Friday, January 14, 2011

The Mindfulness of God

Today I read Job 7, which is part of Job's response to the the first speech of Eliphaz. In Job 7:17 he asks, "What is man, that you make so much of him?" My mind immediately went to Psalm 8, where David asks a similar question when contemplating God's special care for humanity in light of the vastness of the universe. "What is man that you are mindful of him?" (Psalm 8:4).

However, Job has a much different perspective than David. David was grateful for God's attentiveness to humanity. Job is resentful of God's attentiveness.
"What is man, that you make so much of him,
and that you set your heart on him,
visit him every morning
and test him every moment?" (Job 7:17-18).

The last thing Job wanted was God's attention. In verse 19 he prayed for God to look away from him and leave him alone.

This isn't the first time in Scripture that someone wished to be free from the presence of God. Adam and Even tried to hide from the Lord after their sin, and ever since the Garden, rebellious humanity has desired to escape the notice of God. "For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed" (John 3:20).

But Job's case is much different. He is not a wrong-doer; he is "blameless and upright" (Job 1:1), and he cannot understand why he is suffering so much. The only conclusion he can reach is that God has decided to subject him to constant scrutiny and to punish him once any fault is exposed (as it inevitably would be with any human being).

No wonder Job wanted God to leave Him alone - or better yet - to allow him to die (Job 6:9).

It is understandable why Job felt such despair. He was grief-stricken and paid-ridden. But he was also fundamentally mistaken about God (and so were his friends, as well-intentioned as they may have been). God is not like some corrupt sheriff who tails us waiting to find one little slip up and then ready to pounce once he does. It is the devil who is always on the look-out for some opportunity to tempt with sin or inflict with pain, as was the case with Job.

Those who are disobedient to God should be alarmed by God's omniscience. But those who love the Lord should take great comfort in God's mindfulness. He knows our sorrows, He feels our grief, and He senses our despair. Knowing that He knows what we are going through is not an imposition on us, but an invitation to us to hand those troubles over to Him.
"Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you" (1 Peter 5:6-7).

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Learning to Pray More Effectively

Last week I was browsing the web and came across an article by Tim Keller on how to pray more effectively. I really enjoyed his insights, so I turned it into a sermon for Sunday night. Here were the basic points.

In Luke 11:1-4 the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, and He gave them this prayer:

"Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation."

Not all prayers in the Bible are the same, of course. But it is common for prayers in Scripture to do the same three things Jesus did in this prayer:

1) Say something about God. In this case, Jesus described God as our "Father," which implies that God is Creator and Ruler.

2) Request something from God. We are to ask God for blessings such as daily food, forgiveness of sins, and protection from evil.

3) Desire something for God. In the model prayer Jesus expressed two desires for God: that His name be hallowed and that His kingdom would come.

In the rest of the sermon I just read through various prayers in Scripture and noticed how they included these same elements. For example, look at the prayer in Ephesians 3:14-21-

1) Say something about God

"For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory..."

2) Request something from God

"he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God."

3) Desire something for God

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

The other prayers we studied were Psalm 51; Psalm 71; Isaiah 37:15-20; Romans 15:5-7.

Finally, we talked about why these elements of prayer are so important.
  • They turn prayer into praise as we profess the greatness of God.
  • They instill confidence in God's power to answer our prayers as we reflect on His attributes.
  • They center prayer on Gods will rather than ours, which is always what prayer should be about.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Humility That Leads to Unity

(This is my sermon from Sunday morning, the first in a series on the four qualities Paul listed in Ephesians 4:2 as a pre-requisite for maintaining the unity of the Spirit in Ephesians 4:3).

This morning I am going to talk with you about humility, and I have to tell you, this is going to be the greatest sermon on that subject ever! It would be great if the absurdity of pride was always that easy to recognize, but of course it is not. Other than Muhammad Ali not many people go around shouting, “I’m the Greatest” – and he doesn’t do it any more. Pride is far more insidious than that. And since James 3:16 attributes disorder in relationships to selfish ambition, and since there is conflict so often in churches and families, pride must be far more common a problem than any of us care to admit.

No wonder that when Paul exhorted the Ephesians in 4:3 to “maintain the unity of the Spirit” that the very first attribute he listed as essential to the preservation of oneness was humility (Eph. 4:2). So this morning we are going to study this foundational attitude, this key safeguard of the unity of the Spirit, and we’re going to do so by looking at a passage in another book Paul wrote during his imprisonment, the Book of Philippians.

Take a look at how closely the language of Ephesians 4 resembles Philippians 1. Ephesians 4:1-3 says:

1I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

And then look in Philippians 1:27-

27Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.

See how similar these passages are? In Ephesians, “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” In Philippians, “let your life be worthy of the gospel of Christ.” And in both passages, what is the particular virtue Paul says demonstrates the conduct worthy of Christians? Unity. In Ephesians, “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit,” and in Philippians, “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side.” In John 17 Jesus prayed for His followers to be one, and now Paul admonishes Christ’s people to live up to that holy prayer of Christ Himself by being one.

Beginning at Phil. 1:27 and continuing through the first part of Philippians 2, Paul explains how unity can be maintained. There are several different ways to put it – being of “one mind” in 1:27. Being of the “same mind” as in 2:2. Having the “mind of Christ” as he describes it in 2:5. Being like-minded. So let’s begin here in Phil. 1:27, where Paul expresses his desire for unity among Philippians.

Be Like-Minded (Philippians 1:27-2:2)

In my Bible the first word of verse 27 is “only.” A better way to express Paul’s meaning here would be “above all else” (CEV). The number one priority for you Philippians, Paul says, is

“let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.”

This is pretty emotional language, and reflects the deep friendship Paul felt for the Philippians. This bond was forged as Paul and the Philippians suffered together for the cause of Christ. You remember the story of the conversion of the Philippians jailer in Acts 16. That’s the chapter which recounts the planting of the gospel in Philippi. And you may recall that Paul was severely beaten along with Silas and thrown into prison. Some of you who have served in the military can identify with the profound camaraderie Paul shared with the Philippians. When you are in tough fight the people who stand side by side with you in the trenches come to mean more to you than many members of your own family. These people in Philippi knew what Paul went through for them to get the gospel to them, and after he had to leave Macedonia, that affection remained. By the time this letter was written Paul was in prison again (probably in Rome). And though separated by hundreds of miles, Paul was still very much on the heart the Christians in Philippi, and when they heard about his suffering they sent him financial aid. In 4:16 Paul says, “It was kind of you to share my trouble.”

Earlier in Philippians Paul expresses optimism that he will be released and will be able to see them again. But whether that happened or not, his greatest desire – and their greatest duty – was to be united.

“Whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28and not frightened in anything by your opponents.”

Dissension in the ranks of an army is a sure path to defeat. Paul wanted to be assured that the Philippians were presenting a united front to their enemies, free from intimidation. He might be referring to pagan opposition to the gospel, such as what he encountered in the first days of the work there. Or, he might be warning about Jewish opponents like the ones he describes in the third chapter of Philippians as “dogs, evildoers, those who mutilate the flesh” (3:2). Regardless of their identity, the important thing was for the Lord’s soldiers to engage the enemy with such solidarity, that their opponents should recognize they were on the losing side. Verse 28 - “This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.”

Christianity is a fight – a striving – a “conflict” as Paul says in verse 30. It was a fight for Christ Himself. He had enemies who did everything they could to intimidate Him. And He eagerly came to grips with His enemies, and above all with the Adversary, the devil. He suffered, but He won. If we are going to follow Him, we are going to fight, and we are going to suffer, and by His power we will also prevail. It is part of Christ-likeness.

29For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

If we are going to face the conflict Paul and the Philippians (and for that matter Christ) faced, if we are going to have to dig in and “strive for the faith of the gospel,” we are going to have to do it “side by side.” That is why Paul is so insistent that the Philippians be united.

Philippians 2

1So if there is any encouragement in Christ (and the idea here is not “I don’t know if there is or not” but rather “since in fact there is), any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.

Years ago there was a coffee commercial that said, “Fill it to the rim with Brim.” Paul tells the Philippians they can fill his joy to the rim by “being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Imagine how distraught Paul would be to hear that in the face of the onslaught of the enemy the Philippians were torn apart by factions and feuds. The one thing that would reassure the apostle is the knowledge that his brothers for whom he cares so much are “united in spirit and intent on one purpose” (NASB), the faith of the gospel.

So that is Paul’s desire. Unity. Like-mindedness. But it is one thing to command people to be united, or to pray that they will be. Paul does more than that.

Be Lowly-Minded (Philippians 2:3-4)

In verses 3-4 he explains the blueprint or design of unity. And that is through humility, through being lowly-minded.

3Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

If I were to pick one word above all from these verses, it would be the word “humility.” That is the simple formula for unity. Be humble. But in these verses Paul fleshes out this design by explaining what humility involves.

First, it involves rejecting what the ESV translates as “rivalry or conceit.” The first word was used by Aristotle to describe the self-seeking pursuit of political office by unfair means. I had to quote Aristotle because we don’t have anything like that going on today! It could also be translated “strife” (as in the KJV), because it is inevitable that power hungry people will clash with others scratching and clawing for the same power. The NIV calls it “selfish ambition,” which leads to “rivalry” as in the ESV, which in turn leads to “strife.”

The second word, “conceit,” comes from a word that literally means “empty glory.” The KJV uses an old fashioned term, “vainglory,” but that is spot on. Here’s the connection between conceit and vainglory. How many of you fathers has a shirt or hat or coffee mug or some other sort of paraphernalia that says “World’s Greatest Dad”? Now, we all understand that it is conceited for a person to think they are the world’s greatest anything. But how much stock do the rest of us place in those accolades? Not much. They don’t have a lot of value. The glory is empty – it is in vain.

Now presumably your wife or your children bought you that “World’s Greatest Dad” piece of merchandise. Hopefully it wasn’t your idea! If I walked around here with a “World’s Greatest Preacher” shirt on, you would think three things: Shane is conceited; Shane is delusional; and whatever he paid for that shirt was way too much! That’s what Paul means here in Phil. 2:3. Someone who is conceited is also delusional. They are ascribing glory to themselves which only God deserves, so any greatness they imagine for themselves it just that – imaginary; and therefore their glory is worthless.

“For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Gal. 6:3).

A sad picture of just such a person is found in 3 John 9-10:

9I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. 10So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church.

Diotrephes is the epitome of what Paul says we must reject. He was ambitious, or as John says, he liked to put himself first. He had to have his way, which meant crushing anyone who challenged him, even if they were apostles. This is the very opposite of a true follower of Christ, who denies self and takes up a cross and follows Jesus. Christ’s people practice self-denial; not self-promotion or self-glorification.

It is easy to see the flaws of a villain like Diotrephes. It isn't so easy to see the same qualities when they emerge in us. Here are the tough questions I have to ask myself. Do you always have to get your way? Do throw a fit if everything isn’t just how you like it? If someone else gets credit for something rather than you, are you jealous or resentful? If someone gets an honor or award, do you immediately start to tear them down or think about all the reasons you should have gotten it instead of them? Those are the attitudes - selfish ambition and vain conceit - Paul says we must reject.

In the second place, Paul tells the Philippians to regard others “as more significant than yourselves.” He does not mean that in actual fact there are some Christians more valuable or important than others. We are one body in Christ. And as he says in 1 Corinthians 12:22, “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” I am not sure I know exactly what the criteria are in that passage for parts of the body that “seem to be weaker”, but surely the point is that every Christian has a significance by virtue of membership in Christ’s body, and no one’s contribution to the service of the Lord should be trivialized.

But in Philippians 2 Paul doesn’t say “regard others as significant as yourselves.” We are to regard others as more significant. A humble person doesn’t spend their time calculating all the ways they are better than others, or do more than others, or are more valuable to the kingdom than others. A humble person assumes the mindset that says, “you matter more than I do.”

The night of Jesus’ arrest, before He and the disciples left the upper room and made their way to the garden, the apostles were having an argument. Do you remember the nature of the quarrel? It was an argument over which one was the greatest! When is the last time you heard people at your job argue over which one was the greatest? I mean, I might think I am the greatest, but I have a hard time imagining publicly arguing that’s the case!

But how many arguments happen because we think that we’re better than someone else, that we matter more, that they should think about who it is they are talking to. The only antidote to this mentality is to regard others as more significant than ourselves. Paul expresses it another way in Romans 12:10b - “Outdo one another in showing honor.”

How different would that last supper have been had the topic of discussion had been reasons why the other eleven men were more significant. How different would our home life be if the worst arguments we had were all the reasons our spouse or sibling deserved honor more than us. How different would a congregation be if each member dwelled on all the reasons the church is better off because the person next to us is a member. Outdo one another in showing honor.

A humble person rejects selfish ambition, and regards others as more significant. And third, a humble person recognizes the needs of others. Philippians 2:4:

4Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Paul doesn’t have to command us to look out for our own interests – we instinctively manage to do that. But what runs counter to our impulses is thinking about what others need. Later in the chapter Paul commended his son in the faith for displaying this rare ability-

19I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. 20For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. 21For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.

It’s tough to be the kind of person that doesn’t always look out for number 1, that thinks about others. There is probably no part of daily life that tests my ability to do this more than driving. Just yesterday I was over at Josiah’s, and on the way home stopped at the Kangaroo gas station because the gas is always cheaper there than anywhere. Once I was done I started to pull out of the drive, and the way the side street is laid out, there are three lanes of traffic. The one closest to me is right turn only. Then a middle lane, which is straight ahead. Then the far left lane, which is left turn only, and the one I needed. I sat and sat and sat at not one person considered my interests and allowed me to pull across. So, outraged, I circled around the gas station, found an opening behind where I was, and managed to squeeze across the first lane and most of the middle one to get to the far lane. But I was not quite all the way there, and consequently I was blocking part of the middle lane. And you know what? I didn’t even look in the rearview mirror to see how many people I was keeping from where they wanted to be. Maybe one of them is using me as a sermon illustration right now!

In a world as cruel as ours, it doesn’t take much to be hurt, then hardened, then just as callous as everyone else. That is why it is so hard to truly think about what is best for others rather than ourselves. But we cannot allow the world to squeeze us into its prideful mold. And if you only think about what’s best for others when they reciprocate and do the same for you, it won’t be long at all before nobody thinks of anybody but themselves.

In 1 Corinthians 10:24 the Scripture says: “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” First Corinthians 7:33-34 says that husbands are to please their wives and wives are to please their husbands. This is humility in action.

To put it another way, suppose you made a list of everything you don’t like about this congregation. And then suppose you made a list of all the things you liked about it. An arrogant person never considers that some of the things on their list of “don’t likes” might be on the list of someone else’s “do likes.” Whereas a humble person looks at their list of things they don’t like, what they think is, “well, I would prefer something else, but other people may really like this or need this and that’s what is most important.”

Paul desired unity, and he explained the design of unity. Humility that elevates others and dwells on meeting their needs. And finally, in verses 5-8, he shows us a demonstration of the humility on which unity depends. We must be Christ-minded.

Be Christ-Minded (Philippians 2:5-8)

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

The only way for us to truly be of one mind is not for you to accept my mind, or me to impose yours, but for both of us to embrace Christ’s. He embodied the qualities of humility Paul outlined in verses 3-4. He did not come to be served, but to serve. He put the needs of others ahead of His own desires. And He did this even at the cost of His own life.

In verse 6 Paul says Christ existed in the form of God. What God is He is. But He did not count this equality with God “a thing to be grasped,” or as the NIV renders is, “to be used for His own advantage.” Unlike dictators who use their position only to get from others, Jesus used His position to give to others.

Verse 7 – “He made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant.” This doesn’t mean that Jesus stopped being in the form of God when He became a servant. It means that as God He served. Think of the upper room again, but this time John’s account in John 13. What did Jesus do for the disciples? He washed their feet. That was the work of a slave. Did Jesus stop being their Master when He washed their feet? Not at all.

John 13

14If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.

Jesus was Lord, but He was also a servant. He chose to do one of the most menial tasks because His disciples needed to learn a lesson.

And this One who existed in the very form of God saw what I needed, and you needed, and because He looked not at His own interests but also the interests of others, He served, and bled, and died.

The next time you think you are too good to help someone else, think of Jesus. The next time you think you are just a little better than someone else, think of Jesus. The next time you think getting your way is more important than what someone else needs, think of Jesus. How ashamed we ought to be when we are so petty and so selfish when Jesus was willing to give so much and serve so sacrificially and die “even death on a cross.”

Be like-minded. Be lowly minded. Be Christ-minded.

This was not just a theoretical matter for Paul. Look with me at the last chapter of Philippians.

“I entreat Eudoia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life” (4:2-3).

We are not told much about Euodia and Syntyche, but in Paul’s estimation they were valued co-workers in the gospel. But it also appears that there was some tension in their relationship, and Paul’s personal appeal to them is to “agree in the Lord.” That is what Paul would say to all of us. Agree in the Lord. And we don’t know who the “true companion” is that Paul asks to help these women, but each of us has a part to play in helping one another be like-minded, lowly-minded, and Christ-minded.