Wednesday, January 18, 2017

"Limping or Leaping"

The New Year is a time when many people reevaluate their lives to determine what’s working and what’s not working. Now that we’re a week into 2017, now that you’ve made and broken your resolutions, it’s time to really and realistically assess the changes that need to be made. Maybe you’re determined (like me) to lose a bit of weight, because you’ve found that the holiday pounds are just too much. Or perhaps you’ve decided that your spirituality needs the kind of boost that a daily quiet time can provide. It could be that your church attendance needs to improve or that you’ve realized you need to do something different with your employment to make ends meet. Maybe you determined that instead of waiting for your kids to call you, you’re going to pick up the phone and connect with them. The New Year is a time for figuring out where you’re limping and where you’re leaping in life.

In 1 Corinthians 12, the apostle Paul does some self-evaluation for the church. He sees that, in many ways, the church has been limping. In verses 14-21, he paints a picture of a human body that lacks unity among its members. Jewish and Gentile believers refused to help each other. Women and men lacked unity and cooperation. Employers and employees who attended the same church jockeyed for position. About this disunity, Paul writes:
14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many.15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”

With the disunity and disorganization of the church, Christ’s body which should be leaping in the resurrection seems to be limping. Instead of a figure of love and perfection, the body of Christ seems more of a Frankenstein’s monster or Picasso painting with arms in place of legs and eyes popping out where ears should be. It’s been a tough year for many in the church. Many churches, like mine, have experienced too many tragedies, struggles, and too much decline. But instead of limping in ministry, Jesus wants His body to leap into the New Year with hope and vision, agility and strength. Just as people hit the gym and fix their broken diets in January, so churches need to do some reassessment, streamline their ministries, and reset some dislocated body parts. In verses 27-31, Paul tells how to do this:
27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts.
And I will show you a still more excellent way.

The way of leaping instead of limping begins with understanding that every believer is called to ministry of some kind. Not all possess the same gifts, but when we work together and exercise the gifts we have, the whole body can function as God intends. Just as a human body has four main limbs, so the church has four limbs that support and do the work of ministry. Each of these four limbs is represented by ministries Paul mentions above:
1. Outreach – This important arm of the church is overseen by people with apostolic gifts. Paul also gives the example of people who can speak in other languages, reaching people groups outside the norm for the established church. Every healthy church needs committees and ministries that are dedicated to outreach. Examples are benevolence committees, groups that take mission trips, teams that work with church prospects, etc.
2. Inreach – Run by people with the gift of healing and helps, this essential arm of the church takes care of the needs of members. Examples are fellowship committees, homebound and hospital visitation of members, and nursery workers.
3. Spiritual Formation – Led by teachers and those with the gift of prophecy, this foundational leg of the church builds people’s spirituality through music, teaching, discipling, preaching, and leading in worship.
4. Structure – This strong leg of the church is headed by people with gifts of leadership and administration. Helping the church to run smoothly seems like a miracle in itself! Examples of this may be a church secretary, building and grounds committee, transportation committee, or those who handle the church finances.

Just as an individual often assesses where they are limping and where they’re limping in the New Year, adjusting so their lives and bodies function optimally, so churches need to go through times of introspection, restructuring, and streamlining. Maybe your church has been doing this type of thing lately. Perhaps God is calling you to step into a place of leadership within your church. You might have an interest in outreach, inreach, spiritual formation, or structure. You might have the gifts necessary for one or more of these ministries. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:31 that we should “earnestly desire the higher gifts.” He then follows up by saying, “I will show you a still more excellent way.” These higher gifts are represented by this more excellent way, the way of love (1 Corinthians 13). It is love that binds the body together like ligaments, covers it beautifies it like skin, and helps the church to leap into her purposes in Christ. I pray that in this New Year, you’ll follow the way of love, that invest yourself in your own health, and that you’ll find your ministry and strengthen the body of Christ.

Monday, January 2, 2017

"It's a Wonderful Life!"

Perhaps one of my favorite Christmas movies is the 1946 classic by Frank Capra, It’s a Wonderful Life. The IMDB website describes the story of George Bailey, who:
has spent his entire life giving of himself to the people of Bedford Falls. He has always longed to travel but never had the opportunity in order to prevent rich skinflint Mr. Potter from taking over the entire town. All that prevents him from doing so is George's modest building and loan company, which was founded by his generous father. But on Christmas Eve, George's Uncle Billy loses the business's $8,000 while intending to deposit it in the bank. Potter finds the misplaced money and hides it from Billy. When the bank examiner discovers the shortage later that night, George realizes that he will be held responsible and sent to jail and the company will collapse, finally allowing Potter to take over the town. Thinking of his wife, their young children, and others he loves will be better off with him dead, he contemplates suicide. But the prayers of his loved ones result in a gentle angel named Clarence coming to earth to help George, with the promise of earning his wings. He shows George what things would have been like if he had never been born. In a nightmarish vision in which the Potter-controlled town is sunk in sex and sin, those George loves are either dead, ruined, or miserable. He realizes that he has touched many people in a positive way and that his life has truly been a wonderful one.[i]

Maybe you’ve had moments like George Bailey, who wished he’d never been born. Maybe, like George, you feel so overwhelmed by the cumulative circumstances of life that all you can see is pain. The irony of Frank Capra’s movie is that this pivotal point of George’s life takes place at Christmas. While everybody else is celebrating, George’s life is falling apart. While everyone else seems so full of Christmas cheer, George is thinking of jumping off a bridge. Perhaps this holiday season you’re having a George Bailey moment, and you just wish that things had turned out differently. But I wonder—what about some of the most significant moments of history—what if they had turned out differently? Where might we be today?

Take, for example, the D-Day invasion of Normandy. So much devastation—so much pain! Nobody would say that they are glad that such a day happened, yet look at the result of that day. The tide was turned on Normandy beach, and that day marked the beginning of the end of the war in Europe, resulting in the saving of far more lives than were lost. But, you know, the Allied forces never would have won at Normandy if the US. hadn’t been part of that invasion. And the US. wouldn’t have been in Normandy if it hadn’t been for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which resulted in the US declaring war on Japan and then the Axis powers declaring war on the US. So sometimes the most difficult things that we go through as individuals, or even as nations, end up resulting in something good. That doesn’t mean that those things are good, in and of themselves. Obviously, suffering is painful by definition. And personally, I don’t believe that God causes suffering in our lives just to bring about good things. But often we can see, like George Bailey, that despite the suffering, it really is a wonderful life. And maybe if the painful things hadn’t happened, some of the good things couldn’t happen, either.

In the Christmas story that we find in Matthew 1:18-24, we might ask, what if Mary had not become pregnant by the Holy Spirit before she was married? What if Joseph had refused to marry her? In Luke 2:1-7, we might wonder what might have happened on a larger scale—if, for example, Augustus had not been Caesar or if Quirinius had not been governor of Syria. What if there had been no edict from Caesar that a census should be taken of the whole Roman world? Then Joseph wouldn’t have traveled to his ancestral home of Bethlehem, and the birth of Jesus wouldn’t have been in that place. These events caused hardship for the Holy Family, but also for the entire population of the Roman empire. Yet hardship brought so many blessings. And without these difficulties, so many godsends might not have come about. The events leading up to Jesus’ birth fulfilled prophecy, substantiating the Christian claim that Jesus is the Christ. The sufferings that we go through in life are, by definition, painful. Yet when we find ourselves wishing that things were different it’s because we can’t see the either the big picture of how many of our past tragedies shape our current blessings, or how our current suffering may produce something good later on.

Romans 8:28 ESV says that “…we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” George Bailey didn’t understand that. He didn’t understand that the painful things of life produce good in the lives of others. He lost hearing in one ear in icy water, saving his brother Harry. But if George had never been born, Harry would have died—along with every man on the transport ship that Harry would later save in the war. If he hadn’t been there to save Harry, Harry wouldn’t have been there to save them. Joseph probably had plenty of George Bailey moments along the way as he lived out the Christmas story. Perhaps it would have been good if he’d had a guardian angel like Clarence who could say, “Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?” Perhaps you need to hear the same thing—that your life touches the lives of everyone around you, and that without you, there’d be an awful hole. This is why Jesus came—to save you and give your life meaning—to let you know that it really is a wonderful life (John 10:10). Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 18, 2016

"Elf Esteem"

One of my favorite Christmas movies is Elf[i], starring Will Farrell. Buddy the Elf isn’t really an elf. He’s a human who accidentally stowed away in Santa’s sack as a baby, and was raised at the North Pole with elf children. Because of his human size, he doesn’t fit in with the other elves. When he learns that he is human, he journeys to find his father, Walter Hobbs, who is a children’s book publisher in New York City. Hobbs wants nothing to do with his son Buddy, whose only desire is a relationship with his dad. Much of the movie is spent in Buddy’s efforts to please his father, and trying to get the grumpy man to show a little Christmas spirit. While Buddy has lots of Christmas cheer that he carries with him from the North Pole—there’s one thing that he lacks: self esteem (or, I should say, “elf esteem”). He needs to know that he is loved, and that he is wanted by his father. This elf-fulfillment is the subject of Buddy’s search.

God knows that we can only have self-fulfillment and self-esteem when we are in relationship with our Heavenly Father. Some spend their whole lives, searching like Buddy the Elf, to find the One who made us. In Deuteronomy 4, Moses tells the people about just such a search. He encourages them to follow all the commands of God, and specifically warns them against idolatry. If they do follow other gods, Moses warns, they will be scattered among the nations. Verses 26-28[ii] say:
26 “Today I call on heaven and earth as witnesses against you. If you break my covenant, you will quickly disappear from the land you are crossing the Jordan to occupy. You will live there only a short time; then you will be utterly destroyed. 27 For the Lord will scatter you among the nations, where only a few of you will survive.28 There, in a foreign land, you will worship idols made from wood and stone—gods that neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell.

God knows that we were made for a relationship with Him, and not to chase after anything else. When we are scattered, nothing seems to fit in our lives. Buddy realizes that something isn’t right when he can’t fit into the elf-sized bed of his childhood, or when he had to squeeze into an elf-sized school desk. In the same way, when you’re scattered, nothing seems to fit right. Have you ever been through a time when you felt like your spirit was scattered, your soul destroyed, and nothing seemed to fit? Maybe it’s time you sought the Father.

After a time away, God knows that His children will want to come back. When we do, God is ready to restore that broken relationship. In verses 29-31, Moses says:

29 But from there you will search again for the Lord your God. And if you search for him with all your heart and soul, you will find him.30 “In the distant future, when you are suffering all these things, you will finally return to the Lord your God and listen to what he tells you. 31 For the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon you or destroy you or forget the solemn covenant he made with your ancestors.

Just as Buddy finds his dad, so too will every one of God’s children find Him when they diligently search. But this is where the analogy ends. In contrast to God, Walter Hobbs is a dishonest curmudgeon who would rather pay him to disappear than deal with him and restore the relationship. Still, at the end of the movie, all things are made right. If a bad dad can learn to embrace his son, and a weird son can find his father, how much more can God receive back His children who return to Him! In Matthew 7:11, Jesus says, “…If you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.” When God sees that you’re living at the North Pole, or as far from Him as you can possibly get—when God sees that you are scattered—God wants one thing: to reach out and draw you back to His arms of love.

How did Buddy gain a relationship with his dad? Not by following him around the office, watching him do things Buddy could never understand. Neither can we get close to God by pondering theology and going through the practice of religious ritual. When Buddy can’t grasp the father, he reaches out to Walter’s son, Buddy’s own half-brother. Eventually, when Buddy runs away, it is young Michael who bursts into his dad’s office to intercede for Buddy and ask for Dad’s help. In the same way, it is Jesus who mediates between God and runaway humanity. Sometimes we, like the people of Israel, can be cotton-headed ninny mugginses. We can stow away in Satan’s sack and allow ourselves to be carried off to who-knows-where. But it is the Holy Spirit who guides our journey back to the Father. And it is Jesus who puts our broken lives back together.

[i] Elf.  Bob Farveau, Director.  New Line Cinema.  2003.
[ii] All scriptures taken from the NLT.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

"The Island of Misfit Toys"

The 1964 classic movie Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,[i] is all about misfits. Rudolph has a very shiny nose, and gets tormented by all of the other reindeer for being different. His friend Hermey the elf prefers dentistry over toymaking, and suffers harassment by the other elves for not fitting in. Together they flee the North Pole’s persecution, in search of a place more tolerant of their differences. Along the way, they stumble on the Island of Misfit Toys, where they meet a nesting-doll clown with a wind-up mouse at the center, a choo-choo with square wheels, a squirt gun that shoots jelly, a spotted elephant, and a cowboy who rides an ostrich. These toys dream of finding homes where they can be loved and accepted. According to the mis-identified Charlie-in-the-box, “Every night, King Moonracer searches the entire earth. When he finds a misfit toy, one that no little girl or boy loves, he brings it here to live on this island til someone wants it.” In the movie (spoiler alert) every single misfit finds his or her place. And, as for the rest of the story, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer went down in history.

The reason we love that song and that movie is that most of us at some point have felt like a misfit. Maybe your nose didn’t glow, but your ears were too big or your hair too red. Maybe you had a learning disability or a hard-to-pronounce last name. It could be that, like me, you had a Christian childhood and non-Christian kids picked on you. Maybe you were unathletic or you wore glasses or braces on your teeth. Or maybe your parents didn’t make enough money and you didn’t wear the right clothes. The truth is that most kids feel like misfits sometimes. That’s why we love the story of Rudolph. We like to believe that one day every misfit will find a safe place.

If you’ve ever felt like a misfit, then you’re in good company. 1 Peter 2:7[ii] calls Jesus, “The stone that the builders rejected.” Isaiah 53:2b-3 says, “There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him. He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care.” Jesus Himself was a misfit. Yet, 1 Peter 2:7b says, “The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone.” God is in the business of making something out of nothing—of taking misfits and lifting them up. God doesn’t exclude them—God understands how they feel. He offers a way for them.

To those whose hearts cry out for salvation, Jesus offers a promise better than an Island of Misfit Toys. In John 14:1-3, Jesus says, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am.” Like Moonracer, every day Jesus searches the entire earth and gives a home to all who will trust in Him. Then, God gives you a glorious identity. Instead of being a misfit, God says, “…You are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light. Once you had no identity as a people; now you are God’s people. Once you received no mercy; now you have received God’s mercy (1 Peter 2:9b-10).” Through the gift of Christ’s love, God has a glorious plan for you. You may once have felt like a misfit, but in Christ, you have a place with God.

The problem is that many who have found their place in Christ, or their place in society, have forgotten what it felt like to be a misfit. Perhaps they never felt like a misfit at all, because you were born into a place of privilege. Instead of being harassed like Rudolph, too many white, middle-class, Christian, Americans find themselves more closely resembling “all of the other reindeer.” You know, the ones who laughed and called him names because of his red nose. Or assaulted him for his skin color. Or didn’t let him play any reindeer games because didn’t speak English. Or despised and discriminated against him for his gender identity. Or told him to go back to his nation of origin. Or feared him because of his different religion. If that’s you—then Jesus has one message for you: “Don’t be all of the other reindeer! Be something better!”

We live in a nation that is too divided already, and we don’t need privileged Christians making it worse by behaving badly. The church is in enough decline as it is. In Matthew 25:40b, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” In that scripture, Jesus is very clear that God’s harsh judgment falls not on those who are different from you, but on you who treat others as though they were different. Jesus says that God is in them, too. Therefore, there are no misfit toys. There are only God’s children. Again, 1 Peter 2:9 says, “You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God.” Indeed, you MUST show them the goodness of God. If you were a misfit toy and Jesus gave you a home, then praise the Lord and be thankful! But don’t even think about denying others their place in the blessing. If you do, one might wonder whether you’re a toy worth playing with at all.

[i] Rankin-Bass Productions
[ii] All scriptures taken from the NLT.

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.