Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them.

Hebrews 13: 9

For people in the early days of the church, the topic of food, the way that it was handled and prepared, and even the manner in which it was eaten was important. If they came from a Jewish background, as many in the church did, then they had always lived under the guidance and the compulsion of the Law of Moses. If they came to Christ after living as a part of the gentile world, they had not been handling foods and selecting them based upon those standards and principles, and this was a mark of differentiation and thus one of division between the Jews and the gentiles. Yet, at the center of following Christ is unity in the Spirit, and thus, unity in the way that life is lived and the conduct of our days. Things that divide or that separate Christ’s people from each other are to be considered carefully and with great suspicion.

The use of foods as an example of this sort of thing was truly pertinent to the days at hand when Hebrews was written. Today there might be other issues and concerns that strike more closely to the heart of unity or rather that enter into heart of the division or separation of people who follow Christ. I am not speaking about core and foundational teachings such as the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, the existence of heaven and hell, or Jesus’ death and resurrection. Still, there are many issues that we can and do allow to disrupt the fellowship of people of faith in Christ. These teachings or ways of thinking are diverse in that they can force people to seek out divergent paths in our journeys as Christians, and they are strange in that when they are made important or even central to a specific group of people they divide us in ways that are unnatural to God and that are outside of God’s desire and intent to bring all of His people together in the unity of the Spirit and in the expression and proclamation of Christ in our world.

In all of life, we need grace. This is the Godly quality that is poured over each of us as we seek to enter into a relationship with God through Christ. We are granted a form of grace that brings about acceptance when we deserve rejection, that embraces us in love as we have earned animosity and separation, that proclaims us righteous despite the sinful nature of much that we think, say, and do. This is the grace that was made perfect and complete by Jesus on His cross of torture and pain and that was given full birth with Christ’s resurrection and victorious rule over all of creation. Now, it is this same grace that provides us with the wisdom, understanding, and love that is required for us to enter into relationships with other followers of Christ without regard for the issues and the concerns that might otherwise keep us distant and separated from each other. Christ’s grace gives His people the strength that we need in order to live outside of the worldly constraints that build barriers between people as grace becomes a gift that we can grant to one another in the name of the one who gave it to us, Jesus Christ.  

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.

1 Timothy 1: 15

There is a simple clarity in the way that Paul saw the truth about his condition in the eyes of God and concerning the darkness of his reality before Christ got ahold of him. He was a lost man who did not know that his sense of direction was corrupted so badly that he was navigating a course through life that was certain to lead to his own destruction. Yet, Paul was going at it all with a full head of steam and with no conception of the disaster that lay ahead for him and for anyone who joined in with him in his zeal for the cause of denying Christ to the point of defeating Jesus’ entire mission. Paul’s self-proclaimed stature as foremost among sinners is based upon his knowledge of God that had been gained as a direct result of his training as a rabbi, and it was perfected through the angry intensity of his drive to find and to destroy people who were following Christ.

We know the story. Jesus would not leave Paul alone. Finally, Jesus chases Paul down in the midst of a journey to expand the scope and the reach of his mission of defeat and destruction for the newly constituted church of Christ-followers. As the American rock band, The Eagles said,

“On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair, warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air.

Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light.

My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim.

I had to stop for the night.” 1.

After that remarkable time when Paul stopped running, he had little choice on that day, some thirty odd years have elapsed until this point in time when the wise, veteran itinerant preacher is providing guidance and wisdom to his young disciple, Timothy, and by extension, he is also giving us the benefit of this same eternal truth and counsel.

The same reality that was Paul’s belongs to everyone else, too. Christ Jesus came into this world to save each and every one of us, for all are born into sin, and Jesus is the one who redeems us from that dead and doomed state of being. Everything else that Jesus said, did, and demonstrated is secondary to that salvation-oriented purpose. For, if we are not in a relationship with God, all of our goodness, justice, and love are formed up out of whatever strength and capability that we may be able to summon up from within ourselves. It does not draw its energy and its guidance from the depths of the eternal that is resident by virtue of essential character in God, Himself. This is a resource that is made fully available to all of Christ’s followers through the presence of the Spirit. Although we may not always yield ourselves to God’s will and way of living, that is a story for another day, in Christ, we are taken out of the old, worldly way of viewing all of life, and we are granted the same reprieve from death that Paul was so excited to proclaim.

  1. Hotel California; Glenn Frey, Don Felder; released 02/1977.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;

   my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.

Psalm 13: 5

The little word “but” that David hangs out there at the start of this verse carries a large amount of weight, for the four verses before it are loaded with the pain and the heartache that can come to anyone when the world seems to be against us. He was feeling as if his enemies were prevailing in their assaults upon his body, mind, and spirit. The fact that those enemies included formerly trusted friends and even family members made this new reality all the more difficult to bear. In times like this, the tangible or physical aspects of the assault are hard to handle, but the emotional and spiritual components of it are what truly oppress and drive us down. Unfortunately, this is the sort of time in the journey of life that almost everyone experiences. We all find ourselves in a place where we are at odds with others and wherein those challenging relationships reach the point of seeming no return where our resources are depleted and our hearts are overwhelmed by the weight of it all.

These are times when we need to be rescued, when we need a real and a lasting friend to reach out to us and to hold us tightly in a safe and a reassuring embrace of genuine love and care. We may be comforted by such a friend, and I pray that each of us has at least one of those in our lives; yet, the sort of love that is being described here finds its source in the author of all love, in the God of our salvation. This is a love that does not look at our weakness or failure and hold these things against us. This is a love that desires to redeem rather than defeat; so, this is a lover who wants nothing from us other than the pleasure of our company and the return to health and strength of our bodies, minds, and spirits. The sort of love that is sourced in the Lord forgives wrongs, points out goodness, and speaks truth to counter the lies that evil attempts to use to overwhelm us. 

The Father sent the Son, Jesus Christ, into our world to demonstrate and to perfect this form of love. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross provided us with the ultimate expression of God’s unending and unshakeable love for all of the people in the world for all time. This is a love that was present with the first people and that has continued unchecked and without change through the balance of history. Try as we may have done, we are not able to defeat God’s love; so, there is no sin or rebellion that is greater than Christ’s ability and will to save us. There is also no dark place where we can go that is sufficiently hidden from His view that we are unfindable there. This is a hard and a harsh world that is populated with people who think, say, and do things that are mean, violent, and damaging in many ways; yet, nothing that they do can truly harm our souls. Christ loves us in a way that can bring joy to the darkness and that can bring about a heart-deep form of rejoicing that overcomes our tears. This is the love that Christ desires to pour out on you and on me, and this is the love that saves!     

You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end.

Matthew 24: 6

This is the story that surrounds us on a daily basis; for, across the world there is conflict, violence, and hatred being played out. Some of it impacts us very personally as very few people do not know someone or know of someone who is directly involved in a war ravaged part of the world. Also, there are wars raging right in our neighborhoods, in our government, schools, and churches; in addition, there is strife and conflict aggressively dividing many of our own homes. Jesus went on during this conversation to warn about natural disaster, too; He said, “there will be famines and earthquakes.” Essentially, we are living in a time when the glue that has been holding our world together is being overcome by the building up of evil forces. This is the hurricane season; we all live in the center of Tornado Alley; and the root cellar that we have always planned to enter when they strike just may not be deep enough to handle the forces that will be unleashed.

Yet, in the middle of these words of stern warning, Jesus says something that is, to me, so typical of Him, a seemingly ridiculous piece of advice, for He says, “see to it that you are not frightened”. Is that not crazy? I live in a world where bullets are flying, people plant bombs in cars in public places, other people who appear to be completely normal commit atrocious acts, earthquake after earthquake brings devastation and death, tornadoes and floods have become the small time items in the news, fires rage and destroy entire towns, and mean and oppressive behavior fills our city streets. Thus, is fear not the rational emotion to feel? Again, Jesus says that this is not true, for we are living in a world where the violence and the turmoil are all a part of a much bigger plan as all of this fits into a divine plan that leads to the cleansing and to the restoration of this world.

Jesus wants us to join Him in the working out of the plan. We can choose to become focused on the terrifying events, and we can think in terms of how out of control everything seems to be; thus, we can get caught up in the sort of thinking that leads to a sense of doom, a feeling of helplessness, and that makes us fearful; or, we can look for the hand of God which is actively working to meet the needs of people whose lives have been disrupted by these events, and we can seek to follow Him by reaching out to meet those same needs ourselves. Jesus calls to each of us to take action in this world so that we will not be caught up in fearful thinking. Instead, we can become agents for spreading the word that there is one and only one safe place to go when the storm strikes, and that place is straight into the arms of Jesus where the Eternal One wipes away tears, binds up wounds to body and to spirit, and we are given true perspective on what matters in this world and beyond it.  

In all wisdom and insight He made known to us the mystery of His will.

Ephesians 1: 8, 9

 

Most of us love a well crafted mystery with all of its plot turns and complex characters. This is the sort of story that keeps us guessing; in fact, the writers of these tales frequently work extra hard at making the real facts obscure and even at deliberately leading us to false conclusions. God’s mysteries are written with a different approach, for they are created with a very different intent, by an utterly unique writer, and with the desire that everyone will get the singular clue to its unraveling.

 

God has been laying the story out before us forever, and He has never been silent or tried to hide the clues to solving the mystery from us. In fact, the Lord is an author who actually goes after His audience, and He desires more than anything else to enter into a close relationship with us. Yet, the great mystery of eternity remains unsolved by vast numbers of people, and every day many see, hear, and are touched by the clues to its resolution; still, they reject the clues as false, they say that they are too busy dealing with life to take the time to think through the puzzle, or they believe that they already possess the true key to open the door of eternity.

 

In the end, the solution to God’s mystery is found in Christ, and there is no other way to gain access to the sort of wisdom that brings the deep secrets of the universe into a form that is comprehensible to our simple human minds. Because God knows all and understands us completely, in and through Christ He gave us the gift of His Spirit to guide us into His word and to clear away the darkness that sin placed around our hearts and minds. Then the Spirit walks with us through life to continually guide us further along the path of God’s will. However, unlike mysteries that are crafted by human writers, God wants us to spoil the ending by revealing the secret to the rest of the audience; thus, the greatest gift that we can give to others who are participating in this grand life play is not the typical respectful silence, but rather we can proclaim Jesus, the only answer that everyone needs, with every aspect of our lives.

 

 

If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?

Matthew 18: 12

 

When I think about this story and create the picture of the scene in my mind, I envision the gentle and compassionate Jesus. He is walking across a smooth meadow with a smallish, fluffy-white sheep across His strong shoulders. The sheep looks peaceful, and Jesus has a satisfied half smile on His face. This is a story about God’s unending pursuit and rescue of all of us sheep as we head off into the wilderness of sin with its separation and grave dangers. This is a wonderful picture of Christ’s saving love that is demonstrated in paintings and captured in songs; yet, I think that there is something very wrong with this image of Christ.

 

We fail to give credit to Jesus for the real journey that He undertook in order to effect this rescue. When I consider the parable of the shepherd that Jesus tells, I need to think about the real conditions that would have existed. This shepherd did not head out across a smooth, grassy meadow in order to follow the lost one’s trail. He stepped away from the comfort of family and friends and the warm safety of the campfire and walked into the dangerous dark of the wilderness. He traveled over rocks and through ravines, and probably faced down predatory animals along the way. When he finds the sheep, it is a reluctant passenger for the journey home. It is also a sheep; that is, dirty and mouthy and not very cooperative with its savior.

 

As mentioned, Jesus is sharing a parable. He speaks about the life of a shepherd and tells of an event in that life that would have been well known to His audience. Yet, He was telling about His own journey as He left Heaven and entered into the Father’s creation intent of walking among His people. However, the world that Jesus joined was violently broken by our sin, and it was openly and aggressively antagonistic to Him. It is this path of opposition, peril, and pain that Jesus traveled in order to find, recover, and save any and all of us lost sheep who will allow it. That bleating and kicking muddy sheep is me as Christ carries my lost soul into His salvation. All I can say in response is, “Thank you, Jesus!”

Just so, I tell you there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

Luke 15: 7

 

Jesus was not normal. He lived in a manner and He did things that were not the sorts of things that followers of God did in His culture. He was a relational risk taker who not only interacted with the worst of sinners in His society but who actually sought them out. Jesus went where they lived, and He mixed with them in close personal contact. Now Christ certainly did preach the gospel of repentance and of restoration to relationship with God, but He did this from a platform of friendship and from a place of demonstrated loving care and interest in the way that other people thought and what they felt. Jesus was completely confident in His relationship with the Father, and because of this, He had little to no concern for what people thought about Him as it related to His following of cultural righteousness.

 

Instead, Jesus loved people. He cared enough to go after them in the many places where they would go to hide out from God. This was a radical departure from what was normal in His world, for people were required to clean themselves up in order to be acceptable for admittance to the place of worship and they needed to come to God in order to engage in that worship. This is very different from the way that God desires to interact with us. He started out His engagement with people by walking with us along the paths of this world. He desired to do the same in the days of Jesus and that continues today. Christ walks through life with us. He wants to show us the grace and the love that God has for all people, and He seeks to lift us up out of the lostness of our sin and into the glory of God’s kingdom come.

 

When Jesus was telling this story about lost sheep, He made an interesting statement, “And when he has found it (the lost sheep), he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. (Vs. 5) This is Christ’s attitude toward each of us. When we are lost, He comes after us and then picks us up and carries us home with real joy in His heart. This is true for that day of initial salvation, and it is true for each of the episodes of wandering away from God’s righteousness that happen to almost everyone in life. There is no place that we can go and nothing that we can do that will keep Christ from His mission of rescue and redemption. Jesus is the shepherd for our souls and for the lives that we live. Christ is still not normal, and His love for all people is a powerful example of the restorative love that is the center of God’s heart.