Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Miracles Today

We think of the healings of the blind, the raising of the dead and the removal of the Assyrians from Jerusalem as first order miracles when in fact they are minor supernatural events compared to the matters of the heart.  Jesus' demands of us are plainly beyond human capabilities and yet He still holds them up to us as how we are to live.  He warns us that anyone who murders is subject to judgment and none of us would argue that point.  But then he goes on to say that if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First be reconciled to your brother before returning with your gift.  Above all else, we are to keep our lives free of conflict with our fellow children of God.  This seems absurd and even unnatural but that is the normal pattern of behavior within God's Kingdom.  How can we manage such expectations?  We can't.  We must operate within the sphere of Christ where inside the human heart, both in its conscious and unconscious parts He breaks apart the barriers between people.  At every turn we are to pray and be guided by the Holy Spirit in how to respond to what we face with our fellow broken human beings.  We may lack the faith needed for reconciliation but God does not excuse our spiritual laziness.  Get back up, pray for Christ to heal the psychological wounds and eventually the relationship will be restored.  There is your part and there is God's part.  Your part is to forgive the offence you hold.  His part is to take out of the hearts of others the weight of your offending actions.  The great miracles are always the ones that put people back together into a love relationship based in forgiveness and reconciliation.  For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:20 NIV

Monday, August 7, 2017

Chaos to Order

Genesis 1:2 NIV
 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

What Do You Do About the Chaos?

Several years ago I was leading a Bible Study in a home and when we finished, I walked out to my van but it wasn’t there.  Up and down the street I wandered, hoping I had just forgotten where I parked but the truth was that it was gone.  Someone had stolen it while I was “doing God’s work”.  Inside it was my laptop, an IPod and my digital camera.  I am not sure what hurt the most, the loss of the van which I often had griped about or the fact that it happened while I was hopefully pleasing God.  The chaos in my head was I am certain easily seen as I struggled to make sense of what had just happened. This was unreasonable and not fair and infuriating.  It did not seem right that God would let this happen to me.  

Chaos comes to all of us some time or another. It is usually unexpected and unnerving.  Some seem to manage chaos well but others of us have a tough time coping with it.  We like order.  We want to know what to expect and have a plan in place when troubles come.  Perhaps you handle chaos well.  You rather like chaos and the adrenalin rush it brings.  But it might be that the unexpected storm rattles you.  Suddenly you crack your tooth or you lose your wallet or you get in a car wreck.  In a world broken by sin and thrown into chaos as a result of the rebellion of humanity, we can never assume everything will go smoothly or all our plans will come to pass as we hope.  It is more than just “drama” that you face; it is without warning out and out madness.

Before God created humanity and the creatures of the earth, the Bible says that the world was literally as the Hebrew words indicate, chaotic and disordered.  Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. (Genesis 1:2 NIV)  It was in this state of disarray that the Lord in six days structured the universe and brought to the earth order.  Water was in its place.  Land was separated from the oceans.  Day and night were structured and species of land, air and sea creatures were separated from each other.  Everything was put in place and love and peace ruled the earth.  But then Adam sinned and the world was again in chaos with animals attacking each other, diseases bringing terror and humanity unstable and tossed about by anger and lust and jealousy.

Into this world entered God.  Jesus Christ was born of a virgin and built His life in an isolated part of the world that was largely ignored by all the great civilizations.  God by coming to us, did so in order to make the world once more rational and in every way good.  Jesus had a single mission; to take out of you and me sin and by doing so remove the chaos of Sin from the world. David perfectly describes the chaos of this world and how difficult it can get for you.  …my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and my body with grief.  My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning; my strength fails because of my affliction, and my bones grow weak. (Psalm 31:9-10 NIV)

Not every day is like this but enough are to paint a picture of how far chaos can go in this world.  It is frustrating and sometimes overwhelming; the chaos we encounter and like I struggled trying to make sense of the loss of my van, it is normal to wonder why there is so much chaos.  After Jesus sent His disciples off in a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee with Jesus peacefully asleep, chaos erupted.   Without warning, a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. (Matthew 8: 24 NIV)  It astounded the disciples that Jesus could sleep through all that wild commotion but privately many of them must have wondered why God let such a great storm come upon them when they were doing God’s work. 

While He was teaching some in the crowd mentioned the tragic slaughter of some Galileans by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.  It seems that they wanted Jesus to explain why God let them be killed.  Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.  Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.  Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them — do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?” (Luke 13:1-5 NIV)  Jesus does not welcome at all the hunt for blame when tragedy strikes!  Yes, the world is filled with both sinners and chaos but one person’s sin is not the cause of the chaos we find.  The disciples had a similar question for Jesus when they came upon a man who had been born blind.  His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9:2 NIV) Jesus’ response was perhaps not what they expected. "Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” (John 9:3 NIV)

When we look at the chaos all about us, we are asking the wrong question if we are trying to draw a straight line cause-and-effect relationship between who we are and what we face.  The assumption or at least the expectation must be in every case that chaos is to be expected but every time chaos occurs, we must look for God to see what He does.  Why the storm?  Why the massacre?  Why the blindness?  We cannot give an explanation for it other than that we live in a wrecked and chaotic world.  But when you see chaos, always look about for God too.

There is an illustration of how you can gradually develop this approach to chaos.  During a different storm on the same lake, Peter, along with the other disciples was in a boat crossing the Sea of Galilee when a storm developed and the winds began to blow strongly.  The chaos however went beyond the storm.  During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake.  When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. "It's a ghost," they said, and cried out in fear. (Matthew 14:25-26 NIV)  Jesus though reassured them.  But Jesus immediately said to them: "Take courage! It is I.  Don't be afraid." (Matthew 14: 27 NIV)  Famously, Peter, trusting Jesus to take care of him, got out of the boat and started walking on the water just like he saw Jesus doing.  At that moment, Peter recognized the chaos but looked for God in it.  Soon though, the storm was all he saw and he started sinking into the water.  Chaos has that effect on us.  We can let it overwhelm our sensitivity to God.

Peter had another opportunity to look past the chaos and see God in it but he didn’t make use of the opportunity.  When Jesus was arrested by the Jewish leaders, Peter thought all was lost and even though our Lord told him and the others that this was part of God’s plan, Peter panicked when He saw Jesus beaten and humiliated.  Three times he denied to the people watching with him that he even knew Jesus.  It was a lost cause to Peter and he could not see God in what was happening.  In just a couple years though, Peter was not so lost.

What turned everything around for Peter was that Jesus rose from the dead after He was crucified and as for all other true Christians, the Holy Spirit became a part of his personality.  From that point forward, all the mental strength and moral power of God was a part of him and can be a part of you too, Peter could never get completely lost in chaos.  Although it may not seem traumatic like being caught in a storm or watching as Christ was being beaten there was nonetheless a tremendous challenge Peter faced after the Holy Spirit came on him and the others the day of Pentecost.  The disciples started facing persecution.  James the Apostle was executed for his faith in Christ as was the deacon Stephen and Peter was more than once arrested and threatened with death.  Peter had started to make a regular practice of trying to see God in whatever he faced and after having moved away from Jerusalem he stayed with some friends in the Roman dominated town of Caesarea.  While there, some messengers came to him from a Roman centurion, asking Peter to come to the centurion’s home.  There were two problems with the invitation.  One, Peter was Jewish and Jewish people did not go into the homes of those who weren’t Jewish. More importantly though it was a centurion who wanted to see Peter and this was a great challenge for Peter.  It was the Roman soldiers who executed Jesus.  This quite possibly could have been a threat.  What was Peter to do?  Would he trust Christ within the chaos of going to see the Centurion or let his fear rule him and stay home?

The decision Peter finally made enabled Peter to see God in the chaos he faced.  Before that, God was in the storm, He was there to trust too but he did not see it.  After that, God was in the crucifixion of Christ and He was there to trust but Peter didn’t see it then either.  Now, the invitation to go to the centurion’s house, although frightening and risky had God there too just like with the other two chaotic moments.  There is a crisis of faith for you every time you face chaos.  Do you believe God will see you through this?  Will you trust Him to help you and carry you?  Do you believe He loves you and that the chaos you have now will be worked out by Christ and that although it might be hard now and very hard, He will stay with you no matter how rough it gets?  Peter had to go through some rugged and painful experiences before he became convinced that the Lord was good enough to trust within the storm and not just when the warm and gentle breezes were blowing.  God’s peace is not theoretical, it is practical.  It is of no use if you cannot have God’s peace when chaos comes.  Your chaos is your opportunity to test the Lord’s power to see you through it and as you trust Christ in the chaos, He is proven to be good and really good.  When you see Him there, in the middle of your chaos, you will learn and learn completely, that your Lord is bigger, and stronger and kinder than you ever imagined.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Getting it Done

The rise of civilization came through the murderous line of Cain.  It was his descendants who gave themselves to the arts, tool-making and warfare.  Cain was the inspiration behind the first recorded example of honor killing.  Organized ranching and farming was developed by the line of Cain as were the proliferation of cities.  The world order began with one man's determination to do away with his chief rival and create a monopoly for himself.  The line of Seth out of which came Noah and his family, was known for a solitary accomplishment.  One from their number, "walked with God".    If you assess all that has been accomplished since Adam sinned and transformed the course of human history, you must decide how to properly evaluate everything that has taken place.  Does it look more like it came from Cain or Abel?  Are your accomplishments along the lines of Seth or his older brother Cain?  What we decide is "getting things done" may rather be the unraveling of our Lord's agenda.  It is strange to think that the impoverished widow who gave her few pennies to the offering accomplished far more than Herod who led the reconstruction of the Temple of Jerusalem.  What we call civilization may be nothing of the sort.  Whether we consider the construction of Babel or Solomon's great palace, it seems that civilized thinking rarely generates a civilized heart.  Start with your mind on Christ and do whatever you can to keep it on Him throughout your day.  Then, whatever you do,  work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men... (Colossians 3:23 NIV)

Monday, July 31, 2017

Too Far Down the Road

Jonah 1:11 NIV
 The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, "What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?"

Have You Gone Too Far?

Recently I had to take a rental car back after a trip to Los Angeles.  I needed to return it to the San Jose airport which is about a twenty minute drive from my home.  Before that though I discovered from my son that my wife’s car needed to be taken to the mechanic so after dropping it off, I headed to the airport.  No one in my family could drive my car because it is a manual transmission and it was in the church parking lot.  So it was up to my son to bring my wife to the airport to come get me.  For an hour I waited for them to arrive.  Growing frustrated, I called my wife to find out what had happened to them, only to discover that the hood of my son’s car had flown open while they were driving on the freeway and because they could not figure out how to reattach the hood, they were driving slowly back home, praying the hood would not bounce back up onto the windshield again while they were in traffic.  So what was I to do?  It was easy, I would just call one of my friends to come get me but I only had the numbers of three people in my phone who I thought I could ask.  One by one I called each of them and every time, the person I called did not take the call.  So now what was I supposed to do?  The normal answer would be, “Just solve the problem!”

What is your typical response to a difficult problem?  Do you just figure out what to do? Do you make the best of things and not worry about the outcome?  Are you a fretter?  Do you try to find an expert and get advice?  Do you just quit when you aren’t sure what to do?  How do you respond psychologically to the problems in life?  Are you most likely to take charge of the issue at hand or pretend as if nothing is wrong?  It is true that each situation is different and sometimes we react one way and other times another way.  Yet we must admit that we probably have a default setting when it comes to challenging situations; a way of approaching them that is our usual pattern.  What is going to be suggested today is that we can go too far in how we solve matters and when we do so we can be left psychologically exhausted.

What is meant by “psychologically exhausted”?  This is the state when we find it nearly impossible because of the lack of internal resources to cope emotionally in our preferred manner.  For example, rather than feeling relaxed and peaceful, you can’t hold back your anger, depression despair, anxiety and bitterness or even lust or moral limits.  Like someone who is so tired from driving that she cannot keep from falling asleep at the wheel, certain types of situations become too big for you to handle the way you wish you could or would.  You blow up at someone you really do love.  You develop a headache because of anxiety levels you have reached.  You lie or act in ways morally incompatibly with your values or you give in to an addiction you thought you were past or don’t show the sort of integrity you think you should or believe you ought to maintain.  There is a cause of psychological exhaustion that is actually quite simple.  We try to do God’s work and it is too much for us to handle.

Here is a way of illustrating this that you may have experienced personally or at least have known of happening.  A person who is not a skilled swimmer wades out into the ocean and suddenly a wave unexpectedly swells and sweeps that person off his feet and he is caught in the undertow.  Flailing wildly, the person tries desperately to get his head above the water so he can get his breath.  His heart is pounding, his mind is racing in desperation and his eyes are frantically searching for the surface.  If he does survive, he is left exhausted and even traumatized.  Spiritually it is like that for you when you are not careful.  If you take away from God the work He alone is supposed to be doing, you respond psychologically in similar ways to the panting and traumatized swimmer.  We see examples of this mistake often in scripture.

There is a strange detail in the account of Jesus’ crucifixion that although curious, rings true to human nature.  Christ was hung on a cross and on either side of him two criminals were also nailed to crosses.  Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed.  When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals — one on his right, the other on his left…One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" (Luke 23:32-33, 39 NIV)  Isn’t this odd?  One of the two men suffering the same fate as Jesus, convulsing in terrible agony used that time to curse and mock Jesus.  His psychological pain was also great and the way he managed it was by insulting Jesus.  What had Jesus done to hurt this man?  How had he earned the fellow’s wrath?  Of course our Lord hadn’t done anything to warrant the insults and rage.  This was the case of someone dealing with a circumstance much too big for him to handle.  The terrors of impending death, the grief of a life wasted, the regrets of pain he caused others to suffer was crashing down upon him and he was trying to cope with all this on his own.  Unwilling to turn to God to carry him through his pain, he was left, like a drowning man unable to swim, without the psychological capacity to handle what he was facing and so the psychological reaction was to become angry with someone who actually loved him.

We see something similar in the Old Testament.  Unable to have children but determined to figure out some way to provide a child for her husband, Sarah, without turning to God for help and counsel, convinced her husband to take her servant girl and try to father a child through her.  We know how well this went.  Abraham was successful and the slave Hagar eventually gave birth to his son.  It was not quite as easy as Sarah imagined seeing her servant pregnant with a child her husband fathered.  When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress.  Then Sarai said to Abram, "You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me."  "Your servant is in your hands," Abram said. "Do with her whatever you think best." Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her. (Genesis 16:4-6 NIV)  Clearly Sarah’s jealousy was egged on by Hagar but Sarah’s plan worked perfectly except that she was not equipped psychologically to live with the consequences of her actions.  Rather than turn to God for help regarding her seeming infertility, she figured out things on her own and the result was she became psychologically exhausted trying to do God’s work.

Jeremiah 2 gives us rich insight into the difficulties we face solving all our problems without God.  "My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jeremiah 2:13)  The two sins are clearly to God evil and deadly.  The people quit turning to God for help and then developed their own strategies for solving their problems.  We have come to think as they did that getting along on your own is somehow noble and courageous.  But it is just the opposite.  It is foolish and ruinous.  On your own, all you have are the psychological skills you have acquired in life.  Some have quite a few and can manage well for a while without God.  Some have been so damaged by the hardships they have faced that they have almost nothing in them to keep their anger and depression and bitterness and jealousy at bay. Why do we see suicide and drug abuse and violence and crippling depression?  Without God carrying you through the troubles of life, you may or may not have the psychological strength to protect you and keep you at peace so you turn to your own brokenness to see you through.  There is however another option to independent living.

Consider the fascinating case study of Daniel who as a believer in God, prayed three times a day.  When a law was instituted that demanded no one would be allowed to pray to anyone other than the king for the next thirty days, Daniel coolly opened up the shutters covering his windows and quite publically continued praying to the Lord.  When he was caught and brought before the king, even though the king, who was desperate to try and save him from his own law, fretted in despair, Daniel seemingly did not have a care in the world and without comment bravely faced his sentence of being thrown into a pit with ravenous lions.  When the king heard this, he was greatly distressed; he was determined to rescue Daniel and made every effort until sundown to save him.  Then the men went as a group to the king and said to him, "Remember, O king, that according to the law of the Medes and Persians no decree or edict that the king issues can be changed."  So the king gave the order, and they brought Daniel and threw him into the lions' den. The king said to Daniel, "May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!" (Daniel 6:14-16 NIV)  Where did Daniel get his courage and peace to see him through his trials?  He went directly to God.

Jesus’ famous promise to give his people peace is almost universally misunderstood in one important detail.  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 14:27 NIV)  Jesus is not offering to give you a reason to have peace.  He is pledging that the peace He possesses Himself will be inserted into you when you accept it from Him. Regardless of what you have learned or not learned in life, of however many self-help books you have read or not read and however much confidence or despair is in you, God’s peace will take over and put calmness in your heart.  Christ did not die on the cross in order to give you strategies for having peace in your life.   That would leave you with the same failure rates of all other men or women who have tried to work out their problems on their own.  He died so that you might have his own personality working inside you regardless of what you face each and every day.  Stop trying to figure everything out on your own.  Let God work out things in you so that whatever challenges you face can be worked out through you.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Do You Need Help?

Exodus 2:23 NIV
During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God.

If You Needed Help, Would You Ask?

A few weeks ago I went to an office supply store needing to order business cards.  I went to the copy center and a very nice person asked me, “How can I help you?”  Normally I would rather robotically just answer the question the way it was intended to be answered.  But this time something went wrong within my brain and I started thinking about all the various ways I could use help.  “Yes, I have a problem with a skin tag on my eyelid.  Do you have any suggestions?”  “Sure, how can I get my daughter to keep her room clean?”  “Do you know what I should do about the sermon I need to deliver next week?”  “How can I get affordable housing in Fremont?”   “What should I do about my arthritic knees?”  Fortunately for those waiting in line behind me, I only told the clerk about my need for business cards.  Yet it would have been nice if she could have helped me with the other matters too!

If God asked you directly, “How can I help you”, how would you respond?  Would you take the question seriously?  Would you tell Him about your real concerns or just give a few trivial problems to solve?  Do you want help from God or are you pretty satisfied with how everything is going?    Would you consider the Lord your lifeline when nothing else works or are you dependent upon Him to help you with even the smallest of issues?  What part does God play in solving the problems you face?

Nothing is quite as certain as this!  If you are not struggling with something too big for you now, eventually you will.  When you find yourself in such a predicament, you will fall into one of two camps.  You will either ask God for help or you won’t.  It is interesting but considering that the Bible is a religious book mostly about God, you can find in it plenty of accounts of those who show no interest in getting help from God.  The Pharisees were one of the most religious people of their time.  They studied the Old Testament.  They carefully kept as many religious laws as they deemed possible.   They even made up laws just to be careful to keep God happy with them.  But when Jesus Christ, God in flesh appeared, they did not want to have anything to do with Him.  They often tested Jesus to see if they could find flaws in His Bible knowledge.  They never though asked Him for help.  Of all the miracles of Christ, it does not seem that the Pharisees ever found a problem they needed Him to solve.

Imagine if you knew of a man who had been born blind, was blind through childhood and into adulthood and that man had been miraculously healed by someone.  What would have been your reaction?  Would you have thought of things this person could do for you?  Would you bring your needs to Him?  The Pharisees certainly did care about the miracle but they did not seem interested in getting His help with their own problems.  They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind.  Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man's eyes was a Sabbath.  Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. "He put mud on my eyes," the man replied, "and I washed, and now I see."  Some of the Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath."  But others asked, "How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?" So they were divided. (John 9:13-16 NIV)

It is striking the total disregard the Pharisees had for the good Jesus could do.  They clearly did not care about finding out how Jesus could help them also!  Yet one of the Pharisees, Nicodemus came at night wanting Jesus to help him with the questions he had.  The priests who ran the Temple were Sadducees, another religious group that was much less interested in what the Bible had to say than the Pharisees and they did not have any confidence in God’s ability to do anything miraculous.  Despite all the miracles happening in Jerusalem and the greatest of all the miracles, Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, the priests did not want Jesus’ help either.  In fact when they heard about what happened with Lazarus, they wanted both Lazarus and Jesus dead.  Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.  "What are we accomplishing?" they asked. "Here is this man performing many miraculous signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation."  Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, "You know nothing at all!  You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish…. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well…  (John 11:47-50, 12: 10 NIV)

When the Roman governor of Judea finally met Jesus, having heard the reports of all the good things Jesus had done, he struggled with the insistence of the Jewish priests that Jesus needed to be executed.  Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?"  "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied.  When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer.  Then Pilate asked him, "Don't you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?"  But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge — to the great amazement of the governor. (Matthew 27:11-14 NIV)  Pilate, who certainly had plenty of needs himself given all we know about the problem Pilate had with his supervisors in Rome as well as the Jewish people he was supposed to govern, did not look for any help from Jesus for anything.  Pilate’s wife ironically did have a need.  She begged her husband to not harm Jesus because “…I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him." (Matthew 27:19 NIV)

One of the strangest of all the accounts of the humiliations and beatings Jesus suffered before He was crucified involved Herod, Jewish king who ruled over the Galilean region.  When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform some miracle. (Luke 23:8-9 NIV)  Herod Antipas had plenty of problems, including an impending war with his former father-in-law yet he saw no need of help from Jesus.  He had heard of Jesus’ great miracles and thought of Christ as a trick pony instead of the one who could make his life right.  Rather than ask Jesus to save him, which is what he needed, he had Jesus beaten and joined with others in the court mocking Christ.  Yet interestingly enough the manager of his household was married and his wife humbly came to Jesus for help. …and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod's household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means. (Luke 8: 2-3 NIV)

Consider carefully what Jesus announced at the Temple during one of the great Jewish feasts.  On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him."  By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified. (John 7:37-39 NIV)  The entrance of the Holy Spirit into a life only happens when someone wants Him.  You must come to Christ on your own if you are to have the Holy Spirit.  God does not force Himself upon you.  He says that if you are thirsty, come to Him.  You must need God and know you need Him before He will do anything of substance with you.  If you want the Holy Spirit flowing in and out of you, clearing up your mind, straightening out the way you think, impacting those around you and giving them through you the taste of Christ, then you must ask Christ for this.

Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3 NIV)  Are you poor in spirit?  Do you want God filling your life more than anything?  Have you become so in need of God that you crave Him like an infant craves her mother’s milk?  Try this little experiment.  Pick out someone you care about and pray for that person thirty days in a row. Ask for Christ to be that person’s blessing.  Put his or her name on your mirror and pray for Christ to bless that soul.  See what God does in you as you pray: how the Holy Spirit joins with you in your praying.  Give your worries about yourself a break and put your concentration on the Holy Spirit praying through you for the one you have been given to bless in prayer.  Out of you will flow streams of living water.  Take the thirty day challenge.  I wonder what might happen when God works through thirty people committed completely to being vessels of God’s goodness and grace for thirty days.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Where Do We Go From Here?

Ecclesiastes 1:3-5 NIV
What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.

What Should You Do Next?

At the age of thirty-two, I came to a major crossroads in my life.  I was about to graduate with my degree and because Mary Jo and I lived in school housing, we had to move.  But where?  I loved New Orleans, enjoyed being close to Mary Jo’s family.  Mary Jo had a very good job where she was successful.  I enjoyed my work as a behavioral therapist and took great pleasure in helping rebuild broken families.  There was no reason to leave.  Housing was fairly inexpensive and we could have soon bought a nice home.  We both had a wealth of great friendships and loved our church.  Yet, we both knew we were about to embark on a new journey; the question was “What do we do next?”

Perhaps you too have felt the itch for a change.  You watch the same TV shows over and over again.  Each day you wash dishes, take the kids places, wear the same clothes, drive the same car, arrive at the same home and nothing much is really different.  It could be that you have grown bored with your life.  You take the same route to work, eat the same foods and wake up with the same problems.  As the Bible puts it, “the sun rises and the sun sets” and this just keeps happening day after day, year after year.  You can buy new skirts, go to a different restaurant, see a new movie, try out a new hiking trail but that does not mean you will quit feeling like you are a hamster running on her wheel.  Much of your life is repetitive and common and you may feel tired of the boredom you are experiencing.

Solomon, the famous king of Israel struggled with boredom too.  He read lots of books, studied plants and animals and wrote thousands of proverbs to challenge his mind.  He built gardens and homes, acquired thousands of horses and cattle and sheep.  Solomon switched religions and got married over and over again just to fight the monotony.  The wealthy king had the finest chefs at his disposal and could buy anything he wanted.  Here is a summary of Solomon’s quest for deliverance from the hamster wheel. 

I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards.  I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them.  I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees.  I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me.  I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well — the delights of the heart of man.  I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.  I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.  My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor.  Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:4-11 NIV)

So there you have one of the wealthiest people of all time unable to overcome the boredom of life.  The Bible is filled with examples of those who thought a change was needed.  David, perhaps tired of conquering nations decided that at the age of forty or so that he would try conquering another man’s wife.  Moses at around one hundred years old acquired a new wife.  Jacob at sixty quit working for his father-in-law and packed up his family to start his own business a hundred or so miles away.  David certainly made a wreck of matters by committing adultery and having his lover’s husband killed.  Moses certainly did not help his marriage any taking on a second wife and perhaps it worked out for Jacob breaking away from his father-in-law but what we have noticed over the years is that regardless of what changes you make, if you are the same person after the changes, then whatever irked you about life will return, perhaps even worse than ever.  It seems that whatever Solomon did to upgrade his life wound up increasing his levels of misery.

The problem that is rarely addressed is that there is an underlying level of angst among God’s people.  Within the mass of humanity is an unexpressed fear or doubt among many that the Lord is not good enough.  What if it does not go as He promises?  What if Christ cannot fix our problems, is unable to satisfy us, won’t really make us better or our lives better if we follow Him?  The doubt that God doesn’t live up to the hype is prevalent and is not easily overcome.  Many are like the officer in Israel’s army who when he heard that God would provide plenty of food for the people of the city he was helping defend, exclaimed incredulously to the prophet Elisha who gave him the news, "Look, even if the Lord should open the floodgates of the heavens, could this happen?" (2 Kings 7: 2 NIV)  Now we must admit that the soldier had what many would say was good reason to discount the prophet’s words.  The city of Samaria was under siege by a great army and it was so bad and food so scarce that the people had started practicing cannibalism.  The king of Israel was equally skeptical of God helping them.  And [the king] said, "This disaster is from the Lord. Why should I wait for the Lord any longer?"  (2 Kings 6:33 NIV)

Few of us have been in such a terrifying spot as the king and his officer but most Christians and non-Christians have at one time felt the same way about the Lord’s willingness or capacity to help.  “Does the Lord really love me?”  “Will He do anything to help me?”  In a world that is wrecked by Sin at every level, it takes courage to trust God when so much is bad and really bad.  People are cruel to each other, calamities occur that are not rational and the natural order is filled with evil and death.  No one can say that everything is sweet and comfortable because it isn’t or if it is it won’t always be.  The natural response to the troubles and hardships in this world is to look for a change that we manufacture.  We move.  We buy something.  We find entertainment that distracts us.  We medicate.  Recently I saw in the news that a fifteen year old girl left her home to join a violent street gang that is known for its corruption and cruelty.  The girl was beaten, tortured and stabbed to death by members of the gang she hoped would make her life better. How can you explain such misery?  It is a broken world and what will a funny movie do to alleviate that?  Can a new pair of sneakers make you feel really good when you are fighting with your husband?

It is true that you may need a change but why not let Christ be at the center of your change. The Gospel of Luke has a beautiful little side note that provides us with insight into our need for change.  After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod's household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.  (Luke 8:1-3 NIV)

What a lovely example for us all.  These women had been broken.  Some, like Mary Magdalene, had suffered from demon possession; others from diseases.  They could have been bitter over all they had suffered in life.  They could have built their lives without God because it might have seemed to them that He had let them down and put them through so much.  Instead, the women gave themselves over fully to Christ because of how He remade them and filled them with goodness and peace.  In addition, they found ways to help finance the ministry of Jesus and the disciples. These women certainly needed a change but the change they made was to devote themselves more fully to Christ and the Kingdom of God.  It was in Christ that they discovered life that was meaningful and filled with purpose.  They no longer were hamsters trapped on a wheel.

Perhaps you too need a change.  Why not make a change that can have a lasting impact on you and others.  Perhaps the change you need is to go on a fast.  Seek God with a clearer mind.  Maybe the change you need is to begin a ministry or join a ministry that brings help to others.  The change you really need might be to begin spending concentrated periods of time in prayer or Bible study.   Maybe you need to make a sacrifice to God that requires faith in Him to take care of you.  Perhaps there is someone or a group of people who need you to concentrate on helping them find Christ through the Gospel.  Why not make a change that might really do you some good?  Perhaps there is a child or a senior adult that God wants you to help.  Maybe it is time for a change; one that might bring you great joy as you experience more fully than ever God and His love flowing into you and out of you in real and specific ways.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

What Is Salvation?

 Romans 3:23 NIV
…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…

Why Does Salvation Matter?

One of the more fascinating developments in my lifetime has been the intellectual elimination of sin in our culture. It seems that very few want to acknowledge the category of sin as a real and definable set of behaviors and it rarely is discussed as a topic either in university classes, on daytime TV or in movies.  Yet the behaviors of sin are universally disliked.  If someone steps outside on a chilly Thursday morning and discovers the car he planned to take to work is stolen, he is upset.  If a mom brings her daughter to the emergency room and the child’s surgery is botched because the physician on duty was drunk, she is furious.  A drug dealer who has almost no scruples and seems to be devoid of a conscience will not tolerate for a minute a break-in to his apartment and the theft of his stash of money.  We may find few in our world who believe in sin but nearly everyone has some idea of what is wrong and what behaviors should not be tolerated.  There may not be consensus on what sins are sins but there is near universal acknowledgement that wrong is wrong and really wrong and that our world has lots of wrong in it.  The biggest question facing our world is, “How do you fix the wrong in our world?”

Salvation is equally disregarded and misunderstood in our culture.  Part of the problem is the way the term salvation is used.  Is salvation a winning touchdown or entrance into a prestigious college?  Would you be talking about the affection of a girl you like or getting the winning lotto ticket if you spoke of your “salvation”?  There is nothing like consensus of what salvation is!  You might not even see any reason for being saved if your life is going pretty well.  Salvation is one of the most important terms in Christianity however and even the name “Jesus” has built in it the idea of salvation.  What really is salvation though and why does it matter?

A widely held belief about salvation is that it is all about getting into heaven.  Heaven is popularly viewed as the “big ticket item” when God offers salvation to us.  Yet when the angel spoke with Joseph about Mary becoming pregnant with God’s Son, he was told that the child was to be called “Jesus” because he will save his people from their sins." (Matthew 1:21 NIV)  No mention is made of heaven; salvation is all about rescue from sins.  In explaining why they could not stop talking publicly about Jesus, the disciples proclaimed Christ’s mission.  The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead — whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. (Acts 5:30-31 NIV)  The Old Testament makes the same connection between salvation and sins.  Help us, O God our Savior, for the glory of your name; deliver us and forgive our sins for your name's sake. (Psalm 79:9 NIV)  The Savior, or to put it another way, the one who brings salvation, came to deliver humanity from the wreckage of sin because that is the great crisis of every human life.  It was not that we needed heaven that drove God to save us, it was that we needed deliverance from Sin.  Whenever salvation and heaven are linked in Scripture, heaven is not the object of salvation but rather the source of salvation.  But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. (Philippians 3:20-21 NIV)  Salvation comes from the God of Heaven.  Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12 NIV)

The great truth that no one ever discusses is that the most unifying factor within humanity, that which is more important than any other common link between us is the sin we all possess.  The Apostle Paul expresses this plainly.…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…(Romans 3:23 NIV)  Every one of us sins and every one of us is completely corrupted by Sin.  Psalm 38 presents the most complete picture found anywhere in literature of the impact Sin has upon each person.  O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath.  For your arrows have pierced me, and your hand has come down upon me.  Because of your wrath there is no health in my body; my bones have no soundness because of my sin.  My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear.  My wounds fester and are loathsome because of my sinful folly.  I am bowed down and brought very low; all day long I go about mourning.  My back is filled with searing pain; there is no health in my body.  I am feeble and utterly crushed; I groan in anguish of heart.  All my longings lie open before you, O Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you.  My heart pounds, my strength fails me; even the light has gone from my eyes.  My friends and companions avoid me because of my wounds; my neighbors stay far away. (Psalm 38: 1-11 NIV)

Paul states emphatically that the worst result of Sin is that it brings us death.  For the wages of sin is death… (Romans 6: 23 NIV)  Sin in any shape and look, whether it is a “small sin” or a perverse “big sin”, results in death.  When the Bible speaks of death in the sense Paul uses it in Romans, it is ruin of life in every sense imaginable.  The culmination of death is the destruction of the physical body and the absolute absence of God’s presence.  Before that though, death through sin is exactly what Psalm 38 describes.  It is oppression of the heart…depression, anger, bitterness and animosity.  Death by Sin is the oppression of the body…illnesses, injuries, genetic diseases, congenital birth defects.  Death by Sin is the inability to be content, the loss of peace with what one has, the worry and stress over what may come to pass.  Death by Sin is the fractured relationships and loss of love.  Sin brings death and death is more than a corpse in a coffin, it is the debasing of life.   We see death by sin in hospitals, prisons, foster care systems, divorce courts and mental institutions.  Death by Sin is what we all face each and every day.

Humanity has searched in a million different places to mask the effect of death by Sin.  Alcohol and drugs have been used for centuries to cover the mess.  Entertainment can only hide what is there for a limited amount of time.  The rush for success and exchanging of one friendship or partner for another when death by Sin has run its course through relationships have worked for a while but every effort at shaking off death by Sin fails eventually.

It must remembered, and this point cannot be stressed enough if we are to take seriously enough death by Sin, that we are not just talking about the impact of our own sins upon ourselves but also the effect of the sins of others on us too.  The psychological component to death by Sin is illustrated perfectly in the ugly jealousy of Moses’ brother Aaron and sister Miriam.  They were enjoying tremendous prosperity.  Having come from a humble household, they were elevated to leaders in the Hebrew community when God made Moses the director and prophet of the entire nation.  They had escaped Egypt and now were making their way to the land God promised his people.  Moses trusted them and their counsel.  Miriam was the leader of the women of Israel and Aaron the high priest.  Yet something happened to them that made them crave more power.  Sin wrecked the personality of each of them so much that they initiated a rebellion against Moses.

Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite.  "Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?" they asked. "Hasn't he also spoken through us?" And the Lord heard this. (Numbers 12:1-2 NIV)  Aaron and Miriam were probably nice people who you would have liked having as friends.  It was Miriam who helped save her brother Moses when he was a new-born from being murdered by Pharaoh’s soldiers.  Perhaps they both thought they were protecting their country from Moses’ bad policies but God did not consider their rebellion justified.  In fact, He was so angry with their actions that Miriam was immediately struck with leprosy and Aaron could have been next.  What wreckage within could lead to such a colossal act of spite on Aaron’s and Miriam’s part?  We cannot say how their upbringing impacted them or what sorts of pain they suffered as adults but we do know that somewhere they accumulated a tremendous amount of damage to their personalities that they could with such ease turn on their brother who had done so much for them.  I have had people treat me pretty terribly who I have helped and encouraged and you probably have too.  Yet I too have been horrible and hurt those I have loved and I cannot blithely wave off the consequences of my actions.  I don’t look at myself as a troubled or demonic person but I have acted like one at times.  My personality is wrecked by sin too just as yours is and we cannot fix what is wrong with us.

Jesus Christ did not die on the Cross in order to move us from a bad location to a wonderful one.  He died to remake us in every single way.  Our personality is completely ruined by Sin and no amount of effort will make us right.  Being in Heaven cannot fix us and Earth certainly won’t.  We need a Savior to take our Sin from us and make us new; a Savior who was without Sin who could be punished for our Sin and not His own.  There are thousands upon thousands of ways Sin has to be removed from us.  Sin has to be taken out of our habits.  It has to be taken out of our emotions.  It has to be taken out of our memories and out of what makes us happy.  Sin has to be removed from the way we think about things and how we react to what we face.  Sin has to be taken out of our relationships and out of what motivates us.  As long as Sin is part of us, we are condemned to death by Sin.  But with a Savior, all of our Sin gets worked out of us and we are brought into perfection…perfection of how we act and how we think.  There is nothing we need more than our Sin taken out of us and no gift of God is greater than the removal of our Sin and His recreation of us into Sinless people who live forever in complete peace and untainted joy with God within a sin-free creation.