Monday, March 28, 2011

This Week's Message- The Christ

Luke 9:18-27.

There are two conversations in this section of scripture, and we include both of them today because the second hinges on the outcome of the first. Jesus asks his disciples who the crowds say he is. They answer that some think he is John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the prophets. This same report had come to Herod earlier in the chapter, to which he replied that he had killed John and was curious about the rumors. Then Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is; almost asking what they say in response to those who claim he is John the Baptist, Elijah, or a prophet. Peter, impulsive as usual, blurts out "The Christ of God!"

This conversation is interesting because we know that Jesus is not asking for information. He is God incarnate and does not need his disciples to give him the latest gossip to know what people are saying. He also does not need their response to know what they are thinking about him. Often when God asks us questions it is for our benefit, to make us think. Jesus wants his disciples to think about their response to his question in light of what the world is saying about him.

We still must answer these questions today. Who does the world say Jesus is? A good teacher. A myth. A madman. And what do we say in response to those statements? Who is Jesus to you and to me? Who do we say he is?

We can take a clue from Peter if we will stop to ponder for a moment what Peter is actually saying. The word Christ is used so much in church that we often begin to think of it as Jesus' last name. Christ is the Greek equivalent of Messiah, which is the Hebrew word meaning "Anointed One." This word carries with it a promise that God would send someone to continue David's line, to be prophet, priest and king. This Messiah was thought to be the great deliverer from Roman oppression in Jesus' time. They were looking for a savior from Rome who would turn their hearts to God, and set up an earthly kingdom.

Jesus tells his disciples not to spread the word that he was the Messiah. This may have been to prevent the zealous from creating an uprising against Rome anticipating that earthly kingdom. Jesus says to his followers that their concept of Messiah would have to be reformed. "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life." Jesus said to them that he would be crucified.

Interestingly, Luke takes us into a conversation with a wider group of people in which Jesus says that in order to follow him people must be willing to deny themselves and take up their cross daily. The King of Glory was to be crucified, and his followers must choose to enact their own daily crucifixion of their self-will.

In church culture it is not unusual to hear "It's just my cross to bear." We hear it in relation to annoying people we must tolerate or work situations that are not ideal. When we overuse the phrase for such trivial things we cheapen the sacrifice that Jesus made and calls us to make as well. The cross was not an annoyance or inconvenience, it was torture.

Our daily dying to ourselves, if we are serious about it, is painful. We must choose each day to allow God's will to reign supreme in our lives. We must choose to allow him to be Lord. This does not mean that we won't disagree with God. It does not make everything easy. When Jesus prayed in the garden to have the cup pass from him, he was expressing his will. We can do the same. We can tell God how we feel, what we think, how we want things to be. But at the end of the conversation we must still determine that his will, not ours, be done.

This crucifixion of self does not turn Christians in to automatons. We do not lay down our personality, who we are. Instead, we lay down that part of ourselves that wars with God, the part that rebels against his perfect will, the part that takes us down the path of destruction. The truth is that God made you to be who you are. He took part of his infinite nature and put it in you to represent a side of himself. He is infinite and every one of us is a different reflection of who he is. When we lay down our self-will, instead of killing our personality, we actually find ourselves transformed into the fullness of who he always planned us to be.

Jesus said that it was pointless to strive for a nice, safe, self-determined life here on earth. As John Ortberg said "When the game is over, all the pieces go back in the box." We can't take our nice life with us, it ends when we die. If we do not choose to start investing into eternity now, our earthly lives are wasted--they produce nothing that lasts.

But Jesus also says that we don't have to die to start experiencing the Kingdom of God. You and I, by declaring that Jesus is the Christ/Messiah/King of Glory and choosing to lay down our will, can begin to experience eternity now. Jesus has opened the door for us and we can enter in as we choose.

If Jesus is the Christ, and we wish to follow him and taste eternity now, we must be willing to sacrifice our self-will and declare him King of our lives. Let him reign in you today!

Monday, March 21, 2011

This week's message: Soul Gardening

Luke 8:1-15.

The Parable of the Sower is a very familiar story in scripture. I have often walked away from studying it with a sense of futility or hopelessness. This time I want us all to walk away with hope. In the past it seemed as though the message was, "What kind of soil are you?" or "Don't bother with the rocky soil or the thorny ground or the path, seed won't grow there anyway!" Both impressions leave me feeling helpless to change my own situation or to effectively share the gospel message with people whose lives are full of imperfection and difficulty.

I know many gardeners and they all consistently tell me that soil cannot change itself. Rocky soil cannot decide to be un-rocky. Thorny soil cannot choose to get rid of thorns. Hard compacted soil cannot just loosen up! In order for soil to change, the gardener has to change it. It is the same in our lives. God is the master gardener, he is the sower and his desire is to amend the soil of our hearts to accommodate the growing Word in our lives.

This gives me hope! I can't change my own heart, but God can. I can ask him to work the soil of my heart knowing he did not plant seeds there for them to die, but with the desire to bear fruit.

The other discouragement I often face is in spreading the word. I have heard that farmer called irresponsible for wasting seed by broadcasting it onto the path and the rocky/thorny soil. What we must realize is that the Farmer is God. When Jesus came as God in the flesh, he came proclaiming the message to anyone who had ears to hear. He came healing those with grateful hearts as well as those who never said thank you. (Think of the ten lepers.)

This picture of the broadcast seed has become beautiful to me! There is God, casting seeds of truth to whoever will receive them. God does not withhold his truth from those whose hearts are hard! He does not keep his gospel from those with busy, hectic, distracted lives full of worry and anxiety. He does not refuse to plant his Word in the lives of those who are too shallow! Rather, he casts his seed abroad giving anyone and everyone who hears a chance to receive it and produce fruit.

This does something for us as those entrusted with the scattering of seeds of truth. It gives us permission to sow into the lives of those who may not receive it. It gives us freedom from anxiety as we contemplate those who may not keep the word even if they initially receive it with joy. Our job is to scatter seed. Our job may be to water it, or help people see their need for the master gardener to come and work in their hearts. But it is not our responsibility to make those seeds grow and bear fruit. He lets us off the hook for the productivity of others.

But Jesus does not let us completely off the hook for the outcome in our own lives! We may not be able to choose our soil composition, we may not be able to keep out the weeds or the rocks or keep our hearts from becoming compact when it is stepped on; but we do have a part to play in the productivity of the Word in our lives. Our job is to do what Jesus says in verse 15. We must cling to the Word. We must steadfastly endure with perseverance. That is our part. Cling to the Word of Truth that God plants in your heart. Hang on in tough times, trusting the Master Gardener to work the soil of your life, and watch as fruit grows and matures to bring a great harvest!

Last Week's Message: Setting the Tune

Luke 7:18-35.

This passage of scripture holds a lot of information and complexity, but no part of it would be complete without the surrounding text. John the Baptist is in prison and he sends his disciples to Jesus to ask if he really is the Messiah. John knows that this is Jesus' claim, John himself baptized Jesus and declared to those who would listen that Jesus is Messiah. Sitting in prison, though, John needs to know with absolute certainty that Jesus is really the One.

Amazing, how God never chastises those who ask openly and honestly for reassurance. Recently we talked about Abram asking God to tell him once and for all just how he planned to fulfill his promise when God had not yet given him a son. Just like God dealt compassionately with Abram, he deals compassionately with John.

Jesus, without saying a word, turns and heals the sick and diseased, gives sight to some who were blind, and drives out evil spirits. He tells John's disciples, "Go tell John what you witnessed with your own eyes." Here he quotes from Isaiah 61 about the coming of the Messiah, but he leaves off that part about liberating those in prison. It is as though he tells John, "Yes, I am the Messiah, but you will not be set free." He says "Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me." He is saying in essence "Things aren't going to turn out the way you want, but hang in there. Don't fall away."

John's disciples leave and Jesus turns back to the crowd where he tells them that John the Baptist was a prophet preparing the way for the Messiah, and that he is the greatest man ever born of a woman. This crowd just heard him say that John would stay in prison.

Then Jesus paints a picture for us of a problem faced by people of that time, and I would argue of any age, they want to set the tune. They want to play a happy tune and have God dance along, they want to weep and wail, and have God join in the wailing. They, and we too, want to call the shots.

It is easy, it is the human nature thing to do. But Christ calls us to live above the human nature to the very nature of God present in our hearts through the Holy Spirit. God will not dance to our tune. He will not allow us to manipulate him. He desires to mold and shape us. He calls us to lay down our "want to's" and allow him to work.

John wanted to get out of prison. But even John did not get to call the shots. Jesus did not want to die on the cross, but even Jesus was willing to lay down his fleshly desires to do the will of God. This is hard to understand, it is tough to think that God could have a greater purpose in something as gruesome as the cross or a prison beheading. These are not the things we like to think about.

Jesus closes this section with the words, "Wisdom's children prove wisdom right." I read those words as an encouragement. We can choose to be children of this age, demanding our own way, or we can choose to be wisdom's children, finding out that wisdom (God's way) is right by following God's path.

As a result of John's suffering, we see a witness to steadfast faith in the face of persecution. In Christ's sacrifice we see that death is not the end as he is resurrected and ascends to glory. Walking through difficulty while choosing the path of wisdom instead of seeking our own way allows us to witness God in action.

Monday, March 7, 2011

This week's message: The Test

Genesis 22:1-18.
It says in verse one that God was testing Abraham. We need to pay attention to that word: testing. God was not tempting Abraham to sin, or expressing some kind of power trip. God wanted Abraham to see that his faith was real. This is an event that Abraham never forgot. It is something his children never forgot. It is essential to the faith of every Jew and Christian that has come since that time!

Abraham was God’s chosen servant. He did not always make good decisions, we have seen that! But we have seen Abraham act in faith, stepping out in obedience when God called him to do something specific. This story is often cited as one of the greatest proofs of Abraham’s faith in God. But this morning I want us to look at this from a different angle. I want us to see how this is a story about love; Abraham’s love for God and God’s love for Abraham.

In verse two, God takes special care to emphasize Abraham’s love for his son. In essence he is saying, this is the most important thing to you. It seems as if Abraham was in danger of loving Isaac more than God. Remember when Abraham tried before to make God’s promise happen his own way, or when he begged God to choose Ishmael to be the child of promise? Here he has the child of promise, Isaac and it may be that Abraham is now giving more value to the gift than the giver. Isaac was the child of promise, but it was God’s promise, not Isaac’s, and not Abraham’s.

It is interesting to see Abraham’s response in this. He does not argue, but I wonder what he is thinking. I know what I would be thinking. Did I hear you right God? You really didn’t just say what I think you did. Seriously?!? This had to be a joke, right? The Bible does not record Abraham’s verbal response, but it does say that he was obedient; he packed up and went to the place where God told him to go. Abraham was showing his love through obedience. By doing this, Abraham was affirming his love for God. He was saying to God, and he was telling himself through these actions, “I love God more than I love this gift that he has given to me.

This is so important! With all of the times Abraham stumbled, or went astray, or made his own path, Abraham needed to know that his love for God was supreme. God didn’t need to know. God sees our hearts. This was not a proof to God of Abraham’s love and obedience, this was a proof to Abraham of the condition of his own heart! God loved Abraham enough to give him this opportunity to see into his own heart and witness the growth that God had brought about in himself.

In verses 11-14, we see God’s deliverance and his provision. Because Abraham had shown that his love for God took the greatest precedence in his heart, God gave him the gift all over again. I find it really interesting that when we look at God’s message through the angel compared to his statement at the beginning of this story, God says, “You have not withheld your son,” God leaves out whom you love. It is not that Abraham has stopped loving Isaac. He did not stop loving this son that God gave to him, but because he had shown that his love for God was greater, his love for his son was no longer an issue.

Verses 15-18 stand as a reminder and a reinstatement of God’s promise to Abraham. If you look at verse 16, it says that the reason that God is able to fulfill his promise is that Abraham has chosen to put his love for God above his love for his son, the gift that God had given. Abraham’s love for his son no longer stood in the way of Abraham’s faith and love and trust for God.

We all have things that God has promised us. We have blessings that God has given us and it is tempting to allow those things, those gifts to compete for our love. Love for other things, even good things—even things God wants us to appreciate and love like our children, our families—if we love them more than God, it can keep us from God’s best for us.

We know that love is a choice, we have the choice of whether to give God precedence in our hearts, or let love for other things rule. God may have a test for you of your love or your faith. Don’t take that as God asking you to prove something to him, take it as an opportunity to prove the condition of your heart to yourself. When we have a clear picture of where we stand, we know the areas that need growth. We see the areas that have grown and changed for the better. We see how far we have come and that gives us confidence to walk forward in faith.

God is our greatest example of love and our love is reciprocal to his. He does not ask us to do what he will not, or make a sacrifice greater than the one he has already made. He does not ask us to love him first. 1 John 4:19 says we love because he loved us first. He gives us his power to love him above all things. But the choice is up to us. Will we choose to love God with all our hearts, or will we allow competing objects of our love and affection take precedence? Examine your life. Ask if the decisions you make every day demonstrate love and obedience to God above all else. This is a choice we have to make daily. God gives us power to follow through, but we have to start with a simple act of will. Will you make a decision today to give God all of your heart? The choice is up to you.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

This week's message: God fulfills his promises

Genesis 21:1-21.

This chapter records the birth of Isaac and the rejection of Ishmael. At first I was reluctant to use both narratives, one so full of joy and the other so full of pain. I don't particularly like the hardness of Sarah's heart as she receives God's grace and mercy for herself, but will not impart it to Hagar and Ishmael. It was not until my eyes were opened to a greater theme in these two stories that I gained some excitement and a message to share.

Through this whole narrative of Abram becoming Abraham and the journey he takes walking with God through success and failure, ups and downs, disappointment and delay, one common theme emerges. In fact it beats so loudly in my ears that I don't know how I missed it! The theme is this: God is faithful.

God's faithfulness was at work in his patience as Abram strayed away, as he sold away the vessel through which his promise would come (twice), as he tried to make things happen in his own way and his own timing. God remained faithful and steadfast. God restored him to fellowship every time he fell. God repeated his promise over and over and over until Abram finally believed.

At the beginning of the chapter, we read about Sarah giving birth to Isaac, bringing joyful laughter to her heart and the hearts of those who knew her. Everything was as it should be, until the party when they celebrated Isaac being weaned. That was the moment when Sarah decided she didn't like Ishmael's face. She told Abraham to throw them out. And he did.

I don't know if Sarah was bothered by this reminder of her past attempts to get God's promise her way, or if she was really paranoid that Abraham would love him more than Isaac or at least enough to split the inheritance. Whatever her reasons, she was hardened in her heart against these people who were in all ways her family.

Hagar is the mother of what was to be Sarah's surrogate son. Now that she has her own biological child, Sarah despises Hagar and Ishmael. Her request to get rid of them has Abraham in a panic. This is his son, the son he asked God to bless. Abraham pleaded with God to make Ishmael the child of the promise! Now he was considering sending him away.

It is really sad and then God comes in and tells Abraham that God would care for Ishmael. He restates his promise that although he would not be the covenant child, Ishmael would be blessed. Hagar and Ishmael find themselves in the desert having run out of water, and Hagar meets again with the God who sees her. God brings them to water, cares for them at that moment, and then scripture shocks our socks right off! It says in verse 20, "God was with the boy as he grew up."

We miss that line in our Sunday school lessons with the flannel graph figures. God did not just give them water when they were thirsty, he stayed with Ishmael as he grew up. God fulfilled his promise to give him sons--12 of them. God fulfilled his promise that those sons would be princes, most fathered entire tribes of Bedouins, and caravan traders, and shipping entrepreneurs, and oasis guardians, and great warriors who opposed the Assyrians and Babylonians. God kept his promise to bless Ishmael beyond what we can imagine. Ishmael's descendants built Petra, the great carved city. They still seek to serve God, an entire tribe became Christians early on. There is even evidence that the Magi were Arab descendants of Ishmael, not Persians as typically portrayed.

The story has a happy ending because of God's faithfulness. When Abraham dies in chapter 25 of Genesis, the scripture writer tells us that he was buried by his sons Ishmael and Isaac. God's faithfulness overcame all the obstacles Ishmael faced to bring blessing beyond measure.

God can do the same for us. Are you rejected? God is faithful. Are you abandoned? God is faithful. Are your dreams and plans unfulfilled? God is faithful. He has promised to never leave us or forsake us. He has written his name on our hearts. His faithfulness does not change with our circumstances. He remains faithful to his promises and loving toward all he has made regardless of what we experience. We can trust and depend on his faithfulness in the face of any trial, any persecution, any trouble, any failure on our part. God is faithful.

Catching up with Abraham!

It is embarrassing how long it has been since I updated the sermon posts! Sorry to those who follow regularly. Here is a recap of the teachings for Genesis 13-17.

In Genesis 13 we see Abram coming back to the land God had promised to his descendants. It takes him a while, though, to come full circle. He is still meandering, not heading straight back, rather he takes his time coming back not only to a physical location but to the God who spoke to him there.

We often find ourselves in the same place. We fall and then avoid coming back into fellowship with God because we are afraid of retribution or a lack of acceptance. The beautiful thing about this story, as Abram parts ways with Lot and moves further into this land God had promised, is that God honors his return. God honors the fact that Abram chose to come back and does not even chide him for taking so long. God reaffirms his promise and adds that Abram will have children that are like the dust in number. What a beautiful picture of God's gracious acceptance of us when we do repent (turn away from what distracted us) and turn back to him.

In Genesis 14 a story unfolds of kings going to war with each other over tribute payments that were not paid. Abram's nephew Lot gets caught up in the fray and his whole family is taken captive by invaders. All of the local rulers in Lot's area gave up and went home defeated. Abram gathered some allies and went to recover the captives and plunder taken in the conflict.

The great thing about this seemingly mundane story is not so much in Abram's recovery of Lot and the captives. The shining moment comes instead when Abram interacts with Melchizedek. Basically at that time the system of governance was thug rule. Whoever had the most allies and could beat others in battle became their own ruler/king. When Abram presents Melchizedek with a tithe gift, Melchizedek offers him all of the plunder.

The gleaming glorious moment is Abram's refusal: "I have raised my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, and have taken an oath that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the thong of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, 'I made Abram rich.' I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and the share that belongs to the men who went with me--to Aner, Eshcol and Mamre. Let them have their share."

Abram takes nothing from the plunder. This man who came back from Egypt loaded from having sold his wife to Pharoah's harem looks past wealth for once to the promise of God's provision. He commits to look only to God for blessing and material gain so that God will be glorified!

Genesis 15 finds Abram finally being honest with God about his doubts and fears. He asks God about his inability to produce an heir and for a confirmation of God's promise. Again, we have an aversion to speaking frankly with God for fear that he will strike us with his holy lightening (actually that is Zeus, not YHWH). But we do not see that here!

God responds to Abram with loving compassion and confirms his promise with a covenant ceremony, something Abram was familiar with. God cuts a covenant with Abram, but we do not see the reciprocation of Abram at this time. God commits to the covenant, not based on Abram's great performance as a man of faith, but because when God makes a promise he keeps it.

In Genesis 16 Abram and Sarai conspire to make God's promise come true by hook or by crook. They decide that a surrogate heir would be just as good as an heir from both of their bodies. This all works very well, until Sarai suspects the surrogate mother of contempt. Mistreatment by Sarai and the turning of a blind eye by Abram drive Hagar to flee.

This could have been the terrible end of a sad story. But God intervenes. He promises Hagar that he will care for her and her son, encouraging her to return to Abram's household. Hagar is comforted because God is aware of her struggle and will bless her son. It makes such a big impression that she names him Ishmael--God will hear.

One might expect Genesis 17 to hold stern rebuke from God, but quite the opposite is true. God comes to Abram and restates his covenant, this time asking for Abram to accept it by the way of a physical change to his body--circumcision. God promises a son in one year's time that will be born of Sarai.

At this time, God completes the covenant by giving part of his name to Abram and Sarai. They will now be Abra-ha-m and Sara-h. God is YHWH and he is now identifying these two flawed human beings as part of himself. The redemptive picture here is beautiful and full. God will fulfill his promise, not because of their perfection, but because of his faithfulness.