Monday, July 17, 2017

"Kingdom of Heaven"

                Leonidas, King of Sparta, was preparing to make a stand with his Greek troops against the Persian army in 480 B.C. when a Persian envoy arrived. The man urged on Leonidas the futility of trying to resist the advance of the huge Persian army. "Our archers are so numerous," said the envoy, "that the flight of their arrows darkens the sun."
"So much the better," replied Leonidas, "for we shall fight them in the shade.”.[i]

            It was this kind of hero that the people of Israel were looking for as they prayed God would send them a Messiah.  Someone with so much courage that he would stand against Roman tyranny and cast the oppressors out of the Holy Land.  When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, all of the people shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”  The people hailed a king, because they had seen much and come to the wrong conclusions.  You might mistake Jesus for a kingly candidate, too, if you had seen what they saw.  Because, like the Israelites of Jesus’ day, we often don’t see Jesus’ kingdom for what it truly is.

            For example, What if you took Jesus’ miracles, and instead of looking at them on a personal level, you applied them on a national level?  What if Jesus were running for President of Israel—I mean, if they elected leaders instead of declaring a king?  What would His platform look like?  That depends on your perspective, doesn’t it?  According to some in Israel, they expected that Jesus would:

  • ·         Provide bumper crops like He supplied a great catch of fish (Jn 21)
  • ·         Tax the fish instead of the people (Mt 17)
  • ·         Throw lavish parties with ever-flowing wine (Jn 2)
  • ·         Provide national healthcare (Mt 15:30)
  • ·         Set right all environmental problems (Mk 4:35-41)
  • ·         Feed an army just like He had fed the multitude (Mt 14, 15)
  • ·         Raise the dead (ensuring an unbeatable military) (Jn 11)
  • ·         Command legions of angels (Mt 26:53) for military and secret service
  • ·         Save them from the Romans (Jn 12:12-19)

But that’s not the kind of kingdom Jesus came to inaugurate.  Though He often spoke in terms of God as King, and God’s reign as the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus meant something different by it than what His hearers understood.  They were looking for an earthly monarchy, but Jesus meant nothing of the sort.  In fact, Jesus’ policies would never work on a national level—and that’s one of the reasons the people ultimately turned against Him.  I mean, if Jesus’ Way were turned into law, there would be public outcry.  His agenda would include:

  • ·         Praying for your enemies, and doing good to them (Mt 5:44)
  • ·         Helping your enemies out when they’re in trouble (Lk 10:25-37)
  • ·         Lending, expecting nothing back (Lk 6:35)
  • ·         Practicing unlimited forgiveness (Mt 18:21-35)
  • ·         Putting other people first, and yourself last (Mark 9:35)
  • ·         Refusing to take up the sword (Mt 26:52)
  • ·         Welcoming strangers, feeding and clothing the poor, healing the sick (Mt 25:31-46)
  • ·         Refraining from judging others (Matthew 7:1-6)

Nobody would win a national election with a platform like that!  Winners who are good at winning win by telling people that their group is the best, by teaching them how they can defeat their enemies, make a profit, win military victories—and they do so by reinforcing to people that they are in the right and everybody else is in the wrong.  But that’s not who Jesus was.  He didn’t come to rule the nation, but to be a role model for all who would follow Him.  He came not to conquer, but to die in order to demonstrate God’s great love.

The problem is that somewhere along the way—when Christianity went from being a minority persecuted by the Roman Empire, to the majority backed by a converted Roman Empire—religion and the throne married one another.  People were baptized not because they believed, but because it was fashionable and profitable and advantageous.  From that day, religion used the power of the state to enforce itself, and the state used the authority of religion to back its claims.  A new word was born: Christendom was the geo-political designation of all nations that claimed Christianity as the state religion.  People began to confuse the Kingdom of Heaven for every realm on the globe that claimed to be a Christian nation.  They forgot that Jesus didn’t come to establish kingdoms, but to reign in the human heart.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, He didn’t gallop in on a white stallion, waving a banner and calling men to arms.  Instead, He came humbly, riding on a donkey.  When he stood beaten before Pilate, Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36 NLT).”  Since Jesus said it from His own mouth, Pilate could see no reason to execute Him.  Jesus clearly was not an earthly King.  He did not come to challenge Rome or to change any human government.  Instead, He came to change people’s hearts.  Yet, Jesus’ opponents wanted to maintain their little kingdoms and power structures, so He was executed nonetheless.

Much like Jesus’ own opponents, Christians today get far too caught up in worldly kingdoms, and lose track of the true Realm of Heaven.  Some of our worldly kingdoms are political—like our egocentric belief that government should reflect Christian values rather than what’s good for people of all backgrounds.  Just like the Pharisees and Sanhedrin who became too embroiled in the politics of Israel and Rome, Christians get too tangled up in the matters of this world, forgetting that “our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20 NIV).”  Other kingdoms are the little territories in our own lives that we seek to control, at work, at church, in our families, and in our other occupations.  We become possessive, manipulative, and deceitful, engaging in the kinds of intrigues one might normally expect from government officers and spies.  We fancy ourselves as heroes like Leonidas, rather than remembering that Jesus calls us not to be lions, but lambs.  Instead of fighting for our little kingdoms, or even for some idea of governmental Christendom, the Spirit of God calls us to model our lives after the One who saves through sacrifice.  Just like Jesus’ disciples didn’t understand, neither will the people around you.  But you’ll be living the life of a prince or princess in the Kingdom of Heaven.  You’ll be living a life of peace.

[i] Today in the Word, November 4, 1993.  June 15, 2017.

Friday, July 14, 2017

"Give and Take"

                If you’re like me, then periodically you take a look at your money, to figure out where your spending, saving, or investing is on target, where you might be underspending, and where you might be overspending.  According to a Mental Floss article by Lucas Reilly,[i] “Last year, Americans spent $10.7 trillion shopping. With that much dough, you could buy over 2000 aircraft carriers, 300 private islands, and still have money left over for a latte. Here’s a taste of the things we bought—and how much we spent on them.”

  • ·         Beer: $96 billion
  • ·         Over-the-Counter Teeth Whiteners: $1.4 billion
  • ·         Pet Halloween Costumes: $310 million 
  • ·         Romance Novels: $10 billion
  • ·         Chocolate: $16 billion
  • ·         Perfume: $4.2 billion
  • ·         Gambling: $34.6 billion
  • ·         Coffee: $11 billion 
  • ·         Tattoos: $2.3 billion
  • ·         Tattoo Removal: $66 million
  • ·         Golf Balls: $500 million
  • ·         Girl Scout Cookies: $800 million
  • ·         Taxidermy: $800 million
  • ·         Video Games: $17 billion dollars
  • ·         Soft Drinks: $65 billion
  • ·         Bottled Water: $11 billion
  • ·         Fast Food: $117 billion
  • ·         Professional Sports: $25.4 billion
  • ·         Ringtones: $5 billion worldwide

Certainly, there are areas of extravagance in your own life that you look at and consider justifiable.  Recently, I spent a considerable sum on travel, and it was totally worth it!  Then, other times, you evaluate your spending and determine where to cut back on your opulence.  How we determine our priorities involves a little give-and-take within our lives and budgets.  John 12:1-8 (NLT) gives an example of two opposite approaches and attitudes to our personal finances, and the way we give to God.
 Six days before the Passover celebration began, Jesus arrived in Bethany, the home of Lazarus—the man he had raised from the dead. A dinner was prepared in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, and Lazarus was among those who ate with him. Then Mary took a twelve-ounce jar of expensive perfume made from essence of nard, and she anointed Jesus’ feet with it, wiping his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance.
But Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would soon betray him, said, “That perfume was worth a year’s wages. It should have been sold and the money given to the poor.” Not that he cared for the poor—he was a thief, and since he was in charge of the disciples’ money, he often stole some for himself.Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

Mary’s attitude toward money came from a perspective of gratitude.  We know that the Master frequently visited their home in Bethany.  In Luke 10, Mary sat at Jesus’ feet to receive His teaching, and Jesus defended her right to do so.  In John 11, Jesus raised Mary’s brother Lazarus from the dead.  So her extravagant giving reflected her gratitude for what God had done for her.  Seeing that God had already provided her needs, she had faith that God would do so again.  This faith prompted her to spend and give from an attitude of abundance.

Judas, on the other hand, came from a perspective of scarcity and greed.  These two go hand in hand.  Because a person believes in a limited amount of good, greed says they have to hoard it all for themselves and not let others have it.  Judas’ objection had nothing to do with real charity, but was truly motivated out of greed because he stole from the common purse.  Rather than wanting the poor to be blessed, or even for Jesus to be honored with Mary’s lavish gift, Judas wanted to line his own pockets.

When faced with a choice as to how to spend, save, invest, and give, we need to check our attitudes and see whether we are really grateful for God’s provision and therefore generous, or whether we have a scarcity perspective and are therefore greedy.  Our attitude will either make us like extravagant Mary or thieving Judas.  Yes, it’s possible for us to cheat God and therefore cheat ourselves, if we have the wrong attitudes.  In Malachi 3:8-10 (NLT), God says:

 “Should people cheat God? Yet you have cheated me!
“But you ask, ‘What do you mean? When did we ever cheat you?’
“You have cheated me of the tithes and offerings due to me.You are under a curse, for your whole nation has been cheating me. Bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there will be enough food in my Temple. If you do,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, “I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in! Try it! Put me to the test!
These verses have been misused by Prosperity Gospel preachers who say you can get rich by giving to the church.  While they don’t promise that, they do indicate two things.  First, that a Mary-like perspective of abundance enables you to be generous with God and with other people.  2 Corinthians 9:6-7 says, “Remember this—a farmer who plants only a few seeds will get a small crop. But the one who plants generously will get a generous crop. You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.”  Because you reap what you sow, when you give blessing into the world, you also reap blessing.  So through Malachi’s voice, God offers a challenge—to test God in this and try generosity as a way of life.

The second thing Malachi says is that it’s possible for us to be like Judas, who dipped his hand into the purse.  You might not be literally stealing from the offering plate, but you could be robbing God by withholding generosity from God or from people.  Your church has budgetary needs, and Jesus says, “You will always have the poor among you.”  God asks believers to support good work.  Greedy, grasping hands like Judas’ might deprive the church and its ministries (like benevolence) of sustenance.  If you have an attitude of scarcity, you might unwittingly be cheating God, others, and yourself of blessing.

When I look at the things Americans overspend on, I find my own spirit convicted by some aspects of that list.  Do you?  How can you add a little give-and-take to your budget, so that you increase your giving and decrease your taking?  Like Malachi, I challenge you to pray about it—and test God in it.  See how you can be less like Judas and more like Mary

[i] Reilly, Lucas.  “By the Numbers: How Americans Spend Their Money.”  Mental Floss.  

Monday, July 3, 2017


             On this Fourth of July week, we celebrate American freedom, and remember the history that made her great.  One of the hallmarks of the American experience is our belief in religious freedom.  But is that freedom all that the history books have reported?  Smithsonian Magazine’s Kenneth C. Davis writes that the storybook version we have learned may contain fact, but that it also neglects some key points of history. In 1620, pilgrims from the Mayflower settled in Massachusetts, fleeing religious persecution in England.  But far from creating a bastion of religious freedom, they became intolerant of anyone whose views differed from their own.  Davis says:

The most famous dissidents within the Puritan community, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, were banished following disagreements over theology and policy. From Puritan Boston’s earliest days, Catholics (“Papists”) were anathema and were banned from the colonies, along with other non-Puritans. Four Quakers were hanged in Boston between 1659 and 1661 for persistently returning to the city to stand up for their beliefs.
From the earliest arrival of Europeans on America’s shores, religion has often been a cudgel, used to discriminate, suppress and even kill the foreign, the “heretic” and the “unbeliever”—including the “heathen” natives already here. Moreover, while it is true that the vast majority of early-generation Americans were Christian, the pitched battles between various Protestant sects and, more explosively, between Protestants and Catholics, present an unavoidable contradiction to the widely held notion that America is a “Christian nation.” [i]

Let me step outside of the American experience and look at the violent history of our own faith on a global scale. From the dawn of the Holy Roman Empire, Emperor Constantine enforced Christianity with the sword, and made heresy a crime punishable by death.  In the Middle Ages, crusaders were guaranteed salvation if they marched to Jerusalem and took it for Jesus—because as the pope said, “God wills it!”  Millions of Muslims and Jews were slaughtered in the name of Christ.  Then there were the tortures and executions of the Spanish Inquisition, and the extermination of Native Americans by the Conquistadores in the New World.  Violence perpetrated by Christians in the name of Jesus is a horrible scar on our faith.  This is why we must not define a “Christian” as someone who is baptized, who is a member of the church, or who signs a creed on the dotted line.  Jesus said, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples (John 13:35[ii]).”  So we must ask ourselves, How Christian is the history of Christianity?

You see, we Christians have a bit of a martyr complex.  Certainly, we have been the victims of much persecution and violence, but we need to come to terms with our own history of violence in God’s name.  As we say in the South, “we come by it honestly,” meaning that we inherited this legacy through many generations.  Even in Jesus’ day, religious people persecuted other religious people who didn’t see things the same way.  In John 11:45-57, the high priest (who should have been the most godly man in the nation) conspired with other religious leaders to put Jesus to death.  Jesus had to go into hiding and stop His public ministry because of their persecution.  John 12:9-11 tells us that they not only planned to kill Jesus, but that they wanted to kill Lazarus too, because he was evidence of Jesus’ claims.  Violence perpetrated by religious people for the sake of religion is all over the Bible—and it seems that Jesus’ followers have learned from this example.

How different this is from the character of Christ himself—who never wielded His word as a weapon, and who spoke against violence and advocated peace.  “Those who use the sword will die by the sword,” Jesus said (Matthew 26:52).  The problem is that many Christians who have learned about the “sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17)” have forgotten that the Bible is a weapon against demonic strongholds (Ephesians 6:12), and have instead used physical or verbal violence against people for religious ends.  In Matthew 16:24, Jesus says, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me.”  But we have taken up the sword instead of the cross.  Instead of laying down our lives for others as Jesus did, we choose to sacrifice others at the altars of our own spiritual smugness and religious egos. 

We do this every time we degrade others because of their ethnicity, gender identity, nation of origin, their faith, or lack of faith.

We do this whenever we deny others the same rights we enjoy, because they follow different convictions from our own.

We do this whenever we insist that our way is the way it ought to be, because we happen to be in the majority. 

What if one day they (whoever they are) are in the majority?  Do we want the religious views of the majority to be the law of the land?  Or do we want a land that is governed by equality, where people of every faith, and no faith at all, stand on level ground?  Those who stood opposed to Jesus decided that verbal and physical violence was the way to accomplish their goals.  Too often, Christians have learned from biblical violence and become persecutors instead of peacemakers.  Jesus told Saul on the road to Damascus that when he persecuted others, he was persecuting Jesus Himself (Acts 9:4).  Jesus said whatever we do to others, we do to Him (Matthew 25:40).  So, when we marginalize others for the sake of our religious convictions, we marginalize Jesus too.  Jesus’ Golden Rule teaches us to do to others what we would have done to us (Matthew 7:12).   What could be more plain?  Why can’t Christians just treat others nicely, even if they have different views?  Jesus said, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”  This Fourth of July weekend, as we celebrate our freedom, let’s never let our religious liberty be a stick we use to beat others with, and take away their freedom.  Instead, let’s show we are Christians by our love.

Monday, June 26, 2017

"Lost Causes"

In August, 2010, reported the following story:

It was a final chance to say goodbye for grieving mother Kate Ogg after doctors gave up hope of saving her premature baby.
She tearfully told her lifeless son - born at 27 weeks weighing 2lb - how much she loved him and cuddled him tightly, not wanting to let him go.
Although little Jamie's twin sister Emily had been delivered successfully, doctors had given Mrs Ogg the news all mothers dread - that after 20 minutes of battling to get her son to breathe, they had declared him dead.
Having given up on a miracle, Mrs Ogg unwrapped the baby from his blanket and held him against her skin. And then an extraordinary thing happened.
After two hours of being hugged, touched and spoken to by his mother, the little boy began showing signs of life…
[The mother said,], 'A short time later he opened his eyes. It was a miracle. Then he held out his hand and grabbed my finger.
'He opened his eyes and moved his head from side to side. The doctor kept shaking his head saying, "I don't believe it, I don't believe it".'
The Australian mother spoke publicly for the first time…to highlight the importance of skin-on-skin care for sick babies, which is being used at an increasing number of British hospitals.
In most cases, babies are rushed off to intensive care if there is a serious problem during the birth.
But the 'kangaroo care' technique, named after the way kangaroos hold their young in a pouch next to their bodies, allows the mother to act as a human incubator to keep babies warm, stimulated and fed.[i]

            It is clear that not all lost causes are lost.  Sometimes, life wins despite amazing odds.  In John 11:1-44, Jesus faces the hopeless situation of his friend’s death.  You’d think that if anybody was a lost cause, it’d be Lazarus.  By the time Jesus arrives, the body has been in the grave four days.  His sisters have no imagination that there’s anything that Jesus can do at this point.  They know that He can heal, but raising the dead—that’s another matter.  Each of the sisters expresses their sadness and disappointment, and Jesus cries.  But his tears are for their sadness and not for his own loss, because He knows what He is about to do.  This lost cause is not a lost cause.  Lazarus will rise from the grave.  Jesus has them remove the stone, and He calls Lazarus out.  After a pregnant silence where everybody watches and waits, the dead man steps from the darkness, alive!”

            Lazarus had been bound in the grave, wrapped in the rags of death, and captivated by his coffin.  Yet Jesus knew that his friend’s story wasn’t over—that there was more to come.  His sisters didn’t have the insight that Jesus had.  They thought his life was a lost cause, but Jesus knew better.  For this reason, the Master could ask the Father, and God could raise him to life. 

Maybe you’ve got some “lost causes” in your own life that you’re not sure about.  You don’t know whether to have faith for a miracle, or whether to accept loss.  Jesus could tell the difference between a lost cause and a miracle about to happen—but sometimes we have a tough time discerning that.  The Serenity Prayer says, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  How do you know the difference?  One way is the presence of serenity.  Sometimes, when serenity comes over you, you know it’s time to give up, and it’s okay.  There are times when a person knows that it’s okay to let Grandma or Grandpa go, remove life support, and let them slip away.  But with Lazarus, this was not one of those times.  Maybe your lack of serenity says that this “lost cause” isn’t really lost—and that you need to keep praying.

In Luke 11, Jesus teaches about persistence in prayer.  Jesus says, “And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened (vv. 9-10 NLT).”  Of course, this doesn’t mean that you’re always going to get what you want, if you just harass God enough.  You have to be praying according to God’s will.  With people, persisting with something they don’t want simply becomes harassment—and it’s the same with God.  Sometimes persistence is the key, but other times, persistence can be harmful.

Once I counseled a woman whose relationship with her adult daughter was broken.  In a controlling, harassing way, she pursued her daughter.  I explained to her that the more she tightened her grip, like water her daughter would run through her fingers.  Sometimes, you may be persisting to keep something, but your persistence is driving a wedge or causing more harm than your fear of losing.  In this woman’s case, her lack of serenity wasn’t an indication that it was spiritually time to fight the good fight—it simply meant that she was pig-headed and manipulative.  You’ve got to get to the place where you’re willing to fight for what you believe is best, to pray for it, to work for it, but also to let it go if God grants otherwise.  It could be that your tenacity is hurting yourself and others, and doing more damage than the problem itself. Sometimes, by pushing for what you want, you violate the rights and dignity of other people.  This is not the kind of persistence that Jesus taught.
The song “Even If” by MercyMe illustrates the point of trusting God for a solution, but trusting God even if the solution we want isn’t what we get:

They say it only takes a little faith
To move a mountain
Well, good thing
A little faith is all I have right now
But God, when You choose
To leave mountains unmovable
Give me the strength to be able to sing
It is well with my soul

I know You're able and I know You can
Save through the fire with Your mighty hand
But even if You don't
My hope is You alone
I know the sorrow, and I know the hurt
Would all go away if You'd just say the word
But even if You don't
My hope is You alone

            In times of struggle, your hope needs to be in God alone—whether or not you get what you want.  When faced with mountains that need to be moved, or flames that need to be gotten through, the serenity prayer asks for the kind of courage that changes things through persistence and faith.  But it also recognizes that there are some things that can’t be changed, and asks for wisdom to know the difference.  Not all lost causes are lost.  Some aren’t lost because they are won with courage and persistence.  Some aren’t lost because the serene person is able to graciously let them go.  The wise person knows the difference between holding, and holding on too much.  Only if you choose to fight a losing battle is a cause ever lost.  “Ask, seek, knock,” Jesus says.  The guarantee isn’t that you’ll get what you want—but that if you keep seeing God, you’ll have the wisdom to know the difference.  In John 11:40, Jesus says, “Didn’t I tell you that you would see God’s glory if you believe?”  This glory isn’t found in getting exactly what you’re praying for, but in finding courage, serenity, and wisdom in the midst of suffering.

Monday, June 19, 2017

"Son of God"

           Once there was an emperor whose dominion spread over many lands.  The king had one son born to him, and this son was the crown prince.  Yet the ruler was also so generous that he had taken in many orphaned children and raised them as his own.  Only the crown prince would ever sit on the throne, yet the other princes and princesses enjoyed the same status as if they were of royal blood.  Because the emperor’s duties ranged far and wide and he could not be in every place at the same time, he appointed his son the prince as his chief ambassador.  This prince not only met with heads of state, but also oversaw the ambassadorial work of his adopted sisters and brothers.  Wherever they went, the royal children wore robes of purple and carried the royal crest.  Once, when the crown prince was visiting a minor country that was part of his empire, and negotiating with that tribute nation’s head of state, the ruler refused to listen to his counsel.  Without being prideful, the prince simply displayed the signet ring that he bore and reminded the lesser king of his position.  “One day, I will sit on my father’s throne,” he said.  “You want to make sure that the prince who becomes the next emperor remembers you as someone who recognizes authority.  I have the emperor’s mind on this matter.  When you are talking with me, you are talking with the father.”

          This is the kind of authority that Jesus carried as He walked upon the earth.  In John 10:30, Jesus gets Himself in trouble for saying, “The Father and I are one.”  In John 14:9-11, three times, Jesus says variants of the same statement: “The Father is in me, and I am in the Father.”  One of the fundamental statements of the Christian faith is that Jesus is the Son of God.  John 3:16-17 says, “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.”  The Greek word that the King James Version translates as “begotten” is better rendered as “one and only.”  God did not “create” Jesus, because Jesus has always existed as an eternal part of the Trinity.  Yet, Jesus is unique in the sense that He is the only Son of God who has God-DNA.  Colossians 1:15-20 describes Jesus as being the “image of the invisible God,” and the pre-existent agent of creation.  “He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together.”  While Jesus was born physically, He was never created.  Jesus always has been, and always will be.

We do not possess these attributes, yet John1:12-13 says that we too can become children of God.  “But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God.  They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.”  Romans 8:15-17 tells us that, just like the emperor had one crown prince but many adopted children who bore the same authority, so too, we who are adopted by God are co-heirs with Christ.  Once someone has been adopted, they can’t be un-adopted.  Jesus says in John 10:28-29, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one can snatch them away from me, for my Father has given them to me, and he is more powerful than anyone else. No one can snatch them from the Father’s hand.”  For this reason, those who have placed their trust in Jesus can be completely secure in their salvation.  We can know that we are permanently adopted sons and daughters of Almighty God.

Watchman Nee tells about a new convert who came in deep distress to see him. "No matter how much I pray, no matter how hard I try, I simply cannot seem to be faithful to my Lord. I think I'm losing my salvation." Nee said, "Do you see this dog here? He is my dog. He is house-trained; he never makes a mess; he is obedient; he is a pure delight to me. Out in the kitchen I have a son, a baby son. He makes a mess, he throws his food around, he fouls his clothes, he is a total mess. But who is going to inherit my kingdom? Not my dog; my son is my heir. You are Jesus Christ's heir because it is for you that He died." We are Christ's heirs, not through our perfection but by means of His grace.[i]

          In John 10:22-42, Jesus gets in trouble for claiming to be one with the Father. And for claiming to do the things that He did by the authority of God.  In fact, they got so angry that they picked up stones to kill Him.  But Jesus knew that He couldn’t do anything but what the Father wanted.  In John 5:19, He says, “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does.”  If we are adopted sons and daughters of God, then it’s clear that we ought to be doing the same thing.  Yes—in this world, it’s dangerous for us too when we claim to speak for God.  But if we listen and obey as Jesus did, then we who wear the robes of royalty can show the signets that we bear and claim our right as heirs.  Jesus says in John 14:12, “I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father.”  Through the Holy Spirit, God gifts adopted sons and daughters to carry on the work of Christ in the world.  We become heirs, not just of the treasures of heaven, but of the responsibility borne by children of the King, to be ambassadors of His love wherever we go.  I pray that you’ll put your trust in God’s one and only Son, that you’ll know the blessing of adoption, and that you’ll carry on the work of God in the world.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

"By Grace, Through Faith"

One Sunday, the young pastor decided to use the 23rd Psalm for his children’s sermon. He began to tell the children about sheep—that they aren’t smart and need lots of guidance and that a shepherd’s job is to stay close to the sheep, protect them from wild animals and keep them from wandering away.
He pointed to the little children in the room and said they were the sheep and needed lots of guidance. Then the pastor put his hands out to the side, palms up in a dramatic gesture, and with raised eyebrows said to the children, “If you are the sheep, then who is the shepherd?” He was pretty obviously indicating himself.
A few seconds of silence followed, then one little boy said, “Jesus is the shepherd.”
The young pastor, obviously caught by surprise, said to the boy, “Well, then, who am I?”
The boy thought for a moment and then said with a shrug, “I guess you must be a sheep dog.”[i]

            In John 10:1-21, Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd, and He does it in the presence of a bunch of sheep dogs.  Religious leaders have just spent the previous chapter proving that they are really blind guides who are leading the people out of a desire for their own personal gain.  They are “hired hands,” compared to Jesus, who is the true Shepherd of the Sheep.   Hired hands run at the threat of danger because they are out for their own self-interests, but Jesus says that the Good Shepherd is different.  Jesus says that the Good Shepherd guides the sheep in truth.  In verses 2-4, 14, Jesus says:

But the one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.  The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep recognize his voice and come to him. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. After he has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice. They won’t follow a stranger; they will run from him because they don’t know his voice… I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me,15 just as my Father knows me and I know the Father.[ii]

            The young pastor in the above story is wrong—God doesn’t call people “sheep” because they are dumb.  But Jesus knows that every one of us needs guidance, and it’s easy to follow the wrong shepherds who give the wrong advice.  Today, we’re apt to follow self-help gurus, political leaders, favorite authors, news commentators, or best buddies.  In addition, there are a myriad of religious and spiritual voices on TV, the internet, and in pulpits, telling you what you should believe.  But Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  And He says His sheep know His voice.

In Palestine today, it is still possible to witness a scene that Jesus almost certainly saw two thousand years ago, that of Bedouin shepherds bringing their flocks home from the various pastures they have grazed during the day. Often those flocks will end up at the same watering hole around dusk, so that they get all mixed up together—eight or nine small flocks turning into a convention of thirsty sheep. Their shepherds do not worry about the mix-up, however. When it is time to go home, each one issues his or her own distinctive call—a special trill or whistle, or a particular tune on a particular reed pipe, and that shepherd's sheep withdraw from the crowd to follow their shepherd home. They know whom they belong to; they know their shepherd's voice, and it is the only one they will follow.[iii]

            There are so many voices in the world today, but Jesus’ voice is distinct.  It usually goes counter to either the ways of the world or the ways of “powers that be.”  Instead of telling you how you can get ahead, succeed, and be the best and always win, the Shepherd tells you how you can be like Him, and become a sacrifice.  Yes, God calls us “sheep” because we need guidance.  But Jesus also calls us this because Christians are to lay our lives down to serve others.  In verse 11, Jesus models this: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep.”  In verse fifteen, He says, “I sacrifice my life for the sheep.”  He also says, “I sacrifice my life so I may take it back again. No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again. For this is what my Father has commanded (vv. 17-18).”  Jesus gave Himself so we could have eternal life—but now He calls sheep to become shepherds like Him, to put others first, to serve them, and to love them.  Just as sheep are sacrificial animals, He calls us to lay down our lives as a living sacrifice.
            In these verses, Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd, but He also calls Himself something else:

 I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep.  All who came before me were thieves and robbers. But the true sheep did not listen to them.  Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures. The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life (vv. 7-10).

            When I first read this, I couldn’t understand how Jesus could be such a poor public speaker, employing a mixed metaphor the way He does!  First, He says He is the Shepherd who goes through the gate.  Then He says He is the gate itself.  The writer in me got frustrated, wanting to say, “Which is it, Jesus?  You can’t be both!”  But yes, He can.  This isn’t a mixed metaphor after all.  Jesus is both the Shepherd who goes through the gate, and the gate itself.  He is the Shepherd who seeks the lost sheep even when we don’t deserve to be found.  He gives up His life for the sheep, exemplifying and offering grace.  Salvation comes from the Shepherd’s grace.  We receive the Shepherd by opening the gate to our hearts and letting Him in.  We can only do this through faith.  And yet even the faith that we have to receive His grace, comes to us as a gift from God.  It is not our own faith, otherwise we could brag that we got saved because we were so faithful.  That faith is a gift from God as well.  Ephesians 2:8 says, “God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can't take credit for this; it is a gift from God.”  Other translations say, “By grace, through faith.”  So, Jesus is the Shepherd who gives grace, and Jesus is the gate of faith by which we receive that gift.  In other words, Jesus is all we need.  I pray that today the Shepherd would feed you on the delicacies of His salvation, and that you’ll open wide to receive all that He has to offer.

[ii] All scripture quotations taken from the NLT.
[iii] Barbara Brown Taylor in The Preaching Life (Cowley, 1993), p. 147; submitted by Kevin Miller, Wheaton, Illinois.  May 11, 2017.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

"Clear as Mud"

In John 9:1-41, Jesus heals the sight of a man who was born blind.  This one fact is about all we know about the young manthat he was born this way.  The other thing we know is that people looked upon him with pity and asked the question “why.”  Jesus’ disciples concluded that it was the judgment of God.  They weren’t sure why God would let this young man be born blind, but they figured that such misfortune must certainly be punishment for some unknown sin.  “’Rabbi,’ his disciples asked him, ‘why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins (v.2[i])?’”  Jesus’ answer proves that there are actually three problems with their question.

            First, the question assumes that the man’s suffering might be the result of his parents’ sin.  This was an old assumption that ancient people had, that children suffer because of their parents’ sins.  Jeremiah 31:29 quotes the common saying, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, but their children’s mouths pucker at the taste.”  But God’s desire, says the prophet, is that people realize that people are responsible for their own sins, and God doesn’t punish the next generation for the sins of their parents.  You might challenge this, quoting Numbers 14:18, which says that God “lays the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations.”  Yet the point that Moses makes here is not that God judges or punishes children for the sins of their parents, but that often children bear the consequences of their parents’ mistakes—like when parents are financially irresponsible and can’t take care of their kids properly.  In the John passage, the disciples assume that the man was born blind as punishment for his parents’ sins—and Jesus is saying this is not the case.

            Second, the question assumes that it’s even possible for a person to be born blind as punishment for his own sins.  How could this be?  Either they are assuming that God has judged him for sins not yet committed (a preposterous idea), or that God has judged him for sins committed in a previous lifetime.  If this is so, then the disciples have heard the unbiblical doctrine of reincarnation from world travelers, and adopted it into their own belief system.  Hinduism believes that good and bad karma build up over lifetimes, and that it’s possible to suffer today based on misdeeds in previous incarnations.  Jesus says that this is also not so.

Third, the question assumes that if there’s something less than perfect in a person’s life, it must be—you know—less than perfect.  We are programmed from our earliest days to believe that there’s a standard for physical perfection and that anything which falls short of that perfection must be faulty.  So if someone is born without a limb, for example, we call that a birth defect.  What makes it a defect?  What makes them less than perfect?  The defect is in our understanding, rather than any measurable reality.  If God makes it that way, then it is most certainly not a defect.  We might not understand why God chooses to make a person the way God does—but the pot needs not ask the potter, “Why did you make me like this (Isaiah 45:9; Romans 9:20?”  Instead, we must understand that everything God creates is as God created it to be—and there is no defect.  Jesus says, “It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins…This happened so the power of God could be seen in him (John 9:3).”

I used to have trouble with this passage, because I thought Jesus was saying, “God made this man live in blindness all these years, just so I could glorify God by restoring his sight now.”  Now that I’ve seen enough brokenness in my life to understand better, I know that Jesus was saying something else.  Jesus was saying, “I’m going to heal him—but I want you to understand that his brokenness is not a defect; Rather, it’s a way that God has been demonstrating God’s power in his life from his birth up to this present moment.”  You see, the power of God can be shown in so much more than simply physical healing. 

We forget the immeasurable impact that many disabled people can have on others, and on society as a whole.  Just think of the contributions of people like Helen Keller, Stephen Hawking, Beethoven, and Stevie Wonder.  Just because something’s a struggle, that doesn’t make it bad.  Quadriplegic artist, author, and speaker Joni Eareckson Tada says, “Suffering provides the gym equipment on which faith can be exercised.”  God hates suffering, but Tada says, “Sometimes God allows what He hates to accomplish what He loves.”  And that accomplishment might be using disabilities for God’s glory.  We’d be mistaken if we said the power of God could only be seen in his healing, and not also in his disability.

            Throughout the Bible, God uses broken people in beautiful ways—and not every time (not even most of the time) does God provide healing the way we think He should.  Yet, God is still demonstrating God’s glory in their lives.  Paul says he had a condition that he prayed three times for God to heal.  “Each time [God] said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’”  Paul continues, “So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me (2 Corinthians 12:9).”  Jesus wants people to know that sometimes God physically heals, but there’s beauty and godliness in all kinds of physical conditions.

            Throughout the rest of the chapter, the Pharisees question the young man and his parents. “Who healed you?  What happened?  How did he do it?  Was this man even blind, or is it a hoax?  Was this healing a sin because it happened on the Sabbath?  In the end, we see that what matters—the thing that has eternal consequence—is not physical healing, but spiritual.  Not physical blindness, but spiritual.  Because there are those whose eyes cannot see, yet who have a vibrant relationship with God, and there are others with perfectly good eyes, yet to whom the truth is clear as mud.  The reality is that suffering happens in the world—it’s a part of this world’s system.  What matters, more than the condition of your body, is the condition of your spirit.  Your body’s just a shell that houses your soul, anyway.  So the question isn’t how good your eyesight is, but how good your insight is.  When moved by the Spirit, even people with bad eyes can sing, “Was blind, but now I see!”

[i] Scripture quotations taken from the NLT.