Monday, November 14, 2016

Now What? (Various Scriptures)

Philippians 2:14-15; 3:20

Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world … For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. 

So, I’ve been away for a little while. Did I miss anything important? Has there been anything significant happening in the news? Of course, I jest. You may recall that two Sundays ago, I said from this pulpit, “The next time I see you all, we will have a new President-elect.” I also said that either result will mean that we are living in a different day and age here in the United States of America. Just how different it will be remains to be seen. But today, I want to speak to the gathered church, with a charitable assumption that I am talking by-and-large to Christian people who are born-again by faith in Jesus Christ. And what I want to share with you is a gameplan for “Now What?” How shall we, as Christian people, live in this new day and age? In fact, as we look at this gameplan, we will discover that it is not a new gameplan, because no matter how things have changed or will change for us as Americans, there are a good number of things that will never change for us Christians. We believe in a sovereign God, we believe that we are first and foremost citizens of heaven, and we believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and that He reigns over an unshakable kingdom that will never end. No election result can ever change those matters.

I began outlining this gameplan while I was lying in bed at my hotel on Tuesday morning before the first election returns began to come in. And as I thought about it, it occurred to me that the outcome of the election would not affect this gameplan. This is the way that we as Christians ought to live whether we live in Barack Obama’s America, Hillary Clinton’s America, or Donald Trump’s America. In fact, it is the same gameplan for our brothers and sisters in Christ who live in Putin’s Russia, in Kim John-un’s North Korea, or in King Abdullah’s Saudi Arabia. What varies from place to place is the cultural context in which we live out this gameplan, but the gameplan itself does not change.

In the text that I just read from Philippians, we see the big picture. “Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world.” I like how the NIV words that last phrase: “you will shine among them like stars in the sky.” And the reason we are able to do this is because our citizenship in America is secondary at best. First and foremost, we are citizens of something bigger than America. As born-again believers in Christ, we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. So, we have the ability to shine the glory of heaven into the darkness of our culture like a lighthouse that beckons others to find their safe harbor in this everlasting kingdom, come what may in America.

It should be obvious that America is a divided nation. The very fact that the race for governor in North Carolina is still too close to call is but one indication of that. Other examples of it can be seen in the calls to abandon the electoral college, in public demonstrations in the streets because one group’s candidate lost, and in the incessant and hollow assertions of those who now say they are moving to another country because they cannot stand the President-Elect. In 1858, at the Illinois Republican State Convention, Abraham Lincoln was chosen to be the candidate for Senate. By the way, in that election, Lincoln won the popular vote and lost the election. But, back to the convention. His speech to that assembly has come to be known as the “House Divided” speech. In the opening lines, Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Though that phrase has been attributed to Lincoln countless times, you must know that it was not original with him. Lincoln was quoting Jesus Christ when he said that. And in a divided land, it must be the followers of Jesus Christ who show the way forward in unity and peace.

For the last fifty years, Immanuel Baptist Church has been known as “a church for all people.” I often say that being a church for all people does not equal being a church for every person, for it takes a special kind of person to belong to a church for all people. To be a viable part of a church for all people, one must understand that his or her fundamental identity does not come from the color of his or her skin, the language spoken in his or her home, the country of his or her origin, or even the political party with which he or she aligns. While we have for five decades insisted that whites and blacks, Asians and Native Americans can sit side-by-side on the same pew here, the challenge for us in the foreseeable future is to demonstrate that Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and Independents can worship together in one place, and love one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, because we understand that our fundamental identity is found in and through our relationship with Jesus Christ. No matter what else threatens to divide us, it is “one Lord, one faith, and one baptism, one God and Father of all” which unites us. Therefore, while others may take to the streets in demonstration because their side lost; while others threaten to move to another land because they cannot stomach the thought of their political rival having authority; while others clamor for the restructuring of our electoral process in America; we as Christians must rise above the fray and do better than this. While we will remain a church for all people, if one cannot live in this way, then we may well not be a church for that individual, because that individual is trying to find his or her fundamental identity outside of Jesus Christ.

So, as we consider a gameplan for “Now What?,” we ask ourselves the question, “How shall we live as citizens of Jesus Christ’s Kingdom in Donald Trump’s America?” Whether you voted for him or against him, it does not matter. Your King has expectations of you, and those expectations comprise our gameplan for “Now What?”

I. Pray (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

We are a people of prayer. We must be! If Christians are not people of prayer then no one is, for we alone have been promised access to God through Jesus Christ and the assurance that He will hear us and answer us when we pray. So we are admonished repeatedly in Scripture to pray, and even to “pray at all times” (Eph 6:18) and “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17). And as we pray, we must obey the Lord’s command to pray for those who are in authority. In 1 Timothy 2:1-3, Paul says, “First of all, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Let’s unpack that for a moment. He says, “First of all.” That is not always how we think of prayer. We often think of prayer, “Last of all.” We find ourselves saying, “Well, I guess all we can do now is pray!” How foolish! If we had prayed first of all instead of last of all, we may have eliminated a lot of frustration! Prayer must be a priority in our lives! Now, we will all be very spiritual and say, “Oh, but it is!” The fact is that there isn’t a one of us who couldn’t stand to pray more than we do. In fact, in nearly a quarter century of being a Christian, I have only ever known one person about whom I could say, “I think they pray enough.” But that person would probably be the first person to say, “No, I should pray more than I do.” Friends, you can pray wherever you are, and I hope you do. But, should it not concern us when the least attended service of the church life is the prayer meeting? Is it not a problem when churches drop prayer meeting from the calendar because of poor attendance and participation? Is it not hypocritical to have a meeting and call it a prayer meeting and spend the least amount of time in it actually praying? I am going to come right out and say it – prayer meeting is Wednesday night at 6:30 in the chapel, and it is not going to change. Whether one or one hundred people show up, we are going to pray, because there is nothing more important for us to do than to talk to the sovereign God of the universe about the things that concern us! And there are some of you who would be there if you could, but you can’t. I understand that. But there are likely many more who are not there, but should be. If prayer is to be “first of all,” one of the ways we can demonstrate that is by being at the prayer meeting! And I will go a step further and say that men in particular need to heed this. Not that women shouldn’t, but the prayer meeting in many churches is typically only well attended by women! Why single out men? Because the Bible singles out men! Look at verse 8: “Therefore I want the men in every place to pray.” There are many times that I can count the men in prayer meeting on one hand. Men, prayer meeting is not a ministry of the WMU. God has called upon men to lead, and the way to lead is from the knees. So, all Christians need to prioritize prayer, and the men especially need to see their own need to do this.

Then Paul describes the multifaceted aspects of prayer: entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings.” Prayer is not just asking God to give you stuff. It includes that, but it is more than that. It is thanking Him for what He has given you and for what He is doing in our lives and the lives of others. It is entreating Him to fulfill the promises of His word. It is interceding for others in need. And it includes asking God to meet our needs as well.

Now notice for whom we should pray. Generally speaking, he says we should pray “on behalf of all men.” That means that there is no one for whom you should not pray! If you know someone, then you know someone who needs prayer because we all do! So, we must develop the spiritual discipline of harnessing our thoughts and transforming them into prayer. When someone comes to mind, pray for them. Are you thinking about your fellow church member? Pray for them. Are you thinking about someone in your family? Pray for them! Are you thinking about some celebrity? Pray for them too! Are you thinking about someone whom you dislike or who has done you wrong? Definitely pray for them! Are you thinking about Donald Trump? Are you praying for him? Notice that after saying, “on behalf of all men,” we find specifically named, “kings and all who are in authority.” So, let me put it plainly – it is a sin to not pray for the president, the governor, the mayor, and so on. If we spent as much time praying for our government officials as we do complaining about them, and as much energy in prayer as we do in our social media political banter, we might see real change take place in us and in them. But you may say, “Well, I can’t pray for Donald Trump because I do not like him and I did not vote for him.” Let me remind you that the king for whom Paul was praying and admonishing others to pray for here in this passage was the Roman Caesar. Most likely at this time it was Nero, the emperor who blamed the fire of Rome (for which he was most responsible) on the Christians and instigated the hatred and persecution of Christians across the Roman Empire. In fact, he is the Caesar who ultimately ordered the beheading of Paul. But Paul doesn’t say, “Boycott and protest! Move out of the Empire! Take it to the streets!” No, he says, “Take it to the Lord.” Pray for your government officials. Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes.” Since that is the case, we must pray for the Lord to turn the hearts of our leaders in the ways that further His purposes in the world.

Now notice why we pray for them: “So that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” Look at those words: tranquil, quiet, godliness, dignity. Are we seeing much of those qualities in the political rhetoric in contemporary America? No! But we should be seeing it, especially when we look to the church of Jesus Christ. If we were marked by those qualities, the world around us would take notice of the difference. We will shine like stars against the backdrop of a sin-darkened generation. As we pray, we allow God to form those qualities within us.

Finally, notice what we pray for them: “This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” What was Paul praying for Nero? He was praying for God to save him! He was praying for God to open his eyes to spiritual truth! Now, we have had, and currently have, a number of professing Christians in public office in America, and for that we can thank God. Of course, we also have those who hypocritically profess faith in Christ in order to win over the evangelical voting bloc. And we have those who are avowed enemies of the cross of Christ. But for all of them we pray for God to save them and bring them into knowledge of the truth. Even if they are saved people, we still pray for God to bring them further into His truth, and for Him to make salvation and truth known to others through them.

So step one of the gameplan is pray!

II. Submit (Romans 13:1-7)

Because of sin’s corruption in the human heart, submission is not a popular idea. It never has been, since the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. Children resist submission to parents; spouses resist submission in marriage; employees resist it in the workplace; and moreover we all resist submission to God. In fact, these other areas of life are in place to train us to live in submission to God in all areas of life! And one of those areas has to do with our submission to governing authorities.

In Romans 13, we have a biblical command to be in subjection to governing authorities. Just a quick reminder again, the governing authorities who were in power when Paul wrote these words were the very authorities who were trying to stamp out the Christian church and who would eventually put Paul and countless other Christians to death. So, the command is not to like them, or agree with them, but to be in subjection to them. Now, why should we do that? He gives us the answer: “For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” Now, I will be the first to admit that this is a difficult thing to wrestle with as we look at history. But we have just recently concluded a study in Habakkuk which presents us with one of the best illustrations of the principle. There, you will recall, God raised up the evil Babylonians to bring about His judgment on the nation of Judah. That does not mean that God blessed the Babylonians’ cruelty or gave them some exemption from their own judgment – for He most certainly did not. Rather, it is to say that God is sovereign over the rise and fall of nations, rulers, kings, presidents, and other authorities. Whether in a democracy or democratic republic where the people vote for their leaders, or in a monarchy where the power is handed down generationally within a ruling family, or in an oligarchy where a small number of people choose the leaders for a nation, God is over and above all these processes, and He superintends the outcome for His purposes. We may not always understand His purposes, and in fact I would say that we rarely do in these situations, but we do not have to understand it. Sometimes God raises up good and godly leaders to bless a nation; and sometimes He raises up evil rulers to bring about judgment; and often the case is somewhere in between. But it is always the case that the ultimate cause of anyone coming into authority is God Himself. Daniel 2:21 says, “It is He who changes the times and the epochs; He removes kings and establishes kings.”

Therefore, Romans 13 says that whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God and will receive condemnation. In other words, to rebel or resist the authorities that God has raised up is a sin against God. Paul goes on to explain why this is so. In verses 3 and 4, he explains that rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil, and that governing authorities are actually God’s ordained ministers for the good of society. In other words, government exists to promote goodness and punish wickedness on God’s behalf by serving up a temporal judgment that prepares the way for the ultimate judgment that God Himself will deliver at the end of all things. So, Paul says, if you do evil, you should be afraid, for God has allowed the government to have the sword – that is, the right of punishment – for His purposes. But if you want to be free from fear, just do what is good, and commit yourself to the Lord. Pay your taxes honestly, honor and submit to those who hold positions of authority, because these things ultimately honor God.

Now, there are a small number of cases in Scripture where we find exceptions to this. When a government perverts its divinely ordained function of promoting good and punishing evil, and begins instead to punish good and promote evil, we find the church of Jesus Christ practicing what can be called “civil disobedience.” We see it in Acts 4, for example, when the church was commanded to no longer speak in the name of Jesus. This was a ruling that the church simply could not obey. Peter and John replied to the leaders and said, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Ac 4:19). They did not riot, protest, or hold demonstrations. They simply continued on in obedience to the Lord Jesus in defiance of the law of the land. And they suffered greatly for so doing. At various points in church history, the earthly powers that be compelled Christians to renounce their faith or die, and overwhelmingly the response of the believers through the ages was to embrace martyrdom rather than denying the Lord Jesus. But even this act of civil disobedience is itself a submission to these authorities. They did not take up arms to fight or overthrow the government. They simply said, “We will not obey you, and if that means imprisonment or death, then we acknowledge that you have the right to do that, and we accept it.”

This is not where we are in modern America. At least, not yet. It may come to this. We may yet see a day when ministers of the Gospel are prosecuted for refusing to conduct same-sex weddings, or when churches are penalized for not allowing unrepentant sinners to join or maintain membership. We may find laws instituted such as already exist in many parts of the world which outlaw evangelism. If such conditions arise, then the responsibility of the church is to render full obedience to God in Christ, and to submit to the government’s authority to deliver whatever penalty and punishment to us that is prescribed within the laws of the land. So, even in our resistance (should the case arise) there is a submission to the authorities which God has established for His own purposes.

So as we look at our gameplan for “Now What?”, the first element of it is to pray, and the second is to submit. We come now to the third.

III. Love

When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment is, He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment” (Matt 22:39). Then He said, “The second is like it.” Now, had I been the Pharisee who had asked him the question, I might have interrupted and said, “Wait, wait, wait! I didn’t ask for two! I only asked for the greatest ONE!” But these two commandments are so closely intertwined, that Jesus could not deliver the first without the second as well. And the second is this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (22:40).

Now, because we are so corrupted by sin and self-absorbed, we have twisted this statement around to mean that the most important thing we can do is love ourselves, so that we can then love others in the same way as we love ourselves. That is most certainly not what Jesus is getting at here. To understand what He means here, you have to assume that we are all driven primarily by self-love. It is our primary motivator for better and for worse. So, really Jesus is assuming that self-love already exists, and He calls us to allow love for others to become our primary motivator. If it helps you make sense of the command, you can think of it as, “Love your neighbor instead of loving yourself so much!” That explanation becomes clear when we compare this commandment to what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. There He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” So, Jesus is calling us to a higher love for others – for others who may not love us, in fact who may hate us and persecute us. Jesus says love them and pray for them.

When He gave the first and second great commandments, and spoke of loving your neighbor, the Pharisee who asked the question said to him, “And who is my neighbor?” He was looking for a list. He didn’t want to go around just loving everyone, so he needed to know whom he had to love, and from whom he could withhold his love. But Jesus responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that story, the “loving person,” the one who loved his neighbor, was the Samaritan – one whom the Jews would despise simply because of his ethnicity. He was the good neighbor because he showed love to one who would not have shown him love in return, and gave of himself to serve that one in love.

Friends, when I say that love is part of our gameplan for “Now What?” I mean that we have to find tangible, demonstrable ways of showing the love of Christ to those who are not like us. And as we consider “Now What?” that might well be most relevant to thinking of those whose political opinions differ from ours. It has been heartbreaking to see allegiance to candidates and parties divide people from their friends and loved ones through this political season. Christians must lead the way and say, “I love you no matter who you voted for, and no matter what party you align with.” And we must demonstrate that love with more than words. It will require selfless, sacrificial love, but Christ has called us to nothing less than this.

What does that kind of love look like when it is put into action? The most vivid description is found in 1 Corinthians 13. “Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (13:4-7). As we survey our cultural landscape over the last few weeks, we have to confess that we have not seen much of this kind of love on display. And most regrettably, we have even found it lacking amongst the followers of Jesus Christ. Friends, if the Kingdom of Jesus is to be found legitimate by those who do not know Him in this nation, then they will have to see a difference in the way we live. And that difference is most evident in how we love others, even others who are not like us, even others who disagree with us, even others who hate us, call us names, and wish to persecute us. They can make it very difficult for us to love them, but they do not have the power to stop us from loving them in obedience to Christ. If we do, we gain a hearing for the Gospel of Jesus in our generation, and we can be ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15). We will shine like stars in the sky in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.  

If you pray in the way that the Bible commands us to pray, and if you live in humble submission to authority in the way that the Bible admonishes us to, and if you love in the way that Jesus teaches and models for us, people will wonder how it is possible. They will say, “How can you live that way when our nation is in such a condition, and when our president is now this person?” And they would say that no matter which candidate won the election. And in response we can say, “Because my citizenship is ultimately in heaven, and my King is ultimately Jesus. My identity is found first and foremost in my relationship with Him, and He has commanded me to pray for all men to come to saving knowledge of His truth, including the rulers of our land. And because He is sovereign over kings and rulers and nations, and raises them up and brings them down for His purpose, I can live in humble submission to them out of reverence for Christ. It doesn’t mean I will always agree, or even always obey, but it means that I will not rebel against God’s authority, even if I have to accept punishment at the hands of men for my obedience to Him. And most of all, He has loved me when I was most unlovable, and met my deepest need when I was at war with Him in my sin by taking my penalty on His cross so that I could have a relationship with Him for all eternity. And if He can do that for me, then I can love anyone I encounter with His love which knows no boundaries or limitations.”

Do you know how the world will respond when they encounter a Christian who has that kind of consistent outlook? I don’t either, because I don’t know if the world has ever seen it! But the stage is set for us to live out this gameplan here and now like we never have before! And if we do, I believe that we will find an audience for the Gospel message, which has the power to save souls and transform lives, and when lives are transformed, nations are changed. Don’t expect the government to change the nation. Only the church can do that by the Spirit-empowered proclamation of the Gospel through lives that are lived in demonstration of the love of Jesus! May the church shine like stars! Let’s put this gameplan in action and see what King Jesus can do!

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