Saturday, February 27, 2016

Repentance and Spiritual Fruit

            One of the issues that every pastor and church leader faces is how to measure the success of the ministry, or the lack thereof.  It is tempting to merely assume that attendance, state of the budget, and how many programs are up and running evidences success.  Lots of people, money, and ministries do not by themselves constitute a healthy church any more than eating lots of food and spending lots of money on eating-out constitutes physical health.  In fact, it is just the opposite.  So, where are we to focus our energies?

The two big ideas that Jesus hammered home to the crowds who followed him are:  1) you need to repent; and, 2) you need to bear spiritual fruit (Luke 13:1-9).  The two go together:  a fruitless life points to the need for repentance; and, to truly repent results in bearing the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.

            Jesus, in exhortation after exhortation, and parable after parable, relentlessly went after the fruitless dead religion of his day.  Our Lord believed that such religion needed to be cut out and thrown away.  So, he went after the assumptions that people have about sin, faith, and judgment.  Jesus challenged the presuppositions that people often hold onto which are false.  In dealing with them, Jesus wanted to foster repentance and fruit-bearing.

False Assumption:  Other people’s sin is more serious than mine.

            It is a common human tendency, apart from Christ, to focus on the bad things in the world and the things that other people do, rather than focus on our own heart and life.              It is so much easier to be a simpleton and believe that _____ so and so needs to be “fixed.”  When there are problems and circumstances which are less than ideal, it is sinful human nature that goes after a scapegoat.  But Jesus will have none of it.  You and I cannot control, change, or fix anyone else; but we can practice self-control, change our personal habits, and be the solution to our own problems.

            Christ cuts through all the crud of scapegoating and blame-shifting by saying that every single one of us needs to repent, without exception.  What is more, Jesus’ parables challenge us with a very probing thought:  Are we bearing fruit, or just taking up space?  When we howl for judgment on others, but insist on grace for ourselves then we are the ones with the biggest need for repentance.

False Assumption:  My sin isn’t that serious.

            When things go awry, many people assume they got a bum rap and were the victims of circumstances.  But Jesus will have none of it.  Here are some personal questions that place the focus on repentance and fruit-bearing: 
Do I continually locate sin outside of my life, or do I see the sinfulness of my own heart? 
Do I believe people in hard circumstances are more sinful than me? 
Do I think that doing things the way they have always been done is what is most important? 
Can I envision that growth and change is necessary for life and for the church? 
Can my life be described as fruitful, or fruitless? 
How can I become fruitful? 
What must I repent of? 
What will happen if I don’t repent?

            Yes, other people’s sin is serious; but so is mine!  And I must deal with my own sin.  If anybody wants to eat a hot dog, they probably should never see how they are made.  And if anybody wants to continue in a life of being angry, bitter, complaining, and blaming others then they probably should not look at their own hearts and see where all those attitudes are made.  Penitent hearts are what Jesus is looking for in us.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Example of Christ

John 13:15 – “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”

            When I am thinking about a particular Scripture passage and reflecting upon it, one of the things I often do is write out my own translation of the verses with some explanatory comments.  I also often place them in a more contemporary context.  I do this because I want to feel the original force and even scandal of the message.  As we think about the ministry of the church, we are to follow the example of our Lord Jesus.  So, here is the Gospel of John 13:1-17….

It was just before the biggest and most important feast of the year, Passover.  Jesus knew that it was finally the time for him to face the cross and die for the world’s sins.  Having spent the past three years loving his followers, he now wanted to leave them with a clear demonstration of his love that they would never forget.

The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already gotten a hold of Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus to those who wanted him dead and gone.  But it was all according to plan.  Jesus knew that his heavenly Father had given him all authority because he was his Son, and he was ready to do what needed to be done to secure salvation and return to his rightful place at his Father’s right hand.  So, Jesus got up from the meal, rolled up his sleeves, put an apron on, and ran a sink full of hot water.  Jesus told the servants to take the night off, and He began taking the dishes from the dinner table and started washing them, taking care to do all that waiters and dishwashers would do.

When Jesus came to take care of Simon Peter’s dishes and serve him dessert and coffee, Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to serve me?”  Jesus replied, “I know you do not understand why I am doing this since it seems like something that is beneath me to do, but later you will look back on this night and understand completely what I am doing.”

“No,” said Peter, “this is not right – you are the Master and this is not what well-respected Rabbis do – you are only disrespecting yourself and making us all look foolish. You are not going to take my dishes and wash them.”

Jesus answered, “Unless I wash these dishes and serve you, you are not going to be able to follow me anymore and you will have no part of what I am doing in this world.”

“Well, then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “if that is the way it really is, then don’t just wash the dishes – come on over to my place and clean out the fridge and scrub the kitchen floor!”

Jesus answered, “A person who has had a decent meal needs only to wash the dishes so that he can enjoy the freedom of hospitable relationships with me and those around him.  And all of you here have had a decent meal, though not every one of you.”  For Jesus knew that Judas was only picking at his food in anticipation of betraying him.

When Jesus was all done washing the dishes and serving his disciples, he took his apron off, rolled his sleeves back down, and returned to the table.  He looked them all squarely in the eye and said, “Do you understand what I just did for you?  You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Master,’ and rightly so, for that is exactly what I am.  So, now that I, your Master and your Teacher have washed your dishes, you also should wash one another’s dishes.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.  I am telling you the plain truth that no follower is greater than the one he follows, nor is a preacher greater than the one he preaches about.  Now that you know that it is your task in this life to provide humble loving service, you will have God’s stamp of approval on your life if you quit thinking about how to have and use power for your own purposes, and start thinking about how to use the power and authority I am giving you to love other people into the kingdom of God.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Lent and Repentance

            The Christian season of Lent encompasses the forty days before Easter.  This year it's from February 10 (Ash Wednesday) to March 27 (Easter), 2016.  Lent is a season of the Christian Year where believers focus on simple living, prayer, and fasting in order to grow closer to God.  At the baptism of our Lord the sky opened and the Spirit of God, which looked like a dove, descended and landed on Jesus.  A voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, My Beloved, with whom I am pleased." Jesus was then sent into the wilderness by the Spirit where he fasted and prayed for forty days (Matthew 4:1-11). During his time in the desert Jesus was tempted by Satan and found clarity and strength to resist temptation. Afterward, he was ready to begin his ministry.

            Lent is the ideal time of year to repent -- to return to God and re-focus our lives to be more in line with Jesus. It’s like a forty-day trial run in changing your lifestyle and letting God change your heart.  Repentance is the key that unlocks the soul’s ability to connect with God.  To repent means to turn around, to stop going in one direction and start going in another one.  It is repentance that makes all the difference in the orientation of our souls in this life.

            Certainly, no one can really judge the heart of another.  Only God can rightly do that.  Yet, the New Testament lets us in on how to truly measure the sincerity of one’s repentance (2 Corinthians 7:2-12).  Worldly sorrow or grief does not lead to repentance, but only separation and death.  The person with worldly sorrow beats himself up but never really changes direction.  Like Judas Iscariot of old, he just metaphorically hangs himself instead of admitting his guilt to Jesus. 

            But godly sorrow leads to repentance, a real change of direction.  And here is the evidence from the Scriptures of the genuineness of the change:  owning up to the problem/sin; an eagerness to make things right; indignation over what has been done or said; seeing that there is more pain in avoiding the problem than there is in confronting it; a desire and energy to do what is best for the person whom we have wronged; and, a willingness to accept whatever consequences that might result from the offense.

            Crying and tears might occur and can even be necessary, but they can also be a cheap form of avoiding true repentance and might only be worldly sorrow.  Instead, there must be solid action that changes direction and seeks to rectify offenses, as much as it is within our control to do so.  Deliverance from the power of sin can only come through repentance.  There are no shortcuts or easy routes to the soul’s orientation to practical godliness.  There is nothing romantic about repentance; it is typically messy, usually ugly, and often painful.  Yet, there must be suffering before glory.  Trying to take repentance out of the equation is to eviscerate the Christian life and leave our souls vacuous and empty.

            Sometimes we do not even know we need to repent because we get caught up in the drama of school, relationships, family, and work. Our lives are filled with distractions that take us away from living a life with Christ. We might try to fill the emptiness inside us with mindless web-surfing, meaningless chatter, too many activities or other stuff that just keeps us busy without thinking too much. We run away from real life and from God.  But when we intentionally create a plan to connect with God, his Spirit begins to reveal the need for repentance.  That plan during Lent ought to include some form of fasting, prayer, and service.  For example, you could take the Christmas cards you received and pray for one of the people/families each day in the forty days, instead of eating the candy bar or drinking the soda; and, then send them a note of encouragement.  Or, get up ten minutes earlier than usual and spend those minutes in silence and prayer.

            To choose nothing is to give into worldly sorrow and feel guilty.  To choose something, whatever that something is, is to anticipate that God will work in your soul to thaw it out, warm it up, and form it to better discover Jesus Christ.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Heart and Mouth

Confession with the mouth and belief in the heart are both necessary for salvation (Romans 10:8-13).  John Wesley was an Oxford don who became an Anglican priest.  He had all the intellectual tools to rightly handle the intricacies of theology and teach the Bible.  Yet, when he first started out, there was no heart behind it.  On a voyage across the Atlantic to America, Wesley spent much of the time on the ship with a group of German Pietists, that is, men and women who deliberately had a heart behind their practice of Christianity.  The Germans deeply impressed Wesley, and he realized that there was something very important missing from his own religion.  The ship encountered a storm and Wesley was afraid for his life, but the German believers seemed unfazed, having a faith of the heart that John could not explain.  He wanted what they had.  When death stared him in the face, he was fearful and found little comfort in his religion. John Wesley confessed to one of them his growing misery and decision to give up the ministry. "Preach faith till you have it," one of the Germans advised. "And then because you have it, you will preach faith.  Act as if you have faith and it will be granted to you."

Wesley acted on the advice. He led a prisoner to Christ by preaching faith in Christ alone for forgiveness of sins. The prisoner was immediately converted. Wesley was astonished. He had been struggling for years, and here was a man transformed instantly. He found himself crying out, "Lord, help my unbelief!" However, he felt dull inside and had little motivation even to pray for his own salvation. Back in England, in the year 1738, Wesley was in a church service and someone read from Luther's Preface to the Epistle to Romans. About 8:45 p.m. Wesley recorded:  "while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."

Simply uttering the words with our mouths, “Jesus is Lord,” by itself does not constitute deliverance and salvation for people.  The heart must also be involved.  Yet, having said this we must also consider the reality that only focusing on the heart without having the mouth involved is an insufficient faith.  There must be a ground of solid objective evidence for our faith – a real historical base from which our hearts can tether themselves.  The mouth needs to confess that Jesus has indeed risen from the dead and is Lord of all, having secured salvation for us through his blood shed on the cross (Romans 10:9).

If we only focus on the heart, our hearts will condemn us.  We need to say the words of our faith, to confess them with our mouths, over and over and over and over again until we believe them.  We are not just to wait for our hearts to feel like having faith and living for God, because our hearts can be desperately wicked and they will keep deceiving us.  The heart must be informed by God’s Word.  We are to take the words of Holy Scripture by faith and trust what those words say.  “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

We need to have a right confession with our mouths; and, we need to really believe in our hearts.  Both must be present for saving faith.  When mouth and heart work in concert with each other something happens:  “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13).  It does not matter whether that call is melodious, sweet, and in tune, or whether it is a jumbled off-key joyful noise; both will be saved.  Only uttering the right words like some magical incantation does not save us.  Only having a sincere heart does not save us.  One cannot achieve salvation through self-effort, or making oneself worthy to be loved.  No one is saved by finding the right combination of words in prayer, or having some nice feeling that everything is okay.  Deliverance from sin, death, and hell does not result from getting cleaned up so that we are attractive to God and others.  Calling on the name of the Lord with both mouth and heart, trusting in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, saves us.

Church ministry, then, is to aim at both head and heart.  It is to provide robust biblical teaching coupled with heartfelt belief and practice.  People are neither only brains on a stick, nor walking headless hearts.  They need intellectual rigor targeted straight toward the heart because we are holistic creatures who must have a salvation that believes in the heart and confesses boldly with the mouth.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday

Each year Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Christian season of Lent, a six week (40 day) period that climaxes in Holy Week and the great celebration of Easter Sunday.  These weeks on the Christian calendar are meant to remind us of a very important truth:  the grace of God in Christ forgives us of all our sins, and it came at great cost; there must be suffering before glory. 

            It is vital for us to never forget all God’s work for us as individuals – forgiveness, healing, redemption, love, compassion, and satisfaction.  This all has its fulfillment, for the Christian, in Jesus who accomplished this through his cross and resurrection.  It is by his stripes that we are healed; it is through his suffering that there is glory and praise.  Twenty-one years ago at this time of year, my wife was on total bed rest due to her pregnancy with our youngest daughter.  Having gone into labor only three months into her pregnancy, she was immediately confined to staying flat on her back for four months.  We lived every one of those days with the very real possibility of losing a child, having been told by doctors that we needed to brace for the worse, since our unborn girl was only given a 17% chance of making it to the outside world alive.

            In a very real sense my wife had to die to herself so that our daughter might live; and, the result of her months of suffering led to the glory of a beautiful and healthy baby girl.  We will not forget all of God’s benefits toward us, redeeming our suffering and replacing it with great joy.  Great praise arises out of great suffering.

            God remembers that we are dust, that we are mortal humans.  Sometimes we lose sight of our mortality.  We do not remember that death awaits us and that in some ways a good life is really preparing for a good death.  I once read that each morning a group of monks, when walking to breakfast, take one shovel-full of dirt and remove it from their potential graves.  The younger monks have shallow graves, and the older monks must take the time to get down into their graves and climb back out.  It is a daily reminder that life is to be lived to the full because it will not last.   God sees our mortality and is slow to anger, choosing to abound in love and compassion.  He acts by removing our transgressions completely, even though we do not deserve it.  Some day we will all die, but God’s love will still be here because God’s love is permanent.

In order to remember our mortality, and to offer our lives as a sacrifice of praise, in this season of Lent we are encouraged to prepare for the glory of the resurrection by feeling something of the suffering, however small it is, of our Lord Jesus.  In doing so, it is to be a daily reminder that Jesus gave his life for us so that we might have life.  The ash applied to the forehead on this day is symbolic of the thing or things that we are giving up.  Perhaps time is an idol for you; it is the thing precious to you and you want to hold on to it and serve it.  Perhaps there are possessions that you grasp and hold onto in such a way that you can’t imagine living without that certain thing.  Maybe there is an activity that you enjoy to the point of allowing that certain thing to shape and center your day.  This is the time to identify those things, and to make a choice to fast, to abstain from that thing or activity in order to remember Jesus and to worship him only.

The ministry of the church is to assist us in being aware of the movements, rhythms, and seasons of Christian time.  Now is the time of repentance.  Today is the day to be reminded of our sin and mortality, and God’s grace and immortality.  Let us experience death so that we will experience life.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Transfiguration of Jesus

When Jesus is around, extraordinary things happen.  Yet, this did not mean that the three disciples of Jesus – Peter, James, and John – perceived the extraordinary and what it really meant, at the time.  The transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain was incredible.  But Luke tells us that the disciples were confused, sleepy, and walked away silent about the whole affair (Luke 9:28-36).

            We are not always told in the Gospel accounts why Christ’s disciples often did not understand or perceive the significance of the miraculous, supernatural, and extraordinary events that took place right in front of them.  Maybe they were distracted.  Perhaps they were doing some ancient form of multi-tasking.  Maybe Peter was texting and driving at the same time on the way to the meeting on the mountain and had his mind elsewhere.  It could be that James and John were checking their e-mails from the other disciples while all this was taking place.  Perhaps they were just up too late the night before binge watching on Netflix.  Whatever was going on with the disciples, they were distracted.

            So, we actually have God the Father step into the scene at the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain and speak.  Now, we need to understand that God is not in the business of exhorting people to listen unless they are not paying attention.  The Father is quite clear, succinct, and to the point:  “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”

            We are to listen to Jesus because he is God’s Son, and everything centers round him.  Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, the full representation of God on earth.  Jesus is Savior, Lord and Master, Teacher and Healer.  He is all that, and more.  Jesus is the complete fulfillment of all the Old Testament promises, and the one that will come again to judge the living and the dead.  Jesus is the mid-point of history, the one whom we must listen to when he speaks and acts.

            Our identity, then, is to be fully bent, molded, and shaped in Jesus Christ.  This spiritual formation of our lives happens as we intentionally seek to be with Jesus, listen to him, and do what he says.  Jesus took the three disciples up on the mountain to experience his transfiguration in a prayer meeting (Luke 9:28).  Extraordinary things happen in prayer meetings.  The early church gathered often in prayer meetings, following the example of their Lord Jesus.  As they listened to God and responded to him (a rhythm of revelation and response), they saw Peter miraculously delivered from jail, ordinary people delivered from empty lives and demonic influence, and guidance into how to proceed as a church.  Prayer is as much about listening to God as it is talking to him.  It is in listening to God that we are filled with God’s Spirit and empowered to come down from the mountain and engage in God’s mission.

            There was something that Jesus wanted the disciples to discern on the mountain.  Jesus was changed in front of them.  Moses and Elijah showed up and talked with him about his “departure” which is literally his “exodus.”  Moses was the one who listened to God and led the people in a mass exodus from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land.  Elijah was a prophet who listened to God and led the people out of centuries of idol worship and dead religion into the freedom of spiritual and national revival in Israel.  Jesus listened to the Father and came as the final and ultimate agent of freedom from sin, death, and hell.  Jesus came so that people can experience new life, a life of freedom, hope, peace, and joy.  Changed lives are God’s goal for us.  And a changed life will occur when we listen to God’s Son, learn from him, and lean into faith in him, all of which takes humility.

            Taking a posture of listening is a prerequisite to obedience, fruitful ministry, and success in the Christian life.  Creating the space and time for this to occur both individually and corporately through private devotions and public worship is a must.  In so doing, we may just clear away the distractions and encounter a transfiguration.