Handbook for an Active Faith

In the news this weekend was the story of a man, Jon Kramer, who discovered two library books in his parents’ old cabin, both 40 years overdue. They were guidebooks that had helped the family develop a lifestyle around nature and an appreciation for the outdoors. Simple and practical books of great use and, apparently, great value, Jon decided to pay $1552.30 to cover the nickel-a-day late fees. Along with the check, he included a letter requesting to keep the books on loan with the promise of a similar payment after another 40 years.[1]

jonkramer-40yearsoverdue

This story helps us understand why the New Testament book of James has continually been a favorite among Christians. First and foremost, James is a practical book. A book in which we can immediately see the need and put into use. A book  scholar Robert Gundry calls “a manual of Christian conduct that assumes a foundation of faith.” (474)

The first verse of James introduces us to a transformed life ready to spur other transformed people into actively living out their faith. The message of James is that genuine faith must become evident in how we live and what we do. Faith doesn’t sit the bench, there are no armchair Christians or couch-potato disciples.

So the question is, how is it going to be lived out? How will this guidebook help us to develop a lifestyle around active faith and an appreciation for not only hearing the Word, but doing it? If we hear God and become doers of His will, what will this mean for our church?

David A. DeSilva’s An Introduction to the New Testament, has an incredibly insightful list of which he says “the church that receives James’ word and takes it to heart will be characterized by the following traits.” For the sake of brevity I’ve summarized his list below:

  • Our knowledge of God will shape our community.
  • Our speech, actions and ambitions will be like Jesus.
  • We will have a consistent witness through kindness and charity among ourselves and toward the world.
  • We will resist the tendency to value people according to what they have, where they’re from or what they look like.
  • We will welcome the poor and filthy along with the wealthiest donor.
  • We will help members find healing for their strife.
  • We will use the wealth and resources of our church to reflect God’s priorities instead of secular financial wisdom.
  • We will seek to restore the sick and the sinner.[2]

I’m excited for what God has in store for our church as we engage with James between now and Easter. My hope is that we won’t keep our faith to ourselves, but we will get out there.

 

[1] http://www.startribune.com/minneapolis-man-pays-1-500-late-fee-for-library-books-borrowed-in-1970s/408867025/

[2] David A. DeSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament, Intervarsity Press, England: 2004, p 839.

Is Christmas still good news for Newtown?

This past Sunday night I was preaching on the humble birth of Jesus and the response of heaven and earth as found in Luke 2:1-21. After a thoroughly unimpressive and simple account of the birth we see angels bringing an important message to ordinary men (shepherds), a message that is good news and cause for great joy. The news was this: Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord (Luke 2:11). They respond by immediately going to see him and then proceed to tell all who will listen about this great news. The main point of my sermon? Christmas is good news worth sharing.

But I didn’t get to say all that I wanted. In light of the events that had taken place this past Friday, I had spent many hours trying to figure out how best to help my people to still see the hope of Christmas in the midst of our world’s darkness. But when it came down to preaching it, I just didn’t have time…. and I regretted it.

Thankfully, I write out everything I plan on saying, so I do have it here for you. However, it was not originally intended to be read by many, but rather spoken to a few, with tenderness and understanding that all of us were greatly affected simply by reading the news. So please read with pinch of salt. Do not think I have written this to say I know why this happened or that I even think I fully understand these people’s pain, but hear this, these words were written because I do believe that our world is broken and yearning for a savior and His name is Jesus.

(If you want to hear the sermon first, you can listen or download it here.) [audio http://archive.org/download/ASaviorIsBorn/Remix12-16-12.mp3]

The following is what I didn’t get to say, but wanted to:

Newtown

I think everyone here is aware of the tragedy that occurred Friday morning in the small city of Newtown, Connecticut. A man killed his mother and then went to a public elementary school filled with kindergarten to fourth grade kids and went on a rampage… killing 20 children and 6 more adults, and then himself.

When I heard the news of this horrific event I was working on this very sermon; studying these very scriptures that we just looked at tonight. And the rest of that day, I tried to keep working on this sermon… but kept being drawn in to reading more and more news as the events unfolded.

And while there are many questions that arise out of a tragedy such as this one, there was one question I kept thinking as I was preparing. You see, the main point of my sermon was, and still is, that Christmas is good news worth sharing… but my question was this: is Christmas still good news for the people of Newtown? Is it still good news for the grieving parents? Is it still good news for the traumatized classmates? Is it still good news for the police officers and firefighters who witness the grizzly scene? Is Christmas still good news in a world that is clearly broken and overwhelmingly tragic?

To put it another way… does your pretty nativity manger scene have a place for the heartbroken, the distressed and the suffering? And does it have any answers?

And if we can’t say, “Yes” then we need to rethink our understanding of Christmas… if we can’t say yes… then we need to discover a different nativity…

But the answer is yes.

Because Jesus humbly entered into a broken world precisely because it needed a savior.

Think back to our nativity scene:

Jesus’ mother and father are the low-income working class who take on the shame of an unwedded pregnancy. They live in a time of Roman oppression and are forced into traveling so that taxes can be assessed. Middle eastern hospitality falls short as they face rejection again because of this unborn child; the king of kings sleeps his first night in a donkey’s food dish. His first guests are not educated, powerful, rich or political… but just normal, hard working, smelly shepherds.

Our Lord came in humbly and understands the humble.

But that is not all.

Because shepherds that first night, and wise men some time later were not the only visitors to Bethlehem town: death would strike just as well.

The rage of a king, at the coming of this vulnerable newborn who was also king of kings, would lead to the deaths of many infants in this same small village.

And while, we will get to that part of our story in a couple of weeks… it must be seen now, in light of this week, because Jesus entered a broken world, filled with death (and we still do).

In the big picture we see that Jesus didn’t enter into a quiet town, but into a war zone. Our nativity has a backdrop of bloodshed. And this week we saw clearly that this war still rages on.

“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:18)

I have to wonder of the babies that died in Bethlehem, were any related to our shepherds? A son? A nephew? A cousin? A brother?

Did they still believe the angels had brought good news?

And again, I think yes. I think it would have been terrible and awful and filled with great mourning… even like our nation today, and yet it was exactly part of the broken world that made them yearn for deliverance… their need for Jesus.

And while the backdrop of bloodshed around our nativity speaks to the reality of the world, it is the shadow of a cross on our manger which remind us of the extent Jesus went through so we can say, “where o death is your victory? Where, o death, is your sting?”

The Christmas story is not devoid of pain or suffering. It contains it; it understands it… and ultimately it happened because suffering, pain, and death needed to come to an end… Jesus put away its power through his victory over death… and so in Christmas we have a hope of something greater.

Jesus is still our hope for this broken world.

So Christmas is good news worth sharing, even to the broken hearted and the mourning. But it is complicated… and its personal.  A bumper sticker just doesn’t capture the depth of Christmas nor the depth of the pain it seeks to heal… but if you care and you share your joy and the message of a necessary savior in the midst of a broken world… God will bring peace to those on whom his favor rests.

Here are some additional resources to help you come to grips with this tragedy in light of who God is and what He is doing in this world:

How Does Jesus Come to Newtown? – John Piper

School Shootings and Spiritual Warfare – Russell Moore

Where Shall We Put this Grief? – Kathleen Nelson

A Prayer in Response – Scotty Smith

From the Cutting Room Floor: Psalm 68

Sunday night I spoke on Psalm 68: a psalm of David used in the procession of the Ark of the Covenant into the newly conquered city of Jerusalem. It’s an epic psalm that tells more like a story with God as the main hero in the past, present and future. If you want to know more about it, you can listen to my sermon here.

But, as with all sermons that have a targeted length or goal, some stuff that I would have loved to talk about had to get cut… so this little tidbit is “From the cutting room floor.”

One of the big take-aways from Psalm 68 is a radical and life altering understanding of who God is and how He has been at work, is working, and will work in the future SO THAT we will trust Him completely. He is the Hero and the God who Saves. However, sometimes when we have a psalm or a sermon that says, “Trust God, hope in God,”  can sound pithy and shallow.

“It’s just not that easy.”

And you’re right, it’s not easy. But don’t believe for a minute that David, the author of this psalm, made these claims in any sort of shallow or insincere way. He had to work hard to trust God, and the events surrounding this psalm show us just how much.

In my sermon I read from 1 Chronicles 15:25-28 in order to depict this triumphal procession with the ark into Jerusalem. The problem is… this wasn’t the first attempt, and the first try didn’t go so well.

We read in 1 Chronicles 13 that David had conferred with his commanders and the “whole assembly of Israel” about bringing the ark into the city. So  David assembles a vast crowd and again “David and all the Israelites were celebrating with all their might before God, with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, cymbals and trumpets.” Just like in chapter 15 it is more than just a procession, it is a parade in God’s honor. It is a party for the Lord. And I have to speculate that if Psalm 68 was written for the ark coming into the city, that they must have sung it as part of these first festivities as well.

But then tragedy occurs.

The ark, traveling on a cart, starts to slip and one of the men guiding it reaches out his hand to steady it… “The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah, and He struck him down because he had put his hand on the ark. So he died there before God. (1 Chron 13:10) “

A man dies.

The party ended. The parade canceled. The ark was left at a nearby house. “David was afraid of God that day and asked, ‘How can I ever bring the ark of God to me?’ (13:12)”

Now, Uzzah died because he did not take God’s holiness serious enough and because they disobeyed God’s commands as to how the ark should be moved (poles, not cart and oxen). It was righteous wrath against rebellion doing the things of God by man’s ways.

But my point is less about Uzzah and why he died and more about getting back to 1 Chronicles 15. You see, David was angry and scared. He was sad for the death of this man, and it took him a while before he was ready to try again, 3 months to be exact. David was burdened, David was uncertain, but once again he chose to sing:

Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior,
    who daily bears our burdens.   Selah
Our God is a God who saves;
    from the Sovereign Lord comes escape from death.

(Psalm 68:19-20)

Part of me wonders if David added the “Selah” for the second time that they sang it, just so they’d pause and remember. Remember the death of Uzzah, but also how God can and does carry these kinds of burdens and gives the ultimate escape from death.

So, did David know what it was to go through tough times? He was responsible for man’s death! And yet, he still calls upon us to trust this God who saves.

Will you?