by Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
“I have been in the revenge business so long. Now that it’s over, I do not know what to do with the rest of my life.” Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride.
“The purpose of revenge, in my personal opinion, is completely worthless and pointless.” Mandy Patinkin, who played Inigo Montoya.
Today I want us to look at a story that most of us are probably not familiar with. It is from the book of Obadiah. If you are a trivia person you probably know that it is the only book in the Old Testament with only one chapter. My guess is that most of us don’t know anything else about Obadiah. I didn’t until Monday morning.
Another unusual thing about Obadiah is that it is not written to the people of Israel. It is written about and to the nation of Edom. The Edomites, or the Idumeans as they are sometimes called, were the descendants of Esau. The Israelites were the descendants of Esau’s twin brother, Jacob. Their story is back in Genesis. They are both the sons of Isaac and Abraham. They are brothers, so they should be on the same side, but instead they are enemies. They started fighting in their mother’s womb and all the way through their lives they fought. That includes Jacob stealing the birthright from Esau, who tried to kill him in retaliation. Their descendants settled in areas that were right next to each other and they continued to fight. The people of Israel lived on the west side of the Jordan River. The Idumeans lived on the east side of the Jordan, and south a little bit, east of the Dead Sea. Listen as I read to you portions of Obadiah.
One of the reasons that Edom was condemned is pride. They have an attitude of being invincible. As we will learn in a few minutes, they watched as Israel was attacked and destroyed by other nations but Edom wasn’t conquered. They didn’t think that anyone could ever hurt them. But God has other plans. “I will bring you down, says the Lord” (v4).
Verses 5-9 talk about how Edom will be pillaged, plundered and destroyed. Even their friends and allies will turn against them. Their leaders and warriors will be wiped out. Then in verses 10-11 we learn a second reason God punished Edom.
Throughout its history Israel was attacked by other countries. There isn’t enough information in Obadiah to know which time he was talking about. Most scholars think that Obadiah was referring to Israel being attacked and conquered by Babylon, in the 6th century BC.
Whenever it was, while Israel was being attacked, Edom did nothing to help. They just watched and celebrated.
In verses 12-14 Edom is condemned for eight different actions. The verbs are in the imperfect tense, which in Hebrew means that they haven’t finished doing it. They are still doing these terrible things to Israel.
In verse 15 there is a shift. Obadiah talks about “The day of the Lord.” It is a day of judgment and punishment against all the nations. It is a day when the world will be turned upside down. Those who have good things now, because that have turned away from God and attacked God’s people, will finally get what they deserve. And God’s people, Israel, will again be blessed. This is the good news for Israel.
“Obadiah 15-21” This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Obadiah has at least two lessons for our lives. The first is to avoid pride. C.S. Lewis wrote the book “Mere Christianity.” In it he has a chapter called “The Great Sin,” which is pride. He describes pride as the utmost evil that leads to every other vice. The first sin, when Adam and Eve were tempted to eat the fruit, was pride. The serpent told them that if they ate this fruit they would “be like God” (Genesis 3:5). The book of Proverbs says that there are six things that God hates. The first sin listed is “haughty eyes” – looking down at others in pride.
Through Obadiah God condemns the pride of Edom. They have a proud heart. They lived in fortresses that were way up in the rocks. Because they lived in these rock fortresses they thought that no one could capture them. They saw themselves as eagles soaring over everyone else, looking down their noses at them. But God promised that he would bring them down. Their pride would be their downfall.
There is a story of a radio conversation that took place between a US naval ship and Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland, up in the north Atlantic.
Americans: "Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision."
Canadians: "Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision."
Americans: "This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course."
Canadians: "No. I say again, you divert YOUR course."
Americans: "THIS IS THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN, THE SECOND LARGEST SHIP IN THE UNITED STATES' ATLANTIC FLEET. WE ARE ACCOMPANIED BY THREE DESTROYERS, THREE CRUISERS AND NUMEROUS SUPPORT VESSELS. I DEMAND THAT YOU CHANGE YOUR COURSE 15 DEGREES NORTH, THAT'S ONE-FIVE DEGREES NORTH, OR COUNTER-MEASURES WILL BE UNDERTAKEN TO ENSURE THE SAFETY OF THIS SHIP."
Canadians: "This is a lighthouse. Your call."
The pride that caused Edom problems was sinful, and led to their downfall. Pride, on any level, whether national, international level, or personal, is wrong. I’m not talking about healthy pride that comes from knowing we are God’s beloved children and knowing that God created us good. Sinful pride doesn’t acknowledge its own weakness. Sinful pride won’t admit that we need God. Sinful pride puts ourselves at the center of the world, and thinks we are better than anyone else.
As God’s people there is no room for pride. We have many wonderful gifts and incredible blessings but we don’t deserve any of it. Everything we have has been given to us as a gift. And when sinful pride fills our lives God will inevitably say to us as he said to the Idumeans. “I will bring you down” (Obadiah 4).
There is a second lesson I’d like to share with you from Obadiah. To introduce it I want to tell you a story. Do remember Amos and Andy? It used to be a radio show. It started back in 1928. It was a TV show from 1951-1953. In one of the routines Andy was wearing a little bottle tied around his neck. Amos asked him what it was. Andy said “It is nitroglycerine!” That didn’t make any sense to Amos so he asked for an explanation. Andy said that there was another man who had a bad habit of poking people in the chest. It drove Andy crazy so he said “I put this on so that the next time he pokes me he’ll blow his finger off.”
We all know that the desire for revenge is wrong and that carrying resentment hurts us at least as much as it hurts anyone else. I’m sure you’ve heard the passage from Romans before, “Don’t repay evil for evil… Leave vengeance to God.” However, it is easy to say that we should forgive and let go of our resentment, but it is hard to do it. Our hurt and our anger is part of who we are and we want to get even. We want to retaliate. We want revenge.
I’m sure that Israel struggled with the desire for revenge. They still do. They were abused and attacked for so long. The suffering of the holocaust is beyond imagination. It is understandable that they have a desire to get even. I think God is aware of the desire for revenge and in Obadiah there is one little glimpse of God talking about that.
The last section of Obadiah, verses 15-21, point to the promise that the Israelites will be restored to their position of power and prestige. There are images of Israel escaping the tragedy and surviving their struggles. The people of Israel will be saved and rule over Edom. The last verse points to this most clearly. “Those who have been saved shall go up to Mount Zion to rule Mount Esau” (Obadiah 21). Israel will rule over Edom, but notice the last line. “The kingdom shall be the Lord’s” (Obadiah 21). The rule of Israel over Edom must be, and will be, in God’s kingdom, following God’s laws. That would include forgiving their enemies and treating them with respect and justice.
It wasn’t too long ago that there was a significant conflict here at Sharon Church. I imagine that people were hurt, that people said things that were not nice, that people did things that they shouldn’t have done. If you were not involved in that I’m sure it has happened to you someplace else. Who are the people that you need to forgive? Some of you probably need to forgive Roger. Others probably need to forgive those who were against Roger.
You’ve probably been hurt by family members, or friends, and countless other people. Refusing to forgive and holding on to that resentment and anger is not what God wants. It is not how God’s children are intended to live in God’s kingdom, and the one it hurts more than anyone else is you.
Clench your fists. When you hold on tightly to your hurt and anger and the desire for revenge, it is going to be very difficult to receive God’s love and the forgiveness that you need. How easy would it be to catch something with your hands in a fist?
Open your hands. When you let go of that anger and the desire for revenge you are open to receive God’s love and forgiveness, and will live joyfully and peaceably in the kingdom that is the Lord’s.
Does anyone here know any Idumeans? How about people from Edom? They are not around anymore. Thankfully, Obadiah is still in our Bible. I doubt that it will ever be your favorite book of the Bible. That’s okay. It’s an obscure little book written to people who don’t even exist anymore. However, the message of Obadiah is one that we all need to hear. Sinful pride is not what God wants and will lead to our downfall. And we need to forgive those who have hurt us and leave revenge to God. Instead, we are called to live as God’s beloved children following God’s laws and plans.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
1 Peter 2:21-25; Luke 23:32-49
by Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
Revisiting Jesus’ death is different from visits we make to a cemetery bringing flowers, keeping the memory of our beloved dead in focus. We are not at the cross to remember or do homage. We are here to probe the meaning of our daily dying in the company of Jesus’ dying for us.
Eugene Peterson, Tell It Slant, 241
I don’t have statistical evidence to back this up, but I would guess that the two most attended worship services in every church are Easter Sunday and Christmas Eve. I would also guess that one of the least attended worship services is Good Friday, the day we remember the cross of Jesus. In one of my churches we didn’t even have a Good Friday service. In most of the other congregations the only people who attended the Good Friday service were the members of the choir and their families, along with a few diehards.
Theologically, Easter is the most important event in the life of the church. Without the resurrection there would not be a church. We certainly wouldn’t celebrate Christmas. The cross is the second most important event in the life of the church. Maybe it’s even as important as Easter. In other words, we don’t necessarily deny that the crucifixion happened. We simply ignore it. Because we tend to skip over the cross during Holy Week, I decided that I want to take at least one Sunday during the year to focus on the cross.
Standing here in the pulpit I can’t really see the screens and when I’m preaching I don’t usually pay attention to them. Kathy Hamsher, who puts the screens together, told me that during the sermon she normally puts up a picture of the cross with the sermon title imposed over it. I asked her to put up a different picture today. This is a picture of the crucifixion. It is a painting by Matthias Grunewald. It was Karl Barth’s favorite picture and hung above his desk. The empty cross is more of an Easter symbol, remembering the resurrection. The crucifix, with the body of Christ on it, focuses more on the actual event of Jesus’ death.
I didn’t read the whole story of the crucifixion from Luke’s gospel. Let me remind you what happened. On Thursday evening Jesus and his disciples gathered in the Upper Room. Jesus washed their feet. He prophesied about Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. They celebrated the Passover and Jesus turned it into the Lord’s Supper.
After that they went out to the Mount of Olives and into the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus prayed and then was arrested. First he was put on trial before the High Priest and the Sanhedrin. Then he was taken before Pilate and Herod. Pilate had him whipped thirty nine times, which was considered to be one short of what would kill you. I won’t go into any details describing what it meant to be whipped. Trust me when I tell you that when the guards were finished whipping him, Jesus’ body would have been a mess.
After the trial and the whipping they took Jesus to the place of The Skull and crucified him between two criminals. Again, I won’t give you any gory details. Just know that the Romans knew the best way to inflict the most pain. The cross was an excruciating death. While Jesus was on the cross he spoke seven times. These sayings are usually called “The Seven Last Words of Christ.” Luke records three of them: “Father, forgive them; for they don’t know what they are doing” (v34). Then, to one of the men being crucified with him he said “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (v43). Finally, right before he died, he cried out “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (v46).
When a person is being crucified and their arms are out it is very hard to breathe. To get a breath they have to push up with their legs or pull up with their arms, with the spikes through them. After a while they don’t have the strength to push or pull up, and they suffocate. As Luke says, “he breathed his last” (v46).
At that point Jesus was dead. His heart stopped beating. He stopped breathing. There was no brain activity. His life was over. He was dead. Joseph of Arimathea took his body down off the cross, wrapped it in linen and laid it in a tomb.
It happened before I got to Beulah, so I don’t know the details or how much is true and how much is exaggeration. The story I heard was that the pastor there preached a sermon about the cross and described the event, including many of the gory details. Supposedly several people walked out and at least one person got sick to his stomach. It is a disturbing story. I hope you are uncomfortable right now hearing what happened, even though I didn’t go into the gory details.
The reason I want you to be uncomfortable is that we need to know what an incredible sacrifice Jesus made to demonstrate how much God loves us. The cross, with all its agony, shows us that God was willing to do anything and everything that needed to be done, to be in a relationship with us. We need to remember the cross so that we remember what God was willing to do for our salvation.
In 1984 there was a fad that hit our country. It was called Trivial Pursuit. How many of you have played it? It is a fun game. It was created by a group of friends who got together to play Scrabble, but couldn’t find the Scrabble board, so they decided to create their own game. They spent about forty-five minutes and planned the basic idea of the game.
It became a cultural phenomenon. In 1984 more than 20 million games were sold. One of the inventors of the game was interviewed on TV. The reporter asked him, “How do you explain the overwhelming response to your game? Why are people buying it?” The answer was profound. “Oh, they are just buying memories. That’s all you can buy with your money – memories.”
Memory is a powerful thing. We remember events in our lives because they give us our identity. What we remember transforms us. Memories help us think about good times from the past and give us the hope that we may experience something like it again in the future. On top of all of that, in the Bible memory is used to make past events contemporary. We remember what happened in the past as if it were happening today. We remember the cross not only to be reminded that Jesus died for the sins of the world. We remember so that you know Jesus died for you. God was willing to let his Son die because he wanted a relationship with you.
There is another message I’d like to share with you about the cross. There was an article in last Tuesday’s newspaper that caught my attention. It started like this: “Orlando. Istanbul. Dallas. Nice. And now, again, Baton Rouge.” It should have also included Minnesota and South Carolina. All of those violent incidents happened in the last six weeks. It seems like the shootings at the Orlando nightclub and the South Carolina church were a long time ago, but it has only been six weeks. On top of that is all the violence in the rest of the world – the attempted coup in Turkey, the civil war in South Sudan, the continued fighting in the Middle East, and all the other wars and tragedies of our world.
Politicians and the media spend a lot of time arguing about whether to call these incidents terrorism or racism. It seems to me we could lump them all under one simple word – evil. It doesn’t matter whether you call it terrorism or racism or any other ism, it’s wrong. It’s sin. It is evil.
In his book, “Wishful Thinking” Frederick Buechner has an article about Evil. He starts with three statements: “God is all-powerful. God is all-good. Terrible things happen.” Then he says “You can reconcile any two of these propositions with each other, but you can’t reconcile all three. The problem of evil is perhaps the greatest single problem for religious faith.” Buechner goes on to talk about how different religions and philosophies try to make sense of evil in our world. Some people deny that God is all-powerful. Some deny that God is all-good. Some deny that God exists. Some religions even deny that evil exists.
Then Buechner makes this incredible statement:
Christianity, on the other hand, ultimately offers no theoretical solution at all. It merely points to the cross and says that, practically speaking, there is no evil so dark and so obscene – not even this – but that God can turn it to good. (p24)
Look at our world. Evil is very real. You can’t deny that terrible things happen. The cross is one of the best examples of evil – an innocent man suffered and died for sins that he did not commit. The reality is that as long as this world continues, evil will continue to exist.
However, the message of the cross is that God can take the evil of our world and use it for something good. God transforms the evil into good. God uses the cross to bring us salvation. Through the cross we are forgiven. Through the cross we are reconciled to God. And as Christians we know that Good Friday leads Easter Sunday. The cross of Christ leads to the resurrection and eternal life.
African-American spirituals are powerful songs. They usually have simple tunes that are easy to sing. They were often sung without any accompaniment, which we are going to do on the last verse of our next hymn. The spirituals were used by the slaves to encourage them through difficult times. They were used as a way to teach and remember the Biblical story that gave them hope. Just like the concept of memory in the Bible, the spirituals were intended to make the Biblical stories a present reality.
“Were you there when they crucified my lord?” Yes, you are there. I invite you, as much as you are able, to sing this song with your eyes closed, imagining yourself at the cross. “Were you there when they crucified my lord?”
Psalm 116; Hebrews 2:10-18
Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
Humanly speaking, death is the last thing of all; and, humanly speaking, there is hope only so long as there is life. But Christianly understood death is by no means the last thing of all, hence it is only a little event within that which is all, and eternal life; and Christianly understood there is in death infinitely much more hope than merely humanly speaking there is when there not only is life but this life exhibits the fullest health and vigor. SKierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death p144
Christian Freedom – From Fear of Death
An old man was lying on his deathbed. He had only a short while to live. Then he smelled chocolate chip cookies. He loved chocolate chip cookies more than anything in the world. With his last bit of energy he pulled himself out of bed, struggled down the hallway into the kitchen. There his wife was baking those wonderful cookies. He reached out for one—SMACK! His wife slapped the back of his hand and scolded him. "Leave those alone; they're for your funeral!"
A bank in Binghamton, NY, opened a new branch. At the grand opening a competitor bank sent flowers, congratulating them. Unfortunately, the florist mixed up the cards that went with the flowers. The card that arrived at the bank said “With our deepest sympathy.” The card that was intended to go to the bank ended up going to a funeral. It said, “Congratulations on your new location.”
A pastor was giving a children’s message about believing in Jesus and going to heaven. He asked the children if they wanted to go to heaven. They all said “Yes!” Then he asked them how we get to heaven. The kids didn’t quite know how to answer that one. Finally, one boy raised his hand and said, “I think you have to be dead.”
Death is not a topic that most of us are comfortable with. We joke about it. We put it off, but we deny the reality that all of us are going to die. Hopefully not soon, but at some point in time it will happen. The question we must all think about is what do we believe happens after we die? The reason that question is important is what we think about death will determine how we live and die.
Four weeks ago we began a sermon series on freedom. I got the idea from reading John Calvin. In his theology he talked about three types of freedom we have as Christians. The first freedom Calvin talks about is freedom from the Law. We don’t have to obey the law for God to love us. The second freedom Calvin talks about is freedom to obey the law. Through Jesus the power of sin has been broken and we are able to obey. The third type of freedom is freedom in things indifferent. On the topics where we disagree and where Scripture is not clear we are free to follow our own conscience.
I put those three ideas down on the sermon schedule and began to think about freedom. About that time I read a verse in Hebrews that jumped out to me. “Through death he (Jesus) might destroy the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14b-15). This is the fourth freedom I want to talk about, freedom from the fear of death.
Let’s be honest, most of us don’t think about death very often, at least until we have to because someone dies. Children shouldn’t have to think about it and they can’t really understand it. When they become teenagers, all the way through their mid-30, they don’t deny the reality of death, but they don’t think about it much, other than it is something that happens to old people. Somewhere in the mid-30s to early-40s people start to experience little deaths that force them to begin to grapple with the reality that someday they will die. Your eyes get so that you need glasses. Your body starts breaking down and not recovering quite as fast as when you were 25. You realize that the dreams you had as a young adult are not going to become a reality. At some point, about age 50, you begin to wrestle with the idea that you actually will die. It’s still at some point in the future, but it starts to happen to your parents and maybe even some of your friends, and you begin to think about your own death.
Since I haven’t moved beyond that stage I don’t know what happens as you get older. However, I’ve been around enough people, family and otherwise, to know that some people never come to terms with the reality of death. They don’t deny it in theory, but they live as if they will never die. They put off making a will, or refuse to give up driving. They won’t move out of the family home into a place where they can get the care they need. Because they don’t face the reality of death they don’t live life to the fullest. As one author said, “You can’t make sense of your life until you make sense of your death.” They might not use the phrase “fear of death,” but that is the reality in their lives.
The good news of Jesus Christ is that he died, but death was not the final answer. God raised him from the dead and now Jesus lives in heaven with the Father. Some day he will welcome us into heaven to live with him forever. Through his death and resurrection we have the hope of eternal life. We have the promise of resurrection, of life after death. We no longer need to be afraid of death. Jesus sets us free from the fear of death.
Let me suggest three consequences that come out of this freedom. First, when we are free from the fear of death we can live life to the fullest. The fear of death can be overwhelming and crippling. When we are free from that fear there comes a sense of joy and peace.
The sons of John Rockefeller were going to inherit a fortune. Yet their dad didn’t want them to be spoiled. He wanted them to know what it meant to work. So he sent his sons out into the oil fields. He made them live and work with common laborers. They spent two years drilling rigs. They worked long hours and it was hard labor. At the end of the day they were exhausted, hot, covered with oil. At night they ate and slept with the common laborers. They did not have any special treatment.
One evening, toward the end of the two years, one of the workers asked one of the brothers, “Have you liked living and working among us common folk?” The son replied “It’s been great. I’ve loved it. It’s been one of the best times of my life.” With an edge of sarcasm in his voice the worker responded:
That’s because you know you’re not staying. You know there is something better out there waiting for you when this is all over. You would look at things differently if you thought that working in these oil fields was all there was for you.
Friends, when we are free from the fear of death, when we know that life here on earth is not the final answer, we can live life to the fullest, filled with joy and peace. When we believe that our ultimate destiny is not death but eternal life in the presence of God, we are able to live.
Second, when we are free from the fear of death we won’t be overwhelmed by our grief, even when we are grieving the death of loved ones. Please notice, I am not saying that we won’t grieve. Grief is a natural, healthy, and normal response to death, or any sort of loss. Some deaths are more tragic than others, losing a child or someone in a car accident would be horrible. Not grieving when someone dies is a sign that something is wrong. Probably it is denial, which is the first part of grief.
There is a verse in 1 Thessalonians that I sometimes use at funerals. “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thes. 4:13). Paul doesn’t tell these people not to grieve. He doesn’t say that if your faith is strong enough you won’t feel any grief. He tells them that when someone dies they should grieve, but grieve with hope. Grieve, clinging to the hope that death is not the final answer. Grieve, with the hope of the resurrection and the hope of a heavenly reunion. When we are free from the fear of death grief will be real, but it will not overwhelm us.
Finally, when we are free from the fear of death we don’t need to worry about our own death. An elderly man was at a doctor appointment. Right before the doctor left the room the man blurted out “Doc, I am afraid to die. Tell me what lies on the other side.” The doctor stopped at the door, paused for a moment and said, “I don't know.”
The man reacted. “You don't know! You claim to be a Christian and you don’t know what is on the other side?” The doctor stood at the door and took a deep breath. From the other side of the door came the sound of scratching and whining. The doctor opened the door and a dog came into the room, jumped up and greeted the doctor.
The doctor turned to the patient and said, “Did you notice how my dog came into this room? He has never been in this room before. He had no idea what was in here. The only thing he knew was that his master was here, and when the door opened he came in without fear. I know very little of what is on the other side of death, but I do know one thing. I know my Master is there, and that is enough.” When we trust in Jesus we are free from the fear of death.
I heard it said one time the Martin Luther used to end his sermons by saying “That is enough for today.” Of course, I think he usually preached for 45 minutes. Sometimes there is an easy and obvious way to end a sermon, and sometimes there isn’t. You might be able to guess which this is.
Of course, endings are often difficult, including the end of life. But the good news for us this day is that death is not the end. It is simply the next step to something beyond. We may not know what that is, but because of our hope in Jesus Christ, who died and was raised from the dead, we are free from the fear of death. It leads to the unknown, but it leads us to the one who loves us and gives us the amazing grace that sets us free.
Romans 14:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:23-32
Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
Christians exist to demonstrate to our culture that true freedom is being yoked to what
is true – Jesus. Stanley Hauerwas, in The Door Interview
Christian Freedom – from Things Indifferent
Well, it has been quite a week. Two black men were shot by the police in two different cities. And then another black man shot twelve police officers in Texas, five of them died. On top of that we’ve had all the political bickering and posturing, and that is just a taste of the conflict in our own country, to say nothing of the rest of the world. And so we come to church.
Church is supposed to be the place where we worship God, where we grow in our faith, and where we love each other. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the conflicts of the world are mirrored in the church. I have Christian friends, liberal and conservative. Sometimes their arguments about issues gets nasty. Christians are passionate about the topics that matter to us, which is good. But when our passion is combined with hatred and meanness, it turns into conflict that is not what God wants.
Sharon Church knows this all too well. The conflict that happened here a few years ago had a significant impact on the people of this church, and on the congregation as a whole. I sense that we have moved beyond the worst of the conflict, though I’m sure there are still issues that have not been completely resolved. We are moving into a wonderful new future, though that will include other disagreements and differences. What I’d like to suggest this morning is a new way to think about the topics over which we disagree, and share a few ideas about how we might handle these issues differently.
Many of our disagreements are not worth fighting about, at least at the level of intensity we tend to argue. Most issues are not right or wrong, black or white. Tanya and I had our first fight after we were married about French toast. She was making it one way and I had a different understanding of how it ought to be made. The level of intensity started building up until we realized, we were talking about French toast. It wasn’t worth destroying our marriage and each other over something so idiotic.
In our passage from Romans Paul talks about “quarreling over opinions” (Romans 14:1). The Greek word for opinion is “dialogue,” which literally means two words. There are two different thoughts about the same issue, two different ways to understand the situation. That is not always the case. There are some issues that only have one answer. Paul is very adamant about some topics.
Let me suggest that there are only two issues that all Christians must agree on. These issues were decided in the early church, at least by the fourth century. The first has to do with Jesus. By definition, all Christians believe that Jesus is fully God and fully human – the doctrine of the incarnation. Jesus died for our sins and was raised from the dead. Salvation is found in and through Jesus. The second issue has to do with the Trinity, that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. All three are God yet there is only one God.
On every other topic it is okay to disagree because there is more than one right answer. John Calvin, the 16th century reformer, called those issues “things indifferent.” Here is the good news that I hope will help us as we face other issues. We have freedom in things indifferent. We can disagree about these issues and that doesn’t make one of us right and one of us wrong. These issues are not essential to the gospel.
Paul mentions two issues that caused conflict in the early church . The first was food. Are Christians allowed to eat anything and everything, or are there foods that Christians should not eat? The second group only ate vegetables. This wasn’t the modern debate about being vegetarian or even vegan. It had a religious and spiritual aspect.
Two thousand years ago, if you wanted to eat meat you didn’t look at the ads and see what was on sale or go to Giant Eagle to see what looked good. You went to the market, which was located right next to the temple. As part of a worship service an animal would be sacrificed to whatever the god was being worshipped in that place. Part of the animal would be burnt on the altar. Part of it would be given to the priest to feed his family. Part of it would be given to the person who brought the sacrifice, to feed his family. If there was any left it would be taken to the market next door and sold.
Therefore, if you bought meat from a market you were probably buying meat that had been sacrificed to an idol in a service of worship. Some Christians believed that it was okay to eat this meat. Others believed that it wasn’t – it was idolatry. It was participating in the worship of that other god. Paul didn’t have a problem eating the meat, but he didn’t condemn those who held a different perspective.
The second issue Paul talked about had to do with whether some days are holier than others and ought to be celebrated, or whether all days are equally holy and important to God. Exactly what Paul was referring to is not clear. The early church included Gentiles who had grown up with certain pagan holidays. They may have wanted to keep some of those traditions. Some of our Christian holidays, like Christmas, are pagan holidays that have been Christianized. There were also Jews in the early church. They had a variety of holy days – the Passover and the Day of Atonement. They also had the sabbath, with all the laws that described how people were to keep the sabbath holy. Paul may even have been referring to the shift that happened in the early church from worshipping on the sabbath, which was on Saturday to worshipping on the Lord’s Day, which is Sunday. Whatever the issue was, Paul’s message is that it doesn’t really matter what you think about certain days being holier than others. We can disagree about that, especially if we keep our focus on using those days to worship and give thanks to God.
Throughout history worship has probably caused more fights than any other topic. Not only what day of the week should we worship. What is the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, how should we celebrate it, and who is allowed to participate? In recent years churches have fought what are called “worship wars” which have to do with what type of music do we sing in worship. We think this is new but it has been around for hundreds of years if not longer. I spent 9 ½ years at Beulah Church. While I was there we had people who only wanted to sing hymns, not these contemporary songs that had guitars and maybe even drums. About 1.5 miles away is the Hebron Church, which split off from Beulah more than a hundred years ago because some people believed you should only sing Psalms and others wanted to sing these fancy new hymns.
Of course, Christians have argued about other topics. Is it okay for Christians to drink alcohol, go dancing or play cards? Today we may not argue about these issues but they have caused plenty of conflict. While I was in my church in Colorado I read through the session minutes. At one point, I think back in the 1920’s, the session recorded in their minutes that they had called a member of the church before the board to examine him on the rumors that he had been playing cards and going to dances. Good Christians did not do those things, and if he was going to continue these practices he would no longer be allowed to be a member of the church. We laugh at that now, but people were passionate about those issues. Today we have just as much passion. It’s just that the issues are different. Over the past forty years the Presbyterian Church has argued about sexuality and homosexuality, and a variety of other topics. Every General Assembly we bring up new issues and argue about them.
Let me suggest three ways to deal with situations when we find ourselves disagreeing with others. First, we need to start our conversations with the areas that we agree. Start with those things we have in common. In other words, start with Jesus.
I have a colleague in ministry who is a wonderfully talented pastor. She and I disagree about one of the hot-button issues in the Presbyterian Church, homosexuality. I tend to take a more conservative view of what is right and wrong in thinking about sexuality and she takes a more liberal view. However, I am convinced that Christ is at work in her life and ministry. We have shared our stories of faith and even though we disagree on this one topic, there is no way we will allow it to divide us.
When we start with who Jesus is and what he is doing in our lives, and we know that Christ is at the center of both our lives and faith, we have the freedom to disagree on things indifferent. We can disagree without destroying the relationship.
Second, we must be guided in our lives and in our beliefs by the Scriptures. As we dialogue and argue about these topics of disagreement we must seek to follow the teaching of the Bible, which is God’s Word. Every week we say it, “This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.” If we believe that this really is God’s word, we must read it, seek to understand it and obey it. In other words, we are not free to make our own decisions about these topics. We are called to seek God’s word and follow what God wants.
As Christians we ought to use our minds to study the issues. Science can teach us a lot about how we should act and what we should do. Our traditions are another good source of guidance as we seek to discern what God wants. Our own feelings and desires are also worth exploring. However, the ultimate authority for our lives is God’s Word, the Bible. When we are arguing about something, whether it is homosexuality, racism, the Lord’s Supper, the music we use in worship, or any other issue, we must always seek to understand what God wants by turning to the Bible.
Third, as we use our freedom in things indifferent, we must use it in love, not in a way that harms others, even if we disagree with them. This is what Paul said in the passage from 1 Corinthians. We are free to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols. There really is only one God. Jesus is Lord, so food that is sacrificed to some other god is insignificant. It won’t hurt us and isn’t idolatry. However, if we use our freedom to eat food in a way that hurts someone else because they think differently about eating the food, we are in the wrong.
We shouldn’t use our freedom for our own benefit, but to help others. I think a modern parallel is alcohol. I believe it is okay to drink alcohol, at least in moderation. However, if someone else has an alcohol problem and struggles with alcohol, and if our drinking causes them problems, we should use our freedom to drink by not drinking, so that the other person is not harmed. We must use our freedom in love.
These ideas won’t stop the conflict in our world. The problems of our world are far deeper and the solutions far more complex than I can understand, much less explain. I simply offer these ideas as ways we can respond to the disagreements in this church and in our own lives, the arguments, the conflicts about things indifferent. As we deal with our problems let us start with where we agree, start with our faith in Jesus. Second, as we discuss the issues let us search God’s Word and seek to understand what God has to say about the issue. Third, as we disagree let us use our freedom in love. Let us love each other, as we have been loved.
Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
Instead of asking yourself whether you believe or not, ask yourself whether you have this day done one thing because He said, Do it, or once abstained because He said, Do not do it. It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe, in Him, if you do not do anything He tells you.
George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, Second Series – The Truth in Jesus
Christian Freedom – to Obey the Law
Tomorrow is the Fourth of July. I want to start a little differently this morning and hear how you will celebrate the holiday. We are planning to go over to Tanya’s niece’s house for a barbeque. What about the rest of you?
July 4th is the day we remember the founding of our country, and the day we celebrate the freedoms we have because we live here. Here is the next question: What does the word “freedom” mean to you?
Freedom is defined as the power to act, speak, or think, as one wants to, without being forced. There are different types of freedom. Freedom of the press. Freedom of speech. Freedom of religion means you get to choose what you believe. Intellectual freedom means that no one can make you think a certain way. Political freedom means that we have the right to choose our leaders.
Freedom is also a biblical idea. The word freedom, and the related word liberty, are in the Bible more than 200 times. One of Jesus’ great statements is that “the truth will set us free” (John 8:32). In Galatians Paul tells us that “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). However, the freedom we enjoy as citizens of this country is not the same as the freedom we enjoy as followers of Christ. They are similar, but different. What I want to talk about this morning is the freedom we have as Christians – gospel freedom.
Last week we started looking at this idea of Christian freedom. We focused on freedom from the law. Our salvation does not depend on what we do, on following certain laws.
Freedom from the law means that our salvation depends on what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. This freedom means that we don’t have to worry about our justification or our salvation. It is God’s gift to us and that allows us to live with confident assurance in the gift of God’s grace. Today, I want to talk about a second type Christian freedom – freedom to obey the law. Let’s look at what Paul says about this in our passage from Romans.
To understand what Paul says here it will help to get a little background into Paul’s thinking. Paul’s worldview is that every person is controlled by some sort of a power. No one is completely free and autonomous. Before Jesus came, everyone was controlled by sin. Paul calls us “slaves to sin.” Sin is a force, a power, that controls our lives. And because we are under the power of sin we are incapable of obeying God, of doing what is right. Because of the power of sin in our lives we all commit sins. Without Jesus you can’t help but sin.
God gave the law to the Jews. The law showed them what was right and wrong. The law shows us how God wants us to live. That is why we read the Ten Commandments. However, because of the power of sin in our lives, we may know what is right but we are not able to do what is right. Simply knowing the law does not mean you obey the law. I know the speed limit, but that doesn’t mean I always follow it.
Stephen Hawking, the brilliant astrophysicist, said this about his life. “My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.” His definition of simple is rather different from mine! Hawking has a brilliant mind, yet he also has Lou Gehrig’s disease. As smart as he is, he can tell his body to do something, but it won’t obey. Because of his disease his body can’t obey. The same thing is true for a person who is a slave to sin. They may know what is right, they may tell themselves that they will do what is right, but because of sin they are not able to do it.
The good news is that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which the Holy Spirit works into our lives, we have been set free from the power of sin. We are no longer slaves of sin. Now we are slaves of grace, and that gives us the ability to obey the law. Through Jesus we are free to obey.
In our passage Paul responds to one of the objections to this idea. Since we are no longer under the power of the law, but under grace, should we sin so that grace keeps coming. Paul’s response is “By no means!” Most translations include an exclamation point after that statement to show Paul is trying to make a point. To be honest, I think most of these translations are lame. The Greek phrase is Me geneto. It’s fun to say – Me geneto. A better translation would be “What a stupid idea! How idiotic can you be? Of course we shouldn’t keep sinning. You used to be slaves to sin and now you’ve been set free from sin. Why would you go back to being a slave again?” Because of what Jesus has done for us we are free to obey. Without Christ we can’t obey. It is impossible. But with Christ, it is possible to obey.
In the fourth century Augustine put it like this. Freedom does not mean doing what you want to do. Freedom is being what you were created to be. Humans are created in the image of God and created to be in a relationship with God. Sin distorts God’s image in our lives and breaks our relationship with God. True freedom is not doing what we want, but what God wants. Freedom means obedience. Through Jesus Christ we are free to obey. Therefore, do it. Obey God’s law.
Obedience is not the most popular topic. It is also dangerous. Obedience must never be proclaimed as the way you earn God’s love. God loves you just as you are, whether you obey or not. Obedience is the way we respond to God’s love. And the good news is that because God loves us we are able to obey. Even more, obedience is important because it helps us to live in the way God wants us to live, in the way that is best for us.
Let me tell you a story about the importance of obeying. To understand the story it will help to remember that in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, the word “obey” is the same as the word “to listen.”
In June 1998, Robert and Wesley were flying from Indianapolis to Muncie, Indiana. Wesley was the pilot and was flying a Cessna 172, a single-engine plane. Shortly after they took off Wesley slumped over the controls and died. Robert grabbed the controls and got the plane somewhat under control. Then he got on the radio and begged for help.
Nearby there were two experienced pilots who responded. They started giving Robert a steady stream of instructions, how to steer and how to climb and how to descend. The nearest airport was at Mount Comfort. Emergency vehicles lined the runway for what they thought might be a disaster. These two experienced pilots gave Robert instructions and had him circle the runway three times before having him try to land the plane. Robert listened and followed the instructions as if his life depended on it – because it did. The Cessna ended up going off the runway into a patch of grass, but Robert was not injured.
Imagine what would happen if everyone of us listened to God’s word and obeyed God’s word with the same passion and diligence. Each of our lives and our life together would be transformed. Please remember that we are free from the law which means that we don’t have to obey as a way to earn God’s love. God loves us freely and through the work of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, we are set free from sin and set free to obey the law.
Thanks be to God. Amen.