Tag Archives: Jesus

This too shall pass? [False ideas Christians believe about…difficulty. Part 4]

14 Mar
Photo by Cristofer Jeschke on Unsplash

Are the difficult times in life good or bad? You might read that and think, “How could difficult times ever be good?” Well, when we experience suffering, we tend to feel more helpless and needy and thus we pray more. Increased levels of communication with God, as with any relationship in which greater communication almost always results in being closer to the person, leads to a good change: increased intimacy with God. Maybe difficult times, then, are good? 

So many of us have experienced a deep closeness with God during the hard times.  Therefore, we sometimes say that the phrase, “During times of suffering, you’ll be closer to God.” But is it true?

What we have seen in this series fact-checking phrases that Christians commonly believe is that, like the two-liner statements in the biblical Proverbs, many of these phrases are not guaranteed promises, but they are statements that are generally true.  The same can be said about “during suffering, you’ll be closer to God.”

While generally true, we need to see that this statement is sometimes false, given that some people have gone through suffering and lost their faith!  So this statement is not a promise.  Suffering often brings us closer to God, but it also sometimes crushes faith.  We need to be very sensitive to that.  Many people in the midst of suffering are having a crisis of faith.  God gave us free will, and there are many responses to difficult circumstances.

And that brings us to our next statement.  When people are in the midst of suffering, we say, “This too shall pass.”

How many of you say this?  Or have heard it said?  It is a go-to phrase for many. Is it in the Bible?  Nope. So why do people say this?

Because people in the midst of struggle are really having a hard time, and they need hope.  So we tell them “this too shall pass,” trying too give them hope that the pain will eventually finish.  But is that true? 

Generally, yes.  Most difficult times have an end date.  Yet in the midst of the difficulty, it is very, very hard for us to be comforted by a possible good future.  We are in the pain now, and we can think that the rest of our lives will be this way.

So there is a tension in the reality of life. Whether it is a health situation or a financial situation or a difficult relationship, it is generally true that they almost always pass, get resolved. But not always. Look, for example, at 2 Corinthians 4:16-18.  Paul reminds us that our troubles will all pass. Here’s the thing thought: the pain might not be done until we die and are pain-free in heaven.  But it will pass. 

That is a harsh reality…this too might not pass until we die.

One of my first acts as senior pastor was to gather a bunch of people to meet with an elderly man in our congregation to pray for him and anoint him with oil.  He was sick and was hoping and praying for healing, and God did not answer that prayer for healing.  James 5 even says that God will heal.  Instead, a few months later that man passed away.  The sickness did not pass on this side of heaven.  Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians that he, himself, had what he called a “thorn in the flesh” and he asked God numerous times to take it away.  We don’t know what the thorn was.  Could be a broken relationship.  Could be a health problem.  Could be an enemy.  But God never takes it away from Paul. 

So again, we have a proverbial phrase.  Pain generally will pass and things will go back to normal.  There are most often seasons in life.  And seasons come and go.  Writing this in the northeastern United States in early March, I am personally ready for the warmer temps of spring!  In parenting, there are seasons.  We recently had an interesting conversation with one of our college-age sons.  He was home for a visit, and somehow we got to talking about these seasons in life.  My wife mentioned that once our kids turned 12-15 years old, we as parents suddenly lost most of our knowledge and became dumb and irrelevant.  But once the kids turned 19-20, we parents amazingly became smart again!  There are seasons, and the statement “this too shall pass” reflects how that is generally true.  Most often, the difficulty comes and goes. 

But not always.  So again, be sensitive to those in pain.  They are in the middle, struggling.  Encourage them and be with them in the pain.  But, do not give false promise that it will guaranteed be taken away.  That is not a promise God gives.  We can and should hope for that, work towards that and pray for it.  But, that is different than saying that God has made it a promise.

As we talked about earlier, in the pain, many can have a crisis of faith.  Sometimes we think “God why are you allowing me to go through this?”  And it seems to us that God is silent.  Nowhere to be found. 

So how should we respond in the midst of pain? Check back in to part 5, and we’ll explore how to have a healthy approach to the difficulty in life.

The Bible is not the only Word of God [False ideas Christians believe about…the Bible. Part 1]

4 Mar
Image result for bible with magnifying glass

Did you know there is another more ancient Word of God than the Bible? Keep reading to learn about it. Last week I started a series in which I am looking at common sayings Christians use and believe, thinking those sayings are biblical, but they are actually false, not in the Bible.  OR the sayings are partially false, perhaps needing more explanation.

We started by fact-checking common statements about the topic of sin.   Statements like, “All sins are the same,” or it’s opposite: “All sins are not equal.”  And then the famous phrase, “love the sinner, hate the sin.”  None of these are in the Bible, thought we found while all the phrases are based in biblical teaching, they needed explanation to avoid confusion. 

In this week’s series of posts we are fact-checking what we believe about the Bible itself.  Here are the statements, and you might be surprised that I would say we need to fact-check them:

  • If everything in the Bible is not literally true, the whole thing falls apart.
  • The Bible is the Word of God.

Looking at those two statements are you wondering what could possibly be wrong about them?  They seem totally true, right?  Maybe, maybe not.  So let’s fact check what we believe about the Bible!

First of all, we Christians believe that there is another Word of God. The Bible is not the only word of God.  Did you know that?  In fact, the Bible itself tells us that there is another Word of God.  Turn to John 1 and read the first couple verses.

What do we see there?

The Word was God, and was with God in the beginning?  What is this Word John is talking about here?  Jump ahead to verse 14.  The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us?  When John refers to “the Word,” he is not talking about a book containing God’s written word.  In the Old Testament, when an author mentions “God’s Word” they sometimes do refer to the written word, like the Law of Moses we studied in the Deuteronomy series.  But even in the OT, there is so much more to the concept of God’s Word than the written word.  God’s Word is creative, it is powerful, it is not just speech, it is truth, and thus it is intimately bound up in who he is.  God’s Word is so much more than just voice or language.  Think about what happens in Genesis chapter 1 which sounds an awful lot like what we just read in John 1, doesn’t it?  “In the Beginning…”  In Genesis 1, in the beginning. God creates through the power of his word. 

In John 1, we learn more about that Word.  Specifically, we learn that Word is Jesus.  Furthermore John says Jesus is full of grace and truth.  So We Christians have this unique belief.  We believe that truth is not ultimately bound up in statements written in human language in a book.  Instead we believe Truth is a person, named Jesus. 

That is the first step to fact-checking the idea that the Bible is the Word of God.  We need to remember that Jesus is the Word of God. 

But you might say, “Yeah, but isn’t the Bible also the word of God?”  We do call it that, but it is certainly not the Word of God in the same way that Jesus is.  Not even close.  Here’s an example of what I mean.  The earliest Christians did not have Bibles.  The New Testament wasn’t written yet when the church got its start.  Copies of the books of the Old Testament were so expensive that the common person could never dream of owning even just one book of the Old Testament.  So think about that.  The first Christians didn’t have Bibles.  The Bible is so central to our expression of our faith that we might think there is no way the early church could have survived without it.  The reality is that they thrived.  

Why?  Because they still had the Word of God, Jesus.  That should help us put into proper perspective what we are all about as Christians.  We are Jesus-followers. 

But maybe now you’re thinking, “OK, I get that, but isn’t the Bible still really important?”  Good question. 

Let me answer that by asking you a question, “What is the Bible?”  You say, “Well, that’s obvious, Joel, the Bible is the Word of God.” 

Yes, that is the obvious answer, but it is also not enough.  It is true that the Bible is the Word of God, but it also needs some explanation that we don’t normally think about.  Let me illustrate with a question: Where did the Bible come from?  Did it just drop out of sky, like a miraculous gift from God? Check back in to part 2 of this series, as I’ll seek to answer that question!

Love the sinner, hate the sin? [False ideas Christians believe about…Sin. Part 5]

1 Mar
Image result for love the sinner, hate the sin?

Have you ever heard a Christian say, “love the sinner, hate the sin”?  We hear that all the time.  Maybe you’ve said it yourself. On the surface it sounds really good.  We should be a people that love others no matter who they are.  What could be wrong with that?  If that was all it was, focusing on love, then there would be nothing wrong with this phrase.  It would all just be love, and we would be showering love on people. 

The problem enters with that word “hate.”  Here’s why.  I’m not saying that we should be OK with or approving of sin.  I’ll get to that in a minute. 

Unless it was a once and done slip up, which often times is not the case, a person’s sin is usually inextricably bound up in who they are.  So when we say, “hate the sin” what they actually hear is “you hate me.”  It doesn’t matter that we also said, love the sinner.  They hear “you hate me”. 

Also, notice the “love the sinner” part. Both parts of this phrase are exceedingly negative and confrontational.  The “hate the sin” part can easily be heard as “you hate me” and then the “love the sinner” part can easily be heard as “you are defining me as a sinner.” 

Is that the message of Jesus to people?  “You hate me and you are defining me as a sinner”? 

Now you may be thinking, “but that is not at all what we mean when say ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’.”  We actually mean something totally positive and encouraging.  I mean, that word “Love” is front and center, right?

But have you ever been on the receiving end of the comment?  Think about it.  Put yourself in the shoes of a person who is being told that comment about themselves.  It might not be so easy to take.  We always hear the negative way more than the positive.  We fixate on the negative.  That’s why it is said that for every negative comment you should say 10 positive statements to counteract that one negative.  In “love the sinner, hate the sin,” yes, there is love, but then what comes next?  Sinner, hate, sin.  It is 3 to 1 in favor of the negatives. 

Let’s step back a minute and analyze the motivation for this statement. What are we really hoping to communicate to people?  What should we want to say to people? In trying to answer that question, it would be helpful to ask, how and what did Jesus communicate to people?

In Luke 5:17, Jesus heals a man whose friends lowered him down through the roof to get him close to where Jesus was inside a house. The first words out of Jesus’ mouth are surprising.  You’d think he’d say, “Who are you?” Or “What is going on here?” Or at least, “you are healed.”  But instead, you know what he says? “Your sins are forgiven.”  It pretty much shocked everyone there too.  Jesus’ point, he goes on to say, is that he has the power to forgive sin. Interesting, isn’t it, that he focuses on the forgiveness part! But that is who he is

In John 5:1-17 he meets another man who needs healing, and Jesus tells him to get up and walk. The man is healed, and later when they meet up again, Jesus says to him, “don’t sin anymore so that it will go well with you.” 

So Jesus is forgiving, and he addresses the sin, asking people to stop the sin.

Back in Luke 5, Jesus calls a tax collector named Levi to follow him, and Levi agrees to become one of his disciples.  Levi is elated about his new life of following Jesus, so he throws a big party at his house, and invites his friends.  Tax collectors were pretty edgy people, hanging with a rough crowd, and Levi invites them all to the party.  Do you think Jesus says, “Uh sorry, Levi, there’s no way I’m sullying my reputation by getting involved with these sinners!”?  Nope, Jesus parties it up.  Well the Pharisees and teachers of the law spy on him, and they start accusing him of hanging with sinners.  And guess what Jesus says!  This tells us so much about his approach to sin.  He says, “I came for sinners.” 

Jesus brings life and hope and forgiveness for those in sin.  He is merciful to them.  He loves them.  But in his mercy, he calls them to a better future.  He does not want them to stay in sin.  He calls them to stop the sin and follow his new way.

It reminds me of a story I heard. In college a young man had gone to a campus ministry, but he was just going through the motions, and only went to the campus ministry because he thought it would please his grandfather.  He eventually stopped attending because his heart wasn’t it in. Then he gave up on school too, dropped out of college, got a job, and started hanging out at bars almost every night.  He got wrapped up in selfish relationships, with no boundaries, as well as pornography.  A couple years went by, and he knew he needed to finish his college degree to advance his career, and he re-enrolled.  During that process another student invited him to go to the college ministry again.  He said “yeah” but again he really wasn’t interested.  He said he would go just because he is a people-pleaser.  Figuring that the guy wouldn’t follow up on him, and he would be off the hook, he made plans to head out to the bar.  But right at the time they agreed on, the guy called, and the campus ministry visit was back on.  So he reluctantly went to the campus ministry.  During the meeting a girl shared her story, emotionally describing numerous self-destructive behaviors she had been involved in, and how Jesus had forgiven her and she was now following his way of life.  The guy thought, “that’s all stuff that I do regularly…and she is talking about it like it was wrong.”  And right then and there, he broke down and repented of his sin and decided to follow Jesus’ way.  This was just like Jesus’ own conversations with people: repent, stop sinning, receive forgiveness, and follow him.  He is a gracious forgiving God, and his way of living is so much better than we could ever imagine.

What about you? Do you need to stop sinning, receive Jesus’ forgiveness and follow his way? He came for you!

Should Christians take up arms? [Christians & War – Deuteronomy 20, part 4]

10 Jan

How should Christians view war?  We are not the nation of ancient Israel which had a special covenant with God.  We are the church, and we are under a new covenant.  So from this passage in Deuteronomy, we can learn God’s heart, but we have to also take into consideration the new covenant we have with God, and that is found in the teaching of the New Testament.

There are those who look at Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament, especially in the Sermon on the Mount when he says to be peacemakers, to turn the other cheek, and to “Love your enemies.” These Christians look at the prohibitions against killing in both the Old and New Testaments, and they conclude that war is never right.  Our Mennonite and Amish and Brethren friends are examples.  They hold to what is called pacifism, or peace.  No war, period.  They would list Ghandi or Martin Luther King Jr as examples of what is called non-violent resistance in order to deal with injustice.  They would not serve in the military, receiving conscientious objector status in a draft.  What they hold to is a completely legitimate and viable understanding of New Testament teaching.

Then there are those Christians who look to other teaching in the New Testament, and they conclude that war is right in certain specified conditions.  They see Paul, in Romans 13, for example, teaching that God instituted governments to restrain evil.  From that they create what is called just war theory.  Here “just” is being used not in the sense of “only”, but in the sense of “right”.  In other words, what are those are circumstances when it is just or right or legal for one country to wage war against another? 

Of course there are many viewpoints on this, disagreements, but here are the most common points of what is called Just War Theory: 

  1. For one nation to go to war against another, they must have a just cause – Usually this boils down to self-defense.
  2. Next, war must be a last resort – All means of diplomacy must first be tried and tried again.
  3. War must be declared by a proper authority – A recognized sovereign nation.
  4. War must have right intention – The cause must be justice, not self-interest. 
  5. War must have a reasonable chance of success – Count the cost, particularly to human life.
  6. The end must be proportional to the means used – For example, don’t use nuclear weaponry for a small border dispute.

And in fact that last point is related to what we see in Deuteronomy 20 verses 19-20 where God says to Israel, “when you bring a siege on a city, don’t cut down fruit trees to build your siege works.”

On the one hand, this is simply wisdom.  You need food! So don’t cut off your source of sustenance.  Think about the needs of the army, and plan for the future because when you eventually occupy the land, you’ll need those trees for food. 

But on the other hand, there is also a principle: when in war use self-control, don’t allow yourself to use anything and everything to make war. 

So Just War Theory sets a high bar.  I once heard a lecture from a Christian speaker from the Center for Public Justice applying just war theory to some of America’s wars in the past.  The most obvious war considered to be just was our involvement in the Allied cause during World War 2.  In that war multiple unjust aggressors were not going to stop invading nations and slaughtering millions of people until they ruled the world.  After Japan bombed our naval base at Pearl Harbor, we committed our military to the cause, sacrificing much.  The Allied mission to defeat Japan, Germany and Italy in World War 2 is widely considered to be a just war. That doesn’t mean that every Allied action in the war was just.

But the speaker that day made a surprising comment.  He said that the American Revolution might not have been a just war!   Was it possible that our forefathers, when they rebelled against the British, did not meet those six standards of just war?  Maybe.  I’ll let you think on that!

My church and my pastoral credential is with the EC Church, our denomination, and we are not pacifistic.  We believe that when there is just cause, one nation can enter into war against another, to restrain evil, and we believe that Christians can in good conscience serve in the military.  But because this is an area of theology where Christians disagree, including Christians within the same church, each individual should hold their view with love and grace towards one another.

What I want to be clear about, though, is that Christians and the church should never use violent means to accomplish the mission of God. Sadly we have a poor track record of doing just that, most famously perhaps in the Crusades. We must call any military or violent action of the church what it is: sin. And we must repent of it, over and over. The mission of God is accomplished in love, humility, selflessness, following the example of Jesus who gave his life for the world.

Are you dressed and ready?

2 Jan
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Why did you chose to wear the clothing you have on today? 

Clothing is often about form rather than function.  We want to look good, look appropriate. But clothing is also about function.  Do you wear a uniform for your job?  Or perhaps your employer or hobby requires you to wear clothing that makes the job or hobby easier.  Football players wear all kinds of gear.  Same for soldiers or people who work outdoors, or underground, or people who need clothing to hold tools. 

Today we are talking about getting dressed and ready!  But while we are going to talk a lot about clothing, we are not actually talking about clothing.  This is our final sermon in our Advent and Christmas series following the readings from the Lectionary.  Each week, we’ve been seeking the thread that ties all four passages together.   Turn to 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26, for our first reading.

We are going deep into the history of the nation of Israel, in a period when judges ruled their land.  By this time the nation of Israel had taken possession of most of the Promised Land of Canaan, but they really struggled to consistently and deeply follow the way of the Lord, and as a result enemies would attack and persecute them.  The people would cry out, repent of their evil ways and God would answer by sending them a judge who would lead them to victory over their enemies.  Today we are going to read about the very last of these judges, a prophet named Samuel.

In this passage we read about a time when Samuel was just a boy, serving in the tabernacle, and he had a uniform.  The text says that Samuel wore a linen ephod.  An ephod is a Hebrew word that refers to a kind of decorative apron that was worn over a robe.  The high priest of the land also wore an ephod, which held the breastplate made of metal and decorated with precious gems.  But those serving in the tabernacle, like Samuel, would wear a much simpler linen version.  Still, Samuel’s ephod showed the role he played, a helper in the temple.

But who was this Samuel guy, and why in the world is a child away from his family and serving in the tabernacle?  If you turn back to 1 Samuel 1, you can read the story in which Hannah, Samuel’s mother, had no children.  She came to the tabernacle pleading with God to allow her to have a child, and she said that if God would give her a child, she would dedicate the child to serve the Lord.  God gave her a child, and Hannah kept her word, dedicating Samuel to the Lord. 

As you keep reading the story, Hannah is amazing. She made sure Samuel was dressed and ready to serve!  Every year she visited him, bringing with her a new robe that she had made for Samuel. Hannah followed through on the promise she made to God. 

The section concludes with a note explaining the Samuel grew in stature and in favor with the Lord and men.  Keep that in mind.

That takes us to our next passage, Psalm 148. This psalm is pretty straightforward: over and over it says, “Praise the Lord!”

Did you notice any other repetition in the psalm?  I’m not just talking about the word “praise him” over and over and over.  I wondering if you noticed the structural repetition? There is a literary structure to the psalm, and the writer of the psalm crafted the structure very much on purpose. 

Here is the structure. 

A – verse 1a – Praise the Lord!

B – verses 1b-4 – List of things that should praise God: spiritual and physical heavens

                             C – verses 5-6 – Reason to praise the name of God: act of creation and promise

B’ – verses 7-12 – List of things that should praise God: all things on the earth, weather, land, animal and human.

                             C’ – verses 13-14a – Reason to praise the name of God: his name is exalted above all, and he raised up a horn for his people.

A’ – verse 14 b – Praise the Lord!

How might a psalm like this, filled as it is with so much praise, relate to our theme of being dressed and ready?  Perhaps the compiler of the Lectionary had Isaiah 61 in mind?  I can’t say for sure, but there is an interesting possible connection.

Read Isaiah 61:1-2.  Does that passage sound familiar at all?  It is the very passage the Jesus read from when, very early in his ministry, he stopped in to the synagogue at his hometown of Nazareth and read to the people from the Old Testament.  Luke in Luke chapter 4 records that Jesus read only the first few verses, proclaiming that these verses were fulfilled in him. 

What he reads to them is a description of his mission: to preach good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives, to release prisoners from darkness, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s Favor.  All that began when Jesus was born as a baby, which is what we are celebrating each Christmas!  This mission of Jesus continues today as our mission.  It is as though we are living in an extended year of the Lord’s favor, through the ongoing influence of the Spirit of God in our world, through the church.  Look what God desires to accomplish through his Spirit-empowered church?

As you see, in verses 2-3 there is a reversal. God’s Kingdom is always about the great reversal.  Thus sometimes it is called the upside-down Kingdom, because in God’s Kingdom there is comfort for those who mourn, provision for those who grieve. God gives a number of wonderful gifts to replace the darkness and pain of their lives: the crown of beauty replaces ashes, the oil of gladness replacing mourning, and then notice this last gift, the garment of praise that replaces the spirit of despair!  There’s a connection between between praise and clothing. 

God wants to clothe us with a garment of praise!  In the midst of our despair, God wants to give us a new set of clothing, a garment of praise. 

There is a great connection here, as well, to Hannah’s song praise in 1 Samuel 2:1-10.  She was in the midst of great despair because of her lack of a child.  God answered her prayer, and she bursts forth in praise to him. In the same way, at Christmas we burst forth in praise because we are celebrating how God entered into the darkness and pain and despair of our world, becoming one of us, Emmanuel, God with us, to save us and bring us hope. 

Thus is right and good for us to praise God like Psalm 148 does.  In fact Psalm 148 reminds us that every single thing praises God.  What we find when we put on this garment of praise is that praising the Lord is transformative.  It glorifies God when we praise him in the midst of difficulty.  Just like Hannah did.  That is what it means to wear a garment of praise.

This garment of praise brings us to our third reading, Luke 2:41-52. Does this story remind you of the passage in Samuel?  Both boys serving the Lord in the tabernacle/temple? 

There has been much scholarly discussion about this passage.  In the first century Jewish world that Jesus grew up in, he would have gone to school like all children his age.  But only the most capable students would study on beyond age 12.  Those students identified with special gifts would then attend advanced rabbinical schools.  Is that what we are reading about here?  We just don’t know.  I’ve read good arguments supporting the idea that Jesus went to an elite rabbinical school, and I’ve read good arguments against the idea. None of the Gospel writers mention anything about his life between this event and his baptism.  It is regularly assumed that he just learned to be a carpenter, or mason, like his father Joseph.  But the Gospels actually don’t say that either.  We just don’t know. 

What is quite clear, however, is that Jesus knew, even at the age of 12, his role in the mission of God.

Look at verses 46-47, for example.  Do you see the verbs that describe Jesus?  He was sitting, listening, asking.  He was understanding and answering.  Look at his response in verse 49.  Many Bibles translate this passage as: “I had to be in my Father’s house.”  Others translate Jesus as saying, “I had to be with my Father” or “I had to be about my Father’s business.”  The point is, Jesus knew his mission!  He was dressed and ready!  Even at age 12.  Those of you that are 11, 12, 13, or older teenagers, that means you can follow Jesus’ example at your age too!  Of course we adults can as well.

Do you remember the final verse from the Samuel passage that I asked you to take note of above?  1 Samuel 2:26?   The one that talked about Samuel growing in stature and in favor with God and man?  Look at Luke 2:52!  This is another excellent description of what we are talking about today.  Young people, you are growing.  In my home, we’ve had teenagers in our home for the past 8 years, and we have watched them shoot up, taller and taller. Just like Samuel’s mom, Hannah, visiting him every year to give him a new robe, our kids grow out of their clothes, and we buy them new ones.  We want to keep them dressed and ready.  But the description of Jesus and Samuel is more than just physical growth.  They are growing in wisdom, and in favor with God and man.  They were dressed and ready spiritually!  Young people reading this, I especially want to ask you: as your body grows physically, how are you growing spiritually?  Are you giving attention to your spiritual growth?  You are old enough to read the Bible, think deeply about how God’s words apply to your life, and spend time talking with God or writing to him in a journal, seeking to change your life to honor him!

And that brings us to our final passage.  Colossians 3:12-17. Throughout this last month, the Lectionary has taken us to a number of these short letters in the New Testament, almost all from the Apostle Paul to his friends in various churches.  This letter is to the church in Colossae.  Today, all that remains of Colossae, located in modern-day Turkey, is a hilltop that has yet to be excavated.  In Paul’s day, though, there was a bustling city and Christians lived in it.  So what did he say to them? 

Look at verse 12.  He tells them that because they are God’s chosen people, they need to see themselves as holy and dearly loved!  They have a special relationship with God.  This cannot be underestimated.  It is so vital.  You and I need to dwell on this.  We are dearly loved.  That is so evident at Christmas.  God showed his love for us by giving us his Son! 

Paul then says that our relationship with God means we should live a certain way, and look at the metaphor he uses: Clothe yourselves!  Be dressed and ready!  How are we to clothe ourselves?  We already saw that we are to wear a garment of praise. But now Paul has a lot more clothing for us to wear:  Compassion, Kindness, Humility, Gentleness, Patience.

Then he describes this clothing even more precisely in verse 13, “Bear with each other, Forgive whatever grievances you have, forgive as God forgave you!”

Are you dressed and ready?  Are there any of these clothes that you need to put on?

Paul has more clothing for us in Verse 14, and this is the most important piece of clothing!  “Above all [Put on] love, which binds all the previous quality in unity.

Then in verse 15 he describes this clothing even more: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since you are called to members of one body, and be thankful.”

Paul is covering all he bases here.  He has a whole closet full of clothing!  Are you dressed and ready?

But there is still more:  In verse 16 he says, “Let the Word dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish, as you sing, with gratitude.”  So verse 15 finished with a mention of thanks, and now verse 16 does too.  Being thankful must be an important piece of clothing!

Paul’s wardrobe continues in verse 17.  He says, “Whatever you do, do it all in the name of Jesus, giving thanks to God.”  Did you hear that?  Thanks is mentioned again.  In 15 and 16 and 17! 

God is seeking to clothe you with his righteousness so that you are more prepared to serve him!

I recently heard the story of a woman was clothed and ready to serve. 

Candice Benbow couldn’t sleep.  Music was blasting from the apartment next door.  Her neighbor would crank the music often, but on this night it went really late because he was having a Christmas party.  At 3:30am she couldn’t take it anymore.  So you know what she did?  Get on the phone and call the cops?  Nope.  Go over there, bang on the door and yell at the neighbor?  Nope.  The passive-aggressive move, maybe?  You know, just pound on the wall?  Nope. 

Benbow got up and decided to bake a cake.   A pound cake to be precise.  And she brought it over to her neighbor, and left it on his doorstep with a note. 

Her neighbor, Tom Amaro, said that Benbow’s apartment had been empty for a while, and he didn’t know anyone had moved in. 

Amaro got the pound cake, and soon after the music died down.  In each of the next few nights, the music was also quieter, and then on the second day the two neighbors met.

Benbow said that Amaro apologized for the noise, promised to invite Benbow to his next party, and then said her pound cake was amazing!  Amaro later said that he was so grateful Benbow didn’t take action like calling the police.  Since that time, the two have become friends.  They each realized that they were new to the area, and that the holidays were tough because of the memories of lost loved ones. 

Showing that she was dressed and ready to serve, Benbow tweeted, “we never know what folks are going through and it is always best to lead with kindness.  When we can extend grace, we really should.”

There is so much in this section of Colossians!  Which part is God speaking to you about?  Read it again slowly.  Maybe read it every day this week.  Is there a word or phrase that you feel God wants you to pay particular attention to, or work on in your life?  Maybe his Spirit wants to transform you in that way in 2019.  Because when you are dressed and ready, God will use you.

A Christmas Surprise [Fourth Sunday of Advent]

2 Jan

Photo by dylan nolte on Unsplash

Today we’re going to meet shepherds.  But as I studied these passages, what emerged was something surprising, something unexpected!  During Advent, we have been following the readings in the Lectionary, and our first passage is Micah 5:2-5a. Micah gives us in verse 2 a prophecy of a future ruler who would come to rule over Israel.  Can you figure out why this is a prophecy that is mentioned at Christmas almost every year?

Because of the reference to Bethlehem!  That is the first part of the prophecy: notice that it actually says it is given to Bethlehem Ephrathah.  Bethlehem was the town, and Ephrathah was the region.  It says that Bethlehem was a small clan, and yet in the nation of Israel, it might be the second most famous city behind Jerusalem.  Why?

Bethlehem was the birthplace of kings!  Do you remember the first king who was born there? David, the greatest king of Israel.  Now in this prophecy we are told that there was going to be another king born there.

So Israel was awaiting the arrival of the King.  Why?  Because, as Micah tells us in verse 3: Israel broke the covenant God had made with them, and they were abandoned by God.  Israel could read this passage and you could see how they might not fully get the part about their sinfulness.  The passage doesn’t say “Israel you broke my covenant, so I am abandoning you.”  But there are plenty of other places in the prophets where God said to the people, “You disobeyed me. You broke our agreement.”  We saw this in Jeremiah’s prophecy which we studied a few weeks ago.  But here in Micah 3, it could seem like God is just randomly abandoning them, and so when this new king is born and rules the people again, that new king is going have the power of God and bring security and peace to the land.  If you are living in Israel through all the many occupations by foreign powers, Micah 5:2-5 sounds really great.  Right around the time of Jesus’ birth, you might be expecting a savior to be born who would lead Israel’s armies to fight the Romans, and kick them out of the land and bring peace. 

But there is more to the story!

In verses 4-5 we learn that this new ruler, this new King from Bethlehem will shepherd his flock.  It will be a wonderful peaceful time.  This would have been a familiar image to the people of Israel because their great king David, the previous king born in Bethlehem, started his career as a shepherd.  Then fast forward to Jesus’ birth, it was the lowly shepherds whom the angels of God visited to declare the amazing news that the new king had been born in Bethlehem.

So in Micah, we read the prophecy of a new Shepherd who was to come from Bethlehem.  Now we turn to the second reading, Psalm 80:1-7, written by Asaph, and one we actually studied the last year, when we were studying psalms of lament.

Who do we meet in verse 1?  The Shepherd of Israel!  But this is an entirely different shepherd than the one promised in Micah.  The psalmist is writing a song that a group of people would sing, and we see that they are singing to God.  They say that God is a shepherd who leads Joseph like a flock.  Joseph is one of the nation of Israel’s patriarchs. In fact, do you know who Joseph’s dad was?  Israel (also known as Jacob), which is how the nation got its name.  Thus the psalmist is using the word “Joseph” to refer to the whole nation of Israel.

Then the psalmist talks about the one who sits enthroned between the cherubim.  That is another very Jewish image.  The cherubim were angels that were crafted out of gold and placed on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant.  Remember the Ark of the Covenant?  Not the big boat that Noah made.  That Ark was essentially a small box that was kept in the tabernacle and later, the temple.  I’m talking about the same Ark that is featured in the movie Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Do you remember what was kept inside the Ark?  The stone tablets on which God wrote the Ten Commandments, some manna, which was the food God sent Israel from heaven, and finally the high priest Aaron’s staff which had budded with almond blossoms.  And God’s presence would rest between the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant.

So while this psalm is referring to God as the Shepherd of his people, their situation is dire. Look at verses 2 and 3.  Asaph is calling for help, salvation, and restoration.  Things are bad.  He uses the word “awake,” making it sound like God is asleep.  That is very similar to the word “abandon” we heard in Micah.  Israel knows that God is powerful, but for some reason he is not answering their call for help. What this call for help indicates is that they can’t do this alone.  They need God.

In verses 2-7 then we have a nearly identical theme to Micah: they are feeling God has abandoned them, and they are crying out for restoration.  There is a deep longing in this psalm for God’s salvation.

Now we fast forward to the First Century AD, to our third passage, where are going to hear about the fulfillment of the prophecy of Micah and the answer to the prayer of Psalm 80. Turn to Luke 1:39-45, where we read a fascinating story.

It is a story of two women.  Mary and Elizabeth.  Relatives.  Mary is from the northern part of Israel.  She is a young girl from the tiny town of Nazareth.  She is engaged to be married to a man named Joseph.  But there is a problem.  Mary became pregnant before she is married.  We know that the baby growing inside her is a miracle baby, placed there by God.  But no one in Mary’s town knows this.  Only Joseph.  So as Mary starts showing, it could get very uncomfortable for Mary and Joseph.  Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, her relative, who lives near Jerusalem in the south.  We don’t know the specific relationship between the two ladies: aunt & niece, or maybe great aunt, etc.  We just know Mary is young, Elizabeth is old.  Both are pregnant with special children. 

These babies are the two messengers! Do you remember the two messengers of Malachi 3?  In that chapter we learned that one messenger would arrive and prepare the way for the second messenger, who was the Lord.  These two babies had been predicted over 400 years before, and now they are about to be born.  Read verses 39-45.

Isn’t that wild?  The first messenger, the one who would prepare the way is John, which is Elizabeth’s baby.  There he is in the womb, leaping at the sound of Mary’s voice, because Mary is the mother of the second messenger.

The story gets even wilder as we read that Elizabeth was filled with the Spirit, and in a loud voice said speaks this really cool poem. 

In the poem, Elizabeth has blessings for Mary, for Mary’s child.  She praises Mary for her belief in God, and she proclaims that Mary’s child will be her Lord!  And in the middle of it all we read Elizabeth’s question: Why am I so favored?  Elizabeth is marveling at how God has blessed her!  Elizabeth is getting to see the fulfillment of prophecy and the answer to centuries of prayer come to pass right before her eyes.  And she is mother to one of the babies, and her relative is mother to the Lord!  Wow! 

It is hard to put into words what a wonderful scene this is!

After Elizabeth speaks, then Mary speaks.  What we read next in verses 46-55 is Mary’s Song, sometimes called Mary’s Magnificat, which is the first word of the song in its Latin translation.  In our English translations it is the word “glorify” or sometimes translated “magnify”.  “Magnify the Lord, O my soul.”

Look how she describes the Lord, just like the ruler and shepherd who will be the savior of the world.  He is a just and merciful and good God.  He scatters the proud, but he lifts up the humble.  He feeds the hungry, but sends the rich away empty.  He cares for those who are oppressed and he is not impressed with those who the world worships.  

With this amazing vision of our savior God in our minds, turn to our fourth reading, Hebrews 10:5-10.  Here we meet the one who was promised in Micah, the one prayed for in Psalm 80, and the one the Mary raised as a baby.  But what we find is that this savior, this Jesus, is not at all what we thought

The passage starts in verses 5-7 with a quote from Psalm 40.  Look at verse 5.  Isn’t it interesting that God does not desire sacrifices?  It sure seems like God desires tons of sacrifices when you read the OT Law.  But Psalm 40 reminds us in verses 8-10 (here in Hebrews 10) that sacrifice is not sufficient.  God actually wasn’t pleased by them.  There was, however, one sacrifice that was sufficient.  The shepherd who sacrifices himself for the sheep!  Hebrews 10 doesn’t use the phrase, “the shepherd who sacrifices for his sheep,” but Jesus did.  He said in John 10 that he was the Good Shepherd who gives his life for his sheep.

When Jesus came to us, even in the form of a little baby, he was saying, “Here I am, I have come to do your will, O God.” 

It is like the writer of Hebrews is envisioning a conversation in heaven between Jesus and God the Father.  God is saying, “My people have turned away from me, and all those sacrifices they do are empty and meaningless because their hearts are far from me.  They are just going through religious rituals. But that is never what I wanted!  I wanted to be in a real relationship with them, a loving relationship. But they are so easily tempted away by lesser things like false gods, destructive addictions, empty possessions, things that will never satisfy.  What can change the human heart?”   

I imagine heaven goes silent.  And then Jesus raises his hand.

He exclaims, “I’ll do it!” and he could.  He alone could do it.  He alone could become a human, live a perfect life, show us the way of his Kingdom, call us to follow him, and then give his life as the ultimate sacrifice, once for all.  Jesus willingly came and gave his life.  

When Jesus made that sacrifice, the writer of Hebrews tells us in verse 9 that God honored that sacrifice, setting aside the first idea, which was all those sacrifices at the temple that we read about in the Old Testament.  That sacrificial system was set aside, and God established a second new plan, that of Jesus being the once and for all sacrifice.  And look what happened!

In verse 10 we read that we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all!  When Jesus gave his life on the cross and then 3 days later rose again from the dead, he showed that his sacrifice was the one true sacrifice!  He defeated sin, death and the Devil, and made a way for us to be holy like he is holy.

That is not at all what Micah or Psalm 80 expected.  They wanted a military ruler to defeat the Romans, and Jesus said, “Here I am, I have a much, much better and bigger plan than that.  I will defeat sin, death and the Devil.”  And that is just what he did.

Now we can see clearly why Elizabeth and Mary are praising God!  Jesus is the savior of the World.  It was totally unexpected.  The Shepherd gave his life for the sheep.

In the midst of the darkness of sin in our lives, we have hope.In the midst of our pain, no matter what you are struggling with, we have hope.

We can choose to rejoice just like Mary and Elizabeth.  On Christmas Eve we rejoice!  And we can rejoice any day throughout the year, no matter what is going on because we have a Shepherd who cares for us, who gave his life for us.  One of the ways our family has been trying to apply this principle is to be intentional about playing worship music, especially in those moments when life is hard.  Instead of wallowing in the pain, getting bitter about it, we have been playing worship music to purposefully redirect our thoughts to the hope we have in our Good Shepherd who loves us and gave his life for us! How will you rejoice?

How to bring righteousness to the world [Second Sunday of Advent, part 5]

14 Dec

In this series on the Lectionary readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, we have been following the life and ministry of John the Baptist and the message God was proclaiming through John: a huge roadwork project.  What is that project?  God wants us to repent, so that he might bring righteousness on the world.  And that brings us to the fourth reading, Philippians 1:3-11, which explains what this means for us.

There we read Paul’s prayer for the Philippians, a writing which would have been 25 years or so after the events of John the Baptist’s ministry. 

Very much like the church we heard about last week, in the city of Thessalonica, Paul had started a church in the city of Philippi, which like Thessalonica, is in modern-day Greece.  But unlike modern-day Thessaloniki, which is a bustling city, Philippi is now just an archaeological site.  In Paul’s day, it was another important city, however, not far down the road from Thessalonica. You can read about Paul’s visit there in Acts 16.    

We learn in his prayer in Philippians 1 that Paul had great affection for his friends there.  Take a look at Verses 3-5 and 7-8, and there we see Paul’s thankful and joyful prayer because of their partnership in the gospel. In verse 6 he expresses his confidence that God, who began good work in them, will carry it to completion. Sfter that encouragement, he concludes with some teaching and goals for them in verses 9-11.  It is a prayer for four things:

First, that their love may abound more and more in depth of knowledge.

Second, that they would be able to discern what is best.

Third, that they would be pure and blameless until the day of Christ.

Fourth, that they would be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Christ.

The anchoring phrase of these verses is that first phrase of Paul’s prayer: that their love may abound more and more in depth of knowledge.  In the language Paul originally wrote this in, ancient Greek, this is a very vivid phrase.  It carries the idea of an overflow of love that just keeps growing beyond what can be contained.  What happens in that extremely loving atmosphere of a church family is that they will be able to discern what is best, and they will be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, which is the day of the second coming of Jesus.  This is a love that knows no bounds, and a love that is getting to know one another more and more.

Paul is once again, like he was last week with the Thessalonian church, looking forward to second coming of Jesus, now teaching the Philippian Christians how to act in preparation for that day.  They are to love one another with a growing, overflowing love, that is marked by knowing one another more and more.

That raises an interesting question: Is it possible to love someone who you barely know?  You may be aware of them, but it cannot be said that you love them.  Love requires knowledge.   And knowledge boosts love.  When they love like that, growing in their depth of knowledge for one another, Paul says, there will be residual blessings.  They will be able to discern what is best, and they will be pure and blameless as they wait for Jesus to return.  Love for one another ,then, is foundational for a church family.

Finally, take notice of last phrase of Paul’s prayer: “that they would be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Christ.” This is the word that ties all our passages together: righteousness. 

Paul wants the people to be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus.  From Malachi’s prophecy of the two messengers we learned about God’s desire for his people to be righteous. Then from Zechariah’s psalm in Luke 1, we heard Zechariah, the father of the first messenger, talk about God’s plan for rescuing his people so that we could serve him in righteousness all our days.  Next we looked at the ministry of Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist, who fulfilled the role of the first messenger, calling people to repentance and lives of righteousness.  Now we conclude with Paul teaching the people how this righteousness flows from Jesus.  Paul will teach in many passages that we do not have a righteousness of our own, but instead we can only accept the gracious gift of Jesus giving his righteousness to us, at one point describing it like putting on the clothing of righteousness.

After we take on Jesus’ righteousness, waiting for Jesus to return, we are called to lives of love, demonstrating the righteousness that Jesus came to give to us.  That is the amazing gift of Malachi’s second messenger, who is God himself, that he wants to cleanse us of our unrighteousness and give us his! 

What is this righteousness?  I mentioned that it is very much connected to the idea of justice, of making things right, flowing from a heart of love.

As we wait, then, for Jesus to return, we are to be a people so filled with love, abounding with love, that we work to make things right in our lives, in our relationships, and in the world around us.  That is the fruit of righteousness.  That is how we live and work and prepare for Jesus to return.  That is the work of clearing the debris, making straight the crooked paths, smoothing the hills and filling the valleys.  By loving one another with so much abundance, we are bringing justice and righteousness to the world.

To this concept of justice, I think of the recent report given at our local ministerium about homelessness in our school district, Conestoga Valley. It is rampant. CV has more homeless students in our school district than any other in the county except for the school district of Lancaster. This is why we support CVCCS and the Ministerium and Homes of Hope.  I encourage you to consider what role you can play, especially at Christmas, no matter where you live. Get to know your community.  Can you find any evidence of injustice?

Addressing injustice in our communities is just one example of how we can bring justice and righteousness and prepare the way for the return of the King.  Think about that return of the King.  What will he see when he arrives?  Just like the dignitaries that visit Jamaica, will Jesus find a road with potholes and debris, or will he find a road that is paved and cared for?  I’m not talking about actual roads, in case you were wondering!  I’m talking first and foremost about his church, but also all people, society, and culture. Will Jesus find broken relationships, people stuck in addictions, ravaged by injustice?  Will he see his church striving to love and to bring righteousness to the world?