Throughout our readings this morning we hear the "echo" of God's voice down through the ages. His voice to His People:
"You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy!" "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
Did you hear the echo? At the end of the Old Testament reading, at the end of the Gospel reading. Spelled out in our Old Testament and Psalm as well as the letter from Paul to the Corinthians. Spelled out in terms of holy living.
Holiness has always been a most difficult subject for God's people. It is like the "impossible dream." Except this is a dream that God has in His mind - not so much in ours. In ours it can become a nightmare! Holiness can be both a promise and a threat.
Holiness as a Threat
Throughout the ages, since God said this in the Torah, at the very beginning of His relationship with His People, the standard set before mankind by God's Holiness is ... well ... like I said, "the impossible dream." The nation of Israel was, as writer Frederick Buechner said in his book, "Telling The Truth" - they're "just like us, only more so!"
The threat of holiness is in its "unless you do this, then that..." character. We heard it last week in the OT lesson:
"See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God ... then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, ... I declare to you today that you shall perish"
The problem or threat to holiness is us! Our character or lack thereof. Our complete inability to "do" what God commands us to "do." And because we DON'T do what God is expecting of us, then we are set on the scales and found wanting - judgement is our heritage, not eternal happiness.
This was the entire history of the Jewish people! A history of doing their best to "follow the rules" - in fact, they made more rules!! Building out from the 10 Commandments, which we heard echoes of in the Leviticus reading just now: "You shall not steal; You shall not defraud your neighbor; You shall not render an unjust judgement; You shall not hate in your heart any of your kin." The Jewish leaders were so caught up in keeping the rules, that they missed the point !!
But it wasn't just those under the Old Covenant that struggled - Paul himself recounts this battle within himself in the 7th chapter of Romans... (reading from The Message)
Don’t you remember how it was? I do, perfectly well. The law code started out as an excellent piece of work. What happened, though, was that sin found a way to pervert the command into a temptation, making a piece of “forbidden fruit” out of it. ... The very command that was supposed to guide me into life was cleverly used to trip me up, throwing me headlong. ... What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise ... I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?
What Paul is describing is the struggle to "be holy" - one that we so often fight alone - in our inside world, in our heart and mind. The "battlefield of the mind" some have called it. We read the words of Holy Writ and we think that by trying harder we can do what God wants of us and somehow earn a spot in heaven.
But we keep coming up short. That what Paul is talking about here in Romans - the fact that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God!" The experience he recounted above is our common heritage! We all want to be good - to be better at least, but we have no power within us to accomplish what God commands!
And there is the rub. And there is the promise.
Holiness as Promise
Do you think that God knew? That God knows about yours and my struggle? well.... yes. The bible tells us that God "knows whereof we are made, that we are but dust." We will hear it in a week and a half! "You are dust, and to dust you shall return." When we come to remember that fact and begin our Lenten journey together on Ash Wednesday.
But as we prepare for that time and think about the disciplines of Lent, we need to begin with our hearts. That is the seat of the problem. The ancient prophets spoke to the problem
Jeremiah: The heart is desperately wicked - deceitfully so - who can know it?
Ezekiel: You have a heart of stone!
But God has promised also through Ezekiel: I will give you a new heart - a heart of flesh - and I will write my laws on your hearts." A new heart and a new spirit will be yours!
Friends, our power and the promise of holiness is found in the promise of the Father! Going back to these words from the prophets, predicting the work of the Holy Spirit of God in our lives today, the scriptures lay out a promise for us who are "in Christ." And we can start with Paul, in the pinnacle of his writing in Romans, who says:
The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.
With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. ... The law always ended up being used as a Band-Aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. And now what the law code asked for but we couldn’t deliver is accomplished as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us. Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God!
You have all heard me talk about the great exchange, right? The promise that God has given us of our life, IN CHRIST! Paul is still talking to the Corinthian church, this time in his second letter when he says,
Our firm decision is to work from this focused center: One man died for everyone. That puts everyone in the same boat. He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own. ... Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! ... How? you ask. In Christ. God put the wrong on him who never did anything wrong, so we could be put right with God.
In the more traditional language -- "God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that IN HIM we might become the righteousness of God!"
Here is the promise of holiness. Not that we can be holy by keeping the rules - by looking at the laws and making sure that we are keeping them all perfectly - it is impossible, "the impossible dream." Our hope and the gift of God is that "while we were weak and powerless [when we were far too weak and rebellious to do anything to get ourselves ready] ... Then Jesus came - God died for the ungodly! And exchanged His power and righteousness - His holiness - for our sin, our shame, our filth, our pain, our poverty, our weakness, our inability - He exchanged it for His ability.
The promise of holiness is not in ourselves, dear ones. It is IN CHRIST! Again one last phrase from the apostle --
"Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’s righteousness."
It is in His strength and in His righteousness, that we work out the details of what living a holy life means. All the rules are the same, and they are kept but not because of what we are working harder at - trying to be something we are not - but because we realize and acknowledge our weakness and bankruptcy, and we come to rely on Him and on Him alone. Our holiness is Jesus. Period.
And here I have to revert back to the old King James, for the final words from Paul:
"this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before,
I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus."
Shall we pray:
Lord Jesus Christ, you have given your life to redeem my life ... my real life ... my every day, walking-around, working, playing, real life. And you have exchanged your life for mine - your righteousness for mine - your relationship with the Father for mine! Draw me now, - draw us all - into the depths of your life and send your
Spirit - your Holy Spirit - to breathe that life into us. Put in us new hearts, O God, - new spirits enlivened and
empowered by Your Spirit. Help us to set our eyes on you, the Author and Finisher of our faith. And help us
to press on toward the mark of our Call into Your life, Lord Jesus. Help us to live the righteousness and the
holiness that you are, in us. Help us to become the righteousness of God, in You, Jesus.
For your name's sake and for the sake of Your kingdom.
There is a lot of "to do" in our scriptures this morning and its easy for us here in America to get off onto our 'to do' list and to forget the central core - the kernel of truth that is at the center of all we believe and do in the Church.
Have you ever felt a little overwhelmed by the "to do" lists?
I think that most of us have felt overwhelmed by the "to do's" as well as the "to don'ts" in the Bible. We have a tendency to live our lives by lists and formulas, or to want to at least. We don't often want to do the hard stuff - the stuff that inconveniences us. Isaiah lists a great long list of inconvenient actions. The nation of Israel was told over and over and over again, in the law and the prophets, that these actions will lead you to salvation. In fact, God here in Isa 58 turns their "spirituality" on its head, and says to them that what they are doing currently isn't working for Him!
This 58th chapter of Isaiah lays a groundwork for the understanding of a just society, according to God! The nation of Israel was busy doing its spiritual exercises but not getting the "desired" result. Have you ever been there? We get frustrated with God when things don't go our way, according to our plan - when the waters are rough, we complain to God, and think that He no longer loves us. Nothing could be further from the truth!
"Why do we fast and you do not see? Why do we humble ourselves and you do not even notice?"
Their fasting was being done to manipulate God! To "get God on their side." What we discover after a time of living our spiritual lives this way, is that God doesn't take sides - He is already on our side, but we need to join His side!! The problem is not Him it is US! As POGO said, "We have seen the enemy, and he is US!"
Isaiah points this out in stark terms for the society of Israel in this "psalm" - let me read the main points from the Message:
When you fast, "your bottom line is still your bottom line."
When you fast, " you drive your employees,
you bicker and fight,
you swing a mean fist!"
When you fast, "you're showing off your humility."
"you put on a long face and parade around solemnly in black."
You call that fasting?
Here is God's to do list!
> break the chains of injustice...
> get rid of exploitation in the workplace...
> free the oppressed...
> cancel debts!
> share your food with the hungry
> invite the homeless poor into your home
> put clothes on the shivering ill-clad
> make yourself available to your own family!!
He goes on...
> get rid of unfair practices
> quit blaming victims
> quit gossiping about other people's sins
> be generous with the hungry
> give yourselves to the down and out.
The lights come on! You start glowing in the dark! Righteousness will pave the way. God will secure your passage!
Isn't this what we're looking for? All the promises of God in and for our lives? A smooth path... A clear way.
The problem is that we can't DO the TO Do list! Because when we make the to do list the priority we lose sight of the why?
And we lose our grip on the how!
The How is in the power of the Cross!
In our reading from the early chapters of the Corinthian letter from Paul, he makes this point:
"When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God."
The focus of our spirituality needs not be on us and our ideas of how to get to God - the rest of mankind has done that work pretty effectively - all the other religions of the world have that in the bag, from several different directions! The work that we need to do at our root is to believe in Christ Jesus and what He has done on the cross for our salvation. Out of that root, in the cross of Christ, comes the flow of the kind of life that the scriptures speak about - be we cannot get there by trying harder, friends.
The religions of trying harder, and following all the rules, and doing it all right, so God will be obligated to bless you - even of having faith, so God will be obligated -- all of these are man's ways to God. The Cross is God's way to Man!
And it is God's Way FOR man!
Jesus said in our gospel reading this morning, that He didn't come to abolish the law, but that through Him the law might be fulfilled ... it might be filled-full. He came to breath life into the law, and to make a way for us to accomplish it - from the inside. To do what Ezekiel forsaw: Writing the law on their hearts, on human hearts instead of tablets of stone.
The practices of Isa 58 are still valid for us who are NT Christians today, just as they were when Isaiah spoke them to the people of Israel. The difference is that we have the power to do them - power that comes through the Cross of Jesus Christ and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.
We start our journey of obedience there! Not the other way around.
It is at the foot of the cross and in the shed blood and broken body of Jesus that we find the power to live the kind of life that God commends - we cannot by trying harder live a life that "wins God's favor!"... that put God in our debt.
We live the kind of life that God commends, the Isa 58 kind of life, as what Jesus called, "salt and light" in the world. But we do it not in our own power, but His power, the power of the Cross and the Resurrection of Jesus.
We start our journey of willingness, and availability, and obedience from the cross of Jesus - from the table of His Mercy, His body and His blood, given to me as food. Given to me and to you as grace in which we stand and in which we "live and move and have our being."
Friends, this is the secret to life on the Mission of Jesus. It's not about us getting God to do our bidding, because He is obligated to us by our good works. It is us doing the work of God, out of loving obedience, empowered by the cross of Jesus and the presence of His Holy Spirit in our lives, living His crucified life out in and through us, day by day. We live the life of Jesus in grateful praise and obedience to His directions, day by day, and moment by moment. In this way we will be salt and light in and for the world.
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and give thanks to your Father in heaven.
Once again we gather to look back and to look forward, so welcome! Welcome to the "State of the Flock Address, 2014."
The past year for REZ has been one of challenge and of partnership. As we came through 2012 we gained a new affiliation in the International Diocese of the Anglican Church in North America, under the oversight and care of Bishop Bill Atwood. This year has been one of settling into that new home, while keeping old friendships and associations alive. There is a mix of both anticipation at what lies ahead of us, in the formation and regularization of the Anglican Church in North America, and sadness, at what has been lost in the shifting sand of transition from one thing to another.
At REZ we have perhaps one of the closest church families I've ever been a part of. Evidenced by the care displayed in real ways for one another, it is a joy to come together in fellowship and prayer, in worship and study each week. I come away from our worship services on Sunday mornings energized and grateful for each one of you. As we have focused in the past years on the model of community in Acts 2, the Lord is bringing it to pass in our midst. Let me review that passage for a moment:
The Believers Form a Community
42 All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper[i]), and to prayer.
43 A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders.44 And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. 45 They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. 46 They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity[j]— 47 all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved
If we use these verses as a benchmark we can see several things that are prominent in our church and some that we need to work towards.
First, there was unity across the church in four areas:
1. Devotion to the Apostolic Teaching. Our modern day equivalent is devotion to the Word of God. The Bible takes a central place in our life here at REZ and always has. It's truth is the reason we are who and where we are. The scriptures form the core of our identity, in the stream of both the ancient Christian community and the historic community of the Anglican Church. There is no substitute for devotion to God's Word.
2. Devotion to a Common Life. What was different about the early church was its "common life" - fellowship. It is really what is described in the verses following v. 42: meeting together around meals, Eucharist and teaching ... shared resources ... radical generosity ... common daily worship ... house fellowships ... AND ... the Lord adding to their number daily!
3. Devotion to Common Worship. The early church worshipped ... everywhere they were. In the marketplace, town square, temple, homes. It was a lifestyle, not a meeting to go to. It included the Holy Eucharist - the Lord's Table in the tradition set out by Jesus himself, but it also extended that table fellowship at the Lord's Table into the homes of each family, each believer.
4. Devotion to Common Prayer. The disciples first line of defense was the community's prayer life. It was the setting into which the Lord poured His Spirit on the Day of Pentecost and it continued to be the place that the community came to, as persecution set in and as they were sent out from Jerusalem into Judea, Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the world. Prayer was the hallmark of the Church, even as Jesus said, "My house will be a house of prayer for all nations."
These four marks of Christian community are marks we value at REZ and they form the crosshairs for our life together:
> The Word of God - (hand up) Heard ... Read ... Marked ... Learned and Inwardly Digested.
> The Daily Life Together - Bible Studies, Home Groups, Intercessors, Men's Group
> Our Eucharistic Hospitality - The Table on Sunday and every other day, hospitably offered in our homes and workplaces.
> Our Prayer Life - Sunday worship, Healing prayers, Intercessions, Prayer lists, and our once-monthly vigil offered for revival in the city, the state and the nation.
Out of these arise the life and witness that we have here at Resurrection.
Out of these arise the impact we have both individually and as a community.
Out of these arise the unity that we feel with other believers in our Anglican stream and across the Body of Christ.
This year of 2014 has been a year of partnership in the Gospel -
From the ONE NEW MAN unity event we co-hosted at Church in the City, early in the year, with worship leaders Claren and Nancy McQueen, to regular partnerships with the James Resource Network and She-She's Upscale Resale. Our ongoing support for Alternatives Pregnancy Center and the Right to Life movement, as well as continuing support for political initiatives that support the family. REZ supports with our presence and prayers, the Colorado Family Council and the Colorado Prayer Caucus, active at the State house among Christians on both sides of the aisle.
From working with National Day of Prayer and with Confluence Ministries at our local Cinco De Mayo celebration, to membership and partnering with the New Wineskins Missionary Network, as a board member and as worship leaders for this past year's conference in North Carolina.
We continue to partner with International Bible Translators on the Dungan Project, which has produced almost a whole translation of the Bible into the N. Chinese Dungan (muslim) dialect. The community of Dungan believers has grown from 3 believers to 3 churches in the time we have been involved.
We are working toward the finishing of the parish church building in Ngarama, and remain vitally connected to all our friends in Rwanda. We were able to send a gift in excess of $1,350 for Christmas and will monitor the ongoing progress of the roof for the church in the coming year. We will be sending more wedding gowns this year as well, to start a new shop in the Diocese of Shogwe, in partnership with Wellspring Church, as they go in February. This will make six gown shops that are open in Rwanda, two in Uganda, one in Congo and one waiting for gowns in the Diocese of Nakuru, in Kenya. Please pray that God will show us ways to bless our friends in Africa with sustainable means of income and development.
Also pray for the completion of the Lord's Pump Project, that Al Throckmorton and Doug McCain are working on now, almost full time. They are coming close to completing a pump that will run on the water it pumps! This will be a revolution for water wells in Africa as well as a boon for other applications around the world.
We continue to share resources with Bishop James Mugenyi in Ft. Portal, Uganda to make his radio outreach ministry possible, thereby enabling church planting and explosive growth in that area. Just one baptismal service this past year yielded over 700 baptisms!! In the coming months, Doug will be going back to Uganda we believe, with leaders from Promise Keepers to explore introducing PK into Uganda in the coming year. God has given us favor and contacts throughout Uganda to help with the starting of this vital ministry to men in Africa.
On local fronts, as Anglicans in Colorado, I serve as Chairman of the Board for the Colorado Anglican Society, recently renamed from Colorado Missionary Society. We work to provide a basis for unity among all the orthodox Anglican bodies with churches and church plants in Colorado and Wyoming. We do two yearly Anglican Intensives, one just completed successfully yesterday, with almost 100 in attendance! We offer Leadership Development for clergy who are coming into the Anglican ministry - and we are working toward support mechanisms for clergy and spouses, for fellowship, nurture and support as they minister in their local churches.
I've been working this year with a number of younger ministers who are ordained or on the ordination track, as a mentor, as a discernment facilitator and as a support for their formation. We include among those our own Michael Smith, who, after one more weekend, we anticipate, will be presented to the Bishop, from REZ, for ordination. No dates just yet, but we have high hopes. We have come to appreciate Michael's gifts this past year, in preaching and teaching, as well as in the pastoral heart that he has.
I was privileged to be invited to the GAFCON Conference in Nairobi, Kenya and went with Bishop Bill and with several members of our International Diocese delegation, as a representative of Anglicans in Colorado. It was a historic gathering in October of 300+ Bishops and over 1300 delegates from around the global Anglican family. Globally, Anglicanism is alive and well, and an incredible force for ministry and outreach around the world. We literally saw the reality of a Body of Christ from "every tribe and tongue, every nation and people." I want to thank you for your support in that time away and for all the work that we are doing, locally and in so many parts of the world.
Personally, this past 6 months have been a vortex for Val and I, with our work and a big wedding, with trips to TX, OK, Kenya, then PA and IA - we are both even now still feeling rung out and enjoying a bit slower pace since the first of the year.
This year we will continue our partnerships with those working for and praying for revival in our city. We are watching the signs of the times very carefully and keeping our lamps trimmed and burning, as scripture warns us to do. Many are saying that the time is nearing for the return of our Lord and many signs are on the horizon. But it is not time to stop and wait, but for us to redouble our efforts to be the Church - to be in unity with each other and with our brothers and sisters - to be in prayer as never before - and to be "labors in the harvest" as Jesus sends us into the fields day after day.
We pray, together with the early church, "And now, O Lord, ... give us, your servants, great boldness in preaching your word. Stretch out your hand with healing power; may miraculous signs and wonders be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Our prayer is that the lines that follow Acts 2:42 would be seen and fulfilled among us, and most of all that "the Lord [will] add to our number day-by-day, those who are being saved."
Let it be, Lord, for your glory and for the glory of your Kingdom.