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Sermon: What to take back from COVID-19?

Due to coronavirus (COVID-19) preventative measures, High Point Church is doing church at home in small worship groups. This blog post is based on the sermon outline. You can watch the sermon here, and get updates from High Point Church regarding COVID-19 here.

As a pastor, I can’t tell you “everything is going to be ok.” I don’t know what you’ll hear when I say that. Already none of us are untouched by this line of events.

I can’t tell you that what you fear will not happen, or that what you hope for will happen. I can only say that it’s impossible that all of your varied fears will happen. And that probably none of your hopes will come about exactly as planned. This is why it is not our duty to predict the future in either anxiety or pride.

It is our work only to look ahead far enough to plan to do our duty and then to exist fully in the present, embracing the full labor of love toward God, ourselves and our neighbors.

Let’s start with a simple realization: COVID-19 is going to take from us.

  • Trivial: The NBA
  • Total: death and loss
  • Tragic: Real hurts, sickness, pain, overwork, massive loss of wealth, lost jobs or closed businesses, students not eating, getting in trouble through addiction or crime because you can’t handle the idleness

But will COVID-19 give anything? Or, can we take anything from it?

Calamity may come for many different and simultaneous reasons. But in Romans 8:28, God claims to “work” even these things for some goods if we look to him in faith (love him and are called to his purposes).

Pain, tragedy and suffering may be the ONLY way most of us will take certain things from the human experience. But this is only true if you are more than a philosophical materialist and a practical consumer. If, in your mind, mammon and math are all that there is in the universe, then disease can only be a catastrophe. But if there are things like love, meaning, souls and God, then catastrophe may be the only way we will see them rightly.

C.S. Lewis talks about pain as God’s megaphone to a deaf world. The word “deaf” does a lot of the work. It only works if we can’t hear in another way.

“We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” – C.S. Lewis

Then what credible thing stops up our ears?

Blaise Pascal teaches that men love diversion (it is our deafness). Diversion is the wax in our ears.

Diversion. Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.” –Pascal

Jesus calls the means we use for this diversion “mammon,” and told us we could not serve both God and mammon. That we could not love God and lick the earth.

Matthew 6:24 “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.

Therefore, it is only that which endangers or destroys our material diversions that shout over the deafness of our diversions.  

Only a “grounding fear” can rouse our attention in the virtual reality of diversion.

In psychology, we would say we can only accept pain as therapeutic if it rescues us from a greater evil.

An illustration: Being tackled in front of a bus, breaking our collar bone. Your reaction to being tackled and hurt would be different whether you were facing the bus or facing away from it. To feel the pain was worth it:

  • You have to see that something much worse was bearing down on you
  • You’d have to recognize you weren’t paying attention
  • You’ll be grateful for the intervention

But remember, God’s work in us is not as simple as this. We are prone to go RIGHT BACK to the obliviousness of diversion. The breaking of the collar bone might not be an accident, but an intentional reminder for the future so we will not be looking at our phone crossing the street in a month.

This is what happened to Jacob when he wrestled the Angel of the Lord in Genesis. God touched his arm socket and gave Jacob a permanent reminder of what happens when you wrestle with God.

God does not tell us what he is doing in his secret will in affairs like these. We simply don’t know the heavenly significance of COVID-19. God may have 20 billion angles he is working in such a global space that we know nothing about, and could not.

We only know what God has shown us in this revealed will. Every trial is a testing that both reveals our heart and makes our character.

Yet for most of us, this trial has hardly begun. Our task in this moment is to prepare our minds and hearts to think as God has taught us to, and to find his courage in the midst of the anxieties of likely calamity.

So let’s look at a few of these ways we should brace and clear our minds and hearts.

How can we, at God’s leading, TAKE something from this train of events:

The sobriety that nothing has really changed. We were just diverted.

I updated this C.S. Lewis quote to fit our times.

C.S. Lewis On Living in an Atomic Age (1948) “In one way we think a great deal too much of the likely pandemic’s results. ‘How are we to live in an age of global diseases?’ I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of AIDS, an age of paralysis, an age of terrorism, an age of hurricanes, an age of car accidents.’ In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before nature invented this present disease: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because globalism has added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty. This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by a global pandemic, let that disease, when it comes, find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about contagions. They may break our bodies (microbes have always done that) but they need not dominate our minds.”

He is saying: If we trade the deafness of diversion for the deafness of terror, then we can take no good from such a situation as this.

We must wake up to see that human life has always been like this: full of terror and death.

And people have lived with love and courage in all these times, as well as some have lived in hatred, selfishness and cowardice. It is not the presence of danger that takes away our humanity, it is our understanding of our identity and purpose that reveals our hearts and forms our character.

Become sensible of the vanity and shallowness of our diversion.

Pascal, p. 141. “Men spend their time in following a ball or a hare; it is the pleasure even of kings.”

Blaise Pascal, Pensées “The only thing that consoles us for our miseries is diversion. And yet it is the greatest of our miseries. For it is these above all which prevents us thinking about ourselves and leads is imperceptibly to destruction..”

If you wake up from a hypnosis, you should consider how not to fall into it again.

We have to learn the spiritual lesson of how given we are to diversion, and how it numbs us and leads us to our spiritual death. And also, how it keeps us from the deep pleasures and joy of life by making us brittle and shallow.

My book Substance explores this more deeply.

The only way to really escape diversion is to pursue purpose, depth, godliness, and discipline by faith.

Receive from Christ his greatest gift.

Hebrews 2:14-18   14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death– that is, the devil–  15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.  16 For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants.  17 For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.  18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

As a human high priest, Jesus:

  • Revealed the resurrection: and pledged an everlasting life
  • Achieved salvation: the atonement and forgiveness we needed for death to not lead to a greater calamity.
  • Present effect: to free us from our fear of death and evil.

Result:

Find the courage to love.

Romans 8:28-39   28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.  30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.  31 What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?  32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all– how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?  33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.  34 Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died– more than that, who was raised to life– is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.  35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  36 As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”  37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,  39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

3 present realizations:

  • God will work for the eternal good – the “Glorification” of all his own.
  • Nothing can separate us form his love – not even death.
  • Therefore: our identity is that we are conquerors.

Conclusion: That only makes sense if you repent of materialism.

It can only help you, form you and guide you if you believe that what happens inside your heart and soul is more important and more defining than what happens to anything about you in the material world, even whether you live or die.

The Necessity of Meekness

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” – Jesus (Matthew 5:5)

“I will leave within you the meek and humble, who trust in the name of the Lord.” – Zephaniah 3:12

“…the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace.” – Psalm 37:11

The lexicon definition for meek is something like lowly, gentle, humble, considerate, kind, mild and friendly of disposition, “the older sense of strong but accommodating.” In the book of Numbers, Moses is described as the meekest man on earth. This is a man who had led battles, presided over divine judgment, stood up to the most powerful emperor of his time, and had done many other things that most people would not consider meek. Jesus also, the Messiah, as he came into Jerusalem rode on a donkey. The book of Zechariah prophesied this, and showed that it meant to demonstrate that our king would come to us meekly. That even in his triumphant entry while here on earth the first time, Jesus was meek. And yet, there are numerous places where Jesus is bold. He turns over tables in the temple. He asks the Pharisees how they think they can escape the damnation of hell. He confronts people that seek to manipulate him or silenced him.

So what should we make of meekness? How important is it in a culture that sees assertiveness as critical to health and maturity? I believe that meekness actually represents a family of virtues we are meant to pursue by faith, and that meekness is the opposite of a family of vices that destroy faith, dishonor God, and greatly harm people.

Take the Beatitudes of Jesus in Matthew 5:5. The first question studying Scripture is, “What is the immediate context?”. The Beatitudes begins a section referred to as the Sermon on the Mount which covers Matthew 5-7. Jesus also gives a similar set of teachings in Luke 6:21-26, which includes four Beatitudes and four woes. In Matthew’s Gospel, he says that those that are blessed are “the poor in spirit,” “those who mourn,” “the meek,” “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” “the merciful,” “the pure in heart,” “the peacemakers,” and “those who are persecuted because of righteousness.” He says that you are blessed “when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” In this context, none of these descriptions require us to interpret the state of the listener as financial poverty. In some ways, it would be strange to interpret these characteristics as particularly characteristics of financial poverty. It is important to remember that class is not of nearly as much interest in the Bible as in the minds of people who lived after Karl Marx, and other writers during and since the Industrial Revolution.

These can all be seen as characteristics of spiritual character. Yet, what holds them all together? They are not all passive. They are not all weak. They’re not particularly subject to circumstance. It may seem too simple a description, but one could say that these are people who “love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, and love their neighbors as themselves.” Then you would add something like a strong dose of humility, as well as being on Jesus’ mission of reconciliation.

“Meekness” here then doesn’t primarily mean “of too low a status to own land.” And it doesn’t seem to mean the opposite parallel of “will inherit the earth.” There seems to be a different reason why these people would inherit the earth. In fact, there could be a warning to the poor here. If your poverty of spirit, or meekness, is only a product of your station—the necessary fact of your financial poverty—it may not be part of your character, it may only be part of your situation. If your environment forces a behavior on you, you may find if that environment changes, the behavior changes also; it may, in fact, reverse. If you were powerful, would you still be meek? If everybody had to move on your command, would you still be “poor in spirit”? If you didn’t need people to show you mercy, would you still be merciful? Are you really like Jesus?

Is meekness “low position”?

There is a way in which meekness is a kind of “behaving as though you are of low position.” In Luke 14:7, Jesus comments on people sitting in more and less important places at a dinner party. He says in verse 10: “When you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when the host comes, he will say to you, ‘friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.” Here, Jesus explains the natural consequences of self promotion versus assuming a lower position for yourself. It is reminiscent of Philippians 2:3, which says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” Fundamental to humility (which is part of meekness) is behaving as though others are more important than yourself.  This treats them with honor and sacrificial love—while attacking the flesh that is brewing our selfish ambition and is how our vanity easily becomes conceit. However, this would not mean that meekness is to be in a low position, but that meekness chooses a low position in the humble service of others.

If not “low position,” is meekness being a pushover?

Besides being poor, the next most common American fear related to meekness is that we will have to be unassertive. Among many modern Americans, especially in the middle and upper classes, being assertive is seen as fundamentally necessary for good health and keeping oneself from being taken advantage of by others. However, this is the common fallacy of presuming that a virtue is a vice. Fundamental to knowing virtue and vice is having the wisdom to apply them to a particular situation. Meekness includes the virtue of knowing when to be deferential. Being a “pushover” is a vice of being deferential when we shouldn’t. One version of this is sycophancy, defined as “being obsequious, fawning or differential toward someone important in order to gain an advantage.”

In the lexicon definition above, the old English definition defined meekness as “strong but deferential.” Meekness, by this definition, is deference that does not come from weakness but is chosen in the presence of strength. This is consistent with the biblical usage.

What is the opposite vice to the virtue of meekness?

If being a pushover, or sycophant, isn’t the opposite of meekness, then what is? In traditional moral theology, the opposite of meekness is wrath. Wrath can be defined as “consisting and exciting oneself about something at which one is displeased.” It assumes a kind of self-centered view, and a selfishness of spirit. It leads to a lack of restraint and an outflow of rage. The selfishness of wrath is also displayed in disrespect and irritability. Wrath is distinguished from “zeal” when the exercise of emotion is truly focused on the purposes of God and true virtue. The expression of zeal is called “just anger,” and it is displayed in Scripture when Jesus cleared the temple, or when Moses returned from Mount Sinai to see the people worshiping the golden calf. Rightly conceived, just anger flows from true charity and love informed by a zeal for the glory of God, and comes forth in a desire to set things right and to reconcile people to God and each other—which is the end goal of love and worship. Read here for more.

So what is the real meaning of biblical meekness?

Throughout Scripture, meekness is used in a range of contexts. In a couple of passages, as in Psalm 34:2, the emphasis seems to be on being in a low station. In others, as 1 Peter 3:4, it means something more like proper modesty. In contexts like Zephaniah 3, it is either parallel with or a close synonym to humility.

Psalm 37 is perhaps the most important text, because the beatitude in Matthew 5:5 is nearly a direct quotation of Psalm 37:11. The only difference is that the translators use the word “land” instead of “earth.” However, in Hebrew, it is the same word. In Psalm 37, there are also two other verses that claim that people will inherit the land. Verse 9 says, “those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.” Verse 22 says, “those the Lord blesses will inherit the land…” Verse 29 says, “the righteous will inherit the land and dwell in it forever.” And verse 34 says, “he will exalt you to inherit the land…” “You” in this context refers to “the righteous” from a couple verses earlier. So, in the Old Testament parallel passage that contains five references to “inheriting the earth/land,” the universal parallel of “meek” is a kind of righteousness willing to trust God and wait for him. In fact, if one goes through the first 10 or 12 verses of the Psalm, it is easy to come up with a profile of those who are referred to as “the meek.”

There are those who are meek because they are: trusting the Lord, doing good, delighting themselves in the Lord, committing their way to the Lord, hoping in the Lord, seeking righteousness, waiting patiently for the Lord, etc.

And there are those who are not meek, because they are: envious of evil, fretting at evil even if it succeeds, wickedly scheming, releasing their anger and wrath, plotting, gnashing their teeth, etc.

So how should we define meekness? First, I believe that meekness is something like a family of virtues. Meekness is closely associated in its contexts with the fear of the Lord, spiritual patience, faith, humility, gentleness, deference, temperance, forbearance, prudence, hopefulness, and more.

If love is something like the center hub of how we conceptualize the virtues, meekness is something like the umbrella under which we express the virtues. It at least must exist in the presence of many other virtues, and seems to be something like their controlling principle. Meekness is motivated by a fear of the Lord, a willingness to wait on the Lord, and a humility before the Lord. It is motivated by a fundamentally God-centered heart. Faith and a love for the glory of God is fundamental to expressing meekness from the heart. Then, it is the application of principle for gentleness, deference, temperance, forbearance, prudence and the other improvisational and situational virtues we express towards others. How do we love others with these virtues? We express them with meekness.

A close relationship with gentleness and humility.

Last, it is important to focus strongly on the relationship of meekness to both humility and gentleness. Meekness, as opposed to wrath, is always humble and self-forgetful in nature. Wrath is always arrogant and self-centered in its perspective. Without a God-glorifying and God-centered view of who and what we are, meekness is impossible because humility will be absent. But even in the presence of that theology, meekness, like humility, is a practice of the heart. It must be continually chosen, and wrath continually put to death. In faith, and by the present power of the Spirit, the virtue must be chosen and the vice shunned. And when we fail, faith demands an open repentance: that we should have chosen the virtue and shunned the vice, that we are ashamed we didn’t, and that we endeavor with the help of God to do differently in the future. And we make, in meekness, whatever restitution we can to build trust again with the person we harmed.

So when should we be hard, strong and unyielding?

As said above, charity and love, motivated by a zeal for the Lord, may demand from us responses that do not seem “meek.” The Bible confirms that both Jesus and Moses, as well as people like Nehemiah and others, rose up and did ferocious acts and marshaled strong defiance and resistance among God’s people. John and Peter in Acts 4, for example, are not obviously “meek” when they tell the ruling authorities of Israel that they will not obey them, because they must obey God, nor is the apostle Paul when he confronts military men and rulers.

However, these actions are still chosen with meekness, and even expressed with meekness. That is, they are chosen by men who consider whether virtue allows them any other choice. If you read the most defiant moments of God’s holiest men, you will often still find palpable meekness. David will not raise his hand against Saul. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (their Babylonian names) answer directly to the king, but not with taunts. They, and Daniel, do not show more disrespect than is necessary through their disobedience to the Eastern Kings. The apostles are very direct with the rulers that they face, but not overly bold.

Jesus seems to have no love for aggressive confrontation, and is always seeking a meek and peaceful interchange. He only turns up the heat when the obstinance of his adversary leaves him no other choice, if the truth is going to come down upon them. And he brings that truth down upon them so that the wrath that would otherwise descend can be escaped.

Even Moses, who came down very hard on the people for worshiping the golden calf can be defended in this way. All that he makes the Israelites do can be seen as a meek deference to the glory of God and a necessary medicine to their orgy-filled idolatries. Even more, when God tells Moses that he plans to destroy the people, Moses intercedes for them and begs for their survival. He even begs for God not to send them up out of the desert if he will not go with them himself, and so, Moses begs for the presence of God among the people. He is their true and perfect advocate, even in their worst sins. He is meek. He is never thinking about his own position in himself. None of these men seem to be doing that. They are all concerned with God’s glory, what is good, the truth, what love demands. Doing nothing out of selfish ambition and the conceits of vanity, in meek humility, they consider all others better than themselves, and the glory of God the greatest pursuit of all humanity. May we submit to this same work of God in our own hearts and actions, becoming like Jesus in his ferocious meekness.

For further study

A list of verses that contain the Greek word translated “meek”: Numbers 12:3; Psalm 24:9, 33:3, 36:11, 75:10, 146:6, 149:4; Job 24:4, 36:15; Joel 4:11; Zephaniah 3:12; Zechariah 9:9; Isaiah 26:6; Daniel 4:19; Matthew 5:5, 11:29, 21:5; 1 Peter 3:4

A very close cognate word for “meekness” or “humility/gentleness”: Esther 5:1; Psalm 44:5, 89:10, 131:1; 1 Corinthians 4:21; 2 Corinthians 10:1; Galatians 5:23, 6:1; Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:12; 2 Timothy 2:25; Titus 3:2; James 1:21, 3:13; 1 Peter 3:16

Grace and Glory

Every field of knowledge has its own words meant to help people communicate and make that communication more effective. However, these technical descriptions can also make the field more difficult for outsiders to understand. They also can leave the impression on insiders that they know what they mean when in reality they are repeating jargon they don’t really understand.

This is especially a problem in religious faith. Churches and parents can easily adopt religious language that they hear repeated without really knowing what it means. This keeps their faith shallow, makes their attempts to share the gospel dramatically less effective, and confuses the church’s children into disinterest in the spiritual convictions of their parents.

For example. two of the most important concepts in the Christian faith are glory and grace. You will read these words in the Bible and hear them in churches and spiritual conversations. It is easy to convince yourself that you understand these words clearly – even if you don’t. Further, these words — grace and glory — are often not found together in many modern churches. To many Christians, the words seem to have cross purposes rather than beautiful and clarifying union. Yet if you misunderstand these two concepts, you cannot understand the gospel, or the message of salvation in Jesus, at the level of depth that produces full freedom and transformation. The gospel won’t change you that much, because you won’t know God that well.

So, let me try to give fairly brief clarifying explanations of the meaning of these two words.

Continue reading Grace and Glory

Why Sign Language Interpretation at High Point Church?

by Linda Sey

Hearing loss and deafness are largely invisible and isolating disabilities. Those with hearing loss learn at a very young age to mimic, nod, and laugh along, often completely lost as to the details, if not all, of the dialogue darting around them at breakneck speeds. They laugh at jokes they don’t hear (and therefore don’t understand), they nod yes in feigned understanding, wanting to fit in and be accepted, or thinking sincerely they truly did understand, because in reality, ‘you don’t know what you don’t know.’

“But, deaf people do speech therapy, talk, and learn to be really great lip readers, so it all works out in the end, right?!” Contrary to popular belief, the English language, at best has only 50% (and at worst, 30%) of the phonetic sounds formed and made visible on the speaker’s lips. This means ‘I love you’, ‘olive juice’, and ‘elephant shoes’ appear identically on the lips, as do the phrases ‘you have talent’ and ‘you have salad’.

Continue reading Why Sign Language Interpretation at High Point Church?

The Virtue of Humility

Over the summer, we looked at the lives of the first kings of Israel: Saul and David. There were many differences between them. Saul was large and looked like a massive warrior. David was smaller, younger, and taught himself to fight as a shepherd in the country. Ultimately, they were both warriors and both kings. And in one way or another, they both believed in the God of Israel. But though they both believed in God, it would be wrong to say that they both put their faith in him.

In fact, the most fundamental difference between the two was a difference of the heart. This is what God explicitly says to Saul in 1 Samuel 13:14:

But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the LORD’s command.

 

God made clear that David would be different in two ways. First, his heart would be for God rather than for himself, his own power, and his own survival. Second, David would obey the Lord, and if he ever failed, his repentance would be real.

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Continue reading The Virtue of Humility

Proverbs: Wisdom and the Tongue

This morning, our lead pastor Nic Gibson spoke about the impact of wisdom on the power of the tongue. Here are the verses and the lists referenced in the service. Let’s pray for God to convict us when we use our words for harm – and to empower us to use our words for giving life.

What Proverbs says about wisdom and the tongue:

(18:7) A fool’s mouth is his undoing, and his lips are a snare to his soul.

(29:20) Do you see a man who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for him.

(18:13) He who answers before listening – that is his folly and his shame. Continue reading Proverbs: Wisdom and the Tongue