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Sunday, August 30, 2020

“Unless Your Righteousness Exceeds...”

A sermon based upon Matthew 5: 17-21
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Sunday August 30th, 2020 (Growing In Grace)

The late Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard once told how he learned this the hard way.  Once he got a questionnaire in the mail entitled "Heaven: Are You Eligible?"  Grizzard said he filled out the questionnaire and was surprised to see that he had scored very low, which he said, was simply "too close to call."   He also said that it scared “Hell, the devil” and a lot of other things he was thinking ‘straight out of him.’   Then, he decided he’d better not live by doing the ‘least’, but by doing his best.

In our text today, as we continue with the theme of growing in Christ, we want to consider one of the most important challenges Jesus ever gave to his disciples.  Jesus said to them, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Sounds pretty serious, doesn’t it?  If something would keep you out of God’s coming kingdom shouldn’t you want to know what about it?  

Our consideration the ‘righteousness’ that enables us to ‘enter’ God’s kingdom begins with what Jesus says about the law.   Jesus said that he did not ‘come to abolish the law or the prophets..., but to fulfill’ them.   What did he mean?  Let’s  gain some context. 

Jesus has just opened his ‘Sermon on the Mount’  with the Beatitudes, which includes some very specific sayings about God’s kingdom: “Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs in the Kingdom..., (5:3), Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth..., (5), and also, ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom (10).  From this Jesus moves to compares God’s faithful to being ‘the salt of the earth’ (13) and ‘the light of the world’ (14).   These are unforgettable images the kind of person a Christian is supposed to ‘grow’ to become.
But it his concluding challenge that suggests a connection to God’s law, at least in Matthew’s thinking.   Here Jesus challenges them to, ‘let your light that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven’ (16).   When Jesus spoke of ‘good works’ a faithful Jew of that day would have immediately connected being, doing, and becoming ‘good’ to following God’s law, as it was given by Moses and rightly reinterpreted by the prophets.   

It was prophets like Elijah, Amos, Isaiah, Hosea, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others, who explained how Israel’s failure to live out God’s law, caused their ‘kingdom’ to be conquered and to fall apart.  They had preached that the way back to God’s kingdom was to return to faithfully following God’s law. 

But rightly following God’s law didn’t mean just fulfilling the ‘letter’ of God’s law, but the way back was through the ‘heart’, and through the Spirit, by fulfilling the original meaning, purpose, and intention of God’s law.   Interestingly, Jesus’ favorite law book wasn’t Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus or Numbers, but Jesus’ favorite law book was Deuteronomy, which means ‘second law’. 

Deuteronomy was the law given by Moses, but this time it is being reinterpreted, as it was by the prophets.  Deuteronomy was the only Scripture Jesus quoted when he was tempted by the devil.   The only other book Jesus quotes more than Deuteronomy, was Israel’s prayer and song book, the Psalms.

I find it interesting that even in our own Bible, even in the first 5 books, even in the Old Testament times, the ‘law’ as it was given by God to Israel, already had to be ‘reinterpreted’.  And you not only see this kind of thing in the Books of Law, but you also see this happening throughout the development of the Old and New Testament.

There are, in fact, as we all know, laws that are given in the Old Testament, that we wouldn’t dare force upon anyone or follow today.   Only a couple of years ago, a humorous, but humble and serious book was written entitled, ‘A Year of Living Biblically’.   In that book, a Jewish guy (who says he was at least as Jewish as the Olive Garden is Italian), found 700 rules and laws that even Jews don’t follow today. 

Can’t you think of some OT laws we don’t follow, as Christians?   Who had bacon or ham for breakfast?  The law says that pigs are unclean and forbidden as food.   Who had shrimp or other shellfish?  The law said that was also forbidden.   And it’s not just dietary laws that we don’t follow, but there are also certain ceremonial and civil laws we don’t follow, and even can’t remember.   We certainly don’t observe Yom Kippur, ‘the day of atonement’.   We don’t still make animal sacrifices or bring in grain offerings.  We also don’t observe Passover or force circumcision as a required sign of covenant faith.  

And there are many other ‘moral’ and ‘legal’ examples I could give about things in the Old Testament that we don’t follow.  I could even tell you some things in the New Testament too.  How about me telling you women here that YOU shouldn’t get a haircut, or telling boys and men that they should?  What if I told married men to grow beards, or that none of you should wear jewelry, that you should get a tattoo, or that women must obey their husbands and be silent at church, waiting to talk to your husbands at home.   Of course, your answer would be your husbands don’t like to talk, right?   Yes, there are many things, in both parts of the Bible that we don’t follow today, but we still ourselves biblical Christians.  How can we do that?

Even while we might consider moral laws, like the Ten Commandments still essential to morality, there are some moral laws in the Old Testament that aren’t considered ‘righteous’ at all today.   Have you ‘stoned’ an adulterer or about stoning a rebellious child lately?  (I didn’t say thought about it). 

And you don’t have to look too far to find other OT moral laws that should be forgotten.  Right here in Matthew, by portraying Jesus as the ‘new’ Moses, he suggests moral laws that are declared no longer effective for both Jews and for Christians.   These laws were given by God to Moses.  They were laws which allowed having anger toward a brother, allowed divorce to be legalized and legitimized, made making vows necessary, made vengeance and the practice of ‘an eye for an eye’ the way courts and churches should work, and also, these old laws once justified hating your enemies.  These very laws, whether you want to admit it or not, were all once acceptable, respectable, moral rules of law, given by God to Moses. 

Even later in the Old Testament, when Ezra came to reinstitute and reconstitute Israel’s law, Ezra instructed that the Samaritans and all other non-Jewish peoples were unclean outsiders.  This would allow both the Samaritans, and us the Gentiles too, to be considered ‘outsiders’ to God.   But now, this whole understanding was being reinterpreted and overturned by Jesus.   Of course, Jesus could do this, he was Jesus.  But what about us?  How do we still ‘fulfill’ the whole law of the Old Testament without abolishing it? 

It is exactly here, in this very question of what is moral; what is right and wrong, that we find the something very important about need for both ‘moral’ and ‘spiritual’ growth when it comes to believing, trusting and understanding the Bible.   I believe that Jesus help us know that we will always need to reinterpret law and Scripture, but this doesn’t mean that throw away everything.  Throwing away what is still important would make us the ‘least’ or ‘less’ in the kingdom, but understanding could help us grow into a better people for the kingdom, the church and in the world.

When I was in school, in Old Testament Bible Class we were told of a very helpful way to understand these differences as a necessary part of God’s way of reveling truth to the world.   It was called ‘progressive’ revelation, which we might better call a developing or an unfolding revelation’.   This kind of scientific, interpretive tool, was first coined and developed by Charles Hodge, a Presbyterian Professor and Principal at Princeton Seminary around the time of the Civil War.  In a time of increasing ‘doubt’ about the Bible, Hodge made a strong argument for trusting the Bible, because, as he explained, the problems with the Bible are about human ignorance and our slackness or slowness to understand.   God couldn’t and didn’t ‘reveal’ everything nice and neat, nor all at once.   Even the coming of Christ, Paul wrote, was only accomplished in the ‘fullness of time’ (Gal. 4:4).   God was waiting on us more than us on God.  

It takes maturity to understand how one part of the Bible would have God declaring certain foods and certain people’s ‘unclean’, and then later saying this is longer valid, is just like one part of the Bible has God calling his people to Holy War, whereas later, through Jesus, God calls us to ‘Peacemakers’.  To understand how the truth of the Bible ‘unfolds’ we have to grow and gain perspective.    And this means, that we must learn to accept that the in the Bible has also grown and developed, just like the people of God grew and developed.  And even God too, who can only be understood by us, who are limited, always remains beyond us.  This is why and eternal, unchanging God is also shown, from time to time, to change what he says right.  Why does God do this?   Why does one part of the Bible sometimes seem to contradict another part, even before the whole Bible was finished?   How can we still trust a Bible and a God who sometimes looks like this?
Well, having this kind of mature faith certainly will require some spiritual, moral, and intellectual maturity?  You certainly can’t tell a child, who isn’t yet old enough, smart enough, or mature enough, that everything isn’t written in ‘black and white’, can you?  It would confuse them.   You also can’t fully explain ‘why’ about everything, but when they are children you have to teach them to understand that ‘no’ means ‘no’!  “You can’t do that?”  Why, Moma?  “Because I said so,” my mother would inform me.  

A certain kind of ‘maturity’ and growth is very important when it comes to most everything that matters in life; just like it matters in understanding the Bible as adults.  While we still teach the Bible very simply to children, we certainly can’t remain ‘childish’ in our own interpretation of it for ourselves.   People who choose to remain ‘childish’ and immature might even lose faith. 

In the world outside of the Bible, mean Science, we have acquired a lot of knowledge about how people develop, not just physically, but also emotionally, morally, and spiritually too.   Several years ago, another American Christian teaching at Princeton, applied human learning to how we grow spiritually.    Based upon the science of moral development, James Fowler put together a five-stage theory of how people develop in their understanding of faith, religion, God and the Bible.  

We don’t have time in a sermon to consider his theory in detail, but his application reflects what the apostle Paul meant when he said, as an ‘adult he learned to put away childish things’.  I’m oversimplifying, but his ideas are one hand expressed in very complex, scientific ways, but convey common sense:  When we are childish, everything needs to be alike, but then, we learn to see and appreciate differences—that’s growth.   Also, we start learning through stories, but then we start learn with rules, with logic, and then also with ideas---that’s growth.  

When we are young, it’s important for us to find our identity in groups.  “I’m go to this school, this kind of church, or I’m this a Wake fan.   We know who we are mostly as a as part of a group, as part of well-established tradition, or a part of a certain family.    But then we grow up, and we begin to think about ‘who we are’ and we question things, we leave home, we strike out on our own.  It’s hard at first.   Sometimes there’s rebellion and rejection, but as we grow up we come to both appreciate what is behind, as we move on to what is ahead of us.   

Then, finally, most of us move from having to see everything in concrete, literal terms of ‘black and white’ to learn how to accept the ‘grey’, the color, and the ‘truth’ in life that is more dynamic, abstract.   This starts, very young.  If I tell you that I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse, a small child would picture a horse and laugh.  

But the older and more mature we get, we don’t have see everything ‘literally’.   We can see things figuratively, ideally, and symbolically to.   Growing in our understanding of the Bible and in Faith is this kind of growth.  It has literal truth, but sometimes to take the Bible seriously, you have to learn what it points us toward, not only what it’s saying in that moment.   For example, when Jesus says it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to heaven, you only get the point beyond what’s literally said.   It’s that way in many of the stories and truths of the Bible.  

Another example can be understood when Paul told women not to wear jewelry, or he told men to cut their hair, or even when he demanded that the women be silent in church.   To understand these commands, we have to move beyond the ‘literal’ to get to the truth for us.   The actual situation has changed, in Paul’s day verses our own day, but the principle or the point still hasn’t.   Paul was pointing to Christians being ‘modest’ in how they dress.  When he told the ‘women’ to be silent, he was speaking to particular women in a certain situation and church.   It takes maturity be able to see beyond what the Bible says, to figure out what it can still means for us.  This is what we call interpretation.   

The Scripture can and must be reinterpreted, but not broken.  In the same way, God’s laws, even the laws written in the Old Testament, must still be obeyed ‘in the Spirit’, even when they are no longer followed by the letter.   This is what it means to live a spiritual life, being filled with the Spirit and being guided by the Spirit.   In this maturing, spiritual life, we grow up so that we can learn to rely even more upon the law ‘written in our hearts’ as much as the law written on paper. 

So, we still need the law, like a rocket needs a launching pad, but we can’t get anywhere in life if we only stay on the launching pad.   Sometime or other, we have to we have to ‘blast off’ into the unknowns of life, leaving behind what needs to be left so we can more toward what still needs to be understood and gained.  
As Jesus understood, we still need law, but we also need to understand ‘where’ the law wants to take us and needs to point us.  WE need to fulfill the law, but this means following the intent, not always the letter of the law (as Paul explains later), which is only found by ahead with the Spirit and in the spirit of the law, so we can continue to grow in lives that are lived by faith, going places the law can’t always go.  

This is where this whole discussion of ‘righteousness’ is going in this Sermon on the Mount.   Jesus is indeed, the new Moses, even greater than Moses, who is taking us where neither the Moses, nor laws could ever take us---to live a spiritual life that is based upon a living, daily, dynamic, growing relationship with Jesus Christ.

One of my favorite statements in the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message, which was the Southern Baptist statement of faith was a line that explained how everything we find in the Bible, come to believe or decide to do as Christians, has to be filtered through the living Spirit of Jesus, who is the final criterion for determining how to live a life by faith.   I still can’t understand why this line was removed, unless there were some who were trying to take us back to a more ‘legalistic’ kind of faith, where we take the Bible simply as it says.  But this just isn’t possible, at least to me.   The Bible isn’t always that simple, and neither is Jesus, for that matter, and neither is life.  Life isn’t always simple, because love isn’t always simple or easy, but this exactly what makes life, life, and what makes love, love.   It can be complicated, but this is what enables complicated people like us to learn, grow up, and mature in our faith. 

Where Jesus was wants us to go is a to live in a way that ‘exceeds’ the Scribes and Pharisees.   This is not a call to live a simple, easy life, but it’s to live a live based upon God’s love.   It is love that God wants to get into our hearts, our heads, and into our world so we can all grow up and live life, as it should be lived, by ‘faith’ so we can all grow in ‘love’.   Exactly because you can’t write a law for everything in life, life will end up written by the love (or lack of love) that is in our hearts.  And when you grow up in love, you can write even new laws for life as you go along, and might even learn to live without needing any law at all, except the law of love.

We learn to love beginning with ‘law’ which leads to ‘faith’ than ends with love, but this ‘faith’ based loving relationship with God isn’t legalistic, but it also isn’t wishy-washy, uncertain or unsure either.   My relationship with my wife is put down on ‘legal’ paper called a marriage license, but my marriage to her isn’t based on that paper.  It’s not only based on beginning faith either.  The life we live together today began by ‘faith’  over 40 years ago, and it’s still lived ‘by faith’ that we will take care of each other, but this ‘faith’ we have in our marriage only becomes real in how we live with each other and for each other each and every day.   In the same way, our relationship with God begins with faith, starts with law, and continues by faith, but it is a life that also must grow up facing the realities of everyday.  Our faith and words of love to God only become ‘real’ when we grow and live out this ‘faith’ in real, tangible ways.   The Bible calls this ‘obedience’.   As Samuel told King Saul, God wants ‘obedience’, not sacrifice.  

So, this is why our full obedience to God can never be reduced to obeying a Law, following rituals, or doing only the good we want to do, but our obedience to God is living in a constant, challenging, interactive, relationship with the Living God.   Jesus put it this way, ‘if you abide in me, you will bear much fruit’.  In other words, only through a living relationship with the living God do we grow and mature in our faith.  Amen.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

“The Whole Fulness...”

A sermon based upon Colossians 2: 6-19
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Sunday August 23rd,  2020 (Growing In Grace)

     Please permit me to begin with a brief bit of reflection.  I’ve been on around for over 6 decades, now.   Some of you have been around a little longer and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about when I say…  I heard the original music and experienced the mania of the Beatles shaking the music world.    I felt the shock of the assignation of JFK .   I watched in amazement as men walk on the moon.    The dawn of the computer and digital age has changed how I do a lot of my work.    Finally, along with most of you, I was overjoyed and surprised at the fall of the Berlin Wall, but not long afterward, I stood in shock as those Trade Towers fell in New York. 
     While I probably didn’t see as dramatic of historical changes in American Life as my grandmother did, (as a result of the automobile), the changes I’ve experienced have been nevertheless life-altering and sometimes even astounding.   As I approach the final years of my life, I often wonder what will happen next.  I wonder not only what will happen in the world, but I also wonder what will happen to me.
      “Life comes at you fast”, the Insurance Commercial advises, and this is true.  Growing up as a child playing on Cochran Street in Statesville seems like the day before yesterday.   Am I really, almost 63 years old?    Besides, what does it mean to have lived---not just in the short scheme of things, but does it mean to have lived at all?  What gives life its meaning, and even more so, what gives us hope? 
    Do you ever think about it?   The apostle Paul did.    In his letter to the Church in Colosse, Paul wrote that the ‘mystery’ and the meaning of our lives is ‘hidden with Christ in God’ (3:3).   What Paul means is that the mystery of life can never be fully solved by us, but our lives can still be filled with both meaning and hope.    Paul claims that Christ, who now rules our lives from heaven, holds all ‘the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (2:3).  These ‘treasures’ are not hidden for us to miss, but they are hidden for us to discover so we too can come to ‘fullness (of life) in him’ (2:10). 

In Him…the Fulness of God Dwells (v9)
     This is quite a claim, isn’t it?   How can people in a world with so many other options believe that Jesus Christ holds the mystery and meaning of human life?  While the western world of our heritage and history certainly has a Christian past, the Christian worldview isn’t as relevant.
    That’s at least what a very smart young fellow once told me.   When I was trying to introduce the ‘fullness of life in Christ’ with him, he explained how he had enjoyed the ‘youth meetings’ but he believed ‘religion’ was something people should now move beyond.  “Science is the future, not religion,” he said.   He meant the once dominate Christian religion.
     One thing that very intelligent young man rightly understood was that we live in an age dominated by science.   By the word ‘science’, I’m not only referring to a class of facts, figures and formulas you once had to master in school, but I’m referring to the vast, enormous, and commanding field of human knowledge that now rules over most everything.   Today, astronomy, biology, physics and the other sciences have been able to perform tasks and answer questions that were thought unanswerable just a few decades ago.    
      For example, after the Hubble Space Telescope was launched, astronomers announced that they had been able to see far enough out in space and, thus, far enough back in time, to see the echo of the big bang and the beginning of the universe.   In our lifetime Science can even hazard to guess ‘why’ that ‘bang’ might have happened without any need of God as the explanation.  Of course, to rule God out is still a guess, but it’s become the most popular educated one.
     Equally astounding, just a few years ago, a working draft of the entire human DNA was announced.  This work was ironically nick-named the discovery of ‘the  language of God’ by its lead scientist, a believing Christian, Francis Collins.   As a result of that work, medical scientists have already been able to find the causes of some syndromes and diseases and to predict a time in the not-too-distant future when cures will be brought about, not by drugs or surgery, but by repairing or replacing malformed or damaged genes.    
      One of the greatest medical diagnostic devices in this coming age of Genetic Breakthrough will probably be a ‘smart toilet’, which will be able to detect cancer years before it forms.  It is now believed that Cancer will eventually be prevented, not cured, through the science that will enable each home to have its own ‘smart toilet’.  This will be far more important than having a  ‘smart TV.
      Indeed, we live in an amazing age of science.  Today, we look to science to answer our big questions, to solve our great problems, and to explain our world.  And we should even be glad that we have come to look to science and not to magic or speculation to answer our questions about the natural world.    We have all benefited from the answers that science can find and has found.   Many of us are living proof that Science gives life.  Scientific advances like antibiotics and improvements in surgical procedures have given us all the promise of longer and more productive lives.  
       Thus, Science not only gives life to us, it can also help us see the truth about life.  The most important foundation of all scientific learning is the scientific method.    Perhaps you recall being introduced to it in school.   It is the scientific method  that has encouraged a healthy dose of skepticism about anything and everything that can’t be proven as a repeatable and observable fact.   Truth always starts with hypotheses, claims and beliefs, but these claims can’t remain in the realm of ‘unjustified conclusions’ based upon ‘insufficient evidence’.   Any truth claims we make must ‘prove’ to be true, not just be believed to be true.   If you follow this method, it is said, you are much less likely to be taken in by the various charlatans and ‘snake oil salesmen’ out there.    
     And it’s the job of science to be skeptical of all human, and even any religious explanations, at least until all the facts are in.   For example, a rainbow is not the finger of the gods or a god painting the sky with color.   A rainbow is light being prismatically reflected through water droplets.  There is no pot of gold at the end of a rainbow either.   Science today tells us that a rainbow is simply a mist before our eyes and just like that belief in a pot of gold.     
    From a Scientific perspective, then, many things humans used to think and believe has been called into question.   Once a rainbow was a symbol of God’s promise, but today that’s not necessarily so.  Today it’s not religion that gives us the answer, but we rely mostly upon science to solve our problems and to answer the mysteries we face.    But where does this leave us, and what about the ‘fulness’ of God and the fulness of life Paul once wrote about?    
      Interestingly, this sole reliance upon science to tell us what’s true and what’s not comes with a cost.  As Mark Twain once wrote about the rainbow: "We don’t have the reverent feeling about the rainbow that primitive humans use to have.  Because we know how the rainbow it is made, we have lost as much as we gained by prying into the matter.”   Or, as a person said on a summer night in 1969, after Neil Armstrong had set foot on the moon; "We'll never look at the moon with such wonder again.".   Since Science is now dominate and the mysteries of are being solved by human knowledge and wisdom, has the wonder and possibility of having fulness and meaning in Christ vanished like a rainbow?  
     It’s unfortunate, like that young fellow in Germany, that many people today would be led to believe that science and religion are at war with each other another.   Indeed, in some minds they are at odds, but not necessarily in the mind of God.   God gave humans minds to use, and Science is simply the categorized and systematic use of ‘human knowledge’, but it’s still important for us to remember what science can and can't do.   Science can remove the magic and mystery from the world, but it’s about all science can do.   Science can indeed tell us how life happens, and it might help us have a little more of it, but in a larger sense—Science can’t tell us ‘why’ there is life instead of nothing.
      Of course, Science can do so many wonderful things and it can answer many very important questions, but it will never answer the biggest questions.   Science can tell us how the earth came together, and how you and I are put together, but it can’t begin to address any kind of definitive, provable, observable answer to   ‘why’ we are here and what should life mean ( This section relies heavily upon some thoughts of a scientist and bishop, Julian Gordy, in a sermon ‘Ordinary Holiness’, 2010).
     And science certainly can’t tell us anything about what happens after you die.   I heard a popular scientist talking about black holes in the universe and how mysterious they are.   He said any large object that comes near a mysterious ‘black hole’ is swallowed up by that darkness.   However, afterwards, objects going into it also comes through it and reappear on the other side  ‘It is’,  he said, ‘as if there is another universe or dimension of reality in that space’.   Then, he joked,  ‘Could Elvis still be alive in out there?’   This Harvard trained Physicists answered that even he couldn’t rule that out.   But, of course, he wasn’t speaking scientifically.   He had to say this because from Science, all the could say is what can be observed: ‘When you are dead you are dead’. 
If you want any hope in life today, or to have any kind of lasting meaning in what we know as life, Science can’t give any definitive answer.  And it’s exactly because Science can only see what Science can see, and Science is unable to see what only faith can see.    This is why we will always need more than human knowledge to know the ‘fulness…hidden in Christ with God.’    As brilliant as many Scientist are, and as wonderful as Science can be, it will never be able to answer the simpliest question a child asks, “Why?”   Why are we here, who should you be, or what you must you do to have fullness, meaning, and purpose in your life?  
      Here I’m reminded of what my orthopedic doctor once recommended I do when he was releasing me from his care, after repairing my foot from a terrible accident I had at 17 years old.    He looked at me, and said, ‘Now, go forth from here and play Tennis and do something!’  He was very smart doctor, and he did good work to save my foot, but he still didn’t have a clue about what could or should do.   I appreciated him for everything he did,  but he actually knew nothing about who I was or my life.    What he did was ‘all’ he could do, but it wasn’t all; it wasn’t even close.

    Paul drew meaning, purpose and hope for his life from having the ‘fullness of the blessing of Jesus Christ (Rom. 15:29).    In the opening of his letter to the Colossians, Paul explained how the ‘fullness’ of God dwells in Jesus and he is now challenging the Colossians to continue to find their own ‘fullness of life’ in him.   
     Saying that Jesus has ‘the fullness of God” coincides with Paul’s lofty language about Jesus also being ‘the image of the invisible God’ and ‘the first born of all creation’ (1:15)   With each phrase and in each case Paul was implying that the image of God originally ‘stamped’ in the human soul from the beginning, that had been marred by sin and rebellion, can now be fully restored and redeemed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.   Through Jesus, this ‘fulness of God’ has been revealed to us in human form so that God’s fulness can be passed on to us by faith, so that God’s image can be redeem, restore and ‘re-stamped’ in us.
      Why was Paul talking like this?   Well, one of the pressures among the Colossians at the time, which was the reason for Paul’s letter, was that other philosophies, ideas, traditions (2:8) or religious practices might deceitfully pull the church away from growing (2:19) and maturing  (1:28) in God’s mystery…’ which Paul’s says, is ‘in Christ himself’ (2:2).   And this allure to leave Jesus for other ways of knowledge and wisdom is still pulling against us too.   Can’t you feel it?  I’m not really talking about Science verse Faith here.   There is really no war going on between Science and Faith, since about the same number of Scientist believe in God as people in the general public.   No, the allure to leave Faith is Jesus more a struggle going on in the human heart than in the human mind.   It’s not a ‘battle’ out there, as much as it’s a battle going on inside of each of us.   What would you name as a continual and constant ‘power’ that might pull you away from growing and maturing to your full potential of fulness of life in Jesus Christ? 
     To help us understand how this ‘struggle’ happens in us all, recall the plot in the well-known story The Wizard of Oz?   Dorthy is carried away by a twister into a land that is far away from home.  On her journey to find her way back home,  she encounters other ‘lost’ souls;  a scarecrow who needs a brain, a tin man who’d desires a heart, and a cowardly lion who needs courage.  They all believe that the Great Wizard has he answer to what they need.   So, they are, as the song goes, “Off, to see the Wizard!”   But when they finally meet the Wizard, he seems intent on making their wishes practically impossible to receive.   To gain their wishes they must give him the ‘broom’ from the Wicked Witch of the West.  
In the most climatic scene of the story, Dorothy and her companions finally pull back the curtain to reveal the truth about the so-called "Magnificent Oz" who ends up being a very ordinary human being.  Rather than being a powerful and terrible wizard, he is only an old man with a lot of technology at his disposal.   Science debunks the pretense of the Wizard!
       But you will also remember that this ‘pretender’ was still able to give each of the seekers exactly what he or she needed--courage, a heart, a brain, a home. But he didn’t actually give it to them.  He, nor Science was able to do that.   This points us to the power of having a personal faith.   The Wizard ends helping them, but his ‘help’ is only to point them to possibilities within themselves.   These possibilities neither magic, nor science, but they the powers given to us by God, which are of very ordinary, often unseen, and long overlooked.
      This is ‘power’ of growing up into goodness, is the power the ‘fullness of life’ God offers us through Jesus Christ.   While there is a ‘mystery of God’ (1 Cor. 2:1), this ‘mystery…has now been revealed’.    This mystery, Paul explains, is ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (1;27).   This mystery is Christ’s goodness, purposes, and fulness, now being lived in you, by you, for yourself, and for those around you.   “It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ (1:29).   But what does that mean, that we have the potential to be ‘mature in Christ’ and to live in God’s fulness and in Christ’s goodness?

You Have Come to Fulness In Him (v10)
     To help you understand what it still means to ‘live in the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ himself’ (2:2) and to encourage you to continue to ‘mature’ in this knowledge until you come to ‘fullness in him’ who is still, at least in my book and this book,  ‘the head of every ruler and authority’ (even Science, technology, or whatever else might come along that tries to pull you away from Jesus Christ); to help you here Paul’s argument fresh for our own day and time, let me give you another good example of why Science, and everything else in this world falls short of the ‘fullness in him’. 
      Let me start again with Science, since our world is dominated by Science and Technology.    Now science can explain why most men are attracted to women and vice versa.   It's an evolutionary, biological, hard-wired need to preserve the species perhaps.    Or it's hormones.    Or it's a psychological predisposition.    Or it's social or cultural training.   Or it's some combination of those realities.
       In short, Science can explain sexual attraction.  It can explain why a handsome young man and a beautiful, healthy woman of reproductive age seek each other out.    Science can explain attraction, but what science still can't explain, nor replicate, or produce either, is love.
       Science can't explain why, for example, forty years later--not as healthy, not as good-looking and far beyond reproductive age--that same man sits by the hospital bed of that same woman night after night holding her hand,  praying that she survives cancer,  willing--in a second--to change places with her, to die if that would mean that she could live.
       Science can measure and study and explain the need of a species to reproduce itself and survive. But science can't fully explain love.   And, yet, love is as real as attraction---and it has more staying power too.   Love has been, and still is as real as it is unexplainable.  Down through the centuries, human love has remained a mystery too---and it’s a holy mystery—a mystery that lies within us,  beyond and beneath what we can measure, but it’s there, if we will nurture it and allow it to mature within us.
       In the very next chapter, Paul rightly concludes: “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony’ (3:14).   This language about God’s ‘fullness’ in Jesus is filled mystery in how it comes to us, but it’s mostly filled with very ordinary things.    For more than anything else, what is holy about Jesus, Paul says, is also what should  become ordinary among us when we’ve been with Jesus:  “If you have been raised with Christ,” Paul says, “seek the things that are above, where Christ is…” (3:1).   Is this really that hard to think about?   What is most holy, most religious and most Christlike isn’t really religious at all, just like it isn’t very scientific either.   What should be ‘ordinary’ for people living with God’s fullness, is this kind of growth, this kind of maturity, and this kind of new (3:10) ordinary:  “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you.  Above all, clothe yourselves with love….”
      Again, to review.  It is the job of science is to remove the mystery from the world.   But it is the job of faith, and the faithful who live by faith, to ‘display’  or ‘show’ the love of Jesus Christ’ so that we might mature in the mystery of Christ’s fullness still to be revealed through us.   Amen.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

“Growing Up ... Increasing...”

A sermon based upon Mark 4: 1-20
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Sunday August, 30th, 2020 (Growing In Grace)

    Back in 1977, the Movie ‘Oh God’ debuted on Television.  The film stars John Denver as Jerry Landers, the assistant manager of a grocery store who is chosen by God to spread the Word to the rest of the world.   
When the film Debuted, I was a huge John Denver fan, as so was the rest of America.  If you didn’t see it, the film was similar to the later film starring Jim Carrey and Morgan Freeman.  But Oh God, was better, more thoughtful film, I think.  It gets better reviews too.
Not surprisingly, the main plot of the film is that the grocery clerk who’s heard from God is labelled a basket case: even his loving wife Bobbie doubts her husband's sanity.  But there's enough evidence on Jerry's side for a panel of prominent clerics to demand that he bring his case to court to prove in court that he's the agent of God. 
In once scene in the very clever film, the characters were about to conclude that their mission to the world was a failure.  Jerry said, “Well, I guess we blew it!”  But God, caricatured and played by the imperishable George Burns, quickly responded with one of the great, unassuming lines in the movie, “Oh, I don’t think so.  You never know; a seed here, a seed there, something will catch hold and grow.”

The essence of Jesus’ message in today’s text compares the growth of God’s kingdom, (God’s spiritual rule in this world) to seeds being scattered in a field.   Whereas some of the seeds being sown fall on unproductive soil, (hard, rocky, or thorn laden, weedy ground)  much of the soil is favorable and the seeds are productive; some even replicating themselves up to 100 times.
 In this great parable, appearing also both in Matthew and Luke, Jesus makes some optimistic assumptions about God’s kingdom growing in the world and in people’s lives too.  Like George Burn’s unforgettable portrayal of God, Jesus assumes that many seeds will ‘catch hold and grow’.  Jesus also assumes that we live in vibrate, dynamic, and creative world; a world that is always changing; where growth is always happening all around us.  Can you see it? 
Let me ask you a very direct question: Are you open to God’s spiritual kingdom growing within yourself and within your own world?   And are you not only open to it, are you willing to make sacrifices, preparation and do the groundwork that will allow it to happen?
Near the end of Luke’s gospel, when religious leaders came to Jesus and asked ‘when’ the kingdom was coming, Jesus’ answer, if you recall, was that you can’t observe the coming of God’s kingdom.   The kingdom of God is within you?  Don’t look there, nor say it is here” “The kingdom” Jesus said, is either within (KJV), or among you (NASB, NRSV).   What’s most interesting is that Jesus spoke this word on his way to Jerusalem to die, just before he made his great speech about the coming end of Jerusalem (which did happen in 70 AD, see Luke 21).
Can you see this kingdom growing within yourself?  If not, aren’t you missing out on what only God can do?   Aren’t you missing the moral and spiritual growth of the kingdom that Jesus has promised?   Aren’t you missing the potential for growth that is always here; always within us and always among us too?    
Last February, when the legendary Kirk Douglas passed away at 103, David Muir, the ABC news anchor, replayed an old interview he’d had with the actor a few years back after the actor had recovered from a stroke.  Walking through his massive flower garden, Douglas pointed toward his roses and told David Muir in broken, rehabilitated speech, “Aren’t these roses beautiful?  They are my favorite part of the garden.  These beautiful roses growing here have helped me come to believe in God. I thought it quite amazing that Douglas just volunteered that right out of the blue.  The newsman hadn’t even about his faith at all, but it sounded like something Douglas was proud of and he just had to get out what was going on ‘within’ him.  This was his ‘spiritual growth’.  The was the kingdom growing ‘within him’, and he was just as proud of this as he was one of his great old movies.
Isn’t this the kind of spiritual growth Jesus is promising today’s text from Mark?   For Just like God gives growth through the power of nature which the living God sustains, God also brings spiritual, kingdom growth into our lives too, no matter what is happening out there in the world.  And isn’t this optimistic view of growth significantly different from the gloom and doom we constantly hear from our culture?   For just like it was in Jesus’ own day, even when it looks like the world is falling apart, God’s kingdom still comes to us and God’s still enables people to grow, both morally, spiritually in the way and will of God’s kingdom.  And it’s not only physically that we can grow, but even when we are living very physical lives, we are also made to grow spiritually.  This spiritual growth, if we are open to it, can continue within us on and on, even as our physical abilities fade and we are facing our mortality.    Like it was with Kirk Douglas, when we realize that our days are numbered, or even better, when we learn as Scripture says, to ‘number our days’, this is when we can grow and bear spiritual fruit.  
What Jesus is reminding us here isn’t that we not only have the opportunity to grow spiritually when we are facing our mortality, or some serious illness, but we can also grow spiritually anytime, anywhere, and almost any place, if the conditions are right ‘within’ or ‘among’ us.   For when you are traveling with Jesus, following Jesus, and abiding in Jesus, it’s always springtime of the soul.   It’s always the time of plowing, cultivating, sowing, planting, nurturing, harvesting, gathering, and reaping.  Even in nature, this is going on all the time somewhere in the world.  It’s also going on inside of us, if we are open to it.   And this is exactly what today’s text is about.   If we will receive the ‘seed’ the sower broadcasts among and within us, and if we will nurture these seeds the Spirit sows, the kingdom will grow within us.
But all this ‘growth’ begins with a very important word in this text.  Do you see it?  It all starts with the word “Listen!”   Can you do this?  Can you really do this?   There’s are an awful lot of distractions, disruptions and interruptions out there, aren’t there?    There’s always a job to do, an email to check, a text to answer, or an app to open.   All the Gadgets to help us have more time to reflect and grow spiritually have stolen even more time from us.  So, while the potential for spiritual, inward, and moral growth is still there, there are many continually newly invented things to occupy our minds, hearts, and souls.  But your life is still ticking away.  Your days are still numbered.  You only have so much time to connect with what is right and what matters most.  Can you ‘listen?’  Can you really ‘hear’ what’s happening?  You only have this chance.
During World War II the city of Palermo, Sicily, a military objective of the Allied Powers, was to be bombed by the American Air Force.  To warn the Sicilians, telling them to flee, thousands of pamphlets were dropped on the city beforehand, but the citizens simply did not believe the warning.  They read, or heard, but they did not ‘listen’!  Unfortunately, when the American planes came and dropped their bombs, hundreds of Sicilians were killed; in fact, in some cold, dead hands were found the very pages urging them to leave the city.

Hearing and listening is what Jesus means as he shared this parable about the Sower and the Soils.   At the time, people were still flocking to Jesus in great numbers.   His message about the growth in God’s kingdom was taught where the crowds were growing larger and pressing upon him greatly, so that sometimes he had to speak from a boat on the water.  
If Jesus had been an opportunist, he might have said something to the effect: "Look, how good we are able to communicate!”, “See, how we’re getting through to the people!”   “Imagine our approval ratings!  But no, Jesus wasn’t a politician.   He said nothing like this.  Instead Jesus told stories; parables that invited people to participate in what God was doing.   And it all starts with “He that has the ears to hear, listen’!  
Can you listen?  By making the obvious and imperative, Jesus knew that not everybody is listening.    They are present, but not really listening.   They aren’t listening because their hearts aren’t open.   As his parable suggests:  Like hard ground much walked upon, some hearts have hardened and the seed can’t get in, allowing enemies to snatch it away.   Like rocky ground where there isn’t much good soil, other people are too lazy, won’t go deep enough or spend time enough, because they continue to live such shallow, short-sighted ways.  Like weedy ground, other’s lives are filled with so much stuff, that the harvest gets ‘strangled’ out.   In this way, God’s given opportunity for growth is not merely stopped, but its stolen by an unwillingness to pay attention to what’s being said.   Jesus even names these ‘growth’ thieves as ‘cares of the world’,the lure of wealth’, or simple ‘desires for other things’ (v. 19).   All these things are not bad, but they can prevent the kind of spiritual growth you need to get to see, realize, and grow in the ways that matter most.   So, which is it for you?  Are you able to listen?  Do you have ears to hear what the Spirit is saying?

Having ears to listen and hear means understanding.  In this passage, this is where Mark is going with Jesus’ storytelling.   As is evident in this passage, even with Jesus’ own disciples understanding isn’t automatic.   Jesus speaks in parables to reveal to them God’s ‘secrets’.   Now, this doesn’t mean that God is trying to keep secrets, but it means God is trying to reveal the mysteries of life that aren’t always so easily understood.    This is the way growth in God’s kingdom works.   As Charles Leary has said:  ‘Growth is never forced upon anyone.’  And just like you can’t grow anything in your garden by yourself, you must cooperate with God’s truth to grow in it.     You also have to put some ‘trust’ and faith into the hope that growth will happen.  Only then can you celebrate  the growth and the harvest that comes.  
In fact, you actually don’t even ‘make’ a harvest happen, but the wisest gardener realizes that you can only cooperate and celebrate when harvest when it comes.   We used to call that ‘Thanksgiving’.  Remember that Thanksgiving Hymn: 
Come, Ye Thankful People Come,  Raise the Song of Harvest Home. 
All is safely gathered in, Ere the Winter storms begin. 
God our maker will provide For our wants to be supplied. 
Come to God’s own temple come.  Raise the Song of Harvest Home!”
  Growing something that is plentiful and productive is not always as simple as it looks.  When I used to work the garden with my mother growing up, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to details, but I did learn a few things.   I learned how to use a tiller, which mama couldn’t do.   I used to help carry the water for the plants, which mama also needed help doing.   I used to set a few tomato plants, sow a few seeds, and sometimes apply a little fertilize.   But the things she grew, like what most people in the south would grow, were staples; things easy to plant, easy to grow and fairly easy to care for in the hard, red clay we had to use.  
But later, when I started gardening myself, I wanted to grow some other things, simply because I wanted to grow them.   I could buy them cheaper, but I wanted to experiment some.   One thing I loved so much, but we never grew was carrots.   I loved carrots; raw, cooked, alone, in other dishes.   So, I planted seeds, but I only got little tiny worms.   The ground was too hard.   So I raised it up a little, and I got bigger worms and a few better size carrots.   The tops were much better, but the carrot still wasn’t what it should have been.   Then finally, in recent years, I built ‘raised beds’ and made the soil richer, softer, and deeper.   And guess what.   Great big carrots.  And tastier too.   And you know what made the biggest difference.   I still had to water.  I still had to add rich dirt.  But the biggest difference was the receptivity of the soil.   The soil was what allowed the carrots to be, just like me and ‘bugs bunny’ like, ‘CARROTS!
What Jesus implies in this parable overall, is that the most important part of growth has to do with the soil.   This is really a parable about soils, not about the sower.   And here, Jesus explains clearly that ‘good soil’ is the kind of person who wants to listen, wants to look,  wants to perceive, who wants to understand, and in turn, who wants to be forgiven (v.12).  
In other words, where growth begins is in your heart (your desire), not with your head (you intellect).   Your head always follows your heart.   Most everything that means something and makes a difference for your life and for the life of the world can begin as something hard to understand, at least at first.  If you want to catch or hit a baseball, you’ve got to practice.  If you want to shoot hoops, or make steals on the court, you’ve got to practice.   If you want to make a key tackle or score, make or catch a touchdown pass, you’ll have to show up for practice.   Nothing ‘big’ comes automatically.  
Even in academics too, spelling takes practice, mathematics will take a lot of ciphering, chemistry means you’d better learn your formulas, and even in theology especially, when you are talking about ‘invisible’, ‘eternal’ and ‘divine’ things, truth can be slow, gradual, and demands patience and participation with God.  
The reason for this because God is not after facts, ideas, nor figuring out the reason behind everything.   No, God wants you.   God wants you to be you, not God.   You can’t be God.  This is why nothing is automatic, why you have to show up, and why you have to open up, being honest with yourself and with God.   For you see, God already knows you better than you know yourself, and you can’t never fully know God.  The person God wants is you.  He wants you to participate and to grow in your life and you can only do with when you participate and cooperate with master gardener.    
 James A. Garfield, prior to serving as President of the United States, was president of Hiram College in Ohio.  One day a father asked Garfield if there were a short-cut whereby his son could get through college in less than the usual four years.  He wanted his Son to get on with making money. The college president gave this reply, “Of course there is a way; it all depends on what you want your boy to do. When God wants to grow an oak tree, he takes 100 years. When he wants to make a squash, he only takes two months.   (As quoted in Emphasis, June, 1982, The C.S.S. Publishing company, Inc., Lima, Ohio, page 27).

When you want to maintain your health, you cooperate with your physician. When you want to be a good student, you cooperate with your instructor. When you want to be a Christian, you cooperate with God in the church community of your choice.  And all this learning, growing and developing takes time, but if you don’t have a heart for it, your head will never get it.  You’ll simply remain blind to it.   You won’t be able to get a hold of the growth and maturity you need that God’s wants, nor will you ever be able to understand what you need to understand.    
I hear people say sometimes that I should always ‘keep it simple’ when I preach or teach.  Well, I do try to.   I try to aim for the ear, for the heart, and then, as my professor used to say, ‘keep it about 15 to 20 minutes’.   I do try to keep it simple, but if we always make everything too simple, when we remain too simple.   If I only aim low, toward the person who can’t understand and doesn’t try to understand, how we understand the ‘deep things of God’ (Job 11:7)   If I only, as the saying goes, ‘keep it simple stupid’, we can remain both too simple and stupid too.   No, life can be complicated.   People can be complicated.  God and Faith, if it is real and worthwhile and helps us grow, does not always give simple, easy answers.   A good gardener and farmer knows, that the most complicated part of growing anything is getting the ‘fertilizer’ right.  Water is water, the sun is sun, but knowing what kind and how much Fertilizer can be very complex.  
It’s the same way with faith.  While biblical faith always invites us to have a childlike faith, to have a growing, developing, and strengthening faith means we will have to have more than a childish faith.   We have to learn and we have to want to understand.   ‘When I became an adult…Paul said, I put away childish things.”

    What Paul did when he became an adult is the million dollar question that Jesus’ parable is pointing to resolve, isn’t it?   After we listen, and after we understand, will we accept?   This is what Paul meant when he said that he “put away the childish things’: He accepted the fact that he was needed to be about heavier matters.   This is also what Jesus implies when he says the people who are ‘good soil’ will ‘hear the word and accept it and bear fruit’ (v.20).    
But what does it mean to both ‘accept’ the word and then to ‘bear’ it’s fruit’?    We might imagine that in Jesus’ day, this mean agreeing with Jesus, following Jesus, and doing what Jesus commanded.   But in our time, since Jesus isn’t among us in the flesh, but by Spirit that resides in receptive people, these ‘spiritual’ matters that can get tricky and complicated very fast.   For example, in the news last February, a search was being carried out by authorities looking for two children, who were believed to have been kidnapped by their mother who was taking part in a ‘doomsday’ cult. 
Today, because religion nastier and more complicated by people in our world, many people just don’t trust in anything that is religious or spiritual.   People not only don’t ‘trust’ the spiritual growth process, they lose the ability to celebrate what faith and how we must grow our faith, until it’s too late.    When we lose ‘trust’ we are like the little boy who kept pulling up the plant to see how it was doing.   Without some ‘trust’ spiritual growth just doesn’t happen.    So, somewhere, we have to have accept the challenge to listen, to understand, and to accept what the ‘word’ of truth is saying to us.  
Tony Campolo explained what this ‘acceptance’ means in a story about a very successful successful couple was invited to meet the high-school principal in his office. He advised them to let their son drop out of school. How would they ever celebrate being parents after a blow like that? The father was a successful lawyer, the mother an active club woman in the city. For years they had been despairing over their son’s poor report cards. They were not surprised, but they despaired, thinking their son would never amount to anything.
Nineteen years later, they sat in the gymnasium of a large university watching the same son receive an honorary degree. At age forty-two his income was in excess of $75,000. He worked for many years as a gas-station attendant.  One day he came home and announced that he was going to finish high school and go to college.   Here is how that young man explained such a complete turnabout in attitude and accomplishment: “Somehow, while I was washing a blue two-door, all the bits and pieces fell into place, and I was grown up.”    (In Tony Campolo’s ‘Who Switched the Price Tags).  
Again, as we said earlier, paraphrasing Charles Leary again, “You cannot force growing spiritually”, but you must “cooperate with God’s in growing”, and when it comes to growing spiritually, you must first ‘trust God’ an accept His ‘truth’ before you can grow in it.    Isn’t this what Jesus was getting at, many many years ago.   As God’s good soil you must cooperate with God in growing up spiritually.   But you can’t even get started until you first ‘accept’ what God is saying to you and asking you to do right now.   Will you accept?   Amen.