God’s message to us when life seems out of control – Jeremiah 46 & 47

Over my years of pastoral ministry, when people experience sickness, lose a job or mourn the passing of a loved one, they have often asked the question, “Why did God allow that to happen?”  In those painful situations, it’s quite natural to wonder what role God might have behind the scenes.  Some go so far as to suggest that God “made” their misfortune happen.  Is it God’s fault?  Maybe you wonder that too.

Because we don’t know, we’re often left feeling unsettled.  Does God see our pain, hear our cries, and care about the struggle we’re enduring?  To answer, “No,” we believe, would be akin to losing our faith, and so we often conclude, with a bit a despair, “Well, no matter what, God is in control.”  I suspect most people, when they say, “God is in control,” really mean, “No matter what I am going through, I still have faith in God.”  That might be emotionally helpful, but I think there is a better response, a better way to understand the difficulties of life.  In this devotional, we’ll hear the better way that God himself suggests to people in difficulty.

In our continuing study of the life and ministry of the prophet Jeremiah, we’re now at chapters 46 & 47.  What we notice immediately is that format has changed, at least in the NIV 1984 bible that I’m reading.  Most bibles follow suit, and for good reason.  What is happening in Jeremiah chapters 46 through 51 is different from the genre of the recent chapters.  In Jeremiah chapters 46-51, the genre is predominantly prophetic declarations about the nations surrounding Judah. This is quite different, as nearly the entire book of Jeremiah to this point has focused on Judah. Over the next month or so, right through to the end of the book of Jeremiah, we’ll study these international prophecies.

Chapter 46 begins this new string of international prophecies with a prophetic poem directed towards Egypt.  Skim through chapter 46 and you’ll learn that the prophecy relates to the defeat of Egypt by Babylon which occurred many years before the events of chapters 39-44.  We also notice that the prophecy describes the battle in colorful language. 

Frankly, though, there’s not a whole lot to say about the battle.  The beautifully written poem in verses 3-26 can be summarized as follows: Babylon will destroy Egypt.  There is a hint, a subtle indication in the poem, that Yahweh God of Israel wants to make it clear that he is the true King, not Pharaoh of Egypt (see verses 17-18) and that he is the true God, not the gods of Egypt (see verses 25-26).  The only miniscule hope for Egypt is the final line of verse 26 where God says that one day in the future, Egypt will inhabit its land again.  That’s it.  Everything else in this poem is bad news for Egypt.

But then in verses 27 and 28, God has a poem for Israel too.  It’s a short poem, but it is loaded with powerful teaching.  Before we look at the poem for Israel, let’s peek ahead to chapter 47.  It’s another prophetic poem, this time for the Philistines, Israel’s ancient enemy.  The message is again simple and devastating.  Philistia will be destroyed.  That’s it.

Clearly, foreign relations are tumultuous in this era and area of the world.  Get ready, because it will be a lot more of the same in the next few weeks as we hear more prophetic poems about the nations.  But thankfully, we can skip back to chapter 46, verses 27 and 28, to God’s very different message for Israel.

There is a structure to the poem for Israel, as each of chapter 46 verses 27 and 28 begins with a matching line, “Do not fear, O Jacob, my servant.”  God is not talking about Jacob, the ancestor of the Jewish people, the man whose sons (and a couple grandsons) would become the twelve tribes of Israel.  Remember him?  Jacob wrestled the angel, and God renamed him Israel, which means something like “contends with God.”  He was the father of the nation.  So here in verses 27-28 God is talking to all Israel. 

He starts with the important words, “Do not fear.”  Why would Israel fear when the preceding prophetic poem described how Babylon would decimate Egypt?  Think about it this way: If powerful Egypt couldn’t even stand up to Babylon, there was no way that tiny little Israel could do any better.  In fact, the menacing Babylonian military would have caused fear in the hearts and minds of all the nations in the region.  They were blitzkrieging their way through everyone and everything. 

But God says, “Do not fear…do not fear.”  Why not?  What can he possibly say to help the people of tiny, impotent Israel to not freak out as Babylon marches toward them, having just disposed of mighty Egypt?  God will get to his reasons why Israel should not fear in a moment.  

Interestingly, he first calls Israel his servant.  It seems the people forgot this relational dynamic.  What led to their destruction is that they didn’t think they needed God.  But from the beginning, God covenanted with his people, declaring that they would be his people, and he would be their God.  If they served him, he would protect and bless them.  Sadly, they chose time and time again to rebel.  Now God is throwing them a reminder, that Israel must see themselves as his servants. 

Seeing themselves as God’s servants will require a change on Israel’s part, and it remains to be seen if they will change.  There is still hope that this prophecy will get through their hard hearts and impel them to repent and return to serving God.  You and I know the end of the story.  In chapters 39-44, we’ve just studied the end of the story over the past few weeks.  Judah does not repent, and they, too, are decimated by the Babylonians. 

But at this juncture, about 15 years prior, that sad end has not yet happened.  That is an important message for us.  No matter what station we are in life, we can turn to God.  No matter what we believe about impending disaster we believe we see on the horizon, we need not fear as servants of God.  Why?  God gives them some reasons.

He says in verse 27 that he will surely save them out of a distant place, and he will save their descendants from lands of exile.  If I’m a Jew, that’s not what I want to hear.  Distant places and exile mean that I and my people will have to endure bad things for many years. I want my descendants to be saved, but I want to be saved too!  Israel could hear this prophecy and think, “What are you saying, God?  That you’re allowing us to face destruction?  That you did this?”  Their thoughts would likely be the same as our thoughts when we face hardship.

The rest of verse 27 is more of the same.  God says Israel will experience peace and security, and no one will cause them to fear.  But is that a promise and hope only for the future?  Again, think about how the people of Israel might here these words about peace and security, “What?  I want peace and security now.  I don’t want to go through hardship.”

We know, though, that the reality of life is not one of uninterrupted comfort, ease and fun.  That’s Humanity 101: we will all somehow, some way, struggle.  In the end, we will all die.  I hate to be so blunt and harsh, but if we are to fully embrace what God is saying, we will only be able to do so in a mindset of reality.

Yes, God’s promise is of peace and security and freedom from fear one day in the future, but that is because there is struggle and insecurity and fear now.  At least that was the case for the people in Judah.  Babylon was coming, and there was no stopping it.  You might think, “But why couldn’t God just stop Babylon?”  It is the question we so often ask about the difficulties in life.  Why doesn’t God intervene and make life easier for us for often?  I sure seems that God answers a whole lot of prayers for help with, “No.”  Why?  Is he cold, angry, jaded?  No.  Instead God gives us a glimpse into his thinking when he answers that question next.

In verse 28, after the repeated opening line “Do not fear, O Jacob my servant,” God now says, “…for I am with you.”  There we have some assurance.  God is with us in the mess.  He doesn’t say that he will always clean up the mess.  He says he is with us in the middle of our mess.  While it might seem that God is nowhere to be found, asleep, or not answering his phone, he confirms that he is actually right there beside us all along. 

It can be difficult to see God right there at our side, or living within us, when we are going through painful times.  We tend to fixate on the negative.  Cognitive Behavioral Therapists rightly remind us that we can believe the worst, even when the evidence is to the contrary.  Perhaps when things are so difficult, we can’t see God because instead of looking for him right there with us, all we want is the escape hatch, the problem to be solved, and the pain to cease.  We don’t want God in the middle of our pain, we want ease, comfort and fun.  Often we will search passionately for a way out of the pain, when God is saying, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.” 

As God continues in verse 28, he says that he will completely destroy the nations, but he will not completely destroy Israel.  Does that sound good?  Yes and no.  It sounds like Israel will be at least partially destroyed.  Partial destruction is still destruction.  Maybe they can take a bit of hope in the idea that their land and people will not be completely destroyed, but they will still go through serious pain.  Why?

God says, at the conclusion of verse 28, they will face the pain because he will correct them with justice.  The word “correct” is sometimes translated “punish” or “guide.”  It carries the idea that God is not random, but instead he has a purpose.  The people have rebelled against him, and he is just in correcting them.  He has their best interest in mind. Their rebellious actions involved idol worship, pagan religious practices, and many actions of injustice.  The people cheated, stole, murdered, beat the downtrodden, and mistreated the poor, to name just a few ways they perpetrated injustice.

Now God say that he will allow the people to be corrected, through the pain of loss and exile, so that they might return to him, return to the flourishing justice that he desires for them because it is in their best interest.  This is why they need not fear, because he is with them, actively seeking their correction through justice. 

We can learn much from this prophetic poem. God desires human flourishing through justice, and he himself is intentional, interactive and relational, intimately involved in our lives to bring about his justice.  God is here.  He wants us not to fear the pain and difficulty in the world by joining with him in the pursuit of his justice in the places and people that are currently experiencing injustice.  This is why we give ourselves sacrificially to eradicate injustice wherever we see it.  Be it poverty, discrimination, corruption, crime, marginalization, division, and more, we bring the Kingdom of God when we seek to bring justice.   

So when we’re experiencing pain and difficulty of any kind, instead of escaping our reality by saying, “God is in control,” is seems that God says to us, “You need not fear because I am with you, and I want to work together with you to bring justice.”  That means you might need to confess and repent to bring justice.  That means you might need to look around you for the injustice. 

I have some acquaintances who lost their son to childhood cancer.  Their response to their deep pain?  They started a foundation to provide pajamas and financial support to other families in the region who were struggling with childhood cancer.  That’s one way we turn difficulty into justice for human flourishing.  How about you?  How can you have God’s viewpoint of your pain?

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When all seems lost, we can still choose hope – John 13:17-38, Part 3

Jesus has just shocked his disciples with the news that one of them will betray him. Understandably, they want to know which of them could do such a thing. That leads a deeply dark moment in this story.  Look at verses 26-30,

“Jesus answered, ‘It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. ‘What you are about to do, do quickly,’ Jesus told him, but no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him. Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the Feast, or to give something to the poor. As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night.”

Jesus looks at Judas. Is Judas able to look Jesus in the eye?  Or is Judas looking down?  The emotion is crackling between them. Jesus is troubled in spirit.  He loves Judas, investing in him for three years.  Though Jesus now boldly calls Judas out, it would be just like Jesus to also be reaching out to Judas one last time.  We already saw Jesus refer to Psalm 41 that talks about the friend who shares bread but is a betrayer (see post here).  Now Jesus says the betrayer “is the one to whom I give this bread.”  

Is Jesus dooming Judas? Is Jesus sealing Judas’ fate?

I think Judas still has a choice at this moment.  Judas can refuse the bread and call off the plan to betray Jesus.  There is always a choice. There is always hope.

But no, Judas seems to have been thinking for some time that Jesus has been making bad choices.  Remember Judas’ reaction when Mary dumped out perfume on Jesus?  (See post here.) It was perfume that was worth $70,000 in 2023 US dollars, and Judas was not happy about what he perceived as utter waste. Yet, Jesus rebuked him! In that same story, found in John chapter 12, we also learned that Judas carried the ministry money bag and helped himself to it from time to time. 

So it doesn’t seem that Judas was ever all-in, that he was ever a true follower of Jesus.  Jesus, however, seems to still be reaching out to him.  I wonder if there’s a bit of a hopeful question in Jesus’ words, “Are you going to take the bread, Judas?  Are you really going to follow through with the plan to betray me?  You don’t have to.” Judas might have a sliver of desire to give his life to Jesus.

Too often, though, we allow ourselves to be carried away by the strong current of our selfishness.  Believing that the corners we’re cutting, the bridges we’re burning, the little cheats here and there aren’t that bad, and they will help us get ahead in the long run. Or maybe we’re feeling a strong current of despair, thinking that there’s no hope for us.  Believing we’re too far gone.  Or maybe it’s the strong current of fear, believing that we have to abandon a friendship for another one that seems more promising.  

My point is that we shouldn’t caricature Judas as some horribly evil person that is totally unlike us.  As if we would never betray Jesus.  We just might.  Some of us have over the years in ways big and small betrayed Jesus.  Judas’ humanity doesn’t let Judas off the hook.  Nor does our humanity let us off the hook.  Instead I hope it helps us get real about the temptations and pressures we all face, about the amazing reality that just as Jesus loved Judas, he loves us, reaches out to us.  Jesus always has hope for us.  When we think we are too far gone, he still offers us forgiveness. Think about it. Just a few minutes before this interaction, Jesus washed Judas’ feet.

Sadly, Judas chooses self-loathing, self-harm, selfishness, and what will ultimately mean self-destruction.  He takes the bread.  And as he does, Satan enters Judas, and he leaves. 

There is, however, another way. Choose life, choose hope, choose the way of Jesus.

Photo by Hillie Chan on Unsplash

Why we need to see ourselves as links in a missional chain – John 13:18-38, Part 2

Leadership is lonely, or so some say. As a pastor since 2002, I have felt that loneliness from time to time. Frankly, some loneliness is self-imposed. “I can do it better myself,” we think. Or we don’t want to put in the work to involve others. Maybe we struggle to release our grip on a task, an event, a ministry. A church.

In John 13, verse 20, Jesus teaches a powerful missional truth, “I tell you the truth, whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me; and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me.” 

Notice the linkage Jesus teaches here, like a chain.  First link in the chain is Jesus sends people.  Second link in the chain is that Jesus himself is sent on a mission by the father.  So the people Jesus sends are linked in a chain to the father. 

What Jesus is talking about is the significant task of his mission to train up others and send them on mission.  In the other Gospel accounts, we learn that during his ministry years, prior to this Last Supper, he had already sent people out on mission trips.  One time he sent the twelve disciples out.  Other times he sent out people he healed.  Another time he sent our 70 people on a mission trip. 

Those guys around that table knew this because he sent them on those ministry trips.  They know he is talking about them.  Now he seems to be hinting at the possibility of sending them out again.  He wants them to know that when they are sent out, while they are on their ministry trip, if people accept them, those people are at the same time accepting him, because he is the one who sent them.  Furthermore, those people will also be accepting the Father, because it is the Father who sent out Jesus. 

Jesus wants his disciples to understand this missional principle.  When the sent ones are ministering, they are not operating on their own power and authority.  Instead, they are linked in a chain to Jesus and God the Father.  The sent ones are serving and ministering under Jesus’ and God the Father’s authority and power.  That’s an important principle for you and I to remember.  Today, you and I are the sent ones who are pursuing Jesus’ mission in our day, and praise God, we serve his mission under his power and authority. 

At the same time, Jesus is clearly insinuating here that not everyone accepts him.  Including, possibly, some people right there in that room around that table.  It would have been a shock to those disciples to hear that one or more of them might not accept Jesus.  They were his inner circle.  Could it be possible that someone there would not accept Jesus?  We know the answer.  Look at verse 21,

“After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, ‘I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me’.”

There it is, plain as day.  If they wondered if it was possible that one of them might not accept him, Jesus says, “Yes.”  This news is startling.  Imagine how it would feel!  How would you feel if you heard that someone you just spent the better part of three years serving with was a betrayer?  How will the disciples respond?

In verses 22-25, we learn that disciples are rattled,

“His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, ‘Ask him which one he means.’ Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, ‘Lord, who is it?’”

Of course it is Peter who is willing to question Jesus.  I wonder if Peter thought he himself might be who Jesus is referring to.  But actually, Peter is perhaps surprisingly not bold enough to just ask Jesus outright.  He nudges John, telling John to ask.  That may simply be because John was sitting next to Jesus.  Or it could be that Peter knew John and Jesus were very close friends, maybe what we would consider best friends.  Thus it would be natural for John to ask, as it would be highly unlikely John would betray Jesus.

John asks Jesus, “Who is it?”  That leads a deeply dark moment in this story, which we’ll study in the next post.

Photo by Eyasu Etsub on Unsplash

When you shouldn’t tell a leopard by its spots – John 13:18-38, Part 1

“You can tell a leopard by its spots.”

“You can know a tiger by its stripes.”

Are these phrases always true? I don’t think so. When I take my dog running, we almost always run by the home of a neighbor a few doors down from us. They have ornamental sheep in their front flower bed. The sheep are made of what appears to be concrete, and semi-realistic. If you saw them, you would immediately know they are ornamental. My dog, however, thinks they are real. Every single time we run by that yard, he lunges out toward the sheep, just like he does with other dogs, squirrels or rabbits. And every time the sheep make no movement. We’ve run by that house hundreds of times. My dog reacts that way every time.

I know that you and I have more intelligence than dogs. Like I said, if you saw the sheep, you would not be fooled in the least. But I suspect you have been fooled by people. I would venture a guess that you have thought people were one way and they turned out to be very different. A person who gives a warm, likeable first impression just might really be cold and difficult. A person who seems quiet and aloof can be fiercely loyal and humorous.

We’re going to see this surprising principle at work in the story we’re studying this week. There is often a lot more going on under the surface of people’s lives. Before we started reading our passage for this week, let’s review so we know the setting. In John 13, verse 1, we read, 

“It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.”

Jesus and his disciples are at the Last Supper.  He has just washed the disciples’ feet, instructing them to follow his example of loving servanthood. 

The foot-washing was an act of love by Jesus to his disciples.  There was a warmth in that room, an affection between a rabbi and his followers.  He instructs them to follow his example, and what’s more, look at what he says in verse 17,

“Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

This is a very encouraging, hopeful, joyful teaching. The disciples could easily be thinking, “I love this guy, I love being his follower, and he wants to bless us.”  So far, it seems their Passover gathering was warm and celebratory, the kind where people are laughing and having a great time. 

In the middle of their joy, Jesus says something that doesn’t fit the mood.  Look at verse 18,

 “I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen. But this is to fulfill the scripture: ‘He who shares my bread has lifted up his heel against me.’”

If you were there that night, I think you would have sensed a change come over Jesus.  Likely his tone of voice became more concerned.  The look on his face darkened a bit. 

He is saying, “You know all that stuff I just said, all that about you guys following my example of love, and that you will be blessed if you do these things?  Well, that doesn’t apply to all of you.”

If I am one of the disciples sitting around the table, I am instantly confused. Those disciples could be thinking, “What does he mean that his teaching doesn’t apply to all of us?  Aren’t we all equal parts of the group?  How can he say, ‘I know those I have chosen’?  Hasn’t he chosen all of us?  Why is he quoting Psalm 41, in which King David writing about his friend betraying him?  Is Jesus saying that psalm applies to us?  Is he saying one of us is going to betray him?

Yes, Jesus is beginning to reveal the shocking news that one of the Twelve will betray him.  But why?  Is he just being dramatic?  Why does he say this before the betrayal?  He answers that question in verse 19,

“I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am He.”

Do you get what he is saying to them?  Jesus knows that in just a few hours’ time, these men will experience their world turned upside down.  He is trying to prepare them for that upheaval.  When it seems like all is falling apart, he wants to help them remain steadfast, because he knows they will have a strong urge to give in to fear, run away, hide, and give up. 

By quoting the psalm, he is hinting that someone would betray him, and he is telling them in advance so that when it happens, they will be able to say, “OH, he said this would happen, he was right, he is the Messiah, he is the truth.”  Jesus wants to help them confirm their belief in him.

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Are people ever too far gone? – John 13:18-38, Preview

Have you felt as though some people are just too far gone, as if there is no hope for them?  Maybe it is a relative who has made a series of poor choices.  Maybe it is a friend who has struggled for years.  Maybe you wonder about yourself. 

It could be the person who is in and out of rehab.  It could be the person whose past is littered with broken relationships.  It could be the one who can’t seem to keep a job.

In recent weeks a woman living at a nearby hotel has been calling churches in the area.  She’s asked us to pay for her to stay at the hotel, saying that she has been trying to get into a local homeless shelter, but they are all full.  If we could just pay for her hotel stay, she’ll have the buffer she needs to keep calling shelters until a bed opens up. 

Whenever we get calls like this, I immediately feel a combination of pressure, confusion, compassion, and skepticism.  I have no way to verify the woman’s story, and yet I want to help.  Thankfully, the Conestoga Valley Ministerium communicates when people call us.  So I reached out to see if the woman had called any other churches.  She had called other churches, and what’s more, a local Christian social services agency had been working with her for 10+ years.  They reported that the woman rarely followed their programs designed to help her live a more stable lifestyle. 

In other words, we now had every reason to believe that if we helped this woman, as soon as her hotel stay expired, she would be right back to calling churches for more help.  The CV Ministerium churches decided together to not help her at this time.  It was difficult, and yet we felt it was better to give our finances towards the many others in need in our community who are truly striving to find more stability. 

Yet, when I talked with the woman to tell her this decision, I felt embarrassed.  What would she do?  Is there hope for her?  Should we have helped?  Is she too far gone. It’s very messy and complicated, isn’t it?  I wonder how Jesus might answer those questions.  Perhaps we’ll get a chance to hear how he might answer those questions in our sermon this coming Sunday.  We’re studying John 13:18-38, as the story of the Last Supper continues. Though the men around the table with Jesus are his closest followers, Jesus gives them the shocking news that some of them might be too far gone.  There is talk of betrayal, of disowning.  Are they without hope?  What Jesus has to say has great ramifications for us, when we feel hopeless, when we are interacting with others who seem too far gone. 

I invite you to read the passage ahead of time, and I look forward to exploring further with you next week on the blog.

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Why followers of Jesus go lower and lower to serve – John 13:1-17, Part 5

All week long, we’ve been studying the famous story in which Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. Why did he do it? Jesus explains why in John 13, verses 12-17.

“When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

This is the counter-cultural Jesus.  The rabbi was doing servant’s work.  How radical is that?  A rabbi, a teacher, lowering himself to wash his followers’ feet?  It’s a powerful image.  But it’s not just radical in his culture.  It is just as radical in our culture. 

How do we practice foot-washing in our culture?  When Jesus says that he has set an example that his disciples should do for others as he has done for them, is he saying that he wants us to practice ritual foot-washing in our church services?

Yes, we can have foot-washing as a part of worship services, like my church has done on Maundy Thursday in years past.  But starting a foot-washing ritual was not Jesus’ intent.  Instead he is teaching the principle of servant leadership.

I’ll never forget a conversation I heard when I was a missionary intern in Guyana in the summer between my junior and senior year of college.  I was talking to the leader of the denomination there, a Guyanese pastor.  He told me that the man just below him in leadership, the #2 pastor in the denomination, was willing to clean up vomit in the nursery in church.  That’s a servant leader. 

There is nothing a servant leader believes is beneath him or her.  In fact, Jesus is specifically calling his disciples to be people who treat others with the kind of sacrificial love that he demonstrated for them. 

That means you and I are not on some kind of trajectory where we are promoted higher and higher, and people must serve us.  Instead, followers of Jesus are people who give ourselves to serve, meaning that we are willing to go lower and lower. 

Do you find the church bathroom toilets need to be cleaned?  You clean them.

Do you find there are refugees who need transportation?  You drive them.

Do you find there are openings in the local school district volunteer team?  You fill them.

Recently, I was so inspired by several people in our congregation who gave themselves to serve. We have people who volunteer as stewards to count the money given in our offering baskets every Sunday.  For the last few years we’ve had six stewards.  That might sound like a lot, but when you considered that we require two stewards to count every Sunday, that meant on average a steward was counting every third week.  That adds up.  Over the course of the year, that’s more than once/month.  Our stewards serve sacrificially, which is amazing.  But we also wanted to see if we could lighten their load a bit.

We put out a plea to a bunch of people asking for more Stewards, and we had four more sign up!  Over the next two months, the new stewards will come on board, and now each steward will be serving less than once/month.  Because when more people are willing to serve, to love, then less people get tired and burdened from the weight of the job.  Then we are functioning as a unified body, a team working together.

There are all sorts of ways to serve others.  Certainly, you can serve in your church.  What serving teams and ministries could you serve with? Most church families could use volunteers in the nursery, singers and instrumentalists in worship, help with projects around the building, volunteers on the sound board, the projection system, and more. If you are not serving, I bet your pastor and church leaders would love to talk with you, to learn how God has gifted you, to see what might be a good fit.

You can also serve in the community.  This is important.  We should be known for being people who serve in our community.  This past spring it was wonderful to see so many people from Faith Church serving with SEEDS ESL classes.  Our people did meal prep, childcare, teaching, and leading.  They were serving with loving selflessness.

I’m not calling you to serve solely for the benefit of others.  Jesus showed us the way of servant leadership because it will help others and because it is best for us too.  Serving others in love is good for them and it is good for us, both personally and as church families together.

Let’s be people who are known for serving in love. 

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We need Jesus to wash us? – John 13:1-17, Part 4

When Jesus says that unless he washes Peter’s feet, Peter has no part with him, that gets Peter’s attention.  Peter responds a characteristically big way, as we read in John 13, verse 9,

“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

A classic overreaction from Peter.  We love Peter for his passion, though.  I can see him shoot his feet out from under his robe, so Jesus can easily wash them.  Peter is serious.  When he asks Jesus to wash he hands and head, I don’t think Peter is joking around here.  He’s the kind of personality who would probably make the other disciples roll their eyes, “Geesh, Peter, calm down.  You’re so dramatic, so literal!” 

No, Jesus wasn’t interested in giving literal baths here.  Yes, symbolically he does want to wash or clean the whole person, but not the physical body.  That’s what a bath is for.  Jesus has a deeper cleaning in mind, emotionally, intellectually, relationally, spiritually.  You could say that Peter is, unknowingly, on to something here.  Jesus wants us to experience holistic transformation. 

But Peter has jumped the gun a bit, which is why Jesus responds in verse 10,

“’A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.’  For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.”

I think Jesus smiles at Peter and is essentially saying, “Just doing foot washings today, Peter.  But you’re on to something.  You don’t realize how clean you are.”  I think Jesus could be saying, “Peter, I know you are my true follower.  You have truly given your life already,” especially considering what he knew Peter would do in just a matter of hours. Peter would do something that you would not think a true follower of Jesus would ever do.  Peter would deny Jesus three times, and yet Jesus would affirm that Peter was his genuine follower, and Peter truly was a genuine follower.

But one person sat around the table that night who wasn’t a true follower of Jesus, Judas, and the amazing example of Jesus washing his betrayer’s feet.  Think about Jesus, loving Judas, even at the end, reaching out to him, but also speaking truth to him, knowing that Judas had not given his life to follow Jesus, and was actually already actively working against Jesus. Jesus loves him too.

Then Jesus explains why he washed their feet, and we’ll learn about that in the next post.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

A check-up with God – Jeremiah 44 & 45

I had my first ever colonoscopy a month ago.  I followed the procedure: fasted, drank the colon-clearing drink, and went under anesthesia for the procedure.  Colonoscopies save lives because they can detect problems deep inside, giving doctors information they need to remove polyps before they become cancerous.  To maintain health, we need regular check-ups. In this week’s devotional, God gives the Jewish remnant a much-needed check-up.  We’ll find that this check-up has great significance for us too.

We continue our study of the life and ministry of the prophet Jeremiah, this week looking at chapters 44 and 45.  To recap, the land of Judah and the capital city of Jerusalem lies in smoldering ruins, having been destroyed by the Babylonians.  The Babylonians then exiled most of the Jews back to Babylon, leaving only a remnant to work the land in Judah. God instructed the remnant to stay there, saying he would protect them and restore them in the land.  Most of the remnant, however, fled to Egypt against God’s wishes, thinking they would be safe from Babylon in Egypt.  Now in Egypt, God gives Jeremiah a prophetic warning for the people.

In verses 1-6, God recounts the recent history of his interaction with the people of Judah.  Simply put, the people had rebelled, burning incense in worship of false gods, and God sent prophets to call the people to repentance.  The people refused to listen, and God allowed them to face the Babylonians without his protection, which of course led to Judah’s devastation and the people’s exile.  In this section verse 5 is critical, “They did not listen or pay attention; they did not turn from their wickedness.” 

The remnant of Jews in Egypt should take this warning to heart because it is not ancient history.  They had just lived it.  They endured the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, the starvation and eventual destruction, the pain of watching loved ones exiled to a foreign land, and finally the desperate flight to Egypt.  In other words, the people should clearly be able to see that it was their rebellion and wickedness that led to their downfall. 

Sadly, this is not a people who are known for seeing things God’s way.  After the reign of the godly king Josiah, the people of Judah were ruled by a string of ungodly kings.  Frankly, we could go backwards in time before Josiah, and we would discover plenty of wickedness in Judah.  That’s why Josiah was a reformer, leading a movement of repentance and recovery of God’s Law.  Josiah’s revival is needed because the people were so deep in rebellion, they had lost God’s law. 

Josiah was a wonderful godly leader, but he was just a short blip of righteousness in an otherwise rebellious era.  These people, even though they had lived through the Babylonian devastation, still did not trust in God.  As we saw last week, when God told them not to go to Egypt, they disobeyed and went anyway.  We can make an educated guess that now in chapter 44 when God recounts their wicked history, it will not shake the remnant back into communion with him.

God has retold the history because he is grieved about something new happening among the remnant in Egypt.  In verses 7-10, God reveals that some of the people have been worshiping idols there in Egypt.  He wants the people to know that this is an awful mistake, a terrible affront to him.  If they keep it up, not only will they be left without the land of Judah and without their beloved capital city of Jerusalem, also they themselves will be no more.  God says that if they continue their rebellion, they, the remnant, will destroy themselves.  He pleads with them to remember their history, to see that it was the wickedness of their forefathers that led to the defeat of Judah and Jerusalem.  God desperately wants the remnant to make a different choice.  He wants them to choose him. 

How can they choose him?  In verse 10, he says that choosing him will require humility, reverence and obedience to his law and decrees.  Those three words refer to our mind, our heart and our action.  Let’s look at each one, as this is the check-up we all need.

First, it is true that humility is something we practice, something we can learn, but it starts in our mind.  Humility is a choice to think about our lives in a certain way.  We consider our options with our minds, we deliberate, and ultimately we decide to act.  The principle of humility is that of thinking of ourselves as under the leadership of another.  Humility is when we use our minds to believe that we are not everything, that we might be in some kind of need.  How we think in our minds, therefore, because it is logically prior to action, is of utmost importance.  We must strive for humility.

Once we humbly believe in our minds that we need help, our heart expresses awe or desire or reverence for that which can help us.  So often in life our heart reveres what is not worthy to be revered.  We revere someone or something that we believe can help us, satisfy our desires, or fulfill our needs.  This misplaced reverence flows from a humility in which we know we need help, but sadly we look for help in the wrong places.  Some revere money as the solution to their needs.  Others revere a person.  Maybe some revere education.  What we revere will direct our actions, and thus it is also of utmost importance that we revere the right thing.

Finally flowing from humility in our minds and reverence in our hearts, we make a choice to act.  If we believe money can help solve our problems, we will likely pursue acquisition of wealth.  Perhaps we addictively play the lottery.  Perhaps we invest in a get-rich-quick scheme.  Perhaps we obsessively work.  If we believe a relationship can solve our problems, we will likely pursue people, maybe manipulatively, to serve our needs.  If we are feeling the pressures of life, we can believe that we will find satisfaction in books, social media, TV, porn, or a substance like food, alcohol, tobacco, or drugs. 

Do you see how God is making a deeply significant point in this section.  What goes on in our minds and hearts leads to action.  It is in our best interest to nurture humble minds, reverant hearts and faithful actions toward God.  These three centers of our lives are of vast importance to God. 

He has watched as the remnant of Judah turned away from him and sought protection from Egypt.  Now in Egypt they are worshiping false gods.  What the remnant needs to do is point their humility, reverence and obedience to the source that can provide real protection, to God himself.  Sadly, in verses 11-14, God concludes that the people will not humble themselves, revere and obey him.  He says that the remnant will die in Egypt.  Only a few fugitives will escape. 

How will the people respond?  Probably no surprise here, as we read in verses 15-19 that the people respond by digging in their heels, “We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord.”  It seems they believe Jeremiah is the one who is not right.  Their perspective is that when they were burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and worshiping her, things went well for them.  They tell Jeremiah that when they stopped worshiping the Queen of Heaven, things went poorly. 

What are they talking about?  Who is the Queen of Heaven?  Scan back to Jeremiah 7:18, and there we heard the people of Judah talking about how they baked cakes for the Queen of Heaven.  They are referring to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar.  Goddess worship was happening in Judah decades earlier.  Then the godly King Josiah led the revival movement and discontinued that pagan worship.  We support Josiah for that, but the Jewish remnant now in Egypt believes Josiah was wrong.  They say that once Josiah put a stop to goddess worship, the people of Judah suffered.  In a way, they are right.  They did face numerous disasters, including invasion and earthquakes. 

But they are also very wrong.  Ishtar was not protecting them.  Ishtar was not blessing them.  Instead, though they might have stopped pagan worship for a time under the reign of Josiah, what they are not admitting to is that after his death they went back to it.  It was their rebellion that led to their devastation.  That is precisely Jeremiah’s response in verses 20-23. The people brought this onto themselves.  Therefore, in verses 24-30, God promises that Babylon will invade Egypt and destroy all but a very few of the remnant.  All because they would not humble themselves, revere God and choose his way.  It’s incredibly sad.  Yet, the people do not see it that way at all.  The people are so jaded, so fixated on their way of seeing things, they cannot fathom that Jeremiah might be right.

Then we come to a very brief transitional chapter 45.  Chronologically, chapter 45 is a short prophetic word from decades earlier.  Though out of chronology, its theme is a perfect match for what we just learned about the stubborn disobedient remnant in chapter 44.  God speaks a prophetic word to Jeremiah’s trusted scribe Baruch.  Apparently Baruch had expressed exasperation, perhaps about the rebellion of the people.  God responds to Baruch saying, “I am going allow the people to go through disaster, but I will protect you, Baruch.”  This message was very similar to what God had previously said to Jeremiah. 

Fast-forward back to the present day, when Jeremiah and remnant of Jews have traveled to Egypt.  Though God will allow Babylon to invade and defeat Egypt, it seems that the message of chapter 45 is a reminder that those who trust in the Lord, though they might face great difficulty and pain in life, they have the Lord’s promise of salvation.  It is this theme that is aligned with chapter 44.  God calls us to be people who nurture humble minds, reverent hearts and faithful actions.  Ask God to give you a check-up, to evaluate your mind, heart and actions.

But maybe you don’t want a check-up.  If so, I hear you.  I can definitely drag my feet on my annual physical.  It’s a hassle.  The poking, prodding, and worst of all the possibility of bad news.  No doubt, that discomfort can happen when God gives you an annual spiritual.  You might be thinking, “I don’t really want to hear what God has to say because I think it will be critical.”  Know this…God deeply, deeply loves you, and no matter what he says, it will be drenched in his love for you.

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

Why Christians should not be like John Wayne – John 13:1-17, Part 3

Peter knows his culture. A rabbi does not do servant’s work. That’s why Jesus’ disciple Peter responds to Jesus as he does in John 13, verse 6, 

“Jesus came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’”

Anyone else there should be washing Jesus’ feet.  That was the custom, and custom is a powerful force.  You don’t break custom.  But that’s exactly what Jesus is doing. 

I suspect Peter is embarrassed here, knowing that not one of the disciples volunteered to wash feet.  That included him.  Jesus’ act of washing feet is prophetic in that sense.  A prophet’s primary job is to point out when they see wrong being done.  In that room a wrong was being done.  No one was stepping up to perform the customary foot washing.  No one saw themselves as low enough to do such menial, shameful work.  So when Jesus does the foot-washing, Peter immediately knows he, Peter, should have volunteered.  Jesus’ initiative, in other words, reveals all the other disciples’ lack of initiative. 

You can almost see Peter tucking his feet under his robe, so Jesus can’t reach them, as Peter asks, “Are you going to wash my feet?”  Peter is saying, “Woah…wait.  You’re not really going to do this, right?”  What does Jesus say?  Look at verse 7.

“Jesus replied, ‘You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand’.”

Yes, Jesus is really going to do this.  No matter how difficult it might be for Peter to understand, Jesus wants this to happen so that they might remember later, and then they will understand.  Jesus brings us back to the idea of preparing his disciples for the confusion, agony and pain that is soon coming.  He wants this image of him washing their feet to be burned into their consciences, something they will always remember, because he will not always be with them.  It was a visceral moment, involving touch, smell, and sound.  Jesus’ hands touching their dusty, stinky feet with the splash of water.  In this Jesus shows his intentional personal action of love to each of them.  They would not soon forget it.  And if they didn’t understand it now, they would later. 

But Peter just skips right over whatever it might be that Jesus wants him to understand.  Peter is fixated on the cultural embarrassment he is feeling as a disciple who has not taken the initiative to wash his rabbi’s feet.  Peter feels shame as his rabbi is kneeling before him with a towel and basin of water, hands out to receive Peter’s feet.  Peter, I think, tucks his feet back under his robe even further.  He cannot allow this to happen, as he boldly says in verse 8, “No…you shall never wash my feet.”

Imagine how Jesus might look at Peter’s fierce eyes.  Jesus loves this man who is a fireball, who often speaks before he thinks, who has great passion.  Jesus knows that Peter is about to experience Jesus’ death perhaps most deeply of all the disciples.  Jesus knows that Peter is leadership material, that Peter is a rock, and maybe that’s why Peter needs Jesus to wash his feet most of all.  Peter needs to let go of his pride, his ideas of following cultural norms.

That can be very difficult for some of us who have personalities like Peter.  I wonder how many of us, if we were at that Last Supper, might react exactly like Peter.  What Jesus is showing Peter is a love that can feel very uncomfortable to many of us, especially those of us that have a strong personality or a stubborn individualistic streak.  We Americans are particularly individualistic.  We glorify our individualism, as if it is a virtue, that we, as the saying goes, “pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps,” we figured it out, didn’t need help.  And we can get a huge high feeling off accomplishing something alone. 

In this article Ted Anthony writes about “the end of The Searchers, one of John Wayne’s most renowned Westerns. [A] kidnapped girl has been rescued and a family reunited. As the closing music swells, Wayne’s character looks around at his kin — people who have other people to lean on — and then walks off toward the dusty West Texas horizon, lonesome and alone.  It’s a classic example of a fundamental American tall tale — that of a nation built on notions of individualism, a male-dominated story filled with loners and ‘rugged individualists’ who suck it up, do what needs to be done, ride off into the sunset and like it that way.”

But it can also be very deceptive, this proclivity toward individualism.  We can start to believe that we don’t need help, don’t need others, don’t need companions, don’t need God. 

Peter needs to let Jesus wash his feet.  In the rest of verse 8, Jesus says to Peter,

“Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

Jesus here is very creatively saying at least two things.  First, he is saying that Peter needs to pull his feet out from under his robe and let Jesus physically wash his feet.  Peter, in other words, needs to learn humility, interdependence, working together.  Abiding by cultural norms is not always good.  Sometimes cultural norms are wrong, not actually for our good or for the good of others.  In this case, Peter needed to get rid of his pride and just let his rabbi wash his feet.  It will take practice, so Peter should start right then and there.

Second, Peter needs Jesus to wash his feet symbolically referring to theological act of forgiveness of sin.  Jesus is saying, “Peter, you don’t realize how much you need me to wash you.”  Forgiveness is possible through Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Without that, we cannot be a part of Jesus’ family and Kingdom.  Of course, Peter will not understand that until he goes through the massive upheaval of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection takes place over the next few days, and after the resurrected Jesus has the chance to explain everything to the disciples.  But that day will come, and Peter will understand. 

What Jesus is saying is applicable to all people.  He makes a way for all people to be a part of his family, which is exciting news for sure.  We are people who can be symbolically washed.  The stain of sin can be washed away.  This is what our baptism symbolizes.  If you have not been baptized and want to make that symbolic proclamation, I encourage you to talk with your pastor. 

When Jesus says that unless he washes Peter’s feet, Peter has not part with him, that gets Peter’s attention. Peter has a big response, and we’ll learn about that in the next post.

Photo by Taylor Brandon on Unsplash

How to lead with love – John 13:1-17, Part 2

In the previous post, we learned that Jesus leads with love.  Now we learn how he did so. Look at John 13, verses 2-5.

“The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”

The scene is what we call The Last Supper.  As we’ll see over the next few weeks, John’s telling of the Last Supper does not refer to communion, that famous event when Jesus breaks the bread and says “This is my body,” then holds up the cup and says “This is my blood,” telling his disciples they should celebrate that ritual in remembrance of him.  Instead John focuses on what we just read, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. 

John specifically mentions that Judas Iscariot was present.  This is notable because Judas has already started planning to betray Jesus.  In this intimate setting of Jesus and his closest friends, there sits one who already is far gone.  We know Judas is sitting there because of what we will study next week, John 13:18-38. 

Think about this for a minute.  Jesus loves these men.  Jesus is about to show them the extent of his love for them.  That includes Judas, the one who will betray him.  What’s more, Jesus by this time already knows that Judas will betray him.  Again, that fact is confirmed by the section we’ll study next week.  I mention it here because of what a powerful moment this is, Jesus showing love to the one in whom he has invested three years and yet who will in just a couple hours’ time betray him.  Think about how Jesus must be feeling as he washes Judas’ feet.

Betrayal hurts no matter who you are.  Remember that Jesus was not just 100% God, he was also 100% human, and he felt the full force of Judas’ betrayal.  In college, a friend and I went to a concert.  He was a good friend, and I was excited to spend time with him.  In fact, he had reached out to me, inviting me to go to the concert.  When we got to the concert, we bumped into an acquaintance.  Not someone either of us was close to.  But my friend decided to hang out with the acquaintance for most of the concert, and he barely paid me attention.  It felt like a little betrayal. 

I’m going to be vulnerable for a moment.  Michelle and I often tell people who are thinking about going into ministry that even after 22 years of pastoral ministry one of the most difficult experiences is pouring into someone and then they decide to leave the church.  Sometimes they leave for reasons you disagree with, and sometimes you don’t understand.  Sometimes they leave in hurtful ways.  No matter how or why, it stings. 

Maybe you’ve been there.  Jesus felt those feelings. Relationships can sting. And yet there Jesus is showing love to the one who had already begun planning to betray him. 

What we see from Jesus at this moment is his astounding example of loving inclusivity.  It is so difficult to include people who have hurt us.  It is risky.  They could hurt us again.  But we Christians look to Jesus to teach us how to live, and here he shows us a uniquely Christ-like way of life.  We love those who hurt us.  We love those who betray us. 

Whenever I talk about this, I need to include a word about boundaries.  And this is where the video about being selfish (in the previous post) resonates.  Jesus’ example of showing love toward even the one who would betray him does not mean that we should never impose any boundaries on the people who hurt us.  “Boundaries” is a difficult word because when we place boundaries on people, they might not appreciate the boundaries, and they will tend to accuse us of being unloving.  My response is that boundaries can be the most loving way to respond to those who harm us and our loved ones.  Boundaries can keep the harm from reoccurring and is loving to all involved.  Jesus certainly imposed boundaries on his disciples, on the crowds, on the religious leaders.  He got away for time alone. He taught boundaries. 

How did Jesus show his disciples love?  We read that he washed their feet.  Jesus took on the role of a servant.  In our culture, we don’t wash feet as a part of meals and hangouts.  We don’t live in a dusty area of the world.  We wash our feet when we bathe, and that’s usually enough.  In Jesus’ culture, it was a totally different story. 

When I was in India in March, it was very dusty, like nothing I’ve seen here in Lancaster, at least in my lifetime.  India has a dry season through the winter months, and the combination of lots of vehicles driving on dirt roads and no rain meant there was dust everywhere.  I couldn’t shake a dry cough the whole month.  We had dust all the time in our room. In the grocery store, there was a film of dust on all the products on the shelves.  My running shoes got so dusty, I cleaned them in a trashcan with shampoo and a toilet brush.  In a climate like that, especially when footwear was primarily sandals, as it was in Jesus’ day, your feet would get very dirty.  So footwashing was normal at meals. 

Apparently, no one had yet washed their feet or taken the initiative. So Jesus did.  This was not ordinary.  A leader, a teacher, washing their disciples’ feet?  In that culture, what Jesus was doing was totally unexpected.  This was a dirty, smelly job for the lower class.  For servants. Jesus leads with loving servanthood.

That’s why Jesus’ disciple Peter responds as he does in verse 6, which we’ll look at in the next post!

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash