How to avoid assimilation and follow Jesus – Characters: Daniel, Part 5

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A retired couple in my congregation told me about the time they attended a high school reunion, and their classmates, now all retired, each took turns sharing what they were doing with their lives.  The sharing went all the way around the circle, and not a single person mentioned anything about serving the Lord.  Perhaps it could be said that they all assimilated to American culture. 

What situations are you being pressured to bow down or assimilated to American culture?

What will it look like for you to pursue total commitment to Jesus?

How will you use your time and resources, especially in retirement years?  Spend your life for the kingdom.  There is a strong temptation, even in Christian circles, to enjoy the fruits of your labor.  As such the American Dream is often guiding us more than the Kingdom of God. 

Jesus said, “Where you treasure is, there your heart will be.”  If you have possessions, and I am talking about possessions of all kinds, from various properties, vehicles, investments, where your treasure is, there your heart will be.  Maybe, in order to avoid assimilation, you might consider meeting with people who clearly live out their retirement years in line with God’s Kingdom. 

Next, think about the many choices you must make in life.  From the small and seemingly insignificant, such as whether or not you will go to church or sleep in this week, to the large and impactful, such as who you will marry or what job you will pursue.  Make those choices in trust and faithfulness to God no matter what.

What are the results? In each story, the leaders who watched Daniel and his friends all had a change of heart.  So the faithfulness of the godly impacted the ungodly leaders. 

Daniel and his friends are in a position to have no impact. They are foreigners.  They are in a position of weakness, extremely vulnerable.  Yet because of their faithfulness to God, they make a great impact in the lives of the people around them. 

The temptation to assimilate must have been intense.  Just do what the Babylonians do, or just pray like the Medes pray, and you will be safe.  Or just act like it on the outside.  They won’t know what is truly in your heart.  Pretend to be a Babylonian, a Mede.  To that kind of thinking, Daniel and his friends said, “No way.”  They did not eat the defiled food, they did not bow to the idol, and Daniel kept right on praying to God out in the open for all to see.  They refused to assimilate if assimilation meant turning their backs on God.  Yeah, it was risky.  Yeah, they got close to losing their lives.  But God was at work, he came through, and the result was kingdom impact. 

This is not saying that God promises to make every situation work out perfectly all the time.  At the Columbine tragedy, the shooters stuck a gun in a girl’s face and said, “Are you a Christian?”  She said, “Yes,” and they shot her and she died.  (Though read this article for clarification on the story.) And through the centuries, and in many places still today, Christians are persecuted and die for their faith.

Choose faithfulness to God no matter the circumstance, no matter the opportunity.  Refuse to be assimilated.  Most of us will never have a person shove a gun in our face, asking us to deny Jesus or they will shoot us.  Most of us will never have to fear that following Jesus could get us thrown into a fiery furnace or lions’ den. But all of us do have to make big and little choices every single day about how we will live our lives in a culture that is not in line with Jesus.  While American culture gives us the freedom to follow Jesus, which is wonderful, that same freedom also gives us the opportunity not to follow Jesus. How will you choose?

I say this to every generation, just as I say it to myself.  Whether you are in elementary school, middle school or high school, whether you are in college, young adulthood, young married, married with kids, middle age, retired, grandparenting, or older adults, there are pressures for every single generation in America to buy into ideas of our culture, which are not in line with the way of Jesus.  Particularly the ideas of using your time, your money and your abilities for yourself, for your comfort, and for your pleasure.  Instead, the way of Jesus is to sacrifice yourself for others, for the mission of God’s Kingdom, for his purposes. 

Start 2020 with a new commitment to pursue Jesus. Refuse to be assimilated.

How much should we let our Christianity show? – Characters: Daniel, Part 4

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In this series of posts on Daniel and his friends, we’ve been talking about assimilation. How much should Christians allow themselves to assimilate with their surrounding culture? What areas of ethics matter, and which don’t? It’s not always easy to know. One way people seek to answer this question is about process. Do the ends justify the means? Usually the answer is No. Should the answer always be No? What about a situation where we withhold our Christianity in order to gain prestige or influence, because we’re concerned that our identity as Christians could hold us back. We do that hoping that once we gain the prestige and influence we will be in an advantageous position to advance Christianity. Is that okay? Once again, Daniel shows us how to think about this.

Between Daniel chapters 3 and 6, time has passed.  There is not only a new king, but a whole new empire.  Darius, the king of the Medes, was victorious over the Babylonians.  In the new empire, Daniel, however, remains a top leader. In fact Daniel is one of three administrators who were in charge of 120 satraps, which were like regional governors. 

If you’re following along in your Bible, read verse 3.  There we learn that Daniel had so distinguished himself, King Darius planned to promote him as the leader over the whole Kingdom.  Think now about Daniel’s life trajectory.  From decades before, losing everything about his former life when the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem, to now on the verge of becoming the leader of what was at the time perhaps the most powerful kingdom on earth. 

The other administrators and satraps are not happy.  They’re jealous.  So they seek out any way that Daniel might have screwed up, hoping to bring charges against him.  But Daniel was so trustworthy and capable, that they can find nothing on him.  They conclude in verse 5 that the only way they’re going to be able to get at him is to place Daniel in a no-win situation, and there is one area of Daniel’s life they know they can trap him.  You know what that is?  Daniel’s religion.  Daniel has remained a faithful follower of God this whole time.  For decades in a foreign land, Daniel has never assimilated when it comes to his relationships and faithfulness to God. 

The other leaders know this, which tells us something about Daniel.  He wasn’t living out his faith secretly.  He was open about who he followed and what he believed.  Nothing deterred Daniel from visibly and audibly following God’s ways.  So the other leaders propose a edict that everyone must only pray to King Darius for the next 30 days, and any who disobey the edict will be thrown into a den of lions.  They get the king to sign it into law, which is no surprise.  What narcissistic king wouldn’t want his people praying to him and him only? 

In verse 10, Daniel learns about the decree, and goes home, and you know what he does?  Pray to Darius for all to see so that everyone believes he is faithful, and then pray in secret to God?  That would be a very wise move, if all Daniel wants is to get that top ruler position.  Many people are like that when they are so close to power.  They will do anything to get more of it.  Not Daniel.  He defies the law of the king.  He opens the window in his home, and prays toward Jerusalem to his God, YHWH, three times every day, exactly as he had done before.  He will not be assimilated.  

The other leaders catch Daniel in the act, just as they hoped, and they report to Darius.  Darius, we read in verse 14, is greatly distressed.  He made the ridiculous law, probably thinking nothing of having to incriminate people for disobeying it, and certainly not the man whom he planned to make ruler of the kingdom. 

So Darius is stuck.  He tries to save Daniel, but it is an open and shut case: Darius made a law, Daniel broke it.  There is no other way to look at it.  Darius relents, throwing Daniel in the den of lions, but saying, “May your God, Daniel, whom you continually serve, rescue you.” 

In another miraculous intervention, God does save Daniel, and Darius is overjoyed.  I encourage you to read verses 26-28.  Darius proclaims that the kingdom will must fear and reverence God!  And Daniel prospered.

But it doesn’t always work out that way.  Remember the girl whom Bethel Church was praying to be resurrected?  She ended up staying dead.  God’s answer to their prayer was No.  They held her funeral this week.  What is so amazing is the way the parents and people from that church lived out their commitment to Jesus.  They refused to be assimilated to the way of the world. 

What will it look like for you to pursue total commitment to Jesus? What situations are you being pressured to bow down or assimilated to American culture? Check back in tomorrow as we conclude with practical implications of how to avoid assimilation, and what to do if you suspect you might already be assimilated.

How teens and adults can respond to peer pressure – Characters: Daniel, Part 3

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How do you handle societal pressure? Whether you are a teenager facing peer pressure at school, perhaps to try drugs and alcohol, or whether you are an adult tempted to misreport your taxes, there are multitudes of pressures in life, pressures to turn away from living in a way that is honorable to Jesus. Will we assimilate or we will choose the way of Jesus? As we continue our five-part series on Daniel and his friends, we’ve already learned how they refused to assimilate into Babylonian culture, when in a training program to serve in the palace, they were asked to eat foods that were dishonorable to God. The result was that God prospered them. But instead of living happily ever after, turn to Daniel 3 where we’ll find that Daniel’s friends are faced with a terrible challenge. 

In this chapter, we learn that the king, Nebuchadnezzar, commissions the creation of a giant statue, probably an idol of a Babylonian deity, and he required all people to bow to it, or they would be punished by being burned to death in a furnace. 

Daniel’s friends do not bow.  It is important to remember that these guys are not no names anymore.  As we saw in chapter 1, they entered the king’s service, and they were superior to all others.  They are known.  Look at verses 8-11 of chapter 3.  Some others come forward to Nebuchadnezzar and tell on the Jews.  Not only were they foreigners, but also, just as in our world today, when you are a foreigner, you stick out.  Verse 12 reminds us that the king had set the three Jews over the affairs of the province of Babylon.  They are top leaders now.  They wouldn’t be able to just hide in the crowd. Other Babylonians could easily have been jealous of these men.  Foreigners taking the best Babylonian jobs?  Often that doesn’t go over well. 

So the three Jews are called out and confronted, and Nebuchadnezzar is really upset with them.  These some of his top men.  Maybe he is wondering if he was stupid for taking a chance on foreigners.  Maybe he is embarrassed.  Maybe he is feeling betrayed because he trusted these guys, and now they are turning their backs on him.  Look at the last line of verse 15.  He says, “What god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”  Nebuchadnezzar is super arrogant.  He is the top leader of the most powerful nation in the world.  He invaded the homeland of these guys, and he defeated them.  Who are they to defy him?  Clearly he is more powerful than their God.  I wonder if this discussion had come up before.  Maybe he had issues with these Jews refusing to assimilate to the Babylonian religion, but Nebuchadnezzar can’t deny that these guys are superior.  So he is glad for them to be a part of his kingdom.  They are serving him well.  But when it comes to their faith in their God, they just won’t crack, and perhaps that has really been bugging him.  Now, though, he has them where he wants them.  Obey or die.  Surely, they will assimilate now.  Smart guys like this will weigh the options, and know that it is obviously better to just bow to the idol and live. 

That leads to verses 16-18 which are amazing.  I encourage you to read them for yourself. The three men say that they will refuse to bow, because they believe God will save them from the fiery furnace. But get this: they tell the king that even if God doesn’t save them, they will not bow.  Wow.  I wonder if the place where they were talking went silent at that moment.  Could you hear a pin drop?  I bet it was icy cold.  I’m thinking Nebuchadnezzar didn’t see this coming.  You simply did not defy the king like that.  Right to his face, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are saying, “We will not be assimilated.” 

What an amazing statement of allegiance to God and trust in God! 

Have you heard the story of the people at Bethel Church in CA that were praying for a resurrection? Two weeks ago, one of their worship leaders had a two-year old daughter who suddenly and tragically died.  So they began a 24-7 praise and worship service asking God to resurrect her.  Her body lay in the morgue for days.  I have to admit that I heard the story and was unsettled.  There is much we could say about it, but I bring it up because I believe it is so similar to Daniel’s friends.  The people at Bethel were trusting in God and his power. They never once said that God had to raise the girl, or they would lose their faith.  Just like Daniel’s friends, they were doing what they believed was right, and if God would choose not to raise the girl, they would remain faithful to him regardless. 

Back to Daniel 3.  As you can imagine, Nebuchadnezzar is even more upset now by the Jews’ defiance.  He throws them in the furnace, and sure enough, God saves them.  This results in a total change in Nebuchadnezzar who praises God and promotes Daniel’s friends.

What situations are you faced with assimilation? I encourage you to ask yourself how you might already be assimilated, and yet thus far you haven’t viewed it that way. Consider how you spend your money, your time, your energy? Is it in line the way of Jesus? Try to avoid the line of thinking that says, “Well, so many other Christians live like that, so it can’t be wrong.” Yes, it can be wrong. Just because lots of Christians do something doesn’t mean that it is honorable to Jesus. How will you be different?

We have one more story of assimilation, and we’ll look at that in the next post.

Should Christians change their views on morality as their society changes? – Characters: Daniel, Part 2

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Is it okay for Christians to update their views on ethics and morality? Can we innovate our stance on traditional theology? There’s no doubt that American society has been heavily influenced by Christianity, and still is in large part, but as our societal views change, can we adapt Christianity to fall more in line with changes, making Christianity more palatable to the society? This is the process of assimilation that I introduced in the previous post. It is a process that Daniel and his friends faced. Perhaps their approach will be very instructive to us, as we live in a society that is changing.

Daniel and his friends, as we learned in the previous post, were exiled from Judah to Babylon and conscripted into a training program that would assimilate them into Babylonian society, as they learned to serve in the palace. For exiles, it seemed they hit the jackpot. Of course they would rather be back home in Judah, but at least they could console themselves that they got to be in the palace. Surprisingly, Daniel and his friends don’t view it that way.  If you want to follow along with the story, read Daniel 1 verses 8-14.

They ask the king’s chief official if they can substitute the dietary portion of the training regimen with a diet of their own.  In this way, they refuse to be assimilated.  Yes, they are still willing to enter the training program.  But they will not do it in the way of the Babylonians.  Why?  Because they want to follow the law that God had given them about what is clean and unclean food.  The story doesn’t tell us exactly what was wrong with the food, just that it was defiled, which could mean that it had been used in idol worship.

At this point, Nebuchadnezzar’s chief official could easily say, “I’m not dealing with this ridiculousness,” and send them to hard labor, prison or worse, just eliminate them.  Daniel and his friends are in no position to be bargaining like this. 

But God is at work!  If Daniel and his friends wondered if they had been abandoned by God, they were about to see how God was right there all along.  As we continue this series of five posts studying Daniel and his friends, keep note of how often God is involved in this story.  Verse 9 is the first such mention, when God caused the official to show favor to Daniel and his friends.  What’s more, the official knows this is a crazy scenario, because his head could be on the chopping block too!  He is responsible to present the king with qualified candidates to serve in the palace, and even admits his fears to Daniel.

Perhaps sensing God at work in this gracious man, Daniel and friends propose a compromise.  “Please let us try our diet for 10 days,” they ask.  Daniel suggests that they receive just water and veggies for ten days, and the official can judge for himself if it was working.  Wise move by Daniel and his friends, right?  It’s like a cleanse!  

Most of all, it is amazing to watch their passion to live out their faith in God, despite strong temptation to assimilate to the surrounding culture.  It would have been so much easier just to give in.  They don’t give in, and God was there at work.  So the official takes a risk, allowing them ten days on their plan, and what happens?  Read Daniel 1, verses 15-21 to find out.

Are you surprised that it turns out that Daniel and his friends are far superior to the others in the program?  At the end of just ten days it was obvious that Daniel and his friends were better off.  So the official allows them to finish out the whole program that way.  After three years, all the people in the training program are presented before the king, and Daniel and friends are the best in class. 

Do you see how God is still at work? The writer tells us that in addition to being best in class, God gives Daniel and his friends special knowledge and understanding, and to Daniel he gives the spiritual gift of being able to interpret dreams.  Thus they start their jobs serving the king, and we are told that they were ten times better than anyone else in the whole kingdom, even magicians and enchanters.

Think about the trajectory of their lives.  They are living in Jerusalem when they are attacked, defeated, ripped from their families, and taken far away to Babylon.  There they enter a training program to serve in the palace. At the end of three years they have risen to the top of Babylonian royal society.  They go from the deepest depths of loss and despair, to the heights of power and influence.  Why?  How?  Because God was at work, and they remained faithful to him. 

There are many ways this story relates to our world today:

Think about the parallel to kids going off to college.  Daniel and his friends were leaving their culture, the protection of their families, the spiritual culture of Judah (though admittedly it was apostate in many ways.)  Then Daniel and his friends are taken to a whole new culture and spiritual situation in Babylon that was not in line with God’s ways.  Consider the choices they are faced with.  It is quite similar to what young people face when they go to college.

Sometimes people chose party schools because they want to party.  In other words, the principle of “You’ll find what you are looking for,” is so often true.  Looking for loose morality? You’ll find it.

But if you are looking for Jesus, you’ll find him, even where you least expect him.  Daniel and his friends chose to follow God’s ways in the midst of a pagan culture.  And right there they found God at work. 

We are the same.  Whether at college or at work or at school, we have the choice about whether we are going to follow God’s ways in those places.

We must ask ourselves how we can we live faithfully to God in our world. Daniel and his friends, out of a heart to follow God, were willing dispense with a pagan diet in pursuit of a more healthy lifestyle. They refused to be assimilated.

There is a clear link in this story to how it is honorable to the Lord to pursue a healthy lifestyle.  As I have written before in this blog, we need to remember that our body is the temple of God’s Spirit.  Thus we are wise to practice a healthy lifestyle, moderation, and abstinence in some cases.

One area that I believe this especially applies is sexual integrity.  We live in a culture that no longer views sexual integrity along the lines of Biblical teaching.  Even evangelical Christians have changing views.  I recently heard stats reporting that growing percentages of evangelical Christians no longer agree with biblical views of sexual integrity (see stats here and listen to podcast here and I also recommend this article, “Why Sexual Morality May Be More Important Than You Ever Thought“.)

We live in a culture that is telling us that it is okay to express ourselves sexually however we want.  God teaches something totally different in the Bible.  The summary of biblical teaching is that sexual expression is reserved for marriage between a man and a woman.  Would you be willing to go against the pressures of society and follow God’s way and abstain from sexual expression until marriage?  If you read the articles and listen to the blog post I linked above, I think you’ll find solid evidence as to why traditional sexual ethics are actually better for marriages, for families, and for society. Just as Daniel and his friends found with their diet, you will find the same with sexual expression.

This is far from the end of the story, however, for Daniel and his friends.  We cannot conclude at the end of chapter one with, “And they lived happily ever after.”  In our next post we’ll see how Daniel’s friends are faced with a terrible challenge.

Is the American melting pot disastrous for Christians? – Characters: Daniel, Part 1

In February 1887 President Grover Cleveland signed into law the Dawes Act which sought to assimilate Native Americans into the culture of the United States.  It didn’t go well.  Indians ended up losing 62% of the land they held before 1887.  There remains much debate about how much people should assimilate into American culture.  For a long time we Americans have likened out country to a melting pot rather than a salad bowl. In a salad bowl, each ingredient retains its difference and individuality. But in the melting pot, there is a melding, combining and loss of uniqueness. While America has never truly been a melting pot or salad bowl, Americans have long believed that some degree of assimilation is important and necessary for a healthy society.  But as we’ll see, in at least one way of thinking, assimilation can be disastrous for Christians.

This fall we had a mini-series on Characters in the Old Testament.  We met people like Jacob, Joseph, Samson and Ruth, all people who were flawed or in crisis, and yet God used them for his Kingdom.  In this post we meet one last group who was also in crisis: Daniel and his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

To begin, let’s try to locate the time period the story of Daniel occurs in Israel’s history.  You might remember that the last character we looked at was David, and his battle with Goliath.  Here’s what happened between the era of David and that of Daniel.  David eventually became King of Israel, and then after his son, Solomon’s reign, the nation had a kind of civil war, which led to a North and South split.  Ten tribes in the North are called Israel, and two tribes in the South are called Judah.  Each nation has a series of kings and prophets and many ups and downs.  Generally, the Northern kingdom of Israel chooses to turn away from obedience to God, and God allows them to be attacked and defeated by enemy nations.  In the south, in Judah, however, there are many good kings who lead the nation to be faithful to God.  But there are also wicked kings from time to time in the South, and eventually they, too, are attacked and defeated.  That’s where Daniel story begins.  Daniel was a young Jewish man living in Jerusalem when the powerful nation of Babylon defeated Judah.  Feel free to pause this post and read what happened in Daniel 1:1-7.

It might be hard for people who experience peace or freedom in their lives to imagine what it would be like for Daniel and his friends.  Their country destroyed and occupied.  Ripped away from their families, carted off to a different land, with different customs, different language.  This is a slavery story.  A human trafficking story.  But I think much more than that, it is an assimilation story, meaning that Nebuchadnezzar the King of Babylon wants to steal the best and brightest of Israel and transform them into his servants to benefit him.  Nebuchadnezzar wants these Jews to assimilate into Babylon, to become Babylonians, to think and believe and act like Babylonians.  So he puts them in a training program.

Would Daniel and his friends resist this forcible training program?  Did they give up hope of returning to Jerusalem, to their families, to what was familiar to them?  Were they battling with deep sadness and loss?  Did they wrestle with God?  Did they think, “God, why are you letting this happen?  Why are you not being faithful to your covenant with your people?”  Or did Daniel and his friends know that Israel had turned their backs on God, and thus they had this coming?  Did they want to give up faith in God?  Were they scared that they were going to be mistreated in Babylon?  Put in prison?  Killed?  My guess is that they were wrestling with all these thoughts and more. 

After they arrive in Babylon and are conscripted into the training program to serve in the king’s palace, it would become apparent rather quickly, I think, that they were in a fortunate position.  Sure, if they wanted, they could really fight hard against the king’s wishes and refuse to participate in the program, maybe saying, “Send us back to Israel,” or something like that.  If they choose to participate, however, it would seem that they could assume that they would be cared for quite well.  Think about it, they were in a training program to serve the king.  For foreign prisoners, it probably doesn’t get any better than that. 

Daniel and his friends, while still likely sad about missing their family, friends and culture in Judah, could be wiping their foreheads in relief praying to God, “Thank you for taking care of us.”  In many ways, for prisoners of war, it seems like they hit the jackpot.  But surprisingly, Daniel and his friends don’t view it that way. Check back to the next post, to learn how they respond.

How the Holy Spirit helps us have peace when we struggle with fear – Fourth Sunday of Advent 2019, Part 5

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What is at the root of fear?   Human nature? Maybe it is just a part of the human experience? We fear that we won’t be taken care of. Clearly so many of us, young and old fear rejection, loneliness, insecurity, or being destitute.  We can fear that people will look down on us. There is an emptiness within that can be the cause of all our fear.

Why did Jesus bring this up?  Because he has been talking all chapter long about how he was about to leave them.  He is preparing them for the deep emptiness that would grip them.  He knows that in a matter of hours their world is about to be rocked.  First, he will be arrested, then put on trial, beaten, crucified, and die. At that point they could easily have been feeling that they were utterly alone, their leader gone.  I think it is also very possible in that moment, that the disciples are not only feeling alone, but perhaps betrayed not only by Judas, but also by Jesus.  They were likely totally confused about how this amazing man who clearly seemed to be the chosen one to save Israel could be arrested.  They could be wondering if they just gave the previous three of their lives to a lie.  They could be feeling embarrassed, shame, guilt.  And worse, they could be next.  If the soldiers arrested and killed Jesus, what would stop them from coming to get the disciples too? 

These were life and death situations, and there is a sense in which the disciples’ fear is justified.  And Jesus knows this.  Therefore in John 14 he is best seen as preparing them for the trauma that is just about to come knocking.            

What is the solution that Jesus teaches us?  The promises of the section: God is with us and in and gives us peace.  He doesn’t say that he will take the fears and struggles away, but he says that he is with us, in us, and will give us peace! Remember that peace does not mean that life will have trials, or that we are in control, that we know what is going to happen.  Peace means we have a deep understanding of whose we are, who loves us unconditionally, and that we will be cared for by God, even when we are in the middle of trials.  Have you ever seen a baby, cuddled in its mother’s arms, right in the middle of a loud room, with siblings arguing, and mess all around?  And the baby is smiling, sound asleep.  Why? It knows it is loved.  The baby is cared for and his/her needs are met by their loving mom.  They are not worried about the mess going on literally around them.  Sometimes you see that little one wake up, look around, see the chaos and start to fuss. But the mom says, “look here little one,” and the baby looks up at mom and smiles again.  It will be okay.  Their eyes are on the one that they KNOW loves them and will care for them.  We too can have peace, though we are not a perfect world, as we keep our eyes on the one who loves us.

So the message is clear: if we love him, obey him.  We can and should do this even in the midst of the fear and struggle, not just because Jesus promises his peace, but also because he promises to be with us and in us.  

Let’s talk a bit more about what it means in verse 17 that the Spirit will be in us, and in verse 23, that Jesus and the Father will make their home with us?  What does that mean?  How are we supposed to understand that?  Am we supposed to feel something inside there?  Is Jesus saying that we should feel God inside us simply as emotional peace?  Or is he saying that the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is physically within us?

I encourage you to look for the evidence.  We can know that the Spirit is truly within us because we will see changes in our lives.  Paul would famously call this the Fruit of the Spirit.  If the Spirit is within you, there are fruits that will grow from your lives. You can read all about it in Galatians 5. In my back yard, we have an apple tree, an English walnut, a peach tree, blackberries, and red raspberries, as well as a black walnut. As Jesus says, by their fruits you will know them. The apple tree shows us it has the biological raw material of an apple tree because it makes apples every year. We aren’t 100% sure what kind of apple tree it is, though. It certainly isn’t a red delicious or honeycrisp, because it never makes those kinds of apples. It only makes the one kind of apple that it is able to make, and we think that is likely Granny Smith, as its apples are tart. Likewise, we notice the fruit of the Spirit flowing from us, we know that we have the Spirit living within us. Jesus said that the Spirit will bring us peace.  Peace is one of the fruits of the Spirit.  When we experience peace in the middle of situations that we should not be peaceful, then we can know the reality of the Spirit with us. 

Here’s another example: when we obey Jesus, out of love for him, though we really don’t want to, then we know the Spirit is with us.  Maybe some of you are anticipating family gatherings over the next few weeks, as we celebrate Christmas and New Years.  You know there is that one family member who might bring family drama or politics or just has a tendency to rub you the wrong way, yet you treat them with kindness and gentleness and patience and love. Those are Fruits of the Spirit that give you evidence the Spirit is within you.

And we can hear his voice.  But it means we have to listen. How many of us say that we can’t hear God’s voice, but we rarely take time to listen for him? We need to consider how noisy our lives are. We can we do to quiet our lives and stop and listen for God.  We need to open time for quiet listening. 

I wonder how many of us might actually say that we are scared to listen to the God who lives within us, because when we hear what he has to say to us, it might be that he wants us to change?

Let us remember that God wants us to flourish in this life.  No doubt an antidote to fear is to remember the truth that we have a hope of eternal life with him.  But what we have heard in John 14:15-31 is that we can have peace from Jesus in the here and now, and particularly so because he, by his Spirit, lives within us!

As we look to the One who came, this season is about remembering the one who came as a vulnerable baby. Jesus left heaven and became human out of deep, deep love for us and for our best.  Long for more of Him.  Sit with him.  Get to know him.  Don’t just read about him, but also look for him in your world.  He is there.  Ask the Holy Spirit to open your eyes to see him more, to open your heart to understand him more.  Look for ways to sacrifice time to sit with him, to get to know him, as you do anyone you really love and long to get to know.  From that place of intimacy with him, focus your hearts on who he is and who you are IN him, and peace in the midst of fears will come.

How God's Spirit is Alive in Us – Fourth Sunday of Advent, Part 4

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Each stream of Christianity has its unique approach to the role and activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of the follower of Jesus. Some Christians feel that they know with certainty who the Spirit is and what the Spirit does. Some Christians have very little certainty. I grew up thinking the Spirit was a mysterious and fairly unknowable person of what is called the Trinity. Where Jesus is our friend and brother, and God the Father is our…well…Father, I was taught that the Spirit was in me, but I didn’t feel anything. Or hear anything. I can still struggle with this. Is the Spirit-in-me just an idea to be believed, or is there something more?

I think Jesus most astounding promise is that if we love him, we will obey him, and then he will come make his home with us. In the previous posts, we looked at what Jesus meant by all this. As we continue studying John 14:15-31, Jesus explains even more about what he means by this.

The first thing he means is that he and the Father will make their home in us, if we love and obey him, but giving us the Holy Spirit as our Counselor.  He already said this in verse 16, and he says it again here, “I will send you the Counselor.”  The first thing we think of when we hear the word counselor is someone who gives counsel.  It could be a guidance counselor at school.  It could be a legal counselor, a lawyer.  It could be a therapist who we rely on for professional counseling.  The Greek word that John uses is parakletos, and even in the ancient world, it had a lot of meanings as well.  It could be used for encouragement or comfort, for communication, for counseling.  What Jesus is saying is that the Spirit in us can accomplish all these roles and more. It is an amazing promise.  All the resources and power and wisdom of God is living within us, IF we show that we love him by obeying his commands. 

As the Paraklete, the Spirit, Jesus says in verse 26, will teach us, will remind us of what Jesus said.  In that you see the counselor role.  This is why I think it is so vital, whenever we encounter the word of God, whether in our own personal reading of Scripture, whether at church, or in a small group, to pray what Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 2:10-13:

“God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.”

God’s Spirit within us can help us to understand what God wants to communicate to us.  So whenever you encounter the Bible, whether at church, at a small group, or personally, pray what Paul teaches, “Spirit, help me understand.”  I get it, the Bible can be intimidating, but we have the supernatural power of God through his Spirit within us to help us understand it.  That doesn’t mean we don’t still use study Bibles and notes, or talk with people about it.  There are excellent resources available to help us understand God’s Word, and we should avail ourselves of them.  But let us first pray to the Spirit to help us understand. 

So the Spirit is our teacher, and our counselor, and then Jesus goes on to say that the Spirit is our Comforter.  Look at verse 27.  What an amazing promise.  “Peace he will give us, but not as the world gives”

Peace.  What is the difference between the peace the world gives and the peace that Jesus gives?

To answer that, consider what he says about peace, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid.”  What do people fear?

Heights, Enclosed places, Financial ruin, Losing your job, That Kids and Grandkids will make bad choices, That we won’t be good parents, Sickness, Death, and how it will happen, Broken relationships, Not being accepted, “Will I make the sports team?”  “Will I be chosen?”, Fear of being alone, Fear that my debit card will not be approved, Fear in relationships, “What will that person think of me?  Will I disappoint them?” There are so many fears. Have you encountered any of these in your life?

Our past fears can linger, even when our life situation is well past the point of needing to be afraid.  Past fear can linger and rise up and still be there.  We might have $10,000 in the bank, but when we put our card in the card reader, we still feel those feelings of fear that the card will not be approved.  If you were in a negative relationship before, and now you are in a new one and that person has done nothing to make you fear, you might still carry hurts from before that manifest themselves in your current relationship. Fear has a way of sticking with us.  Situations from the past can lead to tentacles of fear hanging on to us for years.

What is at the root of this fear? And what can we do about it? We’ll talk more about that in the final post of this five-part series on John 14:15-31.

What is Jesus most astounding promise? – Fourth Sunday of Advent, Part 3

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Jesus makes lots of promises. What do you think is his most amazing promise? In this post, I think we just might have a candidate for it. We actually started studying the promise in the previous post. Jesus teaches the promises to his disciples in John 14:15-31, and he crafts in the form of an “if-then” statement. If we do x, he promises to do y.

We’ve heard the “if” side of the promise.  I would encourage you to stop reading this post, and go back and read all about the very important “if” side. To summarize, it was, “If we love him, we will obey him.” Now what about the “then” side?  What is the promise in this?  In verses 16 and 17, he says if we love him, we will obey him, THEN he will give us the Holy Spirit to be with us and in us. 

Then in verse 21 he expands on this, saying that if we love him and obey him, he and his Father will love that person and Jesus will show himself to that person.  Are you seeing a theme in his description of the promise?  Yes?  No?  Maybe?

Let’s continue looking at verse 23 to see if he expands on the promise any further, and to see if there is a theme to the promise.  There he says that “if anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching, and”…here is the promise…”my Father will love him,” which is the same thing he said in verse 21, but he goes on to say that he and the Father will come to that person and make their home with him. 

Now do you see the theme?  Here it is:

If we love Jesus, we will obey his teaching, and then he promises to stay relationally close to us.  It is a wonderful promise.  We can have a close relationship with the God of the universe, with the King of the Kingdom, with his Spirit.  And it is not just any relationship.

I am reading a book by Christian author Sarah Bessey, and in it she describes how she was surprised to receive an invitation to a conference at the Vatican which would include an audience with the Pope.  She and her husband traveled to Rome, spent a week there sightseeing, and then attended the conference.  On the first day of the conference, they, along with a big group, had a personal audience with the Pope.  They went to the papal apartments, up five flights of stairs and then ushered into a grand greeting room, along with maybe 100 people.  Then the Pope came out, walking around the room shaking everyone’s hand.  She said it was a great experience.  Once in a lifetime.  Super memorable and meaningful to meet someone so important. 

But the relationship that Jesus promises us is very different from that.  Look at the words he uses in verse 17.  Jesus says that we know the Spirit, and the Spirit lives with us and will be in us.  Think about that.  For the true follower of Jesus, he promises the closeness of the Holy Spirit with us and in us!  That’s amazing.  Do you know what to do with that teaching?  God in us?  It is just absolutely wonderful to think about. 

Jesus is far from done, though.  Look how he continues in verse 18.  He tells the disciples that he doesn’t want to leave them as orphans.  Instead he says he will come to them.  Sounds great, right?  Remember that earlier in chapter 14, Jesus had been talking about how he was leaving them.  Some of his disciples were clearly not thrilled with this idea, saying to him, “What’s going on?  Where are you going, Jesus?”  Now he saying, “Don’t worry, guys, I’m coming back.”  But as he continues in verses 19-20, Jesus gets characteristically mysterious when he says, “Before long, the world won’t see me anymore, but you will see me.  Because I live, you also will live.  On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me, and I am in you.”

I can imagine the disciples scratching their heads, and saying to him, “Is this another one of those parables, Jesus, that no one understands?  What do you mean that the world won’t see you, but we will see you? And ‘because I live, you also will live’?”  What could Jesus be talking about?  Think about it from their perspective, hearing about him being in the Father, and the disciples in him, and he in them…it just sounds strange, right? 

I don’t know how much of this the disciples understood at that moment.  Eventually they would get it.  But it would take some time, including the upheaval of his death and resurrection, when he left them and then came back to them.  It would take him spending time walking them through the Bible to understand how the old prophecies were being fulfilled in his death and resurrection, that he was the Messiah.  It would take his Ascension, the moment about a month or so later when he actually did leave them for good, for them to have a further understanding of what he was talking about.  But it wouldn’t fully and completely make sense until about ten days after his Ascension, when, on the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit would come to them and live with them. 

That was day he had in mind when he said in verses 16-17 that the Spirit was coming to live in his disciples. This is what he meant when he said in verses 18-20 that he wouldn’t leave them as orphans, and that he would be in them.  This is what he meant in verse 21 when he said that he would show himself to them.  And finally this is what he meant in verse 23 when he said that he and the father would make their home in them. Through his Holy Spirit, God is with us and in us and makes his home in us. Check back in to the next post when we will look at verses 25-27 to learn more promises related to the Holy Spirit.

Is it wrong for Jesus to say, "if we love him, we'll obey him"? – Fourth Sunday of Advent 2019, Part 2

In the previous post, we talked about Jesus makes some promises in John 14:15-31, and the main promise takes the form of an “if-then” statement. If we do x, he promises to do y. So here is the promise:

If we love him, we will obey him, and then he promises to give us what he calls another Counselor to be with us forever. 

With this statement, Jesus introduces a concept that is repeated two more times in the rest of John 14.  Do you see it?  Scan down to verse 21.  “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me.”  And now look ahead a few more verses to verse 23 and 24.  There it is again. In verse 23 he says, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.” Then he says it again in verse 24, but from a different direction: “He who does not love me, will not obey my teaching.” 

In all three instances, Jesus connects love and obedience.  If we love him, we will obey him.  It must be important to him because he mentions not 1 or 2 times, but three times.  I don’t know about you, but when I think about that idea, that if we love him we will obey him, something about it sounds off.  Something about connecting love with obedience.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m all about obeying the Lord, and loving the Lord, but something doesn’t feel right about this.  Anyone else sense that?  What am I getting at? 

Think about your human relationships.  Would you say to your spouse, “If you love me, you’ll obey me?”  Would you say it to a friend?  Not in America in 2019, except in the super rare occasion.  But marriage vows used to be this way.  Maybe some of you remember when the traditional vows had the wife saying to her husband that she would what?  “Love, honor and obey” him!  In many places around the world, this is still very much the case, especially in those cultures that are patriarchal or male-dominant.  In those places women are considered subservient.  There they must obey their husbands, while their husbands are not held to the obedience standard.  So maybe my trouble with this phrase from Jesus, “If you love, you’ll obey me,” is simply because of my cultural baggage.

It also could be that we humans can have a very hard time placing ourselves under the authority and submission of anyone.  We are wired that way, so many of us.  Not all of us, of course.  But we can have feelings of rebellion and bucking authority when people try to exert their power over us.  Even in a situation when it is socially or culturally acceptable, like at work when your boss is telling you what they want you to do.  We can inwardly react against them, though hopefully we have enough self-control that they never know it.

It sure helps though, when the person who has authority over us is generous, kind, helpful, wise, sacrificial and loving. When that person literally chose to die for us. And that is exactly what we need to remember when we hear Jesus expressing leadership over us.   

I get it if you think “if you love me, obey my commands,” sounds demeaning or authoritarian.  Parental.  Tying obedience to the idea of love could also come across as manipulative.  “If you love me, you’ll do what I say.”  If our friend was in a relationship with a person who said that, we’d tell them to break it off.  So why does Jesus say this to his followers?  Is he being manipulative? Demanding?

Some people sure think so. But I don’t.  Instead, I believe Jesus had our best interest in mind.  He knows the best possible way to live.  He is not trying to twist our arms into following him.  He could have forced us to follow him, but instead he choose to give us free will because he loves us and wants the true good life for us.  That good life is found in obeying him. 

Jesus’ call for obedience from his people is a wonderful balance of what is best for them, and what he desires most.  The act of showing your love for Jesus by obeying him, rather than turning out to be manipulative, is actually life-giving, not just in the eternal sense, but in a well-rounded human way.  We teach our young children to look both ways before crossing the street and to not jump into the deep end of the pool without swimmers on. Why?  Because we are trying to manipulate them?  No, because we love them.  Because we understand things about the world that they do not know yet at that young age.  We can see things that they cannot see .  We aren’t trying to control them, but to love them.  We want them to love us back, to trust us, and to obey.  This is not a perfect example because we are not perfect parents, and we carry our own baggage into parenting. But we can know that God’s heart is perfect.  His love is trustworthy. He is not carrying any baggage or manipulation to us, just perfect love for us and for our ultimate best.

We’ve heard the “if” side of the promise.  Now what about the “then” side?  What is the promise in this? Check back in to the next post to find out.

Why the moon freaks me out – Fourth Sunday of Advent 2019, Part 1

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You know how the moon appears larger when it is low on the horizon? There are a few times each year when the full moon is visible low on the horizon straight out our back yard.  When that happens, I grab my binoculars, and go out on the deck, kneel down by the railing, and rest the binoculars on the rail, steadying them to get a good look at the moon. The binoculars aren’t as good as a telescope, but they still give me a clear view of the moon’s craters.  You can also see lunar mountains on the curvature of the moon.  It is amazing.  I love it.

I’ll reveal to you a little bit about myself here.  Even though I love it, I can’t just stare at the moon endlessly.  I look for maybe 20-30 seconds, and then I have to turn away.  Know why?  Because it freaks me out.  I start thinking about how big the moon is.  And how far away it is.  And then I start thinking about the vastness of our solar system, and the universe, and I start to get the goosebumps.  And I have to turn away. 

So that night, I came inside, and I started telling my family about the moon, how I was partly freaked out, partly in awe and wonder.  I asked if any of them wanted to take a look.  And you know how they responded?  They started making fun of me.  They brought up another topic that really freaks me out.  You know what that is?  With this other thing, I almost can’t look at it at all.  With the moon, at least I want to look at it, and I can for a while.  But with this other thing, I have to turn away almost immediately.  Blood?  Gore?  Bad injuries in football games?  Nope.  I can look at all that no problem.  You know what gets me?  Pictures and video of sunken ships like the Titanic. 

Just thinking about it gives me the chills.  It’s so freaky!  This giant man-made boat way down at the bottom of the even bigger ocean…just sitting there, dead, rusting, dark.  I don’t know what it is about shipwrecks, but they bring out a fear in me.

What do you fear?

Sometimes our fears come out in our dreams. 

Ever experience that?  I have dreams a lot at night.  Always have throughout my whole life.  Recently I had one, and it was very vivid.  Can you guess what a pastor would have bad dreams about?  Preaching and realizing all you have on is your underwear?  Close.  It wasn’t that, but it was about a worship service.  This worship service was its own kind of shipwreck.  Everything that could go wrong was going wrong.  People participating were forgetting what do to.  There were long awkward pauses.  It was embarrassing.  Still in the dream, after the worship service was over, I was talking with someone about it.  The conversation was about how I was going to have to address all the problems that went wrong in the worship service.  That would mean bringing it up to people who participated in the service!  I really hate confronting people, even if it is the tiniest hint that they are doing something wrong.  And it all came out in my dreams.  So there you have it.  My neuroses.  My fears.  Partly, I meant this to be humorous, but fear is all too real.  Again I ask, what do you fear? 

Turn to John 14:15-31, where Jesus addresses fear.  This is the final sermon in our Advent series examining our longings, to see if they are in line with what God desires for us.  The first week we looked at how our primary longing, the longing by which all other longings are measured, should be a longing for Jesus.  From there we looked at dark longing, envy, and how Asaph in Psalm 73 reminds us that the antidote to envy is the truth that God is enough for us.  Last week, though it wasn’t on the blog, we had another member of our teaching team, Emerald Peters, help us examine our longings for home and family, and how they, too, must find their fulfillment in the fact that the way, truth and life is in knowing Jesus and him alone.  Emerald preached from John 14:1-14, and now this week we are looking at the second half of that chapter. So it makes sense that what we are studying today will be very connected to what we studied last week in John 14:1-14.  Before continuing with this post, go ahead and read what Jesus has to say about our longings for peace, stability and security.

Perhaps you noticed that Jesus makes some promises in this chapter, promises I find quite encouraging.  Think about when someone makes you a promise.  In our day and age it seems that there is a growing skepticism of promises.  Politicians make promises to get our votes, but many do not keep those promises.  When people marry, they make promises on their wedding day, and in the USA marriage promises or vows are regularly broken.  So we can grow to believe that promises are unimportant.  “Show me action,” we say.  There is a lot of truth to that, right?  We want actions that line up with words.  We don’t want empty promises.  We want people who fulfill their promises.

So it is quite important to remember who is making these promises in John 14.  It is Jesus.  He’s not some politician that just wants to sound good.  He’s not an unfaithful spouse.  He’s not an absentee parent.  He’s not a boss that keeps delaying a promised raise.  He is God, who is the truth, as he mentions earlier in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”  Jesus not only makes his promises, he keeps them.  Even though it might be difficult to imagine, especially if we have had people regularly make and then fail to keep their promises to us, Jesus is different.  We can trust in him.  He will keep his promises.

He starts with a promise right off the bat in verses 15-17 that reminds me of IFTTT. It stands for “IF This Then That,” and it is a phone app that automates your phone.  For example, how many of you have had the experience of hearing the garbage truck at your neighbor’s house, and the realization hits you, “I forgot to take out the trash!  Now it will build up for another week…and that will be get really stinky!” To avoid that, IFTTT helped me create an automated reminder about trash day.  If it is Thursday at 5 pm, then IFTTT will send me a text message reminding me to take out the trash.  If this, then that.  Jesus’ promise is like that.  Notice how it starts with the word “if.”  If you do this, then he promises he will respond in a very specific way. So what does he want us to do, and what will his promise be? Check back in to the next post as we look at it further.