Tracing it ALL Back to the Roots

We will call an end to our “Rooted” series with these few words today. Many of you have spoken to me of particularly enjoying this theme. And it is a good one … as I’ve said a couple of times, it is near the center of the kernel of it all (to use another agrarian reference).

Let’s just think back through some of our themes of the past seven weeks …

–           The soils – is your heart condition that of the good soil? Is it more than just a hobby with this faith thing, something you’ll lose interest in over time or with persecution?

–           The roots of the tree – are your roots deep into a steady source of nourishment, like a tree by the river?

–           Abiding in the vine – are you well-connected to Christ and truth, or do you honestly throw down your own alternate roots system?

–           And related to growing among the tares and weeds – are you growing fruitfully even in a cross-cultural setting?

So, in summary, what do we do?  We remain rooted. We grow and produce fruit. We seek to influence the field around us. We wait patiently for a final day when all the wrong is set right.

As I shared at the end on Sunday … What I can tell you after approaching 40 years (as a pastor) of having a front row seat in the lives of other people is this: there is a categorical difference in those who are rooted, versus those you can simply see really don’t have a faith component in their lives to fall upon as a resource in times of crises.

You need to be a “prepper” – being prepared for whatever this crazy world brings at you. And preparation is defined as being rooted in God and in his Word, and anything less is a foolish mistake with disaster written all over it.

So, be rooted, don’t be a casual fan. And don’t be a weed in the wheat field.  Check your roots, nourish them, and think intentionally about producing fruit in your life and through your service.  That is a winning plan.

Advertisements

Is it real; Is it Authentic? (Matthew 13)

I am sure we have all seen the popular antiques-oriented TV Show called “Pawn Stars” that features a pawn shop / antiques store in Las Vegas. Or perhaps you’ve seen another, less dramatic program called “Antiques Road Show.” On both occasions, ordinary people are bringing antique items for professional evaluation, and hopefully for a big payday. An expert examines the items carefully for genuine authenticity. Within this industry are many fakes and reproductions, things that appear to be genuine but are in fact rather worthless by comparison to the real deal.

We need to understand that there is a great deal of counterfeit around us in the world of faith and religion – involving people, teachings, movements, and energies, etc.  And whereas the counterfeit is not going to be rooted out from amongst us until the very end, we can look, learn, and evaluate what is true and what is fake.

As we have noted about the parable of the wheat and weeds, the story is not complicated.  But what does this teaching mean for us today?  I think the major challenge for us, as it has been throughout this series, is to ask yourself if you are truly rooted in the right soil of God’s Word and truth. And beyond that, how deep are your roots, how well are you being nourished through those roots, and are you seeing an increasing display of fruit (proof of true life in Christ) through your life?

Satan is the master deceiver. The entire problem of sin originated when evil slithered into the garden and fooled one of the original parents of the human race, and we’ve been paying for that ever since – with the ultimate debt of that wrong only being able to be paid by someone else, in whom we trust as the core message of the gospel.

But in terms of the “enemy” in the story – the Devil – let’s think of some of the things that Satan has replicated and counterfeited over the years. What are these tares among the wheat?

Counterfeit Plan and Vision for the World – Satan has had quite a long career, from leading a revolt of one-third of the angels in eternity past against God … to the Garden of Eden … to Pharaoh trying to kill the Jews … to Herod seeking the Christ-child … to the temptations of Jesus … to thousands of other incidents down to our own day. He is the ruler of another kingdom that is doomed in the end, but he fights with an intensity even beyond ISIS.

Counterfeit Religious Workers – Paul wrote about his ministry challenges in 2 Corinthians 11:26, saying … I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers.  These false believers and teachers were pretty much everywhere he went and in every church – tares among the wheat.

Counterfeit Gospel Message – In Galatians 1:6-8 Paul wrote to the readers about their declension from the truth: I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!  This was not another gospel of the same type, but another categorically different gospel message with no authenticity at all. There have been false gospel messages that distort the truth pretty much right from the beginning of the Christian era. And they are rampant in our day.

Counterfeit Righteousness – The entire book of Romans essentially argues for a righteousness in Christ versus a righteousness that is a natural sense of obligation arising from guilt – fed by the Evil One. This promotes the sense that you have to work and earn it on your own, by your goodness and deeds, to make it to God. This is another gospel.

Counterfeit Church – These have existed practically from the beginning, having some marks and symbols and statements that speak of the truth, but that at the end of the day preach a message totally the opposite of the truth. And a worldwide counterfeit church arises in the end times, being under the False Prophet who draws the attention of the world to worship the Beast, the Anti-Christ. And speaking of that fellow …

Counterfeit Christ at the End of Time – We live in scary times. We wonder and speculate how events play into last times narratives – stuff like the European Union / Worldwide financial crises / the rise of terror worldwide / even this past week – events in Nice, France and the political fallout from instability in Turkey… related to that country’s critical place in the world, associations with Russia and their leadership’s affinity toward radical Islam, etc.

So it is frustrating to have to live and grow in the context of so many weeds that choke out the message and advance of God’s Kingdom, even as we seek to be faithful in the clutter and confusion of it all. But it won’t always be this way, and that is the big idea. There is a harvest in the end and a judgment that ensues.

We cannot fix the world around us. God may use us and our testimony and service to convert some of the nearby weeds – God is able to do stuff like that and change their entire DNA from a weed to a wheat, right down to the roots and seeds. It really is new life when that happens. But our main responsibility is not to fix the world, but to remain faithful in the midst of the diversity and competing values systems. Be rooted!

Is it a Weed or a Wheat? (Matthew 13)

I am sure we have all had experiences with gardens or flower beds where we are uncertain as to what are the weeds that need to be pulled out and what are the flowers or plants we want to keep. I’ve always had this fear that I’m pulling up the wrong stuff and thereby cultivating a full crop of weeds! It all looks alike, especially at the beginning of the season.

The passage for our theme this week is from Matthew 13, commonly known as the parable of the wheat and the tares. Tares are essentially weeds that grew in the wheat.

We tend to divide the world into who’s “good” and who’s “bad” categories, but in our passage today, Jesus tells his followers that the wheat and tares will grow together. This means that around us today we may find many different kinds of worldviews and religious values systems all existing simultaneously, even very different and variant forms of “Christianity.”  It’s tempting to want to see our own culture and faith beliefs system triumph now, but Jesus says that this will not happen until the end.  Until then, we live “cross-culturally,” taking God’s message to a pluralistic world.

Here is the parable from Matthew 13 …

24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

This story of weeds in a wheat field would have been a clear and vivid picture to a first-century mind in an agricultural region and economy. In Israel/Palestine, there is a particularly annoying plant called “darnel” that can grow wild in the midst of a wheat field. It is a noxious plant that you really don’t want mixed with the good crop.

Especially to the untrained eye, or to anyone not paying close attention at the beginning of the growing season, the two plants look much alike. Yesterday in church, I showed side-by-side pictures of wheat and darnel in the early stages of development and asked for a show of hands as to which pictured weeds and which was wheat. The larger number of people guessed incorrectly. (Always fearful of inadvertent copy write infringement, I am hesitant to put such photos online.) And then I displayed a picture at the time of harvest of a field with both, and the differences were clearly obvious.

So at the end of the season, the weeds were more clearly visible, more easily separated and used for the only thing they were good for – fuel.

So, that was a great story. And immediately Jesus launches into two other parables: one about the mustard seed and another about the effects of yeast in dough.

And we can just imagine his disciples standing around each other and maybe one of them saying to another, “Is it just me, or did you also not understand exactly what that story about the wheat and tares was all about?”   And I can imagine an answer coming back to the first guy, “Well, I’m not sure I caught it all either… so maybe we should ask him to clearly explain it.”

So we skip down to verses 36-43 …

36 Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”

37 He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.

So here are the component elements of the story

  • Farmer/Sower = Christ and the message of truth
  • Field = the people of the world
  • Good Seed = God’s people of the Kingdom
  • Weeds = the Evil One’s people
  • Enemy = the Devil
  • Harvest = judgment at the end of time
  • Harvesters = the angels
  • Results = separation of righteous and the evil

In tomorrow’s post, we will spend most of it on application and what difference this makes in our lives. But for today, let’s just note how applicable such passages are in the crazy world in which we live … in a world now where the news today is filled with the ambush deaths of more policemen, and where there is a new level of palatable fear in our country for the health and wellbeing of our nation.

The story in the text acknowledges that there are two kingdoms: God’s kingdom and an enemy – the Devil. The Wicked One is active and at work, sowing bad among the good. And though justice is not an immediate reality, the promise is that it is coming in a final day of judgment, of harvesting to two very different ends.

Until then, as wheat, as God’s people in his field, we grow and work to stay nourished and flourish onto fruition in a diverse and multifaceted context of worldviews and value systems. We stay rooted.

Let’s Go (John 15:12-17)

Unless you live under a rock—or just somewhere far removed from kids—you’ve probably been hearing a lot about the new craze called “Pokemon Go.”  I know I’m young (-ish), but I’m just a notch or two too old to have grown up during the height of Pokemon’s initial popularity, so I actually had to have someone explain what “Pokemon Go” is all about.  It’s actually all in the name: a “Pokemon” is a magical creature popularized by a card game (and related products) in Japan.  The “Go” part is where things get interesting.  You start by downloading the app to your phone or mobile device.  The app coordinates with GPS, so when you use the app you have a map of your neighborhood.  The map features markers in random locations that indicate where you find a Pokemon.  So while most games are played just by sitting still and using your thumbs, Pokemon Go requires you to physically travel to those locations.  So if my map shows a Pokemon over by the City Park, then I have to physically travel to the City Park.  Once I arrive at the location, the app allows me to find the Pokemon using the phone’s camera feature.  Looking at the screen, I can locate the Pokemon, at which point I am able to “catch” it.

You have to give the designers credit: here’s a game that’s actually getting people off the sofa and moving, and certainly blurring the usual boundaries that exist in neighborhoods as people share a love for a common quest.

On the other hand, I can’t help but laugh at the obvious modern parable: legions of people motivated to chase after things that aren’t real.  If that’s not a metaphor for the human condition, I don’t know what is.

We are, indeed, “prone to wander,” as the old hymn writer intoned.  Whether chasing Pokemon, chasing a fantasy relationship, wealth, career, what have you.  All the same, it seems that human beings were never meant to stand still.  Jesus himself describes faith as something of a journey, and those who take the narrow road find life.

In John, Jesus tells his followers that there is a new relationship that comes from “abiding.”  Staying close to Jesus changes our status before God:

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another. (John 15:12-17)

The contemporary world has reduced humans to mere consumers, or at least it tries to.  The modern world brought us from God’s image-bearers to mere homo sapiens, the latest model in a blind, evolutionary process.  The postmodern world has reduced us still further to homo ludens, “humans at play.”

The gospel restores our dignity by positioning us as agents of God’s kingdom, friends who are granted the privilege of sharing in the work that God is performing in the world around us.  It’s not for nothing that Adam’s original task was to tend the garden.  Now, the body of Christ is likewise called to “bear fruit.”  Pay very attention to this latter part of the text: verse 16 says that the Christian’s purpose is to “go and bear fruit.”  Go.  This is John’s version of the Great Commission.  Jesus came so that we may have “life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Now, Jesus tells his followers (tells us) that our mission is to cultivate that life in others.

To abide is to go.  To abide is to become a missional cultivator who connects others to the life-giving “Vine” of Christ.  Do we not believe that there is great joy to be found in that—perhaps even greater joy than a smart-phone game can produce?

A few years ago I found myself in the City Park here in Hagerstown.  It was a Saturday in the Springtime, and therefore slightly more crowded than usual.  On the sidewalk was a little girl riding her bicycle, and in her front basket she had a large pile of freshly-picked yellow dandelions.  She paused in front of me to hand me one, for which I thanked her.  She grinned excitedly and turned to her nearby parents, shouting: “Mommy! Mommy!  I gave the man a flower!”  There’s joy in going.  There’s joy in giving.  And there’s a difference, I think, between our childish pursuit of selfish fantasies, and a childlike capacity for wonder, and for grace.

Let’s go.

#lovematters (1 John 4:16-21)

We live in the age of the hashtag.  Even if you abstain from social media, you are constantly bombarded by sound bites and slogans designed to convey not the truth, but some caricature of it.

Recent tragedies have generated a whole new set of competing slogans.  Black lives matter, we’re told.  All lives matter, others counter.  Supporters of law enforcement add that blue lives matter.  And of course many arguments are made over which of these slogans is most accurate, or most helpful as we seek to sort through declining trust in law enforcement and a spirit of racial injustice.

So which is it?  Black lives?  Blue lives?  All lives?  Frankly, I think we’re asking the wrong question if we’re debating whose life matters.  I think it’s a better question to ask: what does it mean to matter?  And to whom do we matter?  It’s like the old story of the carpenter and the watchmaker.  The carpenter says, “I need to hammer this nail,” so the watchmaker hands him a pocketwatch.  The carpenter drives the nail into the board, but the watch is now in pieces.  “Huh,” he observes, “this mustn’t be a very good watch.”  It’s absurd, of course, but why?  Because the watch isn’t meant for that purpose.  Understanding what it means to matter is a question of purpose, yet we as a culture decided long ago that we had no common purpose; we would remain a nation of individuals, each of us plotting our own course.  Yet without purpose there can be only brokenness.

What an opportunity for the gospel to shine.

THE CALL TO LOVE

We’ve been focusing on what it means to “abide,” using John’s writings as our guide.  Yesterday we noted that the surest starting point for abiding in Christ is to believe the fundamental nature of the gospel: that in Jesus God came to earth to pay our infinite debt so that we might experience fellowship in him.  But John’s first letter focuses not only on the facts of faith but also their results.  Abiding starts with faith in Christ, but it is made manifest in the love of Christ:

16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.17 By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world.18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.19 We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:16-19)

The starting point for Christian love is the love God has shown us.  Do you see how the gospel empowers us to love in a way religion never can?  Religious teachers can instruct their followers to love people, but the only thing this might produce is mechanical obedience.  Religion says: “Love others and God will love you.”  The gospel says: “God loves you, therefore you’re free to love others.”

THE DANGER OF ABSTRACTION

This is partly why empty religion can be so destructive.  If I embrace religion—apart from the grace of the gospel—then I may be tempted to think that God loves me because of my own goodness, my own achievements.  And once I start believing that, then I tend to compare others to myself.  Pretty soon, others start looking less worthy of my love because they don’t match my own standards.

John cautions against this, saying:

20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:20-21)

Abiding is about loving others.  When John speaks of “brother,” he’s most likely referring to fellow followers of Christ.  But surely love for our neighbors (Mark 12:32) is an essential part of Christian obedience.

In a world driven by slogans, it’s so easy to get off the rails.  Love withers when we reduce human beings to mere abstractions.  What do I mean?  I’m talking about the way we label others as “thugs,” or “racists,” or “liberals.”  We shut down conversations because we don’t want to listen to what others have to say.  We ignore pleas for racial sensitivity because it sounds to us like liberal propaganda, and with enough digging we can prove that the facts on our side, by golly so isn’t it time to just move on?  We fail to love when we dig up dirt on shooting victims, feeling somehow assured that if we can learn that they were somehow guilty of other, lesser crimes, we can sleep better knowing that these men were “thugs” who contributed to their own ill fates.  We love our brothers—but we make sure we reserve our love for those without a rap sheet.  A world of cause and effect gives us comfort and assurance, because it means that I can have control over my fate so long as I cling to my moral record.

The gospel shatters this, because it tells me that I am so broken that the God of the universe had to die to save me.  And because Christ died for the wayward and the broken, the gospel gives me assurance that no one—not even those I might be tempted to label as a “liberal” or a “racist” or a “thug”—is beyond his reach.

THE URGENCY OF “GRACIOUS CONTENTION”

There is division in our nation like never before.  Now, more than ever, we need the Church, we need a community of men and women who abide in Christ and manifest this love in their interactions with others.

Now, I sense that some of you will be bothered by some of this, because surely, with all this division, not every side can be right and there are many voices and positions worthy of being challenged.  Indeed, the message of the cross runs counter to a cultural message of “empowerment.”  Christians are at odds with the world, and conflict is inevitable.

Love is not opposed to such conflict and such challenges.  To avoid disagreements is to relegate oneself to apathy rather than the bold love God showed us through Christ.  In his book Political Discipleship, Graham Ward of Manchester University suggested that what we need is a climate of “gracious contention,” meaning that we allow for the liberty to wrestle with important issues with an attitude of grace.  There is a world of difference between disagreeing and being disagreeable.  But love for our neighbor remains our guiding principle.  For while there may be no easy answers to our current crises, we can be confident that ultimately, eternally, love truly wins.

Abiding in belief (1 John 4)

Are you sure you’re saved?  All of us, I suspect, have asked ourselves this question at some time or another.  If you’re anything like me, you might have prayed the “sinner’s prayer” a few dozen times just to make sure that one of your salvations “took,” kinda like sending that sweater through the wash again just to be sure that stain’s out.

We’ve been talking this week about “abiding.”  Abiding means staying close to Jesus, to immerse ourselves in his character and his teaching.  So how can we be really sure we “abide?”

YOUR OWN PERSONAL JESUS

No one, not even the Beatles, will ever be more famous or more widely known than Jesus Christ.  He is the central figure of all human history.  Even our calendars are organized around the periods of “B.C” (“before Christ”) and “A.D.” (annulus Dei, the “year of our Lord”).

But who is this man?  What do we say about him?  As much as religion has been pushed to the corners and margins of our society, it’s a pretty safe bet that your friends and neighbors might echo many of the cultural assumptions that circulate about Jesus.  From the “Jesus fish” on your minivan to the “Jesus is my homeboy” t-shirts sold at Urban Outfitters, Jesus stands somewhere between fashion statement and cultural icon.  Rapper Kanye West famously appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine with a crown of thorns, promoting his hit song “Jesus Walks.”

Years ago the question we were asking was: “Should we believe in Jesus or not?”  High-minded academics used to describe themselves standing at the edge of “an ugly broad ditch.”  On one side was the Christ of history.  On the other stood the Christ of faith.  They could believe in a historical man named Jesus, but…miracles?  Resurrection?  These proved too difficult to believe.  But today’s world has made the jump, it seems.  We’ve leapt across the ditch only to find ourselves in a hall of mirrors.  Everyone has “their own personal Jesus,” a personalized savior for a nation of rugged individuals. And so we find ourselves like the Roman guard of Oscar Wilde’s play about the life of Christ: “[Jesus] is everywhere,” he tells King Herod, “and we cannot find him.”

ABIDING AND BELIEF

We can’t possibly say enough about the similarities between our world and the ancient one. John was writing from the city of Ephesus.  But even the believers living in the city understood only the teachings of John the Baptist:

And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. 2 And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” (Acts 19:1-3)

They had the part, not the whole.  Paul had to explain to them that John’s baptism only pointed toward someone greater—Jesus himself.  It was this sort of halfway-religious world that John found himself in, though John would see both Peter and Paul die while he carried on.  Perhaps motivated by this, perhaps urged on by friends, John penned a biography of Jesus that we now know as the gospel of John.  But John wrote other parts of our Bibles as well, such as the enigmatic book of Revelation and a series of letters we know as “1, 2, and 3 John.”

The first letter John wrote was about this exact topic.  The people in John’s world believed in Jesus, yes, but their image of Jesus was shaped by cultural forces and personal expectation.  If you read 1 John, you see that much of what John writes is a swirling meditation on the unity between proper belief and Christian conduct.

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. (1 John 4:13-15)

You’ll notice, of course, that John uses the same image here of “abiding” in Christ.  And what evidence does John give for knowing we abide?  Because we have the Spirit, he tells us; the same Spirit the believers that Paul had encountered didn’t even know about.  But John continues.  He emphasizes that proper belief in Jesus is the key to abiding.  To believe that Jesus is fully God and fully man—this is, according to John, the starting point of an abiding relationship with God.

Christianity is a religion of belief, not works.  We know this, and yet we may often feel tempted to think ourselves unworthy of God’s love because we lack the right credentials, or because we just don’t feel spiritual enough.  Maybe we even wrestle with repeated sins, feeling disqualified from active faith because we can never seem to get it right.  All of these things are worthy to address as we mature in our faith.  But they are not the measurements of our faith.  The assurance of our salvation is not the quality or quantity of our faith; it’s the object of our faith.  Understanding who Jesus is—that is, knowing him to be God in human skin—this is the essential foundation of our faith.  Why?  Because only God could go to the cross to offer an infinite sacrifice to pay our infinite debt, and God must do this as a human being to atone for the sin of Adam.

Faith produces confidence.  Theology—the act of studying and learning about God—isn’t just an exercise of ivory-tower academics.  It’s for all of us.  Just as food means more to those who are hungry, just as air means more to those who are choking, so does faith mean more to those who are doubting. For doubt is not the opposite of faith.  No, the opposite of faith is actually speculation, the art of bending the truth to fit our own private assumptions and felt needs.  Doubt is not the opposite of faith, but its absence.  And so in the darkness of our mind’s eye, Christ’s truth shines with clarity, with radiance, with beauty.

To flourish or wither (John 15)

I have a confession to make.  It won’t be easy; some of you will never forgive me for keeping so dark a secret.  But here goes: I kill plants.  Like, all plants.  I used to own a houseplant.  It died under my care.  I did all I could, but for the life of me (and the death of the plant…) I had no idea if I was overwatering or underwatering or if the poor thing really just wanted a cup of coffee or something.  A year or so ago my neighbors asked me to water their plants while they were on vacation.  I ended up praying that they would return soon because I was already starting to see some brown leaves emerging.  All of this would be perfectly understandable if you didn’t know that my first job out of college was working with plants (including in a greenhouse) for the USDA.  C’est la vie, or something like that.

Plants really have only one of two fates.  They thrive and flourish, or they wither and die.  There’s no real setting for “neutral,” at least not for very long.

Jesus seems to be saying something similar in his message to “abide.”  Yesterday we talked about how to “abide” in Christ means to be connected and committed to Jesus in a personal way.  Today I thought we’d take a personal look at the results of this.  Let’s revisit the passage, this time paying attention to the results of abiding (highlighted in bold) and the results of failing to abide (underlined):

 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:1-11)

(On a side note, this is actually a good exercise for things such as family devotions, etc.—an easy way to practice the habit of simply observing the text)

If you focus on just the highlighted portions, you get a snapshot of the mature Christian life.  Abiding produces growth.  “Fruit” is a symbol for life, a life that begins with our walk with Christ and stretches onward into eternity.  And it is a life, Jesus tells us, that is marked by the fullness of joy.  Jesus even promises that an abiding person can expect answers to his prayers—though we should note that the condition is a heart that is truly abiding in Christ.

Negatively, look at the underlined portions.  I don’t think Jesus necessarily means a loss of salvation, though he certainly emphasizes a loss of fellowship, a loss of effectiveness, a loss of joy.

It’s cliché to say that our world suffers from a lack of devotion to God.  Devotion to self is a cancer that causes our nation to wither like a bundle of drying branches.  Our notion of “progress” is often a myth, and every news cycle, every election cycle proves that indeed, history truly does repeat itself, often transfigured into an uglier form than it was before.

The gospel makes no promises of our happiness, but it makes a powerful promise of lasting joy.  Imagine that—on the night before he was publicly tortured and killed, Jesus promises joy for those who abide in him.  The problems that flicker across our television and computer screens are not interruptions in our call to joy; they are reminders of the sheer necessity of joy.  “Abide in me,” Jesus asks us.  “Stay close…that’s where joy is found: fresh and wild and alive.”

 

 

Snipers, sirens, and “abiding” in a “peek-a-boo world” (John 15)

Pain is one of few things that grow when shared.

For the first time in human history, technology has given us front-row seats to some of the greatest human tragedies—death, injustice, and outrage broadcast live through social media services, only to be replayed endlessly in our 24-hour news cycle.  Police shootings.  Outrage.  Backlash.  It’s as if the pain overflows from our screens and etches into our hearts like an acid bath.

How do we process such images, such emotions, such stories?  What—if anything—do we tell our children?  Where lies the responsibility of God’s people in all of this confusion?

None of these questions have easy answers.  What I thought we might do this week is look at our scheduled passage in light of everything that’s happening in our nation.

 

THE TRUE VINE

John’s biography of Jesus splits into two basic parts.  The first half provides an overview of Jesus’ ministry, a period lasting at least three years.  But the second half focuses on the final week of Jesus’ life—from his arrival in Jerusalem to his death and resurrection.  Time slows down.  John offers us a glimpse of Jesus’ teachings in detail.  At the famous “last supper,” Jesus offers his disciples an extended speech of what life will be like as they carry on his mission here on earth.  It won’t be pretty, he seems to emphasize, but we can take comfort in claiming Christ as our source of strength.  In John 15, the disciples rise from the table and proceed to go to the garden to pray, and it’s in this movement that Jesus offers one of his most enduring lessons:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:1-11)

The Hebrew scriptures contained numerous comparisons between Israel and the “vine” and related imagery—not always positively.  Jesus says here that he is the true Vine, the true source of life.  And this life is experienced by “abiding” (some translations might say “remaining”) in him.

 

OUR “PEEK-A-BOO WORLD”

Our world is not one prone to “abide” in much of anything.  No; our world is far more accustomed to what’s “trending” and what’s popular. More than twenty years ago, Neil Postman wrote a groundbreaking book called Amusing Ourselves to Death.  In it he described the modern era as a “peek-a-boo world:”

“where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining.”

We should find it all the more compelling that Postman wrote this years before the tyranny of the smart phone and the world of social media.

Perhaps we might feel Postman goes too far in describing this world as “entertaining,” but today’s digital age offers endless outlets for outrage but little room for lasting—and that’s the key word, here—lasting empathy.  It’s like the U2 lyric: “it’s true we are immune, when fact is fiction and TV reality.”

 

BEING “INTO” JESUS

The poet Wendell Berry once wrote that “sometimes you sink into a place, and sometimes a place sinks into you.”  A “peek-a-boo world” doesn’t offer much depth to sink into.   Sink into shallowness, and you hit bottom rather quickly.

Jesus’ command is to “abide.”  The Greek word meno most literally meant “to reside” or “to stay,” the way you might “abide” in your house.  But the word also seems to have a deeper meaning—a spatial metaphor, for you academics out there.  We do something similar in English, actually.  When learning a foreign language, we might say that a person learns more when they are “immersed” in that culture.  Or what about the way we talk about our hobbies, interests, or ideas?  We might say: “I’m really into the Orioles” or ask “Are you into politics at all?”  What do we mean by into?  Obviously it’s not literal.  It’s a powerful way of describing our close connection and identification.

To “abide” means being “into” Jesus, it means being immersed in his life and teachings.  It sounds so trivial to say it that way, but perhaps it’s because we’re so used to a culture of “contacts” that we’ve lost the art of true connection.

We can “abide” in the stories and sentiments expressed on the nightly news or the conversations that swirl around the water cooler.  If we sink into these conversations these ideas could very well sink into us.  We could quickly find ourselves struggling with anger, despair, and further division.

Or we could abide in Jesus.  We could stay close to Jesus.  I don’t mean to suggest that there are not immediate solutions to the problems we face, but I am confident that our ultimate source of peace and justice is found only in Christ.  The cross demonstrated Christ’s willingness to suffer and die next to broken sinners like you and me, and the empty tomb demonstrated God’s power over the most obstinate force in the universe—death itself.

Abide, Jesus says.  Stay close.

When we hear about “breaking footage…” Stay close.

When we learn of another victim… Stay close.

When others’ opinions stir our anger… Stay close.

When our children are looking for answers, we tell them to stay close to The Answer, the Alpha, Omega, the One who promises that when his name is exalted, he draws all men to himself.

Stay close.

Don’t Get Blown Away (Psalm 1)

view out TSF windowI have some wonderful distractions that my ADD eyes can see out my office window. Looking across the fields I can see Martin’s Elevator, watch trains go by on the CSX line, and even see how the traffic is moving on Interstate 81.

And I can also check out the weather to see if my new #1 enemy is at work. That is the wind. There are few bushes in the foreground and a maple tree beyond the side parking lot. They give me a sense of the wind movement here on the knoll where the church sits – one of the windiest places anywhere. Actually the church is on some of the highest ground locally, which is not immediately obvious at first glance.

I say the wind is my enemy now because of all of the cycling miles that I do. Even the cold only stops me once it goes under about 40 degrees. The wind is the real problem that makes it a rough experience in any temperature.

And in Psalm 1 that we have been looking at this week, the wind represents trials and troubles and judgment.

Psalm 1:4 – Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. 5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

6 For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

Here we see the rooted life described in contrastive terms, comparing the strength of those rooted in righteousness like a tree with a strong foundation to the wicked who are like the chaff – all that extra stuff around the grain at the time of harvest.

While sitting in my office last week, I was able to look out my window at the wheat fields being harvested. I should have taken a picture at that time, as it was like a total dust storm with the chaff blowing away. Last year at the season of the harvest of this field (which we actually own and rent to the folks at Martin’s) I was biking back to the church from Cearfoss. And you could see it almost a mile away, it looked like a dark storm on the horizon.

Now, a week later, where is the grain that was harvested? It is saved in silos to be used. We can find it. But where is the chaff? It is gone … blown away … it cannot be found and is not wanted to be found.

These final verses look beyond even this life to the bigger picture of both this life and the next. There is a way of living that gives success in each, and a way of living that is the pathway to destruction.

The godly man’s roots are in God’s Word and connected to truth; the ungodly are rooted in what looks permanent – materialism and man’s philosophy – but proves to be weak in the end at the day of judgment.

The writer (likely David) brings back some of the verbs and nouns from the beginning, where the righteous stands, walks, sits…

Here, the wicked …

does not stand in the judgment. The righteous stands, though not in their own righteousness but rather in that of the Righteous One.

will not be seated in the assembly of the righteous. They don’t have a seat with God at the end of it all. So why would you want to regularly hang out with someone who doesn’t even have a ticket (other than to encourage them to receive the free ticket that is available for them)?

do not walk in the way of the righteous – a way that God oversees, guides and protects. They have their own way, described as a path to destruction. Jesus picked up this very theme of the two ways – of one that seems right to a man, while encouraging rather to choose the narrow path that leads to life.

So, be rooted!  Don’t get blown away by the wind.

There is a tendency I notice in ministry with every sermon, and that is to think or to say, “This today – this topic – this is the answer to it all.” Well, this Psalm 1 topic of rootedness is pretty close to being just that. There is a reason it is Psalm #1 and placed at the beginning of the Psalter, for it gives us the macro categories of life and of timeless truth. It’s not actually that complicated.

Where are Your Roots? (Psalm 1)

river treesAs we continue through the first of the Psalms, we have the seen the rooted life described in both negative and positive terms. Now we see it described pictorially, and it stands as the key verse to the Psalm.

Psalm 1:3 – That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.

Much of the Holy Land is rather arid. The picture of vast regions of stone with green swaths through which streams travelled, dotted with isolated trees, would be a common one.

And though we live in an area where it (this year) seems to rain every day whether it really needs to or not, it is not always that way. And we know as well that trees growing alongside streams have an easier time, especially in drought conditions. Think about the beautiful views we see of stately trees growing along the Potomac, the Antietam or the Conococheague.

The picture is one of constant nourishment and steady health. This sort of tree is not dependent upon intermittent showers, and is therefore not susceptible to dry times. The roots do not need to stay close to the surface, but are able to go deeply into the soil, providing a better foundation for the tree in perilous times – when the winds of adversity come.

trees knocked down

This second tree pictured is from west of Hancock on a mountain several hundred feet above the surface of the Potomac River.  Note how minimal is the roots system for the size of the tree. It could not withstand the storm, nor did quite a number of others nearby. They look like dominoes knocked over in a recent storm that spawned tornadoes.

Beyond simply standing and looking good, the tree by the water produces fruit at the right time, in season. It is regular and dependable.

The picture is a beautiful one and as obvious for application as any in Scripture. Is your life, your roots, deeply embedded in the Scriptures, or do you depend upon occasional “showers of blessing” for your spiritual sustenance? If you are depending only upon the occasional sermon for biblical enrichment, you are going to have your “leaves” wither and your “roots” be insufficient foundations for the inevitable sorrows of life.

Are you able to be described like the tree by the water in terms of your life and service to others?  If not, it may be that an examination of the roots is in order more than a reflection upon the nature of the storm systems.

And beyond standing alone, there is greater strength in standing together. What is better: a tree by itself (even well-rooted) or a tree growing near others around it? With others trees and roots systems intertwined, there is mutual support. And so it is in the body of Christ and your regular connection to it. If you do not connect deeply in the church family, you are essentially being an independent tree – be it in a field or along a stream.

So how are your roots?