How do Christians Connect with God?

Photo of Stephen W. Hiemstra
Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Mubarak Mosque, Chantilly, Virginia on Religious Founders’ Day, October 15, 2017

Background

Good afternoon. My name is Stephen W. Hiemstra. I am a volunteer pastor and a Christian writer. My volunteer work focuses on Hispanic ministry and I write about Christian spirituality. My wife, Maryam, hails from Iran and considers herself a Muslim. We have been married 33 years and have three grown children.

My comments today will focus on how Christians connect with God. Because today we are celebrating Religious Founders’ Day, I take the inspiration for my talk from a sermon by the Apostle Peter that he gave on the day that the Christian church was founded, which we call Pentecost.

Invocation

Please join me in a word of prayer.

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14 ESV) In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Introduction

How do Christians connect with God? (2X)

Let me start by asking, what do secular people think about connecting with God?

Basically, they say that if you talk to God, that’s prayer, but if God talks to you, that’s psychosis. While pastor’s often tell this story as a light-hearted joke, psychologist Sigmund Freud described God’s existence as an illusion.[1] Karl Marx believed that religion (that is, God’s existence) was the opiate of the masses.[2] In other words, if you believe in God, Freud tells us you must be nuts and Marx tells us that you must be on drugs.

In my recent memoir, Called Along the Way, published this last month, I write that anyone in this secular age who takes God seriously must be considered a brother or sister in the faith. In this spirit, I would like to thank the Mubarak Mosque for the invitation to speak this afternoon to address this important topic.

Scripture

How do Christians connect with God? (2X)

The basic path to connecting with God is outlined by the Apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost. Hear Peter’s words:

“And Peter said to them, Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38 ESV)

Elsewhere, the Apostle Paul writes to the church at Rome about 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, some 2,000 years ago:

“…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Roman 10:9 ESV)

Rome at the time of Paul’s writing was the capital of the Western world much like Washington DC is today.

Because most of you here today are not Christians, you may be asking yourself why Peter and Paul are so adamant about two things mentioned in these two passages: confession of sins and belief in Jesus Christ (2X).

Transcendent and Holy

To understand the focus here, you need to understand the Christian understanding of God. Christians believe in a personal God who is both transcendent and Holy (2X).

God’s transcendence arises because he created the known universe. The first verse of the Bible in the Book of Genesis says:

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1 ESV)

As creator, God had to exist before the universe that he created and he had to have been set apart from it. Time, as we know it, is part of the created universe. Consequently, God stands outside of time and space (2X). Because we exist inside time and space, we cannot approach God on our own. He has to reveal himself to us (2X).

Likewise, we cannot approach a Holy God, because we are sinful beings, not Holy beings. Our sin separates us from a Holy God.

To summarize, we cannot approach God on our own because he transcends time and space and because he is holy. Only God can initiate connection with unholy, created beings such as we are. There is no path up the mountain to God; God must come down (2X). As Christians, we believe that God came down in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, whose coming was prophesied from the earliest days of scripture. For example, the Prophet Job wrote (slide 5):

“I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth.  And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27 NIV)

The Book of Job is thought by some to have been written by Moses before any other book in the Bible and before he returned to Egypt, which makes the anticipation of a redeemer all the more stunning. Moses himself lived about 1,500 years before Christ.

God’s Self-Revelation

So who is this transcendent God that loves us enough to initiate connection with us in spite of our sin?

Later, after giving Moses the Ten Commandments for a second time on Mount Sinai, God reveals himself to Moses with these words:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7 ESV)

Notice that God describes himself first as merciful. As Christians, we believe that God love is shown to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because God himself has provided the ultimate sacrifice of his son on the cross, Christians do not need to offer animal sacrifices—in Christ, our debt to God for sin has already been paid. This is real mercy, real love.

Listen to the confession given by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [that is Peter’s nickname], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinth 15:3-6 ESV)

Jesus, as the perfect son of God, is the bridge that God has given us to connect with himself through the Holy Spirit, as Peter said on the Day of Pentecost:

“And Peter said to them, Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38 ESV)

Through the Holy Spirit, we are able to pray to God with the assurance that we will be heard; we are able to read the Bible with the confidence that God will speak to us; and we are able to live our daily lives knowing that God walks with us each step of the way. In this way, as Christians we are always connected with God in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

Will you pray with me?

Oh dear Lord, thank you for the gift of your presence through the person of Jesus. Forgive our sin and draw us closer to you day by day. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Presentation

Before I turn over the podium, let me read a few words from the acknowledgment section of my book, Life in Tension.

“In the fall of 2014, I was invited to speak at a local mosque about my book, A Christian Guide to Spirituality. Speaking at a mosque was new to me and anticipating this visit I spent three days fasting and praying for guidance. Instead of guidance on the mosque visit, God inspired me to write this book.” (xvii)

The reference here is to the Mubarak Mosque where we now stand. Consequently, I would like to present you with a copy of the book, Life in Tension. Thank you.

[1] Sigmund Freud. 1961. The Future of an Illusion. Translated by James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_of_the_people.

How do Christians Connect with God?

Also see:

Blackaby Expects Answers to Prayer 

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2fEPbBK

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Prayer for Transcendence

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Heavenly Father,

We praise you for your glory, that you are holy, set apart, and stand outside of time.

All glory is yours for we are sinful, quick to compromise, and mortally bound to times and places beyond our control.

Do not leave us content to look into the mirror, to grasp at visceral pleasures, or to chase after temporal temptations.

Lift us out of the mire of power politics, the pit of merchants wares, and the icy embrace of superficial inattention.

Remind us that it is not all about us–salvation is your gift, not ours. We need only accept it and live in obedience to you.

Through the power of you Holy Spirit,

remind us of our past;  let your mercy guide our steps; may we live in the hope of the resurrection.

By Jesus’ example, and in his name, Amen.

 

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A Right Spirit and Clean Heart

Life_in_Tension_web“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.”
(Ps. 51:10-11 ESV)

When we think of the word, holy (ἅγιος in Greek), we usually think of moral purity, which is one definition. The other primary definition is: “pertaining to being dedicated or consecrated to [set apart to] the service of God” (BDAG 61). This is also the word for saint.

The idea of holy as both separation and moral purity is fundamental in the Old Testament understanding of who God is. The Book of Genesis begins by saying: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen 1:1 ESV) In the act of creation God performs two acts of separation: non-being is separated from being and the heavens and the earth are created separate from one another. God then continues by creating other separations—darkness and light; morning and evening; dryland and water; male and female; and so on. And these separations were declared to be good.

Today, we often refer to separations as boundaries. Boundaries have the characteristics of being clear and concrete. Later in Exodus 20, when God gives Moses the Ten Commandments, the law provides boundaries defining who is and who is not a member of the household of God. Members follow God’s law; non-members break the law. These laws are not imposed; they are voluntary taking the form of a covenant between the people of Israel and God. The covenant language is obvious because the commandments begin with a reminder of the benefits of participating in the covenant: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exod. 20:2 ESV) In other words, you were slaves, now you are free—you owe me!

In the second giving of the covenant in Deuteronomy (second book of the law), the benefits are laid out in greater detail in the form of blessings [for following the law] and curses [for not following the law]. For example, we read:

“And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field….” (Deut 28:1-3 ESV)

Further down we read the parallel antithesis:

“But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field…” (Deut. 28:15-16 ESV)

Psalm 1 builds on these blessings and curses:

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers…” (Ps. 1:1 ESV)

The job description of a prophet in the Old Testament focused on reminding people of the consequences of ignoring their covenantal obligations.

Why then did Job, who was a righteous man under the law, suffer? (Job 1:1)

One answer is that existence of evil (Job 1:9). Another answer is the foolishness of men and women (Prov 1:7). The best answer is that we born in sin and require God’s intervention to obey the law. We read:

“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another…” (Job 19:25-27 ESV)

The possibility of a redeemer is prophesied by Moses (Deut 18:15) and hinted at in God’s core values expressed immediately on giving the law in the form of forgiveness (Exod 34:7). But King David, in his prayer asking for forgiveness, most clearly sees God’s role in our moral condition when he writes:

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.” (Ps. 51:10-11 ESV)

David recognized that divine intervention was required for human compliance with the law.

God later intervened through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:3-10). Consequently, our moral purity rests on the work of Christ.  In Christ and Christ alone, we are blessed to live within God’s law and able in true humility to worship God.

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Be Holy For I am Holy

Life_in_Tension_web“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matt. 5:8 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

God is holy; we are not. Our tension with God often starts with guilt over this holiness gap. This gap, which is more of a chasm, points to our need for Christ because we cannot bridge it on our own [1]. The existence of this gap is explains why the gift of the Holy Spirit is foundational for our faith and for the establishment of the church. But first, let’s talk a bit more about the gap.

What does it mean to be pure in heart? The Greek word for pure, καθαρός, means “to being free from moral guilt, pure, free from sin” (BDAG 3814 (3c)). The Greek expression, pure in heart (καθαρὸς τῇ καρδίᾳ), is only here in the New Testament but arises in the Old Testament—

“Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.” (Psalm 24:3-4 ESV)

—in the context of worship in the temple in Jerusalem. In view here is the holiness code of Leviticus where God admonishes us many times: “be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44).

The emphasis on the heart in English translation is somewhat misleading because the response expected is not limited to emotions, which the English infers. The Hebrew expression for heart, לֵבָב, means “inner man, mind, will, heart” (BDB 4761). This is not wordsmithing trivia. Immediately following the Shema [2] we are commanded—”You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut 6:5 ESV)—which emphasizes this point (heart, soul, might) through repetition [3]. Jesus reminds us of this verse in Matthew 22:37 where he gives us the double-love command (love God; love neighbor; Matt 22:36-40)

The promise of seeing God, if we remain pure, is a promise of forgiveness (Ps. 51:10-11) and salvation (Job 19:27), but it is also a call to ministry. Seeing God figure prominently in the call stories of both Moses (Exod 3:6) and the Prophet Isaiah (Isa 6:5). Similarly, Paul is blinded by light in his call story which parallels the call account of the Prophet Ezekiel (Ezek 1:28) [4]. Seeing God blinds us and threatens our very existence, as unholy beings.

The promise of seeing God is also a promise of restoration of the relationship with God, as we first saw in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:8-9), which is also a picture of heaven. For example, in the last chapter of the Book of Revelation, we read:

“No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.” (Rev. 22:3-4 ESV)

In some sense, holiness is the mark of God on our souls, as well as our foreheads. This surprising idea is not a new idea; it is an old one. In Genesis we read:

“Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, Lord, will you kill an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, She is my sister’? And she herself said, He is my brother. In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this. Then God said to him in the dream, Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.” (Gen. 20:4-6 ESV).

What is most surprising here is that Abimelech is a gentile, not a Jew. Yet, God works in his heart to keep him from sinning and speaks to him directly.

It is indeed ironic in this beatitude to see Jesus, a “friend of … sinners” [5], placing a high value on and teaching about holiness knowing what was to come. John’s Gospel ends with Jesus offering the Apostles a commission—”As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21 ESV)—and anointing them with the Holy Spirit—”Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22 ESV). Clearly, purity of heart was a prerequisit for ministry and the Holy Spirit brought purity of heart within their reach. Still, the Apostles had to appreciate and desire the gift.

 

[1] The exclusiveness of Christ arises, in part, because he is both God and man which is a necessity for bridging both the holiness gap and the gap between mortal and immortal beings.

[2] ”Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” (Deut. 6:4 ESV)

[3] The unity of heart and mind (or body, soul, and mind) implies that having a pure heart is a holistic statement of purity—purity throughout our entire person or being. Benner (1998, 22) notes that when the Bible refers to a division of the person, the division is for emphasis, not to infer that the person can be divided into separate and distinct parts.

[4] The Acts 26 allusion is the most complete: ἀνάστηθι καὶ στῆθι ἐπὶ τοὺς πόδας (arise and stand on your feet; Acts 26:16 BNT) which compares with Ezekiel’s words: στῆθι ἐπὶ τοὺς πόδας (stand on your feet; Ezek 2:1 BGT)

[5] “For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, He has a demon. The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners! Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.” (Luke 7:33-35 ESV)

REFERENCES

Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v.9.>.

Benner, David G. 1998. Care of Souls: Revisioning Christian Nurture and Counsel. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius (BDB). 1905. Hebrew-English Lexicon, unabridged.

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1 Corinthians 5: Be Holy

Photo by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Photo by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

For seven days no leaven is to be found in your houses. If anyone eats what is leavened, that person will be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a sojourner or a native of the land (Exodus 12:19 ESV).

Is there any leaven in your life?

Say what?  In the middle of a discussion of sexual immorality, Paul gives us a lesson on leaven.  Jesus also talked about leaven saying:  Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod (Mark 8:15 ESV) [1].

In order to understand Paul’s point, it is helpful to distinguish leaven from yeast.  If you are confused, you are not alone—so are translators.  For example, the English Standard version translates ζύμη (v 6) as leaven while the New International Version translates it as yeast following freedom of translation in BDAG (3389 ζύμη).  Yeast is a single-cell fungi used to ferment in baking, wine making, and brewing not commonly available in ancient times.  Leaven is fermented dough.

In ancient times, leaven was kept for baking from week to week and would accumulate dirt and other impurities.  For this reason, once a year the Hebrews would toss out their leaven and start with a fresh batch (Exodus 12:19).  Paul’s lesson on leaven therefore had to do with allowing sin into your life through a gradual process of accumulation.

New York City made an interesting application of this lesson in the 1980s following the “broken glass theory”.  The basic idea was that crime is contagious.  If windows are broken and not cleaned up, people would conclude that no one cares and more windows would be broken.  Anarchy would spread.  So New York decides to launch a campaign to clean up the city block by block from 1984 to 1990.  Murder rates in New York declined by two-thirds[1].  What does the Bible say:  Be holy, for I am holy (Leviticus 11:45 ESV).  Get out that leaven!  Sweat the little stuff!  Children—make your bed!

In the Corinthian church the lesson on leaven focused on sexual immorality.  Paul uses two closely related words to discuss immorality here.  In verse 1, he uses πορνεία and later in verses 9-11 he uses πόρνος.  The first word, πορνεία, is a general term for sexually immoral acts and Paul’s specific application is a case of incest—a man sleeping with his father’s wife (not his mother; prohibited in Leviticus 18:8).  The second word, πόρνος, more narrowly focuses on a male prostitute, but is often translated as fornicator.  A female prostitute would be πόρνης which Paul talks about in chapter 6, verse 15.

The context of his use of πόρνος is in a list of vices for which we are to disassociate ourselves from within the church.  Paul writes:  But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler– not even to eat with such a one (v 11) [2].  This context is interesting because Paul is talking about people within the church—only in the church!  Paul leaves judgment of non-Christians behaving this way to God! (vv 12-13).

Is there any leaven in your life?

 

[1]James Emery White.  2004.  Serious Times:  Making Your Life Matter in an Urgent Day.  Downers Grove:  InterVarsity Press, page 158.

[2]This vice list corresponds with passages in Deuteronomy calling for the death penalty (Richard Hays. 2011.  Interpretation:  First Corinthians.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, page 87).

[1]Interestingly, verses 5-8 dealing with leaven are the only verses from chapter 5 found in the common lectionary.  Apparently, sexual immorality is not discussed in the lectionary.

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