Overcoming Cynicism (Sermon)

Overcoming CynicismI’ve written on cynicism a few times here at the blog. If you follow regularly, you know this is something I’ve admitted to struggling with myself. I consider myself a recovering cynic. I must repent of my cynicism daily to follow Jesus faithfully.

I’m becoming increasingly aware that I’m not alone in my cynicism. In fact, I’ve gotten more response through personal correspondence on this one issue than any others. It no doubt strikes a chord with folks today. And I’m not surprised.

I’ve found that cynicism is the elephant in the room that nobody really wants to talk about.

A few weeks ago I preached a sermon that is a compilation of stuff I’ve written, as well as new thoughts, on the subject of struggling with and overcoming cynicism. This one sermon was probably the most relevant message I gave all year. It connected with our congregation like no other.

In Overcoming Cynicism, I specifically take on the growing cynicism toward the church, the Body of Christ. It’s something we desperately need to address as we seek to emerge from the “evangelicalism” of the last 30 years.

Here are a few excerpts from the sermon:

“Cynicism manifests itself out of frustration with persons, institutions, organizations, and authorities that have left her victims disillusioned and angry. Cynics feel cheated, robbed, lied to, and taken advantage of. Maybe you know the feeling. Disillusionment has been described as the “dispersal of illusions,” and many Christians are finding themselves passing through disillusionment only to drown in a sea of cynicism.”

“Cynicism is a sickness… it leads to despair. We must repent of it… repent by believing that God is greater than the evil at work in the world, for he calls us to be people of hope. We repent of it because it’s not consistent with the people we’re called to be.”

“Let’s be clear. It’s not cynicism simply to acknowledge reality. It’s just that we can’t fully know what’s real without considering the God fully revealed in Jesus. Reality must conform to the good news of Christ. If we’re not doing that, then why bother with being a Christian. Hopeful realism is about resurrection and the promise of new creation. And this is what I believe we’re being called to embrace in the gospel message. It allows us to see the Spirit of God at work, and it empowers us to join him in shaping God’s good future.”

You can download the sermon and view slides (PDF) here at our archives. Listen to Overcoming Cynicism and learn about practical steps you can take on your way to becoming a hopeful realist this Advent season.

Grace & Peace,

D.D. Flowers, 2014.

 


Play-Doh & the Multi-Racial Kingdom of God

Play-Doh-1We just got our two-year-old son a new Play-Doh kit that came with an assortment of colors and little plastic tools to cut, shape, and mold clay objects. Who doesn’t love Play-Doh, right? I still like to feel it in my fingers and get a good whiff of it. I’ve even seen Kainan pretending to eat it. He puts it to his mouth and says, “Yum, yum, yum.” Play-Doh is the stuff childhood is made of.

I have to admit that I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I like things to be orderly, in their place, and without spot or blemish. If something is out place, I sense an urgency to fix it. Maybe I’m a tad bit OCD like that. Not nearly as bad as Bill Murray in What About Bob?, but my wife says that it is noticeable.

So Kainan was recently playing with his Play-Doh. I was trying to show him a few things (you know, the proper way to play with it), but he kept insisting on smashing the colors together. He’s not color blind. Why is he doing that? Clearly he just doesn’t understand that you can never get them apart again if you mix the colors like that. I just need to show him how it works, I thought.

Well, needless to say, our toddler didn’t like me messing with his work of art. He new exactly what he was doing, and it didn’t make sense to him why I was up in his business. After a couple attempts left him in tears, I left him alone.

And then I had a thought.

Is the church failing to be as imaginative as my toddler? I don’t mean in the arts, though that is important. No, I mean when it comes to our insistence upon keeping races, ethnic groups, and cultures separate from one another.

Maybe we’re not doing it on purpose. Maybe it’s just built into us like me wanting to keep the white, black, and brown Play-Doh from mixing. I suspect we’ve been conditioned not to see a greater beauty with God’s colors.

I think the only way to correct the problem is for us first to become aware of it and then begin the process of reconditioning our thinking, reimagining beauty. You know, rethinking the multi-racial Kingdom of God.

In John’s heavenly vision as recorded in Revelation 7:9-17, John sees people from every nation, tribe, and language worshipping God in perfect unity around the throne. He learns that these people “dressed in white (pure) robes” washed clean by the blood of the Lamb are those who made it through the great tribulation on earth. They paid the ultimate price.

Let there be no doubt. There is a price to be paid.

Think about this. Everything we need to envision a multi-racial, multi-cultural Kingdom has been given to us as children. Is it any wonder that Jesus calls us to embrace the sort of faith that children exhibit (Matt 18:3)? There is much that we can learn from the perspective of the little children.

“Red and yellow, black, brown, and white… they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

That’s a powerful truth captured in a children’s song. We will never outgrow this one, folks. This is the Kingdom. This is where it’s all going, sooner or later.

It’s the oppressive, even demonic, powers of this world that teach us to group ourselves according to like kind and distance ourselves from the other. It’s time the church—the church from every nation, tribe, and language—bring John’s vision of heaven to earth. Reversing Babel is all a part of the Kingdom program.

If we want to reverse Babel, we’re gonna have to be willing to join the oppressed in the margins. Jesus lived in the margins where the mess is obvious.

Where are the margins in your community? Where is the racial segregation? Where are the cultural roadblocks to peace and harmony? Look for Jesus. He is there calling us forward to respond to injustice, and conform it to the Kingdom.

Remember this: It is Satan who scatters, but it is the God revealed in Jesus who is the holy unifying force that brings peace and harmony to our broken world. God is always against dehumanizing systems that tear apart his creation.

If Jesus lived in the margins of society, and calls us to live there too, then he is clearly saying that God lives there and it’s in those places that he creates beauty. The margins can be a womb for the Kingdom, if only our lives are planted there as gospel seeds intent on birthing new creation.

This takes courage. It means risking everything for the gospel.

Our “safe” religion is nothing more than the sanitized, sterile mechanism of infertility. It doesn’t make disciples or birth Kingdom movements. While it may be easy, comfortable, and “safe” for our churches to remain segregated on Sunday mornings, it is aborting the colorful life of the Kingdom of God.

Take it from my toddler and his Play-Doh. It’s time to mix it up.

D.D. Flowers, 2014.


Not Against Flesh & Blood (Sermon Series)

Last month I attended the Missio Alliance conference Church & Post-Christian Culture in Carlisle, PA. The focus of the conference was on the growing interest in Anabaptism as a tradition that has much to offer the church in our present cultural context. Needless to say, there were a lot of Anabaptists there.

In one of the afternoon breakout sessions, pastors Greg Boyd, Paul Eddy, and Dennis Edwards spoke on spiritual warfare in “Fighting the Right Fight: An Anabaptist Perspective on Spiritual Warfare.”

I went to the first session and showed up a little early. The large room soon filled up and folks were turned away because of fire safety regulations. It was obvious that pastors and other practitioners were interested in the topic.

I remember during the discussion hearing someone say that “we (Anabaptists) don’t talk about this very much” largely because Anabaptists haven’t been known for drawing attention to unseen, spiritual realities.

It’s true that Anabaptists have mostly shied away from the “charismatic” and been more cerebral toward matters of faith. Something I’m hearing pastors in my district within Virginia Conference regrettably lament.

I got the distinct impression that folks were feeling like they wouldn’t even know where to begin in talking about this with their congregations.

While I was listening, I held an outline to a seven-week sermon series on this very topic. For me, the entire session and discussion was affirmation that the series I had put together was indeed something led by the Holy Spirit.

I was already set to begin the series that weekend.

Not Against Flesh & Blood

This coming Sunday I will be preaching the final message in the Not Against Flesh & Blood series at Christiansburg Mennonite Fellowship.

If you’re interested, you can download the sermons and the slides (PDF) at CMF’s sermon archives. The outline gives a brief description of each message.

1. Creation & Chaos
Scripture Reading: Genesis 1:1-2, 3:1-7; Romans 8:18-23; Ephesians 6:12

In the beginning the Triune God created an orderly universe out of love. Then somewhere in the primordial past a portion of his angelic agents began working against the Creator—war in the unseen realms! Chaos ensued and creation began her groaning. In time, the disorder and chaos that began in the heavenly realms were perpetuated with God’s highest creation in all of the physical world: mankind. The first human pair used their free will to spread sin and rebellion upon the earth. Does God hit the reset button on creation? No, God responds by enacting a mysterious, redemptive plan that would not only set the world to rights, but would eventually set the entire cosmos free from decay.

In the first message of the series, we look at how things came to be broken the way they are today, and how the spiritual forces of evil are still at work exploiting human weakness and opposing God’s will. It’s a struggle between good and evil, but ultimately the real battle is not one of flesh and blood.

2. Cruciformed Sovereignty
Scripture Reading: Isaiah 25:1, 7-9; Matthew 8:23-34; 1 John 3:8b

Isn’t God all-knowing? Didn’t God see this great cosmic rebellion coming? If so, why did he create in the first place? If evil comes to pass, God must have wanted it, right? Do we truly have free will, or is everything already determined? If it’s a real battle between good and evil in the heavenly realms, can God lose? What guarantees do we have that Satan will be outwitted and defeated? These are old questions, both philosophical and theological, but they need fresh biblical answers that are consistent with the God revealed in the crucified and resurrected Jesus—keeping in view the real struggle between good and evil (i.e. a battle of the wills), among what is seen and unseen.

In the second message of the series, we consider the problem of evil and God’s interaction with time (past, present, and future). How does God experience the present with us and see the future? If God’s sovereignty looks like Jesus’ power and domination over evil by the cross, and the real struggle isn’t with flesh and blood, what does this mean for how his followers should confront spiritual evil?

3. Prayer as Holy Resistance
Scripture Reading: Daniel 10:1-14; Mark 9:14-29; Matthew 6:5-13

In the Bible and in our experience, the future is partly open and partly settled. Therefore, prayer can be seen as joining with God in engaging the present in order to shape the future. He calls us in Christ to rebuke spiritual evil, even so-called “natural” evils, and bring about the Kingdom through our words and actions. Prayer is a cry for the Kingdom in an act of holy resistance against the evil that seeks to destroy us and our neighbors. Yes, we are changed when we pray, but so do those things around us when we pray in faith. According to the Scriptures, God acts through his Spirit and his heavenly court (i.e. angels) when we pray according to his will. In the way of Jesus, we resist in continual prayer.

In the third message of the series, we dispel of the notion that prayer only changes you and doesn’t have an effect on God or the outcome of the future. On the contrary, God has built it into the very fabric and framework of space and time that we would work with him in the redemptive story. In fact, without our free participation in the Kingdom’s work of resisting evil, we postpone God’s good promises to us.

4. Prayer in Imagination
Scripture Reading: Exodus 33:7-11; Matthew 6:5-13, 11:28-30 (MSG)

Having a warfare worldview and a robust theology of prayer is good, but it’s not enough. We need to be intentional in practicing a life of prayer. Jesus calls us to remain in constant communication with the Father as we go about our lives. He even expresses the holy desire to pray with his own disciples. But Christ also reveals that getting away to a private place is necessary for deepening our relationship with God and for getting in touch with the unseen realities of the world around us. In order to go deeper with God, we must learn to use a disciplined imagination to see Christ as we meet with him face to face.

In the fourth message of the series, we look at how this existential and mystical part of our faith requires that we use our minds for more than analyzing and doing mental gymnastics. We need a supernatural experience of the living Christ. Only then can we join the spiritual war on terror.

5. Sword of the Spirit
Scripture Reading: Psalm 119:1-16; Matthew 4:1-11; Ephesians 6:10-18

We constantly have messages and images running in our minds, even on repeat. Some are good and reflect God’s truth, others are bad and can hinder us, even destroy us. Filling our hearts and minds with Scripture is a powerful and effective way of combating the flesh and the devil. The psalmist knew that meditating and memorizing Scripture transformed the soul, and washed the dirt from his eyes. And Jesus, God in the flesh, immediately resorted to quoting Scripture when facing the tempter, Satan. How much more ought we make Scripture reading, study, and memorization part of our spiritual arsenal?

In the fifth message of the series, we look at the importance of reading and teaching Scripture to bring about the change God wants in our lives, and for transforming the church. Is our thinking being shaped more by the Scriptures, or by culture and our own limited experiences? How can we use the “sword of the Spirit” that’s at work in the written word to confront evil?

6. Worship as Warfare
Scripture Reading: Exodus 10:1-9; 2 Chronicles 20:1-30; Revelation 4:1-11

Worship is far more than our preferences for music and singing. In fact, true worship should have less to do with our personal preferences and more to do with how best to corporately express God’s infinite worth out of sincere thankfulness and celebration for who God is, what he has done, is doing, and will do for us. Furthermore, worship is an activity of heaven and earth. We join with heaven in our worship. Like it is with prayer, worship is calling down the Kingdom. It mysteriously expands the Kingdom in us and around us—pushing back the darkness that seeks to consume us with fear and hopelessness.

In the sixth message of the series, we look at how worship is used in spiritual warfare. It’s not about the performance. It’s not about our preferences. It’s about calling heaven down so that God’s glory would fill the earth. Worship is a part of spiritual warfare, because it’s not against flesh and blood. We join with the angels singing, and demons flee.

7. Hell Will Not Prevail
Scripture Reading: Matthew 16:13-18; 24:4-14; Revelation 12:10-12

Jesus said he saw Satan fall from heaven like lightening. In other words, our archenemy doesn’t have a chance against God almighty! Jesus crushed the head of the serpent, and now we merely see the erratic floundering of a rogue angel losing his power. Jesus said he would build his church and not even the gates of hell would prevail against her. Our promise comes from the crucified and resurrected one. He has defeated death and inaugurated the Kingdom, which is expanding through the church until his glorious return. What does this look like today while we still contend with a fighting enemy?

In the seventh and final message of the series, we look at how evangelism, in conjunction with our prayers and worship, should be seen as a powerful weapon to advance the Kingdom of God. The growing church will proclaim an end to evil and the rebellion that began long ago.

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“The God of peace will soon crush Satan…” Rom 16:20

D.D. Flowers, 2014.


Shapeshifting Hippie Jesus

A popular progressive blogger recently said that Jesus “doesn’t lay heavy teachings on people” in connection with his yoke being easy and his burden light (Matt 11:28).

So if Jesus’ teaching seems too heavy and hard for folks (Lk 9:23), does this mean that they merely need to reinterpret Jesus or soften his commands in order to ease their discomfort? I sure hope not.

I prefer Bonhoeffer’s sentiment that those who accept Christ’s commands are the ones who find his yoke easy and the burden light, but to those who resist them (him) his yoke is hard and the burden too heavy for anyone to carry. Just ask the rich man, or those listening to the Sermon on the Mount for the first time.

Jesus didn’t say, “accept yourself and take up your sword and follow me.”

Which translates this way today: I’m fine the way I am and I’ll fight (by whatever means necessary) anyone who says otherwise.

This seems to be particularly reflective of our narcissistic, morally relativistic American society still experiencing the destructive political and social consequences of the 1960’s. We can easily see the error of the tactics used by the Religious Right in the 1980’s to promote a power-over, politicized Jesus, but it was the social “hippie” revolution that completely emasculated Christ and transformed him into an anything-goes “love” guru.

If you follow my writings, you know that I’m not down with the cage-fighting Jesus. I’m an Anabaptist. I believe that Christ is love (agape) and peace as revealed on the cross, but these truths are understood in their purest form after letting Jesus define them for us in word and deed, even in the hard stuff.

It doesn’t happen, and will never happen, by shaping Jesus to fit a new cultural trend, what is politically correct, or what the current zeitgeist (spirit of the age) would have us believe about ourselves, the Messiah, and the sacred Scriptures.

Anyone who reads the Gospels will hear Jesus teaching a radical repentance to come into the Kingdom (Matt 3:8; Mk 1:15; Lk 5:32; 13:1, etc.), but our shape-shifting of Jesus to accommodate our cultural presuppositions about ourselves and our world appears to be keeping us from actually repenting of anything.

Jesus didn’t lay heavy teachings on people? No, quite the opposite. But this is where we are today: well-intentioned folks fed up with fundamentalism not realizing how dangerously close they are to reshaping Jesus to further their own interests and agendas—another version of fundamentalism, the libertine sort.

As Jesus said, “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” to those who lived by the law. I’d say it equally applies to those who use fancy-free language that make folks feel better about their sin in order to promote an easy believism, or a moral therapeutic deism. They both stink to high heaven!

To be clear, I don’t think the one who said Jesus “doesn’t lay heavy teachings on people” really believes that the love of Christ is an “anything-goes” sort of thing, but this misleading rhetoric inevitably sets a person on a trajectory of disaster. It’s not the pathway of repentance for the inheritance of the Kingdom.

Christ ought to be forming us into his image, not the other way around. That is the critical difference. It’s certainly what has made all the difference in my life.

What do you think? When you read the Gospels, is Jesus laying down some hard stuff? Do you hear Jesus extending a high invitation and high challenge to those who would join him?

D.D. Flowers, 2014.


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