Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Lent 2 Devotion

Over the past weeks winter weather has disrupted our Wednesday schedule at First Baptist Cornelia.  Below is my second Lenten Video Devotion.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Who Do you Say I am: Jesus of Nazareth

First Sunday of Lent
February 22, 2015

Who do you say I am?

This radical question will guide and challenge us during our Lenten Season.  
During Lent, I want to invite you to invest your energies in getting to know Jesus better.  I am challenging the whole church to join me in reading the Gospels of Matthew and John between now and Easter.   As you do so – make a list of all of the titles and names used for Jesus. 

Each week I will also preach a sermon on one of these titles.

Today, we examine the most basic and common of the titles for Jesus in scripture:  Jesus of Nazareth.  Long before followers wrote and sang hymns about Jesus – he was known as Jesus of Nazareth.  Long before anyone ever prayed in his name, he was known as Jesus of Nazareth.  Long before anyone was baptized in the name of the father, son and Holy Spirit, he was called Jesus of Nazareth.   

Jesus of Nazareth.  This was how Jesus was first known. 
The proper name - Jesus – is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua which means “to rescue or deliver.”  Nazareth is simply his hometown, a small, inconsequential village in Northern Galilee, a backwater province of the Great Roman Empire. 

To help us gain a broader mental picture of Jesus – each week, I will show a short movie clip about the life of Jesus.  To help us get a sense of Jesus of Nazareth, I’ve chosen a clip from the TV miniseries called “Jesus of Nazareth.”  I love this movie that was produced in 1977 by Franco Zeffirell.  This scene opens in Nazareth immediately after the death of King Herod as Joseph and Mary bring toddler Jesus home from Egypt. 

In our scripture passage today, we see the power and authority the simple title Jesus of Nazareth has gained throughout the region from the moment that little boy arrived in Nazareth to just before Jesus is crucified in Jerusalem 30 years later.  Jesus is traveling from Galilee up to the holy temple city of Jerusalem.  He walks south through the Jordan River Valley and comes to the ancient town of Jericho where he must pay a toll tax for entering into a new Roman province. 

The time for the Jewish festival of Passover has arrived and Jesus and thousands of others are traveling to the temple to participate.  For Jesus and his disciples – this trip has more meaning and purpose.  Jesus knows something important is about to happen.  He’s been focused on Jerusalem and now he’s almost there. 

As Jesus approaches Jericho, he is surrounded by an entourage of people – his many disciples from Galilee, interested, yet uncommitted followers, and spectators.  He no longer passes by unnoticed.  Like a presidential auto processional driving through downtown Atlanta – everyone notices, gets out of the way, and pays attention. 

Pushed to the side by this passing tide is a blind beggar who has come to this spot outside of Jericho to beg for money from the hordes of festival goers as they make their way up to Jerusalem.  Perceptively, he notices something unique happening when Jesus passes his station.  Primarily, he gets pushed to farther to the side by the sighted and more important entourage of people.

He asks those standing by what is happening.  Everyone around states clearly, ““Jesus of Nazareth[a] is passing by.” 
The title tells the beggar all he needs to know.  Like celebrities during our time, the title Jesus of Nazareth conveys power and importance.  We might have the same experience if we were sitting in food court at the Mall of Georgia in Buford when we notice a large group of passing through, moving chairs, creating a momentary bit of chaos and we were to ask – what is happening? – and someone said, “Justin.”  Or Dolly.  Or Bono. 

These are just simple names.  Yet, their reputation and fame gives the title power and meaning. 

The same is true of Jesus.  The title Jesus of Nazareth is just a name and a simple village designation.  Yet, in this story, we see the fame and curiosity and power the simple name has garnered. 

So much so, that when the blind man hears that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by, he immediately begins to shout above the din of the crowd.  “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  The crowd tries to silence him.  Surely, this powerful man, Jesus of Nazareth, has more to do than listen to a blind man. 

Yet, ever attentive to the truly faithful around him – even when everyone else sees chaos – Jesus hears the blind beggar’s confession and stops.  The crowd stops too. 
The blind beggar has seen past the celebrity title that others used for Jesus and spoken his confession of faith.  When he shouts, “Jesus, Son of David” he is telling all of those around him – that Jesus of Nazareth is more than a great rabbi and more than a great healer – he is God’s chosen, anointed one, sent to rebuild the Kingdom of David, and save the world. 
When Jesus stops, he asks the man, ““What do you want me to do for you?”” I love that Jesus doesn’t take this question for granted. The man wants to see again.  V. 43 says:  “Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God.”

When it comes to understanding who Jesus is and wants to be in our lives and in the world – this story demonstrates the challenge and the opportunity. 

Before Jesus is anything else, he is Jesus of Nazareth.  Unless we understand the dynamics of his place in the world, we miss who Jesus is today and what God’s Word tells us about him. 

The fact is this:  Of all of the historical moments the world has see – from the Egyptian empire to the British Empire – God choose this particular moment to enter into human history as a child.  And on top of that God choose the town of Nazareth – a backwater village of no significance in which to enter.  He didn’t choose Rome or Jerusalem or Paris or New York or Beijing or Johannesburg – God chose Nazareth.  
If all God does is intentional – this means the time and location of Jesus birth and ministry are key to understanding Jesus.

N.T. Wright in his book Simply Jesus:  A new vision of who he was, what he did, and why it matters describes this moment in time and the location of Jesus arrival as “The perfect storm.”   Like the great confluences of high and low pressure systems that created the story of 1993 that led to the book and movie of the same name – when Jesus arrives on earth – three large confluences of pressure merge that change the world forever. 

Caesar Augustus
1.  The Roman Storm

The first system to emerge is the Roman Storm.  For over 200 years before Jesus is born the low pressure system of Roman Empire had been building as Rome steadily increased in power and prominence throughout the Mediterranean world.  30 years before Jesus was born, Julius Caesar grasped power of the emerging empire, declared his divinity and created a civil war.    Eventually, Augustus Octavian Caesar – who we know from scripture as Caesar Augustus, defeated the warring factions, unified the empire and created the world in which Jesus was born.  

One of the keys needs in managing this great empire Caesar Augustus built was food.  The Roman Empire needed Palestine and the Middle East to provide grain for the overpopulated empire – like we need oil for an expanding economy.  It was the job of all Roman leaders in the Middle East – from King Herod to Pontus Pilate to keep peace, administer justice, collect taxes suppress all unrest and most of all keep the grain moving into the rest of the Empire.   

In our passage from Luke – we see the overtones of this Roman storm.  The beggar sits outside the town of Jericho – a collection point for Roman toll Taxes - hoping to receive small coins as travelers pass his way.  Without this political structure – the scenario would be much different. 

2.  The second element in the perfect story of Jesus of Nazareth is the overheated, high pressure system of the Jewish Storm

From as far back as their ancient scriptures, the Jewish people believed the story of their people was a story going somewhere. Despite many setbacks, they always maintained God would make sure they reached their goal.  This is the story in which Jesus lived.  The Jews of Jesus day believed passionately that finally they were living in the day God would act.  For them, this was not an ancient story – instead, they were the actors in an ongoing story.  All of their hopes and dreams for a new theocracy – a combined political and religious Jewish world would be realized soon!

This realization can be seen in the many different political and military movements happening the first half of the 1st Century.  While the Romans are trying to keep peace and provide grain for the empire, the oppressed people of Israel are planning and fighting for a new Kingdom to emerge.
Religious fighters called Zealots mobilize to overthrow the Roman Government.  After King Herod died, a revolutionary named Judas the Galilean rose up to claim the title Messiah.  He pulled together other zealots warriors who wanted to establish the country in strict adherence to the Torah and the Law.  Judas and his fighters would be caught and crucified outside of Jerusalem 20 years before Jesus. 30 years after Jesus died, another group of zealots would do the same time – leading the complete destruction of Jerusalem and its temple.  

We see the power of the Jewish world in the story of the blind beggar.  In the high law world of Judaism, the blind man had no religious role or life.  He was considered unclean for religious life so he existed outside the life of the community and was left to beg by the side of the road to survive.     

3.  Into these two storms comes the making of the perfect story:  The Wind of God arrives in the person of Jesus. 
The people of Israel had been telling their own narrative of God’s story – full of national ambitions.  Yet, God remained free and independent of these ambitions.  The people hoped for one thing – God had another story to tell.  Jesus was this story. 

This is God’s moment, Jesus declares.  With his birth, the strange, unpredictable, and highly dangerous wind of God arrives to create the perfect storm.  Jesus arrives to show us the true Son of God, the true high priest, and indeed the King of the world. 

This is why title Jesus of Nazareth carried so much power and authority as Jesus walks into Jericho.  Jesus confronts the Roman and Jewish storms which have created a blind man begging outside of town – and blows fresh wind.  When Jesus walks away – this man no long begs, he walks as a follower of Jesus. 

There are many things yet for us to learn about Jesus – but today we make this one key lesson.  With the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth into the world – the world as we know it will never be the same.  A hurricane has arrived.  It was for the blind beggar – and it is for us. 

There are storms blowing in all of our lives – the storms of illness, the storms of busyness, the storm of failure, the storm of success, the storm of children and family, the storm of work and school, the storms of national and local crisis – into each storm – the wind of God blows bringing Jesus to confront, save and love each of us. 

Will you today – allow Jesus of Nazareth to speak and bring Good News to you?  The choice is yours!  Amen.  

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


The English word believe fascinates me.
In the book Faith and Belief: The Difference between Them, Wilfred Smith outlines how the definition of the word believe like many other words has changed over time.   
          Literally, and originally, the word believe means “to hold dear, to cherish, to love.”  The word extends out of the Latin into the old English root word leve which means “love.”  To believe was to belove. 
We have lost the verb form of this usage.  The last vestige of it remains in the noun – BelovedBeloved and believe are intricately connected. 
          This original meaning of believe made an impact on the earliest English translations of the Bible.  In the English New Testament – the word faith is used 246 times for the Greek noun pistis.  When the first English translators came to the verb form of pistis – they had no English verb for faith.  Instead of creating a new English word – the translators used the word believeBelieve as belove, hold dear, to trust – fits perfectly as the verb for faith
          When the original readers of the 1611 King James Bible read the word believe they understood it to mean:  “to belove, to hold dear, to cherish; to orient ones oneself toward a person with affection and trust; to cling to, to commit oneself to.”    
          The definition of the word believe changed dramatically during the 1700’s during a period in history called the Enlightenment.  Many great things came out of the Enlightenment – modern science, our American Revolution and our constitution.  Yet, this period also changed how we view religion and God.  Religion moved from believing in Jesus to a belief that Jesus was who he said was. We wanted certainty in religion the same way we wanted certainty in science.  
After the Enlightenment to believe meant: “to hold a particular opinion or conviction; agreeing with ideas intellectually.”   Before the Enlightenment we were called to believe in a person; afterward, we were called to believe in a proposition of ideas.
This shift from “belove” to “conviction” creates a spiritual disparity.  When we make “believing” a certain set of facts about Jesus as our only criteria of faith, we miss a critical biblical teaching.  Scriptures calls us to believe in Jesus with our whole lives – to hold him dear, to cling to him, to trust in him.
Believing in Jesus calls us to a life of discipleship.  Believing in Jesus transforms our lives, our families and our communities.  Today, Jesus invites you to believe – to cling to, to love, to trust – in him. Your life will never be the same. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Walk Ahead of Jesus: Horizontal Discipleship

Sermon 5 in Walking With Jesus:  Maturing as Disciples Series
February 8, 2015

            I want to teach you two hand motions.  Before I tell you what they are – let me demonstrate them for you.
[Motion 1:  Hands folded at chest – move upward – vertical]
[Motion 2:  Hands folded to chest – move outward – horizontal]
            I want us to use these hand motion to reflect on why Jesus calls us to follow.  What is the purpose of Discipleship?
            First – there is a vertical purpose.  Jesus says it like this in Matthew 22:” ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’”  [Motion 1].  We are called to a life of discipleship to love the Lord Our God.  We follow Jesus so that God’s way of living will become our way of living.
            There’s another purpose though – this is a horizontal purpose.  Jesus says it like this immediately after he give us the first commandment:  “A second [commandment] is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  [Motion 2].  We are also called to a life to a service to others – this is our mission in the world. 
            Unfortunately – too often, Christians like us – fail to remember these two purposes of discipleship.  When we do – we make one purpose greater than the other.  For example, let’s say Vertical discipleship [motion 1] feels comfortable to us.  Then, We spend our time in prayer.  We read and study the scriptures.  We listen to preachers on the internet and Christian music on the radio.  We love sitting around small groups of friends talking about God and theology and the Bible.  We embrace worship and never want it to end.  The vertical nature of discipleship gives us strength – and makes us feel like we are doing just what Jesus wants us to.  And we forget about the horizontal purpose of discipleship [motion 2]
            For others of us – we are just the opposite.  We live our lives in horizontal discipleship in service to others or the church [motion 2].  We invest our lives in people and in service.  We work at the soup kitchen and camp agape.  We love to tell others about Jesus.  We go on mission trips and volunteer on committees at church.  We love a good mission story in worship.  The horizontal nature of discipleship feels just right – we don’t really see the need of Bible study or days of extended prayer or worship services.  We too forget about the vertical nature of discipleship [motion 1]
            We have made vertical discipleship [motion 1] and horizontal discipleship [motion 2] either/or and convinced ourselves that if one doesn’t come naturally – we don’t need it. 
            Losing the dual purposes of discipleship is not just for those of us in the pews.  In 1985, Robert Mulholland wrote a beautiful book where he defined discipleship as “the process of being conformed into the image of Jesus.”  A clearly vertical purpose.  8 years later he wrote his next book on discipleship and added one key extra phrase.  Discipleship is “the process of being conformed into the image of Jesus for the sake of the world.” 
            Jesus didn’t make this mistake.  Jesus interwove these two purposes into his life with his disciples.  In Luke 6 we him teaching his disciples on the sermon on the plain lessons in living in his kingdom.  In Luke 11, he trains them in how to pray.  When we think about discipleship – this is usually what we focus on – the vertical nature of our relationship with God.
            Yet – Jesus also spent time training his disciples in their mission in the world.  First in Luke 9 and then in Luke 10, Jesus sends his disciples on mission in the world.  Long before we ever educated through action and reflection – Jesus taught his disciples how to love the world by sending them out into the world.  This horizontal purpose of discipleship often gets misunderstood as not being about discipleship.  We assume mission trips and mission service are what we are supposed to do without realizing this is how God is forming us into the image of Jesus. 
            Discipleship is both a journey upward and a journey outward.  [Motion 1 leads to motion 2.  Motion 2 leads to motion 1].  We can’t miss the horizontal nature of mission.  In our passage from Luke 10, Jesus trains his followers in horizontal discipleship by sending them ahead of him to prepare the way of the Kingdom.

Scripture Passage
            Look at Luke 10:1:  “the Lord appointed seventy[a] other [disciples] and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.”
            In the middle of his teaching and healing ministry in Galilee, Jesus stops what he is doing and sends his disciples out into the world. 
            He chooses 70 of his followers for this mission.  He appoints them in order to send them out on a task – a mission

Task:  Go in front of Jesus to prepare the Way.

This mission requires his disciples to out from where they are to the places where Jesus will go.  Their work is to prepare the way for Jesus in each of the villages.  In this role they are very similar to John the Baptist who came as an evangelist to prepare the way as a forerunner to Jesus.

In today’s political world, all of national political leaders have what they call “advance teams.”  Advance teams stay one city or town or state ahead of the principal politician.  They spend their time with local political leaders scouting sites for rallies, encouraging the local volunteers, and setting up arrangements.  They do their work by preparing for the principal politician’s arrival.
Jesus sends his disciples out as an advance team – but with much greater responsibilities and power with this promise – Jesus intends to go behind them. 

As disciples, Jesus has a mission and task for us as well.  Listen to how Jesus commissions his disciples as he sends them on their way in v. 2-3:  “The harvest is plentiful,” Jesus says, “but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3 Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.”

As we consider our mission as disciples of Jesus – living out the horizontal purposes of our life with Jesus – Jesus says, stop overthinking this and just move.  The world greatly needs the love Jesus offers – the harvest is plentiful.  This creates an urgency to the Christian mission. 
It’s time to go!  It’s time to get moving.  It’s time to put action in our discipleship. 

This mission is not for the faint of heart, though.  As Jesus sends us, he reminds us of the risks we will encounter.  We are sent as lambs in the midst of wolves.  No one needs to remind our church – after our experience with our cold weather shelter – about the risks of doing ministry in our world today.  This risk cannot stop us – the urgency of Christ’s mission propels – the harvest is plentiful and the servants are few. 

As Jesus sends his disciples on their mission – he also gives them instructions about how to accomplish their mission.  These instructions provide a framework for each of us – and our church – as we set out to accomplish our mission:  to love the world as God loves us. 

The Instructions:
Our first instruction in being a disciple on mission for Jesus is this:  Accept your mission field.

In Luke 10:8 – Jesus instructs:  “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; Eat what is set before you.”

In a Jewish world where what we eat determines our purity and religious devotion – this is a rather challenging instruction.  There were strict dietary laws that governed Jesus’ disciples.  God will confront Peter specifically about not allowing these dietary laws to hinder the mission of God’s Spirit later in Acts when he has a powerful dream on the roof of Simon the Tanner.  Here we see – Jesus already is setting his disciples up for a broader mission than even they know.

The instruction to eat what is in front of you – also has implications in how we live out God’s mission in the world in the 21st Century.  Jesus is telling his disciples to go into the world – not as hosts – paternalistically with all of the answers.  Instead, Jesus invites us as disciples to go into the world as guests.  When we are sent into the world as guests, we do not set the menu or dictate our own cultural background on others.  Instead, we accept the mission field in which we have been placed and receive that culture as a gift.

We have not always done missions this way.  Instead, we have sought to impose our culture – along with the Gospel – on the people into which we have been sent.  My favorite story about imposing our culture on the mission field is the story of the first congregational missionaries to Hawaii.  These very brave, young Christian missionaries sailed from the cold, harsh winter of New England, around South America and finally arrived in Hawaii.  There, on this beautiful, hot, humid tropical islands – the missionaries directed their first churches to be just like the ones in New England where were designed for those cold winters.  Needless to say in 19th century – pre air-conditioning – these houses of worship became hot houses of the Spirit. 
Eat what is placed before you, Jesus says – be a guest among those you have come to serve. 

The second instruction Jesus gives is “Meet the needs around you.”
After we come as guests into a community, our mission field – let us seek to meet the needs around us.  For Jesus – this means “Cure the sick who are there …”  Jesus gives his disciples this kind of authority.  When they find illness and sickness and need – on the authority of Jesus, they heal.  Meet these needs. 

In the same way, as Jesus sends us on mission into the world – as we come as guests into a community, he invites us to look for needs that need to be met.  What needs do we have authority to meet?

Are people hungry?  Are people thirty?  Are they homeless?  Do they need someone to listen to them?  Do they need someone to watch their children for a night?

Over the last year our church has offered two Parents Nights out for our community.  We hosted one the first week of December.  We had several community members come up to our staff and thank them.  One set of grandparents said, “We are the guardians of our grandchildren.  We want to thank you for providing this service.  We never get a night to ourselves.” A single mother said the same thing.

When we come as guest and serve the needs of our community – our community, our neighbors, our friends – notice Christ at work in their lives. 

This leads to the final instruction Jesus offers:  Preach the Gospel.

After his disciples have received the hospitality of the host and meet their needs, Jesus commands - “Say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” Preach the Good News!
We go in front of Jesus to be his witnesses, his apostles, his preachers, his instruments.  We can’t forget our mission – we are here to prepare the way for Jesus.  This means letting others know why we do what we do.
There are many wonderful community and national service organizations that do many incredible things to meet the needs of the communities around the world.  We work with these groups as we serve.  Yet we are NOT an NGO – a nongovernmental agency.  We are the church.  We are on a mission from Christ to prepare the way for his arrival.  In all we do – we must never forget this.  We must always ask how does what we do point people to Jesus.

Any arts organization can have an art camp in the summer.  We must ask – how does our Camp Mosaic point budding artists to Jesus.  Many organizations have summer camps for at risk kids.  We must ask – how does camp AGAPE point kids and families to Jesus.  Many organization serve the homeless – we must ask – how does our shelter ministry point people to Jesus. 

Jesus does not say – we must beat others over the head with the Gospel – but he does say – we can’t leave preaching the Good News out of our ministry in the world. 

As we live out this mission in the world, Jesus reminds us that the Results are The Work of Jesus

“Whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.”  We do not control the results of our mission – we simply prepare the way.  We are called to walk in front of Jesus.  This takes so much of the burden off of us.  Our job is not to save the world.  Our job is not to win others for Jesus.  Our job is transform a village in Nicaruagua.  Our job is not to end poverty.    Our job is to walk in front of Jesus and prepare the way.

This is a powerful reimaging of mission for me – to see mission as walking in front of Jesus.  It takes so much of the burden and guilt I often carry about my role in the world.  Jesus who comes behind us is the one who does the work – we are simply to prepare the way.  Jesus saves.  We point.  Jesus transforms.  We invite. 

As we think about our purposes as disciples of Jesus – let us remember our two fold purpose.  Yes, we are to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn his way – this is the vertical nature of following.  Yes, we are also sent out into the world as disciples on mission to prepare the way of Jesus – this is the horizontal nature of following 

As we live out the vertical and horizontal purposes of discipleship – we are formed more completely into the image of Jesus for the sake of the world.  Thanks be to God. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Gospel Hospitality

I've been thinking about Genesis 18 this week as First Baptist Cornelia opened our doors for the first Cold Weather Shelter of the season.  In this passage “the Lord appeared to Abraham by the Oaks of Mamre.”  The Lord does not come in the form of a burning bush ablaze on the hill or as a cloud over the tabernacle.  The Lord comes as three strangers at the entrance to Abraham’s tent. 

Amy Oden, professor of early church history and spirituality at St. Paul School of Theology in Oklahoma City, says this text was quoted by early Christian leaders more frequently than any other text (including the Gospel passages) during the first 500 years of the church.  This passage creates a paradigm for us to understand the marks of gospel hospitality.  These marks like the white blazes on the Application Trail indicate when we are on the right path to Gospel hospitality.  

I've thought of these mark often this week during our experience of Gospel hospitality at the Cold Weather Shelter. 

Oden says readiness involves “intentionally and willingness to accept the difficultly of showing hospitality.”  As our volunteers scrambled on Wednesday to prepare our facilities for our guests – I realized the importance of readiness.  Our Red Cross shelter training came in handy as we prepared cots, registrations, food, and games.  The intentionality made the shelter run smoother and with less stress than last year.

There will always be risk in hospitality because we are welcoming strangers.  These strangers can “disrupt our lives and make us feel uncomfortable.”  This is especially true when we welcome our shelter guests.  These guests usually come to us in a frustrated place in their lives.  They really don’t want to have to be here.  Yet, as we show them grace and hospitality, we trust in God’s spirit to move in their lives.  Without exception we have seen this make a difference in their lives.  

One of the great transformations that happens when we practice Gospel hospitality is not within our guests, but in our own lives.  We are changed as we minister to the stranger who is different from us.  I've seen this happen in me each time we open our doors to the strangers among us – cold weather shelter guests, Camp Agape campers, and even new members within our fellowship.  As we listen to their stories, God’s grace grows within us. 

Finally, as we practice Gospel hospitality, we begin to recognize Jesus among us.  I wonder how long it took Abraham and Sarah to realize these three strangers at the door to their tent were more than just traveling salesmen?  As we welcome the stranger among us, we slowly begin to see Jesus.  Not out there, but here among us.  What a tragedy it would have been if we would have turned him away.

There are many opportunities to practice gospel hospitality – from our homes to our church to our Sunday school classes to our fellowship hall.  I hope that you will join me as we seek the love the world as God loves us – one stranger at a time.  

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Lessons from Losses

The clocked ticked down like the Times Square ball … 3 … 2 … 1 and the crowd erupted! 
Students, cheerleaders, and football players rushed the field as one large emotion.  Mamas with “MOB MOM” t-shirts waded through the tears and sweat looking for their sons.  The Band of Blue’s fight song sang through the air with palpable passion and pride.
Joy - pure, full, and wonderful joy – filled the cold, Halloween night.  This is what it looks like to win after two painful years of losses.  JOY!
For two years I followed the Habersham Central Raider football team watching my varsity cheerleader daughter and her friends struggle with loss.  Some of the games were painful to watch.  Other games were full of anticipation, excitement, hope … and still loss.  Watching a team of kids bravely suit up each week to face their next opponent teaches lessons about life and faith. 
First, we learn winning is not easy.  Many of us take winning for granted.  It comes easily for us.  Until it doesn't.  Until we experience loss or failure or mistakes.  Once we suffer loss, it surprises us how hard it is to get the next win.  Hard work, discipline and hope cannot be taken for granted when we are working through the losses in our lives. 
As a pastor, I always find it surprising the number of people who expect to always win because we claim Jesus as our Savior.  Jesus does not promise us a win or riches or even happiness.  Instead, Jesus promises us God’s presence, God’s joy, God’s hope as God’s purposes are worked in our lives. 
Second, we learn losing makes winning more enjoyable, more powerful, and more poignant.  The beauty of Halloween Night 2014 was not the win at Raider Stadium; it was the 21 losing games that proceeded it.  Because winning did not come easily, the players, students and parents savored the joy more greatly as they celebrated on the field and with their high school friends at Waffle House afterwards. 
There are moments – dark moments – in our lives when we feel God has turned God’s back.  Prayers barely drift to the ceiling.  These hard, painful times feel like they will never end.  Yet, as we live daily for Jesus, shaped by God’s Spirit, moments will come when we feel the warmth of God’s smile.  The “no’s” of yesterday will turn into “yes’s” today. And when they do – we rejoice in gratitude to God. 

In these moments pure joy flows into our lives.  We discover the courage and hope to live into the next day and all it has for us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.  

And ... in case you want to see what this win looked like ... here is a video:  

Thursday, October 16, 2014

It's Time!

Sometimes, preachers need the words God gives to us as much as our congregations.

Two Sundays ago, I preached a sermon I titled “Life ain’t a Pity Party.”  Preaching from Luke 15 and the parable of the Prodigal Son, I challenged us to make a choice between the kingdom of Joy and the doom of cynicism.
At that moment – as I was preaching these words – the doom of cynicism, seemed to have swallowed me whole.  I felt as low, flat and beaten down by life.  I was as down as I have in all the days I have served as your pastor.  Rather than choosing the kingdom of joy – I had thrown a pity party in my own honor. 

In that state, it doesn’t take long to discover others around me who are having the same party – especially related to our church.  We looked around at First Baptist Cornelia and asked ourselves – “Where are all the people today – the ones we’ve had in the past?  Where are all the children?”  We looked at other churches and wondered what they are doing.   

            In reality - Pity Parties are happening in churches like ours all over the country.  Children – our children – who grew up in church, and their children – are leaving church and many are not coming back.  Some are leaving their faith behind and others are just leaving organized religion.  Mega churches like the big box stores are pulling in members with exciting programs and low responsibilities.  At the same time – older, traditional churches are dwindling in membership, merging with other churches or closing down their doors.  The world in which we began no longer exists.

We are left with the challenging question – what will we do?  How will we keep up?
Here is the harsh reality – there is NO silver bullet.  There is no perfect solution.  There is no way forward that guarantees a positive result. 
We are left to rethink our model of church success.  What does it mean to be a successful church in the first quarter of the 21st century?  In the past – we were successful if we had a good attendance in worship.  We were successful if we met our budget.  We were successful if we gave a lot of money to missions.  We were successful if we had a lot of kids in our youth group, if we had a lot of baptisms, if our buildings looked good. 
Present reality requires the spiritual courage to ask:  Are our old measures of success for a church what success looks like in God’s eyes?  Is it possible to be a successful church in our eyes – and yet, miss God’s success?
God desires our whole lives, our faithfulness, and our devotion.  What if God has been purging us of our human ways in order to form within a new future for us as the People of God? 
Let me invite you to turn to the last half of the Gospel of Mark.  In chapters 11 and 13, Mark tells the tale of two fig trees.  The tales of these two trees reveal our choice of two futures as we follow Jesus together. 

Two Trees

            In Mark 11, we find the first tale:  The tree of Assumed Living.  The story of this fig tree is set off in two passages in Mark 11.  Beginning in v. 12 – we find Jesus leaving Bethany and traveling to the Jerusalem temple for the day.  His route takes him over the Mount of Olives and then descends to Jerusalem.  It’s early and Jesus is hungry.  He sees a fig tree full of leaves beside the road.  He assumes the tree should have fruit to pick and eat.  When he gets to the tree, he finds no figs.  It was “not the season for figs tree,” Mark reminds us.  In response Jesus speaks a curse on the tree in v. 14 - “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”
Jesus then travels down into the Kidron Valley and into the gate of the Jerusalem Temple.  In response to what he sees happening at the temple, Jesus drives out those in the temple who are buying and selling.  In a symbolic way, Jesus attempts to cleanses the temple and teach a new way.
The next day, Jesus and the disciples travel the same route back across the Mount of Olives – to teach again in the Temple.  Peter notices the fig tree Jesus had spoken to the day before had withered away – down to its roots, Mark describes. 
This story of the first fig tree is best understood within the narrative of the cleansing of the temple.  Jesus didn’t need to curse this tree.  We know he could have caused it to fruit if he desired.  . 
Jesus uses the tale of this tree to illustrate the consequences of assumed living.  By framing the story of the cleansing of the temple between these two narratives of the fig tree, Marks suggests the temple will suffer a similar fate.  The temple and all of the religion in represents assumes life will always be the same, that God has stopped acting, and that we need to just keep appeasing God.  Yet, the temple no longer fulfills the purpose for which God intended it. 
Assumed living leads to a lifeless religious life disconnected from the power of God. 
And – God wants more for us.  A new life.  A renewed purpose. 
The second tale tells the story of the Tree of Expectant Living.  This parable is found in Mark 13.  Jesus tells this tale in the context of an expectant future.  In this portrait of the future, Jesus says, “people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”  This future requires us to be on the lookout, to live with expectation of God’s work.  

“Learn this lesson from the fig tree,” Jesus teaches, “As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door.”

Biologically speaking, there is not much difference between the Tree in tale 1 and the tree in tale 2.  Both trees have no fruit yet.  Both trees have leaves upon them.  Yet, Jesus curses the first and blesses the second.  Why. 

The fig tree is tale number 2 – is bursting with hope, opportunity, and new life.  When we see this tree, Jesus says, it reveals signs of God’s future that is about to break forth into reality.  This tree looks to a future held in the hands of God.
The fig tree in tale number 2, however – exists with the assumption that fruit should come because it always has.  This tree looks to the past with the assumption that since it has provided fruit in the past it will so again. 
These two trees describe for us two paths of living as Christians in this new world we call the first half of the 21st century. 
My friend, Eddie Hammett in this new book Recovering Hope for your Church, says for many churches like ours the anxiety and stress – the pity parties we throw – can be boiled down to this reality:  Many church leader and churches are practicing more idol worship than God worship.  “Our idol has become the good ole days.”  We value the feelings and experiences we once had – we love our buildings, our institutions, our traditions, our music, and our programs. 
Like the Jews worshiping at the temple, we assume life, faith, and church can just be like it has always been.  Assumed living keeps us from looking forward.  Assumed living blinds us to the ways of Jesus.  Assumed living hides the movement of God’s Spirit.  Assumed living – like the fig tree tightly holding onto the ground of the Mount of Olives – will lead to withered hearts, churches, and lives.
Yet – Jesus gifts us with a better future.  The tale of the Tree of Expectant Living invites us to raise our heads from what we have once known  to catch a glimpse of what is about to be.  Jesus uses this parable to communicate a future with a hope.  Yes, life is difficult, we face death on a daily basis, and the world changes out from under us.  Yet – there is still hope – look for the signs of God bubbling up like the tender shoots of the fig tree coming to life. 
This is the Good News for you and me and First Baptist Church Cornelia:  The shoots of God’s future have already begun.  God has already started preparing this church for its great future.
Let me tell you one more tale:  The tale of First Baptist Church, Cornelia, Georgia.  When I first arrived someone described this church to me this way – First Baptist Cornelia has the greatest potential of any church in Northeast Georgia.  Well – hear this – God’s Kingdom Potential for us has already started breaking through.  We can see the signs of the tender shoots and leaves everywhere we go.
First Baptist Cornelia is better positioned for God’s future than at any time in our history.  The hard work of praying and preparing that we have done over the last 3 years has come home.  The work that we are doing now is the right work at the right time for the right purposes.  We are choosing every day as a church to be faithful to God’s mission for us in the world.  Look around to see the tender shoots of God’s hand at work among us. 

·       We are leading the way in Worship to move beyond the manmade divisions between contemporary and tradition.  
·       We are also leading the way in Missions to advance God’s Kingdom by becoming a church full of evangelists and missionaries where missions is describe as who we are not what we do. 
·       We are leading the way in discipleship developing a one on one coaching/mentor discipleship culture
·       We are leading the way in children/youth ministry in seeking to develop Spiritual champions in partnership with parents.             
·       We are leading the way by preparing buildings for the future.  We will have a new sound system and projection system in the near future. 
·       We are leading in structures to be better organized for future ministries.    
Look at any writer, church futurist – and you will see this is exactly the kind of focus a church needs to have to see God’s future realized among us.  The shoots and leaves have already started to shoot forth.  This is no time for a Pity Party – this is time for us to celebrate, roll up our sleeves and keep working. 
The hit happened on October 28, 1989.  The Vanderbilt commodores are on the 15 yard line of the Ole Miss Rebels and they are pressing to score.  Brad Gaines, a Vanderbilt receiver, crosses over the middle on the 2 yard line when a defensive back named Chucky Mullins comes forward to block the ball as it is thrown to Gaines. Chucky crashes into Gaines and hits the turf.  And never gets up.
Those in the crowd say they know it is bad when they hear the impact.  For over ten minutes Chucky lies on the turf.  Some are afraid he has died.  He hasn’t. Instead, he has crushed 4 vertebrate in his back.  A stretcher is brought onto the field.
Chucky begins a slow process of recovery.  After his injury, the Ol Miss fans pour out their support for him – raising over $1million for his recovery.

As the season winds to a close, the Ole Miss Rebels are set to play the Air Force Academy.  Still the team leader, Chucky, has himself rolled into the locker room before the game.  Barely audible – he whispers a battle cry that will sustain and motivate the team.  “It’s Time.”  He says.  “It’s time.”  The team hears the battle cry and pick it up.  From a whisper the words “It’s time” builds to a crescendo as everyone shouts their task.  It’s time.  The coach remembered after the game – “Air Force Never had a chance.”
 First Baptist Cornelia – today.  Now.  At this moment – it is time for us to bury our assumed living practices and live expectantly for God’s Kingdom and Future. 
·       It’s time for us to accept our identity as the People of God, not just good people.
·       It’s time for us to be people of faith, not just people of tradition.
·       It’s time for us to pray without ceasing rather than pretending to pray so we can remain the same.
·       It’s time to listen and follow God rather than listening to sermons and being spectators in worship.
·       It’s time rediscover and recommit to why we are church members at First Baptist Cornelia rather than looking for what we get.
·       It’s time for some of us to commit to Jesus, to be baptized, and to stop living for ourselves.
·       It’s time that we start telling everyone the great things God is doing in our church rather than complaining what we aren’t doing.
·       It’s time for us to call each other when we miss church.
·       It’s time for us to stop the pity parties and welcome our community to the celebration.
·       It’s time for some of us to commit as members at First Baptist Church – some of us regularly worship with us and yet have not committed to us.  We need you.  We need your energy and your fresh ideas. 
·       It’s time – First Baptist Church - It’s time!  God has gifted us with a marvelous future – it’s time to commit and live with expectation of all God is about to do. 

What is it time for you to do today because of the Gift to God’s future to you?

Let’s work together for God’s Future.