Stay Awake and Be Prepared!

secondI don’t think I’ve seen a sadder moment in recent memory than when I witnessed three solemn faces–those of my wife and two children–last Monday morning as they headed back to school.

My wife (a teacher in Dekalb County) and children cherished the days off during the big snow storm last week.  Returning was a necessary part of work and education for all three, but they would have rather participated in just one more snowball fight.

The storm was fun for this family, but it was not all fun and games for so many other fellow Atlantans who had to endure hours in cars and the cold, only to have their elected officials make excuses as to why the city was not better prepared to handle the elements, traffic, and response.

When my wife went to work that Tuesday morning, we wondered why city officials and superintendents insisted on seeing the first snowflake fall before having to cancel school.  It didn’t make sense to us, and I hope that our officials learned the lesson: be prepared!

The Reverend Quincy Barnwell, pastor of Grace Christian Church (his church meets in Trinity’s building at 8 AM on Sunday mornings), reminded his congregation last weekend that we Christians are called to be prepared too.

Except, in our case, we are to be prepared for Jesus’ Second Coming.  This is a command from the Lord.

In Matthew 24 Jesus foretold his return to reclaim the earth as God’s own and judge all creation accordingly.

Jesus said two important things about that occasion.  First, no one but God knows the “day and hour” of Jesus’ return (v. 37).

Second, Jesus’ return will be like the coming of a thief in the night.  We are called not to slumber or be distracted, but to be alert, awake, and prepared (vv. 38-50).

When Jesus returns, then, we Christians will not have the privilege of saying that we were not prepared.  We cannot wait for the first snowflake to fall in order to hear God’s call, repent of our sins, and live a life of holiness with God.

What is interesting is that Jesus tells us that being prepared for his return means more than merely being in a certain state of mind.  He also asks us to stay awake regarding the needs of others.

Jesus’ warnings in Matthew 24 leads into Jesus’ ethical commands to feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the captive, and welcome the stranger in Matthew 25:31-46.

The way we stay alert is to remain in a sort of constant motion to fulfill these needs.

It is easy to fall asleep in our obligations to our neighbors.  We are distracted by the many things that surround us, beautiful things like cars and computers and fancy wardrobes and ostentatious homes (for me, its books…I get distracted by reading too many books!).

These distractions start to pull us away from the Lord, and we end up working day in and day out in order to afford more things that only distract us further.

No wonder Jesus likens his return to being like a thief in the night.  When Jesus comes, he will steal away all those things we’ve lusted after only to leave us naked and vulnerable.

Only then, when he shows us for who we really are, will Jesus ask: What have you done with your life apart from hoarding, collecting, and consuming things?

As a Baptist, I know this question comes awful close to the idea that we might be “saved” by our works as much as by our faith, but that’s not the case.

In Scripture, faith is a catalyst for works.  Works is the evidence that Christ has made a difference in our life, a difference that others can see and experience for themselves.  Jesus continues to call us even today to “stay awake!” in both our faith and our works.

Being a People of Vision (part 1/4)

“Being a People of Vision” are sermons from the “People of Vision” series currently going on at Trinity Baptist Church, Conyers, GA.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!  By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. . . Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.”  (1 Peter 1:3-5, 8-9)

“Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all you hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed.  Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance.  Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves to all your conduct.”  (1 Peter 1:13-15)

I.

This past Christmas my daughter received a certain Star Wars puzzle as a gift.  Like her other puzzles, this one seemed simple enough.  The pieces–only 100 count–were large.  She asked for my help, as is custom with every new puzzle.

As we began to work, we noticed that this puzzle was quite different than her others.  This one had two pictures on it depending on how you looked at it.  If you looked at it from the right it showed one picture; if you looked from the left it showed another picture.  If you moved side-to-side, the pictures combined a little unfolding drama that worked like one of those old nickelodeon machines.

I suggested that we put the borders together first, so we started hard at work.  Ten minutes into the puzzle, we realized that the border did not fit as expected.  It didn’t take long before we learned that we had to follow one perspective or the other to put the puzzle together.  If we looked at it from different angles, the pieces just wouldn’t fit properly.  That puzzle took us nearly an hour to put together.

There are so many times in our life when we feel like we are wrestling with a puzzle that just doesn’t seem to fit together.  Consider the many pieces in our life: family, career, finances, faith, and recreation, to name a few.

Sometimes we have a perfect fit–we connect!  Other times, we seem to lack a coherent picture of what this puzzle is supposed to look like, so we can’t figure out how to make the pieces work together.

Let me ask you:  Do you know that God has a purpose for your life?  Do you know that God gives us meaning and fulfillment when you are connecting with that purpose?  That God has a vision for you to use as a template to put those scattered pieces together?

The next few weeks, we are discussing vision.  Today, we are talking specifically about the vision that God has for your personal life.

II.

Let’s define vision:  A vision is a picture or an image of the future.  It’s not “what is;” rather, it is “what could be.”   It’s an image–it gives an impression with definite details, a coherent picture.

Consider these various visions:

God’s vision for Israel: We get a picture of Israel’s future in Genesis and Exodus: “I will bring you to a land flowing with milk and honey…”  God gives Abraham and Moses specific details–an image–of what life will be like in the Promised Land.

The book of Revelation: Paints a vivid portrait of what Christians can expect in the End Times, as John envision and describes a “new heaven and a new earth.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision: MLK envisioned a society–“I have a dream where all men are created equal.”  He went on to paint a picture of what that might look like: “I dream of a day where little black boys and black girls will hold hands with little white boys and white girls.”  That’s a vivid image of Luther’s vision for the future.

III.

God has a vision for each church, but it’s hard to have a vision in community if it is made up of people who don’t have personal vision for their own lives.  If you can’t imagine where God will have you in one, five, or ten years, then this church will have a hard time figuring out the vision for that future as well.

Today I ask you to build a personal vision for you and your family.

When we paint a vision, I recommend that we start with a few elements from 1 Peter for our palate:

V. 3-4:  Our first element is that we must include a vision in which we are born again and confident in our place as children of God and heirs of a “living hope.”

When we envision the future, it must include a hope that is to come–hope of sharing in Christ’s resurrection–but also hope in a road set before us in this earthly life.  A life in which Christ’s Spirit is present, rich with blessing, and filled with joy and peace–1 Peter 1:8 describes an “indescribable and glorious joy.”

Let me give an example of how hope can help us in our vision:

When I envision my future, my wife is a part of that picture.  I tell my wife all the time that I can’t live without her.  So my hope is that in the future we will be together.  If that’s the case, then divorce or separation is not a part of God’s vision for my life.

Even in our fiercest conflicts, divorce is not an option.  We have a living hope in our future that shapes the decisions and actions of our present.  Hope starts to connect those puzzle pieces into a coherent picture of our marriage.

IV.

Another element is to “prepare our minds for action” (1 Pet. 1:13) now for what is to come.  This is not some “power of positive thinking” jargon, nor is it merely an attitude.  Peter is describing an active, living faith that takes steps now to prepare for our future.

In our Dave Ramsey FPU small group, we get a clear vision for an end result: debt-free living.  When Dave teaches us how to get to that vision, he does not tell us to simply wish it to happen.  Instead, he gives what he calls “baby steps”–clear, definitive action goals that allow us to live into that vision.

When it comes to God’s vision, we take “baby steps” to grow into that vision.  Perhaps we are to take marital counseling; maybe it is to start attending Sunday School or a home Bible study with a friend.  Whatever baby step we choose to take, it usually requires “discipline” and “obedience,” which brings us to our next element–

V.

Our last element for painting a vision is to pursue holiness.  Holiness is such an archaic word, and we have trouble defining what it means.  Literally, holiness means to be “set apart.”  When it comes to vision, however, holiness draws the boundaries for our vision.

Holiness–God’s holiness–defines the boundaries for a vision-oriented Christian life.  It helps us to avoid having a double-image for our vision–conflicting pictures in which we choose between the desires of our flesh and the desires of the Spirit.

When we make holiness our boundary, and we obey God’s word for our life, we start to care about things that God cares about.  We start to spend time with people that God spends time with.

What does God care about?  Who does God spend time with?

I don’t care who you are or what you do for a living, the vision that God has for your life must include God’s deepest concern–those individuals who have yet to know Him.  Your vision should in one way or another include the Great Commission of Matthew 28.  God cares about the lost and marginalized, the poor and oppressed.  God spends time with the lost–Remember who Jesus spent most of his time with?  Sinners and tax collectors.

You see, when we get a vision for our life, and we start to bring all of those scattered puzzle pieces together, the picture that starts to form takes on a certain shape.  For the Christian, the shape of that puzzle–the glue that holds the pieces together–includes your vocation as a minister and missionary of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Our vision should include a type of lifestyle where we are helping others see God’s love and experience the salvation that God offers in Christ.   Look at 1 Peter 2:9:

“But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness and into the light.”

So what is your vision?  For you?  For your family?

I hope that over the next few months you and your loved ones will pray about that and make it a priority in your spiritual walk with the Lord.

What kind of public witness do you want your church to communicate?

Although our nation sets aside one day—July 4—to celebrate our freedom, a Christian’s ability to participate in civic government without fear of persecution is cause for celebration throughout the year.

This is especially the case in a time of legal fundamentalism, in which a variety of nations are tightening religious freedom.  In France, a bill threatens to ban Muslim burqas; in Iran, a newly-signed law regulates men’s haircuts (this applies to Christians, too).  In Britain, hate-crime laws limit street evangelism; throughout Asia and Africa, persecution of Christians and Muslims is still commonplace.

We in America take our freedom for granted all too often.  We should consider how to engage politics with a sense of gratitude and humility.  One informative scriptural text on the subject comes from Romans 13.

On the surface, a reading of Romans 13 seems to simply advocate obedience to the government.  Paul writes, “Let every person be subject for the governing authorities, for there is no authority except for God.”  In isolation, this text seems to be pretty cut-and-dry.

Our church history reveals, however, that when Christians apply Romans 13 without considering the larger context of Paul’s letter to the Romans, the text can be misused.   In the early Church, Romans 13 motivated Christians to fight in Rome’s army and the crusades, which led to bloodshed and senseless violence.  In Nazi Germany, Hitler’s clergy used Romans 13 to sanction injustices towards Jews, justifying Holocaust.

Romans 13 is not as clear as we might think.  Whenever Paul wrote about a Christian community’s engagement in the political sphere (Romans 13 included) there was one goal in mind—to inspire churches to be a witness to the governing authorities, not to simply follow the government blindly.  Paul wanted Christians to remind the authorities that God is really in charge of everything.

The alternative rhythm of church life, the unique beat of the Christian journey declares that the Lordship of Christ is real and active even when our political leaders don’t believe it to be so.

But if local churches are called to be a witness, then what is the nature of that witness?  What testimony is a church supposed to communicate?

Every church communicates a public witness and civic ethic.  Churches that are “not political,” for instance, communicate that the Gospel has nothing to say to public policy and social justice; other churches tackle issues that are important to those particular congregations.

In my home church in South Florida, we were big supporters of marriage enrichment and the pro-life movement.  Our church almost went bankrupt while paying legal costs incurred by our many protests.  Other churches in the area, meanwhile, invested heavily in HIV advocacy, a major issue in Broward County.  Many churches took up a cause.

The question, then, is this:  What kind of testimony do you want your church to give?  Is it a testimony of hate, fear, punditry, or partisanship?  Or is it a testimony that voices God’s power and compassion in all creation?   The Bible says that “God so loved the world”; and we pray, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”

Again, Romans 13 is informative.  A closer look reveals that Paul couched Christian political engagement in the larger ethic of compassion.  Note the verses littered throughout Romans 12: “Let love be genuine” (v. 9); “extend hospitality to strangers” (v. 12); “Bless those who persecute you” (v. 13).  Romans 13:8 says, “Love one another, for the one who loves fulfills the law”; and 14:7 declares: “We do not live to ourselves…If we live, we live to the Lord.”

So it seems that the Bible tells us of what tune to sing when it comes to providing a public witness.  Last week at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly, Baptist historian Bill Leonard reminded us, “Don’t ask whether your church is thriving or in decline, growing or dying.  Instead, ask whether your church has a witness and a call to conscience.”   Don’t take this witness for granted; your freedom allows you to participate in it fully.