A Death Obsession

I watched the new trailer for the upcoming Deadpool movie from Marvel Studios.  Wow.  I knew it was going to be violent, Deadpool is a genetically modified human mercenary.  If you follow the Marvel universe stories, you also know that the “Merc with a Mouth” has a rather vulgar and offensive sense of humor.  Make no mistake, this will be rated R and not a superhero movie for children.  But it brought home to me something I have talked about but never written about, namely our societal death obsession.  

Our news stories lately have been singular focused about death lately from unborn babies and a lion.  Just a cursory reading we find those who are outraged at the former seem not at all concerned about the latter and vice-versa.  Many of my friends fit within these two opposing views.  Both of these new stories tell of a terminal death, that is, a death that ends life.  

I think we have now nurtured a obsession with terminal death in our society.  We want our entertainment and our heroes darker, more gritty.  When death is involved, we want the cameras right in the middle of it.  ISIS executions are played over and over again.  There has been a cry since I was a kid, media has desensitized us to death.  Here in the USA, few of us face death.  We don’t live on farms anymore and fewer and fewer hunt so we miss this natural part of the life cycle.  The full life cycle which humanity has known for centuries, is far less common.  When we do face it, it is more likely to be in the sterile environments of medical facilities and less in our daily world.

We’ve created a mystery to death.  Yes, we fear the rising instances of mass shootings and violence in minority communities.  We are anxious regarding terrorism and religious persecutions.  But we remain intrigued, obsessing over death but we shy away from reflecting on our mortality.  When terminal death comes we act like it is somehow abnormal.

But it isn’t the only death.  No, and though terminal death is what we seem to most focus on and find entertainment from, there is another death which gets far less attention.  Author and speaker, Ron Rolheiser terms this other death; paschal death.  He writes:
“Paschal death, like terminal death, is real.  However, paschal death is a death that, while ending one kind of life, opens the person undergoing it to receive a deeper and richer form of life.” (146, “The Holy Longing”)
A paschal death, is part of the mystery of God’s work at Easter. Rolheiser describes this death as part of our living life and so it is “a process of transformation within which we are given both new life and new spirit (147, ibid).”

Jesus describes this paschal death by pointing to what happens to a grain of wheat..
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (John 12:24-25 ESV)”

The Apostle Paul uses the image of an “old self” being “crucified” which overlaps the image of Jesus as the crucified and risen Christ.  He states it this way, “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. (Romans 6:6-7 ESV)”

Our life journey and our faith journey (whether we see them separate or the same isn’t so important at this point), if done in a healthy way, need healthy models for us to use through our lives.  Traditional rites of passage for young boys and girls have been appropriate for this and I wonder if, in the west, as we have lost these rites, our death obsession isn’t rooted in the lack of ceremonies celebrating maturity.  

Again referring to Rolheiser, humans need to live out a “process of transformation, of dying and letting go so as to receive new life and new spirit.”  There are multiple images and stories in the Bible pointing to this transformation.  Rolheiser offers a “paschal cycle” for our life journey based on Jesus’ own experience:

  1. Good Friday…”the loss of life-real death”
  2. Easter Sunday… “the reception of new life”
  3. Forty Days… “a time for readjustment to the new and for grieving the old”
  4. Ascension… “letting go of the old and letting it bless you, the refusal to cling”
  5. Pentecost… “the reception of new spirit for the new life that one is already living”

We find traces of the paschal cycle in a number of places.  We find it John Wesley’s description of our growth in grace as we journey to entire sanctification and ultimately, glorification.  James Fowler’s “Stages of Faith” and Janet Hagberg’s “The Critical Journey,” offer additional religious models of growth.  Secularly speaking, the developmentalist theories of Piaget, Kohlberg, Kegan, Gilligan and others also observe this.
Today’s current emphasis on spiritual formation is shedding more light on the transformation work God is about in our lives.  As we are in the process of spiritual formation, we see again and again, how we are not intended to compartmentalize our lives.  Life is not intended to be divided between secular and spiritual.  Scripture does not paint a picture of a life divided between our work, our family and our worship but as a whole so when a “death” takes place, a change of life, we have the opportunity to allow the seed to die or to put an old self to death.

The Church has the answer to death: resurrection.  In Jesus we have both the overcoming of physical death but we also have resurrection of our lives here and now.  A gospel without resurrection is not Good News.  It is not “good” and it is not “news.”  Jesus’ Gospel offers hope for paschal death and terminal death and we need theology which can encompass both.  

I see it again and again as part of my life’s work.  As my wife and I talk about her upcoming surgery, her “fourth quarter” in her treatment for colon cancer, we have had to talk about those things which need to die, or better said, HAVE to die.  While it is helpful to name events, or hopes or dreams, we still must put these “things” in the grave.  I need a “Good Friday” where I bury these and I need Good Friday where death is swallowed in victory.   We all do.

Supernatural: Know Your Enemy

I am sorry.  Really, I am.  When I planned this series and looked around for resources and guidance, I thought, “No problem!  I know about this!”  I had a number of friends in college who were well versed in spiritual warfare and spent a good bit of time with charismatics and pentecostal, as I sought to make clear God’s calling in my life.  I value their friendship to this day.  But as I have read and researched each week I have been convicted by how lax I have grown.  I think it is fair to say, I apologize on behalf of my clergy brothers and sisters as well.  It is far to easy steer clear of the topic of devil’s work.  This week, has made some things  very clear so today I intend to remedy, in part, where I have fallen short

To begin, in my mind and experience there is no better counsel in the practical application of the Biblical message than are contained in the words of Rev. John Wesley.  In regards to the nature and work of the enemy, Wesley knew all too well the work of the devil and of demons.  Not only by his study of scripture but by experience and study of humanity.  

The prophet Isaiah in 14:12-14 describes “the morning star, son of the dawn’ as the one who first proclaimed to the one who said, “I will make myself the Most High.”  In the John’s Book of Revelation 12:7-9, the devil is described as “the dragon; that ancient serpent” who, together with his angels sought to battle with Michael and his angels but was defeated and cast down.  In his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, John Wesley puts the words of 1 John in an important light for us to keep in mind, “that is, [the devil] was the first sinner in the universe and has continued to sin ever since.”  You cannot come up with an original sin.  There is an expert at this work.  The devil can do it better (remember what I said the first week: we are not equal to the devil).

Our journey of faith begins at the moment we come to believe, that God truly loves us and has healed the great wound which sin has inflicted on us so we can believe in Jesus Christ.  Jesus’ blood healed that wound.  But this great wound in our being was caused by Satan when his suggestions raised unbelief in Eve.  John Wesley described unbelief as the “first work” of Satan, and we know it only too well.  But even so, Jesus defeated this first work of Satan.

But Mr. Wesley observes that Satan had another work, his grandest work: that of pride; or I call it, self-idolatry (see Sermon 38,4. “Caution Against Bigotry).  The devil and his demons work to make us think WE ARE THE CENTER; but remember this is no original idea either, it started with the devil remember?  You and I are not going to usurp him.  Jesus strikes at the root of this self-idolatry so we might humble ourselves.  As we look to Jesus, believe in Jesus, it is he who destroys our love of the world.    “As Satan turned the heart of [humanity] from the Creator to the creature, so the Son of God turns [our] heart back again from the creature to the Creator,” writes Rev. Wesley (Sermon 62, “The End of Christ’s Coming, see also Sermon 42, “Satan’s Devices”).

Both Old and New Testament give us a picture of the work of the devil, but what of demons?  As noted in Revelation, they are described as fallen angels who do the work of the devil in this world.  Their work in the world can be narrowed down to three focus areas:

  1. Demons inflict SUFFERING.  In Mark’s gospel (5;2-8) we see the demon known as “Legion” causing a man to cut himself with stones.  In Matthew 17:15-18, a man’s son is possessed by a demon who causes him to have seizures.  Our bodies weak and frail.  Not every disease or sickness is demon inspired but clearly some are.

  1. Demons LURE you from God.  Paul warns Timothy of a day when Christians will abandon their faith because of “things taught by demons” (1 Timothy 4:1).  I have heard things I’d like to believe are true, things that would make life less messy.  Be warned, the demonic are in the midst of some of these teachings.

  1. Demons sow FEAR. To the Roman church (Romans 8) and to Timothy (2 Tim. 1:6-7), Paul reminds his readers, God does not give a spirit of fear.  God’s Spirit gives us 1) Assurance of salvation and 2) Power, love and a sound mind (sound similar to last week?)  Where does fear come from then?  Point the finger at the enemy. (see Craig Groeschel at www.lifechurch.tv)

How do we face the enemy?  Well, I’ve been building on this each week.  This is the third week, so lets touch base on what I’ve said before and get us to what we need to know today.

First, we are to put on the armor of God and STAND FIRM.  We are to give no ground to Satan and the demonic.  Secondly, we are to be SINGULAR IN THOUGHT with the MIND OF CHRIST: We are to be done with SIN in our lives.  The militant Christian must recognize the enemy is coming after us, to cause unbelief and raise up self-idolatry.  So today, when we do face the enemy, we are to fight with God’s AUTHORITY not by our power.  James makes it clear: “Submit yourselves, then to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.  Come near to God and he will come near to you.( James 4:7-8)”  When Jesus sent out the disciples in Matthew 10, the Bible says clearly the Jesus, “gave them authority to drive out evil spirits.”  On our own we don’t have what it takes to fight the devil and the demons but the war is already won!  We are on the side of the victor so stand firm!

Remember the first work of the devil.  It is unbelief.  If there is one thing the devil despises more than anything is to see a church forming a single minded purpose of helping others believe in Jesus Christ.  Satan and his fallen angels will be about the work of causing you to doubt.   Satan could care less that you just show up and are present in church.  Many people come to church who don’t believe. You are no threat.  But what if you start to pray?  What if you give financially?  What if you respond to an appeal to serve?  And hell forbid, you witness to others about what Jesus has done in your life!  

MAY I ASK? Consider for a moment the three ways demons cause us to journey toward unbelief. Which one do you find yourself struggling with the most? Do you find it hard to resist? If so, are you singular in thought? Have you put on God's armor? Are you trying to battle Satan or are you standing firm? Remember, there is only one Christ and you are not him! Let that bring you peace and focus on battling the enemy one element at a time.

Supernatural: Militant Christians

1 Peter 4:1 Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same intention (for whoever has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin), 2so as to live for the rest of your earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God. 3You have already spent enough time in doing what the Gentiles like to do, living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry. 4They are surprised that you no longer join them in the same excesses of dissipation, and so they blaspheme. 5But they will have to give an account to him who stands ready to judge the living and the dead.6For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does. (NASB)

The desert mothers and fathers were Christians of the first centuries of the church who were the forerunners of monks and nuns of today.  One of the most famous was Macarius the Egyptian (or “the Great”).  Many of his sayings and stories have been passed down to us and one tells of a journey he took from Egypt.  Along his journey, it grew late and dark and nearby were the ruins of a pagan temple.  He sought shelter there.  Macarius found a few coffins and decided to use one as a pillow and laid down.  The demons who dwelt in that temple were greatly offended by Macarius’ actions so they plotted to make him afraid.  They called out as though they were addressing a woman in the coffin, “Sarah, come to bath with us.’  But another of the demons had moved underneath Macarius and cried out, ‘ I have a stranger on top of me, and I cannot come.’  But Macarius was not afraid, on the conrary, he knocked on the coffin with assurance, saying, “Awake! Go take a bath, if you can!’  The demons cried out, ‘ You have overcome us!’  Filled with confusion, they fled. (‘The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 130).

When you read Macarius’ sayings, you find a wise and sly disciple with quick wit but with humble wisdom.  It isn’t hard to see parallels with Jesus’ own teachings and words.  Many of the sayings tell of how the fathers and mothers faced the demons in desert too and how they found best to defeat them.  John Wesley made the observation that in the early centuries, demons “tormented their bodies, as well as souls and...without any disguise; now he torments their souls, and that as covertly as possible.”  In those days, the enemy was about superstition but today the goal has changed.  Today it is to lead us into infidelity so the enemy works in secret (Sermon 38, “Caution Against Bigotry).

Macarius is an excellent example of a militant Christian.  There is not jihad involved in the life of a militant Christian but there is warfare taking place.  Macarius and Wesley understood that the supernatural is natural but our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the powers of this present darkness (see last week).

Peter’s letter points to an important causation: Since Christ suffered in the flesh (and dealt with sin) - then arm yourself with the SAME INTENTION or a SINGULAR THOUGHT and that intention or thought is to be DONE with SIN.  Which, of course, the enemy does not want.  Their attempt to scare Macarius was to cause fear and doubt, to sow seeds toward sin.  Peter points out we’ve all have spent plenty of time there: drunkeness, crazy parties, idolatry, lust and the like.  The enemy likes to keep us there too.

On Friday, as my daughter and I were hiking part of the Appalachian Trail, we talked some about this.  When we look at TV, it used to be (and sometimes you still find it) a couple would be seen kissing, the camera would fade to black and then fade in from black with the couple getting up and fixing coffee.  My imagination had no problem with that!  Now, it seems like producers think we have no imagination at all anymore, they have to show most everything.  Actor Kevin Bacon thinks there still isn't enough nudity either.  How about we just don't do any nudity of anybody?!?!  This is what Peter is saying: we've been there and done that.

And Peter says, part of the journey toward having a mind of Christ means we’ll face suffering.  In my experience that suffering can comes in this world in at least three ways
1. As we resist sin
2. As we live faithful to following the great commandment
3. And simply by living the human experience.

Paul says something similar in his letter to the Philippians that we are to, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,  (6)  who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  (7)  but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  (8)  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  (9)  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,  (10)  so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  (11)  and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Paul describes the extent of Jesus’ suffering and says, Christians are to be of ONE MIND as we face false teachings and temptations to go back to our old lives. As I pointed out last week, our calling is to “Stand -hold our position.” Have ONE MIND, a mind like Christ, with one intention: Stand firm. Hold your ground against the enemy but also against our OLD SELF. We do it by:

1. Humble in posture
2. Faithful in prayer and
3. Loving in practice

The militant Christian is armed with the mind of Christ, in union with all believers in Jesus suffering, death AND resurrection.  We stand firm with the full armor of God.  We are... 
NOT arrogant but humble, 
NOT angry but at peace, 
NOT loaded with doubt but full of faith, 
NOT giving up but sharing hope, 
NOT hating anyone but loving everyone!

The supernatural is natural.  All we do, feel, think, say, it is all supernatural.  Before we stress too much on what is out there - we need to face what is in here, in our hearts and (as both Peter and Paul stress) in our minds.

MAY I ASK? How singular is your thought toward Jesus?  Are you not only striving to be done with sin BUT also seeking to give of yourself for others?

NOTE: Thanks to Mark Copeland at http://executableoutlines.com/ for ideas used in the preparation of this sermon.

Supernatural: What We See Isn’t What We’ve Got

Take a moment and read from Ephesians 6:10-18

I have always had an interest in the supernatural.  My mom was a children’s librarian in our public library.  I discovered their collection on the books of the supernatural and I studied all about the lore of the creatures of darkness like vampires, poltergeists, and werewolves.  The differentiation between good and evil always seemed so clear cut.  But in recent years, the lines have blurred.  Characters in comics like Blade and Hellboy, each presented a monster who was struggling to overcome their darkness.  TV shows and movies like Supernatural follows Dean and Sam Winchester as they face the darkness and many times, compromise their souls to achieve some semblance of victory.

Of course this is all make believe.  Because we can’t prove it by the scientific formula, the conclusion is the supernatural doesn’t exist.  It is fairy tales and anyone who believes otherwise is merely deluded.  Of course there are also those who disagree vehemently too.  Don’t believe me?  Visit any message board on the internet where believers and skeptics abound and you’ll find extensive arguments.  Even among churches, differing denominations and even within denominations, we find ourselves drawn off course; focusing on what divides us and viewing other people as our enemy.

Consider the example from history where it used to be that before a journey ship captains would have a worship service for the crew before departure.  One story tells of a captain who invited a Presbyterian (a Calvinist) to preach this day.  The pastor refused stating, “I cannot do that for you.  As you well know I am a Presbyterian; a Calvinist and you are a Methodist; a Wesleyan.  I could easily say something to hurt your feelings.”  “Sir,” was the reply, “what we would like you to do is to come and preach against the Devil!”  (Walter Knight.  Master Book of New Illustrations).

This is where our divisions now have us.  We are more concerned about theology and leadership and programs in the Church of Jesus Christ, we’ve almost forgotten Paul’s words to the Ephesian church, “...For our struggle is not against flesh and blood…” (6:12)  We care more about politics and opinions than “against principalities, against powers (6:12).”  The Bible makes a firm point the stuff of the supernatural is in fact, truly natural.

The story of the attempt to capture the prophet Elisha is important for us to get a proper perspective.  2 Kings 6:15-17 ESV  When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, "Alas, my master! What shall we do?"  (16)  He said, "Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them."  (17)  Then Elisha prayed and said, "O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see." So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.”  The servant of Elisha couldn’t see what Elisha saw.  He thought the world was only tangible.  But Elisha saw the whole picture - the supernatural is natural.

Look through the New Testament, and not only do the writers make clear there is a supernatural world, but that demons and a personal devil are part of it.  Consider a few verses to look up later: Matthew 4:1-11; James 4:7; 1 Peter 5:8; 1 John 5:18.  Theologian and missionary, Francis Foulkes writes, “We should be hesitant to regard ourselves as wiser than the apostles and our incarnate Lord concerning the unseen world (172, Tyndale Commentary).

For the next few weeks we’re going to delve into more detail on we exist and thrive in this supernatural world God has placed us in.  We’ll tackle more about the devil and demons, the role of angels and a bit more about how we are called to deal with the supernatural reality.  There are a few observations that I think are important to make regarding our knowledge of the supernatural:  
  1. The war is actually over - Jesus defeated the devil on Easter.
  2. The devil is not equal to God.
  3. The OT and NT are not at odds.  God’s revelation at work.
  4. On our own, we are no match for the devil.  But there is a way -

Ephesians goes on to talk about the “armor of God” and each of these is important but there is a crucial part we’ve got live by and understand.  It is the one thing which gets us into more trouble than anything else.  It got us in trouble as 2 year olds and 16 year olds.  It got us in trouble with our parents and our spouse.  We don’t like to follow orders/rules/law/etc… We are told to “be strong” which in Greek is a passive voice: we are to BE MADE STRONG.  This is something Jesus is going to do TO US.  

But there is a second part of our orders are to stand (stete), literally a military term meaning to “hold our ground.” The armor and the sword of God’s Word are to be in our hands and with them, and the truth and reality that Jesus overcame death on Easter - then we will win the day.  We may be bloodied and battered.  We drop in the breach but we shall overcome because our power is not natural but supernatural - our hope is not in our arms but in nail hands of God’s Son.

May I Ask? Have you asked Jesus to make you strong? What part of the armor do you need to "put on?" Are you standing? Backing off? or rushing in? What would it look like in your life to simply "hold your ground?"

Pastor's Note: This sermon series is inspired by Craig Groeshel's sermon series at www.livechurch.tv and their free resources at open.church. While there are similarities, the majority of the work is mine.

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