Monday, April 22, 2013

Yield to the Highest Power - Exodus 32: A Sermon

You can listen to an audio version of this sermon here.
You can watch an abbreviated, informal version of this sermon here.

Last week with Pastor Michael we examined, in experiencing the liberating grace of God, the first step of facing facts, of humbling ourselves to overcome denial about the various situations or problems in our lives that keep us from experiencing the abundant life that God intends for us. Today we take the next step, which is recognizing that we desperately need help. As Hamilton said “It’s very, very difficult to overcome, without help.” No matter what our pattern of destruction might be, and we all have brokenness and unhealthiness in our lives, we desperately need the help of a higher power than ourselves.  Before, we hear more of these testimonies, let’s take a moment to examine the real root of our problems, the sin beneath the sin, the idols and the idolatries that motivate and lie beneath all the surface sin we tend to focus on.

First, in the words of the great musician Bob Dylan: “You gotta serve somebody.” Deeply ingrained into each of us, as part of our design, is that we are made to worship and serve.  In Romans chapter 1, Paul writes about the nature God and the nature of humanity from the beginning, and he writes about how humanity exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images, for idols. That from the very beginning, when humanity gave up on God, they had to put something in their hearts, in the gap, some would say say in the God shaped hole in our hearts, to try and fill the vacuum left by not being in relationship with our loving Creator. In Romans 1:25, Paul writes that “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator…” This is idolatry. Idolatry is whenever we put anything in the highest priority slot of our lives other than God. Every human personality, every human community, is based on some ultimate concern or some ultimate allegiance to something. And whatever we put there, we naturally worship it. The word worship in English comes from a combination of worth-ship meaning its most basic form: to give worth or value to something. Whatever becomes our ultimate value, is what we assign worth to, and whatever in our lives is the ultimate, we will naturally serve that, whether it is a person, a cause, or a philosophy. Even atheist, who expressedly do not believe in a deity, have something in their life that they have determined is of ultimate worth to them, worthy of worth-ship and service.

We are made to worship and serve, and this manifests itself when we see the plethora of idols that we create because, as John Calvin points out, we are a perpetual factory of idols. Jeremiah 2:25, speaking in the voice of Israel says: “But you said ‘It’s no use! I love foreign gods, and I must go after them.” Tim Keller who has written extensively and very well about idolatry, challenges us with this question. I encourage you to close your eyes, take a deep breath, and dive deeply into your soul as you listen to this question. “What thing, if you lost it, could make you lose your will to live? What thing, if you lost it, would make all meaning and significance and hope disappear from your life?” You can open your eyes. That thing is your idol, that is your actual deity that is filling the god shaped hole in your heart.  Anything can be idol, we are perpetual factories of idols, even good things can be an idol.

Let’s look at our passage for today, which is probably the most clear example of idolatry in the bible in Exodus 32:1-5. The people of Israel have just been liberated from slavery by God through Moses. The waters of the Red Sea were parted and they travel to this mountain, where Moses goes up to commune with God and this is what happens. Exodus 32:1-5:

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, "Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what has happened to him." 2 Aaron answered them, "Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me." 3 So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt." 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, "Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD."

So they create this idol, this human made creation, and at the end of the passage, it says tomorrow there will be a festival. Who is the festival in honor of? It’s in honor of the Lord. If you look at the Hebrew, it says “Tomorrow there will be a festival to Yahweh.” The Hebrews aren't so ignorant and blind that they don’t understand that they've just created this golden calf. They know that the golden calf isn't literally the God that just rescued them. They create this idol in an effort to honor and celebrate Yahweh who brought them out of Egypt and we, especially as Christians, do the same thing. We create idols all the time in an effort to do what’s good. We create idols of career, family, good political cause, security, even ministry and mission in the name of Yahweh. The truth is that any and every created thing is good in itself, but can have demonic, destructive influence if it is promoted to an ultimate, god-like place in any heart, society, or culture. The scary thing is, that it is possible to be almost completely compliant with the surface, the superficial, and  behavioral law and yet be obeying out of idolatrous motives rather than God.

Because these idols are difficult for us to see, they are buried so deep in our psyches and our souls, let’s take a minute to look at this list of Tim Keller's. This is by no means an exhaustive list, someone pointed out the idol of security isn’t on here, but it gives us a good place to begin the process of reflection and soul searching.

Life only has meaning and I only have worth if:

            Work idolatry: I am highly productive getting a lot done.
            Achievement idolatry:  I am being recognized for my accomplishments, excelling in my career.
            Materialism idolatry: I have a certain level of wealth, financial freedom, and possessions.
            Religion idolatry: I am adhering to my religion's moral codes and accomplished in it activities.
            Individual person idolatry: this one Person is in my life and happy there and/or happy with me.
            Irreligion idolatry: I feel I am totally independent of organized religion in a self-made morality.
            Racial/cultural idolatry: my race and culture is ascendant and recognized as superior.
            Inner ring idolatry:  a particular social, professional, or other group lets me in
            Family idolatry:  my children and/or my parents are happy and happy with me.
            Relationship idolatry: Mr. or Ms. 'Right' is in love with me."
            Suffering idolatry: I am hurting or in a problem, only then do I feel noble, worthy of love or able
to deal with guilt.
            Ideology idolatry: my political or social cause or party is making progress and ascending in
influence or power.
            Image idolatry:  I have a particular kind of look or body image

The truth is that many of us will live our lives out blind to certain idols or the depth to which we worship and serve these created things. In the Old Testament, in Israel, when it says that they went after other gods, and this is THE sin of the bible, God compares Israel to being a whore for going after other gods. When Israel went after other gods, when they worshiped idols, they didn’t stop worshiping Yahweh, that just added extra gods, extra concerns, extra idols that they worshiped in addition to Yahweh. Sometimes, by the grace of God, our eyes are opened to the idols in our lives, as Pastor Michael said last week he opposes the proud through people, through his Spirit, through consequences. We’re going to watch now, a summary of four people who, by the grace of God, had theirs eyes opened to the destructive patterns in their lives. These stories are going to be shared in their entirety online. We’ll let you know when the final editing is completed and we’re hoping that others of you will share, either by video or by writing about the idols in your lives. If you look at my blog post for this week “Confession of this Pastor’s Idolatry” you can see a written version of an idol I’ve struggled with. Now as you listen to these testimonies,  think not only about the destructive patterns they’ve overcome, but about the idols that lie beneath.

I’ve said this personally to all four of these brave individuals, but again, publically thank you for sharing your stories and again, I encourage us all, to begin thinking of your own story, no matter what the idol, and how you might share the story of God’s work in your life with your brothers and sisters in Christ for encouragement and edification.

Next week we’ll be looking at the next step in experiencing liberating Grace and at practical ways we can make changes, but as we conclude  here this morning, if you didn’t pick it up from these testimonies, the only way to dig out these idols is to yield to highest power. If you’ve ever had an addiction or something that had power over you, you know that when you get rid of it, there is always a multitude waiting to take its place. You can give up an addiction to overeating, for example, and replace it with an addiction to exercise. Usually we replace addictions or idols according to what’s more or less socially acceptable. Remember, we are made to worship and serve, we will worship and serve something. 

Jesus says in Matthew 12:43-47 "When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, 'I will return to the house I left.' When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first.” In Mark 3:27, Jesus identifies himself as being the strong one who can enter into a person, bind up whatever demonic, or destructive idol is there, and he doesn’t leave us empty or unarmed but stays with us by the presence of His Holy Spirit. Nothing in this world is capable of fulfilling us. Tim Keller says what Hamilton concluded with “The degree to which you see Jesus on the cross losing everything for you – he will become so beautiful to you – that these things that control you will lose their power – if you really want to change – Jesus Christ must become your overmastering passion.”

 Jesus says in Matthew 11:28 “"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest… you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke (my mastership) is easy and my burden is light." We are made to worship and serve, when we yield to the highest power, to Jesus and submit to Him, that’s when we begin to experience a fullness of life that God intended for us from the beginning. This is the gospel, the good news, that when we believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, when he takes his rightful place worthy of worship and service, our lives now and forever are made whole and right again. The only option, for true freedom, is when Jesus becomes the passion of our lives.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A Sermon: Missional Modeling in Acts 20

An audio version of this sermon is available here.

Good morning! It’s a pleasure and an honor to be here with you this morning sharing in the worship of God and sharing together God’s Word for us today. Many of you know that two Wednesdays ago we welcomed our second child, our first boy, Ezra into our family so he’s about 11 days old today. I want to thank everyone for the love and the support during this time of sleeplessness and adjustment. Thank you so much for your kind comments, cards, food, and overwhelming love. You all, as our spiritual family, as brothers and sisters in Christ, have been embodying for us the love of God. It’s one thing to read about and intellectually grasp Christ’s command to really “love one another” and it’s a whole other thing to actually experience that love – to have the love of Christ modeled for us and to us as a young family. So thank you so much, and also thank you for being a great sermon illustration of what Scripture points us to today, which is that the gospel, the good news of the kingdom of God, is not just something that we read about, it’s not just something that we intellectually grasp or teach to others in a classroom. People are discipled the most when we have an intense investment in mentoring and being mentored and when we go beyond teaching and model the Gospel.

Please open your bibles to Acts chapter 20. We’ll be looking at a large section of text which begins with Acts 20:17 and goes through the end of the chapter. In this section Paul has gathered the elders of Ephesus and is sharing basically a farewell speech as he is leaving the region and continuing on his mission to bring the gospel to the nations.

Follow along in your bibles as I read a few of the verses from the beginning of this passage, Acts 20:17-20:

From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. 18 When they arrived, he said to them: "You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. 19 I served the Lord with great humility and with tears, although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews. 20 You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.

Paul recounts those first days when he arrived in Ephesus, before these elders knew anything about the gospel or Jesus Christ. It says he taught publicly and also from house to house. Paul was teaching concrete truths through speeches and lessons about the kingdom of God, but if you look closely, he starts this paragraph, this speech, not with remembering public or house to house teachings, but with his actions. He says first and foremost “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you…I served the Lord with great humility…I served the Lord with tears…I was severely tested.” Paul recounts his life and holds himself up as a model for the advancement of the gospel. As Paul speaks to these elders, his spiritual children, he reminds them not only of the abc’s  of repentance and faith, but of the way in which he lived, the way in which he modeled the gospel the whole time he was with them.

We know this, of course, as parents of our physical children, that much of the learning that occurs during development is acquired through observation and imitation, through modeling. Children pay more attention to what an adult does than to what an adult merely says. That’s why adults invented the phrase “Do what I say, not what I do!” I saw this video clip on America’s Funniest Videos.

 Children learn the behavior that is modeled to them, whether good or bad. A famous modeling study done across 10 states showed that if a child’s parents used seatbelts then about 80% of the children would also use seatbelts whereas the children of parents who did not model this behavior of putting on seatbelts had as low as a 11% rate of using their seatbelts. Children learn the behavior that is modeled to them. The same is true for our spiritual children, those new to the faith no matter what their physical age, they pay so much more attention to what we do tangibly, than to what we merely say.

Being a Christian is not simply a set of propositions, an accumulation of knowledge or facts that one agrees to, certainly not a list of rules. I saw these pictures on Facebook last Wednesday of Jonathan Cronkhite’s battle against an Armadillo.  Jonathan apparently has a problem with an armadillo digging and tearing up his yard so what did he do? Fortunately for us, and the Facebook community, he did not call someone with experience to remove the armadillo, but instead Googled up some information and then tried to put into practice what he learned from the internet.

When I saw this post on Wednesday it said “Cronkhites vs Armadillo… 0-2.” I looked again yesterday and it said 0-5.  Now my guess is that eventually, through actual tangible practice in armadillo hunting, Jonathan will catch an armadillo. All of us on Facebook look forward to that day. If you have an armadillo problem, it would probably be faster for you to learn if Jonathan came and showed you by modeling, demonstrating his technique for armadillo hunting. There are many professions like this, where you not only need knowledge but you need practice, you need the skill modeled in order for the one being discipled to really grasp the skill. Could you imagine if you went in for an important surgery and the doctor told you: “Hey, just to be upfront with you, I’ve never actually done a surgery before. I’ve studied a lot, I read a lot of books, Wikipedia has been invaluable to me. I can name every artery, every vein, every organ, but I have never actually seen a surgery, helped on a surgery, or done one on my own before… good night see you when you wake up!”  Being a Christian is not simply a set of propositions, an accumulation of knowledge, a list of rules, it is a tangible lifestyle modeled after Jesus Christ and continuously modeled through the ages from generation to generation as people are fully discipled through teaching and modeling the gospel. It is imperative that we model the gospel with our lives as Paul did with those in Ephesus.

Returning to our text, let’s skip down a few verses to Acts 20:26-31:

Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. 27 For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. 28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.

We see here that those whom Paul initially discipled through teaching and modeling are now being called themselves to be shepherds for the next spiritual generation. They are called to be mentoring and mentored. There are three spiritual generations in this text. There is Paul who mentored the Ephesian Elders. Then you have the Ephesian Elders who were mentored by Paul and are being called to mentor others, to be shepherds and models. Then you have the new Christians, the sheep who need to be mentored. We are all on a spectrum with regards to our Christian faith, our walk with Christ.

Some of us are brand new in Christ, having put our faith and trust in him, some of you here today may not even feel comfortable saying that. You might just be spiritually curious, if you are I’m so glad you’re here today. Whether we recognize it or not, those of us just now connecting to God in a deep way: you need modeling mentors. Faith and spirituality are not just a list of things to learn and comprehend. So, how do you enter into a mentoring relationship, like Paul has with these elders? How do you find a mentor. Write this down, it’s very complicated, choose someone you think would be a good mentor and then ask “Would you consider a mentoring relationship with me?” You are not a spiritual orphan, look around at this spiritual family. Whenever a new covenant partner comes to Trinity, we ask this question: “Do you promise to welcome these, who have reaffirmed their faith in Jesus Christ, as covenant partners of of Trinity Presbyterian Church, and do you promise to help them find meaningful fellowship and ministry as we worship and serve God together?” This is your family, bonded together by the Spirit of God, we have vowed to help you find meaningful fellowship and ministry, worshiping and serving God together. Ask and you shall receive.

Now, some of us have been on this path for awhile. We have been shepherded, we have matured in our faith, we have had a mentor or two, perhaps for you, today is the day that you commit to being a mentor.  Perhaps today is the day, that you decide you won’t be spiritually barren anymore and instead be a spiritual parent, a mentor, a model to someone younger in the faith than you are. Invite them to join you when you  go and serve at Habitat for Humanity, bring them along the next time you lead a small group or a time of prayer. Share with them the dilemmas you face and the struggles you’ve had. Talk to them directly about their spiritual goals and look for ways you can help them move forward. Encourage them to mentor someone else themselves.

That’s the ideal for most of us, to be in the position that the Ephesian elders are in: Mentoring others and being mentored ourselves. Whether it’s being an apprentice or being a mentor, or both, I encourage you to follow Paul’s model of discipleship seen here with the Ephesians.

Before we move to the final portion of this passage, I want to note one more aspect of this text. We’ve noted that Paul models the gospel and that ideally Christians are mentoring and being mentored. We also note that this type of discipleship modeled by Paul requires an intense investment. Back when I was a high school biology teacher, one of the things we studied that was always exciting was reproduction and the different strategies that animals use for reproduction. Don’t worry I don’t have any diagrams for you today. One strategy is that some animals produce a multitude of offspring and hope that some of them survive. The parents have a very low level of investment for an individual child. Perhaps you’ve seen the baby sea turtles that experts say only about 1 out of 1000 will make it to adulthood. By the way I don’t advise crushing your children with that detail. It is a beautiful scene here, but you’ll notice there is no momma turtle. Other animals take a different strategy and produce relatively very few offspring but have an intense investment so that the chances of survival shoot up dramatically. Humans are an example of this. We don’t have thousands of children, most of us have a handful and our children require a lot of attention and care. We don’t set them down on the beach and say good luck. No, we sacrifice our space, our time, our sweet precious sleep, and almost all of our resources on just a few children. We have an intense investment in their development and their survival.

This second strategy is Paul’s strategy, spiritually speaking. Paul says in verse 31: “Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.” For three years, night and day, with intense emotional involvement, that is, with tears. Paul is intensely invested in his spiritual children. Modeling only works if the parent has a regular, active and continuing presence in the lives of their children. The same is true spiritually.

At the end of this last January we had a denominational gathering in Orlando and one of the speakers that really resonated with me was a man named Leighton Ford, perhaps you’ve heard of him. Leighton Ford among many other things is the brother-in-law to Billy Graham.

The description on his website says this:

Dr. Ford is President of Leighton Ford Ministries which focuses on raising up younger leaders to spread the message of Christ worldwide. He has spoken face to face to millions of people in 37 countries on every continent of the world and served from 1955 until 1985 as Associate Evangelist and later Vice President of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. For many years Dr. Ford was featured as the alternate speaker to Billy Graham on the Hour of decision broadcast and his own daily TV and radio spots in the United States, Canada, and Australia.”

Dr. Ford shared with us in Orlando from a book he recently wrote called The Mentoring Tree. The introduction, written by Dr. Roger Parrott to that book says this:

As chair of the Leighton Ford Ministries board, I’m often asked by church leaders, “What is Leighton doing these days?”  The answer they are expecting to hear is about some project  of scope like the significant ministry initiatives which have been an important part of Leighton’s life, including leading Lausanne 1 and Lausanne II congresses, preaching for huge crusades or conferences, or creating the Sandy Ford Fund and Arrow Leadership Program.

But instead of focusing on those public portions of his ministry path, I take great joy in sharing with them an entirely different priority that has become the center of Leighton’s life – mentoring. Following the ministry pattern of Jesus, Leighton is investing in the deep relationships that equip a new generation of evangelists and ministry leaders, rather than being driven by the measurable ministry projects  that can consume us.

In the first chapter of the book, Dr. Ford tells a parable about two types of trees. The first tree is the Banyan tree. You can see this is an incredibly massive tree and there is an Indian Proverb that says “Nothing grows under the shade of the Banyan tree.” The second tree is the Aspen Tree. Aspen trees, in contrast to the Banyan tree, are tall and slender, not known for their massive proportions, but they are unique. Dr. Ford writes this:

Have you ever seen an aspen grove? At first it looks like any other grove, a bunch of the same kind of tree. But it’s not. An aspen grove is actually one tree connected by its roots and the roots are out of sight under the soil. An aspen tree spreads out its roots and grows many trunks. Those who count these things say that one grove, one they call ‘Pando’, probably has forty one thousand stems off one root stock. It’s really one tree with many branches.”

Some leaders are like the Banyan Tree, they grow massively and can be seen for miles, but nothing grows under the shade of the Banyan tree. There is no mentoring or intense investment in the next spiritual generation. Other leaders, like Jesus, like Paul, like Dr. Ford, hopefully like you and I, are like the Aspen, putting a deep and intense investment into the ground and as a result seeing thousands of new trees, new leaders coming up. Again I encourage us to follow Paul’s model here from God’s Word today and intensely invest in a mentoring/modeling relationship.

At the very end of our passage as Paul says his final farewell to the Ephesian elders, we see that Paul’s modeling is a Missional Modeling. Let’s look at Acts 20:36-38:

When he had said this, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. 37 They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. 38 What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship.

First let’s notice the impact that Paul has had through modeling and an intense investment in the Ephesian elders. In our first passage we read in verse 19 that Paul “served the Lord with great humility and with tears.” Then in our second passage in verse 21 we read that “for three years [Paul] never stopped warning each of you night and day with…tears.” Here in our final passage what happens? They all weep. His modeling is working! He cries all the time and now they are crying. In all seriousness though, we see that the deep love and intense emotional investment that Paul has demonstrated and modeled is now an ingrained part of who his spiritual children, the Ephesian elders, are.

Beyond that, what’s wonderful here, is that though the Ephesian elders are deeply grieved that their mentor, Paul, is leaving them, they do pray together and send him off. As important as it is for us to intensely invest in others, to mentor and model, so also is it important to recognize when the time comes for our spiritual children to stand on their own. Children grow up, they move out of the house. It’s hard for me to imagine my 3 year old daughter not living with us anymore but I’m told one day that will happen.  Some children mature very quickly and others may still be living with us. This is probably the hardest and most difficult aspect of being a parent, both physically and spiritually. It is done with tears, but there comes a time when, because the mission is so great, that we are called to go and mentor others as Paul does. . If you find yourself in the youth program, in your small group, or even during sermons saying “I’m not being fed enough”, maybe it’s because your full and you need to make the transition into mentorship and feeding others. Some of us may have been a member of a life group for over 10 years now. Perhaps, and I don’t want any hate mail – I know this is difficult, but perhaps now is the time for you to consider leading a life group of your own or joining a missional community. Perhaps you’ve attended church services for awhile now and today is the day that you decide it’s time to go over to Mission Central and go be a mentor outside these walls at the DOCK, Space Coast Center for Mothers with Children, Community of Hope, or one of our other partners. As the Church, the body of Christ, if we aren’t both grieving and celebrating the sending of our leaders and the raising up of new leaders, then we’ve lost this key missional modeling given to us by Paul.

As we near the end of this series, The Tangible Kingdom, let’s ask ourselves how in our lives have we been mentored and how are we mentoring others with intense investments. Ultimately how does our modeling and discipleship reflect the mission of God, to go and take the gospel, the good news of the Kingdom to our communities and those who are spiritually thirsty.

Click here for my other sermon in this series: No Other Name.