Thursday, July 13, 2006

Colossians 3:16

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish each other in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs in your hearts to God.

Notice that the first sentence of this verse is in the passive voice. We are not told to “devote ourselves to the word of God,” nor are we told to “diligently study the Scriptures.”

Instead, Paul tells us that we need to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly. Our task is not so much a task at all; it is not something that we can accomplish by effort and dedication. Rather, our role is more one of yielding ourselves more and more to the word of Christ. Our striving is not so much to become stronger and stronger, more and more dedicated to Christ; rather, we are called to become more and more receptive to the word of Christ. If we wish to become stronger Christians, it will not necessarily come through our own effort, though I believe God honors efforts to discipline our spirits. Instead, Christian growth will come through our ability to receive the word of Christ.

Now I know many people who cannot tolerate this view of Christianity. Many people are legalistic, believing that the core of the faith is adherence to a set of rules. And, on the flip side, many people are addicted to personal license, unwilling to let the word of Christ dwell too richly in them, because it might threaten their personal autonomy. They have a shallow, surface knowledge of Christ but are afraid to engage it too deeply, afraid to let his teachings flourish because they are afraid of the changes that might come if the word of Christ truly dwelled richly in them.

Indeed, we will have to be very brave to allow Christ’s word to take root in our hearts. It means that we will have to learn to be in a doing world, that we will have to learn to listen in a world that values talking. It means that we will have to learn to be quiet and listen for a Word in a world that celebrates self-expression.

And then, when the word has taken root, then we will be able to do all of these other things. Then, when we have heard the word and are allowing it to flourish, we can teach and admonish in a way that will be useful for the body of Christ. When we have truly heard the word and are nurtured daily in its life, we can sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with a true spirit of gratefulness.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Sermon from Sunday, July 9

Hi all--just back from vacation this past Sunday. This is the sermon I preached on James 1:5-8.

I hate those ads for car dealerships where they advertise–get a brand new Kia for $6000! Then you look at the ad and then it tells you, “Well, of course, that includes the recent college grad rebate, the military rebate, and of course $5000 cash or trade.” In the end, of course, it might cost double the $6000. So whenever I see car ads now, I always read the fine print. It always seems too good to be true, and it usually is.

At first blush, this appears to be the case with this text from James. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let that one ask God. And God gives to all people generously and ungrudgingly, so if you just ask, God will give you wisdom.”

There it is–too good to be true! “Do you, too, want to be wise? Just ask–and God will give it to you!”

I get these e-mails all the time, offering me a real bachelor’s, master’s, or Ph.D. degree with no classes and no tests. All I have to do is send some money to this name and address, and then I will get my real degree–real easy. (By the way, every time I get one of these e-mails, I’m tempted to quit school and get my degree the old-fashioned way–buying it.) For the busy person with a job who also wants to continue their schooling, there are either night classes, or you can just send in a couple hundred bucks and the name you want on your diploma.

And it does seem a bit like God is running one of these cheap diploma mills here; the world says that wisdom comes with age, and yet here James is, saying that God will give anyone wisdom who will just ask for it. It’s even easier than the e-mail degree, because you don’t even have to pay for this! It seems a bit too good to be true.

It raises a few questions for me. Because I know plenty of people who really aren’t so wise. And so I ask myself, “Did these people just never get around to asking God for wisdom?” I mean, every week in our church we pray a prayer together, and many times we read together a prayer that I have written that asks for wisdom. I’m sure many churches do that; every week, I am certain that millions of Christians ask God for wisdom. And yet, many Christians are the most unwise people I know. I know Christians who pray for wisdom who also horde their money and place their trust in their many possessions; I know Christians who pray for wisdom who also deny medical care to their children; I know Christians who pray for wisdom who also don’t know anything about what the Bible says but instead take their cues from the New York Times or Fox News.

And so, I have to ask myself, “What happened? They asked God for wisdom–the Bible says if they ask they’re going to get it–but they didn’t seem to have gotten it. How did they miss it? Were they yawning while everyone else was praying for wisdom? Were they on vacation that week? What happened? Why didn’t they get wisdom?”

Of course, I’m kidding–mostly. Really, though, I can be honest about my own struggle with these verses. I want to be wise, too–I want to be able to distinguish between right and wrong. I want to be able to live my life with perspective like wise people do. I want to be that kind of person who people come to when they have questions and I want them to trust that they can find right answers with me. And like you, maybe even more than some of you, I don’t know, I’ve prayed to be wise.

And yet, if we had about an hour and a half for the sermon rather than twenty minutes, I could tell you story after story about mind-numbingly stupid, dimwitted, foolish, totally un-wise things I have done. I could tell you about the multiple times I’ve congratulated women on being pregnant who I later found out weren’t pregnant but just happened to be a little thick in the tummy. Not wise! I could tell you about the time when I was eighteen and I bragged to my parents about how spiritually deep I was growing but then got so angry at a game of miniature golf that I whacked the golf ball fifty yards with my putter. Not wise! I could tell you about the time I bought and brushed my teeth with toothpaste that had expired a full fifteen years earlier. Not wise!

But seriously–whether it’s my life or someone else’s life, you have to admit that it’s not quite as simple as James makes it seem. We all ask God for wisdom, yet none of us is wise all the time; indeed, few of us are wise even most of the time. We fall far short of this heavenly wisdom even though we do ask for it.

But James qualifies this a bit, and perhaps here we can begin to get a few answers for our confusion. He says, “But ask in faith, never doubting; because doubters are double-minded and unstable and must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” If God is truly going to make us wise, we have to ask for wisdom in faith without doubting. Perhaps the reason so many of us ask for wisdom and don’t get it is that we’re not asking in faith, but that we doubt. Maybe the reason I’m not wiser than I am is that I am touched with doubt when I should be asking in faith.

Faith and doubt are at the center of this dilemma. Asking in faith can make us wise; asking while doubting won’t get us anywhere. Yet if we are to fully understand what James is saying, we must understand what he means when he talks about faith and what he means when he talks about doubt. Understanding these words is key to making sense of what James means.

Faith is one of those words where when people talk about it, everybody means something different. Some people, when they say faith, mean a positive feeling toward God. Some people, when they say faith, mean an ability to trust that everything will be OK. Neither of these really get at what James means when he talks about faith.

It’s the same thing when you talk about doubt. Doubt has lots of different meanings. Some people believe doubt is a little seed of disbelief planted in a believing person. Some people believe that doubt is failing to believe God can do something that God can do. But again, neither of these ideas really gets at what James means when he talks about doubt.

For James, doubt is different than this. The Greek word used here for doubt is a very common word for doubt in the New Testament. It is diakrino and is taken from a word that means to dispute, or to differentiate. But here, it is used in the middle voice. Quick Greek lesson: when a word is used in the middle voice, that means that whatever the verb is, you are doing that with yourself or to yourself. So if you used the word, “I slap” and you used it in the middle voice, you would be saying “I slap myself.” (Not that you’d actually want to slap yourself, but that’s what it would mean.)

Here, the word is dispute, or differentiate. So when James uses this word in the middle voice, he is talking about people who dispute with themselves. For James, this is key to what doubt is. Doubt is not an intellectual difficulty. We all have doubts like that sometimes. Rather, doubt is an inward condition of disputing with yourself, a condition of dividing yourself, of not really knowing what you want. Doubt means that sometimes you want God and sometimes you want other people. Sometimes you want to pursue life in Christ and sometimes you want to pursue–you know, whatever else the world wants you to pursue. The good life. Whatever.

For James, this is what doubt is–being unsure of what you really want. Living with one foot in one camp and one in another, one day in this Christian thing and one day out. Some calls of the Spirit acknowledged and followed, and some calls ignored or conveniently not heard. Divided loyalties, desperately trying to live up to two competing ideas.

Jesus describes the situation when he says, “No person can serve two masters. Either they’re going to love the one and hate the other or they’re going to hate the one and love the other. You can’t serve both God and money.” This perfectly describes doubt; it’s a condition of the soul where you simply can’t decide who to follow. This is why James says that people who do this are like waves of the sea: driven and tossed by the wind; since these people have many loyalties they have no real loyalties. So, he concludes, they are double-minded; they have two minds, one is for God and one is for self. And a person who has not given all to God should not expect to receive anything from God.

That is what James means by doubt. And what he means by faith is just the opposite, then: faith is firm confidence that God is in control and a firm loyalty to that God above all things. Faith is not a matter of believing the right things about God and faith is not a matter of doing the right things all the time. Rather, faith is a matter of having an unwavering loyalty where God is first in your life and that guides the rest of it. James describes doubt as being double-minded; in the same way, then, faith is being single-minded. A faithful life is a life in which Christlikeness is the ultimate goal, that thing that you pursue with every step in your life.

Jesus used similar language when he looked at his disciples and said, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and never doubt, you will be able to say to this mountain, ‘Be thrown into the heart of the sea,’ and it will be done.” Jesus’ point is similar; the key to being able to deeds of power is this kind of unwavering, single-minded, faith which is trust in and loyalty to God. Double-minded doubt, having one foot in Christ and one foot in the world, will produce a life without power.

When I was a kid, I was afraid of the water. For one thing, I had big thick glasses and so when I went swimming, I had to take them off and I couldn’t see very well at all. So there could be this enormous crocodile coming at me and I wouldn’t even know it. Add that to the fact that I just am not a very athletic person and I was always just afraid to go in the water.

When I would get invited to pool parties, I was always very cautious. I was the type of kid who hung around the shallow end of the pool, really as close to the steps out of the pol as I could, because I just really didn’t like the water. Occasionally I would go a little further out and splash around, but more or less, I just wanted the pool party to be over.

So when I was standing there dipping my toes in, deciding whether I could risk going in up to my waist, I always envied the kids who just had no fear. They’d be down at the deep end just flinging themselves at the water; doing backflips, cannonballs, jumping off the highdive; like I say, they just threw themselves at the water. I was always worried about the things I couldn’t see, or what might be happening underneath the water. But these kids were not worried at all; they were just so confident that the water would embrace them just as it always did. I always envied those kids.

There are some similarities here to the way we approach Christianity. Some of us dip our toes in the water but are afraid of what it might mean to go all the way in. We stand at the edge of the water and we embrace just enough of Jesus’ teaching to be dangerous. But we’re afraid of what will happen if we let go of control long enough to really plunge ourselves beneath the water. And so we stand there, half in and half out, our feet in the pool but our hearts definitely back on dry land.

But some of us approach Christianity altogether differently. We throw ourselves into the deep end. We throw ourselves into Jesus’ teaching and we count on him to bring us back to the surface. We love being in the water, all the way in, because it is then that we feel most fully alive. We love it even though it occasionally makes us uncomfortable. We know that in him is the true life.

James says if you want to be a wise person, if you truly want to gain wisdom, it starts by throwing yourself into the deep end. Wisdom starts when we immerse ourselves in God, when we live life with God as our one purpose. Wisdom starts by immersing ourselves in the source of all wisdom. Wisdom starts by giving our lives to the only one who is truly wise.

Of course, this really does make sense. If you truly want to be wise, you’re going to place a great premium on knowing the source of all wisdom. If you want to be wise, you’re going to study the teachings of Jesus with passion; if you want to be wise, you’re going to listen intently to Scripture; if you want to be wise, you’re going to want to discuss God’s wisdom with other Christians from your church, and other churches, and around the world, who might give you a better insight into the wisdom of God. The one who makes wisdom a priority in their lives and craves it enough to pursue it and change their lives to chase it: that one will not be disappointed. They will find it. The one who asks in single-minded faith for wisdom will not be refused.

And on the flip side, if we ask for wisdom without caring enough about it to pursue it, we won’t receive it. If we ask God for wisdom but don’t immerse ourselves in the God-centered life, we shouldn’t expect to become wise. If we ask God for wisdom but refuse the wisdom offered us in the Scripture; if we ask God for wisdom but then do not seek it in our church, we shouldn’t expect God to grant us wisdom. If we ask God for wisdom but cling to self-destructive ways of living, we shouldn’t expect God to grant us wisdom. Why? Because even though our lips might say we want wisdom, our lives show that we don’t really care much about becoming wise. We pray one thing with our lips but we pray another thing with our lives; and if our lives demonstrate that we don’t truly want wisdom, then God will answer the prayer of our lives and not give us wisdom.

Proverbs 2 puts it well. Proverbs 2 is a great chapter of the Bible; in Proverbs 2, the text is written from the perspective of wisdom. It is written as if wisdom is speaking to the reader. And this is what wisdom says to us: “If you indeed cry out for insight, and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver, and search for it as for hidden treasures–then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.” If it is the desire of your heart, the deepest longing of your spirit, then you will find it.

When Jesus was walking the earth, he taught in parables. Parables are stories, almost like riddles, that demonstrated something about the nature of the kingdom of God. And once his disciples asked him why he spoke in parables, and this is what he said: “(so) they may indeed look, but not perceive; and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.” In other words, Jesus taught in parables because not everyone gets them, but only those who truly listen. If you listened to the parables so you could receive confirmation about what you already thought, or affirmation for the way you already think, you can listen, but you won’t really hear them. But if you listen with an open mind, with a heart bent on pursuing wisdom at all costs, you can receive wisdom in a way you never dreamed before.

As it is with the parables, so it is with wisdom. If we want to pursue wisdom beyond human intelligence, it will be given to us and given abundantly.