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Saturday, December 31, 2011

The First Shall be Last and the Last Shall be First

The First Shall be Last and the Last Shall be First

It’s that time of year again! Everywhere there is a buzz in the air. New Year’s Eve parties and special church services are being planned, and New Year’s Eve dances and celebrations with fireworks are in the works. Soon it will be the very first minute of a brand new year. We don’t care about the last day of the old year. We care about the first day of the New Year. We like new challenges, new beginnings, and new firsts. And when we can, most of us like to be first.

We want to be first in line and make the best grades. We want to live in an impressive house and make lots of money. We want everybody to like us and we want to be important. After all isn’t that what God wants for us? Doesn’t He want us to be up there on top?

We want to be first and best and all the while we want to follow Jesus and be in His kingdom too. But after we are Christians for awhile we find that it doesn’t always work that way. Jesus says that in his kingdom the first often will be last and the last will be first. (Matthew 20:16)

Some folks say that when we follow Jesus, ordinary life is turned upside-down. When we read the Bible we see things getting turned around for sure. Things that make a person important in our world are unimportant in the kingdom of God. And things like a humble or a meek spirit – qualities that aren’t so valued in this world are valued by God. Scripture says that “God chose the foolish things of this world to shame the wise, and the weak things of this world to shame the strong.” (1 Cor. 1:27) Note that Jesus tells us that “Whoever wants to be great would be a servant.” (Matt. 20:26) Jesus also tells us that his kingdom, the kingdom of God, is of another world.

We have a saying in our world that it is better to give than to receive. We want to be one of the “makers” not one of the “takers”. We want to write our own ticket, pay our own bills, earn our own way. But Jesus tells us that we can never be good enough to earn our own way into his kingdom. He says, “Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a child will never enter in.” (Luke 18:17) So here we have it again- God’s up-side down kingdom. In our world we act like an adult, we earn our own way; but in order to enter God’s kingdom we must “receive” it as a little child would.

The principles of the kingdom of God are upside down from the principles we have learned here in our world. We keep expecting a set of rules to follow in this world, but following the letter of the law without following the Spirit of the Law is what Jesus condemned the Pharisees for. Scripture says: “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Cor. 3:6) Jesus said that mercy and justice matter most to God. So if we do all of the “right” things - the “religious” things, but we neglect mercy and justice – if we neglect doing our small part to see that the poor, the “ least of these” gets a fair chance, -then are we any better than the Pharisees?

One of the principles in God’s kingdom that is very different from our culture’s teacings, is the principle of “turning the other cheek”. (Matt. 5:39) I have sometimes had a hard time following this one and perhaps you have too. The principle is that we rely on God for vindication. We let Him defend us and we don’t fight for our own rights. Let’s listen to what Scripture has to say. “Never pay back evil with more evil. … Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. … If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. …Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21)

Another principle in God’s kingdom that doesn’t make sense down here in this world is the principle of searching for righteousness. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus preached about the blessed life. One of the blessings –“beatitudes” Jesus spoke of was the blessing you will get if you work for or search for righteousness or for justice. Blessed are those who want to be right before God. Let’s listen to His words in Scripture. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6) One of the translations for the word “righteousness” is “justice”.

If we hunger and thirst for our own causes, we will never be fully satisfied. But if we come to Jesus, (who is our righteousness) we will be satisfied. In this world we believe that things will satisfy us. A new car will make us happy – a new outfit, a better position, more money. We always need just a little bit more. But in the kingdom of God we don’t need any more when we find Jesus.

When we believe in Jesus we become part of His kingdom – the kingdom of God. And when we follow Him we receive His Spirit in our lives. And the Holy Spirit is with us to teach us how to live in this new kingdom – the kingdom of God. But we are still living in this world and we still have our old sin nature. So actually we are living in two worlds- two kingdoms – kingdoms that are opposite from one another.

Our earthly world or kingdom teaches us to grab all we can get, stand up for our own rights –and try to be first. And God’s kingdom teaches us to let go of our egos and let God defend us when we are wronged – to think of others and to be last. So what will we choose –God’s way or our own, a proud spirit or a humble one, first place for ourselves or last. Remember, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” (Matt. 20:16)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Mary, the Mother of Jesus

Mary, the Mother of Jesus

There is a wonder surrounding Mary, the mother of Jesus, -wonder because she was the one who was chosen to bear God’s Son. The angel Gabriel told her that she had found favor with God. She must have had a believing and humble heart to have been chosen as blessed among women. Even though she didn’t understand the mystery of God coming to live with humans, she accepted it with faith and joy.

When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary in Nazareth to announce Christ’s’ birth, Mary was troubled. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:30b-33)

And Mary asks: “How can this be, since I have not had sex with a man?” (Luke 1:34) And the angel Gabriel answered: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35) Then the angel Gabriel told Mary that Elizabeth, one of her relatives was pregnant. Elizabeth had been unable to have a baby and was elderly now - too old to be having a baby; but Gabriel encouraged Mary’s faith by reminding her that “with God nothing is impossible.” (Luke 1:37.

Mary bowed before the angel Gabriel and answered him: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” And then the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:38)

Mary did not understand all that was about to happen in her life, but she was glad that she could be part of Gods’ plan and her heart was filled with joy. She sang a song expressing how she felt about being chosen to become the mother of Gods’ Son. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” she sang. (Luke 1:46-47)

As you can see here, according to Scripture, Mary was a virgin when she became pregnant with Jesus, the Son of God. Jesus is Son of God and Son of man (a mystery that we can not understand, we just accept on faith). Mary was engaged to marry Joseph at the time she became pregnant with Jesus, the promised Messiah. It would seem that Joseph was upset when he found out that Mary was pregnant, since he knew that her baby could not be his child. This pregnancy did put Mary in a bind.

No doubt there was whispering behind her back. Probably the rest of her family did not understand. Mary probably told Joseph that the angel Gabriel had appeared to her and that the baby she was having was the Son of God, but Joseph must not have believed her. (Would you have?) The Bible says that Joseph was planning to break up with her when an angel appeared to him and assured him that Mary was indeed a virgin. The angel informed him that the baby that she was carrying was truly the Son of God, and that the child should be named “Jesus” which means “the Savior or the One who saves from sin” (Matthew 1:19-25)

Even though Mary was blessed and highly favored by God, (Luke 1:28) her life was not easy. We all know the story of Jesus’ birth and how He was born in a manger. We have heard the magical Christmas story so often - the babe in the manger- that we soon forget that the manger was just a dirty animal shelter. There were probably flies and smells in the manger where Mary had her baby. The animals went to the bathroom in their stalls (the manger) and it was probably cold and muddy there too. Even though Mary was in labor, no one would make room for her in any of the inns in Bethlehem. Joseph knocked on door after door begging for a space for Mary as she delivered her baby, but everyone turned them away. Mary was rejected by everyone in her hour of need.

Mary’s life was not easy. When she and Joseph took the newborn baby Jesus to the temple to dedicate Him to God, the prophet Simeon came and prophesied over the baby. Simeon foretold of future emotional suffering for Mary. “A sword will pierce through your own soul also.” he said. (Luke 2:35) And then when Jesus was just a month or two old, Herod decided to find him and kill him. Mary and Joseph had to get up and flee with the baby Jesus to Egypt to protect him from harm. We can only imagine Mary’s’ bewilderment at the problems and persecutions that this special baby of hers was causing.

Years later Mary must have been bewildered again when she and Joseph spent three days worrying and looking for the twelve year old Jesus after they lost him among the crowds in Jerusalem. When they finally found him in the temple, Jesus asked them: “Didn’t you know that I must be about My Father’s business? But Mary and Joseph did not understand him.” (Luke 2:49-50) The Bible tells us that Mary did not understand all of what God was doing with her Son Jesus. But she kept following God’s basic directive for her life.

When Jesus was a boy growing up he lived in the town of Nazareth with Mary and Joseph and their other children. Scholars believe that back in Jesus’ day Nazareth was a small town and that most of the people living there were related to one another. But Scripture tells us that when Jesus returned as an adult to Nazareth, his home town, He was rejected by nearly everyone there. (Matt. 13:53-56) A group of Nazarenes even tried to throw Him off of the steep cliff that is outside of the city. These people were His relatives!

And the Bible also tells us that even Jesus’ brothers didn’t all believe in Him (John 7:5) and thought He was out of His mind.(Mark 3:20-21) We can only wonder how Mary felt when her relatives and neighbors in Nazareth didn’t believe her when she told them about the angel Gabriel’s message to her. Even Mary’s own children, Jesus’ brothers, didn’t listen to their Mother and rejected her Son. The Bible says that “He came unto His own, but His own received Him not.” (John 1:11) Jesus was rejected, but Mary shared that rejection and that misunderstanding with her Son. Her life was not easy.

Mary is a study in the pathway forward in God’s will. Instead of respect, it seems she suffered rejection. She never tried to obtain an elevated position among Jesus’ followers. She must have become a widow early on since Joseph is not mentioned after Jesus became an adult. In that patriarchal culture, being a widow often meant having to live in poverty. Mary didn’t seem to have a place to live at the time that Jesus went to the cross. From the cross Jesus asked John to take care of his mother and after Jesus died, Mary went to live in John’s house.

Mary remained steadfast with Jesus all the way to the cross. And can you imagine how her heart was broken there at the cross? And after Jesus ascended into heaven, Mary obediently joined His other followers in the Upper Room to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 1:14)

Mary is a model of obedience and an example for us. Perhaps we can all learn something from her life. When we are confused about what is happening in our lives can we, like Mary did, trust God with the confusion and with our lives? If loved ones reject us or our hearts are broken, can we like Mary keep on believing that God will work through the problems in ways that we can’t imagine?

There was a song a few years ago that went something like this: “My Lord knows the way through the wilderness. All I have to do is follow.” Isn’t that how Mary lived her life? She accepted the glorious mysteries along with the wildernesses in her life all on faith and then she followed. Her life could be described by the words she spoke as she bowed before the angel Gabriel; “Here I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) Could we follow Mary’s example? Could her words be our words too? Could we bow before God and say those words to Him? “Here I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.”

Merry Christmas! There will be no blog next week (Christmas) but please stay tuned for a timely blog on the New Year’s weekend.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Isn't That Communism?

Isn’t That Communism?

We were out of town last weekend so we visited another church – a church quite different from ours. The church we visited was a Baptist mega-church with 25,000 members, and with 12,000 people attending last Sunday. There were three restaurants, a video arcade, several banks, a gift and book store, a gymnasium, a media center, many classrooms plus the huge worship center; all in this gigantic church building, which was three or four blocks long. We took the elevator up to the fourth floor balcony and settled in to our seats for the morning worship service.

Our church back home with its’ 750 members has a candlelit altar with an open Bible in the front of the sanctuary and a large cross on the back wall. We have a railing in front of the altar where we kneel and pray. Soft candlelight and hymns accompany each service and there are stained glass windows on both the front and side walls of the church. Church members enter reverently and quietly to worship God, bowing to acknowledge His presence.

The Baptist mega church had a stage with colored stage lights overhead and an orchestra pit in front. Two large walls of colored light shows flashed on each side of the giant stage and two large media screens were mounted up on the front wall. We settled in for the worship service.

A choir of maybe a hundred or more singers filed onto the stage and began singing to the accompaniment of the orchestra down in the orchestra pit. Twenty or more well dressed song leaders stood in front of the choir with their arms raised high praising God and singing while swaying back and forth. One by one each song leaders’ smiling face was projected onto the large screens on either side of the stage while the words to the songs were also projected onto the huge screens. Colored lights flashed here and there around the stage illuminating the praise and creating a light show. The audience stood and sang several praise songs and then clapped for the choir and the orchestra. It was a performance.

A T.V. camera mounted on a large metal crane that stood several stories high, moved on wheels up and down the center aisle of the huge auditorium recording the service for the local television station. I noted that during the service, many people in the audience wandered in and out, talking on their cell phones or to one another.

My husband and I enjoyed praising God with these thousands of other Christians and tears rolled down my cheeks during the praise. After the singing was finished, there were several baptisms, which did not take place there in the worship center but were televised on the large screens.

And then the pastor came out to preach while cameras from every angle zoomed in on him. The audience could see his face on the giant screens, and more colored lights danced around behind him. This pastor was an excellent speaker, and he delivered his message forcefully and with much emotion. Over and over again he brought home the fact that we Christians have the obligation to go out into the entire world and tell everyone that Jesus is Lord and that He died to take away our sins. “Jesus brings life and without Him, people are living in darkness.” he shouted. “It is our sacred duty to go and ask as many others as possible to accept Jesus as Savior.” Tears were running down my face. It has been many decades since I have been in a Baptist church and have heard this message preached so clearly. But the words still cut to my soul.

The pastor continued by talking about the Great Commission. “Jesus commanded us to go into all the world and tell others that He is Savior,” he shouted as he pounded the pulpit. “Some liberals tell us we have to save the environment or to worry about social justice,” he added, -“and that isn’t what Jesus is talking about. Jesus tells us in the Great Commission to tell others about Himself”.

I caught my breath and wondered! Just a minute, isn’t Jesus interested in social justice? Didn’t He say a great deal about feeding the hungry and giving to the poor? And I’m not so sure that Jesus wants us to go around polluting the environment either! What is this pastor saying here? Who is this “non-involved Jesus” he is talking about? The Jesus I know is deeply involved with the poor, cares about the hungry and wants us to be involved too.

The pastor shook his fists and went on preaching; “Jesus instructed us through the Great Commission to go into the whole world and tell others that He is the Savior.” Just a minute, I thought. When Jesus gave us the great commission, didn’t He ask us to go into all the world and not only tell people the good news but to also “make disciples”? (Matthew 28:18-20) Wasn’t making disciples part of it? Didn’t this pastor leave that out? When we “make disciples” we not only tell people about Jesus but we teach the new Christians what it means to follow Him too. And yes, being a disciple (following Jesus) means being concerned about social justice. We are supposed to feed the hungry and give to the poor. As Christians we are supposed to get involved. Isn’t that part of the package?

Following Jesus isn’t just saying the right words. We don’t just “talk the talk” but we “walk the walk”. The pastors’ words were right but they didn’t go far enough. At least not for me. Accepting Jesus as Savior means obeying His commandments. And Jesus commands that if we see a person without a coat and we have two coats, we are to give that person one of our coats. (Luke 3:11) (Doesn’t that sound like Communism?)

The pastor preached on, but by now he had lost me. Verse after verse from the Bible began to flit through my mind. “Whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes from the hungry will get many curses.” (Psalms 28;27) “He who is kind to the poor, lends to the Lord. (Proverbs 19:17) “Whoever gives a cup of cold water to the least of these, gives it to Me.” (Matthew 10:42) “If you pour yourself out for the hungry and help the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom shall be as noonday.” (Isaiah 58:10)

And of course Matthew 25:34-36 came to mind. “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you took me in, needed clothes and you clothes me, was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Jesus has so much to say about the importance of taking care of the poor!

We filed out of church and wandered down to the book store. Beautiful jewelry was for sale along with statues of golden gilt angels. Bibles and right wing political books sat on a shelf side by side upsetting me even more. I stood there in the bookstore grumbling to my husband that Jesus wanted us to do more than tell others about Him, that He wanted us to help the poor. A lady buying a book nearby heard me fussing and entered into the discussion. “It was a good sermon,” I told her, “but as Christians we are also to be concerned with social justice. If we have two coats and we see someone with no coat, we are to give them one of ours.” I stopped and smiled at her. “My goodness,” the woman replied, “Isn’t that communism?”

Friday, December 2, 2011

You Gotta Come in by the Door

You Gotta Come in by the Door

(John 10:1-18)

Just one door to eternal life! Jesus is telling yet another of his famous parables here in John 10 and his message comes through loud and clear. Let’s listen to what He has to say: “I tell you the truth, the person who does not enter the sheep fold by the door but climbs in some other way, is a thief and a robber.” (John 10:1) “I am the Door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.” (John 10:9)

Jesus is telling a story here about his sheep and the sheep fold with the one door where his sheep stay. Jesus explains to the disciples that He is the Door and the sheep must come through the Door (Jesus) to get into the fold. And of course the sheep are all those who belong to Jesus, the Master Shepherd. In his parable, Jesus also tells about two different kinds of helpers (under-shepherds) who come into the sheep fold with the job of helping out with the sheep.

There are the good shepherds –the ones who come in through the door of the fold; the ones who repent of their sins and let Jesus give them new life. And Jesus is able to use these changed helpers to lead his sheep out to pasture and back in at night. Jesus can bless his sheep through these good under-shepherds. Jesus gives life to his sheep and protects them from getting lost or being harmed by wild animals through the shepherds who came in through the door, because they hear His voice. The sheep recognize Jesus’ voice through these good under shepherds and they follow them. There is such freedom and abundance for the sheep when they are led by these good shepherds who have come in by the door (Jesus) and are guided by Jesus, the Door.

Let’s listen to how Jesus tells it. “Whoever enters by the door (Jesus) is the shepherd of the sheep. The doorkeeper opens to him and the sheep hear his voice: and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them: and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but will run away from him, for they do not know the voice of a stranger.” (John 10:2-5)

But then there are those other shepherds - the ones who climbed over the wall of the sheep fold and ignored the door, those who aren’t sorry for their sins and won’t repent – who won’t let Jesus give them new life. They want to do life their own way and forget the one Way. These false shepherds don’t care about the sheep but only take the job for the money. Jesus can not work through these guys and the real sheep won’t follow them anyway. The sheep don’t recognize their Masters’ voice when these false shepherds call them. The flock are never led out to pasture or allowed to drink in the streams and rivers. Poor little lambs! If a sheep wanders off and gets lost, these hired hands who jumped over the wall, won’t go look for it. And when the hungry wolves come around, these fake shepherds run off and leave the sheep to die and be eaten.

Let’s listen to what Jesus says about these false shepherds. “All who ever got into the sheep fold without Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep will not hear them. The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy. The hired hand is not the shepherd and he is not bonded to the sheep, so when he sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away: and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because he is only there for the money and he does not really care about the sheep.” (John 10: 8,10a,12 and 13)

Jesus finishes his parable by explaining that He is the Good Shepherd. Jesus has so many names in Scripture and the “Good Shepherd” and the “Door” are just two of his many names. He is our Door or our entrance to eternal life and He is also our Shepherd who leads us into the abundance of that life. Let’s listen to what He says here. “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd gives his life for the sheep. I am the Good Shepherd: and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father: and I lay down My life for the sheep. Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down Myself. I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it up again. This command I have received from My Father.” (John 10:11,14,15,17and 18)

Jesus says that He lay down his life for his sheep (us) and He comes to give his sheep life-not just ordinary existence, but life in fullness and abundance. On the other hand the Enemy (Satan) comes only to steal, kill and destroy. The line is clearly drawn in this parable. There is no middle ground. Jesus makes it definite that there are just two choices – the choice to be on Gods’ side or the choice not to be. There are the real under-shepherds and the false hired hands, those who come in by the door and those who don’t. There is just one moral to this story. You gotta come in by the Door.