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24/7 2: Good, Good Father

(For discussion questions click 2 Discussion)

When our two boys were young they could change my day in an instant. They would come home from school and have a couple of hours or so with their mother. She’d have homemade cookies ready for them, they’d sit down and talk about the day, and then go off to play or do homework. (She really would have homemade cookies for them. But no, she did not wear June Cleaver pearls.)

I always felt like I was missing a little something by not being able to be home for the after-school routine. But that feeling faded away as soon as I walked in the door. “Daddy!” I’d hear. Sometimes in unison. “Let’s play!”

That’s all I needed. One word. “Daddy!” “Daddy, can you help?” “Of course I can!” “Daddy, can we ride bikes.” “Only if I get to come too.” “Daddy, why are you so funny?” “Looks aren’t everything.”

You used it as a child yourself. And, if you have children and are a father, you’ve heard it too. It’s the word children use for their father that they don’t use for anyone else: “Daddy.”

It’s the word Jesus used to teach us to pray. “Our Father…” This word is given to us in Greek, the word pater for the Greek speaking audiences for whom it was originally written. But most likely Jesus would have spoken in his native language of Aramaic and used the word “Abba.”

Often we are told that this word means “Daddy.” Statements in the Talmud and other Jewish documents tell us this is the word infants learn to say when they are weaned, like “dada” or “mama.” But by the time of Jesus “Abba” was a word even adults would use to refer to their father. It includes ideas of “simplicity and intimacy and security.”

It was common to refer to your father in this way, but it was not common to refer to God with this word. And yet, Jesus did. There are seventeen unique prayers of Jesus’ in the Gospels and each begin with “Father,” “Abba.” Jesus had a special relationship with God.

So do you. John, the one closest to Jesus, writes: “But to all who did receive him, he gave them the right to be children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born, not of natural descent, or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13).

Do you believe that Jesus is the son of God? Then you are a child of God too. Have you received Jesus? Then you have been given the right to be a child of God.

Paul is very clear about this in his writings. “For all those led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons. You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear. Instead, you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father!” (Romans 8:14-15).

Notice what he says. First, if you are led by God’s Spirit you are his child. Simply put, a child   resembles his/her Father? Are you taking on his traits more and more? Do you follow the guidance he has given? I see traits of my father in me. When we were young Dad instilled in us a desire to conserve electricity. He was like the “electricity Meter Man.” If you left your room and did not plan on coming right back, you turned out your light. If you went out the back door in the summer, you made sure you shut it well so the cool air would not escape. I’m sure he had some sort of secret timer on the refrigerator door that would alert him if my brother and I kept it open too long looking for a snack. Guess who turns lights off in the house and watches the thermostat at our house? If the Father’s Spirit is leading you, you are his child.

Second, a child should not fear his/her father. Paul said we did not “receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear.” You have been adopted as one of his children. What a difference that makes! Because you are adopted, guess what you can call him? “Abba, Father!”

Simple words. Loving words. Words the Father wants to hear. Notice we do not have to approach prayer with high vocabulary. No, “Oh Great Avenger. Oh Master of the Universe. Oh Guardian of the Galaxy.” You wouldn’t hear my family addressing me with such pious words. Although when I obtained a Master’s degree I thought Karen might start addressing me as “Master.” (It didn’t happen).

No, we address the Father with the same tone we would our own fathers. “Abba.” “Dad.”

But he is unlike our fathers. He is the one “in heaven.” There is no one like him. “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and no one is like me” God says through the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 46:9). The phrase “in heaven” guards against us seeing God as our friend, our buddy, our sidekick. Some have allowed themselves to think too small about God. The idea of the “heavens” in the first century was that area right around us and also all the way out into the expanse of the stars and moon and sun. The Father is close to us. But he is not small.

We don’t need a small God, do we? We find soon enough that our earthly fathers aren’t as big as we thought they were when we were little. They can’t fix everything. They can’t be with us everywhere. They are limited. My father stood a whopping 5’7” on a good day. As a preteen I remember hoping I’d be as tall as my dad. Around the 7th grade I started hoping I’d keep growing. Our fathers, as much as they may want to be everything for us, can fail us at times.

I did. Kris was in Cub Scouts and it was time for the pinewood derby. He had a willing father but not a woodworking father. We were given our kit that contained a block of wood, four wheels, and four nails. I didn’t have a large set of tools at the time so we borrowed what we needed and I helped guide the creation of the car.

I really did just help. When we got to the Derby it was evident other fathers did more than help. “Took over” would be more accurate. Our crudely crafted car could not stand up against the ones with modified wheels, axles, and blocks. One showed up all blue with the number 43 and I fully expected to see a miniature Richard Petty sitting behind the wheel. Kris needed a father that knew more about how the Derby really operated.

That’s why we need to remember “Our Father in heaven…” We teach the preschoolers a song that says, “My God is so big, so strong and so mighty there’s nothing my God cannot do.” We put into simple words for a preschooler to sing what the scriptures proclaim:

The Lord reigns! He is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed, enveloped in strength. The world is firmly established; it cannot be shaken. Psalm 93:1

“Our Lord is great, vast in power; his understanding is infinite” (Psalm 147:5)

“For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).

“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of his nature, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Heb. 1:3).

He is not only powerful, he is good. That’s important to remember. Can you imagine someone with bad character being given all power? We’ve seen it in earthly rulers and we’ve seen what corrupt power can do. This Father in the heavens is a good, good father.

You are good, Lord. (Ps. 25:7 NCV)

The Lord is good and upright. (Ps. 25:8 CSB)

You, Lord, are forgiving and good. (Ps. 86:5 NIV)

It makes a difference when you know your father is good. The summer I spent in Miami Florida one assignment was to work with some young boys in Little Havana.  Can you picture that?  Several 20-year-old, Caucasian, mostly Texan kids trying to teach some Cuban kids about God?!

We did the best we could.  One day we talked to them about God and how he was a good father.  Before long we could see they weren’t interested.  So I asked them, “why doesn’t this idea of God as father connect with you?”  One of the boys, Carlos, said, “we don’t ever see our fathers.  Some of us don’t even know our fathers.  In our culture, they go out a lot, sometimes with other women.  They don’t care about our mothers. They don’t really care about us.”

We had to help them get a new idea of God as a good, good Father. You might need that too. Listen to the repeated cadence in Scripture that God is good, kind, and a Father of steadfast love. The word hesed is used 246 times in the Old Testament when speaking of God. His love for you never fails. It never ends. He is kind. He is loving. He is a good, good Father.

Because he is, his name is unlike any other. And so we pray, “Our Father in heaven, your name be honored as holy.” You may have learned this as “Hallowed be your name.” To “hallow” something does not resonate with many of today. So we might do better by using the words “honor as holy.” We know what it means to honor someone. We hold them up on a pedestal. We revere them. We think they are the best.

Remember how, when you were young, you thought your father was the best? Upon my graduation from seminary with a Masters of Divinity degree, Taylor—who was eight years old at the time—drew a picture on a card for me. On it he wrote: “Sertificit of Honer for Rick Allen Brown from Taylor to the Best dad in the world…”

An eight-year-old had the right idea of what it means to “honor as holy.” He connected “honor” with “the best.” On a Father’s Day the boys gave me a trophy. To honor me it said “#1 Dad. Best Dad Ever.” It is essential to the well-being of children for them to have the confidence that their parents are the “best” in every aspect.[1] When we pray “your name be honored as holy” that is what we want. We want to see God our Father in that way.

And we want others to see him in that way too. One of the most disheartening moments for a child is to see one of their parents dishonored or attacked in some way. This prayer intends to have us enter into the same alarm of the little child who comes across others who do not think their father or mother is the greatest. We want them to know God in the same way we do.

That’s why the prayer begins with “our.” This Father is one to be shared. We recognize that this Father is not ours only. This Father has many children.

“Our” reminds us that there is a way to live in the reality of this Father and his children. The reality is that although the Father is perfect in every way his children are imperfect. We need him to teach us how to live together.

A few years ago we had decided to not have any more pets. We wanted to be free to do something after work or travel and not be encumbered by the responsibility of a pet. We made it about five months when one day Karen shows me a picture of a dog on her iPad that needed a home.

I admitted it was cute but tried to dissuade her with some questions. “Well, what about feeding it?” I asked.  “I’ll take care of that,” Karen replied.

“And what about cleaning up after it?”  “We can share that task.”

“But what about the smell?”  Karen said, “I got used to you.  I imagine the dog will too.”

“Our” teaches us that we are not alone.  In this world we have brothers and sisters because we have a Father.  And because we have brothers and sisters, we need a Father to teach us how to live together.

We need a Father we can come to who can make our world right. We need him to make it right because our world is not right. Jesus wants us to learn to pray in such a way that we grasp how great is the One who is the source of this life and creation.

He wants us to grasp how good, really good this Father is.

We need a good Father that we can come to on the days we want to celebrate. We need a good Father on the days our world is not right and we need his help. He is our Father. In heaven. His name is like no other. He is good. And he really is the best.

[1] See Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (HarperSanFrancisco: HarperCollins, 1998) 259.

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24/7 Prayer 1: Pray Like This

(Discussion Questions can be found here 1 Pray Like This Discussion)

WE APOLOGIZE BUT THE FIRST PART OF THE SERMON DID NOT RECORD.  

Please refer to the manuscript below for the full message.

It sounded like an easy assignment. “You’ll start the day by finding a room in the building by yourself. Then pray for an hour.”

“No problem,” I thought. I was twenty years old, half way through a biblical studies bachelor’s degree, and used to pounding out papers on a typewriter.[1] “Sit quietly and pray? No sweat.”

Turns out I did sweat. Along with about twenty other college age young adults, I had gone to Miami, Florida to be part of a Spiritual Life Internship training program conducted by a church located in Little Havana. The church wisely did not run their air conditioning in typically unused parts of the building. A number of us unwisely chose typically unused parts of the church building for our personal prayer spots.

The rooms were warm. The air was heavy. About twelve minutes into my prayer time so were my eyelids. My mind was wandering. My head was bobbing. When a bell rang to signal the time to regroup in the meeting area I realized that I had snoozed more than supplicated.

In a moment of honesty, I reported how my time went. To my relief I was not alone. It was a common experience for our group. Blame it on muggy Miami or chalk it up to our inexperience. We discovered what we were expected to discover: we needed to learn to pray.

Is this a common experience for you too? We pray… at times.  When we need help we pray. When we get bad news we pray. When the doctor calls us in we pray. We may offer a prayer when we come over a rise in the road and see the Rockies. We may remember to say thanks when something good comes our way: a promotion, a birth, a new love.

We pray … at times. Studies indicate that 48% of people pray every day and 31% pray several times a day. 82% pray for family and friends while 74% pray for their own wants and needs. 12% pray for elected officials (although my hunch is that figure might be climbing recently J).

We pray for others to fail or get fired (4% and 5%). We pray for our favorite sports teams (13%). We pray to win the lottery (21%). 7% of us even pray for a good parking spot (let’s see the hands of those admitting to this!).[2]

With so much to pray about you’d think it would take up a lot of our time. But on average we spend 8 minutes a day in prayer.[3] We pray. At times.

But wouldn’t you like to pray more? More often? More powerfully? More selflessly? We hear stories of great pray-ers in the history of the church and desire to pray as they did. The early church historian Eusebius wrote this about James the brother of Jesus:

He alone was allowed to enter into the sanctuary, for he did not wear wool but linen, and he used to enter alone into the temple and be found kneeling and praying for forgiveness for the people, so that his knees grew hard like a camel’s because of his constant worship of God, kneeling and asking forgiveness for the people.[4]

I read an article recently that surmised one of the reasons we don’t pray more than we do is that we feel guilty that we don’t pray more than we do. Like telling a friend you will call them and you don’t, you then avoid them because if you talk to them (which is what you were supposed to do in the first place) you know have to own up to your lack of talking.[5]

Some of us don’t pray anymore because we haven’t heard anything from God. We think we have unanswered requests so why keep talking and listening? And some of us don’t pray more simply because we’re not sure how.

We aren’t alone. The first followers of Jesus needed help too. Before you think you can’t pray like Peter or Andre, James or John, think again. Luke records that on one occasion “one of his disciples said to him ‘Lord, teach us to pray’” (Luke 11:1). What he doesn’t record is any of the other disciples piping up and saying, “Yeah, he needs help. We’ve got this one. You teach him while we grab some figs and dates.” You won’t find any of the other disciples opting out of the lessons.

They needed instruction because prayer is a learned language. Move to a new culture and you might do well to learn its language. We had arrived in Rome at a late evening hour. We were hungry so we pulled up our Google app, found a restaurant around the corner where the locals eat, and were soon sitting at a window seat watching the passersby on the street.

We found soon enough there was a language barrier. We thought we had ordered one dish each that we could share. What we had ordered was the typical Italian meal: aperitvo, antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni …we halted the parade of food before the rest could make an appearance. Karen and I brushed up on our dining language the next day while eating leftovers we brought back to our apartment.

Jesus ushered in a new kingdom and along with it came a new language. Here’s a PSA—Prayer Struggler’s Announcement—for all who need prayer help: we all do. Give the disciples credit. They asked the right person for their course in Prayer 101. Jesus had shown them how to pray.

Jesus prayed regularly. He prayed before he fed the crowds (John 6:11). He prayed before he raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:41-42). Before he walked on water he prayed (Matthew 14:23). Before choosing the Twelve he prayed (Luke 6:12). He prayed through tears in the Garden (Matthew 26:36-44). He prayed through pain on the cross ((Luke 23:34; Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34; Luke 23:46).

He prayed in quiet places. Luke writes “… he often withdrew to deserted places and prayed” (Luke 5:16). It was his habit. You can imagine after a while the disciples would start looking for Jesus and then the light bulb would come on. “Oh, he’s probably out praying again.”

It seemed Jesus did nothing without prayer. He was praying when the disciples asked him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1). They didn’t know how to pray like Jesus. Could it be that at this point in their journey with him they were connecting a few of the dots?

  • They had seen him hear of his cousin John’s death and then find strength to feed five thousand (Mark 6:14-44).
  • They had seen him tired after teaching and feeding the crowd go away to pray (Mark 6:46.).
  • They had seen him come down from prayer and walk on water (Mark 6:48).
  • They had seen him pray and then make clear decisions (Luke 6:12).
  • They had seen him pray and enter fearful moments with faith (Mark 14:32-42).

They had seen enough. Now they wanted to pray like Jesus.

How about you? Jesus faced some difficult situations with power, boldness, and authority because of prayer. His disciples then sensed they would need some of the same. You may be facing your own storms or need for necessities or guidance in decisions. But you need help in learning to pray.

We think we need to pray publicly. We see others stand up and lead prayers at church gatherings and city meetings. We look on our walls and see no diplomas for our prayer pedigrees. It may help you to know that Jesus says you don’t have to pray publicly. “Whenever you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward” (Matthew 6:5).

We think we need to pray long. We hear others lead prayers that seem to last an eternity. “I can’t pray like that” you think. And so you don’t pray. It may help you to know Jesus says you don’t have to pray like that to be heard. “When you pray, don’t babble like the Gentiles, since they imagine they’ll be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7).

Jesus says instead to pray in private and pray short. But he does say to pray. When the disciples asked him to teach them to pray he didn’t do what we would do today.

“Take out your laptops and get ready to take notes. First, let’s define prayer. Prayer is the act of approaching the Lord in conversation. Second, a well-crafted prayer will consist of adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication. That’s ACTS for an acrostic that will help you remember. And thirdly, prayer…”

We would spend more time teaching about prayer than praying. But not Jesus. When asked to teach the disciples how to pray he simply gave them a simple prayer. “Therefore,” he said, “you should pray like this…” (Matthew 6:9).

What follows is a prayer skeleton of sorts. It’s short and simple but is made for training disciples of Jesus how to pray. It’s a place to begin and over time the prayer can build off of this structure. Jesus’ prayer is a skeleton on which muscle, heart and lungs can be added as we grow stronger in prayer. You know the structure as the Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father in heaven, your name be honored as holy.

Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And do not bring us into temptation,

but deliver us from the evil one.

For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

That’s how Jesus said to pray. So why don’t we? We can learn this prayer. And we can grow in this prayer. If you are a prayer novice, you can master this prayer. If you are a prayer warrior, you should not venture too far from this prayer. I would challenge us with this thought: Could not all the prayers of the Bible fit within this prayer?

I think they can. They can fit inside this compact carry-on piece of a container for people on the go. Because that’s where our lives are much of the time, aren’t they? On the go?

At the ballgame watching your kid play you may need a prayer. This one is repeatable.

At the office in the middle of a heated meeting you need help. This one is concise.

On the road to a relative’s you need provision. This one is portable.

At the doctor’s when you are left without any words this one will speak for you.

It’s a prayer for anytime, anywhere. Parts of it or all of it. It’s a 24/7 prayer. And to make it even easier to grasp it can be boiled down into these phrases:

Good, Good Father,

Bring Heaven Here                            

We Need Help Today                         

We Need Pardon for Yesterday         

Protect Us                                          

Rescue Us                                          

You Have All Power, Amen.

24 words. 7 lines. A 24/7 prayer. It can be served up continuously.  We need it because the world comes at us continuously. We need to remember the Father is a good one. We long for heaven now. Who doesn’t need help? Who doesn’t need forgiveness? We need protection and rescue. Good news is that the Father we are praying to has all the power in the world. So why not talk to him?

It’s been a long time since that assignment in Miami. I still struggle with prayer at times. But I’ve gotten better. When I get distracted now I use this prayer. When I get sleepy now this one can be uttered quickly. And when I follow Jesus to a quiet place I can build on it.

The Father wants to talk with us. Let’s let him teach us how.

[1] In case you’ve never heard of one go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Typewriter

[2] http://dailysignal.com/2014/10/07/often-americans-pray-strangest-prayer-requests/

[3] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/10918301/Work-rest-and-pray-American-daily-habits-revealed.html

[4] Loeb Classical Library, Eusebius Ecclesiastical History, Volume 1, LCL 153: 170-171 at https://www.loebclassics.com/view/eusebius-ecclesiastical_history/1926/pb_LCL153.171.xml

[5] http://archives.relevantmagazine.com/god/practical-faith/why-we-sometimes-dont-pray

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The Language of Life 7 Wait

(Discussion questions can be found here 7 Discussion)

It’s the four-letter word we most dread to hear. Speak it in a group of high-powered deal makers and watch their jaws drop. Whisper it in a fast food line and watch old ladies react in horror. Yell it out to your kids on Christmas morning as they are about to rip into the wrapped packages and see them turn and look at you with disgust.

It’s a cringe-worthy four-letter word and it may surprise you that Jesus uttered it. And since he did, I will too. You might want to cover the children’s ears. Here it comes. “Wait.” Jesus told his disciples to wait. “While he was with them, he commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Father’s promise” (Acts 1:4).

We don’t much like waiting, do we? We’re not good at it. We need training in waiting. Fortunately for us there is a place where we can go to hone this skill. You may have been there. I was recently.

The appointment was at 9:45 a.m. I thought I might show up early and get lucky. So at 9:20 a.m. I tapped on the glass of the receptionist’s window and announced my presence. She greeted me and promptly announced, “Have a seat and wait here and the nurse will come get you when we’re ready.”

She slid the glass closed and I imagined her sending word to the doctor: “Mr. Brown is here early. Let’s reward him for helping us get ahead of schedule!” I imagined that while I waited in the waiting room.

I looked around while I waited. There was one young wife with her husband. She kept hacking while she waited. I was glad she was waiting with her hacking on the other side of the room.

There was one woman in her later years with her father who was in even later years than she. At one point he got up and shuffled to the door, opened it with great trouble, and then started to shuffle down the hallway. I was amused by this thinking, “Ha-ha…he’s a wise old man. He’s making a run…or shuffle…for it while he can. What if he gets lost?” Another patient was alarmed by this and told the daughter, “He’s heading down the hallway.” She got up and walked at a somewhat quicker gait than her father and eventually brought him back to his seat where he…waited.

At 9:45 a.m. the door opened, a nurse appeared, and called someone else’s name. At 10:20 a.m. she reappeared and called me back where she took me to a smaller room where I sat on the table and waited. I waited until 10:35 a.m. That’s the time the nurse practitioner finally saw me. Not that I was watching the clock while I waited.

We don’t like to wait, do we? Raise your hand if, like me, you get in the “10 items or less” checkout line and, when it doesn’t move, start counting the number of items in the carts in front of you. You find 11 and want to report the person. Why? Because they’re making you wait one item longer than you should have to.

“Wait” is a four-letter word. Just utter it to someone in a hurry and record the response you get. When we are in a waiting room or a waiting line, we sometimes want to know why we need to wait. It was a question on the minds of the disciples too. “Lord, are you restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?” (Acts 1:6).

At first glance we might think they still didn’t quite understand. They had been looking for Jesus to set up a kingdom on earth, the kind with a palace, a throne, and them serving in high court positions. Maybe that picture is stuck in their heads and won’t leave.

But maybe there is another picture in their heads. They knew what the “Father’s promise” was. Luke had recorded the words of Jesus before his ascension: “And look, I am sending you what my Father promised. As for you, stay in the city until you are empowered from on high” (Luke 24:49).

They remembered what the Father has promised. Just like your kids know what you promise. “If you make all A’s we’ll go to your favorite restaurant.” She comes home with straight A’s, your budget is tight, but guess what? Doesn’t matter. The kid that can’t seem to remember to brush her teeth at night has no chance of forgetting the promise you made.

The disciples are like your child. The Spirit had been promised them. They understood that when the Spirit came it would be a sign that the end of the world was at hand.[1]What they wanted to know now was if the kingdom would come now with the coming of the Spirit.

In these post-resurrection days their view of the kingdom had been corrected. But their timetable still needed to be adjusted. They knew that Jesus had conquered death and had gone about setting things right. A new kingdom, a new rule, a new way of life was being put in place.

They wanted it now. Jesus said to wait. It’s hard to wait, isn’t it?

  • A woman in her mid-forties puts on a good face when she is laid off. She brushes up her resume, sends it out to job postings all over the country. She wants to work now but has to wait.
  • A man loses the love of his life to a terminal illness. He wants to feel joy again now but instead has to wait.
  • A teenager wants to drive now but, since his sixteenth birthday is still nine months away, has to wait.

Waiting is difficult. So difficult that there are people who actually study the psychology of waiting.[2] One thing that makes us hate waiting is the length of time. More than that, however, we are told that it is the anxiety of waiting that gets to us. We don’t know why we’re waiting and so we wonder. We don’t know what to do. It makes us anxious.

What may be the original “wait” problem occurred in the 1950’s in a Manhattan high-rise office building. People complained that the waiting time for the elevators was too long.

Nothing could be done mechanically to address the issue. When engineers could not solve the problem the manager turned to his staff who suggested they install floor to ceiling mirrors near the elevators so the people could look at themselves and others while they waited. Complaints dropped to nearly zero.

We are a people who are used to being on the move. Waiting is equated to waste. One estimate suggests that some people spend “a year or two of their lives waiting in line.”[3] We have to be doing something. Even if it is merely looking in a mirror.

As a species we have not been well schooled for what to do when we wait. Now we just look at our mobile devices. We read. We text. We email. We work while we wait.

But God prefers that he work while we wait. He has tried to train his people in the art of waiting throughout Scripture.

  • He told Abram he would become a father of many nations. He had to wait for God to prepare the right time. But when the time was right, God gave him a child named Isaac.
  • The Israelites marched out of Egypt straight to a wall of water called the Red Sea. Behind them and quickly approaching were the Egyptians. God told Moses to “Stand still,” raise up his staff, and watch. While they waited God was opening up a path through the water to save them.
  • Joseph had dreams that one day he would be in a position of power that would cause even his brothers to bow down to him. His brothers did not take kindly to that dream and shipped him off to Egypt. There he waited. He waited in prison. He waited to be remembered. While he waited God was orchestrating the right time and circumstances for Joseph to gain favor and power with the Pharaoh.
  • Mary was visited by an angel who told her she would be with child and bear the son of God. While she waited God placed himself inside her womb until the Christ-child was born nine months later.

And now the disciples wait. What they want now will not happen immediately. But while they wait and while God works there is something to do. Waiting in the Bible has to do with paying attention to God, watching to see what he is doing, and when his people are given a green light they move.

To wait is to pray. Gathering to wait and pray are the two primary activities of a faithful church.[4] Reread that sentence and answer this question: if we looked at most churches today in our fast-paced society, would we say that these two activities were the primary activities of the modern day church?

Possibly not. The reason is that, as one modern day theologian penned in song, “the waiting is the hardest part.”[5] Waiting is the hardest part because there are things that need to be done in the world and we think we need to get about the task of doing them.

The problem is that much of what needs to be done in the world is too big for us to do on our own but we fail to recognize that fact. We are a self-made society with a “can-do” spirit. We learn early that it is a sign of weakness to ask for help.

Could it be that to wait is contrary to our nature because it confronts our desire for control? We want power to control our world and when we wait we feel as if we have no control? Which is exactly where Jesus wants us. The disciples had been given a task to ponder while they waited. In reply to their question about when he would restore the kingdom to Israel, Jesus said: “It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).

Peter was probably champing at the bit to start witnessing. Andrew was ready to invite someone else into this movement. James was ready to lead the church in Jerusalem. But just because Jesus had instructed them for forty days was not enough to carry out this mission. They needed the power to do so. And power comes through waiting.

…but they who wait for the Lord

shall renew their strength;

they shall mount up with wings like eagles;

they shall run and not be weary;

they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31 ESV).

I don’t know what their waiting was like. I don’t know if, like me, they ever got impatient and tempted to strike out on their own. I don’t know if each day they looked around at each other and said, “Did you get any power from the Spirit?” and wonder if somehow they missed it.

What I do know is this: when the Father’s promise came heaven broke loose on earth. The rest of Acts sees this unruly bunch of ragamuffins witness about the risen Christ in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Just as Jesus said.

I also know it would not have happened had they not waited. Power comes through waiting.

Has Jesus asked you to wait on something today? A job? A healing? A spouse?

Has Jesus asked you to wait before doing something? Before a move wait to hear from him. Before accepting a job wait to receive guidance. Before marrying that person wait to sense his confirmation.

Not everything God has in store for you as an individual or for us as a church will happen quickly.

Some things require that we wait. And while we wait, God works. The doctor is getting ready. The cashier is moving someone else through the line. The presents are being wrapped.

It may be a week. It may be, as in the case of the Israelites, forty years. It may be, in the case of the disciples, forty days. But when God is ready he wants us to be ready. He wants us to have renewed strength. He wants us to soar like eagles. He wants us to run the task ahead and not be weary.

All we need to do is wait and pray. Funny, isn’t it? Both are powerful. And they are both four-letter words.

[1] Ernst Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1971), 143.

[2] What really drives you crazy about waiting in line (it actually isn’t the wait at all) By Ana Swanson November 27, 2015 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/11/27/what-you-hate-about-waiting-in-line-isnt-the-wait-at-all/?utm_term=.7c61d5da5ad1

[3] Ibid.

[4] William H. Willimon, Acts (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 21.

[5] http://www.lyricsfreak.com/t/tom+petty+the+heartbreakers/the+waiting_20548210.html

 

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The Language of Life 6 Take Care of My Sheep

(Discussion questions can be found here 6 Discussion)

As rejection letters go this one wasn’t too bad. I had an idea for a book, had written most of it, and decided to send a proposal to a publisher that was fairly new on the scene. That meant they would receive unsolicited manuscripts.

I polished up a proposal and sent it in. I imagined them reading the first few lines and shouting, “This is it! Our next bestseller!” Their offices would shut down and celebrate before a contract was even signed. Within two weeks I received a response.

Thanks so much for your proposal. Your topic is certainly a worthy one, and we’re honored you thought of us as a publisher. Unfortunately, we don’t believe this book is the right fit for us at this time. Our niche is in practical church leadership, and we don’t typically publish inspirational works.

Someone taught me to look for the good things so I did.

“Worthy topic.” “O.K.,” I thought. “I’m on the right track.”

They were honored I thought of them. “Great. I made the feel good about themselves. That’s honorable of me.”

Nothing in there about bad writing. They could have said, “We read your sample chapter and honestly…we don’t really understand what it was we were reading.” It was just not a match for the kind of publishing they do. It wasn’t bad. But it was still a rejection.

It did not matter that Karen kept reminding me I had only sent the proposal to one publisher.

It did not matter that she recounted the stories I’ve shared of writers who were turned down numerous times before they found their publisher.

It didn’t matter. I spent exactly 36 hours and twenty-one minutes feeling like a failure.

Maybe you have too. You lost a job. You lost a marriage. Never finished school. Watched your business go under. Planned to improve yourself one year but didn’t change a thing. You described yourself as a failure and thus prescribed your role for life. You’ve lived with the consequences ever since and decided to return to something safe. Instead of pursuing something else and risk failure you retreated to the familiar.

If you can relate to what I’m saying, you can relate to this man. He’s in a boat. His expertise is supposed to be fishing but after an entire night of work his nets are empty. This leaves him a bit confused.  Events of the recent days and months have left him weary.  His focus has been blurred.  So he decides to do what he knows to do.  He retreated to what was most familiar to him. Something safe. He went fishing.

He fishes at night because that is when the fish come closer to the water’s surface.  It is cooler then.  So all night he has cast his net, felt the splash of the water, and pulled in the net.  He repeats this over and over. Each time he has come up empty.  After a long night he has nothing to show. It’s not the first time he’s failed either. It’s not the first time shame has been taunting him. “Maybe you’re not really cut out for this business.” “You don’t have what it takes.” “You let yourself down and you’ve let others down.”

No one else has to say these things. The tapes are playing in his own mind. The voices were about to darken his day when the light dawned on him.

That line is not a metaphor about the light bulb going off in his mind. The light literally dawned on Peter. John writes: “When daybreak came, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not know it was Jesus. ‘Friends,’ Jesus called to them.” Literally the word is “children” (paidion). It is the only time in the Gospels Jesus refers to the disciples with this term.

He says, “‘you don’t have any fish, do you?’” The construction in the original language anticipates a “no” answer. A “no” answer is what they gave. “No,” they answered.  You’ve got to wonder if Jesus is just being mean.

He isn’t, of course. He is being aware of their plight. He sees their lack of fish and he sees their lack of faith. He’s going to help them overcome both.

“Cast the net on the right side of the boat,” he told them, “and you’ll find some.” So they did, and they were unable to haul it in because of the large number of fish. The disciple, the one Jesus loved, said to Peter, “It is the Lord!”

They must have wondered if the stranger on the shore knew those waters better than they. Suddenly their nets are so full they can’t haul them in. John, “the one Jesus loved,” recognizes that it is Jesus on the shore. Not because his physical eyes can see him now. It’s because his spiritual eyes remember the first time this exact same thing happened to them when they first met Jesus (cf. Luke 5).

Peter hears John and quickly wraps his outer robe around him, dives in the water, and swims the 100 yards to the shore. Peter, the one who denied Christ three times. Peter, the one who can’t seem to catch a break catching fish. Peter, the one we would expect to be shame filled is also the last one we’d expect who would want to get quickly to Jesus.

So why did he? It helps us to know that Jesus had already appeared to Peter in Jerusalem. Luke records that when the two disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus went back to Jerusalem and met up with the Eleven, they said, “The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon!” (Luke 24:34). Then Paul writes to the Corinthian church “… that he [Jesus] appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the Twelve” (1 Cor. 15:3).

Jesus and Peter had already talked. At the point of failure Peter found forgiveness. You know that’s what Jesus did with Peter. He surfaced his shame so that it could be removed.

You might have some shame that needs to be surfaced and removed today. Shame is not the same as guilt. Guilt is present when you do something wrong. Shame is the feeling that you are wrong. Brene Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”[1]

Shame is the struggle of feeling that you are not enough. Not smart enough. Not pretty enough. Not thin enough. Not successful enough. Not funny enough. Not “fill in the blank” enough.

If that is you, then do what Peter did. Get to Jesus. Jesus is on the shore by a charcoal fire. Some think too much can be made of the charcoal fire, but I like to think it is significant. The last time a charcoal fire was mentioned in John was in 18:18: “Now the servants and the officials had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold. They were standing there warming themselves, and Peter was standing with them, warming himself.”

The last time we saw these words Peter was warming himself while turning a cold shoulder to Jesus. At that charcoal fire Peter denied Jesus. At this one he will see his shame burn away and his new life appear. Jesus has Peter revisit the place of his failure to see it is not final. Three times he asks him if he loves him. Three times Peter confesses that he does.

But more than a three for three exchange is taking place. Each time Peter confesses his love for Jesus, Jesus gives him an assignment. “Feed my sheep.”

Failure and the shame that accompanies it can cause us to quit. We go into hiding and don’t take another swing at the ball. We disappear into the bushes like Adam and Eve, afraid to make another move.

I did. For exactly 36 hours and twenty-one minutes I resolved to never write again. “How can God use me if I can’t get a publisher to take a chance?” I thought. I know. It sounds crazy, but you’ve said similar things, haven’t you? The Enemy will take anything we think we’ve failed at and use it to stifle us. He plants the thought in our minds that failure makes us unfit to be used by God.

That’s why we need to spend time around the charcoal fire. Whatever your point of failure is, take it before Jesus. That weekend in Cancun when you were younger. That word you spoke to that friend that ended the friendship. Those thoughts you have that no one else knows.

If Peter can take his denial to Jesus, you can take your misdeeds to him too. Jesus does not call the holy. He makes holy the ones he calls. That’s what he does with Peter. He sets him apart for his service. That is the definition of a saint: one who is set apart.

Peter’s task is to feed the sheep. The one who denied Jesus three times would now be the one who would lead the fledgling church in its infancy. The one who was afraid to die at the first charcoal fire found the courage to die by the second.

Jesus tells Peter how he will die. He tells him that when he grows old “…you will stretch out your hands…” This is a metaphor for crucifixion. He would face death on account of his faith because he faced his failure.

Early Church Fathers wrote about Peter’s history. Clement of Alexandria (c. A.D. 150-215) wrote “They say when the blessed Peter saw his wife led away to death, he rejoiced that her call had come and that she was returning home.”[2] Then, sometime after witnessing his own wife’s martyrdom, he endured his own. Tertullian (A.D. 155-250) wrote that “Peter endured a passion like that of the Lord”[3] and “In Rome Nero was the first to stain with blood the rising faith. Peter was girded about by another when he was made fast to the cross.”[4]

Jesus has a way of using people who have failed. Abraham’s cowardice caused him to lie about his wife being his sister before God made him the father of many nations. Moses’ anger resulted in a dead Egyptian and a 40 year hiding in the wilderness before he led God’s people to the Promised land. David had Uriah killed so he could have Bathsheba before God used him as an example of a man after his own heart.

He used Peter, denials and all, to lead his own bride, the church.

And he has something for you to do too. It may not be leading the church the way Peter did, but it does include loving the church the way Jesus did. “I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another” (John 13:34). And Mark, who wrote down the words of Peter, recorded these: “Love your neighbor† as yourself” (Mark 12:31).

It’s a lot easier to love your fellow man if you can find a way to love yourself. Peter found it. He jumped all in to be with Jesus. You can do the same. The waters of baptism are refreshing, sins are washed away, shame is left behind as we meet Jesus on the shore and he gives us a task.

Your failures are not final. Publishers can send nice rejection letters. But Jesus won’t. You’re a part of his story. And there’s more writing to be done.

[1] Brene Brown, shame v. guilt, January 14, 2013http://brenebrown.com/2013/01/14/2013114shame-v-guilt-html/

[2] Mission and Persecutions 3.30.

[3] The Demurrer Against the Heretics 36:1.

[4] Against Scorpion 15.3.

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The Language of Life 5 As You Are Going

(Discussion questions can be found here 5 Discussion)

Picture the following scene on the movie screen of your mind. The camera pans across a field, moves up the side of a mountain, and settles on a leader with a small band of hand-picked, trained and tested followers surrounding him.

The leader gives them their final assignment and the details of their mission.  They are something like a Special Ops troop being deployed into enemy territory. They are being asked to leave their places of comfort and do hard work for the mission.

Their orders come not on a tape that will self-destruct but in person, straight from the lips of the commander himself.  “As you are going, make disciples of all people groups.”

“All people groups?” you wonder. You take a mental note of those in the scene. None have traveled outside their own people. They stick with their own—the Jewish people—and avoid Gentiles like the plague. They have no degrees. If anything they are underqualified. You don’t think this sounds anything like a Special Ops scene. You mumble “this mission is going to be a disaster.”

The reason being that what we see on the outside is different than what Jesus sees on the inside. We see Peter. He’s hard-headed and fish-focused. He popped off when he should have kept quiet. He denied when he should have confessed. We see a failure. Jesus sees his leader.

We see James and John. Hot-blooded. Ready to wipe out unbelieving cities with one stream of fire from heaven. We see reactionaries. Jesus sees revolutionaries who will replace their calling of fire down from heaven with calling heaven’s love down to earth.

We see the rest who argued and jockeyed for positon. If we look closely enough we see…ourselves. Common. Afraid of venturing out into a world on a mission of change. Fearful of the change it will bring to our own worlds. That’s what we see on the outside. Jesus sees his Special Ops troops.

He did with those on the mountainside. Go back to the scene. They may not look dressed for the part but they are a Special Ops force. Note that they will operate behind enemy lines, below the radar, on missions that others might think border on madness.  They will confront religious authorities. They will travel to territories far outside their homeland. They stand up when others would sit down.

Jesus calls us to perform similar special operations. He calls us to leave the comfort and light of a church building and go out in the shadows, where people really need to hear the gospel.  We are asked to do what disciples do that regular church members might think border on madness.

In fact, the early disciples operated very differently than we do today. No billboards. No “come check us out” invitations on the web. No neon signs. They functioned anonymously in secret house churches, worshiping in graveyards and catacombs, linked together by secret symbols and gathering for secret rituals and ordinances. They quietly went about the mission of giving cups of cold water, clothing the needy, and visiting the imprisoned. Because they did the church grew at a phenomenal rate when forced to work covertly in a hostile environment.

We mainly hear these words in church buildings. They need to be heard where Jesus spoke them. Jesus spoke them on a mountain in Galilee.  Don’t go packing your bags for a flight to the Holy Lands. Galilee is a real place but it’s also a metaphor. Galilee was far from Jerusalem, the religious center of the day.  It was where many of these men were when Jesus first met them.  It’s where they lived, where they worked, where they played.

That’s where he wants the mission to be executed.  Notice the first phrase, “As you are going . . .” It means “as you continue on your journey.”  Even though we find these words at the end of Matthew, the disciples are not at the end of the journey.  When they arrived on the mountain in Galilee they had not arrived. These eleven are to continue on with their lives.  We are to do the same. The difference is that now that Jesus has given us an assignment to carry out wherever we are.

Jesus wants us to reclaim enemy territory where we are every day.  For the most part he wants us to do it covertly.  It’s not that we never tell people we are Christians.  But rather that we be Christ-like first. People will listen to your words and they will watch your life. Guess which one will have the most impact on them?

That’s why your Wednesdays matter as much to Jesus as your Sundays.  The truck you drive is his truck.  The computer station you work at is his computer station.  The people you greet daily are people he is interested in.  The dentist office you visit, the gym you work out at, the people you meet for dinner, are all people he cares about.  And, because you are in those places due to your skills or where you live or what you are interested in, you are his Special Ops agent there.  You look like those around you.  You are something like a secret mole.

What would happen if you saw yourself in this way?  I imagine we might have ongoing conversations with our Missions Director throughout the day:

“What do you want me to do with that co-worker over there?”

“How would you help my employer have a better day if you were me?”

“What would you say to my neighbor who just lost her husband?”

“Help me know what decision to make on this deal.”

“Show me how to connect better with these people who don’t seem to care about you.”

More than merely getting the job done, you want to accomplish your mission.  You start seeing the people around you as potential disciples.  “But wait a minute,” you say.  “That’s a pretty churchy word.  That will blow my cover fast.”

At some point it might. But the word “disciple” is only churchy because we use it in church. It simply means “learner.” In the case of a follower of Jesus it means we are learning to live life the way Jesus would live it if he were in our shoes. We make disciples when others want to learn from Jesus too how to live their life.

The task does not seem as strange when viewed through the “learning” lens. People naturally share what they are doing and why they are doing it. Jesus is not interested in us making good church members. So relax and make disciples, or learners.

You don’t have to drag someone to a church service.

You don’t have to bring a neighbor to a church event.

You don’t have to find some awkward reason to invite them to Easter or Christmas.

Jesus says “as you are going.” Be present with people wherever you are. Like on the tennis court. I recently connected with a guy that was looking for someone to play tennis with. I qualified as a “someone” so we’ve started getting together to play. I made it through two meetings before he asked me what I do for work. I like it that way. Instead of talking church we talked tennis. He is a Muslim. I am a Christian. Right now our common ground is the tennis court. And I’m doing my best to show him how a Christian beats someone in tennis in a loving way. But some days I have to show him how a Christian loses to someone in tennis in a graceful way.

The work of the church isn’t what we’re doing when the church is gathered. The gathered church is more like a training camp. When we are serious about making disciples of other people groups we will need some help and instruction. That happens with the church gathered. Then we are deployed on mission between Sundays. Francis of Assisi had it right when he said, “Preach the gospel at all times. And, if necessary, use words.”

But what does a learner look like?  What would it look like once someone wants to learn more from Jesus?  It is no mystery.  You can tell if you are a disciple.  Listen to these words from Jesus:

If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. John 8:31

By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.  John 13:35

This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.  John 15:8

There it is.  Know and adhere to his teachings.  Love others who are his disciples, or learners.  Show the fruit of his Spirit in your life.  Those are marks of a disciple, someone who is learning how to live this life from Jesus.  The best way to make disciples is to be a disciple. Their lives will cause others to notice.  And once they are noticed, words will help. The life comes first. Words follow.

Peter later wrote about this when he said: “…in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, ready at any time to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15-16). Most likely no one is going to come up to you and say, “Give me a reason for the hope that is in you.” But they will watch your life. Peter writes this in the context of suffering for righteousness’ sake. And these people had a joy in the middle of their suffering. When people see that they have a joy that comes from the reality of the kingdom of Jesus in them they will ask about it.

People will notice because God’s kingdom is revolutionary.  It is counter-cultural.  Those who are following Jesus will learn to live differently.  It’s a different kingdom they live in.  Think about it.  Our world is occupied by a ruler that says money, power and sex are the marching orders of the day.

It is into this enemy territory that Jesus sends his Special Ops forces. Their weapons are not Blackhawk helicopters or rifles.  He sends his trained forces in with things like giving, prayer, and fasting.

What?  Doesn’t sound like enough firepower for you?  The battle is spiritual, not physical.

  • Giving, especially a radical generosity toward the poor, dethrones greed and topples the regime of money.
  • Prayer resists the pursuit of power, moving us to pursue instead forgiveness and reconciliation, not retaliation and revenge.
  • Fasting heads up a revolt against the dominating impulses of physical gratification—so the sex drive and other physical appetites will not become our slave drivers.

And all of these are practiced covertly, in secret.  They are not a “show and tell.”  Each time Jesus speaks to one of these in Matthew 6 he says they are done in “secret.”

Sound exciting?  This is the adventure Jesus calls us to.  But we often hear the words like we watch a movie.  We get into the story for an hour and a half only to leave it behind once we leave the theater.

There is a danger that we will become good movie goers instead of faithful mission goers. To be clear, Jesus’ commission was not “Sit here and become good church members.”  There is a time to sit, rest, and take in more instruction.

There is also a time to go. “As you are going, make disciples of all people groups.” There are groups yet to be reached. There is still over one-fourth of the world that has no access to the good news of Jesus Christ. There are 6422 unreached people groups in the world not including America and Canada. In America and Canada there are 571 unreached people groups.[1]

How can that happen? Hear the resurrection words of Jesus: “As you go make disciples of all people groups.” They did then and they changed the world.

If we do now, the story will not be a disaster. It will be epic.

[1] J.D. Payne, Pressure Points: Twelve Global Issues Shaping the Face of the Church (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 6.

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The Language of Life 4 Peace be with You

(Discussion questions can be found here 4 Discussion)

A Texas rancher bought 10 ranches and put them together to form one giant spread. His friend asked him the name of his new mega-ranch. He replied, “It’s called The Circle Q, Rambling Brook, Double Bar, Broken Circle, Crooked Creek, Golden Horseshoe, Lazy B, Bent Arrow, Sleepy T, Triple O Ranch.”

“Wow,” said his friend, “I bet you have a lot of cattle.”

“Not really,” explained the rancher. “Not many survive the branding.”

Neither did Thomas. The Bible calls him “Thomas Didymus.” You know him as “doubting Thomas.”  After Jesus was raised from the dead, and right after he had walked with a couple of disciples on the road to Emmaus, the other disciples had met in a locked room.  Maybe even dead bolted.  A chair propped up under the doorknob.

They had barricaded themselves in for fear of what might happen. Then, Jesus stood among them and offered them peace.  He tells them he is going to send them out, just as he had been sent.  They knew where that took Jesus, so you can understand why they might need peace.  And then he disappeared.

What is interesting to note is that Thomas was not there. He missed the meeting. We don’t know where he was. We don’t know what he was doing. All we know is that when the others caught up to him, they didn’t chastise him. They merely shared their good news with him.  “We have seen the Lord!”

Thomas’ reaction was less than enthusiastic. He said the line for which he has been remembered for ages: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it” (John 20:25).

Some see this as doubt, doubt caused by weariness.  Thomas has traveled a long road with Jesus. If he were to travel any further he wanted to make sure this really was his Jesus.

Earlier, Jesus was telling his disciples about a home he was going to prepare for them (John 14:1-7).  Thomas was listening intently, trying to grasp what Jesus was saying.  He may have envisioned a huge mansion on a street named after himself: St. Thomas Avenue.  Just when he gets a picture of the house, Jesus says, “And you know the way to where I’m going.”  Thomas blinks a couple of times, waits to see if anyone else speaks up first. He’s a bit perplexed that Peter doesn’t shoot from the hip and then speaks up himself: “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going so how can we know the way?”  Thomas didn’t mind speaking his mind.

Then there was the time Jesus told his disciples he was going to be with Lazarus, even though Lazarus was already dead and buried.  Thomas couldn’t imagine what Jesus meant, but he did know that if Jesus was going back to the place the Jews had once tried to stone him, he wasn’t about to let Jesus go alone.  So he said, “Let’s go die with him” (John 11:16).  He had spent his life waiting on the Messiah, and now that the Messiah was here, he was willing to spend his life for him.

It had been a long road of metaphors, mistakes, and missteps.  Thomas had been there through it all.  But maybe right now he was weary.  He had not been in the upper room with the other disciples so it’s pretty safe to say he took the death of Jesus pretty hard.  He had been loyal.  He had been there to the end.  But he didn’t think the end would turn out the way it appeared to have ended. And he couldn’t imagine that the impossible could have happened.

Maybe you have been weary too.  Maybe things in life haven’t turned out quite the way you thought they would.  Maybe you are weary right now.  Many are.

Weary from the world.  Fifteen million Americans attend half-a-million support groups weekly.  The kind of support they need varies, but much has to do with the ups and downs of life—namely the downs.  You may be in a “down” spell.  Money tight.  Friendships soured.  Family squabbling.  Whatever it is, you become weary.  Next thing you know you find your faith faltering.

Weary from over commitment. Home, work, church, sporting events, community activity.  Activity is not evil, but too much can leave us with shallow spirits.  Little time for reflection and listening to God and we become both physically and spiritually exhausted.

Weary from the past.  For some it is a past that happened to them.  Abusive home life, lack of love, no real blessing from a father or mother.  There’s an emotional weariness and a doubt that the Father in heaven cares.

But for many it is weariness from past sin.  You made a mistake.  One minute you were strolling down the sidewalk, the next you are wide-eyed and falling.  Satan yanks back the manhole cover and the next thing you know your world is tumbling.  You somehow recover, but the past seems to be always present.  You are weary. Life does not turn out the way you thought it would and you become weary. Next thing you know doubt creeps in.

That may have been Thomas. Pressures from his world.  Busy juggling family, a business and following Jesus.  And now he has faltered in his belief that what Jesus said would happen—that he would be crucified, buried, and come alive again—is true.  You can’t blame Thomas for wanting a little more evidence before he jumped into the joy his friends seemed to have. He had his doubts, and doubts have a way of unsettling us. He needed a place to take his doubts. He needed peace.

Peace in biblical terms is not just a feel-good, plastic smile kind of thing. Peace is not when life is going as I have planned things. Peace is when life is going as God has planned things. Peace has to do with things being ordered the way God intended.  Think about it.  When you feel most without peace, isn’t it when things are not going as God intended?

  • You have a problem with a friend that hasn’t been corrected.
  • Your marriage is not experiencing the “oneness” of “the two shall become one” that was intended.
  • You aren’t following the path that Jesus has laid out for you.
  • You aren’t being truthful about who you are.
  • You’re choosing your way instead of God’s way.

And without peace we wind up weary. That’s when Jesus shows up.  He did for Thomas. He knew what Thomas had requested so he offers to let him put his finger in his wounds.

Think about that for a moment. You are Thomas and you have said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it,” and then Jesus—who was not physically present when Thomas spoke those words—shows up and says to Thomas, “Put your finger here and look at my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Don’t be faithless, but believe.” Jesus didn’t leave him to continue in his doubt. He gave him what he needed to move from doubt to faith. He showed him exactly the evidence he had requested.

That may have been all Thomas needed. The text does not say that he actually followed through. Maybe he did. But seeing Jesus was all he needed for his doubts to turn into belief.

I think Jesus appreciated the honesty of Thomas.  Thomas did not hide his questions.  Thomas did not move into a pretend mode.  Thomas stepped into authentic faith by being honest with himself.

That’s the first thing you need to understand when dealing with your doubts. Be honest with your doubts. Thomas was. Take note that Jesus never chastised him for it. Thomas wanted to know that whoever the others saw that they thought was Jesus was in fact Jesus. He knew that the Jesus he followed would carry the marks of the crucifixion. The nail marks in his hands and the pierced side would tell him this was his Lord.

So when Thomas stepped into a place of honesty about his doubts Jesus stepped into the room.

He’ll do the same for you. Questions that surface when we doubt are opportunities for Jesus to enter your room. He wasn’t afraid of questions. In fact, he asked many himself. He used questions to get people to think about their life and things of ultimate meaning.

The problem is that most believers aren’t honest with their doubts. But they need to be. When I was younger I worked with teenagers, both in the church and outside of the church. A mentor of mine at that time said there were two things needed for authentic faith: questions and commitments.

He said that one without the other can cause terrible issues in life. On the one hand, commitments without questions will lead a person to mid-life crisis. The questions that were not asked when younger suddenly surface and a person’s life can go haywire. On the other hand, questions without commitments keeps a person in a stunted growth cycle because they are always asking questions which becomes an excuse to never commit. Being honest with your doubts is a necessary part of faith.

But it’s not always easy, is it? Especially if you are in a culture that does not encourage you to share your doubts. So you need to be with people who aren’t afraid of your doubts. Find a church culture that allows for doubts and where leaders themselves are free to express their doubts.

Try being a minister and having doubts. I have. And it’s not much fun. You teach things you think you believe but you have your moments you struggle with unbelief. Like the man with the son who needed healing we say, “I believe, help my unbelief.” It’s a normal part of the faith journey. But who do you tell in the moments your faith is faltering? Especially if you are someone who is expected to be an example of faith.

We would all be healthier spiritually if we were surrounded by people who understand the principle Dallas Willard expounded: “If you’re going to be a doubter, you need to believe your beliefs and doubt your doubts as well as to doubt your beliefs and believe your doubts.”[1] (I’ll let you chew on that for a moment before moving on.)

Back? Great. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be with people who are not afraid of questions? They let you ask yours. They share stories of doubts they’ve had. When you’re in a period of uncertainty they carry you along until you regain your faith equilibrium. They don’t get anxious. They just love you the way Jesus loved Thomas.

People like that will help you with one more thing about doubt. They will help you be aware of what God is doing with your doubts. Did you notice that Jesus let Thomas deal with his doubts for about a week? Why didn’t he show up right then?

The answer might be because he wanted him to “doubt his doubts” a bit. Doubts aren’t bad. They just are. They can have a positive place in our lives when they stir us to keep thinking about our faith and asking questions. Jesus can work with that kind of person. In fact, I think he enjoys that kind of person. The Greek used in this passage gives us a hint that Jesus was not upset with Thomas. It makes it sound like he is being playful: “Bring your finger over here!”[2]

Jesus knew what he was doing with Thomas. He was allowing him time to think through what it was he believed. And then, when the time was right, he appeared to him. After that moment what Thomas believed was his own belief. Not his parents’ belief. Not his friends’ belief. It was his: “My Lord and my God!”

What Jesus did for Thomas he does for you.  He sets your world right by forgiving your past. Some of you have been carrying a load for a lifetime. A load Jesus never intended you to carry.  He took your sin load upon himself on the cross.  My guess is he’d ask you why you are still carrying it.

He sets your world right by letting you doubt.  Some of you have beaten yourselves up for having doubts. Jesus doesn’t. He isn’t afraid of your doubts.  In fact, he understands that your doubts are a part of the life of faith.  It has been said that only he who doubts can truly believe. Doubt is a partner to faith.  Tell your friends about your doubts and they might be shocked.  Tell Jesus, and he will call you to come close to him.

He sets your weary world right by offering peace.  Listen to Jesus speaking peace to you.  He tells us that we are blessed because we haven’t seen him and we have believed.  The whole wild story of him popping in and out of sight with these disciples after the resurrection is a call to us to learn how to walk in faith, that God is near us all the time, but we won’t always see him clearly.

Legend has it that Thomas hopped a freighter to India where they had to kill him to get him to quit talking about his home prepared in the world to come and his friend who came back from the dead.  He died in peace.

That kind of faith puts you in the right place with God.  Peace be to you.

[1] Dallas Willard, The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus (HarperOne: New York, NY, 2015), 28.

[2] Michael Card, John: The Gospel of Wisdom (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, Illinois, 2014), 209.

 

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The Language of Life 3 What are you so concerned about?

(Discussion questions can be found here 3 Discussion)

The year was 1820.  Ten-year-old Phineas was up before the sun.  Bags packed.  Downstairs.  Ready to climb into the wagon.

This was the day his father was taking him to the island.  His island.  You see, on the day he was born, his grandfather presented Phineas with a deed to a portion of Connecticut land called Ivy Island.  This was the day he was to see it for the first time.

For years he had dreamed of what he would do with the land.  Build a house.  Start a farm.  Raise cattle.

So finally, in the summer of 1820, his father took him to see his island.  They climbed into the buggy with a hired-hand.  He could barely sit still.  At the top of each hill he’d ask, “Are we there yet?  Can I see it from here?”  His father would encourage him to be patient and would tell him they were getting close.

Finally, his dad pointed and said, “There, there is Ivy Island.”  Phineas jumped out of the buggy, left his father behind, raced through a row of trees into an opening from which Ivy Island was visible.

What he saw caused his heart to sink.  Ivy Island was a snake-infested marshland.  His grandfather had called it the most valuable land in Connecticut.  It was worthless.  His father had told him it was a generous gift.  It wasn’t.  It was a joke.  A stunned Phineas stared as the father and the hired hand roared with laughter.

Phineas didn’t laugh.  He didn’t forget either.  That disappointment shaped his life.  He, the once deceived, made a life out of deceiving others.  The little boy who was fooled made a career out of fooling people.  Maybe even you.

You don’t recognize him as Phineas or a landowner.  You know him as a promoter.  He coined the phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”  He spent his life proving it.  You know him as P.T. Barnum.

Phineas knew disappointment.  And you have known it too, haven’t you?  In recent weeks I’ve visited with:

  • Someone who is struggling in their marriage.
  • Someone who has hopes to rebuild a marriage.
  • Someone who has been disappointed by people.
  • Someone who has been disillusioned by the church.
  • Someone who has been disappointed in their job.

Nothing is wrong with what these people wanted. What they wanted was healthy.  Who can blame them for dreaming?  Who would have thought their dreams would be crushed?

Certainly they didn’t.  But now they are faced with disillusionment.  We’re not just talking about hassles or inconveniences.  We’re not talking about going to a nice restaurant, ordering a favorite dish, and it coming to your table undercooked. We’re not talking about a bad day on the tennis courts.  We’re talking about heartbreak.

We’re talking about what two friends of Jesus were feeling a couple of days after his death.  Their world had caved in on them.  You can see it in their walk.  Feet shuffling, heads hanging, shoulders sagging.  The seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus must have seemed like seventy.

As they walk, they talk about “everything that had happened” (v. 14).  It’s not hard to imagine their words.

“Why did the people turn against him?”

“He could have come down from the cross.  Why didn’t he?”

“He just let Pilate push him around.”

“What do we do now?”

As they talk, a stranger comes up behind them.  It is Jesus, but they don’t recognize him.  Disappointment will do that to you.  It will blind you to the very presence of God.  Discouragement turns our eyes inward.  God could be walking next to us, but despair clouds our vision.

The weight of concerns can also do something else.  It can cloud our vision and harden our hearts.  We can get calloused.  So when good news comes, we don’t want to accept it for fear of being disappointed again.  That’s what happened to these two people.

Later on they would say these words:

And today some women among us amazed us.  Early this morning they went to the tomb, but they did not find his body there.  They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels who said that Jesus was alive.  So some of our group went to the tomb, too.  They found it just as the women said, but they did not see Jesus. Luke 24:22-24

You know the tone of what they said.  “It’s bad enough that Jesus was killed.  Now some grave robber has taken the body and fooled some of our friends into thinking he might still be alive.”

They aren’t about to believe the two women.  They’ve been hurt once.  Not again.  As one former president has said, “There’s an old saying in Texas: ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me…you can’t get fooled again.’” They are putting their hearts in a shell for protection.

That’s a common reaction, isn’t it?  Maybe it’s been yours.  Been hurt by love?  Then don’t love.  Had a promise violated?  Then don’t trust.  Had a dream shattered?  Then never dream again. Do like P.T. Barnum.  Get even by blaming the world and hardening your heart.

There’s a fine line between disappointment and anger.  Hurt and hate.  Bitterness and blame.  If you’re nearing that line, then listen to this story, because that is where these two men are.  And near them, walking right with them, is Jesus.  You need to let him do for you what he did for them.

He came to them and met them at the point of their pain.  The risen Lord once again wrapped himself in flesh, put on human clothes, and searched out hurting hearts. You can hear their hurt in these words:

Jesus said to them, “What are you concerned about?”

They said, “About Jesus of Nazareth.  He was a prophet who said and did many wonderful things before God and all the people.  Our leaders and the leading priests handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him.  But we were hoping that he would free Israel.” Luke 24:19-21

Did you hear it?  “We were hoping . . .”  They had hoped he would run the Romans out of their rule.  They had hoped Jesus would move into Pilate’s palace.  But Pilate was still there and Jesus was dead.

Unfulfilled expectations.  God didn’t do what they wanted him to.

He hasn’t always done what I’ve wanted him to do either.  A dream of coming to a place to preach and help build a church into a loving, grace-filled, group.  A dream of an easy journey without much struggle.  Today the church is a loving, grace-filled group. But the journey there was full of struggle.

But you see, God knows more about life than we do.  He knows that sometimes we need to be shaped first.  His number one work in us is to see us transformed into the image of Christ. He knows that we need to be strengthened through trials.  And he knew that if he had done what the two wanted him to do, he would not have done for us what we needed.  He said no to liberating Israel so that he could liberate all of humanity.

If we’re honest, we’re not always glad God works this way.  When God doesn’t do what we want, it’s not always easy.  But faith is about having the conviction that God knows more about this life than we do and he will get us through it.

We need to remember that disappointment is caused by unmet expectations.

There’s a story about a man who went to the pet store in search of a singing parakeet.  Seems he was a bachelor and his house was too quiet.  The store owner had just the bird for him, so the man bought it.  The next day the bachelor came home to a house full of music, but when he went to feed him he, for the first time, noticed the parakeet had only one leg.

He felt cheated that he had been sold a one-legged bird, so he called and complained. “What do you want,” the store owner responded, “a bird who can sing or a bird who can dance?”

Good question for times of disappointment.  What do we want?  What is it that we are concerned about. That’s what Jesus asks the disciples.  What do you want?  Jesus goes about the task of restructuring their expectations.

You know what he did?  He told them a story.  Not just any story.  But the story of God and his hopes for his people. “Then starting with what Moses and all the prophets had said about him, Jesus began to explain everything that had been written about himself in the Scriptures” (v. 27).

Jesus’ cure for the broken heart is the story of God.  What they heard was what we need to hear when we are disappointed.

We need to hear that God is still in control. We need to hear that it’s not over until he says so. We need to hear that life is a series of chapters in God’s story and when we come to a chapter of disappointment the story is not over. There are more chapters to be written.

Are you in a chapter of discouragement?  Read the story.  You aren’t the first person to weep.  Mary wept over the loss of her Rabbi. Jesus came to her and cared for her through his question: “Why are you weeping?” Jesus is just as present for you as he was for them.

Are you in a chapter full of worry?  Read the story.  Israelites in the Wilderness had no source of food until the manna. That’s you receiving heavenly nourishment with the Israelites.

Are you in a chapter of challenges?  Read the story.  Swirling water in front of them. Raging Egyptians behind them. That’s God preparing a way through the water and that’s you crossing the Red Sea on dry land.

Are you in a chapter of deep woundedness?  Read the story.  Joseph forgiving his flesh and blood brothers who betrayed him. That’s you forgiving those who did the same to you.

Are you in a chapter of heavy disappointments?  Read the story of the Emmaus bound disciples.  The Savior they thought was not present was walking beside them.  He entered their house and sat at their table.  And don’t miss what happened in their hearts.  “It felt like a fire burning in us when Jesus talked to us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us” (v. 31).

What is the disappointment you are walking with today that you are concerned about?  Name it.  Tell God what you had hoped for.  That’s what the Emmaus disciples did. Lay your heart out in the open. Does it matter if you’ve got the story straight? It didn’t with them and it doesn’t with you. Just tell Jesus what is going on in your heart.

Then let him tell you what he hopes for. There is a time to tell Jesus what’s on your heart. And there is a time to listen to what’s on his heart. Too little time is spent listening to his hopes in a deep way that leads to understanding. That was Cleopas’ and his friends’ problem. They were “not understanding” and “slow to ‘get it’” according to Jesus.

And aren’t we at times? We rush through our days barely hearing the words of Christ. If these who heard him in person were slow, then it’s not unforgiveable that we are. But we can learn from them. The more we hear Jesus the more we understand the story. He’ll tell you stories you may not have heard. Stories you may have forgotten.

In those stories we hear our story. How we like Adam chose our own way rather than God’s. How we trust our own judgment rather than his. How he has come to us to rescue us so that we could come home to him. That’s a hope that will never be extinguished. That’s a concern that will never disappoint us.

Other hopes and dreams? He cares. But he cares more about shaping us into the character of Christ. So when our disappointments come he wants to walk with us in them and shape us through them.

We tell him our hopes. We listen to his hopes. And then we share a meal with him. Did you notice it was in the “breaking of the bread” that their eyes were open? My guess is that when Jesus took the bread and broke it and handed it to the disciples, they saw his nail-scarred hands. They remembered the story.

What happened to them then happens to us today. We meet Jesus at the table and we take the bread and the cup and, if we are listening well, our eyes are opened.

What are you concerned about? Take a walk with Jesus today. You might feel your heart become like a fire burning in you.

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The Language of Life 2 Don’t be Afraid

(Discussion questions can be found here 2 Discussion)

Dry mouth. Moist palms. Pulse pounding like the frantic beat of a drummer’s snare.  Eyes darting over your shoulder, heart leaping into your throat.

You know the feeling.  You know the moment.  You know exactly what it’s like to see the flashing lights of the highway patrol in your rearview mirror.   I’d like to see the hand of every person who has ever been pulled over by a police officer.  (We might need an extended response time today.)

Well, at least you know what happens when you get pulled over.  You know the feeling.  And you’ve felt it before.  You’ve felt it when the teacher sends you down the hallway to the principal’s office.  Some of you know what it’s like because you got caught climbing into your bedroom window after midnight and your dad was there waiting on you.

We have a word for such moments.  Judgment.  The evidence is in.  The truth is out.  The policeman is standing at your door.

You know, no one likes the idea of judgment.  I think the disciples knew the feeling.  Not the judgment of a highway patrolman.  They walked most places they went.  But the fear of judgment from Jesus?  That judgment could cause a person to be afraid.

It’s no wonder then, that when the women bumped into the angel at the tomb, the first word they heard from him was, “Do not be afraid.”  That’s the typical saying from angels.  Angels weren’t the sweet little cherub faced beings you see on greeting cards.  Something about them struck fear in the people they encountered.  This one appeared after an earthquake and his presence made the women quake.

They were afraid.  He calmed them a bit with his news of Jesus’ resurrection and then gives them a task.  “Go, quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee.  There you will see him’” (Matt. 28:7).

Good news, isn’t it?  Jesus is alive and he wants to see his followers.  So the women who were at the cross when Jesus died run to tell the others the message.  On the way they bump into Jesus.  His message to them is the same as the angel’s“Do not be afraid.  Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (Matt. 28:10).

Good news, isn’t it?  Jesus is alive and he wants to see his followers.  If it’s such good news, why so much assurance to them to not be afraid?  Because there was so much fear. The word was for the women but it was also for the disciples.  The disciples who were not at the cross when Jesus died.  The disciples who had fallen asleep in the Garden.  The disciples who denied him and deserted him.

No earthquake could match the reaction they might feel when they hear that Jesus is alive and wants to see them.  My hunch is they have had three days to let their conscience weigh on them.

One anonymous person had his conscience weigh on himself enough to send this note and money to the U.S. Government:

Back in 1966 I worked for the Government and retired that year. My conscience hurts! Because I stole Government property: two metal panel office dividers with plastic upper portion. I ask your forgiveness and say I am extremely sorry for this rotten act. Enclosed $50 bill to cover cost. (This material was second hand.) May God and you forgive me.[1]

He’s not alone in his guilt.  The U.S. government began collecting and storing these letters in 1811 and have since seen literally tons of them.  Since that time $6,500,000 has been deposited in what is called the Conscience Fund.  One donor’s conscience was apparently not fully developed. He wrote: “Dear Internal Revenue Service, I have not been able to sleep at night because I cheated on last year’s income tax. Enclosed find a cashier’s check for $1,000. If I still can’t sleep, I’ll send you the balance.”[2]

The weight of guilt and fear of being found out is real.  One man consulted a doctor about this common ailment. “I’ve been misbehaving, Doc, and my conscience is troubling me,” he complained. “And you want something that will strengthen your willpower?” asked the doctor. “Well, no,” said the fellow. “I was thinking of something that would weaken my conscience.”

I’m not sure that the disciples were starting a conscience fund or find a conscience thinner, but you know they were afraid.

Afraid of the authorities.  If they saw Jesus as such a threat, will they come and find them and hang them on crosses too?

Afraid of the future.  They had given their past three years to following Jesus.  Now he is gone.  What will tomorrow bring?

But mostly they were afraid of their failures.  They had made promises to Jesus that they weren’t able to keep.  You and I have done the same.  In my years of working with people, I’ve seen plenty.

  • Failure to keep promises made to God.
  • Failure to get along with others in the church.
  • Failure to live with integrity.
  • Failure to control your tongue or turn the other cheek.
  • Failure to finish what you started.

Those are just mine. And, like the government worker we want God and others to forgive us. What will you do with your fear?

We spend a great amount of time and effort trying to not be found out.  We are afraid that if someone knew what we had done or thought or felt, they would not love us.  And we fear the same about Jesus.

The disciples did.  Can you imagine what it would be like having denied and deserted him, going to Galilee and waiting for him there?  You think waiting in a doctor’s office seems like eternity!

I remember a time in Jr. High I got in trouble.  I think it was only one of two times I ever got in trouble at school.  I was in charge of the morning announcements, along with my friend Ricky.  It was a big job at Lee Jr. High.  Kind of like being Ryan Seacrest on the radio, except it was Rick and Ricky.  Well, one morning we made the announcements for birthdays—a regular routine—but one of my friends came in to sing happy birthday to this student.  That was a big mistake.  She started giggling and the whole thing became a disaster.

After the announcements were over, Mr. Snodgrass—the school principal and ex-Marine—called us into his office.  There was about 3 seconds where we all just froze.  Just that three second wait was terrifying.  I waited to hear Mr. Snodgrass say, “Do not be afraid.”  He never did.  The other kids looked at me so, as their fearless leader, I walked first into his office.

We are afraid of being found out.  We can blame it on Adam.  It started in the Garden.  And we’ve been trying to hide ever since.

But Jesus keeps saying, “Do not be afraid.”  On at least nineteen occasions he has uttered these words before.  The context for each is different.  Sometimes he says these words in a situation related to illness and persecution.  At other times it has to do with relational problems.  Still others deal with uncertainty about the future.

Jesus does not want us to be afraid.  So he sends his message to the disciples.  They got it.  Later on John would write to the church in Ephesus.  The people there were afraid of judgment.  They had sinned and had found a way to deal with their sin. They just ignored it.

Actually, they separated their sin from their spirit. Whatever their bodies did, they reasoned, did not affect their spirit. It was a nice way to live, huh? “Do whatever you want with your body and live conscience free!”

But John would have nothing of that. He would write: “If we say, ‘We have no sin,’ we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). That’s the bad news. But he followed it quickly with good news: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

The people in the church in Ephesus were living in fear of punishment just like the disciples after the resurrection. John understood. And so with the tender heart of one who had walked with Jesus writes: “…perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment” (1 John 4:18).

How do you handle your fear?  You do what Jesus tells you to do.  First, believe Jesus.  Learn to not be afraid.  It is a faith issue.  Believe that he loves you as he says he loves you—as one who knows your every thought, your every action, your every sin—and still loves you.  You don’t have to fear being found out.  You are already found out!

You have to practice this. One way to live into the belief that there is no reason to be afraid is to start with simple, practical things. For instance, each week I provide an outline for people to make notes while listening to the messages I share. I have a template that makes this quick and easy each week.

It may be hard to believe but I have occasionally forgotten to change the date on the template. In my “unbelieving” days I would fret over what people might think if they saw the date was incorrect. They might think I was not perfect and that our church was disorganized.

Now I have no hesitation running incorrect dates every few years when this happens. First, we have better things to do than waste more paper and time replacing the notes with correct ones. And secondly, I figure now that there are people who are weary of organized religion and will decide our church is a great place to land.

John says that when we come to know the love of God, we have nothing to fear on the Day of Judgment.  He learned that when he and the other disciples met up with Jesus in Galilee and looked into the eyes of one who had seen their failures and yet loved them.  As far as we know he didn’t even bring them up.  Believe Jesus when he says, “Do not be afraid.”

Then see Jesus. Did you notice Jesus gave the disciples something to do?  He sent word through the women to go to Galilee and that there they would see him.

Don’t miss the significance of this.  Before, all they could see was their fear.  Their failures.  Now, they are to see Jesus.   I don’t know what all of you are fearful of this morning.  But I do know this.  Fear frustrates our focus. The only way to move past fear is to refocus what you are looking at.  We need to see Jesus.

When we do, we can get on with the business of living life.  Jesus will not allow us to be weighed down by our failures.  They are forgiven.  When you see him, you will not see your judge.  You will see your Savior.  He is the one who defeated your Adversary. Your Adversary is the one who has been holding you hostage with your past sin. Not your Savior.

You may be asking, “So where will I see Jesus?” He tells us the answer: in Galilee. He tells the disciples then to go to Galilee, back to the place it all started. Back to where he called Matthew from his tax collector booth where he was ripping people off. Back to where Peter, Andrew, James and John had a fishing business.

He doesn’t send them back to a mountaintop but back into the middle of the mundane.

And that’s where he sends us too. We are to see him in the washing of dishes. We are to see him in the changing of diapers. We are to see him in our working 9 to 5. We are to see him when we meet with our friends.

You and I can see Jesus right where we are. When you see Jesus in your familiar moments you will see him in your fearful moments. And once you have seen your Savior, you are free to go on with your life.  “There you will see him” is a statement of grace.

In a conversation with someone recently, they made a comment about how people might think of them because of a past indiscretion.  It was something that created fear in that person.  I said simply, “That is not who you are anymore.  Don’t let that be your focus.  Jesus has forgiven you of that.”

And he has you too if you have trusted him.  Your past failures are not fatal.  So don’t be afraid.

Believe Jesus.

See Jesus.

And get on with the business of living.

[1] WASHINGTON TALK; ‘Conscience Fund’ at New High, By WARREN WEAVER Jr., Special to the New York Times, Published: March 18, 1987 http://www.nytimes.com/1987/03/18/us/washington-talk-conscience-fund-at-new-high.html

[2] Would You Tip the IRS? Dave Phillips, The Gazette at http://gazette.com/would-you-tip-the-irs/article/7690

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The Language of Life 1 Easter: Who Are You Looking For?

(Discussion questions for individual or group study can be found here 7 Discussion)

The other day I heard a great knock-knock joke. It goes like this:

“Knock, knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Control freak. Now you say, ‘Control freak who?’”

You know someone who likes to be in control, don’t you? Quit pointing at the person next to you. The issue of control can cause all sorts of issues for a life and for relationships. Take marriage, for instance. “Who gets control?” is one of the first obstacles in marriage. The first year and sometimes more the couple is trying to find out how to negotiate life together.

Like the husband who entered the kitchen to find his wife just beginning to fry two eggs. He says to her, “You can’t fry two eggs in the same pan, there’s not enough room!”

He looks in the pan and says, “Did you put butter in the pan? I told you to put butter in the pan when you cook the eggs!”

The wife starts to flip the eggs and the husband says “You can’t flip with that spatula, use the other one.”

Frustrated, the wife turns to the husband and says, “I’m 46 years old. Don’t you think I know how to fry an egg?” The husband says, “Well, yeah. I just wanted you to know how I feel when I’m driving.”

Know the feeling? We feel in control when we are behind the wheel. We feel a bit anxious when we’re not, even if we know the person driving is a good, experienced driver. Life becomes brighter when we figure out there are some things outside our control. Sometimes we have to trust.

Jesus did. There’s not much you can control when you’re nailed to a cross. And yet, Jesus did orchestrate a number of things that were within his control:

  • He asked for the forgiveness of the ones crucifying him.
  • He gave hope to the hopeless insurrectionist beside him.
  • He provided care for his mother.
  • He chose which drink he was offered to take.

But when death was about to overtake him, he knew he had to relinquish control to his Father.

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three, because the sun’s light failed. The curtain of the sanctuary was split down the middle. And Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit.” Saying this, he breathed his last. Luke 23:44-46

As he has done before, Jesus uses the words from a psalm, this time Psalm 31:5a: “Into your hand I entrust my spirit…” And once again he addresses God as Father. Like a child who trusts his father will catch him when he jumps, Jesus places his life in the Father’s hands.

The Greek verb paratithemai means “entrust something/ someone to the safekeeping of someone else.”[1] Jesus places himself in the Father’s “hands.” The Bible speaks of the “hand(s)” of God as having supreme power. You are not hanging on a cross, buy you may feel like it. Is there an area of your life where you need someone else to take control?

  • You’re a parent and your kids are getting older. They aren’t under your watch 24/7 anymore.
  • Your marriage is not what you want it to be. You’ve tried to get your spouse to change with no success. Now you’re finding that changing yourself isn’t so easy either.
  • You look at your finances. Every step forward you take seems to get hit with one step back. The more you try to control the spending the more anxious you feel.
  • You read the news headlines. Two national parties can’t talk. World leaders won’t talk.
  • You see hunger and thirst and slavery and you wonder what you can do.

There is some area in your life you want control because when you have it you feel more secure. And the more you try to get control the more afraid you are of losing it, so you try harder to get it. It’s a vicious cycle. Everyone has an area in their life they like to control.

Karen’s is the kitchen. When we cook together we don’t really cook together. I’m more of a sous-chef. And I’m OK with that. “Just tell me what to do, how you want it done, and I’ll do my best.” Things work out better for dinner if Karen has control of the kitchen. And that’s a good thing to determine. We have to look at our lives and determine where we should have some control. These questions might help:

“Is it something I even need to be concerned with?” How many of you ruin a day because you are trying to control what your 4-year old wears? You think if she shows up at preschool with socks that don’t match her dress Harvard will find out in fourteen years and deny her application. Some things are just not worth trying to control.

“Is it even something I should control?” This can be tricky. There is a difference between surrendering your control and accepting your responsibility. But problems surface when we take on responsibility for everyone else when we need to let them take responsibility for themselves. Avoid taking control of another person. But accept that there are some things you are in charge of:

  • That money you’ve been given? It’s yours to steward well.
  • Those kids you’ve helped bring into this world? You signed on for the job. They are your responsibility to guide and nurture.
  • That soul that rests inside you, that is you? It’s yours to care for.

There are some things you have some control over like Jesus had on the cross. And then there are some things that are God’s alone. So ask, “Is this something only God can control?” There are many: World peace. Hunger. Disease. Some things we can’t ultimately control. We can do our part: love our neighbor, give to provide for others, take care of our bodies. But even when we do we will find there are things that are just beyond our control.

In those moments Jesus teaches us from the cross to entrust ourselves and those we love to the Father. This is a huge act of faith where we trust that God is good and he is with us in a life that often seems out of control. There are some things we just can’t fix. And the ultimate act of faith will come when we are near our last breath and we have faith that we will soon see God but we still cannot see the other side of death clearly. Jesus had that kind of faith. The psalm he quotes also says, “But I trust in you, Lord; I say, “You are my God.” The course of my life is in your power…” (Psalm 31:14-15). Jesus entrusted his dying moments to God.

Three days later the God who is in control changed everything. If Jesus entrusted his dying moments to God, Mary entrusted her daily moments to God. Here’s the scene: Mary came looking for Jesus only to find the tomb empty. Even though Jesus had told his followers he would be raised on the third day, she wasn’t expecting an Easter celebration. When she looks into the empty tomb she only sees two angels. They don’t seem to bother her too much. (Maybe like me she lives with an angel every day.) What bothers her is that there is no body. She wants to know where it is so she can go get it.

You’ve got to like her spunk. Somehow she is going to find the body and carry it by herself and get it back to where she can anoint it. That’s when she hears these words: “Woman,” Jesus said to her, “why are you crying? Who is it that you’re seeking?” She thinks it’s the gardener. But it’s the risen Christ. And his first words to her include a question that is a question for a resurrection life. “Who is it that you’re seeking?”

It’s important to know what you are looking for. Just ask the newlyweds who arrived at their hotel in the late hours of the day but with high hopes.  Honeymoon night.  Large room.  All the romantic amenities.

Don’t worry that I’m going to share more details.  The story stalls right there.  It seems the room they entered was pretty skimpy. It had no view, no flowers, a cramped bathroom and worst of all—no bed.  Just a foldout sofa with a lumpy mattress and sagging springs.  It was not what they’d hoped for; consequently, neither was the night.

The next morning the stiff-necked groom stormed his way down to the manager’s desk and vented his anger.  The clerk listened patiently, and when the groom finally wound down he asked, “Did you open the door in your room?”

The groom admitted he hadn’t.  He returned to the suite and opened the door he had thought was a closet.  There, complete with fruit baskets, chocolates, and wine was a spacious bedroom.

Can’t you just see them standing in the doorway of the room they’d overlooked?  Oh, it would have been so nice: A wonderful bed instead of a discouraging sofa. A fresh breeze instead of stuffy room. A new beginning instead of a cramped past. If only they had known what they were looking for.

Like Mary you’ve come here today on Easter Sunday. You’ve come looking. And Jesus asks, “Who are you looking for?”  Many then were looking for a Jesus they could control. The Romans wanted to control Jesus. They were in charge of the known world at the time. An upstart prophet in Judea was not going to replace their kingdom. The religious leaders wanted to control Jesus. He was upsetting their system, a system that exists even today when any religious group uses the spiritual to control the lives of others.

The people wanted a Jesus they could control who would make their world easy. One day a crowd found Jesus and he said to them, “Truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate the loaves and were filled” (John 6:26).

And today many are looking for a Jesus to control. Like the Romans they look for a Jesus in their politics, hoping their vote can bring some control to their world. Like the religious leaders, they look for a Jesus that will fix their uncontrollable problems with a visit on Sunday and a gift in the offering plate. Like the people, they look for a Jesus that will give them their fill of success and security.

But none of those Jesus’ exists. Mary came looking for the dead Jesus. What she found was the risen Christ. And she was willing to put her trust in him. How do I know? When she recognizes him she calls him “‘Rabboni!’  ​— ​which means “Teacher.”

There’s something you’re trying to control in your life today and it’s not working out. You’ve tried to control your spouse. Or your children. Or your co-worker. Whatever it is, you’ve found that there are some things you can’t control. There are some things you can’t fix. Your marriage. Your work. Your neighbor. Your debt. And you’ve come to the point you’re saying, “I can’t do this anymore.”

Then maybe today is the day you let Jesus become your Teacher and you give it to God. You are either looking for a Jesus you can control or the Jesus you give control to.

Johnny did. Johnny Pena is our friend who was baptized recently. I love what he said that we shared then so much I’m going to share it now. He said, “I’ve been trying to do life my way and that doesn’t work. I’m ready to live it God’s way.”

Resurrection life is life lived under God’s control. Someone who can come back from the dead is someone I want to tell me how to live life.

And if that’s what you want too you can begin by looking for the risen Christ, the Lord. Then say, “into your hands I entrust…my spirit…my life…my family…my finances…” If you’ll trust him with your dying moments, you’ll trust him with your daily moments.

This is your day to live a new life.  You only need to open the door. You don’t want to miss out.

[1] Harros, Murray J. The Seven Sayings of Jesus on the Cross: Their Circumstances and Meaning (Kindle Locations 1759-1762). Kindle Edition.

 

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Dying Words to Live By 6 The Word of Victory

(For Discussion Questions for Individual or Group Study click here 6 Discussion)

Sometimes the battle is won by one person giving his life so the others can live. John R. Fox made such a sacrifice.[1]

Fox was a forward operator with the Cannon Company of the 366th Infantry Regiment, the 92nd Infantry Division.  In December of 1944 he found himself stationed in the Italian village of Sommocolonia. By Christmas day enemy soldiers had gradually infiltrated the town in civilian clothes.

A German attack from the outside had begun by 4:00 a.m. on December 26. The enemy soldiers who had infiltrated the town bolstered the attack from within and the two groups quickly overwhelmed the American soldiers. Greatly outnumbered, most of the United States Infantry forces were forced to withdraw from the town.

But Fox volunteered to stay behind with a few Italian soldiers as part of a small observer party. They would be “eyes and ears” in the town. He and the others would direct artillery fire from outside the town against the German troops with the hope that the American unit could make a safe retreat and regroup. Fox and his Italian party positioned themselves on the second floor of a building in a spot that allowed him to see the advancing enemy.

By 8:00 a.m. Fox reported that the Germans were in the streets and attacking in strength. He began calling for defensive artillery fire in an effort to slow the enemy’s advance. It quickly became clear that the Germans were going to overrun the streets and outnumber his small group. And if they overran his group they would eventually get to the rest of the U.S. forces. So Fox held his position and radioed his requests.

When evil advances something has to be done to defeat it. And when a mission is designed to defeat it, that mission must be finished.

John writes of such a mission when he tells the story of Jesus on the cross.

After this, when Jesus knew that everything was now finished that the Scripture might be fulfilled, he said, “I’m thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was sitting there; so they fixed a sponge full of sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it up to his mouth.

When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished.” John 19:28-30

John uses a form of the word telos three times in three verses.

  • “…everything was now finished…” (teleo)
  • “…that the Scripture might be fulfilled…” (teleioo)
  • “…It is finished.” (teleo)

What was finished? A mission that began not in a small Italian town but a gun-free garden. It too had been infiltrated.

Maybe you’ve heard that story. The first man and woman were set in Paradise to rule over creation and tend to the plants and animals. Into this idyllic scene slithers a snake that represented Satan. This Tempter coaxed Adam and Eve to follow their own way rather than God’s.

Once that happened, all hell broke loose. Mankind became afraid and ashamed. The blame game was invented. Children would be born with painful labor. The ground would be tilled with painful effort. And there would be hostility between the serpent and humankind. “He will strike your head,” God said to the serpent, “and you will strike his heel.” The war was on.

God had given his people a beautiful land and because they sinned they were expelled from it. They go and are fruitful and multiply. But evil also multiplied until God flooded the world to judge it. The people multiplied again and this time they tried to reach heaven by building a tower.

Something had to be done. A covenant had been made that he would not flood the earth again. Another covenant was needed. This time it was with Abraham. God calls him and tells him that through him an offspring would come through whom all the world would be blessed. The curse of evil will be undone.

Pictures of what that day would look like pop up in the writings of the prophets and poets. “…of a creation healed, of the wolf and the lamb lying down together, of swords beaten into plowshares, of shrubs and fruit trees replacing thorns, thistles, and briars that had defaced the garden.”[2]

As lonely and frustrated and grieved God had been over the way his creation behaved, he continued to work within it to face evil head on. The battle is clearly seen in Exodus when God’s people are enslaved in Egypt.

The Evil Enemy is found in this story in the powerful Egyptian empire. And yet, when God’s people are freed, they begin to act just like their pagan neighbors. Even though they are again given a place to live, one flowing with milk and honey, they behave in flawed ways. They have forgotten the call on their lives as God’s people to be a light to the world.

And so, after time Babylon invades their land and once again, like their ancestors in the Garden, they find themselves in exile. From exile they call on God to come and rescue them.

For the people of Israel, it seemed as if God had forgotten them. For over 400 years, from the time the last prophet Malachi spoke to the opening time of the Gospel accounts, God had remained silent.

But evil did not. It permeated the cosmos and creation. When Jesus came into the world God’s people were back in their homeland but they were not free. Once again a world power, this time Rome, was in charge. Herod ruled locally for them. And Caiaphas reigned over the religious world. Oppression through politics and oppression through religion would soon release the full force of evil onto one person on a cross.

The serpent of the Garden has now become the “ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). Jesus is the one who would crush the head of the serpent and do battle once and for all with him and drive him out. The word for “ruler” or “prince” as it is sometimes translated is the Greek word archon which usually referred to “the highest official in a city or a region in the Greco-Roman world.”[3] God is the ultimate ruler over all creation but Jesus and his followers viewed Satan as the functional ruler over the earth at their time.

That’s hard to refute when you look at the world then or now. Jesus began the battle of the kingdom of heaven coming into the world. The battle can be seen in his healing of demonized and diseased people. Peter would later give a brief summary of Jesus’ ministry when he said that Jesus “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil…” (Ac 10:38).

But Satan’s rule could be seen in other places too: anger, lust, swearing oaths, temptation, lying, legalism, false teachings, spiritual blindness and persecution. The battle was against religious legalism and oppression. Against racial and social marginalization. Against sexism. Against cruelty and judgmentalism. All these things were seen as being satanically inspired.

So Jesus came to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). The Apostle Paul would write, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and disgraced them publicly; he triumphed over them in him” (Colossians 2:15). The most quoted Old Testament passage is Psalm 110:1:[4] “This is the declaration of the Lord to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’”

How did he “disarm” and “disgrace” these rulers? On the cross. All the evil of the world—the evil of the power brokers of the day (the Romans, Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas) and the evil in the hearts of men and women—was allowed to unload their full force onto Jesus on the cross.

This is what Jesus talked about right before his death when he said to those who came to arrest him: “Every day while I was with you in the temple, you never laid a hand on me. But this is your hour​— ​and the dominion of darkness” (Luke 22:53).

John Fox saw the enemy from his second story perch. They were starting to swarm the city. Evil was advancing. He knew his friends would not stand a chance unless he did something. So he radioed an order to adjust the artillery fire closer and closer to his position. He was warned that the final adjustment would bring the deadly artillery right on top of his position. Fox acknowledged the danger and insisted it be fired as it would be the only way to defeat the enemy.

Jesus ascended not into a second story house but onto a cross. He took the full force of the enemy’s assault on himself—the full force of the consequences of sin we have allowed to reign in this world—and experienced what we would have otherwise experienced.

And it did what the demons and the Devil did not imagine it could do. Love won. Jesus took the best weapons the Enemy had against us—his lies and ultimately death—and he was victorious over them.

Later the Apostle Paul would say, “He erased the certificate of debt, with its obligations, that was against us and opposed to us, and has taken it away by nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and disgraced them publicly; he triumphed over them in him” (Col. 2:14-15).

Everything Satan the Accuser had against us was nailed to the cross. He is the one who holds our sins against us. Since the Garden Satan had been lying about God, causing mankind to hide in shame and fear because of sin. But from the beginning God has been a forgiving God. The Hebrew word chesed is used most often to describe him. It is an untranslatable word that Michael Card defines as “when someone from whom I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything.”[5] God is the Father who welcomes home the prodigal son with forgiveness seen not in wanting some sort of payment from him but by embracing him.

The cross is the culmination of the war against evil. The cross revealed to Satan and his soldiers the God who forgives. It was a weapon they had not expected and it literally blew them away. They were disgraced because their power was shown for what it really was—nothing. Even a hardened Roman soldier watched and would say, “Surely this was the son of God.”

Jesus’ death on the cross nailed all the accusations and all the lies Satan had against us that he thought would hold us as his captives forever to the cross once for all. And three days later Jesus’ resurrection would demonstrate that even the threat of death could not hold God’s people in bondage any longer.

I was talking to my mother recently and she was asking about our retirement plans. I mentioned we’ve even thought about retiring abroad so we could afford to retire and maybe doing our own mission work. I told her the downside of that would be seeing family like them back in the States. She said with a laugh, “Well, we probably won’t be around then.”

I asked her, “Mom, how does it feel to say that at this stage of life.” Her response? “It’s the reward we’ve been living toward all our life.”

That’s freedom. Freed from Egypt. Freed from Babylon. Freed from captivity. It is finished. The accusations Satan holds against us is finished. Our bondage to sin is finished. The works of the devil…finished.

The war is won but the war is not over. It wasn’t for Fox’s friends. Because of his sacrifice they had time to regroup and return to the city. They were able to push out the enemy. When they arrived to reclaim the city, they found Fox’s body along with the bodies of 100 enemy soldiers. The fight continued.

And ours does too. Jesus’s death on the cross was not designed to free us to sit back and wait until we die and go to heaven. Jesus’ death was designed to free us to join in the revolution of bringing heaven to earth. Although its power has been diminished evil is still present.

Maybe you’ve seen it recently: That relational issue? That immature response you gave? That sickness, that disease? That poverty? That war? That anger? That shame, that fear, that lie, that gossip?

The victory of the cross in the finished work of Jesus does not give us the privilege to sit and coast our way into heaven. The work of Jesus is to bring heaven to earth…to destroy the works of the devil. And so we gear up and join in the battle. There is an enemy. And he still wants to tempt us to do things his way instead of God’s way. And because he is successful at that, he can still hold us captive with his lies about us and about our Father.

When he does, remember these words: “It is finished.” Point to his “certificate of debt” he held against us and remind him it has been nailed to the cross.

Then say, “It is finished. My God forgives. You lied about him all along. You have no power over me.”

Soldiers lived that day because John Fox took the full force of the artillery so others could live.

We live today because Jesus took on the full force of evil on the cross. The Enemy bombarded him with his best and most lethal weapon: death itself. And death did not win. It is finished.

[1] http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/12/john-r-fox-deliberately-called-artillery-strike-position/

[2] N.T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture (HarperCollins Publishers, New York: 2014), 116.

[3] http://reknew.org/2008/01/the-christus-victor-view-of-the-atonement/

[4] Mt 22:41-45; 26:64; Mk 12:35-37; 14:62; Lk 20:41-44; 22:69; Ac 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; I Cor 15:22-25; Eph 1:20; Heb 1:3; 1:13; 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:11, 15,17,21; 8:1; 10:12-13; I Pet 3:22; and Rev. 3:21

[5] https://www.facebook.com/BiblicalImagination/posts/272514086187133

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