November 15, 2015

Tough Talk

Have you ever had to have a hard conversation?  I’ll be honest: I try to avoid these like the plague where I can.  I am a conflict-averse person.  If at all possible I want things to be peaceful around me.  I’ve even gone so far as to pursue a peace-at-all-costs policy which, as I’ve told all the couples I’ve counseled when talking about conflict resolution skills, never lasts and quickly gets expensive.  But the fact is: you’ve been in a place where you’ve had to have a hard conversation.  It may have been with a friend.  It may have been with one of your kids.  It may have been with your spouse.  Whatever it was, though, somebody did something, you knew about it, and you knew it was up to you to let them know things weren’t okay.

Now sometimes these conversations go really well.  Truth gets communicated lovingly, the one receiving the hard words is humbly receptive, and everybody is happy in the end.  Sometimes, though, they don’t go very well.  You may have been a party to a conversation like that.  Sometimes they don’t go very well at first, but nonetheless the conversation itself is the spark that leads to things getting a lot better.

A movie came out a few years ago with Adam Sandler and Tea Leoni called Spanglish.  It’s about the daughter of a Mexican immigrant learning to love her background and especially her mother after being awed and initially very taken in by some of the luxuries of America’s and specifically California’s upper-middle class culture.  But the vehicle for her story is the couple (Sandler and Leoni) who hires her mother as a house-cleaner/nanny and the myriad of problems they are having in spite of all the resources at their disposal.  In particular Leoni’s character is a newly stay-at-home mom struggling to find herself in this new-to-her world.  She’s pretty inept at it for most of the movie and we discover near the end that she’s seeking comfort in the arms of another man.  Well, this truth eventually causes a blow up between she and her husband and it’s her humorously alcoholic mother who provides the spark of a hard conversation that for the first time sets the truth rather firmly before her eyes.  Check out a slightly edited version of this scene that actually appears in one of the trailers for the film.

“Lately your low self-esteem is just good common sense.”  I think that might be my favorite line in the whole movie.   Now, while that’s perhaps not the most tactful way to frame one of these hard conversations, Leoni’s mother was pretty clear in letting her daughter know that she was making some decisions that were going to have consequences she wouldn’t like.  This may not have been what the director intended, but in having this conversation with her daughter, the mother here was a game changer.  What’s more, if we’ll pay close attention, she offers us a lesson in how to be game changers in our own lives.

This morning we are in the fifth part of our church-wide teachings series, Game Changer: How to Impact Your World.  Just to make sure everybody is on the same page, the whole idea for this series is that all of us have or will yet experience times in our lives when things are not going like we know they should.  It could be that this happens on the community level.  We realize that our whole community is off track in some way and God calls us to effect a change at this pretty broad level.  But, it could also be that there is something going on in our family that needs to change and we’re the ones best equipped for the job of making it happen.  But whether the problem is international, in our own families, or something in between, the thought of having to be the one to bring about a change in the status quo is an intimidating one.  If we’re honest: most of us don’t even know where to start something like this.

To this end, in the first half of this series we laid out a process for becoming game changers in our situations.  The process starts when we develop convictions and stand on those without compromise.  And as we’ve said before, that sounds really bold, but it’s a much simpler concept in practice.  Developing conviction just means that we figure out what we really believe is right and true about the world and what we are willing to do about it.  The reality is that we all already have convictions about certain things and we act on the basis of those convictions.  The trick is to make sure that our deepest convictions are rooted in the Scriptures and are shaped by what we find there and not by whatever the latest culture fads happen to be.  In any event, once we have developed our convictions—things like all lives are worth protecting no matter how small, all people are worth treating with dignity no matter what they’ve done, taking care of the least, last, and lost of society is fundamental for Jesus followers, and so on and so forth—the next thing we do is to pray.  Prayer may not seem like the next thing we should do if we really want to change the game, but the truth is that prayer connects us with the plans of God.  It invites Him and unleashes His power into our situations and it is His plans, His person, and His power that will make possible the changes we want to see happen.  Thus, prayer is the single most important thing we will ever do in our quest to become game changers.

Finally, though, when we have planted ourselves deeply on godly convictions and have committed ourselves to the practice of consistent prayer, the opportunity to get into the game is going to come.  God is going to give us the opportunity, not to do a whole bunch of things, but to take a stand on our convictions.  Again, this doesn’t feel terribly active, but then it’s Him doing the game changing.  We are merely the conduit for His power.  When God gives us the opportunity—and we’ll know the opportunity is from Him because of our prayerful connection to His plans—we stand firm on our convictions and force the current of culture to shift around us.  There may well be unpleasant consequences resulting from this, but God will sustain us in those.

Well, with our process in place, last week we turned our attention to talking about some of the things we need to know in order to remain effective game changers once we are engaging in the process.  The first thing we learned with the help of the testimony of King Nebuchadnezzar and his strange case of boanthropy is that changing the game doesn’t depend on us.  We may be the game changers, but the power to change the game lies with God.  If we start thinking otherwise we’ll merely set ourselves up for a fall.  Pride leads to downfall, but God honors humility.  He honors it by continuing His game-changing work through us so that we might see the impact of His presence in our lives and our situations.

This morning I want to talk with you about another thing we need to know in order to remain effective game changers.  And that thing is this: sometimes the stand God invites us to take to change the game calls for us to shed the bright light of truth on a situation where the darkness of sin is currently ruling the day.  This isn’t easy and is rarely well-received, but if we are going to be game changers, sometimes we’ve got to do it.  Well, as with everything else we’ve talked about, seeing this in action would be really helpful.  If you’ll grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures and find your way to Daniel 5 I want to take a look with you at an example of this happening from Daniel’s life.  Once we’ve looked together at the story we’ll take a few minutes unpack how this works and what it could look like in our lives.

When chapter five opens we are introduced for the first time to a new character in the story: King Belshazzar.  Belshazzar is the grandson of Nebuchadnezzar.  When the text refers to him as the son of Nebuchadnezzar is it using a language custom of the day in which the word “father” can really mean “ancestor.”  In any event, Belshazzar was really the oldest son of Nabonidas, who was probably Nebuchadnezzar’s son-in-law.  Referring to himself as the son of the king who had taken the Empire to its peak of greatness would have yielded him a great deal of credibility in the eyes of the people.

Truth be told, though, Belshazzar wasn’t really even the formal king of Babylon.  Nabonidas still was but was out on a lengthy military campaign and Belshazzar was running the shop until he got back.  Well, what do you get when you put a kid who’s been raised in the lap of luxury, always had all of even his most petty whims granted, and never given the opportunity to learn much in the way of common sense?  You get the makings of a disaster.  In this case, the disaster started with a party.  It started with a party that was probably designed to demonstrate to all of the politicians who might otherwise give him trouble that the kingdom was in great shape in spite of the real king tying up a great deal of the nation’s economy in a decade-long military campaign.  If the king was able to throw a party like this then surely things couldn’t be that bad.

With all of that in mind, check out the text with me starting right from the top of the chapter.  “King Belshazzar made a great feast for a thousand of his lords and drank wine in front of the thousand.  Belshazzar, when he tasted the wine, commanded that the vessels of gold and silver that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem be brought, that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them.  Then they brought in the golden vessels that had been taken out of the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them.  They drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.”  In other words, they were using God’s stuff as part of an idolatrous drunken, love-fest.  What could possibly go wrong?

Verse 5: “Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, opposite the lampstand.  And the king saw the hand as it wrote.  Then the king’s color changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together.”  Take a minute and just get that picture in your mind.  The whole room is partying together; they’re drinking, yelling over one another, having a great time, and all of a sudden a disembodied hand appeared.  The hand started scrawling something in the plaster on a big wall on the opposite side of the room from where the party was taking place.  All the lamps were such that it was clearly visible to everybody in the room.  All of a sudden a woman screamed and the whole room went silent.  The only sound was that of the plaster being scraped off the wall and hitting the floor.  And then it became clear that words were taking shape…but nobody knew what they meant.  Belshazzar completely flips his lid.  He is absolutely terrified—color gone, legs failing him, shaking like a leaf.   He immediately calls for all of the people who are supposed to be able to understand this kind of stuff to come running so they can tell him what it all means.  He promises the biggest reward he can offer (third in command in the kingdom since he’s technically only second) to whoever can interpret it but none of them are able (which shouldn’t surprise us at all given three out of the previous four chapters).

The whole room is left fearfully wondering until the queen—probably either Nabonidus’ or even Nebuchadnezzar’s wife—reminds Belshazzar about Daniel, the man who can interpret things no one else can.  On her advice he gives the order and Daniel is immediately ushered into the room and offered all the same rewards that had been extended to everybody else if only he could interpret the handwriting.  By now Daniel is probably a pretty old guy.  He had been taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar as a young teenager 66 years before.  By virtue of age, longevity, position, and reputation, he had the fairly unique ability to be totally honest with the king.  And so he was.

Jump down to verse 17 with me: “Then Daniel answered and said before the king, ‘Let your gifts be for yourself, and give your rewards to another.  Nevertheless, I will read the writing to the king and make known to him the interpretation.”  Before he does that, though, he goes on to relate the greatness of Nebuchadnezzar and how because of that he had grown prideful, but how God had smashed his pride and taught him to humbly acknowledge who God was.  He then lands with both feet on truth of the situation: “[But] you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this, but you have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven. . . .And you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know, but the God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honored.”  Ouch, right!  You almost expect to see some 1960s Adam West Batman onomatopoetic exclamations to be popping up as you read that.  Pow!  Bang!  Wham!  Whack!

The specific message came in the form of three Aramaic words: mene, tekel, and parsin.  Altogether, the message was this starting in v. 26: “God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end…you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting…[and] your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”  Finally hearing the interpretation led Belshazzar to breathe a big sigh of relief because even though the news certainly wasn’t good, he either didn’t really believe it or else didn’t think it would happen that night.  Unbeknownst to him, though, the General of the Persian army had weeks ago far upstream dammed up the Euphrates River that ran through Babylon in a series of canals protected by its great walls and the water level had been slowly dropping over the course of several days.   As it turns out on that very night the water level finally dipped below the bottom of the wall so that the soldiers could sneak underneath and into the city.  Once inside, they quickly killed just about everybody and the Babylonian Empire officially fell to the Persians.  Daniel had been entirely right about…well…everything.

Yet his being right is not what I want to focus on with you this morning.  That’s only incidental to the larger thing I want for us to see together.  Daniel—as was his custom with Nebuchadnezzar—boldly called sin what it was and pointed to what God had to say about it.  This was one of the things that consistently allowed him to be a game changer.  You see, many of the times that the game we are in needs to change, it is in such a place because there is some sin that has been allowed to go on unchecked.  It may be that someone knows better but are for some reason committed to the sin in spite of that knowledge or it may be that someone genuinely doesn’t know that something is sinful.  Either way, the light of the truth needs to be shed on the problem before it is going to even have a chance to improve.  This means that somebody is going to have to announce that the Emperor is naked so that he can put on some real clothes.  We need to call sin what it is.

That sounds great, right?  We need to be warriors for the truth!  We need to break down falsehoods and refuse to let them rise again.  We need to smash altars of delusion so that people can live freely within the spacious bounds of reality.  Let us put on our spiritual armor and go to battle!  We’ll swing the sword of truth, the mace of Scripture, the ax of orthodoxy, the pike of orthopraxy, and the club of righteousness.  No sin, the lies they create, or the brokenness on which they rest will be able to stand before us.  Again, to battle!

Hold on there a minute.  If I haven’t made your culture alarms start to sound you may want to get that checked.  I mean, I don’t know about you, but the last time I checked, folks today don’t get all that warm and fuzzy at the thought of someone telling them they’re wrong, especially Christians.  When Christians start talking about sin today and specifically the sins of other people one of two things will happen.  They will either walk away angrily with their suspicions about what terrible people Christians really are totally confirmed; or else that will shout us down with something about what hateful, judgmental, intolerant bigots we are.  In other words, they don’t take it very well.  And it’s beside the point that we have mostly all had pretty relentlessly driven into our heads some form of the notion that we shouldn’t insert ourselves into the business of other people.  Simply put: We don’t like to tell other people they’re wrong…even (especially) the people we love.

And yet, the fact still remains that changing the game sometimes requires us to call sin what it is.  We have to call sin what it is.  It will take courage and a firm commitment to the game changer process to do this successfully.  It will take a willingness to honestly deal with our own sinfulness.  It will require us to remain deeply rooted in the Scriptures rather than our personal preference.  But the fact is, if we live in a world in which all things are not morally permissible, then helping people stay on the path that leads to life rather than death will require announcing when things are happening which are not in fact morally appropriate.  This means calling sin what it is.

However, that is not and indeed cannot be where we stop.  While calling sin what it is certainly is necessary, it is not sufficient to allow us to be game changers.  In fact if we stop there we will be guilty of all the ugly things the other person or people may have to say about us.  We need to call sin what it is, yes, but then we need to go on and point to what God has to say about it.  Call sin what it is and point to what God has to say about it.  The second part here is critical and gives us a huge clue as to how this particular process needs to take shape in order for it to achieve its desired ends.  If we are going to successfully call sin what it is and point to what God has to say about it then we need to answer a simple question: what does God have to say about it?

Well, He hates it in all its forms and effects.  But, getting this message across to us doesn’t mean He blasts away with a high-strength rhetorical cannon all the time which means we don’t have to either.  We can certainly call sin what it is by standing on a street corner and telling everyone around us they’re going to Hell, but as we examine how God communicates His passionate hatred for sin in the Scriptures we can see Him take a variety of different approaches, some bold, some subtle, some sarcastic, some straightforward, some angry, and some even incredibly tenderhearted.  The point is that God speaks to sin in proportion to each particular situation.  Well, while some of the instances of sin around us to which we need to speak will call for brash boldness, most will call for something entirely more gentle than that.  Still bold, but tender.  It may be simply observing that things aren’t like they should be and that at the root of the issue is a spiritual problem.  The person is doing something that dishonors God and may want to consider taking a look at that.

Second, if we are going to call sin what it is and point to what God has to say about it we need to make sure we are pointing people to what God has to say about it.  We have to stay deeply rooted in the Scriptures or else we are just being opinionated and nobody likes that.  We should acknowledge that some passages of Scripture do have more than one interpretation, but at least within the orthodox Christian tradition, there isn’t much debate about which kind of behaviors are sinful and which aren’t.  Our interpretations should be informed by the best Scriptural studies we can find, the traditional interpretations of the church over the last 2,000 years, and seconded by the community of faith we call home.  We should be humble in holding them, but at the same time confident.  After all, we aren’t pointing to what we have to say about it, but what God does.  Call sin what it is and point to what God has to say about it.

Third, we need to be prepared in this process to be humble and honest about our own failings.  This is especially true if we are lovingly confronting a close friend or family member who knows about some of our junk.  Calling them on their junk will almost certainly result in them calling us on our own as a defense mechanism.  And while it’s true that we need to deal with our junk and get right with God to the best of our ability before going to call their sin what it is, we need to also be willing to stand on the point that our failings don’t justify theirs.  The goal is not for everyone to have their own junk and leave each other alone about it.  The goal is to encourage each on to righteousness.  Instead of saying, “You know what?  You’re right.  I’ll just leave you alone,” we should say, “You know what?  You’re right.  Let’s work on our failings together.”

Fourth and this is perhaps the most important part of pointing to what God has to say about sin.  Whenever God calls for judgment over sin, He never stops with judgment.  He always goes on to redemption, reconciliation, and restoration.  The purpose of our calling sin what it is should never be judgment, but redemption and we have to make that clear in both our words and behavior.  If we merely say, “This is wrong,” we aren’t really being helpful.  We’re just being judgmental.  It is when we go to the next step and say, “This is wrong, but this is what’s right and I’d like to help you get to that place,” that the charges of being judgmental and intolerant fail to stick and we really start to have an impact.  The fact is, God loves sinners so much that He sent His only Son to die for us in order to change the game for everybody.  We can’t take anything less than that attitude with us when we go to call sin what it is or else we’re not pointing to what God has to say about it.

If we are going to be game changers in our world, we are going to have to be willing to call sin what it is and point to what God has to say about it.  This takes courage and it often won’t be well received.  But as long as we point hard to what God has to say about it and go on to do what He does about it—that is, love people—we are going to see the game change around us.  Call sin what it is and point to what God has to say about it.  If you want to be a game changer nothing less will do.  Call sin what it is and point to what God has to say about it.