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Sunday, January 29, 2017

“…Conceived by the Holy Spirit”

A Sermon Based Upon Galatians 4: 4-7
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
January 29st, 2017, Series: Apostles Creed 5/15)

Now long ago, a High School classmate of mine, now living and working in a New Orleans Psychiatric Hospital, posted on Facebook his response to the increasing violence in America.   His post stated that our greatest enemy is ‘within ourselves’.   When I read his words, I immediately commented this is, “sad, but true.”   Someone else commented that the violence in the world would be stopped if we got rid of religion, because religion is ‘the original us versus them dynamic’.

It is most obvious, that ‘religion’, of any kind, is becoming less and less respected, and even made a ‘scapegoat’ because it is less and less understood.  Some of this, of course, is because of what a few are doing in the name of religion.  Also, it is because in an increasingly secular world, the ‘spiritual’ side of is being less and less appreciated.

In today’s section of the Apostle’s Creed, we come to the core Christian belief, which speaks of Jesus as being ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the virgin Mary….’    We should not be surprised that a secular, scientific, technologically oriented world has great difficulty accepting such pre-scientific, spiritually focused language.  Most of us in churches, accept such a belief ‘by faith’ because we know ‘with God all things are possible’.  But an increasingly number of people, and even some of the faithful, struggle to understand how such a unique, exceptional, one-time event, even if it is was true, could have any real meaning for us today.

Beyond question, the ‘virginal conception’ as it should be properly named, resides at the core of the gospel story, especially noted at Christmas time.   This mystery we call Incarnation is the message that in Jesus Christ, ‘the word’ whom John names as God, ‘became flesh, and lived among us’ (John 1:19).   While it is conceivable and possible that God could have entered human history some other way, it is inconceivable that you can have the gospel we have, without Jesus being ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the virgin Mary.’   This is the only gospel we have and it is the true story because there is no ‘good news’ in this ‘bad news’ world, that lives under the ‘curse of the law’ (Gal. 3:13) and in ‘captivity to the law of sin’ (Rom 7:23) without God’s intervening and overruling truth, grace, and love.  

Writing about the gospel we do have, the apostle Paul explained to the Galatians, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,
 5 in order to redeem us…”  (Gal. 4:4-5 NRS).   Obviously, here nor elsewhere, does the greatest apostle ever specifically name the ‘virginal conception,’ but he asserts and assumes its meaning, saying ‘God sent his Son, born of a woman’ pointing direct to God’s saving initiative.    It is this divine initiative that Matthew affirms, even when he runs the genealogy of Jesus through Joseph, whom he names as ‘the husband of Mary’ (Matt. 1.16) but not Jesus’ earthly father, because he explained, Joseph ‘had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son’ (Matt. 1.25).  

How could a ‘Son’ be born to a woman, who only carries a female Y chromosome, without the male X chromosome, which only a man carries?   This is the question an advanced scientific, world still asks.  This fact about our natural world has caused some Christians to struggle and even to lose faith in this ‘conception’ by the Holy Spirit.   Science-minded Christians have responded with the biology of ‘parthenogenesis’ where lower life-forms are given life without the normal process of fertilization.    But it is important, for all Christians to be reminded that a ‘one-time-in-history’ event cannot be put into a ‘test-tube’ and proven through scientific inquiry—then or now.   In fact, what is most important about the ‘virgin birth’ is that it can’t be conceived any other way other than as a miraculous, unique, intervening act of God.  If you can’t conceive of a God who could do this, as J.B. Philips once said, “Your God is Too Small”.

It is exactly unique ‘act of God’ Paul meant when he said “God sent his Son...born under the law in order the redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4.4-5a).  Paul’s implies that without God’s unique, saving initiative, there is no hope of redemption.   Without God’s intervention, humanity remains hapless and hopeless, living ‘under the curse of the law’ and ‘in captivity to the law of sin’.   But the moment Jesus was conceived through ‘the Holy Spirit’ by ‘the power of the Most High’ (Lk. 1.35), Mary was told ‘nothing will be impossible with God’ (1.37).   Mary goes on to name what only God can make ‘possible’: …‘the knowledge of salvation …the forgiveness of their sins… light to those who sit in darkness …in the shadow of death’ and ‘to guide our feet into the way of peace” (1.78-79). 

Here is why we too must affirm ‘Virgin Birth’.   We can see it in our own world still, that without God’s saving initiative and without the ‘hope’ we find in God’s power to redeem our own situations; we will have all kinds of knowledge, but without salvation; we all kinds of sin, but without forgiveness; we will walk through all kinds of darkness, but without any light, and we our ‘feet’ will go all kinds of ‘ways’, but without finding any real peace.  

Recently, with all of the racial tensions rising up in America, and with the increasing violence and lack of respect for authority in our nation, African American football star and tight end for the Baltimore Ravens, Benjamin Watson, wisely wrote on his webpage, entitled “Under Our Skin” that even though he is angry, frustrated, fearful, embarrassed, sad, sympathetic, offended, confused, introspective, hopeless and hopeful, he is still ‘ENCOURAGED’ because ‘ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem….  He said he is ENCOURAGED because God has provided a solution for sin through his son Jesus and with it, a transformed heart and mind….The cure for the Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner Tragedies is not education or exposure.  It’s the Gospel… I’m ENCOURAGED because the Gospel gives hope.” (

Do you see that the Christian story of the ‘virginal conception’ is a story that points us to the ‘hope’ that not only was Christ was born to Mary by the Holy Spirit, but that also ‘Christ in you’ is ‘the hope of glory’ (Col. 1.27).  The hope is that you too can live ‘in Christ’ because, through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ can also get ‘under your skin’ and live in you.  

When Paul insisted that Jesus was ‘born of a woman’ (4.4), he was affirming his humanity of Jesus, not denying it.   The ancient world was filled with mythical stories about ‘gods’ who came to earth with divine, ‘superhuman’ powers and traits, but this is exactly not who Jesus was nor what Jesus did.  Jesus Christ named himself the ‘Son of man’  ‘who must suffer’, ‘be killed’ (Mark 8: 31) and ‘after three days rise again’ in order to prove ‘God’s love for us’ (Rom. 5.8).    God proves his love, Paul told the Romans, by reconciling us through Jesus’ ‘death’ and saving us ‘by his life’ (Rom 5.10).  Paul puts God’s saving truth in most practical and relational terms when he says ‘God sent his Son’ (4.4) ‘so that we might receive adoption as children’ (Gal. 4.5). 

 ‘Adoption’, as a metaphor of your salvation, may not appeal to you, unless you were adopted or have adopted a child.   This image of adoption especially resonates with me, because not only was I ‘adopted’ as a child, my wife and I adopted a child, and most recently, due to our daughter’s illness, we had to give our grandchildren up for adoption.   What speaks to me through each of these situations is how ‘helpless’ the child is who is being adopted.  The child depends solely on the courts, the parents, and the responsible people who will ‘do right’ by the child to make sure they are loved and protected.

I recall my mother telling me, that when she brought me home as a nine-month old baby, that I still could not set up alone.  Most babies are able to at least ‘sit up’ by that age, and many are already able to walk.  I was able to do neither.  But with the right kind of love, attention, and care, it wasn’t long that I was absolutely ‘helpless’, but I was running around all over the place.

When Paul speaks of salvation like ‘adoption’ he is, of course speaking of God’s love and care for us, but he is also speaking of how, as ‘children’ we are fully and completely helpless to ‘save’ ourselves.  This is another way, Paul is indirectly pointing back to the virgin birth.  Humanity is fully and completely helpless to save itself.  We are spiritually, morally, and even emotionally dependent, unable to ‘sit up’ and ensure our own future.  This is why God ‘sent his Son,’ so that God could do for us, what we cannot do for ourselves.  This is why Jesus was ‘conceived’ of by the Holy Spirit, because humanity was helpless to conceive of such a loving, caring, forgiving, redeeming, and dying savior, by themselves.

This brings us to the third way Paul’s words take us back to the meaning of the Virgin Birth.  He says that when God sent his Son to adopt us as children, he also ‘sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying “Abba! Father!” (Gal. 4.6).

Here, the virgin birth comes full circle.  Do you see it?  Mary ‘conceives’ Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit, so that God can also send ‘the Spirit of his Son into our hearts’.  Again, the ‘proof’ here is not found in ‘science’, but in ‘spirit’.  Jesus does not get into our ‘hearts,’ or as the Football player said, ‘under our skin’, through an exact scientifically, analyzable,  method or process  (with apologies to Methodists), but God’s Spirit, who is the Spirit of Jesus, gets into our hearts by the same spiritual power that  ‘conceived’ Jesus in the first place.   It is God the Father who ‘sent’ Jesus and this Father who also sends the ‘Spirit of his Son into our hearts.’ 

Whatever we can or can’t say, explain, or can’t ever explain and probably should never even try to explain about the virgin birth, is that without God’s intervention, we humans tend toward ‘hopelessness’, are left ‘helpless’, and become ‘heartless’.   This is why God sent ‘his Son’ not just to touch our hearts, but to change our hearts.  It is this ‘change of heart’ that the virgin birth is mostly about.   Although I don’t think struggling with belief in the Virgin Birth, especially on scientific grounds, will condemn you, I also don’t think believing in the Virgin Birth will save you either, because the Islamic Koran teaches the Virgin Birth of Jesus, but still denies the that Jesus was God become flesh.  

What can condemn you, what will condemn any and all of us,  is to fail to realize the great spiritual reality  the Virgin Birth always affirms.   Writing about the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Birth, the great British physicist turned Anglican priest, John Polkinghorne wrote:  “Let me say again that I believe our need is for transformation, not just information.  Jesus is the second Adam (the seed of a new humanity), not the second Moses (the conveyer of a new revelation) (From “The Faith of Physicist”, p. 141, Fortress Press, 1996).    His point is exactly what Paul means, when he says, through the miraculous conception of Jesus,  God now sends the possibility of the miraculous conception of ‘the Spirit of his Son into our hearts.’   We do not have to continue to live, with what the Old Testament prophet called ‘the heart of stone’ but God promises to give us ‘a new heart’ and a ‘new spirit’ (Ezekiel 11:19, 36:26).

Finally, Paul’s last what it means to say that ‘God sent his Son’ to be ‘born of a woman’  is pictured as being ‘no longer a slave’, but now becoming a ‘child’ who becomes an ‘heir’ to inherit everything God gives.   Because none of you have been a slave, nor homeless, this might be most difficult for you to feel emotionally.   But if you have ever been a ‘slave’ to some bad habit, some addiction, some sin of your own, or in some oppressive situation that you could did not cause or cannot escape, you are getting close to the experience of Paul’s words.   

Just the other day, I received an email from a medical website which helps me keep up with medical news and medical advancements.  This is in no way a religious, nor theological website; as it is purely medical and scientific.  But right in the middle of the page of headings of medical news, was an article about America’s addiction problem, by FDA chief, Robert Califf, where he speaks about America’s prescription Opioid drug problem, which is being cause by both doctors who prescribe and patients who abuse: “We Are All Sinners”, Califf said, recalling the words of South Carolina ‘Baptist Grandfather’   And in this case, he said, ‘there is a lot of sin to go around.’ (  

I find it very interesting, if not enlightening, that in an America that has increasing, even quadrupling addictions to drugs, medicines, and other mind controlling, evil powers that ‘enslave’ rather than ‘heal’, some political leaders are having to revert to mostly unused, left-over, biblical language, to communicate the nature of our great human weakness and our constant human need of God’s saving, redeeming power.

This is exactly what the apostle Paul meant when he said ‘God sent his Son’ to be ‘born of a woman’.  Believing that Jesus was ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the virgin Mary’ is not about trying to make you go against your science teacher.  It is not about trying to make you go against all human knowledge of biology.  This would make no sense, because what God did in Jesus, can’t be examined, can’t be proved, but can only be experience and known through what God did ‘once and for all’ (Heb. 10:10)

No, what the New Testament story about the Virgin Birth is about and what this wonderful creed asserts, is that in Jesus, ‘God sent his Son, born of a woman… to redeem’ and to save us with a transforming, redeeming power that is now made possible to us.  What God intervened to do physically and miraculously once through Mary, now many times, and just as miraculously and spiritually, God can and will conceive in us the “Spirit of his Son” in us.   When you have ‘received’ God’s Spirit, you will have no trouble confessing ‘that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh’ (1 Jn. 4.1) even if you still wonder at the mystery of it (Col. 2.2).   

For the greatest mystery is not how Jesus was born to a virgin named Mary, but ‘this mystery’ becomes even greater when you consider how ‘Christ in you, is the hope of glory” (Col. 1.27).  It is not how Jesus came once, but how Jesus keeps coming to us, in us, and keeps coming through us, again and again, and again---this is the mystery we should never solve, but must continue to live with unending wonder and hope.  Amen.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

“I Believe in Jesus Christ...Our Lord.”

A Sermon Based Upon Romans 1: 1-7
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
January 22nd, 2017, Series: Apostles Creed 4/15)

During our mission work, one of Christian youth from Georgia was staying in a former East German home. The host mother came up to me and made a statement I had never heard before and have never heard since.   She said to me, “Pastor, I have no trouble with belief in God, but it's Jesus that I struggle with.”   She went to explain that she could imagine a spiritual force behind the world, or even a creator, but she could not fathom God living on earth in flesh and bones.  

Strangely, in spite of the resistance some have, it is exactly this belief that God was revealed in human “flesh and bones” which formed the center Christian faith expressed in the Apostle’s Creed.  Our faith confesses Jesus Christ as ‘the word’ which ‘became flesh and lived among us’ ‘...full of grace and truth’ (Jn. 1:14). Additionally, in an early Christian letter, John warned that anyone in the church who did not ‘confess that Jesus came in the flesh’ is ‘a deceiver’ and worst, should be considered ‘antichrist’ (1 Jn. 4:2-3, 2 Jn. 2:7).  

However you look at it, the church took the Incarnation very seriously.  The astounding, mind boggling question remains even today: Why did those first Christians, who were also devout Jews, who as a part of their daily prayer, prayed: ‘Hear o Israel, the Lord our God is one”—how did they come to believe that Jesus was God’s ‘only Son’?

In Paul’s most important letter to Rome, the opening lines are ‘pointers’ to what the Apostle’s Creed affirms about Jesus.  One of the very first things Paul asserts is that Jesus ‘was descended from David according to the flesh’ (v.3).  In other words, Jesus was a real ‘flesh and blood’ person, who lived as an actual, historical man.

I know this sounds elementary, but there are people today who have attempted to debate, dispute, and doubt whether Jesus actually lived; some even writing books, articles and documents asserting that the gospel accounts are fabrications by the early church---figments of religious imagination.   In response this chatter, Dr. Bart Ehrman, a well –respected ‘secular’ New Testament scholar, who is also an agnostic, recently addressed anyone who might deny that Jesus actually lived.  He wrote:  “In a society in which people still claim that the Holocaust never happened …. it isn’t any surprise that some claim that the greatest person in the history western civilization, who is worshiped by billions, never existed.”
(From Ehrman’s article on Blog of Huffington Post).

There is much more that could be said about Jesus as a real person, even about the name “Jesus”, which means “Joshua”, the Lord Saves. Today we place special significance in that name,’ but then, before it was combined with the title, Christ, it was just another Jewish name, referring to an itinerant Jewish preacher, who lived and died in 1st century Palestine, ‘according to the flesh’.  

However we come to think about Jesus, the Creed reminds that first of all, we must believe that he was a real ‘man of his own time’.   When I was in college, I recall a speaker who came for chapel, claiming that if Jesus were to walk into the auditorium today, we would all be impressed by his muscular build, his intellect, and his winning personality, and even his good looks. Jesus was the ‘perfect man,’ he told us.  I found the whole point quite ridiculous.  Jesus’ perfection was about his moral nature, not his physical stature.  That fellow was saying nothing important about Jesus, because before you say or believe anything else about Jesus, you must affirm that he was human like anyone of us.

The second name Paul uses to express his faith in Jesus is “Christ.”   Christ is not Jesus’ last name, but it is a designation claiming that Jesus was ‘the Christ’---the ‘promised,’ long awaited Messiah, who was to be the anointed savior of Israel.  Paul echoed this expectation, saying that Jesus was ‘promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures’ (v. 2).  In Mark’s gospel, Simon Peter was first to call Jesus “the Christ” (Mark 8:29).

Strangely enough, Jesus’ earliest followers declared him not only Messiah, but the ‘crucified Messiah’ (‘We preach Christ crucified’, 1 Cor. 1:23).   This is something that had never been considered before.  Most expectations were that when the Messiah came Israel would no longer suffer from the hand of oppressors, and instead would become the religious and political center of the world (Isaiah 56: 5-8).  But this generally held expectation was not fulfilled; at least not as most of devout Israel expected, including Simon Peter (Mark 8: 31-33).   What did happen, in what we now know as the gospel story, was as incredible as it was unimaginable.   God’s Messiah would be God’s Messiah on God’s terms.

Of course, most of us have no problem believing that Jesus came to be the “Christ” who died for our sins.  But some still find how and why it happened the way it did disturbing.   In other words, the question is as alive today as ever: why did Jesus have to die such an awful death?   Could God not have established forgiveness and redemption in some other way?

The creed has more to say about Christ’s suffering, but for now we need to know that the only Old Testament expectation of such great ‘suffering’ was from the prophet Isaiah, who spoke of an unnamed ‘suffering servant’.  This was generally not taken to be a person, but it was generally interpreted to be a picture of the pain Israel would undergo under to be a ‘light to the nations’ (Isa. 42.6; 49:6; 60:3; Lk 2.32) or be ‘a kingdom of priests’ (Ex. 19:6) (

What was not fully understood, even by those first followers of Jesus, was that the one ‘wounded for our transgressions’, and ‘bruised for iniquities’ (Isa. 53.5) would be the Messiah.  Jesus took this role upon himself when he explained to his disciples that ‘the son of man must suffer’ (Mk 8.31).  In contrast, Daniel’s prophecy (Dan. 7: 1-14) has a future ‘Son of Man’ sent by God to rescue and to redeem Israel by establishing God’s eternal Kingdom.  Jesus himself chooses to combine this ‘saving role’ in Daniel, with the ‘suffering role’ in Isaiah.  By doing this, Jesus accomplished in himself what Israel could not accomplish for itself.

But here comes the most interesting part.  What does a saving and suffering Jewish Messiah have to do with those of us who are not Jewish?   The gospel of Matthew opens with an angel announcing that the child ‘named Jesus’, will ‘save his people from their sins’ (Matt. 1.21).  Even then, still no one expected Jesus to save his people through suffering.  This message of a crucified messiah (Christ Crucified)  was a ‘stumbling stone’ (1 Cor. 1.23) to the Jews, who rejected him, just as it was ‘foolishness’ (1 Cor. 1.23) to the Greeks—or the Gentiles.  In other words,  the question then, and still the question today is why should anyone believe in Jesus Christ?  Why should we we  who are neither Jewish, not very religious, who are more secular than ever, and perhaps even not spiritually minded at all---why should any of us, need to believe in Jesus, who was, by not only a Jewish Messiah, but he by most every human indication, was also a ‘failed’ Jewish messiah. 

I find this question of ‘what a Jewish Messiah should mean for non-Jews’ most intriguing because it was exactly this kind of question that Jesus himself unexpected confronted in one of the most unique gospel stories. This story is found only in Mark’s gospel (7:24-30).   It is a story of the only argument Jesus ever lost---and he lost it to a Gentile woman.   This is also a disturbing story, because Jesus seems ‘‘caught with his compassion down’ (Sharon Ringe).

In the account, a non-Jewish woman comes asking Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter.  Jesus refuses. “Let the children be bed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”(v.27).  So, here we have Jesus referring to a woman in need with a common prejudiced Jewish slur which named all Gentiles ‘dogs’.   No matter how you interpret this, as my mother would say “That’s not very nice!”.  Stranger still is the fact that this story appears in a gospel written to reach out to Gentiles?

There have been many attempts to soften what Jesus said, but there is really no way to get around that calling someone a ‘dog’, then or now,  is an insult.  And It is the Gentile woman, who turns the insult on it’s head by answering, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs”(v.28).  With this great come-back, her Gentile faith and confidence in Jesus shines, despite the insult.  And in response to her surprising and astounding faith, Jesus concedes and heals her daughter.

This is story certainly doesn't make Jesus look good, which may be why no other gospel writer included it.  While there is more behind this exchange than the gospel writer tells us, why did this Gentile woman dare approach this Jewish healer in the first place?   In the same way, why should we dare believe and call Jesus our Christ—our Messiah too?

The answer to why this woman needed Jesus then is the same as why we need Jesus now.  It's an answer that comes in the very specific way Jesus Christ is named next in the creed as God’s ‘only son’.   Paul clarified what this means, introducing Jesus to the Romans as ‘declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead (Rom. 1:4).

Pay close attention to what 'only Son’ implies.   Jesus is the unique ‘only Son’ because God raised him from the dead ‘with power’…by the resurrection from the dead’ (v. 4).  This means that Jesus is no longer a failed Messiah.  He was raised with the ‘power’ we all need in the face of our shared date with destiny and death.   We may have ‘eternity in our hearts’ (Ecc. 3:11), but we are also people who bear the ‘wages of sin, which is death’ (Rom. 6:23).  Without God’s power that is given to the Son, there is no hope--none.

Amazingly, what this creed declares, and everything the gospel story proclaims, is that this ‘power’ over death is, through Jesus, a gift of hope now given to all God’s sons and daughters.  In our text, Paul says his mission was ‘to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name’ (v. 5).  This ‘obedience of faith ’ which strangely moved from Jew to Gentile, through a crucified Messiah, only makes sense, if God indeed did raise Jesus from the dead.

We make this Jesus our Savior, by making Jesus our Lord.   But notice that this assumes the community of faith along with your personal faith in him.  The creed does not call him ‘my lord’ but ‘OUR Lord’.  It’s much the same in the whole New Testament.  This not accidental , but intentional.  The Bible knows no ‘Lone Ranger faith’.  We are in this together, or we are not in this at all.  We are called to be a part of his body, the church; or we have no true part of his saving power for life.  

I realize this kind of inclusive, relational, and community language goes against the very individualized, self-focused, and self-sufficient American culture.  As I wrote this, five Dallas police officers were ambushed and gunned down by an angry gunman. One wonders, how many people will have to die before our society learns we have to work together, or nothing works at all?  Interestingly, about the same time this terrible event unfolded in Dallas, an American writer released a book about the difficulty many American soldiers are having when they return from serving overseas in war zones.   That writer, who embedded himself with the military for months, learned that, while only a few soldiers actually see combat, many more than that come home suffering from Post-Traumatic-Stress.   He asserts that the surprising reason has much more due to what kind of society they come home to, than the stress they experienced overseas.   While serving in the armed forces live in a community that takes care of each other, even though there is danger all around.  When they return to the states, they come home to live in a relatively safe environment, but one that is selfish, lonesome, cold and too often cruel. The writer believes that the real problem is not what's wrong with them, but what’s wrong with us, and with our society (Based on Sebastian Junger’s book, Tribe).

When secular writers start ‘preaching’ to us, you know a society is in serious trouble.  When the creed speaks of OUR need of a “Lord” and of ‘the obedience of faith’, we need to realize that this life of ‘obedience’ is not for God’s sake alone.   Jesus is to be named ‘OUR Lord’ so that we come together in him.   As someone has said, ‘If Jesus and his love can’t pull us together, then there is nothing else on earth that can.’

Isn’t it incredible that the Bible and the Creed only speak the truth about Jesus as they also call us to face the truth in ourselves?  This is why the ‘truth that sets us free’ is just not any kind of truth; but it is the truth about Jesus.   Jesus is the ‘truth, the way, and the life’ exactly because he is our also our final destiny.   Here, let Paul’s words about Jesus’ lordship be the final words ringing in our ears: “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,  that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed-- not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence-- continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Phil. 2:9-13 NIV).   Amen.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

“...Maker of Heaven and Earth

A Sermon Based Upon  Psalm 104: 24-32
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
January 15th,  2017  Series: Apostles Creed 3/15)

Recently, the CBS News program 60 Minutes interviewed JT Holmes, an extreme athlete.  They filmed this daredevil as he landed by helicopter on top of the Eiger, a high, pointed, ice covered mountain in the Swiss Alps.  Then, they filmed him jumping off with skis and chute, hang gliding toward a cliff, then releasing his skis, dropping his glider chute, free falling in a wind suit, soaring like a bird until finally, he opened a parachute, to land safely at the bottom of the mountain.  One slip up and he would have been killed.  He had three good chances for that to happen.   The CBS News crew who had seen most everything and not easily surprised or shaken, said they were ‘biting their nails’ the whole time.  It looked as if there was no way to do what he did and come out alive, but he did it, not once, but twice, and it was all captured on film. (

When the Bible begins with the words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” (Gen. 1:1), it makes a claim as tall as Mt Everest and just about as risky as jumping off a mountain.   Surely, no statement of belief can be more audacious or as pivotal, or even risky, as saying that a personal, loving, caring, Creator made this world.  This is a daring statement of faith.   Life is a wonderful gift, but it is also filled with many dangers,  with overwhelming human suffering, with unrelenting natural catastrophes, with major disasters and deadly diseases, and worst of all, with horrendous evil. 

But, in spite of all this, which was just as true then as it is now, that is exactly what the Bible claims.  In the Bible and in life, then or today, there is no statement or claim that is more basic to the biblical or Christian Faith than when we affirm that this God, who is the ‘Father Almighty’ is also ‘maker of heaven and earth.”

In Psalm 104 the Psalmist echoes and elaborates on the opening lines of the Bible, when he sings,  “LORD, how manifold (many) are works… In wisdom you have made them all” (v. 24).
Here the Psalmist praises “God from whom all blessings flow” because he is amazed at the complexity and the wisdom behind everything.    To him, everything seemed ‘well-designed’, ‘intentional’, ‘thought out’ and ‘organized’.    In other words, as some might say today, there appears to be some very wise organization in everything that is organic. .

But of course, this is still a statement of faith, because it can’t be proven nor disproven.   The Psalmist makes this statement based on own his observation, but it is still faith.   There is no modern scientific way to prove what he says.  This was an observation from his heart, which was how humanity came to conclusions long before ‘science’ came to dominate. In fact, observations of the heart and mind, enabled by faith, is what paved the way for Science to develop in the first place.

When I was a missionary in former communist East Germany, just after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, a biology teacher, who was also my neighbor, once approached me, asking if I would be willing to come and speak to her class about my ‘faith’ and how it applies to the first chapter of Genesis.   She told me that she had students in her class who ‘believed’ that Science had the answer to everything, which ruled out Faith.   She explained that she knew this wasn’t true.  She did not claim to be a Christian, or a believer, but the one thing she had learned from being a teacher is that Science, nor her students, knew everything.   She wanted me to come and share with them what I believed.

She did not intend it, but I knew that this was a set up.   She was not setting me up for failure, but I knew that there would be students in that class who would not listen to a single word I had to say about my ‘faith’ in the “God” who was ‘maker of heaven and earth’.    I knew that I had to approach my faith in a ‘broader’ way than just telling them, this is what I believed.  Somehow, I had to connect them to ‘why’ I believed it, and ‘how’ it could be possible for them, at least to ‘understand’ the ‘wisdom’ in my faith.

So, in my approach to sharing about my faith with that very secular, if not still communist class,  I started with a comparison from  4 statements I proceeded to write on the board.  The statements were:(1) I love you. (2) 2+2= 4.  (3) It’s  about 500 kilometers from Berlin to Munich, and ,(4) I love you too.   After writing this I asked the class, which of these statements can be proven, a matter of fact or a matter of faith?   After this, I followed up: If love is a matter of faith, which is more meaningful or maybe even more important?   Of course, one smart fellow answered that both are important.  I told him that he was right, but not to tell this to his girl friend.   But still, everyone got my point, not deciding which was more important, but understanding that matters of faith are as important as matters of fact.  This leads us to even bigger questions about what are the facts and what is faith.

My 9th grade physics teacher tried to explain to us how the chair we were setting in was not as solid as we might think from looking at it.   Even in a scientific way, he was teaching us that there was more to the facts than we could see.  He continued to explain that a chair, like anything else with physical matter, is made up of molecules we can't see.  These molecules are made up of atoms that have protons and neutrons in their center.  Surrounding the atom’s nucleus, he said, are electrons circling like earth circles the sun.   Millions of these unseen  atoms that make up this chair, are bonded and held together by  positive and negative charges; forces that are attracted to each other and will not let go, unless tampered with.  

As my physics teacher taught us about the facts and fundamentals of the physical world, I  could not help but recall a verse I had learned in Sunday School, “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible” (Heb. 11:3).   Interestingly, the writer penned that long before there were microscopes.  He told us that knowing the facts also required faith enough to believe there was, as the saying goes, “more than meets the eye” .

How does faith help us in discovering the truth in and beyond the facts?  Consider another story from as chemistry class, where the lesson enlarged  on the basic lessons of physical science.   In that class, the professor asked a student how many different kinds of naturally occurring “things” are in this world?  The student, unsure of the answer, admitted  he didn't know, but guessed there must  be millions and millions of  different types of “substances” in the world, because the world, he said, is a very big place.   Hearing his answer, the professor went on to inform the  student, that there are not millions and millions naturally occurring substances, but there are less than a 100 most basic “elements” in all of nature. The professor went on to clarify that everything in this world, probably also in the whole universe, is made from only 100 to 200 elements, 98 of which occur naturally on earth.   Then he gave an example: If you take 2 parts Hydrogen  and add just one part Oxygen , you get water.   If you take one part nitrogen and add three parts hydrogen, you get ammonia.   Two parts oxygen and one part carbon, makes carbon dioxide.  Everything needed to sustain life is made from just a few basic elements.  The trick is, he added, is getting everything to come together and keep coming together in the just the right way to create just the right conditions to sustain life.  In other words, as one renowned scientist has said: “the universe seems to have known we were coming.”  (Freeman Dyson) 

While it is certainly reasonable to say with Scripture that we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made,” it is the “fearful” part of life that causes threatens faith.  Interestingly, even in this song of praise, the Psalmist did not leave out the ‘difficult’ or ‘dark side’ of life as we know it.  He affirmed that not only do we live in a world where life flourishes, he also affirmed that we not only live with ‘good things’ (v. 28) but we also ‘die and return to…dust’ (vs 29). Perhaps the most disturbing part of this is how the Psalmist describes how ‘dismay’ comes ‘when (God) hides (his) face’  or ‘when (God) takes away…breath’ (v. 29).

This Jewish, biblical, ancient understanding that ‘bad things’ happen when God hides his face, or ‘takes away’ the breath of life, is difficult for ‘moderns’ to understand or accept.   It even seems to go against the grain of our Christian perspective of God’s constant, faithful love and our understanding of God’s nature , as all-knowing, all-powerful, and always present.   Even the Psalmist confirmed this understanding of God, when he wrote:: “Where can I go from your Spirit?  Or where can I hide from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if my bed in Sheol (Death), you are there.  If I take the wings of the morning and settle in the farthest limits of the sea, even there your right hand shall lead me, and your sour right hand shall hold me fast…” (139: 7-10).   Then he adds,  “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.  Wonderful are your works: that I know very well.  My frame was not hidden from you.  Your eyes beheld my unformed substance….(139: 14-15a).  None of us, at anytime, he said, are ever hidden from God’s eyes, but as Scripture also informs in many places, God can ‘hide his face’ from us.  This very graphic concept means that even though God sees, knows, and is Almighty, we will not always know or feel God’s presence or know God’s power as evident in our lives.   In other words, sometimes, in life, especially during the hard times, we may not even feel as if God cares.

There is a lot more that could be said picture of God’s hiding his face., but whenever the ‘picture’ occurs, it most often means that sin has dulled our spiritual senses and our awareness of God.  But we need to also realize that being a ‘sinner’ does not always mean that we have specifically done something wrong or sinful.  In the Biblical understanding, even in the New Testament understanding, when the Apostle Paul says that ‘all have sinned and come short of the glory of God’,  it not only means the ‘wrong’ we may do, but ‘falling short’ can also refer to our most basic human condition as limited, fallible, and finite human beings.   In other words, as the Psalmist declares, when the ‘good things’ don’t come,  when God’s face and favor toward us seems hidden, and especially, when we become aware of our impending death,  we may become ‘dismayed’ to the point that our faith in God as ‘creator’ becomes threatened.

Can we still believe in the ‘goodness’ of the Creator, even when bad things happen in this world?  Or perhaps to put it more pointedly, can we still believe, trust, and have faith in God when the good things don’t happen, when the miracles don’t comes,  when our prayers are not answered, or when when life doesn’t make sense, and we might also become ‘dismayed’ that God’s presence, God’s power, or God’s goodness are no longer visible to us? 

This was exactly what happened to Job, wasn’t it?  Part of the protest in the book of Job was that Job was indeed an upright, good person, who had done nothing wrong, and had even lived the best righteous life possible, but he still experienced the ‘dark-side’, if not the worst side of life.   The book even dared to suggest that God hid his face by allowing Satan to ‘test’ Job, allowing him to tragically lose his children, his wealth and his health.  When Job’s know-it-all-friends came to Job, informing him that he should confess his sin, or when his wife said, “Curse God and die”, Job answered that he had done nothing to deserve all this, he continued to live by faith anyway and he took his ‘dismay’ directly to God. The ‘answer’ that finally came to Job out of the whirlwind was not an answer, but more questions.  God puts question after question to Job, reminding him that even if God did ‘answer’ why these bad things happened or did explain why the world is the way it is, Job would not be able to understand it (See Job 38-42) because it is ‘too wonderful’ (42:3) which basically means, the knowledge of ‘why’ is too much for Job to fully grasp.  Thus, the only kind of ‘answer’ the book of Job gives to our great questions is the ‘faith’ Job lived, even against the all odds and all logic:”The LORD gives and the LORD takes away.  Blessed be the Name of the LORD”.

Jesus taught us to live our lives exactly in this same way as Job.  When life becomes questionable, when we can’t seem to sense God’s presence, or the ‘reality’ of life does not seem to point to the care of God or encourage trust in God, this creed, which names “God as Father, Almighty, who is the Maker of Heaven and Earth”, is the God whom Jesus trusted as his Heavenly Father, even as he was dying on the cross.  Jesus also told his disciples that when worry came to them that they should then put the simplest thoughts into their minds so their faith in life and faith in God could be restored:“Look at the birds…the Heavenly Father feeds them…Are you not of more value than they?....Consider the lilies of the field…If God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire---O, you of little faith?...The Father knows your needs, so…Seek the Kingdom, and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matt. 6: 25-33).

I wound never go as far to say that Jesus was an ‘optimist’ about everything that happens in this world, but I would say, beyond any doubt, that Jesus ‘trusted’ in both the ‘goodness’ and ‘faithfulness’ of God, the Father, Almighty, no matter what happened in this world.    But Jesus also said that we need ‘faith’, and not just ‘little faith’ to keep on trusting that God is good, that live is worth living, or to believe that God is our Maker and Creator, especially when life is not going ‘great’ for us.  Jesus taught us to trust that God will give us what we need, even when we don’t have seem to have it in the moment.  Jesus went on to explain that our greatness need is God and His Spirit, which is the one ‘good gift’ God will always give, if we will only ask.  

What I’m sure of, is that having ‘faith’ and ‘trust’ in God is not what everyone will freely ask for.   There is a freedom in our human hearts, just like there is a freedom in this world of nature.   As a great Christian scientist once wrote: “I am certain that this God who created the world  is not a puppet master who forces the world, nor us, to do his will” (Polkinghorne). We are taught to pray for God’s will to be done ‘on earth’, exactly because it is not always done ‘on earth’ as ‘ in heaven’. God made “Heaven to be Heaven, and for now, and for our freedom, earth to be earth.  This is how it will be until the kingdom comes, heaven comes down to earth, which in some mysterious way, if we take this prayer seriously, depends on the partnership of our will with God’s will.

And this is exactly where the Psalmist’s final words take us, showing us what we should be praying for.   In these final words, after reviewing the ‘goodness’ of God’s glory that is visible, but  sometimes still invisible, both in creation and in life, the Psalmist concludes with a blessing, a prayer: “May the glory of the LORD endure forever; may the LORD rejoice in his works…Let sinners be consumed….Let the wicked be no more.  Bless the LORD, O my Soul…(v. 31-35).

At first glance, this prayer seems to end in the negative, with a prayer for ‘sinners’ to be consumed’ or with the ‘wicked’ to be ‘no more’.  But before we jump to a negative conclusion, which is not the Bible’s final conclusion, let’s remember that’God is not willing that any should perish’, but desires that  ‘sinners’ be ‘consumed’ only by God’s purifying and transforming love, so that ‘the wicked’ disappear in the goodness of God’s grace and peace.  

Just as this prayer should not be heard negatively, we should not finally interpret the ‘negatives’ of life without hope.  Do you know why I say this?  Because in this closing prayer the Psalmist prays  for God’s glory to ‘endure’ and for God to continue to ‘rejoice in his works’ (v. 31).  This very ‘positive’ perspective of the world, is what Jesus seemed to teach when he surprised the crowd, after he healed a crippled man on the Sabbath, claiming: “The Father is still working and also, I am still working! (John 5:17)   

Do you realize what this kind of statement means?  It means that in this world where both ‘good’ comes, but ‘limits’ are still very real, we need to realize God is ‘still at work.  The world we know, which can still be dangerous and dismaying, is not yet finished. The Creation, as Scripture declares, is good, but it never says that creation is something God stopped doing.  God is not only ‘maker of Heaven and Earth’, but God is still the Creator, and he is still creating life, sustaining life, making, sustaining, and redeeming the world and the universe, and he is still making heaven too.   Didn’t Jesus say he is:“preparing a place for us”?

Most of the time when we hear of or experience evil in this world, we ask ‘why’. But as one American president once challenged, we would be better and bigger people if we started asking ‘why not’?  In other words, ask what we can do to partner with God in ‘making’ this world a better place.  In other words, when the world or when life is not what we want it to be, or not what it should be, we’re right.  God is still at work.  God is not finished.  Life, the world, even the whole universe, is a creative process, and still being created. Jesus said,  “The Father is still working and also, I am still working!” 

While it might make some people sad to think that God is not finished with us yet, but  it kind of makes me glad.  God is still at work.   He still ‘rejoices in his work’. So do I. So should you.  You should join with God  in this good work, too.  Isn't this why Jesus taught us, not just to watch and pray, but also to join with God in his creative, sustaining, and redemptive work?   Jesus said “the night is coming when no more work can be done”. It's time now for our faith to get to work. Some, will try have faith without works, “but I will show my faith by my works” (Jm. 2:18).   That's James, but what about you? Does you faith work? I hope so.  Amen.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

“I Believe in God, the Father Almighty.”

A Sermon Based Upon Exodus 33: 18-23
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
January 8th, Series: Apostles Creed 2/15)

An old story tells of a Sunday School class where a child was drawing a picture. 
The teacher asked the child, “What is it that you are drawing so intently?”  
The child answered, “It’s a picture of God.”  With a startled response the teacher reasoned, “But no one knows what God looks like.”  The child says with great confidence, “They will when I get done.”

When we try to speak about belief in God, what we don’t say is just as important as what we do say.   Before we say “I believe in God the Father, Almighty”, we must also affirm the limits of our finite minds.   For no matter what we think we know about God, we would know nothing at all, had God not revealed himself.   The knowledge of God that we have, even in the Bible, is never the whole picture.   The infinite God is too big for the finite mind to fully understand.   The knowledge of God is a “gift” of faith (Eph. 2:8) that remains forever mysterious and overwhelming, even as it is being made known to us.   

In 63 BC, as a conqueror, Roman General Cornelius Pompey went to Jerusalem’s second temple, where with great curiosity, he dared to enter the Holy of Holies, that sacred place where only the Jewish High Priest was allowed to enter one day a year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.   Upon entering, the Roman historian Tacitus described what Pompey found: “The Sanctuary was empty.”  Coming from a world filled of temples, columns, pillars, shrines, statues and idols, it was a staggering discovery, that at the geographic and spiritual center of all Jewish religious experience was found nothing more than an ‘empty room.’  
(Tacitus, Histories, Book 5:11-12, ).    

How God is revealed to us in the Bible, beyond the ‘empty room’ is never all at once, and never without mystery.   Our text from Exodus illustrates this beautifully.  

It was after the Exodus; after all those miraculous plagues, after Israel had escaped Pharaoh, after the parting of the Red Sea, long after the Burning Bush, and shortly after receiving the 10 Commandments, that Moses expresses his great desire to see more of God and His glory.   This request came as Moses was being asked to lead the children of Israel out of the wilderness and into the Promise Land.   The undertaking of this huge task led to Moses’ request to God: “Show me your glory, I pray!” (Ex. 33:18).

When it comes to having to live by faith in God, we would much prefer to live by certainties, by proofs, or by the things we see, not by what we cannot see or fully know.   But strangely enough, Moses had already seen a lot, hasn’t he?  We could say that Moses had been witness to much more than most people could ever dream of seeing or knowing.  But no matter what had already happened, what had already been revealed, or what God had done to reveal himself, Moses still felt as if he needed more knowledge to move ahead.   Moses wanted to see the fullness of God’s glory.   As someone jokingly suggested, Moses sounded like he was from Missouri, just like most of us are from Missouri, ‘The Show Me state.’   When it comes to faith, we seek more than eloquent words or thoughtful persuasion.    We want to be convinced, to see and know everything we can before we dare this leap of understanding called faith.

There is an old story about boy who came to his father asking, “Daddy, what holds up the world?”  The father remembered a mythical story of his own childhood and said, “That’s simple, my son.  The world rests on the back of a very large turtle.”  The little boy was satisfied and walked away.  But a day later he returns, “But Daddy,” he asks, “What hold up the turtle?”  Staying with this myth he says, “Son, the turtle rests on the back of a very large tiger.”   Again, the boy goes away satisfied, but only a few hours later returns, asking “Daddy, what holds up the large tiger?”   This time the father answers that ‘the tiger rests on the back of a very large elephant.’  As you would guess, this time the son was back in no time, asking again, “What holds up the elephant?”  The frustrated father, having run out of big animals, replied, “Son, from there on, it’s elephants all the way down.” (From James Harnish’s sermon, “Believe in Me” 1991, p. 21).

What Moses wants God to give him is a starting place, an experience that is a ‘revelation of revelations’ something like knowing there are ‘elephants all the way down’.   Moses desires the foundation of all he would ever need to know, to see or believe about this God he has experienced, both at Mt. Sinai and in Egypt.   Moses desired to see God in all his ‘glory’.  

Before we get to what Moses did experience, consider how this text relates to the first part of the Apostle’s Creed.  When this “Christian” statement of faith developed in the fourth century, it arose out of preparing new Christians for living the Christian life in faith.  This creedal statement was not dreamed up, but it was a concise, brief summary of the revelation of God’s glory in the whole Bible, Old and New Testaments, especially as it was given through the first Apostles (Remember, there were no Bibles in print at that time).  Interestingly, the very first line, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty” reflects back the vision of truth God gave Moses, pointing us to a consistent, reliable, and solid faith, like having ‘elephants all the way down.’  

Notice that when Moses asked God to ‘show’ his ‘glory,’ God answers that he will ‘make all my goodness pass before (him) and will call out the name, the LORD’ (v.19).  I find this a very peculiar answer to Moses’ request.  God reveals his ‘goodness’, but Moses never actually gets to see God directly for himself.   The same is true for us.  Indeed we can experience God and his goodness, but we can’t see God.  When Russian cosmonauts, trained to promote atheistic communism, arrived back from traveling in space for the very first time, they sarcastically declared, “We saw no God sitting on a cloud.”  Of course they didn’t see God, because the true God can only be revealed through his ‘goodness’ that passes before us in this life.   All this ‘goodness’ is what the Christian faith means when it names God, ‘father’, as Jesus himself taught us to say.

In every gospel, particularly in the very Jewish gospel of Matthew, Jesus uses the name “Father” to teach his disciples about the ‘goodness’ and ‘graciousness’ of God.    Jesus taught them to pray “Our Father….” but preceded his great lesson on prayer by saying, “The Father knows what you need, before you ask…” (Mt. 6.8-9).   Later in Matthew, Jesus teaches again,  “If you…. how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask… (Mt. 7:11).   This, of course, is the fullness of God’s glory, as revealed by Jesus, that God is like a ‘good’ father, who gives good gifts to his children.    

In that same gospel of Matthew, when Jesus spoke of the ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory’ (Mat. 24:30) he did not mean we wait to see Jesus floating on a cloud, but he speaks of ‘all’ the ‘goodness’ of God already revealed in that ‘generation’ (Mt. 24.34) and for ours, through the death and resurrection of God’s son, Jesus Christ.  Exactly the same goodness that was revealed to Moses is what God also revealed in an even greater way through Jesus:  God wills to be ‘gracious’ and to show his ‘mercy’ (Ex. 33.19) to his people.   This is the exactly what a good father does too.  He gives ‘good gifts’ to his children.  And what better gift is there from any Father, than to give their child the gifts of ‘grace’ and ‘forgiveness’ that grants them ‘power’ to be his children; ‘the children of God’ (John 1.12)?     

Once, a British theology teacher was giving a lecture to some pastors. At the end, one of them asked, “Professor, do you believe in God?   The professor gave an academic, if not defensive answer, to which the pastor clarified his question:  “No, no, I just want to know whether or not you really believe what you have been teaching.”   Then the Professor rephrased his answer, saying, “I believe that at the heart of reality is One who reigns, who loves, and who forgives.” 
Isn’t this exactly the kind of answer Moses received when God allows his ‘goodness’ to pass by revealing that at center of everything God is, is this God who ‘will be gracious’ and who will have mercy ‘upon whom (He) will have mercy?   And we already know ‘who’ will be the recipient of God’s grace and mercy, don’t we?  “Everyone who calls upon the name of the LORD, shall be saved”(Rom. 10:13).

This is the ‘glory’ of God—his goodness, his grace, and his mercy, or as another New Testament letter affirms God’s goodness, saying, “The Lord is not slow concerning his promise…but He is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).  The core revelation of God, is a God who is ‘Our Father in Heaven’,  who loves, who cares, who instructs, and who gives us ‘the power to become children of God to as many as will receive him” (John 1:12) and his goodness.  What could be more glorious than to know that at the center of all reality, is not some impersonal, brute process that has no meaning, but it a loving God who is good and gracious?

God is revealed to us in his goodness, but God is also revealed in his greatness.   When a child learns to pray the simply blessing: “God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for our food,” that child rightly acknowledges that there will always be more to God than any of us can possibly know.  

In a very similar way, not only does the ancient creed name God as the father who is good because He is ‘gracious’ and ‘merciful’ (33:19),  but it also names God as ‘the Father Almightywho in his own greatness, reserves the power to will and decide who receives his goodness.  ‘(He) will be gracious to whom (He) will be gracious.’ (33:19).    More fully explained in the next chapter of Exodus, God’s word declares, the “LORD”, as ‘a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, YET BY NO MEANS CLEARING THE GUILTY, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation” (Ex. 34: 6-7).  By naming God “the Father Almighty” we name God who we are not.  We name God the one who is eternal, with the power to accomplish his will ‘on earth, as it is in heaven’ (Mat. 6:10), even though it may seem it takes God an eternity to accomplish it (That ‘long arc of justice’ Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about).   Of course, this is a ‘time’ that God has, owns, and possesses, but we do not.   

When we name God ‘the almighty’ (Hebrew, El Shaddai), interestingly, this is a name for God that was NEVER USED BY JESUS in the gospels.  Even though the “Father and I (Son) are One” (John 10:30), and the “Father loves the Son and shows Him all that he is doing” (John 5:20), we are never told that that ‘the Father’ revealed EVERYTHING he was or is ‘doing’ through the son.   We can be sure, however, that nothing the Father Almighty does will contradict anything that has been revealed in Jesus or is still revealed through the Holy Spirit, (5:26-30; 16:13).  

Naming God ‘the Almighty’ means also that the ‘power’ and ‘truth’ God gives to us is for our transformation and not simply our information.    Through Jesus, God gave us enough ‘power to become sons’ (and daughters) of God’ (John 1.12), and this is a kind of ‘power’ only God can give.  The human ‘limits’ that keep us from knowing everything about God is as important to comprehend for our earthly salvation, as it is to know what we can understand of God for our heavenly salvation.    All we know of God must remain on God’s terms, not ours.  I read recently that when Adolf Hitler referred to “God” in his speeches—a rhetoric that deceived a majority of the German people (but not all)--- Hitler most exclusively referred to God as ‘the Almighty’.   But as we must know, be it Adolf Hitler, or anyone who would dare use or misuse God’s name, ‘the Father Almighty’ will only be revealed on God’s terms, not ours (Karl Barth).   

God’s terms have been made clear to us through Jesus Christ and the ‘power of the cross’ (1 Cor. 1.17).  This is the ‘power’ and ‘glory’ perceived as ‘weakness’ and ‘foolishness’ by the world, even though God’s weakness will prove to be stronger than human strength, and God’s foolishness will prove wiser than human wisdom (1 Cor. 1.24).   By naming Jesus Christ and His Cross, as the fullest revelation of God the ‘Father Almighty’, we find God’s power revealed and released to us through the most unexpected and redeeming way, through Jesus’ sacrifice and humiliating death.   This is how the right kind of ‘power’---the power of love will always be revealed.  It is a power belonging exclusively to God, who raised Jesus from the dead. 

So, again, when God doesn’t allow Moses to see God’s ‘face’, God wasn’t withholding Himself for God’s own sake.  Moses isn’t allowed to see God’s face so that Moses can live.   And spiritually, it’s the same way with us, who are called to live ‘in Christ’.  The great apostle Paul put it this way, “The mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations …. has now been revealed ...  To them God chose to make known, how great...are the riches of the glory of this mystery, WHICH IS CHRIST IN YOU, THE HOPE OF GLORY (Col. 1:26-27 NRS). 

Do you catch the full implication of what Paul was saying?  We see God when we allow Jesus Christ to be alive in our own lives.  Having  “Christ in you” and living through you is still the hope of seeing God’s goodness and greatness fully revealed in this world.  As Edgar Guest once wrote:                              I'd rather see a sermon than hear one any day:
I'd rather one would walk with me than merely tell the way….
The best of all the preachers are (people) who live their creed,
For to see good put into action, is what everyone needs.”     (

One of the best lines from the acclaimed musical Les Misérables is the sentence: "To love another person is to see the face of God."  This line was probably based on that Scripture, where Jacob told his estranged brother Esau that ‘seeing his face, was like seeing the face of God (Gen. 33:10).  In this world and in this life, the greatest ‘truth’ comes to us through the life and words of another person, even the truth of God’s word once came this way and still comes this way.  God’s  goodness and greatness is best known and believed through those who will allow Christ to live ‘in us.’   Amen.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

“I Believe, Help My Unbelief!”

A Sermon Based Upon Mark 9: 14-24
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
January 1st  (Series: ApostlesCreed 1/15)

The Father’s plea in today’s Bible text captures the ‘spirit’ of our age.   “I want to believe, but I need help with my unbelief.

Surely we realize that we need to believe in someone, or in something.   But the way things are, how people are, or because of so many questions we cannot answer, or perhaps due to the negative situation we may find ourselves in at the moment,  we too may be struggling with belief or against increasing ‘unbelief’.

Even the best Christians have been there, haven’t we?    We have all struggled in some way with doubt, with what we should believe, or with the bare fact of our own unbelief.

In this text, a Father is struggling with his belief in God because he has a very unhealthy child.   His child has a ‘spirit’ that mysteriously takes over his behavior.   You don’t have to believe in devils with pitchforks to understand what this meant.   When his child was suddenly ‘unable to speak’, was ‘seized’, taken ‘down,’ started to ‘foam,’  and grind his teeth’ becoming ‘rigid,’ it appeared that something possessed him.   The son’s strange behavior was certainly not deliberate or intentional.   Whatever this was, it came from outside of him.  It took over.  It was in control.  The  son and the Father felt like pawns and were both helpless to stop whatever it was.  

Whatever demon-like, negative power this was, which may well have been epilepsy, we’ll never know for sure.    The line between illness and evil, the spiritual and the physical, was not so easily drawn then, and sometimes still can’t be made now.    What is spiritual can also be emotional and physical.  What is physical can become emotional and spiritual.  What happens to us in life is never as clear cut simple as saying this caused that or that caused this.  Nor can life ever be reduced to this will completely cure that and that will completely cure this.  It is always more complicated than most of us want to consider or think about.

However we approach this strange story, we must resist trying to solve the unknown it espouses because we also must face the unknown in life too.   That’s why we read such an embarrassing, unflattering story of these keystone cop like disciples, who were unable, and at a loss, to figure out how to ‘cast it out’ (v. 18).  What remains clear is how this story rightly reflects the unseen, negative, opposing powers we still encounter in life, be they physical, emotional or spiritual, or be they each of these at once.   And when we encounter such destructive and negative powers in life or in death, they may leave us just as fearful as this Father, and just as frustrated as these disciples. 

Anyone who doesn’t admit, even in our highly enlightened world, that we still encounter oppressive or destructive powers which remain outside of our human control, are living in a fairy tale of their own mind.  I’ve met some healers, be they doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, or pastors, who think and work like they are ‘gods’ who can heal, fix, or repair anyone of anything.   Fortunately, I’ve also met others who remain humble, even with all their great skills, realizing that daily that they are only ‘practicing’ the arts of healing.  They practice their careers realizing that even at  their best, their own skills for healing and bring hope are always limited and finite.  

Any of us can quickly become overwhelmed and frustrated by the powers which not only give us life, but also ensure our coming death.   Here, I think of a great surgeon in Winston-Salem, whom I watched perform brain surgery.   I was a hospital chaplain at the time, and part of my training was to be invited to ‘put on scrubs’ and accompany a doctor in surgery with his patient.   As the chaplain, I visited and prayed with the person before surgery, remained with them during surgery, and then visited them afterwards.  It was a wonderful education, which made me appreciate even more the wonderful work many surgeons do.  But recently, I was shocked to hear that not that long thereafter, and at  too young of an age, only in his fifties, that great surgeon died of kidney cancer.   He had symptoms, but being a doctor, he resisted going to the doctor.  He died way too soon.  He was a physician, even a great physician, who would not, and perhaps could not ‘heal’ himself.

I find it most interesting, that what frustrated Jesus most was not the evil, the illness or the negative power than had invaded this son.  But Jesus was most agitated by the  lack of faith or belief that was needed to overcome it.   When he heard  that his disciples did not have such resolve or  faith,  Jesus answered: “O, you faithless generation…how much longer must I be with you…How much longer must I put up with you?...” (v. 19).

One Bible scholar suggests a reason Jesus was so agitated by this.  In the ancient world, the inability of a teacher’s disciples to accomplish a request discredited what the teacher was teaching or doing.   What’s worst, a lack of healing ability among Jesus’ disciples demonstrated something could be lacking in the  “healer” himself.   The Scribes were probably already arguing this. For this reason, Jesus knows he must get involved. He quickly responds, taking the initiative: ‘Bring him to me.’  

However we size up the situation, as followers of Jesus ourselves, we too  can’t escape this powerful grievance Jesus had with his own  followers.  Please take special note:   It was not the world, or the Scribes, the Pharisees, or the Romans, that Jesus was  crying out against, but it was the lack of faith among his own slow-to-learn, quick-to-forget, disciples.   His interjection was aimed straight for them.  It certainly was not aimed at this sick son.  This was not his fault.  Jesus’ protest is also not aimed at this fearful father.  No, the complaint Jesus has is that his own disciples and his own ‘generation’ of believers do not have the energy of ‘faith’ needed to engage, challenge and overcome the negative powers being encountered in this young man.   In other words, it was not their simply their inability that agitated Jesus, but it was the lack of will, the lack of determination, and their own lack of prayerful practice of faith that prevented this healing.

Recently I was in a meeting with some pastors at Gardner-Webb University.  We had been invited there, because the of our appreciation of the school, so we could form a new council that would advise the University.   We were adopting a constitution to guide us in our work.   The very first part of that constitution described our job: ‘to assist the university in maintaining its commitment to the Christian faith.’   Did you hear that?  We were purposely invited to that Baptist and Christian school to help keep it from losing its faith.   As the University President and Provost warned us,  unfortunately, some Baptist schools had lost their faith.  These were schools where they had studied, which are no longer Baptist nor schools with distinctive Christian values.  “We do not want to go in that direction and lose our Christian values.  This is why we value and need your help.”

What we all need to be reminded of, is that we too can easily become a ‘faithless generation’, where disciples of Jesus can lose both our faith and our power to bring physical and moral healing in this world.    Our culture is increasingly secular, and much less Christian.   The fastest growing ‘religious group’ in America is the ‘nones’.  They have no religious understanding, little faith, less belief, or hardly any trust left at all.    When belief  is lost, it isn't long until behavior declines.  As ethics decline,  the possibility, potential, and hope of healing and positive energy for life can quickly spiral downward. 

Several years ago, when a tragic kidnapping, rape and murder took place at the University of Virginia, a professor at that school wrote that he believed that the safety of campus life went into a tailspin when coed dormitories began to be allowed.  I can imagine that his remarks were not too well received.  But interestingly, a major study that was published in the Wall Street journal relates both binge drinking and coed dorms to the moral decline and ethical health of college campuses in the US.  The report was so convincing that the President of The Catholic University of America, immediately reversed its Co Ed dorm policy. 

What was ascertained was what we should all know, but forget too soon.  There is a direct correlation between belief and behavior.  You belief, or lack of it will have an impact on behavior.  You behavior, that is the kind of behavior you allow, espouse, or condone, will also have an impact on your belief.  

The reason this Father’s ‘faith struggle’ resonated so much with early Christians, so that this was remembered and recorded for us, may be because faith is our primary ‘struggle’ too.  With faith all things are possible, as Jesus says, but also, without faith it is impossible to please him.  Faith is the key that unlocks the power of life.  This is the dramatic difference faith can make.

 As most of us learned in history class, Adolf Hitler had His own struggle, his ‘Kampf’ or struggle.  He lost that struggle, not just in his public and political life, but also in the secret corner of his heart, where he allowed the darkness of his own “faithlessness” to overwhelm him. This failure of faith is why he became so obsessed, trying unsuccessfully to control the outcome of everything with force, rather than to live his life, as all must do, by faith.

Our Christian struggle is no less dramatic than Hitler’s was,  but hopefully it will be much more positive.  The Apostle Paul described our struggle: ‘We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers…”  To win against the dark forces of despair and doubt requires, as Paul wrote, that among other things, we must “also take up the shield of faith”.  And you can only make your faith a shield when you know who you can believe or trust. 

When this Father said I believe, but also needed help to keep believing, he was not speaking about an idea, a doctrine, or a mere belief existing in his head.  He was speaking directly to the Lord himself.  “This kind can only come out through prayer,” Jesus said.   And he was not speaking of prayer like “magic words” addressed to God, but as a life of prayer lived in relationship with God.  For if we want to keep faith in our lives, we must come to realize that the true nature of Christian belief and hope is not  something we merely believe in, but it must be finally and fully about someone we trust.

But how do we maintain trust in Jesus, when there is less and less open and public trust of him or in him  by the world around us?  One thing the early church, which we can learn from, was to ask the right questions about Jesus.  These instructional questions were first asked and answered by new converts at their baptism.  Then later, the church turned these  questions and answers into a concise, brief  statement of faith, to be memorized and repeated in weekly worship as a continual reminder of what faith in Jesus Christ means.   Today, this statement or confession of faith is called and recited as the Apostle's Creed.   This does not mean that the first Apostle's actually wrote it, but the words of this historic creeds still points us to what the early church considered to be most important about having faith in Jesus Christ.

Although, we Baptists have been much more about deeds than creeds, we still need not to reject nor neglect the truth in of this ancient creed.  Our Baptist forefathers were right to clarify that saying a creed does not, in any way, make you a Christian, but today we can lose faith if we fail in knowing why this Faith is still worth our sacred trust. 

 So, in the first weeks of this new year, I want us to reflect upon these very ‘first things’: those matters of faith and trust in Jesus as suggested in the Apostle's Creed.   Following the words of this ancient statement of faith, I want to help you with your own ‘unbelief’.  I want to help you clarify why Jesus is still worth your trust.  It’s certainly not getting any easier to believe these days.  But if not Jesus, then in who else can you  trust?  The Creeds of the church, inspired by the Scripture, have all been always pointing us to trust in him.  What does this “trust” mean, for us, here, now, for today and also for tomorrow?  Sometimes the best road to tomorrow will take us on a journey that begins in the past.  Since Jesus is the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, that’s as good a place as any.  Will your journey with me for the next weeks, toward Easter, as we consider the faith expressed, then and now, through this ancient creed?  I hope you will.   Amen