The Problem with New Year’s Resolutions

New Year
Image Credit: Brooke Lark

 

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

–Matthew 3:13-17 (NRSV)

 

The Problem with New Year’s Resolutions

 

According to one study only 9% of people in the U.S. succeed in achieving their New Year’s resolutions. 9 per cent.

More than 40% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, but 91% of people who make them admitted to failing to meet their goals. Only 9% were successful with their resolutions.

There are myriad reasons for such bad odds, many ways that New Year’s resolutions are problematic: We set resolutions that are not specific enough or are too hard to measure. We may make resolutions that are not realistic, or resolutions that work against other deeply embedded values we hold. We don’t have the patience to develop new habits. Etc.

One church worker writes of his experience of Christians at the turn of a year. He says:

Church people—our people—don’t just resolve to go to the gym or call their moms more often. They ramp it up. They resolve to get up at 6 a.m. for quiet time, to read the whole Bible through in a year, to have family devotions every night. They resolve to boycott ungodly [companies] and write their congressmen more often. They volunteer at soup kitchens and take up tutoring. I can’t keep up with them!

A week in to this new year it strikes me there is something even more problematic about New Year’s resolutions, besides our inability to keep them.

It’s this: if we’re not careful yearly resolutions—that we set— have power to shift our focus from Jesus, too much onto ourselves. Aggressive resolutions for self-improvement run the risk of overdoing effort and undergoing grace.

Wherever there is discipline, there must always also be grace. When discipline, then also grace—God’s grace, to be specific. Otherwise we risk leaving Jesus in the dust, running to what a priest I know once called “life-enhancement spirituality.”

 

Who really sets direction?

 

It’s a good time to remember the Proverb (16:9): “The heart of a man plans his course [the heart of a woman plans her course], but the LORD directs their steps.”

Better than just about any New Year’s resolution is an openness to let God direct my steps. To let the LORD direct my steps in this coming year.

It is Jesus, after all, who sets the direction of our faith.

John the Baptist learned this first-hand.

Our text says, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.”

One commentator says, “Christ did not wait for John to complete his career before he arrived on the scene, but, while John was still teaching, he appeared.” Jesus just shows up at the Jordan River.

Matthew should be able to go right on, “So John baptized Jesus.” But instead verse 14 gives us, “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” Or in another translation, “John tried to deter him.”

Jewish understandings of relating to God seem to leave more room for push-back than Christian tradition does.

Even so, John campaigns for his own agenda. Wait, Jesus, I’m the one doing the baptizing here. Like Peter on Maundy Thursday: Wait, Jesus, you’re not going to wash my feet, are you? That’s not how this goes. Or like probably all of his disciples: Jesus, wait, you don’t really have to die, do you?

That’s how I find myself relating to Jesus more often than I’d like: Okay, God, this is what 2018 will be like. I’m going to do this, stop doing that, do a little bit more of this other thing, our congregation is going to take on this… NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, O LORD, and you may resolve with me if you like….

Jesus says to John: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” John tries to deter Jesus and Jesus says, “Dude, chill. Let it be so.” This is how it will be. Same thing to Peter with the skittish feet: Jesus says, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

And to us who would chart a new and improved course for ourselves, to us who might invite Jesus to walk after us or maybe alongside us, to us Jesus says, “You. Come, follow me.”

Who is really setting the direction for how it will be?

 

“Seeing what is actually there”:
God who knows and loves

 

John follows Jesus’s lead. John abandons his own agenda for Jesus, and follows Jesus’s agenda for Jesus, and Jesus’s agenda for John. Verse 15 says John “consented.” He said yes to Jesus, even though it wasn’t in his original plan.

Many followers of Jesus have said yes, have consented to Jesus, even when he called us to something we hadn’t anticipated. And at any given time there are a lot of us who have an unexpected opportunity to say yes to God, when God shows up not-in-the-way-we-wanted! We may plan our way, but the Lord directs our steps. Will we follow?

A whole new reality is open to John, when he gives Jesus his, “I do.” He has left behind the world of how Jesus can be part of my plan and is in the realm of how I can get in on what Christ is doing.

And he hears something! He baptizes Jesus, Jesus comes out of the water and sees the Holy Spirit like a dove. And then, a voice from heaven comes. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

John is privy to this, because he has consented to following Jesus. He has said yes to letting Jesus chart the course. He hears,  “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

When was the last time you experienced writer’s block?

Michael McGregor, an author and professor of writing, talks about how writing teachers sometimes tell their students to lower their sights when they get stuck with a blank page. “Lower your sights.” But McGregor says, “A better thing to say might be, ‘Forget about the writing and concentrate on listening more carefully, probing more deeply, seeing what is actually there.’” He says, “Viewed in this way, writing is not a craft or even a talent but a way of understanding the world, others and ourselves. The focus isn’t on writing beautiful sentences or telling a compelling story but on seeing and understanding what is really in us and around us….”

Isn’t this more than great writing advice? Isn’t this the kind of re-focusing John had to do with his agenda? “Forget about the [baptizing] and concentrate on listening more carefully, probing more deeply, seeing what is actually there.”

And isn’t this how we want to follow Jesus, too? “Forget about the [doing and the striving] and concentrate on listening more carefully, probing more deeply, seeing what is actually there.”

“What [was] actually there” for John, when he listened, was a Father who intimately knew Jesus (“My Son”). “What was actually there” for John, when he listened, was a Father who deeply loved the Son (“whom I love, with whom I am well pleased”).

“What is actually there” for us, when we stop and listen carefully, is that same God, who has adopted us into his family with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This same God says to you, “You are my son, whom I love.” “You are my daughter, whom I love.” I know you as well as a good parent knows their children. And I love you so much I delight in you. I smile when I think of you, and I take great joy in calling you daughter, son. “I have called you by name; you are mine.”

As 2 Timothy says, “God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: ‘The Lord knows those who are his.’” You are God’s, and he knows you and loves you. He demonstrates his love for us—shows us what it is—in a million ways, but especially through the act of self-giving sacrifice at the cross.

 

“Before we lift a finger”

 

Matthew tells the story of Jesus’s baptism before he’s narrated any of Jesus’s actions. Jesus hasn’t done anything in the Gospel at this point, in Matthew 3. But still, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

It’s as if Matthew wants us to see that God doesn’t love Jesus because of his miracles or because of the great sacrifice he will make or because of who his mother is or because of anything else….

God the Father just… loves… his child. God’s daughters and sons are loved just… because… God wants to love.

Adopted into the family of God, you and I, too, are God’s beloved children. It’s not due to anything we have done. It’s not because of who we think we already are. God’s love doesn’t come to us as a result of our contributions to humanity… God doesn’t shower his love on us because we have set out to have the best year yet. God loves us not because of who we are, but because of who GOD is. And then God’s abiding love for us makes us who we are. When we follow the trail blazed by God’s love, then we find out how to live and what to do.

We may still try to shape our identity around what we contribute, the service we can render to another, the brilliant solutions we can offer in a murky situation.

But to borrow a line from a book I never finished two Januarys ago, God’s love is about “how God views us before we lift a finger.” It’s about “how God views us before we lift a finger.”

So, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”

And, sure—look back to 2017, look ahead to 2018, but let’s first look up with John the Baptist to see a God who knows and loves those who are his.

 


  

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached this past Sunday.

Monday Morning Preacher Podcast

monday-morning-preacher

 

I’ve really been enjoying the Monday Morning Preacher podcast from PreachingToday.com.

  • The length is perfect (I listen while I do the dishes)
  • The focus on a single concept (introductions, ladder of abstraction, finding your voice) makes it memorable and easy to apply
  • The specificity of the content (e.g., come down the ladder of abstraction every 3-4 minutes) means that without a ton of effort I can put the stuff to use right away the next Sunday
  • I also enjoy hearing real, live preachers with the analysis after a sermon clip

Check out the Monday Morning Preacher podcast here.

Donald Trump, the Church, and Jesus: The Long View

This is the sermon I preached to my congregation last Sunday, after the U.S. Presidential Election. If you prefer audio, that is here, with a downloadable podcast version here. (It’s the sermon at the top, “The Long View.”) The text follows.

 

“Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of hosts. What are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain….”

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

What I share this morning comes from one of about four possible outlines I struggled through this week. I’m still not sure if this is the right one. You may find it too weak, you may find it too strong, but I hope you will at least find it to be true… that these words will bear witness faithfully to the truth and love of God that is in Jesus Christ our Lord. That has been my prayer.

If you’ve been on social media or tuned in to the news this week you’ve had no shortage of people telling you how to feel and what to do.

How can there be so many words, so many possible responses, so many angles to consider… and yet a feeling of uncertainty remains? Who are we? How did we get here? What will the next four years look like? What should we do now?

I’ve found myself seeking to console and encourage and maybe even challenge this congregation, even as I’ve been consoled and encouraged and challenged by members of this congregation. I’ve watched YouTube clips of preachers uttering “Jesus is Lord” and, though I fully agree, have told them to go preach to somebody else right now.

I’ve found myself troubled by the new access to power of someone I’m deeply concerned may not stand up for the dignity and needs of all citizens, someone who has bragged about sexual assault and unapologetically mocked his female accusers, and who has repeatedly spoken disparagingly about African Americans and other minority groups.

I’ve wished for a direct hotline to the President-elect—even just one phone call—to implore him to speak out against the anti-Semitic and race-related attacks committed already after the election in his name. That Donald Trump and that we would condemn such hatred–both in the name of America and in the name of Jesus–should be a given. Ours is the message of Christ’s love and hope, fellowship across lines of difference. We followers of Jesus in our prophetic voice need to hold even the leaders of a secular state to certain standards, and hope and pray they will measure up.

I acknowledge and bless the political diversity in this sanctuary. I affirm that we are a church and not a political party. You came to a worship service, not a rally. Mapping Christian virtues onto political candidates and platforms is difficult and messy, and can be—at least for me—deeply unsatisfying. We know that some in the Church in the U.S. are rejoicing that their candidate won (or that the other candidate lost), some are reluctantly at ease with the results, others voted third party or didn’t vote, and still others remain in a state of shock and anger and mourning at the election results. We need to own this reality.

I have not always felt like my best self this week. Maybe you haven’t, either. I think that’s okay.

We were getting out of the van to go into a friend’s house this week, and my four-year-old said, “Carry me.” I didn’t have that good of a grip on her, so she said, “Carry me harder!” I said, that’s a good prayer.

Lament takes time, and we’ve had our eyes opened this election to places where there is no shalom, hurt that calls for lament. It is not true that everything is okay. We need Jesus to carry us harder. Like the prophet Jeremiah, we cannot and should not say “Shalom, shalom” where there is no shalom. Our God is a God of truth, of bringing deeds of darkness out of hiding, and into the light of Christ. What we see may need transforming.

Since Tuesday I’ve second-guessed myself for not being charitable toward our President-Elect, and then the next second I’ve third-guessed myself for second-guessing myself, and wished I had more courage to be a strongly prophetic voice. At least my ongoing uncertainty in how to move forward has led to a renewed impulse to pray fervently for our country’s President-Elect, and for other elected officials.

After today we have plenty more worship services and Scripture readings and hymns and Bible studies… lots of chances to gather in small groups and prayer times and conversations over coffee, where we can keep exploring what it means to be faithful to Jesus in a time of national tension.

This week in the midst of my exasperation and uncertainty about how we best move ahead, in the midst of the divisions in our country and in the Church, in the midst of the cries of people who fear for their safety in what should be a secure home for them… in the midst of it all, I am certain of a few things. Even if we woke up to a new world on Wednesday, some things have not changed since then. I offer four such convictions this morning.

 

1. “The Church is the Conscience of the State”

 

One conviction is that the church is the conscience of the state. Martin Luther King gave us this. I know Israel was a theocracy and we live in a non-theocratic democracy, but I think we’ve inherited something of the prophetic task we see in the Hebrew Bible. Isaiah and Jeremiah and Micah and all the other prophets came alongside kings and people, and said, “Exhibit A: how things are. Exhibit B: how things should be.” They held before the people visions of shalom, the world as God would re-create it one day, and a world in-between the times that could move more faithfully toward wholeness.

As prophets challenged kings, as Jesus pushed the local ruling religious establishment of his day, so we Christians have the responsibility to speak the truth even to positions of power. It’s a scary task, but it’s our task.

We just can’t normalize race-based dismissiveness, the devaluing of women’s bodies, xenophobia, inflammatory rhetoric, nor any other sinful behavior. We must not explain it away or look past it as if it’s not there, or as if we could somehow just “make the best of it,” leaving it as it is.

And we ought to have a sincere desire for the repentance of any perpetrator. We’re called to speak the truth, not spitefully but in love, not vindictively but with the hope for repentance. We hold ourselves to Gospel standards, too, looking for ways we need to repent. As ones who have received the outpouring of Holy Spirit, as the prophet Joel says, we all–men and women, young and old–have a prophetic task. We can be a conscience for power brokers and systems that are so easily corrupted by power.

We tell the truth about who we know God to be, and what we see in the world–for better or for worse. Having drunk deeply of the well of the Scriptures, which any prophet must do, we speak up for ones who have been marginalized, taken advantage of, for the fatherless and the widow that Scripture speaks so frequently about. We say, “These are God’s dearly loved children. Let justice for them and for everyone roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” And we proclaim that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” to bring a vision of shalom to reality.

There’s freedom in knowing that the church is not the state, and this country is not all we have. It’s not that the two should never be integrated in how we think about positive social action. But there is freedom in remembering that our ability to effect change is not limited by what we can do through the power structures of an election, legislation, and the Supreme Court. We can discharge our duty as citizens of the United States by being active as citizens of the Kingdom of God, who bring conscience to bear on politics.

“The church is the conscience of the state.” Among those who call Jesus Christ Lord, there should be no bystanders.

 

2. “The Local Church is the Hope of the World”

 

Bill Hybels, long-time pastor at Willow Creek in Illinois, loves to say that “the local church is the hope of the world.” “The local church is the hope of the world.” That’s been a second bedrock certainty for me this week.

Why? He says:

There’s only one power on planet earth that can turn a hate-filled heart to a loving heart, a greedy heart to a generous heart, a selfish heart to a selfless or serving heart. There is only one power in the universe that can do that. It’s the power of the transforming love of Jesus Christ, which has been given to the church to steward.

“The local church is the hope of the world.” Not just “the Church.” But the local church. Bill Hybels’s church: Willow Creek Community Church. Our church: Union Congregational Church in Magnolia. Other local churches in and beyond the North Shore.

We need to pray that we would steward well the “transforming love of Jesus Christ,” and even look inward and repent for ways in which we have not taken that role seriously. I hold fast to that truth: “the local church is the hope of the world,” because we have the message of Jesus.

 

3. Come What May, Jesus is Stronger

 

A third truth I cling to: come what may, Jesus is stronger.

Some months ago we were in Ephesians. Paul prays in the first chapter that his churches would have the “eyes of [their] heart enlightened” so that they would know God’s “incomparably great power for us who believe.”

Nothing compares to this power, the power that raised Jesus from the dead and is at work in us now–as a local church and as individuals, as contemplatives and as Christian activists.

Paul says, Jesus is “far above every ruler and authority and power and dominion and every name that is named”, not only in this age, but also in the age to come! (1:21)

Come what may, Jesus is stronger! Come who may, Jesus rules over them! In a world giving ground to idolatry and fear-mongering and greed and apathy and hatred and a distaste for holiness… Jesus will still prevail. Every “rule and authority, power and dominion” must submit to the name of Jesus.

Christ is in a position of authority that cannot be breached by any other power. All other names, all other titles, all governors and Senators and Representatives and Supreme Court Justices and President and Cabinet—these God has placed at the feet of Jesus.

Every authority that would dare to set itself up against the ways of God finds its proper place as a footstool where Jesus Christ stretches out his feet from his throne.

 

trump-bumpersticker
CREDIT: Micah Jones (www.micahharrisjones.com)

 

This is what we pastors mean when we say, “Jesus is still Lord.” I know it may sound like a platitude in a time of distress, but boy do I believe it with every inch and every pound of my body. And the truth that “Jesus is Lord” matters for how we live our lives, for how we work as ambassadors for shalom, for how we share with others the great news of the love of Jesus.

Come what may, Jesus is stronger.

 

4. All Things Made New

 

Finally, I am quite certain that we will one morning wake up into another new world:

Behold, I will create

new heavens and a new earth.

The former things will not be remembered,

nor will they come to mind.

But be glad and rejoice forever

in what I will create,

for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.

I will rejoice over Jerusalem

and take delight in my people;

the sound of weeping and of crying

will be heard in it no more.

Can you see this vision, even now? “Never again,” Isaiah says, “will there be in [this world] an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years.” Doesn’t your heart burn within you? “They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune.” Don’t you want to live there now? “Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will heart.”

I’m not always so convinced that “the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.” Maybe it scatters toward entropy. But we at least can look ahead to justice, a day of total shalom, where God will be perfectly present to his people. There will be no more injury and pain and animosity. Jesus himself will be our light, and we will bask in his love.

 

The Best Campaign

 

We live for those times when this vision of tomorrow breaks in to today.

If God can create a new heavens and a new earth, can he not also, create a new United States?

If God can create a new heavens and a new earth, can he not also, renew his church? Can he not embolden us to co-create a more just and peaceable world with him?

If God can create a new heavens and a new earth, if God can raise Jesus Christ from the dead, can he not also, raise your heart to new life?

The road ahead might be long. So we need to take the long view, and Isaiah 65 is it.

So, my good friends, you who are some of my favorite people on earth: may we be renewed, deep in our souls, by God’s vision of a perfect future. May we be faithful in our prophetic call to be both conscience and hope of the world in this present moment. May we remember that at all times, come what may, Jesus is stronger.

May we walk freely and joyfully in the truth that tomorrow will be another sunrise. And more than that–may we affirm that with every sunrise comes the ruling Son of God: “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun // does its successive journeys run, // his kingdom stretch from shore to shore, // till moons shall wax and wane no more.”

In the meantime…

God give us courage

to suit up and work together

on that perfect campaign,

the campaign that will one day end

with no ruler but Jesus.

The Joy of Analogue: Outlining the Book of Joel for Preaching

One essential step in my sermon preparation process is reading the book of which the preaching passage is a part. I find it a discipline to hold off on reading commentaries and sit with the text itself. This is easier with a short book like Joel, from which this Sunday’s Old Testament lectionary reading comes.

I find myself more focused to read through and outline the book in analogue fashion. Here’s what it looked like for me yesterday morning:

 

img_8646

 

(Having fine writing implements like a fountain pen and nice paper helps!) I have since transferred my book outline to MindNode, from which I’ll continue my sermon planning. Starting device-free is important (and really enjoyable) for me.

Here’s my two-page provisional outline of the book of Joel, complete with a misspelling of “devastation”:

 

img_8647

 

img_8648

After Philando Castile: The Christian’s Calling

This is the text of the sermon I preached the Sunday after Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five Dallas police officers were shot to death.

 

Diamond Reynolds, girlfriend of Philando Castile (© Adam Bettcher / Reuters—REUTERS)
Diamond Reynolds, girlfriend of Philando Castile (© Adam Bettcher / Reuters—REUTERS)

 

Michael Brown’s homicide in Ferguson, Missouri was almost two years ago. His encounter with a police officer set off a wave of protests and brought a conversation about institutionalized racism once again into the public square.

This week Michael Brown’s mother expressed the numbness and wordlessness that often comes after unjust killing:

When their children are killed, mothers are expected to say something. To help keep the peace. To help make change. But what can I possibly say? I just know we need to do something. We are taught to be peaceful, but we aren’t at peace. I have to wake up and go to sleep with this pain everyday. Ain’t no peace. If we mothers can’t change where this is heading for these families — to public hearings, protests, un-asked-for martyrdom, or worse, to nothing at all — what can we do?

We can at least remember the names of the deceased as we are gathered in the presence of God.

37-year-old Alton Sterling of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

32-year-old Philando Castile of Saint Paul, Minnesota.

And then five police officers killed while they were protecting the people’s right to protest police brutality: Patrick Zamarripa, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, and Brent Thompson.

Let us remember their names and their faces and their families. They were and are loved deeply by God. May the Lord receive them into his loving arms, into his eternal care.

In one sense it would be missing the point for white folks to dwell on our cluelessness in what to say after another spate of gun violence. Though the thought keeps crossing my mind, I would be selfish to complain about having to find words for this pulpit after yet another week of killing in the United States.

Because as much as we may struggle in figuring out what to think and how to pray, there is an entire segment of our population that is worrying about how—worrying about if—they can live under these conditions.

Ty Burr, a writer for the Boston Globe, expressed it this way:

I understand; it’s exhausting. Social change asks a lot of us, but most of all our attention. To process all that incoming outrage, we have to become stronger in heart and clearer of head, and we have to decide when it’s time to stop watching the slipstream and dive into it instead.

If you hadn’t already, a week like this one all but demands that we followers of Christ dive in.

But… “what can [we] possibly say?” And “what can we do?”

Well, I don’t know. But I sure have read Ephesians 4 in a different light. And, so help me, God, may I not be shaken in my faith that Scripture always—always—will have something to say to us, even in our darkest hours.

With that conviction, hear again the first three verses of Ephesians 4:

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Ephesians 4:1 is the pivot point of the whole letter. Paul moves from the theologically rich prayers and beautiful expression of Christian identity—chapters 1 through 3—to what we should do about it—in chapters 4 through 6.

“Therefore,” he says, “I—a prisoner of the Lord!—urge you strongly to live worthily of the calling with which you have been called.”

Paul lays a nice guilt trip on his listeners: Look, I’m in chains here! I’m a prisoner! The least you could do is live up to your calling as a Christian, like your poor Paul is urging you to do.

If you’ve been thinking about memorizing part or all of Ephesians recently, you could at least memorize 4:1, since it summarizes the whole book. Paul’s told them what their calling is in the first half of the letter.

He’s said: you Christians have been chosen by God, God delights in you, and you are sealed with the promise of the Holy Spirit. He’s encouraged the church by saying: we are a people called to hope. We are God’s riches. And God’s power for us who believe—even for those who feel powerless—God’s power for us is immense. Nothing compares to it, and we who believe have the power of God.

Paul has also written: we were dead in sin, but God was rich in mercy, and God intervened. He made as alive with Christ, he raised us with Christ, and he seated us with Christ in the heavenly realms.

When he says, “Therefore,” or “Live a life, then,”—he’s got all of that in mind, everything in the first three chapters.

From here on out he’s going to get specific about how to live a life worthy of that calling. You are this, this, and this… so here’s how you can live like it.

“Live a life”—or as Paul first put it in his letter: “walk” in a worthy way.

It was a Jewish metaphor to talk about life as a walk. A sort of ongoing journey: active, with movement. “Walk the walk,” your “Christian walk”—that didn’t come from your evangelical youth pastor, it came from the Hebrew Bible!

Paul starts in right away with some of the ways Christians should walk.

 

Humility

 

He says in verse 2, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”

Completely humble. Gentle. Patient.

As I studied the passage this week, I was surprised to learn that the particular word for humility in this verse was not really in Greek literature before the Bible. And then finally there was a Greek writer outside of the New Testament, Epictetus, who mentioned “humility” in the first century. He said it was the first character trait to avoid.

That could help explain why a humble and even humiliated Jesus was mocked on the cross. God had said, through Isaiah, “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word” (66:2). But humility is a counter-cultural value; it always has been.

 

Gentleness

 

“Be completely humble,” Paul says, “and gentle.” Be gentle.

Jesus told Peter to put away his sword in the garden. Those who live by the sword, he said, will die by the sword. Or as I’ve heard it paraphrased, “When you fight fire with fire, the whole world burns down.”

Micah prophesies about a day when “they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

There will be a day, when what happened this last week, and all the evils leading up to it (that still exist!)—will not happen anymore. Nations will not go to war with other nations. Nations will not even feel like they are engaging civil war within their own borders.

This is what it means to be gentle. Loretta Lynch said, “After the events of this week, Americans across our country are feeling a sense of helplessness, uncertainty and fear … but the answer must not be violence.” Paul would agree: the answer must not be violence, but the answer must be gentleness.

Yeah, gentleness.

I know… I almost picked another passage and didn’t preach on this one today because after Alton and Philando and five officers died, a gentle response felt like a cop-out.

I might as well have been reading, “Be tepid. Let it go. Don’t do anything about it. Just watch.”

Turns out, that’s not what Paul is saying. Harold Hoehner, who taught at Dallas Seminary for many years, says, “The word [gentleness] never connotes the idea of weakness. Rather, it implies the conscious exercise of self-control, exhibiting a conscious choice of gentleness as opposed to the use of power for the purpose of retaliation.” Self-control, not retaliation.

Aristotle talks about gentleness as coming between two extremes: “never being angry with anything” on the one hand and “excessive anger against everyone and on all occasions” on the other. Gentleness is somewhere in the middle. As another interpreter put it, if you’re gentle as Paul urges, you are “always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time.”

Our model again is Jesus, the one who said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jesus was “always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time.”

When Jesus saw oppression, hatred, and racial injustice—he got angry. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t gentle.

“Be completely humble,” Paul says, “and gentle.” That gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit, a piece of evidence that we Christians are living lives worthy of the calling we have received.
 

Patience

 

Then to humility and gentleness, Paul adds this one more: patience.

The Old Testament talks about patience as long-suffering. Being patient doesn’t mean letting injustice go unprotested, but it does mean persistence… holding out hope… slowing down to wait and listen to the voice of another.

Those of us who have not been racially profiled and probably never will be, would do well to slow down and listen to our brothers and sisters who have. We need to exercise patience to hear the stories and pain of others… even to let it transform our own view of the world.

And now Paul gets into church territory—he says one mark of patience is “bearing with one another in love.”

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”

“Put up with each other,” he’s saying! This is the same word Jesus uses when he is exasperated by his faithless disciples: “How long shall I put up with you?”

Well… how long did Jesus put up with his disciples? He’s still doing it, right? He is still, even right now, interceding for us while we worship.

Patience—putting up with each other’s differences and even annoying habits—is required if the church is going to be a bastion of unity… a witness of one love to a divided world.
 

Eager to Keep Peace

 

Paul says, then, ”Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” He tells them to be eager to keep the peace.

But here’s a nice twist—he’s calling on them to be peacekeepers. The peace has already been made. Paul had said earlier, Jesus himself is peace. Jesus is the one who made peace—it’s the work he did when he broke down the dividing wall between so-called races—Jew and Gentile in the first century, a work that extends to black and white America in the 21st century.

“Keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

Paul calls for Christians to be humble, gentle, patience, and eager to keep the peace that Christ himself established. Even as Jesus made peace, others try to snuff it out. But we’ve got to guard and protect the peace of unity—and for Paul that starts in the church and then emanates outward.

Paul reminds the church that the reason we can be practice a peaceful witness of unity is that God is not divided. God is one. And God is everywhere. God is, Paul says, “Over all and through all and in all.”

In other words, he’s still on this throne, though evil powers try unsuccessfully to unseat him. He’s still working through his church and his followers. And he’s still making his home with us. He walks alongside us, even as Paul calls us to walk faithfully in the world. It’s because of the strength of the God who is over all, through all, and in all that we can be faithful to our calling. God is with us. He walks with us to enable us to walk strong in our call.
 

God Speaks in Falcon Heights

 

I heard an echo of this promise in the horrific video of the Falcon Heights shooting.

A four-year-old girl saw what no child should ever have to see. Afterwards she says to her grieving mother, “It’s okay, Mommy. It’s okay. I’m right here with you.” That little girl had to have been full of the power of the Holy Spirit to be able to say that.

She was the mouthpiece of God: “It’s okay. I’m right here with you.”

There’s a scene in Hoosiers, the greatest basketball movie, greatest sports movie, and—yea, verily—greatest movie in human history. The assistant coach, Shooter, stumbles out onto the court in the middle of a game, totally inebriated.

One of the players is Shooter’s son, who’s utterly embarrassed by his dad.

Coach Norman Dale pulls his player aside and says, “Hey, you keep your head in the game. I need you out there.”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, friends: we’ve got to keep our heads in the game. God chooses to need us. God calls us to witness with humility to a world filled with the arrogant who are still getting their way. God urges us to witness with gentleness to a world where violence continues to make headlines. God needs us to show patience with each other, to work together as one body to witness to a hurting world.

So let’s keep our head in the game. As a classic lament Psalm says, “none of us knows how long this will be.” But as best as I can tell, God encourages us to wait it out anyway, to walk out our call every day.

And we don’t walk alone. Our generous God gives us each other, and even himself. He’s like that precious little girl telling us, “It’s okay. I’m right here with you.”

The one who calls us is faithful—he will freely give us his power so we can live out the humility, gentleness, and patience that seem at first blush too weak to us. But those virtues are, in fact, our strong and powerful witness. Humility, gentleness, patience, and peacekeeping—they’re all an expression of the calling we’ve received.

And we need to live it out now more than ever before.

How My 2-Year-Old Helped Me Practice What I Preach (or, Saying Psalm 23 Through Gritted Teeth)

My two-year-old gave me an unexpected opportunity yesterday to practice what I just preached Sunday. I noted in my sermon that I had been understanding Psalm 23 as a “counter-circumstantial prayer of defiance,” a “subversive prayer when you compare it to what you see around you.”

I mentioned some potential circumstances which make us feel far from the idyllic pastoral imagery of the Psalm, and then suggested that those are some of the best times to (defiantly) pray Psalm 23:

When you hear about wars and rumors of wars, say this Psalm.

When your best friend gets sick, say this Psalm.

When someone in your family grieves you by their seeming lack of care for you, say this Psalm.

When you don’t know what the next year of your life holds, say this Psalm.

An instance I didn’t think to include was:

When your two-year-old daughter draws with permanent marker all over the brand-new cork floor that the church graciously put in last year in the parsonage kitchen… say this Psalm.

When I noticed the damage, this image is about the opposite of how I was feeling:

Image Credit: LifeintheHolyLand.com (Todd Bolen), used with permission
Image Credit: LifeintheHolyLand.com (Todd Bolen), used with permission

I was feeling more like this:

The Scream

For at least 10 minutes as I frantically scrubbed, I didn’t even remember there was a Psalm 23, let alone think to say it.

But then I took a step back (by God’s grace) and began to quietly say–through gritted teeth:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul….

And when my gracious and patient wife came home, she gently reminded me of the “magic sponge” we have under the sink that takes permanent marker off of everything. Within minutes, the green marker drawing on the floor was gone. Gone. The cork floor is good as new.

True, there are much darker valleys in life to walk through, but I think sometimes in parenting those little mini-valleys of frustration and exasperation can add up pretty quickly. And for us parents, they can be the regular “stuff” of our everyday existence. We need good Psalms to pray for the big valleys, and good Psalms to pray for the little valleys.

For those moments–should my two-year-old again somehow elude my watch like she has been so eager to do lately–I will try again (and again) to remember to “say this Psalm.”

Psalm 23: Psalm of Trust, Psalm of Defiance

Psalms of Summer

Psalm 23 is a Psalm of Trust. A Declaration of Confidence in God.

The imagery and tone of the Psalm are peaceful: “green pastures,” “quiet waters,” a restored soul, the promise of God’s presence even when death and darkness are near. The LORD is my shepherd: he provides, he guides, he restores, he is with his sheep, and he comforts.

“He makes me lie down in green pastures.” With God as my comforting shepherd, there is time to rest. Time to stop. Time to be still.

Image Credit: LifeintheHolyLand.com (Todd Bolen), used with permission
Image Credit: LifeintheHolyLand.com (Todd Bolen), used with permission

Typically a shepherd leads sheep to a pasture where they can graze. The sheep still do work; the shepherd does the leading but not necessarily the feeding. As the Psalm progresses, God as comforting shepherd becomes welcoming host, who sets out a whole banquet for his flock.

Image Credit: LifeintheHolyLand.com (Todd Bolen), used with permission
Image Credit: LifeintheHolyLand.com (Todd Bolen), used with permission

Psalm 23: It Just Got Personal

Psalm 23 is intensely personal. It’s a prayer of an individual to God; a song from one soul, who recognizes that the ruling king of the universe has taken the time to lead him to a restful spot to get a drink… to rest.

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul….

David uses the first person singular pronoun throughout the Psalm. God is the shepherd of each individual who would follow him.

This may seem slightly unremarkable to us. We live in a North American society that already tends toward individualism. Our cultural construction of the self tends to be individually-focused.

The culture in which David found himself was much more communally-oriented. The sins of an individual and the corporate sins of the community were not always distinguished. A person’s sense of self was constructed and informed and shaped in a communal context.

Identity for a Hebrew man or woman had much more to do with being a part of a chosen and called-out community. A chosen people, plural.

Even in other Psalms, when God is prayed to as shepherd, there’s a sense in which he’s understood as a shepherd of a whole people:

For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.

So it’s at least a little remarkable, in the larger context of Hebrew worshiping society, that David begins–the Lord is MY shepherd.

The idea of God as personal shepherd is consistent with Jesus’ interpretation of himself as shepherd. You remember the Christlike image of the shepherd who–even though he has 100 sheep–will stop and go find the one who goes missing.

So it really is okay, and probably even closest to the original intent of this Psalm, to put your own name in there as you read it.

Psalm 23 as Prayer of Defiance

Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading this Psalm through the lens of the news this week, but I’m beginning more and more to see Psalm 23 not only as an affirmation of trust and confidence in God, but also as a counter-circumstantial prayer of defiance. It’s a subversive prayer when you compare it to what you see around you.

Verse 4 says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” David seems to just take it as a given that life contains dark and death-filled valleys.

11,002 ThingsI saw in a bookstore yesterday a little book called 11,002 Things to Be Miserable About. It’s a work of satire, mostly, though not all of it is. Here are a few of the things it listed:

  • Exaggerated vows of love
  • Abysses of regret
  • Tipping over backward in your chair
  • The misery of goldfish
  • Heel pain caused by flip-flops

But we don’t need a book to think of all the ways in which life is full of dark valleys.

You’ve been in a dark valley before. Maybe you’re in one now. It can be a valley of darkness and shadows that you’ve found yourself in due to no choice of your own: some hurt or frustration someone has caused you; prayers that continue to go unanswered in the way you’d like to see answered; illness and physical ailment; unexpected and sudden grief.

You could be in a valley of darkness and shadows that is more of your own making, too. Maybe your whole life doesn’t feel like a valley, but maybe you’re aware of your “shadow side” that you wouldn’t dare bring to church, that part or those parts of you that you don’t want anyone to see. Maybe you’ve looked inside and seen something in your heart that—it pains you to see—doesn’t please God.

Or, to see some “valleys of the shadow of death,” you could just pay attention to global events this week. 4 children in Gaza—cousins—playing at the beach and shot dead from the ocean. An Israeli ground invasion into the Gaza Strip. Another Malaysian Airline plane crash full of passengers, this one shot down by a ground to air missile as it was flying over Ukraine.

And if you really want to lose some faith in humanity, you probably have already heard that that airplane had something like 100 of the world’s top HIV/Aids researchers on their way to an international Aids conference.

So, yes, there are plenty of valleys of the shadow of death and darkness that we walk through.

And yet, even though—“even though I walk through through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” “Even though,” David says, in a hope-filled prayer of defiance.

There’s an old story of a young preacher who was preaching in a rural church in Louisiana during the depression. This church had just one lightbulb coming down from the ceiling that gave light to the whole sanctuary. As Pastor Taylor was preaching, the electricity went out. He was a newish preacher and didn’t know what to do in the now-dark sanctuary. But an elderly deacon in the church, from the back of the room, shouted, “Preach on, preacher! We can still see Jesus in the dark.”

“We can still see Jesus in the dark.”

For whatever reason, when I hear “shepherd,” there’s part of me that thinks of a humble, young boy (or girl) walking sheep through beautiful country fields on a quiet, sunny day.  And that’s right. Leading your sheep to serenity is part and parcel of what it means to be a shepherd.

But there’s this fascinating passage of Scripture, Micah 5, which says:

When the Assyrian invades our land
a
nd marches through our fortresses,
we will raise against him seven shepherds,
even eight leaders of men.

Maybe it’s just me, but reading about a coming invasion by an Assyrian superpower, my first reaction is: What kind of a country would send their shepherds out to battle?

But Micah is drawing on a rich tradition in the Scripture—especially in the Old Testament—of using “shepherd” imagery to describe kings, to describe commanders, to describe strong and mighty leaders.

When Micah says “shepherd,” he is talking about a ruling king who goes to battle for his people.

David, as a ruler himself, surely had this aspect of shepherding in mind. The readers and prayers and singers of this Psalm surely saw not just a shepherd to comfort me, not just a host to welcome me, but God as a ruler to protect me. This ruler won’t do away with all of life’s dark valleys—not yet, anyway—but he will be with me while I walk through them.

The Lord is my shepherd, and his rod and his staff—weapons of protection in the hands of a skilled shepherd—fend off that which would attack us.

When Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd, we see his gentleness in his willingness to lay down his life for the sheep, and we see his ferocity, his power, his authority over all things when he says, “No one can snatch them out of my hand.”

Even the presence of enemies in verse 5 cannot keep this ruling shepherd from playing banquet host, setting out a feast for the ones he loves.

So good shepherds are not to be trifled with, because they protect their flock. They walk with them through darkness. The Good Shepherd is a ruling king, and he keeps our modern-day enemies—shame, guilt, fear, anxiety, the accusations of others, stress, hatred… he keeps our modern-day enemies at bay. Even though life is full of valleys of the shadow of death, tens of thousands of things to potentially be miserable about, Jesus the Good Shepherd is a ruling king who STILL is sovereign over all he has made, no matter how fouled up it gets.

“We can still see Jesus in the dark.”

So—when you’re riddled with doubt and self-loathing, or just questioning your worth? Say this Psalm.

When you hear about wars and rumors of wars, say this Psalm.

When your best friend gets sick, say this Psalm.

When someone in your family grieves you by their seeming lack of care for you, say this Psalm.

When you don’t know what the next year of your life holds, say this Psalm.

When you have to do the hard work of reconciling with someone you have hurt or that has hurt you, say this Psalm.

When you can’t pay your mortgage on time, say this Psalm.

When you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning, say this Psalm.

When you get scared of the dark, say this Psalm.

As a holy act of defiance against the darkness,
as an affirmation of trust and confidence in Jesus,
when you come up on one of life’s dark valleys,
get ready to walk through….and say:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul.

He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD
forever.

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached today. Scripture quotations are from the 1984 NIV. See my other sermons gathered here, including the first Psalm of Summer sermon here.

Change Your “Pas5w0rd,” Change Your Life

Psalms of Summer

This summer we’re going to delve more deeply into the Psalms. “The Psalms of Summer,” I’m calling the preaching series. (Or, as a pastor friend of mine called it, the Psalms of Psummer.)

We’ll find ourselves here in these poems and see our heart’s desires expressed in the Psalms. Some days we’ll walk out of church with new prayers to pray: prayers we’ve been longing to pray and have already been feeling, but maybe couldn’t put words to.

We’ll seek, too, to be shaped and formed by these prayers.

Psalm 1 as Preface, and Picking a Password

Psalm 1 is, as one early church theologian called it, the “foundation” of the house. It sets up the whole book of 150 Psalms. You could almost even think of it as a sort of “Psalm 0.”

The ones who are blessed, this Psalm says, the ones with the richest, most God-filled lives, the ones who flourish, are the ones who meditate on God’s word. Over and over.

Blessed are those… who delight in the law of the LORD and meditate on his law day and night.

I found myself this week being redirected to an article on NBC’s Today Website, because I had to click on the link that said, “How a password changed one man’s life for the better.”

And how can you not click on that, you know?

Mauricio Estrella had just gone through a painful divorce and was depressed. He says:

One day I walk into the office, and my computer screen showed me the following message:

“Your password has expired. Click ‘Change password’ to change your password.”

His work required a change of password every 30 days. He writes:

I was furious that morning. A sizzling hot Tuesday, it was 9:40 a.m and I was late to work. I was still wearing my bike helmet and had forgotten to eat breakfast. I needed to get things done before a 10 a.m. meeting and changing passwords was going to be a huge waste of time.

As the input field with the pulsating cursor was waiting for me to type a password — something I’d use many times during every day — I remembered a tip I heard from my former boss.

And I decided: I’m gonna use a password to change my life.

He reasoned like this–he has to type in his password several times a day–when his screen saver came up or his lock screen kicked in when he was away from his desk for extended periods of time.

So, freshly wounded from the divorce, he set a password: “Forgive her.”

Except he had to have at least one capital letter, one lowercase letter, one symbol, and one number, so it was “Forgive@h3r.”

Every day for a month he wrote, “Forgive her.” And Estrella said:

That simple action changed the way I looked at my ex wife. That constant reminder that I should forgive her led me to accept the way things happened at the end of my marriage, and embrace a new way of dealing with the depression that I was drowning into.

A month later, his password expired, so his new password–reflecting a new mantra he wanted to take on–became: Quit@smoking4ever.

It was a great article–a little self-help-y for my tastes, and it is true that we find ourselves in way too many situations that we can’t just positive think our way out of. But Mauricio Estrella knew what the writer of Psalm 1 knew–what we meditate on has the power to transform us. 

Two Ways

Here is one way of outlining Psalm 1:

What are the two ways? (Ps. 1:1-2)

What are they like? (Ps. 1:3-4)

What do they lead to? (Ps. 1:5-6)

This Psalm tells us, especially, that what we meditate on has the power to transform us.

What are the two ways? (Ps. 1:1-2)

Ps 1:1    Blessed are those
who do not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,

2 but who delight in the law of the LORD
and meditate on his law day and night.

Or, get this–I’d never read Psalm 1 in this translation until this week:

Happy the man
who did not walk by the counsel of the impious,
and in the way of sinners did not stand,
and on the seat of pestiferous people did not sit down.

(Stay away from the pestiferous ones!)

Walk… stand…sit. There’s a progression into wickedness here. At first you might be walking on by, just taking a look at–thinking about–going down a road you shouldn’t. If you slow down enough to stand there and look at the way of the wicked–that’s worse… when you stop to sit in the chair of those pestiferous people, well, then… you’re done for. Because what we meditate on has the power to transform us. And the ones that we spend time with also have the power to transform us, for better or for worse.

These are the two ways: the way of the wicked, the way of the righteous.

Righteous ones “delight in the law of the LORD and meditate on [it] day and night.”

Remove@clothingm1ldew?

Later Psalms will echo this. In Psalm 119, verse 97, it says, “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.” Then in verse 103, the Psalmist writes, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”

I suspect that this idea of loving the law of God can sound a bit strange to us. We all see the value in laws and rules and regulations, sure, but to love somebody’s laws more than the summer season’s first ice cream?

We hear the word “law” and might think about some of the detailed instructions given in, say, Leviticus, regarding physical hygiene and ritual purity, such as Leviticus 14, which is about cleansing from infectious skin diseases and what to do when you notice mildew on your clothes.

So your new computer password becomes: Remove@clothingm1ldew.

Or we hear the word “law” and think of it as opposed to “grace.”  They were living under “law”; we are living under “grace.”

So what’s the Psalmist talking about?

He’s talking about his equivalent to our Bible. The Torah–the first five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. This is “the Law”–it’s “God’s Word.” And not just the laws part of God’s law–but the revelation of God that it brings, the story that it tells of a compassionate God who is, in fact, slow to anger and eager to show compassion on all he has made.

In meditating on God’s law–God’s very words–the Psalmist is meditating on God: his guidance, instructions, blessings, love, character.

And I think Psalm 1 is self-referential, too–those who meditate on these Psalms will be blessed, will experience the favor of God.

What are they like? (Ps. 1:3-4)

3 [The righteous] are like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.

4
Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.

Those who meditate on God’s word are rooted, strong, nourished, bearers of good and visible fruit to all who walk by them. The wicked–in this case those who ignore God’s truth and go their own way–they are the chaff that has fallen to the floor. The grain is kept and preserved, the chaff just blows away. No roots, no fruit, no nothing.

What do they lead to? (Ps. 1:5-6)

5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

6 For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will be destroyed.

Then in verses 5 and 6 there is what one interpreter calls a “parting of the ways.” God watches over them. What we meditate on has the power to transform us, so the righteous one now is a rooted and well-watered tree, bearing fruit like it should. She or he receives God’s blessing, God’s preservation.

The wicked one has been transformed by the bad company he keeps, so he just floats away with the next wind, on his way to judgment.

It’s God who does the planting and watering and blessing here, but it’s the righteous person who has done his or her part to meditate on God’s word. And that meditation has caused a transformation.

Scripture Memory

Over the last month or so I’ve gotten back into Scripture memory. I have these little cards I bring in my pocket with verses on them. The pocket is a great place for them because I might reach for my phone to check for messages, and I’ll feel the little packet of cards instead. This is a prompt for me to either pull a card out and learn a verse, or if I already know it, to try to say it and pray it.

There are many ways to meditate on God’s Word. We’re going to try one particular way this summer, and that is Scripture memory….

[AKJ note: Here we looked at some Scripture memory cards I made up for Psalm 1:1-2, as a way to put into practice what this Psalm preaches. Make your own, using this document, if you want!]

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached last Sunday. Scripture quotations are from the TNIV. See my other sermons gathered here.

Before and After #NoFilter

A sermon on Romans 6:1-11, on the day of ocean baptisms.

I’ve always been a little suspicious of Before and After photos. It’s as if Before photos are bad on purpose, and After photos do everything they can to try to enhance the actual improvements that have taken place, whether the subject is a human body or a newly improved, re-stained back deck.

I just found an article about a Before and After set of photos of an Australian fitness trainer. On first glance the After photo looks like about three months worth of exercise and nutritional improvement, compared to the Before.

Before and After

But, in fact, one scrolls down past the Before and After to see a note: “Check out my transformation! It took me 15 minutes.” Meaning, the Before and After photos were 15 minutes apart.

A paragraph accompanying the photos goes on, in part:

Wanna know my secret?  I…. smothered on some fake tan, clipped in my hair extensions, stood up a bit taller, sucked in my guts, popped my hip, threw in a skinny arm, stood a bit wider…pulled my shoulders back…Zoomed in on the before pic, zoomed out on the after and added a filter. Cause filters make everything awesome.

It seems that actual transformation–whether it’s of our bodies or of our inner selves–is elusive. We often try to short-change the process, or make things look better than they really are. And yet it’s a burning human desire to be different, to look better, to grow, to change.

Paul’s Before and After

The apostle Paul understands that. He speaks in Romans 6 of true transformation, a fundamental shift in the selfhood of the one who believes in Jesus. There is no doctoring of Before or After photos needed, because the picture of transformation that Paul paints is the most real kind of personal change there is.

For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.

When we give ourselves to Jesus, we understand that sin does not rule over us. We are free from having to sin. We are free from the inevitability of it.

In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Even as we are being sanctified, we’re far from sinless–and the next chapter in Romans will emphasize this frustrating reality. But we are to consider ourselves dead to sin, or, we might say, that sin is dead to us, because we are “alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

This is “Before and After” for the child of God:

Before: living in a body of sin, slaves to sin, an old, listless, aimless self.

After: dead to sin, alive to God, united with Jesus in his death, and so united also with him–and other Christians–in his resurrection glory, in new life.

This true transformation, the Christian’s inward change, Paul points out, is marked by baptism:

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

The old self walks to the edge of the water, wades in, is dipped under–washed in the ocean of God’s love and forgiveness–and the new self comes up, freed to live a new life in Jesus.

Or as God’s prophet Ezekiel so eloquently put it:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

What Baptism Is

Baptism is a physical, visible, experiential sign of this inward transformation that takes place when a person says, “Yes,” to the gift of God’s grace.

In just a few moments I will ask our candidates, “Do you renounce the powers of evil and desire the freedom of new life in Christ?” They will say, “I do.” Before: we were slaves to sin, afraid to even try to cast off the “powers of evil.” Or maybe we didn’t want to. After: we have renounced those powers. We celebrate our freedom. We have new life in Christ.

Also in just a few moments, all of us, as a congregation, will say: “Out of the waters of baptism, we rise with new life, forgiven of sin, and one in Christ, members of Christ’s body.” We affirm this “Before and After” that baptism represents, and we do it in a larger, communal context. We are “one in Christ, members of Christ’s body.”

Ancient Baptismal Pool (Source: Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary)
Ancient Baptismal Pool (Source: Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary)

As we’ve gone through our high school confirmation class last month and this month, we’ve been talking about baptism and confirmation as a multi-faceted commitment. On the one hand, baptismal candidates and confirmands are themselves making a public commitment to God in the presence of us, the church. And on the other hand, we promise our commitment to them as they seek to carry out their baptismal vows. Ultimately, the waters of baptism signify God’s commitment to us to continue and one day complete his work in us.

So please do support these young people who are about to be baptized, as best you are able. When they go out of state for college and then come back on breaks to worship here, ask them how they’re doing–not just in school, but in their relationship to God. Seek them out during coffee hours in future Sundays. Commit to pray for them. You might even pick one or two of the folks you see being baptized today and decide that you will pray for them by name, for the next month, six months, two years.

Identity

We began our confirmation class with a short teaching video and discussion centered around the question, “Who Am I?” How do I understand my identity as a person? We watched and discussed a short video by a teacher from Grand Rapids, Michigan named Rob Bell.

Bell talked about our tendencies to compare ourselves with others, to measure ourselves against those around us. As he talked, the camera followed a cast of actors who had t-shirts with a single word printed on the back: baker, consultant, double degree, Southern, apathetic, ashamed, listener… single words that can define how we think about ourselves, especially in relation to others.

But Bell says:

We need to be saved from all the times we haven’t been our true selves. All the times we’ve tried to be someone else.

All of the lies we’ve believed about who God made when God made us. All the times we’ve asked the wrong questions:

‘What about him? What about her? What about them?’

And we’ve missed the voice of Jesus saying, ‘You, follow me.’

To those who are about to be baptized, I want to say, this is who you are: one who is loved dearly by God, one who is saying “yes” to Jesus’ invitation to follow him. You are choosing to not miss that voice. You are saying, “Yes, I will follow.”

Your decision to be baptized means that you are affirming your identity in Jesus–as one who is “forgiven of sin, and one in Christ with the members of Christ’s body, the church.” “The old has gone, the new has come,” as Scripture says. Baptism is a physical sign of the ultimate “Before and After” transformation.

Remember Your Baptism

This Baptism Sunday is also a chance us who have already been baptized to remember our baptism. We know that we at times wander away from God, but we can never be un-baptized. We always come back to our fundamental identity as ones forgiven by God’s grace, and given new life.

So, whether your baptism was years ago or is about to happen today: remember your baptism.

Whenever you look at the ocean, may God remind you of the cleansing, washing power of his forgiveness.

May the vast waters call to mind the immensity and intensity of Christ’s love for you.

Remember who you were before you said “yes” to following Jesus, but especially remember the new life to which you are now called.

Just as Jesus Christ died, was buried, and rose again, “In the same way, Paul says, “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Scripture quotations above are from the 1984 NIV. See my other sermons gathered here.