Friday, July 31, 2009

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I Hate to Say I Told You So....

On July 10, I posted an article about the nomination by President Obama of Dr. Francis Collins to be the Director of the National Institutes of Health, an article in which I praised the pick on the grounds that Dr. Collins is both an accomplished scientist and a committed Christian.

In that post I said,

I suppose that there are secularist scientists, by which I mean scientists who believe that science has eliminated the possibility of God and who are sometimes downright evangelistic about converting others to their worldview, who are displeased, troubled, and even frightened by the nomination of Collins because they think that he might let his religious beliefs get in the way of good science.

Well, on July 27 the New York Times published an editorial entitled "Science Is in the Details" by Sam Harris, the best-selling author and candidate for a doctorate in neuroscience who is an outspoken advocate of what some have termed the "New Atheism."

In that editorial, Harris said, "It can be difficult to think like a scientist. But few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion."

So, like I said, I hate to say I told you so, but....

For an excellent response to Harris' editorial, read this article by philosopher Eric Reitan.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

New Post at "Boll Weevil on the Braves"

It's called "Cause and Effect, Time and Space, and Baseball Announcers."

The Basis for Everything Else

(A sermon based on Revelation 4 & 5 for Sunday, July 26, 2009)

We Christians need to know that God is with us and that he is working his purposes out. Christians have always needed to know that. A beautiful affirmation of the fact that God is with us and is working his purposes out is found in Revelation 4-5. The message of those two chapters is really the basis for everything else that we find in the book. In fact, the message of those two chapters is really the basis for everything on which we base our lives as Christians. We must know what these chapters use symbolic language to teach if we are to live hopeful Christian lives.

We should keep in mind that we are in the realm of symbolism in these chapters, just as we are in the rest of the book. As one writer has put it, “it is important to recognize that the descriptions are descriptions of symbols, not of the reality conveyed by the symbols” [Bruce M. Metzger, Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), p. 14]. Reality is communicated by the symbols, but the symbol is not the reality. So, for instance, the resurrected Christ is not literally a lamb with seven horns and seven eyes. We should also keep in mind that we are in the realm of vision here. John had an intense visionary experience that, because he wrote it down, we are privileged to view.

Chapter 4 shows that God is worthy of worship and praise because of who he is and because of what he does. The vision John has is one of God sitting on his throne in the heavenly throne room. The heavenly throne room is a conception that is quite common in the OT. The visionary uses precious stones to symbolize the nature of God. The jasper and carnelian perhaps signify the holiness and judgment of God. John’s vision of a rainbow like an emerald around the throne probably indicates the mercy of God, since the rainbow in Jewish thinking was a sign of God’s promised mercy.

John sees worship taking place in heaven. The twenty-four elders who sit on twenty-four thrones and who are described in priestly and royal terms represent the totality of God’s people by combining the twelve patriarchs with the twelve apostles. They are joined around the throne by four living creatures that are the angelic counterparts of all of animated creation. Now, notice the worship service that continually takes place in heaven. The four living creatures constitute the choir, the worship leaders. They continually sing “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.” When they sing, the twenty-four elders bow down and also join in singing. They sing that God is worthy of honor and glory because he is the Creator.

The vision of the heavenly throne room continues in chapter 5. John sees a scroll in the hand of God. The scroll is sealed with seven seals. Later in the book, different scenes will unfold as each seal is opened. At this point, an angel’s question, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” is at first left unanswered, at which John weeps. Why is the scroll so important? What is it? Eugene Peterson has suggested that the scroll represents Scripture. He said, “One of the great excitements and glories of Christian worship was that the preaching of Christ unsealed the scrolls of scripture” [Eugene H. Peterson, Reversed Thunder: the Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination (HarperSanFranciso, 1988), p. 64]. More likely, I think, is that the scroll contains God’s plan of judgment for the world and victory for his people. John weeps because if no one can open it, then the plan will remain unexecuted. But then John is told by one of the twenty-four elders not to cry because “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (5:5). Now, those two titles are both drawn from the OT and both had accepted messianic connotations. So John would have been expecting to see a mighty Lion figure with great conquering powers who could take the scroll and rip it open.

Look at what he saw instead! He saw “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (5:6). Now, we should note again that we are living in the world of symbolism. The Lamb represents Jesus, but Jesus does not literally look like a lamb. The meaning is that Jesus was sacrificed for our sins. He is worthy to open the scroll because of his sacrificial death. Slain lambs don’t stand, of course. But Jesus is the resurrected Lamb, so this slain Lamb does stand. The heavenly choir, made up of the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders, sings a new song, new because of the tremendous new thing that has happened. Jesus is worthy to open the scroll containing God’s redemptive purposes because he died, thereby making us saints and kings and priests. In short, he is worthy because he gave his life for us. He is worthy because his life and death and resurrection are such a vital part of God’s purpose.

The beautiful picture of chapter five shows us that God’s purposes are already being worked out. They began to unfold in new and in what would ultimately be final ways because of the sacrifice of Jesus. So we gain great encouragement from this picture. We learn that God not only will work his purposes out but also is working his purposes out. The book of God’s purposes for his people and for the world began to be opened in the saving ministry of Jesus.

The picture painted in chapters four and five teaches us something important about worship. There we see joyful worship intentionally offered up to God and to his Son Jesus Christ. The picture painted there says two things about our worship.

First, it says that our worship here on earth is a part of worship that goes on in heaven. That truth is communicated by this interesting note: each of the living creatures and each of the elders hold “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (5:8). So when we pray down here, we are participating in the heavenly worship. We worship together with those who are there now. When the heavenly hosts worship the Lord, our prayers as the Christian community on earth participate in that worship.

Second, this picture gives us something to model our worship here after. Our worship should be focused on God as the Creator and on Jesus Christ as our Savior who holds the fulfillment of history in his hands. Our worship is not a spectator sport, nor is it a mere passing of the time. No, our worship is active participation in the great redemptive plan of God. We are a part of what God is doing, and we should participate with great gusto.

Finally, the picture in chapter five teaches us something very important about the way in which God works his purposes out. We absolutely must grasp the importance of the symbolic picture of Jesus here. He is the Lion who conquers as a slaughtered Lamb. Jesus’ victory over the forces of Satan and over the oppressive evils of the world came through his resurrection, to be sure, but it also came through his sacrificial death. This is the way of God: victory through sacrifice. That means that if we are to share in the victory of God in the world then we must also be people who live sacrificial lives. It is in the willful giving of ourselves to God and in the willful participation in sacrifice that we share in what he is doing. Why? Because then we are living Christ-like lives! Make no mistake about it, though: the slain Lamb who is Jesus Christ has conquered. So will those who are his.

So you see, the message of Revelation 4 & 5 really is the basis for everything else. It is the basis for everything else that will happen in the book: the Jesus who has conquered by his sacrificial death has the authority to unfold the rest of history according to God’s will. It is the basis for everything that we do as Christians, too. Why? Because everything we are and everything that we do must derive from the fact that we serve a crucified and risen Savior who bids us live a life like his. Will you live such a life from this day forward?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Allman Brothers, Providence, and Me

My friend Randy recently wrote about his experiences back in the 1970s with Richard Betts and the other members of the Allman Brothers Band; his essay was inspired by the fact that the Brothers' "Big House"--the place on Vineville Avenue in Macon, Georgia where they hung out during their heyday, will become an Allman Brothers museum at the end of this year. You should read his post to get the full effect of his story; the gist of it is that he got to spend some time playing music--"jamming" is how such folks put it--with the guys in the band at their farm that was located not far from the hometown that Randy and I shared--the city of Barnesville, Georgia.

In his post Randy wrote of how a mysterious figure that he calls "my buddy" and he spent time with the Allman Brothers Band at their rural retreat; I don't know for sure who his "buddy" was--although I have a pretty good idea--but the one thing I do know for certain is that Randy never took me with him to see the Allman Brothers, even though I was his "buddy" too.

Understand, now, that I have known Randy for all my life. I was born a year after him and so we were never in the same class at school but Barnesville was one of those towns where everybody knew everybody and Randy and I knew each other well. Our main point of contact was the beloved Midway Baptist Church which both of our families attended.

We were friends, Randy and I, who shared many interests and many experiences.

But we did not share in getting to know the Allman Brothers Band because Randy did not take me with him.

Now, I did know that Randy had been to the Allmans' farm; he mentioned it when we were roommates at Mercer University, but I thought that he meant that he had been down there one time. It was only when I read his post that I learned that he actually went there numerous times.

Did I mention that he never took me with him?

Wounded as I was by this revelation, I left several comments on Randy's post expressing my disappointment that he had never taken me to meet the band. I did note my acceptance of the fact that that part of his world was not a place where I really belonged; I did not play in a band like Randy did and I was admittedly and regrettably square during my teenage years (yeah, some things never change).

Taken aback and no doubt shamed by my grief-filled and anger-fueled diatribes, Randy finally told me in an email, "If--and only if--you're good between now and November we'll go to the Big House together. Just you and me. And we'll pretend it's 1975. You can drive the Comet and I'll drive the Monte Carlo. It'll be great."

Touched to the point of being teary, I readily accepted Randy's invitation. Besides, his email made it crystal clear to me why he was in the with the Allmans and I wasn't--he drove a Monte Carlo while I drove a Comet! Some things just have to be accepted. As my good wife tells me, "It is what it is."

It also was what it was.

In the great scheme of things it makes no difference, anyway. What if I had been a guitar player and what if I had been in a band with Randy and what if I had gotten to meet and even to jam with the Allman Brothers Band--or even with Wet Willie, for that matter? I truly believe that my life would have turned out very much like it did. I would have still been a Christian; I would have still gone to Mercer; I would have still met and married Debra; I would have still become father to Joshua and Sara; I would have still been a preacher and pastor--those were the ways that were meant to be for me and those truths about me make up who I was supposed to be and, indeed, who I am.

But I'm still just a little bit bummed.

"Why?" you may well be asking.

Once upon a time, Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show had a big hit with the Shel Silverstein-penned "Cover of the Rolling Stone" in which they sang, "We keep getting richer but we can't get our picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone." Well, they did.

As for me, I don't want to be on the cover of the Rolling Stone. But I am haunted by the possibility that, had my buddy Randy included me in his Allman Brothers adventures, I just might have been included in the picture of the Brothers and their extended family that graced the inside of their classic album Brothers and Sisters.

Believe me, I would not have stood out at all!

So, my brother Randy, I want you to know that all is forgiven--unless you tell me that you're in that picture, in which case I'll have to be peeved all over again.

Regardless--Big House, here we come!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"When You Stop & Think About It" for July 22

(My weekly church newsletter column is entitled "When You Stop & Think About It." What follows is this week's article.)

Someone asked the little boy if he knew what the colors on the traffic light meant. He thought a moment and then said, “Yes I do!” Obviously basing his conclusions on what he had observed of his parents’ driving behavior, he said, “Red means stop, green means go, and yellow means go real fast!”

I wonder what our children conclude about the meaning of Christian discipleship if they base their conclusions on what they see in us. I also wonder what the people around us who don’t follow Jesus or who don’t go to church conclude about the meaning of Christian discipleship if they base their conclusions on what they seen in us.

Do they conclude that following Jesus means being selfless or being selfish?
Do they conclude that following Jesus means practicing forgiveness or harboring grudges?
Do they conclude that following Jesus means embracing diversity or nurturing prejudice?
Do they conclude that following Jesus means living in love or basking in hate?
Do they conclude that following Jesus means celebrating grace or wallowing in fear?
Do they conclude that following Jesus means building up or tearing down?
Do they conclude that following Jesus means holding on to hope or clinging to despair?
Do they conclude that following Jesus means developing trust or honing anxiety?
Do they conclude that following Jesus means worshiping faithfully or worshiping erratically?

It’s worth thinking about, isn’t it? The old saying maintains that “Your life is the only Bible that some people read.” But when you stop and think about it, the situation is actually much more serious than that. Given that the Church is the Body of Christ in the world, we can accurately say that “Our lives are the only Jesus that some people see.”

This following of Jesus that we do is an all the time, all of life, all of everything way of living. To do it well, we need lives that are infused constantly with grace, that are bathed constantly in prayer, that are attentive constantly to the presence of God, that are immersed constantly in Holy Scripture, and that are open constantly to other people.

My prayer and my hope as your pastor is that we will together, bit by bit, small step by small step, moment by moment, and day by day grow in our following of Jesus so that, when the folks “out there” see us and hear us, they will see Christ-like lives and will hear Christ-like words and will sense Christ-like motives.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Why Do We Have a Book Like Revelation?

(A sermon based on Revelation 1 for July 19, 2009; first in a series)

Much ink is spilled over the book of Revelation because of its unusual nature. Unfortunately, much of that ink is spilled inappropriately because the interpretations offered by many are so far removed from the actual message of the book and are so sensationalized that they obscure the gospel message contained in Revelation. What I hope will happen over these next few weeks is that you will see that Revelation makes sense. Its message is straightforward and very accessible, once you realize and accept a few truths about the book. Today I want to try to answer the question: Why do we have a book like Revelation?

I. Because strange times call for strange words

Revelation is persecution literature. The people to whom this book was originally addressed did not wonder about a coming time of tribulation; they were already living in a time of tribulation. They were looking for a word to help them.

Revelation was written to real churches living in the real world. The book was apparently circulated among the seven churches in Asia Minor to whom “mini-letters” are addressed in chapters 2 and 3. However, we must always deal with the fact of symbolism in Revelation, and in Hebrew numerical symbolism, the number seven was a number of completeness. So, even though the book is addressed to seven historical churches of the first century, the book also communicates through its numerical symbolism that it is meant for all churches everywhere.

The tribulation that the book addresses probably took place during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian, who ruled from 81-96 AD. John himself was a victim of persecution, having been exiled to the small, rocky island of Patmos, some 40 miles off the coast of Asia Minor. So, as he himself said, he was brother with his readers, because he shared with them in persecution because of faithfulness to the Gospel (v. 9).

Because of the strange and difficult nature of a time of persecution, John used an old Jewish form of writing that was itself strange and, for the uninitiated, difficult. That form is known as apocalyptic. That is the literal Greek of the word translated in v. 1 of our English Bibles as “revelation.” The word means to uncover or to reveal. That form of literature had a long history among the Jewish people. Some parts of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah are apocalyptic. The book of Daniel is the only full-length apocalyptic book in the Old Testament. “Between the testaments,” though, many apocalyptic books were produced which also had an influence on the content of Revelation. Apocalyptic books are characterized by an interest in the fulfillment of God’s purposes and by abundant animal and numerical symbolism. Times of persecution were so hard and so unsettling that a different kind of language was needed to address it. That language was apocalyptic. But the message was not much different from any other book that presented the gospel message.

II. Because God’s people need a word from the Lord

Do not, under any circumstances, lose sight of the fact that Revelation is a presentation of the gospel message, just like Luke or Galatians or 1Timothy. It seems so different because it addresses a certain kind of situation using a certain kind of literary form. But when you boil Revelation down, what you have is a word from the Lord that his people need to hear.

In answering the question posed by the title, it is important to realize that we need help. The world is tough, and Christians who really try to live as Christians are going to have a tough time in the world. That is, fortunately or unfortunately, much more true in other parts of the world than it is here in our little part of it. It is universally true, nonetheless.

It is also important to realize that the Book of Revelation was given by God to Christians to give us some of the help that we need. Therefore, our interpretation of Revelation should look for the ways that the message of the book helps us in our pilgrimage in the world. So, interpretations that are overly creative or that are overly subtle or that are overly mysterious are to be avoided. Why? Because they aren’t helpful. One thing that makes a book of Scripture a book of Scripture is that it spoke to its own time but continued to speak to later generations of God’s people. Revelation had a message that the people to whom it was originally addressed needed to hear, and that message is still applicable to people in every succeeding generation, including ours.

Make no mistake about it, though: Revelation is a word from the Lord. Verse 1 says that God gave it to Jesus to give it to his servants and that he sent his angel to show the message to John. So, the message of Revelation is a message that God wants us to get. It is a message that is divine in its origin and thus a message of good news. It is a message that is meant to be experienced. Notice that John “saw” the message (v. 2) and that it was to be “read aloud” in the churches (v. 3). It was a message that John experienced and we are in turn to experience it. Revelation must engage our believing imagination if it is to become the word of God for us that it is intended to be.

The people in those seven churches of Asia Minor needed a helping word from the Lord and so do we. The word from the Lord contained in Revelation is a word about how God was working his purposes out in the time and the lives of the original readers. It is also a word about how he is working his purposes out now. Is it a word about the “end times”? Yes, if you understand that the end times began with the resurrection of Jesus. We live as all Christians have lived since the beginning of the church: anticipating what God will do at the very end but also anticipating what he will do right here, today. Unless you keep both elements in mind you will miss much of the impact of Revelation.

III. Because we need to be reminded of who God is and of who we are

Vv. 4-5a reminds us that God is God in all of his awe-inspiring fullness: “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.” That phrase refers to God the Father. God the Father always has been, always is, and always will be. This affirms that God is in and over and thus in charge of all of history, including its ultimate outcome and what is going on right now. “And from the seven spirits who are before the throne.” Again, seven means completeness, and this is a way of referring to the Holy Spirit in all of his equipping and comforting and encouraging power. “And from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” Here is the teaching that Jesus Christ in his resurrection power is the most authoritative individual in the universe. This, John tells us, is the God who is on our side, the God who is always with us: he is God in all his fullness, Father, Holy Spirit, and Son.

So John reminds his original readers, all Christians who have ever lived since, and we who are alive here today that the triune God, God in all of God’s fullness and power, is on our side. That in and of itself says something about we who are Christians. But John says more about what it is to be Christians, about what it is to be the church.

For one thing, he says that we are the forgiven ministers of the Lord. That’s what is affirmed by vv. 5b-6: “To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” We are forgiven for our sins not because of what we have done but because of what Christ has done in the shedding of his blood. Having been forgiven, we are now to serve. We are to serve as kings and priests. How do we do that? Well, how did Jesus become the great high priest and the reigning king that he is seen to be in vv. 12-16? He did so by giving of himself, by serving, and by suffering and dying as the prelude to resurrection. That is how we serve, too. We are called to give of ourselves in service to God by serving the world. We are to embrace whatever suffering comes our way as our service to God. We are to know that on the other side of suffering comes resurrection. This is who we are to be as we live in this world of woe.

For another thing, John says that we are those who lives are secure. In vv. 12-13, John says that he “saw seven lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands…one like the Son of Man….” Later the lampstands are explicitly identified as the seven churches (v. 20). What does this symbolism tell us? It tells us that Jesus Christ himself is in the midst of the church. That is a heavenly reality. That is, our place and our life are secure in heaven. But that is also an earthly reality. As will become clear as we work through the book, Jesus is always with his faithful churches right here and right now, no matter what we’re going through.

So there are some very good reasons that we have the book of Revelation. The bottom line for today is this: we have it because God knows that we need it. We need its encouragement, its challenge, its hope, and its assurance. We need to know what it tells us about God and we need to know what it tells us about us. May we know more and more the truth that Revelation makes sense, and may we grasp God’s word for us today.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Citation of On the Jericho Road

My post "In Memory of Southern Seminary" is cited and linked to at the Religion in American History blog in a post entitled "Will the Union Rise Again?" by Paul Harvey, who teaches at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. In his article Harvey offers a brief review of the new history of Southern Baptist Seminary written by Gregory Wills; in the course of that discussion he links to my post as a "personal reflection of a pre-1993 alumnus."

Friday, July 10, 2009

For Such a Time as This

The White House announced on July 8 that Dr. Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, would be nominated to become the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). I believe this move to be a good one.

Dr. Collins is eminently qualified as a scientist. According to the website of the National Human Genome Research Institute,

Dr. Collins received a B.S. from the University of Virginia, a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from Yale University, and an M.D. from the University of North Carolina. Following a fellowship in Human Genetics at Yale, he joined the faculty at the University of Michigan, where he remained until moving to NIH in 1993. His research has led to the identification of genetic variants associated with type 2 diabetes and the genes responsible for cystic fibrosis, neurofibromatosis, Huntington's disease and Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome.

As Director of the Human Genome Project of the NIH, Collins led in the successful sequencing of the human genome and brought the project in early and under budget.
According to the Los Angeles Times’ excellent article on the nomination of Dr. Collins, “The appointment…would make Collins one of the most powerful and influential scientists in the country, if not the world, overseeing 27 institutes and an annual budget of nearly $30 billion for biological and medical research.”

Collins’ brilliance as a scientist and skill as a manager are unquestioned; he is also widely hailed for his ability to explain complex scientific ideas in words that non-scientists can understand.

Collins is also a Christian who is very comfortable with and articulate at talking about his faith.

In his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2006), he writes of his journey from agnosticism to atheism to belief in God, a belief that he arrived at after, among other things, encountering the faith of patients during his time as a medical student and reading C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity which was given to him by a neighbor who was a Methodist minister. Since Collins is a scientist it should come as no great surprise that he arrived at faith when to him “faith in God now seemed more rational than disbelief” (p. 30). He came to a point where he took the leap of faith and became a believer in God.

As a scientist who is also a believer, Collins has founded the BioLogos Foundation, which, according to its website, “promotes the search for truth in both the natural and spiritual realms seeking harmony between these different perspectives.” I am grateful that a scientist who is also a person of faith will, assuming that his nomination is approved, be what amounts to the national director of scientific research and the national spokesperson for science.

I suppose that there are secularist scientists, by which I mean scientists who believe that science has eliminated the possibility of God and who are sometimes downright evangelistic about converting others to their worldview, who are displeased, troubled, and even frightened by the nomination of Collins because they think that he might let his religious beliefs get in the way of good science.

I suppose that there are also fundamentalist biblical literalists, by which I mean people who think that the findings and teachings of science must conform to a specific and literal interpretation of the biblical creation narratives or else they are not “true,” who are displeased, troubled, and even frightened by the nomination of Collins because they know that he is not going to promote their agenda.

The truth is, though, that Collins stands in exactly the right place to do an outstanding job as NIH Director because he understands that both science and religion are seeking truth in their own way and that both scientific investigation and religious search are valid in their own way. To again quote the website of the BioLogos Foundation, “We believe that faith and science both lead to truth about God and creation.” I believe that, too.

In The Language of God, Collins deals with several options for dealing with “the contentious interaction between the theory of evolution and faith in God” (p. 158) and he rejects the option of “atheism and agnosticism (when science trumps faith)” (p. 159), the option of “creationism (when faith trumps science)” (p. 171), and the option of “intelligent design (when science needs divine help)” (p. 181), settling instead on the option of “BioLogos (science and faith in harmony)” (p. 197), which is his renaming of “theistic evolution.”

Here is Collins’ summary of the synthesis arrived at when science and faith are seen in harmony:

God, who is limited in neither space nor time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him. He also knew these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the Moral Law (pp. 200-201).

In the last chapter of The Language of God, Collins writes movingly of how, a year after he had made the leap of faith to belief in God, he “surrendered to Jesus Christ” (p. 225).

So there you have it—the newly nominated Director of the National Institutes of Health is a person who both trusts in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior and who believes that God worked through evolution to bring God’s marvelous creation into being; he is at the same time a committed Christian and a committed scientist.

To paraphrase the words of Mordecai to Queen Esther, Francis Collins may have come to our nation and to our world for just such a time as this.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Free Indeed

(A sermon for Sunday, July 5 based on John 8:31-36)

Yesterday we celebrated Independence Day here in the United States of America. Freedom is a terrible thing. Frankly, it’s easier to live in bondage.

Whenever I can I spend some time looking at the newborn babies in the hospital nursery, some of them just a few minutes or hours departed from the womb. Just a little while ago they had been safely confined in their mothers’ belly, warm and snug and peaceful. Now they are stretching their arms and legs out toward the wide and wild world, their bodies twisting this way and that, their mouths at times still and at other times contorted in yawns or cries. They are free.

It is God’s way that those little babies don’t know what lies ahead of them—otherwise, they might petition the Almighty for a return to the womb. Now they have to live and in living they will have hard choices to make. And always they will live with the temptation to accept slavery rather than freedom.

The problem that the people conversing with Jesus in our text had was that they at the same time were blind to their slavery and wanted to remain in it. They wanted to remain in slavery to their culture and to their assumptions because such slavery let them avoid the terrible freedom to relate to God for themselves and to live the adventuresome and challenging and thrilling—and dangerous—life that comes from that relationship.

Our text is part of a dialogue between Jesus and some people that deteriorated into a controversy. Jesus challenged them to listen to him and to follow him so that they would know the truth and the truth would in turn make them free. They balked at the idea, saying that they were descendants of Abraham and they had never been slaves to anyone.

They obviously suffered from selective memory loss. Their ancestors had been slaves in Egypt who, after liberation, had wanted to go back to Egypt; they preferred the security of slavery to the challenges of freedom. Perhaps Jesus has that in mind in what he said. These were people who “believed” in him but he challenged them to continue in his word and thereby to be his disciples. Freedom was found in such following but they didn’t want that; they wanted to keep trusting in being children of Abraham.

Jesus said to them, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” That set me to wondering what their sin was—what was the sin of these “descendants of Abraham”? The obvious answer is that they trusted in their religious and national pedigree, which is understandable—their people had an amazing history. To be a descendant of Abraham and a member of the nation of Israel was a good thing—but it was not the best thing because it was not the freedom-giving thing. The best thing was to enter into the relationship of trust and grace that Jesus Christ made possible, to come to trust in God rather than in pedigree, but these folks were unable to get past their allegiance to that into which they had been born. As Jesus pressed his point that being a child of Abraham and being a citizen of Israel wasn’t enough, they grew angrier and angrier.

It’s kind of like what happens these days among some church-going or at least church-belonging folks when some preacher suggests that some of us may put too much stock in being, say, Baptist or even in being, say, American. But it’s something we need to think hard about. It is just as possible for people these days to say, “What do you mean I’m a slave to sin? I’ve been a member of this Baptist church all my life” or “What do you mean I’m a slave to sin? I’ve been a citizen of the most blessed country on earth all my life.”

Really, though, to be free in Christ is to be free of all of that. Oh, I don’t mean that when you are a Christian you don’t care anymore about your country—far from it. To love your country with the love of Christ is to love it with the greatest love you can. But I do mean that when you are a Christian you look to Christ for your identity and for your direction and for your very life. You’re not bound to your national loyalty in such a way that you can’t recognize that while our country has given and does give us a lot, it can’t give us what we need most—a personal relationship with God. Only Jesus can do that. And so in Christ you’re set free to love your country honestly and openly rather than blindly and inappropriately.

The people debating with Jesus put their national pedigree ahead of their relationship with God. We can’t do that.

One sin of the descendants of Abraham was an attraction to power, be it that of their own leaders or that of the leaders of other countries. We see that, for example, in the desire of the people to have a king. The Old Testament ideal was that God would be the King of Israel and that the leaders of the people would be his representatives. When God finally agreed to let them have a king, he had Samuel tell them about how the king would abuse his power and take advantage of them, but they still wanted the monarchy with all its trappings; they wanted to be like the nations. Another problem was that Israel was always relying on alliances with other, more powerful nations, rather than trusting in God for their security.

Modern American Christians are tempted by a similar attraction to power. We have over the last few decades seen some rather unseemly alliances develop as some Christians and some Christian leaders have sold their souls to one political party or philosophy or another or as they have tried to extend “Christian” influence by storming the halls of power. Suffice it to say that neither our government nor any other government nor any earthly institution is capable of being the embodiment of the kingdom of God or is capable of being the vessel containing and sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Only the Church, which is the Body of Christ that is empowered by the Holy Spirit of God, can be those things. That is not to say, I hope you understand, that Christians should not try to influence the process and that we should not exercise our voice—far from it. But it is to say that if we let ourselves get caught up in the pursuing of power and in the exercise of power, we will very quickly lose our way and the true gospel will get lost.

Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw share the following insight in their book Jesus for President.

When Jesus predicted his death at the hands of the Romans and the religious elite, Peter wouldn’t have it (Matt. 16:21-23). He said no to Operation Slaughtered Lamb. The Scriptures say Peter took Jesus aside and rejected the plan Jesus had laid out, saying, “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” And Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”… Peter just didn’t get it. He couldn’t imagine a president who dies on a cross. He would have rather had a Savior who glides into Jerusalem in a polished limousine than one who chooses to ride a lowly donkey. He still had in mind the things of kings, of Pharaoh, of Herod. He wanted to save the world through militaries and markets and foreign policies rather than through sacrificial love and grace. [Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), p. 87]

The Church loses something essential when we marry the powers of the world rather than being the salt and leaven that we are meant to be.

Besides, we are free to be free from all of that because our freedom is in Jesus Christ! We are free to be in the world but not of the world. We are free to be citizens of the United States while our ultimate and primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of Heaven. We are free to be salt and light in the world and to work toward spreading the kingdom of God in the world even while we realize that the structures of the world can never be made “Christian.”

“You shall know the truth, Jesus said, “and the truth shall make you free.” “If the Son makes you free,” he said, “you shall be free indeed.” In other words, in Jesus we find the freedom that matters most: freedom from sin. The essence of sin is trusting in anything or anybody other than God. In Jesus we are set free from the idolatrous trust in anything that is not God; in Jesus we are set free from the futile effort of trusting in earthly things to bring about heavenly realities. We are citizens of heaven who happen to live in America.

This is Independence Day weekend. Yesterday we celebrated the independence of our nation and those freedoms that are ours because we are Americans. How blessed we are to live in this great country! As Christians we should be the best citizens around. We should pray for our country and we should do everything we can to help make sure that we remain free.

What I have tried to emphasize, based on this challenging text, is that we nonetheless need to take care lest we fall prey to the sin of the people whom Jesus confronted. Their sin was that they put being descendants of Abraham ahead of entering into a true relationship with God. A related sin was the attraction to power that was a part of their birthright. We have the blessed opportunity to be Christian people in the midst of a great nation that is nonetheless an earthly empire that will never be conterminous with the kingdom of God and that will always need the witness of Christ. We do our best work as Christians when we build his kingdom.

I know—such talk is odd and hard to get our minds and hearts around. But, in the words of Flannery O’Connor as she re-worked the words of Jesus, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” If we are in the truth of Christ and if we are set free by the truth of Christ and if we follow the truth of Christ, we will look and sound odd in any culture, including the American one. But that’s good. It’s good because what this nation needs from us—what this community needs from us—what this world needs from us—is exactly the oddness and wonder and love and grace of the Christian truth. And we—and only we—are free to live it. That’s being free indeed!