The Roman Road Less Traveled: The Good News is God’s Grace

How do you see God? If you painted a picture of what your mind’s eye sees when you imagine God, what would it look like? Pastor John said in Sunday’s message, “How we see God creates what we think and believe about God.” I think it can also be said that the ways we think and believe about God creates our picture of God, because as John also said, our theology hasn’t always painted a good image for us to ponder.

I wrote in last week’s post,

“. . .God’s character doesn’t change. He is love. His disposition toward all of his sons and daughters is kindness and grace. All the time. He doesn’t relate to us through condemnation, shame, guilt, or vengeance. We sometimes project those things onto God and make assumptions about how he feels about us. . .”

Why do we sometimes project those things onto God? I think there are several reasons we are inclined to do that, but often our thinking can be traced back to our own misunderstanding of the good news of Jesus. We become familiar with verses like this one, probably the most familiar of the six we looked at on Sunday:

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. (Romans 3:23, NLT)

We all fall short. We don’t measure up. We’re not good enough. We hear these things–sometimes exaggerated by our individual church backgrounds or upbringings–and we build our ideas about God using verses like this one. It’s true–it’s what we covered last week, the bad news. We do fall short of the standard of perfection we observe in the person of Jesus who “. . . is the dazzling radiance of God’s splendor, the exact expression of God’s true nature—his mirror image!” (Hebrews 1:3a, TPT)

If we stop there; if we live in constant glare of our inadequacy and ruminate on all the ways we fall short, we can distort the character of God because we imagine that our falling short changes how God sees us. The opposite is true: Focusing on our shortcomings changes how we see God. Paul, after telling us that we all fall short, writes this:

Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. (Romans 3:24)

Yet God… in his grace…

If we stop at “we all fall short,” we don’t make it to the good news of Jesus. And Jesus changes everything. The first verse we looked at in this week’s passage, Romans 3:21 tells us,

But in our time something new has been added. What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. (MSG)

Before Paul tells us how we’ve all fallen short, before he reminds us of God’s grace, he asserts that the law has been fulfilled and that through Jesus, we are now free from the bondage of trying to earn our way into good standing.

The good news is right there on the page. Before and after the verse that reminds us of the bad news. And yet we tend to focus on how we–and others–fall short of perfection, rather than on the extravagance of God’s grace. We gravitate toward a faith secured by works–which doesn’t exist in the kingdom of God–rather than accepting the truth that we are saved by grace alone. A justified-by-works theology may make logical sense to our bartering, human mindsets, but it is unachievable. One has walked in perfection. One. There’s no sliding scale of righteousness, no gold star for almost making the mark. There’s Jesus, and there’s the rest of us. And he came with a brand new yoke to break all other yokes, to join his life with ours, the embodiment of Grace.

And Jesus himself, John 5:39, told us, “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!”

The law won’t get us there. Paul knew that more than anyone–he had checked off every box on the to-do list of human righteousness. He knew the law and kept it down to the finest detail. He was a self-proclaimed zealot, certain of his uprightness. And then he encountered Jesus. This Paul, who once believed the law and the prophets held the keys to righteousness and eternal life suddenly saw a different way, the way of the kingdom. He wrote in his letter to the Corinthians, “If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.” (1 Corinthians 13:3, MSG)

The self-giving love of Jesus showed us a different way of being in the world, showed us how to live a life rooted in love, not law. He also revealed what has always been true of God–He is love. He is kindness. He is grace. He is not disappointed in us. He is not ashamed of us. He doesn’t see us in the shadows of our failures–He sees us in the light of his love.

Do we see God when we look at the person of Jesus? Or do we separate the two, as though Jesus is the good guy and God is the bad guy? I want to offer a couple of verses for us to consider, verses that speak to God’s love toward us before the person of Jesus even appeared in history. These are two verses among so many that illuminate how our Father-and-Mother God feels about us as sons and daughters:

For the Lord your God is living among you.
    He is a mighty savior.
He will take delight in you with gladness.
    With his love, he will calm all your fears.
    He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.
(Zephaniah 3:17)

Every single moment you are thinking of me!
How precious and wonderful to consider
that you cherish me constantly in your every thought!
(Psalm 139:17, TPT)

God delights in us, is glad and rejoices over us, sings over us; is thinking of us constantly, cherishes us… A delighted, joyful, singing God who cherishes us–can you picture it? A face that is ever-toward us, smiling? A love that considers each of us in every moment?

And then, as we’ll see in a few weeks when we get to the fifth chapter of Romans, Paul tells us,

But God clearly shows and proves His own love for us, by the fact that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8, AMP)

God, in the person of Jesus–the same God who smiles and sings with delight over us–stepped into history and, in an extravagant display of self-sacrificing love and grace, absorbed our murderous violence to conquer the death that held us all captive to bring the world back to life.

That is really, really good news.

I don’t know how you see God or what kind of picture has been painted of him in your mind. I don’t know what has informed your thoughts about how God feels about you. I hope you know he loves you, that he’s not mad at you, that he sings with delight over you. And, from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

“I pray that. . .the life of Christ will be released deep inside you, and the resting place of his love will become the very source and root of your life. Then you will be empowered to discover what every holy one experiences—the great magnitude of the astonishing love of Christ in all its dimensions. How deeply intimate and far-reaching is his love! How enduring and inclusive it is! Endless love beyond measurement that transcends our understanding—this extravagant love pours into you until you are filled to overflowing with the fullness of God!” (Ephesians 3:16a, 17-19, TPT)

May the truth of God’s love wash away all of our distortions, and may the light of Grace scatter the darkness that has hidden his smiling face from us, that we might see him more clearly and know him more deeply.

–Laura

I’m so glad Laura included Hebrews 1:3a in her portion which reminds us that Jesus . . . is the dazzling radiance of God’s splendor, the exact expression of God’s true nature—his mirror image!” Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians that Jesus is the image of the invisible God. (1:15) It’s so important that we know this truth. God is not “the distant man upstairs”. God is not like Zeus ready to throw lightning bolts of destruction on those he is displeased with. God is not angry. God is not mean. We are each God’s favorite–no one more favorite; no one less. God is love (1st John 4:8). And, so we could really know what God is love looks like, God wrapped himself in flesh and showed up in person.

In the very beginning the Living Expression was already there. And the Living Expression was with God, yet fully God. And so the Living Expression became a man and lived among us! And we gazed upon the splendor of his glory, the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father overflowing with tender mercy and truth! (John 1: 1&14 TPT)

Paul knew this truth. He knew God had come to us in the flesh to show us who He is and what he’s like. We were created for relationship with him. Jesus came to restore us, to make us whole, and bring us back to the heart of God. It was part of the mystery of God that had been revealed, and Paul was now sharing this news with whomever would listen.

God loves us! God loves us! God loves us!

Jesus is the perfect representation of God’s character–God looks like Jesus, Jesus looks like God. We’ve written it over and over in the past few years–it’s imperative that we get to know Jesus–that we spend time in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). Who was he with? To whom did he demonstrate incredible compassion? Who/what frustrated him? What did he teach? How did he treat the outcast? How did he treat the poor, the rich, the proud, the downtrodden, the religious, the “pagan”, the Roman, the women, the children, the sick, the “sinners”, etc.? How did he handle his arrest? His crucifixion? What did he do after his resurrection? How did he pray? What did he pray? What did he teach about the Holy Spirit (who Paul refers to as the Spirit of Christ)?

When we allow Jesus to be the foundation of this faith called Christ-ianity, we are grounded in God is love! The barriers come down. This agape love leads us to love God in return and love others as a result. Paul knew this. The overall message of Paul’s letters are about inclusion, grace, and God’s love.

With that long introduction I’m going to write out this week’s passage (Romans 3:21-26) from The Passion Translation to give us fresh eyes (read it slowly):

But now, independently of the law, the righteousness of God is tangible and brought to light through Jesus, the Anointed One. This is the righteousness that the Scriptures prophesied would come. It is God’s righteousness made visible through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And now all who believe in him receive that gift. For there is really no difference between us, for we all have sinned and are in need of the glory of God. Yet through his powerful declaration of acquittal, God freely gives away his righteousness. His gift of love and favor now cascades over us, all because Jesus, the Anointed One, has liberated us from the guilt, punishment, and power of sin!

 Jesus’ God-given destiny was to be the sacrifice to take away sins, and now he is our mercy seat because of his death on the cross. We come to him for mercy, for God has made a provision for us to be forgiven by faith in the sacred blood of Jesus. This is the perfect demonstration of God’s justice, because until now, he had been so patient—holding back his justice out of his tolerance for us. So he covered over the sins of those who lived prior to Jesus’ sacrifice. And when the season of tolerance came to an end, there was only one possible way for God to give away his righteousness and still be true to both his justice and his mercy—to offer up his own Son. So now, because we stand on the faithfulness of Jesus, God declares us righteous in his eyes!

As Laura highlighted above, the focus of this portion of Paul’s letter is not all have sinned. Yes, it’s true that all have sinned, but it’s not the focus. The focus is God’s incredible gift of our acquittal in Jesus.

Guess what the Greek word for righteousness is (mentioned 5 times in this passage)? If you guessed dikaiosynē, you are correct. If you’ve been reading our blog for any length of time, you know that we love this word. It means: (the) state of him who is as he ought to be, righteousness, the condition acceptable to God; integrity, virtue, purity of life, rightness, correctness of thinking feeling, and acting and comes from the root word dikaios which means: innocent, faultless, guiltless; him whose way of thinking, feeling, and acting is wholly conformed to the will of God; equitable (in character or act) (Strong’s Concordance) There is no self-righteousness in dikaiosyne, because we haven’t earned it. It’s a gift from God.

Paul is telling us that we don’t “behave” our way into dikaiosyne by trying to be good enough. He tells us that the law will never get us there. He shares the beautiful good news that God declares us righteous, because God is God and can do that–God in Jesus came and while here provided our acquittal. The Passion Translation words it like this: there was only one possible way for God to give away his righteousness and still be true to both his justice and his mercy—to offer up his own Son.

Laura wrote it out like this: (Jesus) in an extravagant display of self-sacrificing love and grace, absorbed our murderous violence to conquer the death that held us all captive to bring the world back to life...

You all…Paul, as a demonstration of God’s incredible grace, also tells us in this portion that God was being fair (dikaiosyne) when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past. (3:25). We don’t talk about this much in our Western Orthodoxy, but in Eastern Christian Orthodoxy, on the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, they celebrate The Harrowing of Hades. Based on Ephesians 4:9–Christ descended to the “deep parts of the earth”; 1st Peter 3:19 and 4:6–Jesus went to “the spiritual realm and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison”; the gospel was preached to the dead; Mt. 27: 52-53 “…graves were opened. Then many… who had died were brought back to life and came out of their graves. And after Jesus’ resurrection, they were plainly seen by many people walking in Jerusalem.” And Jesus’ own words I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. (Rev. 1:18)

What does that rabbit trail have to do with this week’s passage? Everything! In a couple of chapters we are going to read: For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (6:23). If you do a quick Google search of “Jesus conquered death” you will discover a list of more than 100 Bible verses that support that. One of those verses is 2nd Timothy 1:10 in which Paul writes: This truth is now being unveiled by the revelation of the anointed Jesus, our life-giver, who has dismantled death, obliterating all its effects on our lives, and has manifested his immortal life in us by the gospel. (TPT)

This is getting long, and I must bring it to a close–but I’m fired up–my heart is on fire with love for God and a deep desire for everyone to experience it! The good news of Jesus is really good news!! Paul wants us to understand that Jesus has obliterated the “death” consequence of our sin. He has given us life. We don’t earn it, we don’t behave ourselves into it. God declares us absolutely accepted. Why? Because God is love and we are loved and he wants us to live free in Him, without fear because There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1st John 4:18) And God wants us to be made “perfect”–which means whole; complete. God wants to make us whole in love. How beautiful is that?

When we embrace this truth–the organic response is awe, gratitude, humility, and deep, deep, love for God. When we live in that space, we are in the perfect position to be made perfect (complete, whole) in love. We are free to draw near to God who is right here, and as we do, he transforms us more and more into the likeness of Jesus; the fruit of the Spirit becomes evident in our lives, people are loved and included, and this world begins to look more like the kingdom of heaven. We’ve been gifted Jesus. We’ve been gifted life. We are fully loved! We are being made whole in love! We are accepted–it’s a gift! That’s good news!!

-Luanne

God's Grace ‹ Waters Church Norwood

Sermon on The Mount: Therefore…

If you’ve been reading our blog for a while, you know we’ve been studying the Sermon on the Mount for months. Since last spring, Pastor John has been taking us through Jesus’ sermon slowly, digging into a few verses each week. Why? Why would we take so many months to study these three chapters of scripture?

It’s because the sermon on the mount is Jesus’ primary teaching on what his kingdom followers are to look like. It’s Jesus’ manifesto. What does that mean? The definition, according to Merriam-Webster states: Manifesto is related to manifest..which means “readily perceived by the senses” or “easily recognized”. . . Something that is manifest is easy to perceive or recognize, and a manifesto is a statement in which someone makes his or her intentions or views easy for people to ascertain. Jesus is making clear who his followers are to be, and how we will be recognized.

Before we get to this week’s verses, let’s briefly recap: Jesus went up on a mountain and sat down to teach. He begins with the beatitudes–blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are those who mourn… blessed are the meek… blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice… blessed are the merciful… blessed are the pure in heart… blessed are the peacemakers….blessed are the persecuted for Jesus’ sake… For theirs is the kingdom of heaven… they will be comforted… they will inherit the earth… they will be filled… they will be shown mercy… they will see God…, they will be called children of God… theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Next comes You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world, followed by Jesus’ statement that he has not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them, which is followed by his first therefore.

Therefore–anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven

Jesus then moves into the six You have heard it said…but I say to you...statements, where he reinterprets their understanding of the law, reminding them that it’s always about the heart rather than their behavior. He reminds his followers to be reconcilers, to be faithful, to be quick to offer grace, to be loving toward all–especially our enemies. His second therefore comes in the middle of this section…Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. (5:23-24) Again, Jesus is highlighting the importance of relationship in God’s kingdom. When there is conflict, we lovingly address it. Blessed are the peacemakers—it matters.

Following this, he talks his hearers through three pillars of their faith: give, pray, fast. They would have been familiar with these actions, but again, Jesus is reinterpreting their understanding. Give to the needy, pray and fast in secret…do these things as part of an intimate relationship with God, not to be “seen” by others.

Next: Store up treasures in heaven, keep your eyes on God, seek God’s kingdom first and foremost and don’t worry; God will take care of you. Jesus third therefore comes in this section. Right after he says you can’t serve both God and money” he teaches Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life. . .. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?  (6: 25)

Jesus teaches his listeners– don’t judge others–ask, seek, knock, learn to discern, and the Golden rule: In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.

Following this, Jesus teaches us to enter through the narrow gate that leads to life, teaches us to discern false prophets who can be recognized by their fruit and then his fourth therefore:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock…(7:24)

You all, it is so important that we hear the words of Jesus, not the words someone else told us about Jesus. There is a stream of Christianity in the United States today that does not look like Jesus. It is known for being mean, judgmental, exclusive, divisive. It “others” people and determines who is in and who is out. There are others who teach that the evidence of God’s favor is worldly wealth–treasures on earth. There are some who teach that the kingdom of heaven is aligned with worldly power and if one is going to be “in” one must align oneself with that power’s philosophy.

Does Jesus teach any of that in his sermon?

Jesus is about the inward transformation of his followers. That transformation comes as we spend time with him–as we immerse ourselves in his words–as we seek first his kingdom.

Therefore–if anyone hears these words of mind and puts them into practice...

Are we hearing the words of Jesus? Are we practicing what we learn?

Pastor John reminded us that Jesus isn’t creating a separate, conduct based, Christian culture. He is forming a regenerated, redeemed culture, who return to the culture they came out of living lives so inviting that others are attracted to Jesus–others will discover who Jesus is by who we are.

Who we are…

Are we beatitude people? Are we sermon on the mount people? Are we salt and light?

Jesus finishes his sermon with this:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock… (7: 24-25)

These words of minethese words from this sermon–and lives them out, is building on The Rock–and living this kingdom-minded way is wise and keeps the chaos of this world from destroying us.

One last thought before I close. The sermon ends with Matthew letting us know that the the crowds were amazed at his teaching,  because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law. (7:28-29)

Then chapter 8 begins with:

When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” (v.1-3)

Jesus taught on the mountainside, came down and demonstrated what it means to put his words into practice. In the midst of the large crowd following him, Jesus gave his full attention to one sick, oppressed, outcast man. Maybe Jesus is saying to us, if you listen well to my words, and pay attention to who I bring across your path, if you, my followers, are willing, you can reach out your hands and touch and heal and love and change the world…

Are we willing? Will we sit with Jesus, hear his words–and then put them into practice?

When we take the time to hear the words of Christ, the transforming work of the Holy Spirit that happens in that time of intimacy produces the fruit of the Spirit, our lives demonstrate the narrow way, the kingdom way; we value people above all else, those around us, even the most unlikely in our sphere of influence, experience the love of God, and the world is changed for the better. Maybe Jesus is saying to us, If you pay attention to who I bring across your path; if you, my followers, are willing, you can reach out your hands and touch and heal and love and change the world…

–Luanne

As I read through Luanne’s words, I prayed about where to go and how to wrap up my portion of our final sermon on the mount message. She covered what Pastor John brought before us on Sunday in a beautiful and comprehensive way, so I’m going to do something a little different.

We began this series in April, and we have now written tens of thousands of words about this sermon that has captivated our hearts. So I’m going to revisit the words we’ve written over these many weeks, and remind us all of the journey we’ve taken together. For the sake of readability, I won’t indicate who wrote what in each paragraph or which week it was pulled from–the snapshot below contains a combination of my words and Luanne’s in fairly equal measure.

Here we go, starting at the beginning:

May we learn well from our Teacher as we dig into his words over these next weeks and months. The kingdom of heaven is here, friends, and if we can embody the ways of this upside-down kingdom, it might begin to change the world…

God gives us the opportunity to set aside our privilege, or leverage our privilege for the sake of others like Jesus did. We are invited to humble ourselves, stop clinging to or grasping at what we have, admit our complete and total reliance on God acknowledging that all we have belongs to him (including our very lives) for the sake of the reign of God and the advancement of his kingdom on earth. This total reliance upon God is the doorway into the kingdom realm.

This sermon pushes back against the kingdoms we build that revolve around ourselves and invites us to join him in his kingdom of self-emptying love, where everyone has a seat at the table and no one is elevated above another. It is a kingdom where no one has too little and no one has too much, where we recognize value and worth as inherent to each one as children created and formed in the image of God. It is a kingdom where barriers are broken and flourishing is the result; where conflict finds its end in connection and brokenness is the doorway to wholeness. This is the way of Jesus–The question is: Do we really want to live like this?

Our “being” is not what we do. It’s who we are–our very essence.  Remaining connected to Jesus is the key to the beatitude way of being, leading to the natural outflow of “flavoring” the world with his principles, his ways, his heart, his love, him.

When Jesus says he came to fulfill the Law, he is essentially saying that he came to bring the Law to life! … He came to connect the Law to himself, to Love… Jesus’ intention was not to set them free from the bindings of God’s original Law, but rather to tie the Law to himself and expand it into a way of beingas God originally intended. Jesus was not in any way setting the Law aside or replacing it. He came to expand it, to show that their understanding of the commandments of God was skin deep. And nothing we put on our outsides has the power to transform what is inside. Jesus takes this commandment, this “do and don’t” thinking and basically says it’s deeper and bigger than the action– check the condition of your heart, your state of being.

We are seeing over and over again in this series a process that would be beneficial for each of us to adopt as we make our way through this world. What Jesus is doing in this famous sermon is picking up the law–one piece at a time–and processing it through the filter of a higher law, a law he modeled in every interaction recorded involving him during his life on earth. He ran every single law through the law of Love. The love of God and love of people, which are truly interchangeable, because if we are doing one well, it follows that the other will also be satisfied. The law may allow, require, condone ________ (fill in the blank), but what does Love require?

Let’s lean into Jesus, let’s let him reframe some things we’ve misunderstood about what it means to be his people, let’s let him make us “whole” which is what integrity means. Let’s seek kingdom justice, truth, and peace because our hearts are his and our character matters. Let’s get rid of frivoulous oaths and be people whose lives are oath enough to demonstrate that we are trustworthy people of our word, and people of The Word…Jesus Christ himself.

Inside-out living. It’s the way of the kingdom. It matters to Jesus, because it’s the only way to live and love like him, in a way that draws all of the world to his heart. Dualistic, us-versus-them living, maintaining and defending old ways of thinking and behaving because, “We’ve always done it this way,” refusing to listen, learn, and be willing to see things a new way–none of that looks like the kingdom Jesus brought to earth. We must be willing to hold up what we’ve heard said and pass it all through the filter of what Jesus says. We must be willing to repent, to change how we think, so that our actions can follow suit and we can actually become more like the teacher we follow. Be–not do. God is perfectly who God is. Be perfectly who God created you to be living for the things that matter to God’s heart. Be whole. Be Christlike. Be Spirit-filled. Be for the flourishing of all. Be perfect, which looks exactly like “God is love” to the world. 

 The whole spectrum of humanity will always be attracted to the real Jesus, but sometimes, his followers get in the way. . . So Jesus, establishing his mission–the Kingdom of Heaven coming to earth–wants to address the heart motivation of his followers in regards to these actions that indicate we are Kingdom-of-God people who belong to him. We’ve forgotten that God is creating a kingdom, a people, a community, a global movement, a global church. His desire is that we experience abundant life right here on planet earth and love others into his realm. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth…

What if we ask Emmanuel, God with us, to become our flesh as we nourish on all that he is, so that we become the embodiment of Jesus and his kingdom on this earth? What if we reorient our minds and hearts around Jesus’ robust theology of the kingdom–and fast from all lesser things that grab for our attention? Our prayers will change. Our giving will look different. Our relationship with God will be transformed. Because this is what happens when the kingdom of the heavens collides with earth. Do we want that?

Our walk with God, including our prayer life, is individual and collective. We relate to God as Abba and as the Holy One, sovereign over all. Without a both/and understanding, without allowing Jesus to break into our understanding, we cannot see the bigger, more beautiful, kingdom-focused perspective that Jesus invites us into. This is where we begin. Before we can say “Your kingdom come, your will be done,” with any idea of what that might look like, we need to align ourselves with God and others Jesus’ way.

The light of the Kingdom of God is inside us. Are we giving light to everyone in the house? Do we look like Jesus? Do we act like Jesus? Do we prioritize who Jesus prioritized? Do we treat others as Jesus did? Do our lives bear His fruit? His kingdom will come and his will be done on earth through us. The world will know that God loves them deeply and unconditionally through us. To prioritize God’s kingdom ways comes through an intimate, connected-to-the- vine type of relationship with almighty, Papa, God—our Father. It also comes with an acknowledgment that our allegiance is to his kingdom above all other kingdoms. Are we willing to pay a high earthly price to be like Jesus? We will be misunderstood. We will be labled as we get rid of labels and as we hunger and thirst for dikaiosynē (equity, justice, righteousness). It might cost us something. Are we willing?

When we seek first “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” God will take care of the rest. Our total dependence is upon him. The entirety of The Lord’s Prayer points us to Jesus. He taught his followers to ask God for the one thing that meets every last need–himself. . . We are asking God to daily–every day and forever–give us Jesus. We are declaring our understanding that God’s kingdom came–and comes, still–through Jesus, that the will of God is displayed in Jesus, as he perfectly shows us how to love God with all that we are and how to love all others as ourselves. We are asking for the broken bread and living water that satisfies our souls. We are expressing our need to be led by the one who modeled and continues to teach us what forgiveness looks like.

In order to live in right relationship with others, we have to allow Jesus to mess in our business, to let him remind us of God’s unconditional grace and love for us, and to be willing to place those who’ve hurt us, who “owe” us, who’ve let us down into God’s hands. The energy, the strength, the longing to live according to the kingdom of God–these don’t come from ourselves. They come from the Spirit of God living within us, filling us with the divine. And forgiveness is a divine attribute. It doesn’t have its origin in humanity. Forgiveness, like love, is part of the very nature of God. On our own, our love has limits. But Jesus showed us a different way as he walked this earth fully God and fully human. Divinity is his nature and as we are filled with his spirit, we also have access to the divine being awakened with us. God cultivates the seeds planted within our hearts and grows us in the likeness of his Son. As God’s beloved children, the divine lives within us, empowering us to live and love beyond our limitations.

. . .We have to ask ourselves at this stage in the sermon on the mount: What are we living for? Who or what has our heart, our attention, our focus? Each week we are reminded that the entire sermon on the mount is about heart transformation. Worry about all the cares of this world leads to heart strangulation. Openness to God’s ways in the world leads to heart transformation. We will have trouble, days will be hard, we’ll be tempted to worry (which won’t change our circumstances one iota.) So, let’s choose, even in our hardest most desperate moments to lean into the miracle of being alive, of being able to sit in God’s presence. Let’s choose to be aware of all that we have rather than what we think we lack. Let’s choose to seek first God’s kingdom and store up treasures in heaven rather than the things of this world. Let’s take in the beauty all around us remembering that Jesus holds it all together, and he can hold us and whatever we are dealing with together too. Jesus never promised that if we followed him we would be safe, or that our lives would be painless. But we can rest assured that we are secure in his cruciform love that never lets us go. No amount of worry can remove us from a love like that, from a rescuer whose presence doesn’t always look how we expect, but is constant nonetheless.

Love God, love people, treat others well–this is the fruit of being connected to Jesus–the fruit of the Spirit-filled life. It’s what faith lived out on planet earth looks like… This is how we become the answer to the prayer, “may your kingdom come and your will be done on earth…”

People will not respond to Jesus with hostility if they’ve already met him through our kindness. It’s all about time and discernment. A pushy approach to matters of faith does create hostility. . . Pushing a message on people is not the same as sharing life with people, and our pearls will get trampled because we’ve not treated others as we want to be treated. . . So, always love. Always treat others with kindness. And be discerning in how, what, and when to share the sacred. Imitate the God of love by doing what is loving to one another. This is how all people will know we belong to Jesus. And when people meet Jesus through our kindness, through our love, they just might want to be part of his kingdom coming on earth, too. It’s pretty hard to resist a love that chooses to go and do good to all. It’s pretty hard to resist the real Jesus. Let’s not give anyone a reason to think otherwise…

We continue to come back to the same things during this series, because Jesus continued to say the same things. Throughout the whole sermon. Over and over, in different ways, so as to clearly invite all of his listeners into the kingdom he presented. It seems he really wanted us to hear his heart–which is always full of love toward all, a cruciform, self-emptying love that always moves toward others. His focus was not death and destruction, but on life and abundance. He came as the image of the invisible God, the God who IS love. So Jesus, then, is the embodiment of love. And he invites us once again to join him on this narrow way of abiding in him so that his life can grow in us and produce good fruit that can be shared with the world around us. God never gives up; however, in order for God to work in us, we must choose the narrow way, the abiding way. We must remain connected to God–abide in God’s love, abide in God’s presence, abide in The Vine, then the power, the energy of transformation that allows us to produce the Spirit’s fruit and carry out God’s loving will is made evident to those around us.

When we take the time to hear the words of Christ, the transforming work of the Holy Spirit that happens in that time of intimacy produces the fruit of the Spirit, our lives demonstrate the narrow way, the kingdom way; we value people above all else, those around us–even the most unlikely in our sphere of influence–experience the love of God, and the world is changed for the better. Maybe Jesus is saying to us, If you pay attention to who I bring across your path; if you, my followers, are willing, you can reach out your hands and touch and heal and love and change the world…

So, what will our response be to all that we’ve learned over the last five months? Are we willing? Do we really want to live like this? Is Jesus our first love? Do we really want to live according to the ways of the kingdom? Knowing all that we know now? Can we envision a new tomorrow full of life and hope and flourishing for all? Are we willing to remain connected to the Vine until his life in us produces kingdom fruit for the world around us?

Our answers to these questions matter more than we know. The trajectory of the Church in the U.S.A. and her witness to the rest of the world will be set by our collective response to Jesus’ teachings. Jesus is the Word. The Light. The image of God and the embodiment of Love itself. His kingdom is here. It is now. And it changes everything. Let’s join him.

–Laura

Sermon on the Mount: Do Not Worry

Do not worry.

That’s much easier said than done, right? Yet, it is what Jesus explicitly teaches his followers. What are these words from Jesus doing here, in the middle of the sermon on the mount? And how can we actually not worry?

As we prepare to walk through some of what Pastor John set before us, I’d like us to remember what Jesus has been teaching through his epic sermon to this point. He is revealing to his listeners a new way–the way of his kingdom. He is reminding those with ears to hear that, more than behavior modification, he is after heart transformation. The condition of our hearts matters more than anything we say or do externally, because our hearts are what lead us, always. Hearts that are willing to learn and grow, hearts that make space for his kingdom to grow inside of them, produce good fruit.

This week’s passage is not a sharp turn away from these things that Jesus has reiterated over and over to this point. It is deeply connected to the rest of his teachings. I think that might be easier to see in these verses if we look at them backwards, because the key point–what everything else hinges on–comes at the end. If I were to summarize this passage (Matthew 6:25-34) backwards, it would read like this:

Don’t worry about tomorrow–there is enough trouble in today. Instead, seek the kingdom of God above everything else, and God will take care of you. Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or wear, as though your God doesn’t know your needs. Why does your faith falter? Your father cares about the wildflowers–he’s dressed them in splendor. He will surely care for you. Can worrying add even an hour to your life? Look at the birds, how God provides for them. Aren’t you more precious to him than they are? This is why I tell you not to worry.

Matthew 6:33 tells us to, “…seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” I believe this is the verse the rest of the passage hinges on. And I won’t pretend for one second that this isn’t a hard teaching. Many of the verses in our passage are so familiar because they’ve become clichés, happy phrases we see on notecards and couch pillows. These are not easy teachings. Nothing Jesus has taught thus far in the sermon on the mount is easy. But his teachings are simple, in that they’re not complicated or designed to trip us up. Remember, we learned that his yoke–his teachings as our ultimate rabbi–is light and not burdensome. Let’s carry that understanding with us as we dig into this week’s passage.

Is Jesus saying that if we seek his kingdom above all else, we will escape trouble and hardship and have everything we need in this life? I don’t think so…

“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)

Jesus speaks these words to his disciples as his crucifixion nears. He assures them there will be trouble. Makes it pretty clear that there’s no escaping it. But he also tells them that in him they can have peace. He tells them, even before his death and resurrection, he has overcome the world.

So what does it mean when Jesus says that if we seek first the kingdom of God, we’ll have all we need? And how do we not worry when he guarantees that this life will bring us trouble?

Once again, we find ourselves in a familiar place…

What do we find when we seek first the kingdom?

We find Jesus. Our daily bread. The rabbi whose yoke is unlike any other.

If we seek the kingdom above all else, we will always be led straight into Jesus’ arms. I am slightly concerned about sounding redundant here, but God won’t let me get away from this. The entire sermon on the mount unveils the kingdom and every bit of it points us back to the One who’s doing the teaching.

What does it mean that if we seek first the kingdom, we’ll find Jesus? And how does that keep us from worrying? Look with me at Revelation 1:18. Jesus says,

“I am the living one. I died, but look—I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and the grave.” (NLT)

If Jesus holds the keys to death and the grave, what is there to fear, really? Even if the worst comes, he is Lord. Even over death.

I don’t mean any of that to sound superficial or easy, because I know it’s not. This life is painstakingly hard. Our hearts are broken over and over. Suffering is part of each of our stories. Which is why it is so key to remember that we are loved, held, pursued, and rescued by a co-suffering God, revealed in the self-emptying love of Jesus.

Pastor John talked to us on Sunday about rescue, how our limitless God comes for us. He also asked some questions that aren’t easy to answer, at least not for me. He asked if God has ever abandoned us, let us down, not shown up? Has he ever walked out on us? I wish I could say no to all of these questions. But there are still loose ends in my story, times I did feel let down by God, moments when he didn’t show up–at least not in a way I could see. Some parts of my story have found resolution over time–but sometimes it is only in looking back that I can see I wasn’t ever abandoned, because it sure felt like I was in some of my most desperate moments.

I wish that I could say that as my faith has grown and my maturity has deepened, I have ceased worrying. But that wouldn’t be true. The things of this world can feel so big–at any given moment there is much to be concerned about globally, nationally, politically, economically, ecologically, relationally, personally. There are issues accosting every part of our humanity, because in this world there is so much trouble.

And this is where it is essential to remember Jesus’s words, “Take heart. I have overcome the world. I hold the keys to death and the grave.”

Jesus’s assurances don’t deny our struggles and pain, but they do remind us that we are humans with limitations, living in a toilsome world that Jesus has already overcome.

There are parts of my life that to this point lay unresolved. Things I don’t understand–yet. But for every one of those moments, there are multiple stories of rescue, times when my God has shown up and revealed the voice, heart, presence I needed at just the right time. Because the truth is, our God never leaves us alone. Even when we run in fear or anger or confusion, we never reach the edge of his gaze, his hand, his pursuing love.

Jesus never promised that if we followed him we would be safe, or that our lives would be painless. But we can rest assured that we are secure in his cruciform love that never lets us go. No amount of worry can remove us from a love like that, from a rescuer whose presence doesn’t always look how we expect, but is constant nonetheless.

To choose to focus on our worries is to elevate them, to worship the power of our own (unproductive) thinking, which leaves us spinning. Nothing changes by placing our minds on these concerns, by allowing our thoughts to consume us. All that changes is our own emotional, mental, and physical health. To worry actually takes hours off our lives. It harms us.

Instead of setting our minds on such things, we are exhorted to,

“. . .keep your thoughts continually fixed on all that is authentic and real, honorable and admirable, beautiful and respectful, pure and holy, merciful and kind. And fasten your thoughts on every glorious work of God, praising him always.” (Philippians 4:8, TPT)

Or, in other words,

“Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.” (Matthew 6:33, NLT)

Seek first the kingdom. Find Jesus there. He has overcome this troublesome world, and he holds the keys to death and the grave. So don’t worry. His love conquers all our fears.

–Laura

Pastor John reminded us on Sunday it’s God who gives us life. When he said that, the chorus from the song Great Are You Lord by All Sons and Daughters came to mind: “It’s Your breath in our lungs, so we pour out our praise.” Your breath. God’s breath in our lungs. Pause for a second. Inhale deeply. The air, the lungs, the muscles that allow the breath to happen…it’s all a gift–or millions, and millions, and millions of gifts, from God, that happen all the time.

Which of us by worrying can add a single moment to our lives. Which of us by worrying can even provide our own breath? We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and we can’t “make” any of it happen. God gives life, and breath, and designed us for every movement, every thought, every emotion. He’s given us the ability to reason, to learn, to grow. He’s given us talents and gifts. Each of our five senses are gifts. He’s given us a spirit so that we can connect with the Spirit of God. We are completely and totally dependent upon God for the design and functioning of our very beings. Yet we worry. We think: What if God isn’t really enough? And then fall for the lie, and live as if it all depends on us.

Laura and I took last week off, but I’m going to go back and retrieve the verses that come right before the worry passage and then paste in Laura’s inverted paraphrase from above so we can see these two passages together. Matthew 6:19-24 (TPT) reads like this:

Don’t keep hoarding for yourselves earthly treasures that can be stolen by thieves. Material wealth eventually rusts, decays, and loses its value. Instead, stockpile heavenly treasures for yourselves that cannot be stolen and will never rust, decay, or lose their value. For your heart will always pursue what you value as your treasure. The eyes of your spirit allow revelation-light to enter into your being. If your heart is unclouded, the light floods in!  But if your eyes are focused on money, the light cannot penetrate and darkness takes its place. How profound will be the darkness within you if the light of truth cannot enter! How could you worship two gods at the same time? You will have to hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You can’t worship the true God while enslaved to the god of money!

Don’t worry about tomorrow–there is enough trouble in today. Instead, seek the kingdom of God above everything else, and God will take care of you. Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or wear, as though your God doesn’t know your needs. Why does your faith falter? Your father cares about the wildflowers–he’s dressed them in splendor. He will surely care for you. Can worrying add even an hour to your life? Look at the birds, how God provides for them. Aren’t you more precious to him than they are? This is why I tell you not to worry.

Laid out this way, it is easy to see the connection between the two passages. We seek treasures on earth, Jesus wants us to seek first God’s Kingdom. We seek money so we can take care of ourselves, Jesus tells us God will take care of us. Jesus warns us that the pursuit of stuff, the love of money, our focus on the kingdom of this world will lead our hearts away from God, and he reminds us to store up treasure in heaven, which The Passion Translation footnote defines like this: Heavenly treasures are eternal realities, such as loving others and doing good, revealing truth, and bringing Christ’s light to the world. None of these “treasures” can be stolen or ever lose their value.

So we have to ask ourselves at this stage in the sermon on the mount. What are we living for? Who or what has our heart, our attention, our focus? Each week we are reminded, and Laura reminded us above, the entire sermon on the mount is about heart transformation. Worry about all the cares of this world leads to heart strangulation. Openness to God’s ways in the world leads to heart transformation.

I think we can all admit it’s a struggle. We vascillate between worry and faith, between seeking our kingdom and God’s kingdom, between living for ourselves and living for others, between self-strangulation and Spirit transformation.

We will have trouble, days will be hard, we’ll be tempted to worry (which won’t change our circumstances one iota.) So, let’s choose, even in our hardest most desperate moments to lean into the miracle of being alive, of being able to sit in God’s presence. Let’s choose to be aware of all that we have rather than what we think we lack. Let’s choose to seek first God’s kingdom and store up treasures in heaven rather than the things of this world. Let’s take in the beauty all around us remembering that Jesus holds it all together, and he can hold us and whatever we are dealing with together too. Laura beautifully reminded us that the whole sermon on the mount points us to Jesus–no matter what things look like on this side of the veil, he is with us and will never let us go.

Seek the kingdom of God above everything else, for your heart will always pursue what you value as your treasure.

–Luanne

Ian Barnard | Words, Cool words, Lettering

The Lord’s Prayer #1

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy Name, 
thy kingdom come, 
thy will be done, 
on earth as it is in heaven. 
Give us this day our daily bread. 
And forgive us our trespasses, 
as we forgive those
who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, 
but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, 
and the power, and the glory, 
for ever and ever. Amen.
I assume that most of us, regardless of our various upbringings, are familiar with some version of the prayer known as “The Lord’s Prayer.” The above rendition is probably the most common. What is your experience with this famous prayer? Is it part of your prayer life? Did you memorize it as a child? What does it mean to you? We will spend three weeks diving deeply into this prayer that Jesus gave his followers as he taught them how to pray–it will form and teach us, if we let it.
On Sunday, Pastor John shared that this prayer defines and explains what Jesus has been saying throughout his sermon on the mount. We find it in Matthew 6:9-13, right after Jesus talks about what not to do when we pray. Here is that section again, to refresh our memories:
“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matt. 6:5-8)
After talking through prayer practices that he does not endorse, Jesus says,

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” (Matthew 6:9-10)

These twenty-two words are the focus of this week’s message. The rest of the prayer will be covered over the next two weeks. I am grateful we’re taking it slowly through this section of the sermon on the mount. There is so much to explore, to discuss, to thoughtfully consider within these words. We have an opportunity to look more deeply into what might be very familiar to us, an opportunity to hear the words in a new way. If we lean in with open hearts and minds, seeking to learn and be transformed, we will not be disappointed with what we discover. It is my favorite thing about scripture, the way the Spirit comes into the words and brings them to life in fresh, new ways, revealing more than we had seen before.

On a personal note, this prayer has been a key part of my own prayer life for several years. Ever since the concept of “the kingdom” became a focal point of my journey with Jesus, praying “Your kingdom come…” has become an important part of my life. I don’t know that I thought much about it or what it meant when I was younger. It was actually Luanne who brought it to my attention. As she was captivated by this kingdom Jesus brought to earth, and began to share what she was learning, I was captivated also. If you read this blog often, it’s not news to you that both of us are still quite captivated by the kingdom and what kingdom living looks like for Jesus’ followers today–we write about it probably more than any other topic we cover.

Here’s the thing about what I just shared… Though this prayer has become a key daily component of my own prayer life, there is still more for me to discover in these five verses. There is more treasure to mine in these twenty-two words that Pastor John walked us through on Sunday. I love that. I never want any part of scripture to become stale or commonplace to me. I want to keep digging in, to continue to learn and ask for Holy Spirit revelation to breathe fresh, new life into ancient words. There is always more. As evidence to my point, I have wrestled with what to focus on in my portion of this week’s post. There are so many directions to go! One thing Pastor John highlighted stood out to me above the rest, though, so that’s where I’ll spend my time here.

Something I’ve been learning a lot about for the last couple of years is dualistic versus non-dualistic thinking. It’s especially intriguing to me when I look at the ways that dualism has slithered into western, evangelical Christianity, specifically here in the United States. I understand dualism to be either/or, black and white, this or that ways of thinking. It can lead to an us versus them mindset and often divides rather than unites.

Non-dualism, on the other hand, embraces the both/and, and that way of thinking and relating allows us to be comfortable living in the tension of the and. It allows us to think more broadly, more collectively. It connects rather than divides. But non-dualism leaves things a little undefined. To embrace non-dualistic ways of thinking, we have to learn to embrace mystery, to get comfortable with not having all the answers, to allow ourselves to be led beyond our comfort zones. Non-dualism asks us to consider ways of thinking that challenge our previous understanding. I believe breaking free of dualistic thinking is an essential part of growing in our walks with Jesus.

Pastor John introduced two concepts in this week’s passage where, in his words, “Jesus breaks the dualism.” 

The first is in our understanding of how prayer is meant to be handled. Jesus has just finished talking about prayer being something that ought to be done in private, between us and God, not for show… But this prayer focuses on “us”, right? So it’s not an individual prayer? But it’s meant to prayed as a private, individual prayer?

For those of us who have been raised in some version of westernized Christianity, it’s likely we have a very individualized approach to our faith and our prayers. Much of the teaching we grew up with probably focused on our personal relationships with God and our prayer lives probably reflect that.

What Jesus is teaching us in this passage is how to pray individually and collectively simultaneously. We can pray privately, but our focus is not on ourselves. We’ve written a lot about how early Christianity was communal in nature. We have moved so far away from that in our individualism that even praying the way Jesus teaches may not naturally make sense to us. Other cultures who embrace a more community-focused way of life probably aren’t challenged the same way some of us are when reading Jesus’ instructions. It’s so important that we notice and pay attention to the ways our either/or thinking invades even our study of scripture.

Jesus invites us–by beginning this “personal” prayer with the word “our”–to move away from dualism. He does so again in the way he presents God in his opening words. He says, “Our Father,” including all of us in his own father/son relationship with the God of the heavens,”the universe, the world, the vaulted expanse of the sky with all things visible in it” (Strong’s Greek Lexicon). He continues, “…hallowed is your name.” Hallowed means set apart, most holy, above all. 

So in the opening line of the prayer, Jesus identifies God as our collective, personal father, that we–along with Jesus–are in intimate relationship with, and identifies him also as entirely set apart, above all, distinctly holy. So, in which way do we relate to our God? The answer is: both. Right away, Jesus invites his listeners to enter into a new understanding of how to relate with God. Is he our father that we are intimately connected to, or is he altogether set apart, holy, different from all others? Yes. The answer is not an or, but an and.

It matters that Jesus addresses these things right away. It will serve us well to pay attention to what he is revealing. Our walk with God, including our prayer life, is individual and collective. We relate to God as Abba and as the Holy One, sovereign over all. Without a both/and understanding, without allowing Jesus to break into our understanding, we cannot see the bigger, more beautiful, kingdom-focused perspective that Jesus invites us into. This is where we begin. Before we can say “Your kingdom come, your will be done,” with any idea of what that might look like, we need to align ourselves with God and others Jesus’ way.

The entire sermon on the mount up to this point has been teaching us what it looks like to be kingdom-people, beginning with our hearts. In this prayer, Jesus moves our understanding further–beyond heart change and into a community-focused space, where our prayers are transformed as our hearts come into alignment with the kingdom he is introducing.

Where do the opening lines of this famous prayer find us? Where do Jesus’ words land in our minds and hearts? Have we prayed individually with a collective focus? What might Jesus be wanting to transform in the ways we’ve grown accustomed to praying? I look forward to following where Jesus is leading us together, as we continue to explore his words.

–Laura

As Laura wrote above,  I have been captivated by the kingdom of heaven coming to earth for years now. She and I were trying to remember how many years ago my obsession with The Kingdom here and now began–at least eight or nine. I can’t remember what sparked that flame, but even as I write about it now, my heart burns within me and my fingers tingle as I type. I believe that understanding God’s desire to establish his kingdom on earth, right here and right now, is the key to understanding what Christianity is all about.

Laura set us up beautifully for the Kingdom words Jesus taught us when she wrote: Our walk with God, including our prayer life, is individual and collective. We relate to God as Abba and as the Holy One, sovereign over all. Without a both/and understanding, without allowing Jesus to break into our understanding, we cannot see the bigger, more beautiful, kingdom-focused perspective that Jesus invites us into.

A both/and understanding is imperative. Pastor John pointed out that we waffle back and forth between God as our Abba–our daddy, our father and God as the Holy One, the Almighty who is powerful and therefore, (in our minds) sometimes scary. Jesus combines the two…God is close– intimacy with God is possible, and God is Almighty and Holy and completely “other”.
Once we have this understanding, the rest of the prayer makes more sense to us. So here we go. The next fourteen words say: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Full stop. Read it again. Pray it again. This is God’s desire for earth. 
I don’t know how we miss this, and I missed it for a lot of years; however, a close reading of the gospels shows us that Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God on earth more than any other subject. It was his priority, and he embodied what it looked like in the flesh. In the Sermon on the Mount he is teaching those willing to hear, what Kingdom people look like.
Quick recap: He saw the crowds, went up the mountain, sat down and began to teach.
He started with the beatitudes–this is what my people will look like: Compare the beatitudes to Philippians chapter 2…have this mind (attitude) in you which was also in Christ Jesus…) 
Next: My followers will be salt and light in the world.
Then a reinterpretation of the law that focuses on our hearts and our treatment of others: You’ve heard it said…but I say…  
And then the three when you statements: When you give… when you pray… when you fast…
Right in the middle of those statements, this private prayer, prayed from the position that “I” am part of the “we”, that focuses on God’s will for the entire earth, is taught.
What are we praying when we pray Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?
I was introduced to an expanded version of The Lord’s Prayer through Word of Life church in St. Joseph, Missouri, that clears it up. In that expanded version, this portion of The Lord’s Prayer says:
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Thy government come, thy politics be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Thy reign and rule come, thy plans and purposes be done on earth as it is in heaven. 
May we be an anticipation of the age to come.
May we embody the reign of Christ here and now.
This is the deep cry of my heart. God’s kingdom, not ours. God’s will, not ours. God’s government, not ours. God’s politics, not ours. God’s reign and rule, not ours. God’s plans and purposes, not ours. God is the only One who can establish God’s kingdom, yet it has everything to do with us and our understanding of God’s sovereignty and desire for intimacy with us.
God’s kingdom comes through us–through our relationship with God. God is here. Your will be done is what God’s kingdom coming looks like–it comes as we do God’s will.
This is where we struggle. We have to allow the Holy Spirit to examine our hearts as we ask ourselves am I aligning my life with God’s will?  In our individualistic thinking we ask God, what is your will for my life? That’s the wrong question. The right question is God, what is your will?  Period. And then we align ourselves with God’s will.
Jesus is the best example of this. How does Jesus relate to God? He models constant intimacy. Jesus never goes rogue…he does only what he sees the Father doing. (John 5:19). And he tells us to stay connected to him: I am the vine, you (all) are the branches, if you (all) remain in me and I in you (all); you (all) will bear much fruit. (John 15:5). All of those pronouns in the Greek are plural.
What fruit will we bear? The fruit of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. (Gal. 5:22)
We are a people who are to be known for those characteristics.
you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation (a kingdom), God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.
 Where is the kingdom? (Jesus) was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he gave them this reply: “The kingdom of God never comes by watching for it. Men cannot say, ‘Look, here it is’, or ‘there it is’, for the kingdom of God is inside you. (Luke 17:20-21 J.B. Phillips)
And to quote Jesus from this very sermon:  “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.”  (Mt. 5:14-15)
The light of the Kingdom of God is inside us. Are we giving light to everyone in the house? Do we look like Jesus? Do we act like Jesus? Do we prioritize who Jesus prioritized? Do we treat others as Jesus did? Do our lives bear His fruit? His kingdom will come and his will be done on earth through us. The world will know that God loves them deeply and unconditionally through us. 
To prioritize God’s kingdom ways comes through an intimate, connected to the vine type of relationship with almighty, Papa, God—our Father. It also comes with an acknowledgment that our allegiance is to his kingdom above all other kingdoms. In the New Testament we see that the Romans prioritized Rome, the Jews prioritized Israel, the Samaritans prioritized Samaria, etc. I’m a citizen of the USA, and I lived in Brazil for a decade. Should I prioritize those countries? If so, which one? No to all of this. When we follow Jesus, we become citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. Earthly kingdoms have to take a back seat to this.
The Apostle Paul understood this and he wrote:
There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28)

Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him.  In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us...Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. (Col. 3: 10,11-13 NLT)

What categories do you suppose Paul might highlight if he were writing today? Think about it and repent where you need to. (I’m doing the same.)

Citizens of the kingdom of heaven, during the reign and rule of Rome, were beaten, imprisoned, persecuted, falsely accused, killed. They sang in prison, counted it joy to be persecuted for following Jesus, were scattered to other countries as a result of persecution and took the love of Jesus with them, they died in such a way (sometimes in arenas in front of crowds) that they created a holy curiosity about who Jesus was. Their priority was God’s kingdom, and sometimes they paid a high (earthly) price for living that way. Are we willing to pay a high earthly price to be like Jesus? We will be misunderstood. We will be labled as we get rid of labels and as we hunger and thirst for dikaiosynē (equity, justice, righteousness). It might cost us something. Are we willing?

N. T. Wright in his book “God and the Pandemic” writes: ...the Sermon on the Mount isn’t simply about ‘ethics’…it’s about mission….God’s kingdom is being launched on earth as in heaven, and the way it will happen is by God working through people of this sort….When people look out on the world and its disasters…they ask…why doesn’t he send a thunderbolt…and put things right?…God does send thunderbolts–human ones.  He sends in the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourners, the peacemakers, the hungry-for-justice people…They will use their initiative; they will see where the real needs are, and go to meet them. They will weep at the tombs of their friends. At the tombs of their enemies. Some of them will get hurt. Some may be killed. That is the story of Acts, all through. There will be problems…but God’s purpose will come through. These people, prayerful, humble, faithful, will be the answer…

Where, you may be asking, does personal salvation fit into all of this? Rich Villoda’s, in his soon to be published book The Deeply-Formed Life writes:

Eldon Ladd, in his short but seminal book on the gospel of the kingdom, wrote, “The gospel must not only offer a personal salvation in the future life to those who believe; it must also transform all of the relationship of life here and now and thus cause the Kingdom of God to prevail in all the world.” At the core of the gospel, then, is the “making right” of all things through Jesus. In Jesus’s death and resurrection, the world is set on a trajectory of renewal, but God graciously invites us to work toward this future. However, this work is not an individual enterprise; it is one orchestrated by the collected efforts of a new family…” (Emphasis mine)

A new family.

Our Father…Abba’s Kingdom…Abba’s will…on Earth…through us.

–Luanne

3730232-Mother-Teresa-Quote-God-loves-the-world-through-us

When You Fast…

When you fast, don’t look like those who pretend to be spiritual. They want everyone to know they’re fasting, so they appear in public looking miserable, gloomy, and disheveled. Believe me, they’ve already received their reward in full. When you fast, don’t let it be obvious, but instead, wash your face and groom yourself and realize that your Father in the secret place is the one who is watching all that you do in secret and will continue to reward you openly.” (Mt. 6:16-18 TPT)

When you give to the needy…

When you pray

When you fast

Giving, praying, fasting–three pillars–equal weight–each necessary for Kingdom people–each to be done privately; not for show–each delightful to God’s heart.

This week, in our Sermon on the Mount series, fasting is the subject. I don’t know about you, but in my church upbringing, there was not a great emphasis placed on fasting. I’d heard of it but it was not part of my faith practice. Interestingly though, it was part of my dad’s faith practice and he was my pastor. Maybe I just checked out when the subject came up because I didn’t understand what fasting was about and I didn’t really want to fast. Who knows? However, Jesus makes it clear that fasting is part of following. Fasting is part of being formed into the image of Christ. Fasting is being an imitator of Christ.

As we’ve pointed out, all of the “when you” statements of Jesus, (giving, praying and fasting) were practices in the early church.

In the Antioch church we learn that while they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”  So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 13: 2-3). 

In Acts 14 we learn Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.

Throughout the history of God’s people, we see that fasting was a given.

In the Old Testament:

The entire nation of Israel fasted on the Day of Atonement as they humbled themselves, repented of their sins, and sought God’s forgiveness. (Lev. 23: 27-28)

Moses fasted (twice) for forty days on Mt. Sinai while he was receiving divine revelation from God. (Ex. 34:28; Dt. 9:9-10:10)

Daniel fasted for twenty-one days and at the end of that time received a revelation from God regarding Israel’s future. (Dan. 10)

Hannah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, King Jehosaphat, David, and others are said to have fasted personally and/or led the nation in a fast.

In the New Testament:

The Prophet Anna never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.  She recognized the infant Jesus and she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (Lk. 2:37-38)

Jesus fasted forty days before he entered public ministry (Mt 4: 1-11).

The early church fasted.

And, it’s clear in this week’s passage, that Jesus is not asking us to fast, but is giving us guidelines to follow when we fast.

So what happened? Where did fasting go?

According to the C. S. Lewis Institute:  In the early church, fasting was highly valued. Those who could do so fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays until 3 p.m. But in the fourth century, with the rise of Constantine and the end of persecution, the church changed dramatically. Worldliness and institutionalism increased markedly, bringing an emphasis on form, ritual, and liturgy. Fasting became more legalistic and, for many, works-oriented. 

Centuries after the reign of Constantine,  we find ourselves rather anemic when it comes to fasting. We don’t understand it and it’s not part of our regular spiritual practice, and I’m afraid that many times when we do enter a fast, it’s because we want God’s attention and want him to do something for us–in other words, the fast becomes “me” focused rather than God-focused.

What if we were able to shift our focus a bit and come to see fasting as one of the ways that we love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength?

Pastor John reminded us that fasting is removing anything from our lives that has shifted our focus away from God, and making God our priority. Fasting is maybe the greatest way to realign our lives and remind ourselves that God is our priority.

So what do we do? How do we recalibrate?  Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, wrote: I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ… their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things… (Ph. 3: 18-19)

First, we must recognize what earthly things have captured our attention. Is it food, social media, the news, binge-watching TV shows, exercise, energy-boosting substances, addictive substances? What do we seek for comfort? What is it that we think we can’t live without? What habits have captured our heart, soul, mind, and strength?

Are any of these things providing deep soul satisfaction? Are any of them leading to spiritual growth and a deep spiritual life–a deep connection with God?

If we look at the result of many biblical fasts, vision for leadership, for ministry, hearing the voice of God, recognizing God, connecting with God, returning to God, missionary vision, church leadership vision, intimacy with God, unity, and God’s desires being fulfilled were the result of God-focused fasts. Do we want that?

In the C. S. Lewis Institute quote above, we learn that part of what happened to the spiritual discipline of fasting is that worldliness and institutionalism entered the church. They’ve never left and have been detrimental. Another thing that I believe has been detrimental to the church is the emphasis on individualism. We’ve forgotten that God is creating a kingdom, a people, a community, a global movement, a global church. His desire is that we experience abundant life right here on planet earth and love others into his realm.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth…

 You are God’s chosen treasure—priests who are kings, a spiritual “nation” set apart as God’s devoted ones. He called you out of darkness to experience his marvelous light, and now he claims you as his very own. He did this so that you would broadcast his glorious wonders throughout the world. (1 Pt. 2:9 TPT)

Each of the three pillars Jesus addresses has to do with kingdom building and our heart attitude, (as does the entire Sermon on the Mount). Intimacy with God matters. A “secret” life with God matters. It is in the secret place that God can do his deepest work in us. We are transformed in the secret place. It is in making God our priority that we learn to love him with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s in the secret place that we become more than church-attenders, we become kingdom-people. It’s not about legalism. It’s not about trying to manipulate God to conform to our will. It’s not about looking spiritual to others. It’s not about going through the motions. It’s about our hearts; it’s about us; it’s about others; it’s about God’s heart and God’s desire for all humankind–and yes, our Father, who sees in secret will reward us.

As I close, let’s check our hearts as we ponder excerpts from Isaiah 58. Let’s allow the Lord to mess in our business a little bit. Even when it’s uncomfortable, His desire is for our good.

Daily they seem to seek me, pretending that they delight to know my ways, as though they were a nation that does what is right and had not rejected the law of their God. They ask me to show them the right way, acting as though they are eager to be close to me. They say, ‘Why is it that when we fasted, you did not see it? We starved ourselves and you didn’t seem to notice.’

“Because on the day you fasted you were seeking only your own desires, and you continue to exploit your workers. During your fasts, you quarrel and fight with others…

Do you think I’m impressed with that kind of fast? Is it just a day to starve your bodies, make others think you’re humble, and lie down in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast?

“This is the kind of fast that I desire:
Remove the heavy chains of oppression!
Stop exploiting your workers!
Set free the crushed and mistreated!
Break off every yoke of bondage!
Share your food with the hungry!
Provide for the homeless
and bring them into your home!
Clothe the naked!
Don’t turn your back on your own flesh and blood!
Then my favor will bathe you in sunlight until you are like the dawn bursting through a dark night.

 

Let’s give. Let’s pray. Let’s fast. Let’s recalibrate and let go of earthly things by making God our focus and priority. Let’s meet God in the secret place and allow God to love the world through us as he changes us in that place.

–Luanne

Vision for leadership

Vision for ministry

Hearing the voice of God

Recognizing God

Connecting with God

Returning to God

Missionary vision

Church leadership vision

Intimacy with God,

Unity

God’s desires being fulfilled

These are what Luanne listed as the results of God-focused fasts in scripture. Then she asked us a simple question,

“Do we want that?”

Our answers will reveal the condition of our hearts, and whether we actually want to live according to kingdom values… or whether we just like saying that we do.

What is it that you want? What do I want? What do we, collectively, want? What do we think we need? What do we believe we can’t live without? Can we answer these questions honestly? If we can’t answer honestly with our words, the way we live our lives will answer for us. The way we pray… What we give our money to… If, how, and why we fast… these will reveal our hearts and our priorities. Period. Even if we try to appear holy in these areas, our motives will be found out. God knows, of course, but the people around us will find us out, too, if they haven’t already.

If we give begrudgingly, or out of a place of obligation; if our giving is not a passionate response to Jesus’ life within us, an embodiment of his kingdom in our day-to-day lives, it will be evident. If we pray in showy ways with a goal of being seen and applauded for our holiness, and we don’t connect with God in a personal way, our own extravagant but empty prayers will betray us. And if we fast to be seen and acknowledged, to barter with or coerce God to do what we want, if we make it about ourselves rather that prioritizing God’s place in our lives, our fasting is nothing more than an attempt at a transaction, an exchange of services.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 is filling my mind as I type. I wasn’t planning to go there, but I think I see where this is heading, so please come along with me…

 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…

This passage speaks to getting it all right on the outside. Speaking in the tongues of angels, having access to supernatural knowledge and the very secrets of God, living with mountain-moving faith, giving everything for those in need, dying as a martyr–even these extreme displays of faithfulness and commitment are utterly meaningless if our heart motives are not grounded in the self-emptying love of Jesus.

I don’t know how that hits you, but for me, this passage is hard. It’s humbling. It’s a serious heart-check.

I think it’s exactly why fasting–the kind that Jesus desires–is an essential part of our journey with God.

If I had access to the stores of God’s supernatural knowledge, if I were granted understanding of spiritual profundities, if I gave everything I have for the poor–I would probably think my priorities were in order. But here’s the thing… Even the very best things can fill God’s place in our hearts and lives. And it can happen in subtle ways, ways we aren’t even aware of until we set aside some time to get honest with ourselves and choose to take a step back from whatever has been distracting us.

The distractions can be so hard to identify when they seem like good things, when they look like good fruit. But good fruit grows when our roots are planted in the soil of the kingdom and when our branches are both nourished and pruned by the Gardener. Then and only then can we live out the kind of fast that Isaiah 58 outlines. Chains are loosed, injustice is reversed, the hungry are fed, the broken are restored, the lonely are loved, the world is set right only when we ourselves become an outpouring of the kingdom life that Jesus speaks of in the sermon on the mount. There is no other way for Shalom, for restoration, for wholeness to come.

Fasting, in our most basic understanding is abstaining from food. In the Greek, that is the definition. The earliest definition I found in the Hebrew for the word “fast”, the primitive root, means to cover over, or shut the mouth. Working with that definition, ponder something with me…

When we fast, we are abstaining from food, our source of nourishment. We do this to prioritize God. What if we took it even more literally? What if we look at fasting as abstaining from food in order to feast on the flesh of Jesus? Not in some gross, cannibalistic way. But so that his flesh, his being, his way of being in the world, becomes our flesh as we feed on him and all that he is?

Oswald Chambers said,

“God does not expect us to imitate Jesus Christ; He expects us to allow the life of Jesus to be manifested in our mortal flesh.” (emphasis mine)

From Henri Nouwen,

“. . . We are the living Christ in the world. Jesus, who is God-made-flesh, continues to reveal himself in our own flesh. Indeed, true salvation is becoming Christ.”

And Mother Teresa spoke these words:

“Our lives are woven with Jesus in the Eucharist. In Holy Communion we have Christ under the appearance of bread; in our work we find him under the appearance of flesh and blood. It is the same Christ. ‘I was hungry, I was naked, I was sick, I was homeless.'”

Jesus in the Eucharist, Jesus as our primary source of nourishment–this is how we, as kingdom-people, embody the One we follow.

What if when we fast, we ask Jesus to do this? To come into our very flesh, that he might be made manifest within us? What if we ask Emmanuel, God with us, to become our flesh as we nourish on all that he is, so that we become the embodiment of Jesus and his kingdom on this earth? What if we reorient our minds and hearts around Jesus’ robust theology of the kingdom–and fast from all lesser things that grab for our attention? Our prayers will change. Our giving will look different. Our relationship with God will be transformed. Because this is what happens when the kingdom of the heavens collides with earth.

I’ll ask Luanne’s question one more time…

Do we want that?

–Laura

Hungering For God (Matthew 6:16-18) — Saraland Christians

Living Loved & Loving Others

We took a short break from our sermon on the mount series this week to hear from Trevor Schenk, one of our elders. Though his message wasn’t from the sermon on the mount, it fit in seamlessly with what we’ve been learning from Pastor John. One of the first statements Trevor made was,

“Jesus led a life that showed us how to love, how to live.”

He led us through passage after passage reminding us about God’s love, what it is and what it’s not. He reminded us that even when we’re living with hateful, murderous thoughts inside like we discussed last week, we are not exempt from the love of God that pursues us. He gave us many examples from the scriptures of people who chose to kill rather than to love, and yet God went to them and revealed his heart to them–changing them by the transformative power of his love and empowering them to love like him. He exhorted us to first embrace our own belovedness and then to learn from the example of Jesus so that we can model that kind of self-sacrificing love in our relationships with others.

The message was a “Selah” moment, of sorts–a pause to remember and reflect on how dearly loved and chosen we are by the Creator who calls each of us children, made in the image of our eternal God. It was also a call to live a life worthy of the one we claim to follow.

Rather than write a lot of extra words to expand on the message Trevor brought to us, I thought the best thing to do this week would be to give our readers what Trevor gave us–a moment to pause and reflect, a moment to ponder with fresh awe the deep, deep love of God lived out in the life of Jesus, and what that love requires of us as we relate with our fellow image-bearers.

The main passage Trevor spoke from is 1 John 3, so I’ll include the verses he used below, as well as many of the supporting passages he shared with us. I am intentionally including a variety of translations. My hope is that you’ll take a moment to read through them slowly, ponder the words in your heart, and be reminded afresh of the deep love that pursues you, that pursues us all. Because this is what I have found to be true over and over again–

When we catch a glimpse of the Love that made us, that pursues us, that willingly died a criminal’s death at our hands so that we might understand there is nowhere he wouldn’t go to reach us… we can’t help but be changed. Love like that rearranges our hearts if we let it, and it keeps doing its good work until we learn to live cruciform like Christ–arms outstretched in love that looks outward and invites all to come in…

Look with wonder at the depth of the Father’s marvelous love that he has lavished on us! He has called us and made us his very own beloved children. The reason the world doesn’t recognize who we are is that they didn’t recognize him. Beloved, we are God’s children right now; however, it is not yet apparent what we will become. But we do know that when it is finally made visible, we will be just like him, for we will see him as he truly is. And all who focus their hope on him will always be purifying themselves, just as Jesus is pure. . . Here is how God’s children can be clearly distinguished from the children of the Evil One. Anyone who does not demonstrate righteousness and show love to fellow believers is not living with God as his source. The beautiful message you’ve heard right from the start is that we should walk in self-sacrificing love toward one another. We should not be like Cain, who yielded to the Evil One and brutally murdered his own brother, Abel. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s righteous. So don’t be shocked, beloved brothers and sisters, if you experience the world’s hatred. Yet we can be assured that we have been translated from spiritual death into spiritual life because we love the family of believers. A loveless life remains spiritually dead. Everyone who keeps hating a fellow believer is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him. This is how we have discovered love’s reality: Jesus sacrificed his life for us. Because of this great love, we should be willing to lay down our lives for one another. If anyone sees a fellow believer in need and has the means to help him, yet shows no pity and closes his heart against him, how is it even possible that God’s love lives in him? Beloved children, our love can’t be an abstract theory we only talk about, but a way of life demonstrated through our loving deeds.

(I John 3:1-3, 10-18, The Passion Translation)

Be kind to each other, be understanding. Be as ready to forgive others as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you. 

(Ephesians 4:32 J.B. Phillips)

 You shall not take revenge nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor (acquaintance, associate, companion) as yourself; I am the Lord.

(Leviticus 19:18, Amplified Bible)

“Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get.”

(Matthew 7:12, The Message)

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

(1 John 4:7-8, NKJV)

 If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.  If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.

 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

(1 Corinthians 13:1-3 MSG, 4-8 TPT)

Trevor encouraged us to be aware of what is in our minds and hearts. He reminded us that God already knows what is hiding within each of us but still refuses to give up on us. I read last week that St. Augustine said sin is, “…being curved in upon oneself.” Those few words have messed with me these last few days. They challenge me to look up, to reach out, to listen, to recognize what lives in the shadows of my soul. Being curved in upon myself–however good the reason may be, even when it feels like the only way to protect my heart–is the opposite of living cruciform, the opposite of Jesus’ display of self-emptying love. This week, my prayer is that we each have the courage to open, to embrace the beautiful vulnerability of living with arms outstretched as we continue to learn how to live as dearly beloved children of God.

–Laura

Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth ...

Sermon on the Mount #4: Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics. That’s where Pastor John began Sunday’s message. It’s a big word that most of us are probably not very familiar with. While the word may be unfamiliar to many of us, its impact has touched all of our lives in one way or another. It means simply, the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts.” What any of us know or understand about the Bible has come to us through the filters of many different interpretations. It was the same for Jesus’ first followers, except their “bible,” at that point, did not include what we call the “New Testament” today. They had the Hebrew Scriptures, and they had scribes and Pharisees to interpret for them what the words meant and how they were to be applied.

Long before Jesus sat down to teach the sermon on the mount, there was another man on another mountain. It was Moses and the mountain was Mt. Sinai, where he met with God and was given what became the Ten Commandments, the Law. These Ten Commandments were given from God to his people in love as a comprehensive framework for how to love God and each other. As Brian Zahnd writes in his Lenten devotional, The Unvarnished Jesus,

“The first four of the the Ten Commandments are intended to form Israel in right relationship with God, or what we call worship. The final six commandments are intended to form Israel in right relationship with one another, or what we call justice.”

Instead of adhering to God’s exhortation to the ways of love, the people expanded it and broke it into subsets of laws and conditions. The commandments grew from ten God-given laws to 613 different regulations. Around the 613 regulations there were thousands of comments to explain them. How were the people to know what they were to do, how they were to follow the Law? As Pastor John shared with us Sunday, they needed interpreters, designated men, set apart to attend to the interpretation of the many amendments to God’s original commandments. Enter the scribes and Pharisees… These teachers were set apart to interpret ALL of the laws and regulations FOR the people. What the people learned as “God’s Law” came through the hermeneutics of the scribes and Pharisees. This elevated these leaders in the Jewish culture. The people needed them so that they could correctly understand the words of God.

But there was a problem. The leaders had missed the the original intent of the law. They had missed the intended focus. The focus was never supposed to be on the Law itself as a checklist to be completed. The focus was to be on the God of love who gave it to them as a way to protect them from the disease of self and the effects of living in opposition to God’s way of love. This brings us to this week’s text, Matthew 5:17-20:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus goes up on a mountain and sits down to teach his growing number of followers. He begins to teach them how they are to be, as citizens of his kingdom; he tells them that, in living his way, they will be salt and light to the world. He follows that up with this week’s passage about the Law that they held so dear. In the midst of what may have sounded to the people like new commandments, perhaps replacing what they had learned as God’s Law, Jesus says otherwise. I imagine the people were confused–what Jesus was teaching sounded nothing like what they had been taught all their lives from their scribes and teachers of the law. This is precisely why Jesus says what he does. He knows they have learned the law in a way that missed the mark of its original intent. He knows that the focus had become the laws themselves rather than the God who gave the law to them. So he addresses it in these four verses, and we get to see the law through the hermeneutics of Jesus and how his interpretation differs from that of the scribes and Pharisees.

He begins by saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law…” According to Strong’s Greek Lexicon, the word abolish in this passage is katalyo, which means “to destroy, break down, dissolve.” Its root words mean “to loose, unbind, set free, break apart, set apart.” Jesus did not come to set them free or unbind them from the original Law. He came instead, he says, to fulfill them. Please bear with me as we dig into what the word fulfill means here. I know not everyone gets as excited as I do about the definitions of words, but this one is important to our understanding of this text. And it’s pretty fascinating, too!

The word translated fulfill comes from the Greek pleroo, meaning “to complete, fill to the full, cause to abound; to fill to the top: so that nothing shall be wanting to full measure, fill to the brim; to consummate, render perfect and complete in every particular, to carry through to the end; to bring to realization.” A deeper look reveals that the root of pleroo is plebes, which means “to fill up hollow vessels; to thoroughly permeate the soul.”

When I read these definitions, it sets off fireworks in my mind! When Jesus says he came to fulfill the Law, he is essentially saying that he came to bring the Law to life! To “cause to abound” implies the action of fruit-bearing. To consummate is to bring together, to connect and make one of two. He came to connect the Law to himself, to Love; to complete the people’s partial understanding of the law and its intent so that in uniting one to the other, fruit would be born in abundance. And this fulfillment Jesus brought would fill up the places left hollow by the law and “thoroughly permeate their souls.” Jesus’ intention was not to set them free from the bindings of God’s original Law, but rather to tie the Law to himself and expand it into a way of being, as God originally intended. As Romans 10:4 states:

Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

The Law as a checklist has its limits. Where the words of the Law end, Jesus steps in to show us what it looks like to live as a kingdom-dweller. In Beth Moore’s gorgeous new book, Chasing Vines, she writes,

“John’s Gospel tells us that “the law was given through Moses” and “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). But lest the graced ones misinterpret these words, grace didn’t break the law of Moses, like stone tablets thrown into worthless fragments. Grace loosed the law of love from its limits.”

She continues a few pages later,

“Jesus isn’t impressed by love in word but not in deed (1 John 3:18). In Jesus’ reckoning, when it comes to love, confession without action is pretention.”

This leads us into what is, perhaps, the most difficult part of this week’s passage, the last verse. Here it is again, to refresh our memories:

“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

I imagine the mouths in the crowd, if they weren’t wide by this point, fell open as they heard these words. What was the teacher telling them? The Pharisees and teachers of the  law were the most righteous among them, and this Jesus guy was telling them they had to be more righteous than them? Talk about unrealistic expectations! I wonder if any of them stood up to leave at this point, discouraged by the impossibility of meeting Jesus’ requirements.

Fortunately for the crowd that day, Jesus wasn’t finished yet. The words in verse 20 weren’t the last in the discourse, they were said to set up what would come next. He is about to expand and deepen their understanding of the individual laws they followed. As Beth wrote, “Grace loosed the law of love from its limits,” and the people were about to hear exactly what that means. But we’ll get into that next week. For now, let’s dive into the troublesome verse and see what there is for us to glean…

First, it’s important to note that when Jesus says “…you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven,” he is not talking about eternal destiny. As we have discussed at length previously, the kingdom Jesus repeatedly talks about is here and now. The Greek definitions of the words in this particular verse mean, “the kingdom realm; not to be confused with an actual kingdom, but rather the right or authority to rule (…) the encompassing, vaulted expanse of the sky and universe and all things visible in it.” He is telling them that if their righteousness is not greater than that of their “teachers” they’ll have no right to rule or teach with any authority in his kingdom. He is simultaneously disqualifying those who had been elevated as the only ones authorized to speak on the law and calling his hearers to live at a higher level than that of these leaders.

What is this higher level he calls them to?

“. . .unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law…”

As we have written about previously, the word righteousness is translated from the Greek dikaiosynē, derived from the root word dikē, which means “equitable, just.”  I wrote these words two weeks ago,

There are many occurrences of the word righteousness in our English translations of the Bible that originally meant justice, equity–which is a fuller understanding of exactly what Pastor John talked about: being rightly related to God, which will always include being rightly related to all others.

So Jesus is exhorting his listeners to be more equitable and just than their teachers, to be rightly related to God and others in a different way than what had been modeled for them. What had been modeled for them is what Beth talked about in the quote I included above: pretention--a whole lot of lip-service without action driven by love. The focus had shifted from God and his way of love to the words that made up the commandments and the 613 addendums to the 10 original laws. These added words also kept the powerful in charge and the weak in check. Jesus came to flip all of that on its head.

One more word definition, and then I’ll wrap this thing up… The word translated “surpasses” is from the Greek perisseuo. It means “to superabound, beyond measure; to exceed a fixed number of measure; to exist and abound in abundance.” Its root word means “beyond; on the other side; farther.”

I find this beautiful. Jesus says to the crowd, essentially:

When you bring together the words of the law you have been taught with the ways of being I am teaching you and you connect the two with my love, your fruit will abound. This is what it means to let your light shine. It’s not about knowing the letter of all 613 laws. But it’s not about abolishing the commandments they came from, either. It is about viewing them in my light, and reflecting them, in love, to the world around you. Real righteousness is not what you have been taught. It’s more. It goes further. Because it is driven by love. 

Pastor John said, “Let Jesus author our faith.” Our faith is not authored by the words of hundreds of by-laws. Nor by the words of men that took liberties with and manipulated God’s original laws. No…

“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith…” (Hebrews 12:2) We look to Jesus, and invite him to write the story his way. He is, after all, the way, the truth, the life–the light for all humankind. He is the one who shows us what it means to live according to the laws of love, and how living like that fulfills every law God gave us to follow.

–Laura

Laura did a beautiful job of helping us understand what Jesus means when he says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

She wrote: When Jesus says he came to fulfill the Law, he is essentially saying that he came to bring the Law to life! … He came to connect the Law to himself, to Love …Jesus’ intention was not to set them free from the bindings of God’s original Law, but rather to tie the Law to himself and expand it into a way of being, as God originally intended.

If you’ve read our blog for any length of time you know that we write over and over God. Is. Love. God’s nature, God’s essence is love. Love is who God has always been and who God always will be. Until the time of Jesus, it might have been confusing to know exactly what that meant; however, the Apostle Paul tells us in Colossians 1:15 Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation. 

John the Apostle wrote the same thing when he said: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. 

Jesus himself said: Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. (John 14:9)

So God, in the form of Jesus came to fulfill the law–to bring the law to life.

The Scribes and Pharisees were doing the best they knew how with “dead” law, but Jesus wasn’t impressed with their interpretation. He said to them: What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either. (Mt 23:13) .  Jesus is emphatically saying–guys you are missing the whole point and you and all those you influence are shut out of God’s realm as a result!

On another occasion Jesus said to them: 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. (Jn. 5:39)

Does he say the same to us?  If the law–the knowledge of good and evil, the do’s and don’ts, the who’s in and who’s out drives us, then Jesus is not the center of our faith. If he and his ways are not the cornerstone of our lives, we are missing the point. I want to say this very, very carefully. If you read our blog, you know that we have a high view of scripture. We study it, we read it, we let the Holy Spirit speak to us through it, but scripture is not God. It is inspired and it is unlike any other book–but it is not our life source. Jesus is our life source…we study scripture to get to know the living Word–Jesus.

If we don’t come to the living Jesus and don’t look at all of scripture through the lens of the God of love as revealed in Jesus, we have a tendency to get mean and very black and white in our way of thinking. That’s the kind of attitude that led to Jesus’ frustration with the Pharisees when he told them that they shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. Are we doing that?

Laura reminded us that the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus is speaking of is not the after-life. It’s the Kingdom that is right here among us. She wrote: “the kingdom realm; (is) not to be confused with an actual kingdom, but rather the right or authority to rule….”  I’ve read before that it is the place where God reigns–which is any place where we are doing things his way. The kingdom of Heaven, the realm of Heaven, is where God’s will is being done on earth. (May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven) If that’s a new thought, remember that Jesus himself said in John 17:3 And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. It all starts right here. And ultimately God’s will is that we love like He loves. 

So Jesus’ purpose in fulfilling the Law and the Prophets is to show us how to live in God’s kingdom right here, with the door wide open for anyone else to come in. This goes against our natural tendency, and we’re not alone.

In the Old Testament, the prophet Jonah got mad at God for his “open door” policy. He didn’t want the Ninevites to be accepted by God. In the New Testament, there were those who tried to impose circumcision according to Jewish law on Gentiles who were coming into the kingdom. Paul told them Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. (Gal 6:15) .  Peter had a vision from God during his prayer time on a roof, where God lowered a sheet in front of him with all kinds of “unclean” animals on it and told Peter to kill and eat them. Peter said: “Surely not, Lord…I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” To which God replied (3 times) “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10: 14-15) . Peter could have refused–after all, his tradition and the law he had grown up with taught him that to touch unclean things was a sin–yet here was the living God saying–nope. It’s not about that.

Shortly after the vision, Peter had the opportunity to share the love of Jesus with a group of Gentiles.  Peter’s takeaway:  I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism…And it wasn’t just Peter that was blown away by God’s acceptance of outsiders: The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. (Taken from Acts 10: 44-48)

So, what are the Law and the Prophets that Jesus came to fulfill? They are certainly not tablets of stone. The Lord tells us through the prophet Jeremiah: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jer. 31:33)  And through the Prophet Ezekiel he says: And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh. (Ez. 11:19)  And the Apostle Paul, writing to the church in Corinth says: You show that you are a letter from Christ…written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (2 Cor 3:3)

Let’s be “one-hearted” letters of Christ to the world. What would the heart of the living fulfillment of the law and the prophets in Christ say to them? Who would it include? How would it be presented? Would we, like Peter’s companions, be astonished at who God welcomes, or do we know that the fulfillment of the law and the prophets means everyone, exactly as they are, can enter in?

–Luanne

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Lent: Rescue Through Deliverance

Pastor John has been taking us on a journey through this Lenten season, a journey of rescue. We have looked at how the rescuing love of God pursues us and rescues extravagantly, radically, and personally. This week we heard about how the rescuing love of God brings deliverance when we are enslaved.

Our passage this week is Exodus 6:6-7:

Therefore tell the Israelites: “I am God. I will bring you out from under the cruel hard labor of Egypt. I will rescue you from slavery. I will redeem you, intervening with great acts of judgment. I’ll take you as my own people and I’ll be God to you. You’ll know that I am God, your God who brings you out from under the cruel hard labor of Egypt.” (MSG)

The Israelites were slaves in a foreign land. Pastor John told us that to be a slave to the Egyptians was to be completely stripped of one’s dignity; it was as though even their rights to be seen as a person were removed. They were living—calling it “living” is a stretch—in a land they were not created for. They were far from home. They were seen as less than human and they began to forget their identity. They forgot that they bore the Imago Dei–the very image of God.

Sometimes we forget that, too.

We are all image-bearers of our Creator. Every one of us who has ever lived and will ever live bears the image of the one who made us. Everyone. Full stop.

When we meet the love of Jesus, the image of God comes alive in us. It changes how we think, what we say, what we do, how we see, and—more than anything else—how we love. As we grow in him, we begin to look more like him. We follow in the steps of our self-emptying God and as we are emptied of ourselves, we become like Jesus.

But sometimes we lose our way.

Sometimes the pull of power, fame, wealth, safety, health, security—all branches of the tree of selfish ambition—feel too strong for us to resist. Instead of emptying ourselves to be filled up with the Spirit and her kingdom fruits, we gorge ourselves on the bread of self-indulgence and find ourselves enslaved in a land we weren’t made for. This land erects walls around us, holding us hostage to the god of consumerism, conquering us with promises of safety, getting us drunk on the wine of power and wealth. The walls keep rising, holding us captive, blinding us to what lies just beyond. The pace keeps quickening, we’re out of breath; our gods demand more and more from us as we become further enslaved to them. They stuff us full of lies and strip us of our hope. The noise level keeps rising, the cacophony is maddening—

Until, suddenly, a voice breaks through…

“The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Exodus 14:14, NIV)

“I will rescue you…I will redeem you…” (from Exodus 6:6-7)

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you [from captivity]; I have called you by name; you are Mine!” (Isaiah 43:1b, AMP)

The walls fall, the mountains crumble. The gods who held us captive are nowhere to be found.

It is silent.

All that exists is us and the God who pursues us even when our mouths are too full of our own gluttony to utter a single cry for help. The rescuing, radical, extravagant love of God comes to us personally to deliver us from our bondage—whatever that bondage might be. Because that’s what love does. That’s Who love is.

We are in a unique season, all of us. It looks different depending on our physical locations in the world, but the whole of humanity is experiencing this tragedy together. We are finding ourselves more isolated and less connected in spaces where there is less noise. We are being forced to slow down. . .

When we pause, when we get quiet, hidden things can rise to the surface. Tragedy, crisis, fear, grief—when imposed upon us, these things can be very revealing. Our response to them can uncover our bondage. Many of us may be coming face-to-face with the truth of what we have been enslaved to, the things that have tried to crush the image of God out of us.

It can be hard to face the truth. But Jesus is the author of truth. He is the truth that sets us free. And when we look into his face, we see eyes of compassion, eyes that weep with us, that see into our darkest corners and choose to look at what they find there. Eyes that reflect into our own the truth of who we are–if we have the courage to behold him, to look up at the one who always comes for us.

There are some suggesting that God shut down the stadiums, the concert venues, the economy, even our churches because we made idols of celebrities, money, and leaders, because we worshiped them instead of him. There are voices yelling loudly of God’s jealousy and refusal to come second in our lives, saying that what the world is experiencing is a result of our wickedness and idolatry. There is more being said, words that point a finger at certain people groups and wag it hard in judgement of specific sins. I won’t repeat some of what I’ve heard and read because I don’t want to further spread the hate and arrogance that sometimes masquerades as righteousness. There are many voices clamoring to be heard–theories abound and flourish in the fertile soil of fear.

I can’t subscribe to the picture of God these assertions paint.

I can, however, run into the open, welcoming arms of the God who is weeping with a hurting world, speaking peace to anxious hearts, standing by the bedside of those dying alone, and guiding the minds and hands of those providing care. I can trust the God who, as Pastor John said Sunday, can bring beauty, goodness, and wholeness from even the worst of circumstances. This God—the God I know is kind and good and full of compassion. He pursues us with a reckless love and brings us tenderly back into his arms while we still reek of the perfume of other lovers.

He comes to us in our bondage and he is relentless and extravagant with his love until we are freed. When nobody else can see us, he sees. When no one wants us, he would do anything to win our hearts back. When we are afraid and enslaved to gods of our own making, he doesn’t send plagues to set us straight, he tells us we need only be still and fear not—he is with us. All of us. He can’t bear the thought of losing even one, because his radical, rescuing, extravagant love is a personal love, strong enough to deliver us from anything. Anything. Even ourselves…

–Laura

Laura emphasizes an excellent point– one that I want to begin with. God is not cruel. God is not mad, and [God] comes to us in our bondage and he is relentless and extravagant with his love until we are freed.

God. Is. Love (1st John 4:8)   

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 upLove never stops loving. (1st Corinthians 13:4-8 TPT)

God. Is. Love.

Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. (Colossians 1:15) Jesus is love. 

AND… as Laura reminded us above…Jesus is truth (John 14:6) and, through knowing Jesus, we can know the truth and the truth will set us free. (John 8:32) Jesus will set us free.

The above truths are what everything else I write today will be founded upon: Jesus is God, God is love, God’s love looks like 1st Corinthians 13, and Jesus (THE Truth) sets us free. 

Let’s go back to Exodus 6 and the situation of slavery that God’s people had suffered under for 400 years. Was it God’s fault that the Israelites were slaves, or was it because the human heart, when left to its own ways leans toward oppression, acquisition, control, and violence? I believe it’s the latter.

So, Exodus 6 begins with God introducing himself to Moses, who’s been in exile for a number of years because he killed an Egyptian who was beating an Israelite putting his own life in danger so he ran away. (Using violence to solve violence doesn’t lead to good outcomes). Yet, God, who is love, comes to this exiled murderer and introduces himself, then invites Moses to be the leader of Israel’s deliverance. Moses’ first commission as deliverer is to relay a message to the Israelites, the message of Exodus 6:6-7 that Laura wrote out above. In that message God says:

I am the Lord…

I will bring you out…

I will deliver you from slavery…

I will redeem you…

I will take you to be mine…

I will be your God…

You will know I am the Lord your God…

You will know I brought you out from under your burdens…

Moses delivered the message, and the Israelites “did not listen to him because of their discouragement and harsh labor.” (Ex. 6:9)

If we’re familiar with the story, we know that things got even harder for the Israelites, but eventually they were set free and Moses led them; however, there were still obstacles, still hardships, still uncertainty, still foes and battles, still fear–so much so that at one point the people wanted to choose a new leader and go back to Egypt. (Numbers 14:4) . Slavery felt safer, slavery felt more certain, at least as slaves they knew what to expect, and I think they had forgotten what bondage felt like.

We can scoff at that mindset until we realize we have it too. In the Exodus rescue, an entire people group, a nation, was being set free. Nations are made up of individuals, and as Moses, Joshua and Caleb demonstrate, there were those in the people group who trusted God and wanted to follow God’s ways, and others who weren’t. As we move through the Old Testament, we see over and over that when the nation (or the kings) got enamored with wealth, power, acquisition–or when there was no king and “the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.” (Judges 17:6 & 21:25), God raised up a prophet to draw the people’s hearts back to their loving, rescuing God. Over and over the people (as a whole) ignored the prophets, imprisoned the prophets, killed the prophets, and continued their self-sufficient, self-destructive pursuits, which led them into bondage, and over and over, God embraced them with his love and rescued them.

Finally, the ultimate rescue came when God almighty clothed himself in flesh, and lived on earth as one of us. Jesus showed us what God looks like. Jesus showed us what God acts like. Jesus shows us how God sees. Jesus shows us how God loves, and Jesus laid down his life, conquered death and through his resurrection established his people, his kingdom, his nation. Brian Zahnd, in his book The Unvarnished Jesus, says of the crucifixion: “The cross refounds the world. When we see Jesus lifted up on the cross, perfectly displaying the love of God by forgiving the sin of the world, we find the place where human society is reorganized. Instead of a world organized around an axis of power enforced by violence, we discover a world organized around an axis of love expressed in forgiveness.”

Jesus and his ways reorganize society around an axis of love. Those of us who identify with Christ are no longer citizens of the world, we are citizens of the kingdom of God and yet, we are (I am)  drawn to the systems and structures of the world. They feel more certain. We know what to expect. And most of the time, we (I) don’t even realize the bondage we’ve placed ourselves in, the axis on which we’re spinning–until we’re faced with huge uncertainty.

So here we are, in unprecedented times. There is a global pandemic taking place. All over the world people are quarantining, people are without paychecks, some have lost their jobs, some have lost their health, some have lost their lives. Others are risking their lives on the front lines without the protective equipment that they need, or the medical equipment they need to keep people alive. In some nations, lives are being valued over the economy. In others, the economy is being valued over lives. There are those who believe the virus is a political ploy. There are those who believe the virus can be blamed on a certain ethnic group, and conclude that people of that ethnicity should be mistreated. There are those trying to control what they can, and there are those taking their own lives because things feel so out of control. There are those desperately trying to maintain life as normal, there are those numbing out in order to keep fear at bay, and there are those living in so much fear that they can’t eat or sleep. There are those, like my middle child’s dear friend, who have loved ones (his mother) in the hospital alone fighting for her life, and the isolation and grief they are both experiencing at not being able to be together. So what do we, the people of the kingdom of God, who live right here on the “foreign soil” of planet earth do?

First, we need to seek our hearts and ask the Holy Spirit what earthly things we’re clinging to, what is holding us captive? In the USA, we have printed on our currency “In God We Trust”. Do we? Or do we trust the currency on which that’s written?  I’m not going to lie–I struggle here. I’ve been breathing consumeristic, capitalistic air my whole life. Success in this nation is defined by possessions, or at the very least, being able to pay our own bills so that we don’t have to be dependent upon anyone else, which leads to another thing we may cling to…

Self-sufficiency. We admire the “self-made man”, the rags to riches stories. Independence and “I did it my way” are things we value. Interdependence causes us to feel weak; we don’t like that, and yet the system in God’s kingdom is extremely interdependent as we each offer our gifts to one another, pray for one another, share in each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and work together to establish God’s kingdom on earth.

We excel at “doing” rather than “being”. We’re not good at stillness. We go, go, go and rarely take time to sit and be. When we sit, we watch TV, scroll through our social media accounts, read books, text. We run from being alone with ourselves, and from being alone with God.  Even our “godly” focus on others can be a way to deflect from ourselves. You all, I’m not pointing fingers…I do this. And this week, I was stopped in my tracks.

A friend sent me a 15-minute meditation to listen to. As I listened to the encouragement to face my fears, let them go, and sit in the safety of Love, I could feel discomfort rising in me. I wanted to push it away, to move onto something else but chose to sit with it. I asked God to show me my deepest fears. He did. Pain. Loss. Suffering.  Mine, yours, the world’s. Many of you know that I lost my mother to cancer when I was eleven. That type of loss at that age wreaks havoc on one’s ability to feel safe–it’s like a gut punch that causes one’s mind to bend toward worst-case scenario thinking. It also makes one more apt to try to run from grief–which never works. The more we (I) run, the tighter the chains of bondage become. They can take the form of self-destruction or self-absorption;  of anger or denial; of clinging too hard to others, or not clinging to others at all; of blame or resignation; of living by our emotions, or numbing our emotions, and a myriad of other coping strategies.

So what do we do?  We acknowledge those things and turn from those ways. We seek the face of God (2nd Chronicles 7:14). When we seek God’s face, we look right into the face of Jesus who stood outside the tomb of his dear friend Lazarus, knowing full well that he was about to bring Lazarus back to life, and he wept, actually sobbed with real tears, and entered into the grief of those mourning. Jesus did not deny their pain, just like Jesus did not deny his own wrestling and anguish in the garden of Gethsemane. He felt pain deeply. He never called anyone faithless for grieving.

He also continued to minister in the midst of pain.

In the account of Lazarus, Jesus brought him back to life–can you imagine the rejoicing that ensued? In his own life, Jesus experienced death, conquered death and came back to life, providing us the opportunity to live in the power of his resurrection both here on earth and for eternity–that’s reason to rejoice– but not reason to ignore.

My counselor taught me a few years ago,  that life happens in the tension of the “and”.  This season is full of “ands”.  I’m enjoying a slower life pace, and I am deeply aware of the seriousness of the situation we are in. I am a deeply committed follower of Jesus and I have fear and doubts. I have full faith to believe that God can heal and I am fully aware that God works on God’s timetable, and sometimes healing doesn’t mean what I want it to mean. I have no doubt that God could wipe out the virus in a millisecond and I am aware that we are facing a global pandemic that God hasn’t wiped out yet. I know that there is truth in the statement that we are safe in God’s love, and I don’t always feel like God’s love is safe, at least not the way I define safety.

Therefore, it’s wise to acknowledge the ands, feel what we need to feel, move through our wrestling by wrestling, then land on the things that we know are true. God is love. God is good. God meets us where we are without condemnation. God doesn’t mind our questions. God is okay with our wrestling. God joins us in our suffering. God joins us in our laughter. And in the midst of it all, as we seek His face, God gives us the opportunity to join Him in his loving work of rescuing, redeeming, suffering with, laughing with, praying for and embracing the world as we allow God to embrace us. In this way, a nation–a world, can be saved.

–Luanne

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Lent: A Personal Rescue

I find it incredible, that a few months before our world was facing a global pandemic, God had placed on the heart of Pastor John a series of messages that would lead us to Easter Sunday; the subject of the messages–our rescuing God.  The timing of yesterday’s message was mind-boggling.  Yesterday was the second Sunday that we were unable to physically gather together as a congregation. Many of us have been home for at least a week. None of us know how long the pandemic will last. We all have questions, we all have fears, we all face this uncertainty. As we hear the pleas from our medical community to isolate ourselves, as we hear from leaders of other nations who beg us to pay attention and slow the spread of the pandemic, the reality of what we’re facing slowly begins to trickle in. It is at this time, and in this series of messages, that this particular message of rescue and hope just so happened to fall.

In the beautiful book of Ruth, we learn that a severe famine had taken place in Judah.  Elimelek and his family lived in Bethlehem. As the famine continued to wreak havoc on the land, Elimelek moved his wife (Naomi) and two sons (Mahlon and Kilion) to the country of Moab. While in Moab, Elimelek died. Naomi was a widow–a very difficult thing for a woman in that time to be; however, she had two sons who could care for her so her situation was not hopeless. Her sons married Moabite women (I wonder if that was hard for Naomi?), and they lived in Moab for about ten years. Scripture doesn’t tell us how, but we learn that after about ten years, both of Naomi’s sons die, leaving her with no men to provide for and protect her and her two daughters-in-law.

I’m sure this was a season of intense grief, fear, and uncertainty. I think we can place ourselves much more easily in Naomi’s shoes given our current situation.

Somehow, Naomi gets word that the famine in Judah has ended, so she makes the choice to go back. She and her daughters-in-law (Orpah and Ruth) begin to head toward Judah, when Naomi stops and encourages Orpah and Ruth not to go with her. (Is this because she never felt fully at home in Moab and didn’t want her daughters-in-law to experience the same thing in her home culture?) She had great fondness for these young ladies and said to [them}, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me.  May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” (Ruth 1:8-9). 

After many tears, and much persuasion, Orpah returns back to Moab, and Ruth clings to Naomi and says, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. (Ruth 1:16-18)

We learn that the people in Bethlehem are surprised when Naomi returns; I don’t think they expected to see her again. We also learn the state of Naomi’s heart. She tells the women of Bethlehem, “Don’t call me Naomi,” … “Call me Mara, [Mara means bitter], because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.  I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (1:20-21)

Two women–no husbands, no sons, no income, no home; destitute. And this is where the story of living life according to the principles of God’s kingdom, and the effect that kind of life has on others begins to be seen.

In chapter two we learn that Elimelek had a wealthy relative named Boaz. We also learn that Ruth was willing to “go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.” (2:2) . This was a practice called gleaning. Leviticus 19:9-10 lays out God’s purpose and plan for this practice:

“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.”

God, in God’s beautiful, extravagant, generous ways laid out a plan for taking care of the poor and the foreigner way back in the days of Moses. God doesn’t qualify this by saying, if you are rich and your field is this size then I want you to leave food for the poor and foreigner. He just says–when you reap your harvest, leave some. As I type this out, I think of all the current news reports of empty toilet paper shelves, of no food, of medical people lacking supplies, of snarky shoppers, and it grieves my heart. As of today, our supply chain is still working, truckers are still getting supplies to stores. If those who have financial means continue to overbuy leaving nothing for those who can only buy a little at a time, we are not caring for the least of these. I hope people are overbuying in order to share with others. Lord Jesus, give us your heart!

Ruth begins to glean in Boaz’s field. He arrives on the scene, notices her and asks about her and learns,  “She is the Moabite who came back from Moab with Naomi.  She said, ‘Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the harvesters.’ She came into the field and has remained here from morning till now, except for a short rest in the shelter.” (2:6-7)

Boaz (the wealthy landowner) approaches Ruth and says to her: “My daughter, listen to me. Don’t go and glean in another field and don’t go away from here. Stay here with the women who work for me. Watch the field where the men are harvesting, and follow along after the women. I have told the men not to lay a hand on you. And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled.” (2:8-9) . 

Boaz doesn’t send someone else with the message. He, himself, goes to her. Not only does he tell her that she is welcome to glean in his field, but he also lets her know that he has told the men to leave her alone and she is welcome to get water when she’s thirsty from the jars the men have filled. He is providing for her and protecting her.

I wish I had time to post in the rest of Chapter 2. It’s so beautiful! Basically, Ruth is astonished that Boaz has taken any time to notice her because she is a foreigner and of lesser social standing than his servants. Boaz recognizes the sacrifice that Ruth made to take care of her mother-in-law, including leaving her land, her people, and recognizes that she has chosen to make God her refuge. His kindness puts her at ease (2:13). That’s what kindness does–kindness welcomes.

Boaz continues to provide for Ruth, making sure that she is well-fed, that she has leftovers, and that she knows she is welcome to come back to his fields.

When Ruth arrives home, Naomi is shocked at the food Ruth brings home and asks where she gleaned. Ruth informs her that she was in Boaz’s fields. Naomi speaks blessing over Boaz because he is their “kinsman-redeemer”, and encourages Ruth to continue to glean in his fields because she might be harmed in another’s field. Again, we see that the character of Boaz is not the character of everyone–he is a man who has chosen God’s principles. Ruth gleans in his fields until the barley and wheat harvests were complete.

The concept “kinsman-redeemer” comes from Leviticus 25:25:If one of your fellow Israelites becomes poor and sells some of their property, their nearest relative is to come and redeem what they have sold.”  This concept is so crazy! Let’s say I have to sell my house in order to survive. I sell it to some random person. My kinsman-redeemer would buy my house back from that random person and give it back to me. If no one has the means to be my kinsman-redeemer, when the Year of Jubilee comes (every 50 years, but never actually done), all property is returned to its original owner for free. Ponder what that indicates about the principles of the Kingdom of God for a minute. Can you imagine what the world would be like if all of humanity functioned like that–if even the people who follow Jesus functioned like that? In the Kingdom of heaven, there is always enough for everyone as long as we choose to live generously.

There is so much more to this beautiful story–Boaz follows every step correctly and eventually becomes Ruth’s husband. They have a son who becomes the grandfather of King David. Jesus is born out of that lineage, and Ruth, the redeemed destitute foreigner is one of the five women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus.  (Mt. 1:5)

What can we take away from this beautiful story of personal rescue that is relevant to us today?

  1. Jesus is our ultimate kinsman-redeemer; he rescued us, he restores our lives, gives us purpose, loves us unconditionally, teaches us to love others with the same love we’ve received, and shows us what it means to be a citizen of, and advance his kingdom right here on planet earth.
  2. Naomi and Ruth show us that despite life’s hardships, God sees us, he is with us, he knows our sorrow, he knows our fears, he does not leave us alone.
  3. Boaz shows us that we may be the answer to someone else’s prayers. We may be exactly who God wants to use to show someone else that God sees them, is with them, provides for them, loves them.
  4. The whole story reminds us that God rescues and redeems, that God loves, that God cares for all humanity and desires that we care for one another, no matter who the other is.

God is with us in this season of uncertainty and fear. There will be days when I am strong and can come alongside you. There will days when I am filled with fear and anxiety and you can come alongside me. There will be those in our midst who will need physical provision, financial provision, messages of hope, and the assurance that they are not alone, even while we are unable to “be” with one another.

There is much opportunity, during this time to enter in…

–Luanne

I can think of no better place to start than by asking you to scroll up and read Luanne’s last paragraph again. She identifies in her beautiful words what sat at the forefront of my mind after listening to Sunday’s message. These stories of personal rescue encourage us to recognize that, as Luanne wrote in point number 3 above, “…we may be the answer to someone else’s prayers. We may be exactly who God wants to use to show someone else that God sees them, is with them, provides for them, loves them.”

I see a few different examples of personal rescue in the captivating book of Ruth. Luanne detailed the way Boaz, as kinsman-redeemer, rescued the two widowed women–how kingdom principles are evidenced in his words and actions throughout, and how he foreshadows the coming Redeemer in many ways.

There is also the personal rescue of Naomi–beyond being a beneficiary of Boaz rescuing Ruth. I believe Ruth rescued Naomi, too. What if she hadn’t clung to her and insisted on staying with her? What would her fate have been? Upon arrival back in her homeland, she would have still had the opportunity to sell her late husband’s land, but their family name would have died forever. We don’t know what life would have looked like for Naomi had Ruth gone home to her own family. What we do know paints a picture so lovely it makes me cry, and it leads me to ask some questions about how we engage with one another–especially now.

Has anyone ever “clung” to you the way Ruth clung to Naomi? Has there been someone in your life–not bound by law or obligation–who has loved you this way? Someone who has said, “I’m here. I’m staying. There is nothing you can do or say that will make me walk away from you.” And then… they actually stayed? Stood by their word no matter what? Continued to walk with you, pursue you, love you well–even when you’ve pushed them away? Has someone loved you that much? Have you loved others that way?

While I pondered the relationship between these women, lyrics from J.J. Heller’s song, “The Best Thing” came to mind. The second verse begins with these words:

If I ever show my face
Nothing left to hide behind
Would anybody stay right here with me no matter what they find...

We all want to be loved like that, don’t we? Chosen for exactly who we are. Worth enough that someone would choose to stay. Period. Ruth chose Naomi. Knowing it meant becoming a foreigner in an unfamiliar place, facing possible mistreatment, with no guarantees of provision. She said to Naomi, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried…” (Ruth 1:16-17)

What kind of love does that? What kind of love is willing to go anywhere and adapt in whatever ways may be necessary?

The kind of love that rescues us from ourselves…

Let me unpack what I mean by that. Upon returning Naomi told the people not to call her by her name. She says, “Call me Mara, [Mara means bitter], because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.  I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (1:20-21)

She returned bitter and empty, and she believed that the Lord was to blame for her misfortune, that he had afflicted her. I’ll interject here that there are some who are saying that COVID-19 is an affliction from the Lord, that God is angry and is punishing the wickedness of humanity. Just as that assumption was not true for Naomi, it is not true for us today. Scripture tells us “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and that, “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). Jesus himself says in John 14:9, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the father…” The heart of God was revealed in the person of Jesus–Jesus the healer, the redeemer, the restorer, the shepherd. He came not to condemn the world and judge humanity, he came to rescue! (John 3:17) Pain and loss, though, can lead us all to believe things that aren’t true–about ourselves, others, and about God. Naomi was grieving and as we read her raw lament, we are invited to experience and empathize with the depth of her sorrow. If Ruth had not returned with her, the story likely would have ended there. She would have gone home, bitter and alone. And she would have died there, likely still bitter, with no heir to carry on her husband’s name.

Fortunately, that is not where the story ended. Because Ruth did go with her. And she did not simply go back with her. She did what she said she would do and she stayed with her. She didn’t have to. We can see this in chapter 3, when Boaz found Ruth laying at his feet. When he heard her request, he replied, “The Lord bless you, my daughter! You are showing even more family loyalty now than you did before, for you have not gone after a younger man, whether rich or poor.” 

She could have gone after another. From the content in the book’s four chapters, we can gather that she was a young, desirable woman. She could have tried to catch the eye of another, in which case any children would have been the heirs of another family. But her love and commitment to Naomi remained her priority.

The end of chapter 4 reveals to us how Ruth’s love rescued Naomi from her bitterness, from herself:

So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When he made love to her, the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. The women said to Naomi: “Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.” Then Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him. The women living there said, “Naomi has a son!” And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.” (Ruth 4:13-17, NIV)

Ruth clung to Naomi, refused to leave her, accompanied her as a foreigner, loved her in her bitterness and followed her instructions. She worked and provided food for the two of them and then she pursued and married the man who could carry on the family name. She had a baby that the women of their community called Naomi’s son. The text tells us that Naomi took the baby in her arms and cared for him. I don’t know what that means entirely. But I know that the community identified how much Ruth loved her mother-in-law and credited her as having more value to Naomi than seven sons. That is a huge deal, especially in their time.

Boaz, as kinsman-redeemer, certainly provided a personal rescue to both women. But without Ruth, Naomi’s rescue would have been incomplete. Boaz likely would have purchased the land had Naomi come back home alone. But because of Ruth’s love and commitment, Naomi’s bitterness was turned to joy, and her family had an heir to carry on their name.

Pastor John mentioned on Sunday that before this virus, we all needed rescuing in one way or another. For some that need was financial, for some relational, for others it was health related. He emphasized that we were all already facing something. We already needed rescuing. And then we found ourselves in a world we no longer recognize with challenges we never imagined we would face. If we needed rescue before, we really need it now. But how do we help each other from a distance? How do we cling to each other and allow others to cling to us with the kind of love that Ruth showed Naomi?

Love that is willing to go anywhere, to adapt to any environment doesn’t necessarily look the same as it did in this week’s story. It can’t look like that–especially now. But what we saw in Ruth is what it looks like when we say yes to Jesus living through us. Through our words, our hands, our feet. Through our consideration of one another, our compassion, our faithfulness. When we feel like we can’t hang on to one other, can’t reach out again, Jesus moves through us to continue to pursue and stay with each other.

I’ve been blessed with a few who have stayed with me, who have chosen to love me and refuse to walk away. They have rescued me more times than they’ll ever know and been Jesus to me in ways that bring tears to my eyes even now. I count them among my most precious gifts and I know that they have saved me from myself–from my own bitterness and grief–like Ruth did for Naomi. And there are a few I have “clung” to who have allowed me to stay with them and love them in that same way. This gift is equally precious, to be allowed to journey alongside another so intimately.

To stay with each other–whatever that requires–that is how we continue to be agents of rescue in one another’s lives. It’s how the personal, rescuing love of Jesus looks lived out in the kingdom he established on earth. How do we do that now, during a worldwide pandemic? I’ll remind us again of what Luanne wrote above:

There will be days when I am strong and can come alongside you. There will be days when I am filled with fear and anxiety and you can come alongside me. There will be those in our midst who will need physical provision, financial provision, messages of hope, and the assurance that they are not alone, even while we are unable to “be” with one another.

This is how we “cling” to each other now. Is it harder to do while we’re stuck at home? Maybe… But maybe not. We have been given a gift of time in these days. Time to re-prioritize, to slow down, to let those we love know how much we love them. We have time to remember how to love Jesus’ way. We all need someone to come along and say, “I’ve got you.” God loves to say that to each of us through the love of one another. May we be open enough to both cling and be clung to, to love deeply and extravagantly however Jesus leads us in these days.

Luanne told us there is much opportunity during this time to enter in… I hope we all will lean in to each opportunity. We’ve never needed each other more. Prayers and blessings to each one of you, friends.

Until next week…

Laura

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Teach Me to Serve

What comes to mind when you hear the word serve? What about when you hear it at church? What if it is coming out of your pastor’s mouth from the pulpit? We heard the word come out of Pastor John’s mouth more than a few times on Sunday, as our second installment in our “Teach Me” series centered on serving. What does it really mean to serve, and what does it require of us? Pastor John began by telling us that this is not about shaming or “should-ing”; it is not a manipulative tactic to get any of us to do more or be better or give extra. This is about understanding what serving really is, as well as what it is not.

The text we looked at in this week’s message was Joshua 24:1-24. I’ve included verses 14-18 from that passage below:

“Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Then the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord to serve other gods! It was the Lord our God himself who brought us and our parents up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we traveled. And the Lord drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God.”

The people responded to Joshua, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord and to serve other gods!” We know, as Joshua did, that it is not far from any of us to reach for, follow and, ultimately, worship (give our attention, focus, devotion and love to) other gods. We will all serve someone or something. Our hearts are wired to worship and if our hearts are not set on our God, they will be set on something—or someone–else.

Pastor John told us that serving is not an obligation, it is an expression of gratitude for all that God has done. God has already given us everything. He didn’t give us life and love and gifts with strings attached. He has called us his beloved children, lavished his unconditional love upon us, and wired into each of us many different gifts and abilities. There is no catch, nothing that removes our identities, his love, or our gifts if we don’t serve him the way he wants. That’s not who our God is—that’s not who he has ever been. If we feel manipulated or made to do certain acts of service or reach a certain level of giving, those are either constraints we have put on ourselves or demands and expectations put on us by others—sometimes by churches. God doesn’t place expectations on us, though. God invites.

What exactly does God invite us into? Wholehearted, focused kingdom living. Pastor John pointed out that we cannot serve if we are divided and distracted, if our attention is split between God and our other gods. We can look like we’re serving, but our hearts will give us away every time…

Psalm 86:11 says, “Teach me your way, Lord, that I may rely on your faithfulness;
give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.” (NIV)

And Matthew 6:24 reminds us, “How could you worship two gods at the same time? You will have to hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other…” (TPT)

Pastor John referred to the story of Nehemiah that we touched on last week to give us an example of what it looks like to serve with undivided focus, with hearts set on a call—however unreasonable and impossible that call might seem at the time. We don’t know if Nehemiah had the skills needed to rebuild the walls, but we do know that he was determined to do what God placed on his heart to do. He faced opposition and distraction, but he remained focused on the task at hand. And because he was focused, he was able to see deception when it came his direction. He was wholeheartedly devoted–and it protected him from a multitude of attacks and schemes.

This is an important point. Nehemiah saw the deception because he was focused. We cannot see what is in front of us if we’re not focused. Just as our unfocused eyes cannot clearly see even what is right in front of us, unfocused hearts cannot discern with any clarity what is coming our way. If our attention is split in different directions, the eyes of our hearts will be blurred by the whiplash caused by being pulled this way and that. Nehemiah’s heart was whole, set on his God, and so he was wholly focused on the work he needed to do. He made a choice, and he was committed to seeing it through.

Ultimately, serving is a choice. As I wrote earlier, God invites us to serve. Then he leaves it up to us. In our passage, Joshua says to the people, ”…choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…” (from Joshua 24:16). Where will we place our focus, attention, worship, and love? Whatever and whoever our hearts love, we will serve. God wants our whole hearts, he wants us to live fruitful lives in service to his kingdom, and he wants to infuse our serving with impact and growth that will bear good fruit, but he won’t make us do it his way. We are the wielders of our own willingness. God won’t force us into submission. But he wants so much for us to grow into our healthiest, most whole selves.

Beth Moore, in the introduction to her latest book, Chasing Vines, writes:

“God wants you to flourish in Him. Every last thing He plants in your life is intended for that purpose. If we give ourselves fully to His faithful ways, mysterious and painful though they may be at times, we will find that it’s all part of the process that enables us to grow and bear fruit… And so we find ourselves at a crossroads. If we have guts enough to believe that we were created by God to flourish in Christ, we have a choice to make. Will we sit idly by and wait for it to happen, as if our cooperation isn’t part of the process? Or will we set out, light on our feet, with hearts ablaze, and give chase to this call to flourish?”

How is serving connected to flourishing? When we are filled with gratitude for all that God has done and we have learned to trust him with our lives, that gratitude produces joy, and joy inspires us to share, to give, and to serve. Serving from a place of deep love and joy creates new life and bears good fruit.

And we already know the model friends…

When Jesus called out to his disciples, “Come, follow me,” what was he inviting them into? What example did he give them to follow? He was inviting them—and us—to follow him into a life of self-giving love in service of the kingdom of God, to follow him into places that are unsafe among people who are sometimes unlovely. This is one of Jesus’ invitations to learn from him:

 “Are you weary, carrying a heavy burden? Then come to me. I will refresh your life, for I am your oasis. Simply join your life with mine. Learn my ways and you’ll discover that I’m gentle, humble, easy to please. You will find refreshment and rest in me. For all that I require of you will be pleasant and easy to bear.” (Matthew 11:28-30, TPT)

Join our life with his.

Learn his ways.

He is gentle and not difficult to please.

All that he requires of us will not be hard for us to bear...

This passage is not saying that everything that happens to us will be pleasant and easy, that our lives will be carefree. But it does tell us that Jesus is our life-giver and he wants to teach us his kingdom ways. We’ll find in him no sense of obligation or expectations; he won’t ever manipulate our affections. He will be our place of refuge and will teach us how to live refreshed in him. What is required?

That we come to him. That we follow him and seek to learn.

This takes willingness, vulnerability, flexibility in our “plans.” It may mean that we relinquish our vision of how things ought to be in order to adapt his vision—and we may have to do that over and over again as we journey with him. It will definitely require that we recall what we have learned about how to trust.

If we come to Jesus in this way, we won’t have to try to cultivate wholehearted focus. If we watch him, learn from him, follow him, we will be completely captivated by this One who came to serve–not to be served–that we won’t be able to stop ourselves from falling in love. He is that good, and his ways are that compelling. We will find these things for ourselves if we’ll simply make the choice to come. We all get to choose this day who we will serve, dear friends. May we choose well…

–Laura

Choose this day whom you will serve; as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. 

Joshua 24: 15 is written on plaques and hung on walls, written on garden stones and placed in yards, even stuck to the back of cars. We make declarations, buy reminders, and then forget what we’ve pledged to do. As Joshua was reminding the people of God’s incredible faithfulness, as he was making his declaration that he and his household would serve the Lord, he implored the Israelites to make a choice. As Laura reminded us above, the people responded that they would choose the Lord. They said emphatically: We will serve the Lord. However, just a few verses later, Joshua says to them: “throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” (24:23)

That struck me as I listened to Pastor John’s sermon. The people had been delivered from slavery in Egypt. They had wandered in the wilderness for 40 years with the Lord providing for all their needs. They had faced opposition. They had experienced the Lord’s deliverance time and time again. Yet, after all this time, with their feet finally in the land that was promised to them, and with, what I believe was sincerity of heart, they expressed a desire to serve the Lord, so Joshua reality checked them and reminded them that they still had foreign gods in their possession. They’d carried them for years.

It’s easy to point fingers at the Israelites; it’s more difficult to self-reflect and see what false gods we carry with us.

Laura wrote above: …serving is not an obligation, it is an expression of gratitude for all that God has done. God has already given us everything. He didn’t give us life and love and gifts with strings attached. He has called us his beloved children, lavished his unconditional love upon us, and wired into each of us many different gifts and abilities. There is no catch, nothing that removes our identities, his love, or our gifts if we don’t serve him the way he wants. That’s not who our God is—that’s not who he has ever been. If we feel manipulated or made to do certain acts of service or reach a certain level of giving, those are either constraints we have put on ourselves or demands and expectations put on us by others… God doesn’t place expectations on us… God invites.

We are invited into a beautiful life of Christ-likeness, of service, of gratitude. Yet, we sometimes get this confused. We place expectations on God. We misunderstand who God is, how gentle God is, how inviting God is. We forget that God loves us fully, completely, unconditionally. We try to earn God’s pleasure (or stuff) by striving, or by bartering. My relationship with God functioned like that for a very long time–and then God pointedly, but lovingly showed me the system I had created. He brought me face to face with my incredibly mixed motives in serving Him.

I was in my late twenties. Two of my three children were born. My husband had completed seminary and had been called to serve as youth pastor in a church in the Atlanta area. I wanted to begin establishing relationships with people in the church, so I joined a small group study of Henry Blackaby’s Experiencing God. A few weeks into that study, I was at home lying on the sofa and God met me there. He showed me that I had set up my entire relationship with Him as a barter system. He revealed that my mindset (heart-set), was…Okay, God…I’ll do such and such for you if you promise me that I won’t get cancer and die while my children are young (like my mom did). Okay, God…I’ll do such and such for you if you promise me that John will not die and he’ll be able to provide for us and take care of us. Okay, God…I’ll do such and such for you, if you promise me that my children will be healthy and I won’t lose any of them…Okay, God…I’ll do such and such for you if…

Ugh. When God showed me this, I knew he was right…and I also knew that I wanted guarantees from him. I knew God was asking me to surrender it all, but I wanted God to do this my way. I wanted safety. I wanted my children safe, I wanted my husband safe, my provision safe, I wanted me safe. I was carrying the false god of safety and security and had been bowing to it for a lot of years. I wasn’t ready to give it up. So, I wrestled, I cried, I begged God to promise me the things I wanted. He was not cooperating. I knew that he wanted me to surrender it all to him, including my kids, without any guarantees of safety and security…nope!

When our group met the following week, the leader asked if any of us had anything to share. I had no intention of talking about the wrestling match I was in. I was a new “staff wife” and needed to have it all together (or so I thought). Much to my dismay, I burst into tears. Next thing I knew, I was sharing, through sobs, with these people I’d basically just met about all that God was showing me–and that he wanted me to surrender everything–including my kids into His hands, and that I couldn’t do it. This beautiful group of people circled around me, laid hands on me, and prayed for me. I’d love to tell you that I surrendered at that moment, but I didn’t.

For the next few nights, I stayed on the sofa–I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I just wrestled. I knew that my system was keeping me stuck and that I wasn’t going any further with God than I was at that point. God was inviting me into a deeper, fuller, richer relationship–but I didn’t see it that way. In my wrestling match, God reminded me that suffering is part of life on this planet, but that nothing would separate me from His love. I didn’t like that. I really wanted God to bow to me–that’s honestly what it boiled down to.

Finally, out of sheer exhaustion and a desire to get some sleep, I said–okay, God. I’ll give it all to you–I surrender. It’s hard to describe what happened next–I was filled with incredible peace; I felt love for God that I didn’t even know was possible, and I experienced the beauty of God’s all-encompassing love in a new way. The fountain of living water was turned on and has never gone off. I fell in love with God. That moment of surrender happened a lot of years ago, yet the fresh fruit of that moment is still being born in my life. It was the turning point in my adult relationship with God.

So, when we talk about serving as an invitation rather than an obligation–I’ve experienced it from both sides, and I don’t ever want to go back to obligation. Obligation leads to burn out, resentment, “shoulding” on ourselves and others, comparison, etc. It’s not life-giving.

Teach me to serve.

To serve means to give. If we are served dinner, if we are served papers, something is given to us. God serves us–He gives, and gives, and gives, and gives. Jesus, the image of the invisible God, showed us what a life of service looks like.  A life of service genuinely cares about others. A life of service shares wisdom, gifts, stories, moments. A life of service pulls away and allows God to restore, refresh, renew, guide, direct. A life of service is open to being served by others. A life of service washes the feet of those who would be considered less than in the world’s hierarchical system. A life of service acts justly, loves mercy and walks humbly with God (Micah 6:8). A life of service is filled with and fueled by supernatural love. A life of service is not agenda based. A life of service gives it all.

When we are taught that the greatest commandment boils down to loving God with all we are and all we have, loving others the way God loves us, and loving ourselves with godly love, that’s the living root from which a life of service flows. It’s not service that strives. It’s service that is the natural outflow of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Eugene Peterson once wrote: “The people who have made the greatest difference in my life were the people who weren’t trying to make a difference.” I think about that quote often. True serving makes a difference without striving to make a difference.

We all know when we are someone’s project. or when we’ve made someone our project. It doesn’t feel genuine, because it isn’t genuine. I believe the real key to serving is to fall in love with God, to walk with God, to accept God’s invitation to life in the Spirit, and to be absolutely bathed in and convinced of God’s unconditional love for ourselves and all of humanity.

We have the ongoing opportunity to choose this day who we will serve–to choose this day who we will love…to choose this day to be loved…to choose God’s beautiful, life-giving, logic-defying, self-sacrificing, love-saturated way this day…

–Luanne

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