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Sunday, June 10, 2018

Sermon: Love Your Enemy

There was some difficulty with the video for this sermon. It did not properly upload last week, and this week when we checked, YouTube was certain it was already up. Next week I will grab a copy and upload it to my own YouTube channel if it is not resolved by then.

For what it's worth, I've done some revising to the manuscript here, in some cases aiming toward what I delivered in church, in some cases making it more broadly relevant.

Matthew 5:43-48 Redeemer ICC       Love Your Enemy June 3rd, 2018

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward to you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.       Matthew 5:43-48

Wow. Love your enemies? It’s so hard, so contrary to our nature. Loving our enemies, and praying for those who persecute us. And let’s face it: how many of us really have enemies? Please raise your hand if someone has literally tried to kill you in the past month. Not including times you thought you were going to be hit by a car. Lousy drivers don’t count as enemies, otherwise Busan would be full of enemies. And yet when people come into our lives who do not treat us as we want to be treated, we decide that they are our enemies.

Recently I found that I had an enemy at work. He was insulting. He was new at my workplace, but acted like he knew better than I how to do my job. He sent me messages that had the tone of a boss talking to the guy who brings coffee. I’m pretty easy going, but he pushed all the right buttons, and I snapped at him in a message exchange.

When I talk with my coworkers about him, they tell me not to bother apologizing. “With a guy like this, it’s just permission to be more of a jerk.” I nod. “That makes sense,” I say.

Fortunately, I have been meditating on today’s scripture for the past six weeks, so I knew that I had to pray for him. And I did. I'm afraid the first few prayers sounded like this:

“Dear God, please put you-know-who in his place. And if you don’t mind, make that place far from here. Amen.” There. That should do it.

No, something’s wrong. Let me try again. “Dear God, I am praying for my enemy. Help me to love him. Help me to understand him. Help me to stop him from acting like a jerk! Help me to…” Wait a minute. I’m not really praying for him, am I. I’m praying for myself! Dangit!

Why is it so hard to just say, “God, please give peace to him”? Why is it so hard to say, “God, forgive him”?

When I pray for myself, it’s easy! “God, give me what I need, not what I deserve!” Why am I so quick to turn it around for him? “God, give him what he deserves, not what he needs!”

Let me check the instructions again.

“You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you,”      Matthew 5:43-44

Yeah. Looks like I’m getting something wrong. Maybe we can figure it out later.

But for now, I want to point out a pattern: This is the sixth time in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus has said, “You have heard something-something,” followed by “but I tell you something-something different.” The first few were almost direct quotes, but Joshua pointed out to us that “You shall not swear falsely…” is sort of gathered from many places in the Torah--the Old Testament. But in verse 43, things get kind of strange.

Here are some questions that might help you figure out how it is strange. To see the answers, highlight the space after "Answer:" to reveal... you know.

1. True or false, the Bible says: “You shall do no injustice in court.”
Answer:   True! Leviticus 19:15

2. True or false, the Bible says: “God helps those who help themselves.”
Answer:   False! But it does say that in Aesop’s fables, sort of. It actually reads, “The gods help those who help themselves.” So if you have said this, congratulations! You might just be a polytheist!

3. True or false, the Bible says: “Hate the sin, love the sinner.”
Answer:   False. But Ghandi said it, so if you guessed true, you might just be a Hindu! To be fair, though, there are roots of this in Jude 1:22-23 “And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.” So a “garment stained by the flesh” is the sin, I suppose. Forget it, you're not getting a point for this one.

4. True or false, the Bible says: “Money is the root of all evil.”
Answer:   False. “The love of money is the root of all evil.” 1 Tim 6:10. Isn't it just like humans to shift the blame from ourselves to a thing? Next best thing to idolatry!

5. True or false, the Bible says: “We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar.”
Answer:   False again. That’s an Epiphany hymn, one you should sing after Christmas. But it does come from a Bible story, and it’s essentially true. I guess I’ll give you the point if you said true.

6. True or false, the Bible says: “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”
Answer:   Of course it’s really in the Bible! We just read it here in Matthew! But can you find it anywhere else?

“Love your neighbor” is all over the place, Old Testament and New. But “hate your enemy” only pops up here in Matthew, where Jesus says we’ve heard it before. I take that to mean that we today still do.

Let's check out the Ten Commandments. Any hate in there? Nope. How about the rest of the commandments given to Israel by God through Moses, all 613. Care to guess how many of them instruct us to hate anyone? If you guessed zero, you are correct.

So “hate your enemy” isn’t in the Torah, or the Prophets, or any of the other Jewish writings of the period. What Jesus and his followers would have called their Bible and study guides. So why does Jesus bring it up in this context?

I am guessing that there are two reasons, one wrong and one right.

First, this “hate your enemies” attitude was, and still is, quite popular in the world.  Just look at all the places where people are shooting at each other. Just look at all the ways we put up walls to separate “us” from “them.” Just look at what American politics has become.

So yes, the world can be a hateful place, and that makes us sad, and we look out from our church here and say, “How pitiful it is to be one of them. They have it pretty bad out there.”

Yeah. I think that's the wrong reason. I think you will agree with me when we look back again at our previous five Sermon on the Mount sermons. Jesus has set a pattern in which the religious traditions of the time are compared to God’s intentions:

The 10 Commandments say, “Do not murder,” but Jesus tells us, “Murder starts with anger in your heart!”

They also say, “Do not commit adultery,” but Jesus tells us, “Adultery starts with lust in your heart!”

Moses says, “If you get divorced, do it right,” but Jesus tells us, “Marriage is sacred to God!”

The Torah says, “Do not swear falsely,” but Jesus tells us, “Let your words carry nothing but truth!”

The sacred law says, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” but Jesus tells us, “Be humble, non-confrontational, and wise!”

Now Jesus tells us, “Love and pray for your enemies,” but where do we find “Hate your enemy,” if it’s not in the Bible?

The right reason Jesus is bringing up “Hate your enemies” is that we find it in the church, now as then. It has worked its way in, the same way the smell from our bathroom here sometimes seeps into our place of worship.

Some of you listening to this message will know exactly what I am talking about. Someone in the church has decided that you were the enemy, and acted accordingly. You got hurt. Maybe you are still hurting. Maybe you are listening to me on YouTube rather than being here because you were hurt so bad that you couldn’t bring yourself to turn the other cheek again.

And maybe you know what I am talking about because you have decided that a brother or sister in the church was your enemy. You let your anger grow. You talked behind their back. You hated them, just like you heard it was said. You secretly believed that the church would be better off without so-and-so.

Brothers and sisters, we were made to be better than that. We were called to be better than that. We are called to love our enemies

so that you may be sons of your father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.      Matthew 5:4-5

Anyone who has prayed with me more than once has heard me refer to God's blessings falling on us like rain. Remember that Jesus and the people he taught lived in a desert. Water was a scarce commodity, usually found in wells and oases. Rain was the gift of life, bringing hope to everyone. Refreshing everyone. Soothing everyone, good and evil. Just and unjust.

People also give life, hope and refreshment to others around them. And not just us Christians, either. Everyone loves someone at some point. Jesus makes that clear when he says,
For if you love those who love you, what reward to you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the gentiles do the same? Matthew 5:46-47

Jesus is saying that everyone loves. Even those nasty, money-grabbing tax collectors. Even the gentiles, who don’t even believe in God. Even the academy owners. Even they love. The ability to love is part of being created in God’s image, and it is part of EVERYONE.

If you love your parents, that’s fine. If you love your friends, that’s natural. But that love is intended to be a starting point, a model for how God loves us so that we can go beyond the easy love.

We are called to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us,

so that you may be sons of your father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:4

Children are such blessings, but ask any parent and they will tell you: children are little mirrors, doing what they see their parents do. If you are consistently polite, they will be consistently polite. If you say nice things about other people, they will too. If you give generously of your time and money, they will also let go of these things easily.

We are children of God. Part of loving God means copying God.

...but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.      Romans 5:8

We were God’s enemies. Loving your enemies means that you can’t keep thinking of them as your enemies. You have to forgive. You have to let go of the the need for revenge, the part of you that demands justice. You have to be like God. Not because God is commanding you, but because when you look at God you think, “That is the best way to be. I want to be like that.”

So I forgave my coworker. I forgave him, and I kept praying for him.

At first my prayers keep shifting, like walking on a sliding dune, and I found myself telling God about all the ways that this guy had offended me. But I got better at it, and my prayers became more true, more loving. Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told us,

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy,     Matthew 5:7

How true it is. That even giving this seemingly minor mercy, which my coworker wasn’t aware of, brought mercy to my soul. Because holding onto that judgment was like carrying around a brick; it didn’t stop me from doing anything, but it slowed down everything, and made my life more difficult. When I forgave him, I dropped the brick. My heart became lighter, and my life became easier.

Now my prayers are solid, because mine is the Kingdom of Heaven, even though I don’t deserve it. God gives me the will and the ability to be a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, even though I can’t do either on my own.

Mine is the Kingdom of Heaven, and as such I am working at loving my enemy. This means that I have to do something different than I was doing before. I can’t just ask God for love then sit back and wait for it to strike me like an arrow from a flying baby.

And let’s be perfectly clear: Loving my enemies does not earn me this citizenship. Loving my enemies is what I do in response to my citizenship.

I still haven’t apologized for my unkind words, but I have prayed for this guy. Daily. Multiple times on some days. I’ve prayed for him to be blessed, to be happy. I’ve prayed for the pain that is in his heart to be lessened. And of course I have still prayed for myself to have patience, but also for me to love him.

Now when we talk it feels different. I compliment his work, and decide to not be offended when his words feel like attacks. It is still difficult, but it stopped feeling like a chore assigned to me by God. The more I pray for him, and practice kindness towards him, the easier both become.

Now when my coworkers talk about him, I defend him. I remind them of his strengths, and suggest that he is misunderstood. And I may be getting some side-eye, and even a little push back. But I don’t mind. It's worth the price.

Jesus is asking us to be seriously counter culture. Not counter-American culture, or counter-Korean culture, or counter-Gabonese, counter-British, counter-Indonesian, counter-Chinese, or counter-South African. Jesus is not just counter to our culture, Jesus is counter to World culture! Jesus is counter to your culture! The Psalmist tells us

The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. Psalm 118:22

If we are building off of Jesus, the world will reject us along with him. The world-culture that Jesus is calling us to rebel against is not just a product of the media, or science, or liberal education. It’s not our politics or history or system of government. Our culture has been set against the culture of the Kingdom of God since The Fall.

And here Jesus is calling us to love our enemies, to pray for the people who persecute us! It goes against our nature! It flies in the face of every culture!

Remember, Jesus also tells us that the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. He isn’t just talking about the line for lunch, or getting the next iPhone, or seeing Jurassic World 2. Jesus is calling us to surrender. Surrender the opportunity to attack first. Surrender the advantage of position. Surrender the need to appear better than someone else. Surrender being right.

But here’s the big secret: forgiving your enemies may be good for them, but it is even better for you. Because what does surrender mean? It means giving up.

Giving up what? Yourself.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”      Matthew 16:24-25

Maybe you’ve heard that a thousand times, or maybe it’s a new one for you, but it is a profound, deep truth that Jesus preaches over and over, until he demonstrates it at the cross.

Every week we come in here and sing and pray and talk about giving ourselves up to God, and we’re happy with that. We are happy because we imagine that denying ourselves means coming to church Sunday mornings. Reading our Bible and praying. Maybe serving in some church ministry.

But this talk of loving enemies is real surrender, even more than loving your neighbor as yourself.

For application this week, I invite you to let God get up in your face. Maybe you think you don’t have any enemies just because you don’t use the word “enemy.” Honestly, i hope you’re right. I hope that you have eliminated the idea of an enemy from your mind. But just in case:

1. Memorize this bit:
“But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you,” Matthew 5:44
2. Consider your enemies. Think about the people who annoy you. Inconvenience you. Look down on you.
3. Pray for them.
4. Lovingly.
5. Let it show in your actions towards them.
6. Lean on God for the strength and will to do so.

Friday, February 09, 2018

Eric Bulmer

A message pops up from an old friend from my Peace Corps days:

"Rob, Say a prayer for Eric today. He passed last night. All are in shock. Unexpected. Think it was the heart."

Eric and I spent almost no time together in Nepal. I think I can count the conversations we had on both hands, likely leaving enough fingers for a double Bronx salute. We were in the same Peace Corps cohort in Nepal, which lasted for just over two years. Eric stayed on for a third, married a Nepali woman, and later moved back to Rhode Island.

One of my last conversations with him in Nepal involved me implying that he was signing on for another year of hell while the rest of us were escaping. Which is pretty much how I felt at the time.

This is the point in the story where I am supposed to tell you that I never apologized, and now it's too late, and I regret leaving things the way they were. I am then supposed to go on to tell you to reach out to someone before it's too late, apologize, and make the best of the time you have left.

That's not my story. Not this time, anyway.

In 2008, almost 10 years after leaving Nepal, we got sort of bumped back together on Facebook. When I look back on our official Facebook history, there are seven posts. That's it. Less than one per year, and all him posting on my timeline, because I kind of suck at Facebook. What it doesn't show is the numerous times he and I hijacked someone else's post with the kind of conversations that are usually reserved for the wee hours of the morning when both parties are short on sleep but long on words.

But the real evidence of how our relationship changed is in Messenger. There are conversations about movies based on comic books, of course. But there are a couple of very serious conversations as well, including one in which we both apologize for how we treated each other back in the day. It's not a lengthy apology on either end, but it is warm, and real, and proof that sometimes the internet improves relationships rather than merely attaching bells and whistles and a light coating of fecal matter. I'm grateful for the record, and sad that we had not added more to it.

He died from a heart attack. Went home feeling sick on Friday, Saturday night his heart gave up. He was so full of energy and life. The kind of energy that says, "One more year of mountain hiking to get anywhere, occasional parasites and food poisoning, and dirt-road slalom busses? Count me in!"

All of my photos from Nepal are boxed up in my parents' basement, but I'm pretty sure there are none of just Eric and me. We didn't do much together outside of larger groups. In the past ten years I figured that on one of our trips to the States we would get to Rhode Island and get that picture. Our wives could compare notes, our daughters could hang out, and I would get to see his "Pow Science!" store.

I got the message at about one a.m.  Horyon was working and the kids were in bed. Horyon heard my sobs of grief and was sure that a relative had died. She was relieved to find it was someone she had never met.

And never will.

So mend relationships when you are able. Get together while you still can.

Love before it's too late.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Sermon: Glorify God in Your Body

Here's a link to the sermon itself on YouTube. The full text is below.

This was a tough one, as the video title suggests. The preaching team at our church is four men. Joe suggested a series on purity: the definition of purity, purity of speech, sexual purity, and purity of heart. The scheduling of vacations and such dealt me the fun one.

I had almost a month to prepare for this, but it was a month busy with other things. I taught a three week class for my university in the middle of it, starting the day after Christmas, and my kids were on vacation. Those two things alone make for a busy month. For two days of my class, I brought Quinten to campus with me and had a former student take care of him for the two hours I was in class.

(Side note: I offered to pay her $15 per day, so about $7 per hour. She said it was more than enough. When I told me wife, she said I should have made it $30 for one day. I compromised with $20, and told her if she wanted to buy some snack or drink for him it was fine. I think that to my wife, the amount I'm willing to pay for a babysitter reflects how much I value my children. So she values them twice as much as I do, I guess.)

Aside from my schedule, I think that I also put off starting on this one because it's such a sensitive topic. I didn't want to just put out a list of rules, positive or negative, and I definitely wanted to emphasize the power and grace of God that can, and has, worked through so many problems for so many people.

My favorite compliment afterwards was along the lines of, "There was a lot of grace in that message." I can't think of any compliment I'd rather hear. I hope that these words are a blessing to you, and that God's grace is somewhat revealed to you through them.


Glorify God In Your Body    January 21st, 2018

Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. 1 Corinthians 6:18-20

Lord God, I thank you that your Word and your Spirit are all I need to bring to your people. I thank you that the Power of your Word and your Spirit do not come from me, but from you. I thank you that I do not need to craft my words to change your people, because your Word and your Spirit alone can break their hearts of stone and give them hearts of flesh. Amen.
True or False: The Bible talks about sex a lot.
Granted, “a lot” is a very subjective term, but I think it does. Probably more than you think, even if you agree with me that it is a lot. Sex in the Bible can be tricky to find, but that is a sermon for another day. For now, I will just say that when you look at the origin stories of the patriarchs, you find some very interesting situations.
Now, True or False: Christians talk about sex a lot.
I think the answer is False. Christians in general don’t talk about sex, Redeemer International Community Church doesn’t talk about sex much, and right now many of you are probably wishing that I would stop saying the word “sex” so much. It just doesn’t feel like it belongs in church!
I think this is a big mistake. When we limit ourselves to saying “Wait until you get married, and don’t commit adultery,” we are essentially handing the idea of sex over to pop culture.
Shortly before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus prays with these words:

I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. John 17:14-16

Many Christians take this to mean that we should back away from the world: We are not of the world, so we don’t mess with this stuff. But they are ignoring the words in verse 15 “I do not ask that you take them out of the world…”
I refuse to give up this ground. The intersection of faith and sex has been on my heart and in my prayers for a few weeks now. It is becoming increasingly uncomfortable to talk about faith at work, and we can’t seem to talk about sex at church. So where can we talk about faith and sex at the same time? As usual, my Life Group has been an invaluable resource. It was a little uncomfortable to start the conversation, but once we got going, I was glad we did.
My other source of counsel and inspiration is my children: one of my jobs as a father is to prepare them to go out into the world, where they are bombarded by messages that are contrary to God’s will for our lives. These are a few that I am most worried about:
  1. Your body only has value if it looks a certain way.
  2. Your body is a commodity that you can trade for things, such as love, gifts, career opportunities.
  3. Having sex with other people is natural, and fun, and it can be risk free.
  4. But not too much, or you are a slut.
  5. And not too little, or you are a prude.
  6. Unless you’re a man. Then you are pressured to be the stud.
  7. Or ashamed to admit to being a virgin. Though maybe that one pressures women as well.
Society is a heartless judgment machine, that quickly incorporates people to both judge and be judged. It is insidious, and it produces shame. It tells us that sex is not only natural, but an imperative. It says we won't be happy without it. It says, “Boys will be boys, and if they don’t have sex they might just go crazy!” It tells us that a woman who gets raped by her boyfriend was asking for it. It shows us pornography, and tells us that this is what sex is: often violent and degrading to women. People with unrealistic bodies doing unrealistic things in unrealistic places. And what’s worse, pornography is often the first way kids learn about sex. At least, when we don’t step in first.
In my home, we don’t watch much t.v., and my kids have basically zero internet access. But they have friends who are happy to share their lessons in judgment. Just this week, before she knew what I was preaching about, my 12-year-old daughter asked me, “Daddy, am I pretty?”
She showed me an older picture of her with her friends from church. I saw five elementary school kids with their teacher, smiling and happy together. But my girl saw herself sticking out, not looking like a Korean, not looking like an American. (I couldn’t convince her that Americans look like a lot of different things. Maybe on our next trip.)
Fortunately, I have a pretty decent poker face in surprising situations. It’s a good skill for teachers to have. It was fortunate because I felt my heart breaking for my little girl who is growing up immersed in this judgmental culture. The worst part is that she’s not even upset about something that someone else has said. She just doesn’t want to be different. She’s ashamed of her body. And that is a powerful force in all of us: the need to blend in.
That need to blend in is one of the Enemy’s favorite weapons.

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Ephesians 6:12

We are not just up against social forces, or random chance. The Enemy wants to tear us down, make us feel that we are so unworthy that God can’t love us. Deception is another of his tools.
We read in today’s scripture:

Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. 1 Corinthians 6:18.

I am sure that you know what Satan wants you to hear from this scripture, because you probably already hear it inside your head: Run Away! Flee! Escape while you can before you ruin yourself! Sex is scary, so don’t even think about it! Shame!
I will confess that fear was part of what kept me in what I thought of as a “pure” state through high school and past university. Fear of sexually transmitted diseases. Fear of pregnancy. Fear of disapproval. Fear that one mistake could bring my entire future crashing down around me. And it probably helped that I was overweight, nerdy, self-conscious, and not as God-centered as I could have been. I was ashamed.
But that’s not the message that God was sending to me! And it’s not the message God is sending to you now!
Do you know what “gospel” means? It means good news! Good news does not mean fear! We should rejoice!

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20

Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit! That is so amazing! When you read the Old Testament closely, the importance of the Temple cannot be overstated! Entire chapters are devoted to listing the measurements of the temple, the materials used to make the temple and where the materials came from, the furniture in the temple, the utensils, the curtains, the robes the priests wore to serve in the temple, the preparations the priests had to go through before they could enter the temple, the labor used to build the temple. The temple was the center of life for ancient Israel, for God’s people. They made regular trips to the temple to offer sacrifices so that they could be right with God. To ancient Israel, the temple wasn’t God, but the temple was where God could reliably be found.
And do not forget the Holy of Holies, the innermost room of the temple. A place so holy that only one priest was to enter once a year. The other priests tied a rope to his ankle in case something went wrong and God were to strike him dead. The pure presence of God.
That seat of God’s presence, the best Solomon had to offer as the ruler of a powerful nation. Jesus tore it down and rebuilt it in three days, just like he said he would. And he didn’t just rebuild it, he relocated it right here, in my heart. And in your heart. Jesus is ready to relocate to any heart that invites him in, and establish his temple there.
But Jesus isn’t bringing utensils and basins and all that clutter. Jesus is bringing Power and Grace. Grace and Power.
Grace sufficient to overcome your shame. Because Grace that could overcome torture, humiliation, and death on the cross is more than enough to overcome your shame. Paul doesn’t define sexual immorality in this passage because it doesn’t matter what your version of immorality was, the Grace of Jesus has overcome it. It doesn’t matter how many beds you have sought comfort in, the Grace of Jesus has overcome it. It doesn’t matter how many times you have quit giving yourself over to pornography, only to return to it like a drug, the Grace of Jesus has overcome it. It doesn’t matter that you see yourself as ugly, unloveable, and used, the Grace of Jesus has overcome it. It doesn’t matter if you are divorced, the Grace of Jesus has overcome it. It doesn’t matter that you committed adultery, or that your spouse did, the Grace of Jesus has overcome it. It doesn’t even matter that you feel destined to be alone forever, never to meet your “one true love” that the world has promised. Say it with me, the Grace of Jesus has overcome it.
The Grace of Jesus has overcome the worst you have to offer, but maybe you are worried about moving forward. Maybe you are worried that you will fall back into the same filth from which God has pulled you.
That’s where the Power of Jesus comes into play. Remember:

You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20

You. Are. Not. Your. Own. Who owns you? Let me hear you, who owns you?
What do you do with things you own? That’s right, you use them. If you give yourself to the world, the world will use you, and tell you that you are doing exactly what you want to do.
But when you have given yourself to God, the same voice that said, “Let there be light!” is using you. When you go to a sports museum, and see the baseball bat that was used to break a world record, nobody says, “Wow, that is a powerful bat!” They talk about the batter. If someone tells you that the ability to play basketball is in the shoes, they are probably trying to sell you those shoes.
Your body is the temple! The power of the temple doesn’t come from the temple. The power of the temple comes from the God who dwells in the temple!
So what exactly does the power of God look like?

It is dawn in the temple. She stands before the powerful men, downcast, defeated; one foot already in the grave. She knew the rules. She grew up surrounded by the rules, immersed in them.
It didn’t matter whether she felt alone in her home.
It didn’t matter whether the hands of another man gently caressed bruises that no one else ever saw.
It didn’t even matter that the man with whom she had been caught in the act was nowhere to be seen. Apparently adultery in this culture is the fault of one person.
The powerful men discuss her fate as though she were not there, because to them, she wasn’t. They decide to bring her to this new rabbi, to try to trap him.
There was shouting before, and mocking. Now there is silence. The powerful men are on their home turf in the temple, as they tell her story to the new rabbi. But under the silence there is still contempt for her.
teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” John 8:4b-5
The rabbi says nothing. He bends down and writes in the dirt with his finger. When the powerful men demand an answer, the rabbi stands. His voice is calm as he talks to them, but his eyes are anything but calm.
If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” John 8:7b
She braces herself. She knows that a stoning can take up to an hour, but she tells herself that she will not cry out. When she hears a stirring in the crowd she is sure that someone is reaching for a stone, but there is no impact. Then she hears footsteps, walking away. Others joining them. When she dares to look up, only the rabbi is left, writing with his finger in the dirt.
He stands.
Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” John 8:10b
She looks around, the tension draining out of her.
No one, sir,” she said.
Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus answered. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” John 8:11

That is what God is like. Life. Forgiveness. Change. Power and Grace. Grace and Power.
You do not have to be pure to come to God. Jesus does not condemn you. Grace.
You do not have to glorify God with your body on your own. God is in the temple of your body, and God will be glorified by God’s Power!
Grace and Power. Which brings me back to my daughter. Her first name means power, and her middle name means grace. Her family name means a thing to hold other things, so… take what you want from that.
I told her that of course I think she is beautiful: she is kind and caring (though her brother might disagree). She is artistic and funny. We make each other laugh, and I make her roll her eyes and say, “Daddy!” I told her that those are the important things, and that she couldn’t trust what I say about her being pretty, because she’s my daughter.
I told her a toned down and much shorter version of the sermon I just shared with you.
She told me that a porcupine is beautiful in its father’s eyes. I told her she had a good point. Lots of good points. Like, “Ouch.” Cue eye roll and “Daddy!”
God is your perfect father, your perfect mother, the only one who loves you perfectly. You will always be beautiful to God.

Let us pray:
Dear Lord Jesus, you alone are pure, you alone can make us pure. Sin leaves a crimson stain but you wash it white as snow. Lord God, we cannot continue on our own. We can’t ignore the message of the enemy. Give us the faith to draw on your strength to glorify you in our bodies. Amen.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

A Good Presentation, I Think

That was a long week.

On Monday I biked to work as usual, with a change of clothes in my backpack so that I look somewhat more professional than I look while riding a bike. I got to the coffee shop near my university, and found I didn't have my wallet. So no coffee. Lousy way to start a week, but doable. Then I did the self-pat-down and found that I had also neglected to bring my office key. 

Now I had to contemplate a long day wearing my bicycle shoes, and not having my roll book, as well as changing clothes in a bathroom somewhere, rather than in my office. 


I rode home and back again in record time: 15 minutes. I bought the coffee I was thinking of fifteen minutes earlier, because at this point there was no way in hell I was going to start my day without m coffee. I then rode up the hill to the building with my office, and carried my bike up to the fifth floor to my office.

Tuesday was okay, I guess. I don't actually remember it. I spent whatever free time I had finishing preparations for the seminar that I gave to my coworkers on Thursday, which was Thanksgiving. I also gave the same presentation, only better, on Friday. 

It's not an official event without a banner.
It went well, but the leadup was nerve wracking: I was asked to teach my fellow teachers how to be better teachers. I had a powerpoint and a banner and everything. I talked a bit about my teaching philosophy (we are all shadows on a cave wall, so it's essentially meaningless) and demonstrated a technique or two on them (the Drunken Master technique and a random barrage of dad jokes). Kyungsung University was kind enough to provide lunch from Burger King for us. 

I basically tried to construct a training that I would not have minded attending. It only lasted 50 minutes, minus some settle-in and burger-munching time at the top. I had the professors talking to one another for 15 minutes of that time, which I think they really enjoyed. Most professionals enjoy shop talk, and teachers are no exception. Directed Shop Talk is even better, because I pushed them to talk about difficulties they have in the classroom.

On Thursday I had six participants. I was surprised to find that two were from my department, two from the business school, and two from engineering, so I had to rewrite my discussion questions on the fly. That session worked out very well, mostly because professors from different departments are sort of hidden away from each other. I split them up into two groups, so they could talk with each other about their jobs here, and hopefully get some synergistic ideas. It ended up being sort of a mix of idea sharing and commiserating.

Friday I had fifteen participants, and it was a lot more lively.  But that seminar fit nicely into my one hour lunch break, so that I was teaching from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. that day. My last class really got the worn down, empty husk of a man version of class. Not that 3 to 5 p.m. is usually a sparkling fountain of energy, but last week it was more of a puddle, trending towards mudhole.

I finished my presentation with a few thanks, appropriate for a Thanksgiving Day event. I thanked Kyungsung for doing this, Burger King for fixing the food, and sidewalks. Of course they asked me why, and I replied:
I'll bet they're regretting it now.
Because when I was growing up, sidewalks kept me off the streets.

I hope you got the same pleasure from that that I did. And I hope you all had a happy Thanksgiving.

There was more to the week, of course: Apple Tree's Bazaar, which kept me up until 2 a.m. cooking, and a church dinner the next day, which also kept me up until 2 a.m. cooking. Today I was up until 2 a.m. cleaning dishes, plus another hour writing this Roblog post. And now I have class in seven hours, so I will leave it at that.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Sermon "The LORD Shut Him In"

Welcome! If you are looking for the sermon itself, without the story surrounding it, it starts four paragraphs after the video below.

I am back into the occasionally writing and delivering sermons. I have given three sermons in the past five months, roughly one every two months. I would actually prefer to be giving a sermon every four to six weeks, to keep me in more of a rhythm, but I will take what I can get.

This time I was assigned Genesis chapter seven. Yes, the entire chapter. For those of you not inclined to look it up in your own Bible, or on your Bible app, or to even click the above link, there is no need to panic. I read it at the beginning of my sermon video, cutting out some of the more redundant parts on the fly.

In short, Genesis chapter seven covers the animals coming in two-by-two, as you may have learned in a song. They do this over the course of a week, which is not in any song I remember. It covers the rain starting to fall, and God closing the door of the Ark, shutting Noah in. And it ends with the world destroyed by the waters, everything and everyone not inside the Ark dead.

If you watch closely, you will notice that I start crying midway through this reading. (Actually you don't have to be super sleuth to pick up on this. I pull out my hanky and wipe my eyes, and even apologize at one point.)  I had only been planning to read the text itself since just before the service started, and planning to weep in a sermon sets off the "icky" alarm in my head.

But I was having a rough morning. As usual, I was up fairly late putting "finishing touches" on the sermon. I went to bed that night with a headache, and woke up to find that it had invited friends. I also felt nauseous, right up until I told Horyon that I felt like throwing up. She told me to go do so, and it was like my stomach had been given permission to start the evictions. I felt much better after that, but not better enough to eat breakfast. We were fortunate enough to get a taxi driver who was not practicing for the Indy 500 (which is not a given in these parts), so I didn't feel worse on the way to church.

But then from the moment I walked in the door, I was in the care of my church family. I was encouraged, and prayed for, and greeted enthusiastically. I have a couple of friends who only come when I am preaching, which is both flattering and a bit scary. The Wednesday morning group I lead had listened to my ramblings and given me a clue as to which bits were fascinating and which were just not quite there yet, and it was good to see them. There are some friends who I have known for years, some for months, and some for just a few weeks. When I stood in front of them all, I didn't feel nervous at all. My head was light, but clear, as was my stomach. And that's where the video starts.

I do not go into the historical accuracy of the account of Noah in the sermon, and I will not go into it here. Whether you accept it as being factual or not, it was clearly central to the belief system of the early Jews and Christians. And I argue that it is a helpful story for modern Christians to better understand God. Even if you don't buy into the basic truth of the Bible, it can still help you understand how Christians think about God. Or at least how this particular Christian does.

Below you will find the manuscript of the sermon. I had a print-out of this with me, and stuck fairly close to it. This is a new habit for me at Redeemer, and I am finding it surprisingly helpful: when I commit to words, I am more likely to put more thought into them, making them more likely to more precisely represent my thoughts.

I am also leaving in my organizational headings. I acquired these from the book The Four Pages of the Sermon by Paul Scott Wilson. I bought this book in 2004, and highly recommend it to anyone who preaches regularly. I feel that I have only a rudimentary grasp of the process involved, but the organization behind it seems quite sound. I believe these headings speak for themselves, starting with the first one, "Introduction."

The LORD Shut Him In October 22nd, 2017

1. Introduction: 

I’m going to start this sermon with two spoilers: first, even though chapter 7 ends on a low note, the story of Noah has a happy ending, with a rainbow and everything. The second spoiler is that I will actually say the word “poop” two more times before the sermon ends.

There is nothing like the smell of freshly cut wood. I worked with my father building decks for many summers growing up, and quickly came to love the smells, especially redwood and cedar. Noah’s ark was made of gopher wood, and today no one is sure what kind of tree that was, but I’ve never smelled a fresh cut wood that I didn’t like.  I imagine the ark smelled of sawdust, sunshine and sweat for the first few weeks of construction. Accompanied by the sounds of sawing and hammering, it must have been almost festive. And there’s nothing like watching something come together as you make it with your own hands. The ark would have felt fresh, clean and new.

2. Trouble in the Bible: 

But the world around Noah and his sons was not so clean, not so fresh, no longer new. As Matthew reminded us last week,

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. (Gen 6:11)

Noah walked with God, and sometimes when you walk with God everything seems fresh and new. Especially in the beginning. But it isn’t always roses and sunshine. For Noah that fresh sawdust smell faded quickly when the pitch was applied. The black, tar-like liquid smelled like a new road on a hot day, and it was applied to the inside and outside of the ark.

Then add the smells of animals. Lots of animals. In fact, what will be all the animals in the world by the end of the chapter. And let’s be clear, this is not a ferry or cruise ship, with open decks and windows. Or toilets. The Ark was a box with a door in the side. There was a half meter gap between the sides and the roof, and that was all the ventilation for the three-story structure. That was also how waste went out, over the top of the walls. You may think of Noah as a master builder, or a captain but for the five months that they were in the ark, Noah and his family spent most of their time feeding animals or getting rid of their poop. (That was the first one.) The bottom floor must have felt like living in a sewer, with no natural light, no ventilation, and the wastes of the top two floors dripping down.

I imagine Noah standing at the door to the ark in the days right before the flood. The animals have been arriving for almost a week now, boarding the ark on their own, not fighting with each other, and taking their places inside the ark as though they had spent their whole lives there.

Noah’s neighbors are enjoying this. Over the months they have at times watched intensely, mocked Noah, or completely ignored him. The days when pitch is applied are real crowd pleasers: the unpleasant smells, the cries of pain as bare skin is burned by drops of the hot, black liquid, then again cries of pain as the congealed pitch is pulled off, taking hairs and skin with it. The neighbors really enjoyed those days, but the animal parade took it to a whole new level.

Then the rain starts falling. Small drops at first, then getting bigger. The kind you feel splatting on the top of your head. Coming faster and faster. Noah’s family remembers the message from God that Noah has been sharing with them, and suddenly the noises and smells of the animals don’t seem so bad. The pitch covered walls are comforting. They come in through the enormous doors, which are still hanging open. Doors big enough for sheep, horses, elephants. Doors with no ropes or pulleys to close them.

Then The LORD shut him in. Soon the people outside realized that Noah had been right all along in listening to God. But it was too late.

The LORD shut Noah in, and there was no escaping the sounds, smells, complaints, and sticky black walls. But there was escape from death.

And then the floods came.

… all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened (Gen 7:11b).

In other words, the rains came crashing down. The streams, rivers, ponds, lakes and seas all swelled up. All life was washed away, along with any doubts that Noah or his family had.

3. Trouble in the World: 

When I found out that I would be preaching from Genesis 7, there were people in America going through floods that were devastating: people had to evacuate with very short notice, so much property was destroyed, and many people died. 77 from Hurricane Harvey, 132 from Hurricane Irma. Which is horrible. But in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, during this same past summer, more than 1,200 people died from flooding. Yet which one did you hear about the most? If you are like most Americans, or Koreans, or pretty much any other nationality, you have shut out that sort of news.

Why so many more deaths? The weather itself was not so much worse. You see, the most likely predictor of whether or not a storm will leave you dead is how much money you have. And we humans have decided that some people will keep most of the resources, and leave many others to live on little or nothing.

Does that sound like God’s plan for the world in action to you? Jesus himself said in Luke 17

“Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.” Luke 17:28-29

When Jesus says, “The days of the Son of Man,” it is commonly thought of as the second coming we read of in Revelation, the End Times. But I have also heard it said that the days of the Son of Man began at Pentecost, fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead. Pentecost, when the Spirit of God came to us, the Church. Pentecost, when we became a nation of priests. And so now the days of the Son of Man continue. We are living in days like the days of Noah. People do what is right in their own eyes. They take what they want: Things that belong to others. They casually use the bodies of others. They carelessly take the lives of others. And we see them not facing justice, but being rewarded: eating, drinking, becoming men of renown. When I look at our world today, these words of Jesus sound an ominous warning, as though we should prepare for the next great cataclysm.

4. Grace in the Bible: 

If you recall my spoiler alert from the beginning, at the end of Noah’s story, God promises that there will not be another flood to wipe all life from the earth. This is amazing when we consider how God felt as he sent the flood. Look back in Genesis 6:

And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” Gen 6:6-7

Non-believers, and even Christians, so often talk about a vengeful, destructive Old Testament God, but this is a God who is feeling the pain of rejection, and is ready to give up in despair! First Adam and Eve turn away from God, shutting themselves out of Eden. Then Cain destroys God’s image in his brother, Abel, shutting himself out of society. As people spread across the world, it gets so bad that:

Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” (Gen 6:3)

Humans have become so sinful that God can not bear to be in our bodies. We have shut God out.

Finally the pain of this rejection is so overwhelming that God is ready to walk away from it all, and indeed in the flood,

Everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died.  (Gen 7:22)

Those same nostrils into which God breathed his own life during the Creation.

He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. (Gen 7:23a)

The breath again, not just the Spirit of God, but the very spirit of of life. To the ancient Hebrews, water was dangerous. They had boats for fishing, but did not lose sight of shore. The seas and the flood, represent chaos, and disorder. The nothingness that existed before creation, when God hovered over the face of the waters.

This flood in Genesis is God starting all over from the beginning. Reformatting the drive. Except that:

Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark. (Gen 7:23b)

When God shut Noah into the ark, it was because God could not bear to destroy the whole of creation. In spite of the pain God feels at our rejection, God could not destroy us completely. Because that’s what love is:  not giving up, not letting go, no matter how hurt you are. God is constantly, throughout history, pursuing us!

When Adam and Eve turn from God, God calls out to them!

When Cain murders his brother, God calls to him!

When the whole world is corrupt, God calls to Noah, and finally there is a positive response! Noah walks with God! Noah Obeys! God gives Noah the faith to hear and obey, and Noah is shut in the ark and saved, and through him every living thing that breathes!

One thing I love about the Bible is that while it seems like a collection of many stories, it is in fact one story told in many ways: the story of God’s glory, and how it can be reflected in the lives of people who follow God. So in the story of Noah we have a man who walks with God. He and his family alone are shut into a safe place, while the rest of the world perishes, because Noah has faith.

Floating on the sea of death, there is life.

Many years later the story of Noah is turned on its head when Jesus comes to the world. A man with perfect faith. The only man with perfect faith, because he is also God. But in this new story it is only the man of perfect faith who dies, so that all who believe in him can live. When Jesus’ body hangs dead on the cross, a soldier pierces his side, water and blood pour out! The world is not flooded, because the God-man contains God's flood of despair! Instead of life being shut inside of a wooden box covered with pitch, all of our sins are shut into this man, where they die on the cross. The blood of Jesus ends the corruption of the days of Noah! And from this perfect death, comes life!

5. Grace in the World: 

The Bible clearly shows that our God is constantly bringing life from death, and if you belong to God you know that! The day that you were baptized, you left your old, sinful life in the waters to die, to disappear into the chaos. God reached out to you, you stepped inside, and God shut you into the ark!
God’s ark today is God’s Church. Not just Redeemer ICC, but the Universal Church. God is building it out of us rather than gopher wood. It is held together by God’s love expressed in the relationships we build. When someone chooses to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior because of your witness, God is building the ark through you. When you stop just coming to church and start doing church, you are helping God to build the ark!

I know it’s not always easy. Sometimes when you look into the ark you see black walls, and not enough windows. You hear the animals crying out, and wonder how long you will be shut in this zoo. You smell the pitch and think about how much poop you will have to shovel. (I told you it would come up twice.) You are sure that the world can offer you a better room. A room with gold plated fixtures and marble floors. A home theater system, and a sofa that hugs you and keeps you warm, holds your drink and charges your phone. But ask anyone who lives in Houston what a fancy home is worth after being submerged in a flood. Sometimes the entire house is gone. And what good is a fine home if it becomes your coffin?

Let God shut you in the ark!

And there is more good news! God is calling all of humanity to come aboard! The price is paid! There is room for all who believe and call on the name of the LORD! Amen!

6. Application: 

There are three things I want you to focus on in the coming week: God, the Church, and those outside the church.

1. God: without faith in God, the ark would not have been built, and all would have been lost. Call on God for the faith to act, and for clarity. God gave Noah exact measurements, and God can give you more details than you expect. Make time to listen!

2. The Church: to not just get into the ark, but to help build it by strengthening your relationships and working in the church. This ark is not a dead, wooden box. It is a living ark, the body of Christ!

3. Those Outside the Church: Pray for them. Not as a group, though. I want you to choose one person to pray for. Don’t ask God for a yes or no whether this person belongs on the ark, just pray for their faith and yours to increase, and listen for the answer.

If you are not already on board, please talk to somebody today. Talk to me, talk to one of our elders, or better yet, talk to one of the friendly people who made you feel welcome today.

Let us pray: Lord, you alone can save us from the flood, from our own sinful nature. Give us the faith to come on board your ark, the Church. Give us the will to work and witness, and give the compassion to reach out to others. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sermon, Ephesians 4:6-10

This is not my usual kind of post. It is a reworking of a sermon I prepared for services at Redeemer ICC, Busan, on June 25th, 2017. I had six weeks to prepare, and I used them well. I consulted a lot with my friend Rick VanManen, prayed lots, studied lots, and thought lots. It was the most thoroughly prepared sermon I have ever delivered. In an attempt to make up for the nuances and gestures that come with a sermon delivered to a congregation. I am using one trick that I would not normally use in writing: during the sermon I used three different accents to portray different roles. I have represented those accents here by using different fonts. In addition, I have used bold-faced type whenever I am quoting scripture, and italics when I am using words in Hebrew.

I feel the need to emphasize that this is not my usual writing style, because it was not written to be read, but heard. I have tried to figure out how to make it work on the page/screen, but I'm still not really satisfied with it.  So here is a link to the video of me giving the sermon. It opens in a separate window, in case you want to listen as you read. The sound quality is good, and I managed to stay within the visual field the whole time, for your viewing pleasure.

Gifts Throughout All Generations
June 25th, 2017

Hi! My name is Rob Sack. I come from Kansas, in the United States. as in "Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more." I've lived in Busan for about 15 of the last 20 years. Whoever is reading this, I pray that God's Word would shine out through this message as you read, and that the Word would move with power, changing changing you, drawing you closer to Jesus. Even my atheist friends out there. I know you all don't mind.

7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” 9 (in saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) Ephesians 4:7-10

A few weeks ago I had a bicycle accident. It was not very serious, a few scrapes that have for the most part healed. Then just over a week ago, Maxine fell down while running around outside at school. Twice, I believe. She got a little scraping of her own, and I had the opportunity to return the favor of applying iodine to her injury. If you have not had iodine solution applied to a scrape, you are missing out on a uniquely painful experience. I suggest that you try to avoid it. At bedtime that night, Maxine asked me if I had cried after my accident. I replied honestly that I had not, as the pain was not very intense, but that I had indeed cried four or five times during the past month. She asked me when, and I told her that one was after I said goodbye to my friend Rick. One time was while we were singing "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" at church. And one time that I cried might have been watching Wonder Woman. I mean, finally DC manages to produce a good superhero movie! With a female lead! Who wouldn’t be moved to tears? 

Two times were with two different friends. They were in very different situations, but both had felt a combination of betrayal, loss, and being let down by people they had trusted. I felt their pain, and wept with them. Since my conversation with Maxine, we have had American Father’s Day. There were many joyful posts on Facebook, but also many friends who mourn a father-shaped hole in their hearts on this day.

Sometimes life just seems to pile on us, burying us so that we can’t breathe or see the light. All we can smell is the smoke of a fire that has destroyed the homes of friends and family. All we can see are chalk outlines on the ground. All we can feel is the emptiness left when a loved one has died. We can so easily think that everything is being taken away. When we are suffering it can be hard to even look at scripture like the one in front of us today. So we come together, and together we call on God, and together we read God’s Word. And together we try to understand.

The first thing I noticed was that verse seven starts with the word “but.” Why the “but?” What’s so different between the previous verses and this one? Let’s take a look at verses 4 through 6:

There is one body and one Spirit-just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call-one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)

These verses focus on grace given to the one body, the Church. The collective us. The next set of verses get into the nature of those individual gifts, with the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers. Now we are making a minor transition back to us as individuals, as in the first three verses of Ephesians 4. Now verse 7 tells us this:

But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. (v7)

In other words, we each, as individuals, receive the full measure of God’s grace. Not just as a group. Christ’s gift in verse 7 is the gift of His own life to save us. Grace comes to us because of that gift, and to each of us, regardless of how low we have been, the grace we receive is measured by that sacrifice. And that is amazing. That God’s full measure of forgiveness is given to me! That’s God’s full measure of grace is given to you! 

A couple of weeks ago Matthew told us that physics doesn’t work so well on faith and God, and this is an example of how math doesn’t work: the grace that I have received from God is not the answer to “God’s total grace divided by the number of people to whom it has been given.” It’s not a division problem. The answer is, God gives me all of it! And God gives YOU all of it! And God gives the full measure of peace to YOU! And God gives the full measure of Joy in all things to YOU! All of God’s love is poured into EACH. ONE. OF. YOU.

Of course, this also means that you have no excuses. If you think that you can just BE in church, as a spectator, watching from the sidelines, Paul is delivering you a kick in the pants. You have received an amazing gift. Use it. Moving on to verse 8:

Verse 8: Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.”

What does “he ascended” mean? It is pretty clearly The Ascension. After the resurrection, Jesus spent 40 days on Earth before being “taken up into heaven.” (Luke 24:51) We’ll talk more about this in relation to verse 10. Let’s move on to “A host of captives?” Who are these captives? The bad guys? Herod? Pilate? No, of course not. This is no superhero movie. The captives are sin and death. The gifts that God gave to men will be covered in next week’s sermon, but if you don’t mind spoilers, you can just read on through verse 16. I am sure that if you do so, you will still be able to enjoy next week’s sermon.

But the key word in verse 8 is “it”, as in “Therefore it says.” Paul is clearly quoting something. He’s stepping outside of himself, calling on a higher authority. He’s doing something he hasn’t done yet in Ephesians, though he will do it again one more time. 

Once again let me say, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore. Of course, this is a quote from a movie called “The Wizard of Oz.” Dorothy has just arrived in a magical land. She walks out of her home, which is in black and white, and into a world of color. You should keep in mind that many people watching this in movie theaters back in 1939 were seeing color on the screen for the very first time! Before this, movies were all in black and white!

Why am I bringing this up? Because I am doing something similar to what Paul did in verse 8. It is similar in four ways I can see:
  1. Paul I are quoting something familiar to some, if not most of our audience.
  2. You can look it up easily, and become more familiar with if you wish to.
  3. The quote we are using is not exactly right.
  4. We are both doing it to help you understand a deeper point, as well as to shake you up a bit.
We will discover Paul’s deeper point as we work through the passage. But my deeper point is one which I often refer to in my preaching: casting ourselves into the Bible, not just looking into the Bible, but looking out at the world through the Bible. And so today I intend to help you hear these words as Paul’s original congregation at Ephesus may have heard them. In other words, we’re not in Kansas anymore. Or even Korea. We’re in Ephesus.

It has been a generation since Jesus rose from the dead and went to Heaven. There are still people alive who met him, but none in this congregation. Paul came and started this church not too many years ago. Now we continue to meet. We pray. We read the scriptures aloud and discuss them. We break bread together in remembrance of Jesus’ last night with His disciples.

And when we receive a letter from Paul, one of us reads it out loud to the whole group. Maybe straight through without stopping the first time, because it’s so exciting to hear from him. And those of you who met him can testify, reading his words is like hearing his voice, am I right? But later, we stop and talk as we read, maybe taking a few meetings to get all the way through it. This time we stop when the reader says: Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (Ephesians 4:8) And someone asks, “Where do I know that from? Paul is definitely quoting something. It’s so familiar!”

Now I need to drag you back to the real world, here in Busan. In 2017. What is the “it” that Paul is quoting here? It is, in fact, Psalm 68. Before we go on, this could get very confusing as we jump back and forth between now and back then, so I am going to refer to the separate times as "layers." Here and now is Layer 1, reality. The church in Ephesus, around A.D. 62, is Layer 2. So now back into Layer 2:

Someone says, “It’s from the Jewish Bible, right?” And someone else chimes in “You know, I think it’s a verse from Psalm 68.” Right! Psalm 68 is song called “God Shall Scatter His Enemies,” one of David’s rousing, foot pounding numbers. Like a first century version of “Onward Christian Soldiers”. Here’s a sampling:

God shall arise, his enemies be scattered;
Those who hate him shall flee!
But the righteous shall be glad;
And jubilant before God!
(Psalm 68:1,3 modified)
God shall arise, his enemies shall be scattered;
And those who hate him shall flee before him
But the righteous shall be glad;
They shall exult before God;
They shall be jubilant with joy!
(original Psalm 68:1,3)

The entire song is about God’s power, and how the enemies of God will submit or meet a gruesome end. It’s a lot more intense than the kind of praise song you hear back in Layer 1. Take time to read it this week, let me know what you think on the Face-to-Face-Conversation (because here in Layer 2 the Internet hasn’t been invented yet, much less Facebook).

You’ve been studying us Ephesians for a while now. What do you know about us, based on Paul’s letter so far? Of course! Most of us are Gentiles! So how would a bunch of first century Gentiles be familiar with the Jewish Bible? We learned it from the earliest Christians, who were all originally Jewish of course! Think of what Paul wrote to Timothy:

16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV)

What does he mean by scripture? We in Layer 2 are reading this before the New Testament will be compiled in the form you know in Layer 1. Paul is referring to the Jewish Bible, what you call the Old Testament. And at our church in Ephesus would are somewhat familiar with the Jewish Bible, so we noticed the connection. We do not have individual Bibles as you do in Layer 1, much less electronic, cross-referenced, pocket-sized versions. For that matter, none of us have a single book called a “Bible” at all. Collectively we have copies of the gospels (including Acts), and some of the early letters, of Paul and John, maybe James. We have copies of some of the Old Testament books, but almost certainly not all of them. Paper is expensive, as is the expertise to copy a scroll with no errors. I believe that compared to you, in Layer 1, we are much more likely to have large portions of scripture memorized, as books are so expensive here. So we depend on each other to make, and share, connections between what was written in the letters and gospels to the Hebrew Bible. Much like what you do in your Life Groups, I’m sure. We notice this connection, but no one in our congregation is really an expert on Psalm 68. We kick it around for a while, try to remember all the words, and do some research, but Wikipedia is taking an extremely long time to load. So we go to the local synagogue and ask the Rabbi to help us understand Psalm 68.

Welcome!” says the Rabbi. “So you don’t know from Psalm 68? I think that I can help you. Let’s take a look.” He finds the right scroll and reads from it:

You ascended on high, leading a host of captives in your train and receiving gifts among men, even among the rebellious, that the LORD God may dwell there. Psalm 68:18

Wait a minute! Paul got something wrong! His letter says:

Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” Ephesians 10:8

We ask the Rabbi a key question: who is the he in this verse?

King David, of course!” says the Rabbi. “He was a conquering hero! Of course his people gave him the best of the spoils of the battle!”

We are all struck by the differences: the earthly king David taking tribute, the heavenly king Jesus giving gifts. The earthly king David taking human captives, the heavenly king Jesus making captives of sin and death! Yet both are God’s emissaries. What else can we learn from this tradition? We ask the priest, what spoils? What battle?

The priest sets aside the Psalm and says, “The answer is here in The Chronicles of Israel, though you can also find the same story in the Book of the Kings of Israel.” He opens the scroll of 1 Chronicles and reads:

So David and the elders of Israel and the commanders of thousands went to bring up the ark of the covenant of the LORD from the house of Obed-edom with rejoicing. And because God helped the Levites who were carrying the ark of the covenant of the LORD, they sacrificed seven bulls and seven rams. David was clothed with a robe of fine linen, as also were all the Levites who were carrying the ark, and the singers and Chenaniah the leader of the music of the singers. And David wore a linen ephod. So all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the LORD with shouting, to the sound of the horn, trumpets, and cymbals, and made loud music on harps and lyres. 1 Chronicles 15:25-28

The Rabbi tells us to imagine Jerusalem, the City of David, almost a thousand years ago. And with that, he takes us into Layer 3, almost 3,000 years before your Layer 1.

We are standing on top of the gate to the city that we instantly recognize as Jerusalem. Though it is only half the size it will be in Layer two, it seems to have twice as many people! They line the road leading into town, and fill the streets inside the walls. We are standing with an old man wearing the robes of a priest. You picked the best possible day to be here,” he says. 

We see a procession coming down the road. Men carrying a large box that brilliantly reflects the golden rays of the sun as they slowly make their way to the city. It is a parade like no other.

The old priest continues: “The men carrying the Ark are Levites who have been consecrated, ceremonially purified, so that they may approach the seat of Adonai, and touch it without dying. Adonai is the giver of gifts, but He demands respect. Israel will surely be blessed by the return of the Most High. Baruch Hashem.” (Blessed be God)

The procession draws closer. We see people dancing, playing instruments and singing. Leading the procession is a dancer who seems to be challenging all of the others to keep up with his energy and feeling. He is breathing heavily, and the sweat pours off of him, but he continues, his every move sending a message of joy that we clearly receive, even from up on the wall. His clothes are disheveled, and he appears half mad with adoration. We ask the old priest, “Who is that dancer in front of the others?”

That is his royal majesty, King David, appointed by the prophet Sh’mu’el (Samuel), slayer of tens of thousands, ruler of all Israel in the name of Adonai.

When we express our surprise, he laughs. “I know. One expects dignity from a King, but David has always been willing to humble himself before The Lord. And the return of the Ark of the Covenant is a gift like none other. Not since we were delivered from Egypt …”

The old priest attempts to take us down into Layer 4, to show us the Exodus. God rescuing, redeeming his people Israel from Egypt, when they had done nothing to deserve such a gift. From there we could easily slip into Layer 5, to witness God granting to Jacob the gift of sons who would found the 12 tribes of Israel, including his son Joseph who would save them all from starvation in Canaan. From Layer 5 to Layer 6, where God gives Abram and Sarai new names, and children that outnumber the stars. To Layer 7, in which God gives Noah and his family the gift of life when the world deserves nothing but death. Until we finally reach the lowest Layer, the Foundation in which God gives The Word.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. John 1:1

Then God said, “Let there be light”’ and there was light. Genesis 1:3

We have returned to Ephesus, recovering in awe from the journey we’ve been on. It all comes back to Jesus. All the gifts of God throughout the ages, the greatest gift being Jesus himself. Suddenly we understand why Paul has used this line from Psalm 68. We remember the words of Luke, the healer, in his book about the life and death of Jesus. In it, Jesus said to them,

These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44)

Paul is helping us to see that all of history has led inevitably to this ultimate gift. He has gotten his deeper point across.

And we, back here in Layer 1, the 21st century, realize that we are not really so far removed from the church at Ephesus in the first century. So that was verse 8. Let’s move on to verse 9.

Verse 9: (in saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?

Well, what does it mean that Jesus descended to Earth? It means the incarnation of God. God taking human form, walking with us physically. Feeling what we feel. Making friends. Being hungry. Laughing. Being tempted. God giving God’s self to us. The gift that literally never stops giving.

Verse 10: He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

Jesus was incarnated, died, was resurrected, then returned to Heaven: The Ascension. Some people brush past the Ascension, which is an understandable mistake: the Gospels of Matthew and John don’t mention it directly at all. But the Ascension of Jesus is very important. Jesus says so himself in the gospel of John:

Let not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” John 14:1-4

So Jesus ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things. To clarify this one, all we need to do is back up to Ephesians chapter 3 verse 19:

and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:19)

We are being filled with the fullness of God: God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s wisdom, God’s gifts. Jesus is filling all things because He returned to God. As beautiful as it must have been to be with Jesus on Earth, as much good as he did, and could have continued to do, Jesus could only complete His work after His return to heaven: As our scripture today reads, he ascended so that he would be able to fill each of us with the fullness of God.

I have two applications for you in this coming week. One is a daily, and the other is a one shot. I don’t want you to be distracted by having too many things to do. The one time application is to read Psalm 68 all the way through. Try to imagine how it reads from Layers 2 and 3 rather than just how we see it from here in Layer 1. It's a big one, and it might take you awhile to get through it, but don't give up!

The other application is a daily one: I want you to search for the gifts of God in every situation that you find yourself in. Write down what you see, or tell someone about them. Or both. The Church at Ephesus no doubt came to better recognize the gift of Jesus through Paul’s letter.

When Dorothy returns to Kansas at the end of The Wizard of Oz, she finds that the dear friends she made in the magical land are her friends from the farm where she lived all along. Though she does end up back in Kansas, Oz is still with her. Though she no longer has the Ruby Slippers, she still has the gift of the friendships she built. She found the gift.

In the past month I received a rare gift: the return of a friend from far away. Many of you met Rick, and saw the two of us laughing at each other’s dumb jokes, watching superhero movies together, and eating way more than we should have. When he emailed me to say that he was visiting Korea earlier this year,, I was like a kid waiting for Christmas morning. As a grown up, I rarely get excited over receiving things, and when I do that excitement does not last. But I recognized that this would be a gift to remember, a true blessing from God. Goodbyes have been a part of my life for so very long, but they only become easy when I don’t let people into my heart. It’s not worth avoiding the heartbreak, so I still let people in, though I know there are always more goodbyes coming.

God’s gifts are not just coming at some future time. They have been arriving throughout all generations, and will continue, forever and ever. Look for the joy hidden in your heartache. Remember that heartache comes from trust, and trust comes through love, and all love comes from God. When you feel betrayed remember that Jesus faced betrayal on his path to the cross, but that path led to the heavens. If you’ve lost something, remember that you can’t grab something new while holding on to something old. Remember that when you bought a ticket for Suicide Squad you were actually paying for Wonder Woman.

I challenge you to notice and give thanks for one gift every day. Just sit down at the end of the day and remember, pray, read your Bible, and give thanks for that gift. It doesn’t have to be a genuine, certified miracle. It can be something small. Being thankful is a good habit.

And if all the gifts you can think of have turned out to be empty boxes, amusing for a short time then thrown out with the trash, maybe it’s time to accept the one gift that is forever: the gift of God’s grace. Pray about it. Send me a message on Facebook (or the old school Face to Face conversation), or drop in on my Life Group. Or talk to someone here that you feel comfortable with. Whatever you do, don’t let one more day go by without opening yourself up to God’s amazing gifts, prepared for you from the beginning of time! Today I’ve tried to give you a glimpse through Paul’s words of how God has given so much to his people throughout history. And like any gift, it can be refused. But why would you refuse it? Why not accept life?

Let us pray.

Dear Jesus, thank you for the gifts that you continue to give to us. Thank you for your grace that sets us free from sin and death. Thank you for your rich and beautiful Word, the Bible, that helps us to better understand you and your will for our lives. Awaken in each of us a hunger to have more of it. Help us all to get into our Bibles so that we can look out at the world more like you do. We pray in your name, the one who fills us with the fullness of God, Amen.

A Brief Introduction

Roblog is my writing lab. It is my goal to not let seven days pass without a new post. I welcome your criticism, as I cannot improve on my own.

Here is a link to my cung post, which remains the only word which I have ever invented, and which has not, as far as I know, caught on. Yet.