Tuesday, January 30, 2018

We Want More

This is a sermon that was preached on Sunday, January 28, 2018 at United Presbyterian Church in Sterling, KS.  Listen to audio here.

Read 1 Peter 2:1-6, Isaiah 26:1-9 here
I had a classmate in seminary who told us that he was determined that seminary would not change him.  He ended up flunking out.  To keep from changing he had to shut out everything that was being said, which kept him from learning and being able to know what to write in the required papers or how to answer the questions on tests.

He reminded me of Peter Pan who took Wendy and her brothers to Neverland so they wouldn’t have to grow up.

He reminded me of me.  Not that I was like that in seminary, but years before seminary, I was working hard to shut things out.  I was proud of the fact that I could go see a movie that made most people cry and I would not cry.  I was proud of being strong and tough. 

To maintain my tough veneer, I avoided certain things.  I didn’t read the Bible except when I was the liturgist in worship.  I didn’t engage with people except in business or business-like conversations.  I didn’t pray on my own.  In those days, I rode the bus to work, and I always made sure I had a book to read so that I didn’t have to talk to anyone.

I was involved in church, but I wasn’t really personally involved with God.  I was living life inside my carefully constructed boundaries.  I was trying to be solid rock instead of a living stone.

What I didn’t know was that I was fighting a losing battle.  No Christian can stay the way they are. (William Barclay)[1]  The Holy Spirit keeps working in us to help us grow as Jesus’ disciples, to help us become more and more a reflection of our Creator.[2] 

And we all, who with unveiled faces reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. 2 Cor 3:18

Writer Phyllis Trible says “the Bible is a mirror reflecting the whole panorama of life in both holiness and horror…you look in the mirror in the morning, and it shows you something you don’t particularly like, and it gives you a choice to do something about it.”[3]

I used to describe my change from solid rock to living stone as my encounter with the wrecking ball that demolished those walls I had put up around myself.  Now I think it was probably more like the story in the classic book Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates[4] in which a little Dutch boy sees a leak in a dike and tries to stop it from growing by using his finger to stop up the leak.  The Holy Spirit was poking holes in my walls and eventually there were so many holes that it all collapsed.

We are made in God’s image.  God is a community. God is three persons, the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We as reflections of God are also drawn to community. After my walls came down, I found this to be true. Instead of avoiding people, I was drawn to people. And I wanted to know God more, so I started reading the Bible on my own, and I talked some people into getting together once a week to talk about our pastor’s sermons and the Bible and what God was doing in our lives.

One of the things I learned very quickly is that we don’t all understand the Bible the same way, and we don’t all experience God the same way, but we also found encouragement in discovering that sometimes we DO experience God the same way.  Hearing someone else’s perspective helps us grow.
I continue to be surprised about that in new ways.  When we get together to talk about the Bible, sometimes we will read a passage of scripture together and then ask, ”what jumped out at you in what we just read?”  Sometimes, even though it’s a passage I have read many times, still somebody will have been impacted by a part of it that I barely even noticed.  It’s amazing to me how much we will each hear differently.  It’s a great opportunity to learn from one another.

We need to grow as individual disciples and an important part of that is small groups.

How does Peter say that in our scripture reading?  Get rid of childish stuff and crave spiritual growth – crave God, crave the Holy Spirit working in you.  Do it together as living stones.
Ezekiel 36:26 puts it like this:
26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
God makes us grow by changing our hearts.
The message version of 1 Peter says we need to clean house.  Peter says we need to Make a clean sweep of malice and pretense, envy and hurtful talk. You’ve had a taste of God. Now, like infants at the breast, drink deep of God’s pure kindness. Then you’ll grow up mature and whole in God.” 
Get rid of the bad stuff to make room for the good stuff, the Holy Spirit stuff.

My dad used to say, “You’re growing too fast, we’re going to have to stop feeding you.” Or “We’re going to have to put rocks on your head.”  He was just kidding, but also he was having to keep buying us bigger clothes and bigger shoes, and we were eating more.  Sometimes, in growth spurts, it was hard to feed us enough.

We measured our growth by making marks on the wall.  I remember our kids would be excited to see that they had grown.  It’s kind of funny, isn’t it?  They didn’t actually do anything to make that growth happen.  It just happens.  But there was still a sense of accomplishment, and an excitement in seeing that things were happening.

There is excitement in seeing our spiritual growth, too.  We don’t measure it with marks on the wall, though.  We measure it by the signs that the Holy Spirit is changing us from solid rock to living stone, giving us hearts of flesh.

We know these signs from what the Bible tells us about the work of the Holy Spirit. Paul tells us in Galatians 5:22-23 about the fruits, the results, of the Holy Spirit’s work:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  There are nine.  I memorized them.  I have them hanging on my wall.  I ask God to help me work on these.  I have been able to see that although there was a time when none of these words were likely to be used to describe me, now some of them actually apply.

Notice that all of them are words that describe how we are in our relationships with people.  If there is no contact with people, none of those things matter.  If our contact with people is always brief or business-like, it’s pretty easy to show these traits.  But when we spend more time with one another, and especially when we spend time talking about things that really matter to us, then we have the opportunity to really see our growth in these areas.

But it’s not just about us.  It’s about being there for one another to “encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thess 5:11).  Life can be hard, and life can be lonely.  We talk often about how we are never truly alone because God is always with us, but sometimes we need people to remind us that we aren’t alone.  One of my favorite examples of this in the Bible is the story of Elijah.  He’s probably most remembered for having a showdown with the prophets of Baal and calling down fire from heaven to burn up his offering on the altar at the top of Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:20ff).  It was a dramatic moment.  Elijah asked God to show himself in a dramatic way, and God did.  But then Elijah’s opponents got angry and chased Elijah out into the wilderness.  Elijah was worn out and depressed, and he said to God, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” (I Kings 19:4)  God didn’t take his life.  Instead he provided water and food and rest, and Elijah continued his journey to Mount Horeb, the mountain where Moses met with God.  There God asked Elijah, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 Elijah said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” (1 Kings 19:14)

I, even I only, am left.  In other words, “Woe is me, I’m all alone.  I’m the only one left who trusts in God.” But God told him that he wasn’t alone. Actually there were still 7000 men who hadn’t stopped worshipping God (1 Kings 19:18).  Elijah was strengthened in knowing he wasn’t alone, and God sent Elijah out from the mountain with a new mission, to anoint a couple of those 7000 men into God’s service.  One of those anointed men was Elisha, who became Elijah’s apprentice and went on to be a great prophet himself.

We are not alone.  We come together to encourage one another, and to help each other hear what God is saying to us.

We don’t grow as well all by ourselves.  We get stuck.  We get off track.  We stop growing
We do need time on our own to pray and process the information, to read the Bible for ourselves, but we also need time to discuss. A great place to do that is in a small group.

God speaks to us through the Bible and prayer, through circumstances, and through the church.
“God speaks through the members of the body to help others know and understand God’s assignment for their lives.”[5]

Several places in the Bible the church is called the body of Christ.  We are all parts of that body.
“Suppose the eye could say to the body, “Let us walk down the train tracks.  The way is clear.  Not a train is in sight.” So the body starts down the tracks.
Then the ear says, “I hear a whistle coming from the other direction.”
The eye argues, “But nothing is on the track as far as I can see.  Let’s keep on walking.”  The body listens only to the eye and keeps on walking.
Soon the ear says, “That whistle is getting louder and closer!”  Then the feet say, “I feel the rumbling motion of a train coming.  We better get our body off these tracks!”  If this were your body, what would you do?
·       Would you try to ignore the conflict and hope it passed away?
·       Would you take a vote of all your body members and let the majority rule?
·       Would you trust your eye and keep on walking since your eyes have never let you down before?
[My guess is], you would get off the train tracks as soon as possible.”[6] 

Those may seem like silly questions to ask.  God gave our bodies many different senses and parts.  When each part does its job, the whole body works the way it should….Because a church is the body of Christ, it functions best when all members are able to share what they sense.

Talking together about what we are each hearing from God is a vital part of our growth spiritually and as a community of faith.  It has become an important part of my own spiritual growth, and I feel like I’m missing part of God’s message when I don’t have opportunities to talk with people about the Bible and about God.

Peter tells us that we are stones being built upon the living stone, the cornerstone, Jesus Christ.
You are coming to Christ, who is the living cornerstone of God’s temple. . . And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. (1 Peter 2:4-5)
It’s challenging, and difficult.  It’s hard to be vulnerable, and real. I know it’s hard. 
It was hard for me, too.

But with God all things are possible.  The love and grace and mercy of Jesus Christ at the core of our faith is what makes it work, and makes us grow, makes us able to show the love and grace we find in Jesus to one another.
Trust in the Lord forever,
    for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal.
Isaiah 26:4

“An organization can only change when the people in it change.”
Spencer Johnson, MD in “Who Moved My Cheese?”[7]

[1] William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: The Letters of James and Peter (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), page 224.
[2] And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. 2 Cor 3:18
[3] As quoted by Frances Taylor Gench in Faithful Disagreement…page 3.
[5] Henry T. Blackaby and Claude V. King, Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God (Broadman & Hollman, 1994) page 204.
[6] Blackaby & King in Experiencing God.  Quoted text begins with the parable of the train tracks.
[7] Spencer Johnson, MD, Who Moved My Cheese (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1998), page 94.

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