Monday, April 17, 2017

"Joy in the Morning"

In one of his lighter moments, Benjamin Franklin penned his own epitaph. He didn't profess to be a born-again Christian, but it seems he must have been influenced by Paul's teaching of the resurrection of the body. Here's what he wrote: The Body of B. Franklin, Printer Like the Cover of an old Book Its contents torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Guilding, Lies here, Food for Worms, But the Work shall not be wholly lost: For it will, as he believ'd, Appear once more In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and amended by the Author. 

What Benjamin Franklin knew from Paul’s teaching, King David knew from the Spirit of God who spoke to his soul.  Though death may be powerful, it will not win in the end. Death is defeated by life everlasting.  This is the promise of Easter!  This week, as we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, let’s take a look at the words of David, who predicted the victory that we know as the empty tomb.  In Psalm 30, David writes in words that you might imagine came from Jesus Himself, post-resurrection.  In verses 1-3, he says:

I will extol You, O Lord, for You have lifted me up,And have not let my enemies rejoice over me.O Lord my God,I cried to You for help, and You healed me.O Lord, You have brought up my soul from [the netherworldl;You have kept me alive, that I would not go down to the pit. 

In terms of his own life, David is speaking in metaphor, but Jesus is the fulfilment of these prophetic words.  This healing after death, this rescue from the grave—this is the blessing of resurrection.  And God promises this to each of us who place our trust in Jesus.  Colossians 1:18 calls Jesus the “firstborn from the dead,” offering the hope that believers may also share in this resurrection.  1 Corinthians 15 describes our perishable bodies, rising as imperishable from the grave.  1 Thessalonians 4 talks about the dead in Christ rising from their graves at the return of Christ.  

The resurrection is some of the greatest news that can ever be told.  But for David, the good news was not just something at a distant time.  He knew he could live the victory of the resurrection today.  In Psalm 30:4-5, 10-12, David exults:

Sing praise to the Lord, you His godly ones,
And give thanks to His holy name.
For His anger is but for a moment,
His favor is for a lifetime;
Weeping may last for the night,
But a shout of joy comes in the morning…
“Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me;
O Lord, be my helper.”
You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
You have loosed my sackcloth and girded me with gladness,
 That my soul may sing praise to You and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to You forever.

You may be going through a time of weeping—much like the disciples experienced after Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.  You can take heart, knowing that weeping is temporary but joy is on the way. The things that are burdening you will one day be lifted.  Defeat will be defeated and the grave will be gone.  This is the promise of resurrection—this is the power of Christ!  Let’s live in that promise and power, as in the words of the poem by Annie Johnson Flint:

Some of us stay at the cross,
some of us wait at the tomb,
Quickened and raised with Christ
yet lingering still in the gloom.
Some of us 'bide at the Passover feast
with Pentecost all unknown,
The triumphs of grace in the heavenly place
that our Lord has made His own.
If the Christ who died had stopped at the cross,
His work had been incomplete.
If the Christ who was buried had stayed in the tomb,
He had only known defeat,
But the way of the cross never stops at the cross
and the way of the tomb leads on
To victorious grace in the heavenly place
where the risen Lord has gone.

Thursday, April 13, 2017


What is the most forsaken you’ve ever felt?  I know—that’s not very fair of me to begin this article by calling forth such difficult memories.  But some questions must be asked.  So what it is?  Maybe you were on the playground or in high school and all your friends abandoned you, believing whatever lies some jealous kid decided to tell.  Or was it when a parent moved away or a spouse told you they wanted a divorce?  How must it feel for a soldier on a battlefield, when he falls behind and realizes that his buddies aren’t coming back to get him?  How about when your friends at church tell you they’ll back you that important business meeting—and then they don’t show up?  Did you put in a lifetime of work for one company, only to have your devotion repaid by being laid off just before retirement?  Have you cried, “How could you leave me?” over your spouse’s grave?  It’s not very nice of me to bring such painful feeling to the surface, especially at the very beginning—but it’s important to understand that everyone has felt forsaken at some point.  Sometimes that feeling of abandonment is justified and sometimes it’s not—but whether the rejection is real or imagined, it shakes you to the core.

Jesus knew times of rejection and abandonment as well.  When his teachings were too hard, the crowds left him.  When He wouldn’t become what they wanted Him to be, they forsook him.  He was arrested, and his disciples fled.  Crowds that once shouted “Hosanna” now screamed, “Crucify Him!”  On Golgotha, physical torment was amplified by the taunts of former supporters.  From a position of outstretched agony, the only words Jesus could formulate to express his feeling of utter abandonment were the words of David, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me (Psalm 22:1 // Matthew 27:46)?”   Jesus drew comfort from the knowledge that even in this kind of agony, He was not alone.  Somebody had felt that way before.  In your times of agony, you too can know that you are not alone.  Even Jesus felt this way.

Perhaps some of David’s symptoms of despair seem familiar to you.  In Psalm 22:2, he feels like God isn’t listening.  He can get no rest.  Verse 6 shows his self-esteem taking a hit: “But I am a worm and not a man, a reproach of men and despised by the people.”  Verses 14-15 describe how this feeling even results in physical pain: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; My heart is like wax; It is melted within me.  My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaves to my jaws; and You lay me in the dust of death.”  David feels this way because his friends and supporters have abandoned him, and because he is surrounded by enemies.  “All who see me sneer at me,” he says in verse 7.  Speaking of his enemies he says, “Many bulls have surrounded me; Strong bulls of Bashan have encircled me. They open wide their mouth at me, as a ravening and a roaring lion (vv. 12-13).”  Again, he says, “For dogs have surrounded me; A band of evildoers has encompassed me; They pierced my hands and my feet.  I can count all my bones. They look, they stare at me; They divide my garments among them, And for my clothing they cast lots (vv. 16-18).”

These chilling words remind us so much of the crucifixion that it is no wonder David’s psalm comes to Jesus’ mind when He is on the cross.  Perhaps it is even prophetic of the Lord’s  suffering.  One thing it says is that if you’re feeling this way, you’re in good company.  Even David and Jesus Himself could feel forsaken during times of suffering.  At some point, we all feel abandoned by a loved one.  And yes, when we’re honest we must admit that at some point we feel abandoned by God.  These feelings are normal.  They don’t mean you have truly been abandoned.  Just as God will not turn away from those who call on Him, God neither rejected David nor abandoned His Son.  The feeling is real—but false.  2 Timothy 2:13 says that even “If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.”  When Christ is in us, it’s impossible for God to abandon us, because He can’t reject Himself.

So what do you do when you feel this way?  First, Charles Spurgeon recommends that, like David and Jesus, you should “cling to God with both hands.”  They did not just cry out to God once, but said, “My God, my God!”  Hold on as tightly as you can, and don’t let go.  Second, even in your abandonment, give praise to God.  In Psalm 22:3, David says, “Yet You are holy, O You who are enthroned upon the praises of Israel.”  This tiny word “yet” means “even though I’m suffering so much” I’m going to recognize Your holiness.  Praise and worship are weapons that defeat the power of the enemy who seeks to kill us with despair. Then, remember God’s faithfulness in the past.  Verses 4-5 say, “In You our fathers trusted; They trusted and You delivered them. To You they cried out and were delivered; In You they trusted and were not disappointed.”  Finally, imagine a better future and commit yourself to it.  In verse 22, David says, “I will tell of Your name to my brethren; In the midst of the assembly I will praise You.”  This moment doesn’t have to defeat you. God has something better in store.  Even Jesus on the cross could look forward to the resurrection—and that’s what sustained Him.

What’s the most forsaken you’ve ever felt?  Maybe you felt that way—and the moment has passed.  You’ve moved on from it, gotten some perspective, and gotten some healing.  But maybe that moment of greatest forsakenness is right now.  Remember that God will bring you through this, to the other side of glorious resurrection.  Walk in the strength of Deuteronomy 31:6, which says, "Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble at them, for the LORD your God is the one who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you."

Monday, April 3, 2017

"An Article About Nothing"

There is a story involving Yogi Berra, the well-known catcher for the New York Yankees, and Hank Aaron, who at that time was the chief power hitter for the Milwaukee Braves. The teams were playing in the World Series, and as usual Yogi was keeping up his ceaseless chatter, intended to pep up his teammates on the one hand, and distract the Milwaukee batters on the other. As Aaron came to the plate, Yogi tried to distract him by saying, "Henry, you're holding the bat wrong. You're supposed to hold it so you can read the trademark." Aaron didn't say anything, but when the next pitch came he hit it into the left-field bleachers. After rounding the bases and tagging up at home plate, Aaron looked at Yogi Berra and said, "I didn't come up here to read."[i]

In this story, Hank Aaron focused on the things that mattered in the game, rather than allowing himself to be distracted. Distractions can pull us away from the most important things, and get our eyes on less important things. When we allow ourselves to get distracted, nothing happens. Even if God is trying to do something, when we set our eyes on the wrong things, the result can be nothing at all happening in the Kingdom of God. In John 7:25-52 we read a story in which nothing happens. This may seem strange to read a story where nothing takes place—generally in stories things, you know, happen. The reason nothing happens in this story is because people allow themselves to be distracted from what really matters.

The story begins in verses 25-31 with Jesus teaching the crowds. I suppose you could say that’s something, but the problem is that they get so distracted they get nothing out of it. Jesus is trying to teach, but all they can do is debate with each other. Rather than listening to what He’s saying, they sidetrack one another. So nothing good comes out of it, but nothing bad happens either. Something bad happening—well, at least that would be something. But nothing happens instead. Jesus’ enemies try to arrest him, but they can’t lay their hands on him because His time has not yet come. So nothing good happens in the story, but nothing bad happens, either.

Then, in verses 32-36, the religious leaders hear that Jesus is teaching so again they send officers to arrest Jesus. Astonishingly, nothing more is mentioned of the arrest after Jesus begins talking with them about his plans to go where they can’t find him. They don’t understand what he’s talking about, and, as if by some Jedi mind trick, they leave without fulfilling the task they were sent to accomplish. They go back to the leaders and repeat Jesus’ words, and the religious leaders don’t understand it either. Instead, they simply debate with themselves about what Jesus means. So again, nothing happens.

The next day (verses 37-43), Jesus is handing out some major spiritual teaching, but nobody seems to understand what He’s talking about when He says He will give them living water to drink. Instead, they again begin debating with one another about whether Jesus comes from the right or wrong side of the tracks. So nothing happens. Then, temple guards again try to arrest Jesus but return emptyhanded (verses 44-49). So this is a story about nothing happening. And for this reason, this is an article about nothing.

The fact is, NOTHING can be a very dangerous thing. NOTHING is stagnant and meaningless. NOTHING is what the earth was before it was anything—formless and void. My friends, many churches are terrible danger of NOTHING happening. Just like in the gospel story, Jesus’ word continues to be proclaimed but instead of hearing and applying the truth to their lives, the people get sidetracked by debating things that just don’t matter. Whether the issues are about church politics, theological secondary issues, or getting involved in areas that the church has no business in at all, people get distracted and miss the main point. Jesus is calling out the whole time you’re debating, and Christians just aren’t listening. Instead of making a difference in the Kingdom of God, churches are declining because they can’t see things eye to eye, because of internal bickering or just apathy. NOTHING is happening in churches today, and because of the nothing, souls that might be saved are being swept away.

In the children’s movie, The Neverending Story, the mystical world of Fantasia is threatened by The Nothing. Rockbiter describes it, saying, “Near my home there used to be a beautiful lake, but then it was gone.” Tiny asks him, “Did the lake dry up?” Rockbiter replies, “No, it just wasn't there anymore. Nothing was there anymore. Not even a dried up lake.” Tiny asks, “A hole ?” Rockbiter says, “No, a hole would be something. Nah, it was nothing. And it got bigger and bigger. First there was no lake anymore and then finally, no rocks.” The rest of the movie is a quest to learn how to stop The Nothing. At the climax of the film, our hero Atreyu asks the werewolf G’mork, “But why is Fantasia dying, then?” G’mork answers, “Because people have begun to lose their hopes and forget their dreams. So The Nothing grows stronger!” Atreyu asks, “What Is The Nothing?” The villain replies, “It’s the emptiness that’s left. It is like a despair, destroying this world … People who have no hopes are easy to control, and whoever has the control has the power.”

Today, the church is threatened by The Nothing. In the same way that Jesus’ audience got distracted so much that NOTHING happened, we have become experts at turning our attention to things that just don’t matter. We’ve forgotten how to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, how to love God with all our hearts, how to care for the suffering and needy and oppressed. Instead we’ve become preoccupied with arguing over side-issues like worship styles, mingling politics with faith, and deciding who’s in and who’s out. All the while, The Nothing has been sweeping through, and the Church is dying like Fantasia. Christians have begun to lose their hopes and forget their dreams. They live to sustain the past rather than find the future. The emptiness is all that’s left. It’s like a despair that the Church is in, like a black hole where souls are lost. The Church is going to need the same thing that Fantasia needed if it’s going to be saved—a little imagination and hope. In Matthew 13:16, Jesus says, “…Blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear.” Not everyone’s eyes are open to see what God would reveal, and not all ears are open to hear God’s voice. Distraction allows The Nothing to sweep through and take the Church. But when we watch and listen with creative imagination, God will do amazing things among us.

[i] Nehemiah, Learning to Lead, J.M. Boice, Revell, 1990, p. 38.  February 24, 2017.

"Beneath the Surface"

French author Jules Verne (1828-1905) is often called one of the creators of science fiction. He is known for many works, but his most famous are Around the World in 80 Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. These fantastic journeys have different characters and plot lines, but they are all about the same thing: seeing the world from a different point of view. One novel has the hero traveling the globe in a balloon, getting a bird’s eye view. Another gives the picture of a subterranean world where dinosaurs still live, complete with an immense fresh water sea and lit by electrically charged gas at the ceiling of the giant cavern. The last lets you travel in a submarine beneath the surface of the waves, to see giant squids and other amazing creatures. Jules Verne seems to have a fascination with seeing the world from a different perspective. Perhaps that’s what we all need—the ability to see beneath the surface to understand life in a different way.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ disciples have a hard time seeing his ministry from a perspective that’s different from the world’s expectations. John 7:2-5[i] says:
…Soon it was time for the Jewish Festival of Shelters, and Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, where your followers can see your miracles! You can’t become famous if you hide like this! If you can do such wonderful things, show yourself to the world!” For even his brothers didn’t believe in him.

Like so many who have bought into the commercialism and consumerism of ministry, Jesus’ disciples would have him get famous to make a million bucks with his preaching. Maybe today they’d advise him to have his teeth whitened, and buy him Italian tailored suits to complete the image. I mean, who doesn’t want to be seen with a successful celebrity—that’s a heck of a lot better than a homeless wandering preacher! But Jesus isn’t interested in becoming a superstar. He’s far more concerned with telling the truth to a world that’s lost in sin and killing each other with hatred. I wonder—are you able to see beneath the commercialized religion of celebrity preachers? Are you able to go deeper than that, to a gospel that shakes the world to its core? To some, it isn’t the gospel unless it’s glitz and glamor. To Jesus, the gospel is about Truth.

In verses 10-13, the people debate about Jesus’ true identity—but they can’t see beneath the surface to who He really is:
But after his brothers left for the festival, Jesus also went, though secretly, staying out of public view. The Jewish leaders tried to find him at the festival and kept asking if anyone had seen him. There was a lot of grumbling about him among the crowds. Some argued, “He’s a good man,” but others said, “He’s nothing but a fraud who deceives the people.” But no one had the courage to speak favorably about him in public, for they were afraid of getting in trouble with the Jewish leaders.

Some people think of Jesus as good moral teacher, but assert that He is not God. C.S. Lewis said that Jesus is either “a lunatic, a liar, or Lord.” In Mere Christianity, Lewis writes:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.[ii]

In verses 14-24, Jesus decides to go to the festival after all, and begins to teach. He is aware that many are offended because He healed a man on the Sabbath. To some, it isn’t the gospel unless it follows all the rules and regulations of their religious understanding. But defends Himself saying:
“I did one miracle on the Sabbath, and you were amazed. But you work on the Sabbath, too, when you obey Moses’ law of circumcision. (Actually, this tradition of circumcision began with the patriarchs, long before the law of Moses.) For if the correct time for circumcising your son falls on the Sabbath, you go ahead and do it so as not to break the law of Moses. So why should you be angry with me for healing a man on the Sabbath? Look beneath the surface so you can judge correctly.”

Jesus encourages people to “look beneath the surface,” to not get so fixed on legalism that they are unable to see the bigger picture. If you are able to look beneath the surface, you will understand correctly, but as long as you keep a surface-level understanding of religion, you’ll miss out on what God is really doing through Jesus. Jules Verne would suggest you get a different perspective—a bird’s eye view from a balloon, or maybe a subterranean journey. From a spiritual perspective, this advice means to dig deep into the things of God. Allow the Spirit to help you see things as God sees, rather than through the murky lens of human tradition. As you look beneath the surface, I pray as the apostle Paul did:
…that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is (Ephesians 3:16-18).

[i] Scripture quotations taken from the NLT.
[ii] Lewis, C.S., Mere Christianity, London: Collins, 1952, pp. 54–56. (In all editions, this is Bk. II, Ch. 3, "The Shocking Alternative.")

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.