Waste and Grace

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A man once said, “The church is like manure. Pile it up, and it stinks up the neighborhood; spread it out, and it enriches the world.” The Church always struggles with the issue of evangelism. Sometimes we want to close up in a little shell. We want to protect ourselves and keep everything as it is. My brother pastored a church that the finest house in the town was the church parsonage. Why? Years ago, the church had neglected the residence for the minister, so a lady in the church, when she died she left her farm to the congregation. The stipulation was that the church could not sell the farm and all proceeds from the farm could only be used for the upkeep of the parsonage. I guess we reap what we sow as a church. Jesus said, I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.

I had in my front yard a “Global Locust” which was a very pretty tree. It was a very brittle and frail tree that was always being damaged by storms. However, it was a tree the was very prolific and would not die. Sprouts from the tree pop up in the yard, my flowers beds and even in the cracks in the sidewalk. The presence of the tree is evident all over the front lawn! In many years of living in that same house I have pulled, cut and poisoned those shoots and nothing has stopped that trees attempts to multiply. Jesus words again, But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

All at once we realize the power of the seed. This tiny seed that falls in cracks in rocks and grows into a huge tree and shatters the rock in the process. That is great power. Lotus seeds were found in 1995 in a dry lake bed in China. They were 1,288 years old! Seven of them were obtained by the University of California at LA. The seeds were germinated, sprouted, and a plant grew from them. A seed can hold life for 1,288 years, that is power!

What I find challenging about our lesson today is that the reason of God stands opposed to the reason that you and I use everyday. Num 20:7-11 The LORD said to Moses,”Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.” So Moses took the staff from the LORD’s presence, just as he commanded him. He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.

Matt 17:24-27 After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” “Yes, he does,” he replied. “What do you think, Simon?” Jesus asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes– from their own sons or from others?” “From others,” Peter answered. “Then the sons are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin.

That day Jesus went out of the house at Capernaum, and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. The land around the Sea of Galilee gently slopes toward the sea.

A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop– a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears, let him hear.”

Why does this farmer waste all of this seed? Wouldn’t it be better if the farmer only put the seed on the good soil? This is valuable seed. The farmer knows that it isn’t going to do any good to plant seed on the rocks or in the weeds. Look at how this farmer wasts the seed! He casts it everywhere that he can cast it. On the rocks, on the path and in the weeds. What a waste, or is it?

Serving the purpose of God is never a waste. How many times do we plant a seed that we don’t realize will take root one day. We don’t realize what seeds we plant in the little children we teach in Sunday school. We don’t realize what seeds we plant as we visit the shut-ins. We don’t realize what seeds we plant as we minister to those who have no family. The seeds are falling all over the place. Shouldn’t we cut the funding and only put it in areas that we see benefit?

Isa 55:10-11 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

As a young man, John Harvard emigrated from England to the United States. All predicted the brightest future for him as a brilliant scholar. He died after only one year. When he died, he left a little over 700 pounds and a collection of more than 200 books for a new university. Harvard University! The death of John Harvard looked like waste, but it produced an abundant harvest. The harvest is sure.

What Is Sin, Anyway?

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What is sin? In a sermon on “sin,” a preacher announced that there were seven hundred eighty-nine different sins. A few days later the mailman delivered ninety-four requests from members of his congregation for a list of the seven hundred eighty-nine sins.

In scripture “sin” is a falling away from or missing the right path. It is not an act as much as a relationship. The underlying idea of sin is that of law and of a lawgiver. Hence sin is everything in the disposition and purpose and conduct of God’s moral creatures that is contrary to the expressed will of God.

The sinfulness of sin lies in the fact that it is against God, even when the wrong we do is to others or ourselves. Sin therefore is nothing more or less than “disobedience.” When Jesus is asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” We are expecting Him to say something like, “You shall not kill,” or “To have no other gods before Me.” However, Jesus’ response is: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. It is a relationship, not a law!

I see a society today very much like in the day of the Pharisee, very legalistic.
But how many of us know that we can obey the law and miss the intent? “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices– mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law– justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.

In the concept of “original” sin, it is believe that because of Adam and Eve’s sin that we are born sinners. What was Adam and Eve’s sin? Disobedience.
I don’t believe that we are born sinners, but I do believe that we are born into a very sinful world. As a result of that we easily start participating in a life of sin.

Let us contrast two events in scripture to better understand the issue of sin.
The first is the fall of Lucifer in Isaiah. How you have fallen from heaven,
Why is Lucifer cast out of Heaven? Sin! You said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain.” In other words, he wants to be like God, no, he wants to be God.

The sum of all the commandments is love; sin in its nature is egotism and selfishness. What is at the bottom? Disobedience, and it becomes hostility to God when it collides with His law.

Let us contrast that with the temptations of Jesus at the end of His 40 day fast. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Where is it wrong to change the stones into bread if we are hungry? Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'” He is God, He can do anything He wants to do. Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” This is the first temptation of Jesus that directly breaks a law of God. Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'”

The law is solely for our benefit, in God’s eye, sin is sin. Save the Unpardonable Sin, all sin has the same value, death. The sin of stealing just like the sin of murder will get us thrown into Hell. There is no difference between a white lie and a black lie, sin is sin.

Defying God’s laws is wilful disobedience. Disobedience destroys relationships and even our relationship with God. The whole purpose of “grace” was to re-establish that relationship.

Between my junior and senior years in college, I worked at the Department of Human Services in Oldham County, Kentucky. I met a beautiful girl who was also working in that same office. We started dating and had lots of fun. On our sixth date, she made an advance toward me. Sure, the physical attraction was there! She knew what I stood for, I had been clear from the very beginning. I had even taken her to church with me. She knew my plans for the ministry. When the advance came, I was not flattered. Her concluding words were, “I am not jail bait.” Those words were not an invitation for me but a conclusion. The only question that I had was, “Who do I love more, her or Jesus?” I took her to her home and dropped her off. There was the most freeing feeling going home.

Time magazine had a report (Jan 11, 82) on Children of War. The report included interviews with children now growing up in war-torn Ireland, Israel, Lebanon, Cambodia and Viet Nam. In Ireland, Elizabeth Crawford was just 16, one of ten children. Her mother was senselessly caught in the crossfire. Her friend Patrick was also killed. Her grandfather was shot. When we were younger we couldn’t understand it. We didn’t know where to turn or who to blame. We asked, Why is all this happenin’ to us? The reporters asked her “Did it shake your belief in God?” “Not in God. In man.”

Sin is humanities problem! God is the answer to that question.

True Freedom

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This is the day when Americans celebrate our national independence. We give thanks to God that we have been allowed to have this freedom. We are free! We can speak, think, travel, believe, and do as we please. That is what freedom is all about. And yet the age we live in, is not known for its freedom but for our anxiety. We are anxious about many things: Having enough money. Having good health. Being secure and safe.

Most of us define freedom as “being free to do what we want.” But my question is, “Are we really free?” Are we free to do what we want? Is freedom even good for us?

Our Western concept of freedom comes from a mixture of two teachings on freedom. The middle eastern concept of freedom was a socio-political freedom. The Jewish community did not like to be under the control of the Roman empire, even when life was really better for them under Roman authority. For them freedom was a political issue. The European concept of freedom is not so much political as it is personal attitudes. The Greeks and Romans valued freedom of thought much more than political freedom. Viktor Frankl wrote the book Man’s Search for Meaning. He found that even amid the horrors of a Nazi prison, when all freedom was taken away, there were some prisoners who remained strangely , free. He found that the greatest freedom was to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.

Most of us have difficulty with freedom, we abuse and we misuse it. Oh, we want our freedom and our liberty, but when we have it we don’t know what to do with it. (Romans 7:14-20) We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do– this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. When Paul became a Christian he was set free! He didn’t have the weight of all the ceremonial laws. He didn’t have the detail of all the Jewish laws. For Paul it was a paradox: To be free and yet continue to sin and do what you shouldn’t do. But that helped Paul understand “grace.”

Paul expresses a concern about being UNEQUALLY YOKED in marriage. A relationship with God is a lot like a marriage. Time magazine reported (1/22/95) that the earthquake in Kobe, Japan, occurred when two plates on a fault line fifteen miles offshore suddenly shifted against each other, violently lurching six to ten feet in opposite directions. Thousands died. More than 46,000 buildings lay in ruins. One-fifth of the city’s population was left instantly homeless. Two people committed to each other but going in different directions can only lead to trouble. The same with God.

I think at the heart of the gospel there is a paradoxical claim that only as our lives are linked to Christ, only as our lives are bent toward his will, that we are free. St. Augustine first noted this when he was a young man converted to Christ. While young he lived a rather carefree life and even had a child out of wedlock. He noted that freedom means to be free, not to do what we want to do, but rather to be free to be whom God intends us to be.

A young man in a parish I served became an attorney. He was invited by a big law firm for an interview. A member of the firm casually mentioned that one of their clients was a company that ran all of the video poker and gambling operations in the state. “There are a number of questions which are up for grabs, but that’s not one of them.” I believe that such activities are a sign of bad government and are wrong.” “But its all legal.” “It may be legal, but it is not ethical.”

Who is free in this story? The one trapped in the system? Or the young man that knows who he is and to whom he belongs?

Do you really want to taste freedom? Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. There are a lot of us who are weary and burdened. We understand the pain of life and are not really free. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. The “yoke” Jesus refers to is well illustrated by the process of training a young bullock to plow. In some parts of the world, the farmer will have the young bullock harnessed to the same yoke as a mature ox. The bullock, dwarfed by the other animal, will not even be pulling any of the weight. It is merely learning to walk in a field under control and with a yoke around its neck; the ox pulls all the weight. It is the same when a believer takes Christ’s yoke. As the Christian learns, the yoke is easy and the burden light.

Freedom comes when you know who owns you. Robert Browning was right when he wrote, “So free we seem, so fettered fast we are!” Jesus said, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”