Sermon: Love in the 21st Century

What does sharing God’s love look like in the 21st century? Just ask Rachel (my wife). Seriously. Ask my wife. She exemplifies this in a story I share about her in this message. The slides can be by clicking on this link: https://benbergren.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/John-13-Love-in-the-21st-Century.pdf

Articles: The Covenants of God

I’ve been thinking about the two major covenants that God made with God’s people. There are several covenants found within the Bible but there are two that stand out above the rest. As a matter of fact the two sections of the Bible are named after these covenants. The word testament comes from the Latin word “Testamentum” which translates as covenant.

To be sure we are all on the same page, a covenant is an agreement or a contract made by God. Because it comes from God, God won’t break or cancel any covenant He establishes.

But wait… there’s more!

Did you know that not all covenants are not the same? There are three types of covenants found within the Bible. Not all covenants are alike! (Stick with me, this is going somewhere…)

  1. Parity Covenants— Two equal parties. It is a partnership contract. For example a marriage covenant.
  2. Suzerain Covenants—Not equal and is “top-down.” Imposed by a king to his people or by a king and lesser/defeated king/kingdom. These covenants are conditional, meaning both sides are required to do something. Often they are temporary.
  3. PromissoryCovenants—Also not equal. Not a two way agreement. It is given by the more powerful entity (God) and there is no quid pro quo. It is promise from one party to another with no strings attached. These have no expiration and these covenants continue on in perpetuity.

OK, with that said, let’s talk about the two major covenants of the Bible. The “Old Covenant/Testament” is the covenant God gave Moses and the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. In other words, the centerpiece of the Old Covenant is the 10 Commandments (see Exodus 20). However, the Passover Meal (see Exodus 12) reflects the relationship God establishes with the people of Israel that is tied to heart of that relationship: the Law.

The “New Covenant/Testament” is the covenant God gave through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The meaning of this covenant is forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation. However, Holy Communion (The Lord’s Supper) reflects themes of forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation.

Now here is the test… What type of covenants (old and new) are they?

Give up?

The Old Covenant is a “Suzerain Covenant.” How do I know? The Bible tells us as much. There are many places where God repeats that this covenant is conditional. There are expectations that the Israelites must live up to if the covenant is to remain intact.

For example: “So be careful to do what the Lord your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left. Walk in all the waythat the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may liveand prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess.” Deuteronomy 5:32-33

 One more example, in case you were doubting me: “This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel:  ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.  Now ifyou obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will bemy treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” Exodus 19:3-6

 There are more examples but I will stop with these two.

There are expectations! There are conditions! If the Israelites don’t live up to the directives laid out by God (The 10 Commandments) in the covenant, life won’t go well.

Most of us know enough of the Old Testament to know that God kept his Word. Things did not go well when the people of Israel did not live up to the covenant God made with them.

What about the “New Covenant?” What type of covenant is that?

It is a “Promissory Covenant.” This is good news! It is also great news! There are no conditions! It is a promise for us and there is nothing for us to do but receive: forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation. I know it seems too good to be true… but it is not. This covenant is a better deal for humanity, besides the Old Covenant was ONLY for the people of Israel.

That is why the author of Hebrews (a letter in the New Testament) says this… “For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another.But God found fault with the people…” Hebrews 8:7-8a.

 And a little bit later… “By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.” Hebrews 8:13

 The Suzerain nature of the Old Covenant means that is was always destined to be temporary. It was needed, it was good and it has a shelf life. God did not cancel it or break it but God did replace it.

Note: Some of our Jewish brothers and sisters still live under a form of this covenant. Yet we understand that in the fullness of time, this covenant will disappear for the newer covenant which is promissory and eternal.

Saint Paul tells us the purpose of the Old Covenant (historically speaking)… “So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith.  Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” Galatians 3:24-25

 It served as a legal custodian to take care of us (historically speaking) until Christ arrived and we were emancipated! We are free!

Why did I tell you all of this? First, I want you to understand why the New Covenant is superior to the Old Covenant (see Hebrews 19:6). Second, I want you to know why the covenants are not equal. Third, all Christians have the tendency to revert Old Covenant thinking by adding rules and laws to following Christ in a very Suzerain way that limits God grace. Let us not go backwards!

The New Covenant is promissory in nature. There is no quid pro quo. God does all the heavy lifting and we don’t do any. God understands that we can’t live up to the standards He set for us. Instead of giving up on us, God did for us what we could not do for ourselves… we are made holy.

That is truly good news.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

 

 

 

Sermon: More Than Happy: The Joy of Provision

We finish the series on Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. Today we see that expressing our joy at knowing Jesus should have a measure of gentleness too. Why? Listen in and find out. Also, there is a bonus song from The New Life Band from Tanzania at the end of the message.

Article: A Thorny Issue

Jesus said…
“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn bushes, or grapes from briers. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.” Luke 6:43-45

 This passage scares me. It always has, as well as its companion found in Matthew 7:15-23 which specifically talks about false prophets using similar words.

I wonder, what kind of “fruit” do I produce? Is it good fruit? It is mediocre “produce” or is it rotten fruit? I am not good at that kind of self-evaluation.

I know that I sin. As I have said in some of my previous writings, the older I get the more aware I am of my sinfulness. Life was easier when I thought I was a decent person. I don’t think that anymore. That is why these words of Jesus trouble me.

I don’t want to be a thorn bush.

The only thing that I can cling to is this: I know that Jesus does not expect perfection from anyone, including his followers. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray in the same way that John the Baptist taught his disciples, Jesus didn’t teach them howto pray but whatto pray for!

A part of that prayer (that you know so well) says, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.”Luke 11:4a

If perfection was possible once we started following Jesus, we wouldn’t need part of the Lord’s Prayer and Jesus would not have included it.

When Jesus institutes The Lord’s Supper, what does he say? “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”Matthew 26:28 This holy meal that we receive is meant to provide forgiveness.

Even though this passage still concerns me, it is a relief that this is not about being perfect. Although Jesus doesn’t explain what these verses mean, I am going to go out on a limb and say this has to do with the consistency of a person over the long haul.

It is as if Jesus is saying, “If you expect kindness from a (consistently) abusive person you won’t find it so don’t go looking for it.”

Or, “If you look to a (consistently) immoral person for advice or leadership, you probably won’t receive good counsel.”

In other words, if you are looking for something in the wrong place, you will never find it.

Jesus tells us that everyone has a reputation. (Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.) Good or bad, we all are known by our demeanor, our words and our actions. It is unavoidable. Although we may never know what our reputation is we still have one. People do talk about us when we are not around and what they say about us points to our reputation.

Our overall behavior is our reputation. When we do or say something that is not consistent with our reputation (good or bad), people take notice. That action is not our reputation and that is not what I am talking about. A sinful action doesn’t make or break your reputation. Whew!

Remember in Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” where the main character Ebenezer Scrooge has a change of heart and reputation! His employee Bob Cratchit could barely believe it… for good reason! Mr. Scrooge was behaving in a way that was not consistent with his reputation.  Ebenezer’s nephew (Fred) felt the same way when he encountered his uncle on Christmas Day! Although Mr. Scrooge had truly changed, people were suspicious because it was so out of character.

Although I know “you can’t please all the people all of the time,” I hope and pray that I am more of an apple tree than a briar patch over the long haul.

God bless you,
Pr. Ben

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon: More Than Happy: The Joy of Faith

We continue our look at Philippians. Today we dig into chapter 3 where we find that we can rejoice more when we grasp an undiluted faith. What does that mean? Listen and find out!

Article: Where Does Your Help Come From?

Here is a charged question for you, “Who’s side are you on?” Even though I am not sitting next to you right now, I can sense the unease, sadness if not anger rising up through your screen. Some of you are thinking that I am about to “say” something political and not “religious.”

It has been a hard week for our nation. The division among us is more pronounced than it ever has been if social media is to be believed. The anger and sadness is palpable and real.

I can’t fix the divide, I can’t make anyone feel better and I certainly can’t change anyone’s mind. (If I thought I could, I need to get some professional help.)

I am reminded this week (more than ever) that the brokenness of our world is unfixable by human efforts. Not only that, but the brokenness that resides in all of us seems to be growing not shrinking. Remember what I said last Sunday? “Where two or three are gathered there will be a difference of opinion.”

So, I ask again, “Who’s side are you on?” I’ll answer that for myself… “I strive to be on Jesus’ side.” (Was that what you were expecting?)

I want to be known as a follower… a disciple of Jesus… and it is not easy sometimes.

I know that at the end of my life, nothing else will matter.

When I went to seminary (the graduate school where I was trained to be a pastor), one of the things they wanted us to always remember was that “Jesus was an outsider who befriended and cared for other outsiders.” Not only did our professors tell us that, but they added to that statement by saying, “if we future pastors wish to follow Jesus’ lead, we must also do the same.”

Not that this should be a surprise to anyone since Jesus clearly stated his mission as he began his ministry. He went into his hometown synagogue and read from Isaiah 61.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4:18-19 (from Isaiah 61)

Just to make sure no one misses the point of him reading this, he adds, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:21

Jesus is the one who comforts the estranged, the broken-hearted and those who feel far from God and others.

It is Jesus who cared for…

The Leper

The Syrophoenician Woman

The Blind Man

Zacchaeus the Tax Collector (and traitor)

The Criminal on the Cross

The Woman with the Flow of Blood

Children

The Man with Demons

The Woman with Demons

The Sick Man Who Lowered Down on a Mat

The Widow who Lost her Son

And the list goes on…

I want to be counted among the one who cares for the broken-hearted and excluded. I want to be like Jesus who came to serve regular people who have been hurt and marginalized by circumstance and other people.

As you may know, one of my ordination vows explicitly asks me to do this very thing. Speak publicly to the world in solidarity with the poor and oppressed calling for justice and proclaiming God’s love for the world.”

 It is not a convenient vow to make. Nor is it easy because I know that no matter what I say or do someone is not going to happy when issues of justice arise. As I remember, Jesus was not the favorite of those who used their power to metaphorically hold people down and keep them in their place.

Here’s what I do know, if you are sad, I will be sad with you. If you are gloating, I will not gloat with you.

The world and human systems are often predicated upon winners and losers. I do not see any winners, I see only losers, myself included.

The first verse in Psalm 121 begins this way, “I lift up my eyes to the hills— where does my help come from?”  It is a rhetorical question. The answer is, “It is not the hills.” Let me add to that list of one. Our help doesn’t come from Washington, or political parties or any president that has ever served our country. “My (our)help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” Psalm 121:2

 Our help comes from the Lord who came to earth to show us how much he loves us despite our brokenness. Jesus came and died to remove the ugliness inside of those who believe in Him so that we might trust in God alone.

I can’t help but think of that church sign I saw online once… “The donkey and elephant will let you down, put your trust in the lamb.” Jesus is the perfect lamb of God who gave himself for us and stands with those who are on the outside looking in.

God bless you,
Pr. Ben

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon: More Than Happy: The Joy of Imitation

We continue the sermon series in the book of Philippians where we discover in chapter 2 that there is joy in being like-minded and following Christ’s lead in how he treated people.

Article: Gentiles

I was reading Paul’s letter to the Ephesians recently and I was struck by the “big issue” Paul needed to address within the church. Literally, it is an issue that might seem irrelevant to us or a “thing of the past.” Yet, if we look at the same issue thematically, it is still an topic that we still wrestle with today.

The big issue? Gentiles. Yeah, horrible isn’t it? Paul brings up Gentiles in his letter to the church of Ephesus. Now this big issue wasn’t limited to that church. It was an issue for the entire Church (capitalized C was intentional).

Originally the church was made up of Jewish people because Jesus was (and still is) Jewish. Christianity was an offshoot of Judaism. The early church believed that to be a Christian, you had to be Jewish. This was problematic for several reasons.

First, it is was understood that one was born Jewish back then. You don’t convert to Judaism or become Jewish. It was very simple, you either were born Jewish or you were not. If you were not, you were a Gentile. You didn’t get to change teams. On top of that, Gentiles were beyond the love and salvation of God, period. This was not a matter of evangelism. You can’t become something you are not. Only God’s chosen people were loved by God.

Even with that understanding, some Gentiles started believing in Jesus as their Savior after hearing Peter preach about Jesus and His death and resurrection. (Silly Gentiles breaking the rules.) This did not fit the early church’s understanding of God or Gentiles. The prevailing thought within the early church was this, “They couldn’t possibly believe in Jesus Christ, they weren’t Jewish and they were beyond the love of God. This was simply impossible.”

What did the early Church do? They made these Gentiles convert to Judaism before they could be recognized as believers of Jesus. Seems a little odd to convert to Judaism since they already believed that you had to be born into Judaism and could not convert, but ok. Let us not forget that these Gentile believers ALREADY believed in Jesus. Yet, the church amended the rules to let the Gentiles in as long as they converted to Judaism, followed the Law of Moses (and the males were circumcised).

Some Jewish Christians went along with this “accommodation” and some objected and thought it seemed ludicrous to do all this “hoop jumping” to become a Christian especially if the Gentiles in question already believed in Jesus! This caused conflict… a big conflict.

Soon the very first Church “Council” was convened. Not like our monthly church council meetings at church; this was more like a synod assembly or our national churchwide assembly. This was a big deal. After hearing arguments on both sides, the decision was made to “allow” (ha!) Gentiles to be Christian without converting to Judaism. There were some small caveats (See Acts 15:1-21) but essentially the “non-converting to Judaism first group” won and the “must convert to Judaism first group” lost.

As in many conflicts, there were winners and losers but that’s just how it goes, right? Nope. You would think that once a decision was made it was a done deal. But it wasn’t. The “losers” continued to tell Gentile Christians that in order to be a “real Christian” they still needed to follow the Old Testament Law (Law of Moses) including being circumcised (if you were a male). The big issue was still a big issue even when Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians 14 years after the decision was made to let the Gentiles join the church.

In Ephesians 2:11-22, Paul continues to affirm that Gentiles are not second class citizens and that following the Law of Moses (Old Testament Law) has nothing to do with being a Christian because we are under grace. Imagine that 14 years later, Paul is still trying to convince people that anyone who believes in Jesus is welcome in the church and not somehow a second class citizen in the Kingdom of God or worse, not a citizen at all.

It is not hard for me to see that Christ’s Church is still struggling with who is welcome and who is not 2000 years later. It is no longer Gentile or Jew, it is other distinctions that some wish to say is beyond the love of God or other related proclamations.

Thankfully, the portions of the Church have changed…
We have condemned slavery, bigotry and racism… and yet racism still exists
We have ordained women… and yet some churches won’t
We have condemned hatred… and yet churches still hate others
We have said God’s love is for all… and some churches don’t believe that

We are far from arriving, but we have come a long way.

There are those who are like the Gentile believers of Christ even today. They believe in Jesus but are not welcome in portions of His Church.

I believe it is a good thing to clarify who we are as the children of God. It is good to own who we are and to whom we belong. And it is good to remember that as a Gentile, we too were once on the outside of the Church because of something beyond our control and choice.

As Paul said in Galatians 3:28 when dealing with this very issue…

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

We are one because we believe in Jesus. There is no “us and them” within Christianity. There are no “outsiders and insiders” among believers. There is no distinction, dichotomy or point of difference that we point to within a fellow believer in Jesus and say that disqualifies you from the love of God.

We do not need to re-litigate the first church council decision, but we do need to wrestle with the same issue of who is welcome in every generation.

God bless you,
Pr. Ben

Sermon: More Than Happy: The Joy of Connection

We begin a new sermon series looking at Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. Paul has an overwhelming joy in the face of grim circumstance. We have something to learn from this letter over the next 4 weeks.

 

Article: Flawed

‘Cause I am a sinner
If it’s not one thing it’s another
Caught up in words
Tangled in lies
But You are a Savior
And You take brokenness aside
And make it beautiful
Song: Brokenness Aside by All Sons and Daughters

King David wrote a song (psalm) after being called out for committing adultery and then murder to cover that up. Here is a portion of that song from Psalm 51…

Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom  in the inmost place. (v.5-6) NIV

Or

I’ve been out of step with you for a long time, in the wrong since before I was born. What you’re after is truth from the inside out. Enter me, then; conceive a new, true life. (v.5-6) The Message

 Psalm 51 is King David’s song of repentance. He bears his heart in song and these words reflect: shame, embarrassment, a disconnection from fellowship with God and a need for forgiveness.

We can look at this in two ways.

  1. This is a snapshot in time. King David’s “royal” mess up is really ugly and he knows it as well as other people. David is not just sad he got caught, he is sad that he did a terrible thing. Note: People are often sorry they got caught and NOT that they did something hurtful.
  2. Or we can take a step back and see that King David’s story is our story.

These two points of view are not mutually exclusive. This is King David’s experience and it is our story.

When we take a look at a macro-view of the Bible, one of the major themes (if not the primary) is this: People are flawed.

What I find interesting is that some want to argue (and dismiss scripture in the process) that we (orthodox Christianity) harp on sin, sinfulness, judgment and that is our agenda for control over others. Many go on to say, this is not God’s agenda… because God really wants us to be happy, prosperous, successful or whatever.

I do not have the time to write a treatise on this (and I am sure you wouldn’t read it if I did) but let me remind you that within the first three chapters of the Bible we are told a story about why life is so hard. Spoiler alert: Humanity caused it because we are flawed. (This is an un-nuanced theological response but when you boil it down to its essence; we are flawed.)

God’s story begins with creating a perfect world (and universe) and then people mess up perfection because we are flawed.

This story doesn’t sit in isolation, does it? God cares about flawed people… His creation. This brokenness is so concerning to God that He addresses it head on and comes to earth in the person of Jesus to deal with our flaws once and for all.

How can anyone argue that sin is not an important theme in scripture and concerning to God?

I don’t know why people want to argue that humanity as a whole are “good people” and that there are only a few “bad apples.” I don’t get it.  My personal experience tells me that I need help in life. I am a “better” person when I turn to God and I am a “better” person when I surround myself with like-minded Christians. Yes, you help me be a better person. Thank you.

Equally troubling to me are Christians who believe that we are all flawed yet some people are too flawed for God.  Honestly, that makes me sick and it makes my blood boil. NO ONE IS BEYOND THE GRACE AND LOVE OF GOD. Not even “those people” whoever they are.

So let me be clear, no one beyond the love and grace of Jesus. Nothing is more powerful than what the cross of Christ represents.

If someone enters a church on a Sunday morning wanting to connect with God they should be welcomed. You and both know that many Christian churches have a litmus test when it comes to who is welcome. Whether it is skin color, ethnicity, sexuality, physical appearance (economic factors), or a known past history, many churches make it clear who is welcome to experience the love of Jesus and who is beyond divine love. Sometimes that rejection has nothing to do with someone else’s flaws!!! The sin of exclusion and rejection is the problem not the other person’s identity (see list above).  With standards like this, King David wouldn’t be welcomed in most churches.

We are all flawed. We all need Jesus. Our doors are unlocked on Sunday morning for a reason.

Let us rejoice that God loves sinners…I mean people… you know what I mean.

God bless,
Pr. Ben