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Friday, March 30, 2012

Take Up Your Cross and Follow Me

Take Up Your Cross and Follow Me

Then Jesus said to them all: “If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Me will save it.”  (Luke 9:23-24) 

Those words of Jesus warn us that suffering in some form is part of the ministry of Christ.  What does it mean for us to take up our cross and follow Jesus?  How do we do this and what would our “cross” look like?

Every person alive suffers pain, disappointment and troubles.  This cross that Jesus asks us to take up is not the cross of suffering that we all face by just being human. But rather this cross is about a special suffering that comes from following Jesus.

What does Jesus mean here by saying that we “must deny ourselves”?  The spirit of this world projects a strong message that we should strive to be important, and that we should act that out, use impression management, etc.  I have known Christians in leadership who have taken leadership classes where they were taught how to impress and intimidate.  One lesson they were taught was that if someone were to come to them with a request that the leader didn’t like, the leader could  intimidate the person by telling him/her that he was so angered by the request that he would need a cooling off period of two weeks before discussing the request. 

You see, to appear “important” in the eyes of others sometimes we have to play games that the Lord would not have us play!  But when we deny ourselves as Jesus calls us to do and we take the role of loving and serving, some people will not respect us.  I’ve seen it happen.  Is that what Jesus means when He calls us to take up our cross?         

 Jesus tried to tell his disciples why they would be persecuted -or why the cross.  Let’s listen:  “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you.  If you were of the world, the world would love you because you would be part of it.  But because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.  …If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.”  (John 15:18,19,& 20b)

Jesus seems to be telling us that His followers are set apart from the spirit of this world even though they are living in the world.  Scripture says that when we believe in Jesus we receive the Holy Spirit, and the spirit of this world is at odds with the Holy Spirit that is in us and guides us.  So we don’t fit or belong even though we may not recognize it, and sometimes we may experience persecution because of this unseen spiritual battle. 

Being a disciple of Christ can be costly.  Down through history there have been thousands of martyrs who have actually given up their lives in defense of the Word of God.  But those of us who live in countries where we are free to practice our faith and not fear martyrdom, can still suffer persecution. 

  In his book “Sources of Strength” p. 226, Jimmy Carter writes: “Living as Jesus commands is not easy and sometimes not even safe.  If we work every day for the Lord, speaking out against injustice and hatred, sharing what we have, and seeking opportunities to help those who cannot help themselves, we will probably not run the risk of losing our lives, as Jesus did, but we may suffer in other ways.  Maybe people will think we’re a little odd; maybe some will look down on us.  If we’re in business maybe we’ll lose a few customers, because some people may find that being around us makes them uncomfortable; maybe we’ll even find ourselves isolated from some of our closest friends and family, who don’t share our beliefs and values.  To accept, with God’s help, any of these forms of deprivation is one way to take up our cross.”

Persecution may be especially hard to understand when it comes from inside the family. Jesus warned us about this.  His words in Matthew 11:35-36 tell us: “I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.  And a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.”  If one family member is following Jesus and another is not, it can cause a problem in their relationship. Amos 3:3 says: “How can two walk together unless they be agreed” The pain of losing the love of a family member is indeed a cross that some Christians have to bear.  Can we accept this form of persecution and continue leaving the door open and loving our rejecting family member?  Is this taking up a cross?

There are many pastors today who preach a prosperity gospel.  They tell us that God wants us to be rich, drive flashy cars, and have fun times, etc.  This culture wants a pleasant non-threatening Jesus.  We like to dictate the terms and assemble a Jesus that suits our wishes. 

But Jesus wants us to follow Him and not a made up imitation.  He wants us to have the real deal – to live an authentic life. When we read the sixteen chapters of Mark we find that the first eight chapters – the first half of Mark- teach us how to accumulate, how to build and how to produce.  And the last half of Mark – those last eight chapters teach us how to give away what we have accumulated, how to let go and how to die.  That is the real deal.  

Soon it will be Good Friday and we will be remembering Jesus’ death.  Even though his disciples begged Him not to go to Jerusalem, Jesus went knowing that He would be put to death when He got there.  Scripture says that He “set His face towards Jerusalem”. (Luke 9:51)   For Jesus, going to Jerusalem meant taking up His cross.  And Jesus asks us to take up our cross and follow Him there also.  We too must set our faces towards Jerusalem. When we follow Jesus we will share in His victory, but we must also share in His cross.  So let’s take up our cross and follow Him.   

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Real Simple

Real Simple

The message is so simple, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31) and “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”  (Romans 10:13)  and …Whosoever believes in Him (Jesus) shall not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)  God’s grace is all encompassing.  It includes everyone.  The heavenly Father loves everybody and is calling us all home. (John 3:16)  Come, we are all invited!  The door is wide open and the porch light is always on.

Paul and Barnabas were traveling around Greece and Asia preaching this joyous message and thousands of people were accepting Jesus as their Savior and becoming Christians!  People were being healed of diseases and turning from their sins. The Holy Spirit was in their midst and new churches were springing up everywhere Paul preached. These were exciting times!

But then some men from Judea arrived on the scene, went into the churches and told these new enthusiastic Christians that Paul was wrong.  That becoming a Christian was complicated. Just believing in Jesus was too simple! Simple faith wasn’t enough! And that in order to receive salvation they needed to be circumcised and follow the laws of Moses! The door to salvation wasn’t open.  It had a lock on it and one had to know the correct combination to open it. 

Paul was so upset that he decided to take a trip to Jerusalem and question the apostles and elders about this.  The very first Christian church had been formed in Jerusalem and many of Jesus’ disciples were members of this Jerusalem church.  Since the elders in Jerusalem had been the first to receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and many of them had walked and talked with Jesus, maybe they could answer this question.  Was Jesus enough for salvation- or did a person need to be circumcised and obey intricate laws in order to be saved from sin? 

When Paul arrived in Jerusalem and asked this question to the apostles and elders, it started up a long discussion among them. The elders argued and prayed together and fasted and asked the Holy Spirit to lead them. They all knew that Jesus was the Son of God and that He had died to take away sins.  But then, being Jewish, they had all spent their lives obeying the Old Testament laws. Was the new Christian church just supposed to forget all of those laws?  Jesus had said that He was the fulfillment of those laws, but what did that mean? What did God want?  They prayed and asked God to show them what to do and then they waited. 

After days of prayer, fasting and arguing Peter stood up and spoke to the men and women in the Jerusalem church.  Let’s read what Peter said.  “And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up and said unto them, ‘Fellow believers, you know that a good while ago God chose me among our group to go to the Gentiles and preach the Word.  And the Gentiles believed the gospel. So God who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us.  And God made no distinction between us and them purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore why tempt God, to put a yoke (of the law) upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?  But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.’”.  (Acts 15: 7-11)

So there you have it.  Peter through the power of the Holy Spirit was announcing to the Jerusalem church that a person is not saved by obeying the law but by believing “that  through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved,…”  There were strong willed leaders in this first Christian church who disagreed with Peter, but they all prayed and asked the Holy Spirit to guide them in the right decision.  And soon they were all agreeing with Peter that faith in Jesus was all that was needed for salvation.

This was a turning point in the life of the new Christian church, and one that was resolved through the influence of the Holy Spirit.  In such an important and hotly debated issue, the unity of the elders in the Jerusalem church is very impressive.

We can understand both sides of this debate.  All of us tend to want to define what a Christian is.  Should God just let everyone in through the door?  What about people who steal and cheat and kill?  How could God have standards low enough to include everyone?  But what seems difficult for us is easy for God:  He has His ways.

Scripture says: “He who believes in Jesus is not condemned: but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.  And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world and men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light lest his deeds should be exposed.”  (John 3:18-20)

 This Scripture makes it sound like some people stay away from Jesus (the Light) because they don’t want Him to clean up the bad things they are doing. They love their sinful lifestyle (darkness) too much to be drawn to (the Light) Jesus.  Does believing in Jesus or having “faith” mean that we need to be willing to let Him bring us out of our darkness?  Sounds difficult but it’s not since the Light is warm and inviting and we are drawn to it. 

 How much faith does a person need to be able to accept Jesus?  Once Jesus’ disciples ask Him how much faith a person needed. And Jesus answered that all that is needed is the faith of a grain of mustard seed.  A mustard seed is one of the smallest seeds there is.  Jesus was saying that the tiniest bit of faith in Him is all we need. He will do the rest. He can give us his Spirit, take away our sins and change us. Jesus paid it all. We can’t add anything to that. He is the heavy weight and we are the light weights. Our part is so small- just a tiny bit of faith- and He will even give us that if we are willing. The door is wide open. It’s real simple.    




Saturday, March 17, 2012

Passing on Grace to a Black and White World

Passing On Grace to a Black and White World

When Paul was preaching to the Philippians he told them that the Lord wanted them to be moderate in their actions. Here’s what he said. “Let your moderation be known to everyone.” (Philippians 4:5) Gods’ people were to be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.” (James 1:19) And above all Jesus said they were to love each other. “..all people will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

It wasn’t easy to be a Christian back then. The religious leaders of that time – the Pharisees and the Scribes - were zealous about keeping all of the laws of Moses. Jesus told them that He did not come to do away with the laws of the Old Testament but to “fulfill” them. (Matthew 5:17) But they didn’t understand. For these legalistic men, every action was either black or white, right or wrong, pure or defiled. These puritanical priests cut no slack for the disinfranchised, had no compassion for the sinner, and gave no second chances.

If the Pharisees caught a Jewish person breaking one of the many Old Testament laws they would have that person severely punished. Whippings and stoning, chains and imprisonment were common place. These up tight leaders crucified Jesus because He admitted that He was the Son of God and the Savior. The grace Jesus extended to sinners threatened the power that these religious leaders held over the Jewish people. It upset their little world of black and white. And they tried to put Jesus’ followers to death too. The good news of forgiveness and salvation being spread by those first Christians was a threat to their hierarchy.

In John 8:3-11 we read the story of the scribes and Pharisees bringing a woman to Jesus who had been caught in adultery. They wanted to trick Jesus so they asked Him: “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of adultery. Now Moses, in the law, commands us to stone such a person. But what do You say?” (John 8:4-5) The scribes and Pharisees were probably holding stones in their hands waiting to kill the frightened woman. Of course the married man that they caught her having sex with was not there. The religious leaders must have let him go and only charged the woman with this crime. As the religious leaders dragged the shamed woman over to Jesus she was probably shaking with fear.

So how would Jesus respond? Would Jesus agree with the laws of Moses and authorize these men of God to stone the woman to death? Or would He act as if the sin of adultery wasn’t serious and let the woman off? The Pharisees and scribes had gotten Him in a corner and they knew it! Jesus could either choose the right decision and help them stone her or He could choose the wrong decision and not stand up for the sanctity of marriage! These religious leaders saw their world in black and white – right and wrong. There was no middle ground in their minds – no grey areas (or grace areas)!

“But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear. So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, ‘He who is without sin among you, let him throw the first stone at her.’ And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest. And Jesus was left alone with the woman standing there. (John 8:6b-9)

What did Jesus write in the dust? Did He write down sins that these men had committed? Scripture says that these pious men were convicted by Jesus! They were reminded that they too were sinners like the woman.

“When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, ‘Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘neither do I condemn you: go and sin no more.’” ( John 8: 10-11) Can you imagine how relieved the woman must have felt at that time? Jesus had saved her from being stoned by the men of God. Scripture says that Jesus didn’t come into the world to condemn us, but to save us. (John 3:17)

And then Jesus spoke to the Pharisees and to the woman and explained: “I am the light of the world; anyone who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” (John 8:12) Was Jesus telling them that He is the Light of the world and had come to change things? Make things different? Turn their darkness into light? He could clean up the darkness in that black and white world?

Jesus didn’t approve of what the woman had done. He told the woman to go and sin no more. (John 8:11) He (by His death) would remove the woman’s sin (darkness) if she would follow Him. But whatever He wrote in the dirt convicted the Pharisees that they were sinners too and should have compassion on other sinners.

Things don’t seem to have changed much today from back then! We still have religious leaders today putting women down! Judgmental church folk pointing fingers at the alien! And so called “Christians” picking up stones and murdering the sinner! If we come to Jesus today with stones in our hands and hatred in our hearts, what message would He stoop and write in the dirt for us? Would He go along with us in our black and white world when His grace has turned everything upside down? Would He not have the same message for us that He had for the Pharisees? That because He bestows His grace onto us, we can pass that grace on in our black and white world!

Questions: What do you think?

1) Do you agree or disagree that things don’t seem to have changed today? That many in the church today are judgmental? Circling the disenfranchised with stones in their hands?

2) What message would Jesus write in the dirt for us today when we are circling the sinner with stones in our hands?

3) How did Jesus “fulfill” the laws of the Old Testament?

4) How has Jesus turned your darkness into light?

5) How can we pass the grace Jesus has bestowed onto us to other people?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Pray For Your Enemies

Pray For Your Enemies!

The date was 597 B.C. and Nebuchadnezzar and his powerful armies attacked the people of Judah and overpowered their defenses. They broke down the walls surrounding Jerusalem and captured the city. After ransacking the homes and destroying Solomon’s’ temple, the Babylonians set fire to the city as the people of Judah stood by helplessly and watched.

After stealing everything of value, the soldiers from Babylon rounded up nearly everyone since workers and artisans were always needed back home. Thousands of terrified Israelites would be shackled together in chains and led away to Babylon. It would be a mass human exile – with crying and moaning and tears - a whole nation kidnapped and on a forced march into slavery. According to Jeremiah 29:2, this group included all of the leaders in Judah, the king, the queen mother and the royal court, and all the workers and artists. Thousands of Israelites would be forced against their will to live among those who had taken them from their homes. Only a few of the poor and the infirmed were left behind in the smoldering ruins of Jerusalem.

It was during this dark time that God speaks to the frightened people. Jeremiah the prophet of God writes a letter to the Israelites after they had arrived in Babylon and were trying to adjust to their new life as slaves in a foreign land. Jeremiah writes this letter from Jerusalem which is now a broken and desolate city. This once busy city- now lonely -almost a ghost town,- its’ leaders and farmers and artisans and builders all carried away. Parents and children gone. Noise and laughter and hope gone. Only a remnant of the once proud nation of Judah, a few stragglers left there in the rubble.

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent to the homesick Jews as they were settling into their new lives in Babylon. “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them: plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters: take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters: multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29: 4-7)

The prophets of old had a difficult job – since they carried God’s word to people even when often it was rejected. The people of Judah had never wanted to hear Jeremiah’s messages. For years he had warned them that if they continued worshiping idols and breaking Gods’ laws they would be exiled from their homeland into slavery. For years God, speaking through Jeremiah, had begged the Israelites to return to Him. But the people had refused to listen. They refused to give up their idols. They laughed at Jeremiah and refused to return to God.

So now all of God’s warnings had come true. Jeremiah’s prophecies of what would happen if they didn’t repent had finally taken place. Their exile to Babylon was a punishment for their rejection of God and they knew it.

And now God speaks again to them through Jeremiah, telling them how to live their lives among the people who had forced them to leave their homeland. Jeremiahs’ prophecy doesn’t tell the people to fight the Babylonians. He doesn’t write a letter full of anger or revenge. Instead, he instructs the people to carry forward- to marry, have children, plant gardens, eat and drink and build houses. He even tells the people to pray for the Babylonians – pray for the people who took them away from their homeland!

Can you imagine receiving this letter and reading that you were to pray for the very people who had stolen your home? To work for their welfare? The people of Judah had a radical God. But doesn’t Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies as well? (Matthew 5:44) To do good to those who hate us and seek their welfare? We have a radical God too!

It seems that so often we put forth quality time and energy hating our enemies. And these efforts spent hating enemies just might take away from time we could spend loving those closest to us. God called the people of Judah to pray for their captors – their enemies- and work for their welfare. Instead of using up time hating and undermining the Babylonians, they were to fall in love, have children, plant gardens, eat and drink and build houses. And God also calls us to let up on our enemies and rather focus on creating and tending and on family and caring. In other words we are to live a life of love- and not of hate.

God still loved the people of Judah even though they had broken His heart by their rejection. Through Jeremiah’s messages God promised the people that He would bring them back from Babylon in seventy years and restore them to their homeland. He tells them: “For I know the thoughts that I have toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. …You will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with your whole heart.” (Jeremiah 29:11and 13). Even though the people of Judah had given up on God, He hadn’t given up on them.

I believe that God has some of the same messages for us as He did for his people so long ago. He is hurt if we reject Him just as He was hurt back then with the people of Judah. And He wants good things for us and wants to give us a future and a hope as He wanted that for them. He also instructs us to pray for our enemies and to work for their welfare. That’s because like them we are to live a life focused on love and not on hate.

Pray for your Enemies!

Friday, March 2, 2012

They Shall Beat Their Swords into Plowshares

They Shall Beat Their Swords into Plowshares

The year was around 700 B.C. and the Israelites were going through a very difficult time. Both the Northern and Southern tribes were engaged in terrible wars with powerful nations – Assyria and Babylon - and the unthinkable was happening. The ten northern tribes of Israel would soon be carried off into slavery by the Assyrians, never to see their homeland again. And later the two tribes of Judah would spend 70 years in Babylonian captivity. And all because for many years the Jewish people had broken Gods’ laws and forsaken their God to worship and sacrifice to the popular idols of the heathen tribes that lived around them.

And now they were in trouble and the idols they worshiped were not saving them. Frightened and helpless they watched as their land was stolen, their homes burned and their lives were uprooted. So it was that at this time, when everything was going wrong, that God spoke through the prophet Isaiah.

These prophecies of Isaiah held out a distant ray of hope to the Israelites during this time of despair. Even though they had rejected God and their lives were out of control, a future time would come – after death – that God would restore their country - and their lives too. God’s message was given to help these frightened people see beyond the mess they were in – way beyond to a day when God would restore creation– and life would be as it should be. A victorious day dimly shinning far off in the future – a day when people would beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. A time of planting and growing rather than of fighting and killing. A day of peace, ruled by the Prince of Peace!

Let’s read God’s Word as recorded by Isaiah to these frightened people. “The Word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the earth! And all the nations shall stream to it. Many people shall come and say, ‘Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob: that He may teach us His ways and that we may walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth Instruction in Truth, and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” (Isaiah 2:1-5)

This message from Isaiah shows that the Kingdom of God is very different from the systems we have created here. We create systems of power and control. But the kingdom of heaven will be based on growth and harvest and peace. It will be a kingdom where the lion will lay down with the lamb and the wolf with the cow and a little child shall lead them. A place where there will be no killing and we will be delivered from our selfish schemes. It is so over the top that we can hardly imagine what it will be!

We could beat our swords into plowshares today if our world was anything like the kingdom of God. But alas, it isn’t. We live in a fallen world – a world under the curse of sin, (Gen. 3:17) where we still must fight wars to try to stop injustice. So until the Lord returns to remove sin and rule the earth, how are we to live?

First we are instructed to keep the peace as much as we can. Occupy until He comes. (Luke 19:13) Jesus tells us: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.” (Matt. 5:9) Maybe as peacemakers we can speak words that build people up instead of words that tear down. Our tongues can be like swords that harm others or they can be like plowshares that spread life and hope. In our personal lives we can turn our swords (our anger and hate) into plowshares (loving and creating). And we are to forgive one another as Jesus taught in the Lord’s Prayer. (Matthew 6:9)

When we read the history of the First World War, we learn that this terrible war was started for no real reason except for honor and pride. When the war ended there were fifteen million dead and twenty million wounded – a whole generation of young men gone. One of the deadliest conflicts in human history. And all done out of vanity to prop up dynasties- long gone- and reputations!

As we live our lives as children of God we will find ourselves tempted to become a part of smaller wars – arguments, competitions, etc. in order to protect our reputations and keep our “honor” in tact. Some one will take advantage of us or insult us or compete against us. And to defend our precious pride we will jump in the fray using our swords and spears. And like in World War One, how much harm will we do to ourselves and others while we fight these personal wars?

God has not called us to jump into these personal battles to defend our reputations. He instructs us to turn the other cheek and be humble, -to allow Him to take care of our reputation. We are not to return evil for evil, insult for insult, – or play these “honor” games. How can the other side fight a war with us if we don’t show up? How can we use our God given plowshare (our life) to plant and harvest if we are busy using it as a sword to hurt and destroy?

Did Isaiah’s message of Gods’ distant day of peace help the Israelites when they were in the middle of war? Does our belief in heaven – in life after death – where we will be ruled by the Prince of Peace – does that help us live our lives today? First John 3:2-3 tells us that if we have this belief of being changed through Christ after death, it somehow helps (purifies) us. Let’s read: “…It has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He (Jesus) returns, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He (Jesus) is pure.”

Ah, another mystery. We “purify” ourselves by just believing that Jesus will change us to be sinless and beautiful on the other side! Just having this hope does make a difference? It seems that Scripture implies that we are helped here in our earthly lives if we have the hope of heaven where God will rule and make everything right. And where all the swords will be beaten into plowshares!