GCI Equipper

All About the Light

Keeping Jesus the center of the center.

I never understood total darkness until I was in the middle of Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, way below the surface, no exit in sight, and they turned the power off. They only left if off for half a minute, but it was enough. In darkness, not only do you lose all sense of direction, but you lose all sense of presence. I did not know where I was in proximity to others. I knew two of my children were near because they were squeezing my hands, but I lost sense of where my wife and third child were. It was the eeriest feeling I recall having. It wasn’t until the lights were turned back on that I realized I had been holding my breath.

It was a powerful demonstration of the glory of light. Without light, we would have never found our way out of that cave. That experience helped me have a much better appreciation for the season of Christmas, which focuses on the Light coming into the world. The Light, of course, is Jesus. We celebrate Advent, Christmas and Epiphany because Jesus is the light of the world. He was the one the prophets spoke about, he was the one John the Baptist pointed to; he was the one Gabriel described to Mary.

But notice something interesting about how God revealed Christ to others — with light. In Luke 2 we read about the shepherds and how the “glory of the Lord shone about them” as the angel told them about Jesus’ birth. Interesting that God first revealed the Messiah to a group of shepherds — those considered “less than” by most of the Jews. Then in Matthew, we read about the Magi, who followed a light. “We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2). The Magi were Gentiles, showing that Jesus came for all, just as John told us in his Gospel. (Read Lance McKinnon’s article on Epiphany—A Light to Follow. )

Jesus is the light who came in the midst of darkness to illuminate the love of God for all. In the Christmas story, we see that God’s love included an older childless couple. Elizabeth and Zechariah, who became parents to John the Baptist, a virgin teenager named Mary, a man named Joseph, who was willing to listen to an angel and give Mary a home, a group of shepherds in the fields surrounding Jerusalem, a righteous man named Simeon, who prayed he would see the Messiah before he died, a prophetess, Anna, who worshipped God night and day in her old age, and the Magi from the East, who followed a star to Bethlehem.

The Christmas story is exciting, inspiring, moving, and illuminating. It is the story of the incarnation — when God became flesh, and the story of Emmanuel — God with us. It is the story of God’s love for the world. It is the story of light entering a darkened world. It is a story that reminds us of the power and value of light.

Scripture tells us we are to be lights to the world. We are to shine in the darkness. We are to bring God’s hope to all the places in our path. Our Media team, which includes Equipper, has been focusing on helping our pastors be better and healthier lights. We have given an overview of our Faith, Love, and Hope venues, which are designed to help our congregations become healthier expressions of church and be brighter lights in their communities.

We introduced a GCI Worship Calendar which helps us remember that Jesus is the center of the center in all our worship. Our goal is to help all our GCI congregations around the world be the best expression of healthy church they can be. When we keep Jesus the center of the center, we are helping his light shine.

Loving the light,

Rick Shallenberger

A Light to Follow

By Lance McKinnon, Grace Communion Seminary

The birth of Jesus, accompanied by the visit of the Magi, is an epiphany for us. It opens our eyes to see that the Father sent his Son to draw all people to himself. No matter the distance and darkness that lie between us and the Father, Jesus is the Light of the World leading us home.

We read about the Epiphany story in Matthew 2:1-12.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

In the story of the wise men from the East following the star, it is revealed that God calls everyone to himself. He did not choose the Jews to exclude the rest of the nations. He chose the Jews as a way to draw the whole world to himself. The appearance of the wise men lets us know that all are welcome in Jesus’ kingdom. When the wise men arrived in Bethlehem, the star they were following “stopped” and they “were overwhelmed with joy.” In our search for Jesus, sooner or later the signs that point to him are replaced with the joy that he is near. Joy becomes our new guide, leading us to enter his home and see Jesus face to face.

When the wise men enter the house, they not only see Jesus but they see him “with Mary his mother.” Here’s another epiphany for us. God is a God of relationship. Jesus doesn’t drop out of the sky like Thor or some alien invader. He comes to us in relationship, where our identity is wrapped up in who we are with him. It’s in this environment that true worship takes place. The wise men don’t worship outside the stable. No matter how dirty it may be inside, worship takes place alongside brothers and sisters who come to “pay homage,” sharing all they have with Jesus.

Our story ends with the wise men not returning to Herod after being “warned in a dream.” Up to this point they have done everything Herod had told them to do. After meeting Jesus, they are following the dreams of a new king who is ushering in a new kingdom. Matthew records, “they left for their own country by another road.” The question they haven’t asked has been answered. Who is this new king? He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He is the Lord God himself who has humbled himself so as to exalt us in relationship with him. Like the wise men, this revelation leaves us with a response of repentance. We turn our ears from the rulers of this age and set our sights on following Jesus. Home is now found down a different road.

Throughout this season of Epiphany let us celebrate! What has been hidden to our sight is about to come to light. Jesus is born, and God’s deepest desire, drawing all of humanity into relationship with Father, Son, and Spirit, is being fulfilled.

The Significance of Christmas

Written by Danny Zachariah, Regional Director of the Indian Subcontinent

One common reason that some are against celebrating Christmas is: “it’s not in the Bible!” If this reasoning is taken to its logical extreme, there are many things we could not do because “it’s not in the Bible!”

Is it vital for believers in Jesus Christ to remember and commemorate his birth as a human being? Does it make a difference to our theological understanding when we consciously recognize and acknowledge the incarnation? Would this understanding improve our relational dimension with our Triune God? Here are three reasons that it does.

It’s the only way to know and understand God

As human beings, we are limited in our capacity to comprehend and know many aspects of creation. Though science and technology may have given us the ability to explain many intricacies of life, scientists confess that we still only have a tiny glimpse into the vast mysteries of it as a whole. How much more difficult it would be for us to grasp the depth of the non-physical / spiritual world!

Jesus said, “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27). Jesus is categorical when he says no one can know God except it is revealed. This kind of knowledge can be grasped and understood only by revelation. It cannot be discovered by human ingenuity. Also, Jesus reveals that this kind of knowing is not just informational, but relational. Only the Son “keeps knowing” the Father and vice-versa.

The only way for human beings to know God is through a mediation that is both human and divine. Jesus Christ is the only One who is both divine and human. Jesus becoming flesh and embracing our humanity (incarnation) is the only way we limited humans could ever comprehend and understand God both informationally and relationally. It’s only in Jesus that God can be “…seen … and … touched” (1 John 1:1) – a vital ingredient in human relational well-being. Celebrating Christmas is an acknowledgment of our limitation and an opportunity for thanksgiving that the great God has chosen to reveal himself in such a personal way.

It’s the only way for humans to have value and dignity

There is a fairly popular belief that human beings are only physical, temporal and hence, have no lasting, inherent value. Some subscribe to a school of thought that anything physical is evil and bad or, even, illusory. The incarnation changes all that!

When the second person of the Trinity decided to take on flesh and embraced humanity with all its limitations and frailty, God affirmed an inherent value in human beings. By making us a special object of his love, God was declaring the dignity of being human. By creating humankind in his own image, God invested a personal identity in us. And, by becoming human, Jesus showed that human beings are on a different plane when compared to all other creation. Jesus Christ, who is the ultimate “image of God” (Heb. 1:3), God showed that humans are loved with the same love that the Son of God enjoys (John 17:23). “He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man… might become the son of God.” (Irenaeus of Lyons – quoted from Theosis Quotes)

Only in the incarnate Jesus Christ, the physical and spiritual are given meaning, purpose, value, and dignity. Christmas was intended to capture this rich meaning. When this is done, it imbues us with a hope that is beyond anything temporal.

It’s the only way to salvation

Scripture tells us that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation (Acts 4:12, John 14:16). In our pluralistic world that might sound arrogant. But it makes complete sense when we see the reality of the broken human condition and how the incarnation addresses that.

No one can deny that humanity is struggling under the weight of corruption and decay. We see it in all walks of life – moral, emotional, relational and physical. Science may have managed to give us some comforts, even prolong life by a few more years. But it is powerless in being able to reverse death. Religion seems to promise salvation but only if we can work it out ourselves. Given the imperfect and damaged state of our condition, it is impossible for humankind to reach a standard of perfect righteousness to attain salvation by human effort.

I am human. I need a human dimension to understand my need but, at the same time, a divine one to address it. Jesus Christ is the only perfect “God-man” to fulfil that. He is the only one who took my broken humanity and reversed the curse of corruption and decay. He is the only one who assumed every bit of the human malady, cleansing it in his own humanity and gifted us eternal life in his divinity. I know of no other deity who did that for me. I know of no path that can lead me to salvation, except “The Way” – Jesus Christ himself. That is why he is my only way to salvation.

Christmas is significant because of all of the above and much more. We might never be able to comprehend the mystery of it in its fullness, but celebrating it informs our theology, nurtures our faith and provides the “…peace of God, which surpasses all understanding …” And it is this that “… will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). Merry Christmas!

Faith, Hope, & Love Venue Videos

Throughout 2019 we have focused on the Team Based – Pastor Led model for GCI churches. Pastors can set the pace through this overview by helping their congregations achieve health through what we refer to as the three venues of ministry:

  • Faith venue (discipleship)—discipling people in the faith—small groups, discipleship classes,. Bible studies, missionary activities and
    click on the image to download the pdf

    events.

  • Hope venue (worship)—the Sunday worship service—intentional preparation, inclusive gathering, inspirational worship.
  • Love venue (witness)—mission and outreach—identifying a target community, building relationships, missional events.

Click on the link to view videos from our workshops are Regional Celebrations outlining the purpose of each venue.

Venue Resources: Advent PowerPoint

Advent PowerPoint with a graphic for each candle lighting and the accompanying scripture.

Many GCI congregations celebrate Advent by having an Advent wreath on a table in the front of the sanctuary. The wreath encircles three purple candles and one pink candle. There is a white candle at the center of the wreath, representing Christ and the light he brings to the world. Each week a candle is lit; all are symbolic. This month, our church hack is a collection of PowerPoint slides to accompany the Advent candle-lighting portion of your Sunday service.

Click on the image or here to access and download the Advent PowerPoint.

Responding to Gabriel

A comparison of Zechariah’s and Mary’s response to the Angel Gabriel

Written by Daphne Sidney, Church Administration GCI-Australia

The Gospel of Luke seems best placed to explore this comparison. Luke was a highly educated man, trained as a doctor (Col. 4:14) and most probably a Greek. With Luke being a Gentile, he understood what it was like to be alienated and writes from an understanding of God’s love for all peoples and often details accounts of women, children, the poor and oppressed. It’s a Gospel with a message for everybody…[1]. With giving women and children more prominence, this Gospel contains the most detailed narratives of the birth of two very important babies, John the Baptist and Jesus the Christ.

In the first chapter of Luke we read the accounts of these two amazing births. Both were preceded by a visit from the angel Gabriel to one of the prospective parents, amazing events in themselves. Zechariah and Elizabeth are described in verse 6 as being ”righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord,” high praise indeed. Zechariah was well respected in the community as a devout and aged priest. Mary and Joseph, on the other hand, lived in Nazareth as a carpenter and his betrothed were poor, as shown by the fact that their offering at the temple after Jesus was born was the least expensive one, two doves or pigeons. Mary was a young girl, some commentaries suggest just a teenager, since that was the custom of the day

We all know the story. When Gabriel told Zechariah of the impending birth of John, he responded, “How shall I know this, for I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years?” He’d been walking with God for a very long time, but perhaps had seen a lot of life in all those years and was maybe in the habit of looking at the physical rather than just accepting in faith. He was abruptly corrected, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and bring you this good news.” Ouch, we know what happens next. Though they are blessed with the promised very special baby, Zechariah would be silent till after the birth, because “you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time” (v. 20).

We also know that after Gabriel had given Mary the news, that she, a young inexperienced virgin of humble origins, would give birth to the Son of the Most High! Mary’s response was, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Notice the difference. She didn’t doubt the angel’s word, but simply didn’t understand how it could happen. Her belief was affirmed by her second reply to the angel saying, “I am the Lord’s servant…May it be to me as you have said” (v. 38). This has been described as a quiet submission, handmaid or servant meaning a slave-girl, one who would want only to follow the will of her Master. She recognized the will of God and accepted it.[2]

The two accounts provide a light and shade contrast between the two responses, Mary’s believing response, and Zechariah’s struggles with unbelief. There is much to be learnt from both, the yielded faith of Mary, and from Zechariah to not look at our physical limitations, but to look to God and what he can do in and through our weaknesses. And in his time. Zechariah would have been familiar with the retold story of Abraham and Sarah, who, way beyond child-bearing years, gave birth to a son. Yet Zechariah showed the penchant of all humans to default to human reasoning over and above walking by faith, and we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Notwithstanding their old age, the angel Gabriel spoke with certainty that God’s word would be fulfilled. The narrative continually shows encouragement through the angel’s message, including the words to Mary, “For nothing is impossible with God” affirming that Elizabeth was to have a child in her old age (v. 37).

By grace, God’s glorious purposes were carried out with both couples. Zechariah and Elizabeth were blessed with the birth of a Son to be named John, whose name meant the Lord is gracious, and Mary and Joseph blessed with a Son to be named Jesus, meaning The Lord saves us.

God so loves the world, that his purposes are sure and not thwarted by human frailty – and not dependent on our works, age, position, or social status. Paul reminds us that the incomparable riches of his grace are expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith – not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:7-8). By grace and faith, that no one should boast, but that God be glorified!

In Mary’s song referred to as “The Magnificat,” Mary glorifies the Lord and not herself. “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… for the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is his name” (vv. 47-49). Mary acknowledged that it was God who had done great things for her, and this thought continues throughout her song.

Paul echoes these remarkable events, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons” (Gal. 4:4-5). The gospel invites us to believe in the Son and trust that God is faithful to bring his promises to pass in the fulness of his time.

[1] Wiersbe, Warren W. Be Compassionate: NT Commentary, 2nd ed. 2010, p. 17.

[2] Morris, Leon. Luke. Tyndale NT Commentaries, vol. 3, IVP, 1988, p. 91.

Sermon for January 5, 2020

Readings: Psalm 147:12-20 • Ephesians 1:3-14 • John 1:1-9;10-18 • Jeremiah 31:7-14

The theme for this week is God’s riches. Each passage discusses feasting and celebration because of God’s riches given to us. The sermon, “The Discipline of Feasting,” is based on Jeremiah 31:7-14. Psalm 147:12-20 envisions God providing the seasons and controlling the weather. Ephesians 1:3-14 tells of the lavish inheritance we have in Christ. John 1:1-18 praises God’s generous plan to redeem us through giving His son.

The Discipline of Feasting

Jeremiah 31:7-14 NRSV

Did you make a New Year’s Resolution this year? Most of us did, in some kind of absent way as we put back the last of the dishes or stood on the scale in the morning. The festival is done, and real life waits with alarm clocks and schedules.

This can lead to an anecdote or fun discussion here about New Year’s Resolutions

Statistics show that the top category for New Year’s Resolutions is diet and exercise. Eat less, eat better, take up running—these top the list. Gyms see a reliable jump in membership and make some good money. Christmas for gym owners is January!

The next category is money—budgeting or just plain spending less. This year we’re gonna get organized! This year we’re pay off the credit cards (with cash—not other credit cards)!

New Year’s resolutions have about an 8% success rate. The gym attendance flattens out and the budgeting app goes to the third screen on our phones, unused. We find ourselves back on that bathroom scale in the morning without much change.

Why is this the rhythm every year? Why is there this binging and purging around the holidays? We get our credit card bill or our cholesterol checked in January and think—what happened?

There are plenty of reasons we can think of, but it seems there’s always a vague sense of guilt around the holidays. We spend too much, we eat too much, we drink too much. We just plain “too much” and then we try to sober up come January.

Have you ever felt guilty about enjoying yourself? Have you—at Christmas dinner or knee-deep in wrapping paper—thought, I wonder how God feels about this? Why do we always have nagging uncertainty about what he thinks of it all?

We think maybe he’s really just happy with us when we’re somehow restricting ourselves—getting up early, going to the gym, giving to the needy. He tolerates our good times if we just offset it with enough seriousness and tithing and self-denial.

But look at this passage from Jeremiah:

Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,…

…a great company, they shall return here…

…Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. (Jeremiah 31:7, 8, 13 NRSV)

There is joy, happiness, and silliness everywhere. There’s not a whiff here of guilt or even restraint—this is a party! This is a vision of God’s restoration and of God’s over-provision for his people. This is God bringing us together for that enormous meal, to stand knee-deep in wrapping paper.

Have you practiced the discipline of feasting? I didn’t say fasting. The discipline of singing, dancing, enjoying the abundance of blessing. Let’s look at that today:

    • Gratitude
    • Gathering
    • Groundedness

Gratitude…

The book of Jeremiah can be divided roughly in half. The first half is about God’s judgment on Israel using the surrounding nations—Assyria, Babylon and others. The second half is about God’s judgments on those nations. The whole book is about God’s righteous judgment and the need for obedience and transformation.

Through the middle of it, though, like a stream through a dry ground, is this “book of consolation.” Just a few chapters here about God restoring Israel and Judah. Most of the verses you’ve heard or seen on a cross-stitch sampler from Jeremiah are from this short section. These chapters talk about God’s eventual deliverance and love for his people—about a hope and future.

It’s full of gorgeous images of provision:

They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall be like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again. (Jeremiah 31:12 NRSV)

They shall be a watered garden. They shall languish no more. Consolation indeed. Look at this imagery: gardens, water in a dry place. Do you think this would mean a lot to Old Testament people? People who grew up with stories of the desert Exodus and the Garden of Eden.

Jeremiah is called the “weeping prophet.” He is constantly talking about judgment and pain, but suddenly here’s this intermission. Life is never just all one thing, is it? Just when we’ve given in to bitterness, cynicism, pessimism, God breaks the chain of events.

We end up with what G.K. Chesterton, the lay theologian, called “the problem of pleasure.” You have probably heard the phrase “problem of pain,” but this is it from the other side: joy out of nowhere blindsided. You’re suddenly visited by an old friend or you see a sunset that stops you in your tracks. Or you have a season of rest and peace after a long time uphill. This problem of pleasure that tells us there’s Someone there, sending love to us.

These images of feasting and consolation remind us that this is really what’s at the center of it all. As the Trinity is in continual joyful fellowship with each other, so we were meant to be. All this: the stress, the grief, the death is secondary. It was never meant to be. The nucleus of the universe is joy.

Think of the Jewish rhythm that Jeremiah’s community would be all about. Everything in the week pointed toward the Sabbath, and this day marked them out as God’s people. And what was the day for besides worship? Nothing! It was for rest and relationship. One of the most important religious observances they had was rest.

Pop quiz: what was Jesus’ first miracle in the book of John? To change water into wine. To change the necessary for the unnecessary, to change sustenance into a party. Because that’s what’s at the center.

Gathering…

See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. (Jeremiah 31:8 NRSV)

It may seem silly, but truth often comes in the strangest packages. Let’s indulge in a children’s poem:

INVITATION
If you are a dreamer, come in.
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer . . .
If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire,
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Come in!
Come in!

Maybe Shel Silverstein’s poem is a little simple, maybe a little too idealistic, but there’s truth in there, and maybe it touches on the deepest truth. When God shows up to the party, there is GATHERING. One of the sure signs of his presence is that everyone is welcome. People come out of the woodwork, and often it’s people who aren’t welcomed anywhere else.

The dreamers, the wishers, the magic bean buyers – those who society doesn’t have time for, those who are out on the fringes. Usually when you find them around the fire, Jesus is around that fire, too. When we take part in the discipline of feasting, the table has a way of lengthening to welcome all kinds of people.

Look at these images Jeremiah gives us:

    • Blind
    • Lame
    • New mothers
    • Pregnant women just about to give birth

Jeremiah wrote this in a society that was transient and in exile. His picture of God’s party includes all the people that wouldn’t have a place in that society. He pictures a community where those who are disregarded or seen as a burden are given a place at the head table. That’s the mark of God’s company. That’s the mark of the discipline of feasting.

Were you able to glimpse that during the holiday season? Were you able to see friends and family, even those with special needs or disabilities, enjoying the fellowship? Did your heart swell and expand as you saw God in the gathering? He was there, and he was rejoicing with you. When he’s not there, parties and gatherings are marked by division, one-up-man-ship. It’s only a matter of time before someone’s trying to be the funniest or the smartest in the room, and we start to divide into factions.

This constant rhythm of leaving and returning, scattering and gathering is just a foretaste of the great gathering we will have at the end with Christ. It’s no mistake that the Wedding Supper of the Lamb we’re invited to in Revelation 19 is basically a huge party where the wine is always new and table stretches from horizon to horizon.

 

Groundedness…

For the LORD has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. (Jeremiah 31:11 NRSV)

Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is groundedness. When we practice feasting with grateful hearts, we realize that all we have and all we are is from God. We realize we are unworthy of our blessings, and that the greatest gifts we’ve received—kids, spouses, other relationships—are blessings we could never earn.

When we realize that these gifts are gifts, we can hold them with an open hand. We are free to rejoice because we realize that God has “redeemed us from hands too strong” for us. We are grounded again in the fact that God is in his heaven, and every good and perfect gift is from above.

Think about some of the crankiest, most demanding places you see people. Cruise ships and airports. Everyone is out to have a good time, to have the party that “we deserve.” Disneyland can be one of the unhappiest places on earth when you’ve paid too much to get there and have to wait two hours in line with a bunch of the people having “the time of their lives.” But when we can realize that every gift is a gift from God, given only by his grace, then we are truly free to party.

I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the LORD. (Jeremiah 31:14 NRSV)

Isn’t that a great word: satisfied?! In a culture that runs on more-more-more, a culture that makes money on dissatisfaction, we hear about a life in which we can live satisfied. The gifts God has given us have always been enough, and we can come to a place of realizing that.

Another point here. The Old Testament follows the long, bizarre history of Israel over the centuries. Their humanity is basically on display for all to see. If you watch all the way through, God promises them many things and calls them to many things. Comfort, peace, prosperity all come and go. But there is never a promise that they will be the most successful or largest of the kingdoms—they had much bigger, more powerful neighbors.

No, they were called to be the holiest nation. The nation set apart for God, characterized by love and inclusion. They were called to be a nation of gathering that brought in the strangers, those with special needs, and magic bean buyers—and that’s because they were God’s satisfied people and that’s what God’s about.

Gratitude…

Think back on your favorite time this holiday. Think back on the “problem of pleasure” and the fact that God shows up and blindsides us with joy. Don’t feel guilty for that—enjoy it, savor it.

Gathering…

Look around you on a Sunday morning, and you’ll see the miracle of God’s kind of party. There are no assigned seats, no head or foot of the table. Jesus sat next to John at the Last Supper, and who sat on his other side? Judas. When God is at the party, there’s room for everyone; everyone has a seat the feast.

Groundedness…

As we head back into real life, let’s do so grounded in the fact of God’s love, provision, and control. Grounded in the fact that he runs it all, and that all good things are a loan from him we hold with open hands. That’s another signal of God’s discipline of feasting. There’s no hangover, no regret, and you can head back into the grind of life refreshed and grateful that you have a table at the feast.

 


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • Statistically, New Year’s resolutions have an 8% success rate. Did you make a resolution this year? Have you broken it yet? Have you ever made a memorable resolution in the past?
  • In the sermon we talked about the “discipline of feasting.” Have you ever celebrated this: guilt-free enjoyment of God’s provision and bounty? Did you take part in that this Christmas?
  • What does it mean to say the nucleus of the universe is joy? To say that pain and suffering are secondary and not part of the original plan?
  • Look at verse 8: “See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here.” What does this kind of diverse, fringe group tell us about feasts where Jesus shows up? Why does he always seem to invite those on the margins?
  • One of the signs of God’s kind of party is groundedness—it’s not an escape from life that leaves you bitter, it calls you back into life refreshed and focused. Has this been your experience? Why do you think that is?

Poem to ponder:

INVITATION
If you are a dreamer, come in.
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer . . .
If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire,
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Come in!
Come in!

 

Sermon for January 12, 2020

Readings: Isaiah 42:1-9 • Psalm 29 • Acts 10:34-43 • Matthew 3:13-17

This week’s theme is the baptism (anointing) of Jesus. The prophet Isaiah foretold that Jesus was the servant of God, the chosen one. The Psalmist reminds us to give glory to the anointed one and reminds us who he is. In Acts, Peter shares with Cornelius—and seems to come to a much deeper understanding himself—of who Jesus is and says, “We are witnesses of everything he did.” Matthew recounts the story of Jesus’ baptism and subsequent anointing by the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 3:13-17 (NRSV)

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Who Needs to Be Baptized?

Today is the first Sunday in the season of Epiphany. Epiphany means “manifestation” or “showing forth.” It is the season where we look at the stories of Jesus’ life to gain an unveiling of the mysteries once concealed. Different stories of Jesus are typically explored during this season as they help us see God’s revelation. The story we will explore for today is Jesus’ baptism. As we look at this story we are given an “epiphany” of who God is for us.

The passage begins with Jesus coming to John the Baptist to be baptized. This creates a challenge for John’s way of thinking and at first, he resists Jesus. We see this response played out in our lives and the world at large as Jesus comes to us. The gospel always elicits a response. God is the one who takes the initiative in coming to us and we are left with either resisting or accepting him. In John’s case, as we can often relate, he first resisted and then “consented.”

There is an epiphany in this portion of the story that we can explore before going further. Notice that it is Jesus who takes the initiative to come to John. John’s whole ministry was characterized by preaching in the wilderness and having people come to him. Jesus, on the other hand, does not stay in Galilee waiting for John and others to come to him. He goes out.

We can see a turn in how Jesus will do ministry compared to the way John the Baptist had been doing ministry. This tells us something about God’s heart. God is a sending God who comes to his people where they are. He doesn’t wait till we “find him.” He finds us in our wilderness. When we were lost and walking in darkness, that didn’t keep the Father from finding us and coming to us. This story gives us a glimpse into the Father’s heart. He loves us and moves towards us to make himself known.

We also see in John’s response an effort to “prevent” Jesus from being baptized by John. John knows he is not worthy to baptize Jesus. Notice that Jesus doesn’t throw up his hands and walk away. He speaks to John in such a way as to change his response of resistance to a response where he “consented.” So even our response to God’s coming to us is God’s work of grace. He doesn’t let our unworthy responses “prevent” us from being encountered by God. God works in Jesus to sanctify our response, turning our rejections towards receptions of his work in our life. This story begins by revealing to us God’s grace in coming to us and bringing us to himself.

In John’s hesitation to baptize Jesus, we can see John wrestling with a question that is essentially, “who needs to be baptized?” We may have that same question today. The Jewish answer to that question was that only Gentiles who want to be part of the Jewish community must be baptized. John’s answer up to this point had been that Gentiles and Jews alike needed to be baptized. But Jesus comes along showing us that in order to “fulfill all righteousness” not only do Gentiles and Jews need to be baptized, but also God himself. This act on Jesus’ part blows John’s thinking of baptism out of the water. John responds with “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

As we let Jesus’ baptism shed light on the mysteries of who God is, we can see that both parts of John’s question can be answered in the affirmative. Yes, we need to be baptized by Jesus. That is, if we are going to be included into the life, the communion, of Father, Son, and Spirit, we must be brought into this life, immersed into it by being baptized with the life Jesus shares with us. The Greek baptizo for baptize carries the meaning “to dip, to immerse or to dye.” The picture is like a piece of cloth being soaked and saturated in a vat of dye. The cloth is so penetrated with what it is immersed in that it shares the same qualities. Like an immersed cloth in a vat of dye, the Trinity has existed for all eternity in baptism. The Father, Son and Spirit have for all eternity lived baptized, continually immersed, soaked and saturated with the love, joy, creativity and overflow of shared life. This baptized life of the Triune God is shared with us in Jesus.

So, we indeed need to be baptized by Jesus for our inclusion and immersion into this communion. But for this to take place, Jesus also must “come to us” and be baptized into our life. Jesus comes in the incarnation and immerses himself into our sinful flesh. He enters fully into our darkness and death. In so doing, he is the Light that overcomes our darkness and he is the Life that defeats our death. Jesus tells John that it is “proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus’ baptism is not something he does alone, but he does it with “us.” As he brings “us” into his baptism, we are included in his baptized life with the Father in the Spirit.

As Jesus comes up “out of the water” we begin to see what this baptized life looks like. Heaven is opened, the Spirit descends and we hear the Father speak. We get a fully Trinitarian involvement in Jesus’ baptism. Let’s take a look at how these details are used in the story.

First, “just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” Jesus’ baptism is told by Matthew in such a way as to bring in some Old Testament stories loaded with theological content. The most obvious is the picture of creation given in Genesis. There we have the creation of the “heavens and the earth” where the Spirit hovers over the waters and God speaks creation into existence. In the Garden, we see God’s presence with his creation. God never intended for heaven and earth to be a barrier between the Creator and his creatures. In Jesus’ baptism, we are seeing a restoration of this original intent. “The heavens were opened to him.” In Jesus, heaven and earth have once again come together. In Jesus, we have the presence of God walking with us as he did in the Garden.

We can also be reminded of another Old Testament story that has similar patterns—the story of the Flood. In this story, the Ark is on the waters and has a dove descend on it. In both the creation story and the Flood story, we are dealing with God’s creative and redeeming work. Jesus is now the center of God’s work of creation and redemption. In Jesus’ baptism, we have a new creation where heaven has been opened.

Second, we have “a voice from heaven” speak. This is the Father’s voice speaking to his Son. This is the voice that spoke creation into existence and the voice we were created to hear. We may wonder what would God most want to say to us if he spoke to us. What words would he say? In this story, we have those words written down for us. Since Jesus is baptized for our sakes, we can hear the Father’s voice speaking not only to his Son, but also to us as adopted children. So, what is it the Father is saying to you today?

Seeing that this is the Creator, our creator, and God, we would do well to memorize and meditate on these words that he is saying to us in Jesus Christ.

The first thing he says to each of us is, “This is my child.” How does it feel to belong? Is this not one of the deepest longings of our soul – to be claimed and wanted? How many young children’s hearts are filled with joy simply by their father saying, “That’s my boy, or that’s my girl”? Not only is God telling us personally that we belong to him, but he says it out loud for all to hear. If anyone wants to tell you that you are not good enough, that you don’t fit in or don’t belong, they will need to contend with this voice that thunders from heaven, claiming and naming us as his own child. When we listen to this voice, the sting of rejection is emptied of its poison.

The second thing the Father says to us is, “whom I love.” Not only are we claimed and named by the Father, but this Father loves us. Let’s face it, there are some people I’d rather not belong to because I know they do not care one bit about me. The blessing of belonging is found in the one to whom we belong. The Father is one who loves us. To fill that out, remember who the Father is speaking to. He is speaking to his own Son, who he has loved for all eternity. His love for his Son is a perfect love, not a love that is self-seeking or filled with hidden agendas. He is saying to you and me that he loves us in the same way he loves his own Son. Let that sink in! (Although it will take an eternity.)

The final thing the Father says to you and me today is, “with him I am well pleased.” It’s one thing to belong. It’s another thing to be loved. But what an awe-inspiring thing it is to belong and be loved by one who also likes you, adores you and favors you beyond belief. Can we really comprehend what it will mean to walk into the presence of God and by doing so bring a smile to his face? It may be hard to believe the Father is really saying these words to us. But he has said it to his own Son, who is baptized into our lives in order to baptize us into his.

This is some of the mystery unveiled in Jesus’ baptism. The Triune God has baptized us with his life. Heaven is opened and the Spirit is given. May we see this Epiphany season the Father, who says to us through Jesus in the Spirit, that we belong to him, that he loves us and that he is pleased with us. Amen!


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • We use the word “epiphany” to mean we suddenly see or understand something that we were once ignorant of. Can you remember a time you had an “epiphany”?
  • Can you think of times where you wanted to “prevent” Jesus from working in your life because you didn’t feel worthy? Or, can you think of other examples in the Bible where someone wanted to prevent the Lord from something because they thought it was too undignified for Jesus?
  • Compare and contrast how John the Baptist did ministry with how Jesus did ministry. What does this tell you about how God works with us?
  • Discuss the similarities between the Creation account in Genesis, the story of the Flood, and the baptism of Jesus. What patterns do you see? How does this enlighten your understanding of the significance of Jesus’ baptism?
  • Is it hard for you to hear for yourself the words the Father said about Jesus after his baptism? Which is harder to believe: God claims you, God loves you or that God is pleased with you?
  • Do you see any other “epiphanies” in the text for today that were not covered in the sermon?

Sermon January 19,2020

Readings: Isaiah 49:1-7 • Psalm 40:1-11 • 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 • John 1:29-42

The theme for this week is “Come and see.” In Isaiah 49:1-7, God speaks his promises over his people inviting them to come and see in the adventure of obedience. In Psalm 40:1-11, the author invites us to come and see the goodness and deliverance of God through telling his own experience. In 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, Paul invites the young church to embrace their identity and inheritance in Christ. In John 1:29-42, Jesus’ gets his first disciple Andrew with the invitation “Come and see.” Andrew dedicates his life to extending that invitation to the world.

Andrew, the Shadow Disciple

John 1:29-42

Can anyone tell me Donald Trump’s sister’s name? Maryanne. What about Oprah Winfrey’s half-sister? Patricia Lee. Who can name the other four members of the Jackson Five?

Who is Peter’s brother? Andrew. He’s in the shadows throughout. We know very little about him. He doesn’t have any great lines, nor perform any miracles, nor does he even have very many recorded conversations with Jesus.

One of the first things we see about the apostle Andrew when he appears on the scene is his name. His famous brother’s name is Simon, which is a solid Aramaic Hebrew name. He is a good Jewish boy who is carrying his parents’ dreams and going to make something of himself. Andrew, the younger brother, comes along and he is given the Greek name Andrew. His name translates to “manly” or “brave,” but this strong silent man never seems to make it out of his brother’s shadow.

He first comes on the scene in John 1:35…:

The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”

They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?” “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”

So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.

Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus. (John 1:35-42)

There is an important detail here, as there always is, right at the beginning of this passage that will tell us a little bit about Andrew. He was a disciple of John the Baptist.

John the Baptist was a prophetic voice, in the old tradition of the prophets in the Old Testament, calling for a revival and renewal of the people’s hearts toward God. In this ancient society, as in many others, a big personality like this would have gained some kind of following. It was not unheard of for a spiritual leader like John to have followers who lived near where he was and worked with him. They might have been following him, a lot like the apostles who ended up following Jesus.

But John’s message was different. He not only called people to renewed obedience, but he prophesied about something new that was happening. He was calling people to pay attention because things were about to change drastically, and we see from other places that he wasn’t even quite sure what that new direction was.

And we see here the calling of the first, although by no means the most famous, of the apostles: Andrew, Peter the Rock’s little brother. As the 12 apostles scattered to the four corners of the earth, he most likely ended up in Greece. Like about half the apostles, we have very little record of Andrew in the Gospels. He says a few words here and there, and is in a few lists, but other than that we don’t know a lot.

At first glance, he’s kind of the wallflower apostle. He’s the “also in attendance” apostle. He’s Peter’s “plus one” throughout much of the narrative. If there were a yearbook for the apostles, it would have a picture of a burly, heavy-bearded man captioned, “Simon the Rock, son of Jonah.” And next to it a picture of a quiet, nondescript figure with the caption “Simon’s brother” or maybe just captioned “not pictured.”

Andrew doesn’t take up our whole peripheral vision, like some of his brothers in arms like Peter, or James, or even John “the disciple whom Jesus loved”—big personalities who are remembered everywhere. Here’s a few famous scenes:

    • In Luke, the very exciting scene where Jesus tells Peter to cast into deep water and he brings in a huge catch of fish. Peter throws himself at Jesus’s feet and says, “Get away from me! I am a sinful man!” And Andrew…was also there.
    • In John 6, at the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus feeds thousands of people, miraculously multiplying a humble lunch. And Andrew…was the one who found the boy with the sack lunch.
    • At the triumphal entry, some brave Greeks are there and want to speak with the new rabbi even though they are gentiles and Andrew…introduces them.
    • At the last supper, Jesus explains the heart of the gospel to his apostles and washes their feet. Andrew…was also there.

Andrew had the great privilege of being in the corner of the frame at a lot of important stuff. He’s not one who jumps out at you right away—you have to a look a little closer to see him. But we can still learn a lot from this quiet man of great faith, the shadow disciple.

As we talked about already, he is the first disciple of Christ that we have on record. The Greek Orthodox church, who has cool nicknames for everybody, calls him the “protoklete,” the “first follower.” Let’s look back at John 1:

The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”

They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”“Come,” he replied, “and you will see.” (John 1:35-39)

So, we have the first indication here that Andrew is a disciple of John the Baptist. In those times, people might become disciples of a leader like this. John the Baptist had some inkling that this was going to be new life and also apocalyptic—the old way of being was ending. Their world, as they knew it, would never be the same.

One of the great things we know about John the Baptist was his humility. At the time, if you look at records of history outside of the Scripture, John had a much bigger following than Jesus. If he was just looking for fame, he could have had it right then—he already did! But almost immediately when Jesus comes on the scene, John says, “He must increase, I must decrease!” Most of the dialogue we have reported from John the Baptist is him pointing to Jesus.

It seems here that Andrew may have gotten that message. He may have picked up from his teacher, John the Baptist’s, lifestyle as well as his words—we aren’t here for our own glory. He’s not here for the spotlight; he’s not here to be remembered. He’s not one who, like James and John, has his MOM come and ask Jesus to seat them at his right and left when the kingdom comes. Andrew seems to be this shadow guy, this behind-the-scenes man from the very beginning.

Andrew is the first evangelist. This man has watched what’s going on for a long time now. His brother was busy keeping his boat and running things, but Andrew is in touch with his need—and his people’s need—for something more. I think it’s interesting that out of all the recruiting of the apostles, this is the only one where Jesus doesn’t surprise him with the order to “follow me.”

In Andrew’s life, and perhaps what made him the first disciple, was that he was already searching. He was already following the teacher John the Baptist, and taking him seriously to the point that he just started following Jesus as soon as John says one sentence about him: Behold! The lamb of God!

When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”

They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?” “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”

So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon. (John 1:37-39)

I love this detail here. Jesus spends the whole day with them. Andrew, and most likely John (who doesn’t like to mention himself in his Gospel), spent the day with Jesus at the inn.

What was that like? The simple story of them just passing time—we don’t have the dialogue, we don’t know what was said. God himself spending time with his beloved people. He who used to walk with Adam and Eve in the garden, now finally able to simply spend time being present with people. This same image is picked up later as the resurrected Christ, as one of his first acts after coming back from the dead, just sits with two disciples at the inn on the road to Emmaus.

Will this be our first entrance into the presence of Christ himself after death? Him just waiting, aching to simply break bread with us and spend the day. Before all the fanfare of heaven, before all the angels and the saints who have gone before us, just a simple meal with the Lord of the Universe.

This is perhaps Andrew’s great gift. He isn’t known for being a great speaker, he isn’t known for being a great miracle-worker, he’s known for being THERE. For being there and showing humble faith; for being there and seeing Jesus even when no one else did.

Another important exchange, one of Andrew’s few speaking lines.

When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.

Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”

Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” (John 6:5-9)

Here’s an interesting contrast. Phillip, whose discipleship journey parallels Andrew’s in many ways, is the one who fails the test here. He’s the one who scoffs, and writes the whole thing off from the beginning. The one who shows the spark of faith is the one who always has. Since that first day when Jesus was walking by along the beach, since even before that when he started following the teachings of John the Baptist. Andrew.

You know, Andrew, “Simon Peter’s brother.” He’s almost always having to be reintroduced into the narrative. You can just say John or Peter or Matthew, but you have to reintroduce Andrew every time you mention him. And here he is with the seed of faith.

Still waters run deep. If it wasn’t for Peter, the church would never have been established, if it wasn’t for his little brother Andrew showing up and being there, the church wouldn’t have survived.

We can take a glance into church history and see the influence of these men. From Peter’s ministry came the Roman Catholic church, and out of that the Protestant churches (and out of that a tiny bud called GCI J). But the eastern church, the Eastern Orthodox, claims Andrew as their founder. Two very different brothers that God used, among billions of other people, to found his church on the earth.

Andrew, the little brother of Simon Peter, was a man of quiet faith. He didn’t want the glory, he didn’t want the stage, but he wanted to be there to see what God would do. He was the strong and silent type—steady, keeping the faith.

The last place we hear Andrew mentioned by name is at the Upper Room in Jerusalem after Jesus ascended to heaven. From there, we see “the twelve” showing up in many places, and can only assume that Andrew is among them. But again there is only record that he is present and faithful, not that he is coming to the forefront.

After that, for Andrew and all the disciples, the history is murky at best. There’s a tangle of eye-witness accounts, rumor, and no doubt complete myth about what happened to the disciples. Next to the ocean liner of Scripture, ancient history is a shaky raft, but we can still hope there’s something to it.

The tradition says that Andrew travels to Greece, where he has a successful ministry and becomes a known figure. A local governor’s wife becomes deathly ill, and Andrew goes to pray for her and she rises from bed—healed. She becomes a Christian right away. Soon though, she leaves her husband, and spends her time and energy with the Christian community, learning about her new faith. This makes the governor understandably upset, and he takes it out on Andrew.

As the story goes, Andrew was taken to the seashore and hung on a cross. As he walked toward this weapon of execution, he greeted it, “Hail, oh cross! Take me to my Master!” He was not nailed to it, he was only hung by ropes to prolong his death through exposure or being eaten by wild dogs. He asked to be crucified on an X-shaped cross rather than the traditional shape, insisting that he wasn’t worthy to die as Jesus died.

A crowd gathered, trying to save him because they have seen his miracles during in his ministry. He tells them, “No! Do not save me from martyrdom, I want to suffer for Christ!” He hung on the cross, and this quiet man was given words. He hung there and preached the gospel for two days, winning the crowd to Christ. Finally, at the urging of the mob, the governor agreed to spare him. As Andrew was cut down, there was a blinding light, and Andrew died.

What can we learn from this Andrew, our strong and silent brother? What can we learn from the man who let others speak, let others take the stage until finally his words came and he preached the gospel even as he died?

Let’s look at a few things…

    • Faith, not glory—We see Andrew at many pivotal occasions in the life of Jesus and the early church. That means he was waiting. He was present and paying attention. He wasn’t out of there as soon as something amazing happened; he wasn’t only waiting for a chance at the spotlight. He was present, he was faithful.
    • Loaves and fishes—More than once, we see Andrew has a spark of faith that just won’t go out. Even when they are faced with a need to feed a multitude, he is the first to act, presenting a possibility rather than scoffing. May we have such faith—such faith that God can work with almost nothing to make a miracle.
    • Be an Andrew—Here’s a reversed saying for you: “Don’t just do something, stand there!” Stand there. Be present. When someone is hurting or in need, they don’t need your advice near as much as they need your presence. They don’t need you to say the perfect thing or give the perfect gift, they need you.

This is just one of the amazing stories of the lives of the disciples. Peter went from unpredictability and uncertainty to become the Rock. Matthew went from a conniving miser to a great champion of his people. Jude went from a narrow, short-sighted person to the guardian of the faith. Andrew went from the shadows of his brother to a symbol of one of the greatest church traditions in history. God can use anyone, even us.


Small Group Discussion Questions

Read: John 1:35-42

  • Would you rather be upfront or behind-the-scenes? Do you think God uses both kinds of people? Share examples.
  • Andrew is the brother of Simon Peter. We know very little about him. Why do you think God would want a behind-the-scenes person like Andrew as part of the Twelve? Why would that be helpful?
  • Andrew introduced Peter to Jesus, one of the most important introductions in history. He was also the one to present the loaves and fishes (John 6). These small acts of faith define him. How does God use our small acts to make great miracles?
  • One of Andrew’s most important gifts to the church was simply being there. He didn’t have some memorable speech or spectacular miracle. Why is being there important? Why is it often hard to do?

Quote to ponder:

“O Lord Jesus Christ! suffer not that Thy servant, who hangs here on the tree for Thy name’s sake, be released, to dwell again among men; but receive me. O my Lord, my God! whom I have known, whom I have loved, to whom I cling, whom I desire to see, and in whom I am what I am.”—the reported last words of Andrew as he was martyred after hanging on a cross for three days.

Sermon January 26, 2020

Readings: Isaiah 9:1-4  •  Psalm 27:1, 4-9  •  1 Cor. 1:10-18  •  Matthew 4:12-23

The theme this week is focusing on the light. Jesus is the “great light” Isaiah talks about. The Psalmist understood this and said, “The Lord is my light” and then talked about his desire to dwell in the house of the Lord and gaze on the beauty of his face. In Matthew, Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah as he tells his disciples to drop what they are doing and follow him. Paul reminds the believers in Corinth that it’s not about who baptizes who, it’s about being in the light of Christ.

Unity, Not Uniformity

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

As we can see in our own families, every human being is unique. Even though our kids might have the same genetic makeup and the same home environment, all parents can attest to the peculiar eccentricities they’ve witnessed in their offspring.

In this regard, the church is similar. Even though every human being is valued, loved, and accepted by God, we are not the same. We don’t see the world the same way, mostly due to our individual perspectives that have been shaped by our temperament and experiences. Believe it or not, we don’t always view God the same way, despite having church doctrines and practices. This issue of diversity within the church is nothing new. In First Corinthians, the apostle Paul is writing to address contentious attitudes that were rising up based on whoever had baptized the members. Let’s take a look: [read I Cor. 1:10-18 NRSV]

What can we learn about unity in the midst of diversity?

  • Paul points out that all believers are in Christ and that there are no divisions. We can see that in this instance, the members were trying to see what “team” they were on. Were they on “Team Paul” or “Team Apollos”? Which team was better? It’s easy to recognize how silly this disagreement sounds, but consider how often our disagreements over minor doctrinal issues or other opinions foster negativity.
  • Paul also reminds everyone that baptism is simply a physical ritual to help human beings recognize their new life in Christ. Baptism is not judged more effective by who does the baptizing, nor does baptism have some sort of “magical” powers. Physical rituals like baptism and communion help to reinforce our understanding of where our new life comes from. They give shape and voice to abstract ideas.
  • Finally, Paul admonishes the Corinthians that by focusing on their differences, they were missing the power of Christ’s cross. That power is the self-emptying attitude of love, giving preference to others rather than serving the self. Those who are intent on boosting their self-image think that having a self-emptying attitude is foolish, but if we have moved beyond needing to be right or needing to have everything our way, we see that self-emptying is really the power of God.

Application:

  • Unity is not uniformity. Unity does not mean we all think the same, at least about the small stuff. It means that we need to incorporate a larger vision of our practices that includes influences from diverse cultural and generational backgrounds. Differences need to be viewed as assets, not threats. Maybe this means including some older hymns with our contemporary worship songs, or perhaps our traditional study groups discuss a current movie rather than a typical Bible story.

In this regard, the church is similar. Even though every human being is valued, loved, and accepted by God, we are not the same. We don’t see the world the same way, mostly due to our individual perspectives that have been shaped by our temperament and experiences. Believe it or not, we don’t always view God the same way, despite having church doctrines and practices. This issue of diversity within the church is nothing new. In First Corinthians, the apostle Paul is writing to address contentious attitudes that were rising up based on whoever had baptized the members. Let’s take a look: [read I Cor. 1:10-18 NRSV]

  • Listen more and listen better. Seeking to understand another’s viewpoint or preference without feeling the need to validate our own is a goal to work toward, especially for those in church leadership. Shifting our focus from ourselves to noticing where and how God is at work in another person’s life can help us stop emphasizing our differences, and instead, give praise for God’s individualized care for each human being.

Always remember that unity is not possible apart from the Holy Spirit. God in us seeks harmony, not sameness. Even as we somehow manage to love our children despite our differences, so we also can love one another in the church, permitting the safe expression of our diversity within the context of love and respect.

 Other helpful links:


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • Paul’s appeal is found in verse 10, that believers might be “united in the same mind and the same purpose.” How would you define “same mind and same purpose”? How does your definition differ from uniformity?
  •  In verses 11-12, it mentions that the source of the arguments in the Corinthian church was their idea that being baptized by certain leaders meant a higher status with God. It’s easy to lapse into legalistic ideas that aim to give us a way to “earn” the grace that’s been given to us. Can you think of past beliefs you held that might be similar to these Corinthians
  • Paul speaks of the power of the cross of Christ in v. 17, referring to Christ’s willingness to empty himself on our behalf. How might we diminish the cross of its power in the way we interact with our church family?
  • Why would Christ’s self-emptying behavior on the cross seem like foolishness to those who might not yet believe (v. 18)? Why would his behavior seem like the power of God to those who do believe?