Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Importance of U

Matthew 1: 20 NIV
But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

What Makes You Important?

Recently I came to the church office and discovered a woman sleeping on the concrete behind the sanctuary.  She was wrapped in a pure white comforter and had boxes and papers and the remains of her meal scattered around her.  She looked up at me as I went to unlock the kitchen in the back building and she asked me if I remembered her.  It is funny as I get older how often people recognize me but I can’t recall having met them.  After talking a while, I realized that it was not Alzheimer’s that led to my inability to remember her but the fact that we really had never met.  She was young and beautiful, maybe late twenties, early thirties, deeply tanned with bright green eyes and an easy smile.  It was not long though before I began to see what a broken soul she was.  Her past clearly had traumatized her and she was bitter and angry.  Gina kept talking about the demon possessed police who were following her and trying to trap her as well as evil forces that were trying to destroy her.  She was clearly a meth addict, but worse, deranged and emotionally unstable.  I brought her something to eat, gave her access to the bathroom and spent some time listening to her rants and then praying for her to have God’s peace.  After Gina left, I wondered what God wanted to do with her.  Did He have plans for her still?  Was she too wrecked to be reclaimed by God?  As Gina limped away, her damaged leg seemed to offer hope to me that if a doctor could fix her leg, surely God could remake her broken heart.  Perhaps He has plans for her that she can still fulfill?

You too are damaged in many ways, some visible but others hidden even from you.  You care about how your life is going, what it is and what will become of it despite the broken parts of you.  If you didn’t, it would probably be because you are at some level feeling hopeless.  Maybe it matters to you what God wants to do with you.  Perhaps you have thought about His plans for you and how you fit into the bigger scheme of life.  How ready are you for Christ to jump into your conscious thinking and redirect you, shift dramatically the direction you are going?  Do you believe that God has plans for you and that you play a part in what He wants to do?  Are you willing to go where He leads, do what He tells you to do?

Not long ago I spent some time pondering just how immense it was for Joseph, who was engaged to Mary, the mother of Jesus to agree with the Lord’s plan for him.  When Joseph heard from his fiancée that she was pregnant but not with his child, he immediately assumed that she had cheated on him.  Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her (his fiancée, Mary) to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. (Matthew 1:19 NIV)  However, God intervened and sent an angel to Joseph during a dream.  But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:20 NIV)

You have the benefit of being able to look back on all of this through history, knowing the supernatural circumstances of this pregnancy.  Joseph had none of our tools to process what Mary had just told him.  In addition, the vision of the angel was one embedded in a dream and we all know how convoluted and distorted dreams are.  Dreams are not very trustworthy and you cannot be sure what to do with them. Some most interesting conclusions can be drawn from this short description of how God got across to Joseph His plans for him.  Why don’t you consider each of these point by point?

Joseph was afraid, really afraid of the news that Mary was pregnant.  His plan to divorce her quietly was born out of a desperate situation.  How do you divorce someone quietly when you both are from a small village where everyone knows everyone else and weddings are community events that take in the entire town practically?  He would have had to spend months and more likely years to get to the place where he could even wed Mary.  He would not have on the spur of the moment proposed to her; she was his most important investment in life.  It would have scared Joseph to death to contemplate tossing all of that aside and quietly walk away from this marriage without being able to explain the reason behind his decision.  Worse than that however was staying with Mary and having to wait nine months for her baby to be born, knowing the child might not look like either one of them.  How could he explain what had happened to her?

Second, it really was God who was speaking to Joseph in the dream, despite how hard it would have been for him to believe.  The tension would have been difficult to resolve; how to know for certain He had heard from God and it was not just the wild nature of his imagination that put together his dream.  Perhaps he wanted the Lord so badly to intervene and guide him that he concocted in the depths of his unconsciousness a “God moment”.  Plenty of crazy people think they have heard from God…or Moses…or Adam…  Joseph could have lost his mind in his grief over his fiancée’s pregnancy and the dream may just have been an emotional coping device.  It was an act of great faith for Joseph to decide his dream really had come from God.

Third, it was Joseph that God wanted to act as the father of His child.  No one else was selected.  Joseph alone was chosen for this great task of raising and caring for Jesus.  When Joseph looked at himself and pondered the immensity of what stood before him, he could not hunt about for someone to take his place.  He alone had been given the charge and it was his duty to live up to the Lord’s expectations.  No one could take his place.

Fourth, Joseph was a part of God’s prearranged plan.  There was a history to what He was called to do.  At some point, the Lord picked out Joseph and arranged circumstances so that he would be a perfect fit for what the Lord wanted him to do.  After Joseph accepted his part in God’s plan, there was an entire chain of events that would follow that would be directly connected to Joseph and what he did.   This was not an arbitrary determination on God’s part that Joseph might work out as Jesus’ father.  He thought through it all before He contacted Joseph and was all in on being there for Joseph as he fulfilled the task given him.

Fifth, Joseph was a very ordinary human being.  There are no unique qualities described in the text telling us about him.  We know nothing about his intellect, his talents, his athleticism or even his age or how he looked. We could never have known it was him if Joseph walked up to us on the street because we have nothing in the Biblical record to make us recognize him.  His skill set and talent base are irrelevant to the story.   God picked Joseph out to raise His Son and that is all we can say about why He did so.  It would be nonsensical for us to think God did not have good reasons for choosing Joseph, we just don’t know what they were and Joseph most likely did not know either.

You also fit into what God is doing and you too have been selected by Him for something…most likely an entire list of somethings. Why He has chosen you we cannot say.  What your qualifications are for the challenge is irrelevant to you.  This is not something God just on the spur of the moment considered but from eternity He has been thinking of you for this.  No one else is fit for what He has for you or He would have called that person instead.  But how can you know it is God who has given you the responsibility laid in front of you?  You just must!  At some point you have to resolve the tension between believing that God is directing your life and not believing it.  You might be afraid of what is before you, completely befuddled by what you have to do but at some level that only you and God can access you know it is God pointing the way.  No one else may see what you see or grasp what you know is true but you do know God has something for you to do and it is no one else He has to do it.  What might it be?  None of us here know but you will know and you must not talk yourself out of knowing you know.  The Bible clearly tells us the way God has His people do things, how they are to act when faced with the challenges before them.  It is not a matter of how to do what He wants you to do; it is whether you will do what He is showing you to do in the way He has said to do it.

In some way, you fit perfectly into the plan God has for this world and He is certain you can live up to the challenge.  He knows your capabilities, your strengths and weaknesses and He has thought through what He can do with you and through you if you will just accept His challenge.  You cannot know what value there is to what you do nor can you see all the ramifications of following Him.  All you can know and this is the most certain fact you can ever come to discover.  God will connect you to Himself and together you will form a union that is as binding and full of love and joy as the union the Father has with the Son.  Are you willing to be united with Christ in His plan for you?  Are you willing to let Him work through you that you might be joined to Him in His plan for the world?  What do you say to God when He lifts your head up and points out to you the way that you are to go?

Monday, April 9, 2018

Exploring Love

John 15:12 NIV
My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.

What Does Love Have To Do With It?

When I was in seminary a group of us used to play a board game called Risk.  It is a military game where each player has an army and tries to conquer the world.  It involves rolling the dice and strategically placing your army pieces in such a way that you can best take the armies of other players.  For a while we were playing once a week and it was quite competitive.  I was the new kid in the group so for a number of weeks I got beat rather soundly but after catching on to it, I did pretty well.  After a while, I got too busy to play and had to give up on it but long after I graduated, I maintained a love for the game; I just didn’t have a group to join me in it.  Several years later our church had a picnic and I brought the game just in case I could find three others to play it.  The game takes about two hours and sometimes longer to finish but I figured that since we were all there to relax and enjoy the day, perhaps I could put a group together who would join me in Risk.  I was able to find three others who liked the game so we sat down on blankets and began to play.  Now, the object is to conquer the world, and although it was done with plastic game pieces and no actual weapons are involved, to win, you have to one by one eliminate the other players until it is just two left and then you try to destroy the other player’s army.  This is just nice friendly fun, in theory.  The problem is you have to publicly wreck one player and knock that person out of the game if you are to have a chance at winning.  That is not fun for the players being conquered.  As I destroyed one player’s army and then another and finally the third, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with what I was doing.  I was after all the pastor and as I watched the forced smiles get thinner and thinner as I took out one church member after another, I found it nearly impossible to enjoy my successes.  No one stuck around to see who won.  Actually, no one wanted to see who lost.  It was too painful.  I went home that evening and wondered if it might have been better to have thrown the game so that I did not risk hurting anyone’s feelings.  It is hard to feel like a loving person when you are destroying someone’s army.  It is really hard for that same person to feel loved.

Perhaps you are like me.  You don’t feel like much of an expert on love.  If you took a bucket and it was a “love bucket”, how full would you say yours is?  I would have to admit that mine is pretty shallow.  Do you love like Jesus?  Is your bucket overflowing with love for others or does it have to be tipped way over to get anything out of it?  Are there only a few people who get to take any love from your bucket or is it available to everyone?  Do your enemies get any love from you?  How about relatives you don’t really like?  Does your love bucket have a lid on it or a narrow spout?  How much love do you have for others?

Perhaps the third most famous verse in the Bible mentioning love is found in 1 John 4: 16.  God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. (NIV)  What does that really mean that God is love?  Love, of all the spiritual qualities we can consider is the one most dependent upon relationship.  Faith, hope, courage, honesty, purity and a dozen other qualities can all be expressed without another single being in existence.  Love however requires others for it to exist.  You can “love yourself” but what does that mean?  It is a fruitless endeavor that erodes into self-absorption and selfishness.  Love to exist must extend out to others or it rots and then dies.  You might ask how it is possible for God to be three persons; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but then you must in turn be asked, how it is possible for God to be love and not exist eternally as at least more than one person.  He cannot be love eternally if He is forever by Himself.  Jesus Christ has to be eternal God with other persons as God if He is to be love and to love.  The same is so for the Father and for the Holy Spirit.  No one of them can exist alone and still be love.

Love is the most profoundly Christian character trait there is.  It has no rival.  As the Bible says, And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13 NIV)  When the Lord was giving some of His last instructions to His disciples before He let Himself be crucified, He told them, My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. (John 15:12 NIV)  Later He underscores His demand of them.  This is my command: Love each other. (John 15:17 NIV)  It is His solitary directive.  He does not tell them to be sure to pray more or to take a bold political stand or sing more worship songs or listen to lots of sermons or give lots of money to good causes or study the Bible diligently during these last moments with them.  He says “Love each other”. 

Of course there are all sorts of good things we can and should do to be faithful to God but it is all to no avail if we do not love each other like Christ has loved us.  The Bible makes a clear declaration of how important it is to God for us to love each other on His list of priorities for us.  If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3 NIV)  Every single ounce of Christian behavior is tied to this one command, “Love each other”.  Listen to this clear affirmation of how Christian people are to live.  For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5:6 NIV)

Let us be clear about this matter of love.  It is a way of doing things, not a way of feeling about things…at least as it is found in the Bible.  When Jesus clarified what it means to love Him, our Lord said it was behavioral.  Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command. (John 15:13-14 NIV)  Love for God means to do what He tells you to do, not feel good about Him or be attracted to Him.  That may and probably will happen if you love Him but without obedience to Christ, there is no love for Him.  Martyrdom or laying down your life for Christ means that your life becomes God’s to do with as He wishes.  Whatever He commands, you do and that means you love Him and are His friend.  There is nothing abstract about Christian love.  It is practical and concrete.  If you love as a Christian, it means you do something; something for someone else that is a specific act that God would say is loving.

The Bible makes it very clear what sort of behavior is love behavior.  Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 NIV)  If you wish to fill your love bucket and please God, you need to pick one of these practical ways of being loving.   Perhaps it would be to keep “no record of wrongs.”  How would you do that?  You just don’t bring up any grievance you have against someone and you stop thinking about it or pray for God to bless that person every time your complaint comes to mind.  Maybe you choose to trust someone who has made the same mistake over and over again. This could cost you…you might be frustrated or irritated by being let down again…but consider how many times Christ has entrusted you with something and you have let Him down.  You might do something kind for someone, something that is even extravagant and because Jesus just does kind things for you without expecting anything in return, you too do your kind deed without expecting anything back or even hoping you will get something back.  Perhaps you fight against your tendency to get angry with certain people.  Relax, say a prayer and smile when someone irritates you or inconveniences you.  Let someone get in front of you, pay someone’s bill, give a back rub, provide a warm compliment, take time to listen to someone else’s story, refuse to make a disparaging remark about someone else.

Love is quite simple.  Loving because Christ loves you is even simpler.  Choose something off this list of love bucket behaviors and do at least one of them today.  Ask Christ to fill you with His saving love for all people and make a choice who and how you will love a person you know or don’t know.  Perhaps something as easy as deciding to pray for God to bless an irritating or frustrating person through the day would be what God wants of you.  Instead of having a “good day”, have a “loving day”.

Monday, April 2, 2018


Galatians 1:3-5 NIV
 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

What’s Bothering You?

During my sophomore year in high school I decided I wanted to become good at basketball.  Day and night I played on any court where I could find someone to challenge.  I lifted weights, did push-ups, ran and used a jump rope with five pound ankle weights to increase my speed and power.  Every day I shot hundreds of jump shots and played against anyone who came to the courts where I was.  I played so often that the insides of my fingers split open and burned with pain.  My basketball became so worn by constant playing that it was smooth as glass.  To play as often as I did, I had to give up something and it was my homework.  It seemed like a good trade-off for me, basketball glory for a few good grades.  My senior year I finally tried out for my high school varsity basketball team.  I played hard, took rebounds away from players stronger than me, made my jump shots and dunked in the practices.  Finally Friday came and the head coach pulled me off to the side to tell me my fate.  He said I didn’t make the team.

Have you ever been surprised by how things turned in your life?  Have you failed when you knew you would succeed?  Have you tried your best and it wasn’t good enough?  Do you know someone whose health suddenly fell apart, someone who lost his job when he was good at what he did?  Are you ever stunned by how badly things go; your planning of no use, your decisions not working out for you?  What do you think of a world that has so much difficulty?  Do you ever complain about the troubles you face?  Do you get upset about the stock market, distressed over your bad knees, frustrated  that a coworker doesn’t show you the respect you deserve, discouraged with how your career is going or how your kids are doing in school?

Jesus has told you how it will go for you.  “In this world you will have trouble.” (John 16:33b NIV)  If you are expecting everything in your life to work out nicely, Jesus said it won’t.  Let’s get this out of the way, that success and good health are promised you.  They aren’t.  You might not face cancer.  You could have a great career.  Your children might do very well.  But in all of that, you will have trouble.  It will find you and most likely you won’t be prepared when it arrives.  Jesus however does not just dump this bad news on us without a promise.  “But take heart! I have overcome the world." (John 16: 33c NIV)

God does not look at life the same way most people do.  Nearly everyone cares very much about finances, health and relationships.  If something goes wrong, you try to fix it. It weighs on your mind until your trouble goes away.  Our Lord though has a completely different take on matters.  Consider carefully what Christ prioritized during His physical life on earth.  Several things went quite well for Him.  Great crowds came to hear Him speak, mesmerized by His story telling and insightful teaching.  He performed spectacular miracles that brought health and wellness to vast numbers of people.  There was a movement among the Jews to make Him king after He fed a crowd of five thousand with just two small fish and five barley loaves.  He was a brilliant debater and charismatic leader.  Jesus could have had as much wealth as He desired.  He could send His disciples off to pluck coins out of the mouths of fish if He wanted more money.  Our Lord was on the verge of enjoying one of the greatest lives ever and yet he threw it all away.

At the height of Christ’s popularity, when everything in His life was trending upward, our Lord let it all unravel.  He stopped doing miracles.  He quit preaching to crowds.  He no longer debated with His critics.  He let His popularity disappear.  He did not concern Himself with His health.  He chose to let His successful ministry fall apart.  What could lead to such absolute disregard for one’s well-being?

There is something far worse than deadly diseases, worse than school shootings and child abuse, worse than poverty, sexual harassment, sweat shops and human trafficking.  It is worse than pornography, corporate corruption and even the threat of nuclear war.  It is the reason why Christ gave up all the promise His life held.  The great enemy of all of life; of the entire universe was on our Lord’s mind from the moment He could begin thinking about it.  His whole life had one mission and one alone.  He lived to save the world from Sin.  She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." (Matthew 1:21 NIV)

Sin is the source of every evil in the world, from disease to death; it all springs out of Sin.  Jesus Christ chose for everything to go absolutely wrong for Him, to take every terror sin brings, whether it was pain, hatred, abuse or sorrow and suffer it all for one reason.  By doing so, by letting every bit of sin rip His life apart, He took sin out of us. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. (1 Peter 2:24 NIV)

Jesus let His friend Judas betray Him, to even kiss him on the cheek as he did so.  He did not resist as the Jewish guards arrested Him.  Jesus took quietly every slap on the face, every bit of spit that was rained down upon Him.  Jesus let bizarre accusations be hurled at Him without defending Himself.  The blows on the head, the thorns jammed into His scalp, the whips shredding His back and chest and legs and arms, all accepted without protest.  Sin wrecked Him.  And more Sin came and battered Him.  Every sin you committed slugged Him and still He accepted more in His body.  The sins of your neighbors, of your friends, of your relatives long gone, of people you have never met, of enemies that have damaged your heart, of lovers who have adored you and those who turned on you, every sin of every person who has ever been, Jesus let each one come into His body and they all sank into His flesh and pounded it with the pain of ten billion heart attacks, of ten trillion broken bones and concussions.   Each sin of every man, woman and child blasted within Him and exploded with pain and Jesus took them all in without complaint.

The time came, when after so much horror fell upon Jesus and His body became completely filled with all the carnage of Sin, He knew it was finished and came out of His body saturated with all of our sins.  The Bible makes it completely clear that Jesus decided this, that He knew when His work of taking our sin from us was finished.   Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, "I am thirsty."   A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus' lips.    When he had received the drink, Jesus said, "It is finished." With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:28-30 NIV)

How can we ever thank Jesus enough for what He did for us!  Every sin you committed He took into His body and suffered for each and every sin.  The pain and sorrow each sin brought Him careened through His body like the echoes of a train wreck screeching in the night.  And yet the universe waited in hushed horror as Jesus’ body of sin lay crumpled in the tomb.  His spirit was gone but the body still remained and with it was our death, our sorrow, our pain.  Another day came and the body was still there.  Our dying sat with it and the demons with Satan watched and waited.  The body was dead.  Sin remained within it.  But then the morning of the third day the greatest miracle of all time took place.  The magnitude of that early Sunday morning has been lost to nearly all across the generations but the Apostle Paul reminds us what we have forgotten.

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:6-7 NIV)  Carefully go over this one more time.  On that day, that first and greatest of all Easter mornings, on that bright and shining morning we were raised with Christ from the dead and brought into the Heavenlies with Him.  Before you were born, before your parents knew your name, before you ever knew you needed a Savior, Christ and you were raised from the dead and made eternal with God.  We cannot begin to express the wonder of this.  We cannot explain it nor do we understand it.  We just know that on Easter Sunday, you were raised from the dead along with Christ and you became glorious as the sun.  Let this sink into you.  Literally the Greek text reads that “He (God) together raised and together seated (us) in the Heavenlies in Christ Jesus”.  Easter Sunday, when Christ was raised from the dead, we were raised from the dead too and in a world of death and dying, of sin and suffering, that is nearly incomprehensible.  Easter, that first Easter of all history is not just the triumph of Christ, it is yours too.  For that, we celebrate!

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Moment of Discovery

John 20:8 NIV
 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed.

What Did You Just See?

When I was young, maybe five years old, I heard on our porch a loud stomping and a male voice calling out, “Ho, Ho, Ho!”  I was in shock.  It was night time and Christmas Eve and the thought that Santa Claus was actually tramping around on our porch was astounding to me.  Was it possible that Santa Claus was out there?  Had he come to my home?  What did this mean?  I stood there dumbfounded in front of the door trying to decide if I would go outside and see if it was him.  I must have looked over at my mom to see what she thought.  Was it safe to go out on the porch?  What should I do?  Finally I opened the door and there before me was a brand new tricycle.  I was astonished.  So it was true!  Santa Claus did exist and he left me the grandest of all presents.  How could I ever have doubted Santa Claus?  Of course I later discovered that it was my dad who made all the noise, left the tricycle on the porch and slipped in the house through the back door but in my childhood, seeing was believing for me!

There is a moment when you stand in the gap between belief and disbelief, when you are not certain of what you just saw or heard.  It could be good news like that you were “lucky caller number ten” or that your cancer is gone.  It could be something dreadfully horrible like that a close friend just died in a car accident or that you have been let go from your job of twenty years.  You cannot anticipate such moments.  They come like a bolt of lightning and shatter whatever comfortable plans you had for the day or the week or your life.  You have seen pictures of people who stand in dumbfounded shock with their eyes blinking wildly as they try to process what just happened.  Maybe you have been like that.  Your boyfriend just asked you to marry him.  Your dad just handed you the keys to a new car.  Your mother just told you she was divorcing your father.  Most of your days are pretty normal but then all of a sudden it isn’t normal.  It is shocking.

The account of Jacob found in the Bible is just that sort of matter.  He was fleeing for his life.  Jacob had just tricked his dad into giving him the blessing intended for his twin brother and now that older brother was plotting his murder back at home.  Exhausted from his panicked flight, Jacob found a boulder and put his head down on it as if it were a cushy pillow and fell asleep.  Jacob could not have predicted what happened that night.

Like all of us each and every night, Jacob had a dream.  Most of our dreams we never remember when we get up out of bed.  Some keep us thinking for a while.  Most are completely forgettable.  Jacob had a dream that made its way into the Bible.  He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  There above it stood the Lord, and he said: "I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying.  Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.  I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." (Genesis 28:12-15 NIV)

Jacob was so convinced that he had just met God in His sleep that he created a monument to honor the Lord and named the place where he was, “House of God”. Jacob even made a vow at the spot to give God a tenth of all he gained if the Lord took care of him and brought him back to his father’s house.  Most of us never give much thought to our dreams and rarely do even the most ardent of Christians think their dreams are sent to them by God.  Dreams are just too chaotic, too bizarre to take seriously.  Yet Jacob believed his dream was a God moment; that the Lord met with Him that night, the actual and real Lord.

If you had the exact same dream, would you have taken it seriously?  Would you have worshiped the Lord as soon as you climbed out of bed?  Would you have been convinced God had spoken directly to you?  Don’t misrepresent what happened with Jacob.  It was in the end just a dream.  It was no less a dream than you might have had, seeing yourself standing in front of a group without any pants or meeting in some restaurant with a long gone relative or having a raccoon talk to you on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  It was a dream but Jacob knew it was not just something that sprang up from his own unconscious; it was from beyond him, it was God coming to him within his heart.

It is hard to believe that God is really real and that He speaks to people like you and me.  Great intellects like Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan insist God does not exist.  You have friends and neighbors that pay no attention to God.  People you respect ignore Him.  The popular movies do not mention Him or include God in the plot lines.  Even “deep and meaningful” song lyrics have no place for God in them.  The anticipation of God making His way into the normal day you have is nearly dead.  Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we have lost our way and don’t know how we can get back to our place of real life with God.

What do you make of this casually mentioned moment in the Apostle Paul’s normal life?  He was on one of his missionary trips and needed to know where he and his companions should go after they left the region of Galatia, just north of Paul’s hometown.  The book of Acts has an interesting comment on this.   Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. (Acts 16:6 NIV)  How did Paul know the Holy Spirit did not want him and his partners in the province of Asia?  We aren’t told!  It is not clear how God got this across to them.  It could have been through a dream or a prophet or a sign of some sort or just an impression they had that God was directing them.  What we do know though is that Paul and the others all were prepared for God to guide them and ready to believe He was.  This is no small matter, believing that God can and does direct your steps.  It is in fact for many an insurmountable barrier.  They do not accept this to be so and live without any thought given to what God wants them to do.

Imagine what it would be like if you took seriously Jesus’ statement in John 15: 5.  "I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (NIV)  The “if” of this proclamation indicates that you may or may not remain in Him.  That is completely up to you.  No one including God will force you to remain connected to Christ.  You can cut yourself off from Him like an angry daughter who refuses to talk with her parents.  A famous porn star who has been in the news recently has for twenty years refused to have anything to do with either of her parents.  You can do that, ignoring Christ and making no effort at being connected to Him.  But the consequence of that is that you can do nothing.  You don’t matter, what you do, how you think, what you accomplish does not matter.  You go nowhere, do nothing, make nothing of your life.  That is an option that you can take and many are completely satisfied doing this.  They are thoroughly disconnected from Christ and happy living that way.

To be connected to Christ, you must pay attention to Him.  Look for Him to guide you.  Ask Him to direct you.  Listen for Him to speak to you.  There are a thousand different ways Christ can show you something and make your life matter.  Who can know what it will be next?  Was Moses expecting a burning bush?  Did David expect the high priest of Israel to come to his house?  Could Elijah have anticipated the small still voice?  Was Nathaniel prepared for someone from Nazareth to be the Messiah?  God does not announce His presence with trumpets and does not shake you out of your sleep to get you to notice Him.  He will come to you at any moment with any sort of way of getting through to you that He chooses.  One thing though is clear.  If you do not keep your mind on Christ and set your heart on being directed by Him, nothing you do will matter.  That is certain.

Don’t be embarrassed that you haven’t been paying attention to Christ.  Admit it.  Start over.  Pray and ask the Lord to guide you, to show you what to do next.  Perhaps you are lost and don’t know how to find your way.  Turn to Christ and ask Him what to do.  He will guide you.  Somehow, you will know what to do and it will be the Lord who will make it clear.  Just like the sparrow knows somehow where to look for food, Christ will direct you too.  You must trust Him though to guide you perfectly and as you follow Him, everything you do will matter, whether it is how you make your bed or the way you respond at a board meeting or what you say to your kids at home.  With Christ in you directing your life, you are no ordinary mortal; you have all the glory of God living through you!

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Loss of Innocence

Matthew 26:41 NIV
 "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak."

Do You Ever Enjoy Being Tempted?

When I was a sophomore in high school, I took a third year French class.  I did not bother doing the homework so I was dependent on my tests to get a passing grade.  That was not exactly a recipe for success so when my final came, I was in trouble.  The teacher gave us a long passage to translate in preparation for the final and I barely looked at it.  Like everyone else, I brought the study sheet into class the day of the final to go over it just before taking the test.  When I saw the exam, I realized my ship had come in, that I had a way to do well on my final.  It was word for word the French version of the English passage we were told to translate in preparation for the test.  In other words, my notes were the complete set of answers.  The only problem I had was finding a way of looking at the notes as I was taking the exam.  I slyly slid my notes under my test paper and started to try to translate the text on the exam.  I had two problems though.  I did not know my French well enough to do the translations and I was too scared to pull my study sheet out from under my test and actually use it to cheat.  When I realized that I was not bold enough to use the study sheet to get my answers and no matter how long I stared at the test paper, I would not be able to come up with the translation, I just got up and turned in my paper which most certainly would leave me with a failing grade.  Now I could claim that I did not cheat on my final exam which would actually be true but I certainly wanted to and only my fear of being publically humiliated by getting caught kept me from doing so.  You might say that when it came to cheating, my spirit was willing but my flesh was weak,

How many times a day do you think you are tempted to do what is wrong?  Are you ever tempted to lie, or gossip, or criticize someone to boost your ego or keep you from looking bad?  Are you tempted to be angry or drawn into lust?  Are you prone to feeling sorry for yourself or ever sucked into worry?  Are you tempted to keep your faith in Christ to yourself rather than share the Gospel with others?  Do you struggle with greed?  Have you been tempted to not give your ten percent to God because you want something or are afraid to part with it?  Have you been tempted to turn your back on someone in need or to pretend to not know someone needs your help?  Are you ever tempted to ignore God when He gives you direction?  What sort of temptations are you facing right now?

Temptation is typically thought of as something external and sin as internal.  You are responsible for your sin but not for the temptations facing you.  Of course in the moral climate where you live most sin is not considered sin and temptation is rarely given much thought either.  Yet Jesus insisted that you must think constantly about temptation; that you are responsible for not only sins you commit but temptations you don’t avoid.

Jesus had very little to say to the disciples as He went through the spiritual and psychological agony of Gethsemane.  He was laser focused on the Father as He processed the cross that was before Him.  There were no parables shared, no special teachings explained, just a command was directed to His followers.  "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak." (Matthew 26:41 NIV)  Clearly Jesus did not think of temptation as a passive experience that overtakes you but rather something you can avoid.  The NIV translation weakens Jesus’ take on temptation.  The verb is not “fall” like something you might stumble into but “enter into”.  No one, unless he or she is acting chooses to fall, but entering into something is different.  It is you that must decide if you will enter into temptation, not Satan or some demon or even a tempter.  You are the one who chooses or does not choose to enter into temptation and Christ makes that very clear.   Much like the decision to enter into a park or a house or a church building, you decide if you will enter into temptation or not.

Jesus tells us there are two things we must do to not make the choice of entering into temptation.  They are watch and pray.  Both, Jesus says, must be done constantly, not once and move along but over and over again wherever you are.  Watching seems obvious.  Look out for temptations and be careful.  How many people have ruined their lives because they did not pay attention to the danger of a temptation?  The Titanic sunk because the captain did not pay attention to warning signs.  A friend of mine got into a car accident because he wasn’t paying attention to warning signs and now his car is wrecked.  Families have fallen apart because warning signs were ignored, addictions develop and crush lives because warning signs go unnoticed, people lose their jobs because they carelessly ignore warning signs.  What can we say about David and Adam and Solomon who suffered greatly because they did not see the risks involved in decisions they made!  How many lives did they wreck because they ignored warning signs involving temptation!

Rarely are we consciously aware of how great the risk a particular temptation carries.  Solomon probably did not know just how disastrous it would be for him to marry an Egyptian princess and David on the fateful evening was not aware of how going up on his palace roof one evening would tear apart his home and even his nation.  Was Adam aware of how great a temptation it was for his wife to listen to the serpent in the garden?  Probably not!  Would Custer have wished he could have been enlightened to the risk he was taking engaging the Sioux in battle at the Little Big Horn?  It takes supernatural powers to assess the true nature of most temptations.

Jesus did not just say to watch out for temptations, He commanded us to pray that we might not enter through the gates of temptation.  In a world that is growing increasingly unaware of the powerful spiritual forces working within it, prayer for any reason seems nonsensical.  “Just work harder”, you are told.  “Strike out on your own and make your dreams come true”, you are encouraged.  “Make your life your own”, it is proclaimed.  The supernatural working of God is declared an antiquated myth and yet there it is.  Christ says to pray so you won’t enter into temptation.

There is another factor that argues against praying you won’t enter into temptation.  Sinning often seems reasonable.  Why pray to not be tempted into sinning if you really do want to sin.  People who skip out on attending worship services or Bible studies do so because it makes sense to them to miss.  Those who don’t tithe have good reasons for not giving a full ten percent to God’s Kingdom.  You look at pornography or lie about something or get angry or hold a grudge because it makes sense to you.  You don’t think of sin as sin.  You think of it as pleasant or reasonable or your right but never as a temptation when you have decided to power on ahead into temptation.

Do you honestly think Judas Iscariot believed he was doing something terribly wrong and needed to pray about his decision to betray Christ?  Of course he didn’t.  It seemed like the right thing to do and he did not bother praying about the temptation.  When Lot’s wife looked back at Sodom being destroyed, did she think she was doing something horrific and wrecking her life?  Of course she didn’t.  She didn’t bother praying about turning back and looking at Sodom because she wanted to do it and it was reasonable to her.  Of course Judas did not realize the temptation to betray Jesus would wreck his sanity and destroy his life.  Lot’s wife did not consider that by turning her eyes back toward Sodom she would leave her daughters without a mother and her husband without a wife and the three without her would fall into moral depravity.  Temptation is not the sin but it is the entry point into sin.   Going into a bar does not mean you will become drunk but it is the entry point into drunkenness.  An advertisement is not materialism but it is the entry point into materialism.

Your temptation is not always mine and mine isn’t always yours but it is real and if you pray and watch, you can know when you come to it.  At the point of temptation, your will to follow God weakens and your reasons for staying faithful to Christ lose their power to sway you.  Sin makes sense to you and you shut off those voices that try to stop you.  And then sin enters you and changes the course of your life.  How sin affects you and how severely it damages your life varies from sin to sin and person to person.  Yet there are some universal aspects to sin and its effect.  There are at least six signs that sin has corrupted your life with Christ.  1.  You become irritable and your peace fades away.  2.  You lose your way.  You make bad decisions.  The ramifications of how bad your choices are may not show up at once but eventually you will regret what you have done.  3.  Critical relationships become disrupted without a clear cause.  People get upset with you or you with them and you don’t know why.  4.  God disappears.  You don’t see Him at work and you lose interest in Him.  5.  Many times sin damages the normal health of your body. You suffer from pain and sickness brought on by rebellion against God.   6.  You grow increasingly anxious and have a hard time understanding why.  Your anxious thoughts may lead to trouble sleeping and bad dreams.

Temptation is like a mosquito bite.  It may just result in a minor irritation or it could lead to malaria.  Christ said you must do all you can to avoid temptation.  Watch for it and pray you do not enter into it.  How serious are you about living without sin and not letting it wreck your life or the lives of others?  Bend your heart before Christ and ask Him to protect you from temptation.  Pray He will keep temptation from you at this moment and to build within you a hatred for all forms of sin in you.  List the last three sins you know you committed and choose to despise them and confess them to God and acknowledge that they are evil. 

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Changing the Environment

Matthew 5:14-16 NIV
"You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

How Are You Impacting Your World?

The other day I was in a second grade classroom surrounded by children who were asking me questions and wanting help.  Suddenly a little boy next to me asked, “Why do you smell so good?”  I ignored him and kept talking with other children and he asked me again, “Mr. Walkup, why do you smell so good?”  I was so flummoxed by his question that I could give no response to the boy and was a bit dumbfounded for a few moments.  How come he noticed me?  What made him say that I smelled good?  How was I supposed to respond?  Of course you should never be surprised by what little children say whether it is good or bad.  They speak their mind and they are super sensitive to what is going on about them.  Their environment matters profoundly to them and although many of us have grown desensitized, it does to too us also.

Have you given much thought to what impact you make on others?  Not just close family members and friends but but anyone who comes in contact with you?  What part do you play in creating an environment for others?  You can ignore this question and many do.  Unless you are attracted to someone or in trouble or wanting to get something from someone, you may not think about the impact you make on those around you.  Other than pop psychologists who make lots of money teaching people how to influence others, rarely is much thought given to our impact on those about us.  There is however reason to ponder this question and take it seriously.  How do you impact the environment of others?

You have seen this phenomenon.  A strong personality alters the climate of a room and changes the culture of a workplace.  One child can completely change a classroom and one person influences how a worship service goes.  Yet you don’t have to be charismatic or loud or funny or pushy to be felt and impactful.  All you need is Christ living in you to change the world.

The Lord used interesting metaphors to talk about your influence.  "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16 NIV)  The light of the world, a city on a hill; that is what He says you are.  Of course for most, that is a preposterous statement.  Who is like that?  Maybe Beyoncé or Tom Cruise or Stephen Curry!  Do you feel like when you enter a room all eyes are on you, everyone turns to hear what you have to say?  Yet you have to take seriously Jesus’ statements like this because He gives the actual situation rather than what mere appearances seem to indicate.

Now I realize we are talking about the Apostle Peter, the majestic disciple who stood above all the rest until Paul came along but it is pertinent what is discovered in Acts 5: 12 and following.  The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon's Colonnade.  No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people.  Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.  As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter's shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. (Acts 5: 12-15 NIV) Even the shadow of Peter impacted crowds.  He did not have to say anything or do anything to have a dramatic effect on others.  What if this was the case with you?  Can you imagine your shadow being such a powerful influence?

Remember that Jesus declares that you are a city upon a hill, that you are the light of the world.  This is not just speaking of some great church leader or someone long gone.  He is speaking of you, that you are influential, that you change the way others see things, that when you are present, people are impacted by you being there in profound ways.  What if your shadow was just as influential as Peter’s?  What if your presence was dramatically life altering?  Could you imagine being such a person?

Paul said something that I cannot easily shake and it should make you pause   But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him.  For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.  To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task? (2 Corinthians 2:14-16 NIV)   Everywhere you go, the knowledge of Christ permeates those who come in contact with you.  This is not a natural work but supernatural and it takes faith to believe it is so.  You bring Christ to your conversations, to your meetings, to each place that you go.  Now this fragrance of Christ may be faint or it could be strong but it is there nonetheless and you bring it with you. 

Surely we understand at least in theory, if not in practice, that how we live our lives impacts everyone else.  A smile we share, a pat on the back, a warm handshake, something encouraging or complimentary that we say changes the climate of a room.  If we rant or rage, if we criticize, make a sarcastic comment, gossip, lie, pout, we alter the room too.  The power of our personality affects others and we certainly know that is so.  We may not live with that in mind but are aware of it.  If Christ is in you, then His presence, which is supernatural affects everyone who comes in contact with you and there is a ripple effect; one person impacted changes even slightly the next person and so on and how far the effect travels we cannot measure.  If your personality changes the lives of those about you, imagine just how powerfully the personality of the Lord of the Universe living in you impacts those who come in contact with the Christ in you.

We don’t have time to describe the impact demons have in our world today.  The Apostle Paul warned that even those who profess to be Christians would be driven from God by demons and accept the view of life they promote.   The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. (1 Timothy 4:1 NIV)  We know what sorts of brokenness the Gospels tell us demons caused and how Jesus drove demons away from people and they were healed.  How much depression, anxiety, anger, bitterness, and physical suffering is brought on by demons even now?  Is it possible that where you work, at the schools and among your friends, demons are wrecking lives and making people miserable?  Of course it is and if Christ could bring joy and peace to people in His time before He was crucified, what great good might He do today through you?  It is not preposterous to think that Christ in you can heal depression, calm anger, take away anxiety and even make the sick well!  Of course He can!

Our Lord said that to be used by the Father like He was, you must have faith in the Father too.  You must believe that Christ will powerfully work through you if you are available to God to do with as He wishes.  What might Christ do through you?  We cannot say but why would He not use you to bring peace and joy to those He has in your life?  I think that if you want Christ to change the world through your life, it starts with prayer.  James the brother of Jesus said, “And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.  Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” (James 5:15-16 NIV)  Pray for every person you can.  Make sure no sin is strangling your life with Christ and be available to the Father.  You too can release from demonic bondage those Christ has entrusted to your care!