Monday, November 28, 2016

"Ripe for Harvest"

It’s harvest time. Across North America, celebrations of the harvest are everywhere. From Canadian Thanksgiving (second Monday in October), to churches that have harvest festivals in lieu of Halloween, to school field trips at pumpkin patches, to American Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November, we’re busy celebrating the harvest. Farmers everywhere are gathering their crops. Even my grandchildren, who have nothing to harvest, are filled with the primal urge to gather. So they take up their rakes and make huge leaf piles in the yard, looking like they’re ready to bring in the sheaves. There’s something inside all of us (farmers or not) that makes us love the harvest.

In the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus talks about harvesting people’s souls. He gives an example of this as he shares God’s truth with the Samaritan woman at the well. As a result of Jesus’ witness, not only did the woman believe, but she became a witness who brought the whole village out to hear what Jesus had to say. What a harvest of souls there was on that day!

In verses 34-38,[i] Jesus talks about our part in the harvest of souls:

You know the saying, ‘Four months between planting and harvest.’ But I say, wake up and look around. The fields are already ripe for harvest. The harvesters are paid good wages, and the fruit they harvest is people brought to eternal life. What joy awaits both the planter and the harvester alike! You know the saying, ‘One plants and another harvests.’ And it’s true. I sent you to harvest where you didn’t plant; others had already done the work, and now you will get to gather the harvest.”

The apostle Paul uses similar imagery when he talks about sharing some people planting the seeds of God’s truth within people’s fertile hearts, and others watering those seeds until they come to fruition. In 1 Corinthians 3:5-9, he writes:

After all, who is Apollos? Who is Paul? We are only God’s servants through whom you believed the Good News. Each of us did the work the Lord gave us. I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow. The one who plants and the one who waters work together with the same purpose. And both will be rewarded for their own hard work. For we are both God’s workers. And you are God’s field. You are God’s building.

Last week, we said that during the holiday season, people are more aware of our Christian witness than at any other time of the year. Their hearts tend to be more open to the gospel. Our job, according to Jesus and Paul, is to get active at tending God’s garden. Some people plant seeds—little kernels of spirit and truth and grace along the way. Those planters may never see their seeds sprout and begin to peek above the surface. They may only be planters, frustrated at the fact that they don’t see results in the lives of those people into whose hearts they are planting. Feeling unfulfilled, they may even decide that those people are unfertile ground. But the thing is, it’s not their job to water and nourish. It’s just their job to plant.

Other people are encouragers, watering those seeds and making sure they have all the fertilizer and other nutrients they need to grow. While we help create the necessary fertile environment, only the Holy Spirit can make people’s hearts grow until they are able to open up to God’s presence. Waterers may become frustrated because they spend all their time “equipping” people, yet they never see the fruit of their labors. Yet it’s not their job to harvest. It’s their job to water.

Then there are the harvesters. We like to think that these are effective evangelists who may lead people in a “prayer of salvation,” or may help someone make a “decision for Christ.” We assume they are preachers who may greet someone at the end of an invitation song at church or a revival or rally. But these benchmark moments aren’t the only ways we know a person has been “harvested” for God. In fact, these may even result in false harvests of sorts. In fact, Jesus’ says that, ultimately, the angels will be the harvesters at the end of the age (Matthew 13:39). In Matthew 9:39 and Luke 10:2, Jesus says that the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few, and asks believers to pray that the Lord of the Harvest will sent workers into the field. But ultimately, we won’t know the quality of that harvest til the very end. Good crops grow together with harmful or useless weeds, and it’s not our responsibility to judge the final produce—that’s God’s job (Matthew 13:24-29, 36-43). Our job is to be faithful workers in God’s garden

My mom is a master gardener. She has a great tool shed. It’s stocked with all sorts of rakes, hoes, shovels, Garden Weasels, trowels, buckets, pitch forks, and everything you could imagine. But no matter how much I love her tool shed, if anything’s going to happen out there, I can’t stay in the shed just admiring the tools. The problem is that too many Christians go to church and stay there, simply admiring the tools. They never go out into God’s garden to do any planting, watering, or harvesting. In John 4:35b, Jesus says, “…Wake up and look around. The fields are already ripe for harvest.” We need to make sure that we get out of the tool shed, and get into the field.

[i] All scriptures taken from the NLT.

Monday, November 21, 2016

"Witness at the Well"

            The holidays are upon us.  After the Thanksgiving football game, it’s time to put on your own cleats, helmet, and shoulder pads—for the line of scrimmage you find as you wait for the doors to open on Black Friday.  It’s time for pushing and shoving and getting what you want before the other guy.  What a wonderful tradition as we begin the season that celebrates our Lord’s birth!  In all seriousness, we Christians have got to watch the way we treat people all year round—but this season in particular when we’d better be aware of our Christian witness as we wish people a “Merry Christmas” and bulldoze people out of the way.  The fact is that during this season of the year, people are more aware of our Christian witness than during any other time.  We’ve got to make sure that that witness is positive and not negative.  Looking at the fourth chapter of John’s gospel, I’ve found seven things we can do to make our witness more positive.

1.      Make sure you go through Samaria.  Verse four says that Jesus “had to go through Samaria on the way.”[i]  The fact is, he didn’t.  Samaria was an unsavory area that most good Jewish travelers went around instead of going through.  There were good roads that he might have taken to avoid that neighborhood, just like there are good roads that you probably take to go around the people and places you wish to avoid.  I’m not saying you should put yourself in physical jeopardy, but you should seriously ask yourself the question, “Am I avoiding those people and places because of prejudices I have?”  Then choose to move past your prejudice and go into the places you might otherwise avoid.

2.      Stop and talk with people.  How often we rush through our errands, our shopping, our lives without stopping to talk with people!  We treat the cashier or the attendant like the robot that rings up our groceries, rather than the people that they are.  Jewish theologian Martin Buber talked about a concept called I-Thou.  He said we normally treat people in an I-It manner, but when you treat people as people, respectfully honoring them as individuals, we go a long way towards achieving peace and making a positive difference in the world.  It’s no small thing that in verses 6-8, Jesus stopped and spoke to the Samaritan woman.  Jewish men didn’t speak with women they didn’t know—even other Jewish women.  But to speak with a Samaritan woman was unheard of.  Let’s follow Jesus’ example, and treat others like the human beings that they are.

3.      Ask somebody for a small favor.  In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie recommends asking somebody for a small favor, if you want to get them to like you.  When you do something nice for someone, your heart can’t help but warm towards them.  So when Jesus asked the woman, “please give me a drink (v.7),” he wasn’t asking her to be subservient.  He was initiating in such a way that he knew would warm her heart to further conversation.  We can do the same as we engage the people around us.

4.      Remember that you have something of value to offer.  So many Christians hold back on their witness because they don’t really believe they have anything worthwhile to say to people, yet we have the most amazing thing in the world to share!  Jesus said, “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water (v. 10).”  And again, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again.  But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life (vv. 13-14).”  Christians can offer the world compassion, mercy, understanding, charity, hope, love, and so much more.  Don’t hold back—offer the world your best.

5.      Be Real with People, without condemning.  Jesus wasn’t afraid to handle tough topics, and neither should we be.  In verses 17-18, when the woman said she didn’t have a husband, Jesus said, “You’re right! You don’t have a husband—for you have had five husbands, and you aren’t even married to the man you’re living with now. You certainly spoke the truth!”  He didn’t say this in a condemning way, but in a way that let her know that even upon their first meeting, Jesus was willing to engage in deep and meaningful conversation.  I’ve had many people who have unloaded heavy burdens on me, even upon first meeting, once they knew I was safe and willing to be real with them.  But if we’re not willing to be real with people, why should they open up?

6.      Don’t get involved in combative religious conversations.  Too many Christians take the bait that antagonists offer, and get embroiled in unnecessary debate.  Or, on the flip side, some Christians feel they have to prove a point and so will push their opinions on other people.  Jesus did neither of these things.  When the woman asked him whether her people’s religious practices were better or worse than the Jewish traditions, Jesus offered a third option.  “Jesus replied, ‘Believe me, dear woman, the time is coming when it will no longer matter whether you worship the Father on this mountain or in Jerusalem… For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth (vv. 21, 24).”  If you want to be a good witness, don’t be combative.  Let the Holy Spirit guide you in this.

7.      Uncompromisingly communicate the truth (vv. 25-26).  Jesus wasn’t combative, yet he did speak the truth in love, without wavering.  “The woman said, ‘I know the Messiah is coming—the one who is called Christ. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.’  Then Jesus told her, ‘I am the Messiah!’”  Jesus wasn’t pushy, but he did employ a simple, direct method of communicating that convinced her.  So we need to stand for the truth in a direct, yet gentle way.

This holiday season, and throughout the year, let’s be aware of the witness we have as Christians.  Let’s make sure that the witness we give is a positive, and not a negative one.  Through the message of Jesus, and by living as true Christ-followers, we can be a tremendous force for good in the world.  1 Peter 3:15b says, “If someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it.”  Let your testimony be more than just a “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.”  Let your message reach across barriers and break down walls.  In short, let your witness be as good as the good news of Jesus.

[i] All scriptures taken from the NLT.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

"Seeking Jesus"

In the old Christmas classic film Miracle on 34th Street[i], the story begins with the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. An elderly gentleman named Kris Kringle takes the place of an actor who was payed to play Santa Claus, yet who got drunk and couldn’t work. He did so well on the parade float that they hired him to work in the store. Everything was going well until people who were looking for hard-to-find toys brought their kids through the store to sit on his lap. If Macy’s didn’t have the toys the parents were looking for, Kris sent the shoppers to Gimbel’s Department Store. This made the customers very happy, yet it made the Macy’s management furious. They told Kris that he was supposed to keep the customers shopping at Macy’s at all costs, and never send them elsewhere, even if what they were looking for could only be found at Gimbel’s. But Kris was undaunted. He was happier to see the shoppers find the toys they wanted even if it was elsewhere, than to see them dissatisfied yet loyal to Macy’s.

We find a similar problem in the third chapter of John’s gospel, only the customers aren’t looking for a toy truck or baby doll. They’re looking for the Messiah. They aren’t looking for sales that will save them money. They’re looking for a different kind of salvation. In verses 22-35, John is Macy’s and Jesus is Gimbel’s. The people are going elsewhere to find what they’re looking for, and some of John’s people are upset about it. But John, like Kris Kringle, isn’t upset about it at all. In fact, he’s the one who sent them away. This migration from John to Jesus gets started in the first chapter, where the prophet shouts, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world..I testify that he is the chosen one of God (John 1:29, 34[ii])” John himself testifies that Jesus is the Messiah, so why should he be upset when his followers seek messianic hope in Jesus rather than in John? Now, in John 3:27-28, 30, the baptizer says, “No one can receive anything unless God gives it from heaven. You yourselves know how plainly I told you, ‘I am not the Messiah. I am only here to prepare the way for him… He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.”

You see, John understands that Jesus can’t gain followers if they aren’t given to him from God. Likewise, as the people seek the Messiah, it would be impossible to find him in Jesus if the Spirit of God weren’t leading them. The people are seeking the Christ because the image of God that resides in them is unfulfilled unless it finds God in the world. They first seek this God-experience in John, who provides baptism and teaching. While his ministry is certainly God-inspired, it pales in comparison to the ministry of Jesus, who is God-incarnate.  So, naturally, the people shift their attention from the teacher to the Master Teacher.

Far from pouting that the people have found another to be the Messiah instead of him, John rejoices. He, too, has been seeking the Messiah. Now that he has discovered that the Chosen One is his own cousin Jesus, John feels delighted, like the best man at a wedding. Just as the best man is pleased for the groom’s happiness, so John is delighted that others have found the same Christ that he has found. I perform lots of weddings. People are snapping pictures of the bride and the groom right and left. After the ceremony, there are usually more photographs. Usually, there’s a picture of the bride, the groom, and me. But do you think I get bent out of shape that they don’t want more pictures with me in them?  Of course not—because it’s not about me. It’s about the couple. As a friend of the bride and groom, I’m content to simply enjoy their joy. In the same way, John says that all the attention ought to be on Jesus, and getting the Bride of Christ to follow Him. John said that he was glad because of it.

This passage talks about the people seeking Jesus, John seeking Jesus, and also about any today who seek Him. Verse 36 is one of those verses that gives both hope and a warning: “…Anyone who believes in God’s Son has eternal life. Anyone who doesn’t obey the Son will never experience eternal life but remains under God’s angry judgment.” Just like John 3:16 promises eternal life to all who believe in Jesus, so this verse does the same. Yet how do we square the second part of this verse that talks about God’s angry judgment, with John 3:17 that says God didn’t send His son into the world to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him? Is there a way we can understand this, that preserves our understanding of the love of God for the whole world?

If I imagine myself at a shoe store, I have literally hundreds of choices that are in my size. Yet, only one pair of shoes could be exactly what I am looking for. I try this one on for size, and it isn't the right fit. I look at that pair, but the style doesn't suit me. God knows that Jesus is the perfect fit for my soul. Yet, if I seek God with my ego rather than with my spirit, I may very well end up walking out of the shoe store with the wrong pair.  The wrong pair of shoes can be painful! This is what John refers to as "God's angry judgment." It isn't a God who wants to hurl lightning bolts, but a God who allows us to experience the pain of our wrong decisions, simply so that we'll go back to the shoe store and exchange the mistake for the right fit. Where is God in all this? God is in me, directing me to the Messiah, who is the perfect fit for my soul. Nothing else will do. Without God in me (the Holy Spirit), I would never find Christ. Verse 34 says, "God gives him the Spirit without limit."  Praise God--once I've found Christ, the same can be said of me! Then God in me seeks God in others even more. This "God seeking God" is described as "eternal life."

[i] Miracle on 34th Street. 1947.  Twentieth Century Fox.
[ii] All scriptures taken from the NLT.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Who to Trust?

This coming Tuesday, America will elect the President, Vice President, and members of the US House of Representatives. I hope that you will go to the polls this Tuesday and cast your vote. We pray for wisdom to know who to trust in places of leadership, because it can be terribly difficult to know where to place your confidence. I’ve heard some people talking about putting “Jesus” as a write-in candidate, as a way of protesting the two major candidates. I hope you won’t do that. I hope you’ll make your vote count. Jesus isn’t on the ballot for President of the United States (thank God)! But even though He’s not a candidate in our election, I want to look at three criteria that Nicodemus uses, to figure out if he can trust Jesus as his Messiah and pin his hopes on this Savior.

1. The Track Record. In the second chapter of John’s gospel, many people begin trusting Jesus because of His track record—the miraculous things he performs. While I dare say that none of our candidates are performing miraculous signs, perhaps it’s best to look at the “fruit of their ministries,” so to speak, to see who you can trust. In the Gospel of John, a respected member of the Jewish ruling council named Nicodemus seeks an interview with Jesus to find out if he can trust Him. “’Rabbi,’ he said, ‘we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are evidence that God is with you (John 3:2[i]).’” The word that is translated “signs” means something that bears witness to the glory of God. In John’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t perform “miracles,” but “signs” that all point to spiritual truth. They are proofs of who he is. Just as Nicodemus can begin to trust Jesus because of the things He does, so we can look at candidates and decide who to trust, based on their actions. Do the actions of your candidate reflect a Christlike character? Or—are their actions the complete opposite of the way Jesus would be?

2. The Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth. Nicodemus learns to trust Jesus by the things He says. “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him (John 3:16-17).” Nicodemus is trying to see if he can trust Jesus. First he weighs the evidence of Jesus’ deeds, and now he listens carefully to Jesus’ message to see if there he can find truth. Jesus talks about the kind of God Nicodemus already believes in—a God who doesn’t want to condemn the world, but who loves the world and wants to save it. This goes a long way in helping Nicodemus make a choice. As we evaluate candidates prior to the election, we need to pay close attention to the things that they say, whether they resonate with truth or not. Are they saying the kinds of things that you can believe?

3. Promises, Promises. In verses 14-15, Jesus says, “And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.” Jesus is referring to a time in Israel’s history when the people were bitten by poisonous snakes. God directed Moses to make a metal snake and lift it up on a pole so that everyone who looked at it would be miraculously saved. Jesus said that in the future He would be lifted up on a pole (the crucifixion), so that anyone who looked to Him in faith might be saved. This is quite a promise! Political candidates promise all sorts of things, but I’ve never heard any of them promising to lay down their lives to serve the country. Jesus promises to embrace the cross to save the world. This is a promise that Nicodemus can’t ignore. Neither can we ignore the promises candidates make as they tell us what they plan to do if chosen to lead our country.

The country has a choice to make in a couple of days. A lot rides on this important decision, so I hope you’ll take the time to go to the polls. It’s a tough choice, but we have to decide who we can trust to govern our country. Yet, no matter who wins, only Jesus deserves our trust when it comes to governing our hearts. Politicians can transform laws and societies, but only Jesus can make us new again. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God… I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of [womb] water and the Spirit. Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life (John 3:5b-6).” Jesus is talking about a spiritual renewal that can only be understood in terms of a total do-over. Jesus is talking about a move of the Holy Spirit can make you so different it’s like you’re a whole new person. No politician can do that for you. Only Jesus can affect that kind of change. So, we come to the question—who to trust?  Psalm 118:9 answers the question for us: “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.” On November 8, we will go to the polls…and some of us will end up casting a vote for someone we don’t like or we don’t trust. Remember to look at their track record, listen for truth in what they’re saying, and consider what they say they’ll do. But remember this too—only Jesus has the power to transform the soul, to give you a divine do-over, to make you born again.

[i] All scriptures taken from the NLT.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

"Passion for God's House"

Have you ever done something with such zeal that you felt like you gave yourself to it completely, no matter what it cost? These are the moments when the Spirit is flowing and you feel like you are so at one with what you’re doing that there’s no difference between the doer and the thing done. I remember once when I was preaching, I had a kidney stone attack. I agonized through the sermon, toughing it out through the pain, yet I had such zeal for what I was doing that it ended up being one of my best, most fiery sermons. Sometimes we get carried away in our zeal, and the result is that God does something great.

In the second chapter of John’s gospel, we read about an incident where Jesus demonstrated his zeal in such a way that God did something great. It reminded the disciples of a prophecy from the Scriptures, “Passion for God’s house will consume me (John 2:17 // Psalm 69:9).” What did Jesus do that causes such a stir? Verses 13-16[i] say:

It was nearly time for the Jewish Passover celebration, so Jesus went to Jerusalem. In the Temple area he saw merchants selling cattle, sheep, and doves for sacrifices; he also saw dealers at tables exchanging foreign money. Jesus made a whip from some ropes and chased them all out of the Temple. He drove out the sheep and cattle, scattered the money changers’ coins over the floor, and turned over their tables. Then, going over to the people who sold doves, he told them, “Get these things out of here. Stop turning my Father’s house into a marketplace!”

First, we have to understand what this story isn’t about, before we can appreciate what it really is about. This story isn’t about fundraising in the Temple. I’ve heard a lot of people who have used this passage of scripture to promote the idea that it’s wrong to do church fundraisers on church grounds. Such ideas prohibit yard sales, bake sales, Brunswick stews, on church property, because the church property is seen as to be too holy for such activities. In reality, this wasn’t Jesus’ issue at all. To make it easier for people to purchase animals for sacrifice, animal vendors were allowed on Temple property. Money changers were necessary because Roman coins weren’t allowed in the Temple—so purchases had to be made with Temple shekels. These transactions had to be made so that people who couldn’t raise their own sacrificial animals might have animals to offer God. So Jesus didn’t object to the presence of moneychangers or vendors in the Temple. If not this, then what did Jesus get upset about?

First, the moneychangers were offering an unfair exchange rate, making a huge profit and off a religious practice that was required by Law. Second, the vendors were likewise charging too much money for their livestock. Third, their setup was blocking the Court of the Gentiles, so that the outsiders—perhaps those who needed God the most—weren’t able to come in. For this reason, Jesus couldn’t help himself. He had to do something, regardless of the risk. He got carried away for the sake of God’s house, and the result was that God did something great.

However, sometimes we can become so zealous that we actually cause harm. Halford Lucock says, "I was impressed several years ago when I read that Eugene Ormandy dislocated a shoulder while directing the Philadelphia Orchestra. I do not know what they were playing, but he was giving all of himself to it!"[ii] Ormandy’s zeal was, quite literally, his undoing. One translation of John 2:17 is, “Concern for God’s house will be my undoing[iii].” So, I guess we need to ask ourselves whether our zeal for God’s house is something that might be painful yet constructive, or whether it could be something that undoes us or even undoes the church.

How could zeal for God’s house be destructive instead of constructive? When the physical church building becomes more important than the people inside. When the people on the inside become more important than the people on the outside. When our reverence from policies and procedures prevents real ministry. When we become more concerned about the forms of worship than either the One we worship or the needs of the worshipers. When the way we’ve always done it before keeps us back from the way God wants to do it in the future. This type of zeal undoes us, undoes others, and undoes the church. And I’ll say boldly that this is a large part of the reason why churches are in decline today. Too many people are zealous for God’s house, but they’re zealous for the wrong things!

To be sure, Jesus’ zeal certainly was destructive—but it tore down obstacles to worship, and also built people up. It created equal access to God for everybody. It exposed those who were in the Temple because it was a business or a show or just a habit. Certainly, it didn’t win Jesus any admirers when He overturned the tables. From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, His actions began to overturn the status quo. In the same way, we’ve got to let zeal for God’s house consume us. We’ve got to put our own needs and wants last, letting our egos be undone rather than allowing our agendas to cause the undoing of the church. We’ve got to be able to say, “Passion for God’s house will consume me!” Then, allowing it to consume us totally, we need to get out of the way and let God do something great.

[i] All scriptures taken from the NLT.
[ii] Progress Magazine, December 31, 1992.  September 29, 2016.
[iii] NLT footnotes

Monday, October 24, 2016

"A Point of Emptiness"

I used to preach with PowerPoint. Not like I do now, with just the scripture on the screen so people can see it, but also with intricately designed slides full of outlines, diagrams, and artwork that illustrated each point. I have always spent a lot of time in sermon preparation because I believe the Holy Spirit honors good planning. But I think in those days I spent more time on the PowerPoint presentation than on the sermon. Any given sermon might have twenty slides to click through, not including the scripture. The story of the Prodigal Son could have a picture of a father embracing his son. A sermon on giving might feature scattered images of pots of gold, people holding their wallets and shrugging, or empty offering plates. The audio-visual team downloaded the sermon on Sunday morning and clicked through it, and I moved through the slides on my tablet at the pulpit. Then one Sunday something went wrong. From a technical perspective, I don't know to this day what happened, but the effect was that the message was gone and could not be retrieved, either from the sanctuary computer or my tablet. So during Sunday School I had to scramble to re-create the sermon from memory, and preach without PowerPoint as a prop. Know what happened? It turned out better than it did before. I had to start over in order for the message to be what it needed to be. I had put in a lot of my own effort, but I believe God used technology problems to show me that I had to get to a point of my own emptiness and say, “Now what, God?” Then, and only then, the Spirit could flow within me.

In the second chapter of John’s gospel, we see three points of emptiness that needed to come together in order to create a miracle at the wedding of Cana. We find emptiness in the wine cups, Jesus' openness in a time that was not yet full, and the stone jars. For Jesus, emptiness is not a problem, but it is the raw material God uses to work wonders. Richard Rohr writes: 

"When we are nothing, we are in a fine position to receive everything from God. As Merton says…, our point of nothingness is 'the pure glory of God in us.' If we look at the great religious traditions, we see they all use similar words to point in the same direction. The Franciscan word is "poverty." The Carmelite word is nada or "nothingness." ...Jesus speaks of being "poor in spirit" in his very first beatitude."[i]

At Cana, the first point of emptiness was found at the bottom of the guests’ wine cups. Psalm 104:15 says that wine makes people’s hearts glad, making it clear that in this story the wine represents joy. It’s not until the people’s cups are empty that Jesus can make new wine and fill them again. In the same way, when our lives are joyless, it’s often not until we reach a point of emptiness that we are prepared to let Jesus fill us. Too often we are so full of ourselves that there’s no room for Jesus’ joy. Only when we empty ourselves of our selves can there be enough room for a miracle of gladness.

The next point of emptiness comes in Jesus’ openness in a time that was not yet full. Paul Masson’s slogan used to be, “We will sell no wine before its time.” Jesus would have had a similar slogan, but for the insistence of Mary. Verses3-4[ii] say, “The wine supply ran out during the festivities, so Jesus’ mother told him, ‘They have no more wine.’ ‘Dear woman, that’s not our problem,’ Jesus replied. ‘My time has not yet come.’” When the Bible talks about time being “full” it means an occasion when all things are ready in order for a significant event to happen. Jesus was saying that his time wasn’t full—in fact, it was empty. Yet, though He wasn’t yet ready to act, He was open to consider that there might be a bigger plan unfolding. This is why He was willing to relax His grip on His own self-determination, and empty Himself of His ego. In this emptiness, He allowed His empty heart and hands to be filled in order to do God’s will. When we make ourselves similarly open, great things can happen in our lives.

The final point of emptiness is found in the great jars that Jesus used to turn water into wine. Made of stone and used for ritual purification, these vessels represented the Old Testament Law which, in its emptiness, was unable to bring joy and fulfillment to God’s people. Yet it’s when we come to the bottom of the Law and realize that it cannot save, that’s when we recognize our need for a Savior. Without emptiness, we can’t come to the point of being ready for God to fill us. But when we allow God to replace our cold, stony religion with the living water of true faith, transformation can happen. Only emptiness can make us ready to receive this kind of miracle.

The great composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) lived much of his life in fear of deafness. He was concerned because he felt the sense of hearing was essential to creating music of lasting value.
When Beethoven discovered that the thing he feared most was coming rapidly upon him, he was almost frantic with anxiety. He consulted doctors and tried every possible remedy. But the deafness increased until at last all hearing was gone.
 Beethoven finally found the strength he needed to go on despite his great loss. To everyone's amazement, he wrote some of his grandest music after he became totally deaf. With all distractions shut out, melodies flooded in on him as fast as his pen could write them down. His deafness became a great asset.[iii]

I wonder, what areas of your own life feel empty right now? Do you feel drained, like the bottom of a cup where the joy is gone? Do you feel unready for the next big thing, unsure of yourself, and unwilling to step into the unknown? Have you reached the bottom of religion and found nothing but cold empty stone? Perhaps it’s just this point of emptiness that you need, in order for God to do a miracle. Hope is found in emptiness. In Genesis 1:2, we read, “The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.” First, there had to be emptiness, before God could create. If you’re at a point of emptiness, remember that God’s spirit is hovering over you still, ready to make something new. As long as you’re full of yourself, you can’t be filled by God. But when you’re empty, there’s room for God to work wonders. I pray that when you reach a point of emptiness, you’ll see it as a good thing instead of bad, and that you’ll then open your heart and hands for God to do something new.

[i] Richard Rohr's Devotion: A Point of Nothingness.  Friday, August 5, 2016.  Adapted from Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (Crossroad Publishing: 1999, 2003), 76-78.
[ii] All scriptures taken from the NLT.
[iii] Daily Walk, August 9, 1993. September 22, 2016. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"Who Am I?"

There comes a time in life when each of us must decide exactly who we are. What kind of man or woman will we be? Will we do the easy thing, or the right thing? Will we choose convenience, or conscience? Will we choose to follow our egos or the Spirit of God? There comes a time when we need to ask, “Who am I?” In John 1:19-51, we encounter several men who had to ask themselves the same question.

John the Baptist was faced with a moment like this as well. His ministry was going so well that crowds of people were coming to him, to listen to his preaching and to be immersed in the Jordan. I wish my church could report baptism records like his, to our denominational office! God was moving. People saw what John was doing, and they wanted to be part of it. People had such high expectations of him that many thought he could be the coming Christ. Verses 19-20[i] say, “This was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders sent priests and Temple assistants from Jerusalem to ask John, ‘Who are you?’ He came right out and said, ‘I am not the Messiah.’”

John was humble enough to know who he was NOT. John gained this knowledge of who he wasn’t, long before this encounter with the Jewish leaders. The son of Zechariah the Levite, John would have been expected to follow in a long line of priests, when he came of age. Yet, despite the honor of this calling, John rejected people’s expectations because he knew who he was not. He might have been a Levite, but he was no priest. And nothing that anybody could do could make him into an effective one. This reminds me of a story in Today the Word: “An interesting cartoon shows a fourth-grade boy standing toe-to-toe and nose-to-nose with his teacher. Behind them stares a blackboard covered with math problems the boy hasn't finished. With rare perception the boy says, ‘I'm not an underachiever, you're an overexpecter!’"[ii] I’m the same way: In school, nobody could ever have convinced me that I was meant to be a mathematician. In order to know what you can be, you have to know what you aren’t. John knew that he wasn’t a priest, and that nobody should be able to put that on him with their expectations.

John also knew not to be driven by his own ego—that it was more important to be who God wanted him to be, than it was to be some grandiose image of himself. No matter what people were telling him, he didn’t let it go to his head. He knew he wasn’t the Messiah. God had different plans for him, which were also good, even though they weren’t as glorious. Part of discovering who you are, is realizing who you aren’t.

It’s important to understand that John’s lack of ego wasn’t a self-esteem problem. It was humility. He did have a good sense of who he was. The leaders asked, “Then who are you…What do you have to say about yourself?” John replied in the words of the prophet Isaiah: ‘I am a voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Clear the way for the Lord’s coming (verses 22-23)!’” Later, John says something that sounds like self-esteem issues, but it’s really just John recognizing how special Jesus is, not how undeserving John is. “John told them, ‘I baptize with water, but right here in the crowd is someone you do not recognize. Though his ministry follows mine, I’m not even worthy to be his slave and untie the straps of his sandal (verses 26-27).” John understood who he was in the scope of God’s plan, and how that fit into who Jesus was. Verses 6-8 say, “God sent a man, John the Baptist, to tell about the light so that everyone might believe because of his testimony. John himself was not the light; he was simply a witness to tell about the light.” John understood who he was, and he did his job well, without expecting to be something that he was not.

Then we come to the story of Jesus calling the disciples. Again, the question of identity comes up. In verse 42, Jesus told one of them, “Your name is Simon, son of John—but you will be called Cephas” (which means “Peter”). When Jesus comes into your life, He changes you completely. As He changed Peter from a fisherman to a rock-solid leader of the church, so He changes us into who He wants us to be. After that, Jesus called Philip and Nathanael. Verses 47-49 say:

As they approached, Jesus said, “Now here is a genuine son of Israel—a man of complete integrity.”
“How do you know about me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus replied, “I could see you under the fig tree before Philip found you.”
Then Nathanael exclaimed, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God—the King of Israel!”

Fig trees were known to be places of meditation and prayer. So Jesus is saying, “Look—I saw you speaking to My Father, and I can tell by that, what kind of man you are.” Jesus was saying, “You are the kind of man who seeks after God, so because of this, I want you to follow me.” Just as Jesus knew Nathanael’s true identity, God knows exactly who you are as well. Sometimes discovering the real YOU can be exciting and sometimes it can be frightening. But always it’s an adventure when Jesus calls.

So what about you? Who are you? I know it’s a pretty basic question—but it’s also a very deep one. “Who am I?” is more than just your name. It’s your identity in Christ. It’s your calling from God. It’s a sense of who you are to your very core. Your purpose. Your identity at heart-level. God has a plan for each one of us. God told Jeremiah the prophet, “I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb. Before you were born I set you apart (Jeremiah 1:5a).” God tells you the same thing. Finding your identity begins with knowing who you’re not. You are not other people’s expectations of you. Neither are you your over-inflated ego. Who are you? Maybe, like John, you’re in the wilderness of your life right now. Maybe you’re not the one who has all the right answers at the moment. But maybe—just maybe—you’re the one who’s asking the right questions. And that’s probably more important, anyway.

[i] Scriptures taken from the NLT
[ii] Today in the Word, MBI, April, 1990, p. 30.  September 16, 2016.