GCI Equipper

Over-spiritualizing Church

There is a reason Jesus referred to himself as “son of man”.

Quite a number of years ago, I was asked by my district pastoral leader (DPL) to move to Cincinnati, Ohio, to pastor a church. I said “no” because I had just moved my family to pastor another congregation. Over the course of several weeks, several different people from the Home Office also asked me to move to Cincinnati, and I kept saying “no.” Finally, my DPL called again and said, “I don’t understand, Rick, every time we talk about Cincinnati among the church leadership, your name comes up. Every time I pray about this, again, your name comes to mind. Have you been praying about this?” I said “no,” and he chuckled and asked me why. I told him because I already knew God’s answer, and I also knew if prayed about it I would have to make the commitment, and I was afraid to tell my family we were moving again.

I didn’t have to “wait to hear from the Lord.” I knew immediately it was what God wanted, and I knew I was going to end up in Cincinnati; I was simply putting fear of family reaction ahead of what I knew was inevitable.

What does this have to do with over-spiritualization of church? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen pastors and leaders hold a church back from growth and reaching out to the community because they are “waiting on the Lord.” They are waiting for a special sign, a special message, or for certain things to fall into place before they are willing to make a move forward. This is called the false dichotomy of spiritual and secular. It is being unwilling to acknowledge that God is in us through the Holy Spirit guiding us daily. It is believing that when God wants us to do something, the Holy Spirit will come and give us a special message—in contrast to believing that the Holy Spirit is already present in us, and we don’t need to have a special prayer or some kind of spiritual experience in order to know his will. In many cases, it is a spiritualization of an excuse. If God doesn’t give me a special handwriting on the wall, I don’t have to act.

Now let me be clear, I always pray for guidance, and I often ask others to pray and share their thoughts with me. I am always in prayer—never ceasing in prayer—which doesn’t mean I am praying all day long. It means I am walking with God all day long— not just in special times and under special circumstances. I’ve been praying about this article, for example, and sought the advice of others. But my prayer isn’t, “God, give me something special that is going to change everything.” Rather, it is a prayer for God to clarify and organize the thoughts he’s been having me dwell on for weeks. In other words, I trust God to guide me all the time, not just during special moments or after a special spiritual formation exercise. I seek the advice of others to further clarify that I am in line with the Holy Spirit more than with just my own thoughts and desires.

So let’s go back to this “waiting on the Lord” statement I often hear. Do we need to wait on the Lord to tell us to love others in action? He’s already told us to do that. Do we need to wait on the Lord to tell us to reach out to our communities and share the gospel? He’s already told us that. Do we need to wait on the Lord to determine if we are called to minister or to serve? He’s already made that clear.

Here’s an important key: because the Holy Spirit is in me—always—I can trust that for the most part, I already know God’s will, and it is always good. His will is for us to allow Christ’s love to compel us to love and serve others. His will is that we be peacemakers. His will is for us to live in his image. Because he calls us beloved, his will is for us to be loved, and to share with others that they are loved.

In his book, Breathing Under Water, Richard Rohr said, “Remember, Jesus said ‘follow me’ and never once said, ‘worship me.’ The sad result is that we have many ‘spiritual’ beings when the much more needed task is to learn how to be true human beings” (p. 77). I believe this is one of the reasons why Jesus most often referred to himself throughout the Gospels as a “son of man.”

As the son of man, Jesus took on our humanity, declaring, “I’m one of you. I came to be one of you in your world.” Rohr points out that forgetting this leads to keeping the gospel otherworldly. “We could all imagine its possible connotations while ignoring its clear denotation.” As son of man, Jesus told us to follow him. This leads to an important question: Is our calling to imitate Jesus as Son of God, or as son of man? I believe the answer is clear. The Christian group Casting Crowns sings the answer in their song “If We Are the Body.”

If we are the body…
Why aren’t his hands reaching?
Why aren’t his hands healing?
Why aren’t his words teaching?
Why aren’t his feet going?
Why is his love not showing them there is a way?

Many use the phrase, “We are called to be his hands and feet.” There is truth to that, as long as we realize we aren’t there to replace his hands and feet, but to join them, to participate in what he is doing. This leads to healthy church.

Let’s make sure we never become so engrossed in spiritualization and spiritual formation that we become so focused on trying to imitate Jesus as the Son of God (which we can’t do) and neglect our calling to live in his image as the son of man? Let’s never forget that Jesus asked us to follow him—to join him in ministry and to participate in his mission, which we find in Luke 4.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19 NRSV)

Without ever neglecting our personal spiritual formation and growing in grace and knowledge, in our pursuit for healthy church, may God lead us into never over-spiritualizing our churches, but to encourage our leaders and members to join Jesus by participating in the work he began and still does in us through the Holy Spirit as the son of man.

By Rick Shallenberger

Editor

The Avenues: On the Road to WHY?

Love, hope, and faith are more than just biblical words describing a church—they continually remind us why we pursue healthy church.

By Jeff Broadnax, Regional Director, US East

In a 2018 Speaking of Life video titled “Where there is no vision,”  President Greg Williams declared, “The movement toward a shared vision galvanizes people; it gives them purpose. A clear vision provides focus. Vision unites and inspires.” Soon after that, he introduced a fresh vision for GCI known as “Healthy Church.”

Around that same time, we offered our first “church hack” on the Faith, Hope and Love Avenues in GCI Equipper. We initially used the word “venues,” but found it too complicated to translate internationally. In addition, the term venue didn’t quite convey the picture of being on the road to becoming a healthy church; the term avenue seemed a better descriptor.

Some have asked, “Why can’t we just use the terms the rest of the Christian world uses? You know, terms like discipleship, worship, witness.” Others asked, “wouldn’t it be easier to use terms like upward, inward and outward to describe the markers of a healthy church rather than the generic faith, hope and love?”

These are good questions. I asked some of those questions myself and still use the terms to help translate when people struggle in understanding the hope, faith and love avenues. I also noticed a significant difference in the terms that helped me embrace the avenue vocabulary at a deeper level.

The last several years has brought skepticism and almost distrust to traditional, plain Christian vocabulary. Just say the word evangelical or evangelism to many, and their antenna of cynicism start going off. Even the term witness doesn’t enjoy the power and relevance it had in earlier decades. Rather, it often creates defensiveness.

The most significant difference I have come to see is that descriptors like upward, inward, outward, or worship, witness and discipleship describe more what and how we share the gospel of Jesus as believers. When I took a fresh look at the hope, faith and love avenue terminology, I began to see that those descriptors express our why for witnessing, worshipping or discipling.

Consider this. In a healthy church, leaders and members have courageously stepped out of the walls of the church and into the neighborhood surrounding the church (the one square mile) to share the tangible and transforming love of Christ we have freely received. Joining Jesus “as we go” about our daily lives, his love compels us to look for ways to share his love and life with those we come in contact with. This leads to visitors and family members joining us in worship on a given Sunday.

Continuing: In a healthy church with healthy leaders, our weekly worship time should put people on the road to regularly experience and embrace the hope we have in Jesus. From the time a visitor (or family member) gets out of a car in our parking lot to the time they pull into their driveway at home, they should find members facilitating their Spirit-led journey of worship, fellowship, inspiration, welcome and blessing.

To follow up: Once these visitors have engaged with healthy leaders and congregations, the intentional pathway of life-on-life (or connect group) discipleship should lead them to an ever-deepening faith-walk with Jesus and other believers. The process makes sense and, as Paul pointed out, starts with “the greatest of these”—love.

These biblical terms take a deeper meaning when we are ready to give an answer as to why we evangelize, worship and disciple — we are following the lead of Jesus, the apostle Paul and the other New Testament writers and believers.

The terminology of hope, faith and love avenues still may feel a little clunky coming off the tongue, but I hope this reframe has helped.

Being on the avenue or road that facilitates Christ-centered, Spirit-led growth in hope, faith and love is the why of the disciple-maker. It is our prayer, as Greg stated, to have living and sharing the gospel of Jesus spring out of healthy leaders who equip others to be “the best expression of the church of Jesus Christ they can be!”

Instead of experiencing the avenues as just new terminology, let’s try to see them as words that reflect the journey on the road to our deeper “why” – the hope, faith and love we have in Jesus.

No “Less Than” in God’s Economy

Because all are created in God’s image and for God’s glory, to view others as “less than” is to deny the truth of the special place humanity has in God’s creation.

By Bill Hall, National Director, Canada

The discovery of graves containing 215 bodies at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, BC, has caused a lot of soul-searching in Canada regarding our treatment of indigenous Canadians over the centuries. This discovery is especially more poignant given the fact that most of the residential schools were operated by churches in conjunction with the Canadian government.

I felt a lot of angst when I saw those black-and-white photos on various news websites —pictures of little children who had been removed from their families, pictures of those children praying at their schools. They were so young, and apparently some of them never returned home. Many of us have read stories of the physical and sexual abuse that they suffered. Or the other conditions, such as lack of food, forced labor, punishment for speaking their home languages, and the forced removal of their culture.

This begs the question, why do we as a society, or as various groups, including Christians, treat others or consider others as less than, often resulting in committing despicable acts? The pictures were old, but the “less than” treatment of others still pervades our societies.

The Bible tells us that we are all affected by what we call the “Fall”— the time when our first parents rejected an intimate relationship with the Triune God. They rejected their true identity—being made in the image of God. In his book Life in the Trinity, Donald Fairbairn says this about this important fact: “Christianity teaches us that our significance does not ultimately lie in what we accomplish or what we do; it lies in the one to whom we belong” (p. 67).

He explains that how one views Genesis 1-2 is so crucial in understanding who we are. We are not simply another part of God’s creation, like the plants and animals, but by being made in the image of God, we belong to him. It was God’s intention from the beginning that we share in the fellowship that is characterized by the relationship of the persons of the Trinity.

Continuing, Fairbairn then says, “Significance does not lie in what one can accomplish on one’s own. It does depend on the one to whom one is connected” (68).

This connection is linked to creation, and not whether a person is a follower of Jesus or anyone else. It’s not based on gender, culture, religion, or experience. Genesis 9:6 and James 3:9 make this truth clear that all bear the image of God.

We are all connected to the Father, in Jesus Christ, by the Spirit. And this goes back to our true identity—being created in the image of God. Gary Deddo, president of Grace Communion Seminary, says:

While most English translations use the word “in” (in the image of God), many Hebrew scholars think it would be better translated “according to” (according to the image of God). This corresponds better to understanding “the image of God” to mean created according to a purpose, or for a purpose rather than indicating a particular human attribute or capacity such as the power of reason that humanity possesses. “According to” pictures something involving purpose and relationship. We are created according to the image of God, who is Jesus Christ. We are created to be images of The Image.

As we come to realize this important truth about the special place of humanity in God’s creation, it is clear we should never consider others as “less than” in our dealings with them. All are beloved children of God; Christ’s love in us compels us to help others be loved. Unfortunately, the Fall does impact all of us, and even Christians can act against, or treat others as if they do not have that special place in God’s eyes. However, when we view others as the Triune God views us—when we ask God to give us what I call “new lenses” to allow us to see others as he sees them—our perception about and actions towards others will reflect our true identity and theirs.

May God help us live in the image of The Image.

Yes, the Day DOES Matter

Is the day and time we worship inclusive or exclusive?

By Tim Sitterley, US Regional Director, West

When Linda and I were planning our wedding forty-some years ago, I made the brilliant suggestion that we hold the ceremony at the base of the waterfall where we had one of our first dates. Sure, it was a strenuous four-hour hike in the mountains, but I had it all worked out. The entire wedding party would hike in together. There would be a beautiful ceremony (where we would have to yell to be heard over the sound of the falls). The champagne would chill in the stream for the reception to follow. And the crowd would throw rice and cheer us on as Linda and I headed up the trail for a back-pack honeymoon. Linda pointed out the multitude of reasons why that was a really dumb idea…mostly centered around the fact that many of the people we wanted to invite would never be able to make the hike. We had a perfectly normal wedding on the college campus where we attended.

Destination weddings are all the rave these days. But few events are as exclusionary as a wedding in Cancun where only a select few are able to afford the trip. Friends and family are left behind, apparently expected to purchase a gift and look at photos of the actual event. One wedding I’m familiar with took place on a beach. Was it beautiful? Yes. Could a prominent family member in a wheelchair attend? No. Destination weddings and the word “inclusional” will never exist in the same sentence.

When we talk about the Hope Avenue in a healthy church, the word “inclusional” gets used quite a bit. Some will even add the tagline “You’re Included” on their website and signage. We want people to feel a part of our weekly worship experience from the moment they walk through our doors. We greet them at the door. We give them a bulletin so they can know what to expect. We encourage our members to engage visitors, and to make sure they are invited to stay for whatever social activities follow the service. We even follow up (or should) with a card or email thanking them for joining us and tell them we hope to see them again. Inclusion.

We’ve been encouraged to examine the community immediately surrounding our meeting location. Debating when we meet seems to be a pastime in many churches, although the so-called sacred hour of worship (11:00 am) is not so sacred anymore. Worship services with start times from 7:00 am to 8:30 am are becoming more common in many churches. This trend seems to be related to the growth of empty-nest boomers. And we’ll do our best to find a meeting location suitable for the needs of our members.

But what about the DAY we choose to gather? Is the excuse “If the day doesn’t matter, then the day doesn’t matter” accurate? And trust me, as a pastor I uttered those words many times to justify remaining in the cushy Methodist Church my congregation met in every Saturday. After all, if we were not catering to any remaining Sabbatarians, did it really matter what day we worshiped on? And the answer to that question is a resounding YES! The day matters.

I’m not going to enter into a theological debate on Saturday vs. Sunday. We have some awesome articles on our website dealing with Sabbatarianism. And to be honest, this is really a baseless argument because the New Testament does not command or designate a specific “day of worship.” In Romans 14:5 Paul wrote, “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” In Colossians 2:16-17 he said, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” If Tuesday afternoon is the only option available to you, so be it. From that aspect the day doesn’t matter.

From a purely logistical standpoint, however, the day does matter to a lot of people for a lot of reasons. The reasons why Saturday is not a good option are similar to the reasons why destination weddings are not all that desirable. Both are far more exclusional than inclusional. Let’s examine a few of those reasons.

First, Saturday worship is primarily the domain of Sabbatarian denominations. There are exceptions, but it is rare for a Christian congregation to hold their primary worship gathering on a Saturday. So when someone is looking at your congregation’s website (which is where most new people start their search) and they see a Saturday gathering time, in most cases they will write your church off before a greeter ever gets the chance to welcome them at the door. And conversely, if someone is Sabbatarian in their beliefs, they will be drawn to your service…only to find out you meet on Saturday only because searching for a new location is “too much work.”

Second, Saturday is part of the work week for many working adults. Yes, some have to work on Sunday, but they are the exception, not the rule. And if they do have Saturday off, they are conditioned by culture to see Saturday as their primary day to accomplish personal tasks, or to play. You are not going to change ingrained behavior, no matter how awesome your worship service is.

Third, student activities and sports are also heavily scheduled on Saturday. The idea that Chariots of Fire runner Eric Liddell made it all the way to the 1924 Olympic Games before being asked to compete on a Sunday seems almost quaint. Today, the littlest T-ball player is routinely expected to show up on Saturday, and the demands only escalate as children get older. Chiding families to choose between church and sports will not work; they will almost always choose sports—and in many cases, they already have. Kid’s sports are encroaching into Sunday more and more, as the church becomes less relevant, but sports and school activities on Saturday are a given. So don’t expect to attract families with children to a Saturday worship service.

And finally, there is an almost two-thousand-year tradition of Sunday worship in any part of the world influenced by Christianity. Tell someone you worship on Saturday, and you begin the conversation with confusion. You might as well tell them you start each day with a large multi-course dinner and end the day with cold cereal and coffee. As Ricky Ricardo would often say to Lucy, “you’ve got some esplainin’ to do.”

And in a world of declining church attendance, do we really want to start our missional outreach with confusion, false perception and schedule conflict? The number one complaint aimed at destination weddings is they focus only on the wants and desires of the couple, and they exclude extended friends and family from participating. Tell someone you meet on Saturday because it’s convenient for your existing members, and it meets their wants and desires, and your reasoning will be received with the same response.

As a pastor who took a congregation through the transition from Saturday to Sunday, I’m fully aware of the challenges. In most cities it’s not an easy task to find a suitable facility on Sunday morning. And getting a congregation to see beyond those seven deadly words to church growth (“This is how we’ve always done it.”) takes team buy-in and education. But I’ve also witnessed firsthand, as have many of our pastors, the change this transition has on the congregation. I’ve listened to members talk about how much easier it is to invite people now that they don’t have to follow that invitation up with an explanation and apology. And I’ve seen people walk through the door who never would have visited a Saturday worship service.

GCI’s healthy church initiatives have pointed out that much of what we do each week matters in ways we may never have considered in the past. Where we meet matters. How we interact with first-time visitors matters. The various aspects of our weekly worship experience matter. And YES, the day we choose to meet on may matter far more than we care to admit. But I’ll be the first to admit that 7:00 am might be pushing it a bit.

Planting the Seeds: Practical Emergent Generation Investment

Planting a seed may seem a simple act, yet it bears tremendous potential for growth and fruitfulness.

By Cara Garrity, Development Coordinator, US

Last month I suggested that we exchange transactional and utilitarian models of investment in emergent generations for transformative and disciple-making models. When I think of transformative and disciple-making investments I think of planting a seed. Planting a seed may seem a simple act, yet it bears tremendous potential for growth and fruitfulness. Not only a one-time fruitfulness, but a fruitfulness that produces more seeds and potential for an expansion of fruitfulness. In the hands of God, even simple day-to-day acts of investment in the discipleship of emergent generations holds tremendous potential. My prayer is that we would partner with God to plant with intentionality, trusting him to bring fruit.

Here are some practical considerations to get you started:

  • Invest in depth of discipleship: Push beyond models of attraction or consumption towards consistent rhythms of discipleship. What spaces exist for emergent generations to grow as disciples within the church community? What opportunities exist to contribute to the life of the church?
  • Invest in shared vision: Don’t go at it alone. Invite church members to join you in investing in emergent generations. Create a shared vision for how your local church will invest in emergent generations as an expression of healthy church. Build beyond activities and programs towards a culture of mutual investment.
  • Invest in intergenerational community: A discipleship-shaped investment in emergent generations happens within the context of the church community, not in a generational silo. Intergenerational church community provides a context for transformational and mutual investment.
  • Invest in discernment of calling: God has better plans for his people than you ever could. Invest in making disciples who are responsive to God’s calling. Facilitate the process of discerning gifting and calling. Avoid transactional and utilitarian models of investment that expect a specific outcome, regardless of alignment with God’s calling for that person.
  • Invest in a posture of learning: Generations have nuanced experiences and contexts that sometimes mean what worked for one generation does not work for another. Invest with a posture of listening, learning, and discerning rather than trying to replicate or superimpose your own journey. What is God doing in their midst and in their time?
  • Invest for the long-term: Some investments take a long time to mature. Some investments we ourselves never see come into maturity. Do not let this hold you back from investing in emergent generations. You may never see the fruit, but plant the seed anyway.
  • Invest time: Invest your time to build meaningful relationships as mentor and apprentice; learn from, and journey with young people. Remember that things may take longer when you bring an apprentice along. Embrace this as an investment of time rather than a waste of time.
  • Invest finances: Put your money where your mouth is! Budgets reflect our spoken and unspoken priorities. Be intentional about choices to financially invest in emergent generations. Consider funding robust cross-generational care rhythms within the life of the church, sponsoring young people to attend GCI gatherings and development opportunities, or contributing to funds for emergent generation development.
  • Invest space: Provide opportunities for emergent generations to be themselves, contribute to shaping the life of the church, and participate meaningfully in ministry. Allow space for exploring different areas of church ministry and discovering passion and gifting.
  • Invest in risk-taking: Creating meaningful participatory space for emergent generations in the church is not risk-free. Mistakes, miscommunication, discomfort, and failure will happen. The risk is worth the reward: becoming the healthiest expression of church we can be.
  • Invest in planning: Investment in the development of emergent generations won’t happen by accident. Plan the church calendar and budget in advance. Plan ministry activities in advance to provide space for young apprentices. Plan time to have fun and connect. Plan to build a culture of cross-generational care.

Ready to get started? Gather a group of local leaders and start with some prayer, reflection, and discernment:

  • How will you create a shared vision for emergent generation investment?
  • What resources (people, space, skill, finances, time) do you have access to as a church community? What would it look like to intentionally invest some of those resources in the development of emergent generations?
  • What challenges may arise? What new possibilities can you imagine?
  • What next step will you take towards investment in the development of emergent generations?

May God guide us as active participants in seeding into the future of his church.

Their Voice Matters

When our young people speak, are we willing to listen even when their ideas are unfamiliar or different from how things have been done?

I call it the “vacant stare of obligation.” It is the look that comes across the face of a young person sitting through a Sunday meeting that does not reach them. They are completely disengaged, but they feel the need to endure the meeting with courage and dignity. The young person either believes in Jesus and feels obligated to be in church, or an adult has told them that they should want to be in church. Whatever the case, those who suffer from this condition struggle to connect because nothing in the meeting was designed with them in mind. While songs can be sung about their bravery in trying to hide their condition, those with a trained eye can easily spot the vacant stare of obligation.

Is the presence of young people in our Sunday meeting enough? Is getting them in the door the only goal, or do we want to get them excited to celebrate Jesus? If it is the latter, the vacant stare of obligation should concern us. Young people talk to us with words and actions. They will tell us whether or not our efforts to engage them are working — if we are willing to listen and if they see their voice matters. There are many congregations who do a great job of listening to their children. Any observer can tell that the young people feel like they belong. However, too often, children and youth are not even asked about how the Sunday meeting can be more inclusive of them. Too often, adults decide for themselves how to engage young people without giving the young people a voice.

There are many things that can be said about God, and among them are the following: 1) he genuinely cares about what we think; 2) he is amazingly accommodating. God wants to hear our prayers, and in his humility, he willingly dialogs with us. Furthermore, what we say matters to him, and the Bible reveals that what we say to God can actually affect him or his plans. In Matthew 7, Jesus says:

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:7-12)

I want to call our attention to the willingness of God to hear our voice.  He extends to us an open invitation to talk and promises to listen. I find tremendous comfort and hope in God’s willingness to hear me when I call. Do we extend the same invitation to young people? Do we follow Jesus’ command in verse 12 and create safe spaces where young people can ask, seek, and knock? When they speak, are we willing to listen even when their ideas are unfamiliar or different from how things have been done? Do we care enough about their discipleship to come out of our comfort zone and try something new?

GCI has created a platform to hear the voices of young people: the GCI Healthy Church Challenge. We are looking for young people to share their thoughts about what healthy church means to them. I join the rest of the Home Office in looking forward to learning from our children and youth because we believe they too are included in the incredible things Jesus is doing. I encourage you to invite your young people to participate. If you are fortunate enough to have young people participating in the challenge, please pay attention. Listen to what they are saying and do all you can to make sure they know that their voice matters.

Dishon Mills

Generations Ministry Coordinator, US

Gospel Reverb – Exactly! with Marty Folsom

Listen in as host, Anthony Mullins and guest, Dr. Marty Folsom, unpack the lectionary passages below. Dr. Folsom is a theologian with a trinitarian, incarnational, paracletic, and relational emphasis taught.

October 3 – Proper 22
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 (NRSV) “Exactly!”
(6:07)

October 10 – Proper 23
Hebrews 4:12-16 (NRSV)  “Our Great High Priest”
(19:41)

October 17 – Proper 24
Hebrews 5:1-10 (NRSV) “Better is Better”
(30:55)

October 24 – Proper 25
Hebrews 7:23-28 (NRSV) “The G.O.A.T.”
(47:29)

October 31 – Proper 26
Hebrews 9:11-14 (NRSV) “How Much More”
(1:05:38)

If you get a chance to rate and review the show, that helps a lot. And invite your fellow preachers and Bible lovers to join us!

Follow us on Spotify, Google Podcast, and Apple Podcast.

The Impact of Connect Groups on the Local Church w/ Charles & Carmen Fleming

In this episode, Anthony Mullins, interviews Charles and Carmen Fleming. Charles retired recently from serving the GCI congregations in the Caribbean and Latin America, and Carmen is a Spiritual Director. Together they discuss facilitating connect groups.

“To me, Connect Groups are where I see the two big commandments that Jesus talked about coming alive. Love the Lord your God. Love your neighbor as yourself. And we really can’t love anybody God, even ourselves, and our neighbors unless we get to know each other. It is in that intimate space where we get together, and we just start sharing life on life.”
–Charles Fleming, GCI-USA Southeast Regional Support Member

“Ask Jesus to give you a genuine love for these people. You may love people, but for these people, with their particular quirks, warts, and all. That kind of a thing…I think Spiritual discernment will come naturally from that because you love these people you are looking for what Jesus may be doing. And being equipped by him, through his love, to participate with him in whatever is he is doing in this person or these people’s lives.”
–Carmen Fleming

Main Points:

  • Connect Groups are a significant focus of the 2021 Faith Forward movement in GCI.
    Why are Connect Groups so important? (6:02)
  • How have Connect Groups impacted the lives of people you care about? (15:29)
  • My experience tells me skillful facilitation of Connect Groups is vital. From your perspective, what are the most important skills of a Connect Group facilitator? (19:34)
  • What is the difference between a Connect Group and a Bible study? (35:02)
  • What would you say to a church pastor who is not sure about launching a connect group? (38:26)

 

Resources:

  • Why Connect Groups? – environments for relationally-based discipleship (includes starter curriculum).
  • Facilitator Best Practices – a tool to assist leaders in the formation and facilitation of their Connect Group. It also explains the format of the curriculum within the series, as well as an appendix with icebreakers and other resources.
  • Faith Avenue Tools: Starter sessions for building your Faith Avenue.
  • Stages of Faith Discipleship – A tool for understanding common stages of faith.

Sermon for October 3, 2021

Speaking Of Life 3045 | A Broken Rib and a Handful of Dirt

The bass provides a reference point for music, setting the mood and tone. The Bass note through the Bible is God’s goodness. In fellowship with our Triune God and one another, we experience the fullness of his goodness.

Video Transcript

Speaking Of Life 3045 | A Broken Rib and a Handful of Dirt Greg Williams “And it was good…” This is the bass note of the Creation account in Genesis 1. God creates the light and the dark, the sea and land, animal and plant life, and finally humanity. Over and over he says that it is good – the Hebrew word “tov” we may be familiar with hearing in the phrase “Mazel Tov.” Goodness is a steady, guiding note in the symphony of creation. And then we hear the note go slightly off for the first time in chapter 2: Then the LORD God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner." Genesis 2:18 (NRSV) There seems to be a match for everything – mates for the animals, the sea and the land, the light and the dark, and yet this balance is thrown off when God creates the solitary king of this new universe, Adam. The first time that God says something is “not good” or “incomplete” is when he sees a lack of relationship. Then the strange and beautiful story of God making Eve from one of Adam’s ribs follows – the story of the first surgery. Adam, as the anesthesia wore off, greets Eve: This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh Genesis 2:23 (NRSV) This is the relationship of peers – enriching, challenging, whole. God made us in his image, and God within himself is Trinity in relationship – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Relationship is intrinsic to who he is and therefore “not good” if it is not in our lives. That’s not to say that everyone will get married. Many of the great saints throughout history were not. The point is that something in us is “not good,” not fully functioning when we are out of relationship. Our Christian life was never meant to be in solitude, or on a self-focused spiritual journey; it is meant to be in relationship with others. If it is not in relationship, it is not real—even though human relationships can sometimes be exasperating and tiring. But they are also healing, and that can be easy to forget. We aren’t fully home, fully realized, or fully human until we’re in relationship with each other. God knew this and knew the pain and joy relationships would cause—even before he took that handful of dirt and made it Adam. Are you feeling lonely, incomplete, solitary? Seek out fellowship, even if it is imperfect. Are you feeling super-spiritual, centered, and “deep”? Seek out fellowship and see if it is real. That’s the real acid test. We were created in relationship and born for it. We need God and we need each other. It’s that simple. I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 26:1-12 · Job 1:1, 2:1-10 · Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 · Mark 10:2-16

The theme this week is humanity – the jewel of God’s creation. The call to worship Psalm describes the daily choices we make. God cares about them because he cares about us. Job 1 and 2 tell us about Satan challenging God by saying humanity is a waste of his time, and God rebuking him. Mark 10 tells the story of the Pharisees trying to trip Jesus up with a complicated human question contrasted with the story of Jesus spending time with children. He tells them that the childlike simplicity, not the tired sophistication of society, is what pleases God and what he loves about us. Our sermon looks at Hebrews 1 and 2, which tell of God’s romance with the jewel of his creation – Jesus becoming one of us.

The Peasant King

Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 ESV

The 19th century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard told the parable of a king who fell in love with a maiden. She was one of his servants and lived across a great distance of social class and wealth from him. He couldn’t imagine her life, but he couldn’t stop thinking about her. He had every privilege, but what he really wanted was her, not just with his body, but with his heart.

He was wise enough to know that he couldn’t go to the village with his royal guard and simply take her back to the palace. She could never resist his power, and she could never resist the opportunities for her and her family that his wealth would provide. She’d have no choice, and the king knew in that scenario that she’d always keep her heart from him.

One day he finally left the castle in disguise. He put on the rags of the peasants and let his beard grow. He found the maiden and a place to stay near her. Slowly, through stolen glances and kind words, he won her heart.

They lived alongside each other, sharing work and breaking bread. He patiently showed her his heart and his true self. Finally, after a while, he was able to tell her he was the king. By then, she knew him, and her heart was his.

The author crowns the story with the line: “For love is exultant when it unites equals, but it is triumphant when it makes that which was unequal equal in love.”

Hebrews tells this story, through the story of Israel and sometimes in details that sound strange to our modern ears, of God coming to us through Jesus. He put on the shabby clothing of humanity to come and meet with us as one of our own, revealing himself at just the right time to be the King.

Our passage from the beginning of Hebrews today is a close look at this incarnation – the story of the peasant king who came among the people, whose name was called Immanuel, “God with us.” The Author became a character in the narrative, so let’s look at him in three aspects today:

  • The story of Israel
  • The story of the world
  • The story of us

The story of Israel

We’ll start with the story of Jesus in a very local sense—Jesus as the Jewish kid who sometimes slowly but always intentionally tied himself into the narrative of Israel.

But first a step back to look at what we’re reading. We roughly know the author or authors of most books in Scripture—a person or a small school of scribes that they taught and who wrote in their name. John wrote John, Matthew wrote Matthew, etc.

But Hebrews is the exception. No one knows who wrote it. There have been guesses throughout history, but none have really stuck. The only reason it’s called “The Letter to the Hebrews” is because it is so thoroughly Jewish. It is full of Old Testament quotes and parallels and it is so obviously intended to connect Jesus with the Jewish story that ancient scholars have inferred it was meant for a Jewish audience and titled it that way.

But who wrote it, why it was written and who it was sent to are mysteries, and in a sense that makes it even more the timeless theological discussion it is. Jesus is being connected not just to one community and circumstance (like in one of Paul’s letters), but to the whole story of all humanity.

That starts locally with the Israel story.

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. (Hebrews 1:1-2 ESV)

This is a powerful connection. Think of a king, especially in the ancient world, who started by sending messages and legislating laws from far away, and then got to the point of sending portraits of himself, and finally came to visit. This is the connection of Jesus to the story of Israel.

The unfortunate theological mistake we often make in the modern world is to see the giving of the law and the coming of Jesus as disconnected. We think God gave us the law, then we couldn’t keep it and we messed it all up and missed the mark, so Jesus had to come and set everything straight. This understanding misses the point of the story.

The choosing of Israel, the giving of the law and even the consistent failure of humanity were all part of the narrative. God let nothing go to waste. He knew even before Eve reached for the fruit that the whole deal would cost him his Son. He chose one person, Abraham, then one nation, Israel. Then he chose out of that nation one lineage, one family and finally one unassuming teenage girl to bring himself into the story of Israel.

So, instead of the law somehow failing, it only pointed forward to our need for a Savior. It clarified the story and made space in it to prepare the way for Jesus. And the author of Hebrews starts his letter with this discussion.

After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. (Hebrews 1:3-4 ESV)

“Much superior to the angels.” This line may sound strange to our modern Christian ears. Angels are on the periphery, if anywhere, of our theology. But in the time this letter was written, there was a strong Jewish tradition that the law had been delivered by the angels (see Deuteronomy 33:2). They had delivered the law or somehow been involved in the process on Mount Sinai.

The law was a kind of advance echo of God’s redemptive plan in Christ. Like the king in Kierkegaard’s story becoming a servant and winning a girl’s heart as a servant, before bringing her to the castle and making her queen, Paul said the law was “our tutor to bring us to Christ” (Galatians 3:24).

So, we go from the local story of Jesus as a Hebrew fulfilling the Israelite story to the universal…

The story of the world

But in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. (Hebrews 1:2-3 ESV)

The writer of Hebrews then uses this word to describe Jesus—the “exact imprint.” This is a word from minting describing the exact imprint of a face on a coin. He is to God what sunlight is to the sun. Jesus is God himself among us.

One commentator expressed the difference between us and Jesus’ original audience:

It is sometimes said that the ancient and the modern Christological heresies are mirror images of one another. Moderns understand well that Jesus was human, but have a difficult time imagining how he might be God. The ancients, on the other hand, could well imagine that Jesus was divine, but struggled with his humanity. (Erik Heen)

The ancient world was very religious, with shrines and temples on every corner. The idea of Jesus being some kind of divine otherworldly being was not too far of a stretch for their imaginations. But a god being a flesh-and-blood human—or even caring about us very much—was baffling to them.

In our day, we are more comfortable with Jesus being a great teacher, perhaps even an activist or a social justice warrior, some kind of sage poet. But the idea of him being supernatural or divine baffles many people.

The tension in Jesus is that he holds these two realities together. He is Lord of the universe who makes it cohere; he is the Jewish kid with calloused hands. He is the great teacher and advocate of the powerless; he is the eternal judge and all-powerful who is a greater mystery than we could ever imagine.

It is truly the story of a peasant king.

The story of us

But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:9 ESV)

Jesus entered the story of Israel. He entered the story of the universe. And now he enters our story.

The incarnation—from the word “carn”—which means flesh. In the flesh. The peasant king didn’t only come down from his throne, he took on the clothing, the hardship and life of the poor. In our case, he took on the flesh not just as a disguise, but in reality, even to the point of death.

The context of Hebrews talks a lot about angels—how the angels gave the Law and how human beings are just below the angels (quoting Psalm 8:5). Jesus walked through these barriers, stepping past the angels, stepping past the powerful, famous cultures in history, stepping past an elite privileged existence to live the relatively helpless life of a craftsman in the first century.

He entered the story of us and took on the chaos and humiliation of it. He stepped out of glory into nowhere. Instead of blowing it all up and starting over, he entered the story himself. He gave up all his power to die the humiliating helpless death on a cross—he’s been lower than all of us, so he could lift all of us up with him.

And that is where he still meets us. Jesus doesn’t want to take you from your life, but to meet you in it!

He redeems us by entering the story of our lives through circumstances and relationships to transform us into his image. He doesn’t want you to be someone else—he wants you to fully become you.

When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. (Genesis 9:14-15 ESV)

This is the promise that God made to Noah as the earth dried from the flood. Never again would he destroy humanity and start over. Never again would he hit the reset button on the great human experiment.

Instead, he entered that story himself as the peasant king, through:

  • The story of Israel – Jesus was a child of the line of David, born in a small town. He was the promised Messiah who brought about an unexpected kingdom.
  • The story of the world – “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together,” Paul says in Colossians 1:17. Jesus is not just a religious figure or a wise teacher—he is the Lord of the universe who holds it together in light unapproachable.
  • The story of us – The writer of Hebrews says he is able to sympathize with us because he was tempted in every way like we are (see Hebrews 4:15). Jesus went through the sweat and loss and confusion of being a human being. He entered our story and redeemed it.

So the peasant King is among us, sharing our lives and breaking bread with us. One day soon his reign will be fully restored on earth, and we will fully live like the royalty we are. We will be home.

Exactly! w/ Marty Folsom
October 3 – Proper 22
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 (NRSV) “Exactly!”

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Small Group Discussion Questions

Questions for sermon: “The Peasant King”
  • Re-read the story of the Peasant King from the beginning of the sermon. Have you ever seen a dynamic like this in action or heard a story like this? (The show Undercover Boss is a good example.) Why do you think Jesus chose to lay down his riches and glory rather than just come down and put everything right?
  • What does it mean for Jesus to enter our story? How does he meet us in our everyday lives and show us his careful work of redeeming us in everything? Share examples.
  • It can be hard to hold the idea of Jesus as Lord of the Universe and Jesus as our best friend and comforter at the same time. How can we hold these ideas together? What happens when we overemphasize one and forget the other?
Questions for Speaking of Life: “A Broken Rib and a Handful of Dirt”
  • How is it that human relationships can be the worst and best thing about life at the same time? Why is that?
  • God wants us to be in relationship because he is relationship at his core in the Trinity. How does fellowshipping and sharing life with other believers make us more like Jesus?
  • How do we balance spending time in solitude and spending time in fellowship? What happens when we go too far one way or the other?
Quote to Ponder: Love is exultant when it unites equals, but it is triumphant when it makes that which was unequal equal in love. ~ Soren Kierkegaard, Danish Christian philosopher

Sermon for October 10, 2021

Speaking Of Life 3046 | The Midas Touch

From buying products that we don’t need online to keeping up with the latest in fashion and technology, consumerism has consumed humanity more than ever. The story of King Midas tells us how material things can easily take our eyes away from what is important. God reminds us in Mark why surrendering everything we have can be a blessing and embracing the truth that Jesus is more than sufficient.

Video Transcript

Speaking Of Life 3046 | The Midas Touch Jeff Broadnax In Greek mythology, Midas was a king who was obsessed with riches. After doing a good deed for the god Dionysus, King Midas was granted whatever he wished as a reward. The king asked for everything he touched to turn to gold, and his wish was granted. King Midas was overjoyed! He touched sticks, rocks, flowers. All of them turned to solid gold. He went to his palace and ordered a feast to celebrate his good fortune. That’s when he realized his mistake. Every time he tried to put something in his mouth, it would turn to gold. In the myth, King Midas died of starvation. His love of wealth cost him his life. In the book of Mark, we are introduced to another man with an unhealthy attachment to riches: As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good — except God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.'" "Teacher," he declared, "all these I have kept since I was a boy." Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Mark 10:17-22 In the verses that follow, Jesus does not say it is wrong to have riches. However, he does say that loving riches is wrong.  Our possessions can become idols to us — things that get in the way of our relationship with God. This was the man’s problem. He was so entangled by his stuff that he missed an opportunity to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. He traded an eternal relationship with Christ for things that will fade away. In this encounter, riches are a metaphor for anything we value above God. Some of us choose to work unnecessarily long hours just to earn confirmation through success. This is often at the cost of time with those most important to us: God, our family, and friends. Some of us are tied to our social media affirmations trying to get the most likes and views instead of getting our worth and value from God.  All of these scenarios are forms of idolatry because they get in the way of our relationship with God and other people. Therefore, we should be willing to give up anything that gets between us and Jesus. The good news is that whatever we give up for Jesus is never really lost. The sacrifices we make for him today are repaid with interest in eternity. Out of an abundance of love, God gives us true riches like joy, peace, and grace. These things are worth far more than gold and silver. We should be willing to set aside any wealth of this world for the eternal riches that are in Jesus Christ. Jim Elliot wrote, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” In Christ, we are already rich with blessings. Let us not let the things of this world distract us from all we have in Jesus. I am Jeff Broadnax, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 22:1-15 • Job 23:1-9 • Hebrews 4:12-16 • Mark 10:17-31

This week’s theme is God’s strength in our weakness. Following Christ does not mean that we won’t get hurt or discouraged. However, it does mean that whatever we go through, Jesus goes through it with us. The call to worship Psalm is a messianic psalm that prophesies the pain Jesus would suffer on the cross. In it, the psalmist laments because he feels far from God. In Job, we encounter a man unable to see God in the midst of his suffering. Hebrews 4 speaks about our High Priest, Jesus Christ, who is able to sympathize with our weakness. Finally, in Mark 10, we encounter a man whose attachment to money robs him of the conviction to follow Jesus.

God in Our Weakness

Hebrews 4:12-16

In the Marvel Comics universe, there is a scientist named Dr. Bruce Banner, a theoretical physicist who specialized in gamma radiation. After an experiment went wrong, Dr. Banner was exposed to a massive amount of gamma rays. He was transformed into an unstoppable titan, the living embodiment of his rage. Dr. Banner’s alter ego came to be known as The Incredible Hulk. The Hulk is a very popular character in our society, and the green behemoth’s image can be seen on many posters, t-shirts, and Halloween costumes. However, there are very few images of Dr. Bruce Banner. Even though he is one of the most brilliant minds in the Marvel universe, few, if any, children pretend to be Dr. Banner. There is something about the Hulk’s raw strength that captures our imagination. Bruce Banner can use his mind to create wonderfully useful things, but most are more interested in the Hulk’s capacity for destruction. There is nothing wrong with finding the Hulk interesting and cheering for him at the next installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, we should wonder why we find the Hulk so compelling.

There is a saying: “Only the strong survive.” This Darwinist creed is built on the belief that being weak makes us vulnerable. If we show weakness, those who are strong will take advantage of us or maybe even do us harm. While we may not personally live by this creed, a disdain for weakness can be found woven into the fabric of our culture. We say things to each other like, “Never let them see you sweat,” or, “keep a stiff upper lip!” If we experience hurt, either emotional or physical, there is someone ready and willing to tell us to “shake it off!” We are indirectly given the message that weakness is to be hidden and ignored until it is overcome — that it is a shameful enemy that must be conquered. We are programmed to believe the Hulk is better than Dr. Banner because he is not weak.

Should Christians follow the creed, “Only the strong survive”? Should we avoid showing any weakness? Let’s turn to a passage in Hebrews for answers. The author of Hebrews was writing a group of people who were nearing their breaking point. The letter is addressed to Jewish Christians who, because of persecution, were tempted to revert to Judaism, or to add Jewish legalism to the gospel. In Hebrews 4, we see God’s response to their fading spiritual strength:

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:12-16)

By “weakness,” the writer of Hebrews is talking about the things in his audience’s hearts that cause them to turn away from Jesus and lose their faith. This weakness can be found in all human hearts to some degree because we all, in our flesh, are oriented away from God. The passage shows us that nothing is hidden from Jesus, and he is able to see the weakness in all humanity. He sees our fear, selfish desires, and self-righteousness. He sees our greed, pride, and idolatry. He sees our cowardice and indifference. He sees our deception and cruelty. Jesus can see the corruption of our hearts and minds. It is all laid bare to him.

When confronted with our weakness, however, Jesus did not turn away in embarrassment. He did not tell humanity to “shake it off.” He did not find our weakness repulsive and recoil from us. Rather, he stepped into our weakness. Instead of fleeing from our failings, Jesus united himself to our weakness and overcame the sources of every human failure on our behalf. In his resurrection, Jesus secured for us a new humanity — one that is free from the corruption of sin. By the Holy Spirit, we have a guarantee of our coming perfection, and even get to experience moments of true strength now.

Christ did bear our weaknesses figuratively, but also literally. The passage says he was tempted in every way. Because he was fully human, born with our same corruption, the text indicates there was a part of him that wanted to give up on his mission. There was something inside telling him to give in to despair or to vent his rage. Something inside Jesus tempted him to focus on himself and seek his own pleasure. A small part of him wanted to become the Messiah everyone expected him to be. He bore all our weaknesses, yet he did not give in to them.

Jesus’ resurrection and ascension opened the door for us to bring our weakness to the Father. We are not to hide our failings or pretend like they do not exist. Rather, we should honestly and confidently lay them at the feet of the One who sits in the throne of grace. And since Jesus has been tempted in every way, empathy meets us at the throne. Jesus understands our weakness and he does not condemn us. He does not ridicule our weakness and greet us in shame. He opens his arms wide to receive us with love. In receiving our weakness with empathy, God displays his mercy. Apart from God, we would have to rely on our own strength to stay faithful to him. We would have to rely on our own abilities to keep from sin. It should be clear to all of us that we are not that strong. We are completely dependent on Christ and his strength.

For Christians, the creed “only the strong survive” does not work. The truth is that only the weak survive. When we bring our weaknesses to God, he extends grace to us. Grace is not just the favor of God, but it is also his presence. Grace is God giving himself to us. So, when we bring our weaknesses to him, God draws near to us. He brings his power to bear in our situation. He employs his wisdom to chart the way forward. He supplies his peace so that we may endure. That is why Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:10, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Paul understood that God shows up in our weakness. Not only does God deliver us from our trial, but we get to know the God of our weakness. He reveals aspects of his character we would not be able to discern otherwise. We get to see the extent to which he saves and delivers. We are able to witness deeper expressions of his mercy and grace. Our weakness helps us see and know God.

This is all good news. However, none of it benefits us unless we are willing to be weak. For many of us, this is a hard step to take. You may identify yourself with a human standard of strength and have little practice confessing your shortcomings to God or anyone else. Perhaps you had a difficult childhood and felt you had to develop some emotional armor to survive. Perhaps you were raised around people who frowned on any displays of strong emotion, especially emotions judged to be weak.  You may already feel so discouraged that you feel that admitting your weakness would cause overwhelming shame. All these mindsets result from failing to see God as the one who steps into our weakness. We withhold our weakness because we believe God will meet us with condemnation, anger, and rejection. However, the author of Hebrews lets us know that God meets us with empathy, mercy, and grace. Seeing God for who he is makes it easier to bring our shortcomings and hurts to him. Believing in God’s loving acceptance of our weakness enables us to be Dr. Banner and leave the Hulk behind.

We bring our weaknesses to God in honest, introspective prayer. We look in the mirror of our mind and confess to God our fear, anger, pride, greed, and anything else that is not of Christ. We have to be transparent and honest, knowing God can take it.

You may want to share a personal example to make the point. The author shares an example from someone he knows.

For example, I knew someone who struggled in prayer. It was not until he got honest that he experienced a breakthrough in his prayer life. One morning, he admitted, “Lord, I do not want to pray. It’s boring and I only do it so I don’t get in trouble with you.” Ironically, after that nearly irreverent opening, my friend had an incredibly deep, meaningful time of prayer. It began a season of study about prayer. He learned that the way he was taught to pray was not biblical. He also realized he was trying to have a transactional relationship with God, which showed he had a flawed understanding of the Lord’s nature. He explored better teaching on prayer and his prayer life is now far more consistent and intimate. However, he would still be struggling with an unsatisfying prayer life if he failed to bring his weakness to the throne of grace. The Lord stepped into my friend’s weakness and turned it into a source of true strength.

If ever you doubt that God steps into our weakness, just look to Jesus on the cross. Look to the nails through his hands and feet. See the wound in his side and the lashes on his back. Listen to the ridicule and rejection of the crowd. Hear him cry out his thirst and feelings of abandonment. Look at the crowd to see that most of his friends had left him. He did not transform into a green monster and rip himself off the cross. He did not call down fire on his enemies. His disciples did not lead a revolution and rescue him. He died. He died horribly. None who looked on his broken body saw any human strength. If we believe that only the strong survive, we would have to say that Jesus was not strong.

But Jesus is strong. Unbelievably strong. His broken body forged a new humanity. His spilled blood cleansed our sins and reconciled every person to the Father. He transformed the cross from a curse into the cure for all that ails humanity. He defines strength. There is no weakness in him. He embodies power. And he uses his power to rescue and redeem humanity. When we bring our weaknesses to God, by the Spirit, he is the one who shows up. Let us be weak so we can find our strength in Jesus.

Exactly! w/ Marty Folsom
October 10 – Proper 23
Hebrews 4:12-16 (NRSV)  “Our Great High Priest”

CLICK HERE to listen to the whole podcast.

If you get a chance to rate and review the show, that helps a lot. And invite your fellow preachers and Bible lovers to join us!

Follow us on Spotify, Google Podcast, and Apple Podcasts.


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • Can you think of any examples of someone’s possessions becoming an idol?
  • Why is it wrong to get our value from money?
  • Who would you rather be: Dr. Bruce Banner or The Hulk? Why?
  • Do you have a hard time talking about your weakness?
  • To you, what does it mean that “only the weak survive”?

Sermon for October 17, 2021

Speaking Of Life 3047 | Upside-Down Selfie with Jesus

Selfies have become the new autograph of the 21st century. Nowadays, we try to be shameless when grabbing a quick selfie with anyone we admire or look up to. The time you spend doing a selfie might only take a second with someone but Jesus invites us into experiencing his loving presence beside us for all eternity. He is always there for us with arms wide open.

Video Transcript

Speaking Of Life 3047 | Upside-Down Selfie with Jesus Greg Williams The selfie is the new autograph. Armed constantly with our phones, if we run into a famous person or even go to a famous place, we can snap a picture instantly. It’s better than the old, impersonal autograph. Here you are in the presence of a celebrity for a moment—with your arm around a millionaire like you are old friends. For about a second, it’s like you’re one of them. Like every other commodity, selfies have now become big business too. How about a selfie with Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker)? That will run you almost $200. Take a snap with Sly Stallone? That’ll be $445. It can become an expensive moment, but it’s worth it for the big fans. James and John make a kind of “selfie request” of Jesus in Mark 10: And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Mark 10:37 (ESV) This is a bold request; they are asking for the seats of honor, to the right and left of the king. They are hoping to bask in the presence of glory and power—to sit for a moment on near-equal footing with royalty. In a sense, to take a selfie with him. Jesus turns the conversation on its head quickly: But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. Mark 10:43-44 (ESV) As he often does, Jesus turns the dynamic of the culture—and human culture in general—on its head. If you would be great, you must be a servant. There is no vying for the center stage; there’s no elbowing your way in for a photograph with fame. Jesus calls us away from these status symbols and trappings of identity into true freedom where the last are first and the humble great. When Jesus finally was crowned here on earth, he did have someone on his right and someone on his left. But his crown was of thorns and he was nailed to his throne, and at each side of him were criminals. So can we take this upside-down selfie with Jesus? If we’re going to snap a pic at his side, we won’t find him at the autograph table. We’ll find him serving not being served. Taking that selfie—standing next to him in that moment—is much more costly than taking one with any celebrity, but worth every penny. I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c • Job 38:1-7, (34-41) • Hebrews 5:1-10 • Mark 10:35-45

The theme this week is God made low— the creator of the universe becoming a humble servant. The call to worship Psalm portrays the almighty God “wrapped in light.” In Job 38 we glimpse the frightening depths of God’s power in creation. In Mark 10, Jesus explains that the greatest is the servant of all. Our sermon is based on Hebrews 5, which shows us how Jesus entered the complete helplessness of being human in order to become our priest.

The High Priest Made Low

Hebrews 5:1-10 ESV

Begin with the lectionary reading: Hebrews 5:1-10.

“Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes” is a well-worn cliché about reserving judgment on people. Well-worn enough to have a joke made out of it, “…that way, when you judge him, you’ll be a mile away and you’ll have his shoes!” But even the threadbare quality of the proverb and the tiring humor of the joke tell us that this phrase has been around a long time and is basically universally understood.

It’s no accident that some of the most effective social workers are those who grew up in impoverished communities. It isn’t a coincidence that some of the most mission-driven police officers are those who were criminals in their youth or at least grew up around crime.

Take Edson Arantes do Nascimento (known as Pele), for instance, arguably the best soccer player in history. He learned his sport in the slums of Brazil, playing with a sock stuffed with old rags because his family couldn’t afford a ball. After achieving fame, he never forgot where he came from, donating to philanthropic causes and speaking out against racism. What he learned through that firsthand experience never left him. It became part of who he was.

A similar experience is at the heart of the gospel – Jesus became one of us. His name was Immanuel, “God with us.”

The thematic language of this chapter in Hebrews concerns the Jewish priesthood, so it may seem a bit removed from our experience. But if you look closely, you realize you are reading the story of Jesus very much as a human being – as someone who was walking a mile in our shoes. Even in the midst of the complex religious language around the priesthood, Jesus’ humanity comes through – with “loud cries and tears” (verse 7).

Let’s look at this passage today, even its most peculiar feature Melchizedek, and see what it means to have a high priest who came low. Let’s look at:

  • Christ out of nowhere
  • Christ right here
  • Christ out ahead of us

Christ out of nowhere

Most of us can’t even quite pronounce the name Melchizedek let alone understand why the writer of Hebrews is so excited about him. He is mentioned so casually here that the readers must have had a strong Jewish context to understand the reference.

Melchizedek was a historical person who came essentially out of nowhere to comfort and encourage Abraham, thousands of years before. (See Genesis 14.) Abraham had been through a brutal battle and this disorienting story shows Melchizedek walking up to him in the desert one day:

 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him a tenth of everything. (Genesis 14:18-20 ESV)

Abraham, called Abram at the time, was the start of the story of Israel. He was the only one we know of who worshipped the God of Israel and had heard from God. It must have been very lonely, and he was constantly having to convince family members and others that this God was real and cared about them. And then this guy comes from nowhere, speaking the same language about God that Abraham spoke. No one else had experienced that, at least that Abram knew, and suddenly Melchizedek is there. As suddenly as he appears, he disappears from the narrative.

The next place he appears is in a Psalm:

Your people will offer themselves freely on the day of your power, in holy garments; from the womb of the morning, the dew of your youth will be yours.  The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” (Psalm 110:3-4)

Here the psalmist is writing about a conversation between God and a shadowy priest king figure, who is never fully explained. He then designates this figure a priest in the order of Melchizedek.

So, we have a shadowy figure who is somehow associated with a mysterious personage in an enigmatic exchange. Everybody following?

Distraction is always a temptation here. We want to explore the mystery and try to guess the secret code of scripture and unlock it. But I think that’s counterproductive and leads us away from the heart of what’s being told here. What we see in Hebrews is the writer trying to connect the story of Jesus with the story of Israel and therefore the story of the world. He’s interpreting it with the context he knows, not trying to give us some mystic riddle.

Boiling it down, the author is saying that Jesus is not like the priests they knew, who came from the tribe of Aaron. He is something else entirely, part of the larger, global, and admittedly mysterious world of Melchizedek. Essentially, this story is bigger than us. The gospel is not just a story of the political situation of Israel in that day, nor is it just the story of our own personal devotional journey today – it is all those things, and much more.

Jesus is our best friend who comforts us, loves us and “has a wonderful plan for our lives” (as the Four Spiritual Laws puts it). He’s also the Lord of the universe who holds quantum reality together and strolls through the planets as King. One of the best ways to express that to the audience of Hebrews was to identify him with Melchizedek, a figure somehow greater than even Abraham, which they couldn’t imagine.

Melchizedek is a much deeper theological discussion that we don’t have the right to ignore just because it’s complex; however, the error on the other side is to become obsessed with it and let the mystery of it distract us. Neither extreme is helpful. For now, the point is that the mystery of Jesus is greater than any system we try to cram him into.

Christ right here

Chapter breaks, verse numbers and subtitles weren’t in the original manuscripts of scripture and can sometimes be unhelpful. The discussion here of Jesus as High Priest actually starts in the end of chapter 4, where it says:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. (Hebrews 4:15 ESV)

The author then turns to discussing earthly priests, which were probably a familiar class of people to the original audience. They grew up with priests, and the temple life was woven right into their own. The author reminds them that a priest can identify with them:

He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. (Hebrews 5:2-3 ESV)

So the priest is able to empathize with the people because he is one of them. The priests were the people’s representatives before God and kept the ritual connection to the God of Israel. Their role was vital and highly respected, and the author here reminds the reader that the priests are just people, even to the point that they had to give sacrifices to cover their own sins. Because of this they could “deal gently” with the people – because they are just like the people they serve.

Read about a page of the history of Israel and you’ll find out that priests often forgot that, and let their pastoral spirits be choked by pride. Look around the greater church for a minute, and you’ll see examples of pastors who seem to forget to practice humility. But the author of Hebrews points to the true reality that these people are just that – people.

The exception is with Jesus. The priests are just people because they are sinful and corrupt just like the rest of us, but Jesus never was. Jesus never sinned, and therefore didn’t have the experience of sin that – ideally – birthed empathy in the priests.

But what he did experience was the results of sin. And that is the subtle theme the author is getting across here. Jesus experienced the pain, hunger, sickness, anxiety, fatigue, fear and every other aspect of living in the fallen world – though he never participated in the sin that brought it on.

He didn’t share our sin, but he did share our weakness. He knew the limited, sometimes frightening life of living in this fallen world. Therefore, he knows us. He isn’t a superhero who dropped in, fixed everything and left. He was born into our world and knew the fear and weakness of our world to the point that it killed him.

  • When you are tired, know that “Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.” John 4:6 ESV
  • When you are scared, know that “And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” Luke 22:44 ESV
  • When you feel like God has abandoned you, hear Jesus say: “Why have you forsaken me?” Matthew 27:46 ESV.
  • When you weep, remember, “Jesus wept.” John 11:35 ESV

Christ is right here—Jesus was and is right with us. He can truly say, “I know how you feel.”

Christ out ahead of us

Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. (Hebrews 5:8 ESV)

This verse makes most of us do a double take. How could Jesus learn obedience? Wasn’t he already perfect? What did he need to learn?

Again, Jesus was one of us. Although he never sinned, he learned to be human by becoming one. He learned life by the same skinned knees and sleepless nights and false starts that we do.

He went through the full experience of being prepared for his vocation as the savior of humanity. The uncertainty and confusion of human life was the way there. The details of how exactly all this happened, we don’t know, but we know he was thoroughly one of us.

Instead of scorching the earth and starting over, God worked through our brokenness to heal it. Jesus blazed the trail of what it means to be human—to show us how to be who we were created to be, and to make it possible through his death and resurrection.

This is Jesus out ahead of us, fixing the world from the inside.

One commentator said it well: “Creation got spoken into being. Salvation got shrieked into being.” God could have wiped us out and started over, that would have been much easier. But instead, he brought and is bringing the new humanity to birth with all the shrieks and sweat and blood it takes for that to happen.

Christ out of nowhere—The mysteries of Jesus and the gospel are far too big for us to understand. The gospel isn’t just a pleasant message telling us to love each other—it’s world-transforming, radioactive, somehow familiar and completely strange at the same time.

Christ right here—Jesus walked among us in the weakness caused by sin he never committed. He knows what it means to be human and so still walks among us by the Spirit—lovingly patient. He knows what we’re dealing with in the human experience. He’s been here.

Christ out ahead of us—God didn’t start the story over; he wrote himself into it. The creator of humanity became human to show us what it means to truly be human. He blazed a trail we could never blaze and now the point is to follow.

The high priest was made low—correcting, healing and ultimately affirming what it means to be human.

Exactly! w/ Marty Folsom
October 17 – Proper 24
Hebrews 5:1-10 (NRSV) “Better is Better”

CLICK HERE to listen to the whole podcast.

If you get a chance to rate and review the show, that helps a lot. And invite your fellow preachers and Bible lovers to join us!

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Small Group Discussion Questions

Questions for sermon: “The High Priest Made Low”
  • Have you ever known anyone who made it through a difficult experience and then went on to serve others struggling with the same thing? (Example: former addicts who are sponsors in recovery groups; wealthy people who grew up poor and donate money). How can they serve more effectively because they know these experiences firsthand?
  • Hebrews 4:14 says that Jesus empathizes with our weaknesses. Do we think of Jesus this way? How is this a comforting reality?
  • Melchizedek is a person who came out of nowhere and encouraged Abraham, bolstering the epic story of God and humanity. Who has God brought “out of nowhere” to encourage you? Maybe spoken through circumstances, even people you would have never expected? How has that become part of your story?
Questions for Speaking of Life: “An Upside-Down Selfie with Jesus”
  • Have you ever taken a selfie with a famous person? What was the moment like?
  • Why do you think James and John made this odd request of Jesus (Mark 10:37)?
  • Jesus’ answer and the following story of his crucifixion turn our worldly ideas of greatness and power on their heads. How can we live the Jesus way, with servant greatness? Is that burdening or freeing to us?
  • If you were going take a selfie with Jesus today, where do you think you’d find him?
Quote to Ponder: When we see the face of God, we shall know that we have always known it. He has been a party to, has made, sustained and moved moment by moment within, all our earthly experiences of innocent love.” ~CS Lewis

Sermon for October 24, 2021

Speaking Of Life 3048 | Refuge in the Storm

Being caught in the middle of a terrible storm is one unimaginable experience that you hope not to endure. The unavoidable devastation can leave you helpless. The Psalmist reminds us that Jesus brings peace to our chaotic storms in life. And even after the storm, he is there to guide us, restore us, and surround us with his love.

Video Transcript

Speaking Of Life 3048 | Refuge in the Storm Cara Garrity Have you ever been caught in a hurricane or a tornado? It can be a harrowing experience. If you are lucky, the only experience you’ve had with these monsters is footage from the news. But these images don’t give you a good picture of the devastation occurring. That only becomes clear after the clouds depart and the sun returns. Only then can you see that everything was being mercilessly tossed about, scrambled, and shredded. Yards have found new decorations and some houses have found new yards. Cars have mysteriously traveled on their own and park in the most unusual places. Neighbors who have never met are now intimately acquainted with each other’s belongings. The familiar landmarks that were reminders of home, have now been reduced to litter strewn across an unrecognizable landscape. Some things that once seemed secure and permanent had been exposed as weak and temporary. Any sound advice for those caught in the path of a destructive storm will include seeking shelter in a structure that is stable enough to withstand powerful winds. Some houses that are frequented by storms have built-in, concrete safe rooms or underground storm shelters. If these are not available people are encouraged to move to the most central room in their homes. If caught outdoors in a storm it may seem instinctive to hide in a car or under a tree. But these are the last places to be. Where do you run when the winds of devastation blow your way? And I don’t mean just the literal storms but I’m referring to the life-altering storms that we all face. Scripture has always pointed us to our one true place of safety and that is in Jesus Christ. He is the one sure rock of refuge that no storm can move. Many who have taken shelter in him call out to others to do the same. Here’s one such example recorded in Psalm 34: “O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together. I sought the LORD, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed. This poor soul cried, and was heard by the LORD, and was saved from every trouble. The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them. O taste and see that the LORD is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.”  Psalm 34:3-8 (NRSV) The Psalmist knew where his safety was found. If at any time you find yourself being tossed about, scrambled, and shredded in a raging storm, there is a place of safety that no storm can move. His name is Jesus. Others can attest to the fact that he is your reliable rock and solid refuge in the storm. I’m Cara Garrity, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22) • Job 42:1-6, 10-17 • Hebrews 7:23-28 • Mark 10:46-52

This week’s theme is faithful responses. The call to worship Psalm forms a response of faith in a God who rescues the needy upon hearing their humble prayers. Job 42 records Job’s final response to God as a penitent expression of faith in the Lord who “can do all things,” along with the Lord’s answer of restoration for Job after his journey of suffering. This response of faith is echoed in the reading in Mark’s Gospel with the story of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, who receives healing on account of placing his faith in Jesus. It is this same Jesus who is declared to be the permanent and faithful High Priest for all who approach God for salvation through him.

Permanent, Perfect and Promised High Priest

Hebrews 7:23-28 (NRSV)

It seems the only thing permanent in our lives is change. Change often adds some spice to life, some excitement and expectation. Change can be a very good thing. But not all change is good. In fact, change can sometimes be of the sort that disrupts and cripples our lives in very serious ways. When we find ourselves in the middle of these types of changes, we can find ourselves discouraged and possibly even in despair.

Where are you today? It is probably a safe bet to say that through your life you have had to deal with some rather earth-shattering changes. The last couple of years have no doubt been a period in history of epic change. For the most part, it hasn’t been the kind of changes we get excited about. Life as we once knew it has changed. But even beyond the world-changing events that affect us all, it would be naïve to assume that each of us do not deal with some sort of threatening changes closer to home. Maybe it’s a detrimental change in health, or worse, the disorienting change that comes by way of the death of a loved one.

These types of changes can overwhelm us, especially on top of the chaos we are enduring in our world today. Even smaller negative changes can prompt in us a despondent and disheartened outlook. Loss of employment, for example, may seem trivial compared to loss of health or life, but it still exacts a toll on individuals and families. I’m sure many of you can share times of such loss that were marked by painful doubts and sorrow.

Change can threaten our sense of security, meaning and purpose. And we are not alone in these unprecedented times of unsettling upheaval. As we look out our stained-glass windows, we see a world grasping for something, anything, that can give it a sense of permanence or some hope that all will return to stable ground.

As the church, we know where to look for this permanence. We look to Jesus. We place our hope in the one who does not change, and who is our permanent, perfect and promised High Priest.

Today, as we look at the passage in Hebrews 7, we can be encouraged once again by this hope. After all, that is why the author of Hebrews wrote this letter. The original recipients of this letter are our brothers and sisters in Christ who were also facing major changes in their lives, changes that included suffering and extreme threats in their time of witness. This letter was written to encourage them to remain faithful to the one who remains faithful to them. Like those Christians living in perilous times, the church today is still called to proclaim to a frenzied world the salvation that it longs for that can be found only in its rightful King, Jesus Christ. So, as we go through this passage, let us do so with open hands to receive the hope and encouragement the Lord has for us. We will always face change, but we can do so knowing and sharing the good news of hope that Jesus holds for us and for all we know and love—our family, friends and neighbors.

Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. (Hebrews 7:23-24 NRSV)

Our selected passage begins with the word “Furthermore…” which means we will need to look back a little further in the text to discover more of what is being said. If we back up to the beginning of this chapter we find the author is laying out the case that Jesus is the perfect High Priest for his people by referring to the royal messianic Psalm 110 and the pattern of Melchizedek. The author is arguing that Jesus is the “priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Psalm 110:4). This is part of the author’s sustained argument of Jesus as a superior High Priest that he began back in chapter 4. Many points about the superiority of Jesus as High Priest over the Levitical priesthood and Aaron are made. But in this section, the author is going to show three specific ways Jesus is the ultimate High Priest. These three points will be an important reminder for us during our times of changing challenges that threaten our faith and confidence in the Lord.

Permanence

The first thing we see the author bring to our attention by referring to the “order of Melchizedek” is that Jesus as High Priest is permanent.

Notice how the author makes his argument: “the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office…” In short, no matter how good a high priest each of these “former priests” might have been, they were not permanent. Death meant there was always a need for a change in the office of high priest. The fact that these “former priests were many in number” meant that there were many changes along the way. Maybe we can relate to this with our own histories marked by successions and transitions. Perhaps in school you had to memorize all the presidents from Washington to the present. Or perhaps you have a long-standing local church that has a wall with pictures of previous pastors who once served as its chief overseer. There are plenty of reminders such as these all around us that force upon us the transient nature of our existence. All things tend to pass on sooner or later. Death changes everything. The believers who first received this letter of encouragement had certainly been accustomed to these many changes throughout history and were in some ways finding themselves at the end of their rope, so to speak.

According to Josephus, there were 83 high priests from the time of Aaron till the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. We don’t know the exact date Hebrews was written, but it is very likely to have been written shortly before the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. The Jewish believers this letter was written to likely knew of many of those high priests through the stories and traditions passed along. Many had witnessed the passing of a few high priests. How relevant this author was to point them to the permanence of Jesus as the ultimate High Priest by telling them Jesus “holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever.”

The author doesn’t just tell us that fact, but goes on to tell us the implications it has:

Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. (Hebrews 7:25 NRSV)

These words were written a long time ago, but it makes clear that what is true of Jesus for these early Christians in their time of crisis is true for us today. Jesus the High Priest is “for all time” the one we look to for salvation. The word used here for “all time” carries an even deeper meaning as well. It’s the Greek word panteles which means all and whole along with perfect and complete.

When Jesus as High Priest saves, we can count on it to be a lasting, permanent, complete and whole salvation in every conceivable way. Nothing gets left out.

In addition, the word translated “save” carries the meaning of deliverance and rescue for the purpose of restoration and healing. The concept behind the word is the picture of bringing a person who has been locked away in bondage out into the open and into freedom.

Jesus was and is the one who sets the captives free. In our present time, words like “lock-downs,” “isolation,” “quarantine” were recently commonplace as they articulated the shape of bondage our world had been experiencing. These modern expressions of bondage point us to our deeper bondage of sin in which we all need to be saved and set free. This is found only through Jesus, who is our permanent High Priest.

If doubt and despair are setting in because of the onslaught of changes that leave us feeling locked away with little hope of freedom, take courage in knowing that Jesus is still serving as our intercessor as “he always lives to make intercession for them.” This means that Jesus is interceding for you and me in this present moment, even when our faith falters, and he will continue to do so forever. As our permanent High Priest, we can count on him to bring us to the Father along with all our burdens and sufferings that need his healing touch of restoration.

Perfection

The second thing to take note of in the “order of Melchizedek” is that Jesus as High Priest is perfect.

For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever. (Hebrews 7:26-28 NRSV)

This is quite the resume for a high priest: “holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.” If Mary Poppins were to translate this verse, she would probably say that this High Priest is “practically perfect in every way.” This certainly could not have been said about any of the other 83 high priests in Israel’s history. The author is not trying to disparage the high priestly system God had put in place for Israel. That system was an act of grace by God to provide a way for his people to dwell in his presence even though they were a fallen and sinful people, just like the rest of the world.

The priest and the sacrificial system also served to point Israel to their true and ultimate High Priest who would be a “fitting” intercessor. It is important to know that God did not need people to offer him sacrifices as a way of twisting his arm for forgiveness. He does not need to be appeased in any way. God himself will do the reconciling and has done just that in Jesus Christ.

We may ask at this point, why is it “fitting” that Jesus be perfect as our High Priest? To answer this, it may be helpful to understand “perfection” in terms of relationship. This High Priest’s relationship to the Father is…well, perfect. It is holy. It is blameless. It is undefiled and devoid of sin. In short, there is no lack of trust between the Father and his Son. It is what we can rightly call a perfectly faithful relationship. And Jesus remained faithful to the Father even with all the changing chaos that comes in a fallen sinful world. His faithfulness was lived out through the thick of it. In other words, the Son of God became Jesus, the God-man who took on all of our sinful and fallen human nature and lived out his life in perfect obedience and faithfulness to the Father. In Jesus, we have the perfect man fitted for relationship with the Father.

Now, we can see why it is “fitting” that Jesus be perfect as our High Priest. The role of the high priest was to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people to mediate reconciliation between the people of Israel and God. Only, they also had to offer a sacrifice for their own sins as well. Jesus does not need to offer such a sacrifice. Instead, he offers himself as the perfectly fitted sacrifice who mediates reconciliation between humanity and God “once for all.” Only Jesus could be both the High Priest and the sacrifice at the same time. In Jesus, our High Priest, we have been reconciled to the Father to enjoy the perfect relationship the Son has had with the Father for all eternity.

This High Priest is “exalted above the heavens,” meaning he is presently and eternally with the Father. In this way, Jesus is the perfect High Priest for us. Today, no matter what changes you may be experiencing, Jesus does not change as your High Priest. He continues, even now, and tomorrow and the next day, regardless of what changes come your way, to intercede for you before the Father. He is completely capable and willing to restore you, save you, set you free and make you whole. In him you will find that his relationship with the Father is a perfect fit for you as well.

Promised

One final point this passage brings out about Jesus as our High Priest is that Jesus is a promised High Priest.

The author draws again from Psalm 110 to point out that Jesus as High Priest was sealed with “the word of the oath.” The Levitical priests were not installed with such an oath. Note the Psalmist’s words:

The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” (Psalm 110:4 NRSV)

Unlike the other high priests, Jesus has been given God’s approval, spoken as a promise that his priesthood would have no end. And the Father always keeps his word. Now we have something that never changes. No matter what changes come our way and challenges our lives in the here and now, we have a great High Priest who comes to us with the promise that our heavenly Father will never change his mind about us, today, tomorrow or forever. The Lord Jesus is faithful and one to be trusted with all the changes in your life. There is nothing he cannot and will not save you from in order to bring you into the perfect life of relationship he has with his Father.

Exactly! w/ Marty Folsom
October 24 – Proper 25
Hebrews 7:23-28 (NRSV) “The G.O.A.T.”

CLICK HERE to listen to the whole podcast.

If you get a chance to rate and review the show, that helps a lot. And invite your fellow preachers and Bible lovers to join us!

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Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life
  • Have you ever been through a hurricane or tornado? Describe your experience or a similar experience you’ve had.
  • How does the experience of a raging storm like a hurricane or tornado relate to the devastating changes and challenges we face in life?
  • What does it mean for you to hear that Jesus is like the safe-room or storm shelter that we can take refuge in? Can you relate to this analogy in your life today?
From the sermon
  • Can you share any changes taking place in your life or in the world around you that makes you long for something permanent?
  • By knowing the book of Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were facing extreme changes and threats in their time, did it give you a sense of connection with them? How did it affect you to know the author of Hebrews sought to encourage them by reminding them of who Jesus is for them?
  • Does knowing Jesus is a permanent High Priest encourage you today? Did this speak to you in any way?
  • Discuss what stood out to you about Jesus being a perfect High Priest. How does this encourage you, or does it?
  • The sermon concluded by pointing out Jesus was a promised High Priest. How did this promise aspect of Jesus’ High Priesthood speak to you?
  • Can you think of times you have experienced Jesus as your High Priest where you found safety in him? What storms has Jesus brought you through that you could not have weathered otherwise?
  • Can you think of others who may be encouraged by knowing Jesus is also their permanent, perfect, and promised High Priest? Can you see how this message of Jesus is as relevant today as it was when Hebrews was written?

Sermon for October 31, 2021

Speaking Of Life 3049 | The Jesus Subtext

Jesus was surrounded by his adversaries waiting for him to make a mistake when one of the scribes asked him a question to challenge his authority. Jesus’ response of love and invitation, reveals his heart for us

Video Transcript

Speaking Of Life 3049 | The Jesus Subtext Greg Williams Have you ever had a conversation in which the primary communication was not the words spoken? Maybe an exchange with an old friend where you say very little to express your relationship? Maybe a conversation with a rival in which looks and posturing were really what was “said”? The brief exchange Jesus has with the scribe in Mark 12 is similar. The scribes ask Jesus what the greatest commandment is and Jesus responds: Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31 (ESV) His answer connects to the central prayer faithful Jews prayed every day; it is called the Shema. But the words unspoken say a lot as well. At least in Mark, the scribes are portrayed as Jesus’ nemesis. They are constantly harping on his behavior and ultimately are instrumental in causing his death. And yet in this exchange, the scribe actually agrees with Jesus by saying: “You are right, Teacher…” The conversation surprisingly takes a sharp turn away from the usual antagonistic tone. He agrees with Jesus quickly—where the subtext in most of their conversations is challenging, suddenly there is agreement. Jesus’ reaction to this agreement is no less surprising: And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Mark 12:34 (ESV) The Lord knows just when to stop everything and watch the kingdom leaking through, even through a scribe. This conversation stands out against other similar exchanges because there is pause, there is observation, not just a disagreement or debate. Jesus sees the change coming through this man and proves that the kingdom welcomes everyone as a matter of the heart. Unlike Israel—who at the time who was shutting non-Jews (Gentiles) out—the gospel movement welcomed all—scribes or otherwise—if that person turned even slightly toward Jesus. It was a matter of faith—not social class, not ethnicity nor heritage, that brought someone to believe and follow Christ. So this exchange—a surprisingly positive response from a scribe excites Jesus. It’s small moments like these showing how Jesus was transforming the world then and still is today. I’d like to think this scribe who was “not far” from the kingdom made it all the way across. Perhaps this was the beginning of his journey—a brief, patient discussion with Jesus. The same discussion he has had with you. I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 146:1-10 • Ruth 1:1-18 • Hebrews 9:11-14 • Mark 12:28-34

The theme this week is being the people of God. Our call to worship Psalm discusses the fleeting quality of life and the permanence of God and God’s people. Ruth 1 tells us about Ruth choosing to identify as one of God’s people and then becoming a great hero of the faith. Mark 12 is an expansion of the Shema, which Jesus called the greatest commandment in the law. Our sermon is on Hebrews 9, discussing Jesus as the end and aim of the Hebrew faith, what it ultimately means to be the people of God.

The Real Footstep in the Hallway

Hebrews 9:11-15

Read, or have someone read Hebrews 9:11-15.

Kids are consummate imitators. They are wonderfully, sometimes manically creative, but they also very much enjoy “being like mommy and daddy.” Costumes of a police officer or a firefighter or a soldier are universally popular in toy stores. If you look at ancient toys from millennia ago in a museum, you will find miniature versions of the chariots and horses ridden by moms and dads and aunts and uncles. We learn how to be human beings by imitating.

There comes a time in every kid’s life when they leave behind these imitations and reach out for the real thing. They find themselves bored and unsatisfied with playing house, so they arrange and rearrange their living space in their room. That gets a little pointless right around the time they leave for college, and then have their dorm room, then an apartment, then a house of their own.

A little boy may have his plastic hammers and Legos until the day he finally joins dad in the garage and feels power tools in his hands. A little girl may have her toy kitchen and Easy Bake oven and one day enter the real kitchen and whip up a meal with mom. Modern kids may cross paths, too, with boys in the kitchen and girls in the workshop! These imitations are just that, imitations, that are meant to someday get us ready for the real thing.

In the midst of that imitation, it often feels like the genuine article. Ask teenagers in the 1960s who might have given each other a ring to “go steady.” They might look back on that with a smile ten years later when they have a wedding ring on, but at the time, nothing is more real.

Feel free to use your own example, or an example of dating/courtship in your culture.

This is part of the point that the author of Hebrews is getting across throughout the book. The trappings and rituals of Judaism were extremely important, given by God himself, but they were only meant to hold things in place until the real thing arrived. Essentially, for us to go back to the temple sacrifices and symbolic actions of Israel would be like setting up a playhouse inside our real house—it would be redundant, a distraction from the real thing.

We are modern people. We have WIFI, drive hybrid cars, eat food made in factories and are part of a scientific and largely secular society. Why should we care about how Jesus and obsolete ancient rituals are connected? What does that have to do with anything?

That’s a fair question—don’t feel bad about asking it! The context of this conversation is far out of historical earshot for us. Yet the Holy Spirit chose to make this seemingly strange narrative a permanent part of Scripture, and therefore we trust it has something to say to us. I’ll try to make it worth your while.

Let’s look closely at this section from Hebrews and see—not how it applies to us right away—but how it applies to Jesus and tells us more about who he is, because then we’ll find out more about ourselves.

What does this passage tell us about Jesus?

  • Jesus is Jewish
  • Jesus is done
  • Jesus is alive

Jesus is Jewish

Jesus was a Jew. He was born into a specific people group with a very strong cultural flavor and with traditions that had been in place for centuries before he came along. It’s important to keep this in mind as we study him and his life.

How else would he fully enter into our world? If God was to come to earth as one of us in Jesus, if he was to truly experience what it meant to be human and take that human experience to perfection, then he had to be part of a specific group, a specific culture, a specific time. If he wasn’t Jewish, he would have been part of another culture with all the idiosyncrasies of that group.

It was all part of the plan. From that first call of Abraham in the desert to Gabriel’s visit to Mary centuries later, it was part of God coming into the human race as a very human savior. That may seem strange to the modern world, which seeks to reduce reality to beakers and spreadsheets, but our boiled-down ideas would seem very strange to the ancient Jews, too!

Yes, Jesus was Jewish. In the original Hebrew his name was Yeshua – Joshua, after the leader that brought them to the Promised Land. The symbolism was rich with that choice!

Jesus’ Jewish heritage is important for unlocking Hebrews, especially these passages that are heavy with priesthood imagery. The discussion here is about how the priests entered the tabernacle, which was the place where God’s presence dwelt. This was a careful, even dangerous enterprise. Commentator Tim Mackie calls it the “hotspot of God’s presence.”

There was an outer court in which the people of Israel worshipped and brought sacrifices. There was an inner court, the Holy Place, in which the priests did the sacrificial work, and finally there was a Holy of Holies, which was where the Ark of the Covenant was held. It was the “hottest” part of the hotspot where God’s presence was the strongest. A high priest could enter that part of the temple only once a year.

This is how Jewish practice was held in place for centuries, and it forms the scaffolding on which Hebrews is built. Serious students of the Word should look at commentaries and Bible dictionaries for help understanding it. But again, it’s part of understanding Jesus and therefore is worth our time.

The writer describes Jesus as high priest, and how his entrance into the temple was different:

 But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. (Hebrews 9:11-12)

Here the author of Hebrews is taking a behind-the-scenes look at the redemption story. He describes a “perfect tabernacle not made with human hands,” which is the tabernacle that the literal one pointed to. The sacrifices and important rituals in Jewish practice were never meant to be an end in themselves, but to point to a heavenly reality. The doings of the physical tabernacle were simply the imitation—like the boy with his plastic hammer and the girl with her Easy-Bake oven—of the real thing that came in Christ.

Some commentators believe that Hebrews was written to a group of Jewish Christians who were being pressured by their communities to take up Jewish practice again and return to temple life. The author is showing them that these rituals only pointed to, only foreshadowed the reality they live in in Christ. Again, that would be like setting up a playhouse inside of our real house and trying to live in there.

Jewish practice used a spotless, blemish-free animal to be sacrificed symbolically for sin. Then the blood, which represented life, was sprinkled in several symbolic places in the temple and elsewhere to ritually prepare the priest and the worship space to be in the presence of God. Jesus entered by his own blood. Because he didn’t have a blemish of sin, he could be the sacrifice.

Jesus is done

One of the most striking images in redemptive history is given to us in Matthew:

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split. (Matthew 27:51)

This detail goes by in the middle of a small chaos of natural disasters that happened when Jesus was crucified, and we could almost skip over it, but the symbolism is earth-shattering—or rock-splitting, as the case may be.

This was the thick curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. The curtain was there to protect the priests from the holiness of God, where one priest could only enter once a year. To go beyond that curtain in the wrong spirit at the wrong time meant death.

And now the curtain is torn.

If we stood before the Holy of Holies today we could walk right in. We are protected by the blood of Jesus, which did the work once and for all. Hebrews talks about the messiness of the sacrificial system—how a flawed priest had to offer sacrifices for himself (chapter 5), and they had to be offered again and again (chapter 10). But now, as Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

Jesus is done. His sacrifice was perfect and was the end that all the other symbolic sacrifices pointed to.

Here is another analogy that might help. If you’ve ever truly, deeply forgiven someone, you know that initially it hurts. Your thirst for vengeance goes unquenched; your “right” to payback is forfeited. In Jesus, God took that vengeance and payback into himself. He took the consequences of our sins on himself instead of rightfully inflicting it on us. The ugliness of the sacrificial system pointed to that great pain which Jesus would bear in the crucifixion. And the good news is it didn’t defeat him.

Jesus is alive

How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (Hebrews 9:14)

It’s been said before: God completely loves you as you are without reservation, and he loves you too much to leave you that way. Jesus didn’t only knock out sin and leave us at some theological point zero—he didn’t just die and that was the end. He rose again, undefeated by the worst our sin could throw at him. Death was the ultimate consequence of sin, and Jesus defeated even that. The resurrection life broke through into the world, and he’s given some of that life to us, even in our time on earth.

“I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10), he said, not only talking to us about a blissful afterlife, but fully living here and now. Eternal life begins now—in knowing Jesus and putting away what the author here calls “acts that lead to death.”

The discussion of temples and sacrifices and atonement may get a little abstract for us sometimes. Theology can sometimes do that. We can think of it as some kind of complicated life insurance policy—there when you need it, interesting in passing, largely academic.

But it was never meant to be that way. Knowing the living Jesus changes who we are and renovates our lives with his true life, transforming us in every moment. C.S. Lewis, describing the Church of England in the middle of the 20th century which was very enthralled with its rituals and pomp, writes about meeting with God:

There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (‘Man’s search for God!’) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?” (C.S. Lewis, Miracles)

And so we were blessed by those who kept the rituals in place for the centuries leading up to Christ. They kept the faith; they did what they knew. But with Christ came the reality all the ritual pointed to—the real footstep in the hall. And now we can never go back.

Exactly! w/ Marty Folsom
October 31 – Proper 26
Hebrews 9:11-14 (NRSV) “How Much More”

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Small Group Discussion Questions

Questions for sermon: “The Real Footstep in the Hallway”
  • Have you ever seen children play imitation games? Have you seen them move on from these games to the real thing?
  • What does it mean that Jesus is done once-for-all with our sin? How does that affect our everyday lives?
  • What does it mean that eternal life begins now? How do we embrace the life described in John 10:10?
Questions for Speaking of Life: “The Jesus Subtext”
  • Have you ever been in or seen a conversation in which what was NOT said was the real communication going on?
  • In this brief exchange Jesus and the scribe, usually opponents in Mark, share a moment of mutual respect. What does this out-of-sync episode tell us about who Jesus is and what matters to him?
  • Do you know someone who, although not a Christian yet, seems “not far from the kingdom of God”? How do you show the Jesus subtext of kindness and patience with this person as God draws them toward himself?
Quote to ponder: “Why do we marry, why take friends and lovers? Why give ourselves to music, painting, chemistry or cooking? Out of simple delight in the resident goodness of creation, of course; but out of more than that, too. Half earth's gorgeousness lies hidden in the glimpsed city it longs to become.” ~Robert Farrar Capon