Sunday, April 26, 2009

Jesus Can Be Trusted

Pastor Brad just returned from several days in Chicago where he attended a Covenant leadership convention, the 125th anniversary of the Northwoods Conference. After a warm greeting on this dreary April day Brad made a comical remark about forgetting to shave, and briefly commented on his appreciation for the Covenant denomination which is both pietist and missional. The double pronged mandate for the Covenant is "deeper in Christ, further in mission." Or, to put it another way, living with God and for God.

Brad opened the announcements by mentioning our semi-annual meeting which would be after the service. Other announcements included:
1. The women's Bible study will meet next Saturday morning at 9:00 a.m. instead of the usual time. There will be two studies Saturday.
2. A planning meeting for Vacation Bible Study will be held at the church Tuesday evening at 6:30.
3. The Adventure Club and Art Show will be this Wednesday evening. The program begins at 5:30 with the kids singing songs upstairs. Leonard's Home Cooked Dinner will be served downstairs at 6 with Ed bringing the kids back upstairs for a time of interactive art at 6:15. Desserts will then be served downstairs at 6:45. The art and talents of the church will be displayed in the church basement.

This morning's worship was led by the trio of Ellie, Chuck and Darlene.

One of the tenets of the Covenant churches is the centrality of Scripture. For this reason we welcome representatives from the Gideons from time to time. This morning Dale Henry and Sandy who shared with us the role the Gideons have played in Bible distribution. This past year Gideons have placed 75 million Bibles or one every 2.5 seconds. 100% of all gifts given to the Gideons go to the printing and distribution of Bibles.

After the reading of Scriptures (Acts 3:12-19; Luke 24:26-48) and a time of prayer, Pastor Brad began his message, standing near to the congregation on the floor of the sanctuary.

Jesus Can Be Trusted
Brad opened by summarizing the 125th Conference Anniversary. Our ways of sharing the Gospel have changed. We used to wonder whether to wear robes or suits, and later a tie or no tie. But today, though our methods may have changed the mission and message remain the same.

The essence of the sermon revolved around the contrast between Saul and David. Saul had been anointed as Israel’s first king. He had significant attributes, but disqualified himself, not by his skills but by his character. The significant quality needed in church leadership is likewise not talent or skills, but character.

The word “great” is used three times in the Gospels. The first time is in Matthew 5:19... 19Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

This verse pertains to obedience, not achievement. Obedience means aligning our hearts and minds with the heart and mind of God.

Brad then told a story about how much he loved to waterski, having begun as early as age 5. The first lesson in waterskiing is this: when you fall, let go of the tow rope. In the Christian walk, an essential lesson is to let go of the things that drag us down.

The second time Jesus used the word great was in Matthew 18.

2He called a little child and had him stand among them. 3And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

The lesson here is plain. Humility is what makes us great. The humblest people in the community are our great ones.

Gary Walter, president of the Evangelical Covenant Church, told a story about a rooster that crowed each morning at dawn who eventually came to believe that it was his crowing that made the sun come up each day. Of course it is vain to think such things. When we ourselves do any crowing, our aim is not to draw attention to ourselves but to what God has done.

Brad spoke briefly about brokenness at this point. We live in a throwaway culture. People get broken, too, but God doesn’t throw us away. God way is redemptive. Our brokenness makes us humble and useful to God. Jesus Himself had His body broken for us. And David proclaimed that “a broken and contrite heart” is pleasing to God.

The third time Jesus comments on true greatness is in Matthew 20:26. The mother of James and John, a mother like our own, approaches Jesus with a request. She would like one of her boys to sit at Jesus' right or left hand when He becomes king. Jesus says, “Well, I’m not really in charge of the seating chart, but let me tell you about a principle.” The principle is servanthood.

The definition of servanthood is “seeking the advantage of another party.” This applies to whatever station in live you’re at, from CEO to janitor. You can never do big things for God unless you are willing to do little things for little people.

Here’s an eye opener. The Covenant church in India started with a person who babysat for a prostitute so she could go to work.

Now, for the quiz. Who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008? Who won the Academy Award for best actress? Who won the indoor soccer league championship?

By way of contrast, name a person who helped you through a difficult time. Who taught you an important life lesson? Who made you feel special in life? These are legacy people who live on in us.

Boiled down to its essence, what God is looking for in you is a trajectory based on obedience, humility and servanthood. He is not expecting you to be a finished product. We are people in process. What’s growing in you? What is increasing?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Because We've Been Forgiven

Grey skies. The departing edge of winter attempted to re-visit the Northland with its gloomy face, but here inside New Life Covenant resurrection light continues to shine.

"Good morning! I'm glad you're here," Pastor Brad exclaimed at the opening of this morning's service. Brad went on to share how he had just returned from the Town & Country Commission in Chicago, a gathering whose aim is to create healthy, missional churches in rural settings. Rural areas are a mission field. There is much need in our rural communities.

Announcements were many this morning.
1. Cheryl Borndal reminded us that camp is coming. Please submit your registration forms. Those wishing to contribute for scholarships should call Cheryl.
2. There are two weeks left for Adventure club before breaking for the summer. The 29th of April we will have a special evening of showcasing the creative work of not only our kids but also our congregation. Please contact Susie Newman if you have anything you'd like to share, in any medium from knitting or quilts to carvings or scrapbooks to things you've rebuilt or repaired. We'd like to share the hidden creativity of our church family.
3. The Northwest Conference Annual Meeting will be held at the end of this week on the 24th and 25th.
4. A Men's Bible Study meets at the church on Saturday mornings at 7:30 a.m. Breakfast is included.

The quartet -- Chuck & Darlene, Ken and Dale -- led us in worship this morning. Chuck began by sharing the story of the healing of the blind man from John 9 followed by the song "Somebody Touched Me."

Our Scripture readings were both from the New Testament.
Acts 4:32-35
John 20:19-31

After a time of prayer the message followed.

Because We’ve Been Forgiven

Pastor Brad began by opening his heart saying, “I don’t have a strategy. I offer only the cross… which is empty.”

The message was based on a story from Matthew 18, which Brad reconfigures into a modern setting. It’s a story about a president/CEO of a software company. It’s the annual meeting and it has been learned that one of the executives had been embezzling. It wasn’t just a little amount, it was something on the order of “bazillions” (one of Brad’s favorite words.)

A witty aside here. Brad commented on how the Roman Flat Tax worked. “Pay your taxes or we’ll flatten you.”

So, this guy owes an enormous amount of money and gets the memo: the head man wants to see him. The picture Brad paints is of a crooked embezzler being called to account. He has no more opportunities to bluff, to deceive, to cover his tracks. The cards are on the table and he’s finished.

In Roman times, not only did the embezzler have to pay, but his family as well, and the offspring of his family, unto perpetuity.

In response the embezzler goes for a long shot. He grovels, throwing himself at the mercy of the CEO/president in who’s hand the power to absolve resides.

Unexpectedly, the old man gets choked up, even feels compassion, and surprises everyone by rescinding the sentence. The debt is forgiven.

Brad pointed out at this point that the forgiveness was costly to the CEO/owner of the company. He forgives, and accepts his loss. A celebration ensues because the embezzler has gone from death to life.

The application is self-evident. God forgives us when we lay our sins at His feet, and celebrates, because we have moved from death (which we deserve) to life.

In the words of the old negro spiritual, “It’s a-me, it’s a-me, it’s a-me Oh Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”

The parable is clearly a metaphor. God is this owner/CEO, and we ourselves, like the embezzler, have a moral guilt that is exceedingly great. Jesus paid our debt, on the cross. As Brad puts it, God forgives recklessly, extravagantly, without limits. His mercy is beyond comprehension.

The second part of this story is intriguing. Now that the embezzler is off the hook how will he behave? In no time he comes across another man who owes him money. It’s a small debt, and the man doesn’t have the money at this moment. The forgiven embezzler is so incensed that he has the man thrown in jail.

Interestingly, this latter debtor implores the forgiven embezzler with the very same words that the embezzler threw at the feet of the CEO. But in this second instance there is no mercy.

Authentic forgiveness is never cheap. We want the other person to pay, to feel the hurt we’ve felt. What we don’t realize is that non-forgiveness is also costly.

Pastor Brad reminded us that forgiveness does not always result in reconciliation. But it does mean letting go of your right to hurt them back.

There are consequences for not forgiving. Unforgiveness is a burden as is the bitterness it leads to. Don’t allow unforgiveness to choke all the joy out of your heart.

There is also a third part to this story. The embezzler who had been forgiven was ultimately returned to the board room. The CEO says, “You didn’t get it at all. I was willing to take the loss, and would still be, but you don’t want to take the offer.”

Instead the man is now sentenced to pay.

Jesus finished this story with these very sobering words. “And this is how My heavenly father will treat every one of you, unless you forgive your brother from the heart.”

Now, you must choose… no more explaining. Choose to forgive. Put that burden down, ‘cause otherwise it will kill you. Let it go. Choose life.

End of story. This is the gospel.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

How Big Is Your God?

Friday evening, we shared a thoughtful, reflective Good Friday service called Tenebrae. Tenebrae is Latin for “shadows” or “darkness.” As music and readings detailing the events at Calvary were shared, the candles were slowly extinguished. We remembered the price Jesus paid to redeem us from our sins. We remembered His last words, and shared in the solemnity of that experience. It was very special service. The sparseness of the sanctuary and somber mood stood in stark contrast to the color and excitement we encountered this morning upon entering.

He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Jesus is alive!

We shared an Easter breakfast downstairs at 9:00 a.m., followed by an Easter Egg Hunt for the younger ones. The service itself began with the customary greetings, a brief announcement about the building committee meeting scheduled for Tuesday, and a time of worship.

Because Resurrection Sunday is a time of new beginnings, we received a batch of new members into the church family this morning. They were: Tony & Jeannette Ciaccio, Roschelle Landsverk, Brent & Ann Lee, Norm & Mae Livgard, Ed & Susie Newman, and Rob & Jen Strom.

The Scripture readings and a time of prayer followed.
Psalm 118:1-4, 14-24
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 28:1-10

Shylee Smith Lunde then shared a beautiful solo with us after which our pastor, Brad Shannon, began his message.

How Big Is Your God?

Brad began with how kids when their little love to spread their arms and say how big they are. Or how big their love is, or whatever. But the real question on the table this morning, Brad stated, is this. How big is Christ in your life?

Jesus claimed to be God in human form and He verified His claims by rising from the dead. Jesus is alive!

The apostle Paul, in I Corinthians 15, called the resurrection the hingepoint of history. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead affirms the faith, and certifies that all He said was true.

At this point Brad detoured to ask questions about our human limits. How long can we go without food? 30 days. How long without sleep? 10 days. How many hours can we dance? 100. How far can we walk? 500 to 600 miles. But how long can we go without water? Only three days.

Water is central to our lives. And in the especially arid Middle East, water is an even more pressing concern. This is in part behind the point Jesus was making when He encountered the woman at the well in John 4. The idea of an eternal well that would flow up without end captured her imagination. Jesus was speaking of the well of living water that flows from God, the only well that really satisfies our deepest thirst. The rest of the sermon focused on the thirsts most common to humankind.

First, our thirst for an answer to the meaning of life... Brad cited several songs from the 60’s which wrestled with life’s tough questions, including Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind, Simon & Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence, and the Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.

T.S.Eliot, who became a Christian after rejecting the futility of the modern world’s empty path once wrote about the condition of godless man in this manner.

And the wind shall say:
"Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls . . ."

A second thirst that is common amongst us is the thirst for community. We desire to be connected, to be part of a group, to have peers, friends, relationship. We all seek deeper connections. But what is it that we really seek?

The prophet Jeremiah wrote, "My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water." (Jer. 2:13)

Every heart is like a cistern. When we open the lid and allow God to fill it, indeed He fills it to the brim and overflowing. If we try to fill our hearts with something else, it leaves us empty.

Brad cited an amusing story about a relationship he had with a girl that he thought was special, but she pushed him away. At the time he thought she was his everything. But after the third rejection, God spoke to him and said, “She’s not your everything. I am your everything.”

A relationship with God is the deep connection we all seek.

The thirst to be clean is a third longing we all have. Brad shared how when he was mowing fields on a hot summer day, getting all sweaty and having the swirling dust stick to his skin… he had only one thought pre-eminent in his mind. “I’ve got to have a shower.” It feels good to be clean.

Likewise, our souls have an aversion to moral dirt. Some of us have lived large portions of our lives stained by our acts. Some of us wonder, “Would people still love me if they knew who I really was and what I’ve really done?”

In Psalm 51 David pleads, “Cleanse me… wash me… create in me a pure heart.” This is the deep thirst of every human heart. And when we look at the cross, what Jesus did for us, it satisfies this deep longing, for Jesus took on our sin, our uncleanness, to make us clean. Who needs a shower? Humble yourselves… He wants to wash you.

The final thirst we share is for a grander vision. Several of the disciples had been fisherman. It was a commercial activity that provided for their families. But Jesus offered them something more, to become fishers of men. To work with Him to restore a broken world. To the disciples, and to us, He puts forth this question: Are you about dollars or destinies?

Jesus is alive. When you find God’s grander vision, you’ll see… this is it.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Wowed By His Servanthood

Today is Palm Sunday, a day in which we remember the Lord's triumphal entry into Jerusalem, initiating the events of Holy Week. With the morning sun filling the sanctuary Pastor Brad welcomed us with these words, "We worship a living Savior," followed by remarks that would lay the groundwork for today's message pertaining to the manner in which Jesus came to us.

Announcements included the following:
1.) There will be an art show on April 29th with everyone invited to contribute. Think outside the box. It could be something sewed, built, canned, carved, knitted or remodeled. This is not the time for modesty. Bring something to share.
2.) There will be no Adventure Club this week.
3.) Thursday at 6:30 everyone is invited to the church to watch The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. It's a powerful story based on the classic C.S.Lewis series. Because the film is PG, we're seeking a few volunteers to help in the nursery.
4.) Friday evening we will gather for a special Good Friday service beginning at 7:00 pm.
5.) Because of the activities here, the Women's Bible Study will next meet Saturday morning on May 2 starting at 9:00 a.m. Joanne stated that there will be two sessions that weekend, the first being a make-up session.
6.) Bob noted that the building committee will Thursday after Easter.
7.) Next Sunday is Easter. There will be an Easter breakfast at 9:00 a.m. followed by an Easter Egg Hunt at 9:30.

The quartet led us in worship this morning. During the processional hymn "Hosanna, Loud Hosannas" the children waved palm branches and marched to the front of the sanctuary to lay them down in commemoration of Jesus' glorious entrance into Jerusalem.

The Scripture readings this morning were from Isaiah 50:4-9a, Phil. 2:5-11, and Luke 19:28-40.

Wowed By His Servanthood

Today's message was based on the passage in John 13:1-17 where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. Jesus knows He has but 72 hours to live. He knows Judas will betray Him. And He also knows, fully understands, that all power is His.

Brad backtracked to his Transfiguration sermon in which Peter, James and John were on the mountain with Jesus in Luke 9. They saw Him transfigured, saw the glory of God and suggested that this mountaintop would be a good place to stay. Peter didn't know, of course, what he was saying. The true glory is not found in the show of power. Rather, as exemplified in John 13, true glory is revealed in serving others.

Our natural tendency is to want power and recognition. We're enamored with things that are bigger, better, more amazing. Doing a flip on a snowmobile isn't enough. Now it takes a double-flip to wow us.

In the same way, we want our God to be big, to be all-powerful, all-knowing. Even terrifying. We like these attributes of God.

Ultimately, the mystery of who God is is more subtly grasped when we see God as servant. God's humility, His desire to serve us.

We'll never understand the cross without understanding this. God came not as a king or tycoon, but as a carpenter. He rode into Jerusalem on a colt. He came as a servant.

I've had people say to me, "how can you call God a servant? That's blasphemy. That's like a heresy. He's the one on the throne and we should be serving Him."

But what do you call someone who creates you with needs that only He can meet? What do you call someone who will come to you at any time, day or night, at your beck and call? What do you call someone who, no matter how much you've alienated yourself from Him, no matter how much you've betrayed Him, no matter how much you've hurt or wounded Him, no matter how much you've ignored Him, who you honestly and sincerely cry out to Him will come in that instant to meet your deepest needs? What do you call someone who says: don't worry about your clothes, because I clothed the flowers so I'll take care of your clothes.

I don't know what else you'd call someone who's there for everything you need that really matters -- if you'll simply depend on Him -- but a servant.

What's astonishing about God is how He radically alters the entire value system of humanity.

In Philippians 2 we see this picture of God as he comes into the world. Beginning in verse three:

3Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name, 10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

When Jesus Christ came into the world in an act of servanthood and humility, it was not a stretch for God. God didn't have to alter His nature or His character or His essence. Serving was comfortable for God. God's action was service, His motivation love, His virtue humility.

For this reason we are most like God when we serve.

What we need to grab hold of is that when we serve others, when we begin to lay our lives aside, we will be blessed.

Note how Jesus washed the disciples' feet. He did not make a big announcement. He just put on the towel. Nor was His service at arm's length. He was engaged and directly involved.

Brad told an anecdote here about a businessman who went away to Europe only to return and find his business being badly managed. There were broken windows. The grass was unmowed. When he walked inside, they were all sitting around playing Uno. Yet they were proud of themselves for having memorized the memos.

The point was obvious. God's desire is for His people to live the truths of Scripture, not simply memorize them.

Serving is not something we do to earn points with God. Rather, our service is in response to God's act of servanthood having touched us, re-orienting us to others' needs and not simply our own.

Jesus invites us not to be served, but to serve... and thereby know His fullness.

A celebration of the sacrament of communion followed.