Love, the Greatest Gift.

As we rapidly approach Christmas we think of the gifts we will give and the gifts we shall receive. How appropriate then is it that we take time to consider the greatest gift ever given, Love. In the 36th Psalm one is forced to consider, in stark contrast, the difference between a world and person that is devoid of love and a world that is filled with it and a reminder that true love comes from God.

The first half shows us a deceitful and self-centered person content in their own iniquity. They fear neither God nor man and embrace evil. They live to serve only themselves and work only for their own advantage. Their concern is themselves and will do anything as long as it benefits themselves and care little for the impact on others. “It’s a dog eat dog world and nobody loves me like I love me. As long as it makes me feel good, that’s all that matters. I don’t have to answer to anyone nor does anyone control me”. Do any of those thoughts and words sound familiar? If so, perhaps you have encountered this line of reasoning. This is a world without justice, without kindness, without empathy, were the only god is Self. The ends justify the means and it’s a fight to get ahead and getting ahead is all that matters. What kind of world would that be if everyone felt that way? Sadly, I fear we are on our way to finding out more and more every day. In a world filled with instant gratification and everything designed to create or enhance pleasure, the idea that someone would actually sacrifice something for someone else without expect of reward, advancement, or even appreciation is exceeding rare. This is a world that knows not love.

The second half points out the difference in the loving kindness found in God. God is love and so it pours forth from him in righteousness, fairness, truth, care, and protection that knows no bounds. It’s as high as the heavens, expansive as the skies, and more unshakable than the mountains. God loves and cares for man and beast and wishes them all to be drawn to Him. Why? What does God gain, what do we bring to God? Nothing, not a thing. There is nothing that we have that God needs. There is nothing that God is lacking that we can somehow provide. God wants for nothing, He only wishes to share what He is and Has with us, His creation.

This was made manifest in the Christ child. This infant in a manger, the word made flesh, the reason of God put into form that man could know was all about sharing the infinite love of God with man. It is through Christ that we can find the Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love of God. It is through Christ that we can have light and life. It is through Christ that we can go to the river of life and be filled to overflowing and become Children of God. God does this simply because we exist and He loves us simply because we are. This is true love, totally unconditional based on nothing. Love for loves sake. This is love that Paul writes about in the 1st Corinthians 13, this is the love that knows no bounds, this is the love that allows this world to be more than a terrible journey from birth to death.

This is the greatest gift ever given – the fact that we all know people, and hopefully are, that do not just care for or glorify self; that we are willing to sacrifice and care for others simply because they are; that there is any idea or concept of compassion, charity, or grace in this world is all because God has infused the world with it. This is something that does not come from within man, but wholly from without, from God, our creator. This is why pain and suffering seems so wrong, why we have issues with injustice, why suffering bothers us, because we know that in a world filled with love this should not be.

Yet far too often we resist the source of the love that would repair the world, that is God Himself. We fear what it means to be accountable to Him and what it means of us to care for others. We fear what we will lose rather than think about what we will gain. All God truly desires is that we would be so filled with His love that we wouldn’t have room for sin, iniquity, transgression.He desires that we would not worship self and fall to the dark world of the first verses, but a world filled with light and life flowing from the river of life and love which comes from God. If you know not this gift, I invite you to come to Christ, drink of the abundance of His house and be filled with this most precious gift, the gift of Love.

This Joy that I Have

Isaac Watts was one of the early protestant fathers of hymnody. During the 1700’s he would write numerous hymns, and this was a revolution for the church at that time, since up until them almost all the songs came from the Psalms. Watts, would as many people have, find much inspiration in the Psalms for his own hymns and one of the most beloved Christmas Carols of all time would come from his pen inspired by the 98th Psalm, Joy To The World. This Psalm tells of the joy and adulations the people can have with the coming of the King, the Lord. What a befitting song and idea for the birth of Jesus Christ. As we continue to look at the great gifts of the Christmas and the Psalms of the Season, it is this one we look to when thinking of Joy.

I must be honest in that this sermon came at an awkward time with numerous difficulties and grief at a personal level. Because of this it made the idea of speaking on Joy tumultuous. How can one possibly speak of Joy amid darkness and feelings of despair? Should one even do such a thing? For me, what started as a legitimate question was answered with a resounding YES. Why? Because it is precisely in moments such as this that we need to be mindful of the Joy that rests in the Lord.

This is what makes the Joy of the Lord so wonderful, is that it is not dependent on external circumstances. One does not have to be “happy” in order to have Joy. At first this seems odd but what makes us happy are often things in this world, but Joy is a deeper feeling that comes from the Lord not from the world. This psalm points us to the idea that we can rejoice in the Lord because of the wonderful things He has done, and is doing, and that His salvation has been made known to the world, and it is through Christ, this revelation of God’s very self has been made known to the world and through Him salvation has come of the world. Not just one group of people or one nation, but every person in every nation. The new song spoken of in the first stanza reminds us of the lines from Revelation of that multitude singing a new song as well. It is this understanding that helps provide us with Joy.

Our Lord has indeed come and salvation is real and this provides us with Joy. Why? Because the darkness that has long separated us from God has been lifted. We have been invited into the family of God and adopted as full heirs and made citizens of Heaven. We are in the process of being transformed from the creatures that we were into images of Christ. God has promised us an inheritance grander than all the precious materials on earth and what He has promised he will do. None of this is contingent on what we do or have done, but wholly dependent upon the Love of God who cares for us simply because we exist. Paul reminds us in Romans that nothing on this earth and no machinations of the evil one can separates us from the Love of God. It is all this that inspires us and reminds us of how and why we can have Joy even in dark and terrible times.

We have a Lord who has done and is doing wonderful things. He has and is making His salvation known to the world. The Lord has come and will come again. All of this can inspire us to sing and shout with Joy even in the darkest night because we know it will end and we can and will be in His fullness one day, surrounded by a multitude which no one can number singing that new song. Better yet, we don’t have to wait, we can start singing right now. Joy To the World, the Lord IS Come!

Basis for HOPE

In our troubled world, it can be difficult to be hopeful. When I say hopeful, I mean looking expectantly for the future. With all manner of issues going on in our world this can be difficult. I also don’t mean hope as in “wish”, which is how we most often use the word, such as I “hope” that such and such happens, what we really mean is I “wish” that such and such happens. In the biblical sense, hope is always tied to a forward-looking expectation of a promised reality. That is, we have hope because we know it’s going to happen. This type of hope is much more positive than a general wish and is why that having such hope can help us through extremely difficult times. Without such hope there is only despair. So how can we have such hope in such a seemingly troubled world?

Looking at the 62nd Psalm one can see David speak / sing of such hope because he has placed his faith and trust in God and God alone. It is God alone that allows his soul to be quiet. When was the last time your soul was quiet? When was the last time the chaos of the world or of the day didn’t rattle you to your core and your soul could simply be quiet and listen to God? It is God alone that proves to be our rock, refuge, and salvation. When we think about what this means, it means that only God can be such an unchangeable, unmovable force in our lives that we can stand on and rest in without fear. There is nothing on Earth that offers such steadfastness. Furthermore, not only does God provide us a steady unmovable foundation (think of Jesus’ parable about the man who built his house on rock vs. sand) he is a refuge. To be a refuge from the storm means that in such dire times we can be sheltered securely in the knowledge that no harm can come. That nothing is capable of breaking through the bulwarks or toppling the walls (unlike the leaning walls and tottering fences of those who would attempt such a feat as to assault God). Now like any soldier who is secure in a fort which is being shelled, it may be unnerving in the moment, but knowing that the walls will hold provides a comfort and hope that being inside a seemingly insecure location cannot offer. This is the solid majesty, power, and invincibleness that is God and God alone.

Sure, we can try to find comfort in our fellow man, our bank accounts, are stuff, or even our own abilities, but we all know, in our heart of hearts, that those can and will fail us and let us down. God however cannot and will not. He has made promises and kept them all. He has stated his love of us and demonstrated it to us in the person of Jesus and the act of atonement on the Cross. We know in Christ we are promised what we could never have on our own, reconciliation with God. That the God of the universe in all his infinite power and glory is just as approachable as an infant in a manger would be. That we have been promised an inheritance as God’s children that the world cannot touch. It is for this reason that in a troubled land we can have hope. We know that these promises will be kept, that this is real, eternal, and unchanging. This is our basis for Hope, one of the greatest gifts ever given so long ago, in a child, in a manger, Hope for all eternity. In Christ we know no matter how bad it gets, one day it will be better. That no matter the storm or the calamity, there will be peace, and joy, and love, and because we know this, and have this expectation, we can have Hope.

God Cares

As Peter winds down his letter, he starts providing advice and giving reminders as many are want to do at the close of letters. It seems it is at these times we realize there are many more things we would like to say and so put them all in one on top of the other. In chapter 5 Peter starts by talking to the Elders (leaders of the local congregations) then the younger people who may not always be thrilled with the senior leadership, then everyone else. While I could spend a lot of time going over all of what Peter stated, I will focus on two aspects that cover most of it, that being humility and God’s love.

Humility is perhaps one of the most misunderstood virtues to come from Christianity. During the first century humility would have been seen as a vice not a virtue. The Jews were the chosen of God so why should they be humble? The Greeks and Romans saw themselves as born to rule not born to serve so why should they be humble? Sadly this vice of PRIDE has been passed along through most of the world and humility missed. It is for this reason I believe that we still largely understand what it is to be humble. Most people have this idea that in order to be humble I have to put myself down. I can’t think myself good at anything, be proud of an accomplishment, and generally talk about what a rotten sort I am. Some people take great effort and pride in being the most humble. This of course is not humility. On the other hand people think there is no reason to be humble and we have built up a generation of people who think they are perfect just the way they are and so why should they be humble? Why shouldn’t they be extremely proud and entitled and demanding. After all they should always feel great about themselves no matter what and never consider the fact that they may need, improvement. This is a result of what I call the great self-esteem push of the past few decades. Again, this is not humility. Humility is quite simply looking at yourself as you are. Not thinking less of yourself nor thinking more of yourself or you ability than you really posses. Granted this is not easy, but we at a point have to admit that we are not perfect as we are and may need improvement.

This is where the second part comes in. God cares about YOU. Once I come to accept that God is good and loving and cares about me and only wants my best, then this allows me to push pride aside. Why? Because God cares about me. How do I know this. Because He sent His Son to die my death, to bear my cross, to take my guilt and sin and punishment so I wouldn’t have to. Not because I am wonderful or perfect, because if I was there would be no need for such an action, but simply because he loves me and cares about me. So how does this change my outlook on life? I no longer have anything to prove to anyone. I can quit comparing myself to the world and other people because they aren’t perfect either. I admit my position before God, accept his grace, and follow his will. I submit to him and trust him because I know He cares about me. I can avoid the pitfalls and traps of arrogance, conceitedness, and egotism because I know they aren’t true and I don’t have to please anyone but God, and I know I fall short of that mark so there’s no point of sticking my chest out for His benefit.

The devil frequently attacks and destroys through pride by convincing us that we are better at something than we really are. We think we don’t need help so go it alone and end up lost and defeated. Why? Because we are too prideful and stubborn to admit we can’t do it and need help. We are in a spiritual war with the host of evil, do we really think we can resist that on our own? Most of us can’t resist an extra piece of cake at a party, how do we think we are going to resist the devil? We avoid this by recognizing our failing and turning to God, because in the end, He cares, and when everything and everyone we know has failed us or let us down He alone remains.

If I boast, I boast in the Lord, because he has total power and dominion forever, Amen.

Be the Church

As chapter 4 opens, Peter is continuing in the theme of living out the Christian life (basically, what impact Christ ought to have in our day to day lives). He is encouraging these early Christians to grow in the faith and instilling what that ought to look like. They are also reminded that as they do so, they cannot expect the best reception from their friends and neighbors.

This ought to be a stellar reminder to us as Believers today that our lives ought to stand out as markedly different from the world around us. There are certain activities and behaviors that are in truth somewhat beneath the Christian. This is not about saying that one is better than another, but as with all maturity comes the passing away of certain things. This is in a sense Peter’s version of Paul’s statement about “when I was a child I acted as a child, but now as a man I have put away childish things” (Paraphrase my own). He basically says that people will want to know why you are behaving differently and you may catch flack. Don’t be surprised, and as he stated towards the end of chapter 3, be ready to explain this.

As a Christian, I am not my own man, and I represent something far larger than myself. I represent Christ and the Church, and as such, my life stands as a witness to this. He moves on from this to more practical application. That is the Christian life should be of all things marked out by love. In addition, this love should be shown through service towards others.

In a world not unlike our own, where there were many who are questioning of Christianity, and society is not always friendly to it, how should the Christian get on? What is it the Christian can do to help improve this image? He or she can BE Christian. That is, they live the Christian life, loving others, being hospitable, serving as they can with what they have. This love is not for the few or just those whom we happen to like, but for everyone, for the unlovable and unlikeable. For the stranger as well as the friend. We serve not in our own power but with the very power of God based upon the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

What do we serve with? Why the gifts that God has given us? Do you know what your gift is? Well if you don’t, there is no need to spend money or time on “spiritual gift inventories” simply think, what am I good at? What do I have an abundance of? Has God blessed you with extra food, money, space, ability in one area or another? Then use that for God’s kingdom and purposes and not your own. Peter is extolling these early Christians and us to BE the Church wherever we are, however we can. This is what we as believers have been called to do.

We are to be the hands and feet and arms and mouth of Christ in this world. Ours is not to criticize and harangue, but to love to build up.  It is for us to help clothe the naked and feed the hungry. To open and offer what we have to those in need. Its not all about buildings and programs. It is about the very heart of the gospel which is love and mercy and everything we do should be about pointing others back to Christ, that He be lifted up. After such amazing love has been poured out on us, what are we to do but share and pour it out on others. We should all examine ourselves and see are we growing in our faith and growing in love.

Our Hope and Strength

Towards the end of the third chapter of 1st Peter, he enjoins us to do two things. First, to make sure that Christ has been set apart as Lord in our hearts. Second, to be ready to explain to anyone what it is that gives us such hope and assurance in a world filled with much sorrow and pain. To help us with this, he provides the ultimate example, that of Christ, who suffered on our behalf and is very much alive, and just like Noah provided an example of repentance to those during his time, we too are providing a similar example through the power of Christ in our time.

The first is a must for the Christian. We have to set Christ apart as our Lord. This means that it is all about His will and none of our own. It’s about what He says is right or wrong, what He says we do or don’t do, and how He says we should live and not our own. This means we use the Bible as the guide of our lives and seek to serve Christ every day with every action and bring Him ultimate honor and glory. We recognize that we are His body and soul and live our lives completely for Him. This is in due response to what He has done for us through his atoning sacrifice. Refer back to chapter 1 and the price that was paid for us (His blood) and the inheritance this entitles us too as well as the end of chapter 2 where it describes the gory details of the cross the Christ endured on our behalf. Suffice it to say He has done more than enough to place us eternally in His debt, one that we can never repay, nor are we asked to. All He did, he did from a place of ultimate love and all he asks is that we reply with our total love for Him.

The second is a reminder that when we do the first, we will be marked out in the world as different. Be it under persecution, the struggles of life, or just day to day living, having so placed Christ as our Lord, people will notice and may ask questions. In such cases, we should be prepared to respond. This means having to actually think about our faith and what it is Christ has done for us personally. Sure we can quote the fathers or great theological minds, or even some blog we read online (shameless plug), but what really matters is that we can tell what Christ has done personally in our lives. This is a reminder that at its heart, the Christian faith is about establishing a real personal relationship with God through time, prayer, devotion, and worship. It is a reminder that God is active in our lives on a personal level and we should be able to explain that in detail. Just like we can explain what it is about that certain someone we care so much about and why we are with them, we should be able to do the same with Christ. Now we don’t do this from a place of arrogance or authority, but simply from genuine experience. In such ways we share our personal faith that is based not merely on words, but on our life.

Peter again gives us Christ as our ultimate example as he suffered – unjustly – so that all may have a chance at redemption. It is Christ we are to have in mind when we think of wrongs we have suffered and when we do, all our pain disappears in comparison when we think of what He endured on our behalf. We are reminded that we placed Christ on the cross as much as any Roman soldier, and it is our sin he bore as much as anyone else. It is only through that act that we can be brought to God and thus have the unfettered access we now enjoy. In short, the fact that we serve a living Christ who sits at the right hand of the Father enables us to endure anything the world can sling at us.

Kingdom Living

Continuing in chapter 3, Peter starts pulling all this advice together for the Christian living in the world, and that being a world which is on the whole indifferent to Christianity if not openly hostile towards it. The main thing to remember is that the Christian in the world should live in such a way as not to bring a blot on the Church and that being a believer in Christ should so affect one that they are noticeably different than the rest of the population. This is why he says to be a good citizen, be a good servant, and be a good spouse. Our lives are not our own but God’s, and as such, how we live is not just a reflection on self but on God.

This leads him to make such statements as we should live harmoniously, and be sympathetic towards others. We should have care and compassion on those around us, especially our brothers and sisters in the faith. This was a new concept in the ancient world. It may come as a shock to many, but the idea of having compassion for the less fortunate, the aged, and the infirm is a Judaeo-Christian concept. Pretty much most of what we hold as “western values” are those. Quoting from Psalm 34, he reminds us that it’s not enough for a person to “not do bad things” but they must actively do good things as well. A person may refrain from being mean and think they have accomplished much, but if they haven’t moved toward actively doing good, they are still missing the mark. This carries not in just what we do but also what we say. Instead of being vengeful and vindictive, we are to be loving, actually praying for those that would harm us. They may wish evil for us, but we should be wishing well for them. He speaks against slander and gossip and back-biting (those snarky little comments we might sometimes make behind someone’s back). All are things that diminish the luster of the church and all are reasons why someone has given for not being a part of a congregation. These are telling reminders for the attitude of the Christian.

We get reminded that while God will bend close to those who do good and we can celebrate and live in that close relationship with God, that those who do not, will have that same fellowship broken. It’s not that God loves us less but that the relationship has become strained due to our poor behavior. In a world where society says its OK to follow your “heart” and do what “feels” good, we are reminded that such hedonistic living will do much more harm to us than if we live our lives for our God and King. While people may be able to do us bodily harm, and suffering may come from living out our faith, God will ultimately watch over us and protect us, even if that means taking us out of this world all together.

These attitudes will ultimately lead to a lot of questions on the part of other people and we as believers must be ready to answer them. One of the great attributes of Christianity is that it is for the thinking man. While we are told to accept Christ as Lord and Savior, we are giving multiple reasons why. We are told to think about what we believe and how it should impact our lives. This is not about blind obedience, but logic and reason in action, and actually listening to our heads when our hearts may fail. There is much more to come, but we should at least be thinking about the one question: why do I believe what I believe?