Sermon: Abounding in steadfast love

READINGS:

  • Psalm 145: 8-14
  • Romans 7: 15-25a
  • Matthew 11: 25-30

SLOW TO ANGER AND ABOUNDING IN STEADFAST LOVE

I titled this sermon “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” as a reminder of the nature of Christ and the ideal version of every Christian. What would this world look like today, if that were a true description of every person in the world that called themselves a “Christian“? Imagine if every evangelical, every conservative, every progressive, every fundamentalist, every liberal, every Catholic, every 7th Day Adventist could say, in spirit and in truth: “I am slow to anger and abounding, overflowing, exuding steadfast loveI love God and I love my neighbor.” What would the world’s experience of Christians be if we truly followed in Christ’s footsteps?

Did you know that the word “Christian” is used 3 times in the Bible? Three times, in all of the Bible. Twice in Acts and once in 1 Peter.  Christians in this first century after Christ’s death were called such because their behavior, activity, and speech were like Christ. The word Christian means, “follower of Christ” or “belonging to the party of Christ.” One of the better known followers of Christ was the Apostle Paul, who wrote many of the letters that we now have in our Bible. These letters were directed to different communities of faith, and often were in response to specific questions that they raised in their letters. Paul was probably a more prolific writer than the disciples, as he was originally a Pharisee, a well-educated man, with an advantage that they did not have for writing.

Nevertheless, we find that Paul still struggled with some basic spiritual issues.  I want to take a moment, and read for you Romans 7, verses 15-25a from the Bible version “The Message”, because it seems to me that this version is very practical and easy to understand:

ROMANS 7:15-25 THE MESSAGE (MSG)

14-16 I can anticipate the response that is coming: “I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not. Isn’t this also your experience?” Yes. I’m full of myself—after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary.

17-20 But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.

21-23 It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.

24 I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?

25 The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.

When Paul wrote Romans, he was already 20 years into his ministry! This was no longer a young, zealous man, battling with temptations of his youth.  This was a man that had lived through trials and tribulations, who had spent most of his adult life as a missionary.  And yet, he writes to us “I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not.”

What hope is there for you and me if Paul cannot get it together? Paul had many advantages over you and me: as a Pharisee he knew the 621 rules for righteousness and was well- versed in keeping them. But, just like each one of us, Paul had an ego. I imagine his ego also responded to pride, self-centeredness and selfishness!

God's grace: free & unmerited favor
God’s grace: free & unmerited favor

Paul comes back to GRACE as the solution for his battle! Knowing the law and doing his best to keep the law was not enough. Without grace, Paul was just as lost as the next person. In verse 25 of Romans 7, Paul says “Christ can and does”: it is not I, but Christ that lives in me that allows me to live out a holy life.

Last week, I used the example of the worm inside the apple, an egg laid inside the apple blossom that hatches inside the apple when it is maturing. Sin can be like that in our lives: we are growing and maturing and suddenly find that a bad habit or attitude has been growing and maturing inside of us as well.

Yes. I’m full of myself—after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise.

God is looking on the inside: Your Heart!
God is looking on the inside: Your Heart!

Right now, I am at my heaviest weight ever! Even at eight and a half months pregnant, I weighed less than I do now! The weight was distributed differently then, and I felt much healthier than I do right now! And six months after my daughter was born, I was at my perfect weight! Then life happened! I excuse myself with the sleepless nights, the busy lifestyle, and the responsibilities that I have chosen to assume. The unfortunate reality is that I dislike, okay… it’s a little stronger than dislike… I despise getting up at 5.30 in the morning to do exercise!

I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.

It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good (get fit and eat healthy), sin (food, laziness, lack of motivation) is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands (having my ideal weight and feeling healthy), but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge (and there I am, sitting down with a cheesecake!).

Everyone has an excuse and a scapegoat! This past week, I blamed it on Betsy for showing up with a gluten-free cheesecake. But the reality is that I have a sugar-tooth, and suffer from insulin resistance. I can either choose to take medications and live a healthy lifestyle, making diet choices that take me back to optimal health; or I can cheat and double the medication and not do the exercise and diet; or I can do nothing at all as I have been doing for the past 12 to 18 months! Last week, I decided to do 21 days of getting up at 5.30 and doing a 30-minute workout and stretching!

Doing right is a titanic struggle and an uphill struggle; doing wrong is a short step or a minor slip. The Chinese says, “Doing right requires ten years, doing bad requires just one minute.” The previous Chinese generation says, “Kids take three days to learn bad, three years to learn good.” Some have modified to say kids take three minutes or even there seconds to learn bad.

In truth, practice what you preach is easier said than done. The good you intend to do ends up not just merely bad, faulty or short, but evil (vv 19, 21) – sin’s Murphy’s Law equivalent: If anything can go wrong, it will. Not only wrong, but wicked and wasted.

For me, the solution to this issue lies in keeping my eyes focused on what I what I want my life to look like. Each morning when I arrive in the office, I look at my vision board: it reminds me of the different areas of my life and what I would like my life to look like if I were living to my fullest. There’s a heading “my best body” – showing healthy food, running, resting, stretching, and fitness! And I have been ignoring that section of the board since January!

Spiritually, there’s also a vision: plugged into the power of prayer! Paul says in Romans 7: 25 that the answer lies in that Christ can and does: Paul thanks God for being patient with him. As David says in Psalm 145, verse 8:

“The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

This grace allows us to say:

“Thank you that even though I’m a mess, you still love me and you are still striving with me and you want to make me something more today that I was yesterday.”

We are loved by God and God is willing to take us just as we are! With Christ within us, God works from the inside out to transform us. We are forgiven from the inside out! If God has forgiven us, we can forgive ourselves.

Keep this small image in mind:

How did you learn to walk? Have you ever seen a little one learning to walk. They don’t get up and just start walking the first time they try. They crawl for awhile. They pull themselves up and take one step and fall back – up again and fall forward. Soon they are taking a couple of steps before they fall. And they walk, and they fall, and they pull themselves back up again, and they totter and they fall.

Life as a Christian, with each new step of the way, is a new learning. As you overcome one challenge, there will always be something new. Paul reminds us to “work through our salvation”, because it is a constant process of growth. We are free from the penalty of sin, but we need Christ in us to be free from the power of sin.

But we remember and we meditate on Psalm 145, verse 8:

“The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

And if Christ is in us, then each of us should be able to look in the mirror and say: “I am gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love!” Imagine a world in which that were the description of each of us!

Just Do It!

Lectionary Readings:  February 2, 2014

  • 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
  • Matthew 5:1-12

As many of you may be aware, since November I have been participating in coaching seminars (once a month).  These seminars focus on increasing effectiveness, especially with relation to your goals and relationships.  One of the purposes of participating was to “stop procrastinating”.

I’m one of those people that when I read on someone’s CV “works well under pressure”, my automatic assumption is “this person is just like me – they procrastinate”, otherwise that wouldn’t be in their CV.
Of course, as I was finishing preparing this sermon last night (yes, you heard right… last night, after I put Isabella to bed), it struck me “so how have these seminars helped me? It’s the night before, and here I are, finishing up again at the last minute”…

But I did notice a big difference – on Thursday, when I was busy doing other things, I thought to myself – you should be preparing your sermon – and then I decided that I needed to do that instead.  Conscious decision.

Friday I was busy with the house and paediatricians appointment – once again, I realised I could be preparing my sermon, but chose not to.

Saturday morning – I chose to participate in the Patio Sale here at church, knowing that it would without a doubt mean that on Saturday night I would be at the laptop, finishing off my review of my sermon and putting my thoughts together.

So, what is different?  What have I learned after almost 120 hours of seminars and coaching?
The value of my decisions and choices – that I own them.  The results are completely mine.  Over the next 15 weeks I have given myself what I consider to be some extraordinary goals – not because they require me to do something extraordinary today, but rather because they require me to be consistent every day.  There’s not a single day that I can just tune out and say – “not today.  Today I’m not responsible…”

I remember as a kid, we always used to joke “the Devil made me do it”… like I had no say in the matter… It is about as effective as “if I was really filled with the Spirit, I wouldn’t sin anymore”.

Really? Why am I still waiting for that “magical” moment when suddenly I will be a new person and magically stop doing what I know to be wrong?  Why am I waiting for the Holy Spirit to do the job for me, when I already know what I’m supposed to do?

How many times have I given myself the excuse – I’m going to love my neighbour when the Holy Spirit fills me with Christ’s love?  That unknown moment in the future – that lets me off the hook today.
How many times will I continue to excuse my behaviour, because I have that perfect excuse?

This morning we read the beatitudes – which like Paul mentions in Corinthians, differ completely from the wisdom of man.

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit – those who are truly humble before God. This means to be free of arrogance, self-righteousness and self-sufficiency.  To be poor in spirit gives me the freedom to be completely available for God.  It’s when I acknowledge that bring nothing of my own: power, possessions or merit – that’s when I gain the kingdom of heaven.  Being poor in spirit doesn’t mean that to get in I am humble and then as soon as I have entered I become self-sufficient:  it means that I live in a state of humility.  It’s a way of being – consistently humble before God and others.  Constantly being available to others.
  • Blessed are those who mourn – we often look at this as being those who have lost a loved one: but I think it’s more than this.  How many of us see another person with problems and think “that’s their problem”?  I have enough issues of my own – I don’t need to take on anything else.  But when we read this passage of Matthew, it’s as if there is a mourning for the loss of another.  What if I opened myself up to feeling another person’s suffering?  What if I was open to making myself available and feeling empathy with their pain?  How much more could I achieve in “loving my neighbour” if I took it upon myself to feel his or her pain and not simply write it off as “their problem”?
  • Blessed are the meek – the meek in the Bible are those who have a spirit or gentleness and self-control.  This means to be free from malice and a condescending spirit.  The meek don’t exploit and oppress others – they are not violent, and they don’t seize power for their own ends.
  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness – not just their own righteousness (of doing what is right in God’s sight), but the righteousness in terms of justice throughout the nation.  These are people who are concerned about social justice and ensuring that the law is followed and due process is given to all.  They are crusaders in their community for what is right – not silent bystanders watching as injustice happens around them.
  • Blessed are the merciful – showing mercy to others means both compassion to the sinner, as well as compassion for the hungry and needy.  It means that I will show kindness and heal wounds.  It is only if I shun that place where I think I deserve the grace that I have received and avoid becoming intolerant of others or judgement, that I can show mercy to others.
  • Blessed are the pure in heart – this describes not only inner purity but singleness of mind.  This is where my will and choice come into play.  To be pure in heart means that my desires, thoughts and intentions are aimed at pleasing God.
  • Blessed are the peacemakers – When my effort is to strive to establish a peace that embraces God’s provision of peace, where everyone around me is in harmony, because we are all at peace with God.  This is a spiritual state of peace, not a political one.
  • Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness – if we start to promote peace or champion righteousness, or live a life of gentleness and meekness, we will find opposition.  And that may get nasty.
  • Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Jesus.  What if I would really stand up for what Jesus taught us and refused to live in the grey area?

Have you noticed that all of these refer to states of being – I am poor in spirit, I am meek, I am a peacemaker, I am pure in heart.  None of these refer to how I feel.  None of these refer to being a Christian “when the circumstances and my emotions are in the right place and it’s easy”.

Jesus was a radical – the same way that Paul said that the wisdom of God doesn’t make sense for the wisdom of man.

What do you mean the poor in Spirit are blessed?  Then, as now, most of us would have said “Blessed are the rich and powerful, for they have it all”… But that’s not what Jesus said….  Jesus bucked the establishment and focused on what really mattered spiritually.   And as a follower of Christ, I’m expected to also.

Next weekend I’m going to be back in the seminar that I mentioned, but this time as a volunteer helper in the first weekend.  The principal reason for doing this is that I want to give back to a new group of people a little of what I received.  But I will admit that there is this curiosity in me that I want to satisfy.  I want to see if Jorge, the leader, really is a sweet and loving on the first day as what he is now!

What changed? How he treated me? Or my perception and expectations of how someone that truly loves others treats me?

I have to say, I have never met anyone like Jorge and Nicholas… These two men work in black and white.  No grey areas.  I would go as far as saying for the first time I have met someone that helps me understand the Apostle Paul – I have always seen him as harsh and judgmental, not loving – but maybe the reason his letters were so well accepted among those he wrote to was that they had experienced first-hand how loving he was. Perhaps they knew that he was telling them exactly what they needed to hear – not what they wanted to hear.

Jorge and Nicholas call me out – they don’t just let me slide.  If I have said that the most important relationships in my life are my marriage and Isabella, then they expect my actions to reflect this.  That rather than giving Alessandro and Isabella the “left-overs” of my time – they are getting my prime time.  Rather than taking Alessandro for granted (because he loves me), that I am giving to Alessandro my full attention when we are together, because that is how you treat the most important person in your life.

Now, I have some great excuses about why that doesn’t happen:
1-    I had a really hard day at work;
2-    I was up at 3.00 a.m. checking on Isabella and I’m really tired;
3-    I got pounded by work today and then I had to meet with so-and-so and then I took the dogs out;
4-    You have NO IDEA how much I had to do today…

The list can go on and on… I even believe my excuses!  But Jorge and Nicholas don’t. They don’t buy into them… they question them.  They question my priorities.

And for most of us, it’s socially unacceptable for someone to call you out on these things.  When someone gives us a good excuse for why they aren’t a loving and attentive Christian, we let them off the hook – because we want them to let us off the hook when we aren’t.

But I haven’t found anywhere in the Bible where Jesus says “Love your neighbour when you’re having a good day and feel like it”.  I haven’t found “It’s acceptable to complain when you need a little self-pity”.

What we find are verses like:

•    Philippians 2: 14 – Do everything without grumbling and complaining.
•    1 Peter 4:9 – Show hospitality to one another without complaining.
•    1 Thessalonians 5:18 – Give thanks in all circumstances…
•    James 1: 2-3 – Count it all joy… when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.

There’s no getting off easy in the Bible for having a bad attitude, responding to someone with harsh words, feeling self-pity.  But would I call someone out on this?  I’m expected when someone complains about how hard their day has been to listen to them and give them that hug they need.  But is what they need really that hug and my pity?

What if I really listened to them, and rather than just accepting what they told me out of their mouth, I read their body language and listened further – and actually got to the bottom of what was really bothering them?  What if instead of buying into their words and giving them a pat on the back and “there, there, it will be okay”, I challenged them to be better than the circumstances they were facing?  Wouldn’t that be true love like Jesus showed?

I claim to love others as Christ loved us – but I only do it until it’s comfortable.  When it starts to get uncomfortable, that’s when I back off and step back into my comfort zone.

And the Bible tells us, in unequivocal form – JUST DO IT.