living authentically, authentic Christians, fruit of the Spirit, speaking the truth in love, let love be genuine, true to self, true to God, authenticity, faith, works, show me your faith apart from your works, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control, humility, the truth will set you free

Living authentically – the authentic Christian

One of the reasons that I think Christians get such a bad rap, is that we only ever talk about our struggles behind closed doors – if we admit them at all! Perhaps if we admitted our struggles to those outside of Churches – especially the struggles with ego and learning to truly love, we would find that others were more accepting when we tried to share our journey with them!

But, if your upbringing in the church was anything like mine – God forbid that we admit to others that we have doubts about faith, God and “salvation”. You parrot off that you are sharing God’s love with the world, as you Bible-bash them into salvation.

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field of mustard, mustard seed, humble, humility, noble cedar, cedar trees, evergreen, faith, growth, branch, uprooted, chopped down, defeated

“A noble cedar or a humble mustard seed?”

A few months ago I threw some avocado seeds into my compost bin, and now I’ve discovered I have a beautiful avocado seedling growing in my compost.  I’ve very happy about that – but all I did was throw it away! I was expecting to make compost, but now I am very pleased that I need to ask Alexis to locate a great place to plant an avocado tree.  And we all know how big an avocado tree can get.  So, I’m not sure where that avocado tree will get planted, but I am pretty sure that it will produce some great avocados!Read More »

Sermon: Rejoicing in Sufferings

READINGS:

  • Romans 5: 1-8
  • Matthew 9:35 – 10:8
  • Psalm 100

REJOICING IN SUFFERINGS

I invite you to think for a moment about that Olympian champion, the one that sat on the sofa every day watching TV, checking their internet, and reading books.  The one that slept in every morning, had a full cooked breakfast, eating anything they wanted, when they wanted, partying with their friends any time they liked, and taking it easy. On the day of the meet, the simply went out and effortlessly won gold because they were just the best.

What do you mean you never heard of that guy?  Apparently it’s not that easy to be an Olympian Gold Medalist! There may be suffering involved on the road to glory: it takes work, effort, consistency, perseverance, and faith to become perfect and complete, lacking nothing! Rapid success stories happen, true. But the reality is that most “overnight successes” come at the end of years of hard work and those witnessing the “success” part too readily assume the “overnight part.”

Joy comes in spite of our pain! To have joy in spite of difficulties and struggles  is not to deny pain; it is to recognize that they can co-exist. The same way a pregnant mother can go through the agony of childbirth and still have joy in thinking about what is to come. She knows that there is a beautiful light and life at the end of these painful hours.

This morning, Paul says that we are to “Rejoice” in Suffering!  And the reason that Paul gives for this is that suffering produces “endurance”: in other words

  • intestinal fortitude
  • grit
  • perseverance
  • stamina
  • tenacity
  • gutsiness
  • resilience

Paul  goes on to say that this endurance will produce character, and character produces hope, and out of hope comes an outpouring of love into our hearts.

James 1, verses 2 to 4 say something similar:

My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.

I want to talk  this morning about cultivating resilience, which enables us to remain positive and focused. Resilience is a quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever – they rise from the ashes, rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their resolve: a basic ingredient for happiness. So, Paul tells us to “rejoice in our sufferings” – note: he doesn’t say you will only suffer once.  There will be sufferings – did you hear the S? And yet, we are to rejoice, because this is how we learn and grow!

Paul says suffering will lead to endurance, and this will, in turn, lead to having character (that is, who you really are, when all the layers are peeled away – when no one else is looking!).  Said another way:  suffering produces steadiness, steadiness produces reliability, and reliability produces hope.  If we prove ourselves to be reliable, even in the face of hardship – there is hope!

How many of you here today have survived every day of your life so far in spite of the ups and downs?

Amazing! You have survived everything that life has thrown at you so far!  Every one here today is a survivor.  But here’s the challenge: it is not enough just to be here – you should be better for it!  Better equipped, greater patience, more understanding, a higher level of emotional intelligence, empathy for your fellow man or woman.  How do you make this happen, faster and easier on yourself and those around you?

For starters, I would say that the first step is acknowledgement: recognizing that you are in a situation that is outside of your comfort zone and that makes you feel that you are under threat.  The reason I say this is that when you are in denial, “this isn’t happening to me”, it’s impossible to actually act!  You can’t make any decisions about something that isn’t happening to you!   So, step one is admitting that you have a situation.

But I invite you to be careful in your choice of words: transform “hardship” into “challenge”, giving yourself the possibility of seeing opportunity and to make this a productive situation. What do you want life to look like on the other side of this adversity? Remember: your success rate so far is 100%: how will you come out of this one?

Step two, is getting a handle on your emotions.  The signs of a resilient person is that when they are in a difficult situation, they keep calm, evaluate things rationally, and come up with a plan, and so they can act.  The biggest emotion we have to face is fear – fight or flight or lizard brain (paralyzed by fear, shutting down).  Imagine how many times the word “fear” is dealt with in the Bible!  John 14: 27 says

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.  … Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

Or Joshua 1:9

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous.  Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged…

Or even Psalm 23: 4

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil

Our human response is we try to hide our fear – we mask it:

  • with anger (anger feels much more powerful than fear!);
  • with frustration (“I don’t know what to do” sounds better than “I know what to do, but I’m too scared to do it”);
  • with stoicism (I’m bearing this – rather than getting off my butt and doing something about it, because I would hate to make a decision and be wrong).

When you identify your fear or fears, you can then identify the possibilities that lie on the other side: opportunities. Managing  emotions requires that we grow deeply in emotional intelligence – so much to learn from difficult circumstances!

The third step in resilience is a little crazy: you need to be delusional! And by that I mean: you need to set the bar to recovery WAY HIGH! Crazy successful people and people who survive tough situations are all overconfident. And by overconfident I mean… a delusional sense of self-worth.  But wait!! – wasn’t step one and step two about acknowledging where you are and what you are feeling?  Yes. But now I am asking you to go all out in believing:

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me…

Yes, you need to clearly understand and acknowledge the situation, but be overconfident about YOUR ability to get yourself through and out of the situation successfully.  Remind yourself of your strengths and accomplishments. Remember: so far your success rate at making it through difficult days and situations is 100%.What does successful look like this time?

Step 4 in the process is something continual: Preparation.  Whether you are in a difficult situation or not, you should always be in preparation.  Luke 12:35 reminds us:

Be dressed in readiness, and keep your lamps lit.

And likewise, 2 Timothy 4:2

… be prepared, in season and out of season…

It’s impossible to prepare for the unknown, but we can constantly improve ourselves, practicing good habits and overcoming our bad habits.  Habits are what will come through in times of difficulty.  Think of common habits you have: breathing, walking, putting on your seat belt…

When I was 22, I spent 7 hours preparing and training for the most important 10 seconds of that day.  I arrived at 8 a.m., with a group of about 20 other people, and we trained, over and over and over again, lying on the floor, standing up, hanging from harnesses in the air… and when they felt that we were actually ready, they put us all in an airplane, with parachutes on our backs.  And when we reached an altitude of over 3,000 feet, one by one, we jumped out of the plane.

I have complete amnesia about those first five seconds of the jump – no sense of falling, no sense of the wind rushing past my face, nothing!  All I remember is my security check: arms in position, knees bent, one thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand, five thousand, Check (over my right shoulder), check (over my left shoulder).  Parachute properly deployed!  We were static line jumping, in our first solo jumps from the plane.  I do remember the last 5 vital seconds of the experience – the landing.  There are really only 10 seconds in a jump that are the most important:  the first 5 and the last 5:  making sure your chute is open (otherwise releasing that chute and deploying the reserve – if that happens, go back to step one!), and landing on the ground.  You don’t want to collapse your chute 3 stories up in the air, otherwise you could break both femur’s as you plummet down straight onto your legs! But we spent 7 hours preparing for those 10 seconds – and hardly any time at all on how to actually control your parachute, turns and having fun.  Just pay attention to your headset and what the instructor is saying and you’ll be fine.

What does your preparation for the hard times in life look like? Does it bring you hope?  I had hope as I jumped out of the plane – not one, but two parachutes on my back, and knowing that I knew exactly what to do if there was a problem with the first one.  I was as ready as I could be.  There is an amazing adrenaline rush on the other side of fear!

Step five, is kind of obvious: hard work! Whatever the situation is that is bringing you suffering, there are things you will need to do! Whether it is the loss of a loved one, loss of a job, a drop in income, or the ending of a relationship, there is work to be done. After acknowledging the situation, and facing your fear or pain or loss, and getting delusional about your ability to survive this, relying on all the preparation that you have brought to this moment in your life: you have to actually stand up and do what needs to be done!

Proverbs 14:23 reminds us:

All hard work brings profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.

It’s not enough to talk about what needs to be done and what you are going to do. You actually have to do it! I understand the desire just to stay in bed and pull the covers up over your head and give in to mind-numbing sleep!  I am sure that we have all been there – plagued by the depression.  Step one:  get up!   Take the first step!

Survivors take great joy from even their smallest successes. That is an important step in creating an ongoing feeling of motivation and preventing the descent into hopelessness.”

It is those small victories that carry you forward – one more step, one more challenge, one more day.

And finallyhelp: there’s a time to receive help and there’s a time to help others. Having caring, supportive people around you acts as a protective factor during times of crisis. It is important to have people you can confide in. And sometimes, in our most challenging moments, what our souls and spirits need is to reach out and help others. It is when we find a sense of purpose in our lives that we transform the most. For example:

After her 13-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver, Candace Lightner founded Mother’s Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Upset by the driver’s light sentence, Lightner decided to focus her energy into creating awareness of the dangers of drunk driving.

I’m thankful for her impact – she reached me, as a teenager, teaching me two important lessons: never drive drunk and never, ever get in the car with a drunk driver.  So, I was usually the designated driver.  Candace Lightner will never know me, or the thousands of teenagers whose lives she saved: but she made a difference! Are you making a difference?

This is where we find hope and an outpouring of love in our hearts!

Sermon: If you really loved me…

LECTIONARY:

IF YOU REALLY LOVED ME…

Recently I was listening to a presentation by Jim Rohn, where he was talking about measuring our personal progress – about how each of us, no matter how young or old, should be growing and progressing. We need to be realistic, look at ourselves and our lives carefully, asking regularly – am I really growing?  He put it this way:

“How many years do you want your child to spend in fourth grade? About one.

Well, if they’re nice kids, would you give them three or four years? No. You can’t give your child four years to get through fourth grade. That’s too much time …

And that got me thinking about our spiritual lives, spiritual growth and church growth (not the numbers – the actual heart and soul of our congregation).

There’s a saying in business:

Measured performance is improved performance.

When we want to improve something, we measure it – can I run 5 KM, 10 KM, 15 KM, a half marathon?  Can I do 50 sit-ups? Can I play Concerto No. 5 in D Major?

What about your life?  How are you ensuring that you continue to grow each year? How will I (or others) know if, and when, I am growing toward a more full experience of faith? What is the real difference between someone who has only been a Christian for one year, and someone that has been a lifelong follower of Christ – a person devoted to Christ and his vision, for say 30 years? What does this look like?

With so many devotionals out there, online courses, causes that we could take up, programs that we could implement in Balboa Union Church, how is what we are doing today, this week, this month, this year, lead us toward becoming more Christlike?  When I look at my life and my beliefs, do I want to be influenced by and glean insight from the emergent church? The seeker movement?  Am I looking for a house church?  A bible study?

Can you, individually – can we collectively, as a church – afford the luxury of an unchanged life and vision?

Spiritual life is not just about doing things – being busy – it’s about doing the right things.  And when you are looking at the results and measuring your progress – it’s about measuring the right things too!

Individually:

  • Am I more patient?
  • Am I learning to love people that are hard to love?
  • Do I desire to be more like Christ today than I once desired?

Obviously, it’s hard to put numbers on these intangibles – it’s so much more satisfying to look at something “measurable” – On some levels, it’s much better to say “I want to lose 10 pounds” than “I want to lose weight” – we need to know if we’ve arrived.  But how do you know you’re growing? By what criteria do you objectively quantify the growth?

In some instances, there is a measurable criteria (the 3 “B”s – bodies, budgets & buildings):

  • Does the Church have more income today than it did a year ago?
  • Are we within budget?
  • How much are we spending on missions and serving the community?
  • Do we have a bigger membership?
  • Have we increased attendance?

But when we shift this to spiritual pursuits, and we say “my goal is to grow in the knowledge and grace of Christ” (2 Peter 3: 18) – How do we measure progress? For some years, the practice of spiritual discipline was used:  growth is happening if the person was reading the Bible each day, praying, attending church, generously giving, fasting, meditating, serving in some capacity.  But, then we discover that these actions might not actually lead to spiritual maturity. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were great rule keepers, but they completely missed the point!

Maybe it’s knowledge: how’s your spiritual vocabulary? How many books have you read? How many retreats have we attended? How many seminars are we organising as a Church?  But while it’s good to grow in our knowledge, this isn’t really a measure of spiritual maturity either – just look at the Pharisees – it’s hard to get more learned than them!

Going to the other extreme –  “I feel closer to Jesus” – does that convince you? Too subjective?  

John 14 presents us with an easy litmus test: LOVE, LOVE, LOVE!  Do we love God? Do we love others? We can measure our love for God according to how we love and treat others.

So – what if, we measure service?

To be like Christ, means a life of service. BUT….  Doing something because we feel guilty or because we are worried about what others will think of us if we don’t do it, is all the wrong kind of motivation.  It’s not enough to look at attendance & giving, if we are overlooking anger, contempt, honesty and the degree to which we are simply guided by our fears!

I agree totally – if we are to grow spiritually -individually and collectively – we need to be reading books, listening to sermons and seminars, studying the Bible (personally and in groups) – but if we want to mature spiritually, then we must also become passionate about serving.  We need to BE the Church in the community.

Christian maturity is when we stand still long enough to perceive God’s amazing love for us, and so, in turn, begin to love and serve others because we just can’t imagine it any other way.  There’s a special vitality to this – it’s not the tempo of the music or the emotional response in a worship service. Instead, there is an expectancy, and enthusiasm, a sense of hope, a feeling that “life” itself is present.

Crissi Jami says:

“Good works is giving to the poor and the helpless, but divine works is showing them their worth to the One who matters.”

John 14 reminds us:

“All who love me will do what I say. My Father will love them, …24 Anyone who doesn’t love me will not obey me. And remember, my words are not my own. What I am telling you is from the Father who sent me. 25 I am telling you these things now while I am still with you. 26 But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you.

27 “I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid.

Do you love the world like Jesus?

I don’t – I usually have a conditional, temporal love – what I mean is:

I see love in my heart: for God, my daughter, family, and others.  But I also see other things: fear, despair, jealously, and even resentment.

Jesus says that we are left with a gift: peace of mind and heart, a peace that the world cannot give.  We are not to be troubled or afraid. But I don’t always feel this way!

 

For a moment, I want us to focus on why do some people feel this and others struggle with this?  Why is this easy for some, and so difficult for another person?  Do you know that person that loves unconditionally?  That just radiates love?  That always seems to have enough?

I believe the answer lies in our beliefs and perceptions:  You and I may differ in our views – the glass is half full, the glass is half empty.  We are both missing the whole point!  It doesn’t matter whether the glass is half full or half empty, Jesus says that the Father loves us, and is sending the Advocate, with gifts of peace of mind and heart – the glass can ALWAYS be refilled!

The real question should be: do I truly believe that God is love, and that in this world and Universe there is enough love, if I would simply open my heart and allow my soul and spirit to be filled to overflowing with this love?  If I would be willing to simply become a vessel that could be filled and not depend on how much I have, but rather to allow all of God’s peace and love to flow through me – there would always be enough!

Let me ask you one more time – how would you measure your growth and progress as a Christian?

Let us pray:

Creator and all-knowing Spirit:  help us to stop measuring our spiritual growth by checklists and numbers.  Give us the grace and peace to measure our lives by love and love alone.  Help us to receive your love, and teach us to love.  Create in us clean spirits, that live out amazing love stories so that others are drawn to You.

Amen.

Sermon: the Helper

Lectionary Genesis 2:18-24

A HELPER WHO IS “JUST RIGHT”

You’ve all heard the 10 reasons why God created, Eve, right?

  1. God worried that Adam would always be lost in the garden because He knew men would never ask for directions.
  2. God knew that Adam would one day need someone to hand him the TV remote because men don’t want to see what is on TV; they want to see WHAT ELSE is on TV.
  3. God knew that Adam would never2. buy a new fig leaf when the seat wore out and therefore would need Eve to get one for him.
  4. God knew that Adam would never make a doctor’s appointment for himself.
  5. God knew that Adam would never remember which night was garbage night.
  6. God knew that if the world was to be populated there would have to someone to bear children because men would never be able to handle the pain of childbirth.
  7. As Keeper of the Garden Adam would never remember where he put his tools.
  8. The Scripture account of creation indicates that Adam needed someone to blame his troubles on when God caught him hiding in the garden.
  9. As the Bible says, “It is not good for man to be alone”, he only ends up getting himself in trouble.
    And the NUMBER ONE reason…
  10. When God finished the creation of Adam he stepped back, scratched his head and said, “I can do better than that.”

Seriously, there is so much debate now about the correct interpretation that we should give of the Creation story, and especially of the role and relationship between man and woman.  The Church is supposed to be shaped and guided by the Word of God, and yet it is clearly evident that our cultural norms and expectations have guided our interpretation of the Bible, and even come into play with respect to the translation of the Bible.

There is no question that gender issues have been shaped by our culture. In a patriarchal culture, the Church accepted and used passages of the Bible to justify male superiority and female servitude.As cultural views shifted, we have looked back at the translations and words used, and searched for a new understanding of the Bible – but we should ask ourselves, are we simply looking to once again “be right”, as opposed to being guided by the Word of God?  Are we simply now looking to justify a feminist or egalitarian perspective of the creation story that is acceptable in today’s society?  Or are we looking for the Bible to present to us an actual Biblical response to the question of “what is a Godly relationship between a man and woman?”

This morning, I would like to explore the verses of Genesis 2: 18 to 24, and  provide some insight regarding translation and meaning.  But this is merely one of many possible understandings and meanings that can be found, and I would venture to say only scratches the surface of a possibility of interpretations.  But there are lessons here for us!  While God created man & woman equally in His image, there is  no doubt that we are different – the same way that the males and females of all species are equal but different.

In Genesis 1 we find a chronological view of Creation – from day 1 in which God creates time, through to day 7 in which God rests.  On day 6, God is particularly busy, creating all creatures that habitat on land.  Great and small, he creates them, and when God is done, he declares that “it is good”. After this God – Elohim – the multiple nature of God, decides to create man in his image. God says:

“Let us make man in our image, in our likeness.”

And so, man is created, both male and female. In order to avoid confusion, I’m going to use the term “mankind” to refer to humans, and man to refer to the male gender.  To emphasize the godlike nature of mankind, God gives mankind dominion over the earth, and asks Adam to name all of the animals.

The creation story in Genesis 1 is repeated in Genesis 2, but told from a different perspective, demonstrating different facets of God’s character.  And so, in Genesis 2, we rewind a little, and are given more details regarding the creation of mankind, and in particular the differentiation of men and women.

Most versions of the Bible have simply translated verse 18 “It is no good for the human to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” or “a helper that is just right for him”. And because it was culturally acceptable and appropriate to define “helper” as an assistant or as subordinate to the man, the woman was interpreted as having a role of serving: somehow intended to be responsible for catering to the needs and demands of her husband.  Because if woman is the helper, man is the boss, right?   Even Paul says that the man is the head…

But much has been written about the translation of this section, especially regarding the original term “ezer” having been user rather than “azar”.  “Ezer”, with an e does not mean the same as “azar”. Azar does mean helper or servant, but ezer has a different meaning completely.

The word EZER is used in the Old Testament some 21 times, 2 in the context of Eve (women made in creation), 3 times in relation to man’s help and 16 in relation to God.  And the 3 times it’s used in relation to man’s help, it is referencing that help did not arrive such as that help which only God can provide.

So let’s see what other words and terms ARE used throughout the Old Testament that might have been used to describe women as servants or assistants, that would have clearly established woman’s role as being subservient to that of man:

  • The best word for helper or assistant in Hebrew is Azar – and it is used 82 times in the Old Testament, in contexts of helping, assisting or giving aid.  So, if God had wanted to say helper, he could simply have used this word, azar, instead of ezer, right?
  • And if we wanted to specify that woman was a servant-helper, a better word would have been ebed.  In fact, the word ebed is used over a thousand times in the Old Testament.  But that’s not what it says in Genesis 2.
  • Or then there’s the word sharath, which means high-ranking assistant, like Elisha was to Elijah, or like Joshua was to Moses.  But Genesis 2 doesn’t use sharath.

So, what does ezer mean, then?  Ezer is help from God: not only from a superior, but a miraculous help.  Divine intervention.

Before you go off thinking that women are witches and we really fly on broom sticks, let’s get into the translation issues a bit more closely.  Ezer means that God is the help.  Ezer conveys that it is never a servant, helper or assistant.

So, how does this help us?  Well, possibly because if we realise that this was Divine assistance, we will realise that maybe we’ve always been misunderstanding this verse.  It never was intended to say that the woman was the helper! In fact, it should not be ascribed to any human at all.  So, if she isn’t the helper, what did God make?  What does Genesis 2:18 refer to?

Let’s look quickly at the other word that rises in this verse – “suitable” or “right” or “companion”.  The word in Hebrew is kenegdo. Kenegdo arises from 2 words:  Neged refers to a mirror image or reflection, and ke refers to “himself” or “likeness”.  So, God has said he will make a likeness of his mirror image or reflection.  So, woman was supposed to be a mirror-image of man.

Going back in the verses in chapter 2 of Genesis we see what the story of the creation of Eve starts out with the only time God says about creation – “this ins’t good”.  And what isn’t good?  It’t not good that man is alone.  Man is incomplete – because unlike all of the creatures that he has just named, male and female, Adam is alone.

And so God says, I will help man by making his mirror likeness, a reflection of himself.  The solution for man’s loneliness is woman, made to reflect him. God did not create woman to be man’s servant, or assistant or subservient to him. He didn’t make Adam “the boss”.  But rather, God makes them one – flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone.  Equal and together. In harmony and communion.

But, as with the fall in Eden, the moment we allow our self-interest to get in the way, we start to run into  relationship and control issues.  The moment we start to allow our egos to rule, we look at our differences, and then separation and domination begin to take hold, rather than unity and oneness.  Separation and domination was never part of God’s divine plan for men and women.

Lessons we can take away from Genesis 2 today:

  1. Companionship – It is not good that the man should be alone.  Human’s are social creatures – we need to connect with other people.  One of the most shattering emotions of which human beings are capable is that of loneliness – it consumes people: whether they be teenagers, struggling with acceptance, stay at home mothers or fathers who are thirsting for interactions, or the elderly who are feeling forgotten.  We need each other.  What are you actively doing to be part of the lives of those around you?  If you are a spouse, are you making sure that your other half doesn’t feel alone?
  2. Are you sharing the load and the burden?  Whether it be with your spouse, or a team member at work, or another volunteer in an organisation you have joined: is someone feeling that they have to do everything themselves and that they are not getting the support that they need?  What can you do to support that person?  What needs to change so that you become a team player?
  3. Are you taking care of your responsibilities?  In every team, each person has different functions and tasks: and your first priority should always be to have fulfilled your responsibilities first.  It’s  no good to be worried about what others aren’t getting done to the detriment of your own responsibilities.  You will always hear – finish  your own responsibilities before helping another – just like in an airplane you put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else with theirs. AND FINALLY
  4. Acknowledge and rejoice in our individuality and differences.  They are not meant to separate us from each other – they are intended to complement each other.  Yes – women and men are different – women may be more emotional, or protective of our little ones – but that doesn’t mean the weaker sex! And some of us are black, white, yellow, pink or any other colour under the sun.  We come from different cultures and customs.  But these differences are to be enjoyed and celebrated, creating a diversity in our team work and fulfilling all of the needs.

Today I would invite all of you to explore how you were created to be “just right”, a Divine gift to help and connect with those around you.

Sermon: We all stumble

If you asked me to name my favourite book of the Bible, I would be hard-pressed to choose between Proverbs and James.  This could be because James seems to be so knowledgeable about Proverbs.  The book of James is quite short:  it has only five chapters and is known for its practical wisdom and common sense. At about 12 years of age, after having memorised the book of Philippians, I set out to memorise the book of James.  Practical wisdom for a teen – controlling your words!

Someone has said that great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people. The church that James is writing to was full of small-minded people who gossiped about each other and tore one another apart with their tongues. Throughout the letter, James is helping his readers learn to view their trials from God’s perspective and to resist temptation as they bridle their anger. They were in a church where their tongues were used to destroy each other, as they participated in fighting, slander and lying about one another.  Complaining and grumbling are mentioned in the Bible more than 100 times (compared to the 6 times that the sin of homosexuality is actually mentioned).  Guess which one has done greater damage to the Church, to groups and to growth?  We all stumble in many ways, most of us tripping over our tongue!

Our reading from James this morning is simply fascinating, with its similes and his presentation of the tongue as a restless evil, a spark (that can cause a forest fire), poisonous venom, or a spring of water.  A human tongue weighs about 3 ounces… if you weigh 140 pounds, that’s about 0.1% of your body weight.

This morning I want to present two opposing ideas: tearing things (or people) down versus creating or building the reality and relationships that you dream of having.  As well as presenting you with the Biblical angle, I’m going to steal some ideas from NLP (neuro-linguistic programming).  NLP explores the relationships between the way we think (N), communicate (L) and behave (P). Let me explain it to you this way:

Our words become thoughts, our thoughts become feelings, and our feelings become actions. If I see a negative world I will use negative words, creating negative thoughts, generating negative feelings, which will make me act me in a negative way, then I will see an even worse world, and have even worse thoughts, …  (Ruben Marcelos Lagos)

Who saw the rain storms this week as a blessing – filling up the Canal basin and feeding our water supplies?  Who saw the rain storms this week as floods and chaos?  Were the 2 families that lost everything an opportunity for this Church to participate in the community? Or a burden?

There are those who firmly believe that words are not just elements of speech or writing, because they can be used to affect how energy travels through space. When spoken out loud, words transform into vibrations, and as we know, vibrations can direct energy and how energy flows around us.

There is a whole science based on “Words that Change Minds”, how you can use positive words to impact your own life and also to influence others around you – to build them up.  What kind of words do you speak to yourself? Are they words of encouragement and self-esteem? Do your words reflect the fact that God created you in His image and that He loves you? If not, they should.

It will be your tongue that will shape your character. Do you know that Christian person that is always negative, complaining and grumbling?  They have nothing positive to say: their demeanor, or the way they carry themselves, reflects this. Please get this in your spirit, a person will eventually get what his or her mouth says.  Is it any wonder that the person that is always complaining and bitter about how life has treated them always seems to get the short end of the stick?  They never seem to get a lucky break?  Their words are creating their reality, as if they were speaking it into existence.

If you think I’m speaking about magic or something airy-fairy, let’s have a look at some verses from the Bible:SpeakLife

Proverbs 18:21 reminds us:

Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.

Psalms 141:3

Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!

Proverbs 21:23

Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.

Matthew 15:11

It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.

 

Do you remember as a child, when you visited the doctor and he asked you to “stick out your tongue?”.  He seemed to be able to tell a great deal about our health by looking into our mouths. Spiritually, it’s about the same – what comes out of our mouths is usually an accurate index of the health of our hearts.  James explains this in chapter 3:  how is it that you are worshiping and praising God, and then using that very same mouth to cut someone else down?

In fact James again addresses this issue for those who consider themselves “religious”. In James 1:26, he says,

“If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are just fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless.”

Jesus called out the Pharisees in Matthew 12:34-37:

You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.

In the Bible we find 4 principal areas of talking that God condemns: complaining (or grumbling), slander, gossip & lies.

Phillipians 2: 14

Do all things without grumbling or complaining

Proverbs 26, versus 20 to 28 focus entirely on our words and the power of the tongue, covering all  four of these areas: complaining, slander, gossip & lies.

Proverbs 10:19

When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.

 

But there is more to it than just that, there is also thinking before you speak and speaking a kind word, even when you have been attacked.

Proverbs 17.27

Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding

Proverbs 15:1

A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

We have opportunities, constantly, to choose how we will respond.  Will we be the spark that starts a fire? The venom that poisons the relationship?  Or will our words be a healing balm?

General Robt. E. Lee was once asked what he thought of a fellow officer in the Confederate Army–an officer who had made some mean-spirited remarks about him. Lee thought for a moment, then rated him as being very satisfactory.

The person who asked the question seemed troubled. “But general, I guess you don’t know what he’s been saying about you.”

“Oh yes,” answered Lee. “I know. But I was asked my opinion of him, not his opinion of me.”

Each one of us has the power to stop gossip:

  1. We can stop listening to it, rather than participating.  Without an audience, it’s hard to gossip.
  2. We can stop the cycle, by dealing with the problem.  This is where tough love and the hard truth are sometimes the most difficult road to choose.  It’s so much easier to say “it’s not my problem”, rather than get involved and have the compassion and love to see it through.  People had being confronted.
  3. Start confronting those who spread gossip – calling it by its name.

For yourself, when you are speaking to someone, think before you speak, using this short Acronym:  THINK

  • T–Is it true?
  • H–Is it helpful?
  • I–Is it inspiring?
  • N–Is it necessary?
  • K–Is it kind?

Then, we should look at healing.  We have all, at one time or another, been hurt by malicious words.  But we don’t have to stay hurt, we have the power to heal.

Step 1 – Let it go: The longer you hold on to the cruel things that people say about you, it will begin to develop bitterness and resentment in your life. The best thing to do is let it go.

Step 2. Be gracious to those who say things you don’t like – Be gracious to those who speak bad about you. Give people the benefit of the doubt.

perception-reaction Maybe what the person said wasn’t meant the way you took it. Maybe the person was having an off day. Maybe there is turmoil in that person’s life that you do not know about. Remember this simple fact: Hurting people hurt people and are easily hurt by people. 9 out of 10 malicious gossips are people who are hurting so bad and so deeply that they have to hurt other to make themselves feel better. Let’s face it, Jesus has put up with an awful lot of things from us, we can be gracious to others.

Step 3. Be silent – If something that is being said about you and you do not need to respond, don’t. Sometimes remaining silent is the best thing that we can do.

Step 4. Keep your words sweet you may have to eat them – If you have to respond to a person who is either upsetting you or speaking bad about you, be kind and keep your words gentle. The words that you use carelessly may come back to haunt you.

Abraham Lincoln counselled us:

“It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

Words have incredible power in our lives. For one, they provide us with a vehicle for expressing and sharing our experiences with others. Most of us don’t realize, however, that the words you habitually choose also affect what you experience. You have the power to take control of your habitual vocabulary to change the quality of your life. Simply by changing your habitual vocabulary—the words you consistently use to describe the emotions of your life—you can instantly change how you think, feel and how you live.

This week I would challenge all of you to be mindful of the words you speak – choose to speak only positive and hopeful things about your job, your children, your spouse, your health, your future, anything and everything that effects your life. It may be difficult at first, but see what type of results you get.  As I said before, your tongue will reflect your true character. Your words will reveal the real you. (Do you like what you’re hearing? If you don’t like what you’re hearing, then you need to change the discourse). If you are into journalling, I would encourage you to start writing down what you heard yourself say – and how you will say it differently from now on.

sunlight, streetlamps, more light, firelight, candlelight, torchlight, incandescent light, illuminate, floodlights, light is metaphore, knowledge, truth, the age of enlightenment, growth, light is energy, force, light is light, make straight, in the beginning was the Word, life, the light of men, the light shines in the darkeness, let there be light, breath of life, light of the Spirit, joy, giving, radiant

Sunlight is said to be the best bleach and streetlamps the most effective police officers…

Lectionary Readings:
  1. Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
  2. Luke 1:46b-55
  3. 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24
  4. John 1:6-8; 19-28

Growing up here in Panama, I went to Boarding School in Chame. As a child, after playing games or skating on the basketball court, we’d head back to our dorms, taking the shortest way back straight across the soccer field.  Pitch dark – although probably only 7.30 or 8.00 p.m.  Not something I wanted to do alone!

I remember (probably on more than one occasion), walking back across that field, and my friend Marion would let out a screech or scream and take off running, and I would scream and bolt for the buildings and the lights.  In overtaking her I would notice she was doubled over with laughter, but that wouldn’t really sink in until I was safely standing, out of breath, on the porch under the lights.  She’d eventually show up, still laughing.  I was so predictable: waiting for those unseen snakes or ghouls or scary monsters to grab me out of the dark.

I’m not afraid of the dark, I’m just scared of what might be hiding in it.

Today I want to speak about the LIGHT.

Ever since mankind crawled out of the primordial slime, we’ve cried: “More light.”

Sunlight. Firelight. Candlelight. Torchlight. Neon, incandescent light that banishes the darkness from our caves, homes; lights that illuminate our roads, dangerous intersections and treacherous corners; and even lights that turn on when you open the door scaring the bogey man out from inside our refrigerators. Floodlights for our sports arenas. Tiny flashlights for those books we read under the covers when we’re supposed to be asleep.

Light is so much  more than watts and foot-candles. Light is metaphor: knowledge and truth (the age of enlightenment); light is life and growth (photosynthesis, vitamin D); light is energy and force; and light is light.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.   He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

The Pharisees said to him: “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us.  What do you say about yourself?”

He said “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

This is our third week of Advent, our celebration of the birth of Jesus: the way, the truth and the life.  The gospel of John starts with these words of Truth:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… Through Him all things were made… In Him was life, and that life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness…

Notice the connection with Genesis 1?

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep… And God said, “Let there be light” and there was light. God saw that the light was good…

And to Genesis 3?

The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

I want to start today by quickly reviewing the dichotomy of light versus darkness, in all its metaphors. Take a moment to reflect on these contrasts. What images come to mind as I read these words of Light and Darkness?

Doubt Anxiety Nightmares Despair London winter Dimness Depression Fear Tiredness Lethargy Captivity Blindness Haunted  Sickness Grief Sadness Deception  Heavy-hearted Addicted Imprisoned Contaminated Hatred Ignorance Consumed Hungry Famine

Faith Peace Courage Energy Dreams Freedom Hope Health Sunshine Sight Brightness Pleasant Contentedness Truth Joy Happiness Light-heartedness  Free spirit  Pure Love Knowledge Rejuvenated  Plenty Satisfied

Light is a force and energy, whereas darkness is merely the absence of this force and energy.  So, when the Bible says that God is LIGHT, what are the author’s trying to communicate to us?  It doesn’t say that God is LIKE light, or God is “surrounded by” light, or “God has a great big electric generator so He can sit in the spotlight”, it says “God IS light”.

Light is the essence of God – the same way that man is flesh and blood.  This light is self-existent, God possesses this power in and of Himself.  It has no external source. God is pure light, not diluted or mixed in any way with evil, hatred, untruth, ignorance or hostility. God is light is not a theoretical assertion about the nature of God, but a statement that drives us to the heart of what God is like: God is pure light.

God is the source of all living things.  God is truth and enlightenment.

If we briefly look at some of man’s encounters with God in the Bible, we can see a little better this Light and its many meanings.

Think of Moses’ first encounter with God: the burning bush. The bush was on fire, but was not consumed by the flames.  God has his full attention – but didn’t have to destroy anything in order to do so.

The children of Israel got a glimpse of the glory of God at Mount Sinai:

under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself… but the cloud covered the mountain, and the glory of God looked like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain.

This was all a little much for the children of Israel, especially when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with a radiant face, and they were afraid to come near him.  A little like Jesus’ transfiguration  on the mountain with Moses and Elijah.  A bright cloud enveloped them… and when Peter, James & John heard the voice, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified.

On the other hand, think now of David, and his beautiful psalms. Here we find at least three metaphors:

  1. Picture God “clothed in garments of light”, symbolising the One who is pure, righteous and holy (there is no dirtiness, nothing to taint or contaminate God).
  2. God’s revelation through spoken and written word gives light: “Thy Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”; offering moral guidance and direction for how to live.
  3. Light symbolises also salvation: “God is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”

Or how about Isaiah:

The sun shall be no more thy light by day; neither for brightness shall the moon give light unto thee: but the LORD shall be unto thee an everlasting light, and thy God thy glory.

Did you ever notice that most of the prophets start with “The word of the Lord came to…”, except for Ezekiel. Have you noticed Ezekiel’s spaceship?

I looked and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north – an immense cloud with flashing lightening and surrounded by brilliant light.  The centre of the fire looked like glowing metal, and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures (with faces and wings – each of the four had the face of a man, the face of a lion, the face of an ox and the face of an eagle) – so it didn’t matter which way they were facing, they were always facing forward.  The appearance of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire or like torches.  Fire moved back and forth among the creatures; it was bright and lightening flashed out of it.  The creatures sped back and forth like flashes of lightening.

Spread out above the heads of the living creatures was what looked like an expanse, sparkling like ice, and awesome… Then there came a voice… Above the expanse over their heads was what looked like a throne of sapphire, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man.  I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him.  Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him.

This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.  When I saw it, I fell facedown…

I’m somewhat relieved I haven’t had THAT encounter with God!  And then sent out to preach against the injustice and evil of man…

And what about Paul? While breathing out murderous threats against the disciples, on the road to Damascus suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him, sending him to the ground.  When he got up and opened his eyes, he couldn’t see.  And for three days he was blind.  Three days to sit in quiet and solitude, and meditate on the meaning of his life.  Three days to sit and think about what he’d been shown when he saw the light.  Three days to wonder if the light was going to be the last thing he ever saw.

And yet, without light, none of us can see.  Our eyes are useless in the pitch dark.  Our sense of hearing and smell and taste and touch are unaffected by the darkness – but take away the light, and we are all blind.  We need the reflection of light off objects to be able to see them.  Light = sight.

You know, and I know, we each need that encounter with the LIGHT.

Some of us will find that light burning within us, but like the burning bush, this light doesn’t consume us. It is the Light that sends us out to rescue those who are prisoners or slaves, whether they are addicts, those imprisoned by poverty, those bound by depression or those just in need of love.  This light from within feeds itself and gives us energy and light, but it doesn’t destroy us. It is the light of life!  The light of the Spirit! The light of joy and giving! This is the Light that we are called to share with our fellow man. Don’t hide this light under a bushel.  We are not to be mirrors of this light – this light is meant to burn inside each of us!

Some of us will fall on our faces, before the purity and power of the LIGHT, and simply worship.  And when we walk away, after being in God’s presence you will be radiant, transfigured.  Perhaps scary for others to see, but we will be RADIANT.

Some of us need to walk in the light, as David did: the light that guides each footstep and guides our path. We all need the words of truth.

Others will find in the Light that place of safety and security, the salvation that they so desperately need.  The light that lifts them out of depression or addiction.  The light that sets them free.

Some of us may be in that place where it seems that there is no light from the sun, and then we will hear, as Isaiah did “the LORD will be an everlasting light”.

Others of us will need to see the supernatural, like Ezekiel. That light that takes our breath away – and when it’s done, empowers and emblazons us to stand up and speak out against the injustices in the world.   That takes us to fight for the 13 million people in the Horn of Africa that are starving because of the drought; the drive and motivation to face the starving refugees of Somalia; the motivation to stand up in “occupy” and say I disagree with the financial powers that be, “this is wrong”; or whatever message is laid on our hearts regarding the injustices and inequality in this world.

We need that Light that moves us to pray for the family in England of the man who after losing his job went home and shot his wife and daughter and 2 other children and then turned the gun on himself, leaving 2 orphaned children in the hospital to deal with the horror of the future without a father or mother or sister.  And yet others will be called to minister directly to the grieving.

Some of us need that jolt of lightening like Paul, that stops us in our tracks, and makes us take time out from our endeavours and goals and plans, and the rat-race we call life, to make us rethink the direction that our life is heading in.

But more than anything, ALL of us need to be plugged into the LIGHT, the energy, the life-force.  We are all like stand-alone computers, that until we are plugged in to the electricity, we can’t do anything, and unless we’re connected to the network, there’s a limit to how much information or data we can access.  We all need to be plugged in and connected.

We read in first John 1: 5-7

This is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you: God is Light; in Him there is no darkness at all.  If we claim to have fellowship with Him, yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.  But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus… purifies us from all sin.

I ask each of you to take a moment right now, before we go on with this service, to meditate on what God’s Spirit reveals to you.  How are you called to respond this Christmas season?

Some of us will be called, like Isaiah to proclaim:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because I have been anointed by the LIGHT; the LIGHT has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; To proclaim the year of the LIGHT’s favour… to comfort all who mourn; … to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. For the LIGHT loves justice, and hates robbery and wrongdoing; the LIGHT will faithfully give them their recompense. … I will greatly rejoice in the LIGHT, my whole being shall exult in my God; for the LIGHT has clothed me with the garments of salvation, and covered me with the robe of righteousness…   For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the LIGHT will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

Others, will, like Mary proclaim:

My soul magnifies the Lord, my LIGHT, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for the LIGHT has looked with favor on the lowliness of this servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me…  His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; the LIGHT and TRUTH has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. The Mighty One has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; the LIGHT has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. The Mighty One has helped his servant … in remembrance of His mercy.

And finally, from Paul we are reminded:

Rejoice always; Pray without ceasing; Give thanks in ALL circumstances, knowing that this is the LIGHT’s will for you. Don’t quench or put out the Spirit of Light by allowing darkness to take hold in your life; Do not despise the words of the prophets, but test everything that you are told and hold fast to what is good and true; abstaining from every form of evil.  And know that the God of peace Himself will sanctify you entirely; that your spirit and soul will be kept sound and blameless, no matter what happens or how crazy this world gets.  Because the one who is call THE LIGHT has called you, and the LIGHT is faithful and true, and will do this.

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Choose life

C.S. Lewis said:

“There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “All right, then, have it your way”. ”

For those of us who have a hard time saying “Thy will be done” C.S. Lewis identifies:

We may be thinking about those verses in 1 Peter chapters 4 & 5 that say:  “Beloved, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering… but rejoice that you participate in the sufferings… so that you may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed.”  “… those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.”   “and the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Chris, after you have suffered a little while, will Himself make you perfect, strong, firm and steadfast.”

C.S. Lewis goes on to say:

“If we let Him–…we can prevent Him, if we choose–He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less.”

cslewisOur 4 lectionary readings have a common theme: they demonstrate to us how simple and yet profound the choice presented in the Bible is.

1st Corinthians 3, verses 3 to 7:

You are still worldly.  For since there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not worldly?  Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says “I follow Paul” and another “I follow Apollos” are you not mere human beings?  What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? … I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.  So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.

We are not to get caught up this earthly life, or on whose teachings we follow, who is right or wrong.

Gandhi said:

“all religions are true … So we can only pray, if we are Hindus, not that a Christian should become a Hindu … But our innermost prayer should be (that) a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, a Christian a better Christian.”

Spiritual maturity is being able to admit “God makes me grow” – not what I do. I am not “trying” to become a “child of God”: I already am a child of God. We have all been redeemed and bought with a price.  Our objective is not to win salvation; our objective is to become more Christ-like.  As my relationship with God evolves, I realise that salvation, sanctification and justification is about personal transformation.  I am not looking forward to eternal life when I die: eternal life began the day that I accepted God’s free gift of forgiveness.

But, am I allowing God to work in me or holding Him back?  Do I love myself and God enough to become a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as I cannot now imagine? Or am I caught up in this world?

In my adventure of getting to know the omnipotent, omniscient, ever-present God, Deuteronomy 30: verses 15 to 20 sheds light on my relationship with God.  Deuteronomy means “the second giving of the law.” In this Book, Moses repeats the law of God for those who will cross the Jordan into the Promised Land.

If you recall, before going up Mount Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments, Moses challenged the Children of Israel with the basic rules. Exodus 23:25 “Worship the Lord your God and His blessing will be on your food and water.  I will take away sickness from among you, and none will miscarry or be barren in your land.  I will give a full life span.”  And so, in Exodus 24: 3: “they responded with one voice, “Everything the Lord has said, we will do.

A couple of days later, while Moses is up on Mount Sinai getting the 10 Commandments, these same people ask Aaron to make them the golden calf.  Who here can honestly say they’ve never done this? “Everything the Lord has said, we will do” except for the “no other gods”, or whatever your favourite exception is.  We promise God one thing, and days later have completely failed.

So, here we have Moses, in Deuteronomy 30, repeating the law of God to the new generation; he offers them a choice:

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.  For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commands, decrees and laws… This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Now choose life, that you and your children may live, and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to Him.  For the Lord is your life…

This passage is about my relationship with God, not about material prosperity. No magic formula for worldly success.  Nor was this was some “altar call”.  This was a call to surrender, each new morning, to Him.  “Choose life” refers to loving God, hearing Him, walking in His ways, keeping His torah, holding fast to Him and not going astray (each morning, each moment of each day).  It’s a radical difference – a life-style choice.

Psalms 119, verses 1 to 8 remind us.

1-     Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord.

2-    Blessed are they who keep His statutes and seek Him with all their heart.

3-    They do nothing wrong; they walk in His ways.

4-   You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed.

5-    Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees!

6-    Then I would not be put to shame when I consider all your commands.

7-    I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws.

8-    I will obey your decrees; do not utterly forsake me.

Even David, a man after God’s own heart, admits that he is NOT perfect in obeying God’s decrees.  He feels put to shame when he considers God’s commands.  “I’d love to say I am obeying fully, but I’m messing up”.  If we are truly honest with ourselves, obeying God’s Word is challenging.  It’s a very high standard!  The Bible is the mirror in which we see our own inadequacies.

David admits he’s still learning God’s law, and finishes with “I will obey your decrees; do not utterly forsake me.”  Don’t give up on me God; I’m going to keep on trying.  We know David had some serious slip-ups in keeping God’s commandments.

He coveted his neighbour’s wife.

He committed murder.

So, how is it that he’s the man after God’s own heart? Well, firstly, although he obviously went through a period of rebellion (more than just a couple of months… maybe more than a year). He was far, far from God.  Yet, when Nathan confronts him, he repents.  There is true remorse, grief and shame.  There is a certain tenderness that comes with this repentance.  Surrender.

We see it again in Peter, who rejecting Christ 3 times, realises his rejection and rebellion, and goes out weeping bitterly.  Somehow, having reached the bottom, Peter was able to put aside his pride, accept Jesus’ forgiveness: was able to bow down and surrender.

Sai Baba said:

“Give up all bad qualities in you, banish the ego and develop the spirit of surrender.”

As a child of God, in our walk to become more Christ-like, we have to understand the importance of the spirit of surrender to God:  “Choosing life.”

Jesus makes it clear, in the sermon on the mount, that it’s not about legalistic fulfilment of the law.

It’s not enough just to know the law.  Last week we read: “let your righteousness surpass that of the Pharisees”.  Pharisees followed the letter of the law; even added a few for good measure. What have we humans done with God’s law?

Let’s see:

The Law of Moses established that we should fulfil our oaths:  Human interpretation says: “if I don’t make an oath, I don’t exactly have to tell the truth”.

Likewise, with respect to divorce:  what was “objectionable” enough about a woman to warrant divorce?  There were different views between various rabbinic schools:

One said:  A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her, for it is written, Because he hath found in her indecency in anything.

Another said: [He may divorce her] even if she spoiled a dish for him, for it is written: Because he hath found in her indecency in anything.

And yet another: Even if he found another fairer than she, for it is written (and this translation is a little more liberal than “because he had found in her indecency in anything), And it shall be if she find no favour in his eyes.”

And so Jesus explains that the true meaning of the law is to honour God, not just with your actions, but also with your thoughts, your motives and your attitudes.  What does it mean to “Choose Life”? Even Gandhi taught:

Before the throne of the Almighty, man will be judged not by his acts, but by his intentions.  For God alone reads our hearts.

These rules from the Sermon on the Mount are deeper and more personal than the laws of any country.  It delves deep into the innermost part of man, where only God sees.

We may think that our “thought life” is our own, hidden from others.  We indulge in “my thoughts” –save a little space, some room, for us to live in our little indulgences.  This hypocrisy of a secret thought life! – One way on the inside and another on the outside – This deep corruption and confusion is not “choosing life”.

We see another example of this when Jesus rebukes us for holding onto our anger, rather than choosing the higher way.   What do I choose to do with my anger?  Do I deal with it?  Buddhist teachings warn:

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; while holding it, you’re getting burned.”

Jesus says there is no real point in priding myself on the fact that I have never actually killed someone. Why? Well, because unresolved anger leads us to sin: saying “Raca” (empty head) or “you fool” (moron) – My angry, thoughtless words KILL my relationships, chipping away at the trust and love.

Jesus values our earthly relationships – important enough that he says we should leave worshipping God and go and make things right with our neighbour or brother.  We are to actively seek reconciliation.

True happiness and fulfilment comes from putting our relationship with God right and then our relationships with all of those around us.

Sai Baba says:  “Once we surrender our mind to GOD completely, HE will take care of us in every way.”

How do I really put into practice, in all aspects of my life, the grace that I have received, living a life of righteousness and holiness before God?  How do I “do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God”?  I “know” (head knowledge) it means to desire Him above all else: He demands first place in my life.  No half-hearted or part-time love: “just Sunday mornings.”

Much like Christ says in the gospels to the young rich ruler:  No one is good except one–God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not give false testimony,’ ‘Do not defraud,’ ‘Honor your father and mother.’”  The young ruler said to him, “Teacher, I have observed all these things from my youth.”
Jesus looking at him loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack. Go, sell whatever you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me, taking up the cross.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen “choices” in the Bible.  Genesis: starts with the exercise of free will.  We can choose to eat the forbidden fruit or not – our eyes will be opened: but… will we like what we see?

Augustine said:

“When people choose to withdraw far from a fire, the fire continues to give warmth, but they grow cold.  When people choose to withdraw far from light, the light continues to be bright in itself but they are in darkness.  This is also the case when people withdraw from God.”

God doesn’t want me to pick and choose when I will love him, or under what conditions.  I am to Love God with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my strength.

I’m happy to be a Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet lapping up all the teachings.  I enthralled by His teachings.  But that’s not enough: how do I let go of earthly things, daily struggles, and become a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as I cannot now imagine?

If I loved God, really, truly, loved HIM, I wouldn’t have any problem keeping His commandments; I would have complete faith in Him and His Word, put absolute trust in Him.  I’d allow Him to guide me, not snatch the reigns back when things get tough.  I would surrender all and trust Him, be filled with His light, and let it shine through me into the lives of others around me.

We know (head knowledge) that “things” cannot give us life – they don’t satisfy the inner longing of our soul.  No harm in trying, right? And so, like the rich young ruler, we distance ourselves from God, putting our trust in our “security”.

True righteousness is more than just legal or external obedience.  It’s not about seeing how much I can “get away with” and still be considered “righteous”.  Wrong-doing arises because of the mind.  But if my mind is transformed, wrong-doing has no place to live.  God’s righteousness is concerned with His “shalom” – well-being, peace and harmony.  This is His righteousness: a peaceful, life-giving relationship with God.  I want, this day, to choose life.

And so, as C.S. Lewis said:

“He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly … His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less.”

And so, I repeat:

So, as you walk out of here today, which of the 2 types of people do you choose to be?

Those that say to God: “I choose to surrender and banish my ego. I trust you to do the best for me and to give me the strength I need for whatever You have in store, however painful the growth process may be. I want to become more Christ-like. Thy will be done.

Or those to whom our Father in heaven, with great sadness in His heart says, like as to the rich young ruler, “All right then, have it your way”.

Remember: When we lose God, it’s not God who gets lost.