Friday, March 28, 2014

I Am the Gate

Several years ago, I helped chaperon an all-night youth lock-in at my church.  Most of the activities were in the fellowship hall, but when it came time for everyone to roll out their sleeping bags, we divided the kids up so that the boys slept in the fellowship hall and the girls slept in the sanctuary.  We wanted to make sure that the kids all stayed where they were supposed to, so two of us chaperons did something interesting.  Gary slept directly inside the fellowship hall’s front door, which opened in—so in order to open the door the kids would have to bump him.  He'd literally have to move out of the way for the boys to get out the front door, and that wasn't happening.  Then I camped out on the back porch, just in front of the rear door, which opened out.  It was the same situation—they'd have to bump me, and I'd have to move out of the way for anybody to get out.  Gary and I literally became the gates, to keep the kids where they were supposed to be.  Plus, there was an added benefit to our sleeping situation.  When you’re watching children all night, security has to be on your mind.  Not only were we keeping them in—we were also keeping unwanted visitors out.  Nobody was sneaking past us! 
In Jesus’ day, sheep pens were corrals where shepherds would keep their sheep at night.  These pens had one way in, and one way out.  Once the sheep were in the pen, the shepherd would lie down across the entrance.  He literally became the gate—nothing was getting in or out without waking the shepherd.  Jesus had this in mind in John 10.1-10 (NIV), when He said:

 “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber.  The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.  The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.  But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”  Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.  All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them.  I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture.   The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

In John 14.6 (NIV), Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  He is the only gate for the sheep.  There is no way to enter the Kingdom of Heaven but through Jesus.  Once a person enters eternal life through Christ, Jesus keeps them in the sheepfold.  The believer can rest assured, because Jesus says, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.   For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.  And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day (John 6.37-39 ESV).”  His sheep, who know His voice, can lie down in peace and know that Jesus will never let them be lost.
Just as assuredly as the Lord keeps His own sheep in the fold, He also keeps others out.  All are welcome, who come through Him.  But there are those who want to sneak in another way—and they are thieves and robbers.  Some people claim that salvation can come in many forms, and from many sources.  But in Acts 4.12 (NIV), Peter testifies of Jesus, saying: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”  To enter the sheep pen, you’ve got to enter by the gate—and that gate is Jesus Himself.
Today I pray that you’ll come into the fold and rest—that you’ll enter through the Gate and find the safety and warmth of the fold.  Once you come in, the Shepherd will keep you—from wandering away from His love, and from the thief who would threaten your soul.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Come to the Water

Why are there so many books out there about prayer?  Likely, because if they were honest with themselves, many people would say that their prayer lives aren't very satisfying.  As a result, they are always looking for the new thing--the latest technique in prayer that will quickly get them closer to God.  There seems to be a hunger and a thirst for God, yet a reluctance to drink from the fountain of living water that Jesus offers.

Isaiah 55.1-2 invites to the table all who are hungry and thirsty for more of God.

“Come, everyone who thirsts,
    come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
    and delight yourselves in rich food.

The Lord makes Himself available to everybody who will come to dine with Him.  In John 6.35, Jesus said, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst."  Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well, "Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life (John 4.14).”

Unfortunately, we spend too much of our time reading books about prayer, and not enough time actually praying.  We spend our money on prayer rugs, prayer shawls, prayer-blessed handkerchiefs, anointing oil, incense sticks, candles, and the like, but we don't invest ourselves in Jesus.  Isaiah 55.3a gives us a simple way to pray, that doesn't require any paraphernalia or books to explain it.

Incline your ear, and come to me;
    hear, that your soul may live;

Yes--praying is about listening to God.  When we pray, we often use far too many words, turning our prayers into a grocery list of things we want.  But God's Word adjures us to incline our ears to God, and listen to Him, so that our souls may live.  The result of our listening is that God will make covenants with us.  Verses 3b-5 say:

and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
    my steadfast, sure love for David.
Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples,
    a leader and commander for the peoples.
Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know,
    and a nation that did not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel,
    for he has glorified you.

How do you suppose it was that God made covenants with people like Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David?  Was it because they talked to Him so much--or was it because they listened?  God promises that our spiritual hunger and thirst will be satisfied, not when we give Him our words as if He needed them, but when we receive His Word--because that's what we really need.  Jesus said, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled (Matthew 5.6)."  It makes sense that filling doesn't come when we give God our thoughts and words, but it comes when we give God our listening ears--when we incline our hearts and our ears toward His Spirit.  

Are you hungry and thirsty for God?  He invites you to His table.  He wants you to eat, drink, and receive.  Will you take the time to listen to Him today?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Abiding: Holy Inactivity

In John 15 (ESV), Jesus makes the analogy of a vine and branches.  As the vine draws its nourishment from the branch, so Christians need to draw our sustenance from Christ.

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you,that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

One way to think of abiding in Christ is the practice of the Logos Prayer.  How better to let Jesus' words abide in you (v.7) , than to meditate on them?  By sitting quietly, repeating God's Word in your heart, you abide in the word, and you allow it to abide in you.

To abide is to rest, to live, to dwell.  This holy inactivity isn't laziness.  On the contrary, it's from our times of resting that we receive the wisdom and energy we need in order to perform the many tasks to which God has appointed us. Abiding in the Word cleanses you from the world's dirt and grime (v.3).  It helps you to share God's cleanness with others, because it's only when the Word abides in you that you have it to give to those around you.

Contemplative Prayer is also abiding.  When you simply sit in God's presence, silently soaking in your nourishment from the Branch, you grow to be a healthy vine.  The vine doesn't struggle to suck its life from the branch--it simply abides, and lets the branch fill it.  In contemplative prayer, we simply abide in Christ, allowing Him to fill us, feed us, complete us.

I hope that you'll practice Contemplative Prayer and meditation on God's Word every day.  By doing so, you abide in Christ, and you allow Him to abide in you.  And the fruit of that kind of holy inactivity is sweet!

Friday, March 7, 2014

One-Sentence Prayers

Some of our best prayers are short, one-word or one-sentence utterances to God that need not fuss over length or eloquence.  Like in the winter weather that we’ve been having, when you’re spinning on black ice, you pray a prayer as short as two words: “Lord, help!”  Today, I want to talk about two important one-sentence prayers that we all need to learn.

"Who are you, Lord?"  (Acts 9.5 ESV)

When Saul encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus, his prayer is only one sentence long.  Sometimes, in moments of crisis, you only have time or energy for one sentence.  Jesus manifests Himself to Saul, not in the resurrection body that He had shown to the other apostles, but as a blinding light.  Once He has dramatically gotten Saul's attention, Jesus asks, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me (Ac 9.4 ESV)?"   
In this one question, Jesus indicates two things.  First, He shows that He knows who Saul is.  This is no random supernatural attack, but a targeted intervention in Saul's life.  Second, it demonstrates that Jesus takes it personally when His followers are persecuted.  "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for [or to] one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for [or to] me (Matt 25.40 NIV)."  This accusation has to shake Saul up!  In an instant, he realizes his predicament, as he cowered before an angry God who is offended on behalf of His people.

Saul's response is so brief that it only takes the span of one breath: "Who are you, Lord?"  Yet, as brief as this prayer is, it’s loaded with meaning.  

First, it recognizes that all of Saul's preconceived religious notions of who God is, are now out the window.  Saul's ritual and religion had taught him many things about God, but they hadn't done a thing to teach him to know God.  Now, facing the True Light, he wants to truly know the One he had only known about.  "Who are you?" is a daring prayer, because it says you're willing to re-learn what you thought you knew.  Are you ready to pray a prayer that bold?

Second, when Saul calls the Light his Lord, he is submitting himself to this Power that he doesn't even know.  In one sentence, Saul asks, "Who are you?" and then follows it by acknowledging the lordship of the Light.  He doesn't wait for the Light to respond before he submits himself.  He says to himself, "Whoever this Light is, this is the One I'm going to follow."  Are you willing to be so bold as to call Jesus your Lord, even before you know Him fully?  

Then, Saul's one-sentence prayer, "Who are you, Lord?" leads to another serious consideration:  "Who am I, Lord?"  We know this because Saul changes his name.  Once named after the first king of Israel, a man of stature and pride who literally towered over all other men, Saul changes his name to Paul, which means "small."  When Jesus reveals Himself to Saul, he takes the man down a few pegs.  The new name indicates a new estimation of himself, and a new humility before God.  "Who are you, Lord?" is a bold prayer because it causes you to reevaluate everything—even your own identity.  I pray you'll be bold enough to pray this prayer today.

"Here I am, Lord."  (Ac 9.10 ESV)

This one-sentence prayer comes immediately after Saul's conversion.  On the heels of Saul's prayer, "Who are you, Lord," Ananias hears God's voice and says, "Here I am, Lord."  Apparently, Ananias is so used to hearing from Jesus that he doesn't have to ask who the voice belongs to.  He simply says, "Here I am."

Ananias' prayer is more than an acknowledgement of his current position.  Of course, Jesus knows where Ananias is.  Just as God's "Adam, where are you?" in the book of Genesis isn't a question about the first man's location, so Ananias realizes that Jesus knows exactly where he is.  Ananias isn’t saying, “I’m over here!”  Instead, it's a statement of availability.

Moses told God, "Here I am...send Aaron."  Isaiah said, "Here I am, send me!"  Like Isaiah, Ananias' brief prayer says, "I'll go wherever you send me."  He also calls Jesus "Lord," acknowledging Him as absolute authority over his life.  In other words, "Whatever you want, no matter how dangerous or preposterous I think it may be, I'll do it, because of who You are."  And Ananias does.  Even though he thinks it not such a great idea to seek out the persecutor of the church, he does it anyway--because Jesus says so.  And both he and Saul are blessed for it.

When we pray Ananias' prayer, we affirm both Jesus' authority and our availability to God.  There's a lot packed into these four little words.  I hope you can pray it with the same strength and sincerity that Ananias had, when he prayed.

When it comes to depth of meaning, don’t sell short prayer short.  Sometimes the shortest prayers can be the most meaningful, especially when they come from the depths of your heart in moments of need.  I hope that you’ll pray these two short prayers, “Who are you, Lord?” and “Here I am, Lord,” and that like the biblical characters, your life will be transformed.