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There is one body, one Spirit, one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. There is one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

 

 

 

Sermon Notes

Ephesians 4:1-16 (esv)

Elmer Presbyterian Church

July 24, 2016

Rev. Robert P. Mills

 

Unity

Introduction

One body, one Spirit, one hope.

One Lord, one faith, one baptism.

One God and Father of all.

Seven assertions of oneness in fewer than three verses. Do you think Paul was trying to make some sort of point?

In case you’re not certain, consider that these seven uses of the word “one” are bracketed two uses of the word “unity.” In v. 3 Paul says Christians should be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” In v. 13 he says we’re called to build up the body of Christ, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.”

The Greek word translated “unity” is found only here in the New Testament. Since rare words generally reward close attention, the central portion of this sermon will focus on the unity of the Spirit and the unity of faith and knowledge.

To give some context for Paul’s emphasis on Christian unity, we’ll begin with a brief overview of his letter to the Ephesians. We’ll end with a look at one of the most vivid phrases in all of Paul’s writings, which comes in v. 14, “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine.”

As we listen for what God would have us learn from his word today, may we be drawn more fully into the unity he created and desires for his people.

 

  1. The Letter to the Ephesians

Paul had founded the church in Ephesus on the second of his three missionary journeys. From Acts 19-20 we learn that he returned to Ephesus on his third mission trip, this time staying more than two years. On that third journey, he used Ephesus as a base for ministry in nearby cities. In fact, some suggest the seven churches addressed in Revelation 2-3 were planted by Paul.

That’s an noteworthy detail, because unlike most of Paul’s letters, Ephesians doesn’t deal with a specific problem that’s troubling a specific congregation. For this reason, among others, many think Ephesians was a circular letter; that is, it was written with the intent that it be read not only by the church in Ephesus but also by the other churches in the region.

Ephesians most likely was written around the year 60 while Paul was in prison in Rome waiting for his trial before the emperor. His letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon seem to have been written about the same time and, along with Ephesians, are collectively known as Paul’s prison letters.

Ephesians and Colossians both have as their main theme that Jesus Christ is the head of his body, the church. However, while Colossians emphasizes the headship of Christ and corrects false teachings about the person of Jesus, Ephesians emphasizes the unity of Christ’s body, the church, and, as I noted a moment ago, doesn’t deal with any specific problem of belief or practice. Rather, as one commentary describes it, Paul wrote Ephesians “to expand the horizons of his readers, so that they might understand better the dimensions of God’s eternal purpose and grace and come to appreciate the high goals God has for the church.”[1]

That’s a wonderful description. Paul wrote the letter that contains this morning’s New Testament reading to expand the horizons of his readers. Specifically, he wrote to broaden and deepen their understanding of the nature and function of the Church. Even more specifically, he wrote to help the Christians in and around Ephesus better understand both the source and the goal of the Church’s unity.

Following a format similar to that used in many of his other letters, Paul begins Ephesians with doctrine, describing what we’ve received from God and our position as members of Christ’s body. Our Scripture lesson, Chapter 4:1-16, begins the second main section of Paul’s letter. These chapters consist primarily of practical applications of the first three chapters, as Paul explores the implications of God’s grace for the church. This passage itself divides into two main parts: Verses 1-6 discuss the unity of the Spirit, while verses 7-16 explore unity of faith and knowledge. We’ll look at each section in turn.

[1] http://www.biblica.com/en-us/bible/online-bible/scholar-notes/niv-study-bible/intro-to-ephesians/

[1] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), p. 612.

 

  1. The Unity of the Spirit

First, Paul writes, Christians are to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” I want to focus on two words from that phrase: maintain, and unity, taking them in reverse order.

As I noted earlier, the Greek word translated “unity” is used only twice in the New Testament: here and v. 13. Literally, this word connotes “a state of oneness … that which is united as one in contrast with being divided or consisting of separate parts.”[2]

 

That which is united as one. That’s a key observation. Paul knows that a local congregation has more than one member. He knows that different people from different backgrounds with different gifts together comprise a single church. He also knows that in every local church, and also in the Church universal, all these individuals are united as one person, as one body – with Jesus Christ as the head.

All Christians are united as one because all Christians have one Lord and savior: the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. Because we already are one, it’s not our job to create Christian unity. Jesus, the head of the church, has already done that for us. In response, our task, and here’s the second word I want to highlight, is to “maintain the unity of the Spirit.”

One reason the word maintain pops off the page at me when I read this passage is that a lot of mischief has been done in a lot of churches in the name of Christian unity. Much of that mischief has been managed by those who insist it’s the job of every Christian and every congregation to create Christian unity.

It is not. Like our salvation, our unity is God’s gift to us. We are one body. You and I don’t need remote ecclesiastical institutions thundering directives down from perches of privilege, ordering us little people to create a form of unity that they have made in their own image. Christians are one body. Our task is to maintain the unity we’ve been given.

To be sure, that’s not always easy. Unity is an area of church life where we’ve got some deferred maintenance that needs attention. And Peter O’Brien increases that challenge by reminding us that Paul, “is not speaking of a unity at any price in which the fundamental truths of the gospel are jettisoned.”

That’s a crucial word of warning. Many who insist that today’s Christians must create Christian unity insist with equal fervor that the only way to do so is by abandoning such “divisive” doctrines as Jesus’ Incarnation, Resurrection, and his Atonement for our sins. Of course, if we abandon the Incarnation, Resurrection, Atonement, and other core Christian teachings, whatever unity we create in the process won’t be Christian unity.

To return to a theme from my two sermons here at the end of June, this congregation is in a time of transition. It isn’t your first, it won’t be your last. In times of transition, some things change. What must remain constant is this congregation’s commitment to those foundational beliefs that are the mark of Christian unity.

What are those essential beliefs? Again quoting O’Brien, “As a strong motivation for his appeal for unity [Paul] presents a series of seven acclamations, each using the word ‘one,’ in which the readers are reminded of the fundamental unities on which the Christian faith and life are based.”[3]

Paul groups these seven acclamations in two sets of three, with a single “one” at the end.

 

Triptych I

In v. 4 Paul affirms, “There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call.”

One body, one Spirit, one hope.

As I was sitting in Virginia working on this sermon, my thoughts drifted north to Elmer, not only to this church, but also to a shelf in Mom and Dad’s bedroom where, for more decades than I care to admit, a triptych of photos has sat.

A triptych, that’s t-r-i-p–t-y-c-h, is a technical term artists uses for three panels that are hinged together. Originally, triptychs were paintings, usually on similar themes. Today, the panels are more likely to contain photographs.

The triptych that came to my mind isn’t anything special in and of itself. It has three 5×7 metal frames connected by hinges. Most of you probably have something similar somewhere in your house. The one I’m thinking of, however, is held together by more than mere metal hinges. The first picture shows me in cap and gown receiving my diploma from and shaking hands with Houghton College president Dr. Daniel Chamberlain. The second shows Bill in cap and gown receiving his college diploma and shaking hands with President Chamberlain. And by now you’ve probably guessed that the third shows David getting his diploma and handshake from Dr. Chamberlain.

As I said, this triptych is bound by more than hinges. It’s bound by a shared theme. It’s bound by shared memories. It’s bound by family.

When Paul writes, “There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope,” he creates a triptych similar to the one I just described; three related images united on many levels.

My picture comes first in the triptych I described because as the oldest, I was the first to get my degree. Paul probably mentions one body first because the church as the body of Christ has been the major theme of his letter. The one Spirit is the Holy Spirit, who gives life to the body, whose work helps make its unity visible to the Church and to the world.

To help us better understand one hope, I’ll again quote Peter O’Brien, who writes, “God’s calling finds its origin in the choice of his people in Christ before the world’s foundation (Eph. 1:4) and becomes effective in their lives through the preaching of the gospel (Rom. 8:30). When God calls believers into a relationship with himself he calls them to a particular hope (Eph. 1:18) which is sure and certain since it rests on his faithfulness …”[4] (emphasis added).

One body, one Spirit, one hope. Each intimately bound to the others. All indispensable components of Christian unity.

 

Triptych II

In v. 5, Paul puts a second triptych on display: “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”

To reverse Paul’s order, in baptism, believers (or for Presbyterians and some others, the children of believers) are symbolically united with Jesus by re-enacting his death and resurrection, whether through sprinkling or immersion. As we are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you and I visibly illustrate our unity with Jesus and with each other.

In the early church, baptism was associated with the earliest Christian confession of faith, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Paul’s acclamation of one faith probably refers to that public confession.

One Lord is a reference to Jesus. The Greek word here translated Lord is kyrios. In the Greek version of the Old Testament that Paul would have used in his preaching and teaching, kyrios translated the divine name, Yahweh, God’s personal name, which he revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3:13-14).  The earliest Christians, most of whom were Jews, intentionally applied this title to Jesus, showing their understanding of Jesus’ oneness with the God of Israel, and with the Holy Spirit, as a Triune God. [5]

To be sure, neither Paul nor any biblical writer presents a fully worked out doctrine of the Trinity. But to insist, as some do today, that the idea of Jesus as fully God first emerged several centuries after his death, or to assert that the concept of the Trinity isn’t found in the Bible, is to ignore the consistent teaching of the New Testament.

 

One God and Father of all

Paul’s seventh and final use of the word “one” in this passage comes in v. 6, “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

Not only does this verse further support the doctrine of the Trinity, it also further highlights Christian unity. As Andrew Lincoln writes, “The climactic acclamation of the one God in his universality is meant to provide the most profound ground for the Church’s unity. … it is the Church that is the expression of God’s unity. … When the Church fails to maintain and express unity, it radically undermines the credibility of its belief in the one God.”[6]

The Church is one body. Christian unity is God’s gift to his people. We can’t create it. But we surely can, and sadly, we often do, make it hard for those around us to see it. To make our oneness more visible, the 21st-century Christians in and around Elmer, like the first-century Christians in and around Ephesus, are called to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

 

 

 

III. The Unity of Faith and Knowledge

We’re also called to keep working “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” That’s the second time the word unity is used in this passage, and, once again, it deserves careful attention. However, since I’ve taken up most of my time considering the unity of the Spirit, I’d like to share just a couple thoughts on the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.

As Paul has said repeatedly, the Church is one. We are one body. But we don’t always act like it. Even though we share one faith, we tend to put the emphasis in different places. James Torrance has a wonderful phrase for one of the ways we do that. He says most Christians are “functional unitarians.”

What he means is that while we genuinely believe the doctrine of the Trinity, we tend to focus on one of the three persons to the near exclusion of the other two. For example, in the mainline denominations, the emphasis tends to be on God the Father. Evangelicals focus on having a personal relationship with Jesus, God the Son. Pentecostals and charismatics highlight the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

There’s nothing wrong with lifting up one member of the Trinity on any particular occasion. But if, over time, we consistently ignore two of the three, we risk becoming Torrance’s functional unitarians.

A similar imbalance can occur between faith and works. Throughout the history of the church there have been groups so focused on right belief that they saw the behavior of their members as irrelevant. On the other side, some groups have denigrated right belief, insisting that right behavior was all that mattered. Both groups are wrong. Both have proved divisive. Both have made the unity of the Church less visible.

How can you and I show “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” In many ways. The way Paul describes here is by honoring the gifts God has given various members of his body, gifts that help maintain Christian unity.

 

Apostles, etc.

In vv. 11-12, Paul lists some of those gifts, along with the reason they were given to the church. “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

God didn’t give these gifts so that a few could do the work for all the rest. He gave certain gifts to certain individuals so the whole body could be equipped for the work God intends the whole body to do, so that the one body could continually grow in “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.”

 

Winds of Doctrine

That observation leads to the last phrase I’d like us to explore. God gave these gifts “so that we [that is, the church, the body of Christ] may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine.”

I’m not a nautical person. The Navy was Dad’s gig, not mine. But when I read these verses I can see in my mind’s eye survivors of a ship that’s gone down in the Atlantic. Some are clinging to bits of debris. Some have made it into life boats. Others are bobbing around in bright orange life jackets. But all are being tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind. And as they’re tossed up and down and swept from side to side, they’re carried ever further from each other.

False doctrine, false preaching and teaching, can similarly separate Christians and congregations. One of the reasons God gave the Church apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers is to protect his people from just this sort of separation. Pastors generally combine the roles of prophets, shepherds, and teachers. Prophets bring the word of God to the people of God. Shepherds make sure that their flock is well fed and kept safe. Teachers help others understand the truth and apply it to their lives. One reason we value pastors so highly is that they fill so many critical functions in the life of the church.

How many of you here this morning are ordained elders, not necessarily serving on session at the moment, but ordained elders?

In the absence of a pastor, many pastoral responsibilities fall to you. Your first responsibility as an elder isn’t seeing to it that the budget is balanced or that the steeple doesn’t fall into the sanctuary on Sunday morning. Those things are important, but they’re not your primary duty. Your main responsibility is overseeing the spiritual well being of this congregation.

You do that in many different ways. But in keeping with the theme of this sermon, I’m only going to focus on one.

As most of you know, I spent five years as a pastor. I used to remind my elders that they were the congregation’s first line of defense should any false teaching come from the pulpit. Elders have the responsibility to know the Bible well enough to know if it’s being abused. I told my elders I’d prefer it if they didn’t interrupt the sermon, but rather spoke with me at the back door after church. But I told them I expected to hear from them if they ever thought I was going astray. That’s not an easy or a comfortable task, but it’s a vital one.

It’s vital because one of the great dangers facing Christians and congregations today is the church’s tacit acceptance of the cultural assumption that there’s no such thing as truth, that there are only interpretations. Think for just a moment about this statement: There’s absolutely no such thing as absolute truth. Is that an absolutely true statement? If it’s true, then it’s false. That’s the very definition of an incoherent notion. It doesn’t hold together. If you even look at the idea, it falls apart.

And yet, in far too many churches, especially when it comes to things like sermons and Bible study lessons, this incoherent view of truth takes a form that goes something like: We all believe the Bible is true, but there are many different interpretations of the Bible. Leaving aside for now those in our churches who don’t believe the Bible is true, again it only takes a moment’s reflection to see the problem: Does the fact that there are different interpretations of the Bible mean that all interpretations of the Bible are therefore necessarily true?

If I were to walk outside with you after the service and say that my interpretation of the weather was that it’s 32o and we’re being pelted in the face by freezing rain, would you think, well, that’s his interpretation of the weather and it’s just as good as my interpretation that it’s 92o and we’re sweltering under a blistering sun? No. You’d probably think that I was suffering from heat stroke and cart me off to the ER. At least I hope you’d be so kind.

Why, then, are so many Christians so naïvely willing to accept the incoherent notion that almost any possible interpretation of the Bible is “true,” and that there’s no way to judge between them? Certainly not all Christians think that way. But I know some who do. Some of them wear clerical collars and fill pulpits Sunday mornings.

What, then, about those who recognize the problem but who aren’t quite sure how to tell which interpretations of Scripture are true and which are false? For those of you who find yourself in that place, let me wrap up this sermon with a short checklist.

 

Conclusion

There is one body, one Spirit, one hope.

There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

There is one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

 

If you can keep in mind those two triptychs and that final acclamation, you’ll be able to tell whether or not a sermon or lesson is helping you maintain the unity of the Spirit and helping you attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.

One body, one Spirit, one hope.

One Lord, one faith, one baptism.

One God and Father of all.

[1] http://www.biblica.com/en-us/bible/online-bible/scholar-notes/niv-study-bible/intro-to-ephesians/

[2] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), p. 612.

[3] Peter Thomas O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), p. 280.

[4] Peter Thomas O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), p. 281.

[5] Adapted from Stephen E. Fowl, Ephesians: A Commentary, ed. C. Clifton Black, M. Eugene Boring, and John T. Carroll, First Edition., The New Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 133–134.

[6] Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, vol. 42, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1990), p. 239.

… God Gave the Growth

I Corinthians 3:1-17 (esv)

Elmer Presbyterian Church

June 26, 2016

Rev. Robert P. Mills

 

 

… God Gave the Growth

 

Introduction

My church.

All of us in this sanctuary have probably used that phrase more times than we can count: My church had a guest speaker this morning. I sing in the choir at my church. My church is having its annual picnic in September.

Now consider a second set of sentences: My son just got a promotion at work. My daughter just got her master’s degree.

One more set. My car handles beautifully. My car needs new tires. I’m fine, but my car was totaled.

What each of those sentences had in common was the little word “my.”

For you fans of English grammar, “my” belongs to a group of words called possessive pronouns. A pronoun replaces a noun in a sentence. For example, instead of saying, “Jane is sitting in the third pew on the left,” we say “She is sitting in the third pew on the left,” Possessive pronouns are a subtype that indicate ownership. Instead of saying “Jane is sitting in the third pew on the left,” we say “Jane is sitting in her pew.”

Listen carefully for the possessive pronoun in these three phrases: My car; my son; my church. Did you hear slightly different overtones in each use of the word “my?” Keep those distinctions in mind. We’ll come back to them in few minutes.

Before we do, I’d like for us to pick up where we left off last Sunday, in the middle of I Corinthians 3:6, a verse that begins with Paul saying, “I planted, Apollos watered …”, last week’s sermon title, and ends with this week’s sermon title “God gave the growth.”

 

 

Servants and Growth

I asked Gabrielle to leave a couple copies of last week’s sermon in the narthex, so if you’d missed it, you can pick one up on your way out. But if you were here and could use a quick review, you’ll remember that we talked about the church in ancient Corinth. It had been founded by Paul on his second missionary journey. After Paul left to continue his ministry elsewhere, Apollos preached there. And Paul received reports that the Corinthian congregation was dividing into factions, each favoring a former leader.

In the first chapter of I Corinthians he writes,

 

It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” (I Cor. 1:11-12)

 

 

God’s servants

Paul comes back to this concern in Chapter 3 of this letter, our New Testament lesson both last week and again today, where he asks, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul?” He answers, “Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each” (v. 5)

We talked about how servants (the Greek word diakonos, which comes into English as “deacon”) were individuals whose job was to assist someone else, usually by performing tasks of an unskilled nature. The word conveyed a low social status. Yet the Corinthian Christians were arguing about their loyalty to a favorite servant. Paul explains the problem with their perspective by reminding them:

 

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.

 

We’ll come back to the images of the church as God’s field and God’s building. But first, listen again to how Paul describes both himself and Apollos. “Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything.” “He who plants and he who waters are one.” Why, Paul asks in obvious frustration, are you arguing over people who, in God’s eyes, are merely obedient servants doing simple tasks. Why, he asks incredulously, are you trying to distinguish between those God sees as one. What, he wonders almost aloud, is keeping the Corinthian Christians from seeing that it’s God alone who gives the growth to his church.

 

God gives the growth

Let’s think about those issues in agricultural terms.

If you’ve ever farmed, had a garden, or even grown a flower in a pot, you know something about planting and watering. If you leave the seeds in the packet instead of putting them in the soil, they won’t grow. If you put them in soil and they never get any water, once again, they won’t grow.

But let’s assume you plant the seeds and water them, that you cultivate the soil and protect the young plants from weeds and pests. Are you thereby the one who makes them grow? If you think you are, please catch me at coffee hour and explain to me how you make that happen. I’d love to know.

You plant. You water. But what happens next is out of your hands. What happens next is that God gives the growth.

 

 

  1. God’s field, God’s building, God’s temple (vv. 9, 16-17 )

To help us focus on the fact that God gives the growth, not just to plants but also to Christian congregations, Paul uses three images to illustrate the nature and the function of the church. He talks about the church – specifically the one in Corinth but by extension the church in Elmer – as God’s field, God’s building, and God’s temple. We’ll spend a little time looking at each image to see what God would have us learn about our situation from this portion of his Word.

 

 

The Church as God’s field

First, toward the end of v. 9, Paul calls the church God’s field. The Greek word translated “field” is used only here in the New Testament. Outside the New Testament, this word indicates cultivated land in contrast with an untended pasture. It refers to tilled fields or carefully maintained orchards rather than isolated, unmanaged tracts of land.[1]

For Paul to call the Corinthians “God’s field” is for him to say that their church didn’t simply spring up by accident out in the middle of nowhere. Rather, before the church ever held its first service, God had a plan for its growth. Before the missions committee ever held its first meeting, God knew what he intended the field to produce. He even knew which servants he’d assign to help bring his plans to fruition.

As we saw last week, even before Paul described the church in Corinth God’s field, he’d pretty well explained the metaphor. Paul’s job was to plant. Once the seed had taken root, Apollos’ job was to give it water. As Paul pointedly observes, such tasks are assigned to unskilled laborers, to servants. God, the owner of both the field and the harvest, was the one who ultimately mattered, not those who planted or watered.

 

The Church as God’s building

Paul then shifts the metaphor, if only slightly, from agriculture to architecture as he continues with his second image of the church: “You are … God’s building.” As one commentator puts it:

“The analogy of Christian leaders working on a major building project is especially appropriate to Paul’s argument. Unlike the field, where one worker could conceivably do all the work from planting to harvest, great buildings in the ancient world … took many years to build, even decades. Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem at the time of Paul [we’ll come back to the Jerusalem temple in a few moments] was the work of tens of thousands of workers and took over seventy years to build. The same goes for the great cathedrals of Europe built in the Middle Ages.”

Actually, some medieval cathedrals took much more than decades to build. Construction of the great gothic cathedral in Chartres, southwest of Paris, France, spanned four centuries. The cathedral, shown on your bulletin insert, is more than 400 feet long. Its western façade, what we’d call the front, is more than 50 yards wide. The difference between the two steeples is obvious. Both were started about the same time. But the south tower, which is 344 feet tall, was finished some 300 years before the north spire which is more than 30 feet taller.

Building this church was a community effort. Stonecutters, masons, carpenters, glassmakers, metalworkers; all donated their time, talent, and treasure. The town went through alternating periods of prosperity and poverty, and at least one devastating fire. With a project of this scale, “Workers could move on, retire, or die before the building was completed. As Carson observes, with such edifices, ‘it is the project as a whole that is important, and, implicitly, it is foolish to focus all praise on just one of the builders who has contributed.’”[2]

That final phrase sounds a lot like Paul. Once you realize that the building belongs to God, it’s just plain foolish to declare your allegiance to a single member of the construction crew, whether his name is Apollos, Cephas, or Paul.

As with the image of the Corinthian church as God’s field, so when describing the church as God’s building, Paul distinguishes between his work and Apollos’. Paul planted the field, Apollos watered it. Paul laid the foundation, Apollos built on it. Paul isn’t jealous that someone else watered his seeds or built on his foundation. He knows both tasks are essential. He joyfully fulfilled the one assigned to him. Then he trusted God to keep the project going.

Pull out your bulletin inserts one last time, look at the cathedral, then look around this sanctuary. Groundbreaking for this building took place on May 22, 1923. The first Sunday service was held on April 13, 1924, a little less than one year later. Imagine what would have happened on this plot of land if, after the foundation had been laid, another construction crew had come in, thought they had a better idea, and tried to build the Chartres cathedral.

Think about it. Elmer wouldn’t even have its one stoplight. You couldn’t get to the hospital from the highway. God knew his plans for this church before any of us showed up on the scene. He’s been using folks like you and me to carry out those plans ever since. And if those to whom God has assigned these tasks keep building on this foundation, God will continue to give the growth.

 

The Church as God’s temple

The last image of the church Paul uses in this passage is found in vv. 16-17, where he describes the church in Corinth, and again by extension the church in Elmer, as “God’s temple.”

“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (3:16-17).

These verses deserve more attention than I can give them this morning, but I do want to offer three brief observations.

The first is that in these verses, the word you is always plural. You, plural, are God’s temple. God’s Spirit dwells in you, plural. Later in I Corinthians (6:19), Paul calls each individual Christian a temple of the Holy Spirit. Here, however, his emphasis is on the congregation as a whole. You, plural, the church in Corinth, the church in Elmer, you are God’s temple.

Second, why does Paul call the church God’s temple? Remember, Paul had studied the Jewish Scripture and theology with Gamaliel in Jerusalem, the location of the Jewish temple. The idea of the temple as God’s dwelling place, along with warnings aimed at those who would profane or destroy it, are found throughout the Old Testament. So is the idea that God indwells not just a building but his people as a whole (cf. Exod. 25:8; 29:45; Lev. 26:11–12; Ezek. 11:16; 37:26–28; Ps. 114:2). To destroy God’s temple is to damage the spiritual well being of God’s people. God won’t sit silently by and let that happen.

The third point I’d like to highlight is that God’s temple is holy. To be holy is to be set apart by God for service to God. This church is holy, not because of anything anyone here has ever done, but because of what God has called and gifted its ministers and members to do. In the very act of calling us to be his servants, God makes us holy. We may serve by planting seeds or watering them, by laying foundations or building upon those that have been laid. But we do whatever task God has assigned us, and because God has made us holy, what we do brings him glory.

 

 

 

 

III. Shifts Beneath the Surface

Three images of the church: a field, a building, a temple. What’s the word Paul puts in front of each? He uses a possessive noun: God’s. The church is God’s field. The church is God’s building. The church is God’s temple.

The fact that the church belongs to God probably doesn’t come as a shock to anyone here. You knew this church was God’s long before this sermon started. You’ve known it from the time you first learned about the nature and the function of the church.

But to take a closer look at the phrase I used at the outset of this sermon, if you and I already know the church belongs to God, why do we so often say “my church?” Are we missing something?

Not necessarily. I think when we say “my church,” it’s usually a shorthand way of saying, “the church in which I have my membership,” or “the church I normally attend.” Rather than me constantly repeating, “The church of which I became a communicant member on Sunday June 30, 1968,” I simply say, “my church.” I don’t see a necessary problem with the shorter phrase.

I do, however, see a potential problem. The potential problem is that the range of meanings we give to words tends to shift over time and with context, rather like the way the earth can shift beneath its surface, sometimes with similar results.

Do you remember the earthquake that hit Virginia in 2011? Mom and Dad said they felt it up here. When it happened, Tim and I were in my office at Liberty University, about 100 miles from the epicenter. A lot of construction was taking place on campus at that time, so as we felt the vibration and heard the incredibly deep rumble, my first thought was that a big truck was going past. My second thought was that a really big truck was going past. Tim later said he thought it was a very large plane landing at the rather small airport near campus. We went outside to see what on earth was happening.

What had happened, we soon learned, hadn’t taken place either on the road or in the sky, but well beneath the surface of the earth more an hour and a half away. There wasn’t any significant damage in Lynchburg, but you may remember that the quake caused cracks in the Washington Monument, which had to be closed for repairs for the next couple years.

Things that shift unseen beneath the surface can cause great consternation up above. Included among things that can shift unseen are the meanings of our words.

I can’t imagine anyone in this sanctuary this morning intentionally saying “my church” in the same sense as you would say “my child” or “my car.” To say “my church” with the conscious intent of conveying, “the local congregation that I conceived and to which I gave birth” wouldn’t make much sense. To say “my church” intending to indicate “the church to which the Bank of Elmer has finally has given me clear title” would be absurd.

What I can understand is how, over time, our perception of the possessive pronoun “my” as we use it in the phrase “my church” could begin to drift – slowly, silently, somewhere beneath the surface of conscious thought. I can imagine how a legitimate sense of concern for and delight in this church and its ministries could begin to blend into a problematic sense of personal possession. I can envision tension building unobserved beneath the surface of this congregation’s worship and witness as individuals say and hear the words “my church” with slightly different shades of meanings.

Wherever tension builds, whether along the earth’s tectonic plates or in a local congregation, eventually that tension releases. When tension has built beneath the earth’s surface, the resulting release is called an earthquake. Small quakes can crack buildings. Large ones open gashes in the earth itself. And despite our awareness of the damage they can do, no one has yet devised a foolproof way of predicting or preventing an earthquake.

 

Conclusion

In a somewhat similar way, tension can build below the surface of a church. Pastors come and go. Long time members move away or die. New members join. New leadership arises. These things and many more are natural and normal in the life of the church. They’re also stressful. Each type of shift I just described can create at least some tension. Even if that tension is mild and hidden far beneath the surface, it will, eventually, find a release.

Earthquakes can’t be predicted or prevented. But there is one thing everyone here today can do to foresee and to avoid a jarring release of tension in this church. There’s one way ever member and friend of this congregation – this field, this building, this temple – can help it keep growing through this time of transition. Are you ready? Here it is:

Think about the words you use.

Think about the words you use. Carefully consider the meanings of words like: church, pastor, Jesus. Be alert to the fact that there may be some in this congregation who hear those words a little differently than you may mean them. And forgive me for being so blunt, but please be very, very aware of the fact that there are those in positions of Presbyterian leadership who differ dramatically from this congregation’s consensus when it comes to the meanings of words like: church, pastor, and Jesus.

When you discuss the ministries of former pastors – Mouris Yousef, Joe Hourani, Norman Kellow, Arthur Behrends – my prayer is that you’ll see them all as servants, as those who planted and watered, those who laid and built on a foundation, as the Lord assigned to each.

When you ponder the present and future ministries of this congregation in this community and beyond, my prayer is that when anyone says “our church,” everyone will think about the words “God’s field, God’s building, God’s temple.”

And it’s my prayer that as you continue to cultivate this field, as you continue to build on the foundation that’s been laid, as you continue to worship and serve in this temple, you will continue to find comfort and courage in the words “God gave the growth.”

Amen.

[1] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 17.

[2] Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), p. 151.

I Planted, Apollos Watered …

I Corinthians 3:1-17 (esv)

Elmer Presbyterian Church

June 19, 2016

Rev. Robert P. Mills

 

 

I Planted, Apollos Watered …

 

I’d like to start this sermon by testing your name recognition skills. Please give me the benefit of the doubt as I assure you there is a point to this exercise. Are you ready? Here we go.

Please raise your hand if you either were a member of, or if you attended, this church while Mouris Yousef was the pastor. Bruce McClendon. Tim Hines. Jeff Allen. Wayne Holcomb. Donald Bitzer. Joe Hourani.

[Hands down] Now we’re going to push it back a bit. How many of you either were members or attended here while Norman Kellow was the interim pastor? I became a communicant member of this church during his pastorate. How many were here when George Patterson served as pastor? Alan Whitelock? Fred Horbach? Arthur Berhends?

Rev. Berhends baptized me, so that’s as far back as I’ll go with former pastors.

 

But we’re not done going back in time. Now, however, instead of looking back a mere six decades, we’re going back almost 2,000 years to a look at a congregation that was struggling with issues of pastoral leadership. Actually, the church was struggling with lots of issues, but leadership is the one I’ll focus on this morning and again next Sunday.

This church, located in the city of Corinth, was deeply divided. Barely two decades after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven, only two or three years after the apostle Paul had founded the church on the second of his three missionary journeys, the Corinthian congregation was at risk of being torn apart from within. Responding to reports he’d received about divisions in the church, Paul wrote the letter we now know as I Corinthians.

 

I Planted

We’ll come back to the situation at Corinth in a few moments, but first, I’d like to say just a bit about the church’s founding pastor, the apostle Paul.

 

Paul’s Background

Paul, whose given name was Saul, was born in Tarsus, capital city of the Roman province of Cilicia, in what’s now southeastern Turkey. Tarsus was an ancient Syrian city and had been an important outpost of both Greek culture and Greek military strength since the time of Alexander the Great. Strabo, a philosopher, geographer, and older contemporary of Paul, “ranked Tarsus even above Athens and Alexandria as a center of intellectual life”[1] at the turn of the first Christian century.

Being born and raised in Tarsus meant Paul was fluent in Greek, still the dominant language of the Roman empire. It also meant he had training in Stoic philosophy, the dominant intellectual tradition of the era. So, when Paul preached in and wrote letters to places like Corinth, he spoke and wrote in Greek, the language that was native to him and his hearers alike. When he needed to explain Judeo-Christian beliefs and practices to his Greco-Roman audience, he could draw on the concepts of Stoic philosophy.

Not only was Paul born in the capital city of a Roman province, he was also born into a Jewish family. He, like father before him, was a Pharisee. Paul learned about his faith not only from his family, but also from his studies at the school of Gamaliel in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3). Gamaliel was the most renowned rabbi of his day. He was a grandson and disciple of Hillel, one of the most revered rabbis in Jewish history.

Even though his formal studies likely ended while Paul was relatively young, I’ve heard it said that in today’s terms, we might describe him as having earned both a Ph.D. in Greek philosophy and a Ph.D. in Jewish theology. Not a bad resume for an up and coming religious leader from a politically important hometown.

The theological tradition of Hillel, in which Paul was trained, not only welcomed but actively sought converts to Judaism (Matt. 23:15). While Paul’s teacher, Gamaliel, was known to be sympathetic toward those who disagreed with him, Paul felt it was his duty to defend the Jewish faith against any novel teaching. And in the years that followed Jesus’ crucifixion, the  teaching that Jesus not only had been raised from the dead but was indeed the promised Messiah, was seen by many Jews not simply as a new teaching, but as a dangerous heresy, one that must be ruthlessly eliminated.

Paul in particular reacted with furious zeal against this new movement, which was known among Jews as The Way. In Acts 22, Paul declares:

 

3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city [Jerusalem], educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day. 4 I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, 5 as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. (Acts 22:2-5)

 

In Acts 26, Paul adds:

 

I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. 11 And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities. 12 in this connection I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. (Acts 26:10-12)

 

As you no doubt recall, it was while Paul was on the road to Damascus that he had a dramatic encounter with the risen Jesus, an encounter that converted him from being an ardent opponent of the young Christian faith to being one of its most effective missionaries. As I noted a moment ago, on one of his missionary journeys, he established a church in Corinth.

 

Paul’s work at Corinth: Planting

In Paul’s time, the crossroads city of Corinth was a vital, vibrant commercial center. Historically Greek in orientation and outlook, it was in Paul’s day a Roman colony. It’s strategic location drew merchants and craftsmen from throughout the Roman Empire.

Many who came to Corinth brought their religions with them. The result was a level of religious diversity that far exceeded what most of us can even imagine. As one author colorfully observes, “St. Paul knew more about the theory and practice of a religiously and ideologically plural world than do all the seminary and religion faculties of California.”[2]

Accompanying this aggressive religious pluralism was a distorted sense of personal morality. In fact, the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes coined the verb korinthiazo, literally, “to act like a Corinthian,” which meant, “to engage in sexual immorality.”[3] Corinth, quite aptly, has been described as “at once the New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas of the ancient world.”[4]

Not surprisingly, after Paul left Corinth to continue his ministry in other places, many different problems plagued the immature congregation. Percolating through them all were divisions between church members, a sense of factionalism, an unhealthy devotion to charismatic personalities. The result is deftly sketched by Anthony Thiselton, who writes:

“To the degree to which Corinthian Christians imbibed secular Corinthian culture with an emphasis on peer groups and local value systems, the church had indeed become embroiled in … a postmodern pragmatism of the market.”[5]

One effect of this cliquish emphasis, this marketplace mentality, was that the Christians in Corinth were dividing themselves into warring factions, each aligned with a favorite former pastor. This is the situation Paul addresses at the outset of I Corinthians. In Chapter 1 he writes:

 

10 I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (I Cor. 1:10-13)

 

In Paul’s original Greek, the grammatical form of those closing questions indicates that the expected answer is No. No, Christ is not divided. No, Paul wasn’t crucified for the Corinthians. No, no one in the church was baptized in the name of Paul. And yet, the Corinthians were behaving as if such things were true. So Paul spends the first quarter of this letter addressing this specific issue. His exhortations include our Scripture lesson for this morning where we read:

 

For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants [διάκονοι] through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but … (I Cor. 3:3-6)

 

If you studied your bulletin carefully before the service began, you may have noticed that this morning’s sermon title ends with an ellipsis. “I planted, Apollos watered …” . I’m going to take advantage of those three dots to take a quick look at Apollos and his ministry in Corinth before finishing Paul’s sentence.

 

Apollos watered

Apollos’ background

The first mention of Apollos comes in Acts 18, where Luke writes:

 

24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent [δυνατός] in the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. (Acts 18:24-26)

 

Obviously well educated, Apollos handled the Jewish Scriptures, what Christians now call the Old Testament, with forcefulness and clarity. Luke’s word “competent” in his description of Apollos as “competent in the Scriptures” means particularly capable, expert, exceptionally able.[6] However, as skilled as he was with what he knew, Apollos didn’t yet understand the full message and meaning of the Gospel. So, Priscilla and Aquila took him aside and taught him. Apollos submitted to their instruction, and as a result, became even more effective in his ministry.

 

Apollos’ work at Corinth

Luke goes on to say that Apollos’ work in Corinth had two main components. First, he taught the Scriptures to Christians who “believed through grace” (18:27). Second, he used his expert knowledge of those Scriptures to show the Jews that Jesus really was the promised Messiah (18:28).

Apparently, Apollos was a powerful speaker, especially when compared with Paul and Peter. Unfortunately, his charisma had unintended consequences. Some in Corinth quite publicly preferred him over either Paul or Peter. In response, others in the church began say, “I am of Paul,” meaning something like, “Well, you may like that Apollos fellow who was here recently, but I joined the church while Paul was our pastor. He was an apostle, you know, and he’s still the one I look to for leadership.” In a similar vein, others would say, “I am of Cephas, [better known to us as Peter] the one Jesus said was the rock on which he’d build his church.”

The really, really spiritual members of the Corinthian congregation wouldn’t even bother to disguise their contempt for those they deemed inferior. They piously declared, “I am of Christ.” As I noted earlier, the Corinthian church had a lot of problems. Leadership issues were one. Those who viewed themselves as more spiritual than the rest were another. I’m inclined to think those two issues were related.

Obviously, creating factions in the church was never Apollos’ intention. Paul never criticized Apollos for this. Indeed, Paul welcomed his ministry, calling him a “fellow worker” (v. 9). The divisive spirit that developed in Corinth was as appalling to Apollos as it was to the apostle. And as a result, Apollos was reluctant to return to Corinth, even when that was Paul’s preference (I Cor. 16:12).

In v. 5 of this morning’s Scripture lesson, Paul gets to the heart of the issue when he asks the contentious Corinthians, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul?” He answers his own question: “Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each,”

 

Servants

Servants.

The Greek word here is one you already know: diakonos, which is transliterated into English as “deacon.” In ancient Greece, diakonos referred to individuals who had a higher status than slaves, yet were of no particular importance. In contrast to the title “apostle,” which Paul used to describe himself in the first verse of I Corinthians, diakonos doesn’t carry any claim of authority.

Rather, this word described those whose job was to assist another, usually by performing tasks of an unskilled nature. In secular Greek literature of the era, diakonos was often used of those who waited tables. Especially to Gentile ears, this word conveyed a low social status.

And as one commentary notes, “it gets worse, for in v. 6 Paul and Apollos are compared to humble farm workers, the sort of the manual laborers the elite in Corinth despised. Once again, Paul is ridiculing misplaced Corinthian loyalties (cf. 1:12d–13); who in their right mind would “boast” (3:21) about their adoring attachment to a servant? In so doing Paul deliberately undermines the cultural values that lie at the root of stunted Corinthian spiritual growth.”[7]

To borrow language from Paul’s later letter to the Romans, Paul is trying to renew the Corinthians’ minds. In saying things like “I am of Paul” or “I am of Apollos,” the Corinthian Christians were demonstrating a careless conformity to culture. They were imitating pagan patterns of relationships between followers and leaders. In no uncertain terms, Paul tells the Corinthians that by glamorizing (or by demeaning) their former ministers, they were, in the words of Romans 12:2, conforming themselves to this world.

Rather than conforming themselves to the surrounding society, Paul, along with Apollos and Peter, wanted the believers in Corinth to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. He wanted the Corinthians to see all their church leaders – past, present, and future – as Jesus saw them: as servants, assisting God by working in God’s field.

 

Conclusion

“I planted, Apollos watered, but …”

Does anyone remember Paul’s next four words? I’ll give you a hint: They’re next Sunday’s sermon title. Not enough of a hint?

“I planted, Apollos watered, but … God gave the growth.”

God gave the growth.

Next Sunday, I want to develop that thought by exploring three images Paul uses in this passage. He describes the local congregation as God’s field, God’s building, and God’s temple. We can learn a great deal from each description.

But I’d like to end today with some personal reflections on three of the servants the Lord assigned to this field, this building, this temple over the past 60 years.

I’d like to preface those remarks by reminding you that it’s absolutely appropriate to celebrate the work of former pastors, to rejoice in the ministries they had in our lives. When I told my pastor in Virginia what I’d be preaching on this Sunday, he said, “Be sure to remind the congregation that the fact they’re grieving the loss of their pastor means they had a good relationship with him.”

Wise words from one with nearly 40 years’ experience in pastoral ministry.

I’m grateful I was baptized by Rev. Behrends, even though I have no memory of the man. After seven years of serving as pastor of this church, he left before my first birthday. Even though I don’t remember him, I’m glad he was here to welcome me into the body of Christ. And I’m grateful to those of you still here who promised to see that I was raised in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

I do remember Dr. Kellow. I’m glad he was the one who led my communicants’ class. On the day I and several others became full members of this church, June 30, 1968, he gave each of us a copy of his book Daily Will I Praise Thee, 366 devotions based on the Psalms. I don’t know what he wrote in anyone else’s book, but here’s what he wrote in mine:

“To Bob: You will always remember the day you publicly confessed Christ as your Savior! If and when God calls you, may you be used with real power. A start would be reading your Bible daily and one of these devotions. Remember II Timothy 2:15!”

Do you think those words had any impact on a kid still two months shy of his 12th  birthday? Do you think you’re still feeling the impact of those words here today?

In the process of pursuing ordination to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA), my first step was to be taken under care by this church’s session. In the meeting where they voted to do so, I was asked if I had a favorite Bible verse. Want to guess what verse I quoted?

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (II. Tim. 2:15)

Joe Hourani was the pastor who helped shepherd me through the steps that would lead to ordination. As some of you are all too well aware, Presbyterian process may at times charitably be described as Byzantine. Joe knew the process; he knew the presbytery. I’m glad he was my pastor through that labyrinth.

 

What then is Arthur Behrends? What is Norman Kellow? What is Joe Hourani? Servants. One of those servants baptized me. One guided me into full membership. One walked with me to ordination, “as the Lord assigned to each.”

In the weeks and months and years ahead, my hope is that everyone in this sanctuary will see every former pastor, and every present member of this church, as servants doing the work the Lord assigned to each. My desire is that God’s Holy Spirit would lead each of us into a fuller understanding of Paul’s words, “I planted, Apollos watered … ”. My prayer is that as this process unfolds, our hearts and minds will be increasingly receptive to the words “but God gave the growth.”

Amen.

 

[1] Howard Clark Kee and Franklin W. Young, Understanding the New Testament, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1957), p. 208.

[2] Robert W. Jenson, “The God Wars,” Either/Or: The Gospel or Neopaganism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 25.

[3] Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), p. 2.

[4] Fee, Corinthians, p. 3.

[5] Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Raids: Eerdmans, 2000), p. 33.

[6] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 675.

[7] Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 143–145.

God Is Able to Keep You!

First Presbyterian Church of Elmer

107 Chestnut Street

Elmer, NJ 08318

Sermon Notes (Pentecost Sunday ~ May 15, 2016)

Rev. Mouris Yousef, Pastor

 

God Is Able to Keep You!

Psalm 121; Jude 24-25

 

A little boy walked down the street, clutching his dad’s finger.  Along the way, the boy slipped, lost his grip, and fell.  His dad picked him up and they continued along.  It wasn’t long before it happened again.  His dad picked him up again, but the next time, the boy said to his dad, “Daddy, instead of me holding your hand, you should hold my hand.”  The father took the son by the hand.  The little boy did not fall again.  In a greater, deeper, and higher way, God is ABLE to keep us when we cannot keep ourselves.

 

The Epistle of Jude is one chapter, only 25 verses.  The purpose of the letter is found in verse 3: “Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.”  The Book of Jude, therefore, is a call to live faithfully and to hold onto the truth of the gospel.

 

What was the threat for such faithfulness?  The threat is found in verse 4: “For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you.  They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.”  False teachers were leading people into sin.  Professing Christians were falling away from the faith.

 

In verse 21 Jude says, “Keep yourself in God’s love.”  True saints persevere in faith until the end.  The key to perseverance amid deceiving errors and tempting sins is to keep yourself in the love of God, BUT what happens when you cannot keep yourself?  Verses 24-25 answer this question.  It is one of the greatest doxologies in the New Testament.

 

This doxology – this declaration of praise – teaches us that God is able to keep us when we cannot keep ourselves.  The doxology of Jude 24-25 is a song of victory, a high note of praise, and a great assurance for the redeemed.  How should we respond to the fact that we cannot keep ourselves?  The doxology in Jude 24-25 teaches us to trust and praise the God who is able to keep us.

 

The last lesson I want to leave with this church family is simple: God and God alone!  Two important things Jude tells us of what God our Savior is able to do for us.  First, God will keep us from falling all the way; Second, God will present us faultless at the end.  And as a result, we will always give Him the glory.

 

First: God Will Keep us from Stumbling

Jude reminds us in verses 24-25, “To Him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before His glorious presence without fault and with great joy — to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore!  Amen.”  Friends, we live with this awareness, this possibility of stumbling.  We know the weakness and wickedness of our own heart.  In James 3:2 we read, “We all stumble in many ways.  Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.”

 

If stumbling is the sad reality, there is even a greater and more comforting reality.  God is fully committed to us.  No one will be able to keep us from stumbling but the Lord!  Our hope does not lie on the fact that we hold God’s hand, but on the truth that He holds our hand.  Whenever we lean on any thing but the power of God, we lean on a reed shaken with the wind.  Our God is able to save sinners and strengthen them.

 

1 Peter 1:5 echoes the same truth.  Peter states, we are “kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”  We are “kept by the power of God,” but this is not an automatic process where we are passive.  To enjoy this benefit we must be very much active; for it says, we are “kept by the power of God through faith.”  God does the keeping and we must do the believing.  We are not the power holders.  God is.

 

Second: God Will Present us Faultless

“To Him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before His glorious presence without fault and with great joy …”  Not only God is able to keep us from falling, but also He is able to present us faultless.  “Without fault” means without spot or without blemish.  The word is used with reference to sacrificial animals being without defect or blemish.  It is also used to refer to complete sinlessness, as when it refers to the Lord Jesus (Hebrews 9:11; 1 Peter 1:19).  It means faultless in righteousness.

 

When you think about this promise, it’s amazing.  The longer I live, the more I realize that I fall short.  I am much more aware today of my own imperfection than when I was younger.  But we see this again and again in Scripture as a core celebration of the gospel’s power to save: “For He chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight” (Ephesians 1:4).  When Christ brings us before the throne of God, He will clothe us with His own fine linen, and present us faultless.  Friends, we shall be truly the righteousness of God in Christ.

 

To Him Be Glory

To Him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before His glorious presence without fault and with great joy — to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore!  Amen.”  To God be the glory!  For the promises to keep us from stumbling and present us without fault when our mission on earth is completed, to Him be the glory.  For the time He has given me to serve this wonderful congregation, to Him be the glory.  For the faithfulness of so many people in this church family, to Him be the glory.  For the lives have been transformed and empowered by the good news of the gospel over the last few years at EPC, to Him be the glory.

 

Friends, as we venture this transition as a body of Christ here, let’s fully trust that God will keep us from stumbling and will bring the work He has begun in us into completion.  Today is Pentecost Sunday.  The Church all over the world celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit; the gift of God’s very presence.  God is always with us!  Let me remind you of the promises in Psalm 121: “I lift up my eyes to the mountains — where does my help come from?  My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.  He will not let your foot slip — He who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.  The Lord watches over you — the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.  The Lord will keep you from all harm — He will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”  To Him be the glory!  Amen.

Standing Firm in Shaky Times!

First Presbyterian Church of Elmer

107 Chestnut Street

Elmer, NJ 08318

Sermon Notes (Sunday May 8th, 2016)

Rev. Mouris Yousef, Pastor

 

Standing Firm in Shaky Times!

2 Chronicles 20:13-17; 1 Corinthians 15:58

 

I have been thinking what to say in my last two sermons to the congregation we love and to a family we will always appreciate and hold deep in our hearts.  My last two sermons from this pulpit as your pastor, therefore, will take the form of a charge to us as a congregation.  Let me introduce my sermon this morning with a story that would help us grasp what I will be saying.

 

The story is told of a father and his son who were working on a double-sided puzzle.  On one side was a map of the world.  On the other side was a picture of a man.  The young boy had put the puzzle together many times before.  As his father struggled to find the right place for all the pieces to complete the picture of the world, his son told him to turn the pieces over, because he had found it was much easier to put the puzzle together by concentrating on the picture of the man.  Finishing the puzzle quickly, the boy told his father, “See, DadWhen you get the man right, the world is right.”

 

The apostle Paul wanted to make sure that the Church in Corinth gets the MAN right, so that they also get the world right.  In 1 Corinthians 15:58 Paul charges the Church in Corinth to stand firm in shaky times.  He says, “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firmLet nothing move youAlways give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”  The charge here is two-fold: (1) to stand firm and at the same time (2) to keep moving and working.  It is kind of interesting to think about paradoxical statements ~ stand firm and keep moving.  When is the last time you had “jumbo shrimp” or used the word “bittersweet”?  Think about this statement: “Nobody goes to that restaurant anymore because it’s always too crowded.”  Or my favorite, “Down deep he or she is a shallow person.”  Today’s sermon passage is a bit paradoxical.  At the end of one of the greatest chapters in God’s Word, Paul tells us to stand firm and keep moving!  Let me briefly share a couple short observations based on the Scripture passages from 2 Chronicles and 1 Corinthians:

 

First: Stand Firm

The first action we are told to take based on the fact that through Christ we can have victory even over death is to stand firm.  Paul wrote, “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firmLet nothing move you.”  Paul began this verse with the word “therefore.”  That word is extremely important because it includes everything Paul has written in this great resurrection chapter ~ 1 Corinthians 15.  Jesus lives!  This is the truth we encounter in 1 Corinthians 15.

 

Because He lives, we can stand firm.  Because He lives, you and I can remain firm and unchanging in an ever-changing world.  Paul has just talked about the great victory we have in Jesus.  “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm.  Let nothing move you.”  We have to know that the church in the city of Corinth was one that had many struggles.  It was located in Greece so the majority of the people were gentiles.  They did not really care about the Christian faith.  Corinth was a very rich ciy, extremely wicked, and a major center of idol worship with a host of temple male and female prostitutes.  They were a sports center and hosted games to rival the Olympics.  Paul looks at the power that dwells and works in the believer lives, and charges the Corinthians to stand firm and let nothing move them.  In 1 John 4:4, the apostle John says, “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the ONE who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”

 

Second: Abounding in God’s Work

Paul is not finished with the first charge to the Church in Corinth to “stand firm.”  He continues, “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”  Paul doesn’t just tell us to hunker down with God’s Word.  He tells us to move, to be active in our faith.  “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord.”  Literally he tells us to abound in the work of the Lord.  He is talking about being busy and tireless in the work we do for the Lord, to do more than would be expected.  It’s like we wake up in the morning and say, “Here I am, Lord, reporting for duty.  What do you want me to do today?  I am ready to give You my all.”

 

A few years ago, a dear friend of mine sent me a great prayer that I still keep in my Bible.  It says, “Savior, I commit my head, my heart, my tongue, my hands, my feet, my strength, my love, my all to You this day.  Make me Your instrument of grace.  Empty me of self-esteem and fill me with Your Spirit.  May all who meet me this day meet You, not me.  Amen.”  God wants us to live our life with one aim: to do the will of our loving Heavenly Father.  We do that with all the strength God gives us.

 

The most encouraging thing here is that as we give ourselves to the work of the Lord, we know that our labor in the Lord is not in vain.  In other words, it’s not empty or useless.  There are so many times when our service to the Lord seems like it’s worthless.  Maybe a friend dismisses what we say or a neighbor doesn’t notice the kindness we show to them.  Perhaps it’s even worse than that; perhaps we get ridiculed for doing what’s right.  God promises to use our work for His good purposes.  Our labor for the Lord is never in vain.

 

Preacher and Evangelist F.B. Meyer (1847-1929) wrote about two Germans who wanted to climb the Matterhorn.  They hired three guides and began their ascent at the steepest and most slippery part.  The men roped themselves together in this order: guide, traveler, guide, traveler, guide.  They had gone only a little way up the side when the last man lost his footing.  He was held up temporarily by the other four, because each had a toehold in the niches they had cut in the ice.  But then the next man slipped, and he pulled down the two above him.  The only one to stand firm was the first guide, who had driven a spike deep into the ice.  Because he held his ground, all the men beneath him regained their footing.  F.B. Meyer concluded his story by drawing a spiritual application.  He said, “I am like one of those men who slipped, but thank God, I am bound in a living partnership to Christ.  And because He stands, I will never perish.”

 

Friends, as we stand firm, and as we always give ourselves fully to the work of the Lord, we have the privilege of both bringing glory and honor to Christ and the joy of helping other people to also stand firm.  “So stand firm,” says the apostle Paul to the Church in Corinth and to us.  “Stand firm and see the deliverance the Lord will give you,” said King Jehoshaphat to the Israelites as in 2 Chronicles 20:17 as they faced dangers and threats from the Moabites and Ammonites.  Let nothing move you.  Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord.  Because you know that your labor is not in vain.  Never in vain.  Why?  Because He lives!  Amen.

Yahweh Shammah: The Lord is There!

First Presbyterian Church of Elmer

107 Chestnut Street

Elmer, NJ 08318

Sermon Notes (Sunday May 1st, 2016)

Rev. Mouris Yousef, Pastor

 

Yahweh Shammah: The Lord is There!

Ezekiel 48:35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-18

 

A couple had two little boys, ages 8 and 10, who were always getting into trouble.  If anything was disturbed or missing in the neighborhood, their sons were probably involved.  One day their Mom asked their pastor if she could drop her boys off at church, so that the pastor could put the fear of God in them.  The pastor agreed, but asked to see them individually.  The 8-year-old would go into the pastor’s study first, then the older boy would be counseled.  The pastor who was a huge man with a booming voice, sat the younger boy down and asked him sternly, “Son, … where is God?”  The boy’s mouth dropped open, but he made no response.  The pastor repeated the question in a little firmer and louder, “Son, … where is God?”  Again the boy just sat there bug eyed and made no attempt to answer.  A bit exasperated, the pastor raised his voice even more, shook his finger in the boy’s face and bellowed, “Son!  I asked you a question. Where is God?”  The boy screamed and bolted from the pastor’s study.  As he passed his brother he said, “We are in big trouble this time, dude.  God is missing, and they think we did it.”

 

Sometimes you and I feel and live as if God is missing!  Twenty-three years ago I graduated from the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Cairo, Egypt.  A wonderful pastor gave the commencement speech.  I remember him sharing with us the promise of Jesus to the disciples in Matthew 28:20, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  I believe this pastor wanted to send us to the ministry field with a verse that would be of a great help and encouragement as we prepare ourselves for the future.  He couldn’t find a better one than Matthew 28:20.  The Lord is there.  He’ll be always there.  Matthew uses a Greek phrase: πάσας τὰς ἡμέρας, literally “every single day.”

 

The promise in Matthew 28:20 parallels the name of God that we’re going to look at this morning.  It’s a name that reminds us of Jesus’ promise to be with us always.  We find that name for God at the end of Ezekiel’s prophecy.  In the last chapter, Ezekiel describes the new city that God will make for His people.  Then he tells us the name of that place: “And the name of the city from that time on will be: the Lord is there ~ Yahweh Shammah” (Ezekiel 48:35).  This is the only time God uses this special name for Himself in the Scriptures.

 

Israel needed this name.  They were far from home, exiled in the land of Babylon.  They were waiting for the day they could come home.  Some of them even wondered if the Lord had left them all alone.  He told them about the new name He will give to Jerusalem once they repent and humble themselves before the Lord.  It was Yahweh Shammah ~ a reminder that God is there!

 

Back in the late 1970’s, the Jackson 5, led by a young singer named Michael, took the song I’ll Be There to the top of the charts.  He promised that no matter where he is, no matter what he is doing, he will drop everything to be by the side of the woman he loves.  The song ends with this message: “I’ll be there…whenever you need me, I’ll be there…just call my name, I’ll be there…”  Michael Jackson can’t fulfill that promise.  None of us can.  Yahweh Shammah made that promise a long time ago.  Can He keep it?  Will He keep it?  Absolutely He can and definitely He will.  A quick thought for today:

 

Places Change, but God’s Faithfulness Endures Forever

“And the name of the city from that day shall be, the Lord is there” says Ezekiel 48:35.  So, where is “there”?  Although Ezekiel refers to a certain city, i.e., the city of Jerusalem, I believe, for us today, “thereis those places and times where and when we encounter the Lord.  This can happen as God ministers to us.  Whether we are on the top of the mountain or the bottom of the valley, the Lord is there.  Whether you’re in Israel, or Babylon, the land of captivity, Yahweh Shammah ~ the Lord is there.  Wherever we are and whatever our struggles, we can know the Lord is present!  Friends, our places, roles, and positions in life may change, but the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.

 

Let me remind you of two great examples of God’s faithfulness toward His children.  The first is the example of Joseph and the second is Elijah’s.  We see Yahweh Shammah in the life of Joseph.  Joseph’s brothers were jealous because their father Jacob loved Joseph more than the rest.  They sold him as a slave to a caravan of traders.  As the 17 year old trudged along behind the camels, he must have wondered, “Where is GodHow can this be happening to me?”  When Joseph arrived in Egypt, a man named Potiphar bought him and put him to work in his household.  “While Joseph was in his master’s house: “The Lord was with Joseph and he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master.  When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant.  Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned” (Genesis 39:2-4).

 

The Master’s wife notices Joseph and tried to entice him to sleep with her.  Joseph refused.  Potiphar’s wife lied to her husband because she was so angry with Joseph.  Joseph ended up in jail.  Where is the Lord?  He promised to be with him!  Had he deserted Joseph?  Listen to the next few verses from Genesis 39:20-23: “But while Joseph was there in the prison, the Lord was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden.  The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.”  Places change, but God’s faithfulness endures forever.

 

Elijah’s example is another great one!  In 1 Kings 17:3-4 we read, “Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan.  You will drink from the brook, and I have directed the ravens to supply you with food there (shammah).”  Again, in 1 Kings 17:8-9 we read, “Then the word of the Lord came to him: “Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there.  I have directed a widow there (shammah) to supply you with food.”  “There” – is where we want to be.  This is the place of joy, blessing, and life!    “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” says Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:17.

 

Friends, I know that some of us today struggle with huge amounts of stress, fear, and worry.  Remember Yahweh Shammah ~ THE LORD IS THERE!!  As we celebrate Communion this morning, we also celebrate the very presence of Christ with us.  He is Emmanuel.  He is Yahweh Shammah.  The words of God through the Prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 43:1-5 are very encouraging: “But now, this is what the Lord says— He who created you, Jacob, He who formed you, Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.  When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.  For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead.  Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give people in exchange for you, nations in exchange for your life.  Do not be afraid, for I am with you.”  In the Name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Yahweh Jireh: God our Provider!

First Presbyterian Church of Elmer

107 Chestnut Street

Elmer, NJ 08318

Sermon Notes (Sunday April 24th, 2016)

Rev. Mouris Yousef, Pastor

 

Yahweh Jireh: God our Provider!

Genesis 22:1-14; Hebrews 11:17-19

 

You may have heard about the guy who fell off a cliff and on his way down he was able to grab onto a tree branch jutting out from the face of the rock.  As he hung there reviewing his options, he started yelling, “Is anyone up there?”  He was surprised to hear a voice say to him, “Yes, this is God.”  The man was greatly relieved, and quickly stuttered, “God, can you save me?”  “Of course I can,” responded God.  The man was really happy now and shouted out, “Great!  What should I do?”  The answer from the Almighty was not what he was expecting: “Let go of the branch.”  After a long period of silence, the man replied faintly, “Is there anyone else up there?”

 

Sometimes we’re like that man.  We want God to help us but we don’t always want to do what He says.  Specifically, we’re not always interested in “letting go” of those things that we think are holding us up.  It’s tough to release our grip and give control of our lives to God.  We kind of know that God will provide but maybe we’re not really sure He’ll come through for us.  And so we hold on, and wonder if there is someone else who can help us.

 

This morning we continue our meditations on some of the well-known Biblical names of God.  Last week, we meditated on El Shaddai, the Almighty, the all sufficient God, and its implications on our lives.  This morning our focus is on Yehwah Jireh ~ God our Provider.

 

Perhaps the most moving and heart-wrenching account of God’s provision is found in Genesis 22.  As I said last week, Abram was called by God when he was 75 years old from Ur the Chaldeans, the area that is now Iraq.  In Genesis 12, he is told to leave what he had always known and live in a land that God would later show him.  To let go of all that was familiar to him, Abram demonstrated incredible faith.  God then promised him that the entire world would be blessed through his offspring.  When he and Sarah got the news, they both started laughing, and so God gave the boy the name Isaac, which means “laughter.”  After 25 years of waiting, the son of promise was born to them.  But God still had some things he wanted to teach Abraham.  As we examine a couple Scriptures today, please allow me to highlight two important observations:

 

First: The Promise Tested

In Genesis 22:1-2 we read, “Some time later God tested Abraham.”  When we finish chapter 21, Isaac is still pretty young.  He is about 15-years-old, which means Abraham is around 115.  God wanted to test Abraham’s faith and faithfulness.  He is about to face an extreme exam.  This time God is going to demand something out of Abraham that will be extremely costly and exceedingly confusing: “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of MoriahSacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”

 

Notice the four phrases God uses – your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love.  God is making it very clear who He is talking about and He is putting His finger on the fact that Isaac was everything to Abraham.  And that was part of the problem because God ALONE should be everything to him.  God was saying, “We’ve walked together for many years and now you have the son you’ve longed for.  Tell me, Abraham; is this son more important to you than your relationship with me?”  When he left his father’s country, by faith, we learn that Abraham loved God more than his father.  Now we learn that he loved God more than his own son.

 

When Abraham received this tough test of faith, he didn’t argue with God and he also didn’t check with others.  Not one word of objection is recorded in the entire text.  Instead, he practiced immediate obedience: “Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey.  He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac.  When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about.”  Friends, a faith that cannot be tested cannot be trusted!

 

Second: Yehwah Provided

Abraham has the faith to believe that both he and Isaac will return after they worship!  Notice the pronouns: “We will worship…we will come back.”  Abraham has the assurance that Isaac will return with him.  Think about this.  Abraham is prepared to sacrifice his son, so how can he come back?  Hebrews 11:17-19 fills in the blanks for us: “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice.  He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.”

 

As Abraham and Isaac walked up the mountain together, “Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”  “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.  “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”  Oh, how these words must have sliced right through a devoted dad’s heart.  Abraham then answered, “God Himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”  The word “provide” is the word ‘Jireh” and has a very rich meaning.  It is translated as “to see” and as “provision.”  Abraham knew that God would somehow see to it that everything would work out.  Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns.  He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.

 

We know from the Bible that God loves to meet the needs of His people.  God loves to come through for His people, but often not until we “let go.”  We don’t have to fully understand in order to surrender, but we do need to fully trust.  It’s like the story I heard of a house on fire.  The little girl was trapped in her upstairs bedroom.  As she leaned out the window, her father, who was on the ground said, “Jump.  I’ll catch you.”  The little girl was afraid and replied, “But, I can’t see you!”  To which the Father shouted, “That’s OK.  I can see you.”  She jumped to safety not because she could see but because she trusted the voice of her father who told her to jump.  She was willing to let go.  And it was in letting go that she was ultimately provided for.  Is there anything you’re holding on to today?  What is your Isaac?  It’s time to put it all on the altar and trust God.

 

The British Christian Missionary Hudson Taylor (1832-1905) had a plaque in his room while he was a missionary in China.  On it were these words: Ebenezer and Jehovah Jireh, which means, “Thus far the Lord has helped us” and “The Lord sees or the Lord provides.”  One looked back and the other looked forward.  One reminded him of God’s faithfulness and the other of God’s provision.  “So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide.  And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided” Genesis 2:14.  In the Name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

El Shaddai, The Lord God Almighty!

First Presbyterian Church of Elmer

107 Chestnut Street

Elmer, NJ 08318

Sermon Notes (Sunday April 17th, 2016)

Rev. Mouris Yousef, Pastor

 

El Shaddai, The Lord God Almighty!

Isaiah 49:24-26; Revelation 1:4-8

 

I believe the amazing story of Charles Blondin, the famous French tightrope walker, is a wonderful introduction to my sermon this morning.  Blondin’s greatest fame came on September 14, 1860, when he became the first person to cross a tightrope stretched 11,000 feet (over a quarter of a mile) across the mighty Niagara Falls.  People from both Canada and America came from miles away to see this great feat.

 

Blondin walked across, 160 feet above the falls, several times – each time with a different daring feat – once in a sack, on stilts, on a bicycle, in the dark, and blindfolded.  One time he even carried a stove and cooked an omelet in the middle of the rope!  The highlight of the show came when Blondin pushed a wheelbarrow full of potatoes across the rope.

 

Upon reaching the other side, the crowd’s applause was louder than the roar of the falls!  Blondin suddenly stopped and addressed his audience: “Do you believe I can carry a person across in this wheelbarrow?”  The crowd enthusiastically yelled, “Yes! You are the greatest tightrope walker in the world.  We believe!”  “Okay,” said Blondin, “Who wants to get into the wheelbarrow?”  Not one hand went up!

 

Like Blondin’s audience, sometimes we, followers of Christ, get excited and emotional after an important spiritual experience or a rousing sermon.  Caught up in the moment, we are eager to cheer for those who are doing the work and taking the chances, but when we are called to step out in faith — to risk a little, or to lay it all on the line — our hands stay clasped firmly in our lap.  Like Blondin’s audience, sometimes our faith ends where risk begins.  God has never failed anyone since He created Adam and Eve.  His timing and balance are perfect — let’s get into the wheelbarrow.

 

What is in a Name?

Over the next couple Sundays, we will be looking at some of the Biblical names of God.  In the days gone by, a person’s name tells us so much about him or her and God’s names similarly tell us so much about His character.

 

This morning I want us to look at a great name of God.  It is a name that I am sure most of us have heard before – it is the name El Shaddai.  But what does this name mean?  “El Shaddai” is first found in Genesis 17:1 where the Lord appeared to Abram for the sixth time and then changed his name to Abraham.  The most simple translation of “El Shaddai” is ’God’ (’el’), THE ALL-MIGHTY ONE (’Shaddai’), to clearly differentiate the ONE true God from all the other ‘gods’ of the nations.

 

As mentioned, “El Shaddai” is first found in Genesis 17:1.  At the age of 99 ~ 24 years after the first promise was made ~ God appeared to Abram.  Up until this time, Abram, knew God only as Jehovah (Yahweh in Hebrew) and as El Elyon (Lord Most High).  But now God reveals another important side to His character.  He says – “I am El Shaddai ~ I am God Almighty.”  From that encounter between Abraham and God the Almighty, I want to draw a single application that is as important to us today as it was to Abraham back then.  What was so important about God revealing Himself to Abraham as El Shaddai?

 

El Shaddai ~ The All Sufficient God

In the context of Genesis chapter 17, El Shaddai speaks of God’s all-sufficiency.  In every circumstance that we find ourselves in, God is all-sufficient for us.  When God appeared to Abram, He said – “I am El Shaddai” – your all sufficiency, Abraham, walk before me and be blameless.

 

What was the major stumbling block for Abram walking before God and being blameless?  What was the major obstacle to Abram having anything at all to do with God?  It was the fact that 24 years earlier a promise had been made and it had not been fulfilled.  Could this God Yahweh be trusted?  I don’t know whether these thoughts were going through Abram’s mind, but I do know that both Abram and Sarah believed that they had well and truly missed the boat.  In Genesis 17:17 we see Abram laughing in disbelief that God was still contending that he could bear a child and in Genesis 18:12 Sarah also had a bit of a giggle to herself.  So it was in this context that God reveals Himself as the all sufficient one.  He was saying, don’t worry about what you have or haven’t yet received, Abraham.  I am all you need and will supply you with all you need.

 

Friends, I believe this is a timely message.  Often times we doubt that God is able to supply us with what we need.  Sometimes things look hopeless, impossible and useless.  Sometimes we feel old and barren like Abraham and Sarah – and we laugh at God’s promises.  We feel that we have exhausted all our resources and we are at our wit’s end – nothing has worked.  Have you ever felt like this?  Take some time this morning and look unto Jesus as the all-sufficient one.  What do we do in such situations?  Where do we turn?

 

I believe that God is giving us the answer here in this passage – He is saying that I am the “El Shaddai” – the ONE who is sufficient to meet all our needs; the one who is sufficient to calm all our storms; the one who is sufficient to restore our hopes, and to strengthen our feeble arms and our weak knees.  Abram was about to learn that God’s promises are fulfilled not by might, nor by power, but by the Spirit of the Lord Almighty (Zechariah 4:6.)  It would be El Shaddai who would accomplish His will in Abram’s life!  God is able, whatever the circumstance and whatever the difficulty.  The Apostle John echoes the same truth in Revelation chapter 1.  He was exiled to Patmos, the church was so persecuted, and it seemed to many that the “Jesus Movement” is coming to an end, yet here is what God wanted to give to His people in Revelation 1:8, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”

 

Friends, our God is the God of might and power.  In Proverbs 18:10 we read, “The name of the Lord is a strong tower.  The righteous run into it and are safe.”   Psalm 9:10 reminds us that “Those who know Your name, Oh Lord, will put their trust in You for You have not forsaken those who seek You.”  El Shaddai, God reminded Abraham and reminds His children today that He is the all-sufficient God, the God that is more than enough.  He is a covenant-maker and covenant-keeping God.  Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.  Amen!

“The Lord of the Storm!”

First Presbyterian Church of Elmer

107 Chestnut Street

Elmer, NJ 08318

Sermon Notes (Sunday April 10th, 2016)

Rev. Mouris Yousef, Pastor

 

The Lord of the Storm!”

Psalm 46:1-7; Luke 8:22-25

 

I have to confess that I changed my sermon topic three times this week.  Initially I had a different topic in my mind, but out of sadness, anxiety, fear, and some concern for the future of the ministry here at the Elmer Presbyterian Church during this transition, some of you have contacted me to express those feelings.  As I thought about those mixed feelings, the Lord led me to a couple Scripture passages from Psalm 46 and Luke 8 that clearly speak to us today.  The title I put to my sermon is, “The Lord of the Storm.”

 

The story of Jesus calming the storm is quite simple, but we can draw many lessons from it.  Our Lord, perhaps exhausted from all the teaching and healing activities of the day, withdrew with His disciples and desired to cross over the lake.  As they sailed, Christ slept.  A great storm arose.  The storm was so great that the boat was filing with water.  Luke conveys to us the sense of urgency in that the disciples now felt they were in jeopardy.  This small lake, the Sea of Galilee (also known as the Sea of Tiberias, or Lake Gennesaret) was known for its terrible storms.  Although the disciples, as fisherman, would have been familiar with the storms of this lake, they, perhaps, had never seen a storm as this one.

 

Fear gripped the disciples, and they ran to the Lord and awoke Him.  The Lord does not answer their question or say anything to calm their fears, but instead rebukes the wind and wave so that all became still.  At this, Christ turns to them and asks them, “Where is your faith?”  As we think about our own fears today and as we think about the future of the ministry at Elmer Presbyterian, please allow me to share with you a couple thoughts from Psalm 46 and Luke 8:

 

First: Jesus Will Ask Us to Go Where We Wouldn’t Go

Our natural tendency is NOT to go where Jesus wants us to go.  Because we have a limited perspective, it is not always clear to us why we would ever consider going some of the places that Jesus would have us go.  Jesus will sometimes ask us to do things we do not understand.  Luke 8:22-25 is a great example.

 

Look again at what Jesus said, in Luke 8:22 “One day Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Let’s go over to the other side of the lake.’  So they got into a boat and set out.”  Everyone piled in.  They started rowing or sailing.  “Where are we going, Jesus?”  “Oh, to visit the Gadarenes.”  Why would Jesus want to go there?

 

Well, the good thing is the disciples didn’t argue, they trusted.  They trusted even though they knew what – or more specifically, who – was on the other side of the lake: a bunch of pigloving non-Jews.  If they made any comment, the Bible doesn’t record it.  But I think some of them were thinking: “What is wrong with the beaches on our side of the lake?”  Maybe Jesus is prompting you to walk across a room and start up a conversation.  Maybe Jesus is asking you, “Let’s go over across the street.”  We are very good at excuses.  Yet, as we follow the risen Lord, He will ask us to go where we wouldn’t go ourselves.  On the other side of the lake, someone needed healing as Luke tells in in chapter 8:26-39 ~ a demon-possessed man needed the restoration of the Lord!

 

Second: Jesus Will Save Us in A Way We Would Not Expect

As we face the storms of life, let’s be assured that Jesus will save us in a way we would not expect.  In Luke 8:24-25 we read, “…He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm.  “Where is your faith?”  He asked His disciples.”  What exactly were the disciples expecting Jesus was going to do?  It is strange that these disciples were willing to follow Jesus into the boat, they were willing to trust Him with the destination, they were willing to let Him go to sleep, but they were worried that they would not get across the lake.  Why?  Because they expected that with Jesus asleep in the boat, it was going to be an easy ride, smooth sailing.  They expected that with Jesus in the boat, it was going to be no problems.

 

Instead of an easy ride, what the disciples got was the storm, the wind, the waves, the boat filling with water.  They did not expect the storm to come their way with Jesus in the boat.  They had so much fear and doubt.  They probably thought God had abandoned them.  But Jesus doesn’t do that.  He doesn’t bring us this far to leave us right in the middle of the storm.  In Psalm 46 we are reminded with this great truth, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging … God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.”

 

As fishermen, they expected Jesus to intervene in a certain way at a certain time.  They might have expected Jesus to pray.  They might have expected Him to guide them to land somehow, or help them row back to shore, or for help to appear in the form of another boat.  They might have expected even for Him to walk on water.  He has been there and done that.

 

But Jesus does something amazing.  He stands up and tells the world to shut up.  And it does.  The wind stops.  The waves vanish.  And their journey continues to the other side of the lake, just like Jesus said it should.

 

The same Jesus who started with us is the same Jesus who is with us now and is the same Jesus who will finish it with us.  “Behold I am with you always, even to the end of the age,” Jesus says in Matthew 28:20.  If God lets you into this mess, God will lead you out.  And He will do it in a way that is uniquely God.

 

Friends, it is not about the storms of life.  Rather, it is ALL about who is in your boat!  The problems we face may seem so big, but that is because we forgotten how BIG our God is.  Friends, we are not really alone even when we think we are.  As I have written in the note I sent to all of you this week, please don’t panic!  God is still on the throne and both you as a child of God and the Elmer Presbyterian Church are centered on the Lord Jesus Christ.  In a few weeks a beautiful chapter is closing, but a more beautiful chapter awaits us.  That’s the nature of the Christian grief.  “To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise, honor, glory and power, now and for ever and ever!”   Amen!

“When the Lord Speaks Your Name!”

First Presbyterian Church of Elmer

107 Chestnut Street

Elmer, NJ 08318

Sermon Notes (Easter Sunday ~ March 27th, 2016)

Rev. Mouris Yousef, Pastor

 

When the Lord Speaks Your Name!

John 20:11-18

 

In the gospel of John, the Easter story begins with Mary the Magdalene. In John 20:1 we read, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.” Early … while it was still dark … as though Mary couldn’t sleep for sorrow. She rises to come to the place where they buried Jesus; there she finds the heavy stone was rolled away from the entrance to the tomb and the body of the Lord is not there. Mary runs back to the house where the disciples were staying and she brings a couple of them back with her, Simon Peter and John; and even after they have left the grave, Mary remains behind, weeping.

 

In John 20 we see a very desperate, confused, and helpless woman. The scenes of Good Friday are still overshadowing her mind. It was such a tough day. So, early while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb to mourn, perhaps to speak to the dead rabbi through the stone door.

 

Mary is in real despair. Even the wonder of seeing the angels cannot distract her; even if they seem to speak kindly to her, they are not helping her find her Master; so she turns to someone, anyone, who can: even the gardener or the caretaker – maybe she doesn’t mistake Jesus as the gardener so much as she wants Him to be the gardener – the man in charge of the place, and bound to know all the comings and goings. In desperation, we grasp at straws.

 

In her desperation, Mary couldn’t recognize the Lord Jesus Christ who was standing right before her talking to her. In John 20:14 we read, “She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.” Here is the question for us this Easter Sunday: What brings about the transformation of Mary? In my opinion, it is God’s grace that rescues us when we hit rock bottom. What we see in John 20 is an act of grace. It is in the midst of our desperation and hopelessness, our mess and confusion, that God extends His grace to us. So, where do we see the grace of God in here?

 

First: The Risen Lord Reaches out to Mary

Mary couldn’t figure out who this stranger was. She thought He was the gardener. Yet, He reached out to her. As I mentioned, she was talking to him, but couldn’t recognize that was Jesus. In reaching out to Mary, the risen Lord shows an act of divine grace. Jesus didn’t have to appear to Mary. Whether she was or wasn’t one of the inner circle of disciples is unimportant. He could have appeared to her along with all the others later that night or at any other time. So why come to her that morning? I think He appeared to Mary to prove His grace, to show her and the rest of us today that He is still near to us; that the aloneness and the pain, that the Good Fridays of our lives, are not the final word, but rather, that our Lord may speak, at any time, a word of grace, comfort, and hope to us.

 

Second: The Risen Lord Calls Mary by Name

Grace also shows itself in another great way in this story. The Risen Lord not only reaches out to Mary, but also speaks Mary’s name. He speaks her very name! In John 20: 16 we read, “Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward Him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).” It’s not that Mary Magdalene finally recognizes His voice or His intonation, but that she understands that He knows her. The real blessing for us today is not we know Him, but He knows us.

 

The real power and beauty of this passage are in Jesus addressing Mary by her name. He speaks her name in Aramaic, ~ Mariam ~ not even in the classic Hebrew. That’s how He knows her – and us: completely, deeply, from birth, knows our names and nicknames, knows our hurts and knows our ticklish places, knows the things we try to hide, knows everything we need, and comes to us, speaking our name in the language we best understand, calls to us in the exact manner that will cause us to see Him. Here is such a profound love – as Jesus keeps coming to us, and a perfect grace – as He speaks so that we will know He is there. O, what a Savior!

 

Friends, as we celebrate Easter today, may the voice of the resurrected Lord be an old familiar one to us too. And because He still reaches out to us and calls each one of us by our name, may His voice be the sweetest sound you hear today. Happy Easter Elmer Presbyterian Church family!