Wednesday, February 26, 2014

My first sermon

I preached at Mito Church here in Japan on Sunday. I wrote my sermon so it could be translated into Japanese so I thought I'd take the simple step to post the transcript here. It's a lot to read but I figure if you don't, it will personally serve me well when last Sunday fades into a distant memory.

I don't post as regularly on my blog because it takes me so long to write what I want to say. Preparing what I wanted to say in my first sermon took even more time. The sermon posted below consumed my time for several weeks. I met with friends, I bought a commentary on Timothy, I listened to some of my favorite pastors, I prayed over it and it staggered me how, at times, I was void of any useful thoughts on my assigned scripture, 2 Timothy chapter 2. I've been going to church my whole life and it's depressing when you get the feeling the preacher is just up there to fill a 30 minute time slot, as if the church just couldn't find a more creative way to use the time. I wanted to say something thoughtful, something I would be excited to hear. I read one sentence at a time, Atsushi Tsuneki, the preacher, then translated each sentence into Japanese. I am so grateful for his help and translation.

There were a few specific barriers I faced while preparing. The first was the varying demographics at Mito Church. It's a bilingual church of about 100 people from a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures. I wanted to say something relevant, something that spoke to me.

Secondly, I was scheduled to preach two weeks ago but because of a bizarre snow storm, we decided to push back my sermon two weeks until February 23rd so more people could hear. This delay and the scripted nature of the sermon, made me wonder if my sermon would speak to the hearts of the people there, if the spirit would feel near.

Halfway through, I had my doubts. In an age filled with noise, distractions and options, so many options, I often wonder why people keep listening. As this doubt sat there, I realized it wasn't doing much good and just focused on letting my words speak to those who would benefit from it.

Looking back, I do know it did speak. God's word is powerful.

After speaking, a handful of people encouraged me, which I was grateful for. My favorite memory following my sermon was hearing from Ooyama-san, an 81 year old faithful Japanese lady. Our interaction is usually limited to a simple Japanese greeting. Through the help of my Japanese teacher Keiko, she showed me the page and a half of notes she had taken of my sermon and told me she has been taking notes for 50 years! It was great to hear more of her story. It's mind numbing to think a 26 year old's English sermon can speak to an 81 year Japanese lady.

2 Timothy 2 1-13
"Finding Our Strength In the Grace of Jesus Christ"

This morning, let's look at an insightful passage from Paul to his young friend Timothy which focuses on preserving the Gospel. This is likely the last letter Paul wrote. Unlike the relatively pleasant prison he writes from at the end of Acts, we are told Paul is in chains (1:16. 2:9), suffering from deep loneliness (4:9) and expects to be executed in the near future. Paul writes his dear young friend, encouraging Timothy to wholeheartedly teach the Gospel and entrust the Gospel to others, at any cost, even if it leads Timothy to the same lonely, suffering state Paul finds himself in. These last letters to Timothy are some of the most human writings in the New Testament,. Through all of Paul's struggles and suffering he retains his joy in the Lord.

Paul writes Timothy about really difficult and vital matters. Paul has a bold personality. On the other hand, Timothy has a timid, shy and weak personality, like we see from so many other famous men and women in the Bible. I can relate to these tendencies in Timothy because I also struggle with these characteristics. From the beginning of 2 Timothy chapter 2, Paul gets to the heart of the matter, encouraging Timothy to "be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus" (verse 2). It is so easy to search for strength and joy within ourselves, within our families, within our jobs, within our nationality, in our possessions, it is how we are taught to survive. Paul is commanding Timothy to have a joy much greater, much more satisfying, at the expense of Timothy's own personal comfort. Paul calls Timothy to a mission requiring Timothy to lose himself to spread the greatest message ever told, the message of the Gospel. As Jesus said, "whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 10:39).

It would have been ridiculous if Paul had commanded Timothy to simply "be strong", to pull up his boot straps and be obedient. And often, this is what Christians tell themselves and tell others in their struggles. But Paul encourages Timothy to "be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus". What does it mean to be "strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus"? When life gets tough, where do you find your strength?

Beginning in verse four, Paul creates three metaphors to help a timid Timothy lead the Church. Let's examine these three metaphors:
The first is that of a soldier. When a soldier enlists in the military, he understands his mission. The soldier does not attempt to live like a civilian. The soldier makes sacrifices due to the nature of his commitment. The soldier understands difficult trials will come due to his commitment. As a Christian, we must remember we are living for Jesus Christ and must not back down when suffering comes our way.

In the second metaphor, that of an athlete, Paul is reminding Timothy not to take the easy way out. It is because we live in Christ that we live in accordance with Christ and his teachings.

The third metaphor, that of a farmer, illustrates that we must be willing to do hard work as disciples of Christ.

Upon reading, initially these three metaphors may seem like Paul is advocating a salvation based on effort and our own good work; being good enough that God will accept us. But this could not be farther from the truth. Paul again directs Timothy in verse 8 to, "Remember Jesus Christ". Starting in verse 11 of chapter 2, Paul writes Timothy an early proverb to meditate on and be encouraged by when trials and suffering come:

"If we have died with him, we will also live with Him;
If we endure, we will also reign with Him;
If we deny him, He will also deny us;
If we are faithless, He will remain faithful;
For He cannot deny himself

It's a great passage to learn by heart, to share, to meditate on and to repeat under your breath when everything in your life is falling apart or when temptation to follow your natural comforts is knocking at the door. At the surface, Lines three and four do seem like strange, quite peculiar statements contradicting one another. Is Paul saying in line 3 that denying Jesus brings awful consequences, and in the very next line that denying Jesus is okay?

No, I don't think that's the case. Denying Jesus does bring the worst consequences as Jesus himself points out (Specifically in Matthew 25:12 and Matthew 7:23). But line four is not referring to us denying that Jesus died and rose from the dead, but rather, as commentator N.T. Wright points out, "Our faithfulness- our reliability, our stickability, our resolve, our determination to remain 'faithful in the sense of "loyal"- will waver and wobble from time to time" When we are under immense pressure we will find ourselves weak and helpless, at these moments we must learn a faith in the loyal faithfulness and reliability of God, who does not waver or wobble. Talk about a faith full of God's generous grace.

One thing that has come to my attention since I came to Japan is where I find my identity, where do I find my joy? Naturally, I place my identity in myself. I tend to be a people pleaser and want people to like me. So I act in a way to get others' approval and I've become quite good at it. If I feel I'm not measuring up, or someone isn't fair to me, or if someone belittles me I become highly sensitive and get easily offended and even angry at others. This is simply forgetting in whom my identity is placed and trying to exaggerate my significance, when I should think less of myself so God may become bigger. As Paul writes earlier in Ephesians 2:8, "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,  not a result of works, so that no one may boast." If our faith is based on our actions, it is only to preserve ourselves, when it is the Gospel we must preserve. If we base our faith on attempting to make ourselves good enough, we will not expand the Gospel within our city and our community.

It is in this humble understanding of ourselves, found in Ephesians 2:8, in which we may be strengthened. Paul is not commanding Timothy to find strength in a set of rules, on the contrary, he is reminding Timothy to look to his loving savior and out of a deep joy for Jesus Christ, emulate the mission Jesus Christ had for us. A mission larger than ourselves, a mission which endures suffering, and becomes uncomfortable out of a joy to serve the Lord.

Paul writes Timothy in a deep state of loneliness. Since I came to Japan about two years ago, I've been blessed to experience loneliness at a much more intimate level. When I came to Japan I remember thinking the word "lonely" was to admit my defeat, to admit the culture stress had broken me, that being far away from all my family and most of my friends was just too much, leaving me a lonely, sad mess.

But in the last year, I've come to realize the good in my loneliness. When I become lonely, and look to the Lord, he takes my weakness and through his grace makes me strong. God made his own son vulnerable because he loved us so much. God sent his son to live a perfect and holy life and took all the pain, and all the anguish I deserve, Jesus died at the cross for my sin and pride and selfishness. It is because God came down to us that we may find strength and peace in his grace. When Jesus Christ was loneliest he gave the most. Paul is encouraging Timothy to look to Christ when trials come because it is only by completely trusting Christ that Timothy will have a joy that can sustain him.

Going back to the old testament, the prophet Isaiah is a prime example for us as a demonstration of faith. In Isaiah 6, God appears to Isaiah,  when Isaiah sees God he says, "Woe is me! For I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips!" Upon seeing the Lord, Isaiah is shamed by his unholiness in the presence of a perfect and holy God. God atones for Isaiah's sin by placing a burning coal on his lips. As soon as this happens, God calls Isaiah on a mission to a people who will never, ever believe, asking "Whom shall I send?" Immediately Isaiah calls out "Here I am! Send me!"

Our sin and mess is not atoned for with a burning coal but rather God's own son Jesus Christ. Upon the strength and compassionate blessing of Jesus Christ's grace, rather than thinking more highly of ourselves we humbly understand our massive shortcomings and sin. After blessing us, we are always immediately called out on mission to bless our communities and live for Christ no matter the cost. And just as it was Jesus Christ's joy to be sent and proclaim the gospel, so it also must be our joy.

If you're lacking this joy in God, if you long for things more than you long for Jesus Christ, trying harder will only lead to further failures, ask God be your strength through his grace.