August 2016


As he was drawing near- already on the way down the Mount of Olives- the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Luke 19: 37, 38

 

The coffee mug that I am using this morning has a picture of a lion on it and the words “It’s hard being king” written on the other side. The people in Jerusalem on that spring day were right in declaring Jesus as King, and the mug is also accurate in its comment about the life of a king. For Jesus there would be nothing easy about the days that were to come. There had been nothing easy about the ones that He had already lived either. As Isaiah foretold, He was truly “a man of sorrows” (Is 53: 3), and Jesus knew grief and pain fully. But also as the Prophet had spoken, Jesus came to carry all of our grief and sorrows.

 

Suffering is normal in our world. No one seems to be able to escape from its diligent pursuit. This is so because we are all born into the brokenness of a life to be lived out in that shadow covered valley where death is both the feared enemy and its only respite. God sees and understands the struggles that we endure, and He desires with the yearning of a father who is distanced from His beloved children to welcome us home to His dwelling place of peace and eternity. Yet, we fight to retain control and to find other answers to our needs. We make kings in our own images in order to find this easy path to the security that we think we desire. We bow down before the idols of our world, and we shed our own and our children’s blood as the sacrifice that those idols demand from us in order to prove our loyalty.

 

Meanwhile, the one and the only true King suffers for us. He mourns our loss, and He grieves because of our lostness. But that is not all He does. He also seeks after us, and Christ does this with the energy, the passion, and the diligence of the ultimate shepherd that He is. It is in these two aspects of His nature that Christ is different from every other king who has existed throughout history. Christ suffers with us and for us, and He goes anywhere that we are in order to reach and to save us. Yes, it is not easy being King Jesus, but His love for each of us demands that He do anything and suffer everything in order to bring us home to God’s kingdom of grace and truth.

I will remember the deeds of the LORD;

yes, I will remember your wonders of old.

Psalm 77: 11

 

Asaph was looking back to a time when things were clearer and when trouble didn’t present the same degree of challenge as it was in his contemporary world. But his point wasn’t one of nostalgic retreat or imaginative yearning for those better days. He had a very practical and useful point in mind as he thought about the engagement of the people of his nation with God and about the way that God was their strength and their guide for living. Now there were at least two true things to take away from that backward look, the first is that God was unwaiveringly faithful and ever present; the second is that the people were not fully committed to following and to serving God.

 

We seem to live in the times of Asaph, and the history that we have to look back over is now far longer and even richer than the one that he could view. In challenging times it is good to follow the example of this ancient poet and take the time to consider and to meditate upon the nature and the character of God while searching His Word and our own stories for examples of the Lord’s presence, grace, and love. For me these words are powerful and provocative. They lead me to realize how little of my day is truly spent in reflection and prayer, and they cause me to rethink the priorities of my life as lived out in the rhythms of practicing the faith that I claim.

 

Even in my distracted and too busy to be present state, the Lord is with me and surrounds me with reminders and expressions of His faithful love and His righteous truth. As I do turn my eyes toward God’s Word and seek His face in those pages and consider how He has been my strength and my provision throughout the days of my life, my heart is broken by the realization of my wandering ways. However, God is gracious and He is not taken by surprise by anything that people say or do. As I open my heart to Him and listen to His voice as He responds to my concerns and desires, the Lord speaks wise words of encouragement, direction, and purpose for me to take in and to follow. These times of contemplation of the ways that God has written my story are enlightening and empowering as He prepares me to take on the next steps in my journey of faith.

God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.

1 Samuel 16: 7b

 

This is an unfortunate truth that I deal with and that most of us do, too. We look at someone and make judgments about their worth and seek to get to know them better or to avoid them based on nothing more than our first impressions of their appearance. Additionally, people are doing the same thing to us most of the time. So, we live in a world where opportunities to have our lives enriched by the deep insights and the interesting personalities of various people are lost due to the judgmental nature of people.

 

The ability to see beyond the externals and to value the real qualities of people is a characteristic of God, and this same ability to see the real person is something that the Lord wants all of His children to learn from Him, too. When we are willing to take the time to get past the difficult aspects of other people so that we start to truly know them and when we stay engaged with them enough so that God’s Spirit begins to provide us with a clearer understanding of their hearts and minds, we are blessed by these wonderful people.

 

When God looks at each of us, He sees an image of Himself, Thus, He wants us to open our eyes so that we can also see Him in others. As God relates to us, He understands the needs and the hurts of our souls. The Lord wants us to allow others into our lives so that we can understand them at this same level. God’s involvement with me brings blessings and joy into my days; so, He wants me to seek to do the same for the people that He has placed into my life. In doing this, I speak Christ and His grace and love to others, and I get to know my Lord in new and beautiful ways through seeing His touch in their lives.

 

Whoever says he is in light but hates his brother is still in darkness.

James 2: 9

 

James is calling to everyone who knows Christ to examine our hearts and to listen to our own words in the process. This is serious business, for Jesus did not take the way that we treat each other lightly. He cared about and for all people without regard to the culturally determined divisions and without applying the usual tests of orthodoxy, safety, or comfortability. Jesus came into the world to love people in a manner that was exactly the same as that with which the Father loves us. This love is absolute, unconditional, and universal. It is poured out for all to accept and receive. It flows down from Christ’s cross of torture to cover the sinfulness of anyone who surrenders this life to Christ.

 

Yet, even as we exist in that state of forgiveness that brings about an unbreakable relationship with God, we are still imperfect with hearts and minds that are works in progress. Unfortunately we can do a great deal of harm to others while we are proclaiming that we know Christ while still living as if His life and its light of righteous truth were not in us. One of the places where this is most apparent is in the way that we engage with people who are different from us or who disagree with us. In simple terms, there is no room in God’s Kingdom for hate. We are not granted the right to judge others, and we do not hold the authority to determine who we should care about and for or where they should be allowed to dwell. Instead, Christ desires for His people to be open and to embrace the widely diverse appearances, cultures, and understandings of god that the people of this world bring to the dialogue of life.

 

To be clear, embracing and loving others does not mean compromise of faith; rather, it requires that we listen and seek to understand the story that our neighbor has to tell. It requires us to set aside fear and prejudice and to turn these natural responses over to Christ and submit them to Him in surrender to His cross. Although the act of faith that is expressed in loving others is undertaken in order to bring them into a relationship with Christ, it is also an important part of our own growth and transformation into Christ-like people. When we love people who make us uncomfortable or even ones who elicit fear within our hearts, we are trusting Christ to fulfill His promises to never leave us and to provide us with all that we need to follow Him in this world. When we speak fear and hatred, we deny Christ, and when we live out love, we proclaim Christ and His Kingdom of peace to our world.

Nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light.

Mark 4: 22

 

This is Jesus speaking, and the idea that He shares is one that changes everything in our world. The exposure that the presence of God in the flesh in our world brings about starts at the deep place of the spiritual, but it moves outward to illuminate every aspect of earthly existence. Christ came to set people free from the death grip that sin held on our souls and on our lives as well. He does this by bringing the truth of God’s holy and righteous word to the world and by making it fully accessible to anyone who desires to know God. Essentially, this is the light that Jesus had spoken of just before the statement above. This light of heaven makes everything visible, and it also opens the eyes of people who know its author to our own sin darkened natures.

 

Christ’s work of revelation is what changes our world. He engages with each of us who surrender our lives to Him, and His Spirit works within us to transform us from dark to light, from death to life. As our eyes are opened and our hearts are enlightened, the life that we conduct should begin to express more and more of the nature and the character of God as revealed through Jesus. This is the method that God is using in these days to change this world. His transformative work in individuals is gathered into His body, the church where that spiritual and corporeal growth continues in a fellowship of worship. Engagement with the world is a powerful and a visible expression of that worship.

 

Fully embracing the light of Christ is not an easy thing to do. It reveals everything. That means that all of our dark places and well-protected secrecies are on view to God and their danger and darkness are made known to us as well. Yet, in surrender to Christ, these sin-controlled aspects of our lives are transformed into righteous thoughts and actions. When our eyes are opened to the deep spiritual and physical needs of our broken world, Christ leads and directs us into engagement with the people around us so that the light of Christ that is within our spirits can shine onto their personal darkness. In so doing, Christ works through each of His people and through His church to change the world.

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show to you.

Genesis 12: 1

 

When Abram obeyed God in this matter, he became a pilgrim and a traveler, an immigrant. He left behind everything that gave him earthly identity, comfort, and safety; plus, he effectively walked away from his heritage as a man of some rank and privilege. But he was responding to God’s calling for him and upon his life. There was a very powerful promise of greatness through descendents that God gave to Abram, but that was certainly vague and intangible. What this man of rather ordinary faith knew was that he needed to pack up his household, his wife and the people who served them, his nephew Lot and his family and servants and leave home for foreign soil that was far away and probably dangerous for them.

 

He did all of this because God told him to. He entered into a life-changing journey of faith in response to a calling of the Lord that was too powerful and compelling to ignore or to set aside. The journey was a true adventure, and its narrative gives us many of the great accounts of God’s faithfulness, protection, and grace in the Bible. Yet, it all started with one person who knew God and responded to the Lord’s voice. Frankly, I have never been in Abram’s shoes. God has not given me directions that involved such bold and blind faith. My journey with Him has been shaped and formed in close connection with other people who have listened and responded to the Lord’s calling upon them. My steps through life have landed on soil that is close to the place of my birth. My morning sky is filled with the light of a very familiar sun.

 

However, there are aspects of my story that are very similar to Abram’s. The life journeys that all followers of Christ experience are also like Abram’s in certain ways. Christ calls us out of the false security of our birth identity, the comfort of family, and the familiar rules of culture, and He leads us into the foreign soil of the kingdom of God. If we take Christ’s demand upon our hearts and minds seriously, we become true immigrants in our world. We enter into a life of living outside of the secure connections that our earthly homes provide as we embrace the adventure and the restorative love that is at the center of Christ’s will for each of His people. Followers of Christ today are separated from Abram by thousands of years and live in a radically different world; yet, we are truly like him in many ways. God speaks to us. He gives us His will, the promise of His faithfulness to us, and He grants us the ability and the authority to bring life into the foreign lands where we now reside. Our part in it all is like Abram’s in that we need to pack up and go.

Therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.

Genesis 3: 23

 

There is an old expression, “There is trouble in the garden.” which refers to the fact that there is struggle and strife in whatever form of human relationship is undergoing scrutiny. This expression and the idea behind it come directly from the third chapter of Genesis. This is the point in the narrative of human history where people turned away from God and began to believe that they were more capable of determining their own course and proceeding through life. This is the moment when the perfection of creation was fractured and the absolute intimacy between people and God was almost fatally broken. All of humanity became estranged from God, and God required these newly defined strangers to disperse out of the eternity of His absolute presence.

 

Although we started this long history of life outside of the garden of God’s total presence in a place to the east from the home of our creation, over time and as our numbers increased we migrated to every corner of the world. Yet, each of these new lands and all of the territory that we occupied remained a foreign land in regards to restoration of our place in intimate relationship with God. So, throughout the history of humanity, God has retained the role of pursuing shepherd. He has continually come out in search of the lost, the Lord has provided comfort and protection for us in this harsh land of our own choosing, and the Father provided the Son to be a final and absolute answer to this separation.

 

So, all people are strangers to the land of God’s dwelling. We spend our lives in transit from the sin-ravaged and desolate landscapes of our birth toward a land where we can dwell in the presence of our Creator. Some people arrive in this place, and others never find its rest. The difference in those journeys is Christ. Knowing Him transforms our personal dwelling, that is our bodies, into God’s promised land of grace, love, and peace for the soul. Until we know Christ, we remain strangers and migrants on a road through life that leads only to death. God purposefully takes us in as immigrants to His kingdom of life, and through Christ all people without regard to race, religion, or place of birth become full citizens of God’s renewed spiritual kingdom.

The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter of Zion, is accomplished,

He will keep you in exile no longer,

but your iniquity, O daughter of Edom, He will punish,

He will uncover your sins.

Lamentations 4: 22

 

Let me risk the obvious. The world is a mess. Maybe it is a product of age or is caused by experiencing an especially paranoid patch of life, but things seem worse today than at any time in my memory. The way that people engage with each other and the manner in which they dialogue about their differences is harsh, angry, and lacking in the heart of understanding. There is a hopelessness in the air that is frightening in that it doesn’t anticipate a better tomorrow. In light of all of this, I think that the author of Lamentations helps us understand our world and our participation in it with the sort of clarity that comes from God.

 

We are not innocent bystanders to all of the chaos that fills our world. We, and I speak of all people who name Christ as Lord today and throughout history, have played and do play a role in creating and shaping this mess that is the relational and physical architecture of our world. We have not been diligent students of our God, and we are not devoted followers of our Lord. We tend to do these things as they fit our desires, wishes, and preferred outcomes. We are proficient at shaping our god to fit with our self-determined comfortabilities, and this is sinful idolatry in God’s eyes and it is fatally destructive to the world we live in. Yet, in the midst of our wandering away from Christ, there is hope beyond imagining.

 

God’s love and grace as depicted and perfected by Christ overcome all that we think and do. Jesus saves us, and He redeems us; then, He restores our lives to God’s intent and desired usefulness in our world. I believe that this intended purpose is directed toward Christ’s work of redemption. So, we are intended to be peacemakers, sacrificial lovers of people, and bearers of the light of the gospel. God clearly says that He will deal with His adversaries. So, we are not called upon to be crusaders seeking to purify our world by wielding a self-determined righteous sword. Christ calls upon His people to live as shepherds who will not rest until all of the lost are found and redeemed. This calling demands that we seek God’s grace and healing in our lives and in those of others and that we submit our anger and fear to Christ’s unfailing protection and love.

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.

1 Corinthians 9: 19

 

I fear that these words are foreign to the practice of life in our days. Service is not a primary concern for many people, and serving is rarely set out as a primary goal for our leaders. Even in the church, true servants can be hard to find. No doubt the church sets out to change the world for the better, but it seems that we react to what we see when we get close to it and then we either determine to force or to coerce that change or we surrender to culture’s false sense of a higher understanding of truth. In the end, even the church has often become little more than a weak mirror image of the world that it should set out to change for the sake of the Gospel of Christ.

 

This is not how it needs to be. This is not how it should be. God determined to rule this world and to transform its inhabitants through the life and the sacrifice of Jesus. There is no other way, method, or truth that can have an effectively transformative and life saving impact on our world. Christ is the answer, and His life of service and sacrifice is the only viable model that followers of Christ should adopt and imitate. Evil and death are not overcome by the use of power, force, anger, fear, defensiveness, or by any other of the numerous human-devised tactics that we seem committed to deploying. In addition, we cannot separate our calling in Christ from the conduct of our public and civil lives. For followers of Christ, there is no separation of church from state.

 

Also, for followers of Christ, there is no safety or security in this world. Our Lord did not seek after either of those in the conduct of His life, and His command to follow is absolute and total. We are to join with Christ on a road that leads to suffering and to death for the sake of serving His will. If our freedom impairs another’s view of the Savior, then we ate to give it up. We can be certain that Christ will prevail in this world. However, if our lives are to matter for things that are eternal, we need to speak and act in a manner that is worthy of Christ’s sacrifice for us. In the process of giving all for the sake of winning eternity, we may need to sacrifice much if not all of what we have previously held as valuable, but if one life comes to Christ as a result, any sacrifice was more than worth the cost.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying His voice, and holding fast to Him.

Deuteronomy 30: 19, 20a

 

God made an agreement, a covenant, with people. He promised that there was a way to enter into a relationship with Him in this life and that this same course would lead to an eternal existence in the presence of God. In this passage Moses is reminding us of God’s side of that agreement, and he does this by indicating that all of Creation stands as witness to it. In other words, Moses is saying that we can try to escape the reality and the truth of where and of how life is gained, but we will be going against the testimony of God’s mighty and universal great cloud of witnesses. Like all contracts, God’s covenant of life is not unilateral. The Lord gives to us; yet, His granting of this gift is in answer to our response to Him. God gives us all, and He desires that we would surrender all to Him.

 

Still, this surrender and acceptance is ours to choose. God lays before all people the opportunity to select life. He makes the knowledge of Him and of His righteous way known to us all. Then the Lord allows people to make the decision to follow Him or to reject Him. There is no middle ground; no alternate path that leads to real life in this world and to that thing that we call eternal life. That is, an existence that has no end which is carried forth in the presence of all that is life, God Himself. I do believe that once we have made the decision to surrender to God by accepting all that He is, which means accepting Christ as our Savior and Lord, that there is no possibility of living and of thinking our way out of this relationship with God. It is also true that only God is the judge of our lives and of the status of that eternal relationship.

 

The other part of this contract that God has entered into with us, in reality it is functionally the first part of it, involves the way that we live every day of our earthly lives. True life is found in and by our journey through our days with Christ. He makes love, peace, understanding, wisdom, and mercy real to us. These are qualities and characteristics that are intrinsically part of who God is, and they are among the most important aspects of life that we all desire. Love does not mean that we are surrounded by the adoration of people; it is a deep-seated feeling and belief that we are valued and cared about by God. The absence of conflict is not peace; rather, it settles inside of our hearts and minds and allows us to be whole, calm, and rational in the face of the most intense times of struggle and strife. Understanding and wisdom go together, and these are conditions of our minds and of our spirits that come directly from God through His Word, the fellowship of His Body, and by the revelation of Christ’s Spirit. Finally, mercy is that other-focused quality that takes us out of our natural, human bent to self protection and grants to us the blessing of touching people who have been injured and damaged by life on this harsh, alien planet with the same love and grace of Christ that we have received. This is life!

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