Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Lord's Prayer

Brief, Intense and Frequent. That is the way that Bible teach Dale F Brunner describes Jesus' teaching on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount. Rather than trying to impress others by loud public shows of devotion or incessant ramblings and flowery, elaborate speech, Jesus encourages his followers to live a life of quiet devotion and prayer. Prayer is an intimate relationship with God more than it is a display of spirituality.

That is why Brunner summarizes Jesus teaching on prayer this way:
Not for show - God is watching
Not much - God is wise

One author described prayer as spiritual breathing. It is necessary for our spiritual life and should come as automatic reflex, not as contrived showiness or wordiness. The main point of Jesus' teaching is that daily prayer is to be an integral part of the disciple's everyday experience. "When you pray, you should pray like this" does not mean "on rare occasions, and only when you are in desperate trouble, pray this prayer. Instead, it is to be taken as a description of a believers lifestyle of prayer.

Further, the Lord's prayer, while providing words that can be used in prayer,even when we don't know how to pray, does not require that these exact words be used. It forms a framework of prayer; a paradigm for what we should be praying for. Again, Brunner says, "it is a kind of handrail along which to proceed in forming our own words, or we can pray this prayer exactly, using these very words thoughtfully." Praying the Lord's Prayer helps us when we are at a loss for words.

As we at Calvary continue to consider what it means to live as Kingdom people, we need to recognize that "The Lord's Prayer" is at the very center or apex of the rest of the teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. When we ask how do we find the strength and grace to live as disciples; to love God and to love our neighbors, the answer is generated in this prayer. It is to be the nucleus of our spiritual life.

Further more, it should be noted that at the very center of this prayer we are further taught to pray for the forgiveness of our disobedience and sin and to find forgiveness for those who have offended and hurt us.

This weekend, Calvary, along with churches around the world, will observe the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. We call it World Communion and it is a chance not only to receive the perpetual symbols of God's forgiving love in our own lives, it is a call to recognize that as disciples we are part of a much grander scheme. We are part of God's invisible church made up of persons from every walk of life, every age, every tribe, every tongue. Our spiritual life in Christ and our devotion to prayer is not just about our own intimacy with God but with our solidarity and union with other Christians everywhere and of every age.

And so, we are told not only to pray for forgiveness, and for daily bread. We are told to petition God that God's Kingdom would become a reality in this world just as it is in heaven and will one day be when Christ returns. When we pray for God's kingdom to come, we are really praying for his rule to be established everywhere in this world, beginning with our own life. It is a prayer of submission to divine sovereignty. It recognizes the holiness and rule of God and not just God's gracious providence.

We cannot pray the Lord's prayer without thinking that God, in some way, wants each of us to live as witnesses to his kingdom rule through Christ. We can't help but realize that for that kingdom to become reality, it has to begin with us forgiving those who "have trespassed or sinned against us." And we can't help but come to the startling conclusion that we in fact, do live in a global community where we bear no small degree of responsibility for brothers and sisters in places like San Ramon Nicaragua, Port au Prince, Haiti, Lusaka Zambia, Finetown, South Africa and Juarez Mexico. If we live as kingdom people and pray the way Jesus taught us, we will realize God is up to much more than we can imagine in our own sheltered experience.

Here is the way I have been praying the Lord's Prayer this week:
God in Heaven - you are our loving father, but you are also holy and majestic; sovereignly watching over all that you have made, please make your kingdom rule a reality in the lives of people around the world just in the same way it is a reality in heaven. May your kingdom be real in the lives of our brothers and sisters around the world today.

We trust you to provide for us today for the things we need, not necessarily the things we want. Help us to be satisfied with daily bread and not so consumed with stockpiling material wealth to excess.

We are sinners and we know you forgive us when we sin against you. We owe you a debt we can never repay. All that you ask is that we forgive those who have hurt or offended us. In that way, we can be free to experience the freedom and grace that comes from your forgiveness.

Help us all have the strength and courage not to fall into the temptations of our culture and our world. Deliver us from the evil that is around us and help us to be agents of change in our world because you love the world and you are deserving of our very best. Lord God, you are glorious, you are powerful. Your kingdom is forever. So be it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Greatest Sermon Ever Preached

What was the greatest sermon you ever heard preached? Two stand out in my mind. The first was delivered by Anglican Rector and world-traveled speaker/theologian NT Wright. He was speaking at Wheaton College Chapel during the Theology Conference featuring his writings. He delivered the most compelling message using the entire book of Ephesians. Using single verses from each chapter, he developed what he understands to be God's eternal purposes for the world. I will never forget it.

Shortly after I returned from that conference, Calvary hosted the Reverend Dr. Mark Labberton who kicked off our spring sermon series on "THE DANGEROUS ACT OF WORSHIP." Mark's authentic, low-key, and personal delivery as he taught from Isaiah 58 was unforgettable to me. Not only was his understanding of Scripture so compelling, but his personal stories and examples drove his point home with forceful imagery.

What was your favorite sermon ever? Was it an electrifying evangelistic sermon by Billy Graham? Was it a provocative, intellectual lecture-like sermon? Was it from someone you knew? Was it a short sermon or a long sermon? Or, are you like me? I am a visual learner rather than an auditory learner so I often have a difficult time remembering things I hear. But I remember visuals.

It is interesting that in our culture that is so saturated with technology, media, and information, that preaching still has a place in our faith development. The attention span of the average American has been shortened dramatically so that it is hard to focus on and remember an entire 20 minute sermon. Even though God still chooses to use the sermon as a means of communicating the truths of the faith (Faith comes from hearing and hearing comes from the Word of Christ - Romans 10:17)the sermon seems antiquated and countercultural. That is one reason why we sometimes use drama, music, video, or visual props to help communicate.

This past weekend, several of you spoke to me about the concluding act of our worship that illustrated and drove home the sermon's main point. After talking about Jesus statement that believers are "the light of the world," I too was struck with the visual of 80 people standing in the darkness in front of the church with candles in hand, their warm inviting life signifying our commitment to be light in our world. Sunday was no less dramatic as we sang "Lift High The Cross" and people spontaneously began holding their lit candles high above their heads. It sent chills through my soul as I realized that a single action like that would represent the commitment to shine the light of Christ in our world.

When I think of great sermons I have read or heard, Jesus' inaugural sermon that we know as "The Sermon On The Mount" ranks at the top of the list. Jesus was the master communicator; a preacher extraordinaire. Christ's effectiveness as a communicator was not because of homiletical training. It was not because he held a prestigious pulpit.

We know that from a very early age, Jesus had a solid grasp on the Hebrew Scriptures and amazed the Pharisees, Rabbis and teachers of the Law with his keen understanding.
He taught "as one with authority." But what strikes me about the Sermon on the Mount is the relevancy or the way in which he made the Scripture come to life in a very practical, applicable way. I find The Sermon on the Mount to be an incredible primer on the theology and ethics of Jesus and I try to read it at least 2 or 3 times a year just to keep myself grounded as a preacher and as a Christ-follower. It has that kind of trans-cultural relevance and importance. When I read it I almost feel like I am one of those people gathered on a hillside in Galilee listening to this gentle Rabbi in person.

The British physician, pastor and Bible expositor Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones used thirty Sunday's of eloquent preaching to expound on this passage at Westminster Chapel in London in the 1950s. These are fabulous messages in themselves. But they testify to the even greater truth and impact of Jesus' timeless teaching in this passage from Matthew's Gospel.

That is why Dan and I felt it would be beneficial and relevant to spend the fall message time reflecting on Jesus' great sermon. In particular, we want to focus on the ethics of the Kingdom of Heaven. What does it mean in practical terms to live like Christ-followers in our day?

I know that Dan nor I can really do justice in preaching from this great sermon. And we will not take the better part of a year to do so. But I believe you will find very practical, relevant and inspirational truth as we reflect on Jesus' familiar words and seek to apply them to our lives.

It is said that the greatest evidence of effective preaching is "changed lives." I pray that each of us will experience transformation as we reflect on Jesus' teaching through his Word.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Salt and Light

When my father was 79 years old, he had open heart surgery to replace a faulty valve and to bypass a clogged artery. He did great in surgery and his recovery was remarkable. I remember him saying that he couldn't remember when he had last felt that good. The downside of it all was that he had to radically change his diet to a fat and salt free diet. In other words he gave up any food that really tasted good to him.
(I thought it was ironic that he was told he couldn't eat things like Bacon any longer and yet the very valve they used to repair his heart was from a pig. Go figure!)

About 2 years later - at age 81 or so, after one of his complaints about not being able to eat the foods he really liked, I suggested to him that maybe at age 81, he ought to eat whatever he wanted moderation of course. Returning to red meats, cheese, real eggs and salt, may not have been the best thing to extend his life in years but it sure made his last years more enjoyable.

As I begin to prepare a set of sermons based on Jesus' teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, I am struck by two unique "you are" statements he makes about his disciples. "You are the Salt of the Earth" and "You are the Light of the World." It impressed me that sentence structure doesn't intimate that a disciple should be" salt and light. The follower of Jesus is salt - the salt of the earth. The believer is light - the light of the world.

If that is true, then the question is not whether or not a Christian is salty or has light. The question is, instead, what are you doing with that tanginess and that light. And the Lord suggests that the danger of salt is that it can lose its tang.

Now my palette is not discriminating enough to tell whether the Morton's salt we buy at the store is stale or tangy. Apparently in Jesus' day, salt was not produced in the same way and with the same consistency and it could, in fact, lose its saltiness or flavor. In that case, it was no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled under foot.

Salt not only adds flavor by its tang, it was used to preserve food in an age before refrigeration and artificial food preservatives. It had healing benefits. I remember having to soak my feet in Epsom Salts if they were sore or rinsing my mouth with warm salt water after a tooth extraction. I guess it aided the healing process. I know it didn't taste very good.

If we can assume that Jesus had these ideas in mind as he talked about salty salt, it has some profound implication for the way we are to live our lives as Jesus' disciples.

Salt can also be an irritant (i.e. "rubbing salt in a wound"). That might be a down side of saltiness. Sometimes we talk about a person with a salty personality or using salty language - that's usually not a complimentary reference.It seems to me that Jesus is suggesting that his followers are to have a tasty desirable influence in our world - one that preserves, heals and transforms our world and the people around us.

Sometimes Christians are known more as the irritant, strident kind of salt. We stand more for what we are against than what we are for. Jesus has called those who bear his name to be an influence for positive change and showing the world a better way rather than the many ways that the world is "wrong."

Hateful demonstrations, strident protests, violence or discrimination have never been great "draws" for people with no faith to become Christ followers. Acts of compassion, careful treatment of the oppressed and marginalized, fairness, and loving unity among themselves seem to be better examples of what it means to be salt.

Similarly, when Jesus went on to say "you are lighthouses in the world" it is more likely he meant we are to be people who light the way from danger to safety, rather than blinding flashes of damaging light. We are reflectors of the true light. We guide the way for others by the way we live. And Jesus says, if you are indeed light, then don't hide your light inside a bucket - let it shine. Be so filled with the True Light of the World that it exudes from your every word and action. Reflecting Jesus' light, the light your reflect will point others to the true light - that is if you don't bury it under a basket of busy-ness, isolation from the world and its needs, and a walk of life that doesn't match your talk.

Ethical, kingdom living begins by the Lord having blessed and equipped us to live as kingdom people. If you are a disciple, you are salt. You are light. Are you salt that has flavor though? Are you a light that shines the reflective light of Christ to a hungry, lost world? Jesus will go on in his inaugural sermon to talk about the commands of the Kingdom; the "shoulds" and "ought-tos." But before he does, he reminds us of what we are and how we have been blessed and equipped. We are blessed so we can be blessings - salt and light. How salty are you?