Essentials: More than Enough

Not too long ago, my brother took one of those DNA tests to learn more about his ancestry. There were a few surprises. We found out we weren't as German as we thought we were, and he learned that he is slightly less Neanderthal than the average American. Nothing in our gene pool really seemed to stand out. As far as we know, there are no ancestors of noteworthy significance. 

You and I -- and I hate to break it to you -- come from a long line of scoundrels. And there's nothing we can do about it. Paul calls it 'death from Adam'. We're all part of the same clan of rebellious, foolish, sinful people. That's not the way it was meant to be, but things took a turn for the worse when the image of God in us what corrupted by Adam's choice. Consequently, he was cast out of the Garden into the wilderness where we've been wandering ever since. Generation after generation has compounded this curse, and I, too, am a son of Adam. I don't have a bloodline worth bragging about.

In Romans 5:6-16, Paul compares the first Adam with the second Adam (Jesus). Here's how Paul describes our corrupted state: powerless, ungodly, sinners, objects of wrath, God's enemies, trespassers, dead and condemned. Yikes! Thank you very much, Adam. 

But Paul does a great job talking about our old nature in the past tense: "that's who you WERE." There is a huge difference between who we were and who we are. We need to know the difference. One keeps us wandering in the wilderness and cut off; the other leads to life.  In Romans 5:17-19, Paul writes about God's abundant provision of grace, a grace powerful enough to turn us from ungodly, condemned enemies of God to righteous friends of God who are reconciled and restored. 

Death came to us through our corrupted nature; life has come through Jesus. While I am a son of Barb and Jerry, I am also a child of God -- redeemed and restored. The abundant provision of grace through Jesus is powerful enough to wipe out that generational curse going all the way back to Adam. That's a lot of sin. If God's grace is that abundant, is there anything in our story that is out of the reach of God's grace? 

There isn't. 

The first miracle of Jesus was performed at a wedding in the village of Cana. He was attending with his disciples and his pushy mother who insisted he spare the wedding couple public humiliation by turning some water into wine. Jesus gave into mom's pressure and ended up turning 180 gallons of water into premium wine. It was the best stuff -- and more than enough. With Jesus it's always more than enough (think of the leftover loaves and fish). 

Whatever we've been handed through our bloodline as we roam this wilderness, know that the grace of God has the power to cancel the curse. Who we were is not who we are in Christ. God's abundant provision of grace is more than enough to restore and redeem our story and take us back to Eden again. 

Essentials: Trust Fall

If I had to summarize the first 2,000 years of biblical history, I'd say this: We think we are like god, and we think we can do this on our own. That's what happened in the garden. That's what happened before the flood. That's what happened when we built the tower at Babel. From the beginning, we decided we were going to do this our way.

In Genesis 12, we meet a man named Abraham. He's already 75 years old when we meet him, and he's married to Sarah -- and they are childless. And God spoke to him: "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you." God chose Abraham and was starting something new with him. Jumping ahead 25 years to Genesis 15, we see God promising the old man Abraham that he and Sarah would give birth to an heir. 

At a time when everyone believed they were gods and masters of their own universe, Abraham chose to believe the Lord. And because Abraham trusted God, the Lord declared him righteous. 

Don't confuse righteousness for perfection! They are not the same. In fact, Abraham was far from perfect. For starters, he married his niece, threw his wife under the bus to save his own neck, and took the whole heir affair into his own hands. We can see the record of his foolishness and faithlessness. So it's not his own efforts that made him righteous. 

Like Abraham, we try to live right, but we forget Whose we are along the way and often make wrong choices. We know the record of our own foolishness and faithlessness. What made the difference for Abraham is what makes the difference for us: Abraham reached out to the God who reached out to him.  He was made right with God because he had faith in God!

When I taught high school, I used to take my students to a ropes course challenge to push them beyond their comfort. One element that always proved challenging for them was the Trust Fall. Standing on a raised platform 5-6 feet above the ground, you were expected to cross your arms and fall straight back into the arms of your team. I always tried to prepare my students ahead of time, but even I was caught off guard when our instructor said, "Let's have your teacher go first so you can see how it's done."

Gulp.

Most of my students were less than 150 lbs soaking wet, and some of those kids had been in trouble in my classroom in recent days. And I was supposed to trust them and fall back into their skinny arms?

Hemmingway said, "The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them." I fell back, and they caught me...but I had to let a whole lot of logic go in order to make that leap.

We are so determined to make things happen in our own way that it is really hard to believe God can make the wicked righteous just by trusting in Him. But Romans 4 makes it clear that God doesn't consider us righteous if we try our best or mean well or score 99%. Instead, He saves the wicked and welcomes even the most vile creatures who trust in Him.

Salvation isn't for the good. God's grace isn't for the pure. It's for the messed up, torn up, used up, screwed up whose only hope is to fall into the arms of Jesus and believe God. 

Our current sermon series (Essentials for the Journey: Surviving in the Wilderness) has had a running theme: We don't survive because we are good. We don't survive because we are better than others. We survive only because we believe and trust God. 

I wonder what's more risky? To fall into the arms of the One who loves me and gave Himself for me or to fall without Him?

We survive in this wilderness only by trusting Jesus. So cross your arms and fall. 

Believe God.

Essentials: Same Boat

Have you ever been 'one upped' by someone who always had a better story than you? We learn this game early on: "I am better than you are." We learn it from the time we are able to make comparisons, and this game takes on more sinister forms as we grow up. 

In Romans 3, Paul talks about how there were Jews who believed they were more righteous just because they were Jews. But Paul calls their bluff: "You only want to be proved right so you can feel good about yourself and judge others." To make his point, he quotes the Psalms (read Romans 3:10-18). We've got to get past this childish notion that any of us are right with God because we somehow stand out above others. 

He states it as clearly as he can in Romans 3:23: "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God..."

That means we sit here as equals. There's no use comparing yourself to others around you, because we all have failed. We react to that news in one of two ways: 1) Either we will resent being told we are as fouled up as everyone else, or 2) We will be relieved. I think it is a relief to know we are all unfinished; we are all far from completed and perfected. We all need Jesus. 

To receive all God has for us, we have to accept that we are incomplete and cannot win God's favor by comparing ourselves to others that we think are inferior to us. Why do we need a Savior if we ourselves do not need saving? 

Years ago, I enjoyed watching the reality TV show "Survivor". I enjoyed watching people push themselves to their limits and compete against the elements and those they made alliances with. I was fascinated by how contestants had to work with each other but couldn't trust any one since only one person could win. During each episode, someone would get voted off the island, so survivors either had to make deals with people or win immunity. 

Immunity could be won through competition with the other contestants. If you could accomplish more, accumulate more, or cheat more, you would come out on top and be exempt from being voted off the island for that episode. 

We call this 'reality' TV, but it's not reality at all. Immunity is not won by those who can accomplish more, accumulate more, or cheat more. Immunity is not won through competing with each other and somehow rising to the top. It is Jesus alone who saves us in this wilderness; it's not about survival of the fittest.  Our only immunity is a gift from God that we accept by faith!

In our new series "Essentials for the Journey", I am highlighting those things from God that save us in the wilderness of life. Being free from comparisons with each other is one of those things that keep me alive. 

We are no better than each other. We are equals. It is a gift from God that I do not have to compete with you, because it is only God who moves us from disgrace to grace. We have nothing to boast about except for Jesus. If I'm going to boast, I'm going to boast about Jesus. 

His Gospel is life in the wilderness. We cannot survive without it. 

 

Essentials: Good God!

I love the wilderness. I don't mind cooking over the fire, carrying my water, dealing with freezing nights or sleeping on the ground if it gets me into those quiet and beautiful places. I don't care much for the wilderness of life, however, those places where we feel war is being waged for our souls as we fight off pressing concerns of life. Even in that kind of wilderness, God reaches out to us and keeps us alive. 

I'm starting a new series on Romans called "Essentials for the Journey (How God Keeps Us Alive in the Wilderness)". 

In Romans 1 & 2, Paul's letter opens up with some verses that are really difficult for us to read. A lot of people can't get past his words, so they close up the book and miss the good stuff in it. When we read Romans 1:18 through chapter 2, we're left with a horrific impression of our sin and realize we are all in trouble. How do we survive this wilderness we find ourselves in? It becomes clear to us that we don't survive it...at least not on our own.

I love that even in the most difficult parts of scripture, the goodness of God can been seen.

In Romans 1:20, we read how God has not abandoned us in this wilderness but instead is revealing himself to us and making a way for us. In Romans 2:4, we read that the kindness of God is what brings us to repentance. We are reminded that the Lord is kind and patient. Just about the time we think destruction is inescapable, he comes and brings us life. We learn that it is God's goodness -- not ours -- that helps us find out way out of this wilderness.

Our goodness doesn't help us get out of this wilderness. We can't perform our way out of this mess. If it were up to us, we'd be stuck in this wilderness forever. Henri Nouwen said, "Those who think they've arrived have lost their way. Those who think they have reached their goal have missed it. Those who think they are saints are demons." We only fool ourselves when we think we can make a case to God for our goodness.

Our sin doesn't help us get out of this wilderness either. Focusing on our own sin just keeps us captive in shame and guilt. We can't get anywhere by self-loathing. Thoreau said that most people lead lives of quiet desperation. He's probably right. How many live in the squalor of regret? Regret, however, only serves one good purpose: to drive us into the heart of God (where mercy triumphs over judgment). 

The only thing that leads us out of the wilderness is the goodness of God! [Read Titus 3:4-6] 

A few years ago, I was in Colorado's back country in the middle of winter, chasing the kind of wilderness I love. The snow was deep, and it covered a lot of the Forest Service road signs. I followed my instincts and ended up hung up on a snowbank a long where from where I wanted to be. And the sun was setting. To make matters worse, I left my shovel back home and only had an ice scraper with which to attempt to dig myself out. 

Hours later, a stranger showed up with a truck bigger than mine, and he was able to pull me free.

Brennan Manning said, "Our poverty brings us to the awareness of the sovereignty of God and our absolute insufficiency. We simply cannot do anything on our own. All is the work of grace. I am convinced that without a gut level experience of our profound emptiness, it's not possible to encounter the living God."

Of all the essentials for the journey God has given us, it is his goodness that comes to mind first. I believe there is a God, and I believe He is good! I am not convinced the world is good, nor am I convinced I am good. I am, however, convinced that He is good (and His mercy endures forever!). 

 

Keeping Watch

Some Christian denominations have a tradition called Watch Night -- a service of prayer and worship at midnight as the New Year arrives. The focus of the last gathering of the year/first gathering of the new year typically contains five parts: review, confess, prepare, pray, & resolve. I've never been part of a service like that, but I love the concept. 

In Matthew 25:1-13, we read the parable of the 10 virgins as told by Jesus. Jewish weddings were multi-day events steeped in tradition that included the groom coming for his bride. With some of his friends with him, the bridegroom would walk through the streets at night to go to the bride's home at an unannounced hour. The ladies would eagerly watch for his coming. After a brief ceremony, the bridal party would march through the streets back to the bridegroom's prepared house. Every bridesmaid had to be prepared by having their lamps filled with oil so they could join the bridal party in the streets. 

If you didn't have a torch or an oil lamp, you were assumed to be a wedding crasher.

We know this parable is about Jesus and His church. He's the bridegroom; we're the bride. And he says he will come at an unannounced hour, and we are told to watch for the signs of his coming. [He tells us to watch and pray often, actually.] He wants us to stay alert, to guard against sin, to study the scriptures so we're not caught off guard, and to guard against complacency. 

The 10 virgins weren't all ready for the bridegroom. In fact, five of them were 'sleeping off the party' and failed to think ahead in order to be prepared. When the bridegroom came, they tried to mooch oil off the ones who were prepared...but it was too little too late. And they were left out of the wedding party because they refused to be prepared. 

A few years ago, I had an acquaintance that asked for my help in moving. I had a four hour window, so I thought I could get a lot done for him in on a Saturday morning. We set the date in advance, and since he had to be out of his small apartment the next day, I was prepared to work fast. I confirmed I was coming a couple days ahead of time and even sent a text as I was leaving the house. 

When I got to his place, I saw he had hardly even begun to pack. No moving truck. Nothing packed. Total chaos. His excuse? His friends had invited him out the night before for a farewell party. He and I both knew it was a weak excuse,  I but I gave him my four available hours. And he was left with a lot of unfinished business. 

That's what Jesus is telling us with this parable. Don't get caught up in all these things we think are so important and be unprepared for the most important thing.

Get your house in order. 

As we make this transition into the new year, take time to review the past year, confess what needs to be confessed to God, prepare for what God is calling you to, pray and seek God whole-heartedly, and resolve to remain committed to Christ in the year ahead. 

We don't know when the bridegroom comes, but we do know he wants us to be watching and preparing and continuing his important work until he does. 

I hope 2018 is that kind of year. 

 

Singing

We make music in response to things we feel deeply. Think about it: when you're in a good mood, what do we do? We hum, we whistle, we sing (and it really annoys those in a bad mood). My kids sing a lot. My daughter sings like an angel, but my son approaches every son like he's attempting opera. 

Psalm 108:1 says this: "My heart is steadfast, O God; I will sing and make music with all my soul." Did you see that last part? Soul. David's song came from the deepest part of him -- the part connected to God. It's no coincidence some of the key characters in the story of the birth of Jesus burst into song when the birth of Jesus became very real.

Zechariah praised God when he got his voice back and his promised son John was born (Luke 1:68). Mary sang when she walked into Elizabeth's house as they celebrated what was growing within her (Luke 1:46). But let's fast-forward to Bethlehem. Jesus is born, and our story continues. We're taken to a bunch of shepherds who are taking care of sheep in a field. Gabriel shows up again and announces the birth to them. They freak out, of course, and then Gabriel is joined by a "heavenly host" who joins him saying, "Glory to God in the highest..."

And this is where my sermon prep began to fall apart!

A 'heavenly host' is a company of angelic soldiers, not a choir. Notice in Luke 2:13-14, they weren't singing! It's clear they were speaking, probably resembling something like a 'hua!' from a company of Marines. I know this really messes up our angels in choir robes playing harps imagery, but these were soldiers. And they weren't singing.

I was pretty sure angels sing, so I decided to go to Revelation -- where I know they sing! To prove myself right, I started reading Revelation, and you know what I found? The only ones singing in Revelation are God's redeemed people! The angels either speak, cry, our shout. Soldiers don't sing!

So I went to the Old Testament...and you know what I found there? It is God's redeemed people who sing! I got really irritated to find out that angels don't sing, but knowing this now makes everything so much more amazing...

Angels are created for a job; we are created for relationship with God. Angels are not created in the image of God; we are created in the image of God. Angels don't get redeemed when they fall; we can be redeemed when we fall. 

We have something to sing about!

Here's one more observation about singing: In Zephaniah 3:17, we read this: "The Lord God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing." Did you see that? God sings!

And what is it that makes God sing? When his people are redeemed from the earth! God sings over his saved ones! He sings for the same reason we sing: we are redeemed! This is why every time Israel was saved from their enemies, they sang. This is why singing is a part of Christian worship. This is why there were so many songs around the birth of Jesus. This is why Revelation is full of the songs of the redeemed!

This kind of singing has nothing to do with performance, has nothing to do with who is sitting next to you, and does not even have anything to do with how you're feeling. This kind of singing comes from deep within the spirit of the person who is made new in Christ! We sing (or speak or cry or shout or pray) in response to what God has done for us!

How can we keep from singing?

Stillness

We tell the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus like it's a fairy tale. We've scrubbed the story clean of its gritty detail and have sanitized it so that it is tidy, peaceful, and reverent, with only the little drummer boy to break the stillness. 

But the real story was a hot mess. God's people had endured 400 years of persecution and oppression. When God finally broke the silence, he sent his angels to bust in on Zechariah and Mary, terrifying both of them. When the time came for Jesus to be born, Joseph and the very pregnant Mary had to make the arduous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem so they could pay taxes to a greedy, occupying government. When they got there, the place was so over-crowded, there was no place for them to stay except for where the traveler's donkeys were kept. They were horrible conditions, filthy and full of gut-wrenching stench. 

Let's talk politics of the day: Israel was under Roman occupation, and controlling the Jews under Roman occupation was a corrupt puppet government run by a wicked king named Herod. Herod, as you know, was the sort of man willing to send every boy child under the age of 2 to his death just to keep himself on the throne. The Jewish people didn't realize it at the time, but they would never have their country to themselves again until 1948. They were scattered all over the world.

Some silent night, right?

Is it a coincidence that we read all these 'fear not' verses surrounding the birth of Jesus and Christmas?

God knew what they needed; He knows what we need. So he gives us Jesus!

Is your heart afraid? Is your mind a mess? Are you under accusation by the enemy of your soul who wants to knock you out? Does chaos consume your thoughts? Do you feel encircled, vulnerable, alone, and afraid? Do you wonder what is happening to our nation and worry that the world is on fire? Do you sense crisis coming and fear we are reaching critical mass? 

"I wasn't until now. Thanks."

A lot of people have been asking questions like these in the last several months. 

Here's my point: Jesus didn't enter a fairy tale world. He entered a real world, a sick world. It was the kind of world that Mary and Joseph found themselves in, and it's the kind of world we find ourselves in. And when he came, he didn't bring a fairy tale with him. The world still raged on around Bethlehem. Only a few people got a glimpse of God's peace that night. The Romans were still occupying, Herod was still a wicked king, and Mary and Joseph were soon to be refugees fleeing to Egypt. 

But God broke through their chaos and said, "Do not be afraid." And Mary put that peace of God deeply within her heart. 

I would almost bet that when you trusted Christ, the world continued to rage on around you. Remember, Jesus didn't come to bring you a fairy tale life but to give your heart peace as you trust him in the travail that is this world. Life is not the Hallmark Channel. I think we get lured into a false sense of peace when everything is comfortable and safe, but that's not peace. 

That's comfort. 

Peace is what happens in chaos and crisis. [Read Psalm 46]. Peace is being held in the grip of God's grace when the mountains shake. It's a peace that Jesus alone can give.  May are going through deep, personal battles. The birth of Jesus reminds us that even the crib of Christ -- the Jesus born in your heart -- has power to dispel darkness and crush the chaos of Satan. 

"Do not be afraid, for I am with you", said Jesus. Trust him to bring peace and stillness to your very real life. One day the world will rage no more, and we will be with Jesus forever. Until that day, 'be still and know that He is God...'

Speaking

Luke starts his Gospel story by telling us about an angelic visitation to both Zechariah and Mary. This visitation broke what was a 400 year period of silence where prophets and angels did not speak. Let's look at each of these stories:

Zechariah was a priest in the Temple of God in Jerusalem. When the angel appeared to him, he was told he and his wife Elizabeth would give birth to a son who would be the one who would prepare God's people for the Messiah. This visitation of course freaked him out (how would you respond if an angel appeared to you?). While Zechariah is having his angelic encounter in the Temple, the people were waiting outside for daily prayer. "Why is he taking so long?"

It probably felt like when I'm waiting in the car for my wife. 

When he did appear, he people could tell something had happened just by looking at his face. When he opened his mouth to speak, he was unable to talk. 

Now to Mary: So God speaks through His angel again, this time to a young girl named Mary. And she freaked out. Imagine how shocking the news must have been to her! Since Adam, God's people have been awaiting the Messiah, God's Promised One...and she was just told she was going to be giving birth to him (and raise him). She knew her limitations, and I'm sure it made no sense to her that she had been chosen for this. 

Here's where I'm going with this:

1] When God speaks, He speaks promise. He kept His word He would send a prophet to prepare the people for the Lord. He kept His promise that the Messiah would come. When God says He will do something, He will do it. He makes promises and keeps them. God's promise are not null and void over your life, even when you are in a time of waiting.

2] When God speaks, it is a gift. God gave Zechariah and Elizabeth a son; God gave the world Himself. The Word of God is a gift. The Holy Spirit is a gift. Jesus is a gift. People have been convinced none of these things are a gift (so they are openly mocked), but we know God is a giver, and He gives underserved gifts!

3] When God speaks, it causes fear. Zechariah couldn't speak; Mary was deeply troubled. They were both initially afraid. After all, when scripture says, "He lifts His voice and the earth melts", one tends to freak out a bit when a word is received from God. We want the "feel-good" word of the Lord, but God's Word cuts through us. And like Zechariah and Mary, that initial fear gives way to peace and joy. 

So what do we do when God speaks? Two choices, really: receive it or reject it. We reject it by undermining it, delegitimizing it, disregarding it, dismissing it, ignoring it. I'm impressed with the number of ways my kids have come up with to ignore each other. We are just as clever when it comes to what God says.

This is not the time to reject the Word of the Lord. 

I expect our culture to reject what God has spoken, but I can't handle a church that does the same. When God speaks, He speaks promise. When God speaks, it is a gift to us. When God speaks, we should pay attention.

God is speaking. How are we responding?

Silence

Our Christmas series GOD SPEAKS began Sunday, December 3rd. The message below was shared by powerpoint and in silence to a quiet church. It was a remarkable Sunday together as we heard from the One Who Speaks.

"Today's sermon will be silent.

No spoken words.

Not everyone is comfortable with silence. 

So the next few minutes might seem a bit awkward for you, especially if you're used to hearing the preacher go on...

...and on...

...and on.

Now if you think a few minutes of silence is awkward, imagine what it would be like not to hear from God for over 400 years.

Turn in your Bibles to Malachi 4:1-6. Take a moment to read it. We'll wait for you.

The words may be difficult to read. They are meant to be. "The Day of the Lord will come with justice."

But did you see the promise? It's in verse 5. Look closely. 

The Lord said, "I will send you the prophet Elijah before the day of the Lord comes."

God promised He would send a messenger to prepare God's own for the coming of the Lord.

And you know what happened next? Nothing.

SILENCE.

Now we know God eventually sent John the Baptist to 'prepare the way of the Lord', so He did keep his promise. But there was a 400 year gap between Malachi and Matthew.

For 400 years, God didn't say anything to His people. 

God stopped speaking through His prophets. God didn't speak through His angels.

No burning bushes. No whispering winds. No talking donkeys. Nothing.

And those 400 years contained some difficult times for God's people. A lot happened in those four centuries. 

At the time of Malachi, Israel was under the reign of the PERSIAN EMPIRE.

Things were going pretty well for them at first. Babylon had fallen, and they were able to return home to Jerusalem again.

But just a couple hundred years later, they were under the rule of a cruel man named Antiochus, emperor of the Greek Empire -- and he hated the Jewish people. 

He forbid sacrifices in the Temple, outlawed circumcision and the Sabbath, and burned the books of the Law. 

He desecrated the Temple by sacrificing pigs on the altar. 

God's people were being persecuted, butchered, and driven from their homes. 

And yet there was SILENCE from God.

100 years later, Israel was ruled by the ROMAN EMPIRE. 

And we know what the Romans were like. 

In 400 years, they went from free people to oppressed people. And yet God seemed silent.

Or was He?

An interesting thing happened in those 400 years...

At the time of Malachi, God's people had very little interest in the MESSIAH. They were complacent. 

But 400 years later, houses of learning (synagogues) had sprung up all over Israel. 

Their appetites for God's Promised One had greatly increased. 

The people were crying out to God to come to them. "Lord, save us!"

And He did.

Do you know what God said when He finally spoke again?

JESUS.

God with us. 

The first time God spoke in 400 years was to announce the coming of God's Promised One.

Now, it sounds cruel that while Israel floundered for 400 years, God didn't speak. But here's the thing...

During those years, they were holding on tight to God's promises. 

The WORD of God echoed in their hearts for generations.

The WORD of God carried them through tremendous suffering.

The WORD of God filled them with hope when their world was on fire. 

The WORD of God spread among the people, shaking them from their complacency. 

The WORD of God turned the eyes of the nation toward heaven in anticipation. 

Yes. God was speaking even when they thought He was silent. 

And many people were ready to receive the Promise when He came to them in a Roman occupied village called Bethlehem. 

Why do you think Mary's heart was so open to the message that she was chosen?

Because God was preparing her heart -- even when He appeared to be silent. 

Can He not do the same for you?

It's a good question.

Don't confuse God's silence for God's absence. 

They are not the same.

Even when you are desperate to hear from Him, you must know...

...God is with you...

...and the Lord has hidden his WORD in your heart for just those times.

"The Lord is near to all who call on Him, to all who call on Him in truth." (Psalm 145:18)

He is close.

So...

The birth of Jesus is the Father saying...

I AM with you.

I AM.

God speaks. 

He is with you."

From Desolation to Restoration: Opposition

Every good story needs an antagonist. What would Obiwan Kenobi be without Darth Vader? Or Batman without the Joker? Or David without Goliath? Or Nehemiah without Sanballat?

We could read Nehemiah 3 and assume everything went smoothly with the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, but that's not the case. They faced tremendous opposition from three main antagonists: Sanballat (the Horonite Babylonian official from Syria), Tobiah (the Ammonite), and Geshen (from Arabia). These guys were total pains in Nehemiah's...

They taunted and harassed Nehemiah, bullied and intimidated him -- even threatening his life. I can't imagine the pressure he must have been under from the 'trinity of opposition'. I admit I don't do well with people who are trying to cut me off at the knees, but I've come to realize opposition is a normal part of life.

[Read Nehemiah 4]

Here's what we can learn from Nehemiah and the opposition he faced:

1] If you live in the will of God, you will be opposed. People will despise you for it. You will be judged, insulted, intimidated, and even hurt by those closest to you. Jesus recognized the Christian life is a conflict ("I did not come to bring peace but a sword"). He didn't mean a literal sword, but he acknowledges the conflict between good and evil and light and darkness. He reminds us that even our closest family members may resent us for our faith. 

Nehemiah faced it all from his antagonists: raging anger, insults and humiliation, intimidation and threats, and schemes and plots to destroy him. On top of all that, his own people complained against him and tried to go over his head. 

So how do we respond to opposition? 

2] Always respond to opposition with prayer, determination, and faithfulness. That's what Nehemiah did. He prayed. He pressed on. He remained faithful to what God called him to do. And he remained alert. That's good advice for all of us. 

One more thing...

3] Don't confuse ordinary every day conflict for opposition. They are not the same. We don't need to be looking for an antagonist or adversary around every corner. Instead, we need to make room for mercy, grace, and forgiveness in our lives -- to 'be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.' We should ask God to teach us how to respond to others who are difficult for us to deal with.

My wife and I recently celebrated our wedding anniversary. As usual, I went to the shop to buy flowers for her, but what happened next was very unusual. While I was entering my pin to complete my purchase, the man in line behind me began chewing me out for destroying nature by buying flowers. He didn't strike me as the typical eco-warrior (the 6 Snicker bars on the belt gave me my clue), and I was caught off guard by his verbal assault. 

What I wanted to do and what I did were two different things. So I simply took my receipt, thanked the clerk, and walked out the door with my wife's dastardly flowers. 

Not everyone has to be an adversary. Sometimes they are just hurting people.

Like Nehemiah, we can probably name those people who have been the major antagonists in our lives. The thing is, a lot of those who have been our antagonists probably thought they were being the protagonist. We must remember Jesus never said we won't have antagonists in our lives (he calls them enemies), but he does say we should love our antagonists -- and then carry on with the good work Jesus has called us to. 

Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem -- the trinity of opposition -- could not stop what God was doing. Keep that in perspective when the heat is on. 

From Desolation to Restoration: All In

You've heard of 'fly-over states', right? Those parts of the country that people who live along the coasts pass over to get to where they are going. Well, Nehemiah chapter 3 is a fly-over chapter for some people who get hung up on all the hard-to-pronounce Hebrew names.

But there is a lot of good stuff in this chapter we don't want to miss. Take these observations, for example:

1] There were a lot of people involved in rebuilding Jerusalem's walls and gates. Among them were priests, goldsmiths, mayors, perfume makers, daughters, merchants, and a security guard. Particularly interesting to me was a guy named Eliashib. He was the High Priest of the Temple who also served as a stand-in civil leader since the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. Eliashib was a big shot, but not too big to lend a hand.

And then there were the daughters of Shallum we read about in 3:12. We might pass right over this one without giving it much thought, but women simply did not do this kind of work. They were some tough ladies who helped rebuild the city walls. My point is, no one could benefit from the protection of the city walls without lending a hand to rebuild them. Each of them did their part.

2] The job was too large for one person or even a team. There was a lot to rebuild and reinforce, but the large-looming task was totally doable when everyone did their small part. Jerusalem's walls and gates didn't get rebuilt by Nehemiah. It got rebuilt because everyone did their part. 

3] They were not building for themselves. True, you'll notice a lot of people took responsibility to rebuild the gate closest to where they lived or worked, and logistically, that makes the most sense. But what use would a strong Sheep Gate be if the Fountain Gate or Dung Gate was still hanging wide open? They were rebuilding for the entire community.

They were also rebuilding for future generations who would also depend on those walls, generations that would not remember their faces. I wonder if the crippled man healed by Jesus at the Pool of Siloam ever even heard of Shallum or his daughters who rebuilt the walls around the pool where he took refuge?

This fly-over chapter in Nehemiah's story reminds each of us that we have a role in building the Kingdom of God, a task too big for one person or even a team. It reminds us we cannot serve the Lord effectively on our own and that we belong to each other as we continue the work of Jesus. This chapter also is a great reminder that we are not building for ourselves. Our names and faces will one day fade from living memory, so we don't build to be remembered but so the Kingdom of God would flourish here. 

 

Risk Hope (PNW District Conference)

[Full Text]

2 Corinthians 4:1-18

"Since through God's mercy, we have this ministry, we do not lose heart."

Paul's words really resonate with me. Like him, I too, find myself losing heart and struggling with my own fragile nature and this priceless Gospel he has implanted within us. I think a lot of us at one point or another have been on the edge of giving up. We face mounting discouragement and constant battles -- perhaps it would be easier to give up. But then I think about what Paul was facing, and my life looks mildly inconvenienced compared to what he dealt with:

A church that was tearing itself apart through elitism, pride, sexual sin, pluralism, denial of the resurrection (and even vegetarianism!).

A culture that rejected him and was opposed to the Gospel (his own people were hounding him from city to city).

A government that persecuted him and wanted him dead.

If anyone had the right to use words like "hard-pressed, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down", it was Paul.

He had every reason to lose heart -- except one. What refocused Paul over and over again was coming back to Jesus and the message of the Gospel. He was determined to remain faithful to that message, so he had no interest in deceiving people or distorting the Gospel message. He wanted to plainly speak the Truth. 

I think we can stand to learn a lot from Paul in what he had to say in 2 Corinthians 4:5. He wasn't interested in preaching his own agenda, and I think we're guilty of this too often. We do this when we preach our politics or our personal ideology or our feelings, and I think we do this when we preach our own conscience. Jesus doesn't call us to be faithful to our own conscience; he calls us to be faithful to himself. Personal conscience doesn't override the revelation of God found in Jesus Christ and the New Testament. When our conscience does override it, we judge the word of God as being inadequate in the same way the serpent judged what God had said to Adam and Eve to be inadequate (is that what God really said?).

We don't preach ourselves. We work for the mind of Christ.

We have a diverse little church here in Covington (politically, theologically, socially, culturally). We like to say we're an 'eclectic bunch of fixer-uppers who are trying to follow Jesus'. We are a mixed bag of scoundrels, common folks, and high-tech rednecks. I love the diversity of this place -- but that diversity can be hard work (especially in such divided times). 

I also have my opinions on a whole range of controversial issues, and it's a real struggle at times to keep those opinions to myself. There are only a small number of people that know how I vote, and one of them is my wife (and she ain't talking). I work hard to keep it that way. Why do I feel the necessity to bridle my tongue and refrain from posting divisive political content?

I'll tell you why. 1) Because I love you (and believe I am supposed to prefer you out of love). 2) Because it could be a huge distraction to the Gospel (which is what I'm called to preach while here). "For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake" (4:5). 

Paul -- though he had hot rhetoric at times -- struggled with his own inadequacy in his ministry. He was curious why God chose to place the treasure of the Gospel into fragile clay jars like himself, people who were susceptible to fracture and brokenness. I respect pastors and others in the church who feel inadequate for what God has called them to do. The opposite is also true: I fear what pastors can do when they operate out of ego and self-confidence. 

In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells the story of two very different people who were praying in the temple. He tells this story to point out the arrogance of the Pharisee who believed in his own superiority over others, particularly the sinner who couldn't even bring himself to look to heaven. "Thank God I am not like them!" Yet how many times have I heard Christians utter this same phrase about other Christians with whom they disagree? In the Body of Christ, there is no us vs. them. It is only Christ. We are us (unless we have already decided we are no longer us). We must be very careful about falling into the trap of elitism, because like the Pharisee, we will really just end up judging ourselves. 

Paul knew that when we hope in ourselves, we lose. When we hope in our strategies and political maneuvering, we lose. When we hope in governments, we lose. When we hope in our own cleverness, we lose. When we hope in our own skewed self-importance, we lose. And when we hope in ourselves, then everyone who stands in the way of me becomes my enemy (and this is not the Way of Jesus). We cannot be full of self when we seek Jesus. 

The theme of our conference weekend is "Risk Hope", so that's where I'm headed. At the end of our scripture we read earlier, Paul tells us what he is willing to risk it all for: the Lord Jesus Christ. He was willing to risk flogging for that. He was willing to risk homelessness and hunger for that. He was willing to risk drowning in the sea for that. He was willing to risk being hated for that. He was willing to risk death for that. 

But here's the thing... in Christ, that's no risk at all. It's a guarantee! "To live is Christ; to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21). It's a win-win.

There once was a time when I thought I was taking a risk only to find out it was a guarantee. I spent a lot of time planning a creative proposal on a San Diego beach complete with a gorgeous sunset and a basket of fruit and chocolate. I loved this girl and wanted to spend my life with her, so I decided it was time to take the risk in order to have her as my wife. My heart was pounding and my palms were sweating...

But I rocked it like a stud, and she said 'yes'. 

And then she proceeded to tell me moments later how she had already bought her wedding dress months before because she was determined to marry me. I thought I was taking a huge risk; I didn't realize it was already a guarantee.

Paul says it's the same with Jesus. His hope was in Jesus Christ alone, so he said "I will not lose heart, even though I feel like I am wasting away."

We have no hope apart from Jesus. We have no hope in other gods. We have no hope in human potential or systems or the query process. We have no hope in human governments. We have no hope in our own cleverness, craftiness, or convincing arguments. 

Our hope is in Jesus. And in Jesus alone.

That's what we risk for...but it's really no risk at all.

It's a guarantee.

 

From Desolation to Restoration: Inspection

When Nehemiah showed up in Jerusalem, he found the place was a mess, but he did nothing for three days. He didn't show up with fanfare, and he kept quiet about his intentions to rebuild the city. Someone once told me that the ability to speak several languages is an asset, but the ability to keep your mouth shut in any language is priceless. For whatever the reason, Nehemiah kept mum on what he came to Jerusalem to do. 

After three days, he started inspecting the city (after dark and in secret). What a sneaky dude, Nehemiah was (wise, actually). 

When he finally pulled the priests and leaders together, he said to them, "You see the trouble we're in." And the people were ready to jump in and rebuild.

You can read this part of the story in Nehemiah 2:11-20.

There are a few things about this story that stood out to me:

1] Nehemiah sat in Jerusalem's desolation for three days. If we pay attention to it, we can see Jesus all through scripture. Just like Jesus, Nehemiah sat in Jerusalem's desolation for three days, marinating in the devastation brought by the people's unfaithfulness to God. Just like Jesus who following his crucifixion went to the place of death and decay for three days, Nehemiah stewed in Jerusalem's destruction and smelled the stench of death. He felt the sting of Jerusalem's demise.

And we know what happened after three days, right? Resurrection!

As a pastor I sit with a lot of individuals who are at rock bottom. I get immersed in their stories and often feel their grief and loss. I sit with people in their pain in order to help turn their hearts toward restoration. It seems to me like Nehemiah was doing the same thing with the city he loved. 

2] Nehemiah took a long, hard look at reality. He spent time personally inspecting the damage done to Jerusalem to see what kind of hand he'd been dealt. God knows it's hard for us to take a deep look inside when life is crumbling. That searching process can be painful. But I also think we're most willing to look deep inside when we've hit rock bottom. 

When my wife and I moved back to the US from Ireland, I was heart-broken (and financially broken). For three years I took a deep look inside at my disappointment, anger, and brokenness. Was serving the church really what I wanted to do with my life? And for three years, I checked out as I wrestled with the calling of God on my life. 

So when I read words like "Search me O God and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me" (Psalm 139:23), I feel it deeply. When I read the story of the prodigal who had to take a long hard look within, I can relate. The journey to restoration begins with taking a deep look inside to see how far we've fallen -- to get a realistic picture of what's going on. "You see the trouble we're in," said Nehemiah. That was the beginning of a brand-new day for Jerusalem.

3] Nehemiah enlisted the commitment of the people. We'll go into this further in the weeks ahead, but Nehemiah didn't do this on his own. He asked what they were going to do, and the people said 'let's do this!' And that didn't come without opposition. We will have those who oppose us as we move from desolation to restoration. I'll get to Sanballat and Tobiah soon, but Nehemiah put them in their place and reminded them they could not have what belonged to God. 

We may have spent years in devastating times, but it is not God's will for us to stay there. Take a deeper look inside, confess what needs to be confessed, take stock of where you're at, and return to God with trust there is a new day coming. 

From Desolation to Restoration: Called

In the summer of 2000, I was preparing to move to Northern Ireland and begin a new ministry there. It was a busy summer for me with my final weeks of youth ministry in Indiana, planning an auction to sell my possessions, and doing my farewell tour to family and friends. So when I was asked to consider speaking at a youth conference in Colorado the week before I moved to Ireland, I hesitated. I almost didn't go.

But I did.

And while there, I met this beautiful blonde woman. I married her three years later. 

Some would say I was at the right place at the right time. I'd like to believe our meeting was more than coincidental; it was orchestrated! 

Random or orchestrated? These two world views are deeply opposed to one another. Is the universe random, or is it orchestrated? Is everything just a string of coincidences, or is there some planning and order to life?

For the Christian, we see God as the Orchestrator of the Universe, the One who directs our path. So I wonder, was it just lucky Nehemiah was a Jew in exile who just happened to be cupbearer to King Artaxerxes? Or was Nehemiah called by God for such a time? 

Nehemiah was God's guy who would secure safe passage to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city and its walls. And God's guy was not a builder or architect. He served wine to the king. I've often found myself serving in places I had no business being: living in Ireland as an American, Hoosier boy who gets the California girl, country boy teaching inner city high school without a teaching license, pastoring a church in the PNW with no experience in building projects. How did I get there?

Just like Nehemiah, I've often found myself positioned in places and wondered how I got there. Why was he going to rebuild Jerusalem? Nehemiah 2:1-10 helps us get some answers to that question.

1] Nehemiah's character was good. He had already earned the trust of the Babylonian king. You had to be trustworthy to serve as a cupbearer. After all, there were plenty of people who wanted the king dead. Death by poisoning was always an option, so the cupbearer had to be part of the king's circle of trust. Artaxerxes trusted Nehemiah, and that trust was earned by his character.

2] Nehemiah trusted God. He was terrified of Artaxerxes. He knew anyone who served the king was disposable, so it was his duty to put on his happy face and please the king at all times. Despite his fear, he trusted God and took a risk to give the king an honest answer to his question (2:2-4). Nehemiah put his life in God's hands at that moment, and God gave him the faith to move Nehemiah past his fears. If there's any journey with God worth traveling, it will require faith in God!

3] Nehemiah acted faithfully. He developed a strategy, set a timeline, planned ahead, secured permissions and protections, and went to Jerusalem. He did what he needed to do in order to be faithful to what God had called him to. If our faith doesn't move us into action, it is not faith we have but wishful thinking! Nehemiah wasn't a man of ideas but a man of action who took risks because he trusted God. 

When I was in high school and was wrestling with this "calling" from God to pastor and preach, I masterfully disqualified myself. [I am still a master self-disqualifier and have to yield that to God's Spirit continually.] I remember hearing this quote which helped to reshape my understanding of "calling": 'God does not call the qualified; he qualifies the called."

God equips us for what he calls us to.

God does this.

So here's where I want to go with this great encounter Nehemiah had with Artaxerxes:

God is positioning you. You can't see that if you believe life is random. But if you believe God orchestrates and if you are following Jesus, then you must (MUST) believe that where God has planted you, God intends to use you. This fundamentally changes your life as you begin to see each day infused with God's purpose. I guarantee, the Holy Spirit is positioning you to carry out some aspect of the on-going work of Jesus. You are being called out of meaningless, purposeless meandering to purposeful living in Christ!

Even if all you know to do is serve drinks. 

 

From Desolation to Restoration

"Forrest Gump" is the fictional tale of a remarkable man from Greenbow, Alabama and his extraordinary and unexpected life experiences. But there was a second narrative running parallel to Forrest's in the movie. Remember Jenny? Er, I mean Jen-nay. The movie followed the highs and lows of her life as her tragic choices led her away from Forrest and back again. She was determined to go her own way, but Forrest was always there for her when she came home. 

We've all had seasons in our life where in one moment all is going well and in the next we're living in some sort of desolation. Just three weeks ago, life was going swimmingly for residents of the Texas coast. Sometimes desolation comes because of circumstances beyond our control.

Sometimes the devastation comes because we've made devastating choices. 

That was Israel's history. Read the Old Testament, and you'll recognize the patterns of decline, desolation and death due to their rebellion followed by renewal and restoration due to their return to God. 

Rebellion = devastation.

Repentance = restoration.

On Sunday, we began a new series on the Old Testament book of Nehemiah and the beginning of the upswing for Jerusalem following the destruction of Solomon's Temple and the Babylonian exile of God's people. Nehemiah was a second-generation exile Jew living in Babylon whose job was to pour the king's wine. How do you get a job like that?

Pouring Artaxerxes wine put him very close to the king's ear, and eventually, Nehemiah won the king over. In 445 BC, Nehemiah was allowed to return to Jerusalem and begin rebuilding the ancient city of God's promise. Jenny was headed back to Greenbow, Alabama. 

The book of Nehemiah begins with Nehemiah's prayer to God. It was a prayer of confession, the beginning of Israel's hope. Honest, gut-wrenching ownership of what he and his people did wrong was the starting point for Jerusalem's recovery. Every prodigal's journey home begins with confessions like his. He confessed who God is ("...the great and awesome God...") and who he was (someone who had "acted very wickedly toward you"). 

He remembered what God had said: "If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations. But if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them and bring them home." He knew return was possible. 

The good news is that we can come back from whatever desolation we find ourselves in. God's creative order of the world is designed to come back. The earth comes back after ice ages and warming periods. Nature springs back after devastating volcanic eruptions and ravaging wildfires. Nations recover after war. And in Christ, we can also be renewed and reborn. If you've found yourself personally devastated by your own choices in which you have walked away from God, you get to come back.

God wants to restore you. He wants to restore a decimated church. He wants to restore decimated families. He wants to restore a decimated earth (and One Day will do just that). He wants to restore you.

Confession and remembrance starts the journey home. 

You Asked for It, part 3

Another question was recently posed to me that goes something like this: "All of us know wonderful, loving, giving people who are not Christian. Can you tell us that all of them are going to hell?" If this question were an Oreo, it would be double-stuffed. It's loaded! I want to do my best to honor the heart behind the question and answer it as faithfully as I can. But I suppose I should start with the number 1 rule we learn in preacher school: "There is a God, and I am not Him."

I have a lot of respect for God's Word, and I do not want to ever usurp God's authority. I know I am accountable to God for what I teach and how I conduct myself, and I hold a deep personal conviction that matters of eternal judgment are left only to God! So I will not make the judgment call whether or not someone is going to hell. All I can do is faithfully explain what the scriptures teach on the subject.

First, though, I want to commend a few things about this person's question: 1] They are asking the question from a heart of compassion. They don't want people to perish (and neither does Jesus, by the way -- 2 Peter 3:9). So 'bravo' on the side of compassion. 2] Their question acknowledges the reality of hell. In our pluralistic society, people try to diminish hell as taught by Jesus to nothing more than mere metaphor. 

I could write one doozy of a post about what hell looks like, but for the sake of this conversation, let me say this: I believe hell is a place of such weighty significance that the only one qualified to assign someone there is God alone. We would send people to hell all the time for minor offenses, so I'm relieved actually that such weighty judgment is God's alone. 

And about God's judgment, we should remember this: it is perfect! [Read Job 12:22 & Deuteronomy 32:4] God is the only one who can judge perfectly, because he is the only one whose standards and insight are perfect. Mine are certainly not. Speaking for myself, I know my standards are ALWAYS better than my behavior. God sees things differently.

So here's what scripture has to say on the matter:

1] Salvation comes by trusting in what God has done for us (faith in God's work -- in Jesus). [Ephesians 2:8; Romans 10:9]. We get hung up on this idea that it is possible to get to God on our own and through our own goodness. It's a lie as old as humanity. If our own ascent to God were possible, the cross of Jesus would not have been necessary. Salvation is about God's goodness, not ours!

2] People are not condemned on the basis of ignorance. Let's not confuse ignorance (not knowing any better) from innocence (guiltless). We're all guilty. [Romans 3:10 & 23]. Just because someone is ignorant, we assume they are innocent. We also assume that because someone is nice (according to our standards of nice-ness) they are somehow innocent. Again, that's the misplaced belief that we think it's possible to get to God on our own. No one is guiltless, and that's why we come to Jesus squirming.

3] People are condemned for rejecting God. When we choose to live our life apart from God -- having nothing to do with him -- then he simply honors our choice after death. [Romans 1:18; John 12:48]. In Revelation 20, we are given insight into the Great Throne Room of Jesus and get a glimpse of what happens to those who lived opposed to God.

4] Those who haven't heard the Gospel are judged according to the information they possess. And God judges perfectly [Romans 1:20; 2:15]. Scripture talks about how the order of the universe testifies to a Creator and Sustainer and Law-giver and that within us is something we cannot fully understand that is calling us to God. We call this the 'general revelation' (Jesus is God's 'specific revelation'). Since God judges perfectly, he does not falsely accuse anyone. He judges according to the light they have received. I cannot measure this; only God can!

5] Those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:13)! This is a consistent Old Testament and New Testament truth, and it is also the teaching of Jesus (Mark 16:16). 

Thanks for that amazing question! 

Let me end with this: I believe there is a God, and I believe he is good (and perfect and able). And I believe I am not God, so I will trust in him -- even with all my questions -- for he is good and his love endures forever in the lives of those who trust him!

 

You Asked for It, part 2

Since moving to the northwest, I have been asked the following question in various ways on many occasions: "Why was God the Father so cruel to subject his Son, Jesus, to the brutality of the cross?"

Let me start by saying that I think it is really good the cross makes us squirm. The cross was costly in terms of both the physical suffering he endured and the weight of humanity's sin. It is not pretty.

But I think we may misunderstand something of the nature of the Godhead (the Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) when we see them somehow operating independently of one another in a competing narrative. It is hard for us to handle the idea that a loving Father would inflict such cruelty upon his beloved Son (or allow others to do it).

But let's take a step back. The crucifixion wasn't an act that caught Jesus off guard. The cross didn't happen because someone (or Someone) else chose it for Jesus. No. The cross happened because Jesus chose it for Himself.

In John 17 (and other places), we read about the unity of the Trinity and how Jesus and the Father are One. When looking at the cross, we have to consider the unity of God. This isn't about what God the Father did to Jesus; the cross was the will of Jesus, too.  I wonder if this changes our narrative of a cruel father when we realize Jesus chose this for himself?

Read Mark 10:45

Jesus also said, "There is no greater love than laying down your own life for your friends." This was clearly in the heart of Christ!

Jesus gave us what we cannot give ourselves: the clear pathway to salvation through God's own self-giving love at his own expense.

He laid down his own life.

No greater love...