GCI Equipper

God Opened My Eyes to Worship

God used a tent full of teenagers to change my life.

I used to believe my church was the only true church. (This is not a unique way of thinking; I have found this thinking is common in many denominations.) Because I was in the only true church, I questioned the Christianity of others who did not attend my church. And before you ask, yes, I have deeply repented of this way of thinking, but I needed to share this to tell the following story.

I was invited to a youth conference sponsored by another denomination. I was invited to set up a booth, share some things I’d written, and be available to talk to the youth who were attending the conference. Though God had been working with me to see there were good Christians in other denominations, I was still struggling with my “only true church” way of thinking, I wondered if God was sending me to this conference so that I could help others have a better understanding of who God was. I believed most of the teens attending the conference likely had a wrong view of God, and they needed to know God loved them and was for them.

After setting up my booth, I went to the main hall, where worship had been going on for several minutes. I expected to see a band on stage and teens sitting in rows listening to music. Instead, I walked into a room of thousands of teenagers worshipping. Many had their arms raised as they sang, several had tears rolling down their faces, almost all were singing and praising God in a way I had never experienced. People didn’t raise their hands or show emotion in my church; we simply stood and sang. These kids weren’t just singing—they were worshipping. They knew the one they were worshipping. It was beautiful.

Tears ran down my face as I began to realize why God wanted me at that conference. Not because I could teach anything to anyone, but because I had a lot to learn. I had to learn to stop judging others, I had to learn from others; I had to learn how to worship. I went to my motel room that night and asked for forgiveness. I wept as I wondered if I was even a Christian. I had answers to a lot of biblical and theological questions, but it was head knowledge. I realized I did not know God. I’d never worshipped like those kids worshipped. My relationship with God was knowing about him; those kids worshipped as if their relationship was with him. That event changed everything for me—God used it to start me on a journey of walking with him that will never end.

Worship can be life changing. Since that day, I’ve participated in wonderful worship services around the world—dancing with worshippers in Ghana, participating in worship in Malawi and South Africa, Bangladesh and Nepal. I am moved watching worshippers dance and clap, wave scarves and show amazing joy as they worship. I experienced it just today during a sermon when the pastor broke into song during his sermon, the worship team joined him, and soon the whole congregation was making worship a significant part of the sermon. It was powerful, it was encouraging, it was hopeful.

I wonder, sometimes, if we realize the power a worship service can have on people who are looking for hope. When guests and friends visit our churches and see others pouring their hearts into singing songs of praise, it’s uplifting to them; it’s powerful and hopeful.

We refer to worship as part of the Hope Venue because we know the power of hope. Hope is what brings a lot of people to church. They come hoping to find answers to the pain and trials they are going through. They are tired and they hope there is more to life than what they face on a daily basis. They are afraid to hope that maybe, just maybe God will help them. They have lost hope that he loves them just the way they are, but they still have a glimmer of hope that they have not been rejected.

When they come, we want to provide a joyous and worshipful atmosphere where their hope can be restored. We worship a God of hope and we want others to know him, so they can worship him and live in his hope.

In this issue of Equipper, we are focusing on hope in worship. We start by being reminded of giving special attention to the Christian worship calendar—there are a number of special days throughout the year when guests are more likely to visit. Just for fun, we have included a tongue-in-cheek article about how to keep guests from returning. We also have a couple articles about worship reminding ourselves that worship isn’t about what we want and what makes us feel good—it’s about God: Father, Son and Spirit. It’s asking God to open the eyes of our heart so we can see him. It’s about the light of the world coming down into our darkness and opening our eyes to let us see. It’s about shouting Alleluia, for our Lord, God Almighty reigns. It’s about providing opportunity to change hearts.

One day God used a tent full of worshipping teenagers to start me on a journey of worship I hope to never end. My prayer is that God can use GCI worship services to start many others on their personal journeys of worship, where they find hope restored, where they find like-minded people pouring their hearts out to the one who is our hope.

Still worshipping,

Rick Shallenberger

Celebrations: Special Days and Events

By Bill Hall, National Director for Canada

Recently, my wife and I had an interesting conversation with our son. He informed us that the 1st of July was the first anniversary of his first date with his girlfriend. Since this date is also the date of Canada’s birthday, I’m sure we’ll all be able to remember this important highlight in his life.

We all celebrate or remember important landmarks in our personal lives, such as anniversaries, birthdays, our date of baptism, and our date of our graduation. We celebrate many of these days with family, and some with friends. The Christian Church does the same. In a process that has taken approximately 1600 years[1], what we refer to now as the “liturgical year” was developed in the Church and for the Church to help us keep our minds on what really matters – Jesus, his life, death, resurrection, ascension and return.

The liturgical year is based on important milestones in the life of Jesus, as well as the anniversary of special events in the Christian Church.

The emphasis placed on specific days varied among the different branches of the Church, and still does. Similarly, the actual dates of a remembrance or celebration varies due to the fact that the Eastern Church continues to use the Julian Calendar while the Western Church uses the Gregorian Calendar.

Regardless as to when they are observed or the emphasis placed on certain days, the point of the days is to remember and celebrate Jesus.

As we focus on the Hope Venue, it is important to set aside special days of worship—days that focus on the milestones of Jesus’ life. Planning special worship services on these days provides the community we serve reminders of the hope we have in Christ.

Following is a list of the standard days of observance in the liturgical year, along with a description of what they commemorate: Much more detail on these dates will be shared in Equipper during 2020 as we dive deeper into the Hope Venue.

Advent marks the beginning of the Christian year and occurs the four Sundays preceding Christmas. The first two Sundays look to Jesus’ promised Second Coming. The latter two Sundays anticipate his first coming in the incarnation, remembered at Christmas.

Christmas remembers the incarnation, when God took on our humanity to show his great love for us (Matt. 1; Luke 2; John 3:16).

Lent is a 40-day period that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday (the Saturday immediately preceding Easter Sunday). It is a time of reflection on our lives and our need for a loving Saviour. It is a remembrance of the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert before the beginning of his public ministry (Matt. 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13).

Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday and ends with Holy Saturday (the day before Easter or Resurrection Sunday). It remembers the last week of Jesus before his crucifixion and includes Holy Thursday (also known as Maundy Thursday) (the Lord’s Supper) and Good Friday (Jesus’ crucifixion).

Easter (Resurrection Sunday) commemorates the resurrection of our Lord Jesus.

Ascension Sunday commemorates when Jesus ascended to the heavens in sight of his disciples.

Pentecost is celebrated 50 days after Easter Sunday. It remembers the coming of the Holy Spirit upon believers and the beginning of the Church. (Acts 2). Some churches also refer to this day as the reversal of the Tower of Babel event found in Genesis 11:1–9.

Planning special events for these days is not only an expectation in the communities in which we’ve been called to serve, but they provide opportunities for us to invite friends, family and neighbors to worship with us. There we are able to share through drama, readings, special worship songs, and sermons, the good news of Jesus—who he is, what it meant for him to become one of us, why we need a Savior, why he died, what it means that he rose and ascended, and what it means that he will return. In other words, we have opportunity to share his love and life with others.

The Christian calendar provides us with wonderfully meaningful ways to fulfill our calling and to join Jesus in showing how we live and share the gospel.

[1] Paul F. Bradshaw and Maxwell E. Johnson, The Origins of Feasts, Fasts and Seasons in Early Christianity (Pueblo, 2011; Collegeville: Liturgical Press) pp xiii.

The Foundations of Planning Worship

By Randy Bloom, US East Regional Director

As I write this article my wife, Deb, and I are experiencing the joy of getting to know our new granddaughter. She is beautiful and we love being with her. Prior to her birth, our son and his wife went to great lengths to prepare for her arrival and we were blessed to have a small part in the preparations: buying clothing, diapers and all the paraphernalia that are helpful with newborn infants. We went all out to prepare for her arrival and share life with her and we go to great lengths to enjoy our time together. This is an exciting time of life.

Every week Christians have the opportunity to share in an exciting and life-changing time of life. I’m not referring to experiencing life with a new child, but the weekly time of gathering with our great God of love and grace – our Sunday worship services. How do we prepare for these priceless opportunities? This is a huge subject that could fill libraries. I’ll simply address a few tips on the subject of preparing inspirational, transformational worship services. In this article we’ll review some of the concepts and practices that flow from our Trinitarian theology. The next article will deal with some of the nuts and bolts of worship preparation.

Sunday gatherings are times when we are blessed to enjoy being in God’s presence as we participate in worship with other beloved sons and daughters. It’s not that we aren’t in his presence in every moment of every day, but where two, three or more are gathered, he is with us in a special way. It’s a momentous family experience we share with the Triune God. Shouldn’t this reality inform the way we prepare for these priceless occasions?

This is an important question and it’s worth asking it with all seriousness and sincerity. After all, our worship gatherings are more than just another social event. We learn from Trinitarian theology that when we gather, we are coming into the presence of the almighty God, creator of heaven and earth; worthy of all honor and praise. We gather to exalt HIM. In our culture, and with our human inclination toward familiarity, casualness and personalized concepts of freedom, it’s easy to lose this perspective.

Worship is always about God, and not about us. Trinitarian theology also teaches us that “our” worship is about entering into the eternal flow of Jesus’ ongoing worship of the Father, through the Spirit. Take a moment to ponder that statement. We aren’t just in a room somewhere, surrounded by other mere mortals—we are in a “place,” surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), that is indescribable. We are in the presence of God, and worship is God centered.

Healthy, vibrant churches place worship at the center of all they do. They aren’t as focused on personal preferences, feelings or needs, as they are about God. When worship is focused on meeting our needs and wants more than on who God is, it ends up being shallow and leaves us hollow and disappointed. With the primary focus on praising and glorifying God, we will be motivated to prepare better for how we participate with Jesus in the great commandment and the great commission.

Considering these foundational truths, it’s important that pastors ask some challenging but essential questions:

  • Do we and our worship leaders understand what worship is?
  • Are our worship leaders gifted and capable of leading inspirational worship?
  • Does our congregation understand what worship is?

I realize these are sensitive questions and they need to be asked with grace. But they need to be asked. Perhaps, as pastors, we need to spend some more time with our worship leaders and worship team members to review the nature and purpose of worship.

There are a multitude of resources available to help worship leaders serve more effectively in their ministries.

  • https://resources.gci.org/worship is a good place to start.
  • Sponsor your worship leader(s) (if affordable) to attend your regional celebration. There they will see inspiring worship services modeled. It won’t be perfect, but it will give them some ideas to help them improve your worship services back home.
  • Ask your RD to sponsor a worship seminar for the region. We have experienced worship leaders who can teach and train.
  • Do an internet search on worship resources. Some sites specialize in small churches.
  • Take a field trip on occasion to visit a vibrant church or two in your community to see how inspiring worship services can be done.

Preparations certainly include prayer—prayers focused on asking the Spirit to guide us and inspire us as we select songs that follow the sermon theme (we highly recommend following the Revised Common Lectionary). Just as we are thrilled to prepare for the arrival of a new baby, special dinner guests or other special celebrations, we should take time to pray and think about what we are going to do. We want to make our guests comfortable; we want them to enjoy the experience. And we want the Spirit to guide and inspire us as we help people enter worship.

Healthy, vibrant churches prepare weekly worship services that help people lead transformed lives. True worship is transformational. People cannot help but be changed when they enter God’s presence and experience his love and grace in worship. Inspiring, hope-filled worship helps people lead lives of worship – lives with worship at the center of all they do, all the time. With this in mind, we want to try to create a sense of expectation in our worship services. We want people to expect something to happen – an encounter with Jesus, encouragement and inspiration by the Spirit, a closer relationship with the Father and a stronger desire to participate in Jesus’ mission through the church.

As we can see, there is much to consider when we prepare our worship gatherings. In the accompanying article we’ll discuss some basic nuts and bolts for worship planning. Let’s continue to grow in our ability to develop worship experiences that are inspirational and hopeful for the people God brings to our fellowship.

Worship Service Prep

Here are a few nuts and bolts.

By Randy Bloom, US East Regional Director

I think all of us would agree that God is worthy of the best we can do – and this includes preparing for a Sunday worship service. Worship is participating with Jesus’ worship of the Father. It’s important that we make appropriate preparations that help people encounter Jesus and grow as his disciples.

Develop a theme

  • We recommend that GCI pastors follow the Revised Common Lectionary. Equipper provides a theme and scriptures for each week, giving worship leaders a jump-start in preparation. Worship leaders can read the four RCL scriptures and pray over them. See each week’s theme and scriptures in Equipper.
  • Special Days. Because we are a Christ-centered denomination, we follow his life and have special days focused on Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. These include, but are not limited to, Advent, Christmas, Lent, Holy Week and Pentecost.
  • This should be a collaborative process including the sermon speakers, worship leaders, musicians and sound crew. Themes, sermons and songs should be selected to reflect the culture and needs of the congregation, with the purpose of leading people to Jesus, helping them experience his love and grace and inspiring them to respond in worship and lead transformed lives.

Song Selection

  • Songs need to follow the main theme reflected in the sermon.
  • Select songs that are easy to sing and have lyrics people understand.
  • Select songs that are true to our theology and focus on worship.
  • Follow a simple rule of worship: gathering song, worship of the Father, Son and Spirit, sending song.
  • The style of music should reflect the culture of the community (not just church members) making it easier for guests to participate.
  • Occasionally introduce a new song (good to do during the offertory), preventing worship services from becoming mundane and repetitious.

Flow

  • Because our focus is on God and not ourselves, we won’t spend time talking about ourselves.
  • We don’t need to introduce people who sing, pray or make announcements.
  • Avoid needless interruptions that disrupt the worship experience.

Worship is not primarily a performance, but it needs to be done well. Services that are poorly planned or thrown together at the last minute do not lend themselves to worship.

Our goal should be to prepare worship services that are both appropriate for believers and understandable to unbelievers in our midst. In everything, let’s praise Jesus. Worship is joining him in worship of the Father.

Worship is exalting God and leading others in worship to Father, Son and Spirit. Good worship not only brings positive results to the life and ministry of the church, it also extends to the lives of all the people who are involved. Our Sunday gatherings are a participation in holy, eternal praise of our great Triune God. Let’s prepare for him!

Don’t Mess Up My Church

A tongue-in-cheek idea to keep church the way we like it.

Because we like things the way they are and don’t want new guests to return, let’s make sure we incorporate at least a few of the following behaviors – things that seem normal to us, but might seem odd or overly strange to guests and new believers.

  • Offertory: Be sure to focus on the need to cover the pastor’s salary or to maintain the building. Guests are far more concerned with the welfare of the church and pastor than they are about mission and ministry.
  • Make sure guests know they should not give an offering. After all, we don’t want them to follow the lead of the Spirit.
  • Communion: Focus on the bread literally being the body of Jesus and the juice literally being the blood. It’s OK to mention we aren’t sure what happens, but we know we are eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Leave out the remembrance part; that just confuses people.
  • Small group prayer prior to or during the worship service. Do this as public as possible. In particular, the worship team should wait until the last moment, when everyone is waiting before they pray together. Don’t worry if this is awkward for guests—if they want to be part of us, they will get used to it.
  • Spend a lot of time on intercessory prayer. Don’t worry about how long the list is – even if we are praying for more people not in attendance than are in attendance. Sure, it might give the impression that the church is sick and dying, but don’t worry about that.
  • Right in the middle of worshipping God, insert “Church Life” so we can focus on us.
  • Sing unfamiliar songs – regardless of their theology. We can always explain where the songwriter got it wrong, “Bless their heart.” Besides, if we heard it on the radio on a Christian station, it must be good for corporate worship.
  • Play the music loud – there may be people outside wondering whether or not they want to worship with us, and if they hear the music, they are more inclined to join us. Provide ear plugs for anyone who needs them.
  • Never explain anything. Let the Holy Spirit help people understand why we do what we do.

I’m sure we can add more to this list for those of us who want to keep things as they are. Not me, of course.

Love Venue: Volunteer Appreciation

Affirmation and appreciation go a long way in deepening relationships and making sure another person knows that you value them. A Healthy Church takes the time to acknowledge and say thank you to volunteers and leaders. One way pastors can affirm their team is through a personalized note. Check out the GCI branded pastoral letterhead and other resources for team affirmation, here:

Sermon for September 1, 2019

Watch video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQ4T4dCxfzE

Readings: Jeremiah 2:4-13 • Psalm 81:1, 10-16 • Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 • Luke 14:1, 7-14

This week’s theme is Remember whose you are. Jeremiah asks why Israel continually forsakes God after all he has done for them. The Psalmist reminds us to sing aloud to God, who is our strength. God rescued Israel but they turned from him and went their own way. He laments that his people won’t listen to him; his desire is to provide, to protect, to satisfy our needs. The author of Hebrews reminds us live in the truth that we are among those who are never forsaken. Because we are his, we are reminded: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have.” In Luke, Jesus tells the parable of the wedding feast, where he reminds us to not seek places of esteem but honor the one who invites us by appreciating the invitation and staying humble.

Children’s church resources: https://sermons4kids.com/

Privilege

Luke 14:1, 7-14, Hebrews 13:1-8(NRSV),
Hebrews 13:15-16(NRSV)

There is a lot of talk on social media about privilege. Privilege is defined as a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.

Anyone who has ever flown has seen the privileged status of traveling first class. Not only do they board first, but they are often served a drink while the rest of us are still boarding. Later in the flight, while you are in a confined space, eating pretzels and drinking your soda or juice out of a plastic cup, you see first class passengers in comfortable seats, being served hot meals and drinks in glassware. Privilege has its…well, privileges.

Privilege is attractive and seductive. We often find ourselves against privilege when others have it and we don’t. But when we have it, it feels pretty nice. Privilege is often used as a negative label. Privilege can be gender—you have male privilege if you are going to an auto mechanic, female privilege if you are going to a nightclub. Then there is privilege associated with every culture—depending, of course, on which culture you are in.

Privilege isn’t necessarily bad, nor it is necessarily good. The question is, how do you act when you have privilege? How do you respond to others? How do you treat others who appear to have less privilege than you?

This is an important question for Christians because we are privileged to have a relationship with Father, Son and Spirit. We are privileged to know our Father, when many don’t. We are privileged to call Jesus our elder brother and our friend, when many can’t because they don’t know him. We are privileged to have hope and peace and security, when many have none. How do we respond to that privilege?

When those with privilege expect to be treated better than those without privilege, we face the problem we call pride. Pride is something we all struggle with from time to time. Privilege, if not kept in its proper place, can lead to looking down on others or leaving others out altogether. Jesus knew this and had several passages and parables dealing with privilege. We will look at one passage called “The Parable of the Wedding Feast.” We find this parable in Luke 14.

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. (Luke 14:1 NRSV)

Two quick things to notice here:

  1. Jesus was in the house of someone who was considered privileged – a prominent Pharisee, who had invited some guests over for lunch.
  2. He was being carefully watched – they wanted a reason to judge and condemn him.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher;’ then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:7-11 NRSV)

You could call this a lesson in etiquette by Jesus.

The host of this party was a Pharisee—a member of the religious elite. He considered himself one of the privileged, and as is often the case, people like to sit next to the one they feel is the most important, or the privileged one. In his etiquette lesson, Jesus is telling us to think of others first. If you choose the best seats, you may be asked to move. “Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place.” To exalt yourself—to assume you deserve a higher spot, or a better seat because you are among the privileged—requires you to lower others. You cannot exalt yourself without comparing yourself to others and determining they are not as exalted. See the issue here? It’s not just about shaming yourself, it’s also judging others as being “less than.”

When I read this passage, I can’t imagine the embarrassment of taking that walk of shame as all eyes in the room watch you take a lower position. They see your guilt and your sense of impropriety. This happens when we exalt the self because we believe we are privileged.

Now you would hope that good Christians would be above this kind of petty power grabbing. Surely, we wouldn’t squabble over such silly things as who gets the best seat at a meal, but the disciples squabbled over who was greatest, and sometimes we do as well.

Jesus’ etiquette lesson goes far beyond where to sit at a meal. Could this be about judging others as less than ourselves because of their beliefs? Their longevity in the congregation? Their status in society? Their doctrinal understanding? Their lifestyle? Their sins—which presumably are worse than our sins? Perhaps they would be lifted to a seat of honor because of how much they have already changed—changes we aren’t even aware of.

Jesus continues by addressing the host:

When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. Luke 14:12-14 NRSV)

Jesus is using exaggeration to make a point—be a blessing to others. In other words, don’t just invite the people of privilege. Invite those who have little or no privilege. Instead of being proud that some may desire to give place to us, it should be humbling that there are so many to whom we can give place.

Those of us who know our true identity as beloved children of the Father are also privileged to know we are forgiven, adopted, desired, included, and loved. What good does it do us to only seek audience with others who are equally privileged? I understand we need to build good relationship with each other, and we want to spend time together celebrating and worshipping, but this should not be our primary focus. Our primary focus should be on helping others understand the privilege offered to them through Jesus.

Any privilege we have should be used to serve and bless others. Jesus tells us to love others as he loves us. He gave up his privilege to become one of us. That’s the example we have and which we can follow.

  • If we have a voice, how can we use our voice to speak for those who don’t, or can’t speak for themselves?
  • If we have resources, how can we use them to work for the kingdom, to bless others who don’t have similar resources?
  • If we have time, how can we use our time to serve others and help them see a different side of Christianity?

Those of us who know Christ have privilege. How are we using that privilege? To get the best seat in the house, or to lead others to that seat? The author of Hebrews admonishes us to use our privilege for others.

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:1-2 NRSV)

The author then reminds us to remember those in prison and those who are mistreated as if we are the ones suffering. We are reminded to keep the marriage bed pure and to be content with what we have. Why? Because we know the promise of God:

I will never leave you or forsake you. (Hebrews 13:5b NRSV)

We have Jesus and he has us—that is the greatest privilege of all. Because of this privilege, we’ve been invited to participate in what Jesus is doing—sharing his love and his life with others.

Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. (Hebrews 13:16 NRSV)

All who know Jesus are privileged. Not only to know him, but to participate in sharing him with others. When we share the gifts God has given us with others—hope, peace and love—and couple that with our time, talent and treasure, we are being a blessing to others, and he blesses us. This is the way of God, sharing with others. This is the way of the kingdom. It is a true privilege and honor to love, serve, praise and worship the living God, and share with those he loves.


Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life and the sermon:
  • Share a time you gave in to your pride. What was the outcome?
  • What comes to mind when you hear the word “privilege” or “privileged”?
  • Do you feel like you are privileged? Why or why not?
  • What were the guests trying to say about themselves when they chose the chief seats? What does it say about you when you choose a lower seat or place?
  • How can we come alongside those who are under-served and under-privileged?

Sermon for September 8, 2019

Watch video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=axzvJtGC8Ac

Readings: Jeremiah 18:1-11 • Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 • Philemon 1:1-21 • Luke 14:25-33

This week’s theme is God created you for his glory. Jeremiah uses the illustration of a potter to show that we are clay in the hands of the master potter. God knows what he is doing: we can trust him. The Psalmist reminds us that God knows all our thoughts; he created us in the womb. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Paul’s letter to Philemon is to ask Philemon to release Onesimus for the Lord’s service. “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you.” Luke reminds us that we cannot claim to be disciples if we don’t follow Jesus fully. Jesus will complete the work he has begun in us. With this affirmation, we can give up all and follow him.

Children’s church resources: https://sermons4kids.com/

He Knows You: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Psalm 139:1-6(NRSV) Psalm 139:13-18(NRSV)

Introduction: Share a time when you thought you got away with something, but your parents knew what you had been up to. You might want to ask the members to share a humorous story about thinking they got away with something as a child. If you play Speaking of Life, you may want to use a different introductory story.

I recently heard the story about a mother of a preschooler who had baked chocolate chip cookies. She told him that he couldn’t have one until after dinner, and then she went off to work in the laundry room. When she came back, the little step stool he used to reach anything on the kitchen counter was sitting in front of the cupboard, and sure enough, one of the cookies was gone. The mother went to the boy, found him with crumbs sticking to his mouth, and asked him if he ate a cookie. He looked at her incredulously and said, “How did you know?”

We are often like that preschooler when we forget that our Creator knows us intimately: the good, the bad, and ugly. He knows when we are at our most loving best, and he sees us when we are at our most deceptive worst. Through it all, his commitment to us never wavers.

Psalm 139 is an interesting text to consider when reflecting about the omniscient nature of God. Let’s look at a couple of interesting ideas from this psalm:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. (Psalm 139:1-6 NRSV)

God is a personal God seeking a relationship with us.

The psalmist uses both first person pronouns (I/my) and second-person pronouns (you/your). This shows how the relationship between humanity and God flourishes when there is an open honesty: no hiding, no holding back. It does no good to try to hide, as the psalmist points out.

Illustration: You may want to share a story of when your child tried to hide from you but was in plain sight. Share the similarity between this and our attempt to hide from God.

We often act as if God is not aware of us. Many see Christians as people who act one way on Sunday, and another way the rest of the week—as if we are in God’s presence only when we are worshipping at church. Theologian Walter Brueggemann says that “the Psalms are prayers addressed to a known, named, identifiable You.” God is not some undefined force, but the Father, Son, and Spirit seeking a relationship with humanity. Twentieth-century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber offers this reflection on our ever-present God who is always seeking us:

Where I wander – You! Where I ponder – You! Only You, You again, always You! You! You! You!

God knows every part of us, and he wants us to know him.

The verb “know” occurs seven times in this passage (in verses 1, 2, 4, 6, 14, and twice in 23). This Hebrew word yada’ (as found in other parts of the Bible) can mean anything from simply recognizing someone to having an intimate sexual relationship. God knows us (Ps. 139: 1, 2, 4, 6), so knowing God’s unchanging and omniscient character is a key factor in establishing an intimate relationship. A popular Christian worship song by Tommy Walker is called “He Knows My Name,” and the lyrics agree with what Psalm 139 tells us: “He knows my name; he knows my every thought. He sees each tear that falls and hears me when I call.”

God cares about our human bodies and shows us that it is good to be human.

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. (Psalm 139:13-16 NRSV)

This passage shows us that our bodies are good. They are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” But what about those who don’t appear to be wonderfully made? It’s easy to think God made a mistake, or he wasn’t involved in the creation of someone born physically or mentally challenged. To believe this, we’d also have to believe God is not aware when we face a serious disease or physical challenge later in life. We’d have to second guess God and his plan for each one of us. We’d have to second guess his ability to work with us in every circumstance of life.

We don’t always know God’s plan, but if we think God is only involved in some cases, or in some people, we limit God and his ability to bring good and glory in all people. We don’t always know why we are created the way we are, but we can know that he who created us does know why. Further, we know that he is always there. As we were reminded in last week’s sermon, he never leaves us or forsakes us—regardless of the physical or mental limitations we may face.

God thinks human bodies are so good that the second Person of the Trinity, the Word, became flesh and took on a human body. He still has that human body today (Col. 2:9). We are encouraged to take care of the “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).

God has us on his mind.

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you. (Psalm 139:17-18 NRSV)

How often do we try to figure God out, and fail? God, why did you allow this, why did you do that? Why didn’t you intervene? Why didn’t you heal? His thoughts and plans and dreams for us are far beyond what we can comprehend. But we can rest assured when it comes to the end of our lives, we find that he has always been with us.

Application:

We can rest in the truth that we are known intimately, and despite our failings, loved completely. Just like that preschooler who snitched a cookie before dinner, we are often surprised to read that our loving God knows everything about us. Even when we mess up, God is always on our side. He knows our thoughts and what we’re going to say before we say it (vv. 2-3).

Because we know God’s unchanging love and acceptance, we extend that same love and acceptance to others, even those who may seem different from or opposed to us.

We approach life recognizing the gift of grace we enjoy, and we are quick to extend that same grace to others, whether they “deserve” it or not. This grace will look different in every situation. Sometimes it means speaking the truth with love and kindness, and other times it means remaining silent. By resting in God’s love and committing ourselves to share that same love and grace, we constantly pray to understand how to respond in every situation. We no longer need to “win” or to “be right,” but we seek to show love and kindness in the best way possible.


Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life and the sermon:
  • Have you ever thought you had gotten away with something, only to find out later your parents knew? Share the story (but keep it light and humorous—this is not a time of confession).
  • How does Psalm 139 inform our view of God? What does this say about God’s character?
  • If God knows “even before a word is on [our tongues],” why do we feel the need to hide our failings?
  • This psalm honors the human body, saying we “are fearfully and wonderfully made.” How can we use this understanding to encourage ourselves to take care of this “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19-20)?
  • How does understanding God’s total acceptance and love for us change the way we interact with others? What does that look like (in a practical sense) for our families, our work, and our church?

Sermon for September 15, 2019

Watch video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mbJPuztRz_U

Readings: Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 • Psalm 14:1-7 • 1 Timothy 1:12-17 • Luke 15:1-10

This week’s theme is God’s desire is to seek and save. Jeremiah talks about the foolishness of those who run from God, believing he is not for them. The Psalmist says while “fools say there is no God,” he is in the company of the righteous. Paul reminds Timothy how God’s grace saved him from his past, and that Jesus came to save sinners, “of whom I am the worst.” The sermon focuses on Luke 15 where Jesus shares three parables showing God’s desire to seek and find those who have become lost and don’t know his goodness. The sermon looks at two of those parables.

Children’s church resources: https://sermons4kids.com/

God the Loser

Luke 15:1-10

Lost. We all know what it means to be lost, especially as a kid; it’s a universal part of childhood. You look around. The surroundings are suddenly foreign, every face is suddenly a stranger. You end up with nothing to offer but your own helplessness, defenseless against the world.

As you get older and have kids, or take care of kids, you learn what it’s like to lose someone. Kids wander off like it’s a competitive sport! They’re always chasing some shiny thing or drifting toward the toy aisle. Suddenly you look around for one face—you might be surrounded by them—and it is not to be seen. You squint and strain and imagine the worst.

When the child finally does appear, you’re flooded with a dizzying cocktail of relief, anger, joy, and exasperation. Where have you been?! I’m so glad you’re okay! Where were you?!

Share a time when you lost, or thought you lost one of your kids or grandchildren, or when they thought they were lost. Share the emotion of panic and anxiousness that was replaced with amazing joy when your child was found or found you.

Our sermon title for today is “God the Loser.” Before you jump to judgment, hear what I have to say. We will break the sermon into three parts – let’s look first at the loser, then discuss the characteristics of the lost, and then talk about the loving response.

The loser

Ask yourself who is the loser in the Luke 15 parables, and what do we learn from looking at them? The first two parables are next to a parable you often hear about, called the Prodigal Son.

To draw these parables together requires us to first look at the context. The Gospels were compiled by the Holy Spirit through the early Christian community in a specific way for a specific reason. The meaning of a passage is always enhanced by its context.

Verse 1 sets us up the context:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1)

This is the key to these parables; this is what ties them all together. Jesus is hanging out with the undesirables. He isn’t approving of their lifestyles nor participating in their activities; he is simply hanging out with them. The Pharisees did not even want to be seen with such people; they didn’t want to be anywhere near them. There was a strong separation between “us” and “them” in that culture.

Jesus, instead of just blasting them directly, tells some stories. He slips a few truth bombs in there that have been exploding ever since.

First, he tells them the story of the lost sheep, then of the lost coin, and finally of the lost child. Anybody see a thread through all these three stories? Loss.

The main character of these stories is the one who lost something. The first is the Shepherd, the second is the Widow, and the third, the Father. The Father is the main character of the Prodigal Son story. Sure, the son does his thing, but the longing, the celebration, and most of the spotlight is taken up by the Father. Our Father.

More than anything, these stories show us the Father’s heart. They answer the first question that should be on our minds when we read Scripture: What does this say about God, or how does this apply to God? The usual question for most of us—how does this apply to me?is extremely important, but it’s not the first question. The first thing we want to know from Scripture is: how does this passage show us God’s heart?, followed quickly by: how do I live in the reality of who God is?

There’s plenty we can learn about how to apply ourselves to the reality of God here. The focus of these stories is on the response of God, not the worthiness or appropriate response of the found person or object.

If you’ve ever worked in a helping profession, such as a nurse, emergency services worker, teacher, social worker, pastor or many others, you learn quickly that you can’t rely on someone’s response to motivate you. People’s responses will range from gratitude and life transformation to indifference and outright hostility. Our responses to God’s love will range back and forth all through our lives; sometimes we will be unspeakably grateful, sometimes we will be spoiled brats.

Isn’t it a fantastic blessing then that God’s love is dependent on who he is and not who we are? Isn’t it amazing that these stories focus on a love that searches the whole house, that leaves the 99 sheep, that sees the rebellious son “coming from a long way off”?

Do we in turn take this love to the world? Do we serve because of how people respond to our help, or how much attention it gets us? If we serve people only when we get the response we want, we will burn out quickly, and many of those in need (of our financial support, attention, and most of all love) will fall through the cracks. No, Jesus wanted the Pharisees to respond to his stories by copying the finder, not the one who was found. We serve because of who Jesus is, not who they are and not how they respond.

The beautiful touch that Jesus adds to these stories is to portray the loser—God—the way he does. First as a shepherd. In that culture, a shepherd would have been an undesirable. They were considered uncouth rednecks and untrustworthy by the rest of the culture. Then he portrays God as a woman. Women were forgotten in the culture as well; they had almost no rights, their legal testimony was no good, and they were considered possessions of the men in their lives. Finally, he portrays God as the father of a rebellious son (in the end two rebellious sons). Any parent of a rebellious child will tell you how deeply and often they blame themselves for their child’s choices, and how often society blames them for the way their kids turned out. Jesus puts himself—as God the loser—in these stories as people who were marginalized and heavily judged in that society. He is the one who loses the sheep, the coin, the child—and then finds them again with joy.

The lost

Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Luke 15:4-6)

Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?” (Luke 15:8)

Leaving the 99 in the wilderness? Most of us can do the math here. Leaving 99 of something to find one is not a good idea. “In the open country” means that the shepherd left them unattended and open to theft so he could find just the one.

There is no indication that this sheep is worth any more than the others—it’s just the missing one.

The coin story is much the same. One of the ten coins, which means it’s worth the same as the others, was worth about a day’s wages. Right now, in the American economy, the average of a day’s wages—from the rich people to the guy who works at McDonalds—is about $150. Now, you and I might go searching for $150 if we lost it, but we probably wouldn’t “call our friends and neighbors” together for a party to say, “I found three fifty-dollar bills—let’s party!”

One sheep. One silver coin. Roughly a day’s wages, and here the loser is having a party. In these two stories, there’s no discussion of how these things got lost; there’s no blame and no shame involved.

The story where it seems there should be blame and shame involved, the prodigal son story, ends in a feast. That story also ends with love and joy, and with the guilty one being elevated to a princely level.

The loving response

The shepherd “calls his friends together and says, ‘Rejoice with me, I have found my lost sheep’” (Luke 15:6b).

The widow “calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me, I have found my lost coin’” (Luke 15:9).

The father said, “‘For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate” (Luke 9:24).

All these stories have this out-sized response from the finder. Instead of begrudgingly bringing the lost back into the fold, the loser rejoices exuberantly that they are home. Grace is always generous. Grace always gives back extra.

Both parables end by saying, “There is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” The lost are found, the loser gets back what was lost. God wins again!

“Rejoice with me.” Grace always restores to the community. The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son are brought out of isolation and back into the group, back into the community. Where the results of sin brought the prodigal son down into the pig sty, grace brought him to a party where everyone was celebrated and recognized. God the loser finds the lost and restores each to communion.

Here are a few things to chew on today…

Know the Father’s heart toward us. The shepherd with the lost sheep, the widow with her lost coin, the father watching the horizon. God’s pursuit of us is relentless, and it is against everything in our nature that leads us to walk away from him. Jesus represents God as a shepherd and a woman—both people groups that at the time weren’t thought of as desirable or important in that society. He will take on whatever disguise he needs and will search the corners, search the fields, search the horizons for you.

You are special and unique, and so is everyone else. There is nothing that attracted the finder to the coin or the sheep—they were just like all the others. And that’s the point. God restlessly searches for them anyway. So, if you hate yourself—this is the answer. If you’re in love with yourself—this is the answer.

Jesus ate with tax-collectors and sinners. We have many examples that he didn’t approve of their lifestyles—he delivered these people from their vices all the time. But he ate with them, which was a strong symbol of friendship in those days. He spent time with them and shared life with them. Do we do that? Do you have authentic relationships with non-Christians or people who would be considered “tax-collectors and sinners”? When you first become a Christian, sometimes you need some space from your old lifestyle, but when you are no longer a spiritual infant, God calls us back out to share his love and hospitality with the world.

God the Loser. The one who looked for us, the lost, because of his love and not because we earned it. May we be found again today.


Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life and the sermon:
  • Have you ever lost something that was important to you? An item whose worth/value only you understood?
  • Read the three stories in Luke 15. Discuss how these stories “read” each other. Why do you think Jesus told these stories specifically?
  • Why do you think Jesus told parables? Why wouldn’t he just preach more directly? How have parables stood the test of time?
  • Jesus ate with “tax collectors and sinners,” which is the key to the parables that follow. Jesus’ choice of company always told us more about him than it did about them. What does it mean to “eat with” those who believe and live differently than we do? Would we be eating at the table with them and Jesus?
  • These parables are about the worth their finder gives them. What does it mean to live with a worth God gives us? Worth we don’t have to earn and that never changes? What freedom does that give us?
Quote to ponder: “The question is not ‘How am I to find God?’ but ‘How am I to let myself be found by him?’… The question is not ‘How am I to love God?’ but ‘How am I to let myself be loved by God?'” —Henri Nouwen

Sermon for September 22, 2019

Watch video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZh4DytiTm0

Readings: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 • Psalm 79:1-9 • 1 Timothy 2:1-7 • Luke 16:1-13

This week’s theme is Praying for others, that they may see and know the truth. Jeremiah shares how his heart is faint at the sin of the people. He weeps for those who have rejected God and gone the way of sinners. The Psalmist continues this theme by asking God to not hold the sins of past generations against us. He prays for forgiveness and deliverance. Paul reminds Timothy to pray for all leaders because God’s desire is for all to know him and live in the knowledge of the truth. Luke shares a practical application in his parable of the shrewd manager. Jesus tells us to use what we have to gain friends, so that we are welcomed into eternal dwellings. What do we have? We have the truth others need. We pray that God opens their eyes and gives us opportunity to share that truth.

Children’s church resources: https://sermons4kids.com/

Who’s in Charge?

1 Timothy 2:1-7

You may want to share some experiences you had with substitute teachers that will lead to the introduction below.

Have you ever served as a substitute teacher? Most of us can remember substitute teachers coming to class. It’s not an easy assignment—especially if there’s conflict that you need to step in to resolve. If the class doesn’t think the sub has any authority, there’s little chance the sub will get much resolved. When the teacher’s authority is passed on to the sub, then the class will usually respond to the sub as if he or she were the actual teacher. You have probably witnessed this at some point.

The situation that produced Paul’s letter to Timothy is a little like a teacher calling in a sub. After meeting Timothy’s faithful mother and grandmother, Paul found in Timothy a man who had a passion for Jesus. Paul knew Timothy would be a future leader worth mentoring. So, he mentored Timothy for many years and sent him on missions to different churches.

When Paul received news that there was trouble in the Ephesus church, and he couldn’t go there personally, he sent Timothy! But this was not an easy assignment for Paul’s protégé. A group of leaders found a foothold in Ephesus and were teaching some damaging ideas about Jesus and what it looked like to follow him. Timothy was sent to confront these leaders and set things straight. He was walking into a hornet’s nest. After Timothy arrived in Ephesus, Paul sent him this letter to give him instructions to complete his mission.

The first chapter of 1 Timothy is where we find Paul commissioning Timothy to confront the unfaithful teachers. Even though this is a letter to Timothy, it is also for the sake of the church. What a church believes will be evident in how they live. The teaching the Ephesus church had been receiving was leading some away from a genuine faith in Christ to an obsession in “meaningless” talk about things they knew nothing about. Timothy, who wasn’t the pastor in Ephesus, was sent to correct this dangerous trend. Paul’s letter not only laid out some clear instructions for Timothy to follow, but it gave him what every substitute teacher (or pastor) needs—authority! There was no question that Timothy was acting on Paul’s behalf.

What Paul did for Timothy with this letter is what Jesus has done for us in his written word and in sending his Spirit. Jesus is still in charge, but he sends us out in his name on a mission to share the good news of who Jesus is and what it means to follow him. We can go in confidence and boldness, even when we must stand up to troublesome leaders, because we go in the authority of the Son and in the power of the Spirit. It’s a comforting thought to know that whatever hornet’s nest we may be sent into, we can be faithful to his mission because we know he will be faithful to us.

Let’s look at the instruction Paul gives Timothy recorded in chapter 2.

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. (1 Timothy 2:1-2)

The first thing we are called to do is pray! Pray for those we are trying to reach. Pray for direction, inspiration, and wisdom. Pray for opportunity to speak truth into people’s lives, and pray that truth is received. When you go into a stressful situation, don’t go in defense, looking at people as problems. Paul reminds Timothy to pray for all people—everyone. Prayer gives us confidence—the confidence that comes from not only knowing Jesus, but from knowing that Jesus has us and leads us.

Most of us may never be called to settle a crisis in another church, but as believers, all of us are called to bear witness to who Jesus is. Sometimes this occurs in the teeth of some “leaders” who have a different message. Every day we walk out our front doors, we are called to be witnesses of Jesus, the true King of all creation. And we often do this in someone else’s “territory.” But even antagonists belong to God and are loved by him.

Paul’s “first of all” instruction urges believers to be in prayer for “everyone.” Although four types of prayer are mentioned, “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings,” Paul is not instructing a necessity for different forms of prayer. He is simply laying emphasis that all these different prayers are to “be made for everyone.” Paul is stressing the importance for prayer in community. Just as the Father, Son, Spirit, do everything in relationship, we are to carry out the church’s mission in communion with God and one another. Prayer is never an individual act even when we are praying alone. As God’s children forming the body of Christ, we are all connected. What happens to one affects us all. When we pray for others, we are being mindful of this truth, that God has called us to live in relationship with one another as we live out God’s call for the church.

Notice who is specifically included in the “everyone”: Paul says we are to pray “for kings and those in authority.” Now, don’t miss the super-charged political statement Paul has just used here. When Paul calls for prayer “for kings” he does so under the nose of the Roman emperor, some of whom were known for their persecution of Christians. Living under Roman rule, it was understood that if you wanted things to go well with you, if you wanted peace, you would do well to pray to the emperor’s gods. When Paul urges Timothy and the church to pray “for” the kings and not “to” their gods, he is sending a subtle message of who is in charge. And it’s not the emperor.

Is it possible the church has forgotten Paul’s instructions for its witness to the world? How might the church’s witness look if we were to pray for our leaders rather than get caught up in the present polarization? Instead of organizing a march or protest to let the leaders know how we feel, what about organizing a church prayer meeting to talk with God instead. Perhaps our political Facebook posts and our social activist attempts give more weight to the rulers of our age than the King of all ages. The Father can be trusted with our concerns far more than the leaders of our time.

It’s a question of who we believe is really in charge. If you ever feel like someone has too much control over your life, pray for them. It’s the first thing Paul says we should do, and it’s a good reminder to yourself of who is actually in control.

Our prayers are that we will be able to “live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” Paul doesn’t mean by this that we pray so we can live on easy street, oblivious to what’s going on around us. No, Paul is concerned about the church’s witness to the world.

Paul continues:

This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:3-4)

We pray for an environment where Jesus is seen as the true Savior who brings peace. Notice the words “all people.” We pray to align ourselves with God’s will—his desire, which is to bring peace to everyone, including the “kings and those in authority.” Wrapped up in this salvation that God wants to bring everyone into is the “knowledge of the truth.” This can be seen in contradiction with what the false teachers were doing in the Ephesus church. The knowledge of the truth Paul is concerned with is not “meaningless talk” but rather a knowing of the Father revealed through the Son. We see Paul wanting the church to bear witness to the God who cares and loves everyone. Paul will list three affirmations of why this is true.

For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time. (1 Timothy 2:5-6)

  1. First, “there is one God…” Over and against the many gods worshiped throughout the Roman empire, this understanding of God’s oneness reveals that God is the only God of all people. Out of his oneness we find that he is the God who is for all mankind.
  2. Second, “there is also one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.” This statement means that mediation is needed for humanity to be reconciled to God, but it also means that such a reconciliation is accomplished by this one God, through Jesus Christ. The fact that Jesus Christ is himself human highlights that he fully identifies with all; God has not reached out in Jesus to provide salvation for just a select few.
  3. Last, Paul makes it explicit that Jesus “gave himself as a ransom for all people.” With this statement, he sums up his point that the God we see in Jesus Christ is the one God who is for all people. Therefore, he is the only God we bear witness to. There is salvation in no other king, ruler, authority, leader or god.

And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle—I am telling the truth, I am not lying—and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles. (1 Timothy 2:7)

Paul wraps up this first instruction for Timothy by reminding him that Paul also was “appointed a herald and an apostle.” Paul understands that his authority was given by God to be a witness to the one who appointed him. Unlike the false teachers Timothy will have to deal with, Paul is “telling the truth.” He is “a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles.” His authority is grounded in faith and truth. As our belief and actions align with the reality of who God is for all people, we too will find we have been given the authority to be witnesses to our world.

Reflection:

  • Are we sincerely praying for our leaders? As Christians, we should stay out of politics because our loyalty is to Jesus’ kingdom. We should be praying for all our leaders—that we may live in peace and have the freedom to share God’s love and life with others.
  • Do we see our leaders and others as those Jesus came to save? We pray they come to see Jesus as the answer to their political and social issues—that they come to the knowledge of the truth of who Jesus is, and who they are in him.
  • Are we bearing witness to our one God and mediator, Jesus Christ?

Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life:
  • What are some things you see that need change, that are beyond your reach?
  • How do you pray for someone (a leader) with whom you rarely agree on policy?
From the sermon:
  • Can you think of a time you had to carry out a task but were not given the authority or support to do so? What was your experience? Discuss how the Bible gives us the authority to act and speak the gospel in our world today.
  • Can you share any examples where being a witness today is like standing up to “false teachers”? What issues in our culture and society present the biggest challenge in being a faithful witness to the gospel?
  • Discuss ways believers can sometimes pray more to the authorities in our world rather than for. What are some ways churches can engage intentionally praying for those in authority?
  • How would our prayers look if we had a focus on being a witness of Jesus in the world rather than getting control in the world? What might you pray for?

Sermon for September 29, 2019

Watch video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_2NvCU714XE

Readings: Jeremiah 32:1-3, 6-15 • Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16 • 1 Timothy 6:6-19 • Luke 16:19-31

This week’s theme is Our Hope is in God. The Psalmist reminds us to dwell in the shelter of the Almighty and he will provide what we need. Paul exhorts Timothy to put his hope in God, not in riches and earthly possessions. Luke shares Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man. The wealth and power of the rich man did not help him once he died. Rather, the “unseen one” who depended on God was in the presence of God. The sermon is based on the prophet Jeremiah’s purchase of land while he was under house arrest and Israel was in exile. It didn’t make sense, but God was giving him, and Israel, hope for the future.

Children’s church resources: https://sermons4kids.com/

The Time Capsule of Hope

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

In the borough of Queens, New York, there is a neighborhood called Flushing. In Flushing you will find Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the location of the 1939-1940 World’s Fair. A highlight of the World’s Fair was the “Immortal Well.” Fifty feet underneath this well is buried the 1938 time capsule.

In this capsule, which is made of cupaloy—a metal created specifically for the capsule—are the items of everyday life in 1938. A Sears and Roebuck catalog, a pack of Camel cigarettes, a dollar in change and dozens of books on microfilm were enclosed. This idea was to tell the future (in the year 6939) how we lived, how we expressed ourselves, how we were human.

Illustration: Share a time you made a time capsule or ask if any members made a time capsule and what they put in it.

Many of us at one time or another were involved in making a time capsule—maybe in a coffee can back our school days, or a more formal time capsule. In it we put little vestiges of life to tell generations ahead that we were here and what life was like.

You might say Jeremiah does the same thing in this odd story from his life. He makes an act of hope to tell future generations that Israel was still around, but most of all to tell his current generation that they are people of hope.

Let’s look at the context of where this story appears. Jeremiah has become a fixture in the culture of Jerusalem, having been a prophet whose career has already spanned twenty years. His message throughout is that God’s judgment will come on Israel, and that it will come through Babylon. At the same time, and just as durable, is Jeremiah’s promise of a hope and future for Israel.

Jeremiah was often called the “weeping prophet” and his book is laden with difficult-to-hear stories of judgment and destruction, a result of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. Israel had taken up idol worship, even to the point of child sacrifice, and had abandoned the poor and vulnerable in their society. Hence God is restoring them to their identity as his people through judgment.

Right in the middle of these dark stories is this somewhat odd story of Jeremiah doing a land deal. Babylon is essentially at the gates of Israel when this occurs, and Jeremiah can probably see the smoke and fires of their encroaching camp through his window.

Because of Jeremiah’s unpleasant prophecies, the king put Jeremiah under house arrest. What a fascinating insight into power structure and status quo. How often have we locked up prophets? Throughout history, those who spoke truth, especially those who spoke it to powerful people, have been put on “house arrest” in one sense or another. There are the more dramatic of examples, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by Hitler. But there are many who are placed where their voice cannot be heard.

And so Jeremiah is on house arrest.

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar. At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him. (Jeremiah 32:1-3a NRSV)

Of course, this didn’t slow him down when it came to being a prophet. Typical of the Old Testament prophet who stared down death and persecution regularly, Jeremiah kept acting out his vocation as God’s prophet, and this time through action. Here’s what he said:

The word of the LORD came to me: Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the LORD, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.” Then I knew that this was the word of the LORD. And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. (Jeremiah 32:6-9 NRSV)

This is a fascinatingly strange move. Jeremiah is buying a field in a doomed area. This isn’t a “wise investment” from any angle. The place he’s buying is about to become a smoking battlefield when Babylon gets through with it. He’s been prophesying for two decades now that Babylon was going to level Jerusalem, and now when they’re right outside the gates, he buys real estate.

Then Jeremiah has his time capsule made. Or at least the equivalent of it:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. (Jeremiah 32:14 NRSV)

Putting legal documents in an earthenware jar was a common practice back then. It was like a safety deposit box. For generations afterward, the documents would be safe and available to prove something had been done. Yet Jeremiah knows full well that the documents will mean nothing very soon. The land, even if he owns it, will be a burnt-up nowhere. But it won’t stay that way forever.

That’s why this is more like a time capsule than a safety deposit box. This is not Jeremiah making an investment in the future as much as a statement about the future: We were here. We lived. And we believe that God will restore us.

You have to love the closing line of the scene:

Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land. (Jeremiah 32:15 NRSV)

As the people of God, we are people of hope, we:

  1. Believe in hope
  2. Act in hope
  3. Live in hope

Believe in hope

Jeremiah did this famous land deal not because the prices were rock bottom or as a psychological defense mechanism against the reality of the invasion, but because he believed in the future.

Yes, times were terrible, but Jeremiah knew it wouldn’t be that way forever.

For behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come (Song of Solomon 2:11-12)

In God’s world, the seasons change. Life may be dark right now, but the light of spring will come. Whatever it is you’re going through here and now, the flowers will appear again on the earth in time.

The devil is the ultimate absolutist. Every time something horrible happens—the diagnosis comes back or the marriage disintegrates—he’ll try to convince you that this is how life really is and always will be. He tries to convince us that the center doesn’t hold, and the only thing that’s “really real” is disappointment and loss.

But as the people of hope, we know that life is more complex than that. There are seasons of pain, for sure, but seasons of plenty and peace as well, and the best is yet to come.

In the end, Jesus’ death was temporary, and his resurrection was permanent. The hardest ice melts and makes water to help the wildflowers grow. As a forest burns, the heat of the fire opens seed pods allowing new growth to occur. As people of hope, we believe in hope. We don’t believe that war, pain, hardship, devastation, addiction, and sickness have the final word.

Act in hope

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. (Jeremiah 32:14 NRSV)

Jeremiah acts in hope. He doesn’t just have some kind of airy, vague feeling about hope—he acts on it. He takes concrete action to show his hope. This isn’t an investment in his future—this is an investment in THE future. He’s pretty sure he won’t even be around to claim this land. He’s acting in hope.

There’s an ancient story of a rabbi named Akiva, who in A.D. 135 was tortured to death by the Romans. As they skinned him, the rabbi’s disciples could hear him singing the Shema: “Hear, oh Israel, the Lord your God is one…” This was the passage the Jewish people sang constantly as an act of identity. In the midst of his torture, right before his death, his biographers say he sang the Shema simply because it was “the time to sing the Shema.” He wasn’t crying out in a deathbed prayer, he wasn’t screaming religious rhetoric, he was praying because it was time to pray.

In his action, like Jeremiah, he showed that God’s math, God’s reality, doesn’t run by our rules. He acted in hope. Jeremiah acted in hope, leaning on God’s promise that   “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”

Note: this is a good place for a story of a hopeful, counterintuitive action you took in a hard time. An example in my life: our family was going through a very difficult period and my dad and I toasted to better times. A small, symbolic act of hope.

Live in hope

As the people of hope, we live in hope. Hope is where set up camp. We believe in hope, we act in hope and someday we will live in the fullness of that hope. Listen to Paul as he writes to his disciple Timothy, which is another reading from our lectionary readings today.

Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. (1 Timothy 6:6-9 NRSV)

Our hope is not in what we have, but in knowing who has us.

Paul continues to tell Timothy who to focus on:

He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see, to him be honor and eternal dominion. (1 Timothy 6:15b-16 NRSV)

Paul talks often about living in hope—the life that is free of the trappings and addictions of the ego. Hope is in the life that finds sustenance in Christ and doesn’t require that sustenance from other people and pursuits that can never satisfy. Hope provides a life of freedom.

So Jeremiah puts the deed in an earthenware jar. And generations past have put symbols of their lives in time capsules and buried them. The cross of Jesus is the symbol that reminds us to believe in hope, act in hope, and live in hope. This is the message that hope—not hate, sin, or despair—will have the last word and “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”


Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life
  • Who are some of the “unseen” people today?
  • What does it mean to see others as God sees them?
From the sermon: read Jeremiah 32:1-3, 6-15
  • Have you ever buried a time capsule? What was in it?
  • Meditate on verse 15: “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” What does it mean to you?
  • In the sermon we talked about believing in hope and also acting on hope. What is the difference between the two?
  • In the sermon, we talked about the temptation to believe that “real life” is only struggle and disappointment. How does it change our lives to believe that hope, joy, and love are the “real thing” and have the final word?
  • Are there tools and faith practices that helped you through hard, “hopeless” times in the past? How can you cultivate this hope in other times in your life? How can you share your strength with others?
Quote for thought: “The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” —J.R.R. Tolkien