Sunday, June 24, 2012

OUR GOD IS BIGGER

A Sermon based upon 1 Samuel  17: 38-49
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
June 24, 2012

The story of David and Goliath is one of the most beloved stories in the Hebrew Bible.  Especially loved by children, the main character is a young boy-like hero named David who courageously goes up against the gigantic, frightening Goliath, who is more than two times his size.   What’s more, David miraculously brings him down with the most innocent of all weapons, a slingshot armed with five smooth stones.  The story upholds the classic theme of optimism and hope, as the ‘good guy’ David, with all the odds against him, stands up and defeats the highly advantaged ‘bad guy’ bully named Goliath. 

As long as you stop reading before the most gruesome head-chopping, this is a great Bible story to help children as they face their own giants and bullies in life.   The truth is, bullying is just as much a problem today.  I guess most of you have heard recently about an American classroom, where a kindergarten teacher got carried away as she tried to help her class try to convert their own bullying classmate.   She stood him up front of the class, allowing each kindergartener to come up and take a slug at him to show him how it feels to be bullied.  We can certainly sympathize with the teacher who thought it was necessary to teach the bully a lesson, but perhaps she failed to reflect upon how it would be perceived or that there are others ways to respond than with more deeds of violence. 

So, how does this biblical story of bullying, violence and bloodshed fit into our time, when some bullies are not so much Goliaths, as are children, little “Davids”?  Today’s society certainly puts a strange twist on this story, but does it have anything else to say to us?

WE ARE ALL UNDERDOGS AGAINST THE WORLD
For sure, the first truth of this story is that any of us could play either role in life; either as a David who must face impossible odds. or we could turn out to be a bullying Goliath, feeling we can only survive if we threaten, intimidate or victimize others.  Life can seem to be “stacked against us”, as we could end up either as a victim or a victimizer.  Remember that song Helen Reddy used to sing to her child as a single, divorced mother: “It’s You and Me Against the World”?     Even though Scripture says, “God is for us”, even when God is for you, life can still go against us?   There are no guarantees, for life is just not that easy.

There was certainly a lot against Israel.  All through the Biblical story, Israel is a tiny little land stuck right in the middle of much greater, warring empires.   First it was the powers of the Pharaoh and the Egyptians who dominated them.  Then, after they were miraculously set free, they came into the Promised Land and ran into the Philistines along with their Iron-clad Goliath.  Then came Sennnacharib and the Assyrians who eventually destroyed Israel.  After that came Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians who sieged and torched Jerusalem and hauled the people off into exile. By the time we get to the end of the Hebrew Bible and the book of Daniel, we are already learning about new enemies rising up.   The Greek and Roman empires desecrate, corrupt and threaten the 2nd temple up until Jesus’ day.  As we come to the New Testament, the Kingdom of God comes near, but Kingdom is never fully arrives and Jesus warns there will be even more “persecution, more suffering, and more wars and rumors of more wars.  Finally, the Book of Revelation supplies some of the most graphic images about the powers always up against God’s goodness and kingdom until the very end.   The ugly beasts opposing God’s people serve as precursors of Nazism, Communism, and maybe even Terrorism.   Antichrist and Satan are biblical bullies predicted to threaten God’s people until the very end.  

Even if you can’t bear to study these theological and historical images, you could also reflect upon biology to understand that the human infant is the most vulnerable of all creatures on planet earth.  When a child is born into the world, it is completely dependent upon others for survival.  Besides the physical needs which must be met by another, think of the emotional, psychological and social needs for every child’s stability and survival.  In most every way, the human child is an “underdog” against the powers of life and death.     

The surprise in all of this is that our human “vulnerability” also gives us the ability to bond, to understand, to have empathy and to feel moved toward deeds of compassion for ourselves and others.   Our vulnerability and interdependence enables us to develop the capacity to love, to care and to hope in faith.  Many could argue that what made Israel, Israel; was also her vulnerabilities---her time in slavery; her constant struggle to obtain the promise; and her ability to face the continual threats that could take her down at any time; even the threats from her own flaws and failures, as well as, the threats from the world.  My point is simple: without the threat of the killer forces of life---which can be as real to us as this bullying, sarcastic, cynical Goliath---without such forces coming against us in life, the irony is that we could never develop the capacity nor have the chance to become a person as heroic as David.    No matter how you “slice” it (pun intended), what made David, was as much what came against David, as what was in David himself.  Being “underdogs” against the world can, could and should, bring out the best in us.

THERE ARE MANY FEARS WE MUST FACE
But this ability to grow emotionally and spiritually—to gain the power to slay own personal giants--- is not automatic.   We could instead, face the hardships of life and become more like a bullying Goliath.   The adversities of life can take us another route.   I was watching some high school and college graduates explain on national television what gave them the internal strength to keep going and to reach this great moment of achievement.  There were many great answers, many of them giving credit to a parent or a good teacher who motivated them to stick with it and not to drop out.  One young African-American gave the most inspiring answer:  “I was able to graduate”, he said, “because my Father kept reminding me, ‘Son, don’t you ever forget this: The world does not owe you a single thing.” 

Psychiatrists have listed over 700 phobias---more than enough fears to keep us all worried all the time.  You’ve heard them listed before---acrophobia---the fear of heights;  claustrophobia---the fear of closed spaces and agoraphobia---the fear of open spaces (What you can fear in one direction can be turned around against you in another).   One of the newest fears to be listed is ARACHIBUTYROPHOBIA---the fear of getting peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth.    It’s easy to laugh, but if Peter Pan or Jiff scares you half to death; it’s not funny at all.   Wearing that external “cage” on my leg has given me some fears of elevators and traffic jams lately! 

We do not read about David fears.  Perhaps the Bible assumes we are smart enough to figure that out.  The text does say that David did try on Saul’s armor for size (17: 38ff).   That armor was too big and too cumbersome, so, he threw it off.   But why did he put it on in the first place?   Well, we must remember, says Brent Younger, that “Goliath was two feet taller than LeBron James” in a world where, I might add, most Jews were the size of Monty Towe.  “Goliath has a twenty-five inch neck and a forty-eight inch waist.  He wears a size twelve bronze hat and a size fifty-four, extremely irregular coat of mail.  His armor not only makes him look like a Sherman tank, it also makes him weigh about what a tank weighs.”   About the time David should, at most, be fighting acne, David faces the fiercest warrior of his world.  Even David’s big brother Eliab tries to stop David from thinking he can take this guy: “Why are you hear?  This is none of your business.  You ought to be home taking care of your little sheep.”  When King Saul hears about it, he also opposes David’s will to fight, saying: “You can face Goliath; you’re just a kid.”

But when David ought to respond in great fear and should give up, throw in the towel, and go home, either he’s naive, ignoring or denying his own fears, or David has learned something that has prepared him for this moment of challenge.   And that is exactly what he says to King Saul, isn’t it?  “When I used to keep Sheep for my Father (he still is), whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down and kill it.   What’s an “uncircumcised Philistine” compared to a lion or a bear?”   (17: 34-36).  David’s spirit and attitude is that life up to now has prepared him for whatever comes.

I don’t want to belittle any of our fears.  Anxiety is one of the most natural behavior responses humans have to life’s challenges, and many, if not most of our emotional hang-ups and even mental disorders can ground themselves in excessive or unresolved fear.    But most of us don’t go berserk when we face the life’s worries and obstacles.   Like David, we have learned to face our fears in the “big” world today, because we learned how to face our yesterday, in our “little” world, whether it was at home, at school, at church, on the playground, or in our first job.  There is nothing like “practice” and “training” with ‘smaller’ successes, to give us the courage and confidence we need to face the big ‘Goliath-type’ fears which come.  But when you were not given this “training” or for some reason failed to come to grip with your fears;  fear can overwhelm.

What are our most prominent human fears?   According to polls, the fear of death still ranks as the number two fear all humans share.  Do you know what still remains at the top?  The number one fear is:  public speaking.   So, if someone says, I’d rather die than give a speech, they are probably telling the truth.  But even invisible fears, which might prove to be more from Lilliput (in our mind) than from the Valley of Elah (real life fears), can be real and debilitating.  These “invisible” fears could keep many of us from getting out of bed, from leaving our house, or from becoming the daring, adventurous person God has made us to be.  

Brent Younger tells about how years ago, settlers in British Columbia were stripping an old abandoned fort for lumber.  When they dismantled the jail they found big locks on heavy doors, and two-inch steel bars covering the windows, but interestingly the walls of the prison were only wallboard painted to resemble iron.  A good push against the walls would have busted them.  Nobody ever tried it because nobody thought it was possible.  Younger adds:  “We are often prisoners of fears that are nothing, if would only push back against them.  Some of the fears we have and Goliath’s we face, are of doing good things hurting us, not simply a fear of bad things.   The fear of speaking the truth, caring for the hurting, going to the doctor, listening to strangers, even entertaining angels unaware, are all less frightening than we might first think.  We are too easily dissuaded and discouraged from doing what we need to do, too easily convinced to give up our passion.   Even the smallest complication could keep us from attempting from doing much of anything out the ordinary”  (This and the idea for the second point come from his sermon, Facing Giants, in Lectionary Homiletics Volume XXIII, Number 4., June/July 2012, p 35).   

To be “paralyzed by fear” isn’t just a cliché.   We can have limited, confined, constrained lives; not just because of what we are up against in life.  What we are unwilling to go up against can also encumber and hinder us.  We can learn to be too careful and too cautious, to live our lives hemmed in by our fears rather than putting them in their right and respectful place.   Fred Craddock tells how his wife was away for a day and he was going to fix one of his ‘big’ meals.  He stopped off at the Winn Dixie to get a jar of peanut butter….  He was in a hurry, and the stores are so huge, so rather than spend the whole afternoon looking for peanut butter, he stopped a woman pushing a cart, almost for a stroll.  He thought to himself, “She’s comfortable here.  She knows her way around, I’ll ask her.”  “Excuse me, ma’am,” he said.  “But could you tell me where the Peanut butter is?”  Suddenly the woman jerked around, starred him down and responded, “Are you trying to hit on me?”   “I’m looking for the peanut butter.”  As he backed quickly away, Craddock saw a stock boy and asked him, “Where’s the peanut butter?”  “It’s on aisle 5, way down on the left.”   Craddock went and got the peanut butter.  As he turned to get in line for checkout, he saw the woman standing there and she said to him, “SO, YOU WERE LOOKING FOR PEANUT BUTTER.”  “I told you I was looking for peanut butter.”  “We’ll nowadays, you can’t be too careful,” she said.  “O yes you can be too careful.   Yes you sure can!

That woman was so careful she accused Craddock of hitting on her, when he wasn’t.  When we play life “too careful” all kinds of monsters seem to rise up against us too, even when they are not.  Most of them will vanish, if we practice courage, learn confidence and gain the internal strength we need.    There are so many other possibilities for facing our giants, if we will just open our eyes. 

ONLY ONE POWER CAN EMPOWER US TO WIN
What possibility did David see?  When everyone else was focused on Goliath’s size and massive armor, David was focused on the small opening for Goliath’s face.   He felt confident he could land at least one “smooth” stone square between his eyes, and he did.   But this is not really what David focused most upon.  Our text reminds us that David’s confidence did not simply come from his slingshot skill, but it David’s confidence came from his constant relationship with the true God.  “You come to me with spear and Javelin;”  he told Goliath, “but I come to you in the name of the Lord, whom you have defied…(17:45). He adds: “The Lord does not save by sword or spear; for the battle is the LORD’s and he will give you into our hand” (17:47).

The Salvation Army is one of my favorite Christian mission organizations.  In Saskatchewan, Canada, the Salvation Army Captain, Mike Ramsay, reminded those gathered that the “battle belongs to the Lord”.  He continues: “Everyday we are facing a new Goliath.  I know many who are struggling with addiction…many who struggle with  health or family issues….I know that some have to make decisions soon about children or their own lives…. But no matter how difficult the challenge, how big the Goliath you face, or the insurmountable odds against you.  God will help you overcome.  As we turn to him, we will be successful because ultimately we and our lives are in God’s hands….the battle is the Lords.”  (Edited quote from a Sermon “The Battle Belongs to the Lord” as quoted at goodpreacher.com).

A great example of God’s providence and power over life and history is in 1980’s struggle with Apartheid in South Africa.  In a recent PBS documentary, there is a moment when Bishop Desmond Tutu was answering a question about how he keep the faith and continued to go to Truth and Reconciliation hearings, when there was so much oppression, tension, and violence.  Here is what Tutu told with “dancing eyes”: “When the white man first came here, we had the land and they had the Bible.  They said, Let us pray.  We closed our eyes and when we opened them again, they had the land and we had the Bible.”   But Tutu wasn’t finished.  “I can tell you,” he said, “which is the stronger.  We have the Word of God.  We will prevail.  It is inevitable.”  And justice and the people with the Bible did prevail and Goliath of Apartheid in S. Africa ended.”   But remember:  They did not prevail with violence and swords, but with the Word of God, because, God and his truth is always bigger than anything else we humans must face.  

But can we see it?  Can we believe it?   Will we be able to focus on the flaw in the face of the giant and bigness of God rather than our smallness, our weakness or our own lack of power?  One thing for certain, David teaches us, that we can’t see what God can do in big ways and big moments, until we have already experienced what God can do in small ways and in small moments.   One final inspiring story of God’s power in us now, come from Erma Bombeck, who once told of visiting a camp for children with Cancer, called Camp Sunrise.  She was impressed how the camp taught children to expect miracles and blessings in unusual ways.  There, Erma met Bert, a 12 year old who was fighting neuroblastoma.  Bert loved to draw.   One day, a visitor asked Bert, “Are you going to be an artist when you grow up?”   Bert answered matter-of-factly, “I already am an artist.”  (From Lamar King as told by Scott Simmons in Sermon Reviews from Lectionary Homiletics, Vol.  XXIII, No. 4, p. 33).

Dear people, can we defeat the Giants in our own lives?   The correct answer is:  we already are.  By coming to this place, placing our hearts and hands into God’s and trusting in his providential power, we are already on the winning side.   Having courage is no longer an option, it is our way of life, because God is bigger than any Goliath we face.  Amen.    

Sunday, June 17, 2012

IMAGE ISN’T EVERYTHING


A Sermon based upon 1 Samuel 16: 1-13
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, Pastor
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Father’s Day, June 17, 2012

The Christian God appears to have an image problem.

If you enter a Muslim Mosque, even in America, you’ll probably find it full of men bowing and praying.   Allah seems to have no image problem among Muslim men.   But if you go into most Christian churches, even across America,  and even in the Bible belt, men worship much less than women.   According to statistical information, men seldom reach more than 39 % of the worshippers present.  Why do men tend to stay away from God?

In a recent article entitled “Why Men Stay Away?” professor Tom Long says “the reasons are complex, but a clue might be found in a Christian group that attracts men and women in roughly equal numbers: Eastern Orthodoxy.”  Orthodoxy's main appeal to male converts is that it's "challenging."  One convert said, "Orthodoxy is serious. It is difficult. It is demanding. It is about mercy, but it is also about overcoming myself."   One man said he was tired of “feel-good American Christianity."    If faith were more like football, more “macho,” more “manly” and more demanding, perhaps it would matter more to men.  http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2011-10/why-do-men-stay-away .   

GOD’S IMAGE PROBLEM: A HEART THAT DIFFERS
In our text today, we might discover part God’s image problem.  Samuel has been called of God to go and pick out a new King.  The first King of Israel did not work out so well.   Saul was strong, tall, heads above everyone else, and the Scripture says, “there was not a man in Israel more handsome than he” (1 Sam. 9.2).  But with his “highness” also came “haughtiness”.   He would not follow God’s clear instructions (1 Sam 13.13).  He laid irrational orders upon his armies (1 Sam 14: 28ff.).   The final straw broke when Saul did not obey God’s voice through the prophets, which directly instructed him on how to handle the spoil of battle (1 Sam. 15.3).  Since Saul has proven himself unreliable, God is now looking for a new king (1 Sam. 15.11). 

In the story of our text, Samuel has been sent to the house of Jessie, who has 7 sons present in his house.  Surely, there must be some royal testosterone here.  But one by one the strong, the able, the most fitting sons are allowed to go by.   God’s tells Samuel time and time again: “Nope!  Not that one.”  Keep going, going, going, gone!   Finally, after all the sons have passed by, Samuel asked Father Jessie: “Do you have any other sons?”  Well, there was only one other.  He’s the number eight son; the runt of the liter.  He’s out taking care of the sheep.  He likes to write poems and play the guitar.  

Now we begin to see an angle of the image problem men might have with God and his ways.   Of course, the ladies will like David, but will the men?  Is this David manly enough?  God’s pick is a man who seems to be touchy-feely, caring, sensitive, nurturing, shepherd type.   Already, we get a glimpse that this “man after God’s own heart” is not the kind choice men eagerly notice.  He’s certainly no Rambo—or Bruce Willis.  David seems soft.  He’s a shepherd, not a farmer.  Just like when God picked that mama’s boy Jacob instead the tough, hunter type Esau, David is just too smart, too clean cut, and too much dreamer for most men, even if he did kill a bear with his hands.  God’s selection is just not “macho” enough. The image of a man in David is not the kind of image men want to imagine for themselves.    

But God’s “image” problem among men with power drives and large egos goes back further than this.  If you turn in your Bible to Deuteronomy, you’ll see the first mention of the kind of King God is looking for.    “When you come to the land the Lord is giving you….you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord will choose….EVEN SO…HE MUST NOT acquire MANY HORSES for himself…. he must not acquire MANY  WIVES…  When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him…. It shall remain with him and HE SHALL READ IN IT ALL THE DAYS OF HIS LIFE, so that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, DILIGENTLY OBSERVING ALL THE WORDS OF THIS LAW….NEITHER EXALTING HIMSELF ABOVE OTHER members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment….so that his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel.”  (Deut. 17: 14-20).   What man wants to limit his power, lessen his pride and become a humble servant meditating on the laws of God?  Isn’t a man supposed to be the head of his own castle?  Isn’t a man supposed to be strong, controlling, demanding and tough?  Is there any wonder men find God uninteresting, perhaps even threatening?

Move on closer to our text just a few chapters back.   The time came when the people demanded a king.  They demanded to Samuel: “You are old…your sons do not follow your ways….appoint for us a king to govern us like other nations” ( 1 Sam. 8:5).   You could say that Israel had their own image problem, and they wanted to be like everyone else.  What’s wrong with that?   Well, in the story, Samuel fells as if they were rejecting him, but God says the people are really rejecting “the Lord from being their King” (1 Sam. 8.7).  So, what did God do?  He gave them the King after their own heart instead of the King after God’s heart.  He gave them the King they wanted.  But what they wanted was not what they needed.  Yes, again, Saul was strong, a head above everyone else, and he was also handsome, the text says; but with that he was also hard-headed, often unreasonable, many times irrational in his leadership.  He was a man who was manly, but he also proved to be an emotional and spiritual train-wreck.   So, finally God had to reject him.  As a King, and as a man, he became a disaster.   

In our text today, God picks a very different kind of King, with a different Kind of heart.   He picks a King with a heart like God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14), which is obviously the heart of both a shepherd and a servant.   David is not perfect, and will fail in many ways, but it is what’s in his heart, soul and personality that matters. By the time we get to the New Testament, the kind of disciple God desires follows the “David” model.   While Jesus is the new David, he wants his disciples to be humble and servant oriented too.  Once when the disciples were arguing over who gets to be the head honcho in God’s kingdom---that is, having a very “manly” discussion----Jesus turns to scold them.  To James, John and the others he says, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,  and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.   For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."  (Mar 10:42-45 NRS).

It’s much more fun and interesting to be “lord” over people than to “serve” or to “shepherd”; that’s very much the core of God’s image problem, isn’t it?   It just doesn’t fit reality of our world.  God is too much unlike us. But the Bible goes on and God’s image problem gets even worse.  The apostle Paul writes that “…God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.   Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.   But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,  so that no one might boast in the presence of God.  "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."  (1Co 1:25-31 NRS).  

God is a particular kind of God who is looking for a particular and even a peculiar type of people.  But to many God’s image of humanity appears weak; just not strong enough, not hard or tough enough.  The man “after God’s own heart” is not the kind of “heart” men seek or want to emulate.  This kind of God with a “heart” sounds good for women and children, maybe even O.K. for boys, when they are still with their mothers, but can this kind God get the “job” done in real life?   The God of the Bible has an image problem, especially among men.  The God of the Bible has got too much heart, and he’s just not macho or manly enough.

OUR OWN IMAGE PROBLEM: A HEART ONLY FOR SELF
The Revelation of God in the Bible portrays that “God’s heart” is often unlike ours.   Part of this is due to God being God, but the other part is due to our own human “image” problem.   The Bible teaches that all of us are created in God’s image, and that we are people created “after God’s own heart”.  But rather than live out the image of God in us, too often we become desperate to create and live out of a very different image---the image we want for ourselves rather than the image we have been given our creator God.        

Back in 1990, tennis star Andre Agassi, cut a commercial for the Canon EOS Rebel camera with an iconic tagline, “Image is Everything”.  The spot featured Andre riding in a Jeep, smoothing back his flowing, dirty-blond, lion-mane mass of hair, looking like the essence of California cool.   That was the “image “ that would sell.  The problem was that Agassi’s trademark hair was not his own.  In his 2009 Autobiography, Open, Agassi admits that he started losing his hair when he was only 17, and was actually wearing a wig during the commercial on the court---and it cost him the 1990 French Open.   Seems he was so worried about losing his hairpiece in the middle of the match, he played so stiff he got beat.  To his credit, Andre got real about his image after that and shaved off his hear, making his image about what happened on the court, not what happened on his head.

Even though Agassi’s hair got cut, the line didn’t.  “Image is Everything” became the mantra of the first two decades of the 21st century.   The obsession with image gave us people like Paris Hilton, the Kardashians,  the outlandish cast of Jersey Shore, and the likes of lady Gaga.   Here are a lot of people who are only famous because of their image.  It used to take a certain amount of talent to become famous, but now you all you need is a flashy image without any substance at all.

It gets worse. In our culture today, you not only get to worship the image of your favorite celebrity, you can become a celebrity yourself; at least you can pretend to be one.  If you have enough time, money and desire, you can rent a designer dress like the celebrities wear on the red carpet.  You can also rent a 24,000 dollar necklace for $260 dollars.  Or why not rent  your dream car; a Bently, Maserati, or Rolls Royce.  It will cost you only 1,950 dollars a day.  That’s just pocket change compared to the retail price of $ 427,000.  And for $449 dollars , in select cities across America, you can even rent your own paparazzi to follow and photograph you.  It might sound stupid, but it can make your look real good.

We all know that the Israelites were just as obsessed with image as we are.   When people distance themselves from daily communion with God, humans become preoccupied with their own image.   In the Biblical story, Israel wanted a king so they could look like everyone else (1 Sam. 8).  They wanted to look just like the “other nations” completely forgetting that God called them not to look or be like other nations (Gen. 12 1-3; Ex. 19: 5-6).  God told them, “If you obey my voice, you will be my treasured nation out of all the peoples” (Ex. 19: 5) and said, “You shall be for me a priestly and holy nation” (Ex. 19:6).  As in the Old Testament, also in the New, God challenged his people to “come out from among them and be different” and refuse to “touch the unclean thing” (2 Cor. 6:13-18).    But being a different, peculiar, chosen and holy people who are to show God’s praises (1 Pet. 2.9) is the very thing God’s people had trouble doing.  Saul’s problem with obedience to God is symptomatic of the whole human problem.  He doesn’t go the whole way with God’s will, but he only goes half way.   He’s a strong man, but he’s strong on his own terms.  Saul keeps the spoils of war so he’ll appear to be bigger than he really is.  He doesn’t give God the glory, but he keeps it for himself.  Instead of destroying those spoils, he keeps them.   The trophies of victory must be his so they enhance Saul’s own lessening image of himself.  Saul no longer defines himself in God, but Saul only defines himself as he compares himself to with the other image seeking rulers of the world.  This is why God tells Samuel in our text: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature; because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.“(16:7).

WHAT MATTERS TO GOD IS GOD’S IMAGE IN US
God does not want us to create an image for ourselves, which can lead to all kinds of madness in our world and in our lives.  But God wants us to live out his own image, an image that God has already placed in us.  
God looks deep into our hearts, passed our appearances of who we think we are at who we really are.  God looks past all the masks we wear and the faces we put on, and he sees the real person.   What God still looks for is the man and the woman who is after his own heart---not the oldest, the wisest, the strongest or most handsome.  God looks for the image of himself in us.   

David was a man after God’s own heart, not because David was perfect or a “big man”; but because David wanted a relationship with God in his own heart.   God created his people, both male and female, with a purpose; not just for the “job” they can do; for the fame they can reach; for the riches they can have nor for the image they build for themselves.  But God created humans for the “relationships” we can have, with God and with each other.  It is the image of God in us that is everything to God and should mean the most to us.   God defines our identity by seeing his own loving image alive in us.  And God has designed us to have the same kind of communion with God and others that has within himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.        

Most of us have had a powerful indication of the kind of image God is looking for in us with all discussion about a very unusual graduation speech recently given in Massachusetts.  English teacher, David McCullough’s speech went viral and he has been accused of belittling students when he told them to look at their diploma’s and notice that “None of you is special.  You are not special.  You are not exceptional.”   He went on to explain that even if some of them have accomplished high honors and grades, that this really means nothing for the rest of their lives; because “life is not about accolades, but life is about achievement.”   As students, as children and as young people, he said: “You have been “pampered, helmeted, bubble wrapped,…cajoled, feted and fawned over….even called sweetie pie”, but real life will not treat you as if you are special.    The statistics of risk, disease, divorce, failure are against you.   The world is not going to revolve around your every whim.  Get over it.  It’s not what you have done here, but it’s who you are, who you will be, and what you go on and should do with your life that matters now. 

This all might sound like a harsh word to graduates, belittling their egos, but McCullough defended his speech saying it reflects what he’s been teaching students for years.   His teaching them humility goes against the grain of the privileged life most of them have had.  Instead of affirming that by graduating, they are more special than others, he wants them to see that everyone is special.  He wants them not only to embrace their successes, but to know that they can also “embrace their failures”, which will come, and they can be more “selfless” people.  http://usnews.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/06/11/12171953-english-teacher-behind-viral-video-kids-have-to-stumble?lite .

Scripture also tells us over and over that God is not looking for “big people” with “big ideas” and “big ways”, but God is always looking for little and big people, with good ideas and with faithful ways.  Most of the world pays little attention to the people that God cares most about.   God cares for sinners, for lost people, for poetic shepherd types; for dreamers and believers; for working class fishermen; for the weakest and the least likely.  God’s glory is able to shine brightest, not in the best and the brightest, but in the willing, the humble and the most passionate and dedicated.  In fact, if you do any kind of study you’ll find that most of the world today is not run by the “best and the brightest”—those who easily made the A’s and B’s.  But statistics show that the people that really hold the world together are the “C” people---those ordinary people who do extraordinary tasks each and every day.  It’s the “C” people who become the backbone of communities---the civic leaders, the club member, the faithful follower and the late bloomer who inspires and gives back the most to the world.   Today, it is especially important for us to realize, that a faithful Father and husband, who may be unexceptional to the world, is this kind of very ordinary person who can bring extraordinary love and hope into his own home and community by living out God’s image. (This concept of “C” people comes from Len Sweet).   

An African folk tale is told about a tribe whose men traditional obtained their wives by purchasing them from their fathers with live stock.  Were a woman especially beautiful, a man might offer her father five goats.  Were she plain, only one or two.  One year, as the tribe met at the oasis for their annual gathering, one young man set his eye upon one rather ordinary-looking maiden.  To the astonishment of all his friends, he went up to her father and bid for her with the princely sum of 10 goats.  The girl’s father was surprised and delighted at his good fortune.  He accepted the young man’s offer immediately, and the two of them were married straightaway.

A year went by, and the tribe gathered at the oasis once again.  The young men laughed and pointed their fingers at their friend, newly arrived from the hills.  “And how is your 10-goat bride?”, they asked snickering.  At that very moment, into their presence walked the most lovely woman any of them had ever seen.  “What’s the matter? Their friend asked.  “Don’t you recognize the woman I married?”  Truly they hadn’t.  She had changed.  What had change about her was the knowledge that her husband loved her so much, he had paid 10 goats for her.  It was this knowledge, this inner awareness that made her beauty flourish from the inside out.   Love has a way of doing that to people---redeeming them from the inside out.  And having a heart seems to give heart---changing our image and our image of world in the most powerful way possible.   Amen.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Crazy Love


A sermon based upon Mark 3: 20-35
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, Pastor
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Pentecost 2,  June 10, 2012

Have you ever been called crazy?  Jesus was.  In today’s text Jesus’ own family said he was “out of his mind?”. 

Many great people have been called “crazy”.   If you do something that is out of the ordinary, that challenges the status quo, or if you have the courage and conviction to step out and challenge the majority’s opinion, you are at risk of being called “crazy”.

But not everyone who is called “crazy” is really crazy.  In history we know of several great people with great minds who were not understood, at least at first, and appeared to be “out of their own minds”.   Think of Galileo, when he first suggested that the earth went around the sun, rather than the sun going around the earth.  When you look at the sky, everyone knows that the sun rises and sets, so it’s the sun moving, right?  Wrong!  Galileo said it was the other way around and people called him crazy.

Another great mind who was called crazy was Einstein.  When he was a child, Einstein’s parents thought he was retarded.   Albert Einstein was a methodical mathematical genius who discovered the theory of relativity.   Einstein came to understand that time and space in the physical world are not absolutes, but relative--- they can change in their relationship to each other.   Think of it like this:  if you are traveling on a train at a fast rate of speed you can still put your hand in your mouth and eat a doughnut slowly.   The train is going sixty, your hand is also doing sixty, but due to relativity of time and space you can put the doughnut in your mouth slowly rather than on your face.   Because of “relativity” the speed of the train doesn’t matter to your mouth, only the speed of your hand which is “relative” to your mouth.   

Of course, this is an over simplification of Einstein’s theory.  What Einstein so brilliantly concluded is that contrary to what we see and think, time and space can change and are relative to each other.  The only absolute in physics is the speed of light, which does not change.   As an object goes into space and speeds up, time slows down.  Doesn’t that sound crazy?  But it’s true and it’s also true that speed of light never slows down.  The speed of light remains constant and absolute.  What does this mean in practicality?   Well, when you are calibrating a clock from a satellite for a GPS system, you must take “relativity” into account because clocks tick slower in space than on earth.   Here, you can also think of a theological implication.  Think of the old gospel songs which says: “In heaven, time does not matter anymore.”   Since time is not eternal, it makes sense that God did not say, “Let time begin,” when he created the world, but God said “Let there be light.”  When God speaks, God speaks is absolutes.  But of course, we can’t always see such things that Einstein saw, and often what we can’t see we call “crazy”.

PEOPLE CALLED JESUS CRAZY
All kinds of brilliant people have challenged our thinking, our ideas, and our ways of doing things, and have been called crazy.  We don’t call them “mad scientists” for nothing.   Jesus joined the brilliant genius minds of the world as he was light years ahead of the religious practice of his own day.  Jesus saw what others could not see.  He was so far ahead the people and the leaders they said he was “possessed with a demon” or had “an unclean, evil spirit” in him.   We even read that Jesus’ own family were so troubled about him that “they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”  (vs. 21).

I learned many years ago, that legally, it’s a very hard thing to prove somebody incompetent.    We had a lady in the community who was about to sell her land at too low a price to someone who was trying to take advantage of her.  It was brought to my attention, and in visiting her, I agreed that she had great difficulty in learning and logic.  So, I decided to invite her to see a social worker so that there could be an evaluation.  Interestingly, when I spoke to the woman alone at home, she could hardly make any sense at all.  But when we visited the Social worker, she answered every question perfectly.  “I’m sorry preacher, but we can’t see any reason at all to suggest that she is incapable of handling her own affairs.”   That was that.   I was the one who looked crazy.

I’m also reminded of that savant named Raymond in the movie Rain man, played by Dustin Hoffman who was thought to be a complete idiot, but he proved to have a mind superior to most everyone else because he remembered everything.  To many people Jesus seemed a crazy man,  but to those who came to understand who he was and what he was doing, Jesus was nothing less than a spiritual and religious genius; and so much more.   Was Jesus “out of his mind”, as his family saw it?  It depends on which way you look at him, doesn’t it?   Remember what the gospel of John says: “He came to his own and his own received him not, but as many as received him, he gave them the power to become children of God” (John 1: 11-12).   Things are not always as they appear.  Appearances can be deceiving.

While on vacation last week, during our devotional time together as a family, my brother-in-law told a moving story of spiritual growth in his own life.  He said he was on a plan with his wife traveling when on the plan he saw a man with dreadlocks and tattoos.  In his mind, he immediately “judged” the man as being less than what a person should be, even though the man was traveling with his wife and beautiful children.   But as my brother-in-law observed the man’s loving nature toward his family, he started to feel convicted of judging him.  While picking up their luggage, he went to the man in dreadlocks to apologize for his prejudice.  That was a “crazy” thing to do for my brother-in-law to do, because the man didn’t even know he was being judged.  But what happened next is really amazing.  The man in dreadlocks said, “Hey, you must be a Christian!”, he told my brother-in-law.  “Well, I’m a Christian too.  Hello, brother!”  Then he continued,  “I’m a Christian who used to be one of the biggest drug lords in the USA, and I’m going to speak at a conference to help others stay away from drugs.”  With this my brother-in-law said, that his whole perception of people and the world was transformed.  Never again, would he judge a person by their looks.  He realized just how “crazy” his attitude had been and how wonderfully and differently “crazy” love can be.

PEOPLE STILL CALL GOD CRAZY
What made Jesus look crazy was not just what he said, and did, but what he was telling us about God.   Jesus told us that God cared more about sinners than saved people.  Jesus told us that God cared more about life Everyday than being Holy on the Sabbath Day.   Jesus also told us that when you really understand the true nature of God and his rule, your whole world will be turned upside down.   Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel described just how “crazy” or differently God thinks about life than we do:  Those who are poor are the most blessed.  Those who are sad will be glad.  Those at their lowest will come out on top.  Those who hunger for God instead of food will be the most satisfied.   And finally, those who are peacemakers will be the most powerful, not those who make and win wars.  All this sounded then, just like it still sounds now, pure-T crazy.    

I would guess that God and his kingdom seems “crazy” to any of us who only look at life as we want to see it.  But let something happen and it all changes.  Bob Buford was a wealthy business man.  He spent the first half of his life aiming for success and he made it.  He thought.  He had money.  He had power.  He had a great family.  By mid-life he had accomplished everything that he had set out to accomplish.  But then a tragic thing happened.  In a tragic accident, his son, the apple of his eye, drowned while swimming in the Rio Grande River.  It should not have happened that way, but it did.  And when it did, Bob’s view of everything changed.  He would give everything away to have his son back.  He was not “hungry” for wealth, power, or prestige, because none of it would bring his son back.  Everything seemed empty, until through a spiritual experience, he found hope in God, and he committed the second half of his life to living and working to make life significant instead of being successful.  Now, he wanted to do things that before he considered “crazy”: reaching out to others instead of thinking about himself; caring about other people’s children, and taking a whole new look at the calling of God and the meaning of life.   Sounds crazy doesn’t it.  But to a man who loses everything it’s the only way to get your sanity back.  When you see life as it really is, Jesus now seems exactly right: in order to keep or save your life, now you have to give your life away.

We read all kinds of crazy things in this Bible of ours.  We read about “Taking up a cross,” “bearing the burdens of others,”, “selling everything and giving it to the poor” or losing your life to save it.   All these very radical ways of saving your life sound “crazy ” to a person who thinks they have, or can have everything; mistakenly thinking that in life, they have taken the proverbial “bull of life by the horns”.  But let that “bull” throw you off.   Let your life take an unexpected turn, and you may find that the very crazy ways of God are the only true ways you can find or regain your sanity in this world that can be so insane.   Jesus and Paul were both right when they suggested that ‘only the “craziness” and “foolishness” of God” can counter the craziness and foolishness of this world.   

HOW CRAZY WILL YOU BECOME?
There is no doubt that the way of Jesus seemed crazy to people then just as the work and way of God still seems crazy to many today.  But what about us?  Are we “crazy” enough to follow Jesus today?  

Some years ago, C.S. Lewis wrote some arresting and now famous words when he said: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic---on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg---or he would be a liar---the very Devil of Hell.  With Jesus you must always make a choice.  Either this man was, and is the Son of God, or he is a madman or something worse.”   The point Lewis makes is crystal clear: You can’t say Jesus was good unless you also say he is God.  You can’t say Jesus is bad unless you also make him a devil.  With Jesus you have to dive in all the way; you just can’t say nothing, and you just can’t say something.  You have to make God everything or he means nothing.  You have to love God with your whole heart, or you will not love him at all.

This is exactly what is happening in our text.  The religious leaders who opposed Jesus are saying something, but it’s the wrong thing.  They are saying Jesus has the devil in him.  They cannot love Jesus.   They cannot love what Jesus is doing.   Jesus’ family does love Jesus, but can’t understand what he is doing, so they say he is beside himself.   They are probably trying to protect him, like making the plea of insanity in court.   But the critical point we come to face in this text is not about how they reacted to Jesus, but it’s about how we react and respond to Jesus today.  The seriousness of the matter surfaces in this text with Jesus’ mention of the “unpardonable” sin. 

This “unforgiveable sin” is also known as the “sin against the holy Spirit”.  Jesus says that “all sins can be forgiven, but whoever sins against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, they are guilty of an eternal sin.”   What is this “eternal, unforgiveable sin?”   In this story, it is obviously about making the wrong decision about what God is doing through Jesus.   When people miss the true Spirit of love in Jesus, they sin against God’s spirit.   That's very dangerous.  The great prophet Isaiah once explained the heart of Israel’s sin as the people calingl good evil, and evil good”.    This is the same point Jesus seems to be making about the unforgiveable sin.   It is unforgiveable to say that love is wrong.  When Jesus tried to lead people in the new ways of understanding God’s love--- loving sinners and loving the hurting and helpless---- the religious leaders declared Jesus “demonic”.  In this way, they were calling the “good” and loving deeds of Jesus, “evil”.  But worse than that; they were also calling the “evil” and the lack of love they had, as doing “good”.   This is the kind of spiritual “insanity” that becomes impossible to forgive.  

This is a dangerous place to be, to be in danger, as the old preachers used to say, of sinning away our day of God’s love and grace?   But the good news is that Jesus came to save people from this unpardonable, unforgivable sin---the sin of not being able to love.   This is exactly the kind of “craziness” God’s love is about. We can see God’s salvation of teaching us a new way to learn love in how Jesus reacts to his own family.   To his own family and also to us, Jesus offers a new family who learn God’s love by doing God’s will.  “Who is my family? Jesus asks.  Then he answers his own question:  My mother and brothers and sisters are those who do the will of God.”   Only by seeking God’s will do we come to know God’s love so we be saved both “from” and “through” our families.   This is how we get to be called the “children of God.”  When we learn to love as God’s loves, everything changes.

Have you ever seen what happens to people when they are around a little baby?   Last week we spent a week with the “new baby” in our family.  All of us went up to that baby making funny, crazy sounds and faces.  It all looked so ridiculous, so crazy, unless you understood the language and meaning of love.   Love can change us so much we might even appear to be “out of our minds” when we practice the kind of love that is out of this world.  It is this “crazy” kind of love that we must not reject and not neglect, but must learn to practice as well as preach, if we want to be saved from this maddening, insane world of hate, guilt, blame and shame.  Only God’s crazy love can keep us from the unforgiveable--- the sin of being unable to love.  Amen.   

 © 2012 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The ‘Hole’ in the Gospel?

A sermon based upon John 3: 11-21
Charles J. “Joey” Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Graduation Recognition and Trinity Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

Does your “gospel” have a hole in it?  

Let me explain.  When Jim Wallis, founder of the evangelical Christian Magazine Sojourners was a seminary student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, he and some other students conducted an experiment.  They took a King James Bible.  They went through all the sixty-six books of the Bible and underlined every passage that had a verse that dealt with poverty, wealth justice and oppression.  Then, one the students took a pair of scissors and physically cut out every one of those verses out of the Bible.  The result was a book in tatters that barely held together.  Beginning with the books of Moses, through the books of history the Psalms, Proverbs, the Prophets (major and minor), the four gospels, the book of Acts, the Epistles and into Revelation, so central were these themes to Scripture that the resulting Bible was in shambles.  (There are over 2,000 verses on Poverty and Justice and there are more texts dealing with Wealth than any other).  

When Jim Wallis would speak on these issues that he believed should concern churches, just as much as the saving of souls, he would hold up his ragged Bible in the air and proclaim, “Brother and sisters, this is OUR American Bible; and it is full of holes.   If we only believe and teach the part we want and ignore the other parts, we might as well take our scissors and cut it out of the Bible.  At least then, we’ll see that our Bible is full of holes (As Told by Richard Stearns, in “The Hole in Our Gospel, 2010, p. 24).

Let me declare to you that the “true gospel” or the true Bible is not full of holes, but the one many of us choose to believe and live by may be.   And if it is, there is one verse in the Bible that can help us begin to repair it, to plug it, and to fix the hole we’ve cut out.  You know that verse as the gospel in a nutshell, but let’s make sure we don’t throw away the heart with the shell.

FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD
No one can mistake the bigness of those words.    There is no “hole” in God’s love.  God’s love is as solid as it is big.   In fact, God’s love is even “bigger than the whole world”.

When I was in seminary, I had a systematic theology professor begin to teach a lesson about the doctrine of God.  He started the class by drawing two equal circles on the board.  One circle represented the world.  The other circle by its side represented God.   Our professor then explained: This is how most people imagine God’s relationship with the world.  God is over here and the world is over there.  Get the picture?  Isn’t that how most of us picture God; as either outside, above, or beyond the world?  

With this thought in our minds, the professor proceeded to draw two more circles.  This time he drew one circle on the board and said, “This is the world.”  Next he took his chalk and told us that he was going to draw how God relates to the world.  Instead of drawing God beside or outside the world, then he drew the “God” circle as a ring around the world, which was much, much bigger.   He told us: “God is not out-there far, far away.  But God is even bigger than the world”.   Then, speaking figuratively, he added, the whole world fits right in the middle of God’s heart.” 

Right then, my whole understanding of God changed.  God is not away, out-there, but we, the world, we cannot help but be loved by God, because we there we are, all of us, right in the middle of God’s heart.  And even more, we can also infer one the most important truth which John 3:16 tell us:  since God is bigger than the world, he is always big enough to love the whole world.  “He’s got the whole world, not in his hands, but in his heart.”

How do you picture God?  What we need to understand out of this picture of God is not only is God big enough to love the whole world, but God is also bigger than any personal, private or particular interpretation.  We must not miss this important truth.  To put it another way: God is too big to be just a private matter between “you” and God. Unfortunately, this is exactly how people start cutting the true God and the whole gospel out of the Bible.  We start picking and choosing the parts that we like, that fit us---the parts that make us feel good---and we leave out all the other parts that are just as important; sometimes, even more important.   Too many people believe in God they have “reduced” down to size---their size.   They have made God and the gospel a kind of “fire insurance.”   Someone put it this way: “We’ve shrunk Jesus down to our size where he can save our soul---but we no longer believe that he can change the world.” 

Interestingly, when Jesus started his ministry, he said nothing about saving souls for heaven, and spoke about changing the world so people could live full and free lives now, “on earth as it is in heaven”.  Jesus quoted these words from the great prophet Isaiah:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for prisoners, to recover sight for the blind, to release the oppressed and to proclaim the year of God’s favor.”  The point here is that God’s love is big enough to save us in and for this world now, not only to save us for the world to come.  “For God so loved the world” means that we, as people of God’s love are also called to “love the world” as God “so loved the world”.    Our love is supposed to grow into a God-sized love.

Before we move on, let’s ask ourselves: HOW BIG IS OUR UNDERSTANDING OF GOD AND HIS LOVE?  Many years ago, J.B. Phillips wrote a book entitled: Your God is too Small, implying that the picture of God most of us carry in our heads is way too small.  He gives examples of the images of God in our mind that we should deconstruct: God as a resident policeman; God as the voice of our parents in our heads; God-in-the-box; or the most famous one, God as the “grand old man in the sky.”  Phillips said that these, and several others, are all inadequate images of the true God, the God who must always remain bigger than we can ever conceive.  Then, in the second part of his book, Phillips goes on to reconstruct the image of God that is so big that we will always be “in the fog” about God until we can “focus” our minds on the very heart of God, which has been revealed to us through the gospel of Jesus Christ  (From Your God is Too Small, by J. B. Phillips, reprinted by Touchstone Books, 1997).

The only way we humans can see God is with the human face of Jesus, not made visible with a painting, photo or any graven image, but only made visible in the life of loving acts, deeds, and compassion of Jesus Christ.   We can see only the true God by looking straight into God’s heart, as we look at God giving us his “heart” through the life, death and sacrifice of God’s Son and our Savior, Jesus the Christ.   This is why John 3.16; continues: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son….”   In giving us His only Son, God was giving us his own heart.  He was giving us himself for the world.

And this is what God also calls us do.  If we love God and have God’s love in us, we also should live lives of sacrificial love; serving not only ourselves, but serving the needs of the world.  We are not, as Christians, called to hate or to hide out from the world, as some have mistakenly thought.   The point John 3.16 makes is that just as God’s love is something God does for the world, our love for the world must also be something we do “in” and “for” the world.  Without that kind of “love” for the world, there is indeed, a “hole” in the gospel.       


IN THE WORLD BUT NOT OF THE WORLD
To say that we should “love the world” as “God so loved the world” is a beautiful thought, but what does it look like?   In this time of graduation, you graduates should be contemplating the same kind of thing: Now you have this work behind you but you still have your most of your life and work ahead of you, so what does it look like to live a life for God that is full of love, but not full of holes?

The first thing we should say loud and clear is that loving the world does not mean that you love everything about the world.   Here is where your education kicks in.   The Bible not only tells us: “For God so loved the world that he gave…., but it also tells us, “do not love the world”.   This sounds contradictory but it isn’t.  Listen closely how in First John 2: 14-15 we read a word especially written to young people: “I write to you young people, because you are strong and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.  DO NOT LOVE THE WORLD OR THINGS OF THE WORLD.  THE LOVE OF THE FATHER IS NOT IN THOSE WHO LOVE THE WORLD, for all that is in the world---the desire of the flesh, the desire of eyes, the pride in riches---comes not from the Father but from the world.  And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.”   Again, your education comes in because you realize the problem here is about the limits of human language not because of the limit of God’s truth.  The word “world” means different things in our language, doesn’t it?  In John 3.16; the “world” means the creation, cosmos, humanity and all the cultures God has created in the world, which are a “gift” of God.  But in 1 John 2: 15 the “world” means something else.  It means all the negatives, the evils--both spiritual and human evils which are destructive to the world God loves and has created.  The same selfish desires which took paradise away from Adam and Eve can still take your opportunities for life and for love away from you. 

Being a Christian means we ‘love the world’ but it does not mean we love everything in the world.  We are to “yes” to God’s love, but we are also to say “no” to the things that are contrary to God’s loving purposes and grace.  There is a “world” out there that we must oppose, which is not only “out-there”, but it can get “in here”, in our own hearts and keep us from loving.  Part of the Christian life is learning to say “yes”, but another part of it is gaining the wisdom of saying no.  If we cannot say learn to “no” to those negative powers in the world which are against love, then soon we will not able to say “yes” to all that God has for us.   John says: And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (John 3: 19, (NRS). We can’t say “yes” to the light God brings until we say can say “no” to the darkness.  Saying “no” is as important to love as saying “yes”.  

In a parenting book that has shocked many American parents entitled, Bringing Up Bébé, an American mother living in France had learned the wisdom of French parenting.  For one thing, she learned that French parents only allow their children one snack daily at 4.30 pm.  The French believe it is better for the child be hungry when they eat than to have the parent give them food whenever they want it.   The French also make their children eat their vegetables first.  French parents think of themselves as the educators for their children, teaching them patience, self-control, and delayed gratification and this also means that they do not rush to give their children everything. “Do you know the surest way to make your child miserable?   The French say: “Accustom your child to getting everything they want from you.”  “If by too much care you spare your child of every discomfort, you are preparing them for great miseries in life.”  Children are a bundle of self-centered desires that need structure and socialization.  The sooner they learn self-control (that is the power to say no), the better off they will be and the happier they will become as adults (have the ability to say yes) (Based on an article, Les enfants magnifiques, by Anthony B. Robinson, in The Christian Century, may 16, 2012, p. 36).       

THOSE WHO DO WHAT IS TRUE   
If we are unable to say “no” to the darkness ---to be “in the world, but not of the world”---   we will not be able to love the world as God loves the world and there will be a end up being a “hole” in the gospel.  To plug the hole in “our” gospel, we must love the world, by first being able say “no” to things that keep us from God’s love.   But learning to love as God loves the world must not stop with saying “no”.   We must also be able to say “yes” to and “do what is true as we come into God’s light.  This is what John means when he says in verses 20-21: “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God." (Joh 3:20-21 NRS).  


Loving like God means saying “no” to certain things, but it also means saying “yes” to the things that need doing.  A love that only says “no” becomes just as negative and oppressive as the darkness itself.  Love that lives in the light does what is true and keeps coming into the light so our “deeds” can be “clearly seen”.  Actor and social activist Sean Penn understands this concept.  In a recent rare TV interview, he told of his relief work in Haiti, which he says still isn’t done because the poor still need to have the opportunities we have.  In the interview, Sean not only spoke about his work, but he was asked about his anger at some of the volunteers.   He answered: “Yes, I do get angry at people who come to Haiti just come to get a notch in their belt and really don’t want to work.  I want them to understand that to love and care means they have to do something, not just talk about it  (Based upon Today Show interview, May 22, 2012,  http://video.today.msnbc.msn.com/today/47517532#47517532).  Love for the world is something to “do” for the world that needs saving and needs God.   God’s love calls us to respond with a big “yes” to what needs to be done in our world and in our lives, all in the light of God’s truth.

So, now, with this understanding of the gospel; believing and being saved by God’s love so that we can love this world as God loves the world; let me now ask you once more: Is there a hole in your gospel?  If there is “hole” in your gospel, today is a good day to start to fill it.  Today is a good day to think about what you need to say “no” to in your life so you can overcome the negatives that threaten to pull you down.  Today is also a good day to think about what you need to say “yes” to; so that you will be glad when the full light of God’s truth shines upon you and your life.  What “deeds” are you called to do “in God” as you come into the full God’s light of God’s love?    

I once challenged an atheist high school graduate to love the world, even more than God does.  He told me that he believed that Jesus was a good man, but that we are much smarter than Jesus today.   I took that challenge and I told him.  O.K., if that’s true; prove it.  If you think you’re smarter than Jesus, go out into the world and do even more for the world than he did.  He gave his whole life.  What will you give to love the world?   God may still have something about love to teach some very “smart” people.  Amen. 

© 2012 All rightsreserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.