Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Proper Humanity of Jesus

Guest Sermon by Rev. Edward Higginson

We’re invited by Jesus Christ to imitate God; to strive to become, “perfect even as our Father who is in heaven is perfect,” (Matt. 5:48) who “is kind to the unthankful and the evil,” (Luke 6:35.) But it’s obvious that this imitation can’t apply to the natural attributes of God: the self-existence, eternity, power, and presence which belong to God and God alone.
And our imitation even of His moral perfections is, admittedly, so feeble and faint in the very best of humanity that had Scripture not enjoined the duty, we’d neither have noticed nor dared to aspire to such ideals.
Yet, we need the stimulus of an example more approachable by our sympathies and level to our nature. We need to see in what sense, and to what extent, Humanity may be like God. We need one specimen exhibited to us of human nature actually made perfect, bearing the brightest transcript possible of all the imitable perfections of our Father in Heaven.
And this need is supplied by the history of Jesus Christ.
But not if he was in person Divine and Human at once. If his example is both Divine and Human we could neither confidently distinguish which is imitable, nor sufficiently discriminate how much is beyond our reach. Nor, if he was an angel, or any being except a man. The virtues of angels are not imitable by us in the way we require.
Jesus is not in nature an angel, but of the seed of Abraham (and indeed, of Adam.) “Wherefore it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren.” (Heb. 2:16-17.) His example is itself human duty exhibited in human life – duty fulfilled with matchless fidelity.
But we’re trained to look upon Jesus as we might upon a visitor from another planet – a creature of a superior order of being, the splendor of whose angelic character we must admire with a distant and detached feeling of wonder. It’s not only a theological, but a practical, mistake that makes the character of Jesus an object of distant reverential wonder, rather than one for direct emulation, or his example a matter of vague contemplation and admiring sentimentality, rather than direct practical imitation. This should not be.
That Jesus should be a perfect example for all men, throughout all time, to look up to and obey, it was necessary for the validity of his example that he should be really and properly human.
When we speak of the imitableness of Jesus’ character, and rest this assertion on the belief that he was a man “tempted in all points as we are,” we aren’t forgetting he was a Prophet, mightier in word and deed than any God had ever sent before.
The example of Jesus is entirely human, and strictly imitable in every respect. That sublime character was strictly of natural growth, under supernatural influences.

The Prophet's amazing commission from God acted upon Jesus, the Man, to produce a pattern so far advanced above all men to furnish all the world, for all ages, a Standard of human Excellence.

Those who profess a religious horror at the doctrine of Christ's Humanity, don’t know of its full worth. The Character and Example of our Savior, viewed as strictly and properly human, and therefore properly imitable by men, have in them a storehouse of virtuous influences, which, when transferred into our own characters, renders him his highest glory.
The great religious advantage of this “peculiar doctrine” of proper humanity, is that it allows our Master to be what he’s not in any other system: a true Example for Humanity. An example of perfected human nature, to guide our conduct here, and to animate our faith as to what we may become hereafter.
Christ's virtues, however exalted, are properly imitated; his perfect example is designed to be our guide. He will "hold us by the hand,” will help, guide, and support us, not with an angel's touch (for he helps not angels - and will perform upon us no miracle, and not operate upon us like a magic charm) but will help us as the wisest and holiest of the sons of Adam may help his less experienced brethren - he will counsel, admonish, reprove and encourage, as one tried and perfected, helping the yet imperfect struggling with their trials and temptations.
His example ought to help us in our duties and our difficulties, to regulate the state of our minds, and suggest the principles of our conduct. Only then do we make the proper application of this great spiritual truth, that Jesus exhibited a perfect model of human duty.

- Adapted from “Christ Imitable; The Religious Value of Christ’s Proper Humanity” by Rev. Edward Higginson (1807-1880)

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Are Christians Disappointed with the Message of #Jesus? [#JesusFollowers]

Suppose, for a moment, that a political leader, say, the President of the United States, is ready to stand before Congress and the people to declare war. Everyone expects this of him, and have long predicted this would be the content of his speech. Suppose also, that, in this hypothetical situation, everyone feels he will be justified in declaring war and opposing an unjust and evil enemy.

But instead of declaring war, he stands and speaks of peace. And morality. And LOVING the very enemies that everyone believes war should be made upon.

Imagine the surprise, the shock, even the anger, of many of those who heard this speech.

This is, in fact, exactly what happened when Jesus of Nazareth ascended a small hill to preach his Sermon on the Mount to thousands who had gathered there to hear him – a sermon in which he laid out his system of morality and the doctrines by which we are to live according to God’s Righteousness, and by which God’s peaceable Kingdom would come.

Many of his time, we are told, expected him to use his word to rally an army to his side and lead a violent rebellion against the Roman Imperial occupiers. This, they said, was the role of the Jewish “Messiah” many saw hidden in the Hebrew Scriptures. No doubt, the party called the Zealots were angered and disappointed that Jesus wouldn’t lead this violent revolt.

They believed this Messiah would then established his kingdom in imitation of the Kingdom of David, and believed that this Jesus would be the One who would establish his Kingdom and subdue all of the enemies of the Jews by force.

Instead, Jesus spoke in this sermon and in his ensuing ministry, of establishing a Kingdom “not of this earth,” a Kingdom of God in which all who suffered, all who thirsted and hungered for Righteousness, all who were meek and poor of spirit, all who were ill-clothed, ill-fed and in need of comfort would be served and comforted by God’s people.

Instead of hating one’s enemies, he said we must love them, pray for them, bless them, and go an extra mile if ordered by them to march one.

And to top it all off, this spiritual kingdom was come ON THIS EARTH by the Good Works of God’s people, those who had repented of their sins and who now served God as New People – God’s People – imitating the perfect example of Jesus, who was sent by God to not only proclaim God’s Kingdom but to live out the Kingdom in every way, and by so doing, prove for all time that we can, indeed, obey God.

There are some today who are still disappointed by Jesus, and say he must have meant something else, that he STILL will come and declare war on the wicked, and rule as an Imperial Dictator from Jerusalem. Or, they say, his words really have no meaning because he, being God in disguise (as they assert) clearly didn’t REALLY mean it when he said “follow me,” and “Obey these teachings of mine.”

But to view Jesus as having somehow failed, as some kind of imposter and not as a man who was Adopted, Chosen, Anointed and Sent by God to “go about doing good” and preaching that we must “go, and do likewise,” is to reject Jesus as the Christ, and to ignore the Good and Beneficial Gospel message he preached so clearly.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Loving God

Guest message by Rev. John Emery Abbot:

The reading today is Mark 12:28-30: "And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, "Which commandment is the most important of all?" Jesus answered, "The most important is, 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'"

You've probably often considered the fullness and power of this teaching of our Savior. The variety of phrases used not only renders the command itself more forcible, but also guards against misunderstandings about of the kind of affection it requires. With the phrase, "you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength," active, strong and permanent feelings are demanded; the next phrase "with all your mind," teaches that this love is to be rational, well-regulated, and such, in its causes and influences, as the soundest our understanding can muster; and when it's added "with all your strength," we're told that it's to be practical, to influence our ordinary conduct, to direct our exertions and employ our strength in works of obedience and duty.

"The most important," is the case because a devout regard to the Deity is the very foundation of all religion; because our obligations to the love of God are more numerous and more imperative than to any other duty; and because this command is more comprehensive in its nature, more important and universal in its influence, and more beneficial in its effects, than any other can be. (In other words, this is no light or inconsequential command.)

As a rule of conduct, the love of God will enter into every action, extend to feelings and to circumstances which laws can't reach, and easily decide in cases too minute or too complicated for any general directions to solve. It furnishes, too, a motive, which doesn't wait for deliberation or thought call it into action, which influences all other motives, and doesn't measure out its obedience narrowly, but automatically, in the service of God.

Lacking this, nothing can make up for it - obedience would be wavering and joyless. Isn't it wonderful, then, that Jesus teaches us, as the first command of his religion, "You shall love the Lord Your God."

Little observation is needed to convince us, that many misapprehensions prevail as to the nature and origin of the disposition enjoined in the text.

There are many, who consider all religious subjects as strange and mysterious. They consider the love of God as something inexplicable and incomprehensible, unlike all other affections, entirely beyond our power to acquire. And those of cooler minds see it as simply a regular discharge of outward duties, without any regard to the feelings and principles from which those duties spring. On the other hand, a fervid excitement of feelings, unaccountable zeal or a groundless and daring confidence, takes the place of that humble and rational affection, whose sincerity is tested only by the fruits of a pure and holy life.

In fact, there's nothing mysterious or inexplicable in that love of God enjoined by this teaching. It isn't kindled only by a miracle. It's not a passionate excitement, awakened mysteriously or supported by no reasons, unattainable by our efforts, or uncertain in its effects. Love of God is a feeling we all can understand, and which we all can acquire, and maintain. It's nothing surpassing our nature, or opposed to it. God has warmed and ennobled our hearts with certain affections which distinctly correspond to, and tend towards, their peculiar objects.

God has implanted in us original feelings of reverence, of gratitude, of esteem, of love. Whenever an object corresponding to these affections, and suited, by its nature, to motivate them, is presented with distinctness and force to the mind, these feelings are awakened. In this view, the love of God perfectly corresponds, in its nature, with the love of man. It's composed of the same affections, it arises from corresponding sources, and will be characterized by corresponding effects. In this view there is nothing mysterious, irrational, or unaccountable in the love of God. It arises simply from our being habitually impressed with those views of the character and agency of God, which are suited to call forth the sentiments of reverence, gratitude, esteem, and affection.

Contemplate the immensity of God's universe, and the myriads of known and unknown beings which people it with life. Don't you see here traces of perfection, which should fill you with reverence and awe?

Some people never think of God with this reverence and affection, because their views of His character are so unsettled, indefinite, and unworthy. Their concept of God pop into their heads randomly or by accidentally, and is formed carelessly. They don't take the time to think about God in a serious way, nor do they listen to the voices resounding through creation, that proclaim the majesty and mercy of its Author.

The more we acquaint ourselves with God, the more our views of His character lose their confusion and become more definite, consistent, and worthy. Then, we can look to him with sentiments of deeper reverence, and more confiding and fervent love.

If the goodness of God in this teaching is not sufficient, what do we think of His last and greatest gift: For us God gave his Son to be our instructed example and guide. For our sake, He gave him to be a persecuted sufferer from his birth in the manger of Bethlehem, till he slept in Joseph's tomb. Is there not here the best evidence of God's mercy to us?

Such are the feelings which unite to form the love of God, and such are the sources from which they spring. And in these views God is as distinct and intelligible an object of the affections, as a human benefactor or an earthly parent can be.

Rev. John Emery Abbot was an 1810 graduate of Bowdoin College. He was pastor of North Church in Salem from April, 1815 to October, 1819, when he died at the age of 26.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Talk is Cheap. Walk the Talk. [#JesusFollowers]

Talk is cheap. It’s easy to talk, but hard to work. Human beings naturally incline towards inertia. We like to remain still, to be lazy, to take shortcuts, and to avoid hard work whenever possible. This isn’t to say we cannot overcome this inertia, or that inertia is somehow inevitable. But it’s something we have to recognize in order to overcome it.

This is true not only in our work life, but also of our religious life, because we like to take shortcuts, to avoid work, and to win the race of faith without ever putting our running shoes on – or even getting out of bed, if we can avoid it!

But that’s just not how God has designed religion, if we are to believe Jesus, whose words challenge us to a vigorous faith comprised of Good Works, and promise that these works result in our salvation.

It's cheap (and easy) to say that we need not do Good Works to please God. It’s easy to follow the path leading through what Jesus calls "the Wide Gate" by saying that our behavior is only “extra” stuff that we do for Others – our little crumbs from the table we give to God as “gifts” of grudging gratitude – because (we assure ourselves) we're going to be awarded salvation by God regardless of how we act. 

Good Works, if done at all, are optional on our part, some assert, and if they are done to please God, they’re actually “filthy” and unacceptable in His sight. Thus, we have rationalized practicing a lazy, self-centered religion.

The problem with this line of thinking is that Jesus teaches us just the opposite approach. 

Jesus clearly, and repeatedly, taught that if we claim to follow him, we are saved not by our faith alone, but by OUR WORDS (Matt. 12:37) and will be judged and rewarded in Heaven by OUR DEEDS (Matt. 16:27/2 Cor. 5:10.) Only those who seek to obey God’s Moral Law will see eternal life.

“And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer: “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.” (Mark 10:17-19.)

Jesus could have said, “Just have a belief that a deity of some sort exists, and you’ll be instantly awarded eternal life by God.” Instead, he told him, in effect, “You know God, and Know His Law; Now Walk in it – Walk what you Talk.”

It's a very cheap grace indeed (as Bonhoeffer said) - by which we presume to command God to accept a once-in-a-lifetime, emotional confession in His Son as a 'ticket' to eternal life. Jesus says that simply crying out “Lord, Lord!” without doing the Will of the Father is insufficient (Matt. 7:21-27.) We thus cheapen God's offer by treating it cheaply.

Just like simply enrolling in a College doesn't permit us to view ourselves as instant graduates - without any requirement to attend classes or do the required coursework - belief is only a first step in our faith. Simply professing belief, without accompanying it with active Good Works, is not enough (James 2:19.) 

Obeying God’s chosen spokesman, Jesus (John 8:51; 14:23) and abiding in him (John 8:31) and (in the most radical text of the entire New Testament) walking “just as he walked” (1 John 2:6) is what is required.

Jesus always echoed the Hebrew Scriptures regarding God's view of our deeds. The Psalmist records, "For Yahweh is righteous; He loves righteous deeds; the upright shall see His face." (Psalms 11:7) and "Surely the righteous will praise Your name; the upright will dwell in Your presence." (140:13)

He told us, "Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matt. 7:13-14)

All the while as we walk our spiritual journey of Faith, let us remember that we are to rely constantly and in humility on God's continual forgiveness and His Spirit to guide, strengthen and encourage us, for we aren't presuming to do this on our own, though we are empowered to walk in the steps of our Master, and we are assured that we CAN do it (Deut. 30:11) by seeking to walk in his steps.