Because we humans are “prone to wander,” those of us called by God to serve within the church as under-shepherds must join Jesus, the Great Shepherd, in protecting his flock from harm (Acts 20:28). This is a vital calling, given the many forces in our day that threaten our members, including the devil’s schemes to undermine a worldview that is solidly Christ-centered. Sadly, an increasing number of Christians view reality (including the Christian faith) through the “lens” of a worldview that is more secular than it is centered on the heart, mind and ways of Jesus.
This issue of Equipper begins a new series of articles that, over the next few months, will explore the topic of worldview conversion. The focus of the series is how we, through what we refer to as whole-life discipleship, can first help ourselves and then help those in our care develop a worldview that is fully Christ-centered.
This letter introduces the series, looking at what we mean by worldview and providing additional comments. I’ll then hand you over to Ted Johnston’s article in this issue for additional details. We’ll then build on this foundation in future articles published here in GCI Equipper.
A worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being. (p. 141)
Whether we know it or not, we all have a particular worldview. As disciples of Jesus, it is vital that we embrace and live out of a Christ-centered worldview, then help others do so as well. The articles in this series on worldview and whole-life discipleship are designed to help us do that. It is our goal that we will use this material to help our members identify their current worldview, then help them realign their worldview, as needed, more fully with Jesus’ own view of the world—his values, perspectives and commitments. As part of the series, we’ll look at some “hot button” ethical issues—seeking a Christ-centered response in ways that are redemptive rather than merely confrontational.
We pray that this series will help inform our teaching and preaching, leading to positive, Christ-centered, Spirit-led change in our own lives and in the lives of the people we are called to disciple in the way of Jesus.
A shift in worldview
In his helpful book God, Freedom & Human Dignity, Ron Highfield asks a penetrating question concerning the shift in worldview that has occurred within Western culture:
How, when and by whom did it come about that nature, family, community, moral law and religion were changed in the Western mind from identity-giving, happiness-producing networks of meaning into their opposites—self-alienating, misery-inducing webs of oppression? (p. 18)
The dominant worldview in the modern West in our day encourages people (particularly young ones) to cast off family and religious values to embrace an identity that is largely me-centered. This secular worldview, which has become one of the cornerstones of Western culture, is grounded in a form of self-expression that, rather than valuing higher good and right action, has become an end in itself. Highfield continues:
The modern self asserts. “I am irreplaceable, and none can tell me how to realize my own uniqueness or judge my choice or ways of self-expression. I have every right to celebrate my own utterly unique being in ways that I experience as fulfilling.” (p. 31)
The need for grace
A sad state of affairs, isn’t it? Yet, lest we point a finger of condemnation, let’s remember that all of us (due to our fallen nature) are inclined toward self-centeredness, and so are in need of God’s grace. Let’s also remember that our calling as followers of Jesus is not to rail against the culture, or to turn our backs on it in disgust. Instead, we are called to participate with Jesus, by the Spirit, in speaking redemptively into the lives of people—sharing with them not the bad news of a failed culture, but the good news of God’s culture—God’s kingdom. Note this comment from Highfield:
Approaching people with the least hint of judgment or arrogance or love of argument will fail to produce the desired engagement. In my experience, patient listening, sincere probing, and autobiographical confession is the only way to engage with our contemporaries in meaningful conversations about important matters. (p. 36)
Instead of buying into the culture’s propensity toward asserting our “rights” by being confrontational and condemning, we must reach out with the love of God to people, no matter their worldview, to help them discover and embrace Jesus and his beliefs and values. We want to help people experience the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ; to discover God’s plan to give them their true identity as his children, and thus to discover a way of life that is truly fulfilling and liberating. I pray that this series of articles on worldview will equip us to participate with Jesus in the disciple-making work that he is now doing in our world with its largely secular worldview.
Be sure to read the articles in this new series (you’ll find the first one, written by Ted Johnston, in this issue). As we proceed, I invite you to share your thoughts in the comment box that appears at the end of each article.
Seeking to embrace and share a Christ-centered worldview,
—Greg Williams, GCI Vice President
PS: Over the last several months, I’ve been casting a vision for what we refer to as healthy church. It’s my desire to help us examine the steps we’ll need to take in order to move toward the realization of that vision. In my Equipper letter last month I addressed one of those steps: the implementation within our congregations of adaptive leadership. This month, we’ve included an article in which I address the key issue of the faith, hope and love venues. I’ll be addressing additional topics in future issues. Please read these prayerfully, then discuss them with your leaders.
Worldview Conversion: What and Why
By Ted Johnston, GCI Publications Editor
As Greg Williams mentions in his letter, with this issue of Equipper, we’ve begun a series examining the related topics of worldview conversion and whole-life discipleship. In this article I’ll help lay the foundation for the series by addressing what worldview is and why it matters a great deal.
Stated simply, a worldview is a person’s view of the world. It’s how they see (interpret) reality. Each of us (whether we know it or not) has a worldview, and as shown in the diagram below, it powerfully affects how we think, feel and live. Our worldview is thus of great importance, not only to us personally, but to the people we influence and, ultimately, to the whole of creation.
Our worldview largely determines how we view all sorts of issues: God, politics, truth, education, abortion, marriage, the environment, race, gender, economics, what it means to be human, the origins of the universe… to name just a few. That being the case, the related questions for us as followers of Jesus are these:
Am I aware of the worldview I currently hold?
Does it align with Jesus’ beliefs, values and perspectives?
If not, how can I see my worldview converted (transformed) to become more fully Christ-centered?
These questions are not answered quickly—time and clear-eyed introspection are needed. Hopefully this series on worldview conversion here in Equipper will assist you and equip you to assist others.
Ethics and personal identity
In God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture, Ron Highfield (professor of religion at Pepperdine University) notes the debates raging within and without Christian circles concerning questions related to ethics: How should we live? On what do we base our answers? Highfield notes that the trinitarian, Christo-logic of the gospel answers these questions by pointing to the related topic of identity. Why identity? Because that is where Scripture takes us, in line with the truth that we humans tend to live in alignment with our sense of personal identity.
Embracing a God-centered identity
The gospel declares that our God-given identity is found not within ourselves, but in Jesus, in whom divinity and humanity are permanently united in one Person. As we, by the Holy Spirit, embrace our true identity in Christ, we are set free from the bondage created by embracing the me-centered identity (with its worldview) that is dominant in most of the Western world.
Many people today (including some Christians), bristle at the idea that their true identity is to be found outside themselves—especially when you tell them its location is in the humanity of Jesus. Why? Because most people think God has an agenda to deny them freedom and thus personal dignity. They see God as a rigid, perhaps grumpy parent who wants his children under strict control. But that is not the nature of the God revealed to us in Jesus. Jesus says that to know him is to know the Father (John 14:9) and that to follow him is not to lose our freedom but to gain it (John 8:36).
Jesus brings us true freedom by sharing with us his humanity (which is true humanity). Highfield comments:
Christ pioneered the way to truly human life in which human beings achieve their deepest potential for freedom…. In Christ we find an identity rooted not in others’ changing thoughts about us but in God’s eternal knowledge of us. Through the Spirit, God enables us to achieve the perfect freedom of life in harmony with our truest identity. (pp. 13, 14)
Rejecting a me-centered identity
The Holy Spirit leads us to seek and embrace our true, God-given identity in Jesus Christ. But doing so inevitably brings us up against the secular worldview of our me-centered age. Highfield comments:
Modern culture denies that one can become an authentic person or experience fulfillment in life by conforming to natural or socially given relationships and roles. Instead we are taught that our self-worth and happiness depend on reconstructing ourselves according to our desires. (p. 17)
In the first chapter of his book, Highfield sketches out the historical journey through which a me-centered conception of personal identify arose and became dominant within Western culture. He examines the thoughts of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Descartes, Locke, Rousseau and others—ideas and ideals that have profoundly shaped the secular, me-centered worldview that now dominates in the Western world. A key element in that worldview is the issue of freewill (self-determinism). As Descartes wrote, “Nothing but freewill can produce our greatest contentment.” In step with that worldview, we moderns want to be able to remake ourselves in any way we choose.
With this ideology fully in place via the Enlightenment, “the stage was set for declaring God completely unnecessary for living a flourishing human life” (p. 28). Over time, this thinking largely prevailed, and individualism and self-determinism won the day. Highfield summarizes:
The modern self is me-centered. Most people are not self-centered in the crass sense of being selfish or narcissistic; nevertheless they locate all values and sources of fulfillment within the self, in its feelings, preferences, thoughts, opinions and wishes. Even when they cannot articulate it this way, they ground the respect they feel for others in such inward qualities as autonomy, inner desires and unique inner depth that requires expression. [To them] it would seem odd to ground respect for others in something extrinsic, such as divine creation or divine love or a divine command. Withholding respect from others because of their choices or desires or ways of self-expression strikes our contemporaries as irrational and hateful. (p. 31)
As a result of this secular worldview, contemporary society has largely lost an ability to meaningfully discuss moral-ethical issues. What passes for rational debate in Western culture often is nothing more than the assertion of personal preferences with no grounding in a realization of the essential elements of human nature and its ultimate goal and purpose (end, or telos). Those who seek to ground such discussions in a Christ-centered worldview are definitely “swimming upstream” against the strong current of a modern, me-centered view of human identity. Highfield comments:
The current moral culture was founded on rejection of the traditional claim that human beings are given their essence and end [telos] by God… Many of our contemporaries exhibit a viscerally negative reaction to assertions of authority, pretense of objectivity or arguments to truth in the moral sphere…. To many people, Christian calls for obedience to the divine law, for repentance and moral transformation sound like recipes for oppression. (p. 38)
Me-centered reactions to God
According to Highfield, the secular Western world of our day tends to react to God (or the idea of God) in one of three ways:
1. Defiance: a reaction grounded in the idea that God and humanity are competitors. This reaction reflects the defiant individualism and self-determinism represented in the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley, which concludes with this stanza:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
2. Subservience: a reaction Highfield calls “default religion.” This reaction involves seeking to give God his due in order to avoid his wrath and secure his favor. Though doing so might feel like serving God, this reaction takes people in a direction that badly misrepresents the nature of God and never brings about the true freedom it seeks. Why? Because it substitutes religion for God, and in that way is idolatrous. The truth of the gospel is that true religion—defined as loving God and loving people—is not about religious subservience, which has to do with self-effort, but about the freedom that comes through true religion, which is a gift from God made available to us in and through Jesus, by the Holy Spirit.
3. Indifference: a reaction that includes atheism, though it is not limited to it. Indifference involves various strategies by which people “immerse themselves in the practical affairs of life, in pleasure seeking or in maintaining an illusory identity” (p. 64).
Our sense of self
Whether the reaction to God is defiance, subservience or indifference, it’s a sad fact that in seeking freedom and dignity for themselves, many (if not most) moderns in the West define the self apart from its relationships with other humans and with the triune God who created us for relationship. In doing so, they ground their sense of worth (and thus their dignity) in all sorts of things. But the reality, which is revealed to us in Holy Scripture, is that our true worth as humans is found in one place only—the love the triune God has for us all. Highfield comments:
We know that God loves us no less than God loves himself, because God does not love us for what we are. God’s love for us is grounded in the Father’s love for the Son…. By loving us with the love of God, God bestows on us the highest dignity conceivable and frees us for the most perfect freedom possible. (pp. 205, 206)
Through the incarnation of the Son of God and by the ministry of the Holy Spirit, our humanity is united to God in the most intimate way. Rather than diminishing our personhood, that union establishes it, for in Jesus Christ we are united both with God and with all people. This union is the source of our true humanity, and thus of our personal freedom and dignity.
We see this personal (“personalizing”) freedom and dignity in the Holy Trinity in which the Father, Son and Holy Spirit find their identity as Persons in the love they share for one another. The same is true for God’s design for humans for we are created in God’s image. God does not define love as independent of others—his love is other-centered. Jesus therefore calls on us to see our neighbor’s good as our own (“love your neighbor as yourself,” he said). As Highfield notes, “The ideal implicit even in human love is a union between persons that rules out competition without erasing distinction” (p. 209).
On this side of glorification, we do not love perfectly. Despite our faith, we still compete, even with the ones we love the most. So how then should we live in the midst of our brokenness on this side of glory? The answer is that we live with, in and through our Lord Jesus, by the Holy Spirit. This is the life of faith, hope and love (1 Cor. 13:13): In faith, we trust in and rely on the perfection of Jesus (including his perfect, glorified humanity). In hope we look forward to the perfection we will one day experience with Christ in a new heaven and new earth. And we receive from God his love by which we love God and other people. In Christ and by the Spirit, we are set free to love and to be loved—free to share in God’s love for all people, ourselves included.
This love is not ours by merely mimicking Jesus. We don’t “love like Jesus loves” in ways that are somehow disconnected from Jesus himself. Instead, we love with, in and through him, by the Spirit. This means that we love others with the love by which God, in Jesus and by the Spirit, is loving us and loving them. Jesus is the source—the fount—and by the Spirit he freely shares with us his perfect, other-centered love for God and for all people. Our true humanity (identity and dignity) is found not in ourselves, but in (and with) him. Highfield concludes his book with this statement:
God is so much for us and we are made so much for God that only by returning ourselves to God utterly may we become truly ourselves and live life to the full. In loving God for God’s sake alone we will find genuine freedom, and in allowing ourselves to be loved by God we will discover our true dignity. (p. 217)
Enlightened by God’s Word and Spirit, we are able to discern that the secular worldview that now dominates much of the Western world is nothing but an illusion—a failed attempt to be like God. We also are able to discern that a Christ-centered worldview is grounded in the reality that the eternal Son of God, in the person of Jesus, has entered into the human condition, has overcome our fallenness, and opened to us the possibility to be who we truly are in him—our true selves, beloved children of God.
As this series of Equipper articles on the topic of worldview conversion unfolds, we’ll examine more closely the distinctions between a secular and a Christ-centered worldview. We’ll also examine various ethical issues, not merely to gain knowledge, but so that we can minister within the world in ways that are real participation in the disciple-making work that Jesus, by the Holy Spirit, is now doing.
If you would like to learn more about worldview, worldview conversion, Christian ethics and whole-life discipleship, we suggest these resources:
For a detailed summary of Ron Highfield’s book, click here to begin reading a series of articles by Ted Johnston on The Surprising God blog.
For a short video titled “What is a Worldview,” click here.
For a short video titled, “What’s Your Worldview,” click here.
For a video of a Veritas lecture on worldview by Dallas Willard, click here.
For a series of Thrive studies for teens on the topic of worldview click here.
Healthy Church: Faith, Hope & Love Venues
In recent travels visiting GCI conferences and congregations around the world, I’ve been addressing our vision for Healthy Church. A key aspect of realizing that vision is having in place within each of our congregations what we call the “faith, hope & love venues”—places where, by the Spirit, church health emerges. Below is a “church hack” (click to enlarge) followed by explanatory text that looks at each venue. I ask that you prayerfully study this material and discuss it with your leaders. —Greg Williams
When all three venues are in place and operating well, the members of the congregation, experiencing deep relationships with Christ and each other, will be active missional participants in what Christ, by the Holy Spirit, is doing both within the congregation and out to the world (for a diagram in the GCI Ministry Toolbox that defines what we mean by missional,click here). Let’s look at each venue in a discipleship pathway sequence:
The Love Venue
This aspect of healthy church has to do with incarnational connections forged between the congregation and the community that surrounds its place of meeting. The love venue is about lovingly engaging the community through acts of service that demonstrate God’s unconditional, extravagant love for all people, unbelievers included. A healthy church has well-developed, balanced programs by which they help unchurched people within their congregation’s target community experience the truth of the gospel. The love venue in a healthy church has these key elements:
A target community: a healthy church has identified its target community —unchurched people who live near where the congregation meets. The target community is well-matched to the gifts/resources of the congregation. Some congregations will decide to move and relaunch in order to meet in the midst of their target community that they are able to connect with and therefore serve well. (For more about identifying and connecting with a target community, click here).
Regular outreach: the congregation actively serves the target community by holding regular outreach events that always have a clear, intentional connection back to the life of the congregation.
Aligned programming: the congregation aligns all its programs with its disciple-making vision (related to its target community) lived out through a clearly-defined discipleship pathway strategy. That vision and strategy is undergirded by the congregation’s actual (not merely aspirational) values.
The Hope Venue
This aspect of healthy church has to do with the congregation’s Sunday worship service, which by being inclusive, engenders hope for all participants—regular attenders and guests; young and old. With this goal in mind, the congregation provides an environment within the weekly worship service that focuses primarily on inspiration (with a focus on Jesus), not mere information. This environment results from the following key elements:
Warm hospitality: a healthy church has a hospitality team (including greeters and ushers) that welcomes guests and points them to steps they can take on the congregation’s discipleship pathway (see the love venue). This element also includes a children’s ministry, new member classes, etc. (For more about implementing a greeter ministry, click here).
Dynamic preaching: inspiring, Christ-centered preaching that connects the gospel to the lives of members and guests from the target community. (For the distinction between teaching and preaching, click here).
Inspirational, gospel-focused worship that stirs the affections of both members and guests, pointing them toward the triune God through Scripture reading, singing, praying, receiving of offerings, and sharing the Lord’s Supper. (For a recommended order of service that fulfills these goals, click here, for instructions concerning the offering, click here).
The Faith Venue
This aspect of healthy church has to do with the congregation’s small groups where intentional discipleship occurs. In these small groups, both believers and seekers are nurtured in the faith and thus helped to grow spiritually, including being equipped for participation in the disciple-making work of the church.
The faith venue in a healthy church has these key elements:
Regular, relationally-focused meetings: places where members and interested guests can meet regularly to build relationships and grow spiritually. (For more about small groups, click here and see the small group facilitator training videos at FaithTalk Equipper).
Small in size: the groups are small enough that relational bonding and life-on-life discipling can occur.
Provision of personal services: the faith venue includes providing various “one-anothering” services to members and guests including counseling and personal visits.
Prayer Guide: August 2018
Here is the Prayer Guide for August (click on the image to download):
Kids Korner: Back-to-School Blessing
Kid’s Korner this month is from Georgia McKinnon.
It’s the time of year when churches may want to offer a “Back-to-School Blessing” event for the kids (children and teens) and teachers in their congregation and target community. If you’ve never held an event like this, you may wonder what one would look like. Or you may be asking why you would want to hold an event like this.
The “why” of having a Back-to-School Blessing is directly tied to the “who” question we often ask: “Who is this God we serve?” The answer is that this God is a blessing God—a good God who blesses. He shares his blessing with us and calls on us to share his blessing with others.
Throughout the Bible we see this blessing theme. In the Old Testament, God promises to bless Abram (Abraham) and that in turn he (Abraham) would be a blessing to others, ultimately the whole world (Genesis 12:2). In the New Testament, Paul offers praise to God in Ephesians, acknowledging that Jesus has “blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). Paul continues in this passage to list specific things God has done in Jesus as blessings to us. Why? Because he is a blessing God!
Since we serve a good God who blesses, we can participate in his blessing work by intentionally finding ways to bless others. In this work of blessing others, we are wrapped up in the loop of blessing that the Triune God shares with us. As we share in his blessing life, we become witnesses to the God who has so richly blessed us in Jesus Christ.
The shape of a Back-to-School Blessing event can vary greatly, depending on your context and what you are trying to achieve. It could be as simple as calling all the children and teachers (school teachers and Sunday school teachers) together during a worship service to ask a blessing over them for the upcoming school year. This can be worked into your church service in many ways. It could also be more involved by adding an outreach component leading up to the event, like coordinating a collection and distribution of school supplies to children in need in the community.
In both activities, you can invite others in the community to participate, either in the Blessing Service, the service project, or both. There may be additional opportunities in your community that arise as the new school year approaches where the Spirit may be leading you to participate.
No matter what shape your event may take, if you choose to have one, a Back-to-School Blessing not only becomes a blessing for others, but it serves as a witness of our blessing God as revealed in Jesus Christ, and the hope we have living in communion with him.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 13:13)
Sermon for September 2, 2018
Scripture Readings: Deut. 4:1-2, 6-9; Ps. 15;
James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Sermon by Sheila Graham
from Deuteronomy 4, Mark 7 and James 1
(drawing from the Expositor's Bible Commentary)
Embracing True Freedom
According to popular legend, just over 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, German priest and theologian Martin Luther defiantly nailed a copy of his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church, sparking the Protestant Reformation.
For many years, Luther had tried hard to be righteous in order to avoid suffering God’s wrath. He fasted so often he permanently damaged his body; he caused himself physical pain by lashing himself. He kept the other priests busy with his constant confessions. He took the admonition to fear God very seriously. He was terrified of God and God’s punishment.
But then everything changed as the Spirit led Luther in a deep study of Scripture where he came to the realization that the righteousness he had been seeking was a gift of God’s grace. He learned that nothing he could do, no matter how rigorous, would achieve that righteousness. He went on to share far and wide his understanding that freedom from guilt and sin comes from Jesus Christ, not from obedience to any rule, practice, or law.
Through Luther’s writings, many people began to understand and embrace what true freedom in Jesus Christ means.
Freedom is not easy to understand
What Luther came to understand about freedom in Christ was not well-received. It is not an easy concept to understand. In Luther’s day and continuing down to our day, many religious leaders attach lots of rules and regulations to the simple gospel message of Jesus Christ.
Even in the first century, it was difficult for some of the early Christians to understand. Part of the reason was because many of them had come out of Judaism with its many laws and traditions (some of us can relate to that!). Let’s see why it was so difficult for them to understand and fully accept their freedom in Christ.
Look at how these people had been taught through the generations. Moses and the Law were their guides. Moses was dogmatic about obedience to the Law:
Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you. (Deut. 4:1-2, NRSV)
Not only were the people of Israel to keep the Law in their lifetimes, the laws, commandments, statutes and ordinances that made up the Law of Moses were to be taught to their children as well, so they would be passed down through the generations to come. Look at verse 9:
Take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children… (Deut. 4:9, NRSV)
Jesus’ freedom is suspect to legalists
After being schooled from childhood in the Law, freedom in Christ was not easy for these early Jewish Christians to understand. Not only did they have the Law given by Moses, the Jewish religious leaders over the years had tacked on more laws, rules and traditions as well.
They made a point to closely watch Jesus and his followers to see if they were following all the rules and traditions. After all, how could these religious types measure and compare how righteous they were with others without all these rules to go by? They were quick to condemn. But Jesus saw right through their self-righteousness:
When the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (Mark 7:1-5, NRSV)
How did Christ respond? Not as they might have expected:
He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” (Mark 7:6-8, NRSV)
Jesus called these religious leaders out for their hypocrisy. He knew their hearts. And he knew while they might carefully measure out a tithe of mint or cumin, they didn’t keep God’s commandments to love God and their neighbors.
Jesus didn’t just ignore what the Pharisees and scribes had said about ritual washings, either. He made a point to get the crowd’s attention and explain to them what really defiles a person:
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile…. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:14-15, NRSV; Mark 7:21-23, NRSV)
Jesus enumerated what evil really consisted of—not what people eat or how they dress or wash or anything outside a person, but from the evil that comes from what Jesus refers to as the human heart. No amount of washing can cleanse that evil. The righteous live by faith in Christ and his sacrifice.
Freedom is by faith in Jesus, not works
In Romans and Galatians, the apostle Paul refers to Abraham as “the father of the faithful.” He cites Abraham’s example of the righteousness of faith—that’s the only response needed from us to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. This is a righteousness—a right relationship with God—which comes by faith alone, not by works of the law. Even that faith, by which we stand rightly related to God, is his gift through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Does that mean obedience to God is not necessary for Christians? No, we know better. That is not the freedom in Christ Paul was preaching.
Paul teaches there is an obedience to God that faith produces (In Romans 1, Paul calls it “the obedience that comes from faith”)—an obedience through the Spirit, grounded in faith in God and motivated by love for God, not fear. This obedience is about keeping Christ’s commands to love God and to love one another. It is our grateful response to God’s overwhelming love for us.
James also refers to this obedience that comes through faith. He calls it “the law of liberty.” He also calls it “the perfect law.” Why use those terms?Perhaps because James is wanting to be sure his readers don’t confuse Christ’s commandments to love God and one another with the old dos and don’ts of the Law of Moses. In like manner, Paul, in Romans 7, taught that though the Law of Moses was “holy,” is lacked something (Romans 7:12, 18-19). What was it lacking? Christ and his grace!
It’s also possible that James was combining the words law and liberty in order to show an overall picture of God’s truth as expounded throughout the Old and New Testaments. The old law was the teacher that led us to Jesus, but only by Christ’s free gift of grace can we be obedient to him, thus keeping his law of love. Notice what else James says:
Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.” (James 1:22-25, NRSV)
In summation, Jesus came to bring us truth, a truth that frees us from the old law and gives us his law of grace and liberty. Jesus said his truth makes us free. Let’s read what Jesus said about the freedom he gives:
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32, NRSV)
But much like some today, they questioned the freedom that Christ offered. They didn’t realize they were in slavery to sin:
Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:34-36, NRSV)
Jesus was talking about a different type of slavery, the kind that any of us can be and have been a slave to. Only through the love, sacrifice and forgiveness of Jesus are we set free from sin.
When he freed us from sin, Jesus made us free to be who we truly are in him. We can quit being like the Pharisees by trying to look and act “religious.” We can admit we still make mistakes, and yet have the full confidence that Jesus forgives us and loves us anyway. And, you know what? When we realize we’re not all that perfect, we’ll be less likely to judge others, and as a result, they will feel more comfortable around us.
Knowing that God loves us and forgives us, we’re free to bear fruit for God. Free to love God and to love others. Free to be, as James says, Christian doers, not just hearers. Christians who recognize they are not perfect, and who can focus on others and their needs instead of their own shortcomings. How can people not like that?
When people feel you like them and don’t judge them, they are comfortable around you. That gives you the opportunity to show God’s love to them. When Jesus says he has made us free, he means it. The shackles are removed. Our sins are forgiven. We are free indeed. That’s an amazing truth we can share with others.
Sermon for September 9, 2018
Scripture Readings: Isa. 35:4-7; Ps. 146;
James 2:1-13, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37
Sermon by Linda Rex
from Mark 7 and Isaiah 35
Hearing and Speaking the Word
Stories about animals that talk and understand humans are fun and fascinating for children and adults alike. Perhaps that’s because God created us for relationship. We see our dog’s tail wagging and wish he could tell us what he is so happy about. We wonder, why does our cat meow loudly every time she gets done eating? Is she saying thank you? Is she praising God?
Jesus honors the faith of a Gentile woman
Perhaps in the world to come we will have an answer to these questions. In the meantime, we can learn something from the story in today’s Gospel reading concerning a Gentile woman who apparently enjoyed her pets.
[Read Mark 7:24-30 if it has not already been read in the Scripture reading.]
Jesus has removed himself from Galilee and come to the largely Gentile area that included the cities of Tyre and Sidon. He was hoping to remain in the background, unnoticed by the people. Well, that’s not how it worked out. He had become known as a great miracle worker and though he told those who witnessed the miracles to not let word get out, they refused to be silent. Jesus was not able to escape being noticed, even in this Gentile region. It was only a matter of time before Jesus was accosted by someone wanting something from him. In this case, it was a Syrophoenician woman—a Gentile. She kept asking Jesus to heal her little daughter of an unclean spirit. He responded with a statement which at first could seem rather insensitive to someone in her situation: “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” The word “dogs” does not necessarily point to the Gentiles but was often used in the sense of wild dogs or scavengers.
Nevertheless, she seemed to have a sweet spirit and a quick wit. She took Jesus’ figurative language and used it to express the heart of a kind and gracious parent: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs.” The nuances of the Greek here are lost in the English translation. In Greek, the diminutive is used so that it might have better been said, “Yes, Lord, but even the little dogs (or household pets) eat the children’s crumbs under the table while the family eats.” Her words express the idea of a warm family meal, with children and pets at the table gathered in love and harmony.
What she expressed, probably without even knowing it, was the heart of Abba—God the Father’s heart not just for his children, but for every creature under his care. Indeed, this is a description of life within the Trinity—a relationship of warm fellowship and companionship.
It seems that this woman trusted that there was enough love and grace and power available in Jesus to heal her daughter even after he first tended to the needs of his disciples and the Jewish people he was sent to serve. In her quick wit and persistent effort, Jesus saw a faith that he did not see in the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders he had been speaking with in the past few days. In her he saw an understanding of who he was as the Messiah—the one who heals, restores and frees from evil.
Jesus, seeing her faith, told her that her daughter was healed. So, she went home and discovered that indeed, this was the case. Her daughter had been healed at that very moment. Jesus had not only healed the little girl—he had also restored the family circle. The family could again sit together at a meal with their pets and enjoy sweet companionship and fellowship. The longing of this woman’s heart was fulfilled in Jesus’ gracious response to her persistent requests and her faith.
Jesus heals a deaf and mute man
Mark then tells us that Jesus moved on from Tyre and Sidon to the region of the Decapolis. There he encountered a man who was deaf and mute.
[Read Mark 7:31-37 if it has not already been read in the Scripture reading.]
In many ways this man was an illustration of the Jewish people who Jesus had been sent to—they refused to hear Jesus, and they were incorrectly speaking the word of God. Earlier, Jesus had challenged the Pharisees and scribes with inaccurately teaching the Holy Scriptures:
Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: “This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men…. You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. (Mark 7:6-9, NASB)
Jesus knew the scribes and Pharisees were giving the people wrong ideas about who God is and about what it means to live in relationship with God. Their emphasis on Jewish tradition and on meticulous law-keeping were coming between the people and the God who loved them.
God’s law was meant to be an expression of the inner relations of God as Father, Son and Spirit. God’s people were meant to share in the peace, harmony and oneness of God’s love and life. A relationship with God is not about mere religion or a group of rules to follow. The law of God expresses a way of being—God’s way of Being—the way of covenant love. It shows us how we may be off the mark in our relationships with God and others.
The Jewish leaders also refused to acknowledge the truth about who Jesus was. Their insistence on keeping their positions of power and influence rather than acknowledging Jesus as being Israel’s Messiah was evidence of their deafness. Jesus said to them:
That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man. (Mark 7:20-23, NASB)
They were blind to this truth about themselves—about the condition of their hearts and their need to repent. On the one hand they would insist on meticulous law-keeping—no healing on the Sabbath, for example—and then on the other, immediately go out and begin to plot Jesus’ death.
Jesus was pointing out that they were not living in the truth of their being as made in the image of God—not living up to their calling to love God wholeheartedly and to love their neighbor as themselves.
Jesus was initially sent to his brothers and sisters, the Jews, and he reminded his disciples and others of that fact. Yet, the Jews refused to hear him. They even sought to destroy him. Ironically, it was the Gentiles, whom the Jews despised and rejected, who welcomed Jesus and sought him out. A gentile woman who all the Jewish leaders despised and looked down upon, was the one who acknowledged who Jesus was, and was humble enough to place herself at his mercy and ask him for help. She was willing to throw all she counted on to the wind and put her trust in Jesus, trusting him to show her grace and compassion, and to heal her little girl.
Going back to our story, Jesus took this deaf and mute man aside into a private place and began to show him what he was going to do. He put his fingers in his ears, spit and touched his tongue, then looked up to heaven in the common stance of a Jew in prayer and with a deep sigh, breathed out the word, “Ephphatha” meaning “Be opened!”
Poured into the deep sigh as he breathed this word was no doubt his heartfelt desire that all deaf ears be opened to hear and all tied-up tongues be freed to speak. He knew that he would soon pay a hefty price for this release, this healing. But Jesus walked the road to the cross freely and joyfully on our behalf. His heart, which fully reflects the heart of Abba his Father and ours, is that everyone be able to hear, understand and speak the truth about who God is and who we are as his beloved, adopted children.
Each of us is made in the image of God to reflect his likeness—we are created to love and to be loved, to live in the perichoretic dance of mutual service and outgoing concern in which God dwells as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But as God’s creatures, we are so unlike God in our humanity. We struggle to comprehend just who God is and who we are. Our bent is to turn our eyes from the truth and to close our ears—making ourselves blind and deaf to the truth, or twisting it in agreement with Satan’s lies.
This is why God came to us in the Person of Jesus Christ, in the incarnate Son of God. Christ entered our humanity so we could understand the truth about who God is. In Hebrews 1:1-3 (NASB), we read that “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son.” This Son, Jesus Christ, is God in human flesh—the exact representation of God’s being. When we look at Jesus, we see the Father. God wanted us to hear the truth about his love for us and so he spoke to us in a way we could understand—he gave us Jesus—God in human flesh.
Jesus did not turn away the outcasts. He did not refuse to help those who could not help themselves. He healed the Gentile woman’s daughter without even speaking a command—it was so because he made it so, because he was compassionate and understanding, because he is Lord of all.
In a more demonstrative way, Jesus healed the deaf and mute man. In doing so, Jesus used signs the man could understand so he could participate in his own healing. This healing gave clear evidence that Jesus was the Messiah prophesied by Isaiah with these words:
Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with anxious hearts, “Take courage, fear not. Behold, your God will come with vengeance; the recompense of God will come, but He will save you.” Then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will shout for joy. For waters will break forth in the wilderness and streams in the Arabah. The scorched land will become a pool and the thirsty ground springs of water. (Isaiah 35:3-7a, NASB)
Jesus did what only God could do—casting out an unclean spirit from a little girl, healing a deaf person’s ears, and enabling a mute person to speak and shout for joy. The reason Jesus was able to do these miracles was because of who he was—God in human flesh. He was the long-awaited Messiah, but he came as a humble Servant, not a conquering king.
His purpose was to redeem and restore our broken fellowship with his Abba. He came into our humanity so we could begin to grasp and understand who his Father was, and what it meant to be embraced by God’s covenant love. The Word of God, Abba’s one unique Son, took on our human flesh, lived our life, and died our death, thereby sharing in every aspect of our broken and sinful humanity. He took our brokenness and sin right through death into resurrection. He gave us healing and new life, delivering us from sin, Satan, and death.
This is the gift, the grace God has given us in Jesus—the gift of eternal life—life in loving relationship with our Triune God both now and forever. Our life in Christ is a life that reflects the very being of God as Father, Son and Spirit. In Christ, we are included by faith in the warm, loving family fellowship at God’s table. The Spirit calls you and me to believe and embrace the truth of our being—that we are God’s beloved, adopted children, healed and made whole in Jesus, God’s Son. Will we receive and by faith embrace that gift?
Let us pray [introducing Communion]:
Heavenly Father, thank you for all your blessed and perfect gifts, for your love and grace expressed to us in Jesus. We thank you for the new life, healing, and wholeness that we can participate in right now through your Holy Spirit. We come joyfully to your table in gratitude and praise through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
Sermon for September 16, 2018
Scripture Readings: Prov. 1:20-23; Ps. 116:1-9;
James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38
Sermon by Lance McKinnon
from James 3:1-12
A Word Fitly Spoken
In his epistle, James, the half brother of Jesus, begins by seeking to strengthen the faith of Christians going through difficult trials. Then in the section of the letter covered in today’s reading, he warns his readers against relying on their own abilities (including the use of their tongues) during those trials, rather than relying on Jesus.
In James 3:1, he tells them to not envy teachers who may be perceived as having more influence. Teachers use their tongue for their trade and there is real weight and responsibility that comes with that. What’s more, nobody is perfect in controlling their tongue. So, if someone wants a position where they think using their tongue will give them control over their troubles, they may find in the end that this will only make matters worse.
James’ point is that it is toward the perfection of Christ that God is leading us. Already in James 1:2-4, he has stated that this is God’s purpose in allowing our trials. Perhaps James’ point now is that followers of Jesus should trust in the Father’s working through their trials rather than relying on the use of their tongues to get themselves out of those trials. In making this point, James gives three illustrations that show the enormous power of the tongue. First he gives two illustrations concerning the positive power of the tongue: a small bit in the mouth of a large horse, and the small rudder on a large ship (James 3:2-4). Both illustrate how the tongue can direct and determine the destination of large things for good.
He then uses the metaphor of fire to illustrate the destructive power of the tongue (James 3:5-6). James’ point is that we need to be rescued from the destructive consequences of trusting in the divided tongue of the serpent instead of trusting in the Word of God.
Jesus, the Living Word of God, is our rescue. He is the “tongue” that speaks on our behalf. Jesus is the final word of judgment on the destructive fire that has been consuming the world and poisoning our souls.
The Word of God in the smallness of crucifixion and death directs and determines the final destination of the entire world. Jesus is the bit and the rudder that brings us all safely home. It is in this final victory spoken by the Word of God on the cross and through the resurrection of the Word from the tomb that we are set free to use our tongues to be a blessing rather than to be a source of destruction.
As we participate in the Word spoken to us and for us, we find that we have been set free to be the source of the kind of speech that is truly a blessing, and not a curse. It is fitting and proper for our words to be words of blessing, seeing that we are created in and connected to Jesus.
Ultimately, we see that the word fitly spoken from our tongues is our Amen to the Father’s Word. We agree with his Word of blessing to us, who is none other than Jesus Christ.
Sermon for September 23, 2018
Scripture Readings: Prov. 31:10-11; Ps. 54;
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37
Sermon by Martin Manuel
from Mark 9: 30-37: Prov. 31:10; Prov. 9:10; James 3:13-16
Restoring Humility to our Humanity
Though we all possess the corrupt, fallen human nature that resulted from Adam and Eve’s rejection of God, there is good news: The eternal Son of God, in the person of Jesus, entered into the human condition, assumed our corrupt nature, and through his life of perfect submission to the Father overcame its fallenness, opening to all humans the possibility to be who they truly are in him—their true selves, beloved children of God.
Now, through the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit, God works to conform believers to the true humanity that is found in Jesus. One of the beautiful characteristics of that humanity is true humility—a quality in short supply in our self-centered, prideful world.
Our Scripture readings today speak to the restoration of that humility, and in this sermon we’ll see three ways in which we cooperate with what the Holy Spirit is doing to form that humility in us: 1) embrace our identity in Jesus, 2) live in the fear the Lord, and 3) practice the wisdom from above.
Embrace our identity in Jesus
In Mark 9 we read of the time following Jesus’ transfiguration. Rejoining the disciples who were not with him on the mountain, Jesus took them on a retreat where he could share some important truths:
They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” (Mark 9:30-31)
Though what Jesus was saying was important, his disciples did not understand, and were afraid to ask (v. 32). To admit we don’t understand can be humiliating, and if we’re competing with others, we may not want to disclose our lack of understanding. Perhaps that was what was going on here with the disciples. Jesus sensed this and waited until the end of the trip to take up the conversation again.
As they came to Capernaum, Jesus asked, “‘What were you arguing about on the road?’ But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest” (Mark 9:33-34). Like children caught misbehaving, the disciples sheepishly withheld their reply. But Jesus knew what they were arguing about, and patiently taught them a vital lesson about leadership in the kingdom of God: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
In human organizations, those who are ambitious often expend tremendous energy climbing to top positions of leadership, where they exercise authority over those below them. Those being ruled serve the ruler, who dictates everything the people do. This autocratic style of leadership is designed to benefit the leader, not the people. Those serving are considered less important than the leader, although often they do the important tasks necessary for the organization while the leader does little besides dictating.
To illustrate the backwardness of this worldly style of leadership, Jesus took a nearby little child into his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37).
A child small enough to be cuddled in the arms of an adult is weak compared to an adult who tends to find it easy to consider the child of little importance. But Jesus illustrated a different attitude—one in which the adult sees the child as important because of the one who gives the child its identity. Jesus is that one.
This lesson brings to light a radical concept: seeing ourselves and other humans, even the smallest and weakest, through the lens of their identity given them by Jesus Christ, their Creator and Redeemer. This perspective is radical because human worth is usually associated with things like stature, appearance, intelligence, wealth, authority, and social standing. From Jesus’ vantage point, the only real standard of measurement of human value and importance is who that person is in relation to him—their Creator, Redeemer and Lord.
When our identity is in Jesus Christ, we express confidence in him, not in ourselves. When our identity is in Jesus Christ, we don’t have to bother with comparisons with other people. We are freed to see ourselves as we actually are—small and weak, dependent on our Lord for everything. From this vantage point, our lives are not about pursuing personal ambitions, not about status and glory. Instead, our lives are in him, with him and for him.
Jesus used a little child not only to teach his disciples about servant-leadership, but also about humility. Note how he associates humility with our true identity in him. Ultimately, it is getting a true understanding of our identity in Christ that restores in us the childlike humility that is so essential, so endearing.
Live in the fear of the Lord
Another important shaper of humility is highlighted in today’s Old Testament reading in Proverbs 31. The topic is the woman of “noble character” (Prov. 31:10, NIV) called the “virtuous woman” in the KJV. Why is she virtuous? Several reasons are mentioned, but first and foremost, she “fears the Lord” (Prov. 31:30). What does that mean? The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology answers:
“The fear of the Lord” does not mean being afraid of God. Rather, it is a reverential trust in God that makes us want to please and obey him. And yet there is a wholesome feeling of being sure that we do not disobey or displease him… Fear as a preventative has value. But fright or terror has no place in the Christian life, at least in his relationship with God.
The lifestyles of those whose choices reflect a humble regard for God’s lordship over them are the opposite of those who, in their haughtiness, refuse to consider God to be the Lord of their lives. Humble submission marks one; proud self-determination the other. That is why dozens of passages in the Psalms and Proverbs encourage the fear of the Lord, including Proverbs 9:10, which says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” It is through this “reverential trust”—this realization of our dependence on God—that we receive and respond to his grace toward us.
Practice the wisdom from above
The wisdom we speak of here is not about mere human intelligence or experience. As we read in James, there is a difference between wisdom from above and wisdom that is earthly:
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. (James 3:13-15)
James’ contrast of these two types of wisdom reinforces the admonitions in Psalms and Proverbs about the lifestyle differences between those who fear the Lord and those who do not. One comes across as gentle, the other bitter like poison. Think again about the beauty of a seemingly innocent little child, and what it is that draws such a warm response from those who interact with the child. Is it not the quality of humility?
Those who disregard God often think they are too savvy to fall for what they consider religious superstition. Theirs is the arrogance of the child who thinks it knows more than his or her parents! Such counterfeit wisdom is rooted in demonic minds. It infects otherwise rational, intelligent-minded people, deceiving everyone not experiencing the gracious restoration given by the Father, Son and Spirit. The result is a world grasping for power, wealth, status and glory. That world despises the adult who exhibits wisdom from above:
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. (James 3:16)
Pure? Peaceable? Gentle? Willing to yield? Anyone who exhibits these qualities in this world is likely to be told, “Grow up!” Such qualities might be appreciated in a young child, but they typically are not respected in adults. That’s why James calls it “wisdom from above”—it’s not of this earth. It does not come from corrupt human nature.
James asserts in the first part of chapter 4 that it is due to worldly attitudes that there is human conflict at all levels. Whether in the home, among neighbors, within churches, or on battlefields between nations, the root causes are related to human pride and lust. Thus, James concludes with this strong advice: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).
The Jamieson Fausset Brown Commentary says this concerning the word proud: “The Greek means in derivation one who shows himself above his fellows, and so lifts himself against God.” This is the same sinful attitude, which came from the devil and infected the demons. No wonder it is so dangerous to us!
God resists the proud because sinful pride has no place in his peaceable kingdom. This does not mean that God withholds all grace from unrepentant, prideful humans. Jesus said his Father makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45). The Father sent Jesus to save, not condemn, the world. The context of James 4 explains that the grace given to the humble is a special grace. In the first part of Matthew 5, the Beatitudes address this grace—special blessings that take place in the realm of the kingdom of God, not in this world. Jesus spoke these beautiful words of blessing and those who hear them can be sure that Jesus modeled the attitudes and behaviors he was advocating. His presence on earth said all that needs to be said about humility.
Are we willing to yield to God as he works to transform us into the likeness of Christ where we reflect his characteristic humility—a humility expressive of the wisdom from above? Sadly, that wisdom is typically ridiculed by the world. Jesus’ apostles would likely not rise to prominence were they living in today’s prideful, egocentric world. Why? Because, through the indwelling Spirit, they shared in Jesus’s perfected humanity, which includes his humility.
As we too yield to the transforming work of the Spirit, Jesus’ humility will shine through us more and more. May the transforming grace of the Father, Son, and Spirit work in us as we 1) embrace our identity in Christ, 2) live in the fear of the Lord, and 3) practice the wisdom from above.
Sermon for September 30, 2018
Scripture Readings: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Ps. 124;
James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
Sermon by Ted Johnston
from James 5:13-20
Drawing from commentary by Warren Wiersbe (Bible Exposition Commentary), Peter H. Davids (New Bible Commentary)
and Luke Timothy Johnson (James, Anchor Bible).
Let Us Pray!
In today’s reading in the Epistles, James, the half-brother of Jesus, is wrapping up his letter to Christians. In doing so, he returns to one of his main themes: the power of the tongue. Having already mentioned that the tongue can be used for evil, he now shows how to use it for good by praying for those who are suffering, for those who are sick, for the nation, and for believers who have wandered. There are, of course, other prayer needs, but these four are particularly important ways for us to participate, by the Spirit, in the prayer life of Jesus. Let’s look at each one.
1. Pray for those who are suffering
Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. (James 5:13a)
When we face trouble, how do we respond? A typical human response is to complain and even lash out at God and other people. But James says we should instead pray—asking God for his wisdom to understand our situation and to use it to his glory (also see James 1:5).
Prayer may lead to the removal of our trouble, if that is God’s will. But prayer may also lead to the grace to endure our trouble and use it to accomplish God’s will in our lives. Indeed, in the midst of our trouble, God may “give us more grace” (James 4:6).
This was the case for Paul when he prayed that God would remove a terrible trial in his life, but instead, God gave him grace to endure it—turning his weakness into strength (2 Cor. 12:7–10). It was also the case for Jesus, who in Gethsemane prayed that his cup of suffering might be removed, yet it was not. Instead, the Father gave him grace needed to go to the cross for us.
Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. (James 5:13b)
Of course, not all Christians are currently going through trials. Some are experiencing blessings. God allows in our lives both suffering and joy and mature Christians respond in faith to either. They even singwhile suffering, as Paul and Silas did in their Philippian jail cell.
2. Pray for those who are sick
Sickness is a common form of trouble experienced by all human beings, believers included. James encourages sick believers to not only pray for themselves, but to ask others to pray for them. What James says here reflects certain cultural practices of his day and should probably not be taken as a formula to be followed verbatim in the church in all times and cultures. Let’s note the specifics and draw some principles that apply to us.
The role of elders
Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him… (James 5:14a)
Why call the elders? Frequently James rails against the wealthy and powerful who abuse the weak. This must not be so in the church. James makes it clear that church leaders (elders) are to be servants of all. The weak and sick in the church should expect church leaders to reach out to them with compassion in time of need. However, this does not mean that the sick must call on the elders or that only elders are authorized to pray for the sick. We should all pray for those in need, and non-elders may certainly exercise ministries of prayer for the sick.
The role of anointing with oil
…to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord… (James 5:14b)
The Greek word here translated “anoint” is a medicinal term. James may be suggesting the use of medical means for healing along with asking God for supernatural healing. God can heal with or without such means; but in any case, it is God who does the healing. In that culture, oil was a universal medicine—applied both internally and externally. It thus became a symbol of God’s healing touch—an appropriate symbol to be utilized to accompany prayers for deliverance from all sorts of ailments. But anointing the sick in prayer should not be seen as a commanded practice. Some churches use it and some do not, and people have experienced divine healing both with anointing and with prayer without anointing, In GCI, our practice is for our elders to anoint sick people with oil when they pray for their healing.
The role of forgiveness in healing
…the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. (James 5:14c)
Here James is apparently referring to a sinning church member who is sick because they are being disciplined by God. This may be the specific reason that the elders (who had responsibility for administering church discipline) were being called in: the person cannot go to church to confess their sin, so the elders need to go to them. In any case, this should not be taken as an indication that all illness is the direct result of the sick person’s sin. It may be (and if it is, the sin should be confessed), but it may not be. In some cases the sickness may be because of someone else’s sin.
When healing is needed for the whole community
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. (James 5:16)
The word “therefore” is important: “Confess your sins therefore to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (alternative translation). In this situation, sickness was the result of habitual sin, so the healing would come through the confession of that sin. Note as well that the sickness brought about by this sin was not only that of the individual but of the whole community. Here the word “you” (“you may be healed”) is plural. The community will experience healing through the exercise of prayer accompanied by the confession of sin.
It is not confession of sin that ‘earns’ healing, but healing here included reconciliation that comes through appropriate confession of sin that is impacting the whole community and through prayer of “righteous” people—people who are rightly related to God and to one another. In this way, healing is a community event.
Healing and “prayer offered in faith”
And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. (James 5:15)
Prayer for healing is effective when offered in faith (confident trust in God). This is so because it is not anointing or prayer that heals, but God. The apostle John notes the importance of confidently trusting God:
This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him. (1 John 5:14-15)
A “prayer offered in faith” is one offered in assurance of God’s will in the matter. Here James calls elders to seek together God’s will for the sick and sinning person and to pray for that individual accordingly. Note that James’ example is not of oneindividual praying for the sick person, but of the whole body of elders praying together on behalf of the whole church.
As we seek God in prayer on behalf of those who are sick, we may not be able to know the specifics of God’s will for them. But it is always appropriate to pray, “Lord, if it is your will, heal your child.” Those who claim that God heals every time, and that it is never his will that his children suffer illness, deny both Scripture and 2,000 years of Christian experience.
3. Pray for the nation
Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. (James 5:17-18)
Here Elijah is given as an example of a “righteous man” whose prayers released power. The background is 1 Kings 17–18 where wicked King Ahab and Jezebel, his queen, had led Israel away from the Lord and into the worship of Baal. God punished the nation by holding back the rain for 3 1/2 years. Then Elijah challenged the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel. All day long the priests cried out to their god, but no answer came. At the time of the evening sacrifice, Elijah repaired the altar and prepared the sacrifice. He prayed only once, and fire came from heaven to consume the sacrifice. He had proven that Jehovah was the true God.
But the nation still needed rain. Elijah went to the top of Carmel and fell down before the Lord in prayer. He prayed and sent his servant seven times to see if there was evidence of rain; and the seventh time his servant saw a little cloud. Before long, there was a great rain, and the nation was saved.
Does the nation we live in today need God’s blessing? Of course. “But” we might argue, “Elijah was a special prophet of God.” To that James replies, “Elijah was a man just like us” (James 5:17)—he was not perfect; in fact, right after his victory on Mt. Carmel, Elijah became afraid and discouraged and ran away. “But,” we reply, “he was a ‘righteous man.'” But so are we, for our righteousness is not our own, but Christ’s, and our prayers are given through him, and the faith is his. Prayer for whole nations is the privilege of all of God’s children, not just some imagined “spiritual elite.”
Elijah prayed in faith, for God told him he would send the rain (1 Kings 18:1). You cannot separate the word of God and prayer, for in his word God tells us his will—he defines his promises, which we then claim confidently in prayer.
Elijah, in praying, not only believed; he was also persistent. “He prayed” and “again he prayed” (James 5:17–18). We sometimes give up in prayer too quickly. It’s true that we are not heard “for our much praying” (Matt. 6:7); but there is a difference between vain repetition and believing persistence in prayer. Jesus prayed three times in the Garden, and Paul prayed three times that his thorn in the flesh might be taken from him. We should not hesitate to ask and keep asking that God’s will be done.
Elijah “prayed earnestly” (James 5:17). The literal sense of the Greek text is “he prayed in prayer.” Sometimes we don’t really pray in our prayers. Maybe we haphazardly recite religious-sounding words, but our hearts are not in it. But “tremendous power is made available through a good man’s earnest prayer” (James 5:16, Phillips translation). Elijah, a good, but not a perfect man (just like us), prayed for his nation, and God answered. Let us pray for our communities and whole nation too—pray that God will bring conviction and revival, and that “showers of blessing” will come. Paul says that one of the first responsibilities of a church is to pray for government leaders (1 Tim. 2:1–3).
4. Pray for believers who have wandered
My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20)
Though James did not specifically name prayer here, it is implied. If we pray for the suffering, the sick, and the nation, surely we must pray for a brother or sister who has wandered from God’s truth. And we also must take other action to help restore them.
The verb “wander” suggests a gradual movie away from God’s will. Sometimes a brother or sister is “caught [overtaken] in a sin” (Gal. 6:1); but usually sin is the result of slow, gradual spiritual decline. Such a condition is dangerous for the offender. They may face discipline from God (Heb. 12) and may be in danger of committing “a sin that leads to death” (1 John 5:16–17). Such wandering is also dangerous to the whole church. Offenders can lead others astray: “One sinner destroys much good” (Ecc. 9:18, NASB). This is why members of the church must step in and help the person who has wandered away from the truth.
The “truth” in view here is the truth of God’s word. “Your [God’s] word is truth” said Jesus (John 17:17). Unless the believer stays close to this truth, they will start to drift. “For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Heb. 2:1, NASB). The outcome of this wandering is “sin” and possibly “death” (James 5:20).
What are we to do when we see a fellow believer wandering from the truth of God’s word? We should pray for them, to be sure; but also seek to help them directly. They need to be turned back (converted) to the right path. Jesus said to Peter, “When you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32). Let us do so as well.
Remember that we should always approach a wandering brother or sister in an attitude of love, “because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8). Both James and Peter learned this principle from Prov. 10:12—“Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs.” Love not only helps the offender face their sin and deal with it, but love also assures them that those sins, once dealt with, do not need to be remembered any more.
May we hear and heed the admonition of the apostle James, who has given us these ways to use our tongues for good by being people of prayer.