I think one of the things the outside world sees about the church is that we’re inconsistent.  I was living in California in 2008 when Proposition 8 was a huge thing out there.  Prop 8 was essentially a proposition put forward to say, constitutionally, that marriage was between a man and a woman.  That proposition actually passed and then in 2010 was overturned by a federal district judge.  What happened was you had this line in the sand drawn, right?  You’re either for Prop 8 or you’re against Prop 8.  And you’ve got to choose.  You’re either for the gay community or you’re against the gay community.  You either love the LGBTQ+ group as a whole OR you hate them.  If you’re for them, you vote no on Prop 8.  If you hate them, you vote yes.  There was venom being spewed back and forth, back and forth.  Like I said before, I am convinced that God’s design for marriage is heterosexual, monogamous, covenantal, and permanent.  That’s what I believe God designed marriage to be, but I also am convinced {please hear me on this} that God’s design for followers of Jesus is that we would be known for our love.  That we would be known for our love.  So the fact that the church is paired with such hatred breaks my heart.  I hope it breaks yours too.  I hope as you see the complexity of this issue, you start to go man, Jesus, what would you do?  How would you live?

What would you do, Jesus, if you were the senior pastor of South Fellowship Church and a lesbian couple started to attend here?  {I hope they’re here and I hope there’s more of them that begin to come because they know that you love them.}  Let’s say they have two kids.  They come to faith in Jesus, praise be to God.  They set up a meeting with me.  They say to me, “Ryan, we’ve been married for six years.  We have two kids together.  We love each other passionately.  We love Jesus with our whole heart.  We love our kids.  And we love being a family together.  What should we do?”  What do you tell them?  We can have the “issue” figured out, but when it starts to have people and faces and stories attached to it, what would you do?  Would you tell them, like Paul says to some people “remain as you were when you were called?”  (1 Corinthians 7:20)  Would you tell them to get divorced, even though God hates divorce. (Malachi 2:16)  What do we tell them?  Do we tell them continue to love Jesus with everything you are; hold the issue before Him and see what the Spirit says to you?  It’s complicated.

Our case study could be about somebody that was born with both reproductive organs, and the doctors had to make a decision, at birth, is this a man or a woman?  Or it could be about someone who was abused and taken advantage of as a child.  Or it could be about someone who you talk to their mom and mom goes, “From the time they were three years old I knew they were gay.”  What do we do?  What do we do?  What do we do?  One of my hopes today is to show you from the Scriptures, not culturally, from the Scriptures that it’s not just black and white.  I know that because very few followers of Jesus would say polygamy’s okay, even though the Bible doesn’t seem to have an issue with it.

So, what do we do with this?  Glad you asked, I’ve got three things.  What does it look like to be brave in the new world when it comes to sexuality?  Let’s be the kind of people, followers of Jesus, who love everyone, always.  Period.  If you are a follower of Jesus, you do not get to decide which people you love, you simply get to decide how.  For those of you who are here and you’ve been wounded by the church because of sexuality, or if you’re listening online and you’ve been wounded, however you come across this message, I just want to, from the bottom of my heart, say I’m so sorry that you carry that pain.  I’m so sorry that you carry that pain.  Some of that came from a place of hatred, and some of it came from a place of homophobia, and it is downright sin and it’s wrong.  I also want to say that sometimes it comes from a different place also.  Sometimes it comes from people who are trying to wrestle with the Scriptures, who want to live in the way of Jesus with the heart of Jesus, who want to be full of grace, who want to be full of truth, who, like me, believe God’s design is one thing, but our reality is another thing, and it’s just so hard to figure out sometimes.  Forgive us.  Forgive us.

Here’s what I do know:  Growing up, being gay in the church, from what I’ve heard, is an absolutely terrifying, difficult experience for people to have.  It’s why the suicide attempt rates for those who grow up gay in the church are off the charts.  I hope that breaks our heart.  I do know that for those in the LGBTQ community there is a market (no money to be made) for moms and dads to stand during pride parades with a sign on that says “Free Mom Hugs/Free Dad Hugs,” and to give hugs to people who have been ostracized from their own families. People who would say, “My dad hasn’t hugged me in years!”  I’m not invited to family dinner anymore, I’m not invited to Thanksgiving anymore.  Free mom hugs.  Free dad hugs.  And they’re just hugging people all day, you guys.  I mean, something in us has to go we’re broken.  We all are.

Love everyone always.  Jesus defended people he didn’t agree with.  He validated their humanity.  He heard their story.  He refused to label.  He put himself in their place.  If that sounds familiar, it’s simply our points from our message we gave a few weeks ago, “Tolerance in an Age of Contempt.”  Here’s what I do know:  Jesus had a very high standard for sexual integrity, and yet, people who fractured that standard were drawn to Jesus.  They were.

Second. What does is look like to be brave in the new world?  Live with fidelity.  If you’re single, be faithful.  Treat other people who aren’t your spouse in a way that honors them as brothers and sisters in Christ.  If you’re married, be faithful to your spouse.  That’s what the Scriptures would say in every instance.  Be faithful.

Finally, invite people to follow Jesus.  After doing a deep dive on this throughout the Scriptures and seeing man, there’s so much tension here, I want to figure out what do I walk away with, what do I say to South Fellowship Church at the end of a message on sexuality?  Here’s what I want to say to you.  Point people to Jesus.  Whether you’re straight, or gay, or anything else, you are human.  And in being human, God is calling us to Jesus.  He’s our salvation.  He’s our hope.  He’s our healing.  He’s our everything.  And in Jesus we are safe to be loved and molded more and more into his image and likeness.  The Scriptures say he does this through his kindness.  So take all of your baggage and all of your brokenness and everything you’re wrestling through and run to him this morning.  Love everyone always.  Give some free mom hugs and free dad hugs today.  Live with fidelity.  And invite people—ALL people—to follow Jesus.

Because of the complexity I’ve hopefully drawn out here, I believe that there’s room at the table (Christianity) for differing opinions on this issue.  That’s my conviction personally.  There are some strong followers of Jesus who love the Scriptures who disagree with me and who would fall on a different side of this issue.  That’s okay.  While I hold wholeheartedly to God’s design for marriage, I don’t know how God responds every time that design is fractured.  To be honest, the Scriptures threw me off a little bit.  If you’re here today and you’re gay, I want you to hear me say as clearly as I possibly can, we, as a church, are willing to walk with you.  We’re willing to try to live as best we can in the tension of conviction and compassion.  But I would also say—and I think this is important—if you need to find a church that’s more affirming of your position, that’s not us, we want to wrestle with the tension we see in Scripture.  If you need to go somewhere else where you can feel more supported in that, you’re free to go.  But just know, we would love the chance to walk with you and try to walk in the tension of conviction and compassion.

Here’s this pastoral impartation I want you to receive before we go.  No matter where you are on life’s journey, how you find yourself in this room today, you’re welcome here.  Young or old, you’re welcome here.  If you have brown skin, black skin, white skin, yellow skin, or any other color of skin, you are welcome here.  If you’re married or single, you’re welcome here.  If you’re gay or straight, you’re welcome here.  If you cannot see or cannot hear, you’re welcome here.  If you’re sick or well, you’re welcome here.  If you’re a man or a woman, you are welcome here.  If you’re happy or sad, you are welcome here.  If you are rich or poor, powerful or weak, you are welcome here.  If you believe in God some of the time, or none of the time, or all of the time, you are welcome here.  You….you….you….you….you….you….you….you are welcome here.  Let’s be people of welcome.  Let’s be people of love.  Let’s live with integrity and fidelity.  And let’s be a church that’s passionately obsessed with Jesus.  Amen?  Amen.  Oh yeah, and Happy Father’s Day!  Love you guys!

Let’s pray.  Jesus, we’re all strugglers and sojourners and wrestlers, if we’re honest.  So help us wrestle and walk well.  God, help us to be people who are able to live in some of the grey areas, the things that we struggle with, the things that we disagree with, the things that we don’t understand, the things that we doubt, the questions that we have.  Lord, help us to live with all of them in a tension that draws us to you and to you alone, we pray.  It’s in Jesus’s name.  And all God’s people said…..Amen and amen.

Brave in the New World | It’s Complicated | Matthew 19:1-12 | Week 72020-08-20T16:53:04-06:00

Brave in the New World | A Tale of Two Books | Matthew 2:1-11 | Week 6


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BRAVE IN THE NEW WORLD: A Tale of Two Books    Matthew 2:1-11   

I’ve had a number of people come up to me and say, “We’re so sad that you’re leaving, Ryan, but are you going to finish this series?”  Yes, I am.  Today, we’re going to jump into the subject of science and the Scriptures; then, next week, yes, on Father’s Day, I’m going to be teaching on the issue of sexuality and Brave in the New World and how that all ties together.  You’re welcome.  I promised on Mother’s Day, when I taught a message on Evil and Suffering, that I would be equally offensive on Father’s Day.  Praise be to God, it’s all worked out!

I want to start with a question:  Who would win if the Colorado Rockies played the Denver Broncos?  The question you should ask is what are they playing?  Before I put money on either team, I want to know what we’re playing.  While they’re all athletes and they’re all talented in their own right, they have different specialties, don’t they?  They have different bents.  They have different things that they practice day after day, night after night.  They have different things that they’re professionals at.  I think a lot of times we ask the question:  Are you a person of faith or are you a person of science?  Who wins—the Rockies or the Broncos?  I think we build this false dichotomy that you have to decide whether or not you’re a Bible person—which means then that you have to ignore all good science—or whether you’re a science person—in our mind that means we have to ignore the Bible.  What I’d like to do today is propose to you that maybe there’s a third way.  Maybe Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, was wrong, when he argued that you cannot be an intellectual scientific thinker and hold on to religious beliefs.  He’s wrong.   I think the Scriptures actually invite us into that tension.  Would you open with me to Matthew 2:1-2; we’re going to start our time there this morning.

This is a famous story in the Scriptures and it’s a story we’ll often read around Christmas time.  But it’s a story that demonstrates this convergence of Scripture and science.   Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”  The journey was long—roughly 800 miles.  We don’t know exactly where the Magi were from.  Most people thought, based on the gifts they brought to the Messiah, they were either from Babylon or Persia, but definitely from that region.  About eight hundred miles, and they’re walking into the fog.  They’re walking with this question that’s just spinning in the back of their heads and stirring their feet to put one foot in front of the other, month after month.  The question is simply this:  Could the stars be telling a story?

I mean, following a star.  Sounds a little like hocus pocus, doesn’t it?  But it was probably the best science they had back in the first century.  These Magi were sort of part of a priestly sect, but their role was to anoint kings.  In order to do that, they were studiers of the stars.  Ancient astronomers.  Not with our modern-day technology and telescopes, but they absolutely loved to study the skies.  Not much has changed, has it?  When we receive a picture back from the Hubble telescope of one of the hundred billion observable galaxies, we stand in awe, don’t we?  Aaron wrote a liturgical piece on the first-ever picture of the black hole.  When that was released a few weeks ago, it almost broke the internet.

These Magi were stargazers.  They were scientists.  They were wrestling with the nature of the world that we live in.  People have done a number of different to try to identify what this star actually was.  Some people have suggested that maybe it was a comet.  Scientists haven’t been able to locate any comets around that time in that region.  Others have said that it was a planetary conjunction, specifically Saturn and Jupiter in the Pisces constellation, coming together in a way that everybody in the ancient at that time would have said is a declaration that a new ruler is being born onto the scene.  Coincidentally, there was such a constellation arrangement in 7 BC.  Others would argue that it was some form of a nova, some residue from an exploding star.  Chinese scientists have identified that there was such a star in that region between 5 and 4 BC.

Now, this is not a message on the exact nature of the star that the Magi may have followed. It’s simply a way to say….could it be a false dichotomy that we have to choose between science or faith?  Between being people who wrestle with and study the world we live in and who trust in God.  After all, if we really read this text, here’s what we find.  These ancient stargazers followed this star, but it didn’t get them all the way to the Messiah.  They had to go into Jerusalem—which, by the way, is 5.5 miles away from Bethlehem.  They had to find the scribes and they had to find the prophets, and they had to ask them, “Where is the Messiah suppose to be born.  When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.  {Herod’s starting to ask the same question that the Magi asked earlier.}  They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:  ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'”   That’s what they told the Magi when they came and asked them.  Science got them close, but it didn’t get them to the feet of Jesus.

Maybe the saddest part of this whole story is that the scribes and the prophets never said to the stargazers, “What do you know that maybe we’ve missed?  What are you up to?”  The Magi arrive at the feet of Jesus—you may know the end of the story—but the scribes and the prophets never do.  At least that we know of.  I think what Matthew is telling us is that science and Scripture aren’t in opposition, they’re actually in harmony.  They’re designed to work together.  As the developer of the scientific method, Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “God has, in fact, written two books, not just one.  Of course, we are all familiar with the first book he wrote, namely Scripture.  But he has written a second book called creation.”

Modern science actually got its beginning where people were wrestling with (Christians were wrestling with) studying the natural world to “understand God’s thoughts after him.”  That was the beginning of this entire discipline. Yeah, science or Scripture?  Faith or Bible?  I’m here to make what to some of you will be a very welcomed assertion:  You do not have to choose one or the other.

I love the way that these Magi were people who studied the stars, and then were driven to try to discover.  They were curious people.  It led them on a journey.  I love the way that Frank Turek said it: “To say that a scientist can disprove the existence of God is like saying a mechanic can disprove the existence of Henry Ford.”  The Magi were unafraid of what they would find.  They just wanted to follow the evidence and see where it might lead.  I think, if we’re going to be brave in the new world, as followers of Jesus, we have to allow mystery to drive discovery.   Followers of Jesus cannot be afraid of what they will find in the scientific realm and scientific discoveries.  So many followers of Jesus are afraid.  Oh my goodness, we might discover through archeology or astronomy something that might potentially contradict this book, therefore, we cannot be part of those disciplines. We’ve got to relegate that to somebody else.   I think it’s a sad commentary on our day and our time.

Let me make two statements.  One will be more controversial than the other, I’ll let you decide which one that is.  I am convinced that the Scriptures should influence the way that we view science.  They should influence what we expect to discover.  Statement two:  Science should influence the way we read Scripture.  I’ll let you decide which one you think is more debatable.  Let me unpack both of these first.  Scripture should influence the way that we do science.  The Scriptures are clear that God speaks through his natural world.  Theologians call this General Revelation.  It’s the understanding of God that every person has from first to last because of the nature of the world that we live in.  Here’s the way that the Apostle Paul said it in his Magnum Opus of Christianity—his letter to the Romans.  He said in Romans 1:19-20 — For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.  So they are without excuse.  Paul’s saying that when you walk out of your tent when you’re camping at night, and you look up, and you see that stripe of the Milky Way galaxy, there’s something in your soul that goes, “This is bigger than me!  It’s bigger than what I can see.”  Paul would say that’s God through the beauty, majesty, and awe of his creation, putting his fingerprint on what he’s made, so you step back and go, “This can’t be an accident.”  His power, his nature, his character is on display, whether you look through a telescope or a microscope, it’s ALL God’s.

Paul’s going rabbinic midrash off of Psalm 19:1-4 — The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.  Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.  {Do you hear what the psalmist is saying?  Somehow creation is speaking.  It’s got a message for us.}  There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.  Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.  Maybe the Magi read Psalm 19 more literally than we do.  Maybe they really believe that.

Scripture should influence the way that we view science, but equally it’s true that science should influence the way that we read the Scriptures.  I know, for some of you, you’re probably sitting there and did this with your Bible…I’m going to hold it a little bit closer, Paulson, because I feel you want to rip it out of my hands.  I think I understand what you’re thinking, because I’ve thought it too.  If science influences the way that we read Scripture, doesn’t that water down the Scriptures?  Doesn’t that take us out of the realm of really studying and figuring out what the Scriptures say, and not just pulling in all these worldly disciplines?  We want to protect the integrity of the Scriptures.  I just want to say to you, “I’m with you and I hear you.”  There are times—and we’ll talk about one specific time in history—where the way that we read the Bible, we figure out afterwards that maybe it wasn’t the best reading.  In our cultural moment, in every cultural moment, everybody thinks they’re reading it right, but there are times where we found out, through 20/20 hindsight vision, that we weren’t.

I think a story might be helpful.  In 1543, there was a Polish astronomer by the name of Nicolaus Copernicus, who published a book entitled On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.  He essentially made the proposition through a very ancient, scientific method…..he said hey, you guys, I think maybe, just maybe, that the earth isn’t the center of the universe and the earth actually revolves around the sun rather than the other way around.  Copernicus had a number of friends in the Catholic Church and they said, “Hey, Nic, interesting idea.  We’d like you to keep your mouth shut about that, thank you very much.”  Copernicus said, “Okay, fair enough.”  A number of years later, a scientist by the name of Galileo Galilei began to dig a little bit deeper and ask more questions.  He had this newly invented tool called the telescope.  He said, “Hey, you guys, I think Copernicus was right.”  Galileo Galilei wasn’t as in with the church, so in 1615, there was a Dominican friar who saw the writings of Galileo and pulled Galileo in to meet with the church, which was a dangerous thing for a scientist to do back then.  In 1616, they had an inquisition and decided that Galileo was a “suspected heretic” because the science that he was proposing went directly against what the Bible taught.  Did you know that the Bible teaches that the sun revolves around the earth?  It does….Joshua 10:12-13.  At that time Joshua spoke to the Lord in the day when the Lord gave the Amorites over to the sons of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, “Sun, stand still Gibeon, and moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.” And the sun stood still, {You can only stand still if at some point you were moving.}  The church said to Galileo, “We know because of the Bible that the sun moves around the earth.  It’s not the earth that’s moving and spinning.  It’s the sun.”  You’re a heretic, Galileo.  We need you to keep your mouth shut, which he did until 1632, when there was a transition in the papacy.  He had a little bit more favor with the new pope, but he was put before an inquisition once again.  In 1633, he was banished to house arrest for the rest of his life.

You may have heard, since then, we’ve made a few discoveries!  It turns out, Galileo was right!  It’s the earth that’s moving in orbit around the sun.  The church had to radically reimagine the way that they read Joshua 10.  Let me ask you a question: Was that a good thing or a bad thing?  Really good thing.  Anytime we read the Bible in light of reality, it’s a good thing.  Even if it doesn’t fit….even if it doesn’t fit….even if it doesn’t fit in the boxes that we have created.  The truth of the matter, friends, is that that discovery didn’t disprove the Scriptures.  It showed that their interpretation of that passage had been wrong.

Which might cause us to ask: Where might our interpretations be wrong?  What might we discover in the next decade….or three or four….or century….or millennia or two millennia?  What might we discover about the way that we read the sacred, beautiful texts? They’re not arguing whether or not the Scriptures are authoritative.  They’re arguing about how we interpret them best in light of the reality of the world we live in.   I think maybe we can best….we can BEST….wrestle with this question through a case study.  Let’s use a highly debated topic…..creation.  It’s one of the primary places that many people feel like they either have to choose science or Scripture.  They either have to choose the Bible or the Hubble telescope.  So I’m going to invite you to turn to Genesis 1, which is where a lot of this discussion begins to happen.  It’s the book of origins.  Genesis 1 and 2 tell the story of creation, but as you’re turning there, I want to remind you that the Bible is not a scientific text book….although it does make some scientific claims.  Most people invest their time either in science or the Scriptures, but very rarely do people do both.  I want to be very clear this morning.  I am not someone who does both well.  I know enough to be dangerous.  Take your notes in pencil!  You’re welcome.

I’m having you turn to Genesis 1 and 2 because before we even get into the science behind this, we need to ask what kind of text are we reading.  What’s the intention of Genesis 1 and 2?  If you were to go home and read straight through Genesis 1 and 2, here’s what you would find.  They are different accounts of creation.  They are accounts that do not always agree with each other.  Which might cause us to ask some questions, like, what’s the intention of this?  What’s the purpose of this in the Scriptures?  And then…..what are we suppose to do with it?  I had you open to Genesis 1 and 2 to follow along, just to make sure I’m not crazy.  You can decide.

A few of the differences between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.  Genesis 1 uses the generic term for God, when it refers to God, the term Elohim.  Genesis 2 refers to the covenantal creator name for God….Yahweh.  Not a big deal, but it’s different.  The two chapters are different in size and scope.  Genesis 1 is sort of a wide angle.  It talks about the creation of the cosmos and the universe, massive in its grandeur.  Genesis 2 focuses primarily on humanity and on earth.  Not a big deal.  Genesis 1—After every creative act of God, God steps back and says, “It’s good.”  Then on day seven, He looks at what he’s made, pats himself on the back and says, “It’s very good.”  That’s His evaluation of his creation.  Genesis 2—We don’t see anything about it being good, we simply see that it was NOT good.  That’s what it says in Genesis 2.  So the evaluation is different from Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.  But here’s probably the biggest stumbling block for people when they really read through and really study Genesis 1 and 2.  The order of the creative account is different.  In Genesis 1, earth is created—it’s formless and void—it’s covered in water.  Then you have God who creates land and then plants and then animals and then human beings—male and female.  That’s Genesis 1.  In Genesis 2, the creative account begins with the existence with dry land, rather than water, then water is created….so these first two creative acts are reversed.  Then, man is created….specifically….not male and female, but man is created, Adam.  Plants are created.  Then animals are created.  Then a woman is created.  We tracking?  See the differences?

Here’s the questions I walk away with:  Was earth originally covered with water or was it dry?  Were plants created first or human beings?  In Genesis 2, you have human beings who precede plants; in Genesis 1, you have plants preceding human beings.  Which one is right?  Another question I have is how many humans did God create?  In Genesis 1, we have Him creating a number of fish and a number of birds and a number of animals.  He creates groups of all of these things.  Then it says he created human beings, and he created them in his image.  What we typically do is we read through to Genesis 2 and we take Adam and Eve and we read them back into Genesis 1.  Read through Genesis 1….you know who’s absent?  Adam and Eve.  They’re not there.

Okay, so we’re studying science and the Scriptures, and you might be wondering which one’s right?  Which one is accurate?  I mean, which one describes the events like they actually happened?  Typically we read Genesis 1 and 2, we put our hand in the air {and wave it around like we just don’t care} and we go OHHH! we have found something that no one else has ever thought of.  Like the original author, the narrator, of Genesis 1 and 2 didn’t know that he or she was putting back to back accounts that didn’t “mesh up.”  They were people like you and I.  We’ve certainly advanced a little bit.  I think we have different scientific instruments, but they knew what they were writing.  They. Knew. What. They. Were. Doing.  I like the way Tim Keller puts it:  I think Genesis 1 is probably poetry about the wonder and meaning of God’s creation, and Genesis 2 is probably an account more specifically about how it happened.  That’s one way of resolving it.

Do you know what we walk away with when we read Genesis 1 and 2?  One thing’s pretty clear.  God created.  Even when the early church tried to put into words what they believed about creation, listen to what they wrote in the Apostles’ Creed, written in roughly 180 ad.  I believe in God almighty, maker of heaven and earth.   We want to go, well, how many days did it take?  When did he create?  How did he create?  And what was the methodology?  And they go whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!  That’s not the point.  The point is that God Almighty, Yahweh, is the maker of heaven and earth.  The Creed refuses to answer the questions that we most often ask.  It’s as though they give us the freedom to decide what and how we believe based on the best sciences and the given time period, and the way that we interpret the Scriptures best, holding on to the conviction that God is the creator of it all, and creating a ton of freedom to decide exactly how that happened.

So there are strong followers of Jesus who strongly disagree about creation.  That’s okay.  Saint Augustine, in the fourth century, wrote (I think) four volumes on the nature of Genesis, and he wrestled with it.  Here’s the conclusion that he came to:  “In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received.  In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.”   St. Augustine for the win!  How many of you wish the church would have read that back in the sixteenth and seventeenth century?

I’m going to dig my hole a little bit deeper and I want to talk about the three most prominently-held views of creation amongst those who follow the way of Jesus.  I want to say at the onset, my hope is that you don’t exactly where I stand by the end of this, and you can see why people can hold such views.  First, it’s a view called Young Earth Creationism.  This group of people hold very firmly to a literal reading of Genesis 1.  Sometimes their camp might be called Literal 6-Day Creationism.  They believe that the world is roughly six thousand years old, give or take.  There are top-notch scientists and really good theologians that would hold to this view.  I’m going to give you resources to study each of these more at your own leisure.  The best one I know—I could be wrong—is www.answersingenesis.org.  It’s led by Ken Ham, who actually built a life-size ark somewhere in Kentucky.  They are convinced that Genesis 1 should be read literally and that the sciences don’t disprove that reading of the Scriptures.

Second camp.  Old Earth Creationism.  There are a number of variances within Old Earth creationism to try to wrestle through the Scriptures and go, how can, in light of the sciences that seem to suggest that the world is older than six thousand years, how can we sort of mesh that view with the Scriptures?  There’s two primary theories that they have.  One is the gap theory—It’s in between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 that there is a GAP of time, hence the term gap theory.  The second idea is called the day-age theory.  They say that the “days” referenced in Genesis 1 aren’t literal 24-hour days.  They’re epochs or long undetermined periods of time.  They would say that we use that word “day” in that way also.  “Back in the day of Moses.”  “Back in the day of Abraham Lincoln.”  And the Hebrew Scriptures use that word “day” in that way at certain times as well.  So not literal 24-hour days.  They would have no issue with the earth being 4.4 billion years old and no issue with the universe being roughly 13.8 billion years old.  One of the benefits of the Old Earth creation model, when it comes to hermeneutics, is that we have roughly twenty creation accounts in the Scriptures.  They don’t all line up with Young Earth creationism, so Old Earth creationism seems to be able to toy with this tension of hermeneutics maybe as we look at the scope of Scripture in some different ways. {www.reasons.org.  Led by Hugh Ross}

Finally, Theistic Evolution.  This view is probably the least popular in the States, but what N.T. Wright pointed out in an article he wrote about the Scriptures and science is that that isn’t the case throughout the globe.  Actually, his argument from a Brit speaking to people in the U.S. is that we’ve been tainted by the Scopes Monkey Trials in 1925.  Essentially, the Scopes Monkey trials, which, by the way, I didn’t know this until I started digging into this this week, is a trial about someone who went in and taught evolution in a science class.  I didn’t know that this guy was a substitute teacher!  Oh my goodness, can you imagine?!  That’s awesome, isn’t it?  Essentially what the Scopes Monkey trial did was draw a line in the sand and it said, “You either believe in evolution or you believe in the Bible, but you cannot believe in both.  Which camp are you in?”  Theistic evolution view essentially argues that the best sciences point to evolution.  They distinguish between evolutionary philosophy (survival of the fittest) and everything that goes along with that, and evolution as science.  But the summary is simply this: God has sovereignly, divinely, and miraculously created the world and has guided the process of evolution over the course of billion of years.  You can check out www.biologos.org.  It’s run by a man named Francis Collins, who is a brilliant scientist and leader of the Human Genome Project, and a very, very strong follower of Jesus.

Have I muddied the waters enough for you?  So where do I fall?  I’m a happy agnostic, when it comes to issues of creation.  I think ANY of them could be right.  I have a direction that I lean in, but I want to take my lead from St. Augustine.  I want to hold it fairly loosely.  I’m fascinated by the sciences.  I love going to the Museum of Nature and Science with my kids.  I’m convinced that God has created and we get to discover his handiwork in more beautiful and awe-filled fashion than no human beings ever have in the history of our globe.  That is a beautiful, really, really, good thing.  I REJECT, adamantly reject, anything that prevents us from exploring and discovering for fear that we might discover something that goes contrary to the Scriptures.  This is a united journey of science and Scripture, of theology and telescopes that lead us to God.

The same way it did for the Magi.  Matthew 2:10-11 — When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.  And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.  Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.   I love this picture because it’s the combined efforts of the stars and the Scriptures that lead these people to Jesus, but they don’t end up bowing down to the stars.  They end up bowing down to the Messiah.  Friends, worship is the end goal of telescopes AND theology.  That’s the goal of it all.  Let’s be people who let wonder drive us to worship.  Whether it’s the very first ever picture of a black hole.  Or whether it’s a picture of the ring nebula; leftover particles from a star the size of our sun that exploded and made something absolutely gorgeous.  Or the idea of quantum entanglement—if you have questions about that ask Aaron.  Bring a snack, but ask Aaron, he’s obsessed with this stuff.  It’s the idea that particles start to play off each other and affect each other even when they are vast differences apart and all of the implications that go along with that.  Or, human DNA that we’ve been able to map and chart, in all of its complexity.  Or the holographic principle of the universe; talk to Aaron about that one too.  Or, the fossil records and what we might one day discover.  In fact, this is a depiction of the “sea monster” that they just discovered fossils from this week in Antarctica.  Let it drive you to worship!  Fossils.  Ideas.  DNA.  More ideas!  Stars.  And black holes.  Friends, as Gerald Manley Hopkins said, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”  Let’s be people who allow mystery to drive discovery and then let’s be people who allow wonder to cause us to worship.  But let’s never forget the beautiful mysterious gift that it is ultimately to be human.  Where we get to live in this world that we don’t understand and never fully will, but we get to be explorers.  As followers of Jesus, let’s be the best explorers the world has ever seen.  Amen.

Brave in the New World | A Tale of Two Books | Matthew 2:1-11 | Week 62020-08-20T16:51:49-06:00

Brave in the New World | Lament in the New World | Psalm 13 | Week 5


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Brave in the New World | Lament in the New World | Psalm 13 | Week 52020-08-20T16:50:41-06:00

Brave in the New World | Tolerance in a Culture of Contempt | John 8:1-11 | Week 4


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Brave in the New World | Tolerance in a Culture of Contempt | John 8:1-11 | Week 42020-08-20T16:54:59-06:00

Brave in the New World | Evil and Suffering | John 9:1-3 | Week 3


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BRAVE IN THE NEW WORLD: The Problem of Evil and Suffering

Fear stopped me in my steps this week.   I know we shouldn’t fear, but what do we do when we do?  I wrote my message on Monday.  Tuesday, I was in a meeting with Aaron and we were planning a future worship service, and our phones started to blow up, like yours probably did too.  Got the news that there was an active shooter situation at STEM.  Gathered our staff together to start to pray.  Tried our best to contact people we knew that had kids involved to tell them we’re praying, we love them, is there anything we can do?  It just didn’t seem fitting to give the message I had already written.   I think that in moments like these, especially in a series called “Brave in a New World,” to not talk about the actual world we live in would probably be a misstep.

As weird and awkward as it is to try to tackle the problem of suffering and evil on Mother’s Day, forgive me if that offends you, but I’m going to do my best to try to step into this moment, please hear me, not as somebody who has all the answers.  I stand up here with more questions than I do answers right now, to be quite honest with you.  I stand up here with questions like you probably have—-God, why?  God, are you involved?  God, is so, how?  I stand up here, along with many of you, who had to try to answer questions for your kids about…..is it safe?  All those questions, right?  We had to cancel school a few weeks ago because of a scare.  On THAT day, I was up early studying, and one kid came down, right after the other, dressed for school, and I had to explain to them why they weren’t going to school that day.  One of them asked me, “Dad, why would somebody want to do something like that?”  Another said to me, “Dad, they must be a really, really bad person.”  Another one asked me, “Dad, can we have a pajama day?”  It hits all of us differently.  I think that’s just a microcosm of the way that we probably all feel in this room, to some degree.  That tragedy hit us all differently, but my guess is, we’re all, at least on some level, asking this question, “Where. Was. God?”  Where was God?  Does he care?  Is he involved at all?

Somebody commissioned a national study, a few years ago, and said, “If you can ask God just one question, what would you ask Him?”  The winning question by an absolute landslide was, “Why is there so much suffering and evil in our world?”  I’m with them!  I would love to know that too.  On some level, isn’t there something inside of each one of us that sits in this room, where we see something that happened like on Tuesday, or we read about another tragedy and there’s something in us that just aches, isn’t there?  And something that goes, “This isn’t the way this should be.”  There’s something transcendent in human beings where we go, we were created for a world that was free from suffering and free from evil and free from death, and that’s the world that we long for.  We get glimmers of it in this world, don’t we?  Our world is beautiful, but it’s broken.

That question of suffering and that question of evil are attempted to be answered by all the different philosophies and religions of the world.  In fear of being maybe just a little bit too philosophical this morning, I think we just need to address how do people explain what goes on?  What are the answers out there?  I hope I don’t create straw men here to burn to the ground, because I’m going to focus most of the time on what the Scriptures’ answer is to this question.  Here’s the way other philosophies and other religions will address this question. Here’s what the atheist might say.  You’ve probably heard this this week.  If evil exists, God cannot.  I think the argument is best summarized by the 18th century enlightenment philosopher, David Hume.  Here’s what he wrote:  “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?  Then he is impotent.  Is he able, but not willing?  Then he is malevolent.  Is he both able and willing?  Why then is there evil?”  Here’s the argument:  If God is all-powerful, if God is all good, and if God is all-loving, then why in the world is there evil in the world?  That’s the argument.  So, because there is evil, there is no God.  That’s the atheist’s argument.

As an aside—this is an aside that there’s volumes written on, so it’s a little bit unfair—if there is no God, how do we actually define anything as evil?  If there’s no standard of right and wrong, you define evil your way, I’ll define evil my way.  I think the whole argument starts to break down.  C.S. Lewis said it like this:  “As an atheist my argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust.  But how had I gotten this idea of just and unjust?  A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.  What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”  That’s a great question.  Will you lean in for a moment?  I’m just going to give my answer to this.  Evil, the existence of evil and suffering, does not mean there is no God.  It simply means that there is no god who prevents all evil and suffering.  That god doesn’t exist…..because we have evil and suffering.

The secularists—the person that believes our lives are just some cosmic, biological accident—would say that evil is just a part of the process of natural selection.  I know it’s hard to hear, but it’s just a part of our DNA working itself out.  Eastern philosophy might say evil does not exist; it’s just an illusion.  If you ignore it, it might go away.  You’ll read books from an Eastern philosophical standpoint that says even if you’re diagnosed with cancer, don’t say it, don’t name it, ignore it, it’ll hopefully go away.  It’s an illusion.  So, the atheist says if evil exists, God does not.  The Eastern philosophy says evil doesn’t exist.  Hindu and Buddhism might say evil done to us is a result of past mistakes.  Punishment.  There’s even this idea in John 9 that people back in Jesus’s day had this question: Why was this man born blind?  Who sinned?  He or his parents.  He must have done something wrong, right?  This is an idea that’s been around for millennia.

All that to say that dealing with the problem of evil is not a Christian problem, it’s a human problem.  Here’s the reality.  If you’re a skeptic here this morning; if you’re here because your mom drug you because it’s Mother’s Day…..ha! You have to wrestle with this question.  How do you explain it?  What’s the best explanation for this world that we live in?  I would encourage you that if that’s you and you’re maybe more skeptical this morning, would you lean in a little bit to see which explanation of the world that we live in actually makes sense.  Resonates most deeply with your soul, because, this just in, this is not the way followers of Jesus or the Scriptures describe the problem of evil in our world.  But the challenging part is that the Bible doesn’t give one succinct sort of you can turn to this passage and find a theological answer to the problem of evil.  It doesn’t.  Because people, back when the Scriptures were being written, weren’t wrestling with that question the way we do.  They sort of took the problem of evil and suffering as a reality of their world.  They didn’t question it a whole lot.  The truth of the matter is if suffering and Christianity were incompatible….if suffering and Christianity could not mix and could not meet, Christianity would never have survived the first two centuries.  Every single early follower of Jesus saw people who were tortured and killed for their faith.  They saw people who were put into arenas and destroyed by wild animals.  While they certainly wrestled and they certainly lamented, they didn’t approach this with the same lens that we do.  Our lens is God, are you even real?  They had a different question. They had a different process that they went through.  I think that their foundation was maybe a little bit more grounded in the metanarrative of the Scriptures.

If you have a Bible, will you open to Genesis 1.  The rest of this message is my attempt to answer the question: Where was God?  The Scriptures are really clear that God creates everything, Genesis 1, and he steps back, high fives himself and says, “I do good work.”  He looks at his creation and says, “It is very, very good.”  Humanity is created for four things.  They’re created for loving union for God.  They’re created to know themselves well.  They’re created to walk with each other and intimate close relationship.  They’re created to walk in this world, in God’s creation, in a way that brings about life out of the dirt.  To be in relationship with God, self, each other, and creation.  That’s his design.  And God looks at his design and goes, “I do good work.”

But Adam and Eve were not robots.  They were not programmed to just execute God’s commands.  In the very beginning, Adam and Eve were given a choice.  Genesis 2:15-17 — The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.  And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”  Anybody wonder why the choice?  Could we have avoided so much of this mess if there were just one tree?  Why the choice?  The choice is Adam and Eve, will you trust me?  Adam and Eve, will you become disciples?  Will you learn to live in my way, will you eat my life or will you try to define what’s right and wrong based on your own thoughts, your own desires, the things that stir in you?  Are you going to trust you or are you going to trust Me?  That’s the fundamental question we have to wrestle with here.

So why not just one tree?  Because God’s highest value is love; where there is no genuine choice, there is no real love.  From the beginning, Adam and Eve were given choice.  You know how long their choice to be in relationship with God lasts…..two chapters.  At which point there’s an evil force, a serpent, the Devil, Satan, who’s introduced into the story as well.  He tempts them.  They decide to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil instead of the tree of life.  They make a decision that we still feel the ripple effects of today, and that four-fold design is then fractured.  They’re out of relationship with God.  They’re out of relationship with themselves.  They’re out of relationship with each other, and they’re out of relationship with creation.  You and I live in the soil of that decision.

I think a lot of followers of Jesus get the story just a little bit wrong.  Let me summarize it for you, and see if your answer to Tuesday has this as part of its lens.   (1) God is responsible for creating and his creation is good, through and through.  God did not create evil.  He says it’s good.  (2) God is sovereign, but that does not mean that God actively controls everything.  It doesn’t mean that God makes your decisions for you.  It doesn’t mean that God stops you from making bad decisions.  Just by show of hands, how many of you made a bad decision that God did not stop you from making?  Look around…..so we all agree with point two.  God is good and he’s sovereign, but his sovereignty does not mean that he steps in and stops every bad decision that we are about to make.  Just as a side note, when people ask the question where was God when this happened, and why didn’t God step in and stop that, we have absolutely no way of answering the question how many of these things DID God stop.   But within his sovereignty, God has chosen to allow you and I and others to make decisions.  Your decisions matter.  They matter deeply.  (3) From the beginning, humanity was created with the freedom to choose.  God, will I live in your way or will I eat of my own tree?  As an aside, we’ve all chosen to eat from our own tree. We’ve all chosen that tree.  We can talk about evil out there, but as followers of Jesus, we can’t just talk about evil somewhere else, we got to start addressing evil in here. {Touches chest.}  We can talk about evil in our community, but we also have to address the evil in our own hearts.  Jesus came in order to set us free cosmically, and he came to set us free in the community, and he came to set us free personally.  We have to look at the multi-faceted, multi-dimensional problem of evil.  Someone, in a debate, asked a great apologist, Dr. Frank Turek……he stood up and raised his hand and asked, “Why doesn’t God just stop all evil?  Frank responded and said, “If God stopped all evil, he might just begin with you.”  Right?  Which one of us would stand up here and say, “No, not me.”  Not me.

Don’t miss this. From the very beginning, (4) there is an enemy of humanity that’s bent on destroying humanity.  And that enemy—look up at me—is not God.  You hear some people who talk about what happened on Tuesday, you hear some people that talk about evil and suffering in the world, and their answer is something like this, “Well, God has his reasons.”  Who can understand the mind of God?    They back themselves into a theological corner by defining sovereignty as God is in control of everything, and humanity doesn’t really have choice, and there is no real enemy.  Essentially, in some people’s theology, God is the enemy.  God is the one causing suffering.  God is the one causing evil.  God is the one causing destruction.  You essentially have to ask, “What part does the Devil play in that?”  As gently as I can, if your theology doesn’t have a place for the devil or evil, it’s not biblical.  If you blame everything on God, just know the Bible doesn’t.  You have to make a decision….is God responsible for evil?  Or is God healing our evils?  He’s not both.  Which one is he?

When my mom passed away, well-intentioned people said things like, “Well, God just took her.”  I would, as gently as I could, respond, “Actually, no, paraneoplastic syndrome took her.  God received her.”  God healed her.  God didn’t make her sick. God didn’t give her cancer.  God actually healed her cancer.  Think of the logical fallacy that you have to embrace if God is both the giver of cancer and the healer of cancer.  It’s a logical fallacy big enough to drive a dump truck through.  Right?  God is the one killing us and then we’re suppose to run into his loving arms.  Embrace a life of cognitive dissonance, right, where we go I’m not sure what to expect in this moment, at this time.  No, no, no, no, no.  The Scriptures explain where this evil comes from in Ephesians 2:1-3.  Paul will write this, because his answer is not it came from God.  God creates good things….every good and perfect gift comes from God.  And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.  See, according to the Scriptures, they don’t give a simplistic answer to the problem of evil and suffering, they actually say it’s three-fold.  We live in a broken world, with broken systems.  Sometimes those systems oppress people.  We have something inside of us—-Paul calls it the flesh, desires.  Sometimes our desires are off base, aren’t they?  We also have a cosmic enemy he calls the devil.  Then he says we were by nature children of wrath.  He’s not talking about God’s wrath.  He’s talking about the wrath of the world, the flesh, and the devil.  He’s talking about the fire that we create that consumes us, not the fire that God creates.  He’s not talking about God getting off course here, he’s talking about humanity getting off course here and creating things that eventually destroy us.

As Peter recounts the ministry of Jesus, here’s the way he describes it (Acts 10:38) — he (Jesus) went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil….  That’s Jesus’s mission according to Peter.  They weren’t under the power of God.  When people got sick, Jesus didn’t come and say, “Let me heal you from what my Father’s afflicted upon you.”  No, they have an enemy and it’s not God.  It’s the devil.  And everything that comes along with him…..fear, guilt, shame, death, sickness.  All of these things.

My guess is you’re saying to yourself, okay, Paulson, I find some solace in just assuming that God controls every little detail, even though I can’t explain why a good God would allow things like this to happen, I still want to believe that God is actively controlling every single detail.  So you might be asking yourself this question:  If the reality is that God doesn’t cause suffering and He doesn’t prevent all suffering, then how is God involved in it?  Or maybe to just summarize it succinctly, what good is God?  The Christian understanding to the answer to this question is unlike anything else you will find in any other religion or any other philosophy.  It’s completely different.  It’s completely other.  Here’s the answer that the Scriptures give—-How is God involved in suffering?  Jesus enters in and he suffers with us.  Ellie Weisel, the great author and Holocaust survivor, recounts a time when a young boy was taken and hung from the gallows.  Someone behind Weisel said, “For God’s sake, where is God?”  Weisel recounts that he sensed a voice rise up in him that answered, “Where is He? This is where He is—hanging here from these gallows.”

Only the gospel dares to proclaim that God is messy enough, that God is dirty enough, that God is loving enough to not watch our suffering from a distance, but to enter into it.  Enter into it with flesh and blood born in a dirty, dung-filled manger.  Goes on to live his life in relationship with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners; and to eventually give his life on a Roman cross for your sake and for my sake.  Where is God?  Where is God when things like these happen?  He’s with us.  He’s here.  He enters in.  Because the cross is not the end of God’s suffering with us, it is the declaration that whenever we suffer He enters in.  Whenever we suffer He enters in.  The truth, friends, is that God understands our pain and our suffering first hand.  He’s the only God that can say, “I’ve been there.”    That Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:6-8)  This is your God.  In moments like these—will you lean in for a moment?—we want answers, but we NEED presence.  We want answers, but we need presence, and Jesus says, “I’m entering in.”

Here’s the other thing he says.  Followers of Jesus can have confidence that God hates suffering and death more than we do.  I’m reminded of Jesus having a conversation with Mary and Martha—you can read about it in John 11.  They’re frustrated that Jesus took his time getting to them, that their brother Lazarus had died.  As Jesus talks with them, here’s the way John records what’s going on with Jesus.  (John 11:33)  When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.”   He had compassion on the inside–deeply moved.  Then it says .  In the Greek it’s like a horse whinnying and shaking its head.  What’s he troubled at?  Death.  He hates it.  He’s going this isn’t my creation, this isn’t the way I designed this.  This isn’t what I wanted it to look like.  As much as we hate what happened on Tuesday, I want to assure you, Jesus hates it more.

The God who suffers with us—-here’s what we can know.  There’s a lot of things we can’t know.  We can’t know all of the answers as to why people make all the decisions they make.  What role the devil plays in that.  What role the world plays in that.  What role they play in that.  We can’t nuance that out.  There’s so many things we don’t have answers for, but here’s what we don’t have to question.  We can look at the cross that stands at the center point of history that the King of kings and the Lord of lords would come down, clothe himself in human flesh and blood, that he would come in and suffer and die, that it would be his declaration of love for you and me.  The cross stands at the center point of history to say to us, of all the questions you have, one you don’t have to ask is, “Does God love me?”  We know the answer to that one.  Yes.  Yes!  YES!  He does!  All of this says that we can take our pain, we can take our brokenness, we can take our lament, we can take it to his throne and say, “God, we freaking hate this!  We HATE this!”  We hate that we have to put our kids on a bus and be scared.  We HATE this!  We hate that we, as a society, have not stepped up to do more to stop it.  We hate it!  We feel like our hands are tied.  We don’t know what to do.  We know we need to do something, but we don’t have the answers.  We hate this!  God goes, “I hate it too! I hate it too! I weep with you! I love you!”  You do your research.  No other religion makes that claim.  Ask yourself what you really need in moments like this.  Is it answers?  Or is it presence?

I’ve been praying this week and I’ve just sensed this spirit-driven frustration AND peace.  I’m going, “God, I don’t know how to make sense of this.”  But I sense Jesus reminding me that he’s way more creative than I am.  While I’m confident that God did not cause this, He also didn’t prevent it.  The Scriptures make these claims that man, are so hard to hear in moments like this. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)  I’m going, God, how would this….how would you ever work this together for good?  I imagine myself on a whiteboard trying to figure it out.  You could do this and you could do this and then…..  I just sensed this week God going, “Pause. Pray.”  One of the reasons I love this verse is because there are some things tucked right beneath that I think we need to hear.  One, if God needs to work things together FOR good, they are not good in and of themselves.  If he has to work it together for good, it didn’t come directly from his hand.  The things that come from His hand are good, pleasing and perfect.  Those are what come directly from God.  God is the Master Creator taking the mess that we make and somehow and some way weaving it together to say, not only do I enter in and suffer with you, but some how I’ll use this.  For every atheist that’s walked away from God saying, “I can’t believe in a God because there’s evil and suffering,” there are ten followers of Jesus who will raise their hand and say, “I can’t explain it to you, but somehow, some way that pain pushed me into his loving arms.”  I’ve heard people say to me in my office….at first, I did a double take as a young pastor, and now I’ve almost started to expect it on some level….they’ll say things like, “Cancer was the best thing that happened to me.”  And they’re not saying God gave me cancer.  They’re saying that God somehow took that sickness and that pain and twisted and turned it and what the enemy wanted to use for evil, somehow God is his creative, redemptive way used for good.  He’s at work even in our mess.

I’ll tell you what, friends, knowing that God is with us, and knowing that God is at work within this crappy situation, there’s still this ache.  There’s still something in our bones that cries out “this isn’t how it should be.”  There’s still something in our heart that longs for something more beautiful.  There’s still something in our heart that longs for the tension of the beauty and the broken to be resolved.  There’s still some sort of residue on every single soul that know we were created for something more.  I want to invite you today to not push that longing away.  Actually, reel it in.  Let it speak to you.  Let it speak a better word over your life.  Allow yourself to hope in the midst of pain.  Allow yourself to dream in the midst of the brokenness.  Allow yourself to say, “Jesus, we don’t get it. There’s something in our souls that long for so much more.”  Our ache, our longing is a holy ache, it’s a holy longing that reminds us of a holy God who created us for a good and beautiful world.  What He wants to say to us today is do not judge the story mid-way through, but behold I will make all things new.  Jesus doesn’t just suffer with us and he doesn’t just use our suffering, he suffers FOR us and ultimately IS our healing.  He is making all things new.  And this is his final word on the matter.  I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace.  In the world you will have tribulation. {It’s going to happen, because of the world, flesh, and the devil. That’s the world you live in.}  But take heart; I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)

Jesus does what every single mom in this room longs to do.  He comes up to us, brushes off our knees, puts his arm around us and says, “It’s going to be okay.”  Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but it’s going to be okay.  And once it is, it will forever be.  I’m going to make it all new.

In closing, number one, there’s an evil out there, but there’s also evil in here.  When Jesus came, he taught, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.”  Repent.  Because of my Spirit’s prompting, because of my Spirit’s power, you can let go of the dominion of sin and death, the reign of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and you can step out of the kingdom of darkness and into the kingdom of light.  If you have not made that decision today, friends, I invite you, just like Jesus did, “Repent.”  The kingdom of heaven is available for you today.  If you have made that decision, reaffirm your commitment to say, “Jesus, this world needs people who will live in the way of life, who will live in the way of love, who will reject the kingdom of darkness—both out there and in here, and carry your light.  Let’s be that church, friends.

Let me give you my summary on how we answer this question.  Where was God during this tragedy?  God didn’t cause it, but he also didn’t prevent it.  He entered into it.  He entered into it with nail pierced hands and a broken heart.  He entered into it pointing us to a better way—to the way of love.  And he entered into it with the whisper, “Behold, I am making ALL things new.”   Let’s pray.

Jesus, I’m just a broken man.  These questions just haunt us because there’s this beautiful residue of what you’ve created us to live in that remains, and today we want to look at that and say, Jesus, in the midst of fear, in the midst of pain, in the midst of hurt, we don’t want to solve the problem by ignoring design and your original intent.  We want to hold on to that hope, knowing that this world is both beautiful and broken.  So, Jesus, help us hold it well.  Help us know today, that regardless of where we are with all that’s gone on, that you’re present with us, that you enter in with us, that you love us in the midst of it.  That you are promising that somehow, as the Grand Weaver, you’re going to make something beautiful out of our mess.  God, please, please!  I pray that over my friends in this room who had students that were there on Tuesday.  Jesus, would you do a work in them, please.  May your peace cover their homes.  May your peace cover their children.  Will you give them back the ability to sleep and in time, would you somehow and in some way give us the ability to move forward without fear.  Please, Jesus, please.  Jesus, we look forward to that day, we long for that day, when you make all things new.   Help us hope well today.  It’s in your name we pray.  Amen. 

Brave in the New World | Evil and Suffering | John 9:1-3 | Week 32020-08-20T16:56:10-06:00

Brave in the New World | Donkeys and Elephants, Oh My! | Mark 12:13-17 | Week 2


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DONKEYS AND ELEPHANTS, OH MY!    Mark 12:13-17      

I’m really glad that you’re here today.  We are on week two of a series that we’re calling “Brave in the New World.”  A number of months ago we did a church survey, and one of the questions we asked on that survey was “What are some of the things you’d like to see more teaching on?”  Turns out, you guys like hard subjects and we made a series out of a lot of those answers, so over the next few weeks, we’re wrestling with a number of difficult subjects.  We’re calling the series “Brave in the New World,” because in case you haven’t noticed, the world is changing.  How many of you would agree?  The world is changing at a pretty rapid pace, and if you’re a follower of Jesus….   First of all, if you’re not, we’re really glad that you’re here today, because you get sort of the window-shopping view of how the church wrestles with difficult issues, so I’m glad you’re here.  But if you are a follower of Christ, my guess is you’re wondering how in the world do I live out my faith, in the public sphere, in a world that’s changing so quickly?  That’s the question we’re going to be wrestling with over the next few weeks.  Essentially, if it’s off limits at Thanksgiving dinner, we’re going to talk about it over the next few weeks.  If you say to your friends and family, “We don’t talk about that here, because we all want to remain friends,” it’s coming up.  I sort of jokingly said that maybe after this series we’ll do a teaching series on church unity, because we’re going to need it.

Last week we said that the church of the future will be a creative minority that has influence without power.  Essentially, the way forward is the way back.  The early church had almost NO power politically or socially, but over a few hundred years, developed great experience.  We opened up Acts 4 and we saw the way that the church had influence, in the way that it proclaimed Jesus and that its message was very, very clear.  In the way that it embraced the fact that there was going to be opposition and they didn’t expect a red carpet to be rolled out.  In the way that they prioritized being people who had been with Jesus; we said, last week, that the world needs more people present in it who have been present with Jesus.

Today, we’re going to lay over that paradigm that we set forth last week, everybody’s favorite issue.  The issue of politics.  I have three goals today:  One, to show you that Jesus wasn’t adverse to talking politics.  Number two, my goal is to be an equal opportunity offender.  I hope everyone of you walks out of these doors and goes, “I don’t know if I like that Paulson guy.”  My goal, if I’m successful, will have you walking out of here going, “I’m not exactly sure where Paulson stands politically.”  Those are, all three, my goals.

The question is:  What is/are politics?  Politics is literally the science of government.  It’s the way that we organize our collective life together.  The word politics comes from the Greek word “polis,”  which is where we get our word city or community.  Politics is the way that we decide through laws and policies that we are going to operate as a collective group of people.  If you’re part of a city, you’re a part of politics.  If you’re part of a community, you’re a part of politics.  Politics is sort of one of these necessary evils, in a sense.  We need politics, we need government, because without government the lowest of the low, the oppressed, the weak, get absolutely run over and taken advantage of.  Politics are there to protect the people that are the most vulnerable.  Because we are fallen people, we need politics, we need government.  But look up at me for a second.  Because we are fallen people, politics and governments are messy.  Anyone want to say Amen to that?

If I were to try to summarize our current political landscape—and I don’t have enough time this morning to trace for you how we got to this place, only to state it at least as a perceived reality on my part; you can agree or disagree—my one word would be…divided.  I would follow that up, maybe as a close second to volatile.  It feels like a volcano that’s just sort of bubbling and every once in a while it erupts.  It erupts over presidential elections.  It erupts over gun laws, over gay marriage, over economic policy, over immigration, over race relations and race riots.  We are a divided people.

In some ways, the world always has been.  If you have your Bible, open with me to Mark 12.  Let me set a little bit of context while you’re finding Mark 12.  Jesus has been asked a question about his authority and now he’s going to be asked a question about his politics.  Explicitly stated in this text is the reason that people are asking this question; they want to trap Jesus.  Politics was a contentious subject 2000 years ago.  Not a whole lot has changed, has it?  They’re turning up the dial.  Jesus is marching towards his crucifixion and, subsequently, his resurrection.  People want to pin Jesus, to have a reason to kill him, so here’s what they do:  And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. {They wanted to get him to say something that would infuriate one of these groups.}  And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God.  Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” 

I read that in a condescending manner, because, as you’ll find out, they ask it in a condescending manner.  Here’s what they want to do:  Two groups of people that, previous to Jesus—Jesus united them around hatred to Him, weren’t really friends.  You had the Herodians.  There perspective was: If we can get the right person on the throne, if we can get someone from the Herodian line to step back into power in Judea, then Israel will flourish.  We just need the right person on the throne and then everything’s going to be okay.  These people had zero trouble paying taxes.  It was in their benefit; let’s get the right person elected.  On the other hand, you had the Pharisees.  The Pharisees were more “religiously pure,” maybe.  They felt like no, no, no, no, no, it’s not getting a Herodian elected, it’s having the Messiah come.  The Messiah will rule.  The Messiah will reign.  If He comes, then everything will be okay.  The Pharisees resented, with every fiber of their being, the fact that they had to pay these taxes.

So you see the position Jesus is in.  He’s in a no-win situation.  They ask the question because they want to force Jesus to compromise, either politically—by siding with the Pharisees, or theologically—by siding with the Herodians.  Here’s the problem with trying to pin Jesus into a corner.  He’s brilliant, that’s the problem.  Here’s how he responds:  But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test?  Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.”  And they brought one.  And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.”  

It was a silver coin, probably around 18 cents in value.  On one side of it, it had a picture of Caesar and it had the inscription Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus.  It was a declaration: Caesar is the son of god.  If you would flip the coin to the other side you would see a picture of a woman who was the personification of the Roman Empire, Roma.  It was a picture of worship of Caesar and worship of Rome.  Not surprisingly, there were a number of people in Israel of the pharisaical party, zealots, who had an issue with paying this head tax.  In fact, there was a man named Judas the Galilean who previously led a revolt that got shot down over this tax.  It was a contentious issue, to say the least.

When Jesus held that coin, he wasn’t just holding money, he was holding a way.  He was holding a picture of the way that the world works, where if you have power, you get to oppress the people you don’t like.  If you own the sword, then you get to make the rules.  The Pharisees thought, “If we could just get Jesus’s picture on that coin, if we could just get Jesus elected, if we could just get the Messiah in office, well, then we will be okay.”  That was their hope.

Which makes Jesus’s response all the more interesting.  Here’s what he says:  Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  And they marveled at him.    They were like Jesus, that wasn’t one of the options.  We wanted you to either side with the Pharisees, the theological conservatives, or the Herodians, those liberals.  We wanted you to pick a side.  We wanted you to tell us where you stand.  Jesus is like, I’m way smarter than you and you will not pigeon-hole me in these false dichotomies of choosing from binary options—Option A and Option B.  He goes, I’ll see you Option C, D, E, and F, thank you very much.

Jesus doesn’t call his disciples to opt out of government.  He doesn’t call his disciples to opt out of politics.  If you’re part of a public community, you’re distinctly a part of politics.  He also doesn’t call them to think that people in positions of power have the ability to replace God.  Do you see what he’s doing?  He’s choosing a  brilliant third way.  Yeah, government has power, but its power is limited.  Followers of Christ are called to live IN the kingdom while being a part of the empire.  Deciding to live in Jesus’s kingdom does not mean that we are just taken out of the empire, or the state.  As Paul would write to the church at Rome, in Romans 13:1 — Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.   In 1 Timothy 2, Paul would write to Timothy, living in Ephesus at the time, and said Timothy, I command you, have men everywhere, have people everywhere, to pray for their governing authorities, pray for their leaders.  I checked and I can’t find any Bible that has a footnote at the bottom that says: The ones you agree with.  It just says: Pray for them.  If it’s Nero, pray for him.  If it’s Domitian, pray for him.  If it’s Obama, pray for him.  If it’s Trump, pray for him.  Pray for them….period.  Because you’re not taken out of the empire when you become a follower of Jesus.  You’re placed in the kingdom and you have to learn this dance of living with your feet in two different worlds.

Which I think some of our forefathers got.  We have this principle in the U.S. called “the separation of church and state.”  There’s a lot of misunderstanding about that idea.  Most people think it’s a part of the Constitution.  It wasn’t a part of the Constitution.  It was actually written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802, when he wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association and said there shall be a wall of separation between the church and the state.  There’s a clause in the Constitution that’s similar, but it’s not in the Constitution.  When most people think about the separation between church and state, they think the church will never have anything to say to the state.  That the two shall be completely separate and never connect.  I just want to tell you that was not the original intent of the separation of church and state.  The separation of church and state was intended to free the church from being controlled and supported and oppressed by the state.  We are one of the first countries in the history of the world that would not be directly, officially affiliated with any ONE religious institution.  Essentially, the U.S. is founded on this ground that said every religion has the same ability and the unique ability to create a following.  Look up at me for a moment.  As a follower of Jesus, I love this.  I love this, because I am convinced that the most fertile ground for Christianity to flourish is religious pluralism, where the best ideas generally win.  Because I am convinced, with every fiber of my being, that Jesus’s ideas are best.

I applaud that.  I’m for that.  But there’s some implications for that also.  See, as followers of Jesus our goal should be a nation where we are free to be Christians.  That’s our goal, like judiciously, in policy, in government….that’s our goal: To be a nation where, as followers of Jesus, we are free to follow Jesus.  But that also means that we must advocate for people to be free to be Jews, and Muslims, and Buddhists, and Mormons, and Humanists, and Atheists.  If we are going to be for “religious freedom,” we have to be for ALL religious freedom.  Separation of church and state said we’re not going to judge you based on theology, we’re going to judge you based on action.  To that I say Yes and Amen.

Maybe you’re asking, “Alright, Paulson, what does that look like?”  Roll give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s into 2019.  Well, let me just start by saying let’s not make it overly simplistic.  Our two favorite options, Jesus takes away.  He takes away the ability to just say, “I’m just going to check out and separate.”  There’s a group of people called the Essenes.  If you went and saw the Dead Sea Scrolls when they were at the Museum of Nature and Science—-I hope you saw them, they were awesome—those were written by the Essenes.  They were part of developing the Qumran community which was near the Dead Sea, hence the name.  They were people who said to Rome, “The heck with you! We’re going to form our own little religious community away from everybody else, and we’re going to do our own thing in holiness and purity, because holiness is defined by what we don’t do.”  Jesus says, “Give to Caesar.”   You also have the Zealots, who were like, we’re going to overthrow the Caesar.  We’re going to get our guy in office and then everything’s going to be good.  To them Jesus says, “Give to God.”

Jesus disagrees with both the way of power AND the way of separation.  Here’s what he invites us to.  He invites us to be people who are engaged politically, but who speak prophetically.  This is the dance of kingdom and empire, of Jesus and state, that we live with our feet firmly planted in and on both.  Prophetically—Don’t think forth-telling.  Think of speaking truth to people in positions of power.  That’s the prophetic voice that the church needs to, in my opinion, regain.  What does it look like to live life through the lens of the kingdom, through the values of the kingdom, through the ethics of the kingdom?  When I start to do that, what starts to emerge is that there are massive flaws in both parties.  Republicans and Democrats.

This is so important, you guys, that the church regains its voice to speak prophetically, because the world needs us to play that role.  Think of what happens when we don’t.  You have the church in Germany during the Holocaust.  The German-Lutheran church that’s so in bed with the empire that they have no voice to speak out against the atrocities that are going on.  So one person recounts being in church and the church was right up against the railroad track.  During the Holocaust, those railroad tracks were used to transport Jews to concentration camps.  As those cars were packed full of human beings like they were cattle, they would go past the church and they would scream.  Here’s how this person recounts this, “We knew the time the train was coming, and when we heard the whistle blow, we began singing hymns.  By the time the train came past our church, we were singing at the top of our voices.  If we heard the screams, we sang more loudly and soon we heard them no more.  Although years have passed, I can still hear the train whistle in my sleep.  God forgive me, forgive all of us who called ourselves Christians and yet did nothing to intervene.”  That’s what happens when the church gets in bed with one political party.  We lose our voice.

So what does it look like to have a voice?  I think it looks like two things.  One, I think support your party (whichever it is).  I’m so glad I get to pastor a church that has both Republicans and Democrats in it, because both parties are broad enough and flawed enough to include followers of Jesus.  Support your party, but see its blind spots.  We can’t be so party focused that we have no ability to be able to see where our party is off.  Let’s reject the idea that this is overly simplistic.  The Bible talks about a lot of issues that are now political issues.  As a starting place:  It talks about the rights of the unborn and the value of human life.  It talks about care for the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow.  The Bible talks about environmentalism, about foreign policy, about war and peace, about race and equality, and violence, and justice.  About economic policy and poverty.  About gun control—not explicitly about gun control, but weaponry as such—as self-defense or restraint.  It talks about education.  It talks about sexuality, and we now talk about gay-marriage and individual rights.

I show you that list to maybe help you wrestle with the fact that both Republicans and Democrats cherry-pick.  We cherry-pick which events, which policies, which things we want to focus on and which things we don’t.  Maintaining our prophetic voice, friends, requires that we recognize that neither party fully embraces the ethic of the kingdom.  Neither party.  And that’s okay.  That does not mean that you should opt out or that you shouldn’t support at all, but it does mean that you should distinguish between what you think is wise and what you think is biblical.  The Scriptures don’t give us a political system to execute, they give us principles to implement.

So, since I’m already in the deep end and I’m treading water and nobody’s throwing me any sort of life vest, let’s talk about one of the most contentious of all the issues.  Abortion.  It’s one that gets talked about a lot during political seasons.  I think it’s a good case study for us, because I am convinced that the Scriptures were way, way, WAY ahead of their time when they talked about the value of human life.  When you hear people in our day and our time talk about equality, and you hear people in our day and our time talk about human rights and human values and human dignity—lean in for a moment—you have to know that they are advocating for the way of Jesus and for Judeo-Christian values.  That’s where we get those…period.  We live in a culture and a day and a time where we want the kingdom, we want those things, but we don’t want the King.

Abortion.  Scriptures are really clear about the value of human life.   (Exodus 21:22-23)  When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, {Quick timeout.  Can we agree that it’s pretty crazy that this was happening enough that they had to make a law out of it?}  so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine.  But if there is harm, {If the child she’s carrying dies…} then you shall pay life for life.   In the Scriptures and the law of Moses, they’re saying no, that baby in the womb is a valuable, viable human life.  Because of that, I have to be against abortion.  But I’ve never been pregnant.  I’ve never been single and pregnant, with my back up against the wall, feeling like I had no options.  I’ve never been there.  I’ve walked with a number of young women who have and it’s soul turmoil.  I think the reality, friends, of abortion—abortion isn’t going anywhere, you know that right?  I think the church needs to be wise in the way that we engage the platform.  What if our platform became….we are, as a church, distinctly for the holistic, physical, emotional, and spiritual health of ALL women?  What if, as Jim Wallis wrote, we start to engage that issue but also some other issues?  He says this:  “Instead of imposing rigid pro-choice and pro-life political litmus tests, why not work together on teen pregnancy, adoption reform, and real alternatives for women backed into dangerous and lonely corners?”  If you’re a woman here today and you’ve had an abortion, I want you to know—everybody look up at me—if that’s you, God loves you, God is for you, the church is for you.  Even as a community of faith, next fall, we’re going to launch a post-abortive support group so that you can walk with other people that have been down that road that’s really, really difficult.  I want you to know that we absolutely love you and we’re glad that you’re here.

As a church, what would it look like for us to have our theology of the right to life and value of life bleed into our politics both for the unborn and the born?  What would it look like if our right life theology influenced the way we thought about abortion and adoption?  What would it look like if that theology influenced the way that we thought about children in the womb and kids in cages?  What would it look like for that theology to bleed over into the way that we view the death penalty, race relations, drone bombings, education, and immigration?  Friends, I think this is where both side of the aisle only have half the picture and the world, whether it knows it or not, yearns for a better third way.

Yeah, let’s see the blind spots, but also, let’s be people who have an opinion, but refuse to demonize the opposition.  The way that you respond to people who disagree with you is a part of the message you deliver.  The way that you respond to people you don’t like, the way that you respond to people that you think are wrong, is a part of your message.  If you’re here going, yeah, well, Paulson, no real change happens that way.  If you’re too nice, you never get a voice.  Tell that to Nelson Mandela.  Tell that to Ghandi.  Tell that to the early church.  Tell that to Desmond Tutu.  Heck, if you’re brave enough, tell it to Jesus.  I believe that we have to become people who refuse to allow the way people treat us to determine the way that we respond to them.  If you are a follower of Jesus here today, you have given the right up to live under the “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” way of living.  If you’re a follower of Jesus, you are commanded to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:44-46)  That’s part of your calling, that’s part of your DNA as a child of God.  We respond in love ALWAYS, that’s who we are as followers of the way of Jesus. What if we agreed that what’s best for people is what’s best?  We could disagree on how that happens, the best policies to make that happen, but what if we said, “Our common ground is the common good?”  We’re going to stand there as firmly as we can and what’s best for people is ultimately what’s best.  Really, politics is about people.

Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  And they marveled at him.  (Mark 12:17)    They were dumbfounded.  We didn’t see the third way coming.  This little verse begs a ton of questions, doesn’t it?  Mainly, what’s Caesar’s?  Coins are Caesar’s.  The taxes are Caesar’s.  Respect is Caesar’s.  Good citizenship is Caesar’s.  You know what isn’t Caesar’s?  Worship.  Anytime we combine worship with Caesar it’s called nationalism.  The Scriptures are really, really hard on people who worship their country.  It never ends well for the country or for them.  Nationalism is sin, and I think there are probably some followers of Jesus that need to repent of it.  Patriotism—being proud of your country, while seeing its blind spots, being a supporter of your country—is not .  It can be a really, really good thing.

So you give those things to Caesar—taxes, respect, prayer.  You pray for your Caesar.  You give him all those things, but what do you give to God?  Lean in.  You pray FOR Caesar, but you pray TO God.  Here’s the distinction:  Nobody’s going to pray to Caesar or Obama or Trump, we’re not going to do that.  But, we may put our hope in them.  If this person gets elected, then everything is going to be perfect.  No, that’s praying TO.  Let’s pray FOR.  And let’s recognize that we are called to be involved in the empire, but, friends, do not miss, do not miss, please, do not miss….you’re called to be involved in the empire, but you are called to give your allegiance to Jesus, to the kingdom.   So support political reform, but don’t lose sight of spiritual revival.  Don’t let your political affiliation with either party cause you to miss the revolution that Jesus has launched.  Because one of the other things you give to Caesar is a hard time when you think he’s wrong.  Don’t just sit on your hands.

It’s interesting, Jesus asks for a coin, a denarius.  I thought about that this week.  Why does Jesus ask for a coin?  Well, because he doesn’t have one.  It’s intended to be a little bit funny.  You have somebody whose face and name is on a coin and then you have someone who’s coinless, and they’re going head-to-head about who’s the real king.  They have two different ways in front of them.  They have two different ways of operating.  They have two different ways of being.  They’re squaring off.  In Jesus’s day, Caesar technically owned every single coin that had his depiction on it.  They were rightfully his.  That’s why Jesus said, “Whose picture is on it?”  Caesar’s.  It’s his!

The question is:  Whose picture is God on?  Well, yours.  And yours.  And yours.  And yours.  His image is on ALL of us.  As it says in Genesis 1:27 — So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them.  So yeah, yeah, yeah, pay your taxes to Caesar, but give your life to Jesus.  That’s his point.  Pay your taxes to Caesar, but give your life to Jesus.  There will be times when the values of the kingdom conflict with the ethics of the empire; regardless of which side you’re on, choose the kingdom, if you’re a follower of Jesus.

Yes, there are two different ways of influence, as Jesus holds this coin.  Two kingdoms presented.  Jesus is subtly saying that he’s the king that doesn’t have a coin.  He’s the coinless king.  And yet, he owns the cattle on a thousand hills.  He’s the king that doesn’t have the power, and yet his glory permeates the entire earth.  He’s coming to bring about a revolution, but not a revolution that overthrows. A revolution from the inside out changes things.  Come on, come on.  He’s the king who is not elected because he wins an election, he’s the king because of his crucifixion.  I think probably the reason we struggle is because we actually want him to be the opposite.

When you choose kingdom, you’re freed to move beyond party loyalty to become solution oriented.  What if the church’s main platform was we don’t really care about party politics all that much, we care about people?  What’s best for people is what’s best.  That means you have to engage.  That means you have to think.  That means you have to read, and you don’t just vote along party lines.  What if you started to say no, no, no, what’s best for people is what’s best, and we want to be people who distinctly, and in a very real way, do good in our world.  Here’s the thing, this just in, this may surprise you:  If you do that, you’re going to be called wishy-washy.  You may be called heretical.  You’re not going to be everybody’s favorite person.  Man, I think it’s just such a better way that instead of choosing sides, chase a solution.  Because the thing that matters most is not the image of Caesar, it’s not a donkey and it’s not an elephant.  The thing that matters most is people.  People matter most to God.

Which is why, as Dan mentioned, we’re starting a partnership with the Department of Human Services.  Their social workers are going to real homes in our neighborhood, right here, and seeing needs.  They then email our church and say, hey, here’s the need down the street from you.  Is there anybody at South Fellowship Church that want to meet that need?  You sign up and give your email.  If you have the ability and the time and the resources to meet that need, you just simply send a response back and say, I can meet that need.  You get to go to that house and meet that need.  That’s stinkin’ awesome!!  That’s great!  Because they aren’t the enemy.  If you want to sign up for that, you can do that in the lobby right after the service.

Maybe this week your practice is just to pray for your leaders.  Pray for your local leaders; figure out what their names are and their roles are.  Pray for your national leaders.  Pray for world leaders.  You’re commanded to pray for your leaders, not the ones you like and support, but all of them.

I’ll close with this.  The nation of Israel had just walked through the desert forty years.  Moses has died and Joshua has taken over.  They’ve crossed over the Jordan River into the land that was promised to them and their first act over in that new land is an act of worship.  They celebrate the Passover for the first time in those forty years, and they reinstitute the ritual of circumcision, so all the men are circumcised.  And there’s an angel of the Lord’s army that starts to approach Joshua, and here’s the way the story goes:  When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand.  And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?”  {Are you a conservative or are you a liberal?  Are you a Republican or are you a Democrat?  Are you a Donkey or are you an Elephant?}  And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord.  Now I have come.”  (Joshua 5:13-14a)  Friends, the question is not whether or not God is on YOUR side, the question is whether or not YOU are on His side.  Let’s be people who plant our feet firmly in the kingdom and the empire, and let’s be people who live in the way of Jesus.

Maybe there’s no better picture of that than getting to celebrate the Lord’s Table today.  Where we come with all our political affiliations, but we recognize that above every single one of those affiliations there’s allegiance to the Kingdom and the King.  So we come as Republicans and we come as Democrats and we come as Americans and Mexicans.  We come as white and black and everything in between, but we come under one banner and that banner is that Jesus Christ is Lord.  There’s one Body.  There’s one Blood.  There’s one Table and it is His.  In all the ways that we’re different, those things are minuscule compared to the thing that we share, and that’s the declaration that the Kingdom has come and that we are His.  As you get ready to come this morning, would you prepare your heart?  Would you remind yourself of Whose you are and of who you are?  The table is open to all who are followers of Jesus, regardless of how you vote.

Jesus, this morning, we want to remember that you’ve given us this gift to live in this world, as it is, but also to live in your kingdom.  We want our feet to be firmly planted in both.  So, God, give us wisdom.  Teach us what it looks like to live in your way, with your heart.  It’s in the name of Jesus we pray.  Amen.

Brave in the New World | Donkeys and Elephants, Oh My! | Mark 12:13-17 | Week 22020-08-20T16:57:12-06:00

Brave in the New World | Acts 4:1-22 | Week 1


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BRAVE IN THE NEW WORLD    Acts 4:1-22          (2nd Service)

We are starting a new series today that I am so excited for.  It’s called “Brave in the New World,” and we, over the next few weeks, are going to be tackling some of the most difficult issues and topics that we face, sort of culturally and societally, in our world today.  Our goal this morning is to set a little bit of ground work and to give us a path forward that we’re going to ask Jesus to lead us in over the next few weeks.

Like you, I watched in horror on April 15th, not as my tax return came back, but as Notre Dame burned.  I had had the chance to go once to Notre Dame.  Aaron and I were on a layover in Paris; it lasted a day.  We were on our way home from a missions trip in Africa, so we spent a romantic in Paris together.  We had the chance to stand in that beautiful cathedral.  It’s a little bit different than being in South Fellowship Church building.  The grandeur and the awe that you feel when you stand in that space is unparalleled.  Yet, we saw on April 15th that it began to burn.

I think this is a prophetic picture; not just what physically happened to the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, but what’s been going on with the church for a number of decades.  You may be aware that if you were to go to Notre Dame and stand in the courtyard, what you would find is what they call “point zero.”  It’s a marker, and everything else in Paris is measured against that point. So all the distances are in relationship to Notre Dame.  That was not accidental.  It was also not just a physical marker.  At one point it was a spiritual marker too.  It was a marker of reality.  It was a marker of how we figure out our spot in this world.  It was measured against church.  In large degree, it was determined by Scripture; that was point zero.

In our day, in our culture, in our time, in our country, we have a number of point zeros too.  Have you recognized that when you drive through most downtowns in our country, what you find, on Main Street, is a church.  You drive through a small town and what’s in the very center of the town?  A church.  This just in….that’s not by accident!  The church was, both literally and figuratively, at the center of it all.  I don’t think I’m being overly dramatic and I don’t think I’m speaking in hyperbole when I say that day is no more.  That day is no more.  There may be churches on Main Street, but I think our prophetic moment, our cultural moment, looks far more akin to the burning of Notre Dame than it does to the church on Main Street that’s intact and has a voice that is rippling out to the culture around it.  No, no, no, no, no.  I think, just like Notre Dame burned, we’ve had churches in the center of every major downtown across the U.S. that are no longer places of worship but are now bars and pubs and nightclubs.  This is where we stand.

But it wasn’t always where we stood.  There was a day, there was a time, where the church had unbelievable impact on the world around it.  There was a day and there was a time where there was an early group of followers of Jesus—we’ll read about some of them this morning—who, in their world, had zero political or social power, but they developed massive influence.  They didn’t have any say over the Roman government.  They didn’t have any vote in the empire.  The early followers of Jesus didn’t have a seat on the Sanhedrin; they didn’t get to speak into temple practices.  Politically, socially, religiously, they had ZERO power. But over the course of a few hundred years, with no power, they developed massive influence.  People started to take notice.  Most notably, the powers that be started to take notice.

If you know your history, in 312AD, Constantine, the emperor of the Roman Empire, became a follower of the way of Jesus.  In 323AD, he declared that Christianity was THE religion of the Roman Empire.  This religion, this group of people that had zero political and social power , but massive influence, all of a sudden had extreme, EXTREME, power and influence.  Christianity went from being a movement that had no power but great influence—catch this, we need to dial this in as we begin the series—to being a religion that had power IN ORDER to have influence.

The way that the church impacted the world dramatically changed under the reign of Constantine.  The church started to build buildings—many of which we still go visit today and are beautiful cathedrals.  The church started to get some tax breaks.  It started to have influence and power in the world around it, so, subsequently, because we tasted power there were some things that started to happen.  Let me take you on a brief, thousand-plus year history, okay?

After Constantine becomes a follower of Jesus, Christianity becomes the religion of the Roman Empire.  In the Middle Ages, we have a little event called the Crusades.  It reinforced, all the more, that the way we have influence is by having power; if we don’t have power, we don’t have influence.  The church started to get this in their DNA, and the church started to get corrupt.  You had this massive split in the church in the early 1500s, between Catholics and Protestants.  You had fighting among the Catholics and the Protestants, and among the Protestants and the Protestants.  It was an absolute mess.  So you had a group of people in 1620 that said, “We’re going to go and seek religious freedom.”  They hopped on boats and traveled across the Atlantic Ocean and they landed in the New World.  These spiritual pilgrims were looking for religious freedom.  They found it.

Just so we’re clear, Christianity was the primary religion in this New World, but it wasn’t the only religion.  The United States was never a Christian nation because that’s impossible.  Christian is not an adjective, it’s a noun.  It can be a Christianized nation, and it certainly was.  We’re founded on Judeo-Christian values, but we’re founded on an experiment that said what if we created an environment where any religion can come and take root without being persecuted.  That was the goal of the early pilgrims.  So, the church, in the New World, in our nation, in our world, wasn’t just a consumer, it was a contributor.  It was a curator.

You may be aware that that time didn’t last.  Over the last century or so, the church has started to lose its voice in the public square.  You’re aware of this?  The church has continued to operate as a religion that had power in order to have influence.  The only problem is that in our modern age, Christianity doesn’t have power, and therefore, now, doesn’t have influence.  We’ve continued to operate in this old model—in order to have influence, we’ve got to have power.  We’ve been left with our hands in the air, as a collective church, going “How in the world do we move forward?”  How do we live in this world? This world that’s different than the world that our grandparents grew up in.  How do we interact?  What should we do?  What should our methodology be to engage this world around us?

Over the last century, we’ve had a number of different ways we’ve attempted.  See if you’ve seen any of these play out in your day and your time, or maybe, through your life.  Here’s the first thing we’ve tried:  Condemn.  This was primarily, not only, the fundamentalist movement of the early 1900s.  We started to condemn culture.  The church was seen as having one of those big foam fingers pointing and going “no, no.”  That was the methodology.  We saw this happen in the 1980s with this rise of the hope for a Moral Majority.  Here’s the thought amongst followers of Jesus:  If we can gain back the voting block and legislate morality, then we will regain the power and regain the influence.  The only problem was that the Moral Majority was neither moral nor the majority.  Eventually, the bottom fell out of that, didn’t it?

So, we’ve tried to condemn culture.  We’ve also tried to critique culture.  This was in the camp that I would say I’m a part of—evangelicalism.   We want to sort of understand the world view.  We want to have a conversation.  We want to look at here’s the way Christianity’s different, so we’ll go watch the movie and we’ll sit down and have a conversation.  Here’s what they’re proposing and here’s what we believe.  So there was a critique.

The movement I grew up mostly under was the copy-cat version of the way that we interact with the culture.  I remember walking into the Bible bookstore and seeing the CD or tape section.  They had little signs beneath the CDs that said something like:  If you like Dave Matthews, you’re going to love Jars of Clay.  I’m like, “What’s wrong with just liking Dave Matthews?”  Right?  He’s amazing!  I listened to Jars of Clay, and they were good, but…..let’s be honest, people, they were no Dave Matthews.  So we tried to copy the culture out there.  Well, we can have our version of Christian music, Christian movies….we’ll take the good stuff you’re doing and we’ll redeem it.  We’ll make our version.

I think if we try to ask what’s our cultural moment, how do we interact with culture, I think to a large degree, we’d just have to say we’re consumers.  Maybe we don’t condemn a whole lot, we don’t critique a whole lot, we don’t copy a whole lot, but, man, we’ll go to the movie and watch it.  We’ll have very little conversation about any deeper message in it.

These are all ways we’ve attempted to try to make sense the world around us.  Just to be clear, there is a TIME for EACH of these.  How many of you wish that followers of Jesus would have been more condemning of the Nazi regime in Germany?  Me too.  There’s a time for critique—Any display of art evokes a response and you’re suppose to have that, and that’s good.  There’s a time to copy—Martin Luther is known for taking tunes that they sang in bars and making them into hymns.  Can you imagine them being like “Cheers!” and him going, “Yeah! A mighty fortress….  That’s amazing!”   I don’t know.  Certainly, there’s a time for consuming—How many of you have eaten recently?  On some level, we are consuming culture.  Lean in for a second.  Look up at me.  The problem becomes when ANY ONE of these approaches becomes the church’s default position to the culture around it.

In their most recent book Good Faith, Dave Kinneman and Gabe Lyons wrote that to a large degree the church is viewed from the outside world as being extreme and irrelevant.  The church is no longer the place where people go for the big questions of life.  Questions like:  What is reality?  What is the good life?  How do we live that good life?  Friends, Notre Dame is burning!  And the reason they do not come to the church for answers to THOSE questions anymore…..which by the way, those are the three main questions of every ancient philosophy and that every ancient religion tried to answer—What is reality?  Who is the good person? How do we live that kind of life?  The reason the world no longer comes to the church for the answer to those kinds of questions is because the church no longer wrestles with those questions!  We’ve specialized in ONE question—How do we get to heaven when we die?  We’re viewed as extreme or we’re viewed as irrelevant.

You add on top of that…..in 1963, Bob Dylan wrote, “The times they are a-changin’.”  Imagine what he would write if he were still alive today.  The times are changing, friends, RAPIDLY, are they not?  Think about the world we live in.  How many agree the world is changing?  We have worldwide population growth at an exponential rate that’s never been seen before.  The internet has changed the way that we think.  Cell phones have changed the way that we communicate.  9/11, for a large degree, for our country, changed the way that we feel about our safety in our country.  There are cars that can drive themselves.  There are drones that will deliver your groceries for you someday, praise be to God.  I’m not even touching on A.I. and all of the new frontier that’s on the horizon with artificial intelligence.  If you think the world’s changing quickly NOW, buckle your seat belt!

You add on top of all of those layers the fact that, at least in a visceral way, it FEELS like we’re more divided now as a nation than we have ever been before.  I think, to a large degree, the church and everybody else is having a hard time figuring out how do we respond?  The old way of power in order to have influence isn’t working any longer.  Where do we go from here?  What do we do?  What’s the new way forward? Lean in for a moment.  My hope is that the church would regain its voice.  My hope is that the church would be seen as a beacon of hope and a beacon of light and a beacon of love.  My hope is that the church would have the ability to speak into some of the deepest, most prevalent, confusing questions of our day and of our time, but we need a different playbook.  The way that we’ve been going about this is not working.  It’s not more of the same.  It’s not going to get the job done.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a playbook?  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could figure out a way forward?  What I want to propose to you over the next few weeks is the way forward is the way that embraces influence without clamoring for power, that continues to be brave in the new world, but also operates with wisdom.  Here’s the irony of it all—We have our playbook.  We actually just need to get back to the work that early followers of Jesus were doing when they embraced their position.  Here’s what they were and what I’m calling us to become as well:  The church of the future, just like the early church, will be a creative minority that has influence without power.

Today, I want to lay a foundation for you—if you have your Bible, open to Acts 4.  Today’s about laying a foundation that we’re going to build on each week as we gather during this series.  In Acts 1, we see that Jesus spent forty days, after his resurrection, teaching his followers about the kingdom of God.  He was then taken in the ascension into heaven and the Holy Spirit came.  In Acts 2 and 3, the Spirit broke out in such a way that people were declaring the gospel.  God was calling people into the church at unprecedented rates.  In chapter 3, Peter and John heal somebody who was unable to walk.  Now, here was the problem: The problem was that the religious environment of their day wasn’t exactly welcoming to the way of Jesus.  They were pluralistic.  Rome had its pantheon of gods.  The Jews had their monotheistic worship of Yahweh.  You have to know, you have to know, you have to know that when Peter and John started preaching Jesus, it was a NEW THOUGHT.  So that’s the context.

Acts 4:1-4 — And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead.  And they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening.  But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of men came to about five thousand.   The cultural leaders of the day were “greatly annoyed.”  But Peter and John didn’t expect they would have a red carpet rolled out for them.  They didn’t expect….oh, Jesus of Nazareth, the slain but risen Messiah….tell us more about this.  No, no, no, no, no.  When they entered into the public square and they started to preach Jesus, they expected opposition.  They weren’t surprised by the fact that people had resistance to this message.  It was brand new.  No one had a category, at that point in time, for the worship of Jesus.

Jesus had also been very clear with his disciples when He sent them out to preach that the kingdom of God was at hand.  Listen to what Jesus says in his pep talk as he sends out the disciples.  Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. (Matt. 10:16)   If I’m a disciple, I’m going, hey, Messiah, you mixed that up!  Aren’t we the wolves?  Aren’t we the people that have the power of God?  Isn’t the Spirit of God going to come on us and aren’t we going to drive out demons, and aren’t we going to heal the sick, and aren’t we the wolves in this scenario?  Please, say yes!  He’s like, I didn’t stutter.  You’re the sheep!  I thought about this—very few schools have mascots that are sheep.  Rams, maybe.  But sheep?  Do you know why people don’t have mascots that are sheep?  If there’s a bloodbath and a sheep is involved, they are not on the good end of that.  They aren’t.  So when Jesus tells his disciples to go out in the world, he’s saying expect opposition.

Look at the way the disciples respond.  Verse 19:  But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”   They didn’t get offended….How dare you?  They didn’t retaliate….If you throw us in jail, we’re going to…..   They didn’t get defensive.  They didn’t turn into jerks.  I think they understand that the influence of their platform would be determined by the amount of pain they were willing to walk in.  They went, this is worth it!  Here’s the other thing….please, will you look up at me?  Will you lean in?  I think this is for our cultural moment.  This is so important.  They realized that the way they responded to being wronged was a part of the message they delivered.  The way that they responded was not something different than the message of Jesus that they declared.  But it was intricately connected, so they saw it as an extension.  Maybe today it would be like the tone of the email is a part of the message.  The way that you respond to the comment on Facebook is a part of the message.  The glance, the look, the eye roll, the sigh…..it’s all a part of the message.

I can’t explain this, and I have to be honest, I don’t like it, but it seems as though, if you look through church history, that the church always flourishes when it’s under opposition.  You see that church growth movements typically happen in the most oppressive environments.  It seems like it’s just up and to the right when people are getting beat up for their faith.  I think there’s two reasons for that.  One is that you don’t ride the fence when you’re getting beaten for your religion, for your faith in Jesus.  I’m either in or I’m out, and if I’m in, I’m way in, and I might be in over my head.   Here’s the second reason:  Just like when a business is struggling, they typically strip back all the layers and go why are we here?  What do we do?  What’s our mission?  The same thing happens with the church when it’s under persecution.  You can see this come through in the way that the early followers of Jesus….they had a very simple message.  Look at it with me.  They were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. They were saying if it’s finished, it can begin again.  They were saying if Jesus walked out of the grave, one day we will too.  Think about all of the things the church didn’t preach about early on.  They didn’t preach about….well, this is the Bible and we can trust every single word of it.  That wasn’t their message.  They didn’t preach the Rome is evil; Rome is wrong—the oppression and the injustice. Which it was, it was bad.  That wasn’t their message.  Their message wasn’t about…here’s how sexuality is devolved in this culture and here’s what they’re doing and here’s what….   They had one simple message.  Do yourselves a favor, go read through all of the sermons preached in the book of Acts.  Do you know what will be at the core of every single one of those sermons?  Resurrection.  EVERY. SINGLE. ONE OF THEM.  They clarified their message.  Paul records in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that first importance is Christ has come, Christ has lived, Christ has died, Christ has risen.  That is the core of his gospel message.

I think one of the things that followers of Jesus are known most for, right now, is debating.  As Christians, we have an opinion on everything.  I’m not saying that’s wrong, please hear me.  I think you should have an opinion on politics; I’ll tell you what opinion to have next week!  I’m just kidding!! I think you should have an opinion on politics.  I think you should have an opinion on economics.  I think you should have an opinion on the most hotly debated topics of our day, but I think you should be most vocal about Jesus.

I had a chance to go to my uncle’s memorial; he passed away a few months ago.  My aunt, his wife, was a very strong follower of Jesus.  She wanted, at his memorial, the gospel to be preached.  The pastor, who I’m sure was well-intentioned and loved Jesus a lot, gave this gospel message about if you don’t love Jesus then he’s going to send you to hell and you’re going to burn.  My other aunt came up to me afterwards and said, “Aren’t you glad that the gospel was preached?”  I said to her, “I’m not sure it was.”  I said that the early Christians had a gospel and they were very clear about what it was.  It always included at least two things:  1) The kingdom of God is at hand.  You go read through….everywhere Jesus talks about the gospel, the Good News, he’s talking about the kingdom. 2) The other thing included in every single gospel proclamation was resurrection.  Those two things.  If we don’t preach resurrection, WE. DON’T. PREACH. GOSPEL.

This is the way that Paul writes it to Timothy (2 Timothy 2:8) — Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel.  They clarify the message.  It’s all about Jesus.  It’s about his resurrection.  It’s about his kingdom.  Are there other issues that are important?  Yes.  Were they talking about them?  Probably in their own circles, but publicly their proclamation was Christ has come, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Here’s how the passage continues (Acts 4:5-12) — On the next day {They’re being grilled on how in the world did this happen?  This guy wasn’t walking, now he’s walking.  Explain.}  their rulers and elders and scribes gathered together in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family.  And when they had set them in the midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?”  Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, {It’s the Greek word sózó. It literally means healed. This word explains why somebody wasn’t walking one day and then the next day they were walking.  They were sózó.}  let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well.  This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.  {Then they end with this verse that I think I got wrong for 38 years!  I used to go on the high school campuses and talk to people about Jesus.  I would quote Acts 4:12 — for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.  By that I meant, “You go to heaven when you die.”  Read it in context though.}  And there is salvation {Which is the Greek word sótéria, from the root word sózó, which makes sense in the context.} in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (sózó).   I think it should read: There’s no other name given among men by which we must be healed.  Certainly it’s a part of salvation.

You do know that the word salvation in the Scriptures is like really, really dense and really, really deep. To sózó someone means that one day they can’t walk and the next day they can.  To sózó someone means there’s chains in their heart that they start to become free of.  To sózó someone means that they long to live eternally in the presence of a good, Almighty God.  Sózó means ALL of those things, but HERE it’s an explanation for why somebody can’t walk one day and they can the next.  Like I said last week, the healing of sin is not just about getting us into heaven, it’s about healing our humanity.

So the early church….they’re going, we’re on trial for doing good.  Yeah, put us on trial for that.  If that’s why we’re standing before you, you should know, Peter says, it’s because of Jesus.  Did you know there was a time when one of the monikers for the church was “do-gooders?”  It wasn’t a cut down, it wasn’t a knock.  This is our history.  Did you know that early followers of Jesus were some of the first people to create hospitals, places people could come and get well?  They were advocates for children.  Some kids were tossed out by the Roman Empire to be killed by early exposure…..early followers of Jesus would go and find those kids and they would bring them in.  The early church was a curator of the arts, a protector of children, an advocate for equality, education, and literacy.  The church is one of the most prominent institutions that has taught people to read throughout the ages, because we believe that the Scriptures are so important.  We’ve been called a bookish people.  Do good.

What if, what if our way forward is yeah, we expect opposition and we clarify our message—Jesus and his resurrection—and then we build on top of that.  We commit to doing good.  I know some people are like well, we’ve got to do good and we’ve got to preach.  I’m a preacher, I don’t disagree with that.  But if we don’t do good, we will have no platform to stand on to preach.  Jesus said it himself:  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:16) 

One of the things I love about pastoring this church is I think we do this so well.  I love the way that this church embodies by the running of a Food Bank that feeds a number of people, dozens of families, every single week. Through the Early Learning Center that holds out the hope of Jesus and gives great education at affordable price to people.  To our coffee shop that creates a place in our community for people to build community.  To our partnership with North Littleton Promise.  To our partnership with Family Promise.  Our support groups are saying man, Jesus, we want to be a church that doesn’t just talk about how great you are, we want to show people the glory of your name.  What if we became a church that made it our goal to be put on trial for the good deeds done in the name of Jesus?!

Here’s how this passage ends (Acts 4:13-14, 21-22) — Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished.  And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.  But seeing the man who was healed (sózó) standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition.  Just so we’re clear, you do know that perceiving that they were uneducated, ordinary men is NOT a compliment.  They’re going, “These guys are a little bit back woods!  They don’t talk right.”  They don’t understand the right etiquette.  They haven’t been to the right schools.  They don’t have all the answers.  There’s more questions for these dudes than there are answers to a large degree.  But I think there’s an important message for us here in this.  We live in a cultural moment that’s obsessed with information, don’t we?  We love acquiring it.  We love learning.  I’m not down on learning, I love learning.  Learning is a great thing.  But what the early church brought to the table was not simply the information that they knew, it was the people that they were becoming.  The world looked on in absolute amazement and they didn’t say, “These guys are really intelligent,” they said, “These guys have been with Jesus.”  I think that the church of the future, just like the church of the past, is going to be a church that prioritizes presence with Jesus.

This just in….you may want to lean in for a moment.  I’m going to pastorally share some difficult news with you.  There will probably always be someone in every room you’re in that’s smarter than you.  My case in point is James Holzhauer.  Anyone following Jeopardy lately? I mean, fifteen straight wins!  The dude’s netted $1.1 million in winnings.  He’s made Jeopardy his job.  There’s always going to be a James in your family.  There’s going to be a James in your neighborhood.  There’s going to be a James in your workplace.  There’s going to be someone who asks a question that you don’t know the answer to, and if you wait until you know all the answers to step into the conversation, you will be waiting your entire life.  But I’m convinced that the world needs more people present in it who have been present with Jesus.  That we embody his way.  That we carry his love.   I think you should know where you stand on politics.  I think you should know some of the latest scientific discoveries.  I think you should be aware of economic policy.  I think all of those things are really, really, really good, but I think you should be KNOWN for being a person who’s been with Jesus.  There’s no better gift that you can give to your marriage, to your kids, to your friends, to your roommates, to your neighbors.  BE. WITH. JESUS.

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to tackle some real difficult topics.  These are actually topics from a survey that we took recently, that you said you wanted to hear me preach on.  If you don’t like this sermon series, it’s YOUR fault.   Next week we’re going to talk about politics.  Then we’re going to talk about tolerance and love.  We’re going to talk about science and the Bible.  We’re going to talk about sexuality.  We’re going to talk about oppression and injustice.  We’re going to talk about technology and materialism and individualism.  The series is so controversial that Google rejected our ads for it.  That’s a true story.  Here’s what I would say:  You’re probably not always going to agree with me.  And that’s okay!  I want us to be a church that stands firm at the center, and the center has a name.  His name is Jesus.  We agree on that.  Then we say, Jesus, Ancient of Days, teach us what it looks like to live brave in this new world.

As we close, where might the Spirit of God be prompting you, just this week?  As we look backwards to see the way the early church interacted with its culture and try to get that as a playbook for the way that we move forward in ours, what’s one way that you can embrace the influence that you have, without saying it’s got to come from a place of power.  Let’s pray.  {Prayer not recorded.}

Brave in the New World | Acts 4:1-22 | Week 12020-08-19T15:53:29-06:00
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