Sunday, June 29, 2008

One, Exclusive, and Unique -- Jesus!

In teaching Sunday School this morning I spent a lot of time “building the front porch” and didn't get to spend as much time “building the house” as I wanted to. So, I'll build a little on the main house now.

If you are not familiar with John 14:1-14, go back and re-read it.

Why were the disciples troubled?

Something was up and they could just sense it. There was tension in the air. Their lives were about to be turned upside down and they couldn‘t yet comprehend it. We have felt that way before, right?

Jesus was trying to explain things to them by trying to help them see the big picture. If Jesus were successful at that, then His disciples would be better equipped to face the days that were just ahead.

He was also trying to provide a measure of comfort to them. Jesus promised to go and prepare a place for those who follow Him. The most encouraging promise here is that those who do trust Him and follow Him will spend eternity with him in Heaven.

The symbolism here was not lost on the disciples. They were all Jewish males and they understood the reference. Jesus was using the words that young Jewish males would recite to their fiances. They would commit their love and life to their future bride and then they would leave them with their family and the man would return to his own home. Once home he would beging to build an addition on to his dad's house. He would build a couple of rooms on to his parent's home. As soon as they were built he would go back to his fiances house and get her. He would bring her back to be with him.

Now do Jesus' words make more sense?

Does that alone make today's problems disappear? -- Of course not. But it does help us keep the very finite nature of our problems and circumstances in the perspective of eternity with Jesus. They become strangely smaller in that light and context. A line from an old hymn says, “ . . . and the things of this world will grow stangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.”

Now here comes our “Narrowminded Alert!”

For some folks, what Jesus says in verse 6 is one of the most difficult truths to accept. Jesus’s statement is even harder to accept in today’s society. He says that there is no other way to His Heavenly Father but through Him. What an exclusive and narrow statement! That flies in the face of our multi-cultural, open, inclusive and politically correct society.

That statement completely eliminates any faith that is not built on Jesus Christ. It shoots down the theory that we can get to heaven if we are “good enough.” It says that being better than __________ (fill in the blank) isn’t good enough in light of God’s requirement that we be holy as He is holy as seen in Leviticus 11:45 and 1 Peter 1:16. It says that I won’t make it based upon my geography or genealogy. There is only one way to God.

Thomas asks a question like we would ask. So, how do we have a relationship and know the Father? What does a relationship-based faith look like?

It means we discover God’s Son, Jesus by spending time with Him and reading His Word. Philip speaks up and says, “Well, show us God and we’ll get it this time.” Jesus’ response pierces right to the heart of the matter. “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known me, Philip?”

What if Jesus asked that question of you.

Jesus claims something extreme. He does not claim to be a great theologian, a top theologian, or even the supreme Theologian, but rather He claims to be the ONLY Theologian. He says, “No one really knows the Father except the Son.” Again, He doesn’t say “No one really knows the Father like the Son” or even “just like the Son.” His words are precise and purposeful. “No one really knows the Father except the Son”

Heaven’s door has one door and one key. And Jesus holds it.

But, He stands at the door of Heaven calling our name.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Pursuing Love . . . Redeeming Love

The book of Hosea is one of the more unusual books in the Bible. Hosea was a prophet in the time of the divided Kingdom and he lived out one of the most difficult stories that we can imagine. Hosea was told by God to marry a woman who would be unfaithful to him. This was a sin that was punishable by death. He knew what she was going into the marriage. God instructed him to go and marry a harlot. -- How about that?

What would YOU do in that situation?

What would I do?

His wife's name was Gomer and was a picture of the attitude of the Israelites toward God. Her adulterous actions were a reflection of the actions of the Israelites as they were unfaithful to God and worshipped Baal. Gomer’s actions resulted in her being enslaved. But God instructed Hosea to go and buy her back at the slave market . . . to pay the price to redeem her. This is a a picture of God’s desire to redeem His people from their sin.

Hosea would have been justified under Mosaic law to stop loving Gomer and divorce her. He could even have had her stoned. God wouldn’t have to look very hard to find reasons to stop loving us, would He?

However, in spite of countless reasons, God refuses to end His pursuit of us. God’s pursuit isn’t motivated by His desire to punish us; no, it is motivated by his love for us.

Deuteronomy 7:7-8 says:

The Lord did not choose you and lavish his love on you because you were larger or greater than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! It was simply because the Lord loves you, and because he was keeping the oath he had sworn to your ancestors. That is why the Lord rescued you with such amazing power from your slavery under Pharaoh in Egypt.

This passage reveals the reason God loves us -- He wants to love us. He created us to love us and for us to love Him. He promised to love Israel’s ancestors and God can never be accused of going back on His promises.

Hosea understood commitment. Some prophets used object lessons; Hosea became an object lesson. He was told to take as his wife a woman of questionable character -- a harlot. This relationship symbolized Israel’s relationship with God. The nation had been “married” to God but cheated on Him by pursuing other gods.

In the story, Hosea represents God. Hosea loved his wife as if she had been totally faithful to him all the time. And just like that, God loves us as if we had maintained our faithfulness to him. He loves us even now when we have moments of “unfaithfulness” (OK, let's call them what they are - sin). In spite of our unfaithfulness, God loves us in the same way that Hosea loved his wife. The rest of the story is also symbolic. Hosea’s wife was taken into slavery and Hosea was forced to pay a huge price to reclaim her. But he did. He paid the price and bought her back. Wow!

God’s love for His people -- you and me -- isn’t based on his emotion; it is based upon His decision. It isn’t something He feels, it is something He does. When God looks at us, He sees us through the filter of His Son . . . if we have accepted His Son Jesus Christ as our Savior and given Him the right to be our Lord. God showed that He loved the world in this way: He gave His Son as payment for our sins.

In this context Hosea gives the Old Testament’s most eloquent expression of God’s love and tender mercy. It is embodied in the Hebrew word hesed, which is translated as “mercy”, “loving kindness”, or “steadfast love”. It is a love of loyalty and total commitment and it is best seen in the sacred vows of marriage.

Jesus was the very personification of love. He left heaven for a feeding trough and the dusty roads of Galilee. He grew up in a simple carpentry shop where he swept floors and worked with his earthly father. As an adult He entered a life of public ministry. He was pursued by the religious power brokers and betrayed by one of his closest friends.

He was here on a mission. That mission was to redeem us. His mission was to buy us back. He could have said that we weren’t worth it. (and we weren’t) He could have considered his own needs as more important than ours. But He stayed, He lived, He suffered, He died, and He rose again! Why? Love . . . God’s kind of love . . . agape love . . . love that won’t let go. God’s love is unlike anything that you and I can explain or understand. The only decision that we have is to accept it or reject it.

Depending on your generation, one of these sets of lyrics will resonate with you.

Matt Redmond says “You never let go”:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
Your perfect love is casting out fear
And even when I’m caught in the middle of the storms of this life
I won’t turn back
I know You are near

And I will fear no evil
For my God is with me
And if my God is with me
Whom then shall I fear?
Whom then shall I fear?

Oh no, You never let go
Through the calm and through the storm
Oh no, You never let go
In every high and every low
Oh no, You never let go
Lord, You never let go of me

George Matheson says it is a “love that will not let me go”:

O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee,
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee,
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.

O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee,
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.

Either way, the point is that God loves you and has made a way for you to have a relationship with Him.

“God so love the world.” This is a simple statement that has incredible ramifications. Love is offered from Heaven to us. We simply have to choose to accept it or choose to reject it. And doing nothing is not an option. Accepting God’s love comes with conditions; rejecting it comes with consequences. Both the conditions of accepting and the consequences of rejecting it are predetermined . . . by God. And He has announced them clearly throughout the pages of Scripture. We don’t get to set the terms. How arrogant and rude of us to even think that we could. This is where so many potential believers balk -- they want a relationship with God on their own terms, not His. However, a relationship with God on any other terms than His is no relationship at all.

For God so loved . . . that He relentlessly pursues us . . . to redeem us . . . to dwell in us . . . to cleanse us . . . to sanctify us . . . to empower us to live a life of Holiness.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Wash, rinse, repeat . . .

I have been think a lot about a statement made in a Bible study that I attend on Wednesday mornings. The leader made the following statement: “I am sure that everyone of us around this table have unconfessed sin in their lives.” And most guys nodded in agreement. Now, I don't think that he really meant that the way it sounded. (or maybe he did) And I am not going to debate the definition of “Sin”. But, nevertheless, that statement got me to thinking. And that is a good thing.

Our study passage today in Sunday School was Exodus 32:1-35. It is especially familiar to those of us who have been on this journey through the first few books of the Old Testament. (Hopefully we will get through these books in the Old Testament in less time than the Israelites wandered in the desert. But I digress.)

This passage contains a few brief words that make me laugh every time I read them. Aaron tries to explain to Moses how the golden calf came to be.

Aaron says, “Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”

Give me a break! Come on Aaron. That calf didn't create itself. You made it for them.

The Israelites wanted a god they could see and touch. We do to. So they melted their valuables and fashioned a golden calf. The calf wasn’t just a convenient image to worship; it was reminiscent of the cow and the bull that were a part of Egyptian worship rituals. The bull was also part of the Baal worship of the Canaanite culture. (this culture would continue to haunt the Israelites for hundreds of years). The Israelites watered down their faith by including pagan elements from pagan practices. And the consequences of this act would follow them for years and generations to come.

They allowed elements of their old lifestyles, previous experiences and bad habits to continue to shape and define who they were. They still were not grasping what it was to be the children of a Holy God.

Why did the Israelites make such a tragic mistake? In a word, fear. They were afraid. Now let's be clear on something here. Being afraid is not an offense to God. But how we respond in our fear can be a big problem. When the Israelites were afraid they reverted back to the familiar past. Even though they were slaves in Egypt, life back in Egypt was predictable. And like the Israelites, when we are scared, we often seek out the familiar and stable . . . even if that stability is negative.

The end of this part of the story of the golden calf is more tragic than its beginning. The people were permanently affected by their decisions to turn their backs on God. According to verse 35, the people were plagued because of what they did. [Remember last week? -- Connecting the dots?]

The Israelites probably had a series of “if only” moments. If only they had remained faithful to God. If only they had resisted the urge to worship the golden calf. If only they had waited patiently for the Lord. If only they were willing to break the cycle of disobedience to God and live a life of holiness.

As we discussed last week, the bad news is that we often have to live with the consequences of our sins. The good news is that God is the God of forgiveness and restoration. We can be in a right relationship with God even after we have let Him down. We can be restored, we can move forward. We can leave the mistakes of the past behind us, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can walk in Holiness and not repeat them over and over.

We can break the cycle of sin, repent, sin, repent, sin, repent . . .

Read the back of your shampoo bottle. It says, wash, rinse and repeat. No one in their right mind expects us to live in the shower and continually wash, rinse and repeat. I think it is reasonable at some point to get out of the shower. Dry off. Get dressed and go to work!

We are not supposed to live in the shower. And I guess that is where the shampoo analogy breaks down a little bit. But the analogy does work when it comes to Holiness. God calls us to live a life of holiness. Like the Israelites, we, who are Christians, are His children. And He has given us His Son to die for our sins so that we might be forgiven. And he has given us His Holy Spirit to guide us and empower us to live that life of holiness that He calls us to.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Connecting the Dots

Sometimes, despite all our intelligence and experience, we find ourselves in a similar situation as those that we looked at this morning in Bible Study. We don't seem to be able to connect the dots between our actions and the consequences of our actions.

Our passage was found in the 40th chapter of Isaiah. This section of Scripture begins a longer section where Isaiah directs some prophetic words for the Israelites as they are in the early period of the Babylonian captivity. The glory years of David and Solomon were a distant memory and now the Israelites lamented their situation. Why they were there is a long story filled with persistent rebellion and abandoning authentic worship for idols. Or maybe they got mad at God because He didn’t deliver what they wanted according to their schedules. Sound familiar?

Have you ever asked God, “Why me?” or “Why now?” Sometimes we aren’t very good at connecting our actions with the consequences that we experience. We repeatedly disobey and then question God when we find ourselves slap dab in the middle of the consequences of our disobedience.

Do you see the dots? Disobedience . . . . . Consequences.

Isaiah asks his audience to identify anything that was comparable to God. He specifically asks them if they can be compared to an idol made by a craftsman, covered in gold, and adorned with silver.

I don't have any idols in my house. But idolatry is just a symptom of the real problem. The real problem is that the Israelites had lost focus on who God was. And, as such, they began to wander from God. Then the natural outcome of that began to show itself. They became more and more disobedient to God and to the prophet who God raised up during that time.

Maybe some of the Israelites thought God had forgotten them. We can relate to that feeling can’t we? When life is turned upside down by sickness, death, job loss or something like that we must be reminded that God indeed is in control and that He cares for us.

In Isaiah 40:18-31 God was disrespected by his chosen people. They ignored the obvious and chose to worship inanimate objects rather than the living God. In this passage, God seems appalled that the Israelites could experience all they had been through and yet turn to idols rather than the Creator. They knew the stories of the Exodus, the Red Sea, and David and Goliath. Yet they ignored him. And now they are whining because they are suffering the consequences of their actions.

Be honest . . . When was the last time you whined to God? What was going on and how did whining work for you? My guess is that it didn't work so well for you.

He words of John echo through our deepest valleys . . . “For God so loved!” We can hear it on the mountain peaks and there is nowhere that we can go where we can escape this undeniable truth.

There really is no one like God. Scripture is one of the ways that He reveals himself. Nature is another. Evidence is all around us to prove that God is alive and well. And because He exists , we can be sure He is in control.

What is one situation that you need to give to God right now?

How is that situation affecting your life?

How long will you hold on to it and try to work it according to your own understanding?

What is keeping you from seeing God at work in your life?

Are you able to connect the dots between your own obedience and your current circumstances?

When we look at some of the writers of the Bible we see that they wrote more from experience than education. The Psalms reflect David’s ups and downs. The Apostle Paul wrote of his struggles with the old man and the new man. That is why we have the entire Bible. It is to be our source of wisdom and guidance in dealing with everyday life. God loves us that much and more!
Life appears to fall to pieces at times. It seems to be irreparable. But God is in control. He is working all things according to His plan for those who are His children.

How can you know?

Because God so loved the world. Because God so loved You. Because God so loved Me.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Broad Daylight Christians

This summer I am teaching the adult Bible Study class that my wife and I attend at our church. Our regular tacher is taking some time off and I am filling in this summer. We are using Max Lucado's book “3:16” as the basis for our study.

The focus passage for today was John 3:1-12.

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

“You are Israel's teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but till you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?

Many things spoke to me out of such a common passage.

Nicodemus came to visit Jesus in secret. Remember, he was a very prominent Jewish leader of his day. He was a “big shot.” He was a Pharisee. He was a part of the same group that had investigated John the Baptist and they were now preparing a case against Jesus. But Nicodemus stepped away from his official investigative role and went looking for some personal answers. Nicodemus knew enough to wonder if Jesus might really be the one that was prophesied. His colleagues were not convinced, but Nicodemus was curious or intrigued enough to seek answers directly from the source.

And Jesus did not disappoint Nicodemus in terms of proving insight and information about the nature of a relationship with Himself. But Jesus spoke in spiritual terms and Nicodemus was hearing things in physical terms. He couldn't get his mind around the concept of a faith based relationship. He was more in to doing all the right things. He was in to being in the right groups. He was in to religion. And Jesus was inviting him into a relationship.

Some of us would make good Pharisees because we tend to overlook the spiritual significance of biblical instruction, choosing instead to nitpick the minutia. Like a defense attorney on your favorite crime show, we badger the prosecution’s witness, hoping to poke holes in the testimony. We misdirect the conversation. If we can just find one loophole, then the instructions won’t apply to us.

Now contrast that with this passage later in John. John 19:38-42 says:

Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate's permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus' body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

Nicodemus goes to the same fellows that he was once a part of to ask for the body of Jesus christ who had just been humiliated publicly and crucified. And he does not go this time under cover of darkness. This time he goes in broad daylight. Both Joseph and Nicodemus had reason to fear the Jews. But they came anyway.

Why? What was different this time?

Nicodemus began with an interview or encounter with Jesus Christ. But that encounter changed him dramatically. He changed because he began a relationship with Jesus Christ. He came to Jesus Christ for information. And, at some point, he came to Jesus Christ in faith and became a disciple and follower. And that change was so dramatic in his life that he came to request the body of Jesus in broad daylight. He came in faith and through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Nicodemus couldn't understand this relationship at first. Born again? He thought it was impossible. But then he experienced it. And although he may not have been eloquent in describing what had happened. There is no doubt that something happened.

So, I have a question...

When it comes to a faith-based relationship with Jesus Christ, are you studying it? Or are you experiencing it?