Tag Archives: mercy

Mercy for those who doubt – Jude 17-25, Part 5

4 Oct
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

“Be merciful to those who doubt.” 

Interesting phrase, isn’t it?  So often we conceive of doubt as a negative thing to be avoided, and the result can be that people who doubt are considered to be sinful or strange.  But is doubt wrong?

As we conclude our two-week study through the letter of Jude, we find that in verse 22, he writes that we should be merciful to people who doubt.  Why? Because doubt is not an indication of disbelief.  Doubt is normal.  Just about everyone doubts.  It doesn’t mean they have lost the faith.  They’re just questioning, investigating, wondering.  Their doubt is actually healthy, as doubt helps us go deeper in our beliefs, making them our own.  Let’s be merciful to those who doubt.  Instead of judging those who doubt, let’s listen to them share their concerns.

Someone recently said to me that where there is doubt there is hope.  In a society where there is growing doubt, this is instructive to us.  I’ve heard a stat reporting that only 30% of 18-30 year olds go to church.  We can choose to get upset about this, but Jude is wise to instruct us to be merciful to those who doubt.  Rather than dump on people for doubting, we should have an attitude of embracing them, even when they doubt.  Doubt means they are searching, and thus there is hope that they’ll find what they are looking for. 

Jude has more instructions for us in verse 23: “Snatch others from the fire and save them.”  Christians should be known as being active in outreach.  We can and should seek to help the ungodly impostors find God. But notice how Jude finishes verse 23, “To others show mercy mixed with fear, hating even the clothing stained with corrupted flesh.”  For people who are corrupted, meaning that they will not receive any help or guidance or word about Jesus, which seems to describe the ungodly impostors in Jude’s day, then it is time to part ways with them.  Remember our study in Titus when Paul said, “have nothing to do with them”?  That’s what Jude is getting at here.  

Jude then concludes his letter in verses 24-25 with an amazing flourish.  It is a prayer to God.  He starts his prayer, “To him who is able to keep you from falling.”  Falling is a word that refers to stumbling.  God is able to keep you from stumbling!  He doesn’t force us.  But we can depend on him, and rely on his strength and power through his Spirit within to help us remain faithful to him.

Next Jude says God is also able “to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy.” Combine that with how he finishes the prayer: “To the only God, our savior, be glory, majesty, power and authority through Jesus Christ our Lord before all ages, now and forevermore.”  When I think about that it strikes me how he focuses on giving glory to God.  He is placing God squarely in focus right in front of him, right in front of us, almost saying, “Look at God, he is real, he is alive, he is powerful, and we need to remember that.” 

These kinds of rich theological prayers are so important because they shake us out of a lull and help us focus on what is real, what is true, what is important about life. 

This, then, is what Jude is saying in his letter.  He is saying, “Wake up people, there are impostors in your church, and you are letting it happen.  You’ve let yourself fall asleep.  Wake up.  Focus on truth, on goodness; focus on God.  You’re probably going to need to repent of your lethargy and get down to the business of contending for the faith.  But remember that you are called, loved and kept. God is able to keep you from falling.  He is at work!  Focus on him.  Spend time with him.  Allow him to guide your life.” 

Hope when life is very dark – Titus 3:1-8, Part 3

7 Aug

Do you have a dark past? Is life feeling messy or difficult right now? If you answered “Yes” to either of these questions, you’re not alone. All of us go through really troubling times. In the middle of it, we can feel a confusing mixture of fear, sadness, pain, longing, despair, and we wonder if things will ever change. Usually we think they won’t.

As we continue studying Titus 3:1-8, Paul is thinking about those dark days in the past when in verse 3 he says, “At one time.”  After talking about how the Christians in Crete should be subject to the authorities and live Christianly in the world, Paul has a shift in his flow of thought, drawing their attention to the past.  He wants them to be totally different people than he used to be, than they used to be. 

When he says, “we too,” he could be talking about himself, which is important because, as a leader, he is owning and admitting his past faults.  Paul lists the way he used to live:  foolish, disobedient, deceived, enslaved by passions, living in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.

Paul could be talking about himself because before he became a Christian, he was pretty rough, persecuting Christians.  This is very much connected with what he just said in the previous verse about being humble.  Christians should be willing to admit our faults.  Leaders especially, we need to be committed to admitting where we mess up.  It’s hard to admit our faults, though, isn’t it?  I sense that in our society we have moved toward less admittance of our faults.  It seems to me that people are much quicker to blame others, and not accept fault.  We have too few examples of people who screwed up, owned it, confessed it, and strove for penance, reconciliation, healing.

Paul is also not saying that everyone used to horrible, though.  But maybe there is at least something on the list that describes how you and I used to be. 

Verse 3 is difficult.  Who likes to remember our dark pasts?  And yet Paul is leading us there, so let’s follow his lead.  Look at the words he uses in verse 3 to describe the dark past.  Take a moment to dwell on them.  For the most part Paul is describing those times when we made a mess of our lives.   What was that for you?

A choice to indulge an unhealthy relationship.  To engage in addictive behaviors.  To cross the line into illegalities, because maybe you were angry, you were hurt, you were maybe trying to impress someone.  Maybe people pushed you to act a certain way, and you wanted to be included in their group.  Maybe you were deceived by someone and they hurt you.

As Paul says, remember those times when you felt malice, which is a feeling of wanting to hurt someone.  Remember those times when you were envious.  Maybe a family member or friend was prospering or gaining accolades, while you are working super hard long hours, and seeming like you are not advancing.  And envy creeps in.   Maybe you had someone at work hate you.  Maybe you have someone you hate. 

It can get dark, can’t it?  Remember the darkness? It’s no fun.  Maybe you have some of that darkness even now in your life.  Maybe you feel like you are living it now. 

And into the darkness something happens.

Look what Paul says in verse 4.  God intervened! His kindness and love appeared.  It wasn’t us.  We didn’t do it.  God stepped in.  This is so similar to what he said earlier in 2:11 – the grace of God appeared!  Praise God!  He steps into our darkness! 

When we are in the mess and muck of life, even if it is a situation of our own making, we can feel hopeless and alone.  But Paul says, God our Savior is loving and kind.

What’s more, Paul says in verses 5-6, God saved us!  He steps into our mess and saves us.  Not because of our righteousness. Remember the darkness in verse 3, which says we were far from him, the furthest thing from righteousness.  Paul says God saved us because of his mercy.  We need to spend time dwelling on that too.  God is merciful.  Even when we used to be living in a mess of our own making, he is still merciful.  We don’t deserve it, but he is loving and kind and gives us mercy.

What does mercy involve?  Just words?  Maybe just a pat on the head?  Oh no.  Paul says, God saves us so deeply, so thoroughly, from the inside out.  We’re talking transformation here.  Look at these words he uses:

He saved us through the washing of rebirth

He saved us through renewal of the Holy Spirit whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior.

Rebirth and renewal.  We need to talk more about these two! 

Paul calls it the washing of rebirth.  This is symbolized in the celebration of baptism.  The water and act of baptism symbolize the reality that God is doing within us.  All that junk we read about in verse 3, all of it is washed clean, and we are reborn.  So not only are we cleaned, but we are reborn.  We are new people.  A new beginning.  We’re not the same as we used to be.  What Paul is describing is incredibly similar to what we saw him teach last week in chapter 2, verse 14, when he talked about redeeming and purifying us.  When Jesus gets in your life, he makes a change!

Check back in as we’ll continue talking about this change in the next post.

Love the sinner, hate the sin? [False ideas Christians believe about…Sin. Part 5]

1 Mar
Image result for love the sinner, hate the sin?

Have you ever heard a Christian say, “love the sinner, hate the sin”?  We hear that all the time.  Maybe you’ve said it yourself. On the surface it sounds really good.  We should be a people that love others no matter who they are.  What could be wrong with that?  If that was all it was, focusing on love, then there would be nothing wrong with this phrase.  It would all just be love, and we would be showering love on people. 

The problem enters with that word “hate.”  Here’s why.  I’m not saying that we should be OK with or approving of sin.  I’ll get to that in a minute. 

Unless it was a once and done slip up, which often times is not the case, a person’s sin is usually inextricably bound up in who they are.  So when we say, “hate the sin” what they actually hear is “you hate me.”  It doesn’t matter that we also said, love the sinner.  They hear “you hate me”. 

Also, notice the “love the sinner” part. Both parts of this phrase are exceedingly negative and confrontational.  The “hate the sin” part can easily be heard as “you hate me” and then the “love the sinner” part can easily be heard as “you are defining me as a sinner.” 

Is that the message of Jesus to people?  “You hate me and you are defining me as a sinner”? 

Now you may be thinking, “but that is not at all what we mean when say ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’.”  We actually mean something totally positive and encouraging.  I mean, that word “Love” is front and center, right?

But have you ever been on the receiving end of the comment?  Think about it.  Put yourself in the shoes of a person who is being told that comment about themselves.  It might not be so easy to take.  We always hear the negative way more than the positive.  We fixate on the negative.  That’s why it is said that for every negative comment you should say 10 positive statements to counteract that one negative.  In “love the sinner, hate the sin,” yes, there is love, but then what comes next?  Sinner, hate, sin.  It is 3 to 1 in favor of the negatives. 

Let’s step back a minute and analyze the motivation for this statement. What are we really hoping to communicate to people?  What should we want to say to people? In trying to answer that question, it would be helpful to ask, how and what did Jesus communicate to people?

In Luke 5:17, Jesus heals a man whose friends lowered him down through the roof to get him close to where Jesus was inside a house. The first words out of Jesus’ mouth are surprising.  You’d think he’d say, “Who are you?” Or “What is going on here?” Or at least, “you are healed.”  But instead, you know what he says? “Your sins are forgiven.”  It pretty much shocked everyone there too.  Jesus’ point, he goes on to say, is that he has the power to forgive sin. Interesting, isn’t it, that he focuses on the forgiveness part! But that is who he is

In John 5:1-17 he meets another man who needs healing, and Jesus tells him to get up and walk. The man is healed, and later when they meet up again, Jesus says to him, “don’t sin anymore so that it will go well with you.” 

So Jesus is forgiving, and he addresses the sin, asking people to stop the sin.

Back in Luke 5, Jesus calls a tax collector named Levi to follow him, and Levi agrees to become one of his disciples.  Levi is elated about his new life of following Jesus, so he throws a big party at his house, and invites his friends.  Tax collectors were pretty edgy people, hanging with a rough crowd, and Levi invites them all to the party.  Do you think Jesus says, “Uh sorry, Levi, there’s no way I’m sullying my reputation by getting involved with these sinners!”?  Nope, Jesus parties it up.  Well the Pharisees and teachers of the law spy on him, and they start accusing him of hanging with sinners.  And guess what Jesus says!  This tells us so much about his approach to sin.  He says, “I came for sinners.” 

Jesus brings life and hope and forgiveness for those in sin.  He is merciful to them.  He loves them.  But in his mercy, he calls them to a better future.  He does not want them to stay in sin.  He calls them to stop the sin and follow his new way.

It reminds me of a story I heard. In college a young man had gone to a campus ministry, but he was just going through the motions, and only went to the campus ministry because he thought it would please his grandfather.  He eventually stopped attending because his heart wasn’t it in. Then he gave up on school too, dropped out of college, got a job, and started hanging out at bars almost every night.  He got wrapped up in selfish relationships, with no boundaries, as well as pornography.  A couple years went by, and he knew he needed to finish his college degree to advance his career, and he re-enrolled.  During that process another student invited him to go to the college ministry again.  He said “yeah” but again he really wasn’t interested.  He said he would go just because he is a people-pleaser.  Figuring that the guy wouldn’t follow up on him, and he would be off the hook, he made plans to head out to the bar.  But right at the time they agreed on, the guy called, and the campus ministry visit was back on.  So he reluctantly went to the campus ministry.  During the meeting a girl shared her story, emotionally describing numerous self-destructive behaviors she had been involved in, and how Jesus had forgiven her and she was now following his way of life.  The guy thought, “that’s all stuff that I do regularly…and she is talking about it like it was wrong.”  And right then and there, he broke down and repented of his sin and decided to follow Jesus’ way.  This was just like Jesus’ own conversations with people: repent, stop sinning, receive forgiveness, and follow him.  He is a gracious forgiving God, and his way of living is so much better than we could ever imagine.

What about you? Do you need to stop sinning, receive Jesus’ forgiveness and follow his way? He came for you!

Babies in the Water (or what is broken in society and how to fix it?)

2 Sep

Image result for broken society

You don’t have to search far and wide to come across preachers of doom and gloom.  Especially in an election year.  Especially in this election year.  Listen to the news and speeches from candidates and you can get the idea that our country is teetering on the precipice of total implosion.

Personally, I don’t believe it.  I’m concerned that the fear-mongering is possibly used to engender political gain.  I suspect that our nation is better off than what we so often hear.

But I also try to be a realist, and I see that there are systems and structures which are broken.   We need to identify them and seek to fix them.  When a group from Faith Church visited our sister church Kimball Avenue Church in Chicago, we heard an insightful story that I call “Babies in the Water”.  You may have heard a version of it before.  It is a story about seeing what is broken and how to fix it.  It goes like this:

Imagine you are spending a wonderfully cool late summer day (like today is, at least in Lancaster County), enjoying a picnic alongside a small river.  Your family has a blanket spread out, and you’re eating sandwiches and chips while your kids, standing on the riverbank, attempt to skip stones across to the other side.

Suddenly, one of your kids starts yelling frantically.  You snap to attention, heart immediately pounding, fearing one of your little ones has fallen in.  Quickly counting bodies, you breathe easier, they’re all running toward you.  Then you make out what they’re saying.  “There’s a baby in the water!”  You think to yourself, Can’t be…kids mistakenly identify things all the time.  But your children are beside themselves, and you see it too.  The distinct form of a baby, arms and legs flailing a bit, floating on its back down the river.  Then comes the unmistakable cry of an infant.  You and your spouse spring into action and rush out to save the baby.  Astoundingly, though sputtering a bit and cold, the baby is going to be okay. Image result for babies floating in water

You walk it back to shore to wrap it in the picnic blanket.  At the riverbank, your spouse is looking up and down the river for boats, for any sign of people looking for their missing baby.  There is nothing.

A few more minutes go by, and now you and your spouse are making calls to figure out what to do next, when your kids, back down at the river, starting yelling again.  “There’s another baby coming!”  And the same process you just shakily went through happens all over again.  Now you have two babies.

Over the course of the next few hours the babies keep coming and they don’t stop.  Your desperate phone calls lead to an emergency baby rescue committee from your church haphazardly taking shape.  People bring portable tents, baby food, diapers, blankets, and start a process for getting the infants to Child Services and foster homes.

And the babies just keep coming.  Soon your emergency committee graduates into a standing committee at your church.  People sign up to staff the river 24/7.  And the babies keep coming.

You recognize that the tents are not suitable for poor weather, so your committee raises money for a permanent shelter and over the course of a week, you put up a building.  And the babies keep coming.

This goes on for months, and there is no end in sight, so you put together a board, hire some part-time staff and a fundraising director.  And the babies keep coming.

We do this kind of ministry in many ways.  It is called mercy ministry.  Providing for needs.  Just as the babies absolutely needed to be rescued in this far-fetched story, there are many other real needs in our society that we need to address.  It honors God’s heart when his disciples share the Good News by providing mercy ministry for those in need in our society.

But mercy is only half of the solution to the situation, because, like the babies, the needs just keep coming.  There is a very important question that mercy doesn’t ask.   Mercy asks the question, “How can I help those in need?”  That is vital.  But there is another question that needs to be asked.  Do you know what it is?

Think about those babies floating down the river.  Mercy asks “how can I help them?” and the answer is clear.  Rescue them from the river or they will die.  Get them safe.  But there is another question, a very important question that someone should ask about those babies.

Where did they come from?  How did they get in the water?  Babies aren’t supposed to be in a river.  Who did this?  Why do they keep on coming?  And most importantly of all, what do we need to do to stop them from throwing babies in the water?

If mercy asks “How can I help those in need?”, justice asks “why are they in need in the first place, and what can we do to make right the situation that is broken?”  I tend to think that mercy is easier than justice.  People are missing meals, so we give them meals.  People need clothes, we give them clothes.  Homeless?  We help them get homes.  This is mercy, and it is right and good.  But what about justice?  Why are these social situations happening?  Well, the answer to the justice question is much harder to come by.

Over the last 8 years since I have become senior pastor at Faith Church, and especially in the past 5 years since our family moved to the Conestoga Valley school district in which the church is located, I’ve gotten to learn more and more about some of those broken systems and structures in our local community.   Through connections in the school district like the CV social worker, who reports to our local Ministerium, I’ve heard a lot about students in crisis.  We have a number of people in our church family who work for the school district, and they have talked about the brokenness.  For the last two years I’ve been on the Board of our local social services organization, Conestoga Valley Christian Community Services, and I’ve heard stories.  Also, I’ve had the chance to interact with East Lampeter Township police officers, and I’ve asked them the question “We live in a very nice school district.  A great community.  Lots of affluence.  Beautiful farmland.  Solid.  But there is another side, a broken side.  Poverty.  Homelessness.  School bus stops at the motels.  Why?  What is going on?  What is the cause?”

You know what these brave first-responders have said?  All of them.  Same answer.  No hesitation.  I think theirs is at least one answer or the beginning of an answer to the justice question about why there is so much ongoing brokenness in our community.

Join us on Sunday morning at Faith Church as we talk about what appears to be the reason for the brokenness in our community, and how we can start to address it.

Mercy and Grace – What we all need – Luke 1:57-80

18 Dec

Last week I asked: What do we all need?

The amazing message of Christmas is that God wants to shower us with his mercy and grace! That is our need!

graceandmercy2Zechariah’s song proclaims the good news of salvation that is found in Christ. That salvation is found nowhere else.

We need God’s grace and mercy.

Jerry Bridges, author of two books about grace, Transforming Grace, and The Discipline of Grace says that “our worst days are never beyond the reach of God’s grace and our best days are never beyond the need of God’s grace.” We always need God’s mercy and grace.

When we think about the message that God communicated through Zechariah’s song, through the birth of John, the forerunner to the Messiah, the entire story is dripping God’s mercy and grace.

It is astounding and beautiful. That God would go to such lengths to express his love to us.

Grace could be understood as unmerited favor. When you do get what you don’t deserve.

Mercy as unmerited pardon. When you don’t get what you do deserve.

They’re quite similar and related, and they are awesome.

In God’s grace Zechariah and Elizabeth were past child-bearing age. They didn’t deserve to have a child in their old age. But God had grace on them. And so John’s name means “God is gracious”.

Think of all the ways that you have been blessed though you haven’t deserved it.

We need to receive grace and mercy.

We need to show grace and mercy.

The ideas of grace and mercy are so wide, that I can only scratch the surface of their meaning and impact in a sermon like this.

As we live in community with one another here, with our families, with our neighbors how do we practically show grace and mercy?