John Wesley

Crux of the Problem

Romans 3:9-20 (NLT)

Well then, should we conclude that we Jews are better than others? No, not at all, for we have already shown that all people, whether Jews or Gentiles, are under the power of sin. As the Scriptures say,

“No one is righteous—
   not even one.
No one is truly wise;
   no one is seeking God.
All have turned away;
   all have become useless.
No one does good,
   not a single one.”
“Their talk is foul, like the stench from an open grave.
   Their tongues are filled with lies.”
“Snake venom drips from their lips.”
   “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“They rush to commit murder.
   Destruction and misery always follow them.
They don’t know where to find peace.”
   “They have no fear of God at all.”

Obviously, the law applies to those to whom it was given, for its purpose is to keep people from having excuses, and to show that the entire world is guilty before God. For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are.

One night in college I was awake in bed, staring at the ceiling. For some reason my roommate, Derek, also was awake. Out of the darkness, he asked me, “Chuck, do you think people are basically good or basically evil?”

Remember, I was maybe 20 at the time. My non-pastoral, non-theological answer was, “For crying out loud, Derek, I’m trying to sleep.” Derek has always been persistent, though.

“No, really,” he said. “What do you think? Are we good, or are we bad?”

I drew on the distant memory of a Sunday school lesson and said I suppose people are basically bad—that’s why we need Jesus. Derek seemed unsatisfied, though. He’s always been the kind of guy who looks for good in people.

I don’t remember much of the conversation after that. I guess I fell asleep, leaving my friend troubled and alone in the dark. Again, I was not very pastoral when I was 20.

Judging from our text today, Paul would agree with my answer. Or more accurately, I was in agreement with his, my subconscious vaguely remembering these or similar verses.

“All have turned away,” Paul says. “All have become useless. No one does good, not a single one.”

And it’s not just Paul’s opinion. Most of what he writes is a cobbled-together collection of quotes from the Old Testament, the result of his years of Jewish theological training. He is quoting from six different psalms and the 56th chapter of Isaiah to make his point.

We’re bad. Rock and roll bad, bad to the bone. We’re bad, nationwide.

Every time I hit one of Paul’s discussions of sin, I think of some of the really powerful sermons in history, the kind designed to crush listeners so they would run to the altar, weeping. There is Jonathan Edwards, of course, with that famous sermon many of us were required to read in high school or college, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Remember this part?

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.

One man in attendance at this sermon wrote, “The hearers groaned and shrieked convulsively; and their outcries of distress once drowned the preacher’s voice, and compelled him to make a long pause.” I wonder what it would take to get such a reaction today.

Our own John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, was no slouch when it came to such sermons, either. In “Original Sin,” Wesley takes the account of the total depravity of people in Noah’s day, a topic we touched upon last week, and considers whether modern people are any different.

Looking at stories and prophetic writings beyond the Great Flood, Wesley concludes that we in our natural state are no better than the wicked people of Noah’s day. “And this account of the present state of man is confirmed by daily experience,” he writes. “It is true, the natural man discerns it not: and this is not to be wondered at. So long as a man, born blind, continues so, he is scarce sensible of his want … . In like manner, so long as men remain in their natural blindness of understanding, they are not sensible of their spiritual wants, and of this in particular.”

In 21st century language, we’re not only bad, we are so spiritually broken from birth that we cannot sense how bad we are.

I think this somber message is much more difficult to sell than it was just a few decades ago. As a people, we are becoming much more humanist in our thinking. By that, I mean there is this undercurrent of thought where people assume the best aspects of being human can eventually overcome the worst aspects.

I have trouble seeing how humanism is actually achieving much, though. The modern world seems to be able to collapse into a heap of evil as quickly as ever.

Humanist thinkers also become comfortable with a relative kind of morality, a line of thinking not particularly useful for people seeking a relationship with a perfectly holy God. Relative morality generates thoughts like, “Well, I’m not perfect, but at least I’m better than the low-life creeps I have known and read about.”

Jesus warned against such thinking in a parable, by the way. It’s not been that long since we talked about it in worship at Luminary. At the temple, there is a Pharisee and a hated tax collector. The Pharisee gives thanks for his righteousness, and in particular for not being made like the low-life in his immediate vicinity. The tax collector simply acknowledges he is a sinner. And I’m sure you remember who was justified in his prayers.

Or, to draw on another lesson from Jesus, let’s get the logs out of our own eyes before we go grabbing at the splinters in other people’s eyes. We have to start with our own brokenness before we can help others.

I have the “Seven Deadly Sins” on the sanctuary screens today for a reason. As we enter the season of Lent, we need to meditate on them as we approach our time of communion. There are many other sins, of course, but the church has emphasized these seven for centuries because they seem to trigger so many other ongoing sins and so much separation from God.

Can we study these words, consider these evil acts, and genuinely acknowledge we are broken?

By asking the question, I suppose I am leaving you alone in the dark, the way I did Derek so many years ago. But here is what I did not know to tell him then: When we acknowledge our brokenness, our bad nature, we step toward great and glorious gifts from God, the kind of joy and peace no humanist can ever offer you.

Pay attention to our communion liturgy today, and you will hear what I’m talking about. Come back next week and hear Paul’s continuing message, and I’m sure you’ll find peace and joy as he continues the thought he has started.


It’s the Economy, Stupid

Amos 8:1-12

When I was a journalism student at the University of Tennessee, I had this wonderful professor, Dr. Tony Spiva, for a class in macroeconomics, the study of how economics work on a national and international scale.

It sounds like a sleeper of a class when I describe it, but it was one of the highlights of my college education. Dr. Spiva had an illustration for every principle. Even today, when I think of monopolies I think of diamond mining in the 1970s and 1980s, and when I think of supply and demand I think of Sade records. (He pronounced her name SHAR-day, as in, “those SHAR-day records you all are buying.”)

In fact, Dr. Spiva made money and its impact on the world so exciting that I considered changing my major. I didn’t, but maybe now that I’m a pastor and, consequently, a theologian, I’m not that far from Dr. Spiva’s field of study.

After all, in our text today, the prophet Amos underlines that God seeks a holy economy. God looks to how we treat one another in the material world for evidence of what is in our hearts, and our creator then responds accordingly.

You may find economics a dry subject, even seemingly irrelevant, but it is one of the few worldly examples I can discuss that impacts every one of you every day. When Bill Clinton was first elected president in 1992, he kept a key message in mind, a message his adviser James Carville first wrote down: “The economy, stupid.” It was supposed to be an internal planning message, but it became a political mantra: “It’s the economy, stupid.” In other words, remember the one issue affecting everyone.

On a large scale, economics heavily impact how well we live and how long we live. Of course God is interested in economics.

Amos speaks to the people of Israel at a time when there was great economic injustice. He begins with an image of a basket of summer fruit, something beautiful but very temporary, very perishable. Times can change quickly.

From there, he begins to predict disaster, all of it tied to how the people are treating one another as they go about the daily business of the world. In particular, he chastises the merchants.

Their hearts are so engrossed in profit they have come to not like the sabbaths and the religious feasts, the times set aside to draw closer to God rather than do business.

They cheat their customers with what amounts to tricky packaging and rigged scales, in the process exploiting the poor and needy. People have started seeing other people as commodities rather than human beings, and suffering has ensued.

The effects are to be quite terrible, Amos says. God will punish the land with famine, but not a famine of food or water. Instead, people will stop hearing from God, hungering for the word of God so much that they will go searching for God, but not find him.

It is an ancient situation, in this case one that happened thousands of years ago, but it also is a problem that crops up repeatedly throughout history. The people with primary control of a culture’s resources forget they are children of God, letting greed become their idol. And in the process, other people suffer, often from shortened lives.

The founder of Methodism, an Anglican priest named John Wesley, was a very vocal critic of the business practices in 18th century England. One example: He was deeply disturbed by the production of drinking liquor, but not for the reasons you might think. So much grain was being used for highly profitable liquor production that there was a shortage of grain to make bread and other basic food items. The price of these items went so high that poor people were starving to death in the alleyways.

A few years ago we as Americans actually made some similar economic decisions that had devastating effects globally. Many of those effects continue today. This is from the April 20, 2014 issue of Forbes:

In 2007, the global price of corn doubled as a result of an explosion in ethanol production in the U.S. Because corn is the most common animal feed and has many other uses in the food industry, the price of milk, cheese, eggs, meat, corn-based sweeteners and cereals increased as well.  World grain reserves dwindled to less than two months, the lowest level in over 30 years.

Several world hunger groups began to report that people in the developing world, like people in Wesley’s day, were starving as the price of basic foods went out of the reach of their meager incomes.

Yes, Amos’ message is aimed at all of us. Certainly, if you run a business, you need to hear his words. Always consider God’s demand that we consider each other and care for each other as you make choices in how you do business.

If you’re a voter, ask the right questions of candidates and assess the answers in a godly way. Which policies promise life and love? Which candidates create fertile ground for the kingdom, and which candidates potentially poison the fields?

As a church member, be sure you’re doing all you can financially to help the church fulfill its mission to bring people into a growing relationship with Christ.

The early Methodists lived by what we call our General Rules. They are a good general guide for living, and they are certainly a good guide for participating in the economic world. They are:

  1. Do no harm. My own business experience causes me to think of the Enron scandal and the terrible damage it caused to individuals and the economy as a whole.
  2. Do good. In his sermon “The Use of Money,” John Wesley said: “Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” There is nothing wrong with providing for ourselves, our families and our ongoing enterprises, but we work and do business primarily to benefit God’s kingdom.
  3. Stay in love with God. (This is the modern way of saying Wesley’s third rule.) If we keep God before us, as our first and primary love, everything else will fall into place.

A prayer: God grant us holiness in all we do, and in particular in our economic lives, which have potential for either great good or great harm.

The featured image is William Powell Frith’s “Poverty and Wealth,” 1888.

Through the Wilderness: Provisions

Exodus 16:1-8

Last week, as part of our Lenten journey, we headed off into the wilderness with the Israelites to see how they would grow in their understanding of God. They first learned to orient themselves in the easiest of ways, by keeping their eyes on the highly visible sign God gave them, a pillar of cloud and fire.

They quickly received another powerful sign, a story most people know, the parting of the Red Sea. Through this miracle provided by God, they were able to escape the pursuing Egyptian army by crossing the sea bed on foot. They even watched that army drown when the walls of water came crashing down.

You would think they would follow that clear sign of power through the desert with a mixture of astonishment and deep trust. We’ll find, however, that the Israelites were much like us—they were a worried, very human bunch. Astonishment and trust faded as soon as they became concerned their needs would not be met. Specifically, they became hungry.

God responded with the promise of provision. They didn’t even need to carry food with them on their journey. Instead, God told them, it would rain down on them as quail and manna, described later as a substance sounding a little like Frosted Flakes.

The lesson was pretty simple: God will provide. In fact, God wanted the Israelites to go to bed every night trusting his provision would be there for them the next day—no long-term planning needed on this journey. There was work to be done, but they always had enough. (He provided them with water in a similar way.) The one exception was when God sent them enough food for two days when the Sabbath came. God also wanted them to rest!

God still seeks the same kind of trust from us today. Pray this prayer with me: “Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread … .” Stop right there just a second.

Hmmmm. At least weekly in worship, and maybe daily, we lift up this prayer Jesus taught us to pray. Do we mean it? Do we live it? What does it mean to live as if we trust our bread will come on a daily basis?

The idea certainly conflicts with our 401K/pension plan/Roth IRA world. We’re taught to plan for our own provisions 40 years or more into the future, with all of that planning affecting when we can retire. We’re sometimes even left with the strange concern that we might live too long, running out of money in the process. How do we reconcile these two very different world views?

First, I’m reminded of one of Jesus’ parables. He begins telling it at Luke 12:16:

“The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Jesus said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.”

The big problem for the rich man, it seems, is not really hoarding, although he certainly is committing a serious sin when he hoards. He is deluding himself about how much control he has, in the process failing to understand his basic relationship to God. Preparation seems prudent, but we should never let go of this basic truth: We don’t control the future. And no amount of planning or stored provisions remove us from our need for God.

There also is the issue of how we use the resources we are given. Do we live as if this life is the only one that counts? Or do we live as people who believe something greater is happening—that God’s kingdom is truly arriving, and that the kingdom is where we store our true treasures and live out eternity!

John Wesley had a sermon, “The Danger of Riches,” that explained his idea of how to balance proper planning and trust in God. (He was working from 1 Timothy 6:9.)

In the sermon, Wesley said that God provides for the roof over our heads, food, and other basic needs, allowing us to ensure the well-being of our families and even our businesses, if we are people who operate them. Beyond those provisions, everything we are given counts as riches, and they have been given to us to use “to the glory of God.” Often, this means using our riches to help those who are less blessed materially, playing a role in God’s provision for people’s basic needs.

Even for a tither, this is a concept that requires thought. It forces a reassessment of every decision we make regarding how we handle our income and possessions, simply because we learn to say, “It’s not really ours, anyway.”

When we learn to make such decisions in the light of God’s dawning kingdom, we not only trust God daily, we begin to participate actively in the kingdom’s growth. We let God work through us so others see their daily bread arrive.

When all Christians adopt such an attitude, God’s presence will be as visible in this world as a pillar of cloud in the sky and Frosted Flakes on the ground.

Next week: The importance of perseverance.

Freedom from Fear

If God is for us, who can be against us?

The line is from Romans 8:31, but it also serves well as the lesson from today’s story in Exodus 14:10-31.

In revealing his true power to both his chosen people, the Israelites, and to the greatest power on earth, Egypt, God arranged for the Israelites to find themselves trapped between the Red Sea and an advancing Egyptian army.

Yes, Pharaoh had already suffered under the mighty hand of Yahweh in the form of plagues, including the death of all the firstborn males in Egypt, human and animal—Israelites exempted, of course. Yes, God was visibly present with the Israelites, in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. But still, the Israelites found Pharaoh’s approaching army terrifying.

Pharaoh led his pursuit with 600 chariots, wheeled terrors capable of defeating even well-trained, fully equipped phalanxes of soldiers. Drawn by massive horses, each chariot typically carried a driver and an archer with an arsenal of arrows and spears. In battle, they functioned the way tanks might be used today. The 600 carried Pharaoh’s elite charioteers, what we would call Special Forces; the rest of the Egyptian army was close behind.

But remember: If God is for us, who can be against us?

The Israelites cried out to Moses in terror, saying he had brought them into the desert to die. Despite the evidence of God they had seen, were seeing, and were about to see, they would continue to complain like this for years; it’s astonishing God put up with them. Moses told them, “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”

If we’ve spent much time in church, hearing basic Bible stories in Sunday school, we know what happened next. God’s visible presence moved to separate the army from the Israelites, and then God told Moses what to do as a prelude to God showing his power in parting the Red Sea. “Lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground.”

I’ve wondered what Moses felt as he did this. Could he feel God’s Spirit rush through him? Did he sense the power it took to drive billions of gallons of water apart?

The Israelites crossed safely. Pharaoh and his army pursued but died, the water crashing down on them, destroying the mightiest military force humanity had to offer.

If God is for us, who can be against us?

Yes, it’s a lesson from an Old Testament story. But it’s also a New Testament Bible verse for a reason. As people who believe God is for us, we are called to let go of fear, the same lesson the Israelites were supposed to learn.

We know that most of all, God has been for us by living and working in Jesus to eliminate all our reasons for fear. Jesus picked up on the Old Testament theme by saying repeatedly in his teachings, “Fear not. Fear not.”

I’m like most people in that I’ve carried a lot of fear around in my life. I’ve had childhood fears. I’ve had adult fears. For me, both have seemed to aggravate me the most in the middle of the night, when worry seems to be at its strongest.

I’m probably typical that most of my fear is of the future, of what might be. But that doesn’t make sense, not if we think about it. Through Jesus Christ, God already has captured the future. God is in the future, ahead of us, waiting on us.

We may have to go through some rough patches to get there, but because we believe in Christ, we know our future ultimately is holy and eternal. A good word to describe it might be “blissful.”

When we learn to live into this belief, wonderful things begin to happen. Fear is replaced not only by courage, but by a kind of joyous courage, a willingness to abandon this world’s worries and pursue God in full. We not only stop fearing the future, we begin living in its bliss now.

John Wesley, the 18th-century founder of the Methodist movement, had great expectations regarding what freedom from fear means for the world.

“Give me 100 preachers who fear nothing but sin, and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergymen or laymen; such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on earth.”

That is what we seek, isn’t it? The end of fear forever, and eternal union with God.


Next week, I’ll detail how we’re freed from death, and we’ll explore further what it means to live as a people who already have eternity.