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Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Mysteries of Living our Christian Life

The Mysteries of Living our Christian Life

When the disciples asked Jesus why He taught many of his lessons by telling stories or parables, He answered with these words: “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” (Matthew 13:11) Jesus admitted that He taught with parables to make his lessons clearer to some but also to hide the meanings of his lessons from others!  Is Jesus saying that God shows the mystery of kingdom of heaven to some people and doesn’t give that knowledge to others?  Doesn’t the Bible say that God wants everyone to know Him?  (2 Peter 3:9)

 Jesus went on to say: “For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance: but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.  Therefore, I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.”  (Matthew 13:12-13)

Jesus stopped and quoted the prophet Isaiah as saying that the people in Jesus’ day who would hear Him would have hearts that had grown dull and eyes that would be closed and ears that would be hard of hearing.  If these people could only see with their eyes and hear with their ears, then they could understand with their hearts.  And then they would want to turn and let Jesus heal them. 

Again, why is God hiding salvation from some people and not others?  Couldn’t God just open a person’s spiritual eyes and ears so that they could see and hear and believe?  Bible scholars believe that Jesus was telling his disciples that His parables would make the things of God easy to understand for anyone who was willing to be taught – whose eyes were straining to see and whose ears were open to hear.  But at the same time Jesus’ parables would hide God’s truths from those who weren’t interested or who didn’t care – those who did not want to see with their spiritual eyes or hear with their spiritual ears. Spiritual things bored these folks and they had other interests.  It would seem that God isn’t interested in forcing people into the kingdom of heaven who aren’t interested or who don’t want to try to obey His laws. 

It seems one of the mysteries of our Christian walk is that if we want to understand God’s truths, our eyes will be opened to see them and our ears will be able to hear. But if we don’t care about His mysteries then we won’t see or hear them at all.  It’s up to us!  We get what we want! “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” (James 4:8) God gives His gifts to those who want them and who improve them, but He takes his gifts away from those who bury them.  (The Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:14-30) 

When we live out our Christian life, Scripture says that we are living it in another kingdom – the kingdom of heaven.  And some people are worldly and do not want to live in the kingdom of heaven.  These people will not understand Christ or His parables because they don’t want to understand Christ or His parables. 

Jesus explains this mystery of the Door of Salvation opening or closing according to a person’s wants and desires by telling another story or parable. (Matthew 13:18-23) Jesus’ story begins with a Farmer planting seeds.  The Farmer spreads some of the seeds on roads where there is heavy traffic.  The seeds cannot sink into the ground since it is so hard so the wicked one comes and snatches the seed away. The farmer plants more seeds on stony ground.  The seed tries to grow but the root doesn’t develop surrounded by rocks and when the storms (troubles) come, the plant dies. More seed is planted in ground where there are thorny bushes.  The thorns are the cares of this world and the love of money and they choke out the seed so the plant withers and dies.  And then finally the farmer plants more seed on good ground with fertile soil and the seed takes root and grows and bears good fruit.  Some plants produce a hundred fold, some sixty and some thirty. 

In this parable the Farmer is God and the seed is the Word of God.  And the various places that the seed is planted – the hard ground, the stony ground and the good ground – this ground or soil represents our hearts. The condition of the ground is all important and makes all the difference in whether the seed will grow and produce good fruit or whether it will struggle and die.  We can ask God to prepare our hearts for the seed and give us willing hearts.

 The Good News of the Word is there for all of us to partake. If we want the seed to grow in our lives it will take root.  It will grow and spread and give us great joy.  And the seed will change us and fit us for the kingdom of heaven.  If our hearts are hard and uninviting, the seed will never have a chance.  And if our hearts are cluttered with so many things that crowd the seed, it may never have room to grow at all.  But if our hearts are open to Christ and His gospel, and if we want to know the Truth, then we will know the Truth.  And this mysterious little seed will grow up in us and make us new and we will produce good things in our lives and be a blessing to many. 

 God our Father (the Farmer) sends His Word (the seed) out to the hearts (the ground) of the people. One of the mysteries of the Christian life is that God’s Word is alive like a seed.  Jesus continued teaching the crowds with several more parables about the kingdom of heaven -parables to help us understand this mystery of the kingdom of heaven better. 

The first parable Jesus told was the “Parable of the Mustard Seed”.  These are His words: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in the field.  The mustard seed is the least of all the seeds: but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.”  (Matthew 13:31-32) 

And the second parable Jesus told about the kingdom of heaven was “The Parable of the Leaven”.    Here is what He said: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal.  And the leaven spread all over all of the meal and everything was leavened.”  (Matthew 13:33)

In these two parables Jesus seems to be teaching that in the beginning the Kingdom of Heaven comes to us like a tiny seed or a tiny pinch of leaven. We are in church and the pastor’s sermon moves us and we believe in Jesus as our Savior and want to follow Him.   At the time this seems like an invisible decision as we quietly believe – a tiny mustard seed – and we don’t realize what has happened.  When our heart opens to believe, the tiny invisible seed of the Word slips in and, if we tend it, soon it begins to grow and multiply.  It takes root in our life and gradually over time spreads into all of our actions and thoughts like leaven leavening the whole loaf of bread.  It moves us and molds us and soon we are filled with joy and changed.

Time goes by and we grow and mature and join other Christians who like us also started out from that tiny mustard gospel seeds!  Other Christians who have grown and matured like us, were moved by that same invisible seed growing and taking root.  They come and join us and we all come together as one in Christ because we are moved to do this by this leaven that is moving and spreading and re-making our lives.  A mystery that we cannot comprehend!
 And we all become the Church, the Body of Christ.  And what started out looking like an insignificant little mustard seed has grown and spread into the Worldwide Church Militant!  Fighting evil and feeding the hungry and healing the sick and spreading the seeds of the Gospel and giving to the poor.  And spreading out across the world with the peace of Christ like a great tree with nurturing healing branches.  Jesus told us it would be this way in His parables.  This tiny mustard seed would grow into a great tree and the birds of the air would come and nest in its branches.  And this is the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.



Friday, August 19, 2016

How to Deal with Conflicts and Arguments

How to Deal with Conflicts and Arguments

We cannot get away from conflicts and arguments as long as we live in this world. We find them everywhere and we have to face them more often than we think we should.  Sometimes we stay trapped in conflict with enemies for a long time allowing anger and hatred to slip into our thoughts and minds.  We can list all of the reasons why we should be angry at these enemies and it all makes sense.  But Christ calls us to live a life of love and to live by faith even when it doesn’t make sense!

As Christians we know that we have received the love of Jesus and we are called to spread that love to others.  It sounds so good but we run into a problem right off. How do we love the people who hate us when we would rather hate them back?  Shouldn’t we fight back when our enemies are trying to hurt us?  Doesn’t that sound reasonable? We go ahead and criticize our enemies and hate them but we know we are just getting by and that is not enough. Jesus never lets us off the hook as long as we hold onto hate. He just keeps challenging us to be more!

Let’s listen to what Jesus says about this: “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you.  Do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.  That you may be sons and daughters of your Father in heaven: for He makes His sun to rise on the evil and the good.  And He sends rain on the just and on the unjust.  For if you love those who love you, what reward have you?  Doesn’t everyone do that?  And if you greet your brothers and sisters only, what do you do more than others?  Therefore, be ‘perfect’, just as your Father in heaven is ‘perfect.’  (Matthew 5:44-48) 

The word “perfect” doesn’t mean what you are thinking.  It means “complete”, “whole” and “mature”.  Just as your Father in heaven is complete in loving the wayward person, so must you try to be.  Have complete love.  You are to be different than the average person.  We are children of our heavenly Father and by faith we are to resemble our Father.  We live by faith and not by sight.

I believe that when we allow revenge and hate to seep into our souls we poison ourselves with these toxic things.  We were not created to live with hate.  It will destroy us. God our heavenly Father has commanded us to live in love and not to live with hate perhaps because He doesn’t want us to hurt ourselves and pass these hurts along to others.  We can hate the evil a person does without hating the person. Hate destroys people, organizations, homes and nations.  And we may never know what we are missing.

And the power of love blesses us more than we may realize.  I have always wondered why those early Christians who made up the very first church in Jerusalem were so full of the Holy Spirit.  Those early Christians all had such joy and love for one another. There were healings and miracles among them every day!  Thousands of people became Christians because of their witness and influence.  Why doesn’t the Holy Spirit work among our churches today the way He did among that first church? 

When you read the story of those very first Christians recorded in the book of Acts you can become so impressed with all of their healings and miracles that you might miss the passages that tell us that they were careful to love one another and protect their unity.  And they all put their money together and everyone shared everything.  Sounds almost too good to be true!  But for a little while it worked.  And while it worked, they healed the sick, performed miracles, brought thousands of new people to the Lord and even raised the dead!  Was this very first Christian church given such Holy Spirit power because they loved one another so and because they refused to let differences destroy their unity?  Perhaps if we could love that way today, our churches would be open to the power of the Holy Spirit the way that first church was!    

 We may want to be loving to our enemy  but we feel that we must “fight” against the person who is trying to hurt us otherwise our reputation will be ruined or we will lose out in other ways.  And yes, perhaps we will lose out in the short run.  But time is on our side and in the long run God promises to take care of us.

 Time is greater than space.  This principle enables God (and us) to work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results.  Trusting God helps us to patiently endure difficult situations.  We want to rush in and take over our rightful space.  Assert our power and madly attempt to keep everything together in the present.  But fools rush in where angels fear to tread.  If we step back and pray and love the enemy and let God work in the background, He will work in ways that we could never imagine!    

God speaks to us through Scripture and tells us that He will bless us and fight for us.  And again He challenges us to live by faith and obey His command to give up hate and thoughts of revenge for people who are hurting us.  Our job as followers of Christ is to trust and obey.    

Let’s listen to God’s answer to what we should do when we are having conflicts with others: “None of you repay evil for evil. … If possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all people.  Beloved, do not avenge yourselves but rather put away your anger: for it is written, ‘Revenge is Mine, (God’s) I will repay,’ says the Lord. “(Romans 12:17a,18-19) Jesus warned his disciples and all of his followers that there are things we cannot yet understand.  We just need to accept them by faith.  (John 16:12-13) Accept the fact that God is the Judge and He will deal with your enemies in His time frame.

In the parable of the weeds among the wheat, (Matthew 13:24-30) the farmer plants good wheat seeds in his fields but then the enemy comes at night and plants weeds hoping to ruin his wheat crop.  The workers on the farm ask the farmer (owner) if they should pull the weeds up out of his field.  But the farmer/owner of the wheat field tells them to wait and leave the weeds growing with his wheat until the final harvest. His reasons are that some of the good wheat may be pulled up with the weeds. The farmer/owner leaves the job of pulling the weeds until the last day – the harvest time - when the wheat will be harvested and the weeds destroyed.

This parable illustrates that the enemy can intrude and cause us (the wheat) harm, but ultimately in the end he will be defeated by the Owner (God) of the field of wheat.  We are commanded: “Be not overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Romans 12:21)  

When a conflict arises, there are several ways of dealing with it.  Some people pretend to ignore it.  Others criticize and fume and become prisoners of it.  Perhaps the best way to deal with a conflict is to face it head on and resolve it if possible.  That is best accomplished when we care about the person or persons we are having the conflict with.  We must be prayerful during conflicts, ready to negotiate and ready to try to see and sympathize with the other person’s side of the problem, even when we cannot agree.  But we should never think less of the person who disagrees with us and never call them names or cut them off. Never allow the conflict to break our unity.    

If we cannot agree with our adversary we can go beyond the surface of the conflict to see the person who disagrees with us in their deepest dignity.  We must continue to love and honor that person even if we cannot agree with them.  Agree to disagree and refuse to allow the disagreement to break the unity we have in Christ.  Unity is greater than conflict.  Live a life where conflicts and oppositions can achieve a diversified life-giving unity.

Christ is our peace and has made all things one in Himself. (Ephesians 2:14) The Gospel message always begins with a greeting of peace.  Obviously peace and unity are all important to the Lord.  And peace is possible because the Lord has overcome the world and its constant conflicts “by making peace through the blood of His cross.”  (Colossians 1:20)   

I took many ideas and excerpts for this blog from “The Joy of the Gospel” written by Pope Francis.  Pages 155-164.   

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Mercy or Legalism?

 Mercy or Legalism?

It was a sunny Sabbath day and Jesus and his disciples were walking through fields of grain on their way to the synagogue for worship.  They were getting hungry so they picked some heads of grain and ate them as they walked along.  Meanwhile the religious leaders, who were called “Pharisees” had been spying on Jesus and his disciples, waiting to catch them doing something wrong.  When they saw one of the disciples picking grain they rushed across the field toward Jesus shouting angrily: “Look here!  Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”  (Matthew 12:2) 

The Jewish religious leaders or Pharisees back then had put their own strict legalistic interpretation on the Scriptures.  God had given laws and commandments to the Jewish people telling them how to share and live lovingly and justly with one another.  But often the Pharisees would turn these laws into heavy burdens for the people.

One of God’s commands given to the Jewish people (and to us) was to rest on the Sabbath day.  To stop working and take a break.  Worship God and lay their burdens down.  Let their employees stop working on the Sabbath along with their animals.  God’s Word states that the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.  This command is one of the Ten Commandments and begins this way: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.  In it you shall not do any work.”  (Exodus 20:8) 

The Pharisees were upset because they believed that Jesus’ disciples were working when they plucked grain to eat!  That small effort of plucking grain caused the disciples to break God’s Sabbath so these religious leaders argued!  They shook their fists at Jesus accusing Him and His disciples of serious sin and promising God’s judgment would follow.

Jesus answered them with several stories.  He reminded them that their ancestor, King David, entered the house of God with his men.  These men had not eaten for several days. They all ate the showbread that had been dedicated to God.  It was not lawful for David and his men to eat this bread, as it was meant only for the priests.  (1 Samuel 21:1-6) David and his men had been very hungry and couldn’t find food.  Even though they broke the law by eating this bread, they were excused by God.  Jesus explains that Sabbath regulations may sometimes yield to human needs.  Human need takes precedence over a strict interpretation of the Law, Jesus is telling the legalistic Pharisees. 

Then Jesus reminds the Pharisees that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath by working, and yet God counts them blameless.  (Matthew 12:5) The priests must give offerings to God and hold worship services on the Sabbath, so they must work on the Sabbath if the people are to come to temple worship.  Jesus seemed to be saying that there are exceptions to a rule.   

And then Jesus finishes with these words: “Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple.  But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.  For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”  (Matthew 12:6-8) 

Jesus seems to be saying that God ordained rest on the Sabbath to bless people, not to add another burden on them.  Jesus tells the religious leaders that if they had known what the Law and the Scriptures meant they would not have condemned his disciples.  The Pharisees had spent their lives studying God’s laws, but they still didn’t know the “meaning” of those laws.  God had given the Jewish people many laws but Jesus once said that all of God’s laws could be summed up in just two laws - laws of love.  “Love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Matthew 27:37-40) Did these religious leaders not understand the meaning of God’s laws because they lacked love? 

Jesus was also telling the Pharisees that He was “Lord of the Sabbath”, although they did not want to hear that.   Jesus, the Son of God, has been given authority over everything and that includes the Sabbath.  Jesus also hinted at who He was by telling the Pharisees: “ In this place is One greater than the temple” (Matthew 12:6)   If working in the temple would justify the priests working on the Sabbath, wouldn’t the service to Christ much more justify the disciples picking grain on the Sabbath while serving Christ.  Christ in a wheat field was greater than the temple. Jesus was not saying here that it was not important to rest and worship God on the Sabbath or to keep all of God’s laws.  But I believe that He was saying that there are exceptions to the rules. 

You may be surprised that Jesus and His disciples were plucking grain from another person’s field, but this was a common practice in those days and never thought of as stealing.  God had given the Jewish people laws encouraging them to share with one another and never let another person go hungry.  Again mercy was all important in God’s plan.  One of God’s laws to the Jewish people instructed them regarding this practice.  “If you enter your neighbor’s grain field, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to his standing grain.”  (Deuteronomy 24:25) 

 The Pharisees and nearly all the religious leaders of that day did not recognize Jesus as their promised Messiah, and rejected Him.  They refused to see His miracles or recognize that He was healing hundreds of people.  They wanted to kill Him for causing a lame man to walk on the Sabbath day.  And they were frightened and outraged when He brought Lazarus back from the dead.  So frightened and outraged that they began plotting to kill Him.

 Jesus Christ was messing up their little world. Their Messiah had come to them bringing light and life and they weren’t ready for Him.  They were enjoying the power and authority they had over the Jewish people with their many strict laws and restrictions. They would have to change and do things differently if they were to believe in Jesus.  And they definitely didn’t want to change.  

Jesus also comes into your world bringing light and life.  And He also calls for you to follow Him.  To let Him be your Savior. To go into the world sharing His love and mercy with others. To leave your hate behind and forgive.  Are you willing to let Him change you?  What will your answer be?      


Sunday, August 7, 2016

An Invitation from Jesus

An Invitation from Jesus

“Come unto Me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”  (Matthew 11:28-30)   Jesus stood on a grassy hill near the Sea of Galilee, surrounded by the crowds and gave His invitation. He opened His arms wide and invited them all to come to Him.  To share His yoke and to learn from Him and to allow Him to give them rest.  His invitation was for all of the people back then and His invitation is also for all of us today!    

Jesus had just gotten through revealing something about Himself to these local people. He had spent three years among these people teaching and healing their diseases and performing miracles. And by now these people who lived around the Sea of Galilee were wondering if Jesus was the Messiah promised in Scripture.  And Jesus tells them outright who He is.  He says: “All things have been committed to Me by my Father.  No one knows the Son except through the Father, and no one knows the Father except through the Son, and those who the Son chooses to reveal Him.”  (Matthew 11:27) 

Jesus’ invitation is like no other invitation because Jesus is like no other.  As He says, He is the Son of God and all things have been committed to Him.  A Royal Invitation from the Son of God who is gentle and humble in heart and who is also our Savior has been issued to all the people on earth then and now. He has the power to do what He promises, because He is the Son of God and all authority has been given to Him.  Jesus is calling each one of us to come to Him and get to know Him too. He promises to take away the burden and guilt of sin and to give us rest in our souls. 

To accept Jesus’ invitation, a person must want to turn from their sin. (1 John 1:9) He or she must come to Jesus and submit to Him as Lord and Savior. Jesus first gave his Invitation two thousand years ago to the Jewish crowds following Him.  Thousands of them had come out of their towns and villages to listen to Him preach. To watch Him heal the lepers and open blind persons’ eyes so they could see.  Many of them had crowded around as He gave a lame person the power to walk and hundreds were amazed and astonished when He raised people from the dead.  Surely these people who had been there and seen His miracles up close would accept His Invitation. But it didn’t work out that way!

Even though many of the folks from the Galilee region did repent of their sins and accept Jesus’ Invitation, many more neglected His call even after they had been healed by Him!  Later Jesus had strong words for these people who were there to see Him heal and raise the dead but who still turned their backs on His call. 

 Here is what Jesus said: “Woe to you, Korazin! (Korazin was a town in Israel) Woe to you, Bethsaida! (Bethsaida was also an Israeli town) If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.  But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.  And you, Capernaum (another town by the Sea of Galilee) will you be lifted up to the skies?  No, you will go down to the depths.  If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.  But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”  (Matthew 11:21-24)

 Jesus was teaching that there will be a day of judgment in the future for the whole world as Scripture teaches.  Jesus stated that if the ancient cities of Tyre and Sidon had been blessed by  having Him with them healing and preaching like Korazin and Bethsaida had, they would have repented of their sins and followed Him.  Tyre and Sidon would not have fallen, but would have remained thriving cities. Korazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, all towns near the Sea of Galilee  had been given such an advantage by having Jesus right there with them healing and saving! And yet they still ignored His Invitation!

One day when Jesus was ministering around Galilee, several of John the Baptist’s helpers showed up looking for Him.   John the Baptist had sent them to ask Jesus a question.   John the Baptist had gone before Jesus announcing Jesus with these words: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) John the Baptist knew so well who Jesus was but now he was locked away in a dark prison and he had time to question his faith in Jesus.  His question to Jesus was: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”  (Matthew 11:3) 

Jesus sent these words back to John through his disciples: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.  Blessed is the person who does not fall away on account of Me.”  (Matthew 11:4-6) 

John perhaps had expected Jesus to keep him from going to prison.  And he may have thought that the promised Messiah would ride in on a white horse with a flaming sword and mighty armies and take care of all of Israel’s problems with the Romans.  Many Israelites expected their “Messiah” to come and save them from the Romans who were ruling them at that time.  But Jesus did not live up to their worldly expectations, so many of them did not recognize Him.   Jesus came to save them from so much more and give them eternal life. It seems even John the Baptist, who had great faith in Jesus faltered and doubted Him because Jesus did not do what he had expected.  And Jesus said to John the Baptist’s helpers: “Blessed is the person who does not fall away on account of Me.”  (Matthew 11:6) 

  Sometimes Jesus may not work in our lives the way we expect either.  He does not always remove our problems in the manner or time frame that we think He will. We have to trust Him to work the way He works even when we don’t understand all the reasons.  But like Jesus said, we are blessed when we im Hianddo not fall away on account of Him.  When we trust Him no matter what.

Jesus has given His Invitation to the world!  A call to come to Him and learn of Him and take on His yoke. And a promise to give our souls rest.  Some folks reject or ignore His invitation like many of the folks who lived in the Galilee region and were there when He taught and healed.  Others like John the Baptist have doubts and ask questions but still believe in Him and follow Him.  And then there are many who accept His Invitation whole heartedly and trust Him and are blessed forever after with peace and joy and light and love and salvation and more. Jesus Christ still stands there with His arms outstretched calling out to each one of us, “Come to Me”.  How will you answer Him?