November 14, 2018 – Comfort, Suffering and Christ-Reliance- 2 Corinthians 1:3-11

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Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.  For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.  Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.  He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many. 2 Corinthians 1:3-11 (ESV)

There are some troublesome trends in American Christianity that are not healthy for us to follow. The phrase, “God will never give you more than you can handle” is an example of a not-so-biblical teaching that gets spread around on blog posts and such.  We think that it is comforting to others when we repeat such nice-sounding platitudes, but we are simply putting the burden on the other person and the emphasis on “you” rather than sharing the blessed comfort that God has our circumstances in HIS control.  We like to believe that we are the ones who are in control, but we are not. We do encounter more than we can handle.  Apart from the grace and mercy of God we cannot handle anything.

A more accurate and ultimately more comforting phrase would be, “God can handle everything you have been given, because apart from Him you can’t.” We share in the good news and in the real comfort that God offers in and through our suffering, beyond the limits of our strength, and beyond our afflictions. Suffering is not a surprise. It is inevitable. Suffering is part of the human condition we inherited in the Fall. As believers in Jesus we are not going to be spared suffering, but we are given the hope that suffering will eventually end.  Jesus calls us to take up our crosses and follow Him.  We necessarily share in the Cross of Christ, but we who share in the suffering of the Cross also share in the triumph and eternal life of Christ.

The apostle Paul experienced just about every imaginable obstacle and type of persecution on his missionary journeys. Apart from the grace of God, Paul would not have been able to continue to believe or to persevere in his mission.

Our trust is in God who raises the dead, God who delivers the captives from bondage, God the I AM before and outside of time.

It is interesting that Paul asks the church at Corinth for their prayers. We trust God, yet we still pray for each other in thanks for the blessings God gives us.  Prayer is one of the evidences and the results of our faith, that springs from our confidence that God is the one in control not only of us and our circumstances, but of the ultimate redemption and restoration of all things.  Prayer is the way that God invites us to align our wills with His holy and good will, such as He teaches us to pray- “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” in the third petition of the Lord’s Prayer.

Paul is teaching us not to be self-reliant. Paul assures us that God handles those things- pretty much everything- that is beyond our ability to manage. Our culture teaches us to be independent and headstrong, but Jesus is teaching us through the apostle Paul that we need to be Christ-reliant. We need to pray together with other believers, trusting that God’s will is being, and will be done just as Jesus taught us to pray.  God is the master of our circumstances as well as He is the bringer of all comfort and peace.

May 18, 2018 – Pentecost and the Holy Spirit, Share the Gospel! – John 16:1-11, Romans 8:18-30

Pentecost

(Jesus said to the disciples-) “I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me.  But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you.

 “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart.  Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.  And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment:  concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.  John 16:1-11 (ESV)

How could it be to the disciples’ advantage for Jesus to leave them? It seems strange that Jesus would have to leave them in order to send the Holy Spirit, yet was necessary for Him to return to the Father in order to prepare a place for those who believe in Him as He tells us earlier in John’s Gospel. (John 14:1-3)

The Holy Spirit leads people to faith in Jesus by hearing the Gospel (Romans 10:17). Jesus Himself foretells that the Gospel must be proclaimed throughout the earth before He returns to establish the Kingdom once and for all at the end of days as we learn in Matthew 24:9-14 and Mark 13:3-13.  We anticipate the day when we are no longer living in the “now, but not yet” and we are brought into the complete, fulfilled Kingdom of God.

(The apostle Paul writes-) For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.  For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.  And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.  And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.  Romans 8:18-30 (ESV)

On the day of Pentecost we celebrate the Holy Spirit. Everyone who belongs to Jesus has the gift of the Holy Spirit.  As we live out our vocations as mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, friends, employees, employers, and so on, we have opportunities to share the Gospel with those around us.  We serve others because God has named, claimed and equipped us to accomplish His purpose.  We respond to hearing the Good News by passing it along.

Lord, give us ears to hear the Good News. Give us hearts and hands and voices to pass the Good News along.

May 16, 2018- Ezra and God’s Remnant -Ezra 9:5-15

boast god's love

And at the evening sacrifice I rose from my fasting, with my garment and my cloak torn, and fell upon my knees and spread out my hands to the Lord my God, saying:

“O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt. And for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today. But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the Lord our God, to leave us a remnant and to give us a secure hold within his holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our slavery. For we are slaves. Yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem.

 “And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments, which you commanded by your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land that you are entering, to take possession of it, is a land impure with the impurity of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations that have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness. Therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good of the land and leave it for an inheritance to your children forever.’ And after all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, seeing that you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved and have given us such a remnant as this, shall we break your commandments again and intermarry with the peoples who practice these abominations? Would you not be angry with us until you consumed us, so that there should be no remnant, nor any to escape?  O Lord, the God of Israel, you are just, for we are left a remnant that has escaped, as it is today. Behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this.” Ezra 9:5-15 (ESV)

The book of Ezra was written by a priest who was a scholar of Moses’ Law (the Torah- what we know as the Pentateuch, the first five Books of the Christian Bible.)

This book was written when the people of Israel had been returned to Jerusalem after the 70 year exile in Babylon. The Persian king Cyrus had decreed that the temple was to be rebuilt and that the Israelites were free to return to their land and their culture.

As the Israelite people returned to Jerusalem, Ezra confronted the people with all the ways that the people were breaking God’s laws, as well as their need to turn away from sinful practices and to be obedient to God. He prayed intercessory prayers for the people and appealed to God’s mercy.

God always retains a remnant for himself. God’s people in the Old Testament kept on failing at keeping His Law.  The Old Testament scholars and prophets all point us to Jesus, the one man who could keep God’s law perfectly on our behalf. We see the mercy of God in the return of the exiles and the restoration of the temple. We are directed to the promise of Jesus, the one who set us free from the bondage of sin and death forever.

GOD is the one acting in the story of the people of Israel. Even though the people went through generations of bad kings, corruption and taking on the sins and idolatry of foreign nations, God preserved them.  He kept aside a remnant for Himself and made a way for His people to continue. God kept His promise to Abraham – time and time again- even when His people became debauched and faithless.

Today Christian people are becoming more and more of an oddity in this world. Our tolerance for the evil of this world increases the more we are exposed to it. The values the Bible teaches- and those who practice them- are continually under attack in popular culture. Throughout human history believers learn that even though we recognize that God’s laws are good, and that He sets up boundaries for our benefit, we aren’t capable of willing ourselves to “just be good.”  We are constantly surrounded by temptation from the prevailing culture- temptation to indulge in every possible form of unbelief, idolatry (setting up ourselves as our own gods,) greed, immorality, and indifference to the needs of others.

All of humanity is condemned under the Law. We have all joined ourselves to various and sundry forms of corruption just as the Israelites married idol worshipers and bought in to the forbidden practices of foreign cultures when they were commanded not to do so.  Not one of us could stand before God’s judgment- but for Jesus.  The return of the exiles and the restoration of the temple is merely a foreshadowing of the love and mercy of God in Jesus.  He restores us completely, fully and permanently, in a way that no earthly temple worship or sacrifice of bulls or goats can.

Our behavior and our hearts convict us as being completely unworthy of being people of God, but Jesus stands in front of us, ever interceding on our behalf. When God looks at us He sees only Jesus and His perfect sacrifice.  He sees the completion of the Old Testament covenant and of the temple.  We abide in the New Covenant that Jesus paid for on the Cross.  We share in His death, and in this life we must bear our own cross, but we are also born into His forgiveness, salvation and eternal life.

April 3, 2018 – Jesus Died for All- Acts 10:34-43

I am the way

So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.  As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Acts 10:34-43 (ESV)

Jesus didn’t die and rise again just to save the Jewish people. Jesus didn’t die and rise again just to save white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.  Jesus died and rose again for the salvation and redemption of all humanity – for everyone who would believe in Him.

It’s easy for us to speculate on “who’s in and who’s out” based upon a person’s ethnicity or on a person’s faith tradition, or upon a person’s history or lifestyle. The reality is that we don’t get to decide who is in or who is out.  That’s God’s decision.

Jesus Himself sought out some unlikely company- tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, etc. As much as we would like to think that our ancestry buys us something, or that our good conduct, or social standing buys us something, it doesn’t. If anything there is a danger in taking comfort in one’s ancestry or conduct or social standing as if it somehow imparts superiority on us. The Pharisees thought that their history and their traditions and their displays of piety made them better in God’s eyes.  Jesus saw right through their window dressing and called them “whitewashed tombs”- clean on the outside but filthy on the inside. (Matthew 23:26-28)

God doesn’t work on the brownie point system. One of the major rediscoveries of the Reformation was the reality that there is nothing we can do to earn or deserve forgiveness or salvation. Only Christ alone, through faith alone, according to the inspired word revealed in Scripture alone can do the job. The good news is that there is no one beyond His grace and redeeming power.  It doesn’t matter if a person is born into a non-believing family or raised with pagan beliefs. It doesn’t matter if a person is mired in all kinds of immorality or drug use.  Jesus finds and claims His own no matter whether they were raised in Christian homes or whether He calls them from the most forsaken of pigpens and dens of iniquity.

We are iustus et peccator – saint and sinner at the same time.  It is better for us to simply admit that we are powerless to live and serve God in our own strength. When we confess our sin and come clean with God, God Who is faithful and just forgives our sins and gives us what we need to live the way He designed us to live. (1 John 1:9)

We need Jesus. Everyone needs Jesus. It doesn’t matter where someone comes from, but that Jesus loved that person enough to go to death on a cross for them.  Jesus went to the Cross for me and for you, but He also suffered and died for that foreign person who has been deceived by a death cult, for that tattooed biker, for that kid who decided to shoot up a school with a gun, for the crazy North Korean dictator- for all of us flawed humans.  We have no way of knowing who will ultimately join us in eternity, but the potential is there for every human being.  God alone makes that distinction.  We are called by God to live in response to His priceless gift of grace- and to love others as He has first loved us.

March 29, 2018- Life, Wisdom and Salvation (Maundy Thursday) Mark 14:22-25, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

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While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.”

 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it.

 “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them.  “Truly I tell you, I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” Mark 14:22-25 (NIV)

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;     the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” (Isaiah 29:14)

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (NIV)

Several years ago there was a scandal involving a United States president and the meaning of the word “is.” In the English language, few words have a more definitive meaning than the word “is.” It is a concrete word.  It is not abstract, and Jesus intends for us who follow Him to believe He is who He says He is.

Definition of:  IS

  • present tense third-person singular of be (this is the link to the Merriam Webster Dictionary definition)

Jesus tells us that the bread of the Last Supper (or the real First Communion) is His Body. Not that it might be, or it represents, but it is. He makes the same claim for the wine that was poured at the Last Supper, that it is His Blood. It sounds absolutely insane to the rational mind. On the surface it even sounds as if Jesus is proposing cannibalism. He is not proposing cannibalism, but a radical inclusion for us. In this meal where we eat His Body, His body becomes part of us. We receive His life in His Blood. It may sound like insanity, but coming to the altar to eat and drink the Body and Blood of the risen Christ is truly wisdom.

Jesus’ Body, broken and given for us as He died in our place. Jesus’ Blood, shed to cover and wipe away our sins. These realities are foolishness for the rational mind, but they are life and salvation for those who have been named and claimed by God in Christ.

The apostle Paul reminds us that our life is centered on Jesus- Jesus crucified, poured out from the Cross, for the redemption and salvation of all.

February 1, 2018- Light in the Darkness- Hope for Those Touched by Suicide- Isaiah 42:16, John 1:5, Romans 8:37-39

loving god

I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them. Isaiah 42:16 (NIV)

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5 (NIV)

In Tuesday’s study the subjects of chronic anxiety and mental illness were mentioned. There are times in which we need to seek help from those around us, including those professionals in the medical community. As Jesus followers, we are called to interact and respond to a fallen world. God put us here for a purpose, and to make a difference in the world.  Sometimes we may literally be the difference between life and death for someone close to us.

Death is a difficult subject for all of us. No one wants to face his or her own mortality, or the mortality of our loved ones, even though all of us will face the death of our earthly bodies.

American culture is particularly silent on the subject of suicide.   Christian tradition has not always given us a helpful or merciful approach to those who are at risk for suicide or for the loved ones left behind.  For much of the history of the church, suicide was labeled as a “mortal sin” for which there is no forgiveness offered.  However, there is nothing in Scripture that indicates there is an “unforgivable sin” save for blaspheming the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 12:31, Luke 12:10)  Can we place arbitrary limits on the ability of God to redeem and save His people? Is it more congruent with what we know about God to assume that God’s default plan for His creation is redemption?

There is a taboo and a silence that surrounds the subject of suicide, so that people don’t bring it out in the open. We can be quick to rush to judgment, but only God knows the depth of the pain and anguish that would compel someone to seek his or her own physical death.

One of the hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry was bringing dark things out into the open to face the light. When we recognize something isn’t right it needs to be exposed- not to pass judgment- but to do what we can to make it right. We can help make people aware that there are better options available to work through their situations and their pain including seeking help from health professionals when necessary.  We can stay in touch with our loved ones. We can take time to make sure they know how much we love them, and we can always pray for them. We can have understanding and mercy for this fallen world and for fallible humans like us.  We can do everything within our power to prevent suicide, and to offer help and hope to hurting and desperate people.

The truth is that we are not called to pass judgment on anyone. We are not called to blame the person who succumbed to the desire to end his or her own life, or the people around him or her, or ourselves. Each person is intimately known by God, and only God is qualified to judge. We are called to forgive and to have mercy upon others- as well as upon ourselves.

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:37-39 (NIV)

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide there is help. There are life-affirming and life-saving options.

1-800-273-8255 –National Suicide Prevention Lifeline– is available 7 days a week and 24 hours per day.

November 2, 2017 – White Robes, Apocalypse, and God Wins- Revelation 7:13-17, Mark 13:32-37

white robes

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”  I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;  for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Revelation 7:13-17 (NRSV)

Revelation is one of the books of the Bible that some people find confusing and intimidating. Apocalyptic (meaning “of the end times”) literature uses extreme imagery and symbolism to get the message across. Its purpose as written to its original audience (Romans living in the province of Asia in the late first century), however, is one of encouragement. The people to whom Revelation was addressed were living in a time when believers were routinely persecuted and killed for following Jesus. The perspective of Revelation is one that states that today might be really terrible, and there might be even more really terrible stuff happening in the near future, but the end of the terrible stuff is near, and the end turns out good for those who persevere. The graphic imagery that can be found in Revelation makes for some good pop fiction (remember the Left Behind novels?) and cheesy end of the world movies, but the message of Revelation has a much deeper purpose and meaning for those who follow Jesus.

As for the people robed in white, they are the ones who have gone before us in heaven. They are living in what is for us, the “not yet.”  We can take hope that no matter how bad things get here on earth, that the bad things going on here and now aren’t the final reality for us.  God’s plan for humanity and for the universe He created is one of redemption and restoration.

The caution that should be taken from apocalyptic literature is that the imagery used isn’t always meant to be literal. The imagery is supposed to make sure that the truth of the story sticks in one’s mind. When Jesus is referred to as “the Lamb of God” throughout Scripture, it is not meant that He is a sheep, but that He is the one perfect sacrifice made for all of us for all time.

There is a temptation in having the knowledge that “today is not forever” to give up on making things better where we are. That is not the intent behind the message of Revelation.  We aren’t supposed to give up on the here and now.  While the End of Days (or the end of our own personal days) can occur at any moment, only God knows the hour and the time.

(Jesus said): “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Mark 13:32-37 (NRSV)

So the take away here is that we should be ready for any contingency, knowing that we know the end of the story: God wins. In this assurance we are free to embrace the ongoing work of bringing about God’s kingdom here on earth. We have the knowledge that the best is still to come.