Sunday, March 18, 2012

Life Signs - #8 A Balanced Life


The brilliant young preacher had a magnetic personality, he was educated at Yale and the heir to a well-known family.  When spiritual awakening came to New England, he gathered his congregation together for a special meeting.  They listened to him speak for 24 hours – until he collapsed. As a guest preacher in Connecticut, he walked down the center aisle at the conclusion of his message shouting, “Come to Christ!  Come to Christ!  Come away from the world!”  Then he went into a pew of women and stood singing and praying as they joined in, some fainting, others crying hysterically. 

It was the height of what would be known as The Great Awakening, and the pastor’s name was James Davenport.  Some were suspicious when he began condemning almost all the ministers in the region as unconverted, even the most godly ones; and claiming he could tell the saved from the damned just by looking. On the evening of March 7, 1743 he gathered a large crowd together, calling them to burn books and expensive clothing to prove their commitment to God.  Then he did it, he pulled off his own pants and threw them in the fire too.  That’s when a woman grabbed his pants out of the fire and gave them back to Davenport and told him to “get a hold of himself.”  History would mark that day as the beginning of the end of Davenport's credibility (see Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise on Religious Affections, Gerald McDermott, Seeing God: Twelve Reliable Signs of True Spirituality; George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life)

Today, that behavior might seem tame when compared to other stories we have heard… like TV preachers who have paid for sex or misused their supporter’s money and lied to their congregations; or the fanatical religious cults in Jonestown and Waco Texas, or any number of recent clergy scandals.  But the general sense we have is that something is out of balance.  Jonathan Edwards, one of the most respected leaders of the Great Awakening later wrote that one of the marks of genuine spirituality is “a beautiful symmetry and proportion” a life of balance that I would like to explore not only in John’s letter…but in the life of Christ himself.  Jonathan Edwards, in his Treatise on Religious Affections, wrote about several areas of balance that are vital for us today as Jesus’ followers and the first of these is…       

1. Zeal for God…and love for people (1 Jn 4: 1-12) “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.  By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (1-2). 

John as we saw earlier in his letter is especially concerned to lift up the truth of Jesus the Christ…fully man and fully God.  This is the miracle of the incarnation which he experienced as an eyewitness, and which some false teachers were denying.  He is the Messiah, who came “in the flesh,” not a ghost but a real man who suffered and died for us on the cross.  Yet because of his life, death, and resurrection his followers testified that he was not only a man, but God’s eternal Son (1:2) who brings us into never-ending fellowship with him.

Now here is the important thing to see.  This truth was more than dogma for John, it was life changing… Discovering the power of God’s love in Christ turned him from anger and incivility…to loving kindness.  And so he goes on to say in the next paragraph: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God…Whoever does not love does not know God for God is love” (7-8). 

Some people are zealous about the truth, but do not practice love. Gerald McDermott tells the story of a family in his church when he was a boy.  The mother impressed him because she was always the first to go to the communion rail, yet she led a faction that drove out the new priest.  What was his offence?  He recited the liturgy with great feeling and lengthened the sermon from 10 to 20 minutes.  By the time he left, she and others spoke of the priest with contempt.  John reminds us we must balance a zeal for truth with love, especially for those with whom we disagree.

2. Joy in the Lord…and holy fear (Mt 28:8).  Neh. 8:10 says, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.”  Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God, said Teillhard de Chardin.  When we come to worship on Sunday morning, I feel a palpable sense of joy.  Before I left our church's Session meeting last Wednesday, four guys were playing a card game; and three other women were socializing in the doorway, without any intention of running home.  One of our elders remarked, “I think we really like each other.  That’s why.”  May God increase our joy in Christian community.

On the other hand,  Prov. 9:10 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  After Jesus’ resurrection, we read that the women fled from the empty tomb “with fear and great joy (Matt. Mt 28:8)”  Before Him we bow down in reverent awe, before Him we recognize that we are sinners in desperate need of his grace. It was the tax collector who mourned his own sin, and not the proud Pharisee, who went home justified, says Jesus.  There is a place for those who weep and mourn, knowing that he promises to turn our sadness into rejoicing. The saints of God balance joy in the Lord with reverent awe before God and sadness over their own sin.

3. Love for friends or family…and love for neighbors (Lk 6: 32-35).  Some have love for their own family and friends, but despise those who are different from them.  On the other hand, some can be kind to total strangers, but are unloving and cruel to their own family members.  

Jesus challenges us to look at the person who is hardest to love…and love them the most.  Luke 6:32 - “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?”  Love those who are difficult for you to love, says Jesus…regardless of and even especially because of their lifestyle, religious, political, or ethnic background. One of the things that most impresses me about St. John’s where I serve as pastor, is the willingness of its members to listen to and embrace one another despite strong differences of opinion on  social issues and politics.  I think we’re able to do that because of two binding convictions: (1) We know that we don’t have all the answers and (2) we trust in the One who does…our Lord Jesus Christ.

4. Concern for my own sins…not just with others’ sins (Mt 5: 3).  It’s unfortunately very easy to focus on the sins of others while denying our own.  Jesus warned us that we easily see the speck in a brother’s eye but don’t see the log in our own eye.  We may find it easy to talk about infidelity while denying our quick temper.  We may be concerned about someone’s sex addiction, but not recognize our own addiction to Facebook or popularity. But God sees the heart…he sees our jealousy and pride, he sees our prejudices and judgmental spirit.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” says Jesus, “for they shall see the kingdom of God.”  In other words, genuine followers of Christ are concerned about their own spiritual poverty, their own sin and need of God’s grace…and not just the sins of others.

5. Concern for others’ spiritual needs…and for physical needs (Mk 6: 34).  Some church people are extremely concerned about saving souls, but care little about feeding the poor, clothing the naked, or caring for the earth.  It’s the idea that taking care of poverty is the state’s job; while we do the real work of evangelism. Other church people consider evangelism and making disciples of Jesus secondary, maybe even unimportant; that the real work of God is attending to the great social ills of our day…lack of food, clean water, starvation and disease, environmental degradation. 

These extreme opposites are not something we publicly admit, but they are privately held convictions. Remember that Jesus did both; that our Lord saw the great crowds of people to whom he was preaching all day…and fed them with multiplied fish and bread.  Genuine disciples care about spiritual needs and physical needs, body and soul.

6. Trust in God for salvation…and financial provision (Mt 6:33). Some of us may trust God for our salvation; but don’t trust him with our money.  We worry about our finances, forgetting that Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you as well.”  Luther said that there are three conversions that need to happen: the conversion of the head and the heart, and the conversion of the pocketbook. 

There is a blessing, Jesus says, in trusting God with our material wealth.  It is a blessing to invest in the Kingdom.  It is a blessing to support the mission of the church or to help the poor with our resources.  Do we live by the provision principle or the poverty principle?  Do we believe that God is our provider or do we believe that we will be poor if we give to his work?  We cannot out give God!  Jesus’ disciples balance trust in God for salvation, and for provision.

7. Faith in the good times…and in the bad times (Mt 13:21).  Some follow Christ when it brings applause and popularity, when it is relevant to “where I’m at” and helps me reach my potential; but fall away when it is unpopular, when it makes demands on my time, when there is hardship and unanswered prayer.   In one of his parables, Jesus warns us not to be like the seed that was sown on rocky ground, the seed which had no root and therefore endured only for a while until persecution or hardship came and choked it like weeds. 

As I looked at our Elders the other day I thought about the fact that two of them had experienced the death of a spouse, three had experienced the death of a child, at least two had known the challenges of unemployment, several had experienced difficult family issues...at least two of us had a chronic medical condition, and that’s not the whole story, yet in every case I saw men and women whose love for Christ has endured through the good times and the bad!

8. Praising God publicly…and knowing him privately (Ps 63: 5-6). Some worship and pray only when others are watching; but lack a secret and personal life with God.  But David says, “My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast and my mouth praises you with joyful lips when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night.”  Jesus spent time with others and time alone with the Father; counseling us to go to a secret prayer closet to pour out our hearts to God. 

At the same time, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, and said, “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am in I in the midst of them.”  The writer of Hebrews tells us not to neglect meeting together, but to encourage one another (Heb. 10:25).  Corporate worship is where our spiritual fire is rekindled, where we are encouraged, and receive the graces of God’s word and sacrament.  A genuine disciple has learned to balance public worship and private prayer.
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John was passionate about balancing the zeal for truth and a love for people.  Why is this kind of balance so important?  It’s important in our personal lives, because God created us to be in physical balance, emotional balance, spiritual balance, and relational balance. It’s important in our church because it can help us to love one another as we move toward the center where Christ is. And it’s important for our mission because it offers an alternative to our polarized culture as we address the needs of the whole person which is Jesus’ way.  Two quick stories to illustrate why balance is necessary, and why it takes practice.

I can't say I ever threw my pants in the fire like James Davenport, but I did throw away some albums once.  Did anybody else do that in the 70's?  After hearing a speaker when I was a high school student, I decided to toss out some rock albums that seemed pretty secular as an act of piety.  I never really regretted that decision, but I did decide to tell my Dad about it.  My father truly has a pastor's heart, and he gave me some wise advice: “Son, just remember that you'll always need to have one foot in this world.”  He was reminding me that balance is necessary; that if I become too detached from the present world and its culture, I will have difficulty relating to people who need to know Christ.  He was reminding me that I must be in the world even if I am not of the world.

Here's my second story.  While we were riding our bikes yesterday in Santa Monica, my family and I saw a couple of guys walking on a tight rope that went from about two feet off the ground to about 15 feet off the ground.  First we watched a guy walking up the rope with relative ease.  It was amazing to see his skill as he placed one foot in front of the other.  Then, the next equally fit guy got on and started walking.  We expected him to do the same thing that the other guy did, but after only three feet, he fell off.  Why?  Because balancing on a tight rope is hard.  It takes practice. Don't be surprised if striking that balance is not an overnight achievement.  The good news is that Jesus will be our coach…the one who always kept one foot in this world and one foot in heaven, the one who was fully man and fully God; the one who ate with tax gatherers and sinners; the one who fed the spirit and fed the stomach.

Gracious Lord, we come to you in joy-filled confidence and in reverent awe. For we not only want to profess our faith in you privately, but demonstrate that faith practically; to love you and love our neighbor; to trust you equally in good times and in bad. We confess that the balance which we desire for our lives is imperfect; that it is not we who have loved you well, but it is you who have loved us best, and sent your Son that we might live through Him.  We thank you for the Bread of Life which feeds our souls as well as our bodies; which reminds us that even before we could call upon your name, you loved us and gave your Son for us.  Fill us with your Spirit that we might be more like your Son, whole and holy, ready to serve you and to bless others in your name.  Amen. 

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