Monday, July 30, 2018

Dangerous!

Sometimes just being a witness to Jesus' power is dangerous

"When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account  of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.
So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as 
well, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus."
John 12:9-11
The Saturday night before Palm Sunday (tomorrow) is the anniversary of Mary, the sister of Lazarus, anointing Jesus with costly ointment in an extravagant display of her love for him. Jesus said it would always be remembered about her, and obviously, it is.

The setting of that special gift was at a dinner that Lazarus and his sisters gave for Jesus in their home that evening, as the Sabbath was coming to a close. It wasn't just a meal for the family, the disciples, and Jesus, although they are clearly in focus. Apparently others of their neighbors came--and not just a few. The clearly stated reason is in our text. It was only a matter of days (or at most a few weeks) since Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. Talk about a rock star! Had this happened today, Lazarus would have been on every news and talk show imaginable. They didn't have such things then, but people had heard about it, and then heard that Jesus, the miracle worker himself, was back at the home of this family in Bethany. So they came in large numbers. I don't know if they fed them all, but I wouldn't put it past Martha.

However, some of those who knew all about it were not there and were not fans. They were the religious leaders of the Jewish nation in Jerusalem. What they saw distressed them greatly. People were moving toward Jesus because of the newly raised Lazarus. Rather than let the miracle touch their hearts or even challenge their thinking, they came up with what they believed was the only sensible solution. Since they didn't want people believing in Jesus, they didn't want them to see evidence that he should be believed in. Lazarus was, right now, Exhibit A; therefore, Jesus had to die, but to make sure his legend didn't live on, Lazarus had to go back to the grave, too.

Imagine that. People hate you because a miracle gave you life. Just his being alive was enough to want him dead.

Reading the story again made me think. All around each of us are other believers, and we all are those who have been raised from spiritual death by Christ (and with Christ). We are, in a real sense all a "spiritual Lazarus," called out of the grave. And in a real way, our lives ought to be just as much a testimony of the power of Jesus as his--so that we would become dangerous to the kingdom of darkness.

Now I know, you can't see being spiritually raised to life like you can see a physical raising. But just a minute. It was the fact that Lazarus was showing all the signs of life that made him the miracle. Are there signs of spiritual life that should be evidence that we have experienced the miracle of new life? I think you know there are.
  • Faith in Jesus
  • Trust in his Word
  • Love for other Christians
  • Faithful witness to the gospel
  • Growing hatred of sin
  • Increasing joy in holiness
  • The fruit of the Spirit
That is just a start. And I might suggest that these signs may be enough to put you in danger! Not from Jewish religious leaders, but from a greater enemy. Satan hates to see the evidences of spiritual life, and he will do all he can to kill them off in you. He may stir up unbelievers to persecute and threaten you, as he has done in so many places and eras. But he may also throw all sorts of temptations, discouragements and challenges your way as well. He hates you for the life you show. If he can't keep Jesus dead (and he couldn't), he will do his best to stop you and your life from being seen. Why? Because just like Lazarus, your life might also be enough to draw others to Jesus.

Let's live out the reality of what we are--alive from the dead, to the glory of our Savior!

Monday, July 23, 2018

"Look for the F.A.T. People!"

A mentor's odd sounding advice taken from the example of Jesus

It's pretty interesting to hear "experts" on health now telling us that fat is NOT the enemy when it comes to our health--sugar is! And that's because the sugar manufacturers spent boatloads of money to convince us that sugar was good but that fat was bad--there was no "fat lobby" to fight back. So we cut fat out of our diets and products, from milk (another lobby was fighting for its survival there) to just about everything else--"low fat" and "no fat" became very important, even if made palatable in many cases with lots of added sugars.

Now we are learning that fat isn't necessarily bad (after figuring out that sugar may be sweet but it's not healthy after all--and Mary Poppins' advice about that spoonful has been overdone). There is good fat and bad fat. And some of the fat we thought was bad isn't so bad after all. Just not too much.

Of course, this hasn't made the word "fat" pleasing, even if it helps the taste of some of our foods. We don't like the word as a descriptor--it means overweight to us, and little else. That's too bad, because the word used to mean much more.

It still does in a few contexts (and we're not talking about the more recent emergence of "phat"--I'm not cool enough to parse that). When someone has a "fat" wallet he has lots of money. The "fat" of the land was its bounty and surplus--something that everyone wanted to gain and that Pharaoh gave to Joseph's family (Genesis 45:18). Isaac blessed Jacob with "the fatness of the earth" (Genesis 27:28). And the psalmist complained about hard times of mourning when his body had "no fat" (Psalm 109:24), while times of blessing are marked by "fat" and "rich food" (Psalm 63:5). Even the LORD specifically asked for the fat portions in animal sacrifices throughout Exodus and Leviticus. Even today in cultures where scarcity is common, it is a compliment to one's prosperity and good looks to be called "fat."

For me, one special meaning of the word comes from a mentor who was teaching me how to choose people to train and to lead. He told me frequently, "Look for the FAT people!" He wasn't talking physique, though; he was talking about character. The word was an acrostic for three qualities he thought were essential and tried to emphasize. To be truthful, I can't remember if he came up with the acrostic or if I did, so if you think it's a bad thing, blame me, but it stuck. What are the three qualities? I'm glad you asked, because not only did he teach them to me, but we find them looking at the life of Jesus in his choices.

First, a good candidate for servant leadership (or any responsibility) in ministry must be faithful. Here the focus is faithfulness to what one knows to be right and true. It is faithfulness to the cause, not just personal affection for a teacher. This person is "all in," even if they aren't sure of all the ramifications. This is what makes a good friend, too--who "loves at all times"(Prov. 17:17) and whose occasional wounding of us is still faithful in seeking our good (Prov. 27:6). Gaius is commended by his mentor John, in III John for the "faithful" things he was doing. Faithful is not just believing, it is commitment to that belief.

Jesus chose his twelve, and the faithful eleven chose Judas' replacement, out of those who were with them from the beginning of Jesus' ministry (Acts 1:21-22). Long before they were the twelve, we see Peter and Andrew and James and John and others named as being with Jesus, learning, following, and serving. He was the teacher they were looking for, they believed him, and they stuck with him--admittedly not perfectly and with some glaring failures. But they believed and that belief led to commitment to him. My mentor's encouragement was not to try to build someone's faith and commitment by giving them responsibility, but rather to find people who were marked by faith in Jesus and commitment to the gospel as a start.

Second, someone must be available. The disciples' faithfulness to Jesus and his teaching was matched with availability. When Jesus invited them with the words "Follow me," they came. In fact the first "follow me" got them coming, but that was followed by the second, where Jesus said "I will make you fishers of men." Even after the resurrection, Peter's restoration included the reminder, "follow me" and don't worry about what happens to others. Good servant leadership begins by showing up, and then staying.

Not everyone accepts invitations, like those invited wedding guests who had just married or just bought a field or a team of oxen. Similarly, there are times when people we know are committed believers are not available to serve or lead. It may not even be their choice at the time; circumstances, the Spirit, and even Satan can hinder us from doing work we would choose to do. Availability may be limited for a time. But sadly, there are some believers who never seem able to make themselves available. If someone always needs exceptions to the expectations of ministry commitment, it may be like the man who wanted to wait until his father died to follow Jesus (Matthew 8:21). You may be, as Matthew records, a disciple (follower), but you won't really discover what that means beyond the most limited sense. My mentor encouraged me to probe potential servant leaders to discover if they were willing to be available to do the task required, or to go through the training needed. If not, whether it was what I thought was a good reason or bad, I should move on to candidates who will be available.

The mention of training brings up the third quality I was to look for--servant leaders must be teachable. A disciple of Jesus was, by definition a "learner." Learning requires availability, but some who may be available may not be teachable. They may always have a better idea, or believe that the instructions are just suggestions. Jesus' disciples followed his instructions in ministry, sometimes incredulous (think of getting ready to feed 5,000 with five loaves and two fish), and sometimes not understanding what they were doing (their reactions after feeding the five thousand and then the four thousand showed this).

Unlike Jesus, we can't be perfect teachers, and sometimes our learners will have insights that may improve what we do. Servant leaders are always learning. But my mentor's encouragement was to look for people who were ready to learn, often preferring them over those who were convinced they already knew what to do. In some situations, you may know that there are many ways a task could be accomplished, but current conditions and settings make one way favorable and you hope to teach your student that way for this moment. Teachability is a must in the varying circumstances of life.

I haven't always followed this advice, and it usually comes back to bite me. But, I am thankful for these pointers that have served me well in teaching and discipleship. My prayer today is that they might help you, too, as you either look to disciple or train others, or as you consider whether you are the right kind of candidate to serve. Are you faithful--not just "believing" in Jesus but wholly committed to his cause? Are you available--ready to put in the work and the time? Are you teachable--ready to learn, even in those areas you may think you know? Then you are ready to go, and it's time to step up and volunteer! You are the right kind of FAT!

Monday, July 16, 2018

A Fortress and a Fountain

Proverbs gives us a double dose of wisdom on beating sin

I hate sin. I hate what it does in lives. I hate what it can do to me when I give in to temptation. I hate its continuing effects. Its onslaught can be so difficult to bear. I hate sin.

But there is a part of me (my understanding of the Bible tells me it is what I should call "my flesh") that loves sin. I can crave its offers and temptations. I can feel drawn to its allure. And that voice that tells me "just this once" is so powerful. It pains me to say that part of me loves (or at least strongly desires) sin.

I don't think I'm telling you anything that should be shocking because I have found that the people I talk to in honesty admit to a similar dilemma. We don't want to love it at all, and we want to fight it better. How can we do that?

You may have favorite verses you go to or stories in Scripture that help you explain the battle against sin, and there are many good ones, from taking up the armor of God to fleeing youthful lusts, to saying "no" to ungodliness and worldly lusts (Bonus points if you can find all of these phrases in Scripture, and triple bonus if these passages are marked in your Bible!).

I love all of those and more. But in my devotions this week, I was directed to two verses that present a twofold emphasis that I found very helpful and encouraging. It was, of all places, in Proverbs.
Whoever fears the Lord has a secure fortress,
    and for their children it will be a refuge.
 The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life,
    turning a person from the snares of death.
Proverbs 14:26-27

These two verses both talk about the fear of the Lord, which chapter 1 tells us is the beginning of wisdom. This is not just being afraid of God, although it is a healthy awe and respect of his nature. It is the feeling that God is so great and good that I would not want to ever disappoint or disobey him. When I am so concerned about God's approval that nothing else matters, I am walking in the fear of the Lord. Of course, that approval comes when God declares us not guilty (justification) because we have placed our trust in the death of Jesus in our place. We come to know God truly, and come to "fear" him in the positive, influential way we can "fear" the best of loving parents. And when that is the case, these two verses tell me it can help me in my struggle against evil.

First, they tell me that this kind of reverent awe and honor of God above all will provide "a secure fortress." This speaks of protection, in the same way the psalmist speaks of the name of the Lord being "a strong tower" in which the righteous find safety. It can give such security that those closest to us can be encouraged to find that same security--that is the significance of the reference to our children--they can learn of it and find refuge from the dangers and attacks that would come toward those who fear God. There are spiritual forces of wickedness (see Ephesians 6) that are at work against us, but a right understanding and trust in God bring protection from attack.

Second, the fear of the Lord is described as a fountain of life that turns us from death traps. A fountain isn't just a source of life, but a beautiful source of life. I've seen fountains that are mesmerizing in their beauty--not just water flowing, but jumping and shooting and spraying in remarkable patterns--geysers, if you will. This fountain--which offers life--is of such beauty that we are pulled away from the snares (a trap set that is usually disguised) that would lead to our downfall and toward life instead. Sin can be like that--looking so good it draws us toward it. But then it catches us and we are trapped! But the fountain is so much more attractive that it draws us away from such traps.

What a picture we have here. Having the proper fear of the Lord is a fortress and a fountain. It protects us from attack, and it draws away from those disguised traps that would otherwise attract. We find protection and provision.

God wants us to fear him so that we might enter his fortress of security and be drawn to his fountain of life. When evil comes after us, knowing and fearing God can be our defense. And when temptation is beautiful, the greater beauty of the fountain of life will show the shallow attractions of evil for what they are.

Are you under sin's attack? Run to the God who is your fortress. Are you being drawn away by sin's charms? Turn your heart's eye to gaze upon the beauty of the life of God, flowing like a fountain and ready to refresh that longing you think sin will satisfy. 

Monday, July 9, 2018

Looking Beyond for Help

A Reminder of Where True Hope Lies

I continue to do my best to maintain more than an arm's length from the current political "dialog," but it gets hard for a recovering political junkie in times like the present. I used to devour political news and commentary, and often felt as if election results were the sure evidence that things were getting better or worse. I've seen more than my share of political moments, but the one we are in has become more polarized than ever in my lifetime. And in such a moment news of the kind we've had recently tends to set off all sorts of excitement for those who love politics. We have had a rash of Supreme Court decisions, primary election surprises, and the retirement of an unpredictable Supreme Court judge, all in a week. Will this be a "wave" election or not? What will the President say or do on Twitter?

At the moment speculation is rampant about what is coming next. And some who have, in the not too distant past, despaired over political developments as if things were all lost, are now talking as if we are just a moment away from total victory. The most recent election, or recent ruling, or recent law makes some seem giddy with excitement and others claiming the end is near.

I know the feeling, because for many years my political hopes rose or fell in the same way. I knew that their were ultimate realities, and their were present ones. But all too often I could lose sight of the former in the heat of political drama. Without meaning to, I could link the success of a political candidate or cause with the triumph or defeat of righteousness. As I came to learn, righteousness and candidates are not irrevocably linked, and God’s program is neither dependent upon or determined by political winds.

So, in another moment of heightened political excitement and speculation, I remind myself and us all that politics doesn't provide total, or lasting, victories or defeats. Judges change their minds. Laws are passed and laws are overturned. And our culture shows no signs of slowing its descent into folly.

We are believers in Jesus who are living at a time of both great persecution in some areas and great gospel advances--even in some of those same areas. If you stop by Connection Central, you will find some copies of a magazine entitled "Iran;" you really should read it and see just how amazing the growth of the church is in a place of great opposition. I can't think of a more exciting time to be a part of God's work in this world.

But we are also living at a time where political divides have seeped into churches, with one group telling another that they cannot be good Christians and not agree with a preferred political stance. When I was young, our Republican family worshiped in a church filled with Democrats, and no one cared. Now, too many Christians risk divisions among Bible believers over politics; busily re-posting political memes but not nearly busy enough praying, sharing the gospel, or living intentionally in ways to attract people to the message and power of Jesus.

When we mix politics with gospel, it isn't a pretty result. If we find our greatest interest focused on political developments, we have lost sight of what matters. And if we believe that laws, rulings, or politicians are the key to our future, then we have the wrong future in mind.

The people of Israel, on their way to Jerusalem for festivals, made their way along a number of roads from various plains to an imposing set of rugged hills where Jerusalem sat nestled. The hills provided a natural defense for the city, and they inspired many who lived in the valleys and plains by their appearance. As the pilgrims went up, they would see the hills--they called them mountains--as a symbol of God's protection--"as the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people (Ps. 125:1)."

But the hills were not ultimate, and the Israelites knew it. "I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come (Ps. 121:1)?" The hills pointed heavenward;  this was a clue, and the psalmist had the right answer: "My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth (121:2)." It was not the hills that saved Jerusalem, or gave the pilgrim strength in his journey. It was the LORD. The hills were impressive, and served as a natural protection, but not one that was perfect on its own.

History shows that Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and then the Romans, and the hills didn't stop them. God had determined destruction, and it came.

Similarly, laws, courts, and politicians can be good and do good (but not always). But even the most powerful of these are not an ultimate hope, and they cannot give us what we need most--eternal life.

So, for those who are having a moment of political excitement, be cautious. For those in political despair, be sober. What matters most remains both unthreatening and available to all who will seek the right help for our deepest needs.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Paying Attention

Our ability to focus is probably less than we imagine.

"The most seductive modern-day myth
is that we have an
unlimited amount of attention."
Richard Clark.

You've probably heard plenty of calls in your childhood, adolescence, or last week to "Pay attention." We may be saying it to a child, or they may be saying it to you. It may be someone trying to instruct you, but you already know. Or it may be a matter of life and death that the speaker is wanting to make sure you are understanding.

We ought to pay attention. And many times we think we are. But are we really?

Many of us are convinced we can be listening to media, have a conversation, and watch an event unfold before us all at once and "get the gist" of it all. But what is more likely the case is that we get bits and pieces of one or two, and basically miss the third. We call it "multi-tasking," but the tasks really aren't being accomplished, only nodded to.

We also try to pay attention to more things than we probably should. In the internet age we can feed our insatiable curiosity, and when we run up against the limits of our own knowledge, we google ourselves to death. I've learned more about extraneous subjects that won't really matter to me in an hour than I could have ever guessed.

Attention is focus, and we deceive ourselves if we think we can focus on an unlimited number of subjects or pursuits. I've had lots of conversations with students who are paralyzed in moving forward toward a career or a relationship because they realize that the choice to focus on one pursuit carries with it the decision to shut the door on others. And we don't want to do that! We want options; we want it all.

But one lesson that history teaches is that we can't have it all. We can't even have most of it. We must make choices, And we must choose what will deserve our attention. Which relationships, what pursuits, which subjects--there are simply too many.

I guess the expression "pay attention" gives us a bit of a clue that might help. We pay for things with currency, and the currency has value because it is limited. We have only so many dollars to spend, so we must spend it wisely. You should think of your attention as a currency you have been given--24 hours of it comes to you every day, and it can't be saved for tomorrow.

Which of your relationships will you consider valuable enough to "pay" attention to? What tasks? What subject matter?

I'm the first to admit I need to do better at this. In the current season of our church life, I've got extra responsibilities and lots of regular commitments to keep track of, and I found myself missing some things I should have caught, while paying attention to some things that turned out not to be as important. Recently I made the decision to adopt a planner other than my phone. It's pretty demanding--requiring me to plan out my days, weeks, and year around priorities. That made me write out what really deserves my attention and energy. I'm being pretty good at sticking to my plans, and I'm also trying to be more intentional about not looking at my phone all the time or answering emails as soon as I get them--instead, paying attention to the things I've decided were important enough to have this hour of my time.

Obviously (and you knew this was coming), if deepening your faith and walk with God is worthy of attention, then it should claim some of it for reading the Word (the truest source of wisdom and instruction), and prayer. The same would be true of your spouse and family (if you have those), and your church family.

What are you paying attention to today?

Sunday, April 1, 2018

"Christ is Risen, He is Risen Indeed!"

[Originally published on Easter, 2014]

I've actually been to this tomb in Israel many times--a rolling stone tomb along the road that is probably the closest we
will get to a good representation of what Jesus' empty tomb would have looked like.
A very well known "cutting edge" Christian famous for his iconoclastic life and writings wrote a book a number of years ago that was every "wanna be cutting edge" Christian's favorite book. In it, the writer echoed one of his mentors in saying that the beauty of the teachings of Jesus is so great, and the power of his instruction so overpowering, that even if the whole story of Jesus wasn't true, and there was no heaven ahead, he would still want to be a Christian because of these qualities.

At that point as I was reading the book, I threw it across the room.

Why? Because that is what Paul the apostle would have done.

Actually he says, in 1 Corinthians 15 that if Christ is not, really and truly, raised from the dead, we Christians are "most to be pitied." That is Bible talk for "losers," "idiots," or just about any term of derision and foolishness you would want to pin on us. Why, Paul says, would we go through all the self-denial, the enduring of wrongs in hopes that they will be made right some day, the offending of others, and who knows what else, if this whole matter of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus isn't real?  Good question! 

Christianity, thankfully, is not just a self improvement program because, let's face it, even if I improve myself to my highest potential, I am still falling short of God's glory, still selfish, still thinking more about myself than I should, only now I'd just have more about me to brag and think highly about. And I can't save myself from myself--from my sinfulness. 

Christianity is about resurrection, not just reformation. It is not just weak becoming strong, but dead coming to life. The resurrection of Jesus figured much more prominently in the apostles' preaching in Acts than it often does in our thinking. We focus on his death--a vital focus to be sure. But they loved to proclaim his resurrection--his power over death, and the guarantee of right standing before God forever in his presence. His death, without the resurrection, gave his followers only grief. They didn't think about how noble it was, or even of it as a possible appeasement of God's wrath. Only the resurrection made it real to them.

And it keeps making it real to us. He is risen. He's alive, now and forevermore. And as he ascended into heaven the message of the angels at that event was the same as he had been giving--he is coming back!

Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Saturday of Holy Week

[This is the seventh and final post in a series on the week of Jesus' passion, first posted in 2012.]

Theme: Waiting
Text: Mark 16:1; Luke 23:56; Matt. 27:62-65

The records of what happened on the day between the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are brief.  Nothing is reported about the disciples--we can only gather from the lack of faith demonstrated later that they were not confidently expecting Jesus' words about rising again to come to pass.  

The women who wanted to care for Jesus' body ran out of time on Friday to complete their preparations: the tomb was closed while they went home and rested for the Sabbath as required by Jewish Law.  Saturday night was spent getting the final supplies and preparing to go to the tomb the next day--wondering how they would move that stone.

But the enemies of Jesus were disturbed.  They knew that Jesus had said He would rise.  So they went to Pilate to ask for guards to be sent to the tomb to keep his disciples from stealing the tomb.  Obviously these Jewish opponents of Jesus feared the power of Jesus to motivate his disciples, even if they didn't believe in resurrection.

Sometimes those who don't believe in Jesus have a clearer understanding of what Jesus words can mean than do His own disciples.  Maybe that's why so many efforts are made to keep people from hearing or reading God's Word.

Thank God that the despair and dejection of that Saturday never need be faced by any of Jesus' followers again, for less than 24 hours later, Jesus would emerge from the tomb and the question of whether or not He was Messiah and His sacrifice sufficient would have been forever settled.  

Friday, March 30, 2018

The Friday of Holy Week

[This is the sixth post in a series on Jesus' passion week, first posted in 2012.]


Text: John 18:28-38
Theme: Truth


There is so much more to be said about the day of Jesus' death than I can even mention in this format, but let me simply point out one moment.  It is Jesus, standing before Pilate, questioning him and having Jesus answer with questions and hard sayings.


"Are you king of the Jews?" asks Pilate.


"Do you say this on your own, or did others say it about me?"


"Am I a Jew? Your nation has delivered you over..." Pilate responds.  "What have you done?"


"My kingdom is not of this world..."


"So, you are a king!"


"For this purpose I was born," said Jesus, "to bear witness to the truth."


It is at this moment, as Ravi Zacharias first pointed out in a sermon I heard, that a huge opportunity is presented and missed.


Pilate responds to Jesus' statement by asking, "What is truth?"


But instead of waiting for Jesus to respond, he turns and goes outside.


Pilate was a skeptic, who didn't believe there was truth to guide you: there was only opportunities to be snatched or missed, and circumstances to be controlled or else have them control you.


Imagine if he had waited.  At every moment in this dialog, Jesus had responded.  But here, Pilate doesn't wait for a response.  If he had, what would Jesus have said?  Would it have mattered?  It would not have changed the outcome as Christ's sacrifice was not optional, but might have begun a change in Pilate.  We can never know.


On this Good Friday, many will not know what the day is about.  Many others will recognize an historical event, but not seek to know the truth of what happened and why.


May your Good Friday be one where you know what happened, and why it happened, and that it happened all for you.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Thursday of Holy Week

[This is the fifth post on the week of Jesus' passion, first posted in 2012.]

Text: John 13:1-17:26
Theme: New Commandment


Our text today is a long one, but that is because it was so important that John dedicates almost 20% of his gospel to the account of the last supper in the upper room.  Why so much time here?

There were, it is true, many poignant moments.  The passage begins by stressing Jesus' unfailing love for His disciples, right to the very end.  And it concludes with a prayer that reflects that love.  He taught them humility by washing their feet, and told them that those who know him are "clean."  He explained that He was the vine and we are the branches, taught on our future dwelling in His Father's house, and He instituted the Lord's Supper.  He revealed His betrayer, and He promised the Holy Spirit to us.  All of this took place in the course of a supper, which the other gospels identify as a Passover meal.

But something we sometimes miss is that Jesus, having earlier this week summarized the whole Law in two commandments, now offers a third to be kept by His disciples.  The two summary commandments we may remember:
  1. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matt. 22:37)
  2. "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Matt. 22:39)
Now, Jesus offers #3, calling it "a new commandment," and requiring it as a proof that we are His followers:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have love you, you also are to love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35)
Who does the loving here?  His disciples.  And who are they to love?  One another--the rest of the disciples, or what we call Christ's Body, the Church.

If we read this passage from the standpoint of Jesus' love for us and His desire for us to love each other deeply, it takes on a powerful new meaning.  He washes disciples' feet because He loves us, and He wants us to wash each others' feet because we love each other.  We draw life from Christ the true vine, but we share in that life together.  The Spirit will come because Jesus loves us, but He comes to us, collectively, binding us together even as He binds us to Christ.

Further, if we take Jesus' three commands as the summary of what He wants us to become as His grace transforms us, it looks like this:

  1. We love God supremely, with everything we are and have.
  2. We love others humbly, putting their needs on equal footing with ours
  3. We love the Church sacrificially, putting our collective good ahead of individual desires
This is what Jesus modeled in the Upper Room, and even more powerfully in the Garden and on the Cross.
Pray today that we will fulfill this high and holy calling.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Wednesday of Holy Week

[This is the fourth post in a series on the week of Jesus' passion, first posted in 2012.]
Text: Matthew 26:14-16
Theme:  Betrayal and fake faith

Wednesday during the Passion Week has been difficult for commentators to deal with, because while other days are specifically noted through entering and leaving Jerusalem, or the relation of the day to Passover, or some other detail as to what Jesus did.  As Sherlock Holmes would say, "When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth" (Doyle, 91).  Now if we can assign all of Jesus' other recorded activities to other days, then the conclusion is that Jesus spent Wednesday in private fellowship with the disciples and the family of Simon the Leper: Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, in Bethany.  The next day would be the second most painful of his life.

But that doesn't mean everyone was idle.  Only on a day when everyone was left to themselves would Judas have the freedom to make a quick trip (probably less than a 30 minute walk) to the Temple precincts where he could arrange to betray Jesus.

The actions of Judas are epic in scope, and have led to all sorts of speculation.  How could one who had seen all he had seen come to such a point?  There had been no mistreatment by Jesus or the disciples--he had even been made treasurer of the group (Jn. 12:6).  Some have thought he had tried to orchestrate a move that would force Jesus to act against Rome.  More liberal scholars have even suggested that he acted with Jesus' covert blessing to bring things to a head.  And others have suggested that after discovering that Jesus would not fight Rome for independence, he had become disenchanted and disgusted.

Ultimately, we don't know his lesser motivations.  But Jesus offers a number of clues.  Here is a list of what He, John, and Matthew have told us about Judas:

  • Judas was not "clean"--cleansed from his sin.  "You [the disciples] are clean, but not all of you." For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, "Not all of you are clean." John 13:10-11
  • Judas was led by Satan--"...the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray [Jesus]" John 13:2
  • Judas was "the son of destruction" who is specifically said to be "lost" John 17:12
  • Judas was "a devil" John 6:70
  • Judas was a thief  John 12:6
  • Judas' sorrow over betraying innocent blood lacks any expression of repentance toward God or toward Jesus  Matt. 27:4-5
If we simply take what the Scripture says, we must conclude that Judas was, from the beginning, a fake.  He was known from the beginning by Jesus as the one who would betray Him.  His only comments recorded are lies--whether about Mary's expensive ointment for Jesus, or denying that he was the betrayer, or greeting the Lord with a kiss.

But he was a good faker.  None of the rest of the twelve knew he was the betrayer until he did the deed.  Even when he left the upper room, they thought he was on a mission for Jesus.

Such fakers are still among us.  God, by his grace, will open the eyes of some of them (or you, if you are a faker reading this--and this may be His warning to you to repent).  Others will continue to deceive everyone else until they do something to reveal their loyalty, or maybe they will go to the grave deceiving us, and be exposed only at the Judgment.  They may even join the chorus of those crying out, "Lord, Lord did we not prophesy in your name (Judas did), and cast out demons (Judas did), and do many might works in your name (Judas did)"(Matt 7:22).

And they will hear what Judas will hear, "I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness."

Faking faith is deadly, and it can't succeed before the one Judge who matters.  

Let's pray that God opens the eyes and hearts of fakers we may know (even if we don't know they are fakers).  And perhaps we might need to ask the Lord Jesus the question even his true followers asked that next night when he told them betrayal was coming, "Lord, it's not me, is it?  I'm not faking, am I?"

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Tuesday of Holy Week

Jesus and his disciples at the Temple
[This is the third post on the week of Jesus' passion, which I first posted in 2012.]

Text: Mark 11:19-13:37 (Matt. 21:19b-25:46)
Theme: Teaching

On way back into Jerusalem Tuesday morning, the disciples see the cursed fig tree has died, from the roots, so it couldn't have been a killer frost, bug, or blight.  They are amazed, but Jesus tells them that faith in Him enables followers to see huge problems or barriers (which is what mountains often symbolized) moved aside--and of course the biggest barrier we all face is that between us and our Holy God.  

Arriving in the Temple courts, Jesus spends his entire day facing tricky questions and teaching difficult truths.  His enemies try and trap Him in His words, but He not only escapes, but ties them up in theological knots.  He points out their ambivalence toward John the Baptist, shows the difference between saying we will obey authority and actually obeying it--an attitude his opponents clearly manifested toward God's powerful Word through Jesus.  He exposes Pharisees and Sadducees as having faulty theology, summarizes the whole Law in the two great commandments, and raises the thorny issue that the Bible says that David's Lord was also David's son.  He pronounces woes on scribes and Pharisees, laments over Jerusalem (once again quoting Ps. 118:26 as needing to happen again before the city sees Him for who He is--something yet to occur), and takes time to praise a poor widow's generous heart.  Finally, He spends a great deal of time with the disciples teaching on events surrounding the destruction of the Temple, the signs of His coming at the end of the age, and what the kingdom's coming will be like.  As Jesus left the Temple and the city, He was not only teaching about its future destruction, He was leaving it for the last time of his own accord.  His next departure would be on Good Friday, carrying a cross.

Jesus' teaching in one day encompasses a full course of theological study!  I wish I could have been there taking copious notes, but then all I would have is what the Bible gives me.  I'd want to ask questions!!!  There is so much still for me to learn.

That may be why this one day has chapters dedicated to it--and I hope that you might take the time to read them, or at least one of the sets of text listed above.  Jesus had much to say that we needed to hear.  We still do.  Today, as we reflect on all that Jesus said for our benefit, let's pray and ask the Spirit of God to drive us to see our need of the Word of God to instruct us, and to cause in us a craving for the pure milk we find in that precious Word.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The Monday of Holy Week

[This is the second in a series of posts on Holy Week, which I originally posted in 2012.]


Text:  Mark 11:12-19
Theme:  Curses!

A mature fig tree
Jesus went into Jerusalem from Bethany, and on the way sees a fig tree that has its leaves out in the spring.  It was not the season for figs, but a fig tree in leaf would already have little, edible, "figlets" that would become figs and were a simple treat to eat.  This tree didn't have them, and so Jesus curses it, because it held the promise of fruitfulness without the reality.  This sets the stage for the next event.

Arriving at the Temple, Jesus, for the second time, attacks the commerce taking place in what is often called "cleansing the Temple."  But he doesn't cleanse it, he "curses" it with words taken right out of Isaiah and Jeremiah rebuking the Israelites for their unfaithfulness.  As rightful King arriving on Palm Sunday, he had looked with a look of evaluation the evening prior before going to Bethany.  Now he has rendered his judgment that the Temple's role was finished.  This beautiful edifice looked "fruitful" religiously, but in fact it had become the opposite through the corruption of its controllers.

The fig tree was an established symbol of Israel.  The Temple was the heart of Israel's worship of God.  In his actions Jesus was passing divine judgment on the nation and its worship.  While both showed the promise of bearing fruit, neither actually did so.

As we consider our walk with Christ during this Passion Week, we might want to do some "fruit inspecting" concerning ourselves.  Do we profess great love for Jesus, but manifest little evidence of it in our lives?  Paul was not above warning professing believers to do self-examination to see if we have true faith (2 Corinthians 13:5).  But even true believers must sometimes acknowledge that our fruitfulness has been adversely affected by a lack of abiding in Christ.  Perhaps our prayer might be that the Father--whom Jesus calls the Vinedresser (John 15:1) might come and do his work of pruning us as branches so that we might bear more fruit (John 15:2).

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Palm Sunday--The First Day of Holy Week

[This will be the first of seven posts this week about "Holy Week," the time between Jesus' triumphal entry and his resurrection. First posted in 2014, this post and the following six are offered to help you focus on the events of Holy Week]

In the weeks leading up to what we call the "Triumphal Entry," Jesus had been moving through the region around Jerusalem, Judea, and the region beyond the Jordan, doing a choreographed tour that was designed to avoid direct confrontation with the Pharisees and yet set up a moment of grand tension and climax.

Staying out of site and then coming to Bethany to raise Lazarus.

Joining the pilgrims across the Jordan and making his way toward Jerusalem for his final Passover, healing the blind man Bartimaeus as he went.

Stopping in Jericho long enough to have a party in Zacchaeus' house and welcoming that tax collector into the kingdom.

Heading toward Jerusalem, but lagging behind the crowd so that they would be there when he finally arrived on Sunday.

Having a feast at Lazarus' house, emphasizing that miracle and causing no small amount of despair among his enemies.

Then, finally, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey's colt, in fulfillment of Zechariah's prophecy.

No one who knew their Bibles could doubt what Jesus was doing or what is meant. The Pharisees and chief priests certainly understood. The king had come to Jerusalem.

There was only one problem. Jerusalem and its leaders didn't want this king--or at least the kind of kingship he represented to them. This was also in fulfillment of prophecy, but it still meant that, by their rejection, they were sealing their own doom and the destruction of their beloved city.

However, the story does not end there. The week between Palm Sunday and Easter, called "Holy Week" by many, was a time of much teaching and preparation by Jesus, pointing to his coming death, but also to the culmination of history, when he would return to earth, again presenting himself as a King. This time, there would be no option being presented, however. He would come in power and glory, taking vengeance on his enemies and redeeming his people.

This Palm Sunday, we can join the chorus of those on the streets crying out "Hosanna"--meaning "save now!"  Thankfully, we know that through his death, he has secured that salvation, and his resurrection is the proof. We also now know that he will be king, and it will be amazing.

Keep returning this week for posts on the events of Christ's passion during Holy Week.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Kidnapped for Christ

Lessons from childhood turn a victim into a victor

Nothing can strike fear in the heart of a parent like a threat to a child, and kidnapping is one of those horrible nightmares we hope never comes near. But a long time ago, it happened to a boy from a very wealthy family. He hadn't been especially targeted, but pirates had landed near his coastal home and he was caught and carried off to be a slave. Others were killed, and he had no knowledge of what happened to his family.

Now a captive and a slave, he was sold and for six years he was forced to work in fields, tending animals for his master. But during this time, he found himself thinking a lot about lessons he had been taught as a child. His parents and grandparents had been strong Christians, but he had not taken their faith very seriously, even though they made him learn the scriptures and listen to lessons about the Bible. He began to go over these lessons and verses in his mind until he realized that he believed them--he had become a Christian!

After six years, he had a dream (or a vision--he wasn't sure which), where he heard a voice tell him he was going home, and his ship was ready. Knowing that he would be killed if he was captured, he escaped one night and fled to a seaport, where he found a foreign ship that was leaving--he got on and escaped. The ship made it back to his homeland, but the sailors didn't know the place, and it was not familiar to anyone. For a month the crew wandered, and nearly starved. But our young hero told them to pray and trust God, and sure enough, a herd of wild pigs came along--pork chops! Soon they found the way to his home, and he was reunited with the family he thought was lost!

That is an amazing story as it is, but it actually gets better. As our young man (now in  his early 20s) thought about what God had done, he began to have another thought--the people who had captured him had no hope of salvation because the gospel he had believed had never been taught there. An idea began to form in his mind, and it led to his preparing himself to be a Christian minister and missionary. His goal was incredible--he would go back to the people who had enslaved him, even though his return would mean a death sentence as a runaway slave.

He went. When he arrived, no one would believe that he had come back, but he told them why he had come. And through his teaching, his prayers, and the courage God gave him, the people there began to accept the gospel--at first just a few, but then more and more, than then chiefs and whole villages and clans, until this became a more "Christian" land than where he had been born. People began to tell stories about him doing miracles, but he never said anything about them himself--he just highlighted his faith in the God who saved him, and allowed him to be kidnapped so that he would believe.

Our hero, of course, is Patrick, and today is St. Patrick's Day in honor of the day that it is believed that he died in the land where he had been a slave and became a missionary--Ireland.

Never underestimate the importance of teaching a child the truth--even if he or she isn't interested. Never doubt the ability of God to use unexpected and undesirable circumstances to change a life. And never rule out any sense of calling to share God's truth with people who need it, even if it makes you afraid (with good reason!).

Patrick taught many prayers to his people, and one of them is a favorite of mine that we have used at times in church services. It is called "The Breastplate" (a piece of armor that protects the upper body). Here it is:
I bind unto myself today
The strong name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this day to me for ever,
By power of faith, Christ's Incarnation;
His baptism in the Jordan River;
His death on cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spic├Ęd tomb;
His riding up the heavenly way;
His coming at the day of doom;
I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself the power
Of the great love of the Cherubim;
The sweet 'Well done' in judgment hour;
The service of the Seraphim,
Confessors' faith, Apostles' word,
The Patriarchs' prayers, the Prophets' scrolls,
All good deeds done unto the Lord,
And purity of virgin souls.

I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the starlit heaven,
The glorious sun's life-giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind's tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea,
Around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, His might to stay,
His ear to hearken to my need.
The wisdom of my God to teach,
His hand to guide, his shield to ward,
The word of God to give me speech,
His heavenly host to be my guard.

Against the demon snares of sin,
The vice that gives temptation force,
The natural lusts that war within,
The hostile men that mar my course;
Or few or many, far or nigh,
In every place and in all hours
Against their fierce hostility,
I bind to me these holy powers.

Against all Satan's spells and wiles,
Against false words of heresy,
Against the knowledge that defiles,
Against the heart's idolatry,
Against the wizard's evil craft,
Against the death-wound and the burning
The choking wave and the poisoned shaft,
Protect me, Christ, till thy returning.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the name,
The strong name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three,
Of whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
salvation is of Christ the Lord.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Change is in the Air!

It's all around us: some good, some not, always bringing the "new"

When you get ready to file your taxes this year, you may discover that the recently passed tax bill will make some changes--many predict they will be good. We'll see.

Your favorite baseball teams have been making off season deals, and the lineup you loved (or hated) will be changed from last year. Will this be an improvement? We'll see.

This will be the first year for some of us without a special loved one around, or with a new baby, or living in a new place, or leaving an old job, or beginning a new one, or starting a new relationship, or... well, dealing with a major life change. Maybe it was one that you sought. Perhaps it has taken you by surprise. In either case it might be welcome, or it might seem tragic.

I know some people who are always looking for new challenges, different experiences, and unfamiliar territory to conquer. There is a fair amount of that in me, although I'd like to pick and choose the areas of life where the challenges occur. Others want things predicable and familiar. Routine is wonderful and safe. I have some of this desire as well. I'm guessing there is a "change spectrum" and all of us fall somewhere along it, trending on direction or the other.

But in this world we must always remember two truths:

1. Things change. It may be slow or fast, and it may be small or large, but change will come. It will come to our bodies with every passing day and year. Since your body's cells are constantly replacing themselves (except in the brain), you probably aren't the person you were a year ago!

Families change, both in make-up and in dynamics. As our kids grow, we leave behind some aspects of family life and gain others. It's not good or bad, it's just different. Of course as children become adults the changes in family life grow ever greater with greater independence.

Circumstances change, and what was perfectly normal and acceptable can become awkward and out of place. Or they can go from uncomfortable to desirable by the addition or subtraction of one or more details. We all know or have heard stories of people who had wonderful jobs with a business, and then the company was purchased, new management came in, and a family spirit was replaced with cost cutting and layoffs. Or think of the person who has suffered in great pain, until a new doctor runs a test and discovers its source and brings a treatment that gives pain free living.

Directions change--not on the compass, but in our lives. I cannot tell you how many people I know who have found themselves thinking they would pursue one path, who have found themselves on another entirely, be it education, career, or relationship.

Churches change, which shouldn't surprise us at all given the fact that they are made up of people who change, and are constantly adding (and sometimes losing) members who have unique gifts and talents. As time passes, methods and programs that were effective at one time are found to be less so because the people they are intended to reach or serve have changed. Churches that built their ministries with buses for kids, Sunday school contests, or door to door visitation have either changed their approaches and methods or died.

Many changes are a mix of good and bad from our human vantage points. When we moved across the country to come to Ohio, we said goodbye to so many people and a church we loved. Our first years here weren't always easy, even with so many who loved and cared for us here from the very start. Change was hard, but has yielded incredible good.

Undoing change is nearly impossible. When I was a fourth grader we moved from our town in Michigan to Cincinnati where my Dad got a master's degree at Xavier. We moved back to our old town after that year, but little was the same. We moved to a different house and even though my parents would set up times for me to see my old friends, the year had led to lots of changes for them, and for me; and let's face it, when you are in fifth grade in a different school the five mile difference from your old life might as well be forever.

Change is necessary. Nothing new comes to be without it. Nothing old comes to an end without creating it. But the new that comes is often shaped by the old that was, even though it's not the same. When dear ones in our church who were a vital part of our lives have moved away, God does not "replace" them. I could name all sorts of people in my church life that caused me to mourn when they told me they were moving to a new town. You can probably think of some, too. No one replaces them in your heart or has exactly the same impact on you. Instead, God brings new people who fill voids we didn't know we had, and help us become what God wants us to be today and prepares us for tomorrow.

Our own church is celebrating God's faithfulness in so many ways--remarkable provisions and providences have left us amazed. As we have thought about all the blessings God has given, our staff has recognized that God must be getting us ready for something, even though we are not sure what that "something" will be. That is why we are calling the church now to a concerted time of prayer (and fasting) as the year begins (You can go to our church website to learn more about this, starting next week). But one thing we can be sure of is that this will mean changes will come. I don't know what they will be, and I'm sure some of them will make me (maybe all of us) uncomfortable at times.

This should not frighten us, but excite us that God may well have some amazing new opportunities to serve him here and throughout the world in store. Why should we not be afraid? That's the second truth we must remember.

2. Our God does not change. His word is settled forever. From forever to forever he is God. Because he does not change his people are not destroyed. His promises are unchanging even as his mercies are new every morning. His righteousness is forever. He is the faithful and true One.

He doesn't change, but he seems to love it--in fact, he will not let evil continue unchecked, injustice go unpunished, or abandon his people forever, even when it seems times are tough. Our God is the One who won't let sin, decay, and death win, but instead says, "Look, I am making all things new!"

That "newness" begins when we see ourselves--our "old" self--as sinful, lost, broken, and in need of forgiveness and grace. We see that God is true and right and good and just and merciful, and we cry out for him. We see Jesus, his Son, on the cross, dying for our sin, taking our place under God's wrath, and we ask him to save us. We ask God to replace the lies we've believed with truth, to turn us around and head us toward him, to change us. And he does. We call it being made a "new creation"--and God sends his Spirit into us to bring about that great change from old paths to newness of life. That change is the most important one of all, and how I pray you have experienced it!

In the meantime, before all is finally made new,  he does not leave his people without purpose in the present or hope for the future. He calls us to trust him to use the realities of the present to prepare us for a glorious future. He sometimes acts slowly from our perspective, when we would want change faster. And sometimes he brings changes we don't feel ready for. But because he has already declared the ending of the story before it began, and because of his fierce love for his people, we can breathe in the air of change with confidence now, and the promise of an eternally better future. We can love and celebrate what we have had in the past--and even mourn the loss of what we loved about those days. But we can always look forward to "better"--whether it is in the new tasks and challenges and opportunities God will provide (along with the hardships they will bring), or ultimately when we enter into the "new things" God creates at the culmination of history. And then, brothers and sisters, don't think change comes to an end.  Oh no! We will be living in the presence of the infinite God who will forever be unfolding new things to us-- a million years from now, I believe God will be showing us yet another new thing that will cause us to marvel and praise and go, "Wow, I never would have guessed that!"

Change is in the air. Breathe.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Common Graces

Our desire to see God work may obscure when he does so

So many times in our lives we find ourselves in need, or hurting, or questioning, and we want to see God help us:
"Show me the way, Lord."
"Help me to feel better about this."
"Please take the pain away."
"I need your comfort today."
"I won't make it without your grace, Lord."
Such requests are normal, and should be asked--after all, God tells us to cast our anxieties upon him, to ask for what we need, and to pray without ceasing.

However, I think we sometimes miss it when he answers these prayers. And a book our pastoral team is reading reminded me why this is so.

I like to have our staff read through books that will help us think about matters related to serving the church, and recently we've been reading one about how people grow. Written by a counselor, it is saying all the right things, but in language that is different than pastors normally use, and that makes it catch our attention. The last chapter we discussed talked about how God's plans for our growth involve people--the body of Christ. The author makes the point that such prayers as those above are often prayed with the hope that God will somehow supernaturally show up and miraculously tell us what to do, dispense a miracle cure, or give us a divine hug and an "attaboy (or girl), you can do it!" But that is not how God works.

Instead, God puts his people in our lives, who bring the grace that we need. The author illustrates with the story of a man who lacked self discipline and kept creating a serious problem for himself. His solution? Pray, and ask God to heal him of his problem. The man told his Christian friend about his problem, and the friend guided him toward good counsel, accountability, and a network of people who continued to encourage, check up on, and otherwise move the sufferer in the right direction. After a period of time, the man with the problem realized that it was gone. He was happy, but just a bit disappointed that God hadn't healed him. But God had healed him--through the lives and gracious ministry of the body of Christ.

That is how God usually does his work--not by divine, direct intervention, but through members of the Body exercising their graces and gifts on behalf of others. You are hurting and your prayer is for comfort. How is God most likely to bring it? Not by you going off by yourself and waiting for a heavenly hug. Rather, it will most likely come by you engaging with your spiritual community, sharing your hurt, and letting them love on you. That is not a substitute for God's comfort, it is its supply through his people. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1 that God comforts us in all our affliction, and that we can then comfort others. Notice that we comfort others, which means God's comfort comes through people. And while God certainly can and does give special experiences of assurance of his presence and comfort, even Paul mentions at various times that he was comforted by the coming of certain people when he needed them, or receiving certain news when he was distressed for people--in short, God's comfort isn't just a supernatural "zapping," but is usually through God's people doing what we should do as we see those around us in hard circumstances.

So the next time you pray a prayer that comes from a deep sense of need, may I encourage you to do so from a place where you are in close proximity to the rest of the Body of Christ and being honest about your situation? Because in those circumstances you are in a position for God to answer that prayer in the way he normally does--through his people.