See the Signs: The Sign of Sight

Since Laura and I took last week off, I’m going to touch briefly on last week’s scripture passage because it is relevant to this week’s message. Pastor John’s passage was Mark 8: 13-21. To sum it up, the disciples were concerned because, with the exception of one loaf, they had forgotten to bring bread on their journey. While they were thinking about their lack of bread Jesus warned them to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod. The disciples were confused and thought Jesus was mad because they hadn’t brought bread. Jesus, who knew what they were thinking said:“Why all this fussing over forgetting to bring bread? Do you still not see or understand what I say to you? Are your hearts still hard? You have good eyes, yet you still don’t see, and you have good ears, yet you still don’t hear, neither do you remember.” (Mark 8:17-18 TPT) Jesus asked them to remember when he fed the crowds of 5000+ and 4000+, asked them to remember how many leftovers there were and then asked them “…how is it that you still don’t get it?” (8:21) . 

The yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod that Jesus mentions represent two oppressive systems. Yeast changes the composition of whatever it is introduced to. In the fermentation process, whether it be the making of bread or the making of beer, once yeast is introduced it works its way through the entire substance and changes its chemical structure. The disciples and Jesus had experienced quite a few unpleasant encounters with the Pharisees who continued to question Jesus’ authority and sow seeds of doubt, believing (and teaching) that their oppressive behavior-based system was the way of God. Their yeast represents man-made religious systems that have detoured from God’s loving heart and desire that his followers join him in his mission to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth. Man-made religious systems create hierarchies where some are in power and lord it over everyone else. Man-made religious systems oppress people. Man-made religious systems forget that God desires that we each use our gifts to introduce His ways and work toward the restoration and flourishing of all. Man-made religious systems portray a mean God. Man-made religious systems lead to arrogance, self-righteousness, judgment and “othering”.

The yeast of Herod represents the political realm and worldly power. One needs only to read the headlines to see how divisive, destructive and polarizing it can be when we align our hearts with political structures. The hate, the “othering”, the inability to see human beings without attaching labels and preconceived notions in regards to them, the mistreatment of some for the benefit of others…it’s toxic yeast changing our very nature.  Both religion and politics can have a tremendous influence on us. We are steeped in these systems and many times don’t recognize it, so we must be wise, allow the Holy Spirit to show us what we need to see, and separate ourselves from man-made systems that seek to oppress. The ways of the Kingdom of Heaven run counter to the kingdoms of this world. It is very easy to be infected by the yeast of the systems we grew up in. Do we see that? Are we willing to let Jesus open things up and show us something new–or–like the disciples, are we too hard-hearted to get it?

This week our passages are Mark 7:31-37, and Mark 8:22-26.  In Mark 7, Jesus heals a deaf and mute man.  In Mark 8, Jesus heals a blind man. The way Mark lays out the timeline, Jesus heals the deaf man, feeds the crowd of 4000+, has an unpleasant encounter with the Pharisees which leads to the above conversation in the boat, and then he heals the blind man. There are interesting parallels in these two healings that bookend this segment of scripture,

  1. Both men were brought to Jesus by others.
  2. Both men were brought to Jesus because they had physical limitations.
  3. Both men were brought to be touched and blessed by Jesus.
  4. Jesus pulls both men aside, away from the crowd, and gets one on one with each of them.
  5. Jesus uses his own saliva in both of these healings.

One man was deaf/mute, the other was blind. Isaiah prophesied centuries before that blind eyes will be open and deaf ears will hear… (35:5). These healings were more than just healings…

After Jesus healed the deaf/mute man, and right before he healed the blind man, he said to his disciples  “You have good eyes, yet you still don’t see, and you have good ears, yet you still don’t hear, neither do you remember.” 

Would Jesus say the same to us? Everything that Jesus does is nuanced and multi-layered. Yes, two men were miraculously healed by Jesus, but is that all there is to the story? Could it be that as Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy, he is using these men as signs that the Kingdom of Heaven is right here and that he is the Messiah? He is giving his followers the opportunity to recognize that his ways are different from the ways of the Pharisees and of Herod; his ways are the ways of the Kingdom of God. Do we see? Do we hear? Do we remember?

I find it beautiful that in both of these accounts Jesus pulls the men away from the crowd to be with them one on one.  If we look at Jesus’ miracles, they were never for the purpose of showing off–they were always on behalf of people who were in need–and he responded with compassion to the situation at hand. When the Pharisees wanted Jesus to show off for them to “prove” that he had authority to perform miracles, Jesus sighed deeply and walked away (Mark 8:12). Yes, his power was a sign of the Kingdom of Heaven, but his demonstrations of power were driven by his compassion, his love, his concern for all of us who are like sheep without a shepherd. Compassion, kindness, unconditional love, unconditional forgiveness, all the fruit of the Holy Spirit are signs of His Kingdom on earth. Our Savior is powerful and pointed and gentle and kind. Do we see? Do we hear? Do we remember?

I wonder, in the case of the deaf/mute man, if the voice of Jesus was the first voice he ever heard?  Mark 7:34 tells us that Jesus “gazed into heaven, sighed deeply, and spoke to the man’s ears and tongue, “Ethpathakh,” which is Aramaic for “Open up, now!

In The Passion Translation of the Bible, the footnote from Mark 7:34 says: “The phrase “open up” is the same wording used in the Hebrew of Isa. 61:1 “Open the prison doors.” It furthermore refers to the opening of the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf.  

Hmmm. Does this remind anyone else of Luke 4:18 when Jesus, at the very beginning of his ministry read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free…”  Jesus opens prison doors, sets captives free, restores sight to the blind… He opens things up. He changes things. Do we see? Do we hear? Do we remember?

In the healing of the blind man, “Jesus led him, as his sighted guide, outside the village. He placed his saliva on the man’s eyes and covered them with his hands”  (Mark 8:23 TPT). Again, the footnotes from The Passion Translation give us deeper insight into what is happening here. It says of verse 23, that the word “eyes’is not the common word for “eyes.” The Greek word omma can refer to both physical and spiritual sight”. And of the actual healing process itself “The Aramaic can be translated “Jesus placed his hands over his eyes and brought light.”

This healing account is different from any other in scripture because it happened in phases. The first time Jesus touched the man’s eyes, he only received partial sight. Jesus touched him a second time and he was able to see clearly, which according to Strong’s concordance literally means he could see “at a distance, and clearly”. Sometimes we get partial sight; the Apostle Paul said that’ “For now, we can only see a dim and blurry picture of things… I realize that everything I know is only part of the big picture. But one day, when Jesus arrives, we will see clearly, face-to-face.” (1st Cor. 13:12 The Voice) Are we willing to let Jesus, our sighted guide, touch us over and over, as many times as it takes so that we can see clearly? Are we willing to admit that every revelation we receive is part of a bigger picture, a greater work of God, a portion? Are we humble enough to keep seeking, knocking, asking, because we know that there is more and that none of us have all the answers? Are we willing to examine the lenses we grew up with and test them to see if they hold up to Truth? Are we willing to see through another’s eyes, and wrestle with his/her understanding of God, of salvation, of Jesus–removing our lenses and studying the gospels to see what is gold and what is stubble–recognizing traditions taught by man, versus what is actually there? Are we willing to soften our hard hearts and see, hear, remember? Jesus, the light of the world, is willing to touch us as many times as we allow so that we can see his light and his ways clearly.

In both of these healing encounters, Jesus opened things up. In putting these three accounts together, Jesus warns us to be careful about being influenced by human power structures, whether they are religious systems or political. He desires to pull us aside, to open our ears to hear his voice, open our eyes (both physical and spiritual) to see what he sees. He is our sighted guide. He brings us light. He leads us gently. He shows us who he is and what his Kingdom is about. He desires that we be like him, setting the oppressed free, and serving the people of the world with a heart of love, of compassion, of humility (“I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” John 13:35).

Do we see? Do we hear? Do we remember?

–Luanne

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”  Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I chose these words as my Senior quote. This line sits beside my picture in the yearbook that marked both an ending and a new beginning. The words came to my mind as I listened to Pastor John’s message on Sunday, and again this morning as I prayed through what direction to go in my writing. I don’t remember exactly why I chose this quote as a conflicted yet wide-eyed-with-wonder 17-year-old; I just know that it resonated deeply with my heart. I didn’t know that I would come back to it again and again as I grew from childhood into adulthood. It has reminded me that things are often not what they appear to be on the surface, that there are depths and nuance and mystery undetectable with our physical eyes. In moments where I’ve been tempted to pass judgment based on what is visible, these words have challenged me to consult the eyes of my heart first–the view is often different from there.

As I ponder the quote now, I find myself adding a few words that spring from what I’ve found to be true as I’ve grown in my own ability to see. I would say something like, “It is only with a heart whose eyes have been enlightened by the Spirit that one can see rightly; what is essential can be seen no other way.”

A few weeks ago, I wrote the following:

“And [I pray] that the eyes of your heart [the very center and core of your being] may be enlightened [flooded with light by the Holy Spirit], so that you will know and cherish the hope [the divine guarantee, the confident expectation] to which He has called you, the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints (God’s people),  and [so that you will begin to know] what the immeasurable and unlimited and surpassing greatness of His [active, spiritual] power is in us who believe.” (Ephesians 1:18-19, AMP)

I love that the Amplified Bible defines the eyes of our hearts as “the very center and core of your being.” Keeping this part of us open is explained as being flooded with light by the Holy Spirit… If we live with the eyes of our hearts squeezed shut, we will miss out on what is possible in God’s power. We need to be open to the movement of the Spirit, open to the signs God gives us along the way so that we can continue journeying with hope on the hard days. We need to see with our hearts so that we can believe all things are possible.

The eyes of our hearts… It would be great if, when we each meet Jesus for the first time, a one-and-done opening of our heart-eyes was part of the deal. Can you imagine being able to see clearly and completely from that point forward? It would change everything!

But that’s not how it works. This seeing, this opening, it’s a gradual process. That’s what makes the two-part healing of the blind man at Betheseda so relatable. Luanne reminded us of 1 Corinthians 13:12,

“For now, we can only see a dim and blurry picture of things… I realize that everything I know is only part of the big picture. But one day, when Jesus arrives, we will see clearly, face-to-face.” (The Voice)

What we know and see is only a sliver of the whole. In light of this truth, Luanne asked us some questions:

Are we willing to let Jesus, our sighted guide, touch us over and over, as many times as it takes so that we can see clearly? Are we willing to admit that every revelation we receive is part of a bigger picture, a greater work of God, a portion? Are we humble enough to keep seeking, knocking, asking, because we know that there is more and that none of us have all the answers?

Are we willing? Willing to, first, come to Jesus? Even if we have to be brought to him in the arms of someone else? And then, are we willing to let him touch our blind spots? Those places where we haven’t yet been enlightened by the Spirit? Luanne also asked if we are humble. Humility and willingness go hand in hand. It takes humility to admit that we have a limited field of sight and that our understanding is incomplete. And in that place of humility, we can choose to be willing to be led by “our sighted guide”, as Luanne called him.

Willingness and humility are not difficult–if our motivation is the same thing that moved Jesus. That motivator is love. If love is what drives us, being humble and willing are natural fruits of our endeavors. Luanne and I have both referenced 1 Corinthians 13:12. I was drawn to go back and read all of chapter 13, the chapter often called the “love chapter”. I’ve included it in its entirety below, to remind us what love actually looks like. Pastor John said on Sunday that to be “godly”, to be like God, is to be loving. Because God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). No other attribute more fully captures his nature. And Jesus says the world will know us by this same love…

If I were to speak with eloquence in earth’s many languages, and in the heavenly tongues of angels, yet I didn’t express myself with love, my words would be reduced to the hollow sound of nothing more than a clanging cymbal. And if I were to have the gift of prophecy with a profound understanding of God’s hidden secrets, and if I possessed unending supernatural knowledge, and if I had the greatest gift of faith that could move mountains, but have never learned to love, then I am nothing. And if I were to be so generous as to give away everything I owned to feed the poor, and to offer my body to be burned as a martyr, without the pure motive of love, I would gain nothing of value. Love is large and incredibly patient. Love is gentle and consistently kind to all. It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else. Love does not brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance. Love does not traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honor. Love is not easily irritated or quick to take offense. Love joyfully celebrates honesty and finds no delight in what is wrong. Love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others. Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives up. Love never stops loving. It extends beyond the gift of prophecy, which eventually fades away. It is more enduring than tongues, which will one day fall silent. Love remains long after words of knowledge are forgotten. Our present knowledge and our prophecies are but partial, but when love’s perfection arrives, the partial will fade away. When I was a child, I spoke about childish matters, for I saw things like a child and reasoned like a child. But the day came when I matured, and I set aside my childish ways. For now we see but a faint reflection of riddles and mysteries as though reflected in a mirror, but one day we will see face-to-face. My understanding is incomplete now, but one day I will understand everything, just as everything about me has been fully understood. Until then, there are three things that remain: faith, hope, and love—yet love surpasses them all. So above all else, let love be the beautiful prize for which you run.

 (1 Corinthians 13, TPT)

This kind of love is what motivated Jesus. If it’s what motivates us, we will have to continue to go to Jesus, to ask him to touch our blind spots and teach us to see the way that he sees. We’ll have to let him open us up–our eyes, our ears, our hearts. Luanne and I both used variations of the words “open up” many times in this post. We both know how hard it can be to open up. It can feel so much easier to live closed off, withdrawn, with eyes and ears closed to the world around us. It can feel safer. To open up is to be vulnerable. And being vulnerable feels scary. But there is no way to embody the kind of love we just read about above if we’re not willing to be opened up by Jesus. Because love can’t be poured out of a closed vessel.

May we each have the courage to ask Jesus to heal our vision–layer by layer–so that we can see the world through his eyes–eyes that see what could be and what will be when wholeness and restoration come to set all things right. May we embrace the humble willingness that leads to a love that spills from our open hearts. And may we remember that for now, we only see in part, but our sighted guide sees the whole–and he’ll be faithful to keep bringing sight to us until the day we also see in full.

–Laura

Limits: Freedom to Choose

The story of King Herod and John the Baptizer isn’t very fun to read. We don’t get to breathe a sigh of relief at the end of it as things are set right and pain is redeemed, because in this story, it’s not. It’s a story about a man who had a lot of power and the freedom to make a lot of choices without being questioned. Most of his choices were terrible, and nearly all of them were influenced by the desires and opinions of others. He even acted against his own convictions–after all, he had an image to preserve, a reputation to hold up.

The end of the passage we studied last week told us that Jesus’s disciples did what he sent them out to do: they healed people and drove out demons in his name. In the first verse of this week’s passage (Mark 6:14-29), Mark begins by telling us that “King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known.” King Herod’s reaction to what he heard was, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!” And then we get to read the whole story about the events that led to the beheading of John.

Why was this King Herod’s initial reaction to hearing about Jesus and his disciples? It likely had something to do with the word about–he hadn’t met Jesus, he didn’t know him. He had heard about him. And what he heard reminded him of someone else. Someone whose death he was responsible for. Perhaps his reaction was what it was because he had a guilty conscience. Maybe he was very aware of his wrongdoing, and maybe he was afraid of the consequences.

If we’re honest, when we read this story we can’t escape the reality of sin or the truth that, while most of us haven’t had someone killed, Herod’s string of bad decisions feels a little too familiar.

So. Let’s talk about sin.

What is sin, exactly? It is commonly associated with other words like condemnation, guilt, shame, exposure, evil, bad, wrong… I’m sure most of us could add a few more to that list. It’s a common assumption that sin entered the human experience in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. What is less commonly known is that the word “sin” doesn’t show up until a couple of chapters later. And it doesn’t show up as an action. Its described more like a temptation, almost a persona…

Cain and Abel, sons of Adam and Eve, both gave offerings of their labor to God. Most of our English translations say something like “God looked with favor on Abel’s sacrifice but did not look with favor on Cain’s.” If you look at the original language and the root words, it’s pretty difficult to make a case for the word “favor” showing up in the passage at all. The definitions of the original words basically say “God looked at Abel’s (and the word used for “looked” here has more negative connotations than it does positive, though it does have both) and he didn’t look at Cain’s.” It really doesn’t say anything about “how” God looked or didn’t look. I mention this not because I’m some kind of scholar–I am definitely not a theologian. I mention it because we all heave projections onto our God sometimes that make him look nothing like who he really is. What we do know is that Cain took it personally, however it happened.

J.D. Myers, in his book Nothing But the Blood of Jesus, writes:

“Sin is first mentioned in the Bible when Cain becomes angry at his brother Abel and enters into rivalry with him. God warns Cain that sin is crouching at his door, seeking to devour him. (Gen. 4:7) …Sin is first introduced and defined in the Bible as the cycle of imitative desire leading to rivalry, blame, scapegoating, and violence.”

This description makes me think of James 1:14-16:

Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.” (NLT)

Cain was jealous of whatever he thought his brother had. His desire was to win, to be better. His desire led him straight into the arms of sin. Sin’s desire was to have Cain–to consume him–and their union gave birth to violent actions which led to Abel’s death.

Maybe you’ve heard sin described as “missing the mark”. The bible makes a pretty strong case for this particular definition. But missing the mark of what? Perfection? Holiness? Godliness? I’m not sure–the Bible doesn’t directly tell us. But I really like the way Myers describes it in the book I cited above:

“Sin is living inhuman lives; lives that do not treat others as human beings made in the image of God, and lives that do not live up to our full potential as human beings in God’s image. Sin causes us to live as less than human.”

That feels like a good description of “missing the mark” to me. It certainly applies to the actions of Cain and King Herod. Sadly, it applies to many of my own choices, too…

Pastor John told us a few things about sin. He told us that sin is arrogant. It leads us to believe that we’re somehow beyond or above its consequences. It gets our attention–either through guilt or through shame. It seems rational at the time. It tells us we’re somehow in the right, or justified. So we deny what we’ve done and we minimize the impact of our actions. It begins to shape how we think. And with every step we take toward sin’s invitation, we become more and more consumed by it. Sin tells us that we are our own god. We are above consequence, and we are in control. It becomes agonizing over time, despite the lies we tell ourselves, and it begins to weigh us down. We forget who we are and whose we are, and we feel far from home. We begin to identify ourselves as bad, and we become convinced that something is inherently wrong with us. 

Herein lies the limit. We limit our own ability to experience the ever-present love of our God when we fall into the murderous embrace of sin. Sin wants to destroy us–not by sending us to the flames of some kind of hell. By encasing us in a cloak of lies that prevents us from feeling the love of the one who has never–and, hear me, will never–turn away from us. Sin doesn’t actually succeed at keeping us from God. But it limits our ability to sense and to know his love. We miss out on the experiential knowing of the withness of Jesus because we project our own guilt and shame onto our relationship with him. And so we hide. We run. We pull sin’s arms tightly around us to shield us from the wrath we imagine is coming…

But the only wrath that comes our way comes as the natural consequences of our actions.

The wrath is never from the one who made us, loves us, and never stops coming for us. There is no place so far that his presence won’t meet us there. Even if we make our bed in the place of the dead, he’s there. (Psalm 139)

His hand never, ever stops reaching for us. Sin doesn’t keep God from us. Ever. In the book A More Christlike God, Brad Jersak writes:

“Even when we turn away from God, he is always there, confronting us with his love. God is always toward us. Always for us. He comes, not as a condemning judge, but as a great physician… God never turns away from humanity. God is perfectly revealed in Jesus. When did Jesus ever turn away from sinful humanity and say, “I am too holy and perfect to look on your sin?” Did Jesus ever do anything like that? No. The Pharisees did that. They were too holy and turned away. God is like Jesus, not like a Pharisee. The gospel is this: when we turn away, he turns toward us. When we run away, he confronts us with his love. When we murder God, he confronts us with his mercy and forgiveness.”

There is always a hand that is extended toward us, no matter where we are or what heinous thing we have done. In reality, there is no “coming back” into God’s presence. Because there is nowhere his presence is not. There is only the choice to yield to the already-there God, letting his hand pull us from the churning belly of sin, and allowing ourselves to be absorbed into the love that is–and always has been–our home. Or there is the choice not to. Our choices can limit our ability to experience that extravagant love–but our choices can never remove us from the presence of the one who is with us, wherever we go.

–Laura

I love every word that Laura wrote and don’t have much to add; however, when she was speaking of Cain and Able, she includes this quote from J. D. Myers:

“Sin is first mentioned in the Bible when Cain becomes angry at his brother Abel and enters into rivalry with him.

The word rivalry jumped out at me. I think our western consumeristic mindset leads us to live in a constant state of rivalry.  The definition of rivalry is: competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field.  It’s a mindset that we are permeated with, but which will eventually erode our souls. 

Every advertisement that we see, every person that we compare ourselves with, every time we spend money that we don’t have to purchase something because we want it, or because it’s the “in” thing and we don’t want to be left out, every time we hustle for our worth and try to make ourselves indispensable to another human being, every time we pre-judge another person without knowing them at all, every time we treat (or even think) of someone else with disdain, every time we feel envious of what another has, or feel “less than”, every time we harbor bitterness because of what we think someone else deserves, every time we go along with the crowd against our own convictions–like Herod did–it’s all based in some sort of competition to be liked, to be accepted, to be superior…

That’s what Cain was feeling when he felt inferior to his brother. God, in his goodness, came to Cain and said to him  “sin is crouching at the door, and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Gen 4:7). Then Cain had a choice to make.

That scripture reminds me of the scripture in Luke 22:31-32 when Jesus tells Peter that Peter will deny him. Jesus says: Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you (plural) as wheat.  But I have prayed for you (singular), Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”  

Again, we see the warning, and the promise that Jesus is right there waiting with open arms through the season of our poor choices, and at the moment of our repentance. He does not reject us–ever.

Remembering that the word repentance literally means to change our mind removes the fear of condemnation. Repentance, in some circles, sounds like an awful thing, a condemning thing–yet Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world. (John 3:17)And he tells us through the Apostle John that …perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. (1 John 4:18 NLT).  

Last week, author Jonathan Martin tweeted “to repent is to remember: to remember who you are, to remember who God has always said you are; to recognize, to know, again; to come to yourself; to be who you’ve always been, but not allowed yourself to be.”

If we allow ourselves to see ourselves as unique, one of a kind, beloved image-bearers of God–fully known and fully loved, and learn to see others in that same way–rivalry falls to the wayside.

King Herod was loved by God. King Herod made a series of bad choices, beginning, in this account, with marrying his brother’s wife, which led to the prophet John the Baptist pointing out his immoral behavior, which led to John’s arrest.  Herod’s wife hated John and wanted him dead, but Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him. (Mark 6:20)  Herod threw a party, his step-daughter danced in front of his guests and he was so pleased he promised her anything she wanted–up to half his kingdom. She asked her mother what she should ask for, her mother wanted John the Baptist beheaded–the daughter asked Herod for John’s head. The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her…(Mark 6:26)

Even in Herod’s series of people-pleasing poor choices, God loved him. It’s interesting to read the detail that John’s message puzzled Herod, yet he liked to listen to him. I believe God was drawing Herod to himself through John.

We all make poor choices. We all compare ourselves to others. We all “miss the mark”. We all have a tendency to think that we will not reap the consequences of our poor choices. We all rationalize our actions. We all push God away. We all separate ourselves from experiencing the fullness of God’s love. But God never stops loving us. God never pushes us away. God never leaves us. God never turns his back on us.

This week’s limit….we limit our experience of God’s unconditional love in our lives when we choose to “let sin master us”, when we choose to follow our own desires, when we choose to please others against our own convictions, when we choose to diminish ourselves or puff up ourselves in comparison to others, when we let our thought lives run amuck, but God…he never limits his love for us. It is a constant, it is his very character…God is love.

I read this quote the other day–I don’t know who gets the credit for it, but I love it:

                          “Jesus told the story of the prodigal son to make a simple point:                     never mind what you’ve done, just come home.”

This is the heart of our God–just come home. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. Don’t be afraid. None of us is going to do life perfectly. We all fall short. And in the mind-blowing way of our God–His perfect love is there to receive us with open arms–always. 

–Luanne

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Limits: Going

“Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Mark 1:16).

This was the call. This was the mission. This was the journey. When Jesus called his first disciples, this was his invitation. As we’ve followed their journey through the book of Mark, we have seen Jesus teach them; we have seen Jesus demonstrate his authority over nature, demons, sickness, and death; we have seen Jesus love the least of these; we have seen how Jesus handles rejection and how unbelief limits his ability to perform miracles. And, we have seen that right after rejection, Jesus moved on and continued teaching.

Shortly after modeling that…

 He called the Twelve to him. Then he sent them out two by two. He gave them authority to drive out evil spirits.
 Here were his orders.”Take only a walking stick for your trip. Do not take bread or a bag. Take no money in your belts. 
 Wear sandals. But do not take extra clothes. 
 When you are invited into a house, stay there until you leave town. 
 Some places may not welcome you or listen to you. If they don’t, shake the dust off your feet when you leave. That will be a witness against the people living there.” 
 They went out. And they preached that people should turn away from their sins.
 They drove out many demons. They poured oil on many sick people and healed them.  (Mark 6: 7-13 NIRV)
The time had come for the fishermen to fish. Jesus was beginning to transfer the ministry to them. They were no longer going to just be his companions who sat at his feet and got a front seat to his miracles. It was time for them to begin to carry Jesus’ love and his ways to others.
I wonder if they were nervous? I wonder if they felt like they weren’t ready? What if they refused to go? Therein lies the limit--we can choose whether or not to go. Gratefully, these twelve chose to go.
Jesus encouraged them to pack light–it would not be necessary for them to take a lot with them. They could take a walking stick (staff), no food, no bag, no money. They could wear sandals, but they were not to take an extra tunic. They were to keep it very simple, and they were to accept and embrace the hospitality of others.
And Jesus equipped them with authority over evil spirits. 
That’s what they took. A walking stick, one set of clothes, and Jesus’ authority over evil spirits. I think it’s incredibly important to note that Jesus didn’t give them authority over people. He gave them authority over the dominion that oppresses people. All the way back in the first chapter of Genesis, we see that God made male and female in his image and likeness, and gave them dominion over the rest of the created world; to care for it. He didn’t give them authority over one another. And in this Mark 6 passage, he is still not giving people authority over other people. Any time one group assumes authority over another it leads to superiority and oppression–that is not the way of Jesus. So–the authority is over evil spirits.
The disciples went. They preached that people should “repent”, which literally means to change their minds. What were they changing their minds about? I would imagine since Jesus taught about the Kingdom and how near it is, that they were teaching the same thing. Jesus had not yet faced his crucifixion, so the disciples were carrying the news that God is here, he is close, his kingdom is here, he cares about you, his power is here, he meets you where you are, he sees you, he has sent us to you to show you his love and his power, and to set you free from the things that oppress you. His power–not our power. That’s important to note as well.
And then there’s that weird section that seems so contrary to the character of Jesus. He tells them that if they are rejected, they should shake the dust off their feet when they leave as a testimony against the people. Is he telling them to hold a grudge? That doesn’t seem to be congruent with the rest of Jesus’ overall message.
Thing number three that’s important to note: Jesus had just recently been rejected in his own home town. Remember how he marveled at the unbelief of the people there? Remember how he wasn’t able to perform many miracles? When he left that place, he moved on to other places and continued his mission, continued his teaching. The rejection of one place didn’t taint his heart as he moved on. And the witness “against” the people, is that they are remembered for their unbelief. Their own actions are the witness against them.
Pastor John taught us that the shaking of the dust off their feet was a cultural thing, and then he gave us a new way to think about that passage. Jesus calls each of us to go, to share, to be his witnesses in the world. Sometimes we will be met with an open door, sometimes we won’t. When we aren’t welcomed, when we experience rejection, we need to “shake off the dust” so that it doesn’t remain with us providing an opportunity to let a root of bitterness grow. We need to head into each new situation without being tainted by previously hard situations. That’s not always easy. Sometimes hard situations can cause us to want to give up, to isolate, to quit. We have not been given permission to do that. However, Jesus modeled, and taught his disciples–if an environment is rejecting your message, you don’t have to stay there. Move on. Don’t carry the dust of that situation with you–but move on. Sometimes it’s not a physical move, but an emotional one–let go.
Sometimes in our human stubbornness, we stick around because we want to change things in our own power. On the flip side, there are times when hardship comes our way and we leave too quickly. How do we know when to stay or when to go? The Holy Spirit will let us know. When my husband and I were preparing to move to Brazil, we were told that there would be hard times (and there were), but to remember our call–that it would be our call that would keep us there when times got hard. That was excellent encouragement.  In our ministry today, we remember our call when times get hard. The Lord has not moved us. Instead, he has taught us, grown us, shaped us, and held us through the hard stuff. Sometimes the hard is exactly what he uses to make us more like him, to teach us what it looks like to walk with a posture of forgiveness, to love unconditionally, and to remember that our battle is not against flesh and blood. Sometimes the hard stuff reveals things within us that need to be brought into the light and healed. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that going through hard seasons with Jesus (sometimes kicking and screaming), has led to some of my deepest seasons of growth with him. I don’t understand why it has to be that way, but many times it is. So move on when the Holy Spirit says to; stay when the Holy Spirit says to.
The line in Hillsong’s song “Oceans” that says “let me walk upon the waters wherever you would call me“…is a reminder that sometimes “wherever” means right where you are, right now. If that’s you, take a deep breath and give God your willingness to be where he wants you to be.
One other thing to keep in mind as we go: The protestant reformation happened in Christianity around 500 years ago, and the Latin phrase “sola scriptura” came out of that reformation. That phrase means “only scripture”.  There are four other phrases that were part of that movement as well:
Soli Deo gloria– to God alone be the glory.
Sola fide–only faith
Sola gratia–only grace
Solus Christus–only Christ
There is not an “only love”.

I find it interesting, given that Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to love God and love others,  that “only love” is not part of the reformation theology. Maybe that’s why Christianity has gotten so mean. We’ve forgotten our call to love. Remember when Jesus said to the Pharisees:

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life…(John 5:39-40).
This is what “sola scriptura” can lead to; disconnect from the life, the heartbeat, the ways of Jesus, and make us mean.

Yes, use the precious words of scripture to get to know Jesus, but don’t elevate scripture above Christ. Don’t go with an air of authority.  Don’t take a bunch of theological jargon. Don’t beat people up with Bible verses.

Carry the person of Jesus, the very life of Jesus whose Spirit dwells within you, to those around you. Jesus wants us to keep it simple. Share how he’s loved you, how he’s changed you, how he doesn’t condemn you, and demonstrate all of that by how you love others. It’s his love that changes things. It’s his kindness that draws people. It’s his authority that pushes back the darkness. It’s his light that shines through us. The only way we can limit him is if we choose not to go…

 …we are all called to simply go.
–Luanne
Luanne wrote above, in regard to going wherever we are called, “… sometimes “wherever” means right where you are, right now. If that’s you, take a deep breath and give God your willingness to be where he wants you to be.”
I think we who have been around church or church-y things for any time at all have heard mixed messages around the idea of our “callings.” We see the pastor and we’ll say he or she has a call on their lives to preach. We support missionaries as they are called to faraway places to live their lives making disciples.
Sometimes, we are desperate to hear a “call” to anything other than our current lives so that we can feel justified in escaping whatever we don’t want to endure in that season. In times like that, it’s easy to over-spiritualize everything and believe we’ve heard a specific call, because our desperation is what’s driving us.
Sometimes, our lives are so dull, so boring, so seemingly inconsequential, that we beg God to call us to something that matters.
Some of us have been groomed for a “calling” that everyone around us is sure we were made for, so we move forward in their collective confidence in the will of God for our lives.
Oh, how we over-complicate the ways of our God…
What if our calling is more about our way of being in the world than it is about a role or a vocation…? 
I’m not suggesting that God doesn’t call us to specific things in specific seasons of our lives. I know that he does that. He’s done that in my life. But the things he has called me to have changed. The overarching call behind all that he has asked me to do, though? That has remained the same…
Luanne mentioned above that when Jesus sent his disciples out this particular time, the crucifixion hadn’t happened yet. The cross wasn’t yet in view for the twelve. She wrote,
“…the disciples were carrying the news that God is here, he is close, his kingdom is here, he cares about you, his power is here, he meets you where you are, he sees you, he has sent us to you to show you his love and his power, and to set you free from the things that oppress you.”
We know that Jesus summed up all of his teachings and all of the commandments in what he called the greatest commandment: love God and love others. And we know that his invitation was to follow him, learn from him, become like him, and bring others into his beautiful kingdom of love.
When you look at the message the disciples were carrying that Luanne described above, and couple that with the paragraph I wrote under it, it doesn’t sound like a vocation in the way that we typically understand that word. But it is a calling. It is the calling that we all share. But it will look different for each one of us.
Pastor John asked on Sunday, “How has God invited you to impact the kingdom with your one life?”
For some, that will play out on stages. For others, in hospitals. Some will travel to faraway lands. Others will teach in classrooms. Some will only ever hold the title of “Mom”. Some will run for public office. Whatever we do in our day-to-day will be the place we live out our calling. But our calling is not the roles we hold. Wherever we are– right here, right now–is where we are invited to live out our calling.
Our way of being in the world will either speak to the work of Jesus in our lives, or it won’t. It will either bring a piece of the kingdom to bear in the world around us, or it won’t. I think for all of us, it will be mixed. Sometimes we are mindful of “going” into our days, mindful of the call we carry to be ambassadors for Christ in the world around us. And sometimes we choose not to go, not to bring the fullness of the kingdom with us wherever we go. Sometimes, this is because our trust gives way to fear, and we drop the baton we carry. When that happens, as Pastor John reminded us, there is grace. It only takes one voice to pass on a message. When one voice falters, another rises up. We aren’t powerful enough to thwart the growth of the kingdom–fortunately, it doesn’t depend on you or on me. The whole thing hinges on the center, the source of the power, the giver of the message… It hinges on the creator of the imperfect vessels who are invited to be part of the greatest restoration the world has ever seen.
We won’t carry our collective calling perfectly. But if we’re willing to say yes to whatever our one journey looks like in the here and now, our willingness will make space for our limitless God to change the world through us. I want to be a part of that–even on the days when I wish my “calling” looked different than being a faithful follower in the right here, right now of today…
–Laura
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Limits

God has limits.

What?

Our God is limitless, all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful… but we have a unique capacity to limit our limitless God.

How does that statement hit you?

I think before we get into this too much further, it would be helpful to define what a “limit” is. The Oxford Dictionary defines a limit as: a point or level beyond which something does not or may not extend or pass; a restriction on the size or amount of something permissible or possible.

Keep that definition in mind as we continue…

So far in Mark we have seen Jesus talk about the kingdom being here, now; teach about the kingdom–what it is and how it grows; and show those around him his authority as he enacts the values of the kingdom in the lives of those around him. The passage we looked at on Sunday shows us that we have the ability to put limits on what God can do based on our willingness or unwillingness to participate in the values of kingdom living. Living in the flow of the kingdom includes a posture of belief, trust, and ultimately hope in the one we believe in.

This is not the posture Jesus encountered in this week’s passage. Mark chapter 6 begins by telling us that Jesus left there (where he had just raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead), and went to his hometown.

Pastor John talked about coming home, and about what “home” means. He said that there is an expectation that home is where we get to be ourselves–a safe place, a place of grace. It’s a place where we can be honest about our successes (and failures) openly, a place where our wins can be celebrated in a different way. It’s a place where we can expect to be known and seen, and there’s a measure of vulnerability allowed without condemnation.

I’m going to pause here… Because I know that description of “home” might be painful to read for some. It was painful for me to hear, and painful to write out. Home isn’t always a safe, welcoming place, and sometimes it can feel like the last place we can be our real selves. Sometimes, home is where we feel the least seen and the most overlooked. I have felt this deep pain, as I’m sure many of you have. And you know what? Jesus did, too.

When Jesus went home following a series of mind-blowing miracles, he went with a new reputation, and with quite the following. Perhaps he thought that his community would accept him now, in a way they hadn’t before.

He wasn’t given a warm welcome.

He walked into a place that had been permeated by a posture of unbelief–it only takes one or two negative, unbelieving hearts to change the atmosphere of a place–and he was met with doubts, presumptions, and criticism. Let’s look at the story:

Jesus left that part of the country and returned with his disciples to Nazareth, his hometown. The next Sabbath he began teaching in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. They asked, “Where did he get all this wisdom and the power to perform such miracles?” Then they scoffed, “He’s just a carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon. And his sisters live right here among us.” They were deeply offended and refused to believe in him. Then Jesus told them, “A prophet is honored everywhere except in his own hometown and among his relatives and his own family.” And because of their unbelief, he couldn’t do any miracles among them except to place his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. (Mark 6:1-6, NLT, emphasis mine)

Jesus went home and began to teach. And the text tells us that the people were “amazed”. The same word was used to describe the reaction of people when they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons in his right mind again, as well as to describe their reaction to Jesus raising Jairus’s daughter from the dead. People were “amazed” or, in some of our translations, “astonished”. I decided to look up these occurrences of the word “amazed”, to see if they were all the same word in the original language. Here is what I found…

In the story of the man called “Legion” (Mark 5:20), amazed is translated from the Greek “thaumazo”. It means “to wonder at, to marvel” and its root means “to look closely at, to behold.”

In the story of Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5:42), the original word is “existemi”. This word means “to amaze, astonish, throw into wonderment“, and can also mean “to be out of one’s mind.”

In this week’s story (Mark 6:2), “amazed” is translated from the word “ekplesso”. It means “to strike out, drive out, expel by a blow; to strike with panic, shock”. In the first two stories, “amaze” means similar things. Not so with this story. The people’s amazement at Jesus here is the kind that is passive. They were struck by the things Jesus taught, in a way that caused shock and panic among them, in a way that felt like a blow. A blow to what? We’re not told. But it could have been to their own egos, to their understanding, to their idea of Jesus… Whatever “blow” they were struck by, we’re told that they scoffed and were deeply offended. The word translated “offense” comes from the Greek word “skandalizo”. It looks a lot our English “scandalized”, doesn’t it? (Our English word is, in fact, derived from this original Greek term.) It means “to cause a person to distrust or desert; to put a stumbling block in the way, to cause one to unjustly judge another.”

Their unbelief caused them to scandalize Jesus in their own minds. They were leaning on their own understanding, and what they thought they knew placed limits on what Jesus could have done in their midst… This is why the exhortation of Proverbs 3:5-6 is so important to listen to. I love the way the Message paraphrase puts it:

Trust God from the bottom of your heart;
    don’t try to figure out everything on your own.
Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go;
    he’s the one who will keep you on track.
Don’t assume that you know it all.

Jesus’s community assumed that they knew everything about him. They knew whose kid he was, they had meals with his siblings. They knew his trade and they knew his place in society.

But they didn’t leave room in their hearts to get to know him. The real Jesus. They had a story in their heads and it took up all the space where kingdom values could have been heard and understood. They chose to doubt, rather than believe. And so, Jesus couldn’t do any miracles among them because of their unbelief.

This in no way means that he didn’t have the power to do the same miracles there that he had done elsewhere. In fact, the text tells us that he did perform some healing miracles while he was there. He could do them, and he did do them. It’s right there in the passage. But it wouldn’t have mattered how grand the miracles were or how many he performed–their hearts were set up against him. Their posture of unbelief discounted every truth about him in their minds, and the culture in that town was hostile to the kingdom.

Jesus brought the kingdom into that town, the same way he carried it everywhere he went. But it wasn’t received. And without a place for kingdom seeds to grow, any work he did among them would have been futile. He could not force the kingdom to grow and expand in a place where it was not welcomed. There was no posture of belief, no willingness to join Jesus in his kingdom work, no trust–there was only contempt and doubt and unbelief. And so, because we have a good God who chooses to move through us–imperfect and, sometimes unwilling, vessels–Jesus faced limits in his hometown.

This story stands in stark contrast to the story of the woman that Jesus named “Daughter” and commended for her faith just days before, and to the story of Jairus coming to Jesus in faith on behalf of his dying daughter. In these stories, we saw great faith, and we saw Jesus respond to it with miracles of healing.

Am I saying that if we have enough faith, we’ll get our miracle every time? No. I’m not. And I don’t believe that’s what Pastor John was saying either. We know that sometimes faith is strong, and thousands believe together for a miracle that doesn’t come. We see examples of this when we hear about miscarriages, cancer, chronic illness and pain, depression, despair so deep it leads to suicide–despite fervent prayers and belief that God could change those stories–but for some reason he doesn’t. I would never say that any of these losses, any of this pain is a result of a lack of faith. I’ve watched faithful followers of Jesus battle bravely and hang onto every last shred of hope for their miracle–some of them are still with us, healed; some are no longer here.

I know there’s not a formula to faith and miracles. But choosing to live in the ways of the kingdom–holding onto hope, choosing to trust, believing that God always CAN–even if he doesn’t always show up the way we’re hoping he will, keeps our hearts and minds open to the movement of God in and around us. If we live this way, we live in a way that allows us to see and experience all that he is able to do–if we’re willing to bring his kingdom to bear alongside him…

There is one more occurrence of “amazed” I want to touch on… Mark 6:6 tells us that Jesus was amazed at their unbelief. Which “amazed” do you think he was?

It’s “thaumazo”, the same one used in the story of the man who was possessed. It’s the one that means “to wonder at, to marvel; to look closely, behold.” It would have made sense for Jesus’s amazement to be like that of his community–like he’d been struck by a blow. But it touches my heart in a deep place that this wasn’t Jesus’s response. He looked closely, beheld these people who were his family, his community–these ones who scoffed at and rejected him–and he chose not to take the same posture. He didn’t scandalize them in his mind. He beheld them with his kingdom eyes. I think maybe in that moment he saw beyond, into the days that were yet to come, days when many from his community–including his brother James–would not only change their posture to one of belief, but would become leaders of the early church.

Kingdom vision never wears lenses of hopelessness or disbelief. In the kingdom, there is no lost cause, no situation that can’t be changed. And here, even on a day when his heart must have ached from the pain of rejection, we see our Jesus choose an unexpected way, a kingdom way, of seeing those around him. What if we chose a posture that always believes, always hopes, always perseveres, always trusts, always loves? How would that kind of posture change the way we see the world–and the way the world sees us?

–Laura

A dozen or so years ago, Bible study author and teacher Beth Moore offered her first on-line study. I lived in Brazil at the time and was excited to be able to participate in the study from my home there. The title of the study was “Believing God”. It rocked my world. I have gone on to do/lead that study five more times. The thing making that study so profound for me was a seemingly small shift in a common phrase, which made all the difference in the world. Rather than “I believe in God”,  the phrase became I believe God. The study was built on these tenets:

God is who he says he is.

God can do what he says he can do.

I am who God says I am.

I can do all things through Christ.

I’m believing God. (Beth Moore)

Our belief doesn’t manipulate God into doing what we want him to do, but it does provide an open channel for God’s activity to flow–or as Laura wrote–for God to bring the kingdom here.

Last night a storm passed through our city. The power went out at my house for 2 1/2 hours. The power source was still available, many houses in town still had power, but something had happened in my part of town that caused the flow of that power to be interrupted. Unbelief is like that. It doesn’t diminish the power of God in any way. However, it can block the flow of that power.

I can’t pretend to understand this mystery, but God in his great love has allowed us to be partners with him in bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth. As in any relationship, if one of the partners chooses to disengage, the effectiveness of the partnership suffers.

Our belief that God is who he says he is and can do what he says he can do is vitally important in kingdom work. In the Old Testament book of Numbers, as God was getting ready to lead his people into the land he was giving them,  Moses and Aaron sent twelve men on a scouting mission to bring back a report. They came back with amazing produce and a confirmation that yes, this was a good land; however, ten of the twelve said but we can’t. There are too many obstacles, too many people who are stronger than we are, it’s impossible. The result of their unbelief–their negative report:

That night all the members of the community raised their voices and wept aloud.  All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness!  Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?”And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”  Numbers 14:1

Joshua and Caleb, who believed God could do what he said he could do, said:

If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us.  Only do not rebel against the Lord.  (Numbers 14:8)

God was giving them a gift. Instead, one bad report led an entire community into despair and worst-case scenario thinking. The consequence of their unbelief was that they did not get to see the land God was giving to them. They wandered for forty years until all of them but Joshua and Caleb had died, and the two who believed–who also suffered the consequences of the unbelief of their comrades–were able to move into the promised land.

When speaking of those who Moses led out of Egypt, Hebrews 3:19 tells us, they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.

I think it’s important to point out that while the Israelites were in the wilderness, God was still with them. He led them, he fed them, he provided water, he miraculously made their clothes and shoes last the entire time (Deuteronomy 29:5), he taught them, he did miracles on their behalf; he continued to love them, to speak to them through Moses,  to care for them. He was still the God who is love.

It’s also important to note what Laura wrote above: Am I saying that if we have enough faith, we’ll get our miracle every time? No. I’m not.  

Our belief doesn’t manipulate God into doing what we want him to do. God is God. His ways are higher than ours, his thoughts are higher than ours; unfortunately, suffering, sickness, violence, and death are part of life on this planet–and none of us escapes those things. Neither did Jesus.

However, our unbelief can keep us from fully experiencing all that God has for us, and can keep us from living in such a way that God’s supernatural activity in and around us is impeded.

Going back to the verses that Laura quoted above: Proverbs 3:5 in the NLT version reads like this:

Trust in the LORD with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding.

The word “trust” can be a noun or a verb. In its noun form it means: assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something; one in which confidence is placed.  In its verb form, it means: “to rely on–to believe, to place confidence in,  to commit or place in one’s care or keeping… (merriam-webster.com)

The people in Jesus’ hometown thought they knew him. They made assumptions. They created a culture of unbelief that permeated the whole town. They depended on their own understanding, their own knowledge, and from that place stood in a defensive posture and shut off the valve that could have changed their lives. They were not willing to place themselves in the care or keeping of Jesus. They were not willing to experience something new.

I’ll say it again–I don’t pretend to understand this mystery, but I believe it’s true. Our belief–the active verb kind of belief that allows God to move and work and meet us where we are, opens up the activity of heaven right here, right now. Our openness to God allows him to work through us without limits.

In the hard seasons, do I trust the character of God? When I don’t get my miracle do I trust the character of God? When everything feels dark and confusing do I trust the character of God? Do I believe God?

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who were thrown into a blazing hot fire said to King Nebuchadnezzar:  If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand.  But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:17-18)

They had no doubt that God is who he says he is, and they trusted him no matter the outcome. They refused to bow to any false god–the god of disappointment, the god of my own way, the god of discontent, the god of “I’ve served you faithfully and you let this happen to me?” or any other thing that we may find ourselves serving when we lean on our own understanding.

Of Beth Moore’s principles, the one where I’ve limited God the most is “I am who God says I am”. He has invited me into things that I feel incapable of–that I am incapable of apart from him. Sometimes I close the door and don’t move into those spaces because I’m afraid–I’m relying on my own understanding. Sometimes I take a deep breath and go for it–and Every. Single. Time. come away amazed at who God is.

There have been many times when God has asked me to stay in places that are hard– physical places, relational places, emotional places. I don’t like those places, yet when I believe God, I can have the faith to believe that he will redeem the pain and work it all toward his good purpose both in and through me.

There have been times that I’ve lost people I love to disease, to car accidents, or to friendships that changed over time. If I believe God, I can have the faith that even in these hard things, he is working. I can choose to trust, to commit myself to his care and keeping–even in seasons of grief, believing that he is God and he is love even as I beat my fists against his chest.

There have been times that I have seen God perform miracles, heal, save, transform, redeem, restore, come through when all hope seemed lost, and at those times it’s easy to see him, to believe him, to glorify him.  I believe that’s one of the reasons he asks us to keep our minds focused on lovely and excellent things, and to remember what he’s done for us. It helps us keep believing, even when we don’t understand what he’s doing.

When I’m in hard seasons, I oftentimes reflect on the disciples at the time of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. What was going through their minds? When it looked like all hope was lost, God the Son was carrying out a victorious mission. He died, passed through death, now holds the keys of death and hades, and rose again from the dead utterly defeating death.  Colossians 2:15 words it like this: And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.  What looked like total darkness and chaos, became our freedom–the verses right before 2:15 state: He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And then he made a public spectacle of the powers and authorities, disarming them forever!

What looked like the end was the new beginning…

Therefore:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart–don’t lean on your own knowledge or understanding. Believe God…

God is who he says he is. He can do what he says he can do. We are who he says we are. We can do all things through him. Let’s not limit what He can do by our unbelief; instead, let’s choose to believe our limitless God and watch him be amazing in our midst.

–Luanne

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The Battle: Enemy

I’m sure that you’ve seen the caricatures of the devil, like the one where he is red all over, has a tail, carries a pitchfork, etc. I wish he was that obvious because then his schemes would be easier to recognize and it would be easier not to cooperate with him. Frustratingly, he is crafty and subtle. Some of the names he is given in the New Testament include Satan, devil, tempter, evil one, deceiver, liar, father of lies, thief, accuser, enemy, prince of demons, prince of the power of the air,  and the most frightening to me…he masquerades as an angel of light. (2 Cor. 11:14)  We must be as wise as serpents and gentle as doves. (Mt. 10:16)

Isaiah 14: 12-14 tells us that Satan was a beautiful angel in heaven, but he wanted to elevate himself to the place of being worshipped–he wanted to be enthroned, he wanted to be God, so in an instant, as fast as a lightning strike, he was cast out of heaven to earth.  He still wants our worship.

In Luke 10:18 Jesus tells us that he was a witness to that event, he saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. No doubt, Satan is powerful, but we must always remember that he is not most powerful. God is the almighty One, the all powerful One, and He is who we worship. However, all good warriors know the tactics of their enemy, and Satan most assuredly has a battle plan that we must be aware of.

Pastor John pointed out five pieces of the enemy’s plan for us to look for.

  1. The enemy wants to blind your mind. (2 Cor. 4:4) The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers…  I’ve said this before, and will say it again–I believe followers of Christ can fall into this category. I know there have been times when I’ve doubted God; times that I’ve lost sight of who He is. More than once I have found myself praying the prayer of the father in Mark 9:24 I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief! When we choose doubt, when we choose unbelief, we allow our minds to be blinded, and we cooperate with the scheme of the enemy. Our minds are powerful–it is incredibly important to pay attention to what is going on in that arena. AND it is incredibly important to realize that people who don’t yet know Jesus are blinded. They cannot see. Jesus said that he came to preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for the prisoners, recover sight for the blind, release the oppressed, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19) We who know Him are the ones carrying out His ministry today. We must recognize that people are blind, pray for their sight, refuse to judge them for acting lost, and enter into their lives with love, compassion, action, and words.

2. The enemy wants to steal God’s word from you (Mt. 13:19) When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. The enemy is actively working against us to make the truths of God’s kingdom hard to remember. That’s why we must invest time and energy into studying, memorizing, and reading God’s word. All scripture is important, but as Christ’s followers I think it’s incredibly important to read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John over and over and over again–we have to know our Savior–and the rest of it is then read through the lens of Jesus.  We must take time daily to get God’s word into our livesThe enemy wants it out of our lives…let’s refuse to cooperate.

3. The enemy sets traps. (2 Tim. 2:24-26) And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.  Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance…that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.  I hate acknowledging how many times I’ve fallen for his traps. Any time I take on an us/them mentality or a me/you mentality or an I’m all alone mentality, or a poor pitiful me mentality, I have fallen for the trap. Any time I give in to a temptation, I have fallen for the trap. James 1:14 explains very vividly, using conception and birth language, how this happens: …each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

  1. Satan tempts us according to our own evil desires. It’s personal. What might be tempting for me may not be tempting for you and vice versa.
  2. We follow the temptation, join ourselves–our heart, our soul, our thoughts, our flesh–with it.
  3. We carry the action through to giving birth to sin–doing what we were tempted to do.
  4. If we continue along this path, it leads to death. ( Can be death of relationships, death of purpose, death of dreams, death of unity, many things can die…)

We are never at the mercy of Satan. We can stop the process at any point, we can repent at any point, we can run to Jesus at any point–but we must be aware of the process in order to recognize it when it’s happening.

4. The enemy fights to stop you. (1 Thess. 2:18) For we wanted to come to you—but Satan blocked our way.  We must be aware that when we are on mission with God, the enemy will not make that easy for us. Paul circumvented what the enemy was doing by writing letters…he still got his message to the Thessalonians even though he was unable to get there in person. Roadblocks must not stop us. We have one purpose on this planet, and that is to populate the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus taught us to pray “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth….deliver us from evil….. If His kingdom is to come on earth, it will come through those of us who call Jesus our Lord and are being transformed to His likeness.  We must recognize the “stop” tactics for what they are and persevere in our mission to love people into the arms of Jesus.

5. The enemy plans to destroy you. (1 Peter 5:8) Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour(John 10:10a) The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy… We are the deeply loved image bearers of God. Satan hates God. Satan hates us. He wants to keep those who don’t yet know the love of the Father from ever knowing it. He wants to keep those of us who do know the love of the Father from being all that God made us to be in Christ therefore rendering us ineffective in kingdom work.

What is our response to his scheme?  James 4:7-8a  Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you…

A couple of things to note in that verse–

  1. Submit means to place yourself under the control of, be subordinate to–So we must place ourselves under the control of God and do life His way.
  2. Every use of the word “you” in these verses is the plural form.
  3. Resist is a military term which indicates that all of the forces on one side are working together to go after the one common enemy–Satan– not against one another. It means every believer in every denomination, in every country, all across the face of the globe– The Church– recognizing that we are on the same team to advance the Kingdom and principles of Jesus and to keep the enemy from gaining any territory. None of us fight the battle alone. When the capital “C” church gets this figured out, it will change the world.

Any time we fall into the trap that our battle is against flesh and blood rather than against our one enemy, we are headed for trouble. Jesus tells us over and over in Matthew 24 that it is possible for his followers to be deceived:

verses 4-5 Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many.

10-11 …many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other,  and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people

24–false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect

We, His children, must pray constantly for the Holy Spirit to reveal to us our blindspots, the areas where we are deceived, the ideologies that we take as “gospel” truth, We must be careful about elevating people and blindly following. We must be careful about following tradition or culture over Truth. Satan masquerades as an angel of light. Not everything that appears good is good. We must be careful about worshiping things other than God–whether it be political figures, nations, policies, news stations, sports teams, celebrities, money, pastors, teachers, authors, spouses, children, work, self, etc. and ask the Lord to open our blind minds to see clearly. We must ask Him to show us who we’ve “othered” and ask Him to help us love them well and remember that we are all on the same team. Our fight is for each other against the one enemy. His word is clear. His kingdom looks like the Sermon on the Mount–(Mt. 5, 6, 7) Do our kingdoms look like that?  Let’s not be afraid to repent, let’s not be afraid to step out of our comfort zones for His name and His glory. Let’s fight the good fight and do this His way. Are you in?

–Luanne

  Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you… (James 4:7-8a)

I love that Luanne broke down James 4:7 and defined the imperatives “submit” and “resist”. I am grateful for the reminder that submission isn’t forced–it’s a choice. We choose what we place ourselves under. And we all place ourselves under something… If that something is anything other than God, we are playing right into our enemy’s hand. It is also vitally important that we know and remember that resist is a plural word. It’s not something we do all alone. And who we resist is never one another–it is always our enemy. His ways, his lying words, his plans… When we stand together in resistance, he flees from us. The Greek word for “flee” in this verse is “pheugo”, which means “to seek safety by flight, escape safely out of danger, to vanish“.

There is one more imperative in these verses out of James: “Come near to God…” And the promise: “…and he will come near to you…” When Pastor John read these verses on Sunday, I knew I wanted to spend some time digging in here. When I looked up root words and definitions for the phrase “come near”, I found some things I didn’t expect. [I love it so much when that happens–it’s another great reason to really spend time in the Word, to dig into this gift of Scripture that we’ve been given and really chew on it–not just the words themselves, but also definitions, connections, and applications for our lives. The Holy Spirit will illuminate the words and enlighten us if we’ll give Him the chance…] 

When I followed the words back to their roots, one definition of the phrase stood out above the others: “to join one thing to another“. One of the examples given was the arms of the oceans… They are joined together so seamlessly that we can’t distinguish where one ends and another begins.

This is our invitation… 

Place ourselves under the control of God. Work together to send our enemy fleeing for safety. And be joined to God. And He will join Himself to us. Seamlessly, intimately–so close that lines of separation are indistinguishable.

This same phrase with the same root words is used by Jesus in Matthew 4:17:

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Through Jesus, the kingdom that He talked at length about in Matthew 5,6,7 which Luanne mentioned above, the kingdom of heaven, has been joined together our earthly experience. It’s not something we wait for on the other side, something that exists once our time on earth is through. The kingdom of heaven is here. Now. Inextricably connected to us and living within those of us who know Jesus.

The usage of “you” in James 4:8 (“…and he will come near to you…”) is the same word used in verse 7. Again, it is not talking to us as individuals. It is plural and it is a call to all of us who follow Jesus as Lord. Verse 7 tells us to collectively place ourselves (as one Church) under the authority of God and to come together to resist our enemy. And verse 8 begins by telling us to then be joined together with our God. It is not a me and my God concept. It is us and our God. All of us who, collectively, make up the bride of Christ.

WE. HAVE. TO. GET. THIS. RIGHT.

We have to stop separating ourselves from each other and living judgmental, critical, individualized lives. We have to stop fighting with each other and understand that the body of Christ is so beautiful because of our differences, not in spite of them. We need each other. If every soldier on the battlefield thought exactly the same way and had the same gifts and set of skills, that army would never be successful. It is necessary that armies engage their battles from all sides, with many different strategies, and from different positions in the field. The same is true fro us. I’ll say it again–we need each other.

Carlos Rodriguez, in his book Drop the Stones, writes these words…

“I am one in heart with every Catholic, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Methodist, and all others in our family who celebrate the name (and the ways) of Jesus Christ… Through us the prayer of Jesus will be answered, ‘That they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.’ [John 17:23] We need our Orthodox family. We need our brothers and sisters in the megachurches. We need the underground church in China as well as our Reformed relatives in America. We need one billion Catholics to join hands together with us in solidarity, in prayer, and in service… I believe that not one of us owns the full expression of the faith we love. And maybe God made it that way so that we would have to come together. To learn from each other. To grow with each other. And to stop calling each other the Antichrist.”

What do you say, Church? What will we choose? Will we continue to see our enemy in other flesh and blood? Or will we embrace that our earthly lives have been joined together with the kingdom of heaven and move together as the collective Church of Jesus against our real enemy? The enemy has a battle plan. He knows it inside and out. James gives us our battle plan, the one that will send our enemy fleeing. Let’s make it our goal to know it, to remember it, and to put it into practice. Together.

–Laura

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Last Words: Pontius Pilate

So far in this series, we have looked at some “last words” from the stories of Peter and Judas. This week, Pontius Pilate was our focus. Pastor Beau took us into the story of Jesus being brought before Pilate, the Roman governor, to be questioned and, ultimately, sentenced. We find this account in Matthew 27:11-26.

Beau has asked us a question in each sermon in this series. The first was, “Who is Jesus to you?” Last week he asked us to consider, “Which Jesus are you pursuing?” This week’s question is “What are you going to do with Jesus?”

This week’s question comes from Matthew 27:22, where Pilate asks the crowd,

“What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?”

What Beau pointed us to in this story is Pilate’s indifference, and the danger of becoming indifferent in our own lives. Pilate had his reasons. He was caught between the people he was governing and the authorities he answered to. We know from historical accounts of his life that he was not well thought of. He had made some mistakes professionally regarding how he ruled and was now governing in what the Romans considered a  turbulent area-it was not a desirable assignment. He was being watched by both Rome and the Jews (especially the Jewish leaders) that he governed. He knew he was under a microscope and he was consumed with self-preservation.

Has our own need for self-preservation clouded our decision-making ability at times, too?

Because Pilate was stuck in a place of self-preservation, he couldn’t hear the voices of wisdom around him–even his own. His wife implored him to judge rightly. Verse 19 in Matthew’s account reads like this:

While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him”.  

Pilate didn’t only miss the wisdom of his wife; he also ignored his own voice. We read in verse 18 that “…he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him”. And in verse 23, in response to shouts of “Crucify him!” from the crowd, he tries one last time to get a clear answer when he asks them, “Why? What crime has he committed?”.

Pilate seemed to know that Jesus was innocent from the very beginning of their exchange. And he never moves away from that belief as far as we can see in this account. So why, then, did he still hand Him over to be killed?

As it was last week when we looked at Judas’ story, the events of Jesus’ life and death were prophesied. We know that the prophecies had to be fulfilled. And God, in His sovereignty, knew who would choose to do the betraying, and who would ultimately hand Jesus over to be crucified. But we can’t forget that these men, these characters in the story had free will, just as we do. And there is value in taking a closer look at what motivated them–because, as we saw with Peter and Judas, sometimes the very same things that motivated them can be found within us. 

We talked earlier about Pilate’s indifference to Jesus. Jesus was nobody to Pilate. He didn’t know who He was. So it was easier for him to remain uninvolved, to bend to the will of the crowd. Because his indifference had a partner: fear. Fear is what drove him to be so concerned with self-preservation. And it is the perfect partner for indifference. Verse 24 reads,

When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere and that an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” 

This combination of fear and indifference does to all of us exactly what it did to Pilate–it keeps us stuck. And it tells a lie that we readily believe. The lie is that remaining uninvolved absolves us of our guilt. Pilate bought this lie. He counted on it. But choosing not to get involved is always choosing complicity. Pilate, playing on the Jews’ own tradition from Old Testament law (Deuteronomy 21:1-9) tried to wash his hands of Jesus’ blood. But…

We cannot wash our hands of the consequences of our indifference.

And all the people answered, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” (Matt. 27:25)

The people’s response here, I read it in an eerie tone… It is self-fulfilling prophesy and it is two-fold. Their hands would literally be covered in his blood. The responsibility was on them, the Pharisees, the Roman soldiers who would carry out the details of the crucifixion and also on Pilate, whether he liked it or not. It is also on each one of us, as it was the sin of all that His death paid for. What the crowd didn’t realize they were saying though, is what many of them would come to count on in the future, when the very ones responsible for His death would find life in His Resurrection…  “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” I believe that many of those who were in the crowd on crucifixion day later put their faith in Him as their Risen Savior. And the blood that indicted each one would become the blood that would cover them and set them free. Just as it does for each one of us that believe in Him as our Lord.

No matter how many times we wash our hands, we can’t get the guilt of shedding Jesus’ blood off of us. We can’t clean ourselves off. The stains are permanent… Unless we are washed by the very blood we shed. Only the blood of Jesus can absolve us of our guilt, our complicity in the literal shedding of His blood for our sins. But we have to choose to say yes to this Love that died for us. We have to choose. Indifference is a choice. We cannot stay indifferent without consequence. It doesn’t work that way. We have to answer the question Beau posed to us,

“What are you going to do with Jesus?”

We have choices to make. And Holy week, the time that we remember the road to Calvary, is the perfect time to consider our answers not only to this question, but to the others that Beau challenged us to dig into:

Will we betray Him? Or believe in Him?

Will we follow Him? Or fall away from Him?     

Will we leave Him? Or let Him be the Lord of our lives?

I hope that as we move throughout this Holy Week, we can all consider our own answers to these questions. That we will each ask the Holy Spirit to point out any areas in our lives where we’ve been indifferent or trapped by fear. I pray that our decisions won’t be driven by our self-preservation instincts, as Pilate’s were, but rather by our love for the One who loved us first. The One who surrendered Himself and allowed His blood to be shed by those who would be made clean by that same blood. What will you do with this Jesus?

–Laura

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Last Words: Judas

Judas. It’s not a name that very many parents name their sons. Judas the traitor. Judas the thief. Judas the betrayer. Judas the beloved?

We don’t know a great deal about Judas. We know that he was the son of Simon Iscariot    (John 13:26). We know that he was one of the twelve disciples chosen by Jesus. We know that the other disciples counted him as one of their number who shared in their ministry. (Acts 1:17) We know that Judas was in charge of the money. (John 13:29), and that sometimes he helped himself to the funds (John 12:6). And we know that he loses his way.

Pastor Beau reminded us that we really don’t know what led Judas to betray Jesus. We don’t know what his ultimate motivation was. Of course, we know that the betrayal of Jesus was prophesied. We also know that God gives us the ability to make our own choices, and we know that Judas was susceptible to this particular temptation.

All of the disciples were human. All had issues. Peter was impetuous. James and John were called the “sons of thunder” and wanted to call down lightning on a Samaritan village that didn’t allow them to pass through. Thomas was a doubter. Like us, each one had weaknesses that could have led to their downfall. So, to say Judas was the “bad guy” doesn’t really work. Scripture is clear that we are all sinners and we all need a Savior. That’s why Jesus came.

Even knowing all of that, we want to know why Judas made his choice. Pastor Beau gave us four possible maybes.

1. Money.  I wrote above that Judas was the treasurer, that sometimes he stole out of the treasury, and we know that he sold Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Was greed his motivation?  Pastor Beau pointed out that in the Old Testament thirty pieces of silver was the price paid to the master of a slave if the slave was gored by an ox and killed. (Ex. 21:32) Thirty pieces of silver compensated for the life of the slave.  Judas sold Jesus for the value of a gored slave. Beau asked us if Jesus doesn’t have utmost value to us, what does? What are we willing to sell Jesus for?

2. Hurt. In John 6:70-71 Jesus says, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” (He meant Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, who though one of the Twelve, was later to betray him.) Did Judas know that Jesus was talking about him at this point? And in John 12, Judas is indignant that Mary poured expensive perfume on Jesus feet. He comments in verse 5, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.  Then Jesus publicly rebuked him and said: “Leave her alone…it was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

Have you ever been called out publicly? It’s not a fun moment. Jesus always spoke the truth in love, but if Judas didn’t understand the love of Jesus, the truth just hurt. Was he harboring anger and hurt toward Jesus? Was that his motivation?

3. Jealousy. Judas was not part of Jesus’ inner circle among the disciples. Peter, James, and John experienced things with Jesus that the others didn’t. Did that upset Judas? Was he jealous of the closeness the others shared?

We must always guard against comparing our stories to the stories of others. If we catch ourselves saying, “If only I had that”, or “If I didn’t have this”, we are getting into dangerous territory. Each of us has gifts, each of us has a role to play in the kingdom of heaven. If we are jealous of someone else, we miss what Jesus wants to do in our story.

4. Disillusionment.  Many times the disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was saying. Many times Jesus had to explain things to them. It’s very possible that Jesus didn’t look anything like the Messiah they expected.  Many Israelites were expecting an earthly ruler who would overthrow the Roman government, who would make all the right political moves, and who would put Israel on top.  Jesus didn’t seem to be meeting those expectations.

Is it possible that Judas was trying to force his hand?  Is it possible that when Judas came to the garden with a large crowd who had swords and clubs that he was hoping this would be the moment that the warrior Messiah would rise up? Instead Jesus said to him, Friend, do what you came to do. (Mt. 26: 50)  I looked up the word “friend” in the Greek. It means “comrade, partner, in kindly address, friend, my good friend.”

Jesus leaves me speechless over and over. Even in this moment, he was loving Judas. The thought of that makes me want to cry. Jesus is so kind, so good, and so misunderstood.

Do we have false expectations about Jesus? Are we disillusioned with Him?

Judas seemed to act on his impulses and take matters into his own hands. It didn’t go well for him.

Judas’ ultimate enemy was Satan.  Satan prowls like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour (1st Peter 5:8).  In this moment that someone was Judas. Both Luke 22:3 and John 13:27 tell us that Satan entered into Judas…  Judas was weak, making his own decisions, and he took the bait.

We see this prowling other times in Scripture. All the way back in the book of Genesis, God tells Cain: Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master. (4:7). Cain does not listen, he kills his brother, and bears the consequences of that choice.

God gives Satan permission to test Job. Job proves faithful to God, and is commended for his faithfulness.

Jesus tells Peter that Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” (Lk. 22:31-32).  

Simon Peter’s faith did fail, and he betrayed Jesus. But he came back. He allowed Jesus to restore Him.

I believe with all my heart, the same could have been true for Judas. Judas’ last recorded words are found in Mathew 27: 3-5. When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”  

At this point my heart breaks. Judas, once again took matters into his own hands and took his own life. He did not understand the depth of the love of God. He did not understand that Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world. (Jn 3:17)

Judas misunderstood. Judas had weaknesses. Judas messed up.

I think the tragedy of Judas’ life has much to teach us. Judas’ weaknesses killed him—whether it was greed, hurt, jealousy, disillusionment, or something else, it cost him his life.

Do we know where we are weak? Do we know what it is that can pull us away from full on commitment to Christ? Is it social media, time management, gossip, shopping, over-eating, lust, porn, alcohol, dishonesty, money, drugs, TV, sports, self-pity, self-aggrandizement, promiscuity, politics, self-righteousness, prejudice, unhealthy friendships, self-protection, chasing adrenaline rushes, mental fantasy, comparison, envy, bitterness, unforgiveness? The list could go on and on. Where are you weak? Where are you susceptible to attack?

I recently read the phrase, “We are not punished for our sin, but by our sin.” Our weaknesses, the things we are susceptible to must be acknowledged and surrendered over and over to Jesus. Our weaknesses help us to remember how desperately we need our Savior. Apart from him, we are self destructive, others destructive, and we have a very real enemy who wants to take us out. Jesus knew this when He taught us to pray “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

Peter shows us what to do after an epic failure. Peter, after denying Jesus three times, felt remorse; he went out and wept bitterly. Yet Peter did not ultimately give up. Jesus restored Peter, gave him a purpose and unleashed him as a powerful ambassador for The Kingdom.

Judas felt remorse. He acknowledged his sin. But he didn’t understand the unconditional love of God. He thought his story was over, so he took his own life.

All of us are weak. Paul tells us that no one is righteous. No one. He tells us that we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s perfect standard. He tells us about his own wrestling match with sin in Romans 7, and finishes that portion of scripture by saying What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me…. Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rm. 7:24-25)

Jesus delivers us from our sin. Let that sink in. He always has the final word! When we are being sifted Jesus prays for us, he intercedes on our behalf. When we are weak, He is strong. He sympathizes with our weaknesses because he was tempted in every way but did not sin. He is for us, not against us.

Please know, no matter your story, as long as you are alive, there is hope. You have not committed the one sin that Jesus’ death on the cross didn’t cover. There is complete and full forgiveness for you. There is restoration. There is new life. There is joy. There is Holy Spirit power to carry out the call that God has given you. You are loved. Breathe it in. Bask in it. Jesus loves you. Don’t ever give up.  Your story is not over. Believe it!

—Luanne

Luanne wrote, “I think the tragedy of Judas’ life has much to teach us. Judas’ weaknesses killed him…”

I wholeheartedly agree with her. Until this Sunday’s message, I’ve never attempted to relate to Judas. His story has made me feel sad, mad, confused… but that’s as far as I have ever gone. There’s a strong tendency to move into the “us/them” mindset when it comes to this particular man, at least for me. I think in general, we as Christians have always “othered” Judas-even to the point of demonizing him-rather than taking the time to examine if any of Judas’ flaws can also be found in us…

Last week, the question Beau asked us to consider was, “Who is Jesus to you?”. This week, he asked,

“Which Jesus are you pursuing?”

It’s a question we have to ask ourselves, and be willing to answer honestly. I believe it’s a huge part of the answer to all of the questions we have about Judas and his choices–and it can also show us the why behind our own decisions.

We don’t know exactly what Judas thought about Jesus. Whatever beliefs he may have held, his actions proved that the Jesus he was pursuing didn’t actually exist.

Beau took us into the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane when Judas’ betrayal of Jesus took place. (Matthew 26) I’ve known the story for a long time, but I’ve never taken notice of some of the things Beau highlighted in the text. I knew they came to arrest Him, Judas betrayed Him with a kiss, and Peter cut off a guy’s ear, which Jesus then healed. Those are the basics that I’ve always paid attention to. But the way they came for Jesus, and when (at night when none of His followers were around…), hadn’t stood out to me as anything more than background details of the main story. But there is so much more here, especially as it relates to Judas and which Jesus he may have been pursuing… In this account, we see a glimpse of what his beliefs may have been. This was one of many occurrences when Judas took things into his own hands. And as Luanne wrote about above, he may have been trying to force Jesus’ hand here. To force him into the role, the mold, that he felt Jesus, as King, should occupy.

Beau referenced parts of Psalm 2, a psalm that speaks of the coming Messiah, in his message. Verses 8-12 read this way in the New Living Translation:

“‘Only ask, and I will give you the nations as your inheritance, the whole earth as your possession. You will break them with an iron rod and smash them like clay pots.’” Now then, you kings, act wisely! Be warned, you rulers of the earth! Serve the Lord with reverent fear, and rejoice with trembling. Submit to God’s royal son, or he will become angry, and you will be destroyed in the midst of all your activities—for his anger flares up in an instant.

If Judas was familiar with this text, which he most likely was, it stands to reason that the Jesus standing in front of him didn’t look like he expected the Messiah to look. Perhaps he thought he could force Jesus into the box he’d created in his own mind for Him–a box marked by rule, authority, power, wealth, control-things that would all also benefit Judas and feed his desires. Maybe he had it in his head that he could be part of provoking Jesus to step up and oppose those who opposed Him…

Sometimes I want Jesus to oppose (even take out…) those who oppose Him, too. And more specifically, those who seem to stand in the way of His Kingdom coming the way thatthink it should. And sometimes… I just want Him to take out those who oppose me… Those who hurt me, make me angry, stand in my way.

Sometimes I pursue a Jesus who doesn’t exist, too. 

When I get caught up in my own pain, selfishness, pride, I create a version of Jesus who works on behalf of me, who makes my life easier and better… It breaks my heart to even write that, to admit that it can be true about me. But when I choose my will, when I take things into my own hands, I can be Judas. When Satan dangles the perfect temptation in front of my weakness and I take a bite, I fall prey to it… just like Judas did

I’ve betrayed Jesus, too. In a million little ways and in big ways. I’ve allowed selfishness to guide my heart-I’ve looked for a Jesus who would fulfill my wants and expectations. I’ve let hurt and jealousy paralyze me rather than let their presence lead me to the feet of Jesus. And I’ve been disillusioned when the Jesus I expected hasn’t shown up. That’s where the similarities between me and Judas end, though…

Because even at my worst, the Jesus I wasn’t pursuing–the real Jesusnever stopped pursuing me. He has come to me over and over–with words of truth soaked through with love, calling me “friend” and “beloved”. My weakness, mistakes, and full-blown sin have never stood in the way for the real Jesus. He doesn’t turn away when He sees them in me. In fact, it’s the depth of my brokenness, my weakness, that He moves toward. Because in my weakness, He is strong. I am so grateful that He doesn’t take out all those who oppose Him–because I’ve been, and still can be at times, one of those opposers…

There is a song that we sang at church this week that has been wreaking havoc in my heart. It’s called “All I Have is Christ”. It goes like this:

I once was lost in darkest night
Yet thought I knew the way
The sin that promised joy and life
Had led me to the grave
I had no hope that You would own
A rebel to Your will
And if You had not loved me first
I would refuse You still

But as I ran my hell-bound race
Indifferent to the cost
You looked upon my helpless state
And led me to the cross
And I beheld God’s love displayed
You suffered in my place
You bore the wrath reserved for me
Now all I know is grace

Hallelujah! All I have is Christ
Hallelujah! Jesus is my life

Now, Lord, I would be Yours alone
And live so all might see
The strength to follow Your commands
Could never come from me
O Father, use my ransomed life
In any way You choose
And let my song forever be
My only boast is You

The Jesus we sing about in this song, the one who loved me first, who looked upon my helpless state and decided to suffer in my place, to bear the wrath that was mine… I want to always pursue this Jesus. The Suffering Savior is, indeed, the Conquering King. But He conquered His way… Not mine. And His way is always better. No matter the depth of pain, shame, hopelessness we may feel, Jesus longs to move into it. Our darkness doesn’t scare Him away. Because the real Jesus is blazing Glory-light that scatters even the deepest darkness. It’s strong enough to have scattered all of Judas’ darkness–if he would have let the real Jesus save him. Tragically, Judas’ darkness overwhelmed him before the light of hope had a chance to write a different ending to his story…

Too many stories have been left unfinished. Hopelessness has won too many times. There is a different way… a way that leads to life instead of death…There is a Hope that stands amidst torrents of grief and is unshaken by the winds of shame. There is a Light that shines across dark and murky waters and shows us the way to shore. There is a Love that can absorb our hate, our jealousy, our selfishness–every drop of our sin. The truth is, this Love has already absorbed every drop of sinfulness into Himself. He already paid the debt we owe. And He stands ready and waiting to absorb us–each messy, broken story of our lives–into His Life. He longs to absorb our sordid history into His Story and rewrite our days in red.

This is the Jesus who pursues us. Is this the Jesus we’re pursuing?

–Laura

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Hold On: Habakkuk 3

In week one of this series, Pastor John encouraged us to hold on to hope. In week two, we learned about how to hold on in the waiting. In the third and final installment of this series, it was all about Who we’re holding on to.

Habakkuk, whose very name means to embrace or wrestle with, to hold on, sets the third chapter of his book to music. The whole chapter is a song, a heart cry to his God. Have you ever sung your heart out to God? As Habakkuk sings his prayer-or prays his song-however you want to look at it (I personally believe prayer and worship are synonymous…), he is also spurring his own soul to remember.  As he wrestles with the coming destruction of his people, he does two things. Luanne wrote about the first in last week”s blog. He chose wisely in the waiting. Luanne wrote:

“Habakkuk, he climbed up on a wall to get a new perspective. He knew that even in the hard stuff, God was at work. He chose to look for Him, to look to Him, to trust Him. He recognized the violence and injustice of his own people, he knew that an enemy that was violent and unjust was coming their way to wipe them out, and he chose to trust God.”

And in this week’s passage, he remembers. These are some pieces of his prayer, his song:

“Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy… God came… His glory covered the heavens and his praise filled the earth. His splendor was like the sunrise; rays flashed from his hand, where his power was hidden… He stood, and shook the earth; he looked, and made the nations tremble… His ways are eternal… Sun and moon stood still in the heavens… You came out to deliver your people, to save your anointed one…” (Habakkuk 3:2-13, NIV, selected verses)

After Habakkuk recalls where and how he has seen God move in the past, he finds himself overwhelmed… and resolute.

“I trembled inside when I heard this; my lips quivered with fear. My legs gave way beneath me, and I shook in terror. I will wait quietly for the coming day when disaster will strike the people who invade us. Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines; even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren; even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty, yet I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation! The Sovereign Lord is my strength! He makes me as surefooted as a deer, able to tread upon the heights.” (Habakkuk 3:16-19 NLT)

Have you ever found yourself in a season so dark that you had to borrow light from the past in order to move forward? Have you ever heard a message that plunged you into the depths of despair, to a place so terrifying that you had to consult your memories in order to find any hope at all?

I’ve received messages like that… As a little girl, there was the news that my daddy was moving out-it ushered in the dark… The message that my baby might not survive did the same… The news that what I thought I was called to do was no longer an option for me-the stripping of what turned out to be a false identity-brought in an entirely different type of darkness…The relayed message that my little girl had been bitten by a rattlesnake while her dad and I were 1,100 miles away… A doctor telling me through sad eyes that my mama was terminal and our time with her was very short blocked the light, too…

These are a few of the dark-inducing messages that have come into my life. Yours might be different. Maybe you were told you couldn’t have the children you long for. Or that your precious unborn child no longer had a heartbeat… Maybe your message came in the form of an incurable illness. Or it could have been carried on papers you were served, informing you that your marriage was over. Perhaps it came in the form of a dismissal, a pink slip, a foreclosure notice. It could be that phone call that informed you of an unexpected deployment, or the one that came from the jail where your child was being held. It could be an admission, a confession, news that your child has been abused, or any number of other heart-stopping things. We receive endless messages over the course of our lives. And we can’t escape the hard ones, not one of us can.

When these messages come, they carry the terrifying tune of destruction, not at all unlike the message Habakkuk received from God. But Pastor John told us on Sunday that our passage describes both destruction AND deliverance. It’s easy to find the destruction. The book of Habakkuk tells of the destruction that would come upon his people as well as the eventual destruction of their oppressors. The deliverance, however, is found in the remembering. Habakkuk’s firm, resolute proclamation at the end of chapter 3 is made before any of the destruction or the deliverance actually happens… 

How did he get there? How can we get there?

We get there by going back. Back to where we’ve seen God move before. When the road before us is dark and foreboding and hopeless, we have to look back. We have to remember when God showed up. When we first fixed our eyes on the one who has always had His eyes on us. When we can look back and remember, we see again the extravagant length our God is willing to go to deliver us–and we can find a sliver of light to shine on our dark path, a reason to hope. Not hope for our enemy’s destruction, hope in the Deliverer who is completely for us. We are His priority. We want Him to act amidst the circumstances around us… He wants to do the work within us. Several months back, I wrote a little about the desire for deliverance versus desiring the Deliverer… Here is a bit of my own wrestling, and what Jesus showed me then…

“I have been asking Jesus to enter into the chaos around and within me. I have been praying that way-it made sense to me.

Enter into the chaos, Jesus. Come in. Come fix it. Come get me out…

But the chaos hasn’t stopped. The churning seas continue to rage. And I have found myself discouraged, afraid, confused. I have felt unsafe and even angry.

Why won’t You come into the chaos? If You would come in, You could fix it…

…The problem was, I have been surrounded by and consumed with the chaos in my life and in the lives of those around me. He has been trying to lift my face, to implore me to just look up. If I would just lift my eyes, I would see Him standing above the churning waves. I would hear His words-words that don’t enter into the trivial and chaotic, but stand altogether seperate from and above them. And I would see His hand reaching out to me, inviting me to step out of the swirling chaos and into the realm of His Shalom…

…His very Presence brings light into darkness. I wanted Him to bring the light of His Presence into the chaos of my circumstances. He wanted to give me a different perspective. The perspective that comes when I stop staring at all that is going wrong and look into the face of all that is right. All I could see were the waves surrounding me. All I could feel was the pull of the undertow dragging me down-further and further. My eyes darted frantically around, desperate for Jesus to just show up in this place. If You were here with me, things would change, the seas would calm…

All the while, He stood above the crashing waters, extending His hand, waiting for me to look up…

Look above the chaos. Look at Me. The chaos may continue… but you don’t have to stay there. You can come up here with me. The waves still rage-but you don’t have to. Come up higher and you’ll see. You’ll see it all looks different from My perspective.”

The perspective shift that occurred when I looked up is the same one we’ll encounter by looking back and remembering. When we look back and search for the marks of His Glory throughout our stories, we will come face to face with Jesus. As we gaze back into the moments He showed up before, we’ll catch a glimpse of His face, His eyes that are fixed on us. Eyes that are full of love, acceptance, grace, forgiveness, connection…

As I write, I’m aware that we’re all in different places. Maybe you’ve never encountered Jesus. Maybe when you look back, you don’t see any hope, or any light at all. If that’s your story, my prayer is that today will be the day you’ll look back on in the future, a day clearly marked by the Glory of God and His love for you, the beginning of the rest of your story. Or maybe you do know Jesus, and you can recall times when He’s shown up in your life. But when you picture His face, His eyes don’t look at all like what I’ve described. Maybe the eyes you see flash with anger, disappointment, condemnation… If that’s what you see, I pray for a divine interruption to come your way–that the God who made you and loves you and delivers you will reveal the truth of who He is and His affection toward you. I pray that today will be a defining moment for you as well-a day marked with a deeper connection and the beginning of the most beautiful love story.

And for all of us, I pray that we’ll make the choice to wait in hope, and to remember. That at the end of the day, regardless of the messages each of our stories contain, we can stand resolutely and declare, as Habakkuk did,

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines; even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren; even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty, yet I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation! The Sovereign Lord is my strength!”

–Laura

Laura wrote: The book of Habakkuk tells of the destruction that would come upon his people as well as the eventual destruction of their oppressors. The deliverance, however, is found in the remembering. Habakkuk’s firm, resolute proclamation at the end of chapter 3 is made before any of the destruction or the deliverance actually happens…

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines; even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren; even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty, YET I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation! The Sovereign Lord is my strength!” (Hab. 3:17-18)

That little word yet… Habakkuk’s use of that little, powerful, three letter word leads us to the greatest lesson the book— Habakkuk does not put his head in the sand and pretend like calamity is not coming. He knows that it is. He doesn’t try to pretend like  he’s devoid of fear—he acknowledges my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled.(3:16) YET… 

And, as Laura highlighted above, it’s remembering who God is and what He’s done in the past that gives Habakkuk the assurance that God is strong, that God is sovereign, that God is at work, that God can be trusted, that God is still worthy of praise, and that deliverance will come.  Hindsight is huge.

Do we remember that the pivotal point of our faith, our deliverance, happened through devastation and destruction? We have the benefit of hindsight, but for a moment, try to put yourself in the midst of Jesus’ closest friends and followers during the twenty four hours of Jesus’ life that ended with his crucifixion. Turn on your imagination for a moment, and set yourself in the scene.

Picture yourself at the Passover meal with your closest friends. Imagine settling into the familiar and beloved Passover script, remembering God’s powerful deliverance in the days of Moses. Imagine your interest being piqued when Jesus took a detour from the normal script and began talking about the bread being His body broken for them, and the wine His blood poured out establishing the new covenant between God and His people.

In this setting, you have no idea what is coming in a few short hours, yet Jesus says to you: do this in remembrance of me. Are you confused? Are you intrigued? Are you thinking this is another parable that’s difficult to understand?

Imagine going to the garden and watching Jesus pull away. If you manage to stay awake, what are you thinking as He wrestles with the Father–as He implores the Father to let the cup pass from Him– as He feels all the emotions of the coming calamity?  What goes through your mind as He ultimately surrenders to the Father’s will?

What do you feel when Judas comes with the religious leaders and Roman soldiers? What is going through your head at the unjust , crazy, false accusation trials that take place under the cover of night? How do you feel when Pilate declares that Jesus is to be crucified? Are you still around, or have you run away because you are afraid? What are you feeling at the horrors of the beating, and the cruelty of the crucifixion? Can you imagine what that felt like to His followers?  Would you have lost your hope? Would you have forgotten in that moment God’s miraculous past deliverance that you had been celebrating a few hours before? Would your “yet” have been–I know that God will still deliver and I will praise Him–or would you have run and hidden thinking that this was the end?

It wasn’t the end, and on the third day, everything for all time changed. Jesus rose again—fellowshipped again with His friends. A short while later He ascended to heaven, and sent the Holy Spirit, just like He said He would. (Acts 1&2). His followers were changed, empowered, fearless and lived in the hope of future deliverance, so much so that they very literally gave their lives for the Kingdom of God.

Hebrews chapter 11 ends by highlighting some of the nameless martyrs by saying: Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they were put to death by the sword, they went about in sheepskins and goat skins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated, the world was not worthy of them…. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us…  These followers lived in the yet. They held on, knowing that God was worthy and deliverance was coming.

These were all commended for their faith—As. Is. Habakkuk. Calamity was coming. It was going to be awful, YET he chose to remember who God is, what He’d done in the past, and gain hope for the future. 

We can make the same choice. We can remember the day that appeared like total disaster to Jesus’ closest friends was God’s sovereign plan for our ultimate deliverance.  Jesus says to us—remember. He tells us in this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world. (Jn 16:33)

We don’t have to deny the feelings when these hard seasons come. We don’t have to pretend like we’re not wrestling when these hard seasons come. AND we don’t have to be hopeless when these hard seasons come.

 …you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again… (1 Thess. 4:13b-14a)

We have a good Father who is for us. Have you resolutely chosen to trust Him no matter what? Do you have your yet firmly in place? Are you determined to remember all that He has done and hold on to Him? Ultimate deliverance is certain for those who know Jesus. Do you know Him?

—Luanne

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.  (Romans 15:13)

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Hold On: Habakkuk 1

John 3:3 “…No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

We began a series through the book of Habakkuk on Sunday. What an incredibly relevant book it is for our day and time. The entire book is a prayer-a dialogue- between Habakkuk and God. Habakkuk is not afraid to ask God hard questions. He is not afraid to wrestle, but he wrestles with God and not against.

Habakkuk reveals some things about himself in this prayer;

*He reveals that he is deeply connected to God and seeks intimate connection with Him.

*He reveals that God speaks to him as a result of this intimate connection and that he listens to God.

*He reveals that he cares about and feels responsibility for his community.

*He reveals that no matter what happens in this life, he trusts God, and knows that God is in control.

When Habakkuk writes his prayer, the world around him is in chaos. Israel has divided into two nations; the larger northern kingdom called Israel, and the smaller southern kingdom called Judah. Habakkuk lives in Judah. Not only do Israel and Judah fight against one another, not only do they each have their own king, they also have infighting in their own kingdoms. All of this fighting, all of their quarreling, all of their divisiveness weakens them and makes them susceptible to attack from powerful enemies. They live in constant fear and unrest. It is into this reality that Habakkuk cries out to God.  This is how he begins:

How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” But you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me, there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous so that justice is perverted. (1: 1-3)

Doesn’t that sound like today?

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)  there are 65.6 million displaced people people who have had to flee their homes because of violence.   Breaking that down into a number that is easier for us to understand—nearly 20 people are forcibly displaced every minute as a result of conflict or persecution. 20 people per minute.  Habakkuk cries out to God “Violence!” It bothers him. Does it bother us?

We have plenty of violence in the United States: School shootings, mall shootings, church shootings, concert shootings, civilians shooting police, police shooting civilians, men violating women, child abuse,  and thousands of  other violences that don’t make headlines.  Habakkuk cries out to God “Violence!” It bothers him. Does it bother us?

We have laws that favor some and are oppressive to others. Gary Haugen of The International Justice Mission taught me that historically, law systems, police and governing systems were put in place to protect the privileged class.  During the days when Spain, Great Britain, Portugal, and other countries were colonizing other nations, their law systems were set up to protect them- the colonizers, the conquerors-  from the people whose country they were taking over.   Even though that happened a few hundred years ago, many justice systems never evolved into serving and protecting all people equally. Habakkuk cries out… the law is paralyzed and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous so that justice is perverted. It bothers him. Does it bother us?

We have division—deep division in our nation. It feels as if we have made certain political ideologies our gods; we are an angry people, we attack one another viciously, we quarrel constantly, our favored media sources “disciple” us and have created mob mentality—an inability to think as individuals, only to think as a group, and we defend our groups and fight for our groups no matter what. We refuse to see anything amiss in our own groups. Habakkuk cries out…there is strife, and conflict abounds. It bother him. Does it bother us?

As I write this, like Habakkuk, my heart is deeply troubled. I sense, like he did, that we are headed for disaster.  Jesus said to the Pharisees in Matthew 12:25 Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.  Not only are we a divided nation, we are divided as Christians. We are in trouble. We are holding on to the wrong things.

God responds to Habakkuk’s concerns about the state of their kingdom, and His response is a hard one to fathom. It begins with what sounds like an amazingly  powerful word:

Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed.  For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.

And then God lays out how the Babylonians are going to come and totally wipe them out.  Yikes! What are we supposed to do with that? In the theology of many of us, there is no space for a response like this from God. So what does Habakkuk do?

He responds with: Lord, are you not from everlasting? My God, my Holy One, You, Lord, have appointed them to execute judgment; you, my Rock, have ordained them to punish. (v12) 

We’ll pick up at this point in the text next week, but wow! What a response! Pastor John pointed out that Habakkuk is not focusing on the words that God spoke; he’s focusing on the God who spoke the words. He acknowledges God’s sovereignty. He still has questions, but at the end of the day, he trusts God. He is holding on.

Many of us do not have a theology that includes suffering and hardship. Many of us only have a theology of prosperity and blessing. That leads us to being very shallow, and in danger of abandoning our faith, of letting go rather than holding on when life doesn’t go the way we think it should. We forget that Jesus was crucified, we forget that most of his disciples were martyred. We forget that all across the face of the globe there are Jesus followers being put to death for their faith today.

We forget Jesus’ words in Matthew 24: 4-12

“See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.  All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.  And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.  And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.”

We forget that Paul wrote in his second letter to Timothy:

 But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty.  For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,  heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good,  treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.….Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,  while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed.  (2nd Timothy 3: 1-5, 12-14)

We forget that Jesus said

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33)

We get our earthly kingdom eyes full of the situations around us, and we worry, and we rant, and we let our hearts grow cold, and we become unbelieving believers forgetting that when God spoke For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future (Jer. 29:11)  that the Israelites were captives-in exile- and God had just let them know that they were going to be captive for a long time. This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. (Jer. 29:4-5)

We forget that God tells us For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Is 55:8-9)

We forget the faith of Joseph who said: You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (Gen. 50:20)

The faith of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who said: If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Dan. 3:17-18)

The faith of Job who said: Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10)

We forget that we’ve been challenged to trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding…(Pr 3:5)

So what do we do, how do we hold on?  We  throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And… run with perseverance the race marked out for us,  fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. (Heb. 12:1-2)

We hold on by surrendering our lives to Jesus, to His ways, to the principles of His kingdom, and no matter what this earthly kingdom has going on, we represent Him, we love Him, we love others, we leverage our lives for His kingdom, we join Him, by the power of the Holy Spirit in His call which He laid out when He said: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind to set the oppressed free. (Luke 4:18)

John 3:3 “…No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

May we live like the born again who see the kingdom of God. May we hold on to who we are as His ambassadors, His ministers of reconciliation,  and may we hold on to the King of the Kingdom who matters for eternity, trusting that God is sovereign, that He is at work, that He has a plan, and that we can reflect His love and glory in this fallen world no matter what is going on.

–Luanne

As we embark on this journey into Habakkuk, we see a justice theme permeating almost every verse of the first chapter. It’s clear that this book has a lot to do with justice. I love that it does, because God’s heart for justice beats strong in my own heart, too. Luanne articulated this theme beautifully above. I would love to tag on to what she wrote because justice, equity, seeing the image of God in all people-it is something I am passionate about. But He is leading me a different direction this time…

Pastor John said on Sunday that contained within God’s seemingly harsh, confusing words is a simple message of hope: Hold on…

Luanne wrote:

“We get our earthly kingdom eyes full of the situations around us, and we worry, and we rant, and we let our hearts grow cold, and we become unbelieving believers forgetting that when God spoke, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jer. 29:11)  that the Israelites were captives and God let them know that they were going to be captive for a long time.”

In captivity, with no sign of their situation changing anytime soon, God told His people that He saw the big picture, that He had plans-good plans-for them, and that He would give them hope and a future. We read that verse, share it, put it on bookmarks and graduation cards… and forget the context.

Habakkuk knew the context of the story he was in. He remembered even as he heard hard words from God that there was a larger story being written. The current circumstances that he and his people found themselves in was one chapter in the larger narrative of the story of God. He heard the “Hold on” cut through the message of impending destruction and the noise of the violence around him.

Pastor John explained the charge to “hold on” as an exhortation to embrace the gray area in the meantime. We, as people, have a natural tendency to think we know best. And we have an almost desperate desire to know what’s coming up ahead of us. Embracing the gray area is not fun. It can be terrifying, because we feel completely out of control. And we are. 

We can see from the way Habakkuk related to God that he got this. He understood that God was the One in control. He had, at some point, settled in his heart the matter of God’s sovereignty. And he chose to trust him. We can see this in the way he questioned and prayed-honestly, pouring his heart out, and also in the way that he listened–not with the ultimate goal of understanding, but rather with a heart that remembered who was speaking.

Luanne wrote above, “Habakkuk is not focusing on the words that God spoke; he’s focusing on the God who spoke the words.” 

That is the challenge to all of us as we move into this series… Do we come to God with our questions and chaotic circumstances, in a time when our world is in what appears to be a terminal tailspin, and choose to hold on to Him no matter what He might say-or might not say-about it all? Or will we let go of Him and get swept away by the craziness of our situations?

I think that sometimes we want to stay where we are until we can see clearly what’s up ahead. When what we can see looks like a gray area, it’s easy to feel stuck and grasp at control. But what if God is actually calling us to take a step into the gray before we can see what’s on the other side? What if what we are seeing with our eyes looks like clouds and fog and impending doom, but God is calling us to take a step through it, because the light-the hope-is seen only when we step into the storm? He wants us to fix our eyes on Him and take a step-even when our natural eyes can’t see Him through everything that’s swirling around us.

I can’t help but think of the story from Matthew 14, when Jesus walked out onto the sea while his fearful disciples rowed futilely against a storm. When Jesus told them it was He who was coming toward them, Peter requested that He tell him to come to Him on the water, so he would know it was Him. Jesus obliged Peter’s request and said, “Come”. Peter stepped out and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. All was well until, as the NIV words verse 30, “he saw the wind”. I’m not even going to go into how one sees the wind-that’s a different conversation entirely. But when Peter noticed the wind–however that happened–the Word tells us that he became afraid and began to sink. Peter had Jesus in the flesh, right in front him, but his eyes weren’t fixed on Him in this moment. He knew who Jesus was, he believed, he was experiencing the miracle of walking on water-and the swirling storm around him was enough to divert his attention and change his situation.

We can do the very same thing. We don’t have the physical embodiment of Jesus in front of us, as Peter did. No, we who know Jesus have the Holy Spirit living within us, teaching and guiding us in the way of the Kingdom, moment by moment… and we still get caught up in the storm rather than holding onto the hope that we have that there is a bigger story being written than what our eyes can see. Even with Kingdom vision, with spiritual eyes that see the Imago Dei in all people, with hearts that beat in rhythm with God’s own heart, our circumstances can loom large and cast doubt into our hope–if our eyes aren’t fixed on Him. What does that mean, “fixing our eyes”? In the Hebrews 12:2 verse that Luanne previously referenced, “fixing our eyes” literally means in the original Greek, “to turn the eyes away from other things and fix them on something”. It also means “to turn one’s mind to” something. The definition necessitates a choice. We have to choose what we’re going to look at. Habakkuk chose to see the God who reigned above the chaos, outside of and apart from the storms around him. He chose to acknowledge His control and His higher thoughts and ways. He set his mind on what he knew to be true in the midst of a situation that could have imparted terror and panic into his head and heart.

We have the same choice. Luanne explained in her portion just how crazy the world around us has become. She identified the parallels between what Habakkuk and his people faced and what we are currently facing in our world today. We can’t not see what is happening. And we should feel bothered by and sense a responsibility toward the violence, the injustice, the chaos that’s all around us. But we get to choose what we fix our eyes on. And if we listen, we’ll hear God whispering the same message of hope to us that comes through in the story of Habakkuk: “Hold on. I’m at work. I know you see this… but I want you to fix your eyes on Me. I am here. I’m involved. And I’ll never walk away…”

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” -Romans 15:13

–Laura

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A Balanced Life: Re-prioritize

Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,”says the Lord Almighty.

“But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’

 “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.

“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’

“In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.”  (Malachi 3:7-10)

On Sunday, we heard the final installment of our series, A Balanced Life. It was a summation of all that we’ve learned over these last six weeks as well as a charge to check our priorities. Pastor John put before us five ways we spend our money and the order in which we often do so. The list is: Spend. Pay debt. Pay taxes. Save. Give. This list may shuffle around a bit for each of us, but let’s assume the first and last priorities listed match for the majority of us. If that’s the case, our priorities indicate a “me first” mentality rather than a “God first” mentality.

Many of us live this way. The people God was speaking to in the Malachi passage above were living this way. They hoarded their best, took care of themselves, and gave God their leftovers.

We have a tendency to do the very same thing.

It may start small–the utility bills were high one month, and the paycheck was only big enough to cover them, the rent and a few groceries. So we didn’t give that month. We didn’t even save. We just did our best to take care of the most pressing needs. We had every intention of getting back on track the following month. But the next month presented with unexpected medical bills and the kids needed new shoes. So giving took a back seat once again. Before too long, budgeting for giving kind of fell off the spreadsheet… and even when income increased, our priorities didn’t change. We faintly  heard God calling us to come back, to return to His way, but we found ourselves saying, as God’s people said in the verses above, “How are we to return?”

This is a hypothetical story, but I have to own that my own life has mirrored the story more than once. The needs seem so pressing… What will happen if we don’t take care of those necessities first? God knows our struggle with trust and our inclination toward controlling our own lives. So He challenges us to take Him at His word… He says, “Test me in this, and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.” 

Jesus issues a similar challenge hundreds of years later, saying, So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”. (Matthew 6:31-33)

God is asking us to take Him at His word–to try it His way. And see what happens. The God of Creation–Maker of our every cell, Giver of our every breath–tells us to put Him to the test. His grace and patience with our selfish, stubborn, wandering hearts leaves me without words… Once again, as we’ve seen so many times, He gives us a choice. Try it His way–because He has so much more for each of us. Not only financially but in everything, His plan is to prosper us, to provide for us, to expand our territory… for His Kingdom’s sake. And this is where our hearts betray us… We say our hearts belong to God… We’ve “given our hearts to Jesus”. We sing the words “You have my heart” during worship services.

But does He, really? Does God have our hearts?

Pastor John said on Sunday, “Whatever has our hearts, we resource. We invest in and value those things”.

If we say that God has our hearts, but we don’t resource or invest in His Kingdom, we deceive ourselves.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:22-25) 

If we aren’t doing what God says, we can’t say that He has our hearts. It’s a hard word. But there’s no way to sugarcoat it to make it easier to swallow. We either live “me first” or “God first”. There is no in between. It can’t be both. We serve, feed, and invest in one or the other. Period. This is about so much more than money-but it has to include our finances. If it were only about our time, our gifts, our talents, I would feel a little better about saying that my life evidences that God has my heart. For me, those things are easier, although, I still find myself utterly selfish much of the time. But when it comes to my finances? I fall well short of trusting God with my finances the way that He asks us to. This series has held up a mirror that has revealed, in my life, a need to re-prioritize.

I want to order my life the way that John laid out for us at the end of his message, the way our Savior modeled perfectly for us: Give. Save. Live. Jesus gave up Heaven and put on skin to come to us. And then He gave His life in order to save us. He saved us so that we could live-not only in eternity with Him someday, but here and now. And His desire for us in the here and now is to live His way. He wants to have our hearts so that we will willingly give all that we have and all that we are and leverage it all to bring His Kingdom to earth. So that in our giving of ourselves, souls will be saved and people will live. This is the way to honor God with our whole lives. May He find us faithful to live His way. May we not simply say that He has our hearts-may our lives bear fruit that proves it.

–Laura

Laura wrote above: If we aren’t doing what God says, we can’t say that He has our hearts. It’s a hard word. But there’s no way to sugarcoat it to make it easier to swallow. We either live “me first” or “God first”. There is no in between.

There is no in between.

We have the choice with every decision we make to choose the principles of the kingdom of heaven, or the principles of the kingdom of earth.  The principles of the kingdom of heaven will always be God first and others focused. The kingdom of earth will always be me first and self focused. God has clearly shown us in His word what “God first” living looks like, and also what “me first” living looks like.  “Me first” living always indicates a lack of trusting God to know what’s best.

“Me first” led to Eve’s taking Satan’s bait in the garden–When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. (Gen. 3:6) She wanted what looked good to her, and what she thought God was withholding from her.

“Me first” led to King David not going out to war in the season that kings went to war, and during that leisure time when he saw Bathsheba bathing on her roof, he used his power to take advantage of her which led to pregnancy, which led to the murder of her husband, and the child did not survive. (2 Sam. 11)  King David was thinking “me first” from the moment he chose not to go to war with his men, and all the way through that tragic story.

“Me first” was the attitude of “the rich fool” as he built bigger barns to store all the stuff that he planned to use for himself–and then he died. (Luke 12: 16-21).

“Me first” always has hard consequences, yet “me first” is the fallen condition of all of us. How do we fight it?

Author Daniel Hill, in his book White Awake writes of the one-degree rule. He says: In aviation there’s a principle called the one-degree rule: a tiny error in direction can make a major difference in the final destination of a flight…(Hill transitions the one-degree principle into the story of the prodigal son and says this about the older brother) though he dutifully followed the house rules, his obedience wasn’t flowing from a grateful heart. Instead he was driven by his own selfish agenda. Though this distinction was difficult to detect from the outside, it eventually showed itself in the cumulative toll that it took on his soul. By the time it bubbled to the surface, the elder brother was marked by a combination of anger, joylessness, judgement, and most sadly, an inability to internalize the love of the Father.”

Sarah Young’s January 30th entry in her beautiful devotional book Jesus Calling begins with this phrase: Worship Me only. Whatever occupies your mind the most becomes your god.

I believe both Hill and Young give us clues as to how to fight “me first” mentality. In order to internalize the love of the Father, in order to worship Him only, in order to stay on track, there are things we must pay attention to.

First, we must know that we are loved by God. As we spend time with Him and experience His love, we grow to love Him in return–just like babies grow to love their parents in response to the love they receive. Jesus tells us that the first and greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind‘; (Luke 10:27).  Truly, we are not capable of loving God this way, but we can ask the Holy Spirit to help us love God the way God desires to be loved–it’s a prayer He loves to answer! When we love Him this way, the temptation to worship lesser gods fades.

Loving God with our minds means that we allow Him to search us in order to help us recognize those one-degree thoughts and choices that lead us astray.

I’ve always found the apostle Paul’s wording in 2 Corinthians 4:4 interesting when he says that “the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers….”  

I truly believe that part of living a balanced life is praying Psalm 139:23-24 every single day: Search me, O God, and know my heart, test me and know my anxious thoughts, see if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.  Then we need to sit with Him and let Him bring things up so that we can deal with them–repent of them.

The word translated “repent” in our Bibles is the Greek word “metanoia”, which literally means “changed mind”. To live in harmony with God, we must allow our minds to be in tune with His heart, His ways.

Romans 12:2 makes this so clear: Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.  

Paul also tells us in 2 Corinthians 10:5 to take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.  Again, interesting phrasing. When someone is taken captive, they are typically interrogated as the captor seeks to discover things about the enemy’s tactics.

I believe that even those of us who are saved can have our minds blinded when we choose to live in unbelief or in the kingdom of earth with its priorities. We must allow the Holy Spirit to show us those areas where we are going astray. When He brings things up, we must interrogate our thought process–what is it revealing about what we believe? Is it a “me first” thought that is revealing an area in our lives where we don’t trust God, or don’t want to live according to the principles of His kingdom? I would say that most often the answer to that question is “yes”. So then, we have a choice. Do we continue with our one-degree deviations which will get us to the place the Israelites were when they asked Malachi  “How are we to return?”, or do we repent–change our minds–renew our minds–and line up our minds, our lives- with the kingdom of heaven?

God asks for our entire lives–everything we are, everything we have. He tells us to seek FIRST His kingdom and His righteousness, and tells us that He will take care of all the rest.  Do we believe Him?  He told the Israelites through the prophet Malachi: Test me in this…and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.” 

He wants to bless us, but He wants to bless us for the sake of His glory, His kingdom, and His renown. He wants us to come after Him because of love, not because we are trying to manipulate Him into giving us stuff–if we want Him for the blessings, that is still “me first”, but if we want Him because He is the love of our lives, it’s about Him.

Everything we have is from Him and for Him. That includes our finances. Do we live like that’s true?  Do we trust Him to be a God of His word? Do we trust Him to take care of us if we seek His kingdom first–if we give to Him first? Are we willing to test Him and see if the floodgates will open when we do life His way?  What if those floodgates of blessing aren’t material possessions at all, but they are lives of people saved for eternity because God’s people chose to live and give God’s way? What blessing could be better?

“Me first” or “God first”? The choice is ours.

–Luanne

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