Dear Church #3: Philippians 1:19-30

 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (Phil. 1:21)

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. (Phil. 1:27a)

 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him… (Phil. 1:29)

You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. (Matthew 5:10, Message)

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. (Matthew 5:11)

 

Luanne left us with some questions to ponder last week:

“Is our love for Jesus and our desire to make His love known to the world the driving force of our lives? Are we willing to be hated because we look so much like Him that the world, including the religious community, doesn’t understand us at all?” 

She also explained to us what “agape” love looks like–and that God loves every single human being with that kind of love. And she challenged us to do the same. To love unconditionally regardless of whether or not we agree with positions, orientations, political leanings, ideology, theology, or anything else that would drive us apart rather than together.

And this week, Pastor John took it one step further…

Are we willing to not only love all others, but to live out the mission of Christ to the point that we would die on behalf of them, the way that He gave His life for us?

There are some new questions rolling around in my head this week…

What are you living for?

What are you willing to die for?

What do you really believe?

Where does your citizenship lie?

Are you willing to suffer and to consider suffering a gift?

And a repeat from last week: Who are you offending?

Philippians 1:21 is a verse many of us are familiar with. “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” In communities of faith, we hear it, say it, sing it–but do we live it? Do we even understand what it means? Or is it one of those verses we throw around without pausing to consider the implications it holds for our day-to-day lives? 

Pastor John broke it down for us on Sunday. The words in the verse are fairly straightforward, with the exception of one. That Paul chose to use the word “Christos“, translated “Christ” in English, is what makes this particular verse so important. The word carries within it Jesus’ identity as Messiah, deliverer, freedom-giver. John said that it refers to the purpose and mission of Jesus, with the idea of modeling what Jesus is all about. And what is His mission? As we heard on Sunday, the mission of God, carried out through the person of Jesus, is to set the captives free. ALL the captives. “To live is Christ” is to live as He lived. To embody His mission. It is living in such a way that we leverage all that we are on behalf of all others. It is to die to ourselves and to our inclinations toward comfort, ease, and fluffy faith. It is to identify with our Savior, who so identifies with His people that, when they met on the road to Damascus, He asked Saul, “Why are you persecuting ME?” We are invited to take all that Jesus did (and does) for us… and do the same for others.

The invitation is costly. It is hard. It stands in opposition to every self-preserving and self-promoting notion that drives every one of us. But according to Paul, the invitation to suffer is a gift.

 

 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him… (Phil. 1:29)

The word “granted” in the Greek is charizomai , which is defined this way:

“to do something pleasant or agreeable (to one), to do a favour to, gratify, to show one’s self gracious, kind, benevolent, to grant forgiveness, to pardon, to give graciously, give freely, bestow”

The root word of charizomai is charis, which is most often translated “grace”. I love that. Jesus has graced us, gifted us with the opportunity to believe in him. We learned on Sunday that this is not say-the-sinner’s-prayer and stamp your heavenly passport belief. In this passage of scripture, when Paul writes about being “convinced” and “believing”, it goes way beyond head-and even heart-knowledge. It is a belief that fully trusts, that stakes everything on that belief, and that takes steps to act on it. When Jesus invites us to believe in Him, this is what we are invited to. Not a systematic theology of rules that keep our behavior in check. Rather, a belief that burns like fire within us and moves us out toward the margins in the footsteps of the One who couldn’t stay away from the margins and the marginalized He found there.

I think in our western understanding of Christianity, we readily accept the believing but take a hard pass on the suffering. But if we really understood what true belief entails, we would find that believing and suffering are branches of the same vine. In fact, the kind of belief I described above will almost certainly lead us into suffering. Into persecution, even. It definitely won’t keep us “safe”. But Paul calls it a gift, a grace, to have the opportunity to believe in and suffer for the One who gave everything for us. Pastor John said on Sunday that most followers of Jesus would agree that the cross is at the center of our faith. But many would say that is because it’s where we find forgiveness and salvation, where we come to the end of ourselves and believe in Jesus as our Savior. John didn’t disagree that the cross is at the center of our faith, but he asserted that it’s not an end, but a beginning. A way of life. The place where belief and suffering come together to lead us into new life in Christ–a life that we get to give on behalf of others.

Paul names this invitation a gift. Grace. Why? Let’s see what Jesus had to say about it…

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. (Matthew 5:10-11)

The Message words verse 10 this way:

You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. 

Jesus says we are blessed when we are persecuted because of righteousness, when we’re insulted because of Him. That the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are committed to God, and that the persecution drives us deeper into God’s Kingdom.

The gift is blessing, presence, the very kingdom of heaven. The word for “blessed” in this verse is also defined as “fortunate” and “happy”. I think it’s important that we understand the meaning of a few other words in this passage, too.

What does it mean to be persecuted, really? Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean…

Stu Garrard, author of Words From the Hill (a fantastic book that takes a fresh look at the Beatitudes), writes in the book about a conversation he had with Jeremy Courtney, the CEO of Preemptive Love:

“I asked him [Jeremy] about persecution and what it looks like to him. [He said:]

There’s a risk with this conversation. It’s like walking on a razor’s edge. There’s a way to talk about persecution that sort of gives us permission to become irreverent and jerks when we don’t get our own way. Not winsome or loving or creative or culturally engaged, and if we get pushed back we say, “See, they are persecuting us! Look at them–look at what they’ve done wrong.” When the truth is that we’re not loving and we’re not reaching out.”

We live in a time where real persecution does exist all over the world. Many people experience it for a variety of reasons. Followers of Jesus are still dying as martyrs in some countries. But sometimes, we do exactly what Jeremy articulated. We cry persecution and point fingers at those who won’t submit to our demands or bend to our agenda or who simply don’t let us have our way. That’s not persecution.

The word translated “persecute” is the Greek word dioko. It means:

to make to run or flee, put to flight, drive away; to run swiftly in order to catch a person or thing, to run after; to pursue (in a hostile manner) in any way whatever to harass

This definition is fairly broad and applicable to a lot of situations, except for the why that Jesus outlined.

He says in these two verses, “because of righteousness” and “because of Me”. The word used for righteousness here is dikaiosyne. The root of this word means “equity”. So, “blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness” is not about our good behavior or our personal holiness being challenged by the “bad” behavior of others, but rather, it’s about making things right for all people, everywhere. It’s about leveraging our lives the way that Jesus did. And then He goes on to say, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me…” The “because of Me” is extremely important. It goes back to what Luanne wrote about last week. Why do people hate us? Is it because we are embodying the mission of Jesus and working on behalf of freedom and equity for all people? If so, Jesus says we are blessed, and the kingdom is ours. But if we are hated because we look too little like Jesus, we can’t say that we are suffering persecution. Being told to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple is not the same as being persecuted. Giving others whose lifestyle we disagree with basic human rights does not mean Christians are being persecuted. Taking “under God” out of the pledge of allegiance or “in God we trust” off of our currency, as some have suggested we do, does not equal persecution. Separating religion and government (church & state) does not mean Christians are being persecuted. Instituting laws that protect and make provision for vulnerable “others” is not persecution of our “values”. And Starbucks not writing “Merry Christmas” on their cups is absolutely NOT persecution. This is a short list, but I’ll stop here. I think you get my point.

Jesus said we are blessed when we are persecuted because of Him. As we understand more and more about who He is–His ways, His kingdom, and His love for ALL people–and as we identify with Him and take on His mission of setting captives free, persecution will happen. Because we’ll be living out the radical ways of Jesus. But NOT because our happy, religious, self-righteous, rule-following bubbles are being popped.

Stu Garrard wrote these words:

“As we see the world differently, we can resist the urge to go take sides, even though that’s the path of least resistance. When we find ourselves living as peacemakers in the world, this kind of living so easily leads to persecution because we all know the way the world works–it wants us to pick a side and it’s not going to go down so well when we don’t pick a side and we want to see everyone flourish. And so then we find ourselves not being picked for a side, because fear runs the show, and saying and showing with our lives that love actually casts out fear–well, that’s pretty bad for business. So persecution for us might not look like it does for others in far-off lands. It might just be that we are excluded from the dominant story of the dominant culture… Holy troublemakers are people who are compelled to live a life worthy of a pushback–a life worthy of persecution… They are often misfits and misunderstood. Holy troublemakers understand that where there’s persecution, there is suffering. And when we suffer for the cause of righteousness and justice, we connect with the suffering of the greatest misfit of all time.”

So. To live is Christ… To truly live is to be connected to the heart of Jesus, to His mission of setting captives free. To leverage our lives on behalf of others because we know that the invitation to belief and suffering is a gift of grace. To endure persecution because we look and act too much like the One we follow. To truly live is to die to ourselves and to awaken to new life that freely gives itself away so others can live. And we’re meant to live this way together. 

Dear Church, can you imagine how the world would change if we actually lived this way? It makes my heart pound to think about it. The invitation has been given to each of us. What is our response?

–Laura

To live is Christ…

He stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’  Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’  (Luke 4:17-20)

Welcome to the beginning of the Kingdom of Heaven coming on earth. Welcome to the new way of doing life.

After Jesus spoke these words, the listeners in the synagogue were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips, yet a few short verses later the crowd was furious with Jesus, so furious that they drove him out of town and wanted to throw him down a cliff. Why? Because he reminded the Israelites in the synagogue that in Elijah’s time, during severe famine, God did not send Elijah to help an Israelite–God sent Elijah to help a widow in Zarephath, and God did not heal Hebrew lepers through Elisha, but Naaman, the Syrian, was healed.

His listeners could not believe that God might include the “outsiders” in His kingdom, and it made them murderously furious. There are things going on this very day that are contrary to the principles of the Kingdom of God. There are hot-button issues that are creating fury. Where do you land on these issues? What are you wrestling with?

To live is Christ…

Laura reminded us above that Paul’s choosing to use the word “Christ” indicates His purpose, His mission, His ways.  Dear Church–His mission is what we are to be about. Jesus’ heart for everyone put him at odds with those who wanted him to fit in their box. And on the day He was crucified, He still had a heart of compassion for those who misunderstood–Father forgive them…(Luke 23:34). 

The Apostle Paul, Peter, John and others model for us that when they were persecuted because of the mission of Jesus, they did not respond in hateful ways hollering about their rights. They continued to talk about Jesus. They shared with their hostile listeners how to come into a relationship with Him. Some did. Others had them beaten, thrown into prison, and killed.

Dear Church–whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. (Ph 1:27)

“conduct yourselves” literally means in the Greek  be a citizen of…

So here is the question: Which kingdom do we exalt most by the way we live?  Do we understand what it means to truly live as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven?

Dear Church– it doesn’t look like the systems of the world. We have got to know this. We have got to know this. We have got to know this.

Paul encourages the church to:

Stand firm in one spirit

To contend together as one person for the faith of the gospel

To stand courageously, not being frightened by those who oppose us. (1:27)

What is he saying?  He is saying–Dear Church, be unified around the message and mission of Christ; fight together as one for those around you to believe, to have faith, to be convinced that God loves them; let them know that the crucifixion of Jesus is the turning point, the veil has been torn, there is now no separation between God and humankind, and invite them into a new life fueled by the Holy Spirit, full of God’s love and divine purpose which is available for everyone. Teach them to love, to minister to the poor, the prisoner, the blind, the oppressed, and to live and work for the flourishing of everyone. Yes, everyone.

To do this, we must each know the real Jesus. Laura wrote about this above and I want to reiterate it; to believe in Jesus is not about having the right knowledge about Him. It’s not being able to recite the apostle’s creed or any other list. Belief/faith is conviction that leads to action.

Brennan Manning in his book “The Signature of Jesus” writes…”that Jesus marveled at the Roman centurion’s ‘faith’ means that he was surprised by the man’s deep trust, not by the way he could rattle off a list of beliefs…And when Jesus reproved the disciples for their ‘lack of faith,’ he meant their lack of trust and courage…Faith was courageous trust in Jesus and in the Good News which he lived and preached.”

Do we know Jesus well enough to be courageous for Him and His ways? His all inclusive, loving ways? Do we care about people more than we care about policies? Are we willing to be courageous, to be different, to be opposed?

I find it sobering to think of the visual that the Philippian church must have had when they read what Paul was saying to them about contending together for Jesus.

Philippi was a Roman colony with a Roman arena in the midst of it. The Roman arena was the pinnacle of Roman culture in colonized cities. The power of Rome was displayed in the arenas. Messages from Caesar were delivered in the arenas. Jesus’ followers were put to death in the arenas.

Paul doesn’t tell the believers in Philippi  to fight back against Rome. He tells them to contend together so that others will see Jesus and give their lives to Him. He tells them to be courageous as they are opposed. And, as Laura wrote above, Paul reminds them that they have been graced with the opportunity to not only believe in Christ, but to suffer for Him. The Message translation writes it like this: There’s far more to this life than trusting in Christ. There’s also suffering for him. And the suffering is as much a gift as the trusting. (v. 29)

To be a follower of Jesus is to live a selfless life. There is cost involved. Pastor John pointed out that I cannot live for Jesus and for myself at the same time. I cannot live for others and for myself at the same time.

He pointed out that our “arena” is where we live, wrestle, fall, fail, get back up, grow, die…  My arena is my life, your arena is your life. Our “contending as one” arena is the Church. How are we living in our arenas?  Are we letting the culture of Christ shape our arenas? Are the spectators, the citizens of this world, seeing Jesus?

Dear Church–Jesus told us that the world will hate us for doing life His way. The world will hate us for righteousness sake. The world will hate for for being rightly related with God and leveraging our lives to be rightly related with others. Are we willing to be misunderstood for the sake of His kingdom? Are we willing to be persecuted for His name’s sake?  If so, Jesus tells us that we will be blessed.

Sacrifice, suffering, joy, it all goes together. And as we lay our lives down and lift the life of Jesus up, we become the answer to His prayer…may Your kingdom come and Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…and we give all we are to move toward the glorious day when the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ… (Rev. 11:15)

Dear Church–conduct yourselves (be a citizen) worthy of the gospel of Christ…

To live is Christ…

–Luanne

Dear Church #2- Philippians 1:12-18

There are some messages that I believe are of such dire importance that my heart burns within me and I want to burst into tears over the gravity and importance of us–the people who belong to Jesus and His Kingdom– really getting it. This is one of those messages.

Jesus prayed in John 17:14 …I have given them your word and the world has hated them…,

and in John 15:18 he tells his disciples …if the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first…

Paul wrote the book of Philippians while he was in prison. Prisons were not unfamiliar territory to Paul. Beatings, floggings, stoning–these were not unfamiliar to Paul. They were not unfamiliar to Jesus and many of Jesus’ early followers, including the apostles who walked with Him. The world and its system hated them.

Why?

Paul himself hated them before he came to know Jesus.  The followers of Jesus threatened the status quo of the religious community, and they threatened the status quo of the Roman government. Their message of love, of inclusion, of grace, of dignity for all people, of Jesus as Lord was threatening to those who held power–they might have to relinquish some of that power to do life Jesus’ way.

Paul, after his encounter with Jesus, was radically transformed. Once he met  Jesus his life became all about other people meeting  Jesus, and as a result, he became one of the hated. But he didn’t hate in return. Instead he used every opportunity given him to share Jesus. In Philippians 1:12 he writes: …what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 

…in chains for Christ. For Christ. FOR.

Speaking of the modern American, primarily white evangelical church…what are we known for? What does the world hate us for?  Is it because we look too much like Jesus? Or is it because we look too little like Jesus? Are we hated for the right reasons?

I once read that today’s Christians are discipled more by Fox News, CNN, or other media outlets than by Jesus. It’s important for each of us to ask ourselves who we are giving permission to shape our minds, our thought processes, our hearts, our “fors” and “againsts”.

Each of us needs to know who Jesus is and what the whole context of the word of God says. In Acts 17:11 Luke writes, “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Let’s choose to be of noble character, ask the Holy Spirit to teach us,  and each take responsibility for searching the scriptures, beginning with the four gospels and then reading and studying the rest of the Bible through the lens of Jesus and the new covenant established in His blood.

John wrote in John 3:16 that…God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. Many of us know this verse by heart and it is precious to us. But how many of us know the verse that comes directly after? John 3:17 says…for God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  We personalize verse 16- thank you God for loving me and giving Jesus for me and giving me eternal life–and ignore verse 17. We go about condemning and “othering” those different from us forgetting that God so loved the world means everyone.

Author Anne Lamott writes: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Ouch!

Let’s do some holy squirming and look more closely at who God loves and who He wants to have a relationship with. (Just know–I’m squirming too.)

God loves every tribe, nation, and people group across the face of the globe.

God loves men. God loves women.

God loves Muslims. God loves Buddhists. God loves Atheists.

God loves Fundamentalists. God loves Conservatives. God loves Liberals.

God loves Democrats. God loves Republicans.

God loves Donald Trump, God loves Barack Obama, God loves Hilary Clinton, God loves Bernie Sanders, God loves Vladimir Putin, God loves Kim Jong Un and every other government leader past, present, future.

God loves unborn babies, God loves doctors who perform abortions, God loves women who have had abortions. (14 or so years ago, the Focus on the Family statistic of Christian women who have had abortions was one out of three. If this is you, know that God loves you.)

God loves victims of human trafficking. God loves human traffickers.

God loves porn actors and actresses. God loves the people who exploit them, God loves the people who support the industry by watching, spending their money, and gratifying the flesh.  (According to Barna research 57% of pastors and 64% of youth pastors admit they have struggled with porn, either currently or in the past. If this is you, know that God loves you.)

God loves those who have been betrayed. God loves those who have committed adultery.

God loves those who have been divorced. (Before and including the 1970’s, divorced people were excluded from many churches, barred from being in church leadership including lay leadership, and could not serve as pastors. Some churches still hold to this today. If this is you, know that God loves you.)

God loves every lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, + person. (Many churches exclude and send messages of hate to the LGBTQ+ community. If this is you, know that God loves you.)

God loves every person who adamantly opposes the LGBTQ+ community. God loves every person who wholly affirms the LGBTQ+ community.

God loves every unarmed black man/boy/woman shot by a police officer. God loves every police officer who shot an unarmed black man/boy/woman.

God loves every police officer shot by an angry anti-police protester. God loves every angry anti-police protester who shot a police officer.

God loves every person who peacefully protests inequality and police brutality by kneeling for the national anthem. God loves every person who believes kneeling is disrespectful to the military and the flag.

God loves every immigrant–documented or not. God loves every refugee seeking asylum at the border.

God loves each member of every family being separated by the government at the border. God loves every ICE officer, every border patrol officer, every policy maker whether those policies are good or harmful.

God loves those who believe the right to bear arms includes all arms. God loves those who believe gun control needs to be legislated.

God loves all those on death row. God loves the professional executioners.

God loves victims of abuse. God loves abusers.

No matter who you come across, or what story you read or hear–God loves all parties involved and He is for each of them.

God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. (John 3:16-17)   

And Jesus says to us: Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, so also I am sending you.” (John 20:21)  “As” means in the same way.

We have some things to wrestle with, don’t we? Here’s further food for thought:

Do we agree that “Jesus wasn’t rejected by the hurting, he was rejected by the religious.” (Pastor John Marshall)

Do we agree that “those who follow Jesus should attract the same people Jesus attracted and frustrate the same people Jesus frustrated.”? (Shane Claiborne)

Do we agree that “The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image.”? (Thomas Merton)

Do we agree to, “Be like Jesus: Spend enough time with sinners to ruin your reputation with religious people.”? (Josh Harris)

And do we agree that, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable in others, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”? (C. S. Lewis)

Do we sit in judgment like Simon the Pharisee who didn’t understand Jesus and judged Jesus by saying, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is–that she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:39)?

Would we allow Jesus to teach us about love through the sinner as Jesus wanted to do with Simon when he said, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears an wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven–as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little…(44-48)?

Have we been forgiven much? Do we love much? Does our love reflect our gratitude? Does our love reflect God’s heart for the world? Does our love recognize God’s image in everyone? Does our love compel us to love others well, no matter who they are?

Some of you may be thinking that Paul reminds us in Ephesians and Colossians to speak the truth in love, and you are correct. The love he is talking about is agape–the undeserved, all encompassing, unconditional love of God that we wrote about last week. The love that Paul prayed in Philippians 1:9 would grow and grow and grow in us. The love we give others that then opens the door for the truth to be spoken in a non-threatening manner. The love that continues, no matter what choices are made. The love that continues no matter what consequences result. The love that agrees to disagree for the sake of relationship. The love that unifies around the person of Jesus, not side issues.

Jesus came full of grace and truth. We are sent in the same way–full of grace and truth remembering that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)  We don’t have the power to transform any life, including our own. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. Our role is to share our own stories of how Jesus loves us, how we love Him, how He has made a difference in our lives, and how He loves them. So like the early church leaders concluded in Acts…“we believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are…it is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles (or anyone) who are turning to God.” (Acts 15: 11 & 19) 

Our lives have to be bathed in agape. Jesus modeled sharing God’s love through personal relationships. I believe it still works best that way. Who does God have in your life? Who do you see on a regular basis?

Paul, who was hated enough for the sake of Jesus to be in prison, used that opportunity to share Christ with those he was in relationship with–the Palace Guard and his fellow prisoners. Paul continues his letter to the Philippians by acknowledging that his imprisonment for the cause of Christ has resulted in others being more bold in sharing Jesus fearlessly. He goes on to say, it is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. (Ph. 1: 15-18)

Is our love for Jesus and our desire to make His love known to the world the driving force of our lives? Are we willing to be hated because we look so much like Him that the world, including the religious community, doesn’t understand us at all? Do we rejoice, even when those we don’t agree with are sharing Him, because the ultimate desire of our hearts is that Jesus be made known? Do we need to spend some time in the presence of God recognizing who we “other”,  repenting and allowing God to reorder our lives and priorities?

For God so loved the world…do we?

–Luanne

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Dear Church… (Philippians 1:1-11)

Pastor John began a twelve week series on the book of Philippians that will take us through the summer.  Without a doubt, Paul loved this body of believers. They held an incredibly special place in his heart, and he is not shy in telling them so. As is wise with all Bible study, knowing the context of the situation is always a good idea, so it’s important to know how this church began. Why were they so special to Paul?

Acts chapter 16 gives us the background story on Paul’s relationship with the people in Philippi. Paul had tried to go to a couple of different locations, but in Luke’s words the “Spirit of Jesus” kept him from following through with those plans. During this time, Paul received a vision asking him to come to Macedonia–so they went. Philippi was a Roman colony in Macedonia and that became the destination.

Typically when Paul went to a new city he started his ministry in the synagogue. Not in Philippi. He and his companions headed to the river to pray and came upon a group of women, one of whom was Lydia, a business woman and worshiper of God. Paul shared the love of Jesus with these ladies, God opened Lydia’s heart to receive the message, she and the members of her household were baptized and she invited Paul and his companions to stay in her home.

I don’t know how long Paul was in Philippi, but it was the city where he and Silas got in trouble with some wealthy folks for casting a demon out of their slave girl because the demon gave her the ability to make a lot of money for them.

Because Paul and Silas messed with the wealthy folks, they were arrested, flogged and thrown in jail. Instead of complaining about their situation, they prayed and sang, and the other prisoners listened. An earthquake came, all the prisoners chains came off and the doors opened. The jailer was sure they had all escaped and was ready to kill himself, but Paul called out and let him know that they were all still there. This encounter led to the jailer and his family coming into a relationship with Jesus. After Paul and Silas were released they went to Lydia’s house, met with the church and then left the area. He visited Philippi two more times. (Acts 20)

I wonder if the freed slave girl and the jailer were part of the group that met in Lydia’s home and received Paul’s letter? I wonder if the church in Philippi was different from the other churches Paul began, so many of whom were riddled with conflict, because he wasn’t battling a spirit of religion that sometimes accompanied those coming out of the synagogues, and sometimes plagues our churches today. Paul himself had come out of that rule following system–and he knew that trading one set of rules for another was not what following Jesus is about. Following Jesus is all about relationship, and the Philippian church was rich in relationship with Jesus, with Paul, and with one another. Lydia was a kind and gracious woman, the church in Philippi began with her. There’s a lot to be said for all the implications of that.

Paul wrote this letter about ten years after he had originally been in Philippi, and he writes to them from prison. He begins by greeting all of them and offers them grace and peace (Shalom) from God.  Paul moves into assuring them of his prayers for them and tells them that his prayers are full of thanksgiving and joy for them because from the first day he met them they partnered with him in sharing the good news of the love, forgiveness and new life available in Jesus–and they were still doing it. He encouraged them with these words: …being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (v.6) 

That’s a verse many of us know extremely well, it gives us hope in the transforming work of Christ, but I think it’s important to note that the “you” in this verse is plural. He is writing to the church referring to  the good work that God began in and through His church in Philippi. Yes, the work He’s doing individually in each of us is important, the mission of the church will not happen without each of us growing in Christ, but like we’ve mentioned before, our individual relationships with Jesus are not just about us. When we surrender our lives to Him, we become part of His kingdom–His body, and together we work to bring others into relationship with Him. So, He who began a good work in you by giving you a place to belong and a purpose in His kingdom/body will be faithful to complete the mission He’s begun.

Paul goes on to express how this precious group of people are always in his heart and how he longs for all of them with the affection of Jesus. Then he tells them what he is praying:

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ–to the glory and praise of God. (vs. 9-11)

The love Paul is writing about is agape–the unconditional, all encompassing, never ending, totally undeserved and complete love of God, and he is praying that this godly love will flow in abundance , that it will abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight….

What does it mean for our agape to abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight?

Knowledge means just what you think it does, and it comes from the root word meaning to know thoroughly, to know accurately, to understand and perceive.

Depth of insight is a little more unusual. The word  translated into that phrase is used one time in all of scripture, and Paul is trying to convey something important in using this word. It means perception not only by the senses but also by the intellect, discernment, moral discernment, the understanding of ethical matters.

It’s intellect coupled with a deeper sense, a deep intuition, a knowing something beyond intellectual knowing, a sixth sense if you will. The phrase in the definition-the understanding of ethical matters– really catches my attention and my heart.

Agape love is a fruit of the Holy Spirit; we can only have it when we surrender to the work of the Spirit in our lives. As we allow the Spirit to do His work in us, our ability to know and discern–especially in moral ethical matters, becomes clearer.

Pastor John pointed out that love is not blind–God’s love is not blind. God’s love sees all and loves us despite our shortcomings. God’s love runs to embrace the returning prodigal, God’s love shows compassion and forgiveness to a woman caught in the act of adultery, God’s love hangs out with the marginalized, the ones rejected by the religious elite, the outcasts, God’s love reinstates Peter after his denial, God’s love makes a way through the costly death and powerful resurrection of Jesus for us to be in relationship with Him, God’s love knocks the terrorist Saul/Paul off a horse, blinds him, and then transforms his life in such a radical way that Paul gave his entire life to introduce others to Jesus.  God’s love doesn’t look like human love, and God wants His love to be what the world experiences when they experience us–His people.  His love—ever growing, wise, discerning, kind, undeserved, overflowing so that…

Right after the words knowledge and depth of insight is a “so that”.   It reads like this:

…so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ–to the glory and praise of God.  

The J.B. Phillips translation reads like this:

I want you to be able always to recognize the highest and the best, and to live sincere and blameless lives until the day of Jesus Christ. I want to see your lives full of true goodness, produced by the power that Jesus Christ gives you to the praise and glory of God.  

The Message translation puts it this way: 

Live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God.

Our Spirit given agape love produces in us the ability to see, know and discern the truth of a situation on a deep level. Then, being led by God’s indwelling, ever abundant unconditional agape love figure out what the God-like best response is. It may look nothing like the world’s response, because God is all about bringing people into relationship with Him, not about ostracizing and punishing them. If that were His heart, we’d all be hopelessly lost.

Acting on what the Spirit leads us to do keeps us blameless and pure before God because the fruit of righteousness means that we are rightly related with God and rightly related with others. Righteousness in this sense comes from the root word meaning equity which indicates that we are working to make things right for all people everywhere–that type of righteousness comes through Jesus Christ.  When we live and love and see and restore and forgive and esteem and build up like Jesus does, the work that God has begun in us, His people, moves toward completion and God gets the glory for it all.

The implications of Paul’s prayer are huge for us. He is praying that we, His church,  will be bathed and growing in agape love, choosing the best as revealed by the Spirit, working in and through agape love to make this world a better place for everyone, carrying out the mission of Jesus so that God’s kingdom may come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven for the glory of God.

I will be meditating on and praying this prayer all week. I desperately want to be part of the body that is making Jesus Christ attractive to all…Will you join me?

—Luanne

As Luanne wrote, it is so important to understand the context of what we read in our bibles. The more I study scripture and the deeper I go in my walk with Jesus, the more I realize just how vital this is. It is important because it gives us a more complete picture of what we’re reading, but also because it brings the story of Jesus and His Kingdom alive to us in a whole new way. I found some interesting facts when I looked into the history of the city of Philippi…

Corneliu Constantineanu, a Romanian theologian and university professor, has this to say in his introduction to the book of Philippians in the God’s Justice Bible:

“The Great Roman Caesar Octavian Augustus established the city of Philippi as a Roman colony after a great victory in the battle against Brutus in 42 BC. After another victory over Mark Anthony in 31 BC, he named the city after himself, Colonia lulia Augusta Philippensis. This was in order to announce the good news of his great victory and, at the same time, to honor the great Roman Empire’s accomplishment of justice, peace and security! The Pax Romana, together with Roman law and justice, is the great news that the Roman imperial ideology proclaimed–as the dawn of a new era for humanity, as the greatest good news ever heard! But like the establishment of the city of Philippi, the good news of Roman peace and justice was brought about through violence and war and maintained by force and the subjugation of people.

In stark contrast, the apostle Paul announces the real good news, the gospel--God’s action to put the world right, to bring his peace and justice to this beautiful yet fallen and corrupted world. He has accomplished this not through violence and war but through the self-giving life of Jesus Christ. This is the astonishing story we find in Paul’s letter to the Philippians–the significant and wonderful yet costly journey of God’s redeeming the world and bringing his peace and justice for the entire creation… This is the good news of the gospel that we read in Philippians.

As is always the case, the Kingdom of Jesus stands in complete opposition to the kingdoms of this world. A city that was established through war and violence was transformed by the gospel of peace and the power of Agape love.

Agape love is where the journey begins for each of us. Encountering the unconditional, complete love of God for us is the beginning of our relationship with Him. His real love draws us to Himself and, as Pastor John said on Sunday, plants that seed of Agape love inside of us. It’s the beginning of our journey… but we can’t let it be the end. If Jesus loves me is where we stop, we starve the seed that God planted in our hearts. God is the one that plants the seed, and He also tends it, by the power of His Spirit. I don’t want to jump too far ahead in this series, but we’ll see when we get into chapter 2 of Philippians that,

“…it is [not your strength, but it is] God who is effectively at work in you, both to will and to work [that is, strengthening, energizing, and creating in you the longing and the ability to fulfill your purpose] for His good pleasure”. (Philippians 2:13 AMP)

He is at work in us, and it is He who creates within us the longing and the ability to live His way. But–as we discussed in our last series–it is possible for us to resist and to quench the work of the Holy Spirit inside of us. For a seed to grow, it must be watered, fed, exposed to light; as it begins to grow, it has to be pruned in order to bear the best fruit. If we are willing to submit to the process and understand that this seed of love was never meant to stay buried in the soil of our hearts but, rather, to grow and bear fruit to feed the world around us, then we’ll experience what Pastor John described on Sunday. Our love, gifted to us by our Heavenly Father, will grow. It will grow real. And that real love will change the reality of the world around us. Facts exist all around us. But truth always supersedes fact. Jesus is truth. He is love. And the truth of His love has the power to change any reality. Mine. Yours. And the world around us.

In his introduction to Philippians, Corneliu Constantineanu also writes, “Despite our tendency to limit redemption to our personal salvation and morality, redemption in the biblical narrative implies the entire creation, with the ultimate purpose of human flourishing and well-being for all”. I can’t help but connect his words to what Luanne wrote about the “fruits of righteousness” above:  “Righteousness in this sense comes from the root word meaning equity, which indicates that we are working to make things right for all people everywhere“.

It’s not about “me”. It must be about “us”. The proof that our love is real is that we don’t keep it to ourselves. Just as Paul shared in the joys of community, even from afar, we also are created to be in community, sharing in the goodness of God together, and working to bring the kingdom of our King to every corner of this world. It is the gospel–the gospel Paul brought to Philippi–the only good news with the power to change the world.

“Jesus is the gospel. Just as God brought the good news of justice and righteousness through Jesus, Christians will spread justice around them by following Christ’s example. As they are Christlike, they will be agents of God’s justice in this world. Only as they manifest their heavenly citizenship will they be responsible earthly citizens.” (Corneliu Constantineanu)

The church in Philippi understood what it meant to manifest their heavenly citizenship. It stood in stark contrast to the kingdom of the Romans, and it led them to live out their faith in the way of real love that changed the reality of their region. No earthly ideology has the power to connect all people and bring lasting peace. Only the good news of Jesus and His love for all of us can do that. He has planted the seed of His love in our hearts if we know Him–and left a perfect space for it if we haven’t met Him yet–and He stands ready to tend and grow that seed into flourishing plants that bear fruit to feed the nations. All He asks us to do is open ourselves to His careful hands and let Him. If we’ll lean into His words and His ways, we will begin to see the ways of His kingdom–that it’s never just for us individually. And as that knowledge and depth of insight grows, we’ll see transformed lives become transformed churches that God will use to transform the world. Because the Agape love of God lived out through the followers of Jesus will create the kind of body that Luanne said she desires to be a part of: a body that makes Jesus Christ attractive to ALL. I desire this, too. What about you? Will you join us?

–Laura

 

The Battle: Armor of God (Part 2)

 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should. (Ephesians 6:16-20 NIV)

I can’t count the number of times I have heard/read/studied/thought about the armor of God before I experienced this series. Suffice it to say, the number is quite high. The temptation, when we are presented with a familiar text or story, is to tune out and listen half-heartedly through the filters we have always had in place. I have been learning so much over the last year, especially, about how dangerous it is to default to my traditional understanding and maintain old filters–especially as it relates to Jesus and His Kingdom. Because of this, I try to be intentional about NOT tuning out when the story is familiar. And I am so grateful that I was able to listen to this series–and especially this final installment–with my heart wide open, filters set aside. Because my old understanding is  now being replaced with a more complete understanding, one that is filtered through one lens alone: Jesus.

Pastor John’s message on Sunday covered the remaining pieces of armor: the shield of faith, helmet of salvation, and sword of the Spirit. As he preached on each piece, my mind was blown over and over again. My perception of doing battle God’s way has been forever changed.

In last week’s verses, Paul instructed us to stand firm with: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness and the shoes fitted with the readiness of the gospel of peace. He told us to clothe ourselves in them. We are to take–to grab onto, raise up–the remaining three pieces of armor. As we’ll see moving forward, the last three connect to the first three.

The first piece of armor that we are to “take up” is the shield of faith. The definition of the word translated “faith” here (pistis) is “firm conviction of the truth“. Our shield of faith hangs on our belt of truth. Last week, Luanne wrote:

“When speaking of “truth” it is incredibly important that we acknowledge that Jesus is truth…The belt held it all together. The Truth holds us all together…The real Jesus brings us all together and holds us all together, so that His Kingdom can come on earth as we, the capital “C” church, stand firm against the one enemy together”.

Our faith hangs on Jesus–the truth of who He is. It’s what holds us all together, as Luanne identified. The importance of our “togetherness” in Jesus is not only highlighted in the belt of truth, but also in the shield of faith that hangs on it. The Roman shield was a huge piece of armor, crafted out of wood, bronze, and animal skin/leather. As large as it was, though, it only covered two-thirds of the soldiers body when it was held correctly. What about the other third of his body that was vulnerable to attack? It was covered by his neighbors shield. And he covered the exposed parts of the neighbor on his other side with his shield. That’s how it was designed to work in battle. If they didn’t use their armor correctly, they and their comrades would find themselves exposed and vulnerable to enemy attacks. So it is with us…

Our faith, our conviction of the Truth–of Jesus, is incomplete if we choose to stand alone. Many cultures understand this. They model the type of togetherness that we’ve referred to several times throughout this series. Our Western, American, mostly white breed of Christianity, however, is not very good at this. There is a tradition of individualism in the West, and we have applied it to our faith. It has left us exposed and vulnerable to our enemy, because our model of faith hasn’t accepted or included (much less practiced…) “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). We have been taught, and we still teach, that our faith is a personal one, that it’s “between you and God”. We have taken pride in our personal piety, and wondered why so many are hesitant to accept our message. We will explore this further in a moment, when we look at the next piece of armor. Before we move on, though, I want to emphasize that our faith is meant to be lived out in the context of community. It’s what Jesus and His disciples modeled. It’s how the early church in Acts expanded. It’s what you see in churches that are thriving rather than dying today. It’s how the Kingdom works. It’s the Jesus way, the abundant life way, the way that draws others in rather than pushing them away…

Which brings us to our next piece, the helmet of salvation. The helmet was the most notable piece of the Roman soldier’s armor. Not only did it protect the entire head, face, and neck area, but it was dramatically decorated, meant to be seen and noticed. For us, our helmet protects our mind, the place where our thoughts are formed. It is referred to as the helmet of salvation. Many of us have grown up with the understanding that our salvation is the moment we accept Jesus and give our lives to Him. It’s our ticket to Heaven. And just like our faith, this is generally a personal experience. We may share it publicly from the front of a church and declare it through baptism, but that’s as far it goes for many of us.

It’s very easy to think about our helmet of salvation as something to hide under. We feel protected because we are “saved” and we live from that place. Not only do we secure our helmets to keep out everything that doesn’t line up exactly with the way we understand salvation, but we add masks to the helmet–masks of performance, good behavior, and all the “shoulds” of false identity. If this helmet is decorated or notable at all, it is with the feathers of pride and the plumes of self-righteousness. This is not what the helmet of salvation is meant for. The meaning of the word “salvation” in this context embodies the process of being saved and bringing that salvation to others. It implies the understanding that we are works in progress. Again, this works best within community. Standing on our own, hiding behind a false identity, projecting a picture of perfection, of having already “arrived”, not only keeps us trapped in our own self-deception, but it pushes others away rather than drawing them in.

We don’t have to look very far in today’s culture to see this playing out in real time. We see many who have been “saved” and are now hiding under the false identity of perfection and rightness. This identity tends to include black and white thinking and makes harsh judgments about everything and everyone that doesn’t align with that way of thinking. Helmets that look like this are notably decorated, easy to see towering above the crowd, but they don’t bring salvation to others. What draws others in is acknowledging that we are continually being saved, transformed and made complete in Jesus; that we are not perfect and we know it, and we can be authentically who we are because we know that we are accepted and approved of just as we are by the God who made us. That is the salvation that our helmets are meant to be decorated with, what ought to be notable about us. It’s not about us at all–it’s about those around us being able to see Jesus when they look at us. Because, remember, Jesus is our armor.

I said earlier that each piece of armor we looked at this week connects to a piece we studied last week. The helmet and the breastplate go together. They protect our two most vulnerable places: our minds and our hearts. We are told repeatedly in Scripture to guard both. Both are protected by the assurance we have that as we are continually being saved and transformed–as we authentically submit to Jesus as Lord, and to His process, His ways–we are fully accepted and rightly related to God.

This brings us to “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God”. This final piece of armor is the most intriguing of them all. Before I explain what we learned, I want you to think about your understanding of this piece of armor. What have you always been taught? What Sunday school picture comes to mind? Is it a picture of the Bible? Maybe with a cartoon soldier holding it, ready to wield it against the enemy? What if I told you that understanding is inaccurate?

My understanding has always been what I just described. It’s part of why I was taught that I should memorize Scripture, because God’s word is my weapon. Please know that I am absolutely FOR memorizing Scripture; I think it’s so important to know it. But that understanding in all its familiarity, is not what Paul originally wrote. This “word” is “rhema”, the spoken word of God.  As Pastor John reminded us, Paul, Peter and the other apostles of the early church were not carrying around a New Testament with them, teaching verses from the Bible we have today. They spoke the words that the resurrected Jesus had directly spoken to them, the words that had resurrected and changed their lives. That was their sword.

We learned last week that the “shoes fitted with the readiness of the gospel of peace” are actually a formidable weapon to trample on our enemy, because what they are is our story of how Jesus came and brought Shalom to destroy his chaos-making authority in our lives. Our story of transformation is what we stand on because no one and nothing can refute what Jesus has done in our lives. They are our stories and we triumph over our enemy “by the word of [our] testimonies” (Revelation 12:11).

As you have probably figured out by now, these shoes are connected to our sword. Our stories–the very things we often try to hide and see as our greatest weakness, when they are transformed by Jesus and we bind them to our feet and stand firm in the truth of our transformation–become our sword, our greatest strength. Because our story is made up of the words Jesus has spoken to us. The words of peace that have brought wholeness to our lives and calmed the chaos inside of us. These words from Jesus are what we are to carry and speak to others.

I’ve heard it said that we need to “speak our piece”. We use that when we have to vent or get something out. Often, it’s this same mentality that leads us to beat people over the head with our bible verses, to talk them into submission, if you will. What we are actually called to do is to “speak our peace“. Share the words that Jesus has spoken directly to you, the story of how His resurrected life has resurrected your life. This is what we carry. The sword of Shalom. 

Jesus tells His disciples-and us-in John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid“. And Ephesians 2:14 says this: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility...” In these verses, we are reminded that Jesus IS our peace. He speaks peace, He brings peace, He embodies peace. Peace is the way of His Kingdom. Not violence. Both of these verses use the Greek “eirene”, the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew “Shalom”. We fight with the sword of Shalom. We share the peace and wholeness that we have experienced as the life of Jesus has resurrected our lives. We speak what He has spoken to us.

What has Jesus spoken to you? Are you carrying a sword that you need to lay down, so that you can pick up the sword of Shalom?

–Laura

I have sometimes wondered why God chose for Jesus to come and His church to be birthed during the time when Rome was conquering the world by abusing their power and  using tactics of intimidation, fear, while committing ruthlessly destructive, cruel and inhumane acts– they were a dominating force.  Without a doubt, their weapons of warfare were powerful in the earthly realm. Their weapons stand in stark contrast to the weapons of the Kingdom of Heaven and become beautiful and easily understandable illustrations for Paul to use when describing the armor of God. The weapons of our warfare are not the weapons of this world (2 Cor. 10:3 )  God flips the world’s system on its head. Maybe He chose the Roman time period for Jesus and His church to be born, in order to contrast how very different the Kingdom of Heaven on earth is from the Empire of Rome and its human system of domination.

It’s important to understand the meanings of the seemingly insignificant words in the “armor” verses, so keep in mind that “with” means put in its proper place (belt, breastplate, shoes), and “take up” or “take hold of” means grab, hold tightly, raise upLike Laura wrote above, all six pieces of armor are intricately connected.

With the belt of truth in place we take hold of the shield of faith.

As we’ve mentioned, and I am mentioning again–Jesus himself is THE truth (John 14:6). The Roman shield was made up of three parts, a wooden core encased in bronze and the whole thing was covered with animal skin which was then soaked in water so that any fiery darts that came would be extinguished. The shield was meant to protect the soldiers from aerial assault. There is much symbolism for us in the shield. All the way back in the book of Genesis, after Adam and Eve had believed Satan’s lie and decided to take life into their own hands they ended up aware of their nakedness and vulnerability. They suffered tremendous consequences for choosing their own way; yet God still cared for them. In Genesis 3:21 we see that the Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. Biblical scholars see this as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ sacrifice. A death (the first death) was required for Adam and Eve to be covered. The death of Jesus was required for us to be covered so that we can be clothed in Him. (Heb. 9:22 …without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness). The fact that the animal skin was then soaked in water reminds me of Jesus’ words whoever drinks of the water I give them will never thirst– indeed the water I give them will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life. (John 4:14). The verb tense that Jesus used indicates continual drinking….whoever comes continually… Is it possible that the soaked shield is an illustration of baptism by immersion in the Spirit? When we continually come to Jesus -clothe ourselves in Him-we are filled with the Holy Spirit and our shield is soaked and ready to extinguish the fiery darts of the enemy which come our way from the heavenly realm. And as Laura mentioned above…our shield is not only for us individually. The Roman soldier held his shield above his head with his left arm. It covered 2/3rds of his body and 1/3 of his neighbor’s body. The formation only served to protect if each soldier did his part.

Do we see how vital it is that we understand this? None of us gets to sit this out. We are part of an advancing Kingdom based on the Truth of God’s love and revelation- carried out by faith–the conviction that Jesus is Truth and worth knowing. That conviction moves us to action, that conviction leads us to continually soak ourselves in Him, clothe ourselves in Him and move together side by side, supporting and protecting one another with the goal of advancing His kingdom.

With the breastplate of righteousness in place we take up the helmet of salvation.

With our heart protected by the covering of the righteousness of Christ, believing His truth that we are completely accepted by God, we can take up the helmet of salvation. Laura wrote above:

“The meaning of the word “salvation” in this context embodies the process of being saved and bringing that salvation to others. It implies the understanding that we are works in progress. Again, this works best within community..”  

This is an important concept for us to grasp. Not too long ago I heard someone say that when Jesus talked about the Kingdom and Paul talked about salvation, they were referring to the same thing–both are about belonging. Without the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus, there is no salvation, no belonging to the Kingdom of God–interesting thought.

The process of working out our salvation must be grounded in Truth, and the mind is where much of that battle takes place. Paul encourages us to renew our minds-change the way we think (Romans 12:2), to think about whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Phil 4:8), and tells us that letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace. (Rom 8:6)  All of our actions begin with thoughts, which is why Paul tells us to take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Cor 10:5) which comes two verses after the weapons we fight with are not the weapons of this world. 

In the New Testament, the word translated as “repent” is metanoia which actually means to change one’s mind for better, to think differently. Taking up the helmet of salvation is imperative in the spiritual battles that are all around us, remembering that the way we battle looks NOTHING like the way of the world. Brennan Manning, in his book The Signature of Jesus, writes:

“The other side of metanoia is paranoia…(which) is characterized by fear, suspicion, and flight from reality…. Spiritual paranoia is a flight from God and from our true selves. It is an attempt to escape from personal responsibility. It is the tendency to avoid the cost of discipleship and to seek out an escape route from the demands of the gospel. Paranoia of the spirit is an attempt to deny the reality of Jesus in such a way that we rationalize our behavior and choose our own way. …None of us is immune to the seduction of counterfeit discipleship…” 

I find the comparison between metanoia and paranoia very helpful in determining whether I’m thinking with the mind of Christ or the mind of the flesh. Both types of thinking produce fruit. Galatians 5:19 lays out what the mind of the flesh leads to: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures,  idolatry, sorcery, hostility, hatred, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these, contrasted by the mind of the Spirit which leads to love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.(v.22) A tree will be known by its fruit. (Luke 6:44)  It’s really clear in scripture what type of fruit the true helmet of salvation leads to, and it is fruit that values people,  treats them well and draws them toward Jesus. 

With your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace we take up the sword of the Spirit which is the SPOKEN word of God.

I loved how Laura contrasted “speak our piece” (mind of flesh) with “speak our peace”, (mind of the Spirit).  Our story of peace with Jesus becomes the powerful offensive weapon of the sword of the Spirit. The Romans traded their long swords for shorter ones when they learned from the Spaniards army short swords were more precise and effective. They were always ready with those short swords tucked into their belts. Are we always ready to share our story of peace precisely and effectively? People can argue scripture all day long, but our personal stories of transformation are hard to argue against. And…it doesn’t have to be long and drawn out. A sentence here, an offer of prayer there, an act of kindness, an offer of grace/forgiveness, a different thought process, all of those sown seeds will begin to bear fruit over time earning us the right to share more fully who Jesus is and what He means to us personally. The Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say (Luke 12:12), so if He brings it to mind-say it!  And, if you’re walking with Jesus, it’s not a story of what He did one time when you surrendered your life to Him, there are fresh encounters to share always. Salvation is an ongoing, ever fresh process.

Paul wraps it all up by telling us to pray four times in two verses. Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel,  for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.  (Eph 6:18-20)

One final thought–our battle is not against flesh and blood, it is for flesh and blood–body, soul and spirit. Jesus told Peter that upon Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah the church would be built, and not just built, but strong and powerful enough that the gates of hell will not prevail against it. (Mt 16:18)  If you are in Jesus, you are part of His church. You belong to His kingdom. His kingdom is advancing. We fight together with His weapons which are totally contrary to the weapons of this world. We fight together, not just with those in our local communities, but with Jesus’ followers all across the globe. We are one family with Jesus’ followers in Honduras, Mexico, Haiti, Zambia, Syria, Russia, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Brazil, Madagascar, China, Vietnam, and every other country in the world. Jesus calls us to oneness, unity–but not uniformity. The way we carry out our mission may look different, but our Jesus must look the same. We must know Him, the real Him. Not the Jesus of our specific culture, but the Jesus who transcends all culture, the Jesus who reveals the God who loves the world. He is The TRUTH; we must know who we are IN Him, we must be in the constant process of renewing our minds so that we can be more LIKE Him, and be ready at all times to DECLARE our experience with Him. We do this in the power of His Spirit and with the camaraderie of one another, praying for one another, protecting one another, forgiving one another, and loving the world together into His Kingdom.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that… 

Are you in?

–Luanne

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The Battle: Armor of God (Part 1)

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 

Stand firm then

                   with the belt of truth  buckled around your waist,

                            with the breastplate of righteousness in place,

                                      and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from       the  gospel of peace… (Eph. 6:10-15)

Walter Wink in his book The Powers That Be gives us food for thought regarding the principalities and powers of this world. He says:

“Principalities and powers are not disembodied spirits inhabiting the air, but institutions, structures, and systems; they are not just physical…the Powers are at one and the same time visible and invisible, earthly and heavenly, spiritual and institutional…. The Powers are simultaneously an outer visible structure and an inner spiritual reality. (They are) the actual spiritual reality at the center of political, economic, and cultural institutions.”

Wink goes on to say:

“When a particular power becomes idolatrous-that is when it pursues a vocation other than the one for which God created it and makes its own interests the higher good-then that Power becomes demonic. The spiritual task is to unmask the idolatry…but this can scarcely be accomplished by individuals. A group is needed…that was to be the task of the church, so that ‘through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places’ (Eph. 3:10).

I had never heard this interpretation of The Powers until I read Wink’s book, but since reading it, I pay attention to the reality of the spiritual realm in systems, structures, institutions, etc. It helps me to grasp that the battle is not against flesh and blood (even though sometimes I forget). There are Powers at play in war, politics, social media, news agencies, media, advertising, shopping centers, grocery stores, homes, destructive ideologies like racism, classism, nationalism, in things like religious systems, the stock market, banking systems,  businesses, schools, homes, and sadly, churches as well. It’s important to be aware of these things. As Laura and I pointed out in a recent blog post, Satan masquerades as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14), so we must be so, so, so very wise and discerning in order to fight the battle against the real enemy and not be fighting on his side against one another. I believe that’s why the belt of truth is the first piece of armor Paul tells us to put on.

When speaking of “truth” it is incredibly important that we acknowledge that Jesus is truth. (Jn 14:6). That we can know THE Truth, and He can set us free.  (Jn 8:32). It’s not what we think about Jesus, or how we interpret scripture about Jesus that is truth. Truth is Jesus himself. To know the truth, we must know Jesus.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we must read the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) over and over and over. We must pay attention to what Jesus said, who He said it to, what His subject matter was, who He hung out with, who frustrated Him, what cultural norms He pushed back against, what He emphasized, what He cautioned against, how He loved…He is truth. We must be humble enough to allow The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, to guide us into all truth-(John 16:13)-even if it’s different from what we were taught. Jesus is Truth. Truth looks like Him.

Paul tells us to Stand firm with the belt of truth buckled in place. “Stand firm” is the same Greek word used for “Resist” (“Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” James 4:7)  which implies all of us standing together against the one enemy… .

The Roman soldier’s belt was thick leather that protected the entire abdominal and groin area. It kept a soldier from literally being gutted. Not only that, it held the breastplate in its place, and held the other weapons. The belt held it all together. The Truth holds us all together.

I want to emphasize one more time that the Truth is Jesus and in him all things hold together (Col 1:17).  Truth is not our denominational bent, not our theological understanding, not anything that could lead us to any type of division. The real Jesus brings us all together and holds us all together, so that His Kingdom can come on earth as we, the capital “C” church, stand firm against the one enemy together.  The truth of Jesus is for all people everywhere. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Pet. 3:9)  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:17). We have to understand that Jesus is truth and live from that place.

The breastplate of righteousness also points us to Jesus. 2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us that “He (Jesus) became sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  

The Roman soldier’s breastplate protected his heart. It only covered his front. The philosophy of Rome was that their soldiers did not need their backs protected because they would always be on the offense. They would not turn and run. They would not retreat.

Righteousness is huge for those of us who follow Christ. It means that because of Jesus, we have become totally acceptable to God. We are fully approved by God. We are in complete and total right relationship with God. We don’t have to strive for it. We don’t have to earn it. We don’t have to be “good enough” in our own efforts. Our righteousness is a gift of grace.

The covering of His righteousness keeps us secure in God and protects our hearts from becoming hard. The covering of His righteousness gives us permission to lay judgment and striving aside and focus on the things that are important to His heart–namely, people.

God tells us in Proverbs 4:23 to Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life. Keep it protected from anything that would make it hard, or bitter, or unkind.  Jesus himself gave us a sign to look for to determine the state of our own hearts when he said A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart. (Luke 6:45)  I know in my own life that the thoughts that come into my head that I want to say are the quickest indicator for me that my heart is not in a good place. Getting back into a better place requires sitting in the presence of God, owning what I need to own, and being reminded again of His grace, His mercy, His acceptance and approval of me, even in my mess.  As we stand our ground against the enemy’s accusations, facing him with our breastplate of righteousness tucked firmly into the belt of truth, his fiery darts cannot penetrate our hearts. We can be secure in who we are in Him, and get on with the business of advancing God’s Kingdom.

The shoes are such an interesting piece of armor.  The shoes are fitted for our feet with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.  The Roman soldier’s shoes were thick-soled leather with hob nails in the bottom of them. They served to protect the soldiers’ feet, provide traction and momentum so that they wouldn’t lose ground, and as a weapon for stomping the enemy. I don’t know what their readiness came from–marching orders or whatever, but our readiness comes from the gospel of peace–the good news of peace.

Like the others, this piece of armor points to Jesus. He is the Prince of Peace (Is 9:6), We have peace with God through Jesus (Romans 5:1) and Jesus himself tells us that he has given us His peace in John 14:27. His peace is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. There is no peace without Christ.

Pastor John said that our personal story with Jesus is how we take the good news of peace to the world. Your story with Jesus, my story with Jesus can not be dismissed. The Apostle Paul, quoting Isaiah wrote  “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Rom 10:15) and the prophet Isaiah included the phrase “the good news of peace and salvation” (52:7).  This beautiful theme of peace is God’s heart. The Hebrew word for God’s type of peace is Shalom, translated into the Greek word ‘eirene’ in the New Testament. The English word “peace” can’t really capture all that Shalom is;  Shalom is the flourishing of all things–all things in harmony with one another, it is the restoration of the world to it’s pre-fallen state. It is about making all things new.

In Revelation 21:5 the One on the throne says “Behold, I am making all things new.”  The Apostle Paul tells us that if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Cor. 5:17) And the advancement of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth is about making all things new.

My favorite definition of Shalom is destroy the authority of the one making chaos. 

Your story of how Jesus has transformed your life and brought you the peace that passes all understanding (Ph. 4:7); your story of how His righteousness has made you righteous before God- fully approved and acceptable; your story of the Truth of who He is and His heart of love for you personally and for whoever it is you are talking to are mighty in  destroying the chaos caused by the devil, authorities, the powers of this dark world, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. They are no match for God and His mighty power that is at work within you, within us. Put on the full armor of God so that…

-Luanne

Luanne wrote, “Truth is not our denominational bent, not our theological understanding, not anything that could lead us to any type of division. The real Jesus brings us all together and holds us all together, so that His Kingdom can come on earth as we, the capital “C” church, stand firm against the one enemy together.  The truth of Jesus is for all people everywhere.”

Another author and pastor I love, Jonathan Martin, recently said, “Jesus is the prism through which all other Scripture is to be read and interpreted”. (Son of a Preacher Man podcast, Season 1-Episode 21)

Jesus. Jesus. Jesus. 

It really is all about Him. Every bit of Scripture we read. Our understanding of any and all of it. It all has to go through the filter of Jesus. Or the framework of our theology will have some warped boards in its structure. This applies to everything we understand about the Kingdom that Jesus ushered in. The Kingdom will reflect the character, values, mission, and heart of its King. And so, as we take a closer look at the armor of God this week and next, we must look at it all through the lens of Jesus, the visible image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). This is exactly what Luanne did above, as she brought us back to Jesus over and over again in her descriptions of the armor. And I hope you’ll forgive my repetition as I continue in the same vein. It’s so, so vital that we get this. If we take any part of Scripture and view it through any lens other than the lens of Jesus Himself, we risk building a framework that cannot stand.

 

Jesus IS our armor. 

Period.

Full stop.

I have written and deleted multiple paragraphs to get to those four words. Jesus is our armor. Paul used language that his readers would understand, the description of a Roman soldier’s uniform, to highlight–as he so often did–the difference between the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of Heaven. He used symbols of war and redefined them in the light of the Prince of Peace. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. (2 Corinthians 10:4) Every piece of our spiritual armor is only complete in the person of Jesus. Jesus is truth. He is righteousness, and all justice end equity-which are at the root of original Greek word we translate as “righteousness” in these verses-are found and made complete in Him. And He is our Shalom, our peace that destroys the authority of the one making the chaos. I’ll stop there, because we’ll cover the other pieces of armor next week. But you can see where this is all going. Our armor is Jesus. All that He is. All that He brings. His ways, his words. That’s what we are to put on–Jesus. Amy Layne Litzelman says it this way, “Putting on God’s armor is…coming to know the One who is our armor. When we put on God’s armor, we desire one thing: the fullness of Christ active in us”. (This Beloved Road Vol. II-Into the Source)

With this understanding, let’s go back to verses 10 & 11a in our passage:

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God…” 

I love looking into the root words that our modern bibles were translated from. I especially love what I found when I did that today, with these verses. “Be strong” reads like a command, something we do, being active rather than passive. Journeying into the root words provides us with a more complete picture. What we read as “be strong” comes from root words that mean, “be made strong; be strengthened, enabled, empowered, confirmed”. And the tiny word that follows, “in”, is packed with meaning, too. The word translated “in” is a primary preposition denoting “fixed position, in the interior of some whole, within the limits of some space”. His “mighty power” more completely means, “great power and dominion, extent of His ability”. When we are told to “put on” the full armor of God in the verse that follows, the Greek word translated “put on” is the same one used in Colossians 3:12, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility,gentleness and patience”. “Put on” and “clothe” are from the same word, “endyo”, which carries the sense of sinking into a garment. If we pair this with our understanding that Jesus is our armor, then what this verse is saying to us is, “Sink into, be absorbed into the garment of Jesus. Wear Him.” So if I were to put all of this together and paraphrase it, it would sound something like this:

“Be strengthened and empowered, confirmed and enabled; your position fixed inside the limits of the space of the Lord and in His dominion and the extent of His ability. Sink into, be absorbed into, the garment of Jesus. Wear Him.”

Why? “So that you [remember this is the collective “you”, all of us together] can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” (Eph. 6:11b)

It is only when we wear Jesus-when we wrap His ways around us, when we are completely absorbed in who He is-that we can stand against the ways of our enemy. We can’t fight the way our enemy fights. The ways of Satan can’t drive out Satan (Matthew 12:26). Darkness can’t drive out darkness. We have to stand in the fullness of who Jesus is. We are powerless to stand on our own. We are only strong in Him. Never in ourselves. And that is what I love about how Paul presents the armor to us. He uses the imagery of the Roman soldier–the picture of strength, power, military prowess–and uses it to remind us of the upside-down Kingdom of Christ. The Roman kingdom depended on no one but themselves. They were victors, conquerors, battle-savvy war-mongers who decimated those who would dare oppose them. Their strategies were progressive, their designs innovative and their gear was state-of-the-art. They were second to none… or so they thought. The people they oversaw, ruled over and terrorized thought so, too. But there was-and there is-a Kingdom far greater, far more powerful, with longevity the Romans could have only dreamed of. The upside-down Kingdom of Christ. The Kingdom that came in on the back of a lamb led to the slaughter. The Kingdom that speaks blessing over the meek, the poor, the weak, the oppressed, the peacemakers. Paul takes the symbols of violence, of war and division, and rewrites the script for Jesus-followers. He replaces the earthly materials-the leather, metals, animal hooves-with divine weapons. Weapons that cannot be defeated because they come from another place. They’re not made of materials that can be destroyed. Truth, righteousness, justice, peace–and the others we’ll cover next week–are indestructible. Because they are the characteristics of Jesus Himself. They are the pure, undefiled goodness that has already defeated the evil of our enemy. And we get full access to these attributes in the person of Jesus. He is our armor. And we are never without Him. But in order to “wear” Him effectively, we have to be willing to do it His way. In our humanness, we like the picture of the Roman soldier better than that of our humble Savior. The idea of being strong, powerful, self-sufficient, respected and revered for our abilities and expertise is a lot more appealing to our flesh than the opposite. Which is why it is so important that we understand that Jesus is the armor we get to put on. And we get to follow Him. It is not us who rise up and fight our enemy; it is the Holy Spirit within us that rises up to fight in heavenly realms while we remain hidden inside the perfectly pure and just garment of Jesus Himself. He is the armor that both protects us and fights off our enemy. And He invites us to partner with Him in the battle. But we don’t lead it. And we do none of it in our own strength. We put Jesus on–all of Him. The ways of His kingdom become our clothing as we move into the world carrying the good news of His victory.

–Laura

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The Battle: Enemy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A couple of things to note in that verse–

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

This is our invitation… 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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The “Worldly” Battle

Pastor Beau brought us the second installment of our series, “The Battle”, on Sunday. He preached about what it means to be in the world but not of it, and shed some light on a few passages of scripture that are often misrepresented and taken out of context. But before we launch into this week’s discussion, let me recap key points from week one.

Beau reminded us that we have a real enemy, and that there are spiritual battles going on all around us-whether we believe in it or not. He reminded us of the story of Elisha and his servant from 2 Kings 6–how God, in response to Elisha’s prayer, opened the servants eyes so that he could see the spiritual army that surrounded them. We were reminded that we have the weapon of prayer and that it makes all the difference when we choose to use it in the midst of our battles. Beau also reminded us that we fight from victory–not for it. God wins. But we have an enemy who wants to take as much ground as he can. He wants the hearts of those who haven’t yet surrendered to Jesus, and he wants the focus and attention of those who have. And he brought us back to Ephesians 6:12 to remind us that,

…our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms“.

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes often struggle to remember that my battle isn’t with people… I needed to hear Pastor Beau’s message on Sunday to remind me who my real enemy is. I needed (and probably daily need…) the reminder that we will destroy our own allies if we don’t recognize the truth about the battle we’re in. Beau told us that all of humanity has been invited to be on the same team–we weren’t created to fight against one another. But I think that we get confused about this because we misapply verses like Romans 12:2a:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Beau asserted that our understanding of this verse, and others like it, inclines us to separate people. To draw a hard line between us and them-the “saved” and the “others”. We see the word “world” and use it to point the finger at one another, forgetting that “…our struggle is not against flesh and blood…“. We take the phrase “in the world, but not of it” and use it to isolate ourselves from other human beings created in the image of God.  2 Corinthians 4:4 tells us that, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”  This verse reminds us that for a time, the god of this age (Satan) rules over the physical world. It is his way of life that permeates this age. And he wants to tempt and coerce all of us into adapting to his way. Pastor Beau told us that a better way to read Romans 12:2 would be to understand “world” defined (in this particular verse only) as “the lifestyle of the enemy”. This is what we are to resist, to be set apart from: the ways of our enemy, the tempting lifestyle he dangles in front of our desires.

I used the phrase, “in the world, but not of it” above. It’s a popular phrase, one that’s been used in church, by Christians, and is often quoted as scripture. It’s not. It is pulled from the prayer that Jesus prayed for his disciples and for all believers in John 17:

I have given them your word. And the world hates them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one. They do not belong to this world any more than I do. Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth. Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world. And I give myself as a holy sacrifice for them so they can be made holy by your truth. “I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. (John 17:14-21) 

These are the key verses from Beau’s sermon. Can you see where the “in the world but not of the world” concept came from? You can absolutely pull that thought together from these verses, but to boil this passage down into that one phrase does a massive disservice both to Jesus’s main point and to our understanding of what He was really saying.

When we read this passage and our takeaway is to isolate from “worldly” people and experiences, I believe the enemy celebrates. He celebrates every time we choose separation over connection. So I believe that part of his lying, deceiving lifestyle is attempts to keep us boxed in by our shallow understanding. He appeals to our desire to be “safe”, to be “separate”, “set apart”. If we are choosing to isolate in an effort to draw a line between us and the world, we are making a choice to be ineffective.

But Jesus, He is all about connection…

“I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us…” 

That’s a lot of connecting. And that is always His way for us. We see it all over in Scripture. And why does He want us to be one with each other and with Him and the Father?

“…so that the world will believe you sent me.”

Jesus prays that we will be one so that the world will believe. He prays,  “…I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one.” The one we’re actually fighting. His ways. Not each other. Not other people who haven’t met Jesus yet. The evil one. And then He prays, “Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world.” Jesus sends us, His followers, into the world to fight the “worldly” battle. To fight against the ways-the lifestyle-of our enemy. In order to do that though, we have to live connected. Connected to Jesus, through His Spirit living in us, connected to one another, not isolated, and connected to the the layers of ourselves, too. We are three-part beings, made up of body, soul and spirit. When these parts are disconnected from each other–when our spirit is not in control of our bodies and souls, and not submitted to the Holy Spirit within us, things get messy. The enemy’s lies and temptations get in more easily, and separation and isolation begin to look more appealing than connection. Beau said that if we want to win our spiritual battles, like Elisha, our physical and spiritual eyes have to be connected. It’s all about connection. Our enemy knows this. So he spends his energy trying to separate us. From ourselves, from God, from fellow Jesus-followers, and definitely from those who have yet to call on Jesus as Lord. 

Both Jesus and Satan are calling to us to live their way. The voice of our enemy will always call us to separate. It carries the tune of pride, and appeals to our arrogance and desire for control and safety. The voice of Jesus will always draw us to a place of connection, communion. And if our spiritual order is out of whack, we’ll resist this voice. Because connection requires humility. Dependence. Vulnerability. Risk. Brokenness. Trust… None of which we embrace naturally or willingly. That’s why I think the second half of Romans 12:2a is the part we should emphasize… Here it is again, from the NLT:

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think

Pastor Beau concluded his message with the statement “Jesus changes everything”. He told us that this is the only reason we have a fighting chance in the battle, the only reason we get to fight from victory rather than for it. Jesus does change everything. If we open up our lives to Him and invite Him to have His way in us. How do we become people who see differently, who live with our spiritual eyes connected to our physical ones? We let Him transform us into new people by inviting Him in to change the way we think. The Jesus way, this upside-down Kingdom he modeled and asks us to carry to the ends of the earth–it doesn’t make sense to our physical minds. It is understood only in the realm of the spiritual and then it can connect to, and be made manifest, in the physical. Jesus never stood at a distance from the people who needed Him most. He knew His battle wasn’t against them. He came for them. For you. For me. His enemy was and is the same enemy we fight today. The battle is not against those who haven’t yet met God-it’s against the one trying to keep them in that place. We have to get this right, friends. Our battle is not against flesh and blood. It never has been and it never will be. And every time we choose to fight against another Image-bearer, we give a little ground to our very real enemy. Jesus calls us to a different way-His way. The way of connection, communion, oneness. It’s the way the world will come to know Him. And it’s the way we walk in victory over our enemy. I choose His way-even when everything in me wants to do it my way. Will you join me?

–Laura

Highlighting some of the verses that Laura highlighted above we are reminded that:

Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Eph. 6:12

The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 2 Cor. 4:4

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Rom. 12:2 NLT

(or with the new understanding Pastor Beau brought: Do not conform to the lifestyle of the enemy, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.)

Jesus himself refers to Satan as the ruler of this age in John 12:31, 14:30, and 16:11. Jesus reminds us that Satan has no power over him, and that Satan already stands condemned. Satan is totally defeated–We don’t fight for victory, we fight from victory. The battle has already been won.

Pastor Beau took us back to 2 Kings chapter 6 and reminded us of Elisha’s prayer asking God to open the eyes of his servant, which God did. The servant who was only seeing with his physical eyes, could all of a sudden see behind the thin veil into the spiritual realm. When the servant saw with spiritual eyes, his mind about their battle changed dramatically–he was thinking differently. His mind was no longer blinded.

The next part of the story is fascinating. Elisha asks God to physically blind the enemy soldiers, which God does. Then Elisha leads them into a death trap. He asks God to restore their sight, which He does. The soldiers realize that things don’t look too good for them. The King of Israel asks Elisha if he should kill them. Remember–this is Old Testament, Old Covenant season–yet Elisha acts in a very New Testament way. His response?

“Do not kill them,” he answered….  Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink and then go back to their master.”  So he prepared a great feast for them, and after they had finished eating and drinking, he sent them away, and they returned to their master. So the bands from Aram stopped raiding Israel’s territory.  (2 Kings 6:22-23)

Elisha, who was fully aware that the battle was spiritual, responded with the spiritual weapons of the Lord  that were powerful enough to bring down strongholds (2 Cor. 10 3-4). Elisha proceeded with incredible grace by providing a feast!  Not bread and water, but a feast! Then sent them on their way. The result? The bands from Aram stopped raiding Israel’s territory.

The whole story blows my mind. It is a complete foreshadowing of the ways of the New Covenant, of the Jesus who tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. (Mt. 5:44)  Of the Jesus who tells us God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:17)

AND in John 17, the beautiful prayer of Jesus that Pastor Beau highlighted, Jesus says  As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. (v. 18),

He concludes his prayer with these words:

Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me.  I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” (vs. 25-26)

We are sent into the world with the ways of Christ. We are His physical body on earth. Thinking about Elisha’s actions, I am reminded of Romans 2:4  NLT– Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?

Does wonderfully kind, tolerant, patient describe us as His people–His body? 

Laura wrote above that we are made of three parts–body, soul, spirit. Our body is literally, our physical body. Our soul includes our mind, our will, our emotions. Our spirit is the part of us that is dead (Eph 2:1) until it is brought to life in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit who gives life (John 6:63, Romans 6:11)

If my flesh is leading the show, I’m indulging myself and way out of balance.

If my soul is leading the show, it’s not good. My mind can make up all kinds of things that aren’t factual, my will can be stubborn and self serving, and my emotions can lead me far astray. The phrase “follow your heart” is a total soul led phrase–and it’s dangerous. Jeremiah 17:11 tells us The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?  Can anybody else relate to that phrase as true?

The only way the Jesus life works is to submit our alive spirit to the Holy Spirit and let the Holy Spirit lead.  It’s the only way that people will see the kindness of the Lord in us and be led to Him.

Pastor Beau reminded us that the war we are in takes place at the point where our physical world and the spiritual world meet. We really only have two choices. We can choose to conform to the lifestyle of Christ, or the lifestyle of the enemy. There is no neutral. 

In God’s eyes, there is no human being on the face of the planet that we can call our enemy. There are spiritual rulers, authorities, spiritual forces of evil working toward our demise at all times (and the demise of all humans). They hate God and his Image-bearers. When we choose to live with an us/them mentality, we choose the lifestyle of the enemy. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be a soldier on that side of the battle. I don’t want to fight for the enemy.

Are we brave enough to ask God to show us the places that our minds have been blinded? Where our thinking is off? Are we humble enough to allow Him to show us? Are we humble enough to repent–which literally means get a new mind about what He shows us? Are we in tune enough with the Spirit to fight with the weapons of the Kingdom of heaven and fight for all people to be brought into the Kingdom of heaven? Living this way is radical. Taking a stand against the enemy for all people can be misunderstood. Sometimes it doesn’t feel comfortable–but it is always right. Can we see beyond the flesh and into the greater spiritual battle?

Jesus was not sent into the world to condemn it, but to save it. As He was sent into the world, so are we. “As” means in the same way; therefore,  we are not sent into the world to condemn it, but to love it and help people find salvation in Christ. Let’s be about plundering the enemy to populate the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s truly the only thing that matters.

I (Jesus) have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” (Jn 17:26)

This is our commission–to make Him known.  Are you in?

–Luanne

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Jesus Loves Me, This I Know

I’ve been in a bit of a funk for a few days. Maybe for longer than I care to admit. I’ve been distracted by many things, and I can easily focus on the distractions–the areas in my life where I am discontent, the long winter season in Wyoming and how I long for spring, the distance that I live from my children and grandchild, relationships that seem difficult in this season, and a wall (self-constructed) between God and me, so Jonathan’s sermon was just what my thirsty soul needed.

On Sunday, Jonathan Schmidt shared his own journey with us beginning with his call into the ministry 32 years ago, through his seasons of running and God’s continuing pursuit, and then the season of pastoring a church and losing sight of his First Love while maintaining what he referred to as Church Incorporated. He was not blaming the church; he recognized that he had become entrenched in the “doing”. He had let other things come in and take his focus and had forgotten the call to love God first.

He reminded us that we can be in the church and lose our way, because we forget to love God first. He reminded us that it is easy to walk away from the simplicity of “Jesus loves me” and get lost in Bible Study, ministry activities, maintaining programs, and doing.

Bible study, ministry activities and the like are good things, but they are no substitute for living from the place of knowing that God loves us first, and that because of His great love we can love Him in return with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and we can love our neighbors as ourselves. He reminded us that all of the Old Testament, the law and the prophets, are fulfilled by loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving neighbor as ourselves. ALL of the Old Testament, ALL of the message of Christ fulfilled in those two things. (1st John 4:19, Mt 22:37-40, Luke 10:30)

Why do we complicate it so much when it’s really this simple:

  1. God loves us. He proved it in Christ. Believe it, embrace it, let the Holy Spirit have access to your life.
  2. When we know that God loves us, we live from a new place, a new identity, and we can love ourselves in a healthy way because we are loved.
  3. That love spills over to those around us, they take notice, they desire to know this love, we teach them what we have learned from Christ (making disciples Mt. 28:19-20), and they come into relationship with Christ continuing the beautiful cycle.

Simple–and it all starts with love.

A number of years ago I was driving across rural Kansas trying to find something to listen to on the radio (that’s all I had access to back in the day). I came upon a sermon that sounded intriguing , and heard the pastor say that it’s not enough for Jesus to be Lord and Savior–He must also be our treasure–and then I lost the station. Some miles later I was still trying to find a radio station and I came upon the same sermon at the same moment, heard the same line and then lost the station.

All of a sudden I wasn’t interested in finding a radio station. I knew that God was speaking to me, and I asked Him to teach me what it means for Jesus to truly be my treasure.

What I treasure I love, I think about, I tend to, I enjoy.

Jesus told us that where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also. (Mt. 6:21)  Did my relationship with Jesus indicate that he is my treasure? That I love him, live for him, and enjoy him above all else? Hmmm. I had some work to do. I had been in love with Jesus before, and I recognized that I needed to return to Him again as my first love. (Rev 2:4). It took a brief moment of confession and expressing my desire to love Him deeply asking Him to meet me where I was. He did–the funk lifted and I experienced beautiful closeness with Him again.

Fast forward to my recent funk. I had begun the current “funk-lifting” process on Saturday morning, and Jonathan’s sermon led me to the next step, so confession and expression is what I did again after his message.

Jonathan shared with us that he had a mentor who asked him: Do you think people really want to spend eternity with Jesus?  We’ll be with Him for eternity–if we don’t want to be with Him now, why would we want to be with Him for eternity?  Hmmm.

That question reminded me of something I heard in another sermon a few years ago:

“The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—
is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the
friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and
all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties
you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no
human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with
heaven, if Christ were not there? ” (John Piper)

That’s quite a question and quickly reveals where our hearts and priorities are.

Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that God has set eternity in our hearts. John 17:3 tells us that “this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”  John 13:35 tells us that by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

 We cannot love one another if we don’t know God’s love for us and respond to His love by loving Him heart, soul, mind, and strength  It feels pretty important, pretty foundational that we know those things.

There is a tremendous difference between the type of relationship described above and being religious. Jonathan’s Church Incorporated dilemma which led him to leave his church and begin the journey back to his First Love was the result of religious activity.

Religion kills. There is no joy, no life in religious activities. Religion leaves folks burned out, frustrated, and angry at the world and all the people who don’t see things the way they do.  Love, on the other hand, gives life, embraces beauty, draws people in, stays with people in their mess, learns from others, and chooses relationship.

Religion turns people into projects and Christianity into a list of dos and don’ts. Love sees the value, the image of God, in all people, and sees Christianity as being in a real and vibrant relationship with Jesus. A relationship of fellowship, enjoyment, trust, honesty, authenticity, transparency, transformation, wrestling–no rules, no boxes to check off, just Someone to love and be loved by. Someone to get to know on a deep and intimate level.

The Apostle Paul is a great example of this. When he was religious he had position, authority, power. He was important in the eyes of the religious community. He was outspoken, and he was mean–so much so that he was totally sold out to destroying the lives of Jesus’ followers. (His story is found in the book of Acts).

Then he met Jesus. He was humbled, blinded for a few days, (a physical manifestation of the spiritual condition he had been in) and changed forever. Changed to the degree that this man of position, authority, power, “the good life”, tells us in 2nd Corinthians 11  that he has been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches…

Yet, in spite of all of those things in Chapter 4 tells us his perspective on the suffering (which we are promised as Christ followers) when he writes: our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

And in Philippians 3: 7-9 He tells us why: But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.  What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ…

Paul knew that Jesus was his treasure. He knew what Jesus meant to Him, who Jesus was to Him, and He wanted everyone else to know Jesus too.  Everything in his life, after his encounter with Jesus, flowed from the treasure of Paul’s heart, and the world was changed as a result.

Where do you find yourself today? Do you know that God loves you? It all starts there. Do you respond to His love with love? Have you wandered a bit from the simplicity of the relationship and gotten distracted by many things? Are you in a funk?

The solution? Sit in His love, let it wash over you. Talk to Him about where you’ve been and respond to His love with love for Him. You will be changed and the world will be changed. The things that matter to His heart will matter to yours, and the world will know we are His followers by our love.

–Luanne

Jonathan talked about our being “living sacrifices” in his message. He then asked us if we were trying to crawl off the altar. I immediately thought about a verse that I have on a notecard in my bathroom. I read it every day and pray it regularly. It is Psalm 5:3. I have the Message version on my notecard. It reads this way:

 “Every morning I lay out the pieces of my life on your altar and watch for fire to descend.”

I put this verse up about a year ago. It’s not one I could have prayed honestly many years ago. Luanne mentioned above what Jonathan said so beautifully in his message. He said that we have to learn to “sit in the love of God”. I love this thought for a lot of reasons, but for the purposes of this post, I’m going to take the liberty to expand it a bit…

See, I think we continue to crawl off of the altar—we move away from offering ourselves daily as living sacrifices—until we’ve braved sitting in the fire of God’s love. We climb up on the altar and with faltering voices say, “He-he-here, I am God… waiting for you…”  But as He approaches with His white-hot love, the heat of His presence causes us to slink off the altar and crawl to a… safer distance. Until we brave the heat for the first time. It’s not until we let the fire of His love engulf us that we realize-like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did in the furnace-that we won’t be consumed. That Jesus meets us within the fire and it’s while we sit there with Him that we become unbound. Once we experience Him in this way, our fear of the fire is replaced by the assurance of His goodness and our hearts begin to burn white-hot in response to His blazing love for us. Only then does the altar become a place we long to go and meet with Him, offer our lives to Him, daily.

I remember when I began to get comfortable with laying every piece of my life on the altar, offering all of me as a living sacrifice…  It was during one of the most painful seasons of my life. The trouble (that Jonathan reminded us is a guarantee, part of the deal when we give our lives to following Jesus…) surrounded me. My heart was broken for so many different reasons—rejection, betrayal, problems in my marriage, family tensions, financial tension, a ridiculous amount of fear; among other things… I have never felt more alone, more unsure of who I was. I didn’t understand God’s love for me. The shame of my past was suffocating me. It was during that season that I resolved to wait. To lay my life out before God and wait for Him to come, fire and all. I was afraid. But the brokenness and the loneliness outweighed the fear. And I asked Him to come to me. To show me He loved me. To make me believe it. I told Him I would do whatever He asked—I just wanted to be free. To know who He was, really, and who I was in Him…

I didn’t have some grand vision… but I felt Him come close. I physically sensed His presence. He engineered playlists and laid open the pages of my bible as He directed me to things He wanted me to know. I felt the heat of His love surround me… and it was tempting to retreat. I couldn’t control this reckless love that ran toward me. And I knew that if I stayed there, if the fire fully surrounded me, everything would change. Everything needed to change… But I knew that change meant surrender. It meant pain. And while the storms of my heart couldn’t get much worse, I wasn’t sure I was ready for what His fire may burn away in my life. I was afraid. But I was desperate. And so I stayed put. I listened. And for a season, He called me His beautiful beloved. I doubted what I heard the first time, but it kept happening and I knew what I heard. I began to believe it…

As I sat in the fire of His love, he refined my heart. He rebuilt me. He spoke sweetly, intimately to me. I remember feeling so exposed, completely vulnerable-and completely, totally, known and loved. It was disarming, disorienting and freeing.

I couldn’t have prayed Psalm 5:3 until I experienced the love of Jesus this way. I wish I could say that every day when I see that verse on my cupboard door, I am willing and ready to pray it with all of my heart. But that wouldn’t be true. See, the reason that verse is taped up in my bathroom where I’ll see it every day is because I need the reminder. Even though I’ve experienced the white-hot love of Jesus that changed me-that changes everything-it’s still not natural to offer up every bit of me, every single day, and release my hold on control over myself and my life. Because I know what it can mean… When you offer all that you are and invite the fire of God to descend, you give up every right to yourself. It’s a daily dying. And it hurts…

Because sometimes, when He meets me on the altar of daily sacrifice, He tells me to do things I don’t want to do…

Stay… Go… Love her… Embrace him… Give… Speak… Start… Stop… Forgive… Let go…

He always invites me to remember that this world is not my home. That in this world I will have trouble-but I can take heart because He has overcome the world. He gives me an opportunity to say, every day, “Not my will, but yours be done…”, and I find that I rarely would choose on my own to do His will, His way.

Jonathan called himself a “reluctant prophet”, always running from the thing God was calling him to do. I think we all can be reluctant prophets. We can all at least identify with the “reluctant” part. And often, in our reluctance, we build barriers. Barriers between us and the altar we’re invited to offer ourselves on daily. Barriers that keep us from loving God with our hearts, souls, minds and strength and from loving our neighbors with that same love. We build these barriers because we want to stay safe from the trouble Jesus told us we would have in this world. Because the trouble hurts. And we don’t like pain. We do all kinds of things to try to escape it. But we can’t. Ann Voskamp writes, in her book Be the Gift,

“There isn’t a barrier in the world that can block out pain. There isn’t a wall you can build that protects you from pain. Addiction, escapism, materialism, anger, indifference—none of these can stop pain—and each one creates a pain all its own. There is no way to avoid pain. There is no way to avoid brokenness. There is absolutely no way but a broken way. Barriers that falsely advertise self-protection are guaranteed ways of self-imprisonment. Barriers that supposedly will protect your heart so it won’t break are guaranteed to break your heart anyway. Yet being brave enough to lay your heart out there to be broken, to be rejected in a thousand little ways, this may hurt like a kind of hell—but it will be holy. The only way in the whole universe to find connection… is to let your heart be broken.”

Jesus modeled this for us. He laid out His heart-knowing we would break it-that we would break Him-but it was the only way for us to be connected to Him. And He invites us to lay our hearts out, too. To follow His lead. He will never break our hearts or reject us—but He will call us to die to ourselves for the sake of others who will. And this is something we are incapable of doing if we haven’t first sat in the fire of His love. But if we know His wild, relentless, crazy love for us, if we’ve let Him break open the seed of our hearts so that we can love Him in return, it gets easier to embrace the trouble, the pain of this life. Because when we sit in His love, He becomes our treasure, as Luanne so beautifully wrote about above. And if He’s our treasure, we realize that yes, we do want to spend eternity with this Jesus that has loved us back to life and that, truly, He is what makes eternity appealing to our hearts at all. And we can exclaim with the psalmist, A single day in your courts is better than a thousand anywhere else!” (Psalm 84:10a, NLT)

–Laura

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Hold On: Habakkuk 1

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

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

Habakkuk reveals some things about himself in this prayer;

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doesn’t that sound like today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We forget that Jesus said

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

Luanne wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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A Balanced Life: Re-prioritize

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

“But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’

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

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

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

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

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

We have a tendency to do the very same thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

There is no in between.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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