Thursday, January 30, 2014

Justified



            I am a firm believer in making daily affirmations of truth based upon what God has done for us in Christ.  The Christian doctrine of justification means that God has justified us and made us right with him and all creation through the cross of Jesus.  This is not only a doctrine to believe, but a reality to be lived into each and every day for the follower of Christ.

            Because I am a pastor, I occasionally get the person who comes into my office and does not like the way I do ministry, or is upset about Sunday’s sermon, or thinks I should be doing something I am not doing.  My initial gut reaction is to want to justify myself – to defend my ministry and my life.  Such encounters can easily leave me feeling insecure, like a vulnerable teenager trying to look cool in the middle of his awkwardness.  I even once had a person complain to me that on a particular Sunday my shoes were not shined well enough.  For a person like me who is borderline obsessive-compulsive, that was not an easy mental slough-off; I really wanted to beat myself up over the lack of shiny shoes!

            Yet, the truth of the Christian life is that I have no need to justify myself because God has already done it in Christ.  Here are some regular affirmations we can tell ourselves in order to let Christ’s righteousness sink deep down into our souls:

1         I thankfully accept who I am in my unchangeable physical appearance which God has uniquely designed for me so that Jesus can bring a special view to others through my life (Psalm 139:13-18; 2 Corinthians 10:12, 12:9-10).

2          I thankfully acknowledge that I am unconditionally loved and treasured by God who wanted a relationship with me and to whom I now belong forever (Romans 8:31-32, 38-39; John 6:44, 17:23).

3          I thankfully acknowledge that I am unconditionally accepted as a worthy person to God because of Jesus Christ in whom I trust for all things (Ephesians 1:16; Romans 4:6-8; Isaiah 61:10).

4          I thankfully acknowledge that I am a secure person because my heavenly Father cares about me and asks me to trust His leadership and goodness (Romans 8:28; Matthew 6:25-33; Proverbs 3:5-6; Psalm 37:3-7, 23).

5          I thankfully acknowledge that I am in a process of growth.  I have a sinful nature that is part of my personality but that is not who I am.  I consider myself dead to the sinful nature and alive and responsive to God instead.  I am not yet what I will be someday, but I am not what I used to be either.  I accept my struggles with sin as opportunities to depend more on God and on Christ’s justification for me (1 Peter 2:1-3; Romans 6:11; 2 Corinthians 10:13; Galatians 5:16).

6          I thankfully acknowledge that I am a competent person who is adequate to fulfill God’s will successfully each day.  My strength is supplied by God’s Holy Spirit who works through me to make an important and eternal impact on others with the love of God and the message of Christ (Philippians 2:13, 4:13; 1 Corinthians 10:13; 1 Peter 4:10-11; 2 Corinthians 5:20).

We all as Christians need to think the thought that we are secure in being loved by God, accepted and cared for by Him, and that we have important lives to live for Him.  Therefore, we are not threatened or devastated by the way some people treat us.  They do not determine our self-worth.  We might be pained when others let us down, but it is not the end of the world.  We can continue to act responsibly toward them as Christians without demanding that they understand us, accept us, or respect us.  It would be great if they did, but not devastating if they do not, since what really counts is God’s love and acceptance of us.

Many if not most people try to find acceptance and significance through parents, siblings, peers, church, achievements, appearance, work, etc.  Yet, none of those sources can satisfy or fulfill our basic personal needs.  This is why there are so many people who walk around feeling resentment, anxiety, guilt, a vague sense of emptiness and even despair.



But when a person trusts in Jesus Christ as the only true source of justification to satisfy all of the most basic of personal needs we have as people, that person can learn to regard herself in her new identity with Christ.  Her faith can be trained to believe in and focus on her new self-concept even in circumstances when she feels the pain of rejection.  She can rebound from disappointment.  She can forgive others and continue to minister and serve without dependence upon positive feedback from another.


To be justified by Christ means that we can live in the security of being a child of God without depending on others to do for us what God has already done through Jesus.  Learning to live in this way takes daily affirmations of faith and truth.  May we all tell ourselves the truth daily, and so glorify God and build up the church.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Christian Unity



The rallying cry of the church is the gospel, living and proclaiming the message of Christ’s cross instead of grouping ourselves around voices that cater to our personal preferences.  That is the message the Apostle Paul made clear to the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 1:10-18).

            There are two pledges we need to make to God and to each other in the church of Jesus Christ:  1) I will be a unifying church member; and, 2) I will not let my church be about my preferences and desires.

            God desires for Christians to get along and to work together, and that cannot happen if all we want is what we want.  Jesus himself said to his disciples and to us as his followers:  “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).  Unity in the church and communicating the message of forgiveness and love through the cross can only happen when people seek to be gracious to each other so that a watching world can see the validity of Christ within us.

            Christians all have a responsibility as followers of Jesus to be a source of unity and not division.  Paul said to the church at Ephesus that all believers are to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).  Unity does not just happen; it must be pursued and be a common value of everyone in the church.  Paul said to the church of the Colossians that the virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience are to be tied together with love, which binds them all together in perfect unity (Colossians 3:14).  To the church of the Philippians, Paul was equally straightforward by saying that we are to be like-minded, having the same love for each other that we have for Jesus, being united in spirit and purpose.  We are to do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility we are to consider others better than ourselves (Philippians 2:1-4).  Unity is common theme in all of Paul’s letters, and he considered it as a top priority that all the churches uphold the cross of Christ and sacrifice anything less in order to communicate God’s love in Christ to others.

            The specific problem in the Corinthian church was their allegiance to different individuals, that is, playing the game of favorite preacher and pastor and grouping around how that particular pastor teaches and does ministry.  It is a classic case of church members saying to each other:  “That’s not how so and so did it!”  Following our pet preachers ends up in division because people then focus on the methods of ministry rather than the substance of the ministry itself:  the wondrous cross of Christ that saves us from our pettiness and transforms us into forgiven people who spread forgiveness and healing through cauterizing wounds and being peacemakers.  In other words, our primary loyalty is to be Christ and the message of the cross, and not to particular personalities or programs.

            The sin of the Corinthians was misguided loyalties, and the answer to wrong priorities is to have Jesus and the cross our central and guiding allegiance.  The Corinthian believers were emotionally tied to the pastor who baptized them and who was a significant force for good in their lives.  It is more than understandable to have a special relationship with the pastor who baptized your children, or taught you, or was there for you when you needed it most.  What is not okay, however, is following that pastor as if he/she is Jesus, and insisting that church be done the way my favorite preacher does it.  Christian unity means to agree with one another about the good news of Christ, and let everything else be a matter of lesser importance.  Can you live with that?

            Here is a sobering reality that has been true throughout church history and is no different today:  not everyone in every church is there to follow Jesus – and as long as that is a reality, there will be schisms, factions, cliques, divisions and disunity because the visible church always has a mix of righteous and unrighteous people within it concerned more about power politics than humbly following Jesus and spreading his message of forgiveness. 

Yet, also a reality is that sin in the church has been taken seriously throughout history as something that destroys its unity and purity.  It has only been in the last three-hundred years that sin has been viewed as something that is only personal, and a matter between the individual and God.  In the early churches believers desiring to repent of their sins would typically spend a period of time fasting and praying and then appear before the entire church to make a public confession.  I am not necessarily endorsing that method for us, but the message remains essential:  to agree with one another and make peace by stopping the bleeding and bringing healing to the community of the redeemed.  The power of Christianity is in the blood of Jesus to forgive sins, and not in trying to ensure things get done the way we think they ought to get done in the way our favorite people do them.

            Thom Rainer is a nationally recognized church researcher.  In a survey of churches in membership decline, he found several common dominant behavior patterns that emerged.  Here are a few of them, and they all bring some form of disunity:
  1. Worship wars.  One or more factions in the church want the music just the way they like it.  Any deviation is met with anger and complaining.
  2. Viewing the preservation and protection of the church building as one of the highest priorities, above the church members’ spiritual growth and maturity.
  3. Particular programs are held in such high regard that, even if they are not effective, the church keeps doing them.
  4. Attitudes of entitlement.  A sense of deserving special treatment and attention.
  5. Greater concern about change than the gospel.  Rainer says, “Almost any noticeable changes in the church evoke the ire of many; but those same passions are not evident about participating in the work of the gospel to change lives.”
  6. Evangelistic apathy.  Very few members share their faith on a regular basis; they are more concerned for their own needs, and not so much of those outside the church.
One of the jobs of church leadership is to make sure that there is unity around the things that are most important to God.  Christian unity is not built on trying to keep everyone happy; it is built on the good news of Jesus Christ.  Paul said that the cross of Christ is more important than anything else, no matter how important we think that “something” may be.  Christians must unite around the gospel.  All the practical and important stuff of human life must be shaped and governed by the cross of Jesus, because that is where God’s power saved the world and where true hope lies for everyone. 


            Paul did not demand that all Christians be identical.  Instead, he invited us to identify with Jesus Christ first and last.  We all need God’s will done in our lives more than we need our preferences realized.  If that seems foolish, then let’s embrace foolishness because the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but the power of God for those who believe.  Even so, come Lord Jesus.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Power of Testimony



            My favorite football player of all time was not a Green Bay Packer (sorry Wisconsin peeps!); it is Kurt Warner.  There is much in his testimony that I relate to.  He grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the same place my wife grew up.  He played football at Northern Iowa, which is also my alma mater.  Here is what Kurt Warner has to say about his life in a nutshell:
            “I was raised in the church, so faith and God were part of my life, but for me it was just kind of there only on Sundays. I always had God as a background, but I never truly accepted Jesus until I was about 25 years old. My arena league teammates (before being in the NFL), a pastor friend and my future wife were constantly asking questions about my beliefs, and I began to question where I was and whether I had really put my complete faith in God. Their questions led me to the Truth – that faith is about a relationship, and it’s about Jesus. Up to that point, I had never really considered that. I struggled for so long and so many things went against me. I was swimming upstream. When I finally gave my life over to God, it was then the joy and happiness came into my life. I realized my role here on Earth was not to throw touchdown passes and win football games, although that is the position and the platform I was given. I realize my goal is to win as many people to Jesus as possible. I have an open-door policy, where I’m able to talk about what is most important to me, and, for me, God is #1.”

            Like Kurt Warner, I grew up with God only in the background of my life.  I remember going to church as a kid and having agonizing boredom be my experience.  When I became a teenager I dropped out of church and of really believing in God because I did not see any relevance to my life.  My family and my school could give testimony that I was a weird, stubborn kid who did what he wanted to do.  And it put me into a slimy pit, lost and far from God. 

            In all my years of church-going growing-up, I had never read my Bible.  But God was gracious to me.  I remembered all those sermons I heard about Jesus, and I gained a newfound sense of my own sinfulness and desire to read God’s Word.  God saved me.  My circumstances did not much change, but I did.  My loneliness turned to joy; my aimlessness turned into purpose; and, my selfishness became a deep concern for others.  My heart had been black, and what God did to change it was nothing less than miraculous.

            As a young woman, Frances Havergal, author of the hymns, "Take My Life and Let It Be" and "Like a River Glorious," had a very quick temper - the kind that would explode. Afterward she would be mortified and confess it to the Lord. But then she would lose her temper, again and again.  One day after a particularly bad explosion, she threw herself down by her bed and wept. She prayed, "Lord, must it always be so? Will I always have this temper to keep me humble before you?"  While she was on her knees, the Lord brought a verse of Scripture in her mind: "The Egyptians whom you have seen today you will see no more forever." God spoke those words to Moses when the Egyptians pursued the Israelites to take them back into bondage. Frances Havergal related the verse to her temper and the way in which Satan wanted to use it to pull her into bondage. She saw that God could take her temper away.  She asked, "Lord, could it be forever?"  It seemed to her that the words came back from the Lord, "Yes. No more, forever."  Her sister said that from that day Frances Havergal never again lost her temper. She trusted God, and God did a miracle.

            We not only practice a personal faith, but we also have an equal responsibility to bless the church with our personal testimony of what God has done in our lives.  The telling of stories in which we declare what God has done is a necessary part of building up the Body of Christ and helping the congregation move forward.

            Let’s not shelve this idea of giving testimony to others as if it were only for pastors, missionaries, or other very religious people.  When a person decides to play hockey in twenty-degree below-zero weather, we might think that person is a little crazy; but if they love hockey that much, more power to them.  We must not think about Christianity in the same way, that if a person is passionate about Jesus and desires to tell others about what God has done for them, more power to them; just don’t expect me to go out in the cold and do that because it isn’t my thing!  Take this to heart:  Christianity is not a sport or a hobby; it is not a means to looking respectable; it cannot be reduced to church attendance and putting money in the offering plate.  Christianity is a life, a relationship with God through Jesus.  Try looking at marriage as simply showing up for supper and paying the bills and see how far that gets you!

            What if you feel like you have no testimony to give?  In the fall of 2000, doctors diagnosed Pastor Ed Dobson with Lou Gehrig's disease, an incurable and fatal disease. The doctors gave him two to five years to live and predicted that he would spend most of that time in a disabled condition.  Shortly after he was diagnosed, Ed wanted someone to anoint him with oil and pray for healing. And he wanted someone to pray who really believed in healing. So Ed invited a friend, a Pentecostal pastor who had regular healing services, to come over and pray for him. Here's how Ed described what happened:  “It was one of the most moving evenings of my entire life. He began by telling stories of people he had prayed for who were miraculously healed. He also told stories about people he had prayed for who were not healed and had passed away, receiving that ultimate and final healing. Before he prayed for me he gave me some advice:  ‘"Don't become obsessed with getting healed, Ed," he said. "If you get obsessed [with getting healed], you will lose your focus. Instead, get lost in the wonder of God; who knows what he will do for you!?"  This is some of the best advice I have ever received …. Since that night, I've been trying to get—and stay—lost in the wonder of God.”

            Sometimes, like in the case of Frances Havergal, God completely delivers.  Sometimes, like in the case of Ed Dobson, physical healing does not happen.  But in both cases, they each have a personal testimony of deliverance because either we can be delivered from our problem or situation, or we can have just as much the miracle of being delivered from the need to be delivered.


            New life comes not from a change of circumstances, but a change of heart.  When we have a firm reliance on God; when we have a glad obedience to God; and, when we have a readiness to give testimony to God’s actions, then we are living into God’s continuing narrative of changed lives.  Soli Deo Gloria.  

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Christian and Self-Worth

  

            One of the things that we must be clear about when it comes to living the Christian life is that God has made provision for the believer’s daily life to glorify him so that we may be successful in doing his will.  Toothless and ineffective Christians are persons whom do not know the truth about themselves.  Both truth and error are powerful.  If we think wrongly about who we are as Christians, we are like empty wells with no water to draw from.  Many of our problems, failures, and sins are largely due to our misunderstanding of the kind of person we are.  A profound result of this misunderstanding is a lack of self-worth.  When we are in error about who we really are, there is much limitation to what we can do in our lives.  We can neither solve the problem by comparing ourselves with others nor by trying to generate good feelings about ourselves.  Only through accepting what the Holy Scriptures say about us, and responding in faith, can we be truly helped.

            An important bedrock truth that we must understand about ourselves as believers in Jesus is that the Christian has been created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:16-17).  We can only begin to understand ourselves if we begin with creation.  Since God is a Person of infinite perfection and goodness, to be created in his image means we are persons of great potential and value.

            To be a person means that we are self-conscious and can make decisions. We also have inherent rights to know, to be heard, to feel, to have an opinion, to be honored, to develop potential, to assume responsibility, and to enjoy life and all creation.  In other words, God himself treats us as persons; therefore, we may not treat ourselves any less than that.

            God created us to know him, to understand spiritual truth and perform spiritual functions.  Because we are created by God, we are sacred individuals.  We commit a profound sin when we do not develop our potential and live as though life and fulfillment were graciously given by God for our good.  When we accept erroneous thoughts about ourselves (and we all have) then we almost always use that error to misinterpret our circumstances, relationships and opportunities.  Without even realizing it we bring confusion and failure into many if not all areas of our life.

            One of the clearest evidences that we do not know, accept, and practice the biblical truth of our self-worth is seen in our response to God’s Word.  Too often we read the Bible’s promises and say, “I can’t be like that!”  Or we read the Scripture’s commands and say, “I can’t do that!”  When we live that kind of unbelief and error in our lives the result is too often discouragement and/or criticism of others who seem to be successful in their Christian lives.

            Let’s get some genuine spiritual truth down deep in our bones:  the Christian has been and is loved by God (John 15:9; 17:23).  To be loved by God means that God recognizes us as persons, gives us our rightful place in his life, and will do what is right by us.  In other words, God has our back.  We must accept this truth.

            The Christian has been called to live in fellowship with God (1 Corinthians 1:9).  No greater honor could be bestowed on us than to be invited to interact with the Living God.  As we do, the door is open so God can minister to us and lead us into the knowledge and practice of his will.

            The Christian has been given divine revelation (Hebrews 1:1-3).  Having the Holy Scriptures available to us is the greatest possession we could ever receive.  There is nothing more powerful than the truth about God and his desires for our daily life.  Therefore, we commit a profound sin when we neglect and disobey what God has so graciously given us.

            The Christian has been made the object of divine redemption (Romans 5:8-9).  The great evidence of our human worth is the reality that Jesus Christ has secured our redemption from sin to himself.  Jesus, the Son of God, has loved us and gave himself for us (Galatians 2:20).

            The Christian has been made the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).  The actual physical temple of the Old Testament was filled with the glory of God.  Today, through Christ’s redeeming love on the cross, every believer in Jesus is God’s temple.  Therefore, God wants to work in us and through us for his glory and honor.


            The conclusion to the matter is that the only way we will know true self-worth is to accept what the Bible says about us and respond by faith and love to its loving and redeeming message.  You are a person of infinite worth to God, so live into this wonderful truth.  May it be so.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Take Charge

  

           It would be wrongheaded if a coach relied only on drawing X’s and O’s on a whiteboard for his team without ever running plays and scrimmages in practices that hone the players’ ability to be successful in an actual game situation.  When it comes to the Christian life, it isn’t enough to listen to hundreds of sermons and amass only knowledge.  Jesus said that we shall know the truth, and the truth shall make us free (John 8:32).  The Lord Christ was not simply referring to being familiar with the X’s and O’s of life, but practicing the freedom we have through taking charge of our thoughts, emotions, and body.

            We are to take the promises of God given to us as believers in Jesus and purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit (2 Corinthians 7:1).  Christians have an entire array of spiritual weapons to use in the goal of personal and corporate holiness.  Those weapons have divine power to demolish the strongholds of needless arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God.  We have the ability as Christ’s followers to take captive every single thought and make it obedient to Jesus (2 Corinthians 10:4-5).  We are to think on things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable (Philippians 4:8).  We must bring our bodies into subjection to what is most important to God so that our lives are not disqualified by bad behavior (1 Corinthians 9:27).

            The believer in Jesus has the ability to take charge of his/her thinking, emotional state, bodily desires, and daily life; therefore, we must do so.  It is important to recognize that we are not always responsible for the presence of a thought, emotion, or desire that pops up; but we certainly do have an obligation to reject all that is wrong in those areas.  In other words, to accept and act on a wrong thought or behavior is sinful.

            We are to take charge of our thinking.  The sinful nature of a person, the sinful world system, and demonic suggestions or accusations must be identified and rejected.  Our hearts are desperately wicked apart from God, and it is from the heart that evil thoughts proceed (Mark 7:21-22).  Everything that is in the world – our sinful cravings, lustful thoughts, and arrogant boasting – does not come from God but from a world under the dominion of the devil (1 John 2:16).  In the same way, temptation to evil thoughts and actions does not come from God but from the tempter of our souls (Genesis 3:1-5; Matthew 4:3; Revelation 12:9-11).

            We take charge of our thinking by refusing those thoughts that are wrong and aggressively choosing to think on correct thoughts.  We do this by putting off the old ways of speaking and acting, like lying or stealing, and putting on faith and love (Ephesians 4:25; 1 Thessalonians 5:8).  It is a good thing to actually speak out loud and say:  “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ I take charge of my thinking.  I refuse to accept the thought of __________.  In full dependence on the true and living God I bring all my thinking into subjection to the Lord Jesus Christ.”

            We are to take charge of our emotions.  It is just as wrong to accept a wrong emotion (such as hopelessness) and to act on it as it would be to accept a wrong bodily desire and act on it.  The believer has no reason to be hopeless and ought not accept and practice error.  We must reject all emotions that come from the world, the flesh, and the devil.  Instead, we are to accept the truth of having hope overflow in our hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).  Then, we are to carefully practice it, over and over again, by faith.

            We are to take charge of our bodies.  We are to have spiritual control of how we handle our bodies.  Because Jesus died to sin once for all, we are to count ourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ.  So, we are not to let sin call the shots in our mortal bodies so that we obey our sinful desires.  Instead, we are to offer the parts of our bodies to God as instruments of righteousness (Romans 6:10-13).


            Here’s the deal:  Christ has delivered us from sin through his death on a cross; we are, therefore, to live into this deliverance through our practice of the truth.  We must be aggressive, choose to deny ourselves, and take charge of our lives so that we may glorify him.  It is time to avail ourselves of the grace that has been given us.  Victory comes through practice using the spiritual tools available to us in the context of community.  Therefore, the church is not optional equipment but absolutely vital to living a successful Christian life.  So, let’s get into the game because we have submitted ourselves to the continual practice of taking charge of our minds, emotions, and desires.  Soli Deo Gloria.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Bible as History



            The essence of ministry is the ability to grasp the Bible as God’s special revelation of himself and use it to edify Christians and evangelize the lost.  Glorifying God through handling Scripture is a skill that develops over a lifetime of following Jesus.  Therefore, understanding something of the basic nature of the Bible is critical to the church.  This may seem obvious or elementary, but the Bible is a historical book.  That is, it was written in history by actual historical characters.  Yes, the Bible is a spiritual book.  Yet, that does not negate or cancel the fact that it is an actual historical document. 

            I am not just a pastor and a theologian; I am also an historian with a few academic degrees to show for it.  But even if a pastor or layperson is not credentialed as an historian, that person still does the work of an historian by handling God’s historical Word.

            I cannot emphasize enough the need to approach Scripture with some common historical sense.  If we do not, we are in danger of misinterpreting God’s Holy Word for us today.  As contemporary people who seek to apply the Bible to our present needs and situations, the historians’ craft can help us in our quest.  John Fea, professor of American History at Messiah College, has rightly explained that the historian’s task is not first to find something relevant in history, but to initially do the work of helping to explain the past.  The goals of the historian, Fea says, are:  to observe change over time; to interpret the past in context; to be constantly interested in the causes for an event; to keep the big picture in mind by seeing how events are influenced by other events; and, to realize that the past is complex by resisting simplistic explanations that can be put into sound bites.

            If we rip biblical characters from their historical context and roots; if we try and make them just like us; if we ignore their understandings and motivations; if we ask first what something means for us before asking what it meant for them; if we seek to selfishly use biblical persons as tools for our own propaganda in the present; then, we have done a disservice to the church, not to mention a disservice to the God whom we seek to honor.  What I am insisting upon is that we eschew cherry-picking from the past and the Bible in order to get positive accolades with the people for whom we minister to.  The biblical word for that is “Pharisee.”  The Bible is not to be used to get our point across; it is God’s revelation to us so that we can know him better – so that we might grow in the grace and the knowledge of the Lord Jesus.

            I am not saying that one needs to be a scholar in order to effectively learn or communicate Holy Scripture.  What I am pleading for is some intellectual hospitality, some basic human decorum in handling the Bible so that we can learn to listen to both the characters of the Bible and the people in our lives with views that differ from our own.  Someone might argue that all we need is the Holy Spirit.  And I would argue that only the narcissist thinks he/she can independently handle the Bible, as if the Holy Spirit speaks only to individuals and not the community of the redeemed as a whole.


            We need to examine the Old and New Testaments not to give ammunition to our personal and cultural agendas, but because they have the potential to change our lives and transform us in order to serve the church and the world.  May it be so.  

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Sitting at Jesus' Feet

We are barely into the New Year but already many of us are feeling guilty about our broken resolutions and/or are despondent about the lack of change in our lives.  We feel guilty because we have not let up on the gas pedal of our lives enough to accommodate any of those new pledges to live differently.

            But, you might reason, things will eventually settle down – but somewhere on the inside you really know that is not true.  Things probably won’t settle down because we are like Martha in the Gospel of Luke – busy doing things we believe are necessary, as if we are living on the belief that constant busy-ness and activity is what really pleases God (Luke 10:38-42).  The gospel story about Mary and Martha is a monkey wrench in our plans.  So, what we often do when exposed to a story about Jesus setting priorities for us is that we simply feel guilty, then just move on with our all our hard work without ever doing the even harder work of stopping long enough to sit at the Lord Jesus’ feet.



            We don’t sit down because, like Martha, we are distracted.  After all, there are too many plans and preparations to be made.  But the one reality that we must come to grips with is this:  Jesus is here, and since he is here, what will we do?

            I’m not going to give you some sage advice about how to plan your life, or some nifty tips concerning how to fix your schedule.  Instead, I can tell you that, based on the Word of God, the one thing that we must do is be with Jesus and sit at his feet.

            For that to happen we really need to see that we identify more with Martha than we do with Mary.  We may not say it out loud, but Mary just seems weirdly irresponsible and maybe even a bit lazy to us.  She has, we might think, her head in the clouds to the point of being no earthly good.  And Jesus seems like he is not being very realistic or understanding of what a real life in today’s world is like, and what a hectic schedule we keep.  For Jesus to identify with Mary sitting at his feet listening to him, and gently rebuke Martha for being pre-occupied with supper seems strange to our American Protestant work ethic.  After all, there are things to do, people to see, family responsibilities, work projects and deadlines, school papers, plans and preparations.  Martha isn’t a bad person, we rightly recognize.  She was doing important work, hard work, and that is good.  It’s not like she was idly sitting at her computer watching kittens breakdance on YouTube; she wasn’t wasting time surfing the web on her smartphone; she wasn’t next door gossiping to the neighbor, or being a busybody.  We need people like Martha, people who will roll up their sleeves and get lots of work done, people like me, we reason.  That’s what Martha was feeling, anyway.  But we still must deal with this inescapable truth:  Jesus didn’t feel that way.

            Many of us go day after day, month after month, anxious, upset, troubled and even frantic over every dirty dish, each upcoming project or event, and every responsibility whether it is big or small.  Truth be told, we are slaves to our schedules rather than being masters of our time and commitments.  What ends up happening is the thing that matters most is squeezed out and pushed to the margins of our lives.  We walk around and are quick to spout to anyone who will listen to us moan about how busy we are and how we don’t have time to read our Bibles, engage in focused prayer, let alone serve the church.

            Being busy is not bad.  But the point here is that the best practice we can engage in each and every day is to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to him.  This is a reminder to keep first things first.  Martha wasn’t doing anything wrong; she was just distracted and was missing out on learning from Jesus and making him priority.  We all know what we have to do; but are we doing the one thing that is necessary?

            If you are sick and tired and being sick and tired because of your ridiculously sinful schedule, then do this one thing:  devote yourself to the Word of God and prayer every day.  For that to happen we must not approach this in a legalistic way and end up rushing through reading the Bible and praying in a few minutes because we have to get to work.  That only misses the important picture of unhurried time with Jesus.

            We also need to avoid coming to the Scriptures as something to master or conquer or control because that misses the picture of simple humility and obedience at Christ’s feet.  We really have to believe that sitting at Jesus’ feet is important enough to rearrange our lives without making excuses about it.

            Most people are really not looking to be lazy.  Most Christians I know have a high sense of responsibility and obligation – and that is good.  We do not like letting people down or leaving things undone.  We do not like running late or being idle.  It is not wrong or bad to go through seasons of being overwhelmed with things that must be done.  Every family is busy.  But we must not wear that busy schedule as a badge of spirituality, as if we are trying to earn God’s good favor.  There was a time in my life when I worked fifty hours a week, went to graduate school, and either preached or taught nearly every Sunday – all when my girls were still young and I was trying to be a good Dad and husband.  I was up by 4:30 every morning and went to bed at 10:00 or later every night, and every minute of my days were filled to the full.  There were no Sabbath days off; no vacations; nothing idle; I was constantly doing and going.



            I only mention this because I learned something very important once I got through that crazy busy season of my life – something that I could not see while I was in the middle of it:  my busy-ness actually caused everyone else around me to be as crazy busy as I was, especially my gracious wife.  When there are no margins in your life, then every problem or change in schedule becomes a Martha-like experience of having to have other people step up in order to make your busy schedule possible.  You then become the center of time, not God.  People don’t do less when you are crazy busy – they do more, and the person who suffers the most is Jesus.

            If we are so busy that we cannot hear the Word of God; if we are so upset and frustrated to the degree that we cannot listen to Holy Scripture; if we are preoccupied with thinking about Monday morning; if we are distracted making speeches in our heads and mumbling to ourselves about other people and how they should be here and do this and that; if that is us, then we have an issue, and that issue is not with the Mary’s of this world, but with our own Martha mentality.  There is a difference between living a full life, and being obsessed with doing more and expecting others to do the same.

            Christianity is a life.  It is primarily a relationship, and relationships must be cultivated and given attention.  Jesus loves you, and he wants you to be with him.  Kevin DeYoung in his book Crazy Busy rightly says it’s not wrong to be tired and it’s not bad to feel overwhelmed.  It’s only normal to go through seasons of a chaotic schedule.  But what is both wrong and foolish, not to mention heartbreaking, DeYoung insists, is to live with more craziness than we should and have less Jesus than we need. 


So, instead, may we live unhurried lives, yet accomplishing more, because we have been with Jesus, sitting at his feet learning from him.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Jesus Is Making Everything New



The world as we now know it will someday pass away.  Christians have a future hope – it will literally be heaven on earth.  There will be a renewed earth and God will descend to dwell with us, and, so, will bring us to the original design God had in the garden with Adam and Eve – an unhindered relationship between God and humanity in which we are no longer dogged by our sinful nature, a sinful world system, and all the temptations that the devil uses to exploit for his own purposes.  Tears, death, sorrow and pain will a thing of the past.  Eventually, our struggle with sin will be completely over (Revelation 21:1-6).  To know that problems are temporary and that Jesus will change everything is a great comfort and help to believers in their present troubles.

            One of the problems we experience in this present age is that we are impatient people; we want good things to happen, and to happen now!  All of God’s people throughout history have been looking ahead for the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises.  God said to the prophet Isaiah:  “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth.  The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.  But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.  I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more” (Isaiah 65:17-19).

            When Jesus came in his first Advent, God’s people thought for sure all these promises would be fully realized.  But, like a young couple in their engagement period, the promises of God had been initiated and promised, but not yet realized or consummated.  There have been people throughout the centuries that have said, as the Apostle Peter identified (2 Peter 3:4):  “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised?  Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.”  Peter responded, in part, by reminding Christians (2 Peter 3:8-9):  But do not forget this one thing, dear friends:  With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.  The Lord is not slow in keeping his promises, as some understand slowness.  He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

            Jesus is making everything new.  God is even now in the process of moving history to its final stage.  Can we be patient, as God is, in letting him do his work until that final day comes, or will we be impatient?  We live in an amazing time where we have instant communications and can travel anywhere in the world in a relatively short amount of time.  The earth is a big place, but we can traverse it by plane in less than two days.  It used to be that a ship going across the Atlantic Ocean took about three months from Europe to America.  Now, we fly across the ocean in a matter of hours.  Yet, we freak out that we have to be to the airport two hours before a flight and grump and complain about standing in a twenty minute line to board a plane.

            And it used to be that communication moved at the same pace as a ship.  Knowing about a significant event that happened in Europe would take three months to reach America.  Now we can know about what kind of bread some Frenchman ate for breakfast almost instantly after he eats it because he posted it on social media.  We complain if we have to wait a few extra seconds for something to load on our computers and smartphones, as if the world were about to end.  Well, actually, it is about to end.

            Yet, in the meantime, we are not to simply wait for the end to come and spend our remaining time trying to figure out exactly the day and hour of Christ’s Second Advent.  Instead, when Jesus said “I am making everything new” he means that he is now at work transforming all things which will culminate is his Second Coming and the final passing away of the old order of things.  We properly anticipate Jesus coming again when we let God change our hearts and lives, our neighborhoods and workplaces, our families and churches, to be just like Christ.

            God is now in the business of preparing for Christ’s return by doing away with the old in order to make room for the new.  The Apostle Paul put it this way to the Corinthian church (2 Corinthians 5:17):  If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!  With every changed life, there is the reminder that God is not slow in keeping his promises, but is active in transforming lives for his own glory.

            The book of Revelation helps us to break our fixation with the past and holding onto the ways we have always done things and are reminded of God’s capacity and action for renewal.  We can walk now in newness of life.  Christians are people, according to Paul (Romans 6:4) that “were buried with Jesus through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

            Looking to the future work of God in ultimately destroying the old and bringing in the new is to help us see that God is now in the process of renewal, changing lives so that Christ can dwell in our hearts through faith as the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, as the One who has no room for any other God.

            In order to not be impatient, but to keep enduring and persevering, it is necessary for us to know the whole story of God and what he has done, is doing, and will do.  In the fall of 1991, a car driven by a drunk driver jumped its lane and smashed headfirst into a minivan driven by a man named Jerry Sittser. Sittser and three of his children survived, but Sittser's wife, four-year-old child, and mother died in the crash. In his book, A Grace Revealed, Sittser shares the following interaction some months after the accident with his son, David, who was one of the children who survived:
"Do you think Mom sees us right now?" he suddenly asked.
I paused to ponder. "I don't know, David. I think maybe she does see us. Why do you ask?"
"I don't see how she could, Dad. I thought Heaven was full of happiness. How could she bear to see us so sad?"
Could Lynda, my wife, witness our pain in Heaven? How could that be possible? How could she bear it?
"I think she does see us," I finally said. "But she sees the whole story, including how it all turns out, which is beautiful to her. It's going to be a good story, David."

            God knows the whole story; he knows how everything is going to turn out.  When everything passes away, when all is stripped from our lives, when the world as we know it is done away with, what are we left with?  We are left with participating with God in the renewal of all things, through alleviating and doing away with the evils and troubles of this world.  Whenever we seek to do away with things like global poverty; when we work to end the world of sex-trafficking or abortion; when we help others come to grips with the evil of this world through changing old satanic ways of operating; when we come alongside others in their trouble; then, God is using us to make everything new.


            The end is coming, but it is not yet here.  God is presently working to make everything new by bringing his salvation to all kinds of people.  Let us allow God to that work both on others, and in us.  Soli Deo Gloria.