Tuesday, December 24, 2013

God With Us

I haven’t always been a Christian.  I know what it is like to feel alone and feel like there is no God, as if I were in a deep, dark pit with no way out and no one there to hear.   I resonate with David in Psalm 40 when he said that God “lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.”

As a Pastor, people have often asked me the question: “where is God?” in reference to their own slimy pit experience.  What I have learned since in my own dark night of the soul is that God was there all the time.  So, in response to that question of where God is, I can say with both confidence and compassion that he is right here, weeping with you; he is right here, walking alongside you; he is right here, sitting beside you; right here with you if you will have the eyes of faith to see.  I know God is here because it is Christmas; God came down and moved into the neighborhood with us in the person of Jesus, Emmanuel, which means God with us.

It was not just Mary that was pregnant with Jesus, but history itself was pregnant because the time had fully come for the kingdom of God to break into this world through a child who would save the people from sin, through an infant, Emmanuel, God with us.

What I believe we need to know more than anything is that God is with us!  God is so great that he is not somehow trapped in heaven; he can come down; he wants to come down; he did come down, literally becoming one of us – he is Emmanuel, God with us.

            God did not come to this earth with a big advertising campaign letting us know of the grand opening, or with a huge and expensive party to draw attention.  Neither did God come through a rich and powerful family.  Instead, in order to fully relate to us, to genuinely be with us, he came in through a lowly stable.  There are many theologians and scholars who are able to articulate this truth for all kinds of curious intellects of how this could take place, that God became man.  Yet, sometimes it simply takes a personal story, a testimony so to speak, to bring clarity.  Bono is the lead singer for the pop/rock band U2.  He tells of a time when he returned to his native Dublin, Ireland for Christmas and, on a whim, decided to sit in a church service.  At some point in the worship, he came upon the great realization, with tears streaming down his face, of what it is all about; he says,
            “The idea that God, if there is a force of Love and Logic in the universe, that it would seek to explain itself is amazing enough.  That it would seek to explain itself by becoming a child born in poverty, in manure and straw, a child, I just thought, ‘wow!’  I saw the genius of picking a particular point in time and deciding to turn on this…. Love needs to find a form, intimacy needs to be whispered…. Love has to become an action or something concrete.  It would have to happen.  There must be an incarnation.  Love must be made flesh and dwell among us.”
            God has descended to our messy, mixed up, broken world, standing with us in our suffering and shame, plunging head long into our pain and hurt and loneliness.  Paul Louis Metzger has wisely pointed out that a God who is simply nice and decent would take pity and send some help, maybe an angel or a prophet - at least some sage advice for us.  And, we would respect that, maybe even be satisfied with it.  But the good news is that God went far beyond nice and decent.  On this very day God became a naked baby.  He was a fetus, then an unwanted pregnancy, then a slimy, screaming baby – he grew up and ended up a criminal, stripped naked, tortured by those who knew not who he was, and condemned to die.  There is nothing nice and decent about that!  It was done for us. 

            Perhaps you are not feeling close to God this holiday season, but rather far from God.  Perhaps this holiday season brings you more sorrow than joy.  Perhaps the weight of a situation that seems beyond your control has caused you immeasurable worry and concern.  Maybe you are wondering where he is.  I will tell you:  he is right here.  And he is waiting for you to respond to his coming, his Advent, his incarnation.  Throughout the New Testament Gospels Jesus is presented as God with us.  He was with the disciples when the storm struck and threatened their lives, and he rebuked the wind and the waves and saved them; Jesus was with his people as they were rejected by others for preaching that the kingdom of God had broken into this world through the Emmanuel.  Jesus is not an idea, not a myth, not a historical figure to be debated, not a nice guy with some pithy wisdom; he is Emmanuel, God with us!  And he is with us to the point that whatever happens to us, happens to him.

            Since he is here, since Jesus is Emmanuel, now is the time to recognize him for who he is.  God with us means that God is here!  Since he is present with us, we can and must respond to his presence by admitting that we have made a mess of things through living by the illusion that we are in control of our lives and living as if he weren’t here at all.  But God is here, and he is looking for us all to center our lives on the person of Jesus, and to give up going our own way and instead pursue knowing God in Christ.

            Maybe you are a person who has gone to church all your life, and like me years ago, are familiar with the baby Jesus and Advent wreaths and Christmas carols and worship services.  Yet, you have not come to the point in your life where you seriously and deliberately responded to the presence of God in Jesus and devoted your life to him so that everything centers on him and not you.  One of the realities of Christmas is that God is calling us all to feel the impact of the baby Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, and to let that joy fill our souls to overflowing.  The Christmas story is a story of invitation.  We are invited into the story of Jesus.  Come and see the angels singing glory to God; come and see the shepherds praising God for what they have seen and heard; come and see Mary and Joseph rejoicing in the birth of Jesus; come and bend down and look into the smelly, lowly manger, and you will see God with us.   You are invited into a new life.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Missed Expectations

Many times it is true that our expectations determine our level of emotional and spiritual health.  Unmet expectations that we have can put us in, at best, a funk, and, at worst, into a profound period of disillusionment.  Yet, there is another option when what we expect does not look like it will materialize for us – we go back to see if what we were expecting is really accurate or true, whether it is really from God or not.

            In John the Baptist’s case, he was expecting the Messiah, the Deliverer, to come (which was true); he expected that the Messiah would come and execute justice and establish his kingdom on earth (which was also true).  But what John expected to take place immediately that did not materialize in his lifetime was when God’s judgment and wrath was going to take place.  What John did not see is that the Messiah would not come once, but twice – that there would be two Advents of the Christ.

            John was experiencing the first coming of Christ, while expecting that this first Advent would be like the second.  Christ will come again, and shall judge all things.  Yet in this first coming, there would not be judgment, but healing.  Christ came in his first Advent in order to give the blind sight, to make the lame walk, to cure, raise, and preach good news to the powerless of the gracious coming of God.

            What, or whom, are we expecting?  Is Jesus the one we anticipate, or are we expecting someone or something else?  And, if Jesus is the One we are expecting, what is it we presume he will do?  Like John, do we suppose that the Messiah will beat up our enemies, have everything go our way, and establish a godly government?  Or are we looking forward to Christ coming and healing that which is broken?

            It is quite possible that, even though we might not admit it to another person, we are rather disappointed with Jesus.  He just has not come through for us in ways that we think he should have.  It is not hard to imagine why people would have their doubts.  I have heard my share of wonderings about God from others.  Listening to a woman wonder where God was when she was attacked and raped; hearing the person with chronic pain wonder why God has not answered prayer; remembering with another person a past of abuse and neglect – these and many other scenarios of brokenness are real, and the doubts about God just as real.

            John ended up in prison (Matthew 11:1-13).  He did not volunteer for it.  “Okay”, John thought, “I’m in prison – I’ll deal with it.  If Jesus is really the Messiah, he will spring me from the joint!”  But day after day, the deliverance did not come.  Eventually, John was beheaded in prison.  He ended up dying and never seeing his expectation realized.  John’s understanding was that the Messiah, the Deliverer, would come and take charge, beat up the Roman occupation, and establish his firm and strong rule on the earth.  Prison just did not fit the equation; it was not part of the plan. 

            If God is so all-powerful and loving, why doesn’t he rescue me?  That is an important question, and one that should not be dismissed by those who have not experienced the terrible evil of this fallen world.  If you are in any way disillusioned this holiday season, you are in good company with John the Baptist.  Yet, at the same time, we all need to examine our expectations.

            God often works in ways that we do not expect.  Sometimes we expect God to rescue us from harm, but instead he sends someone to walk alongside us in our time of need.  Sometimes we expect a miracle to be performed, but instead God gives us the ability to face the painful trial in front of us.  Sometimes we expect God to execute his judgment on those who have hurt us, but instead God gives us the grace to forgive.              

            If we are honest, at some time or another, we all have been disappointed by a Messiah that did not live up to our expectations.  We want Jesus to come and to come right now.  We want clear and helpful answers to our questions.  We want to be relieved of the burden of waking up every day without knowing what the next step is.  We want the Christian life to be like a simple math equation, where if we do our part, God will do his.  We want to put our hand under the pillow and find the answer there, like a quarter from the tooth fairy – but morning after morning all you feel is the sheet.  There was a particular time in my life some years ago when, every morning in the shower I would ask God to take me home – I was so disillusioned with my life and what was going on that I was just looking for heaven.

            I want to put a thought in your head that maybe you have not considered:  missed expectations are a gift.  When we don’t receive what we expect, we discover that God does not always conform to our agenda.  When we experience a missed expectation, we begin to see our own selfish desires.  When we don’t get our expectations met, it causes us to seek and trust God in new and fresh ways.  And, instead of trying to make sense of everything, we are free to discover God, who he really is and what he is really all about.  Every letdown becomes an opportunity to know God, and knowing God is our highest calling in life.

            Did God fail to come when you called?  Then maybe God isn’t a divine Santa Claus.  Did God fail to punish, or at least correct, the people who hurt me?  Then just maybe God is not a policeman who exists to give out tickets to lawbreakers.  Did God fail to make all my plans run smoothly?  Then maybe God isn’t some cosmic mechanic who always fixes every problem.  If God isn’t any of those things, then Who is God?

            We need to follow the trail of grace that points us to the Savior, Jesus Christ.  Instead of coming and erasing suffering, God is next to us in our pain.  Instead of making us successful and on top of the world, God humbles us and helps us to identify with those on the bottom.  Instead of always making us strong, God teaches us to trust him in our weakness.  Instead of destroying our enemies, God calls us to love and pray for them.  Instead of doing something spectacular, God came in a lowly manger and lived a life of self-sacrificial love.  Instead of taking us home in order to avoid hard circumstances, God asks us to be patient and do the work of reaching all kinds of people with the good news of Jesus.

            The message of Advent is this:  in the person of Jesus Christ, God is with us.  God is not going to let us simply run on cruise control; he wants us to think deeply about who he is, and what his followers are to be and to do.  So, Jesus was purposely cryptic, speaking in parables and alluding to things without coming outright and saying things plainly.  It is actually important, maybe even necessary, to question God, because God wants us, more than anything, to discover him, know him, and trust him.  Maybe we need to ask the question this year:  what does God want for Christmas?  Blessed is the person who does not fall away on account of Jesus, but who comes to terms with the true and living Christ.  Just as John came as a lowly messenger seeking to prepare the way for the Lord to come, so the person who identifies with Jesus in the lowly manger is the person who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  God wants us to want him above all else – to rely on him and walk with him.  Will you give your life to him this Christmas?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

An Ode to Grace


            I believe that the greatest motivator in the church, as well as in all of life, is neither guilt and manipulative arm-twisting, nor the shame of past things done or left undone.  To be sure those are powerful motivations.  But nothing in all creation can capture and captivate the heart like grace.  Grace is free, but not cheap; it is unlimited, yet still precious, even more than the most precious of diamonds.  Sin, death, and brokenness permeate this fallen world.  Every organization and institution, every individual and family is profoundly touched in some way by evil.  So enters grace – undeserved mercy where there is no earthly reason to bestow it.  Grace makes absolutely no sense.  Pardoning sinners and systems who have gone their own way and ignored their Creator is the height of God’s redeeming action.  The most wonderful miracle is not some nebulous Christmas miracle of new stuff, but the truly miraculous act of the incarnation in which the Son of God entered humanity, vulnerable, taking the audacious risk of rescuing lost people.

            I understand that most people in this world are not Christians; even professing Christians often seem oblivious to the implications of their arm-chair belief.  What is more, perhaps the majority of the earth’s population views any kind of doctrine of grace as rather offensive and unbelievable.  Forgiving sin is typically not at the top of anyone’s Christmas wish list.  Peace on earth hinges not on the ability to get one’s own way or skill in beating up one’s enemies; peace turns on the scandal of forgiveness toward sinners, of grace.

            Certainly there is beauty in a newly fallen snow; in a child’s enjoyment of it with a fresh snow angel; in coming in from the cold with the simple pleasure of a steaming cup of hot cocoa.  Yet, there is no beauty that compares to the grace of God coming in an ordinary feeding trough in order to identify with lowly people in need of a Savior.  It is more than an example to follow; of greater implication than feeling good about the holidays in a movie-inspired Christmas spirit – grace is necessary for our deliverance from everything that enslaves us.

            People live and die; churches come and go; seasons pass by and the calendar marches on with a seemingly unending string of bad events that makes some wonder if things can truly be different.  However, the faith, hope, and love originating from the grace of God in Christ cannot pass by and leave something untouched any more than a city crippling blizzard.

            Yes, being with family helps in having a Merry Christmas; a Christmas bonus aids in making the holiday more special; and, Nativity scenes dotting neighborhood lawns makes us feel good that the Christ is being emphasized in Christmas.  But it is grace, the grace of God that is found in a stable full of manure, brings not only the real meaning of Christmas to us, but the motivating understanding that God did it for me – that grace is given right smack in the middle of all my degrading and misguided attempts to have meaning apart from the Meaning-Maker.

            Grace.  There is nowhere else to find it, that is, truly find it apart from the Lord Jesus Christ.  My Ode to Grace is this:  that God, the God of the Universe who created all things and sustains the world despite its rejection of Him – this God pursued me with an unrelenting love and saved me from myself.  There is no greater gift than the gift of grace, and no greater present given than one’s only Son.  Let the world rejoice; let earth receive her king.  Even so, come Lord Jesus.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Incarnation

It can be easy for us to be diverted by all the shiny things about the holiday season, and put so much emphasis on the secular aspects of this time of year that we become overstimulated and feel like vomiting.  We need to have an Advent perspective, that is, to anticipate and sense the coming of the King and offer our worship and adoration.  We must come to the quite mundane and simple manger; the dull and unattractive place where God is found.  It is here that we find the hope of the nations, and the true desire of our hearts.

God preserved and protected the child Jesus.  His early life retraced the life of ancient Israel.  Like the patriarchs, Jesus went down into Egypt and would eventually go down and face hell for us in his crucifixion.  Like the ancient Israelites, Jesus was brought up out of Egypt and would rise from the dead bringing freedom from sin and death once for all in a New Exodus.  Jesus is our King, the promised One of Israel and of all the nations; Jesus is our salvation, the fulfillment of all that we hope for (Matthew 2:1-18).

Jesus is the special God-Man who secures salvation for us.  God preserved Israel from Pharaoh’s wrath, protected Jesus from Herod’s wrath, and His kindness and loyalty extends to us as His covenant people in preserving us from the wrath of the devil who seeks to keep as many people as possible in the realm of darkness.  Our hope is in the Lord Jesus who has conquered the devil; and, he did it by first establishing a beachhead on this earth through his incarnation as the Son of God.

After Jesus was born, King Herod went about massacring innocent toddlers in order to ensure the destruction of Jesus.  Behind his atrocity was the devil himself who knew that Jesus was the coming King who would one day bring salvation.  The satanic agenda was set in place.  Reflecting on a vision of Christ’s birth, the Apostle John stated in Revelation 12:  The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born.  She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule the all the nations…. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. 

            What Satan does is to war against God’s Son and God’s people, whose roots go all the way back to the first prophecy of Christ in Genesis 3:15 after the Fall of man:  And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.  There has been constant enmity since the Fall of humanity, between the serpent and the seed of the woman, with the Israelites in the Old Testament constantly being threatened with extermination and tempted to conform to pagan ways.  Herod was just another in a long line of demonically animated men trying to perpetuate the kingdom of darkness.  We must take this threat seriously because the devil knows that his time is short; a second Advent of Christ will take place and final judgment is coming.

            Satan’s most powerful weapon, death, has now lost its sting because of Jesus.  Christmas is a hard time of year for many people, filled with depression instead of joy, grieving over lost loved ones for whom you will not spend another Christmas with.  But there is a reunion coming, the hope of a bodily resurrection in which we will be with Jesus and God’s people forever. 

This time of year with all its parties, shopping, and crazy schedules, Christmas is stressful.  Even in the happiest of families, reunions and get-togethers can be difficult as old hurts resurface and adults revert to childish ways.  So, let’s come back to the first Christmas which was the beginning of the end for evil on the earth.  We, as believers in Jesus, are part of God’s victory - we overcome the evil one by the blood of the lamb, admitting that Christ’s incarnation was essential for us. 

Just as Jesus made a radical break with his former life in heaven through the incarnation, we, too, must break with our old way of life.  Let’s not just celebrate Christmas, not just endure it, but confess that we need this Advent of Christ because apart from it we are lost.  God will save his people through this child Jesus. 

The greatest gift of all we can give this year is the gift of the gospel of grace.  People need the Lord Jesus, and all of scripture points to him because he is the only answer to the ills and desires of this world.  What I want for Christmas more than anything is to see Jesus firmly take root in our hearts by faith.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Preparing the Way

John the Baptist had a way of communication that was not exactly the best way to win friends and influence people (Matthew 3:1-12).  Considering that John lived in seclusion, dressed weird, and ate different food, it isn’t a stretch to see how people might dismiss him as a kook and move on.  But there is no evidence that people viewed John that way.  Instead, he had an influential and effective ministry.  Maybe that is because John did not seek his own gain, wasn’t trying to build a big following, but understood that he was to point to the coming Christ.  John believed judgment was coming, and he put all his efforts into getting people to realize the wrath of God was real and it was coming soon.

            The kingdom of God cannot be entered into by forcefully pushing the door in; God’s kingdom is entered through the humility of confession and repentance.  Only through admitting that we are going in a bad direction, and turning around to a new way, can we be in God’s kingdom.  There is no way to get to the Christmas manger without going through John the Baptist and his message of “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near.”  John strikes me as being like a little yippee ankle-biter dog, the kind that constantly nipped at me whenever I delivered a package to a certain home back when I had a job as a delivery driver.  John is always there growling for our repentance.  All we want to do this time of year is sing Christmas Carols, but John tells us something must happen before we can do that, and that something is to repent. 

            This message to repent of our misguided ways and make a level path for the Lord Jesus to come into our lives is not very popular in our culture, even many times in church culture.  But we just cannot avoid this repentance thing because there is no good news without first stating what the bad news is.  Apart from God’s kingdom we are stuck in unhealthy life patterns.  We might be stuck in a destructive habit of life because we think we need it to keep going; we may be stuck rehearsing all the past dumb decisions we made, and we cannot move forward; or, we might get stuck in an unhealthy relationship and see no way to move.  If we are stuck long enough we blandly accept this as the new normal, and go about our daily lives with a “meh” kind of attitude, not too low, not too high, but just “meh.”

            All this sticky stuff, these patterns, behaviors, activities and habits trap us and keep us stuck.  We become so used to “meh” that we actually become cut off from the source that would get us un-stuck.

            The reason people did not dismiss John as some creepy clown is that he offered them something better than their sticky situations.  Seeing what we really are and what we are really like is actually really hopeful.  It is hopeful because God will not leave us stuck, but will turn us into free people, delivered from the stickiness, to live fully for the coming King.  God never gives up on us, so we do not need to settle for a “meh” existence.  Do we believe in God’s grace and goodness more than our stickiness?  How we answer that question will tell us a lot about whether we will become un-stuck or not.

            We might be afraid of looking squarely at our sins, habits, memories, and emotions that keep us on the flypaper of death.  We may feel overwhelmed and think there is hope for other people, but not me.  Or, we might think that everyone else has a problem except me; if they would just be like me, then everything would be better.  But John pointed to Jesus and said, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”  In other words, Jesus will make things happen.  Jesus will shake things up, unsticking people, and clearly show others how utterly stuck they really are in their narrow thinking.

            The season of Advent means that the time of the Lord’s coming is near.  Therefore, preparation for that event (Christmas) is of primary importance.  The best way of preparing for Christmas is to repent and believe that the kingdom of God is near (as opposed to far away).  God has come near to us in the person of Jesus, and it is Jesus that makes all the difference.  We must not, like the Pharisees and Sadducees (the religious leaders of the day) rely on doing certain things, or being a certain kind of person; we must not rely on being a church member or having enough money as the measure of what it means to be in the kingdom.

            Let’s be honest:  it is painful to admit we are stuck, and that our relationship with God or our church is nothing more than a shoulder shrugging “meh.”  It is painful to confess our idols and admit we depend on them, and maybe even like them more than Jesus.

            In the Bible there are only two ways to deal with being stuck in sin:  we can either justify it, or we can confess it.  Denying, minimizing, or excusing sin leads to separation from God.  Confession leads to connecting with God.  John’s message is for people to get ready because Jesus is coming!  Through the grace of repentance and faith there is hope – the hope of stopping all the petty games we play to hide our sin and hide the fact we are really super-glued to our idols.  Our hope is in being baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire, that is, to be cleansed from our impurities and prepared and ready for God to be with us in the person of Jesus.

            John’s message was quite clear that God unsticks us for a reason:  so we can bear good fruit that is in keeping with repentance.  There is to be a consistency between what we profess and how we live.  Religious observance is not the way into the kingdom – if it was, God’s kingdom would be full of Pharisees and Sadducees.  Confession without genuine change is not repentance – it is just confession.
            The fruit that comes from the Holy Spirit is mostly a fruit of being with God. Just as a child picks up traits more or less simply by continually being in the presence of a parent, so the Christian develops tenderheartedness, compassion, humility, forgiveness, joy, peace, patience, self-control and hope through dwelling in the presence of God.  And this means, to a very large extent, living in a community of believers who want more than anything else in the world to know God and be with him.

            The God who came to his people in Jesus will one day unveil his kingdom in all its glory.  We need to get ready for that day.  There are roads that need straightening; fires that need to be lit in order to burn away the rubbish and brush in the path; dead trees that need to be cut down; in short, there are people who need to repent because the kingdom of God is near.

            We must clear the road so that Jesus has a way into our hearts.  I was living in Grand Rapids, Michigan when George Bush was president.  He was coming to town, and his motorcade was scheduled to come on the street behind where we lived.  I wanted to have a good look, so I stood as close to the road as I could.  But about twenty minutes before the motorcade was to come by, a State Trooper came along and told me to get back.  I did.  But then I came closer.  Another set of police came through five minutes later and told me I need to get back.  But I ignored them and got closer.  Another five minutes went by and a Secret Service guy came by and let me know in no uncertain terms that if I didn’t clear back I would end up in a place I didn’t want to be.  The motorcade came by and I never saw President Bush, just the limo he was in.

            We need to be as serious about making the road clear for Jesus to come to us as our government is about clearing the way for passing presidents.  If you have been living a milquetoast deadpan “meh” kind of life, this is the day to clear the way for Jesus.  Now is the time to change your mind about how you are going about your life and to prepare for Christ’s coming.  And it begins with admitting you are stuck, and asking God to unstick you – and you need to really want to be unstuck.  The kingdom of God belongs to those who prepare the way and produce good fruit in keeping with repentance.  Even so, come Lord Jesus.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Prayer of Confession

Nothing of eternal significance happens apart from God.  Jesus said it clearly in John 15:5 - “Apart from me you can do nothing.”  There is simply no substitute for a close relationship with God.  The will of God can only be accomplished through the spiritual practice of prayer.  Prayer is by no means a passive activity, but an active engagement with the God of the universe.  If done well, prayer takes time, a great deal of effort, and a keen sense of priority.  It is quite possible that biblical praying can be the most challenging, exhausting, laborious, and rewarding thing we do.

            Through prayer we can become filled with the Holy Spirit, gain wisdom to make godly decisions, and access spiritual power that can melt the hardest of hearts and change the minds of the most stubborn of people.  In prayer we have the privilege of expressing our concerns and needs, as well as having God’s agenda revealed to us for what to do.  What is more, our personal and corporate holiness is in direct proportion to the great task of prayer.

            When faced with the reality that Jerusalem was in trouble, Nehemiah prayed (Nehemiah 1).  In prayer he owned the problems that Jerusalem faced of having its walls broken down and its people unprotected.  Nehemiah, along with Ezra the priest and scribe, sought the spiritual health as well as the physical well-being of the Israelites left in the land after being conquered by the Babylonians.  Nehemiah owned Israel’s problems through a prayer that emphasized and reminded God of his covenant with his people; he confessed the sins by which Israel violated that covenant; and held onto the promise that God would lift the curse on the city if the people would repent.

            Nehemiah had a compassionate heart that did not ignore what was going on in his native land, but wept, mourned, and fasted and prayed.  He had a deep concern for and was profoundly disturbed by the news that Jerusalem was in trouble.  Rather than being preoccupied with himself, or turning his back on what was going on and focusing on his own new life in Babylon, he sought to do something about the security and spiritual health of his people.

            In his prayer to God, Nehemiah was genuine, persistent, confident, humble, and submissive to God.  He did not distance himself from the sins of the people, but clearly identified with them through a prayer of confession.  That confession was intense, honest, real, and urgent.  Sin always needs to be identified, acknowledged, and pardoned.  If it isn’t, there is no hope for things to be different.  It only makes sense for the contemporary church to recover and practice having a prayer of confession in each and every worship service.  Sin is not just personal and individual; sin resides in the community, and so requires a corporate confession and repentance.

            There is a season for everything.  Deer season may come and go, but it is always open season for prayer.  And Nehemiah’s prayer is a solid biblical model for us to emulate.  The church will always have her challenges and problems to face.   Like Nehemiah, let’s own those challenges through prayer that is biblically focused, compassionately offered, and spiritually curious to know and do God’s agenda for our lives and our churches.

            Throughout this Advent season, let’s have a spirit of prayer to God in everything we say and do – prayerful spirits that above all seeks God’s will, and doing that will through God’s love as we anticipate the coming of our Savior.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Christ the King

Each year on the Christian calendar, the Sunday before the Advent season is celebrated as The Reign of Christ or Christ the King Sunday.  It is a day that focuses our worship on the fact that Jesus reigns over the entire world.  It is a proclamation to everyone that everything in all creation must submit to King Jesus.  And it is an invitation to actively and joyfully submit to his rule.  Jesus’ rule and kingship is not like any other kind of leadership because Jesus rules all creation through being a servant and using his power to move toward people in relationship.

            God is not a distant and detached ruler.  Jesus came to this earth in order to bring intimacy and closeness to God and humanity.  We all most likely have relationships in which we want to be closer to someone.  There are parents who are not satisfied and are sad that one of their kids is estranged from them, and they want intimacy.  A spouse may want to be closer to his/her wife or husband, having been distant for too many years.  Teenagers or twenty-somethings might want to get closer to that special someone.  There may be a friend that keeps their distance.  And although you have conversations with them, they only let you in so far.  We want to go deeper, and it just isn’t happening because the other party is not willing.

            In this we reflect the image of God within us because God feels that same longing and desire to move deeper and closer to us.  He desires intimacy, but we might keep treating him like he is some untouchable monarch like Queen Elizabeth – as if there is no chance of really getting close, and we wonder if there is any real power there to make a difference.  But God is not some figurehead, and he does not want a casual superficial relationship with us.  Christ’s kingship is based on moving closer to people, not further away.  Everything Jesus did on this earth was to bring people closer to God, because God wants a personal and familiar relationship with us.  God does not want us estranged from him, and he has gone to the greatest lengths possible to make that close relationship possible and real through the cross, resurrection, ascension, and a kingly reign that is near to us.  The kingdom of God, with Jesus as King, is a kingdom of intimacy and fellowship with the divine.

            Christ as King appropriately challenges us to think: What does it mean for us to say that Jesus Christ is the Lord of our lives?  It means much more than God calling the shots and issuing commands; it means he uses his lordship to satisfy his longing to be with us.

When Jesus of Nazareth was brought to Pilate the morning of his crucifixion, he must have looked a mess – clothes stained with dirt and blood, his face bruised, and haggard from having not slept all night. Pilate has heard of Jesus, and so he is curious to make a personal evaluation of him.  Jesus looks nothing like a king to Pilate. Pilate, in contrast, looks the image of a leader with his power suit on and all the strength of Rome behind him.  He hardly has time for this pathetic presentation of leadership in front of him.  Jesus looks like nothing more than a kingly wan-a-be.  There is nothing from Christ’s outward appearance that seems he is qualified to be any kind of leader.  We can almost picture Pilate rolling his eyes, saying “so you are the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33-37).

Jesus made it clear that his kingdom is not of this world. Two thousand years have passed since that dialogue between Jesus and Pilate, but the same issue remains.  The issue is simply this: Jesus is calling all of us to follow him and to put his Kingdom first in our lives.

            Earthly power, like Pilate’s, seeks its own ends in order to hold onto control and call the shots; but Christ’s kingly power is used to serve, to wash feet and meet needs, to move closer to people.  Earthly kingdoms use violence to conquer and maintain order and control its subjects; Christ’s kingdom uses love to transform and unify people around Jesus so that the subjects are with the king and enjoy his rule and reign.

            Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world.  It is counter-cultural, and counter-intuitive to how every other leadership structure works.  It is an upside-down kingdom that seems like it won’t work or make sense.  The way up is down; to be great is not to work for a high position and kiss up to the boss and climb the ladder of wealth and success, but to embrace humility and be a servant.  The way to pursue truth is not in forming original ideas and expressing opinions, but truth is found in a person.  Truth-seeking disciples will listen to this one voice of Jesus, and filter-out all others.  It is a voice calling for us to submit to his lordship, and to do so because it brings us into an intimate relationship with God.

            Black Friday is almost here. This time of year demonstrates for us a contrast between two kingdoms.  The Kingdom of this world calls on us to demonstrate our worth and gain meaningful relationship through getting what we want and deserve. We put pressure on ourselves, because of earthly power structures, to seek that perfect gift at the perfect price in the hope that if we can have the perfect family Christmas with everyone acting perfectly that we will get what we want.  But does that ever really happen, even when we pursue it and cajole and manipulate for it?

In contrast, the kingdom that Jesus describes assures us that we do not have to prove our worth through endless accomplishments and generous gifts.  We don’t have to have the perfect Christmas experience in order to gain our deepest relational needs.  As followers of Jesus, we are sons and daughters of the living God and we do not need to achieve greatness because King Jesus has already gained it for us.

When we say that Jesus Christ is our King, we acknowledge that we are his subjects and that we march to the beat of a different drum. The heart of this relationship is our dependence Jesus who came that we might have life and have it in abundance. We can boldly state our confidence in this season that at the end of time Jesus will come again as King and Ruler of all.

Blessed are those who can say ‘Jesus is King, Lord of Life’ without their fingers crossed behind their backs, but with a sincere conviction that they are in touch with Jesus and want to be ever closer to him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Remembering Prayer

The early believers in Jesus turned to God in a time of persecution, found comfort in how God had worked in the past, and claimed the strength to carry on with speaking about Christ in their everyday lives.  When the church heard about the threats against the apostles, they did not get angry about how awful the government is, or upset about how terrible things were, but decided to concentrate on corporate prayer together (Acts 4:23-31).

            God is going to do what God is going to do.  No government, no nation, no group of people, and no one person can ever thwart God’s agenda for his world and his church.  Since it is true that God is sovereign over everything, our place is to decide whether we will participate in that agenda through the ministry of prayer and speaking the word of God or whether we will let God use other people’s prayers and other people’s speech.  There is nothing on earth or in heaven that is quite like letting God use us to accomplish his purposes.

            Just as God has acted in the past, so God is still in the business of transforming lives for his glory and forming faithful disciples of Jesus.  If it can happen in ancient Jerusalem; if it can happen throughout the history of the church; if it can happen in other places around the word, it can happen today with me and you.

            Prayer is to be like the oxygen we breathe – more of God, less of me.  Prayer in Scripture often takes the form of first remembering what God has done in the past.  Then, it moves on to praying specifically for current situations that connect to the larger purposes of what God is doing.  All the while we are to be anticipating that God will hear and act, just like he has done throughout history.

            Remembrance is an important dimension to biblical prayer.  Remembering is necessary because we have a tendency toward forgetfulness.  The older we get the more we tend to forget, probably because we have so much to remember!  So, continually rehearsing what God has done keeps us grounded in Scripture and tethered to what God can do now and in the future.  Remembering God’s saving actions and finding our own personal stories and circumstances in his grand story helps us to pray rightly and pray in ways that are according to God’s will.

            God will work out his plans and his purposes, even using people whom have no acknowledgment of God.  Since God is sovereign and rules over everything and everyone, he is never surprised by our troubles and our tough situations.  And God is never frustrated by people acting badly, because his divine providence and guiding hand is in control, even if we cannot always perceive it or cannot see it in the moment.

            It is interesting that believers of Jesus in the New Testament did not pray for relief from oppression or for God to judge their persecutors.  Instead, they prayed for boldness to speak the word of God in the middle of their trouble.  They rightly discerned from remembering about who God is and what he is about that they needed to pray for courage to speak about Jesus.  They prayed for God to act in power, not to deliver them from harm, but for God’s Word to go forth, and Christ’s Name to be glorified.

            Do our prayers sound like that?  When, in the face of trouble and problems, do we ask for boldness so that God’s saving plan would continue unabated?  We need to have prayers that all believers, including me, would have Spirit-filled speech that will impact and persuade others with Jesus.  First century believers prayed to see God stretch out his hand and perform miracles, and that those acts of healing in Jesus’ name would confirm the message that Jesus is real, that through his death on a cross and his rising from death would transform sinfulness and misuse of power into the same mercy and grace that were displayed by our Lord himself. 

            If you are at all normal, you will yearn for the same kind of boldness that was displayed by the early church, and, at the very same time, totally fear getting that kind of prayer answered!  It is scary because this is more than just trying to overcome some feeling of awkwardness or shyness.  There was, for ancient believers praying a prayer for boldness, a very real and immediate danger to speaking up about Jesus.  I’m sure it did not feel good for Peter and John to be silenced by the authorities and told that they had better not talk about this matter of Jesus again (Acts 4:16-18).

            What we need more of today are people who know how to ask good questions and have the patience and attention to listen well and respond thoughtfully, rather than just giving out answers to questions that people aren’t asking.  Speaking about Jesus does not mean that we have to go and knock on doors and make spiritual cold calls.  Instead, it mostly means speaking casually, one-on-one, with a friend, co-worker, neighbor, or family member that you already know.  Too often we might try to fly under the radar and avoid people because we think that speaking of Jesus is going to be too difficult, too hard, or just out of our league.

            Speaking with confidence and courage about Jesus is not so much telling people what they ought to believe; it is rather like sharing a precious gift with someone.  It begins in relationships with people we care about, and extends to a relationship with God.  It is more about discovering God together, and helping lead another to a life transforming relationship with Jesus, instead of only trying to bring them to church.  If we are Christians, we all have a personal story about what God means to us, and what he has done for us that we can share with another.

            When we link our prayers to what God has done in the past with what he is doing in the present, this is worship.  When we pray for boldness and courageously make ourselves available to God then we are offering our lives to God as living sacrifices which is our spiritual act of worship.  Who knows?  After praying we might find our meeting place shaken, lives transformed, and everyone filled with God’s Holy Spirit.  May it be so.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Being a Blessing

Words are powerful.  They have the power of life and of death, of blessing and cursing.  And taking the route of not talking is a communication of no blessing and no commitment.  It is essential and vital to speak words of blessing, and to back those words up with an active commitment.

            God spoke to Abraham.  He said he would bless him, and God backed up his words (Genesis 12:1-9; 15:1-21).  The real question for Abraham, which is also the question for us, is not how we will respond to God’s commands, but how will we respond to his promise of blessing, and to be a blessing?  Abraham left the city of Ur because he believed in the promise that God was holding out to him of blessing.  It is the promises of God, not the commands, which change our lives.  It is the promise, not the command, which requires a decision and a change.  The world revolves around promise.  And promise is powered by blessing.

            The term “blessing” in Scripture is a powerful communication of God’s presence and approval.  God said that he would show Abraham the Promised Land; in other words, he would be with Abraham.  Abraham was not alone; he was not on his own.  God provided for Abraham a picture of a special future; he would make Abraham into a great nation.  And even more than that, he would bless everyone else through Abraham.  God’s approval was with Abraham – “I will bless you.”  God’s active commitment to Abraham was this:  he would bless those who bless him and curse those who curse him. 

            This blessing was passed from generation to generation, from Abraham to Isaac, Isaac to Jacob, Jacob to his twelve sons; a blessing of God’s presence and approval; a blessing of a special future, and an active commitment.  The promise of the blessing found its ultimate fulfillment in the person of Jesus, who extended the original promise to the nations.  We, as Gentiles, have come to faith because of the blessing.

            When we come to the New Testament, the Father blessed the Son (Matthew 3:16-17):  As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water.  At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”  God communicated his constant presence and an active commitment through the Spirit; God spoke words of approval and affirmation; God the Father had a special future for Jesus the Son, which helped Jesus to reject the words of Satan.  If Jesus needed a blessing from his Father, how much more do we?  Earthly fathers stand in a very special position as those who have the power of bestowing a blessing on their children – a blessing of being with them, approving of them, affirming their gifts and abilities, picturing for them a special future of how God can use them.  Those words of blessing have the power to help children navigate the tons of decisions that they must make.  With a blessing they can filter-out the choices in front of them, and walk in the way of God.

            Jesus, in turn, blessed his disciples (Matthew 28:18-20).  We typically view these verses through the lenses of command.  But we need to see Christ’s Great Commission through the eyes of promise and blessing:  “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.   And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  Jesus let his disciples know that his presence would be with them; he communicated an active commitment to give them the authority that he possessed to do the job of disciple-making; he pictured for them a special future of reaching the nations; he affirmed them and approved them.  This Great Commission is really a re-statement of God’s original blessing to Abraham.

God is with you.  He has given us his very great and precious promises in Christ.  He has demonstrated his active commitment to us by giving us the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit has gifted each believer for service so that every individual may be a blessing to the Body of Christ, and make disciples of all nations of the world.

            You have God’s blessing.  There is no need to try and earn it; you already have it.  Let that blessing help you to reject the organization of wicked spirits who seek to have you for their own.  And you have been blessed so that you can be a blessing in the world.  You have the privilege and ability to reverse the Fall of humanity by turning the world’s curse into a blessing.  If you have been blessed with money, be a blessing by giving it away.  If you have been blessed by growing up in a loving family, give that love to others who are unloved and need that special blessing.  If you have been given wisdom, give it away to those who need wisdom.  If you have been blessed with the mercy of God, be merciful to others.  If you have been blessed with a wonderful relationship with God, make it your ministry to pray people into the kingdom of God.

            It is never too late to receive blessing, and never too late to bless others.  The church ought to be the one place on planet earth that is full of a culture of blessing.  May the Lord bless you and keep you.  May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and give you peace.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

God's Word

The Bible is to the Christian what weights and barbells are to a bodybuilder.  The people of God need Holy Scripture, God’s Word, in order to spiritually grow and become mature.  Christian character formation cannot truly occur apart from the continuous repetitions of reading the text of Scripture, and letting it build strength into the muscles of the soul.

Scripture is a powerful unifying force within the life of God’s people.  At the end of the day, we may not explain every Bible verse in exactly the same way, but a common desire to honor, apply, and obey God’s Word will draw us closer together rather than separate us.  It is the devil’s strategy to magnify our differences, and minimize our common confession of Christ around the Word of God.  A passion to listen, talk about, and apply God’s Word will bring believers in Jesus together.  Perhaps because the average American household today has at least three or four Bibles, we take for granted the availability of God’s Word.  It is always at our fingertips, even on our smartphones and computers.  Yet, because it is always present and available we may let the busyness and business of life keep us from paying attention to it.  When we commit to reading and listening to Holy Scripture, it should not be done quickly or mechanically, and certainly not half-heartedly.  If we are to allow God’s Word to penetrate and seep into our souls, we must take the time to listen carefully and slowly.

            A famous first century rabbi, Akiva, once noticed a tiny stream trickling down a hillside, dripping over a ledge on its way toward the river below. Below was a massive boulder. The rock below bore a deep impression. The drip, drip, drip of water over the centuries had hollowed away the stone. Rabbi Akiva commented, "If mere water can do this to hard rock, how much more can God's Word carve a way into my heart of flesh?" He realized that if the water had flowed over the rock all at once, the rock would have been unchanged. It was the slow but steady impact of each small droplet, year after year, that completely reformed the stone.

We sometimes want quick answers to our questions without taking the time to prayerfully listen and reflect on the Word of God. God likes to reveal truth over many days, months, and years, as we read and discuss Scripture together. Big splashes aren't usually God's way of doing things. Instead, through the slow drip of study and prayer and reflection, day after day, year after year, he shapes us into what he wants us to be.

When we approach the Bible it is necessary to come at it with a teachable spirit.  Sometimes God’s Word is not apparently relevant.  We oftentimes need others to help us, and we need the patience to stick with reading it and learning it, even when we aren’t sure about what it is saying.  Rightly interpreting Scripture typically happens in community, and not in isolation which is why small groups of people interacting on the Bible’s message is so very important.

One of the things a careful reading of Scripture does is to expose our sin.  When we look intently into God’s Word, it doesn’t take long for us to see God’s faithfulness and our disloyalty; God’s compassion and our selfishness; God’s holiness and our fickle nature.  And, for the believer, it causes us to grieve and be distressed not only over personal sin, but the fact that this sin is universal.  We are all guilty.  But sin does not have the last word, because God’s grace trumps everything!  So, do not grieve, because the joy of the Lord is your strength!  Being truly forgiven washes away the guilt and shame and brings restoration.  God’s Word both slays us, and gives us new life.

With this freedom, God’s Word opens our eyes to the needs of others.  An appropriate response to hearing God’s Word is to address and provide for the problems of others.  In other words, God is not just concerned about us, but about other people, as well. 

In ancient Israel, Scripture was so important that, by the age of twelve, every Jewish boy had the first five books of the Old Testament memorized.  They did this because they wanted God’s Word to be internalized and known so that it influenced every situation and every relationship of their lives.  What do you suppose would happen if we all committed to carefully reading and listening and meditating, even memorizing God’s Word on a daily basis?  Would it make a difference?  Would it transform our worship?  Would it make a difference in our relationships?  Would a commitment to learning God’s Word together change our life together?

There is no substitute for the heavy lifting of working through the Bible verse by verse, chapter by chapter, book by book.  Read, meditate, reflect, memorize, and prayerfully consider the Bible, and let its contents be the means of bringing intimacy between you and the divine.  In so doing, we lift up God’s Word and let it do its work within us.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Discovering the Reformation

Sometimes I need to go into my daughter’s room to get something.  More often than not, it ends up becoming an archaeological dig as I wade through the layers of stuff.  I don’t always find what I’m looking for, and I sometimes discover things I didn’t know I had lost.  Nearly five-hundred years ago, when Martin Luther went digging into the Bible, he found that he was wading through layers of church tradition and came upon something that was lost; he rediscovered that God justifies sinners by grace through faith apart from any good works done by us.  In other words, Luther found in the Scriptures that we are completely and totally at the mercy of God in Christ.

            The cross of Jesus Christ is our only means of salvation from what ails us because the cross is an attack on human sin.  Luther discovered that we all have layers and layers of stuff that have grown around our hearts to the degree that we no longer see the sheer grace of God in Christ alone to meet the most pressing needs of our lives.  In the centuries before Martin Luther and John Calvin came into history, God’s grace had gradually become something of a supplement to whatever is left of our human willpower.

            Apart from Jesus we are addicted to ourselves; and, the cross is the intervention we need to help us in order to confront our constant me-ism.  We might sometimes justify ourselves with the fact that we do good works.  However, one of the legacies of the Reformation is that good works do not earn us deliverance from sin.  What is more, Luther said that our good deeds are the greatest hindrance to our salvation because we have the tendency to trust in those good deeds instead of the death of Christ.  So, Luther actually called our good works a mortal sin that sets off God’s wrath and leads straight to hell.  In other words, doing good deeds are deadly if they are done as a means of approaching God.  It is only through the suffering of Jesus on the cross, his death for us while we were still sinners, not when we were lovely and looking fine with all our pious actions, that we are saved.  Luther had this to say in his Heidelberg Disputation:  “He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering.  Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil.  These are the people whom are under God’s wrath!  God can only be found in suffering and the cross.  It is impossible for a person not to be puffed by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.”

            God does not come to us in our beauty and goodness; instead, he comes to us in our ugliness and sin.  While we were still sinners, ungodly, enemies of God, powerless to save ourselves, Christ died on the cross for us (Romans 5:6-11).  We might spend too much of our time and effort concerned about looking good and doing good things in order to present ourselves acceptable to each other and even to God.  But that is the very sin, Luther said, that sends people to hell.  Places of damnation are actually reserved for those outwardly righteous persons who trusted all their lives in themselves and how they looked to others without a thought at all about justification, reconciliation, and being restored to God through Christ.


            Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout, is a person who has good deeds but knows nothing of God’s grace.  It is a completely human tendency to decide which sinful actions are trivial and which are the biggie sins.  Yet, the only way of approaching God is by seeing our true ugliness, our rebellious hearts, and that the only hope of salvation is through the cross of Christ.  We are justified by God and restored to relationship with him because of Jesus, and not for any other reason.  A new relationship is established based solely in God’s grace.

            When we grasp this truth, even a little bit, it should cause us to repent of our good works done apart from faith.  When there is humility that leads to a total turning to Jesus, there is a revival to new life in God, and a personal reformation around the doctrine of grace instead of the doctrine of my glorious works that I perform.

            We, then, as the people of God, saved and justified through the blood of Jesus, ought to be the most joyful and grateful people on the planet.  We have salvation from the deception of our hearts to life in Christ!  Apathy and lethargy in the church to the things of God are the twin evils that reign in the place of awe and appreciation for what God has done for us in Christ.

            There is nothing more God can do to show us that he loves us than by actually dying for us, and by doing so, satisfying his own wrath against the sin which seeks to destroy us.  The late Brennan Manning once told the story about how he got the name "Brennan." While growing up, his best friend was Ray. The two of them did everything together: bought a car together as teenagers, double-dated together, and went to school together. They even enlisted in the Army together, went to boot camp together and fought on the frontlines together. One night while sitting in a foxhole, Brennan was reminiscing about the old days in Brooklyn while Ray listened and ate a chocolate bar. Suddenly a live grenade came into the foxhole. Ray looked at Brennan, smiled, dropped his chocolate bar and threw himself on the live grenade. It exploded, killing Ray, but Brennan's life was spared.

When Brennan became a priest he was instructed to take on the name of a saint. He thought of his friend, Ray Brennan. So he took on the name "Brennan." Years later he went to visit Ray's mother in Brooklyn. They sat up late one night having tea when Brennan asked her, "Do you think Ray loved me?" Mrs. Brennan got up off the couch, shook her finger in front of Brennan's face and shouted, "What more could he have done for you?" Brennan said that at that moment he experienced an epiphany. He imagined himself standing before the cross of Jesus wondering, does God really love me? And Jesus' mother Mary pointing to her son, saying, "What more could he have done for you?"

The cross of Jesus is God's way of doing all he could do for us. And yet we often wonder:  Does God really love me? Am I important to God? Does God care about me?  We tend to ask those questions when we are trusting in ourselves, because we never really know where we stand.  Let the doubts roll away.  No matter how bad or how good we are, the path of suffering of our Lord Jesus has taken care of the sin issue once for all.

This is what we call the gospel, the good news that Jesus suffered and died for all the bad things we have done, and all the good things we have done to try and justify ourselves before God and each other.  Week after week for the past 2,000 years, God’s people have been gathered together to worship this same Lord Jesus who died on the cross.  The only thing left for us to do, since Jesus has done it all for us, is to offer our lives to him.  In doing so, the spirit of the Reformation lives on.