Wednesday, August 23, 2006

1 Peter 3:16b

Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.

This is an incredibly challenging verse. Peter is speaking to a church that is going through an incredible persecution, and giving them advice on how to suffer.

When we suffer, we often become quite self-absorbed. At least in my experience, a time of suffering is a time to lay aside other well-intentioned efforts. If I’m going through a very stressful time at work or school, I’ll “reward” myself with a doughnut as compensation for the other difficulties in my life. Or if I’m experiencing some challenges in my pastorate, I’ll lay aside personal Bible reading, rationalizing that “I’m reading enough of it now at work.”

Yet Peter stresses that our moral conduct is perhaps most important during times of suffering. Why? Because it is then that the integrity of our witness matters the most. It is our ability to suffer with humility and perseverance that marks us as God’s children, as surely as Jesus’ suffering confirmed him as God’s Son. If we cannot suffer without lapsing into old habits, the world will see through our façade and recognize that we are not Christ-like when it matters most.

In what way do you tend to self-medicate during suffering? In what way do you tend to lapse when under pressure? I urge you to consider putting it aside, that the world may see Christ shining more brightly in you.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Sermon from Sunday, August 20

From 1 Chronicles 4:9-10: "Jabez was honored more than his brothers; and his mother named him Jabez, saying, 'Because I bore him in pain.' Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, "Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt and harm."

So a friend asked me to preach a sermon on a book she had read that had made a real difference in her life. That little book is The Prayer of Jabez, and its title refers to the prayer that we read in our text this morning. Now, the first thing you should do when someone asks you to preach a sermon based on a book, is you should read the book. There’s too many people out there talking way too much about things they never have read. I confess that I never have read it, and so I picked up a copy at the library and read through it pretty quickly.

Now, as with any book, you don’t like every part of it. But there were parts of it I really did like, really did appreciate; parts of it that challenged my own practice of prayer and made me want to grow and change the way I think. I encourage you to read it for that reason–not because it’s a special book, but because any time you read something new, you are challenged with the question, “is this true? Is this Biblical?” When you do that, you truly start to sharpen your minds and often you learn something from the books you read. In fact, on the back of the bulletin this week, I listed a few other books on prayer you might want to read to deepen your own understanding of prayer.

In the book, the author focuses on how out of place this prayer seems in the Bible. If you look at the chapters all around it, they are lists of names, genealogies, listings of descendants of the great Jewish figures, all the way back to Adam. And yet, out of this list of names pops Jabez, who prayed a prayer that it is said that God heard and God answered. And this was his prayer: “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand would be with me and keep me from hurt and evil!”

I think the thing that strikes me about this prayer upon first looking at it is how selfish it looks at first glance. It’s all focused on yourself: “Oh that you would bless me, and enlarge my border, and that your hand would be with me, and keep me from hurt and evil.” It does seem very focused on yourself when there are an awful lot of other things in the world to be concerned about. I mean, wouldn’t we be better off praying for peace in the Middle East or for the eradication of poverty or for marriages that are in trouble? Why are we taking up all this time with concern for ourselves when there is so much trouble in the world that God needs to concentrate on?

At least that’s the way most of us have been trained to think. We don’t pray for ourselves and our own blessing and things that we want and need. We pray for good things, for holy things, for other people’s needs, even for the strength to do the right thing. But somehow it seems wrong to us to pray for our own blessing.

But it seems that Jabez was not at all concerned with that. As we’ve said, Jabez’s prayer was all about: that God would bless him, that God would enlarge his territory, that God would keep his hand with him, and keep him from hurt and evil. It’s like a laundry list. We may not like it–and yet we have to come to grips with the fact that God honored and respected that prayer, answering it just like Jabez wanted. When it comes to prayer, it’s not so much what seems right to us that counts as what seems right to God.

So, the question I want to focus on today based on this prayer, is when is it appropriate to pray a prayer like the prayer of Jabez? When is it appropriate to pray for yourself, for your own blessing?

The first answer really sounds simple–but it’s appropriate to pray a prayer like the prayer of Jabez ANYTIME! Now, I say this not because you always ask for the right things. I’ve asked God for all sorts of dumb things in prayer and I’m grateful God didn’t answer them. But it’s appropriate to ask God for some sort of blessing anytime because God is quite capable of sorting out the things he should say yes to and the things he should say no to.

Richard Foster wrote one of the books on prayer that I recommended in the bulletin. And he has a lot of insight on prayer, and he says that each one of us comes to prayer with mixed motives: some of our motives are self-seeking, some of them are others-seeking, some of them are God-seeking. We are human and fallen and so none of us are going to have totally pure motives when we come to pray. And some people say, “I couldn’t possibly pray when I don’t have pure motives. So first, I’ll get my motives right and then I’ll start to pray.” But if you wait to get your motives right, you’ll be waiting your whole life long. So my first advice is don’t hesitate to pray for whatever you need, or whatever you think you need. God will be able to sort out what is a good idea to give you and what isn’t a good idea to give you.

In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul starts talking about a difficulty he has been having; we don’t know exactly what it was, but he calls it a thorn in the flesh. He says that he had received many exceptional revelations of God; he talked about how he had even known someone who had been caught up to the third heaven. We don’t know exactly what that means, but Paul basically is talking about the amazing mystical experiences he has been privy to. And so he says, that to keep him from being too elated, too super-spiritual, there was given to him a “thorn in the flesh.” And he was so miserable that three times, he asked God to take away that thorn. But God said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Now, why do I tell you that story? Because I want you to see Paul as an example. He asks God for a blessing–repeatedly. Again and again, he asks God to take away this thorn in the flesh. And God says no. But even when God said no to Paul, Paul learned something new about God, that His power is made perfect in weakness. There is nothing to be ashamed about in asking for a blessing from God so long as you are prepared to take whatever answer He gives and to delight in God’s goodness.

So, first, the easy answer is that it’s always good and right to ask God for a blessing. But, second, and more specifically, I think it’s good to ask God for a blessing when we are determined to use our blessing for the Lord. We should not expect that God will be just itching to bless us if we don’t usually use our blessings in good ways. For example, suppose your kids come to you and want twenty bucks. I haven’t been a parent that long, but even I know the question you ask is, “What do you need it for?” And if the answer is, “to blow at the arcade with my friends,” then my answer is “No.” And if the answer is, “To buy this biography of George Washington to further develop my love of and appreciation for history,” then the answer is yes. It all depends on what my child wants to use this money for.

So often, we pray for blessings without checking in with ourselves and seeing what we’d use the blessing for. We pray, for instance, to have no conflict in our lives. But I know that often it is in a conflict that I grow the most and learn the most. I don’t think God wants me to have a conflict-free life. Now, maybe some of you don’t have as hard a head as I do and you don’t have to go through a conflict to learn and grow. You stand a better chance of getting that blessing than I do. Because conflict is part of what shapes me into a better servant of God and ultimately a better Christian, so God isn’t just going to get rid of it for me. I might want to get rid of conflict, but that’s because I want to have an easy life, not because I want God to change me and grow me.

I was talking with our area minister once about church growth. And he had something very wise to say about it. He said, “every church that wants to grow should ask themselves a question: ‘Why would God want to send any new people here?’” Often, churches talk about wanting to grow in numbers, and you’re not sure why. It seems like it’s because they want to have the biggest building or the pastor wants to have bragging rights about having the biggest congregation, or the church members want to have new people to help pay the bills. But if we--or any church–wants to ask God to bless us with new people, the question needs to be the same as we ask our kids when they want to borrow money: “What are you going to do with them?” Imagine God saying, “If I send new people here, will they grow to be like me? Will they be further formed for service? Will they develop a love for truth?” If the answer to these questions is no, then we shouldn’t expect God to bless us with new people.

On Pentecost, we read that Peter preached with power and that the Holy Spirit fell upon the gathering and three thousand people were added to the church. But the fact that 3,000 people came to the faith that day was not so Peter and the other apostles could feel good about having a popular new religion. Rather, it was a sign that God had empowered Peter and the other disciples to lead something new. It was a sign of trust that God placed with these believers that God could entrust 3,000 new people to them and trust that they would be raised in the truth and the life-giving message that God was dead and now was alive again.

This is what it is like in our life as a church, and also in our lives individually. A key question to ask ourselves is, “How would I handle God’s blessing?” If God blessed me in this way or that way, how would that change me? One way I’m glad God has not blessed me is by winning the lottery. Because then I might quit my job. And frankly, I’m not a strong enough Christian to deal with that. I might think, oh, yeah, I’d devote myself to writing and speaking and thinking and teaching and I wouldn’t have to take any payment for it. But then I think, yeah, right. If I won the lottery, I wouldn’t do that stuff–I’d sleep til noon every day, get up and waste my day and feel terrible about it and then go to sleep at night. Plus, I’d be more worried about money than I am now–I’m sure of it! God “blessing” me by giving me too much money would not be good for me because I might just not do good things with it.

If we truly want God to bless us in a certain way, we have to be ready to use those blessings for the Lord, and not for ourselves. I believe it pleases God more to bless us when he is certain that we will use his blessings to further his kingdom’s values on this earth. It is good to ask God for blessings any time, but especially when we are ready to use his blessings the right way.

Finally, I think it is also good to ask for blessings from God when we are appropriately humble and dependent. Sometimes, when we receive a blessing from God, the end result is that we forget God and learn to love the blessing more than we love God.

One of the great truths about people is that we often seek God when life’s circumstances humble us. Maybe a parent dies or a child gets sick. Maybe a job is lost or a spouse walks out. Maybe we try something great and we fail; or we have a great dream and it is obvious that it will never be realized. In those moments, when life humbles us, we are inclined to look to God for help. When we are down, we tend to look up.

And often the way it goes is that when we have recovered from these devastations, after we have grieved at the funeral, after we have gotten a new job, after we have left the hospital, that our inclination to look for God disappears. When there are things to do, a busy life to be lived, we often rush ourselves too much, and fail to take time for the nurture of our spirit. When we are healthy and wealthy enough to get by, we learn to rely on our own inner strength and fail to acknowledge the God who props us up and sustains us each day.

What I am saying is that many of the “blessings” that God gives us can often separate us from him. Often, we remember God when we are sick but forget him when we are healthy; we remember God when we are poor but forget him when we are wealthy. If we want to receive blessings from the Lord, we need to be the kind of people who are humble even when we are not down and out. We need to be the kind of people who are dependent on God even when the world encourages us to be independent.

This is not to say that if we do everything just right, God is always going to grant us good health and lots of money. Far from it! What it is saying, though, is that we need to cultivate an attitude where we are humble whether or not life is humbling us. If we truly want God to bless us in some way, it would be good for God to know that if he does give us this blessing, it’s not going to be a hindrance to your faith or spiritual growth.

What this whole sermon is about, really, is about why God blesses us in the first place. I believe God chooses to bless us as a church or us individually for a whole lot of reasons, more than I could talk about in one sermon. And so we can go to God and ask for a blessing any time, for any reason. But we can most confidently go before God and ask when we know that we will use that blessing for God’s good purposes, and when we commit to not letting those blessings separate us from our good and giving God.