My Sermon This Morning: The Light Shines in Our Hearts

It’s been a while since I posted one of my Sunday sermons here. Below is what I preached this morning, the Second Sunday of Advent, on 2 Corinthians 4:1-6.


 

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This photo taken at 4:14 p.m.

Until recently I’d forgotten that the sun could even set before 5:00. Last night the sunset was at 4:08 p.m. 4:08! 

My six-year-old asked me this week if it was true that there were only four hours of daylight each day in December. 

Not quite, but it feels like it. 

These short, dark, cold days seem to linger on. We await a later sunset, the buds of spring, and warmer days. 

What are we to do with all of this in-between time? 

That’s the question of Advent. Christ has broken into our world, but so much remains untransformed by his power. We are waiting. We are hoping. We are longing for Jesus to come again and make everything right.

The stand-up comic Mitch Hedberg once disparaged instant oatmeal. He said:

I get up in the morning, and I make myself a bowl of instant oatmeal, and then I don’t do anything for an hour… which makes me wonder why I need the instant oatmeal… I could get the regular oatmeal and feel productive!

Advent calls for our patience in dark days where God’s kingdom (still) isn’t here. It doesn’t come in an instant. 

But it’s not a passive waiting that we do. And there’s nothing hopeless about Advent. It’s not a season where we throw up our hands and say, “Welp, I guess we just hang out until Jesus comes back.” 

On the contrary, in Advent we remember and re-activate that hope within us that believes—that knows—Christ will come again. We proclaim with Zechariah:

Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace.

In these dark, cold, in-between days, “the light shines in the darkness.”

And the light shines right into our inmost beings.

That’s what Paul says to the Christians in the city of Corinth: 

The [same] God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

There’s the miracle of God’s love… the all-powerful creator of the universe who could bring light from darkness, has sent his light right into our hearts, so that we could know Jesus. The one who created worlds could be bothered to shine light into my dark heart, and yours. God even delights in shining light into our hearts. 

 

What does the light do?

The light shines in the darkness, and that includes the darkness of our inner world. 

I think Paul has something in common with us. None of us wants to just talk in platitudes or generalities. The light shines in our hearts, yes, so now we want to know: what exactly is the light doing in us? What does the light-of-Christ-in-our-hearts do?

Paul suggests a few things. As it shines in your heart, here is what the light does. 

First, he says, the light illuminates what is hidden. 

Here is the first part of verse 2: “We have renounced the shameful things that one hides.”

That’s because Paul and his fellow believers have the light of Christ in their hearts. That light has illuminated what is hidden—shameful things. 

Paul models a response to the shameful things the light has shown him in his heart. “I renounce them.” 

It’s a line you’ll hear in the baptismal liturgy: “I renounce them.” The light illuminates my hidden, shameful things, shows me what and where they are… and I renounce them.

evolving_google_identity_shareI’ve always been glad no technology exists to Google our brains. Think about what that would be like. All our memories, experiences, hopes, wayward desires, and hurts. Your search for envious thoughts toward others returned 13,849 results.

Thank God we can’t Google our brains. But in a sense, that’s what the light of Jesus does. As the Psalmist David put it, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. 

The light of Christ in us illuminates what is hidden.

Second, Paul says the light of Jesus is a floodlight on lies. The light of Christ shows lies for what they are. 

After verse 2 says, “We have renounced the shameful things that one hides,” it goes on: “we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word.” 

Because the light of Christ shines in his inmost being, Paul and his co-laborers in ministry commit to be truthful, especially when it comes to the revealed word of God. “We refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word.” 

The light shines on lies in the darkness. It points at them and calls them what they are. Where the light of Christ shines, there can be no lies. 

 

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TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

 

I’m reading a book right now by James Clear called Atomic Habits. The author describes a process that train conductors in Tokyo practice. It’s called “Pointing-and-Calling.” He says:

As each operator runs the train, they proceed through a ritual of pointing at different objects and calling out commands. When the train approaches a signal, the operator will point at it and say, “Signal is green.” As the train pulls into and out of each station, the operator will point at the speedometer and call out the exact speed. When it’s time to leave, the operator will point at the timetable and state the time. Out on the platform, other employees are performing similar actions. Before each train departs, staff members will point along the edge of the platform and declare, “All clear!” Every detail is identified, pointed at, and named aloud.

The author concludes: 

Pointing-and-Calling is so effective because it raises the level of awareness from a nonconscious habit to a more conscious level. Because the train operators must use their eyes, hands, mouth, and ears, they are more likely to notice problems before something goes wrong. 

This is great for habit development. But good habits aside, here is the light of Christ, practicing the same method of Pointing-and-Calling in us! That’s what the light of Jesus does!

The light of Christ illuminates what is hidden, even shameful things. And it’s a floodlight that shows lies for what they are. The light of Jesus points-and-calls in our hearts.

Eugene Peterson translates verse 2 this way:

We refuse to wear masks and play games. We don’t maneuver and manipulate behind the scenes. And we don’t twist God’s Word to suit ourselves. Rather, we keep everything we do and say out in the open, the whole truth on display, so that those who want to can see and judge for themselves in the presence of God.

Paul also says more generally: the light of Jesus guides our inner life. 

The word Paul uses for light is more expansively defined as “illumination for the inner life.”

Are you confused, or torn up inside? The light of Christ can guide you. 

Are you anxious, scared, uncertain of what the coming days and weeks will hold? The light of Christ doesn’t make all your problems go away, but it will illuminate your inner thought life, as you try to make sense of it all. 

Things become more visible, clearer by the light God gives us. 

The light of Jesus guides our inner life. 

Finally, and most important, the light that God shines in our hearts reveals “God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

This is more than just your run-of-the-mill illumination. Verse 4 says it’s the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. Verse 6 says the light God shines in our hearts is the light of the knowledge of his glory. 

Paul is not talking about “the light within” or whatever light or goodness or hope you can generate yourself. 

There may be a place for that, but it will only take you so far. 

The Episcopal preacher Fleming Rutledge says, “(I)f Christian faith is going to have any guts, it simply cannot be satisfied with exclusively human hope.” 

This isn’t just any light. It’s Jesus light. 

One poet put it like this: 

It gets so dark it stays dark,
Even when I turn on the light.

We need more than ourselves to turn on the light. We’re prone to error, prone to despair, prone to exhaustion if we try to face and fight the darkness all on our own. 

Thank God, we don’t have to. 

The [same] God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

For light to truly shine in our hearts and illuminate our paths, it needs to come from an external, inexhaustible source. 

That light source is Jesus. “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people.”

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer waited in prison for a release that would never come, he wrote, “Only the coming Lord can prepare the way… the end (goal) of all preparing the way for Christ must be the recognition that we ourselves can never prepare the way.” 

To that let’s add: we ourselves never shine enough light to dispel the darkness.

 

The light persists

Paul begins this passage thus: “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”

Paul and company knew deep in their bones that the mercy and love of God were essential to their doing ministry. 

We show mercy, he would say, “just as we have received mercy.” 

And that’s how the light works—it’s received, it’s given, just like grace. It’s not all up to you to do the shining.

You know that your light alone, will burn out. Maybe it already has. 

Your batteries will expire. 

The flame will extinguish. 

The wick will run out. 

And you’re not just contending with yourself here: Satan will try to keep you from living in the light. 

But as Paul says, “the god of this world” may try to keep people from “seeing the light of the gospel,” but he can’t actually touch the light itself. The so-called god of this world can’t stop or prevent or even reduce the shining of the light of Jesus. 

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_4012Jesus’s light is eternal… limitless; it forever burns bright. 

And that light is yours. It’s ours. 

So with the beleaguered apostle Paul, “we do not lose heart.” We wait in hope; we wait in power. 

We have the light of Christ already in part, and lean forward, eagerly awaiting the day when we’ll have Christ’s light in full. 

God has shined the light of Christ in us. 

NOTHING can darken the light of Christ. 

May God shine that light, brighter and stronger and warmer, in our hearts this Advent season.

Vote! And an Election Prayer

Paying Attention

 

The below is slightly modified from an email I sent my congregation Sunday.

Trying to enact Christian values in the public square and trying to map Christian virtues onto candidates and ballot questions can be challenging. There’s not a one-to-one match between what Augustine called the city of God and this earthly city.

Still, part of our calling as citizens of the kingdom of God is to be engaged earthly citizens. What Paul wrote to the church in Corinth applies to us: we are Christ’s ambassadors, joining God in his ongoing work of reconciling the world to himself. We want to be like the people God called through Jeremiah to seek the shalom of the cities in which we live.

It’s important that we bring our whole selves into the public square: our love, our hope, our witness, our God-shaped discernment, and our biblically informed values. We want to live out our faith in city council meetings and town halls and online forums and community events and in the voting booth.

Midterm elections are notorious for low voter turnout, so however our Christian convictions lead each of us to civic engagement, I hope we will make every effort—acting in good faith as both a citizen of the heavenly city and this earthly one—to vote on Tuesday. (Click here to learn more: polling places, hours, candidates, ballots.) And encourage your friends, family, and neighbors—in this state and in others—to vote, as well.

As we vote, let’s be constant in prayer for our city, state, country, world, and all who lead… that they would pursue justice, freedom, truth, and love for all people. Here’s a prayer for elections from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer to help shape our praying:

Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of the United States in the election of officials and representatives; that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Book Note: John Fea’s Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump

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Image via Eerdmans

You’re probably tired of hearing the Pew statistic that 81% of white evangelicals who voted in 2016 voted for Donald Trump. (Joe Carter’s early clarifications of the statistic are helpful.)

As I have written elsewhere, I believe it is incumbent on the 81% to explain why they supported a candidate who so publicly disregards and even opposes basic biblical values. (There have been some attempts at this, albeit unsatisfying ones.) It’s not that people always vote all their values or in their own best interest (and a limited two-party system makes voting values tricky for many, myself included), but the disconnect between the professed tenets of classic evangelicalism and the words and actions of Trump is remarkable.

John Fea, a historian and evangelical at Messiah College, offers an explanation in his just-released Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Eerdmans, 2018):

“For too long, white evangelical Christians have engaged in public life through a strategy defined by the politics of fear, the pursuit of worldly power, and a nostalgic longing for a national past that may have never existed in the first place. Fear. Power. Nostalgia. These ideas are at the heart of this book, and I believe that they best explain that 81 percent.” (6)

That’s the thesis of the book, which I will be reviewing here in the coming weeks. “This book,” Fea says, “is the story of why so many American evangelicals believe Donald Trump” (10).

In the meantime you can read more about the book here.

My Favorite Gospels Resource

Easter is near, the time of year where—if I haven’t already reached for it recently—I pull out my favorite Gospels resource: Synopsis of the Four Gospels.

There are three versions of this resource of which I’m aware:

– an all-Greek one (complete with Latin title: Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum)
– an all-English one
– the one linked above, which has both Greek and English

I love the color. The binding is secure. The size is beautifully large but not overwhelmingly so. My copy, though I got it used some years ago, even smells good. It might be the aroma of the Holy Spirit.

For those seemingly rare but delightful stories, parables, or teachings that all four Gospels treat, the Synopsis is a great way to see everything lined up together. Each year I choose whichever Easter account is the Gospel lectionary for the day, but I always look at all the Gospels side by side before preaching about the story of the resurrection.

Here are some pictures:

 

 

 

 

And if you really want to get into this text, check out this review—more of an homage, rightly—at the Bible Design Blog.

The Sole (and Very Interesting) Occurrence of “Mediator” in the LXX

God’s covenant people have always needed a mediator. And God—with limitless grace—has always sent mediators to the people.

A mediator joins two parties together, stands in the gaps, bridges their conflict. A mediator is “a go-between,” a re-negotiator, an arbitrator. An effective mediator is a miracle worker.

Scripture narrates a familiar pattern: God makes covenants with his people; his people break them; God uses mediators to make peace.

The Greek word for mediator is μεσίτης (mesitēs). Careful readers of Scripture know that “the idea of mediation and therefore of persons acting in the capacity of mediator permeates the Bible” (New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edition). However, the word mediator=μεσίτης (mesitēs) occurs only six times in the Greek New Testament.

Three of those uses are in Hebrews (8:6, 9:15, and 12:24). Two are in Galatians 3:19-20. And one is in 1 Timothy 2:5, a theologically rich verse:

For
there is one God;
there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human….

The concept and practice of mediation (think: sacrifice, atonement) does indeed fill the pages of the Old Testament. Most of the New Testament uses of mediator, in fact, reference the old covenant. So I found it especially fascinating when I learned that mediator=μεσίτης (mesitēs) occurs only once in the Greek Septuagint.

It comes up in a striking passage in Job 9:33.

Job has already lost everything. But we remember as he utters these words in chapter 9 that the Bible describes him as “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” It said he would “rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings,” just in case his children had sinned. He covered all his bases. He kept at least the semblance of a covenant with God.

And yet Job senses a breach. All manner of tragedy has befallen him, and everyone around him tells him to curse God. He won’t, but still he feels at odds with God. Job says to the Lord:

… you are not a mortal like me, with whom I would contend,
that we should agree to come to trial.

Would that there were a μεσίτης/mesitēs/mediator for us and an investigator
and one to hear the case between us two.

(This is from the NETS translation, which translates μεσίτης as arbiter.)

Job longs for a mediator, an arbiter between him and God. An “umpire,” the NRSV says, translating the Hebrew.

Again, Job calls for a mediator, even though we have no narrative evidence that he broke a covenant with God! He acknowledges that he can’t “contend” with God as in court, but still yearns for a “mediator” to bridge the gap between him and God.

And now, for the pastoral payoff:

If Job, who led a blameless life, thought he needed a mediator to get to God, how much more do we, God’s not-blameless people, need a mediator to be in the presence of a perfectly holy God?

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.