Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Other Shortest Verse in the Bible

This Sunday was our special day at church to welcome visitors, guests, and newcomers of all kinds.  But keeping in mind that it may be the first time that many of you have been with us, I wanted to keep the message brief.  Shakespeare said, "Brevity is the soul of wit."  While not all my sermons are brief, on the whole I tend to agree.  I remember visiting one church when I was a kid, where we were the only ones who didn't know in advance that they should bring their lunches along and plan to make a whole day of it!  In general, and especially when there are newcomers present, I believe it's best to keep the message short.  George Burns said, "The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending; and to have the two as close together as possible.”  Franklin D. Roosevelt used even fewer words than that, to say the same thing: "Be sincere, be brief, be seated."
Often the briefest things are the most profound.  Today I want to share with you what's purportedly the shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35.  Jesus’ friend Lazarus was sick, so his sisters Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus that He should come.  For his own reasons he delayed coming to them, so by the time Jesus arrived Lazarus had already been dead for several days.  When he got there, both sisters told him the same thing, "If you had been here, our brother would not have died."  In verses 33-37[i] we read:

33 When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled, 34 and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews were saying, “See how He loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?”

Jesus wept, not because he grieved Lazarus' passing.  In fact, He knew that he was about to perform one of His greatest miracles and bring his friend back from the dead.  Jesus wept because He saw the overwhelming pain and turmoil of faith in the eyes of His friends.  They felt hurt because they didn't understand why God would do miracles for others, yet let their brother die.  They were wounded because their friend Jesus, who always had time for other people, had delayed coming to them when He could have prevented their brother's death.  Jesus saw all this in the tears that streamed from their eyes, and in His compassion for them He wept.

The good news today is that just as Jesus saw the need and pain and disappointment in His friends' faces, He also knows your hurts and sorrows.  Jesus sees you battered and broken, and He weeps with you when you hurt.  Jesus mourns over the struggles you've had in your relationships, the financial pressures you feel, your sin and disease and unforgiveness.  He also cries tears of joy in celebration of your triumphs.  Jesus weeps.  This is the good news: God knows how you feel, and He feels it with you.

But Jesus didn't continue to weep.  Those two words, "Jesus wept" are in the past tense, which means Jesus felt what the mourners felt, but then he moved on to embrace hope and joy.  He prayed a prayer of faith and raised Lazarus from the tomb.  So too Jesus wants to see victory over the tombs in your life.  He wants to see resurrected relationships, flourishing finances, sinners separated from their sin, and feuds forgiven.  He can't do this by weeping.  So He turns mourning into dancing.  Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.

This brings us to the actual shortest verse in the Bible.  While John 11:35, purportedly the shortest verse, consists of 16 letters in the original Greek (ἐδάκρυσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς), 1 Thessalonians 5:16 is two characters shorter (Πάντοτε χαίρετε).  In English it simply says, "Rejoice always."  If brevity is the soul of wit, and “Jesus wept” is profound, then “Rejoice always” is equally deep.  But how do we reconcile these two with each other? They seem to be completely at odds—if Jesus is the model of divine living, and His Word tells us to rejoice always, then how could he have wept?  If Jesus is the model of human experience and he could weep over grief and suffering, how could he rejoice?

We can understand these seemingly opposite things together when we realize that both illustrate the diversity of human experience and the reality of God’s complete identification with us.  Jesus was fully human and fully divine.  He came so that humanity might have access to the divine.  So He can laugh when we laugh and cry when we cry.  He can feel the sting of loss when a loved one struggles, yet He can also speak words of faith that bring life out of death.  This is what rejoicing does—it resurrects the dead.  Joy doesn’t deny that pain is real, but finds hope and strength in the midst of suffering.  Holding hands with hope, joy knows that there’s victory in Jesus despite the pain.

I know it’s hard to rejoice always—especially when, like Mary and Martha and Jesus, you’ve experienced loss.  It’s so unimaginable that Paul had to say it twice in Philippians 4:4 – “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!”  But then in verse five he tells how to do this: “The Lord is near.”  Even in the midst of trouble, joy reminds us that God is with us.  The Lord’s constant presence grants us access to peace of mind and power of spirit—the kind that works miracles.

How do you access that constant presence of God when situations scream hopelessness?  The same way that Jesus did: Dispel despair with prayer.  In verse 41, Jesus says, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. I knew that You always hear Me.”  Knowing that his His Father is so near that He has unlimited access to the throne, Jesus could speak to the dead and bring him back to life.  He tells us the same thing He told Martha: “…If you believe, you will see the glory of God….(John 11:40b)” 

Today I ask you—what’s causing grief in your own life?  What’s dead inside of you, or in the life of a loved one?  Jesus who said, “I am the resurrection and the life (John 11:25)” wants to breathe new life to that which you have lost.  It’s okay to weep—after all, Jesus did.  But then He wants you to move from grief to faith.  He only asks that you believe, so that you can see the glory of God.  Even when things are tough, Jesus invites you to rejoice always in God’s constant presence.  Trust God, praise Him, pray to Him, and wait for your miracle.

[i] All scripture taken from the NASB.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Return and Rest

At the beginning of each year, I’m great at making plans.  I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, but I do take time out to set goals and make plans.  I’m planning how much weight I will lose this year (because I didn’t meet my goal in 2014).  I’m planning on running more this year (because I started running in 2015).  Maybe you’re doing the same thing this month—evaluating what’s working and what’s not working, setting goals and making plans.

            We need to make sure that our goals and plans are not simply based on our own imaginations and aspirations.  Instead, we must seek God’s will and plan according to divine wisdom.  In Isaiah 30:1-2 (ESV), the Lord speaks through the prophet:

“Ah, stubborn children,” declares the Lord,
“who carry out a plan, but not mine,
and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit,
    that they may add sin to sin;
who set out to go down to Egypt,
    without asking for my direction,
to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh
    and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt!

            It’s very easy to make plans that seem good and right, but that are only human schemes full of self.  We justify our own plans to make them seem godly, when in fact we never bother to inquire of God.  Or, if we do, we seldom listen for an answer.  Listening to God is the key to good planning.

            Isaiah describes this kind of people who follows their own path by saying:

For they are a rebellious people,
    lying children,
children unwilling to hear
    the instruction of the Lord;
who say to the seers, “Do not see,”
    and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right;
speak to us smooth things,
    prophesy illusions,
leave the way, turn aside from the path,
    let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel (vv. 9-11 ESV).”

            Isaiah’s words seem all too familiar to our churches that want to do nothing in their communities, that want to hear nice preaching that does not offend.  Our itching ears are eager for oracles that support our plans and our own self-important ideas.  If it sounds good, then we believe it.  If it’s a hard truth or a challenge, we reject it.  To replace our itching ears, the prophet gives a solution to the problem of pretentious plans:  

For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel,
“In returning and rest you shall be saved;
    in quietness and in trust shall be your strength…

Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you,
    and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
    blessed are all those who wait for him (vv. 15, 18 ESV).

            As you strategize your next steps in 2015, it’s good to consider what you want to do.  It’s better to consider what God wants you to do.  Return to Him.  Rest in Him.  Be still before the Lord and trust Him.  Wait on Him and listen to His voice.  Then and only then should you set your goals, make your plans, and act.  May God bless you as you follow His commands this New Year.

Monday, January 5, 2015

By Faith

The Holidays have come and gone.  I rang in the New Year with my church’s youth group at a two-day-long Christian extravaganza.  We enjoyed great music, awesome speakers, fun activities, and prepared our hearts for the new year.  When midnight hit there were fireworks on stage.  Balloons dropped from the ceiling as eight thousand teenagers celebrated.  Many resolutions were made for the new year, and many have probably already been broken.  What about you?  One of the reasons we break these resolutions is that we approach them with will power instead of faith.  Will power fails when challenges get tough, but faith is something entirely different.  Faith isn’t relying on your own will, but trusting in the will of God that works itself out in you.

In Faith Is, Pamela Reeve wrote, “Faith is resting in the fact that God has an objective in leaving me on the scene when I feel useless to Him and a burden to others.”[i]  Hebrews 11.1 (NASB) puts it this way:  “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Faith says, “I don’t know what’s ahead in 2015, but I know that whatever it is, God has me in his arms.”  I heard an old story that illustrates it this way:

One night a house caught fire and a young boy was forced to flee to the roof. The father stood on the ground below with outstretched arms, calling to his son, “Jump! I’ll catch you.” He knew the boy had to jump to save his life. All the boy could see, however, was flame, smoke, and blackness. As can be imagined, he was afraid to leave the roof. His father kept yelling: “Jump! I will catch you.” But the boy protested, “Daddy, I can’t see you.” The father replied, “But I can see you and that’s all that matters.”  (Source Unknown)

            That’s all that matters.  God’s got you.  You can jump.  The eleventh chapter of Hebrews, called the “Roll Call of Faith,” is a list of people in the Bible who couldn’t see what was ahead of them, yet through they jumped into the waiting arms of God. 

            Hebrews talks about Abel, who by faith offered a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain.  As you look to the new year, rather than making resolutions, consider what sacrifices you can make to God.  What can you give Him—besides your money, which is too obvious an answer?  Can you give God your business?  Can you give God your retirement plans?  Can you give God your talents, and use them for Him?

            By faith, you can walk with God as Enoch did.   By faith, you can be like Noah and listen to the warnings that God speaks to your heart, sharing them with those around you.  By faith like Noah’s, you can make preparations based on what God has told you.  By faith like Noah, you can reject the attractions the world has to offer, and build something better.

            By faith, Abraham went somewhere that God called him, even though he didn’t know where he was going.  Is there someplace that God is calling you to go, even though there’s uncertainty?  Faith says “yes” to God’s call, and follows.  Abraham and Sarah, who were well beyond childbearing years, received the promise of God and conceived a son.  What kind of faith will your marriage take this year?  How can you sow seeds of love into one another, letting that love take root and grow?  How can you take something that is barren, and create new life in it?  Not by an act of your own will—but by faith!

            By faith, Abraham offered his son Isaac on an altar.  Though God did not ultimately demand this sacrifice, Abraham was willing to follow through.  Writers have a phrase: “Kill your darlings.”  This means that sometimes, for the sake of the book, you have to be willing to cut out your favorite chapters or characters, if they don’t push the storyline or really add anything to the depth of the text.  In the same way, we’ve got to be willing to give up what might be most precious to us, trusting that God will perfect our story for us—and we may even receive back alive that which we offered up to God.

            By faith, like Isaac, you can invoke future blessings on your family.  By faith, like Joseph, you can speak prophetically to your family, instructing them in the way that they should go. 

            Hebrews mentions Moses’ parents, who preserved his life, and the blood of the lamb that preserved the lives of the Israelites from the Death Angel at Passover.  Like them you can say, “By faith I will believe that there are hidden blessings that cannot be killed. By faith I will refuse to be called a son of Egypt (sin), but will identify as one of God's chosen... even if it means suffering. By faith I will leave sin behind, not being afraid of the devil's anger.  I will endure as seeing Him who is invisible. By faith I will trust in the sacrificed Lamb and keep my household anointed with His blood.”

            Like the Israelites at the Red Sea, you can stand against any barrier by faith, raising your staff against it and trusting that you will see the wonders of God.  Like they did at Jericho, you can march around those obstacles in your life, praying through and shouting praise to God who makes the walls fall before you.  Like Rahab, you can welcome God’s messengers who come to you, and the message that they bring—and by that truth you can be saved through faith. 

            Like the heroes of old, you can say, “By faith I will go into battle for my family.  By faith I will see God overcome. By faith I will not speak negativity but will be a positive voice to those around me. I will endure pain, and, like Jesus, will offer up no defense. I will bear the blame, never turning blame back on anyone else. And I will leave it all up to God, whether or not I received what I hope for in this life—because I will receive the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises in the next.  By faith I will acknowledge that I am a stranger and exile here, but that I’m looking to a better country, my heavenly homeland.”

            The truth is that life is hard.  Hebrews 11 recaps the heroes of the Bible, who all knew life’s struggles.  Your life is hard, too.  And will power just doesn’t cut it.  But faith does.  Again in Faith Is, Pamela Reeve writes, “Faith is engaging in the deepest joy of heaven, knowing His unfathomable love for me as I walk through the thorny desolate now.”[ii] 

            Sometimes it’s hard to see how God is going to make it work.  The thing that lies before us seems impossible.  Faith knows that God will bring it to pass, and trusts God for it.  One common story goes:

Todd, a three year old boy from Rhode Island went down to the seacoast to fly a kite. Never having flown a kite before, Todd had obvious doubts. His father assured him that all was well, and the kite would go up as planned. As Todd unravelled the string, and watched the kite go up, he was heard to say, "I knew it would fly, daddy. You said it would." Simple statement, profound implications.  (Source unknown)

            What are you trusting God for this year?  What is God calling you to do this year?  Are you having a difficult time seeing how it’s all going to work?  God calls you to faith.  “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11.1).”  I pray that in 2015, you’ll forget about resolutions and will power, trust God, and take a step of faith.

[i] Swindoll, Chuck.  Tale of the Tardy Oxcart.  Word Publishing: Nashville.  1998.  Pg. 195.
[ii] From Swindoll, Chuck.  Tale of the Tardy Oxcart.  Word Publishing: Nashville.  1998.  Pg. 197.