How Will They Know? – John 13 and 17

God is at work in our lives before we even realize it. God has placed a longing for the eternal in each of us – a longing for meaning, for answers, for a way to “make sense” of this world. 

This is true for all of us, because we are God’s children – just because we are blind or deaf to God’s work in our lives, doesn’t mean he is absent!  

Everyone, whether they know it or not, is waiting to hear more about God. We all need a spiritual dimension to our life to be whole. Some people may only understand “God” as “something more to life,” or “some unknown force in the universe” or a vague feeling that they are “a religious kind-of-person.” According to, about 32% of people seeking deeper meaning in life are looking for a welcoming church. 

That means every third person who is looking for meaning in life will find it in a church with open, and welcoming arms.  

People are looking for God (God is placing that need within them – if they realize it or not). People don’t know God until they see Jesus; people don’t see Jesus until they see him in us! 

Guess what? Jesus knew this. He taught this when he had “saved the best for last” in the gospel of John.  

In his last hours with his disciples, he showed them humility and service by washing their feet. He warned them of the troubles that were about to come – through the betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion. Then he said to his disciples, his. closest friends: 

34 I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other.35 This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” (John 13:35) 

How will people know disciples of Jesus are indeed disciples of Jesus? How will people know they have found the answers they seek? How will they know it is Jesus that provides those answers?  

By watching us love each other.  

Some church leaders, teachers, or preachers may favor outreach over “inside the walls” relationships, but if we – within these walls – don’t love one another, then no one is ever going to believe we love Jesus. And they’ll never believe Jesus loves them, if they don’t see it in us! 

 Relationships are built as we express God’s grace by accepting all people (because God loves them) and inviting them to discover the fullness of God’s love for themselves. 

This is more than just “getting along” with each other; more than just “liking each other,” or “being happy where we are.” This kind of relationship takes work – prayerful work! We pray for the grace to accept and invite; we pray that when people accept our invitation, they see Jesus among our relationships with one another.  

Jesus prayed for that, too, in his last meal with the disciples (John 17:20-23): 

“I’m not praying only for them but also for those who believe in me because of their word.21 I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.22 I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one.23 I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me. 

Jesus prays that we (the ones who believe because of the words of the disciples in that room): 

  • will be one – just as he and God are one.
  • Will be “in us” – that our closeness with God will grow, and become Jesus’ closeness to his Father; with the goal of “being one as they are one.”
  • Will, by our unity with God and one another, show the world that God loves them just as he loves his own Son.  

Phil Maynard, in his book Shift: Helping Congregations Back into the Game of Effective Ministry, lists three specific ways that our relationships can help people know Jesus.  

Forgiveness: we can’t go through life without messing it up from time to time. We hurt others. We get hurt b others. How do we respond when we get hurt? How do we respond when we do the hurting? 

When others hurt him, Jesus responded with forgiveness. Daily, he was persecuted. Daily, he forgave that persecution and kept going. He held no grudges. Can we say that about our relationships?  

The very last earthly thing he did for us was to forgive. From the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  

We are constantly challenged with opportunities to forgive. Yet, many times we allow hurt to fester. Little slights grow into relationship-destroying barriers. One of the ways sin works in our lives is to cause us to ruminate on small hurts, hurts that might be a result of miscommunication or mistake. We add other hurts to it, ascribing conspiracies where there are none. Have you ever had a problem arise in one relationship and start to look at everybody suspiciously? Assume that they’re all “talking about you,” that the first person has “turned them all against me!”? 

Don’t let the little slights destroy relationships.  

There are bigger injuries that take long, arduous work to forgive. I am, by no means, insinuating that we need to ignore abuse. God doesn’t want any of us to suffer like that. Some relationships need to end for the health and safety of one, or both, partners. But most of our relationships get torn apart by the little things.  

The relationships that show Jesus to the world happen in this room, between church members. Don’t let our witness be destroyed because a small hurt became a gaping wound. 

Acceptance: day after day, in every interaction, Jesus exhibited acceptance. 

All four gospels tell us that Jesus accepted and welcomed the outcasts of his world. The handicapped. The sinners. Those excluded by religion or race – Samaritans and Gentiles. He consistently welcomed and ministered to all.  

When he met a woman with a questionable reputation, who was a member of a different branch of his religion – the “Woman at the Well” – he talked to her like a friend. He treated her with respect. He showed love to her.  

Jesus famously “ate with sinners” because he knew that they needed his love, too. He didn’t close off his heart to them.  

The least amount of tolerance Jesus ever showed was with religious people who didn’t accept and love. He condemned those who should have known better, who should have “loved because God first loved them,” but insisted on judging and condemning and casting out.  

Then, the Holy Spirit exploded on the scene and that acceptance only increased. The Book of Acts is full of examples – Peter preaching to Gentiles; Paul being chosen; the Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch; Peter and Cornelius. One barrier after another was torn down by the Holy Spirit.  

Look around. Do we show that same kind of acceptance? Look around. Who, in our lives, might not feel welcome here?  

Accountability: even when Jesus condemned the behavior of another, he did so with the goal of repentance. With the “Woman at the Well” he knew all about her many husbands, and understood how that had made life difficult for her. He still offered her a chance at acceptance and forgiveness.  

When the “Rich Young Ruler” approached him, looking for meaning in life, Jesus held him accountable for his greed. He pointed out the sin in the young man’s life. It’s not enough to follow all the rules, Jesus said, you’ve got to rid your life of the things that get in the way of you approaching God; in this case, that would be your possessions.  

Wesley founded the Methodist movement with the same value on accountability. Examine our hearts, confess to one another, seek to grow closer in a relationship with God. Back then, Methodists would help one another do that.  

 People everywhere are looking for meaning in life. They might be watching us to see what life means to us. Do we, by our actions with each other, show what life means?  

When some people look for meaning, they look to Christians and the church to provide that meaning. Are we showing them Christ?

Coming Out

It’s time for me to “come out of the closet.” Not that closet. I’m not gay. And I would never pretend that I was even slightly as brave as the men and women that I know who are and are out.  No matter if I’m “in” or “out,” I’m still a white male in the South – and that’s a pretty privileged place to be. So, don’t for a minute think I am putting myself on their level.  

I’m coming out of a closet of fear. I’m sick of being afraid to tell you who I really am and what I really think. While I still care about your feelings, I’m through hiding mine to avoid hurting yours. I think you’ll survive. I think we’ll all survive.  

I know a lot about hiding. I’ve hidden a lot over the course my life. I grew up hiding. My father was an alcoholic; a high-functioning, successful business man, good provider for his family, but still an alcoholic. We had a code – TELL NO ONE. Its where I get my well-developed ability to catastrophize anything. “We can’t tell anybody,” my mother would say, “because they won’t buy groceries from us anymore.” Then, the end of the world would arrive – losing everything because PEOPLE WOULD KNOW.  

Looking back, people knew. They had to! Didn’t you have friends whose mom or dad drank? I did. Didn’t you know something was “a little off” about them sometimes? Sure. Did you stop hanging out with that friend? No.  

I’m sure people knew that Daddy “drank a little,” but they never worried that he was going to start spiking the Tro-Fe Dairy orange drink with vodka! The vodka stayed well-hidden. It was behind the firewood in the garage. It was in a filing cabinet in his private office at the store. It was in an old golf bag at home (that was fun to find when I was actually playing golf one day as a teenager!). The only thing that was more well-hidden was my fear and uncertainty.  

I know a lot about rushing headlong into situations where I have no clue about what to do. At a moment’s notice I could become my mother’s therapist or my dad’s rehab counselor. It really wasn’t a surprise that God called me to ministry; I’ve been in ministry since I was 11 years old. I was ordained in a Buick Electra (which was roughly the same size as the office in which I sit today) on the way home from school in about 1975 when Mama said, “Your daddy has a problem . . .”  

After that, any time there was an office to run for, an award to win, a team to make, I was there. I had really no idea what Class President, Student Body President, or Fraternity Rush Chairman was supposed to do, I just knew that if I won that office, no one would ever guess the truth – that my family was broken because my daddy was an alcoholic. I was the “Standard Bearer.” It was easy because I was tall, so I played basketball; I was white, intelligent, and well-mannered, so principals and teachers liked me.  

I know a lot about putting on a mask and playing a role. I was good at it – until I wasn’t good at it anymore. That happened about age 25, after college, after seminary. I couldn’t fake my way through real life (marriage, job, etc.) on my good looks and charm.  

Somewhere along that way, I realized I had to be real. I had to own up to the fear and uncertainty. I had to acknowledge when I didn’t know what to do next, when I wasn’t sure how an adult acted because I had been faking it for so long. Thanks to a really good Pastoral Counselor named Luther (No, really. Not the Luther-15th-century-reformer – a real man named Luther Kramer), I became real. 

I’ll resist the temptation to lapse into quotes from “The Velveteen Rabbit.” You’re welcome. 

I’ve come a long way to tell you that I am uniquely prepared for this slow-motion train wreck we call “General Conference.” I’m scared and worried (and believe me, I know the feeling!). I’m not sure what to do next. I am guilty of some catastrophizing, spending many hours worrying about not having a church to serve, or having to work at Wal-Mart (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  

I have survived enough “Ends of the World” to know – it’s never the end of the world. There is always a tomorrow. “Tomorrow is another day,” “It’s only a day away,” yes, Scarlett O’Hara was right. Annie was right. Someday we’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind us . . . thanks, Dorothy.  

We remember those lines because they are true. I know that. I’ve lived that. 55-year-old Earl would say to 11-year-old Earl, “It won’t always be this way. You’ll be okay. It will be over soon.”  I would sit there, on that Sear’s NFL bedspread, or maybe we’d sit on the shag carpet, and say, “It’s going to work out. Pay attention and learn some stuff on the way.” Like learning to be calm in a crisis. Like learning to be able to talk about anything (when you can ask your daddy where he hid the bottle, you can talk about anything). Like knowing that nothing is the “end of the world.” 

I know. Some of you are saying (shouting, maybe), “But what if it really is the ‘End of the World?’ What about that, Mr. Smart Guy?!” In that case, the day after the real “End of the World,” I’ll be the first to admit that I was wrong. 

I’ve survived an alcoholic family. I’ve survived moves (try moving from Huntsville to California with a toddler!). I’ve survived loss (our first year of marriage also saw the loss of my mother and Belinda’s grandmother within a month of one another). I’ve survived church conflict like most have never seen (one side to be “guarding the Holy Spirit” from the other side – no lie!). I’ve survived being an Atlanta Braves fan in the 70’s and 80’s. We will survive this!  

At first, I was afraid. I was petrified. Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side. But, other than a disturbing tendency to lapse into disco at inappropriate moments, I’ve come through it. This post really needs a soundtrack. I’ll make you a playlist.   

It occurs to me that we know what is coming and we know when we will know for sure what the consequences will be. A week from today (February 19) we’ll almost be there!  

It also occurs to me that Jesus knew what was coming. He knew the cross was coming, and even that wasn’t the end. He knew the cross was coming but he still invited the disciples to go on living. He even cooked them breakfast (John 21:12) – how normal was that!? 

It’s hard to be normal these days. It’s hard to even act like things are normal. They aren’t. But they are survivable. I know. I’ve been through some stuff. God has been with me, even redeemed some pretty awful stuff! God will be with us, too. We will survive.   

Hope is Never Hidden – Jeremiah 33:14-16

In his book, Hidden Christmas, Timothy Keller says that Christmas is the only Christian Holy Day that is also a major secular holiday. Sure, there’s a secular component to Easter. We’ve got the Easter Bunny and the Egg Hunts to go along with the cross and the resurrection. But Easter’s secular side pales in comparison to the onslaught of lights, carols, sales, TV specials, and SALES, SALES, SALES! Easter has Good Friday; but, nothing to compare to Black Friday – consumerism’s kidnap of Christmas. 

As I was writing this sermon, I was listening to a Christmas song by Rodney Crowell, “Christmas Everywhere:” 

Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas everywhere
Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas pullin‘ out my hair
Shoppers lined up out the door
Traffic backed up miles and more
It’s Christmas time, so what the heck
Let’s go spend the whole paycheck 

But, when you focus all your annual financial success on this one month, one weekend, no expense is too great to draw customers in. So, Christmas, real Christmas, is hidden beneath a mountain of secular images in an attempt to make money.  

I recall one “Black Friday” I spent in the University Mall in Tuscaloosa. Technically, it still felt like Thanksgiving Day – we left the house about 10:00 pm (so, we hadn’t been to bed!). I sat on one of the benches, just like all the other “old men!” Thousands of people hustling back and forth with bags and boxes representing even more thousands of dollars in cash purchases and credit card debt. They carried sale flyers, celebrating each acquisition with glee.  

Over the din, I could hear the faint strains of Christmas carols over the loud speakers:

“O Little Town of Bethlehem . . .” 

“What Child is this, who laid to rest . . .” 

And perhaps the most ironic – “Silent night, Holy night . . .” 

There was very little “holy” about that night. No child “on Mary’s lap” would sleep through this commotion. The “hopes and fears of all the years” probably wouldn’t meet until the bills came due in January.  

In America, its “Hark the Herald Angels” versus “Holly Jolly Christmas.” We know who wins. Santa takes it every time! 

The secular, consumer side isn’t going away any time soon – not when there’s so much money riding on it! But, really, we Christians shouldn’t worry about all that. The true, holy roots of the season will always be present.  

The problem comes when the secular, consumer side drowns the holy roots that seek to sink deep in our hearts. Buying lots of presents isn’t the problem. The problem is when the accompanying greed drives compassion out of our hearts.  

It’s bad when we move away from the justice and righteousness that God brings during Advent. 

Jeremiah was a prophet of longing. His ministry, his preaching, came during a time of great suffering in the land of Israel and Judah. They had been defeated in war. Most were taken off into slavery and exile in Babylon. It is common for the First Sunday of Advent to draw our attention to the longing for a coming Messiah. Our desire for peace, justice, and righteousness isn’t much different from the longings of the ancient Jews.  

Today’s scripture is from Jeremiah: 

14 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” (Jeremiah 33:14-16) 

Jeremiah speaks of longing, but uses words of certainty: 

“The days are surely coming . . .” 

“When I will fulfill . . .” 

“He shall execute justice and righteousness . . .” 

The season of Advent – the lead-up to Christmas Day – is a season when the church can no longer contain the unfulfilled desire for all God promises. A cry breaks out, “O Come, O come Emmanuel!” Lord, hurry up! Come and fulfill your promises! “Execute justice and righteousness” in our world! 

My longing breaks forth into a cry when the prevalence of hate begins to “turn my stomach.” 

I want to cry out when I see people dragged down into addiction and poverty. 

I want to do more than cry when I see people shot in malls and children tear-gassed at our borders. Merry Christmas, y’all! 

They say that despair is the absence of hope. Maybe it’s hope that is the most hidden in all this worldly cynicism. The God for whom Jeremiah longs is not absent – not hidden. He is coming, and, for us, has come! 

Even amid all the hype of Black Friday, the holy roots of Christmas can still be found. Christ can be found in the everyday lives of his people. Christ can be found in our acts of love. Christ can be found when we show compassion.  

Like a Christmas Carol refusing to be drowned out by the noise of shoppers, if we listen closely, we hear the hope! We hear the hope as we sing: 

“Glory to the Newborn King . . .” 

“God and sinners reconciled . . .” 

“Born that man no more may die . . .” 

“Born to give us second birth . . .” 

If we listen closely, we discover the source of all our hope, even under the sound of cash registers and commercials. If we open our hearts to the presence of “God with us,” Emmanuel, we will see . . . 

That the days are surely coming . . .  

That God’s promise will be fulfilled . . . 

That justice and righteousness will burst forth in all the land!  

Welcome to the Neighborhood

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . .”

It is common to hear this verse at Christmas time. It’s what Christmas is all about! Jesus becoming incarnate – “made flesh” – as a baby in the manger. The Divine becomes human; the spiritual becomes physical.

The Message says, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”

When you show up somewhere, does Jesus come with you?

If we move into a neighborhood, take a new job, go shopping, come to church or go to a party, does Jesus come with us?

We are the way that God chooses to continue to make Jesus known to the world! The Word once became flesh in Jesus Christ, but Jesus still becomes flesh everyday in us – if we proclaim to be a Christian.

We become the means by which Jesus “moves into the neighborhood.”

If we proclaim the name of Christ, the Holy Spirit comes upon us and fills us with Christ’s presence and transforms our heart and mind into the heart and mind of Christ!

Examining today’s scripture will help us understand this idea:

1 In the beginning was the Word
    and the Word was with God
    and the Word was God.
2 The Word was with God in the beginning.
3 Everything came into being through the Word,
    and without the Word
    nothing came into being.
What came into being
4     through the Word was life,[a]
    and the life was the light for all people.

The wording is meant to remind us of the Book of Genesis. John means for us to think about creation.  It is difficult to separate “God” from “Word.” From the first moments of creation, God has been inextricably tied with his creative Word. He spoke the word and light, dark, earth, and water were created.

Where does “God” stop and “Word” begin? John doesn’t know. It’s all the same! So, everything – you, me, animals, earth, and trees, sun and moon and stars – are given life by God’s creative Word.

The Life we are given shows us how to live. It’s the Light.

 11 The light came to his own people,
    and his own people didn’t welcome him.
12 But those who did welcome him,
        those who believed in his name,
    he authorized to become God’s children,
13         born not from blood
        nor from human desire or passion,
        but born from God.
14 The Word became flesh
    and made his home among us.  

One day, that pure, undiluted Word, that pure Light, became flesh and walked among us.  That “one-of-a-kind God expression, the very heart of the Father” came to earth. Some of us recognized him and some did not. If we did recognize him, “believed he was who he claimed and would do what he said,” God made us to be our “true child-of-God selves.”

If we recognize the Light that is Christ, we are changed! We are no longer just plain, old human beings. We are children of God!

It, therefore, becomes our responsibility to continue to be that “Child of God” every day! This is what people see in us when they say “there’s something different” about us. Because we are Children of God, we have more peace, more love, more trust. When we talk about “making disciples,” we are talking about how we show people what Jesus is by our actions.

We make disciples by incarnating Christ among others; by making him known to those who do not know him yet.

Phil Maynard, in Shift: Helping Congregations Get Back in the Game of Effective Ministry, says:

“Christians believe that life finds it meaning in a relationship with Jesus. Since that is true, it becomes the responsibility of every disciple to not only be in that relationship, but to help others discover that relationship as well.”

We cannot be Christ “in the flesh” to others, if Christ has not been “made flesh” in us.

You’ve got to know Jesus to share Jesus.

It is very easy for that relationship, that connection with Christ, to atrophy, to shrink. How?

Maynard says that the longer we are involved in a church, the fewer people we relate to outside of church. We get so attached to the folks we see in church that we neglect to form relationships outside of church.

How, then, do we ever incarnate Christ to people who do not know him yet? Maynard calls it Incarnational Hospitality: 

  • Presence – being there, casual relationships
  • Proximity – meaningful involvement with others, making a difference in their lives
  • Powerlessness – be a “servant,” not a “fixer;” empower others
  • Proclamation – “Always be ready to defend the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15); why is “proclamation” last?

Think about our lives.

  • Who are we close to? With whom do we have casual relationships? Outside the church!
  • Who have you helped? Made a difference in their lives? Outside the church!
  • Is there anyone who feels more empowered, more in control of their lives, because of the help you have given them?
  • Of those people, is there anyone who is looking for meaning in life? That might find it in Jesus Christ?

Proclamation is last for a reason. People are more open to gospel when we have a relationship with them (presence). People are more open when they know we care about them (proximity). People are more open when they feel empowered, rather than overpowered (powerlessness). Then, we can proclaim the gospel with integrity – because we have incarnated the presence of Christ!

God Made It All

Genesis 1  (NRSV) 

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God  swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. 

Do you know what a “light year” is? It is the distance that light travels in one year, or. 9,460,700,000,000 km, about 6 trillion miles. Some of those galaxies are 24 million light years wide. 24 million times 6 trillion equals a number that boggles the mind! 

When we turn our lights on, we see the light immediately; because light is moving at over 670 million miles per hour! So, imagine the distance: we turn on a light and it takes 365 days for us to realize it. It’s beam is moving at 670 million miles per hour, and it’s traveling 6 trillion miles. 

And God said, “Let there be light.” 

One night recently, as I was walking the dogs, as thought of the scripture I just read to you. It was a clear night, and there was very little “light pollution” (few street lights visible, etc.). All I saw was stars! Big stars. Little stars. Clouds of stars. Big Dipper. The Little Dipper (that’s the extent of my knowledge of the constellations). 

Imagine what ancient humans thought, when they looked at the night sky, before they knew those lights were called “stars,” before telescopes, before we had measured the speed of light or a Light Year. What did they think before they knew that those lights in the sky were rocks reflecting the light of the sun? The only answer they had is an answer that has lasted through the ages, “In the beginning, God . . .” 

After all these years, after all our exploration, there is still an element wonder. After our knowledge reaches its end, there is still evidence of a plan, of “intelligent design.” 

 And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. 

Before December 22, 1968, we only knew the earth through drawings, “artist’s renderings.” A few humans had been to space and actually seen the Earth from that vantage point. But, before December 22, 1968, with the flight of Apollo 8, no human had looked back at Earth with a camera in their hand.  

For some, the beauty of that picture is enough to convince them of the hand of God in its creation. 

Martin Rees, a British astronomer, says that for the universe to exist, it requires that hydrogen be converted to helium at a very precise rate – so that seven one-thousandths of its mass is converted to energy. (0.007) Lower that to 0.006 and no conversion would take place, the universe would be all hydrogen. Raise that to 0.008 and hydrogen would convert to helium so fast there would be none left.  

Change that already small number one one-thousandths either way, and no universe. No Earth. No nothing. How did this hydrogen to helium conversion stop at the precise rate needed? 

“In the beginning, God . . .”  

And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 11 Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. 

Then,  on the fourth day: 

14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; 

And finally, after creating us – humankind – God said:  

28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” 29 God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. 

But that was not the last thing God did: 

The heavens and the earth and all who live in them were completed. On the sixth day God completed all the work that he had done, and on the seventh day God rested from all the work that he had done. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creation. (Genesis 2:1-3) 

After all the work of creation, God “took a day off.” Likewise, we do the same – to prove that God will provide. The Sabbath proves that all that God created will continue to work without any input from us.  

After those ancient humans discerned God was the creator, there came a time when that Creator reached out to a man named Abraham. From that divine initiative, a nation was created, a group of people united by their relationship with the creator of the universe. Over time, those people wanted a way to show their devotion to their God. They wanted the God who made them to know that they loved him. God must know that we are grateful to him for all that he has made. 

God made everything, so everything belongs to God.  

So, they began to bring God the produce of the earth he had created. And not just any grain or livestock, but the best of the bunch! The first fruits. They gave to God before they fed themselves. Their law even prescribed what they should say when they brought their offering: 

you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 26:5-10)  

God made everything – the harvest, the nation to which we belong – so everything belongs to God.   

In the giving of the first fruits – ancient Hebrews expressed their awe of God’s power by giving what was most valuable. Their harvest was their “checkbook.” As they gave the offering, they acknowledged God’s hand in creating the offering.  

What we do isn’t much different. We don’t bring grain and oxen to the altar for sacrifice, but we bring what is most vital us – money. We bring the currency of our day. We bring what we need to survive. We bring what we have used our God-given strength to produce – money.  

God made everything, so everything belongs to God.  

We give because God first gave to us – the earth that produces, the sun, the rain that helps produce. From our vantage point, the divine giving took on even greater significance.  

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life,  and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. (John 1:1-5)  

The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)  

We give because God first gave to us – the universe, the Earth, the produce of that earth.  

We give because God ultimately gave his very self to us!

Put God First

Here we are. “It’s that time of year, again!” It’s time to talk about money. It’s time to talk about giving. Some of us dread it. Some of us think we should just “skip it.” Some believe it is an invasion of privacy to talk about what they give to the church; “That’s between me and God, Preacher!”

Those last people are exactly right! It is between you and God. Giving to God through the church is never a financial matter and always a spiritual matter.

Think about this – when the book of Genesis speaks of bringing an offering to God, there were no buildings to maintain, no staff to pay, no “building projects” needed. Why did people make sacrifices to God?

In the Old Testament, there were no checkbooks, ATM cards, IRAs, 401k, no cash – just cattle, grain, wine. Wealth was computed in grain, livestock, wine, oil, crops. When Old Testament people burn offerings and sacrifices, they were offering their wealth to God in the same way as when we make regular tithes, or put money in the offering plate.

We are giving that which sustains our life, that which is most valuable to us.

Everything the Old Testament says about giving puts it in the light of sacrifice and devotion to God. There was no option. They looked around at the majesty and wonder of their world – nature, harvest, sun and moon, children – and knew they must pay homage to God, who made it all.

Every idea, every practice, every act of worship was designed to put God first. Putting God first brought many benefits. Priorities, peace, order, worship, everything in its right place – “Shalom,” as the ancient Jews called it.

Today, we are tempted to put many competing idols, many gods, at the top of our priority list – and we wonder how our life seems “out of whack,” chaotic, and out of order. Many times, when we do give to God through the church, we even mis-prioritize the reasons we do so.

In the “olden days,” when “everyone” went to church, when everybody was a member of our “club,” we could take the easy way out and talk about giving to support our “club.”  Now, we are being forced to reevaluate the basics of our faith.

Stewardship basics are:

  1. God made everything, so everything belongs to God.
  2. When we give, we put God first.
  3. We give because we love God.

Our giving to God through the church (or, as we call it, stewardship) is always about our relationship to God, and never about “paying the bills,” “keeping the doors open,” or “balancing the budget.” Giving to God through the church is always about ministry, not money.

The only truly Biblical approach is to address giving as a matter of relationship to God.

Herb Miller, one of the most prolific writers and teachers about Stewardship, says, in a publication called Full Disclosure:

Every encouragement toward financial giving stands on the foundation of Jesus’ Great Commandment and Great Commission:

  1. Grow spiritually in your relationship with God (Acts 2:41-46) as you share resources with one another.
  2. Love your neighbors in church, community, and world (Luke 10:25-37) as we help others in need. (Good Samaritan – showed his commitment)
  3. Offer Christ to people outside your church’s walls (Matthew 28:19-20) as we share our faith with others.

Financial giving increases our spiritual health by “encouraging discipleship behaviors” like sharing resources, helping others and sharing faith. As we grow in discipleship behaviors, we more closely and fully accomplish our purpose as a church – “to discover, develop and deploy spiritual leaders for the transformation of the world” or, put more simply, “to make disciples.”

The way we give to God through the church shows whether or not we give God the highest priority. There are other ways we show that we put God first – the way we act, the relationships we have, the way we think. But, how we give shows our “willingness or unwillingness to give ourselves wholeheartedly to God’s guidance in all our lives.”

How we give shows what is important in our lives. How we give to God is an “essential element in helping us form, retain, and grow in our spiritual connection to God.”

The very first time the Bible mentions anyone giving to God is the story of Cain and Abel – the world’s first brothers:

Genesis 4:3-7 (CEB)

Some time later, Cain presented an offering to the Lord from the land’s crops while Abel presented his flock’s oldest offspring with their fat. The Lord looked favorably on Abel and his sacrifice but didn’t look favorably on Cain and his sacrifice. Cain became very angry and looked resentful.The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why do you look so resentful? If you do the right thing, won’t you be accepted? But if you don’t do the right thing, sin will be waiting at the door ready to strike! It will entice you, but you must rule over it.”

Scholars have long debated why Abel’s offering was accepted and Cain’s was not. If we compare this story with the many other mentions in the first five books of the Bible (The Pentateuch – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), we conclude that Cain’s offering was somehow insincere and selfish. Maybe Cain gave God the “leftovers” while Abel put God first and gave the firstborn of his flock. Every other book of the Pentateuch – and many other sources – give the same kind of warning. God wants more than money, more than stuff, he wants our hearts.

This first story holds such truth! Be sincere with your gifts. When you are insincere, or give with an eye toward your self, rather than the recipient, you could become jealous and resentful of those who give generously.

When I first started in ministry, I heard experienced pastors say that those who complain the loudest about a preacher preaching about money are those who don’t give; and, every time you preach about giving, they are convicted. That gets painful!

I doubted them, when I was young and stupid. But, guess what? They were right. Jealousy is a powerful emotion – it lead to the first murder, and the murder of many church’s ministries.

In this Genesis passage, there were no buildings to maintain. No temple. No ministry. There was only devotion to God. When our devotion to God is insincere and self-serving, we’ve got more problem than our pocketbook!

We find a similar story in the Book of Acts:

Acts 5:1-11

However, a man named Ananias, along with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property. With his wife’s knowledge, he withheld some of the proceeds from the sale. He brought the rest and placed it in the care and under the authority of the apostles. Peter asked, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has influenced you to lie to the Holy Spirit by withholding some of the proceeds from the sale of your land? Wasn’t that property yours to keep? After you sold it, wasn’t the money yours to do with whatever you wanted? What made you think of such a thing? You haven’t lied to other people but to God!” When Ananias heard these words, he dropped dead. Everyone who heard this conversation was terrified. Some young men stood up, wrapped up his body, carried him out, and buried him.

About three hours later, his wife entered, but she didn’t know what had happened to her husband. Peter asked her, “Tell me, did you and your husband receive this price for the field?”

She responded, “Yes, that’s the amount.”

He replied, “How could you scheme with each other to challenge the Lord’s Spirit? Look! The feet of those who buried your husband are at the door. They will carry you out too.” 10 At that very moment, she dropped dead at his feet. When the young men entered and found her dead, they carried her out and buried her with her husband.11 Trepidation and dread seized the whole church and all who heard what had happened.

Needless to say, “trepidation and dread” would seize us, too, if the same thing happened.

Notice that Ananias and Sapphira were not question about the size of their gift. How big it was, how small it was didn’t matter. What mattered is that they lied. They lied to God and they lied to the community of faith. Once again, priorities matter! There is no place for selfishness in the heart of a true disciple.

Clarity of devotion leads to generosity in giving – and vice versa. Resentment in giving betrays a lack of faith and trust in God. I wonder, if Ananias and Sapphira had told the truth, would they have died? Peter condemns the lie, not the gift.

Jesus himself lifts up, not the amount, but the motivation in Mark’s famous “Widow’s Mite” passage:

Mark 12:41-44

41 Jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. Many rich people were throwing in lots of money. 42 One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny.[g] 43 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. 44  All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.”

Many rich people were throwing in lots of money.” It was noisy as they threw in lots of coins. Everybody knew they were rich! Jesus praised the widow to the surprise of his followers. They were accustomed to favoring the wealthy. Jesus favored the devoted.

I could go on. In the Old Testament, “offering” and “sacrifice” are used interchangeably. In each instance, it was a matter of worship, or devotion. It was an act that sought forgiveness, that atoned for sin.

The financial giving of our day should be no different. It should never, if it is to be biblical, be based on arm-twisting, guilt-inducing appeals from the outside. Good stewardship should come from the heart of the believer, as we seek to devote our dearest, most precious resources to God. Not all of those resources, just some. And do it first. Put God first in your giving. Learn to prioritize your devotion as you prioritize your giving.

Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The converse is also true – if we want to know someone’s heart, look where they put their treasure.

Abiding: The Quiet Pentecost

Our world is just about totally intolerant of silence. Have you noticed? Have you noticed how nearly everybody has decided that “louder is better”? It’s like, if you aren’t sure what you are talking about, at least say it louder and more passionately than your opponent, then maybe no one will notice if you’re right! 

It seems we are encouraged to be loud in every aspect of our personality – demanding, perpetually offended, self-promoting, always right! 

In the course of our days, its TV in the morning, music in the car, FOX News in the doctor’s office, music at the grocery store, cell phones ringing, people talking – my ears are ringing just thinking about it! 

In our little Southern-American corner of this world, some people get extremely “loud” about their faith. Always talking about Jesus, wearing t-shirts about Jesus, displaying bumper stickers about Jesus, running for office in Jesus’ name . . .  

For all that loudness, the world doesn’t seem to be getting any better! We’re still as mean, evil, greedy, and self-centered as we ever have been. If hollering changed people, you’d think this world would be in a little better shape, wouldn’t you? 

Instead of more volume to our faith, we might need a little more depth. Instead of loud faith, maybe some more living faith. More “abiding,” less hollering. 

Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day on which we remember the full-scale arrival of the Holy Spirit. Traditionally, preachers use the second chapter of Acts today. In our world, the traditional story of Pentecost fits right in! Disciples rushing out into a crowd of thousands, preaching and speaking in a confusing jumble of languages, acting like their “hair is on fire!” That is Luke’s version written in the second chapter of the book of Acts.  

There might be another version, though. John might have given us a different description of what the presence of the Holy Spirit might mean. In his description of the last night Jesus and the disciples spent together (chapters 13-17), Jesus teaches a lot about the Holy Spirit. It all centers on the presence of Christ and the connection we have to him through the “Companion.” He calls this presence “abiding.”   

This is the “Quiet Pentecost.” It might not be the Pentecost story we want, but it might be the story we need. Let’s start with the beginning of John 15: 

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrowerHe removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes[a] to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed[b]by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become[c] my disciples. (John 15:1-8 NRSV) 

 In John’s “Last Supper” story, Jesus talks a lot about “presence” – God’s presence with him, his presence with God, God’s presence with the disciples. Here, Jesus is talking about the value of being connected. He uses the image of a vine, which most of us still understand.   

In this image, “abiding” means being connected to Jesus like branches are connected to a vine. This is the only way to stay alive in the faith – to stay connected to the source of all spiritual nourishment, Jesus Christ. There are plenty of “branches” in this world that are beautiful and green, but won’t last long because they aren’t connected; they do not abide with Jesus. There are some “fans” of Jesus, some very loud ones, who might fit this description. If we aren’t abiding in Jesus, we’re withering, not long for this world!  

To “bear fruit,” to make disciples, we must stay connected to Jesus; we must abide in Jesus.    

In this section of John, for as much as Jesus talks about “presence,” he talks a lot about “absence,” too. Ironically, his physical presence in this world must decrease for his spiritual presence to increase.  

At this point, Jesus knows that he cannot give up the mission God has given him. Yet, the “powers that be” feel threatened by that mission and are planning to silence him – permanently! Jesus knows he will not be with his disciples for very much longer, so he tells the what to expect in his absence: 

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. I will ask the Father, and he will send another Companion,[a] who will be with you forever. This Companion is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world can’t receive because it neither sees him nor recognizes him. You know him, because he lives with you and will be with you. (John 14:15-17) 

This “Companion” will be an eternal companion, as opposed to a limited, finite, physical presence.  “You know him because you have been living with me all this time,” Jesus seems to say.  

The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you. (John 14:26) 

The Companion’s voice will sound very familiar.  

“When the Companion comes, whom I will send from the Father—the Spirit of Truth who proceeds from the Father—he will testify about me. You will testify too, because you have been with me from the beginning. (John 15:26-27) 

When the Companion arrives, then and only then (?) will we be able to testify about Jesus. So, in Jesus’ absence, there will be a familiar-sounding, courage-inducing, word-producing presence that will abide with us.  

This Companion,  this abiding presence, is something the world needs, but something that only the believer can know (“whom the world can’t receive because it neither sees him nor recognizes him.”) 

The world doesn’t need louder disciples. The world doesn’t need more noise. The world needs the Companion, the Holy Spirit, to abide with it and teach it all that Jesus said. How does the world get that Companion? By connected, abiding-with-Jesus disciples bearing fruit and making more connected, abiding-with-Jesus disciples. 

It’s hard to watch this beautiful world suffer. It’s hard to wish that they would see the truth about “sin, righteousness, and judgment.” Its hard to watch this beautiful world stumble blindly about, following the loudest (and sometimes the least connected) voices. 

Paul offers us one last word of comfort. In his letter to the Romans, he seems to know how we feel:  

We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. And it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free. . .  

26 In the same way, the Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans. (Romans 8:22-23, 26) 

The NRSV says “the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” 

When we who abide, feel the pain of a world groaning and suffering . . . 

Feel the pain of a world so noisy that it can’t hear the voice of Jesus . . . 

So busy that it can’t feel the presence of the Companion . . .  

When we feel that pain, and don’t know what to say . . . 

There is a deep and abiding presence, a quiet presence, that knows exactly what to say. When we are weak, there is a strong, silent presence . . .  

When we feel separated and lost, there is – through the power of the Companion, the Holy Spirit – a presence of Christ out there, abiding with all us sinners. We should take great comfort in that. If we can just be quiet enough to hear it, feel it, and abide in it. Abide.