Authentic Relationships

Spiritual maturity happens in the context of relationships.

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During Lent we’ve been studying several of the foundational habits and practices of disciples.  Through our Sunday teaching and our Foundations book we’ve discovered that one of the most important practices we undertake in discipleship is relationship building.  Relationships are at the heart of following Jesus and, in fact, the disciple of Jesus has three relationships we tend to: our relationship with God, our relationship with the church family, and our relationship with those who don’t know Jesus, yet.  Each is vital and each must be given the appropriate attention.

I’ve spent this morning reading and reflecting on 1John.  I didn’t intend to read the whole book, but my devotions led me to one confusing verse and I needed to put it in context.  And as I read through the entire book I was reminded of the high value of relationship among church family.  In fact, John equates spiritual maturity – living as Jesus did – to the depth of our love for one another (2:9; 2:6).  The way we love one another in the church family provides the evidence that we are walking in the light.  Conversely, “anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister (God’s family) is still in the darkness” (2:9).

Since spiritual maturity happens in the context of relationships, I thought it would be helpful to list the ways John evidences as the fruit of church family love.

How do I live as Jesus did among my brothers and sisters in Christ?

  • Practice sincere love for one another. In 1John 2:10, the author uses a variation of the word “agape” to propose godly love for one another.  This is the kind of love God has shown the world in Jesus and the type of love he calls us to in the Great Commandment (Matthew 22).  The love we express to one another in the Body of Christ reflects the exact love that God expresses to each person and to the entire world.
  • Speak well of the church family. In chapter 3, John reminds us that the love of God has been lavished on us and we are God’s children.  There was a time when we did not belong to God.  In fact, we were under God’s wrath.  But through Jesus we have been adopted into God’s family.  In his grace, God has lavished us with his love.  So since we are each recipients of this love, let it be expressed in community.  As we treat one another well; show respect even in disagreement; recognize that Jesus died and rose for each of us – we express unity.  When you or I abuse one member of the family, we are abusing the whole.
  • Pay attention to the real enemy! We are not the enemy.  The enemy is personified three ways by John: the antichrists, the world, and human nature. The antichrists (2:18) are those who don’t really belong to the church family and tend to stir up trouble.  They lie, propagate unsound doctrine, and sow confusion.  Secondly, the enemy of the family of God is the world and the viewpoint of the world as it relates to God (4:5).  Thirdly, is the potential for our human nature to have sway over our relationships (2:15-17).  Our human nature left unchecked and unchanged by Jesus is ruled by our lust and pride and their selfish desires which separate.  Pay attention to the things that separate us from each other; pray for each other; and keep each other accountable (5:16).
  • Sacrifice for one another. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.  And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (3:16).  This verse, often associated with patriotism, has nothing to do with patriotism and everything to do with how the church family expresses love for each other. John is teaching the church how to be the church and be different from the world.  And, in this context, it’s about sacrificing for each other – “if anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister (church family) in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” (3:17)

Loving one another like this is not natural.  We are accustomed to individualism.  Love like this is also risky.  It pushes us to invest deeply in each other.  John, aware of these challenges, writes, “Perfect love drives out fear” (4:18).  If I love you, I am not afraid of you.  If I’m not afraid of you, I can take risk in expressing my love to you.

Lent is a season of soul searching and reflection.  It is also a season of growth.  As you reflect on your relationship with your church family challenge yourself to ask, “Where am I growing?”  Are you loving one another greater than you did last year, or even yesterday?  Are you speaking well, even in disagreements?  Are you working hard at keeping the enemy at the gates?  Where have you noticed God inviting you to live sacrificially for the benefit of another disciple?

While it is indeed challenging to live in community, we have help.  We are each filled with the Holy Spirit and it is he who spreads the love of God in our hearts and connects us together as the church.  And everyone will know we are Christians by our love for each other.

Ugly Expectations

What would happen in your life and ministry if you looked beyond what is expected of you and into the eyes of Jesus who is calling you out of the boat?

Have you ever had one of those experiences where life is just going really good for a little while, only to get slapped in the face by cold, hard reality?  I have.  Many times.  In my case, I’m usually enjoying some deep, meaningful moments with God.  I’m wrapped up in worship, dreaming of what could be only to be interrupted from that dream like state by the blaring alarm clock-like, tyrannical voice of the urgent. The dreams and hopes of what could be are slain by stupid things which masquerade as urgently critical to the foundations of life.  (Spoiler: They never are!)

If you have, Jesus knows how you feel.

In a moment of sheer delight, as he watches his disciples finally seem to get it; when they feed 5000 people and Peter walks on water – Jesus is hopeful that he’s turned a corner and prepared his followers for their future (Matthew 14).  Then, within what appears to be a painfully short amount of time, this mountain top experience gives way and brings Jesus and the disciples crashing back down into the throes of negativity.

“Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem…” (Matthew 15).  The Pharisees and teachers of the law have an agenda and they’re seeking Jesus to let him know they do indeed have an agenda.  “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?  They don’t they wash their hands before they eat.”

Why do I still hear my mother’s voice in that sentence?  “Go wash your hands.  Dinner’s ready.”

Nonetheless, the Pharisees meant something entirely different.  They didn’t really care about dirty hands.  They were, though, overwhelmingly concerned about doing things right.  And not just because washing your hands is right and polite.  Instead, they were invested in making sure that everyone was measuring up to their expectations.  They used expectations to control people.  “Follow all the rituals and religious expectations so you measure up to us!  Wash your hands so we know you belong with us.  Follow the rules.  Don’t diverge.  Don’t have your own ideas.  Don’t take risks.  Tow the line.”

Have you heard any of those statements before?  Words and attitudes like that can be devastating.  There is no room for possibility.  There is no room for faith.  With that kind of attitude 5000 people don’t get fed and Peter doesn’t walk on water.

I’m grateful Jesus handled this situation with expertise.  He sets the Pharisee straight about their misinformed worldview.  And in the end Jesus directs them and us to a heart issue.  “…the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart…” (Matthew 15:18).  What comes from the heart can either bring pain and suffering or can bring life and possibilities.

Compare what came from the heart of the Pharisees (measure up, tow the line) to what came from the heart of the disciples and Peter.  What came from the disciple’s hearts as they took their small resources, blessed by Jesus, and fed the crowd, was faith.  The disciples stepped beyond the boundaries of what seemed possible and into the place of anticipation.  Peter shows us what comes out of his heart when he steps out of the boat.  He’s counting on Jesus to do what only Jesus can do.  I’m pretty certain that in both of these experiences the disciples weren’t worried about following the rules.  I’ve never seen a rule book about walking on water!

Christian leaders, I really want you to hear this – our experience is often filled with an abundance of people and systems telling us to abide by the rules, tow the line, do what you’re supposed to do.  These words and attitudes are opposed to Jesus.  Instead of being free to risk, we are controlled into status quo; drugged into sleepiness.

What would happen in your life and ministry if you looked beyond what is expected of you and into the eyes of Jesus who is calling you out of the boat?

This interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees is bookended.  On the front side is the story of Peter on the water.  On the backside is the story of a Canaanite woman.  The Pharisees had some rules about Canaanites, too.  They were defiled.  They didn’t belong.  They didn’t measure up either.

And this woman breaks some glass ceilings.  Out of her heart comes words of life and possibility: “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (Matthew 15:21-28).  She wasn’t about to be controlled by the unwarranted rules and rituals which kept her excluded from God’s life.  Out of her mouth comes faith, hope, and deep trust in what God could do.

Where do you want to live?  Do you want to live in the prison of other people’s expectations and control or do you want to live in the freedom to follow Jesus into miraculous experiences?

Surrendered Leadership

How bad do you need to be for history to classify you as a scoundrel?  Paul Martin, in a Huffington Post article, cites some of the worst historical scoundrels like Daniel Drew, the Fox sisters, and Hetty Green.  These folks, and others like them, lived unscrupulously at the expense of others.

Now, how bad do you need to be for the Bible to identify you as a scoundrel?  That’s a whole new level.  But that’s exactly how Phinehas and Hophni are described (1Samuel 2).  They consistently robbed people; slept with whoever they wanted; disregarded authority; and ignored God.  Their story may not raise many eyebrows until you know that these two men were leaders.  They were part of a family that had been committed to serving God and God’s people.  But nothing they did reflected their position as leaders.

Leadership is hard.  If you lead, you get this.  As a country we’re tough on our leaders – from the government to the church and everywhere in between.  We certainly expect our leaders to be people of character and integrity, and we should.  But we also have the propensity to knock leaders down.  We want them to be the best, but we quickly look for their flaws and cheer when those flaws are well known.  Leadership is not for the faint of heart.

And that’s precisely why those who are leaders – especially spiritual leaders – need to pay attention to the details.  While Hophni and Phinehas were disregarding their character and position, God was raising up another leader to replace them.  Samuel was still a young boy but God was shaping him into the kind of leader both God and the people needed.  God gives us a hint of the kind of leader Samuel could be – “those who honor me I will honor but those who despise me I will disdain…I will raise up a faithful priest, who will do according to what is in my heart and mind” (1Samuel 2:30-35).

When it comes to spiritual leadership God looks for a particular kind of person – one that wants what God wants.  Wanting what God wants has a way of shaping our character and increasing our integrity. When temptations challenge our moral fiber, leaders after God’s heart trust God’s strength.  When moral failure happens, leaders after God’s own heart seek forgiveness and restoration.  Spiritual leaders don’t ignore or dismiss their actions they come to terms with the call and grace of God.  God raised up Samuel to do what was on God’s heart and mind.

Whether you are a Christian leader at work, in your home, with you kids, or at your church – God is inviting you to do what is on his heart and mind.  Phinehas and Hophni reveal the destruction unsurrendered leadership creates.  Don’t be a scoundrel!  Seek the heart and mind of God, surrender yourself to God’s purposes and lead well.

Abundant Life is Found Out on the Water

Bread and water are the often joked about references to the food of the incarcerated.  But bread and water are two elements Jesus uses to show Peter the secret to a full and abundant life.

The story begins in Matthew 14.  The crowds have followed Jesus into a remote place.  The sun’s going down and everyone’s getting hungry.  The disciples want to send the crowds into town for dinner.  Jesus has another idea – “you give them something to eat.”  The reaction of the disciples is one that we would share if we were in their shoes, “We don’t have enough…”

  When faced with obvious need, “we don’t have enough…” is our usual response.  I’ve been guilty of that.  We don’t have enough time, money, people, money, time…you get the idea.  We’ve all been there and we’ve all uttered the same thing.  But I love what Jesus does in light of their scarcity.  Jesus says, “Bring them here to me.”  Bring me your resources.  Bring me what you do have.  Then Jesus does what only he can do.  He takes our limits and stretches them to meet the need.

This story is immediately followed by Peter walking on the water.  Coincidence?  I don’t think so.

Peter and the other disciples are in a boat struggling against the storm and waves.  They’re trying to get the other side of the lake to meet Jesus, but they’re stuck.  So Jesus comes to them, walking on the water.  Peter sees Jesus and wants to be where he is – out on the water.  But Peter let his water walking certification lapse.  So he says, “Jesus, if that’s you tell me to come to you on the water.”  If I were Peter, I’d want Jesus to respond with something like, “No. Don’t worry about it. Stay in the boat and I’ll come to you.  No need to get your feet wet.”  But he doesn’t.  Jesus’ response to Peter’s longing is simply – “Come.”

Now Peter has never walked on water but here’s what he has done: he has stepped out of a boat before.  He was a fisherman, after all.  He knows how to lift a leg over the side, set it down, and walk.  So Peter does what he knows how to do.  He gives Jesus what he already knows how to do.  And Jesus does, in those moments, what only Jesus can do.

I’m convinced that this is a life truth.  We give Jesus what we know how to do and Jesus takes it and does what only he can do!

Following Jesus is about being stretched.  Left to ourselves, we usually see what we can’t accomplish.  And that always limits the abundant life Jesus promises.  Jesus stretches our faith when he says, “Give me what you do have” and I’ll take it and do an amazing thing.  Abundant life is found out on the water – when we give Jesus what we know how to do and let him do with it what only he can do.

Last night I attended an event hosted by The Asservo Project (theasservoproject.org).  The Asservo Project, based out of Pittsburgh, exists to combat global human trafficking.  They are a David facing a Goliath.  Human trafficking is currently one of the world’s most profitable criminal enterprises.  There are 40 million victims globally.  At $150 billion annually, this criminal enterprise makes more money than Google, Apple, Yahoo, and Netflix combined.  Since 2010, human trafficking has grown 850%.  Trafficking and sexual slavery is real.  Open your eyes and it becomes so obvious.

This reality is so staggering I couldn’t help but think, “Jesus, we don’t have enough…”  That’s all I could think about on the way home.  How do you even make a dent?  And I kept going back to this story.  Jesus says, give me what you have/what you know how to do and I’ll do what only I can do.

So that’s my current next step.  But what about you?  You may not be passionate about ending human trafficking (I hope you will be) but there is something that you are passionate about.  There is something that God is calling you to and you’re first response is “I don’t have enough…time, education, money, fill in the blank.”

But here’s the spiritual truth.  The only way disciples grow is when they are stretched.  When they say, “Jesus, I hear you, and I don’t know how I will accomplish this but I will give you what I know how to do and I’ll let you do what only you can do.”

Abundant life is found out on the water…so get out of the boat.

Stand up!

There are seasons of life where we come to the end of our ability. Hopefully these are the very seasons that drive us to a deeper place of surrender.

…Hannah stood up.

I’ve never really seen this phrase before.  It seems to come out of nowhere, yet Hannah’s action is a consequence of years of provocation.

Let’s remember the story.  Hannah was the wife of Elkanah.  But she wasn’t his only wife.  In a context unlike our own, Hannah was a product of polygamy.  She shared Elkanah with another woman – Peninnah.  Furthermore, in a culture that placed wealth, privilege, life, and success on a person’s number of children, Hannah was losing.  She had given Elkanah no children, while Peninnah seemed to be very fertile.

Not only was Hannah seeming to suffer from the depression and frustration of a “closed womb,” she was constantly provoked by Peninnah.  This troublesome relationship went on year after year until Hannah was so depressed and broken down that she couldn’t eat and constantly wept about her painful reality (1Samuel 1:1-20)

This was Hannah’s reality until she stood up.  She had enough and stood up.  She was tired of her pain and she stood up.  She was done being provoked and ridiculed.  She stood up!  She was done with the depression.  She was done feeling sorry for herself.  She stood up…and went straight to her knees. Hannah came to the end of herself and to the beginning of God.

There are seasons of life where we come to the end of our ability.  Hopefully these are the very seasons that drive us to a deeper place of surrender.  I cannot…but God can.  Often these seasons arrive after long periods of frustration, pain, brokenness, and maybe even some ridicule.  The time before we come to a place of surrender may find us filled with self-doubt and devastated self-worth.

Hannah offers a beautiful portrait of strength.  She is tired of her present reality.  She wants change – not just for herself but for the people she loves.  I also suspect she wants God to be honored with her future.

Hannah comes to the end of herself and to the beginning of what God can do.  This is a remarkable picture of maturity.  Hannah speaks to me about moving from a life of brokenness into the full and abundant life of God.  And the one act that separates the two realities happens when Hannah stands up and say’s “enough is enough!”  I am tired of existing in my current status.  I want a better future.  So she stands up and goes straight to her knees believing that God is the one who changes our story.

Where do you need to stand up today?  What are you tired of living with?  What are you tired of permitting?  What are the habits or cycles that you’re done with for the last time?  Where have you reached the limits of your abilities?  Remember the definition of insanity – if we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we always got.  Stand up!  And go straight to your knees.

In chapter 2, Hannah offers a prayer of thanksgiving for what God has done to change her reality.  In that pray she pronounces a new path, “My heart rejoices in the Lord; in the Lord my [strength] is lifted high…there is no one holy like the Lord; there is no one besides you; there is no rock like our God.”

Stand up today and surrender your current reality to God’s best future for you.  Remember what Jesus said, “the thief comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy.  I have come that you may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

Partnership

Membership says “what’s in it for me?” Partnership says, “how can I be a part of this?”

Being a Partner is all about being connected. There is a big difference between membership and partnership. Let me explain it like this. It is possible to be a member of a gym, but only go there once a year, correct? But when you are a Partner you are connected, there is a connecting and a joining that takes place. You have a vested interest in everything that happens.  It is so much more than just being a member.

The same thing is true when it comes to be a partner in a church.  It’s not the fact that you visit that place, it’s all about that ministry – being a part of who you are and you are a part of what that ministry is. There is a connection, a joining and a communion that takes place in that. The purpose of this ministry is to bring you to the place where you fulfil the call of God on your life.

Think about it this way:  membership says “what’s in it for me?”  Partnership says, “how can I be a part of this?”

This letter of Paul’s to the Philippians is often referred to as the letter of joy. We can certainly understand why it would be called that hearing some of the phrases that Paul uses:

“I thank my God…”

“I’m thankful for all of you”

“it’s always a prayer full of joy”

“I’m glad…”

“I feel affection for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.”

“I’m glad…and I’ll continue to be glad.”

 

He sounds pretty joyful for someone writing a letter from jail. But it’s not necessarily that he’s joyful because of his circumstances. But more than that – I think he’s so joyful because of the way in which the Philippians, the people of the church, have partnered with him, have taken care of him, and have been working in the ministry of the gospel with him

And so, as I was reading this passage, I kept being drawn to these two verses about partnership: Verse 5: I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed it until now.  And verse 7: I have good reason to think this way about all of you because I keep you in my heart. You are all my partners in God’s grace, both during my time in prison and in the defense and support of the gospel.

Now, when we think about partners…we probably have different responses. Perhaps some of you have partners who you work with professionally, and those may be good relationships, but it’s possible that some of them are strained.

And I don’t know about you, but when I was in school I would cringe a bit whenever a professor informed us that we’d be working in groups for a certain project. I didn’t necessarily always want partners – sometimes it would have been a whole lot easier if I could have just taken care of something on my own and did it myself.

Perhaps it’s because of the very individualistic society that we live in, but I’m sure that many of us would admit, if pressed, that we often prefer to be lone rangers…taking care of things by ourselves, rather than having the help of others.

But the thing is…we can’t do it alone. Sure maybe I could have knocked out a project quicker by myself…but when we are talking about the stuff of life, when we are talking about the work that God has called us to participate in, in the world…that’s not something that is easily done as lone rangers.

And we’ve known this from the very beginning. As we look back to the creation story in Genesis…after God had created Adam, God said, “It’s not good that the man is alone. I will make a helper that is perfect for him.” We were not meant to be alone…and we were not meant to do this work alone…

We need partners. Here in Philippians, Paul is profusely thanking the Philippians for being partners in the ministry of the gospel. They supported Paul during his ministry with them, and continued to support him while he was in prison…most likely that was made manifest by the Philippians providing Paul with food and other necessities that he wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.

For us, this morning, one of the questions we need to ask ourselves is how are we being partners in ministry with God and to each other? How are we supporting what God is doing in this church and in our world? This work of the ministry of the gospel is not something that I do…it’s not something that only the church council does…this is work that we all participate in.

We all need to partner together to accomplish the values and dreams that we have set before ourselves. We will become just like Jesus:

  1. We will create an atmosphere which welcomes and connects people to the Body of Christ.
  2. We were made to worship. So we will create an atmosphere where worship is the centerpiece of our lives.  We will create an atmosphere where people can experience the presence of God.
  3. We will create disciples who are increasing in their love of God and neighbor.
  4. We will create a culture of the call; an atmosphere where every partner takes the step into serving and ministry and transforms the world.
  5. We will create an atmosphere and expectation of extravagant generosity. We will live our whole lives for God and God’s purposes.

This isn’t going to be something that we do alone. But it’s not just that we’re partnering with each other and with this church…we’re actually partnering with God, our creator, redeemer and sustainer.

God invites you and me to partner with him so that we can all be actively pursuing, and participating in, ushering in God’s kingdom…the ushering in of God’s hopes and dreams for our lives and for this world.  So that we can become just like Jesus.

I want to share with you a story called “Does God Have a Big Toe: Stories about Stories in the Bible.” It’s written by Marc Gellman. This story is called “Partners.”

 Before there was anything, there was God, a few angels, and a huge swirling glob of rocks and water with no place to go. The angels asked God, “Why don’t you clean up this mess?”  So God collected rocks from the huge swirling glob and put them together in clumps and said, “Some of these clumps of rocks will be planets, and some will be stars, and some of these rocks will be…just rocks.”

Then God collected water from the huge swirling glob and put it together in pools of water and said, “Some of these pools of water will be oceans, and some will become clouds, and some of this water will be…just water.”

Then the angels said, “Well God, it’s neater now, but is it finished?” And God answered…“NOPE!”

On some of the rocks God placed growing things, and creeping things, and things that only God knows what they are, and when God had done all this, the angels asked God, “Is the world finished now?” and God answered…“NOPE!”

God made a man and a woman from some of the water and dust and said to them, “I am tired now. Please finish up the world for me…really it’s almost done.” But the man and woman said, “We can’t finish the world alone! You have the plans and we are too little.”

“You are big enough,” God answered them. “But I agree to this. If you keep trying to finish the world, I will be your partner.”

The man and the woman asked, “What’s a partner?” and God answered, “A partner is someone you work with on a big thing that neither of you can do alone. If you have a partner, it means that you can never give up, because your partner is depending on you. On the days you think I am not doing enough and on the days I think you are not doing enough, even on THOSE days we are still partners and we must not stop trying to finish the world. That’s the deal.” And they all agreed to that deal.

Then the angels asked God, “Is the world finished yet?” and God answered, “I don’t know. Go ask my partners.”

So we not only partner with one another to participate in this ministry of the gospel, but we partner with God.  We are working with God, so that God’s kingdom may come. We can read the news, glance at our Facebook News Feed, or even just look all around us, and see the ways in which this world is clearly unfinished…and not as God would have it.

Children all around the world die every day from lack of clean water, food and shelter. Single moms work long hours at multiple jobs, and can barely earn enough money to put food on the table for their kids. We hear about mass shootings, and are shocked and saddened for a few days, and then move on with our lives, not taking the necessary steps to prevent future tragedies.

We live in a world where cyber-bullying continues to be a huge problem for young people, so much so that many have decided it was not worth living anymore and have taken their lives.  Is the world finished yet?  “NOPE.”

Teresa of Avila, the 16th century mystic, wrote the following:

Christ has no body but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours; yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world, Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good, Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.”  Is the world finished yet?  “NOPE.”

Since we all have different gifts and talents …partnering with God is going to look a little different for each person here.

There’s no end to the possible ways that we can partner with God.

But perhaps the most significant thing that we all can do is to simply reframe how we view ourselves in relation to God.

If we think that God is the one who just… does it all, that’s going to form and shape how we live in the world, how we engage with others throughout our day, how we treat other people.

But if we think of ourselves as God’s partners…if we realize that God works through you…that changes everything. That changes the way we view ourselves, the way we view God, and the way we view our place in the world.

When we realize that we are God’s partners, we know that we can’t just sit around and wait, expecting God to be the one to bring about change in the world.

As followers in the way of Jesus, we have been called to partner with God to embody and bring about the Kingdom of God in the here-and-now; the Kingdom of God on earth, as it is in Heaven.

Worship Because God is Worthy!

A number of years ago, a woman in Kansas City walked into a Haagen-Dazs ice cream shop at her local shopping center.  While waiting, she turned to find actor Paul Newman standing behind her.  He was in town filming a movie and was now standing behind his biggest fan.

He smiled at her and said ‘hello.’  She took one look into his eyes and her knees almost buckled.  Her heart was in her throat.  She tried to speak, but not a sound came out.  Mortified, she turned around, paid for her ice cream, then quickly walked out of the store.  Outside, she sat down on a bench and caught her breath.  As she calmed down, she realized she didn’t have her ice cream cone.  She was debating walking back in to get it when Paul Newman walked out.  “You looking for your ice cream cone?” he asked.  Speechless again, she nodded.  “You put it in your purse with your change.”

If you or I would come face to face with a celebrity we admired, I imagine we would behave in a similar way.  I wonder we, who get excited about celebrity – why it is that we can enter into the presence of God with a yawn and a shrug?

Worshiping God is the single most important thing that you and I can do.  In fact we, we were created to worship God (Isaiah 43:21).  Worship brings pleasure to God.  In worship we practice the greatest commandment that Jesus taught – Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Worship bends our lives toward God.

When Scripture talks about worship it always reminds us that the purpose of our worship is glorify, honor, praise, exalt, and please God.  Worship is the number one priority.

Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher in the 19th century, once clarified the most common misconception about worship using the analogy of a drama. “When we come to worship God, we generally feel as though the preacher and other ministers are the performers and God is the subject of the performance and we as the congregation are merely the audience…but this is a terrible misunderstanding of worship.”

Kierkegaard is describing a consumer-oriented approach, focused more on what we receive than what we give. Kierkegaard goes on to say, “Authentic Christian worship is just the opposite. We, the congregation, are the performers. The preachers and other ministers are the directors and God is the audience.”

It is revolutionary to worship something other than ourselves.  Every time we worship, we set our own egos, desires, ambitions aside so that God is the audience.  When we worship we should make much of God!

That’s why real worship can only happen when we enter into the presence of the Living God.  Worship is a deliberate encounter with God in Jesus Christ.  We can’t worship to squeeze God in; to feel better for the week; or to get a blessing.  With eagerness and expectancy we encounter God and are drawn into his presence where our focus is on giving to him. Worship is an encounter with the Holy God!

While there are many moments in Scripture were we see people encountering God, one act of worship stands out.  One story that should be the rule instead of the exception.  It is the story of the moment Isaiah encountered the Living God.  It is a story of worship and what naturally happens when we rightly worship God.

READ Isaiah 6:1-4

Let me provide some context for these verses.  The first five chapters set the stage of Isaiah’s vision of God.  In Isaiah 1-5 we are given a description of God’s people – Israel.  It is a picture of a people who have completely and deliberately turned their back on God.  They have exalted themselves in the place of God.  They worship the creation instead of the Creator.  The bow down to idols that they have made.  They care only about accumulating wealth and military power.  They confuse evil with good and good with evil.  And God does everything he could for his people, but they won’t respond to God’s goodness.  But even in this context of his vision, Isaiah holds out the possibility of radical transformation – an unholy people can become a holy people.

These people for whom Isaiah cared so much about were experiencing turmoil under King Uzziah.  When the king died, Isaiah has this vision of God.  Who was Uzziah?  In 2Chronicles 26 we are given a detailed account of his reign.  Uzziah was 16 years old when he was crowned king of Judah, and he reigned a long time – 52 years.  For years his reign as king was grand and significant.  Uzziah trusted God and took Judah to a period of prosperity and glory.

But unfortunately Uzziah’s reign which had begun in faithfulness and obedience to God, ended in shame and humility.  He grew proud and arrogant.  One day he entered the temple and went to the holy place where only the priest could go.  But when he came out he was no longer the proud and glorious king.  Instead he staggered out a leper; broken and humiliated.  Uzziah lived as an outcast for the rest of his reign.

And when that once powerful king died, Isaiah has this vision of God.  Isaiah and the whole nation felt devastated and abandoned.  The one they placed their hope in was gone.  What next?  But this emptying was absolutely essential.  It was necessary if Isaiah was going to see God.  His own throne had to be emptied before he could see God sitting on his throne.  His false Gods had to be brought down before he could see God high and lifted up.  Generally we don’t really seek after God and find him until we have tried almost everything else; every other possible way and found it empty.  When we reach the end of our own resources, we turn to God and worship him.

And that is why this event from Isaiah teaches us so much about worship.  God is all that we can turn to.  God is all that we can trust in the darkest moments of life.  And when we move from ourselves into the presence of the living God – we find life.  That’s worship!  The place where we glorify, honor, praise, exalt and please God.

So who is this God who calls us into worship?  And why is God worthy of worship?  He is the same God that Isaiah sees.

This God who we worship; this God who calls us to himself; who invites us into a life with him – this God is holy!  This vision has a profound effect on Isaiah.  What does he see?  What does he comprehend for the first time?  It can be summed up in one word – a word that the angels repeated three times:  “Holy, holy, holy!”  Isaiah got a glimpse of the holiness of God.  It became clear to him as never before that God is holy.  There was this great sense of awe.

Holiness is not just one attribute of God.  Holiness is all that God is.  At the very beginning of this vision, Isaiah sees God sitting on a throne, high and exalted.  At that very moment Isaiah emphasizes God’s separateness; his transcendence over all of creation and all that is.  God alone is exalted!  Isaiah sees nothing higher than God.  To say that God is holy is to say that he is utterly different than you and I and all the rest of creation.  And as Isaiah encountered this God, the temple shook!

When was the last time you stood in awe of this holy God?  When was the last time you were engulfed by an encounter with this God who is high and exalted?  Most of us are guilty of what is called the “sin of reductionism.”  We reduce God to a manageable size.  We put God in a box – we don’t want too much of God; we want to control the outcomes; we want to limit what we know about God.  Isaiah would have been so in awe of God’s holiness that he couldn’t help but approach God with reverence and honor.  We need to guard against casual, indifferent attitudes when we enter the presence of God.  God is more powerful and more holy than our ability to describe him.

Yet, here is the amazing characteristic of this holy God whom we worship with reverence and awe.  This holy God can be known!  When we commit the sin of reductionism, we not only reduce God to what is manageable to us, but we also reduce Christianity to a set of moral and ethical imperatives devoid of relationship to God.  Christianity and Christian worship is primarily about having a deeply connected relationship with the God of creation.

What is amazing about God, as we see it unfolding in this worship experience of Isaiah, is that God chooses to make himself known.  He allows Isaiah to see him high and lifted up.  And when God makes himself known, you and I can enjoy his presence.  The God who is holy and high and exalted, comes to you and makes himself known to you.  And in worship we can enjoy the presence of God.

Even though we have access to him, we never take it for granted.  We never treat it lightly.  We are going to his throne, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.  He is at the same time our heavenly Father and yet he is the reigning, ruling righteous supreme king of the universe and we live in that tension.  He is the God of all, the supreme judge, yet we have a relationship with him.  And so we can come in with that intimacy yet with reverence at the same time.  He’s our father, he’s our friend.  He’s a shepherd.  He’s redeemer.  He’s righteous king.  He’s the judge and ruler of all.  And he makes himself known.  He wants the whole earth to be filled with his glory. He is looking for people who will be receptive of him.  God is looking for people who will present to him.

Of course, God is present everywhere at all times, but not everyone is aware of his presence.  I’m not sure we always come to worship expecting a life-changing encounter with God.  Many people go to church.  Not all worship!  But God is present whether we are aware or not, but his presence is made manifest only when we are aware of it!  God makes himself known, but God’s presence must be sought.  We must be receptive to God’s presence.  God is always present to us, but in order for his presence to have its full impact upon our lives, we must learn to be present to God.  And in corporate worship we can be present with God when we pray, when we read and hear the Scripture, and when we break bread through the sacrament of communion.

God is holy.  He is utterly and completely separate from you and I and creation, itself.  God is high and exalted.  But God chooses to make himself known.  And ultimately, God makes himself known to creation in Jesus Christ.  We know God through Jesus. Jesus is the self-revelation of God.  God in the flesh.  When you are intentional about knowing and following Jesus, you are intentional about knowing this God who makes himself known.

One last thing I want you to see (and we will spend much more time on this over the next two weeks) – it is that while God is holy and God makes himself known, God calls you and I to holiness.   When Isaiah has this vision of God during worship, he sees and maybe even feels the temple shake and the whole place fills with smoke.

Smoke means a couple of things in the Bible.  Sometimes it symbolizes the presence of God.  Other times, like right here, smoke also conveys God’s judgement.  Remember the context here – God’s people had turned away from God.  They were worshipping creation instead of the Creator; they bowed down to idols.  They care only about accumulating wealth and military power.  They confuse evil with good and good with evil.

One of the things that should happen when we encounter God in worship, is that we change.  We become more of who God wants us to be – just like Jesus.  In an encounter with the Living God you and I are called to be holy as God is holy.  In worship we should be convicted of the ways our lives are not lining up with God’s will.  In this encounter between Isaiah and God, and running throughout Scripture is the call to separate ourselves form the values and life-style of the culture around us.  To be holy, is to be separate.  Separate from the culture-driven values and lifestyles and free to be attached to God!

Read Romans 12.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could experience God, face to face, like Isaiah did?  Scripture tells us that we can.  A little girl was drawing intensely one morning in Sunday school.  Her teacher asked her, “what are you drawing?”  “God,” answered the little girl.  The teacher laughed and said, “Honey, no one knows what God looks like.”  She never even looked up from her drawing – “well, they will when I get done.”

We’ll never see God with our physical eyes, on this side of heaven.  But we can encounter God with our spirits through the act of worship.  In worship, we become aware of the presence of God.

Resources:  Dr. Steve Seamands Holiness of Heart and Life

 

My Next Right Step

  1. Remember and journal a moment of deep worship – one in which you were very aware of the presence of God.
  2. Apart from Sunday worship, when are you practicing disciplines of worship like prayer, Bible reading, meditation, etc.?
  3. If worship is a lifestyle, how are you reflecting that lifestyle? Where do you need growth?
  4. God is holy and calls me to holiness. If I stay close to God (worship) I can reflect more of God in my life.  By God’s grace, how am I becoming more like Jesus and less like culture?