Holiness Matters

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Make every effort to live in peace with everyone, and holiness; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. (Hebrews 12:14-15, NIV)

Working through these two verses was one of the most difficult tasks I’ve done in sermon preparation. A lifelong follower of Jesus, I was challenged, convicted, and amazed at how important holiness really is throughout Scripture – from Genesis to Malachi, Matthew to Revelation.

What I realized is that my holiness is essential to our church’s health. And I need to work at holiness. Yes, God sees me as holy, righteous, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection; but time and again, the Bible gives us the command to be holy.

But my holiness isn’t only up to me, and yours isn’t only up to you: we are instructed to help each other strive for holiness. “See to it” translates a word that carries the meaning of oversight – we’re supposed to look out for each other, hold each other accountable, help each other. That’s a challenge, of course, because we all err; we all fall short; we all sin.

Before beginning my message, I told our church, “This matter—holiness—is something that can propel our church forward or hold us back. I want it to propel us forward.”

For one of the few times in my ministry, I wrote out a full manuscript of the message and I’m making it available to the folks in my church. If you’d like a copy, you can download it here.

Are You A Peacemaker?

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“Make every effort to live in peace with everyone….” (Hebrews 12:14, NIV)

UN troops are often called “peacekeepers” but there is an irony in that name: they don’t keep peace at all. Rather, they go into troubled areas and stand in the middle of conflict between two factions so diplomats have time to negotiate for peace between the two sides. But since there’s no peace to begin with, there’s no peace to keep.

Mike Murphy writes this in his blog, “Rumblings“:

“Blessed are the peacemakers” someone famous once said. What if those who say they believe actually acted on those words of Jesus? Peacemaking is a dangerous, radical activity in these days of unfiltered bombast and underdeveloped impulse control. The peacemaker always pushes against the prevailing winds. Such is the way of the kingdom of God.

If we’re to be peacemakers, though, we need to figure out what a peacemaker does. Let me offer a few thoughts toward that end. First, let’s not define peace as just the absence of open conflict. The Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions calls that “negative peace,” but there is something more: “positive peace” is the absence of the causes of war. That’s the kind of peace we want.

But there’s a challenge in our striving for peace: it won’t always work. Paul put it this way in one of his letters in the Bible: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18, NIV). Two important truths are in those words: first, it’s not possible to live at peace with everyone. We live in a broken world filled with broken people, some of whom just aren’t peaceable; others are even downright dangerous. Second, it doesn’t all depend on you. Try as you might, you’ll never be able to find peace with some people, let alone make it. Do your best, but ultimately we will all live with the tension between wanting peace but not experiencing it.

In an excellent book called, The Peacemaker, Ken Sande offers these hopeful words:

A peacemaker, then, aims to demonstrate God’s presence and power in the midst of conflict. Let me suggest four ways to do that:

First, a peacemaker keeps his or her focus on becoming like Christ, the Prince of Peace. We were created in God’s image, but that image was scarred and marred by sin. God’s plan from eternity past has been to restore that image in his creation (Romans 8:29); his work today in the lives of his followers is focused on making us like Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18); and one day that work will be done and we will be like Christ (1 John 3:2).

Second, a peacemaker seeks peace with God. That comes first through faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ, his death on the cross, and his resurrection. But since we all continue to sin (rebel against God’s good design), we need to keep short accounts with God through ongoing confession and repentance. Finally, we need to accept his forgiveness (1 John 1:9), which has been freely offered through Jesus’ sacrifice.

Third, a peacemaker seeks peace with him- or herself, which grows out of faith in God, trust in his guidance, and living as God desires.

Finally, a peacemaker seeks peace with others. Too often we try to have peace with others, yet are not at peace with God or ourselves; it is a futile and frustrating aim, and we end up being more like UN peacekeepers than true peacemakers.

“Peace with God, peace with each other, and peace with ourselves come in the same package.” (Tim Hansel; quoted in Sande)

Let me leave you with a couple questions to help answer:

Are you easy to be at peace with? Or are you disagreeable, argumentative, combative?

Do you need to give up your need to be right? If you have a strong need to be right, then finding peace with others will always be a struggle. Practice saying (and meaning!) these four words: I may be wrong. Use them even—perhaps especially—when you know you’re right! Which is more important, the person you’re with, or being right? Most of the time, the answer should be the person you’re with.

So, are you a peacemaker? Will you become one?

 

NOTE: This blog is the core of the message I offered at The Journey Church, Sonora, on Sunday, June 10, 2018.

When Leaders Change

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(U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Joshua R. M. Dewberry. Public domain photo, cleared for release.)

During my four years of active duty in the Air Force, I attended a number of change of command ceremonies. They can be pretty impressive affairs, with all the troops lined up, flags from each squadron or wing under the command, and medals gleaming on the chests of the officers up front.

In the midst of all the pomp and circumstance, though, the official transfer of leadership is quite simple, only eight words: “Sir [or Ma’am, as in this photo] I relinquish command. … Sir [or Ma’am], I assume command.”

God led a change of command ceremony, once, too, and probably with no less pomp than the Air Force. After the people of Israel had been led out of slavery in Egypt, and after they had spent forty years wandering in the wilderness because of their sin of disbelief, it was time for leadership to pass from Moses to Joshua. What God said to Joshua during that ceremony—and what the people said to him—give us a clue about how to be successful as a church.

When I became pastor of The Journey Church in Sonora, California, I used this “change of command ceremony,” described in Joshua 1, as the text for my initial message. Here’s the basic message:

Whatever success in the church may mean—more people, more resources, more impact in the community and the world—success in God’s church demands three things: believe God’s promises, obey God’s Word, and follow God’s leader.

Believe God’s Promises. When Joshua took over, the Israelites were on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, looking west toward Canaan, “the promised land.” Centuries before, God had promised that land to Abraham. Forty years earlier, they had stood in the same place; but in the first failure of a church committee, by a vote of 10-2, they had decided to let fear reign instead of faith. As a result, they wandered in the wilderness until that entire generation had died. Now, on the edge of hope once again, they heard God repeat his promise: “I will never leave you [Joshua] nor forsake you. Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.” God promised a place and his presence; all they had to do was believe.

Obey God’s Word. We don’t much like the word obey; it’s too strong, too authoritarian. And besides, if you’re a Protestant (protest-ant) like me, you prefer to speak of grace. We need grace. We live by grace. We’re saved by grace – grace alone (solo gratia, in Martin Luther’s Latin vernacular). But grace—or our misconception of it—gets us in trouble, because we can tend to allow ourselves too much freedom, and then we slip into sin. But hey, more sin, more grace, right? Paul had a strong response to that attitude: NO! No, no, no; a thousand times no! (See Romans 6:1.) But God told Joshua to make sure he obeyed all the commands, and we have to keep that in mind, too. And the whole Bible commands obedience: Deuteronomy 6:6-7, Deuteronomy 32:46-47, Matthew 28:20, John 14:15, John 15:10, etc. Jesus makes obedience easier when he boils down all the commands in Scripture to two things: Love God and love people (Matthew 22:40).

Follow God’s Leader. This is where it got tricky as a pastor: challenging a church to follow me as God’s leader. But I reminded them of their unanimous vote a couple months earlier that said, in effect, what the Israelites told Joshua: “Whatever you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go. Just as we fully obeyed Moses, so we will obey you.” Of course, I’m sure that made Joshua a bit nervous, because he’d been around for a while and had seen how they’d obeyed Moses – with grumbling, complaining, and a whole lot of sin. He’d also heard what God had said about the people not too much earlier: “[T]hese people will soon prostitute themselves to the foreign gods of the land they are entering. They will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them.” (Deuteronomy 31:16)

None of this is necessarily easy. God sometimes delays his promises (check out Hebrews 11:13). Though he has promised never to leave us, sometimes he seems distant, silent, unresponsive (check out any number of the Psalms, or most of the book of Job). And his Word isn’t always easy to obey, or we can’t agree on what obedience looks like. And so often, our leaders say or do stupid things, offensive things, or we just don’t like them! But God never promised an easy life, an easy faith. It takes work, it takes patience, it takes humility.

In that first message, I reminded the church that God still promises his presence. I promised that I would keep his Word central to everything we do. And then I challenged them to respond in three ways:

  • First, to “examine the Scriptures” daily (see Acts 17:11) to see if I’m on track. I want my church to be in their Bibles regularly, consistently, and in community, because I believe that the Bible is best understood in community. I need them to know God’s Word.
  • Second, I want them to pray for me – especially if they have a problem with something I’ve said or done. One of the best ways you can follow your pastor—God’s leader—is to pray for him or her. It helps the pastor and it keeps you humble!
  • Finally, I asked them to encourage me, as the people of Israel encouraged Joshua: “be strong and courageous!” Any kind of leadership is hard; pastoring is especially so. We feel the weight of responsibility, and the role can both stroke our egos and tear away at our hearts. I’m my own worst critic, so I need encouragement: notes, kind words, a text, an email.

BELIEVE – OBEY – FOLLOW: God’s prescription for success.

Home…at last

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Whether you measure it by days, weeks, months, or years, our journey has been a long one. And adventurous. We started in August 2013 with the decision to pursue a Lead Pastor role. Today—four years and eight months later—I am sitting for the first time in my new-to-me study at The Journey Church in Sonora, California.

What began as an exciting, if not a bit unnerving, challenge took our family through the twists and turns of cancer, unemployment, loss, and death; we faced depression and discouragement.

Along the way, we also reconnected with old friends, saw acquaintances become lifelong friends, and made new friends. God pushed, prodded, and poked us, challenging each of us to lean on him more and in new ways. He continued his lifelong transformation in our lives. He showed me my pride (again) and stripped (some of) it away. I saw my attitude toward churches shift from, I could lead that church; to I don’t know if I can do this – but I can love the people and walk along with them.

And so here we are, back in the beautiful foothills of the Sierra Nevada, just starting this journey with a very appropriately-named community. And if what we’ve seen in the five days we’ve been here is any indication, God’s going to do some amazing things through us all – and I mostly need to hang on tight!

#JourneyToTheJourney

Prisoners of Hope

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“Prisoners of hope.” It’s not a phrase you hear very often. Prison, especially in the ancient world in which these words were written, is not a place one normally associates with hope. Yet here is the phrase, in the middle of a prophecy (Zechariah 9:9-12) that held hope for the exiled Israelites and holds hope for us today. It is a Messianic prophecy—the foretelling of a coming Messiah, a savior—fulfilled in part on that first “palm Sunday” when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey.

But as is true with so many Biblical prophecies, this, too, finds its fulfillment both Now and Not Yet; it has been fulfilled, and it is yet to be fulfilled. For while Jesus the Messiah did indeed “speak peace to the nations,” his rule is not yet “from sea to sea and from the [Euphrates] River to the ends of the earth” (verse 10).

That is what we long for: peace. Messiah’s rule. We long for an end to war and the flag-draped caskets we receive in return. We long for an end to the threat and fear of more war, of bigger, badder wars. We long for an end to violence against women and innocent children, the broken homes and broken lives left in the wake of that violence. We long for an end to racism, to the wrongs done to men and women only because of their skin color or birthplace. We long to send our children to school without wondering whether theirs will be the next to be ripped apart by gunfire on national television.

Today we celebrate the hope of Palm Sunday. But just as the partying crowds some 2,000 years ago were blissfully unaware of the brutal death just five days away, so we, too, shut our eyes to the death that surrounds us. We long for peace … but just like those long-ago crowds—who wanted Jesus to throw off the Roman occupiers—we put our hope in laws and and lawmakers and governments instead of in the Prince of Peace. We are prisoners indeed, but not prisoners of hope if our hopes are set on these long-failed institutions.

And just as Zechariah’s prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus then but is still yet to be fulfilled, we can bring peace to our world now even while we wait for peace to come finally in Jesus Christ. Prayer is needed, but prayer is not enough. Laws are not enough, but laws are needed. 

Today, on Palm Sunday, if you profess to follow Jesus Christ, speak out for peace in Him – and for peace in our nation – and for peace in our world. Let your worship of the Prince of Peace not be undermined by your worship of a weapon of war.