Sunday, March 19, 2017

"Perilous Preaching"

            Recently, I read the following story:

Dr. Clarence Bass, professor emeritus at Bethel Theological Seminary, early in his ministry preached in a church in Los Angeles. He thought he had done quite well as he stood at the door greeting people as they left the sanctuary. The remarks about his preaching were complimentary. That is, until a little old man commented, "You preached too long." Dr. Bass wasn't fazed by the remark, especially in light of the many positive comments. "You didn't preach loud enough," came another negative comment; it was from the same little old man. Dr. Bass thought it strange that the man had come through the line twice, but when the same man came through the line a third time and exclaimed, "You used too many big words" --this called for some explanation. 
Dr. Bass sought out a deacon who stood nearby and asked him, "Do you see that little old man over there? Who is he?" "Don't pay any attention to him," the deacon replied. "All he does is go around and repeat everything he hears."[i] 

            Yes, it can be difficult for a pastor to receive criticism all the time.  For most pastors, a lot of prayer, study, and preparation goes into a message.  Also, most pastors (like myself) feel like church administration and parish ministry take so much time that we aren’t able to put as much time as we’d like to into our sermons.  Seminary professors say that for every minute spent in preaching or teaching, pastors should put in an hour of study.  I don’t know a single pastor who’s able to do that.  But when ministers do take the pulpit, they’d like to know that their congregation is listening with attentive ears.  Often, when people leave church saying, “I didn’t get anything out of it,” it’s not because no spiritual food was placed on the table, but because they were too distracted or self-interested to try a bite.

            Jesus knew what it was like to have an audience who was listening with wrong hearts.  In the fifth chapter of John’s Gospel, we read that the crowd gathered to hear him, having the wrong motivations.  In verse 26[ii], Jesus says, “…You are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.”  All too often when we go to church, we are also there for the wrong reasons—for what we can get out of it, so we can “be fed.”  Instead of attending selfishly, it would be so different if God’s people came to church expecting to share God’s blessings from their own heart.

            The people also gathered with the wrong expectations.  “…They asked him, ‘What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do (v. 30)?’”  Not only did they want their bellies filled, but they also wanted their egos satisfied.  If Jesus would simply prove Himself with a miracle, they said, they’d believe.  What they were really saying was that they believed they were so important that Jesus should hang his hat on their approval.  God’s people today come to church with the mentality that everything should be done for their benefit, even as businesses cater to consumers.  Wrong expectations keep people from experiencing the blessings of worship and preaching, because they think it’s all about them and not God.

            Verses 41-42 reveal the people’s wrong attitude in the way they undermined Jesus as a speaker.  “At this [they] began to grumble about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They said, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”  Sometimes people can be so focused on God’s messenger that they refuse to hear God’s message.  They spend the whole sermon time critiquing the preacher’s choice (or absence) of necktie, or wondering about his qualifications, instead of listening to the words that God has placed on his heart.  More often than not, it’s our own wrong attitudes, that keep us from hearing from God when we listen to a sermon.

            In verse 52, the people give the wrong response to the message.   They “began to argue sharply among themselves, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’”  Notice, it doesn’t say that they began to discuss the message or even the messenger.  The Greek word means that they were fighting, disputing, or engaging in battle when they heard the difficult sermon Jesus had to deliver.  I know some people who listen to every sermon with an ear that seeks something to argue with.  When we come to church ready to dispute whatever we’re going to hear, we’re giving the wrong response to God’s word as it is delivered.  Instead, try coming with an open ear and an open heart.

            Verses 60 and 66 say that upon hearing Jesus’ difficult sermon, not only did people argue, but they rejected his teaching, got up, and walked out.  Maybe you’ve been tempted to walk out on a challenging message, but let me suggest two things:  First of all, it’s rude to get up and walk out on someone who’s put so much effort praying and preparing a message for the church.  Second, maybe you’re walking out on something God may have just for you, if only you’d stay til the end.  Maybe your anger is, in fact, the perfect evidence that the speaker was on target in the first place.

John Wesley used to ask his young men whom he had sent out to preach on probation two questions: "Has any one been converted?" and "Did any one get mad?" If the answer was "No," he told them he did not think the Lord had called them to preach the Gospel, and sent them about their business. When the Holy Ghost convicts of sin, people are either converted or they don't like it, and get mad.[iii]

            These days, preaching is perilous.  Often, God’s people don’t want to be challenged, but would prefer to stay comfortably in their pews hearing the same thing they’ve always heard before—in other words, hearing messages that haven’t helped them to grow beyond the point where they already are.  Maybe you’ve come to church with the wrong motivations, expectations, attitudes, responses, and reactions.  Instead, God wants you to be like the disciples, who make the right decision regarding the hard teaching they’ve received.  Verses 67-69 say:

“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

            Jesus was glad when His disciples remained, and remained attentive.  So often in His ministry, Jesus would say something like, “Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand (Matthew 11:15)!”[iv]  In the book of Revelation, Jesus says seven times, “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”[v]  Your pastor puts a lot of prayer and preparation into his or her perilous preaching.  I pray that even if you have an issue with the messenger, or even if the message is difficult for you to receive, you’ll listen and understand, that you’ll hear not what the preacher is saying, but what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

[i] Pulpit and Bible Study Helps, Vol 16, #5, p. 1.  February 10, 2017.
[ii] All scripture quotations are from the NLT.
[iii] Moody's Anecdotes, P. 123.  February 10, 2017.
[iv] See also Mk 4:9; 7:16; 4:23; Mt 11:15; 13:9.
[v] Rev 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 6, 13, 22.

"I AM is Here"

What’s the worst storm you’ve ever experienced? For me, that would be the tornado that ripped through Amelia, Virginia, in May of 2003. I remember driving down the road and remarking how the sky was turning green. (You always know you’re in trouble when the sky turns green.) Then, when the hailstones started falling, I did what anybody who loves their car would do—I found cover beneath a gas pump shelter. Yes, I felt badly because the cars that came in behind me couldn’t fit underneath. Toddler Lydia was told, “Cover your head!” as the hailstones continued to fall, some of them still pelting our vehicle. Thinking she was doing something productive, she put a scarf over her head. At the same time, unbeknownst to me, two of my elementary school children were on a school bus that got rerouted to the high school because of the storm. They just got safely inside when the tornado tore through, pulling bricks off the front of the building where they were hunkered down. It ripped roofs off other buildings, sending steeples into the courthouse square, and strewing stained glass on the sidewalks so that the town looked like a war zone when it was all done.

When you’re in the middle of a storm like that, you may wonder whether you are going to survive. And after the storm you look around, not knowing where to begin in the cleanup. Your personal storm may not look like a physical tornado, but you might feel just as threatened or devastated by its onslaught. Jesus’ disciples felt this way a couple of times. Once, when the Lord was asleep in the bottom of the boat they found themselves in a storm and he spoke to the wind and the waves, which calmed immediately (Matthew 8; Mark 4; Luke 8). In Matthew 14, Mark 6, and John 6, the disciples had a different experience of Jesus calming a storm. Only this time, not only did they experience fear in the face of the storm, but they found themselves afraid of Jesus Himself. John’s account is shortest:
That evening Jesus’ disciples went down to the shore to wait for him. But as darkness fell and Jesus still hadn’t come back, they got into the boat and headed across the lake toward Capernaum. Soon a gale swept down upon them, and the sea grew very rough. They had rowed three or four miles when suddenly they saw Jesus walking on the water toward the boat. They were terrified, but he called out to them, “Don’t be afraid. I am here!” Then they were eager to let him in the boat, and immediately they arrived at their destination! (vv. 16-21)[i]

Jesus’ friends were afraid of the physical danger the storm brought them. They were also fearful because they had to face this threat alone. Mark 6:48 says, “He saw that they were in serious trouble, rowing hard and struggling against the wind and waves. About three o’clock in the morning Jesus came toward them, walking on the water. He intended to go past them.” It’s interesting to me that Jesus saw that they were in trouble so He came to them, but when he saw how they were rowing he decided to keep going. In other words, Jesus could look at them and say, “Yeah, they’ve got this.” Maybe you’re struggling right now, and you’re fearful because you feel like you’re going through it alone. But all the while, even though don’t know it, Jesus can see you. Rather than stepping in, Jesus is watching and saying, “She’s got this,” or “He knows what he’s doing,” or “They’re learning.” In Mark’s account, Jesus wasn’t even going to get involved until the disciples noticed him and thought He was a ghost. Then, he reassured them, climbed into the boat, and calmed the storm.

Matthew’s version also has Christ’s followers mistaking Him for a ghost, and Jesus comforting them, getting back into the boat, and calming the storm. But Matthew also includes Peter asking the “ghost” that if it really is Jesus, He should prove it by letting Peter come to him on the water. Peter does so, sees the wind and the waves, starts to sink, and cries out to Jesus. Jesus reaches out and lifts him up, lamenting Peter’s lack of faith and asking why he doubted. Sometimes when we’re in the midst of our storms, we just need Jesus to give us a sign that He really is there. And sometimes, He obliges. But the key is keeping your eye on Him, not getting caught up in the storm, and letting Him hold you up.

In all three Gospels, the way that Jesus reassures the disciples is by saying, “I am here!” In the original Greek, you might read this a different way: “I AM is here!” Back in the Old Testament, God revealed the divine name as I AM. Throughout his Gospel, John has Jesus echoing the words “I am,” as in “I am the way,” “I am the bread of life,” or “I am the living water.” Here, Jesus says, “I am here—or, really, I AM is here!” This is the reassurance we need in the storms of life. God is with us. Sometimes He says “You’ve got this.” Other times, He proves His presence and reassures. But always, God is there. When hurricanes howl, when tornadoes threaten, when tragedy turns your faith to fear, remember, Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid…Take courage, I AM is here (Matthew 14:27)!”

[i] Scripture quotations taken from the NLT.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

"The Test"

            I invite you to take just a moment and think about the teachers that you liked best when you were in school.  No doubt they made an impression on you because of the way they taught, or some emotional connection they made.  I remember my third-grade teacher Mr. Stewart, who employed all sorts of rhymes and games to teach us difficult subjects.  Then there was my sixth-grade English teacher Mrs. Dickerson, who allowed me to write a lengthy book instead of doing a book report like all the other students.  Or my high school Spanish teacher SeƱora Giles, who communicated not only a foreign language, but made us feel loved along the way.  My guess is that you have teachers like this as well, and that you remember them for their special attributes, and not their tests. 

But what would a teacher be without tests?  Teachers need to make sure their students are learning, and students need a gauge as to where they need to improve.  John 6 tells the story of Jesus testing His disciples, and whether they learned.  It also shows how they could prove the trustworthiness of their Master.  Verses 5-6[i] say, “Jesus soon saw a huge crowd of people coming to look for him. Turning to Philip, he asked, ‘Where can we buy bread to feed all these people?’ He was testing Philip, for he already knew what he was going to do.”  We must ask ourselves the purpose for this test.  Is Jesus seeing what Philip has learned, or whether Philip will apply this learning?  No—because Jesus already knows these things.  The purpose of this test isn’t to assess Philip.  This first test is so Philip can see the full extent to which he can trust Jesus.  When you go through struggles and tests, are letting them show you just how much you trust in God’s provision?

The second and third tests come in verses 7-9: “Philip replied, ‘Even if we worked for months, we wouldn’t have enough money to feed them!’ Then Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up. ‘There’s a young boy here with five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that with this huge crowd?’”  There are two tests here.  In this second test Andrew, like Philip, will see just how much he can count on Jesus to take care of the people’s needs.  Then the third is when the little boy with the lunch decides he can entrust his only food to the Teacher.  He might literally lose his lunch, yet he hands it over anyway.  What are you willing to give to God, that the Lord might use you in the service of others?

The fourth test involves the whole crowd that gathered.  “’Tell everyone to sit down,’ Jesus said. So they all sat down on the grassy slopes. (The men alone numbered about 5,000.)  Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks to God, and distributed them to the people. Afterward he did the same with the fish. And they all ate as much as they wanted (vv. 10-11).”  In this test, Jesus is seeing whether the people will trust him and obey his command to sit down, even though there clearly was no meal to be set before them.  What would you do, if you were a guest at your teacher’s home and were asked to sit down to a meal, even though there was clearly no food in the house?  Their obedience and trust is one of the secret recipes that makes this delicious miracle!  When God asks something unusual of you, will you pass the test and show God your obedience?

The fifth test is to see whether people will trust God for more.  Verses 12-13 say, “After everyone was full, Jesus told his disciples, ‘Now gather the leftovers, so that nothing is wasted.’ So they picked up the pieces and filled twelve baskets with scraps left by the people who had eaten from the five barley loaves.”  So often when God blesses us, God also tests us to see whether we’re stingy with that blessing.  Our tithes and offerings represent trust that God’s financial blessings will continue to flow.  Our willingness to give back a portion of what God has given us is proof that we believe God’s provision will remain constant.  Instead of hoarding the leftovers, their willingness to give back proves their trust.  Will you prove yourself willingness to give back to God, or will you stockpile the Lord’s provision instead?

The sixth test is for the people to prove that they understand the sign given to them by God.  “When the people saw him do this miraculous sign, they exclaimed, ‘Surely, he is the Prophet we have been expecting!’ When Jesus saw that they were ready to force him to be their king, he slipped away into the hills by himself (vv. 14-15).”  God is showing them that they will always be taken care of, but God is not promising to provide rations to supply an army to overthrow Rome.  The people take God’s provision, but come to the wrong conclusion.  What conclusions will you come to, when you see God at work in your life?

When we were in school, testing proved two things: it proved both the student and the teacher.  Students typically only think about how they are proven in the testing process.  An A grade shows success, and an F shows failure.  But testing also proves to students that they can trust their teacher’s instruction.  When life brings you trial, pray that God will give you strength and wisdom to pass the test.  But also take these difficulties as opportunities to prove that you can trust your Teacher, who remains faithful at all times.

[i] Scripture quotations taken from the NLT.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"Can I Get a Witness?"

Recently, I read a story about witnessing:

When he was the pastor of the Methodist church in Scarborough, William Sangster had an eccentric member who tried to be a zealous Christian. Unfortunately, the man was mentally deficient and usually did the wrong thing. While working as a barber the man lathered up a customer for a shave, came at him with the poised razor, and asked, "Are you prepared to meet your God?" The frightened man fled with the lather on his face![i]

I have heard the gospel presented in many ways, but I can assure you that I’ve never heard it with a razor to my throat! When I was growing up, I heard the quiet testimony of Sunday school teachers. I heard loud preachers and compassionate pastors proclaiming the Good News from pulpits. I watched my parents live out their faith, and saw God at work both in their feats and failures. I was given gospel tracts, books and Christian comic books. I received the kind word about the Lord from older family friends. At school, my own friends who were believers encouraged me in my faith. There were so many people who led me to meet Jesus for the first time, and others who helped me to grow in my relationship with Him. If you’re like me, then you’ve had many different witnesses to lead you to faith.

In the fifth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus gets in trouble, first for breaking the Sabbath laws, and then for claiming to be the Son of God. As if in a court case, Jesus makes his defense. Because Jewish law requires a matter had to be established by two or three witnesses,[ii] Jesus provides six testimonies that He is the Christ. First, he offers the testimony of John the Baptist, whom God sent specifically as a witness to Jesus’ coming:

“If I were to testify on my own behalf, my testimony would not be valid. But someone else is also testifying about me, and I assure you that everything he says about me is true. In fact, you sent investigators to listen to John the Baptist, and his testimony about me was true. Of course, I have no need of human witnesses, but I say these things so you might be saved. John was like a burning and shining lamp, and you were excited for a while about his message (vv. 31-35[iii]).”

Next, in verse 36, Jesus says that if John the Baptist counts as one witness, then Jesus’ own testimony about himself counts as two witnesses. “…I have a greater witness than John—my teachings and my miracles. The Father gave me these works to accomplish, and they prove that he sent me.” 1 Corinthians 1:22 says that Greeks look for wisdom and Jews seek for a sign. In Christ, we have both. Jesus’ wisdom is the second witness that proves He is someone of spiritual substance, while Jesus’ miracles are the third witness that substantiate the power behind His words. If you doubt one, believe the other—Jesus counts as two witnesses for Himself. Will you heed the testimonies of Jesus’ word and deed?

Then, Jesus says that God the Father provides the fourth witness that He is the Christ. In verses 37-38, He says, “And the Father who sent me has testified about me himself. You have never heard his voice or seen him face to face, and you do not have his message in your hearts, because you do not believe me—the one he sent to you.” Now, when Jesus was baptized, the Spirit descended like a dove and the Father said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy (Mattthew 3:17).” If this is so, then how could He say that they had never heard the voice of the Father? It’s because their hardened hearts were not tuned to God’s voice. In John 12, God’s voice speaks from the heavens, but those with unprepared hearts only think that it has thundered. Jesus says that even though the Father gives testimony to His greatness, not everyone will believe or respond. Will you listen to the voice of the Father, as God testifies to Jesus?

Also, Jesus says that the Scriptures are the fifth witness about Him. In John 5:39-40, Jesus says, “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life.” In other words, God gave the Bible in order to point to Jesus—but many people think that eternal life comes from believing in the Bible. Eternal life comes from knowing Jesus. Like the Pharisees, many people today worship the Bible instead of Christ. Placing words on a page over an encounter with the Living Word, they become stuck in rules and regulations like the teachers of religious law. Will you follow the Bible to Jesus, or will you get stuck in glorification of words on a page?

Finally, in verses 45-47, the Master says that Moses is the sixth witness to the fact that Jesus is the Messiah. “Yet it isn’t I who will accuse you before the Father. Moses will accuse you! Yes, Moses, in whom you put your hopes. If you really believed Moses, you would believe me, because he wrote about me. But since you don’t believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?” Jesus has already cited the scriptures that Moses wrote, so it seems like He is doubling up again. But Jesus is also talking about Moses himself. Yes, Moses’ words testify to Jesus being the Messiah. But on the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses’ apparition validated the Christhood of our Lord.[iv] Will you believe the testimony as each of these witnesses? Will you accept the overwhelming evidence that Christ is Lord?

Once Christians accept the testimony and receive Jesus as their Lord, God calls us to become witnesses ourselves. The problem is that so many believers think that their story ends at salvation and doesn’t continue with our calling as disciples and missionaries of our Lord. Howard Hendricks says, “In the midst of a generation screaming for answers, Christians are stuttering.[v] Instead of faltering in our call to tell of Jesus’ saving power, we need to accept His mandate to become faith witnesses. He promised we would not be alone, but that He would be with us. He wants to remind us, “…You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere--in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8)."

[i] W. Wiersbe, Wycliffe Handbook of Preaching & Preachers,  p. 215.
[ii] Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15; Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1
[iii] All scripture quotations taken from the NLT.
[iv] Matthew 17:1-13
[v]  January 19, 2017.

"The Family Business"

Many of you know people who received the mentorship of their parents and entered the family profession. In my community, Ronnie learned how to be a farmer from his father Ed. Roy taught his son about cars, and Kevin grew up to be a mechanic just like his dad. Betty worked in healthcare, setting an example for her daughter Kim, who went into the same line of work. Just like Mike and Skip learned carpentry from their father Harold, Jesus learned carpentry from his stepfather Joseph. In our culture, when a child learns a trade from their parent, we say, “Awww, how nice!” But in Jesus’ day, it was expected. In fact, it unnerved some people that Jesus gave up His carpentry job for ministry. It upset them even more that He was learning the God-business from His Father, who was God, not Joseph.

In the fifth chapter of John’s Gospel, when Jesus gets in trouble for healing a man on the Sabbath, his response (verse 17 ) is, “My Father is always working, and so am I.” This makes his detractors seek to kill him, because Jesus has claimed that God was His Father, making Himself equal to God. Instead of trying to get away, Jesus explains how the God-business, and not carpentry, really is the family business. First, he explains how life comes from the Father to the Son, and from the Son to the believer. Then, he tells how he learns everything from the Father, and you can learn from Him.

In verse 21, Jesus says, “For just as the Father gives life to those he raises from the dead, so the Son gives life to anyone he wants.” Then in verses 24-26, He says:

“I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life. And I assure you that the time is coming, indeed it’s here now, when the dead will hear my voice—the voice of the Son of God. And those who listen will live. The Father has life in himself, and he has granted that same life-giving power to his Son.”

You see, the God-business is all about giving life. God gave physical life to us all, breathing into Adam that very first breath. When the Word became flesh and God stepped into humanity, that life of Christ came from the Father. But instead of limited life, Jesus possessed eternal life. Eternal means unlimited—Jesus has enough to give to everybody. So, Jesus took up the family business of giving life to all who receive it. In verses 28-29, He says, “Don’t be so surprised! Indeed, the time is coming when all the dead in their graves will hear the voice of God’s Son, and they will rise again.”

Of course, for anybody to take up the family business, they must first learn it. Just as Jesus learned carpentry from Joseph, He learned unlimited love from God the Father. He watched the Father work, from pre-creation, through eternity, and up to his present day. Jesus says in John 5:17, “My Father is always working, and so am I.” The work of God is love, and that work never stops, never rests, never takes a break. Love is what made the universe, and love is what binds it together. Love will continue to the end, and outlast all things. “Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).” Jesus keeps talking about the love-business in verse 20, “For the Father loves the Son and shows him everything he is doing. In fact, the Father will show him how to do even greater works….” Jesus learns love from the Father, and Jesus transfers that love to other people. That’s how it works. But then something amazing happens. Jesus invites his sisters and brothers, you and me, into the family business. “I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father (John 14:12).”
I don’t know about you, but it blows my mind to think that because Jesus is no longer physically present, He expects us to continue the work. How can we do this? By continuing to learn the trade. As Jesus was always watching the Father, doing everything He saw the Father doing, so we must always keep our eyes on Jesus, in a perpetual apprenticeship.

A friend of mine works with Round Table Pizza on the West Coast. One franchise, owned by Bob Larson, is run just like his father, Bill, ran it. Bob started working at his father’s pizzeria when he was twelve years old. He invested full time in the summers and part time during the school year. From his dad, he learned to enjoy even the menial aspects of the work. He learned his father’s secret recipe for dough and sauce. He learned to be a people-person, how to treat employees and customers right. He learned his father’s generosity, giving back to the local community. When you learn a business, it pays to learn from the best, and Bob Larson learned it all from his dad. Jesus learned the God-business from His dad, and now He passes it on to us.

To take up the God-business means to learn from Dad. We learn to be godly, to literally be like God. So, we watch the things that Jesus does, and do that. It means we refrain from doing the things that Jesus wouldn’t do. Being a Christian means (duh!) to be like Christ. It means to take up the love-business and plan never to retire from it.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

"Lame Excuses"

Mike Lupica writes in Esquire:
Deion "Prime Time" Sanders, outfielder for the Atlanta Braves and cornerback for the Atlanta Falcons, is the only athlete to have hit a Major League home run and scored an NFL touchdown in the same week. Sanders grew up on the mean streets of Fort Myers, Fla., where exposure to some would-be athletes spurred him to make a success of himself. He explains: "I call them Idas. 'If I'da done this, I'd be making three million today...If I'da practiced a little harder, I'd be a superstar.' They were as fast as me when they were kids, but instead of working for their dreams they chose drugs and a life of street corners. When I was young, I had practice; my friends who didn't went straight to the streets and never left. That moment after school is the moment we need to grab. We don't need any more Idas.[i]

People are just as full of Idas today as they were two thousand years ago. Human nature hasn’t changed. We still like to make excuses for why we can’t accomplish what we’d like to. You may have already made and broken New Year’s resolutions, and you say to yourself, “If Ida just stuck to my diet, Ida lost the weight.” Or, “If my drinking buddies had quit coming around, Ida been able to quit drinking.” Or, “If my husband or wife hadn’t held me back, Ida had a better job by now.” The truth is that often it isn’t other people, but our lame excuses that hold us back.

In John 5:1-7 (NLT), Jesus encounters a lame man who is full of excuses, sitting by a pool in the Holy City. The Bible doesn’t give him a name, but let’s call him Yitzhak. Bear in mind that Jesus’ reputation has preceded him to Jerusalem. When the disabled beggar sees the Master, he knows that this prophet from Galilee is more than a Teacher. Jesus is a Healer. If there had been any doubt as to the newcomer’s identity, the crowd now affirms who Jesus is by crying out to him as they always have before. Everywhere that Jesus goes, people call out things like, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us!” They reach out to Him, grasping just to touch the hem of His garment. Can you hear the clamor of crowd, jostling for position so they can see, hear, and touch the Master? Maybe the gate he’s coming through will create a bottleneck where they can get closer to him. Everybody wants a piece of Jesus—all except Yitzhak by the pool.

Like Moses parting the Red Sea, Jesus steps through the crowd. The beggar’s head is downcast, trying to avoid the Master’s gaze, but now he sees the Carpenter’s sandaled feet stop right in front of him. Jesus knows this man will never cry out to him, so Jesus kneels and whispers, “Would you like to get well?”

Now, this would be an obvious, “Duh—yes!” kind of question for almost anybody. But not for Yitzhak, who has been disabled for thirty-eight years. He knows nothing about making a living as a tradesman. All he knows is begging. Yes, he is located near a pool known for its magical healing properties. Legend says that occasionally, an angel comes to stir the waters—then the first one into the pool is healed. Who knows what really happens. Perhaps a hot spring or some other phenomenon. All we know is that the people believe it. But while Yitzhak is seated by the pool (perhaps because thirty-eight years ago his dear departed mother placed him there and told him to wait), it is clear that he doesn’t want healing. Not once does the beggar cry out to Jesus. Instead, the Master has to come to him and ask a seemingly ridiculous question.

But it’s not ridiculous, really. Some people enjoy the drama of their difficulties. Whether financial, emotional, spiritual, social, or physical, some people would actually rather remain in their dramatic agony than be healed. But Jesus takes a risk and asks the question with the not-so-obvious answer.

“I can’t, sir,” Yitzhak replies. “Because I don’t have anybody to help me into the pool when the water bubbles up. Somebody else always beats me to it.”

This is the man’s excuse. For thirty-eight years, somebody has always edged him out. The truth is that he probably doesn’t believe the myth anyway. But that’s Yitzhak’s excuse. I wonder—what excuses do you have for not achieving or becoming what God wants you to be? Jesus came to the beggar in essence to tell him, “You were made for something better.” But instead Jesus gets an excuse.

How does Jesus respond to the beggar’s excuse? Jesus tells him, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!” Now, I know that this is recorded as a healing, and I’m not going to dispute that. But I’m not certain this is a physical healing. It seems that Yitzhak is healed mentally and emotionally rather than in his body. All he needs is for Jesus to speak into his life with spiritual authority, dispelling all his fears and setting aside all his lame excuses. All he needs is the Master to tell him that he can do it—and the man overcomes his objections, rises, and is never the same again.

You may throw up your hands and say, “Now what? There’s nothing this man can do for a living!” Of course there were jobs that required unskilled labor. Certainly the omnipotent God would not call this man to a whole life if there were no opportunities outside of his brokenness. So too Jesus calls you to give up your excuses, take up your mat, and walk.

I am just as guilty as everybody else, when it comes to excuses. I have started writing more books than I can count, gotten two hundred pages into the text, and quit writing with the excuse that church, family, and friends demand too much of my attention. I’ve finished writing a couple of books, and failed to get them published with the excuse that I couldn’t find the right publisher. The truth was, I just didn’t search diligently enough for a publisher. I can blame other people for why I don’t accomplish what I want, or I can get honest and admit that these are just lame excuses. You can get honest with yourself as well. Hear again the words of Jesus in John 5:8—but hear them not spoken to Yitzhak but directed to your ears and heart. “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!” I wonder, will you have the courage to rise?

Monday, January 30, 2017

"Five Steps to Overcoming Fear and Anxiety"

Source: Aggressive bear charges spectators in Finland by SamiHaaranen on Rumble

I came across this video yesterday, and it made me giggle, then laugh when I thought about it for a bit. Have you ever been chased by a snarling dog? That can be a scary thing, if the dog is a Yorkie or Chihuahua because sharp teeth are still sharp teeth, even on a small dog. But when a German Shepherd chases you, it's terrifying! This bear must have been really frightened by the dog that barked and growled and chased it through the woods.Then, in a moment of clarity, the bear stopped and said to itself, "Hey wait...I'm a bear!" And that reminder made all the difference. With that, he turned around and began to chase the dog, which turned tail and fled.

When you're afraid, it's important to remember who you are.

The devil tries to convince you that you're weak, that you're small, that you're helpless, and that you probably deserve the trouble you're having anyway. But Jesus says of the devil, "...He was a murderer from the beginning. He has always hated the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44 NLT)." The first step to combating fear is to know that most of the things that you're afraid of are lies, anyway. Your own self-talk convinces you that your troubles are a giant like Goliath, to keep you on the run from something that's smaller than you are, anyway. Overcoming fear means you realize that it's a lie, and that there is a way of salvation.

What is that way of salvation? 1 John 4:18 (NLT) says, "love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear." God is love, and in God's perfect love, there is peace.  Like a light bulb drives the darkness out of a room, so the perfect love, drawn down through faith, drives fear out of the anxious heart.  On a practical level, what can you do to welcome this love into your dark moments?  The second step is to turn to God in prayer and worship.  You do this by "singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts (Ephesians 5:19 NLT)."  This is effective because Psalm 22:3 says that God literally inhabits the praises of God's people.  When you worship God, you become aware of the divine loving presence that drives out fear.  Try to stay in an attitude of prayer and praise throughout the day, because Isaiah 26;3 says that God will keep you in perfect peace when your thoughts are focused on God, rather than your problem.

The third step is to trust that God has it under control. Psalm 56:3 (NLT) says, "But when I am afraid, I will put my trust in you." So trust can come as a response to fear. But even better than that is when you get used to trusting so much that it acts as a fear-preventative. Isaiah 12:2 (NLT) says, "See, God has come to save me. I will trust in him and not be afraid. The LORD God is my strength and my song; he has given me victory."  Thoughts become patterns that govern the way we live.  When you live in a state of fear, oppression, and anxiety, that becomes your pattern.  Those become your go-to emotions when you feel threatened.  But Romans 12:2 (NLT) promises that it's possible to reprogram those old patterns.  "Don't copy the behavior and customs of this world," says the apostle Paul, "but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think."  You do this by replacing your attitude of anxiety with affirmations of faith and trust.  These may be favorite scriptures (like the ones in this article) that you memorize and repeat as your own personal mantra, or spiritual music that becomes your new theme song.  A friend of mine has her own song that she sings to the tune of Allelujah by Bill & Gloria Gaither, with four verses of God-given new lyrics: "I'm protected," "I am covered," "I am sealed," and "I am healed."  This song of faith dispels the darkness and invites the light.

The fourth step is calling on the strength that is within you through Christ. In Matthew 28:18 (NLT), Jesus says, "I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth." In Luke 10:19 (NLT), Jesus also says, "Look, I have given you authority over all the power of the enemy, and you can walk among snakes and scorpions and crush them. Nothing will injure you." This is where our video comes in. It reminds us of this one great truth: Don't flee from the hounds of hell; Instead, be the bear!  If you find yourself running, then just stop.  Remember who you are, turn around, and chase your attacker instead.  "So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you (James 4:7 NLT)."  Not only do you have victory over the devil, but over those who are manipulated by demonic power.  "But you belong to God, my dear children. You have already won a victory over those people, because the Spirit who lives in you is greater than the spirit who lives in the world (1 John 4:4 NLT)."  Remember, your enemy is not another person, no matter how fearsome they are.  For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly place (Ephesians 6:12 NLT)."  It's your job to believe the truth, turn to God in prayer and worship, trust that God has it under control, and call on the strength and authority that Jesus gives.  Then let God deal with the rest.

The final step is to find a partner in faith who has your back.  Ecclesiastes 4:12 (NLT) says, "A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken."  In Matthew 18:19, Jesus says, "I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you."  When you have a friend who has your back, then when you are weak, they can be strong for you and when they're weak, you can strengthen them.  And of course, when you're both weak, then certainly God is the third strand in the cord that holds you together.  Trust in each other, and trust in God to protect you.

Today I wonder, is there something that's been frightening you?  Is it a problematic person, a financial fear, a horrifying health problem, or something else?  Some fears may be God-given responses to danger that help you prepare for the worst.  But other fears become crippling to your soul and spirit.  Those kinds of fears are not from God, but from the Enemy of your soul.  2 Timothy 1:7 (AKJV) says, "For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind."  I pray that you'll know God's power, that you'll feel God's love, that God's truth will create new patterns of thinking and a sound mind for you today.