JOY II (Like Never Before)

Joy. We found it last week–unnamed as such, yet present in a story that connected fasting with a wedding celebration, fabric, and wineskins. We began looking at what joy is–and what it isn’t. Here’s an excerpt from last week’s post to remind you where we ended up:

The rituals, the structures, the traditions, the way we’ve always understood and done it before–these will never bring us into joy unless we allow them to carry us into the presence of Jesus. In his presence, there is fullness of joy. Joy is an experience of the presence of our King, and cannot be experienced apart from him. JOY (Like Never Before)

Joy cannot be experienced apart from Jesus. Last week Pastor John laid the foundation for our understanding of joy, and this week Pastor Beau built upon it. Our exploration of joy took us away from the book of Mark for a week and into a story found only in the book of Luke. More than likely, you are familiar with this story in Luke 19:1-10. It is the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus. If you don’t remember the actual story, maybe these lyrics will jog your memory:

“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, And a wee little man was he… He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see…”

Do you remember the song? Likely, many of us sang it as children. Pastor Beau pointed out that while the song serves its purpose to help us remember the story, we have sadly reduced this complex, beautiful story into a sing-along song. And we’ve probably missed some key points.

Take a moment to read the story the way Luke recorded it in his gospel:

Jesus entered Jericho and made his way through the town. There was a man there named Zacchaeus. He was the chief tax collector in the region, and he had become very rich. He tried to get a look at Jesus, but he was too short to see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree beside the road, for Jesus was going to pass that way. When Jesus came by, he looked up at Zacchaeus and called him by name. “Zacchaeus!” he said. “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today.”  Zacchaeus quickly climbed down and took Jesus to his house in great excitement and joy. But the people were displeased. “He has gone to be the guest of a notorious sinner,” they grumbled. Meanwhile, Zacchaeus stood before the Lord and said, “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!” Jesus responded, “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.”

There are so many directions to go in discussion of this story, but our focus this week is joy, so we’ll start there. The word joy shows up about midway through the story. In some translations, the word joy is replaced with words like gladness or excitement, but the original Greek word in this passage is “chairo”, which does mean “joy” or “rejoice”.  When does joy show up in the story? When Jesus shows up, sees Zacchaeus–the one who was desperate to see Him, calls him by name, and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house. Pastor Beau highlighted for us that “The joy didn’t come until Jesus showed up.” Zacchaeus had been living a joyless existence–we’ll look at why in a moment–but as soon as Jesus showed up, joy was present, too. In his presence there is fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11)–Wherever you find Jesus, you find joy also.

But what about the others who were with Jesus? Those in the crowd? Their response to Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus was not joyful. The text tells us that they were “displeased”, and that they “grumbled”. How is this possible if there is fullness of joy in Jesus’ presence? In another gospel, the book of Matthew, Jesus addresses a similar situation:

For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears,
    and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
    hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ But                    blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. (Matthew 13:15-16 NIV)

The crowd was with Jesus physically, but they couldn’t see him or hear him the way Zacchaeus was able to. Because Zacchaeus was looking for him. He was desperate to see this One he had heard so much about. I imagine he had ideas about him, ponderings… But the crowd had expectations. We know this because the parable Jesus tells immediately after the story of Zacchaeus is told to address the crowd’s expectation that He would, in his power and glory, soon set up an earthly kingdom that would defeat their political and military enemies. Their expectations got in the way of them seeing and hearing him rightly. So when he spoke and acted in ways that were contrary to their expectations, their response was one of anger and confusion–not joy.

In this particular story, I think the peoples’ anger hinged not so much on Jesus choosing to stop to talk with Zacchaeus, but on one of the words Jesus chose to use. We have learned as we’ve studied the ministry of Jesus that nothing he says or does is by accident. His words are carefully chosen–always. In this story, Jesus uses a word that shows up as “must” in our English translations. This one tiny word packed a punch in the original language. When Jesus says to Zacchaeus, “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today”, he is saying, “it is necessary, right and proper, a necessity of duty and equity for me to come to your house today. 

Right? Proper? Did Jesus know who he was talking to? Zacchaeus is the chief tax collector. A filthy sinner guilty of grievous crimes. A thief among thieves. Certainly it’s not right or proper for Jesus to dine with his kind… I imagine they bristled. Maybe their mouths fell open and they took a step back. While these words may have agitated and confused them, I belief it was the sense of equity that the word carried that stirred the crowd’s anger most of all.

We haven’t written about equity in a while, but it is crucial that we understand what it is if we want to see the bigger picture of the upside-down kingdom of Jesus. Equity is the quality of being impartial, doing whatever it takes to set things right for each one individually. It is not equality. Equality treats every person the same regardless of circumstance. Equality can create further injustice, whereas equity is synonymous with biblical justice–the justice that is about wholeness and making things right, the restorative justice that is at the heart of Jesus’ upside-down kingdom.

So when the crowd heard Jesus speak a word that implied the necessity of setting things right for Zacchaeus–the one who acted unjustly (and with impunity) toward their community, they were mad. They had in mind the kind of justice that we broken humans have a proclivity toward–the retributive kind. This desire for retributive justice is what fueled the people’s expectation of Jesus setting up a powerful, enemy-crushing kingdom rather than the one he actually brought with him.

Back to Zacchaeus… his joy was uncontainable. He hurried to the ground and hosted Jesus in his home. We even see Jesus’ equitable treatment of him extend through Zacchaeus as he changed his mind about how he’d been living and vowed to set things right with those he’d treated unjustly.

This is the power of the presence of Jesus.

An encounter with him changes everything. Zacchaeus had been living a life of marked by stealing from others. And it was stealing any sense of joy he may have had prior. Pastor Beau told us there are five “Joy Stealers” present in this story. Maybe some of these are familiar to us, too…

Secrets: What we think/say/do that no one else sees; what you decide isn’t necessary to share. Zacchaeus made up charges as he taxed his community. How he came up with each charge was hidden from them.

Separation: Being pushed out or isolated from your family, friends, community; a sense of being disconnected from what you were once connected to. It feels like rejection or abandonment, and once it happens, it can get historical when it happens again. Zacchaeus lived a life of isolation from everyone in his community. He lived among them, but was not included as one of them. He was more than disconnected–he was hated.

Shadows: Different than separation. You live in the shadows when you refuse to step in. This is a place of invisibility, a life of being unseen. It is hiding who you are, backing out of the picture and refusing to let others in. (Side note that Beau highlighted: Jesus is always willing to step into the shadows to find you. Always.)

Shame: This one is connected to all the others, and can cause you to move into the shadows. Shame is when you form a negative identity (who you are) based on your mistakes (what you’ve done). It’s complex, and it is brutal. It is trying to separate yourself from what God sees in you. Interestingly, Zacchaeus’ name means “pure”. Not a word that anyone would have chosen to describe the life he was living before he saw Jesus. But what he’d been doing didn’t define him–it wasn’t his identity. After meeting Jesus, he lived into the meaning of his name.

Status Quo: The antithesis of growth. Sameness. No change. Living in the status quo, holding tightly to “normal” can feel safer than changing. Change is hard. It’s scary. It means stepping out of our own neat and tidy boxes into a space where Jesus can reframe the picture we see. Sometimes, we can trick ourselves into thinking that there is joy in our static, unmoving, safe existence. But there can’t be. Because life with Jesus is ever-changing, always growing, and completely uncontainable. We simply cannot box him in. If we try, we end up following (and worshiping) our idea of him and the safety that we’ve slapped his name on as “blessing” or “favor” rather than following Jesus himself.

Zacchaeus sees Jesus. Hears him speak his name. And in a moment, he trades in all these joy-stealers for the fullness of joy found in Jesus alone.

It’s important to note that we don’t have evidence in these verses of Zacchaeus acknowledging his many sins and asking for forgiveness prior to his salvation. We do see that he changes his mind (repents) and decides to make amends, but that’s all we are given. Yet… Jesus says, “salvation has come to your house today”. This is one of many stories that Luke includes in his gospel that stands in opposition to a formulaic plan for forgiveness and salvation. And it’s interesting to ponder. We don’t have time to dive into theological debate here, but I think passages like this one challenge us to look outside of the theological structure we were handed and explore for ourselves what the often familiar words mean.

Jesus gives us one more thing to chew on in this story before he moves on. He says, “For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.” This is fascinating, because again, if we take a closer look, it challenges some of what we think we “know”. Pastor Beau asked us to remember the parables of the lost coin, lost sheep, lost son… In all of these stories, the word “lost” implies prior possession. These things belonged to the one who was looking for them. Before they were lost. While they were lost. After they were found. Being lost didn’t remove their belonging. I’m not going to walk that out further this week–I’ve already written a lot of words. But I hope all of us will think about it, pray about it, and read Jesus’ words with fresh eyes–eyes that are seeking him rather than focused on our expectations of him. 

Where have you lost your way? What is stealing your joy? Look up at Jesus. He’s already looking for you.

–Laura

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JOY (Like Never Before)

Once when John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting, some people came to Jesus and asked, “Why don’t your disciples fast like John’s disciples and the Pharisees do?”  Jesus replied, “Do wedding guests fast while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. They can’t fast while the groom is with them. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. “Besides, who would patch old clothing with new cloth? For the new patch would shrink and rip away from the old cloth, leaving an even bigger tear than before. “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.” (Mark 2:18-22, NLT)

This short passage, which can appear a bit confusing at first glance, was the foundation for this week’s message. These five verses, Pastor John asserted, point us to joy–and show us the danger in making our religious rituals our focus.

Some people came to Jesus and asked… Who were these people who questioned Jesus? Our passage doesn’t identify them. Some translations use the word “confronted” rather than “questioned”, which could give us a clue about who they were. I think it’s also pertinent to our discussion to glance back at the previous passage and to look ahead to what comes next–setting these five verses in context will help us see what’s going on.

Last week, we read the story of the calling of Levi (Matthew), and the subsequent meal Jesus shared with him and his friends–the other tax collectors and sinners. When the Pharisees saw his blatant disregard for the Jewish laws and customs, they attempted to sow seeds of doubt among his disciples, questioning them about why their leader would do such a thing.

This week, just a few short verses later, we see “some people” questioning Jesus about why his disciples don’t observe the ritual of fasting that John’s (this is John the baptizer, Jesus’ cousin) disciples and the Pharisees observe regularly.

If we look ahead to the verses that follow this week’s passage, we see the Pharisees question Jesus again–this time regarding what they considered to be his disciples breaking the law of the Sabbath by picking grain. After this encounter, we see Jesus heal a man’s hand on the Sabbath–once again disregarding a tradition that had become a burdensome rule to follow.

All of these encounters happen within nineteen verses. Jesus calls a tax collector as a disciple. Jesus eats with “unclean sinners”. Jesus’ disciples don’t fast. Jesus’ disciples pick grain on the Sabbath. Jesus heals on the Sabbath.

And those who had made a life of keeping and enforcing the rules and rituals of that day had a big problem with what they saw as an affront to their traditions and laws. They wanted to silence this new voice that had exploded onto the scene; they wanted to catch him, defraud him, expose him… Somewhere along the way, they had forgotten that the rituals (which, as Pastor John pointed out, are not inherently bad things) were designed to point to–not to become–the real focus. Their traditions were originally intended to keep them aware of the God they served, and focused on his presence among them. Instead, it was their traditions that kept them from recognizing the presence of God sitting among them, as one of them.

In this week’s passage, “some people” asked Jesus a question regarding fasting, a ritual that the Pharisees had begun to observe twice a week–with very visible displays of their extreme devotion to “God”. Jesus answers their question a few different ways:

 “Do wedding guests fast while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. They can’t fast while the groom is with them. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. 

He employs here an example that a Jewish audience would absolutely understand. A Jewish wedding was the culmination of great anticipation, and it was enjoyed by friends and family during a week-long celebration. The friends of the bridegroom shared in the couple’s joy–a joy that was made complete by their union, and celebrated in their presence. In the gospel of John, John the baptizer uses the same example when his disciples realize (with jealousy, confusion, and frustration) that Jesus’ following is growing larger than John’s. In chapter 3, verses 28-30, we read John’s response to his disciples’ concerns:

You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”

Both Jesus and his cousin John use the context of a wedding to describe the relationship between Jesus and his followers (what we now call the Church). Jesus was telling those who would listen: I am the groom and I am here. Now. Present with my collective bride. And my followers, the friends of the bridegroom? They can’t fast now, because they are celebrating the arrival of me, the groom, who has come to live among you and to bring you into union with my ways–the ways of my new kingdom that has arrived.

In the text, we don’t see Jesus giving them any time to react or respond before he launches into his next two examples:

“Besides, who would patch old clothing with new cloth? For the new patch would shrink and rip away from the old cloth, leaving an even bigger tear than before. “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.”

We see Jesus, in these two examples, expand upon the first. He is doing here what we’ve seen him do throughout this study in Mark. He is inviting his hearers to change their way of thinking, to become aware of who he is and of the new kingdom that has now come. He distinguishes the new from the old not by calling the old “bad”, but by explaining–again, in terms they would understand–that the old ways could not contain the new. The old cloth of exclusive laws that had defined the Jewish culture up to that point was not compatible with the new, inclusive kingdom ways. The old wineskins that had held the wine of self-promoting ritual and tradition could not hold the new wine of upside-down, self-sacrificing love for God and all others.

His answer to their question was a progression. Why didn’t his disciples fast like the others? First, they recognized Jesus as the one they’d all been waiting for, and their joy was complete in his presence. He was there, among them, living life with them. Fasting was intended as a way to focus on God, a way to show devotion to him over the things of this world. And now Jesus, God in human flesh, was with them! Focusing on him meant being with him, listening to him, learning from him–to fast while he was in their presence would have been unthinkable. Secondly, because they recognized him as the groom–as the one they’d been waiting for–they were participating in the new way of living that he was teaching them. (The laws of this kingdom–love of God and love of others–were not new for Jesus. The way of self-giving love has always been the way of the trinitarian God among us. We couldn’t seem to grasp that, though, so Jesus came to show us what has always been his way…) Jesus was explaining to them that the original focus of their old rituals and traditions was present among them. But because their focus had shifted away from God and onto the rituals themselves, their old cloth was shrunken and could not be merged with the new fabric of his kingdom. Their old wineskins had lost their elasticity and had become hard and brittle. They could not hold the new, rich, full-bodied wine of the kingdom without exploding into pieces.

He was showing them a picture of their hearts and minds… They had shrunken. They’d become hard and brittle, unable to expand or bend. I see the example of the wineskin as yet another invitation from Jesus to those who continued to question him. He let them know that the new wine he came to bring would burst the old, would completely replace it.

Wouldn’t it have been beautiful if they had asked him for it? If they had said yes to this new wine and let it explode their immovable hearts and minds into a million pieces so that bendable, elastic flesh could grow where all the stone had been? 

Some of them did. Later, many stories down the road, we read the story of one such Pharisee, whose heart and mind were exploded by the new wine of the kingdom. We know him as Paul. These are his own words:

 You have heard of my career and former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to hunt down and persecute the church of God extensively and [with fanatical zeal] tried [my best] to destroy it. And [you have heard how] I surpassed many of my contemporaries among my countrymen in [my advanced study of the laws of] Judaism, as I was extremely loyal to the traditions of my ancestors. (Galatians 1:13-14, AMP)

Paul cared about the traditions and rituals more than anyone. He was consumed with zeal for the law. But we know him now as an apostle, as the author of much of what we call our New Testament. So what happened? What changed his mind? Once again, here are Paul’s own words:

The Gospel I preach to you is no human invention. No man gave it to me, no man taught it to me; it came to me as a direct revelation from Jesus Christ(Galatians 1:11-12, J.B. Phillips)

Paul experienced the presence of Jesus Christ himself. And rather than cling to the rituals and laws that he had been so focused on, he let the new wine of Jesus and his kingdom explode his old ways of thinking and being in the world into something brand new. And later, he would pen these words, that we have referred to a few times throughout this series:

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13, NIV)

Hope. Peace. JOY…

Paul, when his focus shifted from the rituals and laws themselves to the One they were designed to point to, found that these–hope, peace, and joy–among many other things, are found only in the Presence of Jesus. They are cultivated by the power of the Spirit within us, but we cannot encounter them outside of the presence of the One who defines them.

We sang these words on Sunday:

I have nothing more than all you offer me;
I have nothing else that’s of worth to me.
I love you Lord, you rescued me
You are all I want. You’re all I need.

The rituals, the structures, the traditions, the way we’ve always understood and done it before–these will never bring us into joy unless we allow them to carry us into the presence of Jesus. In his presence, there is fullness of joy. Joy is an experience of the presence of our King, and cannot be experienced apart from him. No ritual–regardless of how good and how holy it may be–can bring us real joy. Only Jesus can do that. Our joy has to be in him–not in anything we do for him. If we try to find him in what we do, we’ll end up detached and discouraged. He is here. Now. His kingdom lives and breathes among us. His disciples were experiencing the fullness of that truth as he lived and breathed among them. We can, too. If we realize that there is nothing else worth having apart from him, nothing more than what he offers to us. If he is all we want, we’ll find that he really is all we need. And our joy will be made complete in him.

What rituals are you clinging to, as though they can bring you joy? What old wineskins are you drinking from? Where do you need the new wine of Jesus’ kingdom to pour in and burst old ways of thinking and being in the world? I pray that we will all become more aware of what we’re focusing on; and if we find our focus is anywhere but on Jesus, I pray we’ll be brave enough to change.

–Laura

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Selah

“Let Me teach you something about what you think you know.”

There were many lines from Pastor Beau’s message on Sunday that stood out to me, but this one most of all. He was recapping the story of Jesus calling the first disciples in Mark 1 and commenting on the words Jesus said to these men. When he saw Simon (Peter) and Andrew fishing, Jesus called out to them, “Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!” (Mark 1:17, NLT) In other words, “I know you fish for a living, but there’s more to learn about fishing. You know a lot about it—it’s your livelihood—but what you think you know only scratches the surface of what I can teach you.”

As Beau talked to us about this, I couldn’t help but think about another verse. In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul writes these words:

Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. (NLT)

Paul understood that in everything, we are only seeing a partial picture. I think it’s pertinent to mention that this particular verse falls within the famous “love chapter” that is so often quoted at weddings. This verse, in which Paul admits his own incomplete understanding is directly followed by one thing that he is absolutely certain of—the enduring greatness of love above all other things. I believe that what we’ve been learning from Jesus in the book of Mark as we study what he said and did during his ministry absolutely confirms Paul’s assertion about the greatness of love. It also confirms how imperfect our vision is, and how much we need to be transformed by Jesus so that we can see the way he sees.

For the last six weeks, we’ve been traveling what, to many of us, is a very familiar road. These are the gospel “stories” that more than a few of us grew up hearing. Yet… we are seeing things we’ve never seen before. Pastor John has taken a small section of verses each of the last six weeks and taken us deeper into the familiar stories, stories we thought we knew. As we’ve listened to these messages, Jesus has shown up to teach us something new about what we thought we had figured out.

On Sunday, Pastor Beau brought us a “Selah” moment. A pause, if you will. His intention was to slow down and recap what we’ve been learning, to combine the individual images that have been painted for us over the last six weeks into one big picture that connects them all. He reminded us of what we’ve been learning, reiterated the main points, and offered us a bit of his own thoughts and perspective.

You know what happened during this “Selah” message?

Jesus showed up to teach me something more about things I thought I knew.

Through Beau’s teaching and through the presence of the Holy Spirit, my heart was filled with new insight, and I learned new things even as we recapped the new things we’ve learned these last weeks. There were still things we had missed, more to learn from Jesus in depths we thought we’d fully plumbed. How was there still more?

Because Jesus is brilliant, as Beau said on Sunday. In fact, Beau commented that the word “brilliant” doesn’t come close to defining Jesus—he said the only word that really describes Jesus is, well, “Jesus”. Brilliant only scratches the surface. Which is why, friends, it’s so important that we slow down and let him teach us. When have I last checked what’s in my suitcase as I walk out my journey of faith? Do I even know what I’m carrying? Do you know what you’re carrying? Have we packed in our bags rules we learned in Sunday School? Maybe our parents’ faith is in there. Are our bags full of “righteous anger” and judgement? Did love of neighbor ever make it in? How about love? Compassion? Forgiveness? Are we carrying fear and shame in our bags because we were taught that we would only ever be “unclean”, like the leper in our story from a couple of weeks ago? What have we packed? I think somewhere in each of our bags is some form of the belief that we know the “truth” and that our way of believing is “right”. We walk through life believing that there are some things we pretty much have figured out.

Jesus is speaking to each of us, just like he spoke to his first disciples, “Let me teach you something about what you think you know.”

Paul understood that until the day his finite human body crossed into the eternal, he would only ever see imperfectly. He knew a whole lot about a whole of things. But he remained teachable—fully dependent on the only One whose teaching had ever transformed his soul. We have the same opportunity. But it requires from us a willingness to admit that maybe we’ve packed some things in our bag that don’t belong there and omitted some necessities along the way. And it means acknowledging that we can not possibly expect to get it all right and have it all figured out while we walk the earth in our finite bodies. Not because we are defective or lacking some essential part of our make-up. But because we are disciples of One whose brilliance we cannot contain within any man-made boxes, One whose thoughts and ways are beyond what our limited humanity can fathom. This should not make us feel sad, frustrated, or disappointed. On the contrary, this knowledge can lead us into freedom, delight, and childlike expectation as we continue to be enlightened and enchanted by this Teacher whom we follow.

Sometimes our pride, our desire to be right and respected as wise gets in the way… Sometimes, we’re not content to introduce others to our brilliant Teacher so that they can follow Him alongside us… because what we actually want is for them to follow us. The more followers we have, the bigger our platform becomes. The bigger our platform gets, the more sure we become about what we know. And we get more and more addicted to our own greatness. So we run after the next big thing, then the bigger thing, and so on…

This brings me to one of the things Jesus showed me on Sunday, one of the things I hadn’t paused to see before…

Jesus began his ministry in front of large crowds, traveling from town to town and teaching to packed out synagogues. As his ministry grew, however, his platform got smaller. As he got more proximate to individuals and more personal with his connections, he lived a more isolated and lonely life. As his name got bigger, his opportunities in public became fewer.

Seems a little backwards, doesn’t it?

We often resent small beginnings but see them as a means to an end—an end that is bigger and more visible than wherever we had to start. We long for our platforms—and our number of followers—to grow, because somehow that will show that we’ve “made it”, that we are important.

Not so with Jesus. He started at the pinnacle—as the Word that spoke Creation, who had only ever known the communion of the Trinity and the full-faced love and intimacy that they shared. The Beloved of the Almighty, shrouded in glory and love and light.

Then he chose to get smaller.

He was born a helpless baby in a dirty manger to a poor, unmarried couple. The limitless King of Heaven willingly stepped into the confines of newborn flesh, willingly breathed in the air and dust His very mouth created. Coming to us was a huge step down from where He started.

At least when he was born, a star appeared and angels sang—Magi traveled to him bearing fine gifts fit for a King. But then he lived thirty years in absolute obscurity in nowhere Nazareth. If you could get lower than being born in a manger in Bethlehem, this was it. Another step down.

Finally, his ministry began. His cousin, John, prepared the way and proclaimed his greatness. The voice of God thundered from the heavens at his baptism. He was beginning to teach, to gain followers, to fill the synagogues with people eager to hear his voice and to be healed by his touch. People were beginning to wonder if he might be the one they’d been waiting for. They began to get excited about the Kingdom he might establish among them. Things were looking up—

Until he got proximate to one leper. He knew what it would cost him to touch this man, to enter in to his suffering. It would change the trajectory of his whole ministry—no longer would he be welcome in the synagogues. His platform would get smaller, even while his renown would grow.

And he chose to touch him anyway. Because the kingdom he carried, the one he proclaimed as “here and now” is an upside-down kingdom. He would never satisfy the peoples’ expectations for a political superpower kind of kingdom that would rule with violence and vengeance over their enemies. No. His kingdom, his way of “ruling” would continue to cost him—not only his platform, but his very life.

He knew the cost. And he chose it anyway. And because he didn’t perform to earn the next big platform, because he chose the lonely places, the hurting people, the way of compassion and sacrificial love, His name and renown remain unmatched to this day. And we grasp for words to try to describe his greatness…

We long for reach, for influence, for followers. We long to grow our platforms and make a name for ourselves. Maybe Jesus wants to teach us something about the way we define success—in ministry and otherwise. His platform got smaller and smaller the more he loved and went against what those of his day thought they “knew” to be right. What do you think you know? Is it possible that there’s more to learn?

There are a few more things I learned on Sunday that I hadn’t seen before, adjustments that needed to be made in the way I think and understand. I was going to write about more of them, but it’s about time I wrap this up. I’ll finish with this… When Jesus spoke forgiveness and healing over the paralytic who was lowered through the roof of the house where he was teaching; when he allowed the disruption to redirect his teaching to all who were present, Mark tells us, They were all amazed and praised God, exclaiming, “We’ve never seen anything like this before!” (Mark 2:12b) Everyone in that home learned something new that day—about things they already thought they knew. From the man on the mat to the disciples, to the religious leaders occupying the front-row seats, they all left that house changed. Because brilliant Jesus got personal and proximate to each of them and invited them to learn.

Our brilliant Jesus gets personal and proximate to each of us as well. He is inviting us to set aside our “wisdom” and to examine what we’ve put in our bags. He calls out to us the same way he called to his first followers…

“Let me teach you something about what you think you know.”

Will we let him?

–Laura

I love the question that Laura asked us:

What do you think you know? Is it possible that there’s more to learn?

Is it possible that there’s more to learn? My answer to that question is a huge, resounding yes!!! It renews my desire to give the Holy Spirit full access to every part of me.

When I was a child and gave my life to Jesus, my dad said the following when he was presenting me before the church– he said, “Luanne is giving as much of herself as she can to as much of Jesus as she understands.”  That phrase has stuck with with me, and this morning as I write, it came back in full force. Isn’t this the daily journey? My understanding of Jesus is deeper than it was when I was nine years old, and because He is who He is, I will never fully understand Him, which is the beauty of it all. It’s a relationship that will never grow stale, as long as I continue to knock, to ask, to seek, and grow. And when He reveals new things to me, will I give as much of myself as I am able to give (I want that to be all of me!) to the new revelation, the new understanding of Jesus? Yes. There is always more to learn.

When Peter, Andrew, James, and John left their fishing boats behind, they were following what they knew of Jesus in that moment. Scripture is kind to us and shows us some of their blunders along the way, but in the book of Acts we see men who are very different from who they were at the first part of the book of Mark–and they continued to give as much of themselves as they could to as much of Jesus as they understood, which eventually cost three of the four of them their lives.

Before they walked personally with Jesus, they thought they knew what God was about. They “knew” that women and Gentiles were inferior, that lepers and paralytics were being punished and had no place in the religious system, that there were rules to follow in order to stay in God’s good graces, and that religious power was not to be questioned. Then, God in flesh took them under His wing for three years in the form of Jesus and every bit of what they thought they knew was changed. Every bit of it was “like never before”. And they were teachable. Are we?

Pastor Beau used the analogy of foundations. In Jesus day, the foundation of a building was not under the ground, the cornerstone upon which everything else would be built was visible. In our day, foundations are dug below the dirt, they remain hidden. Sometimes they don’t stand the test of time, they get cracks in them, or begin to “settle” in ways that make the entire structure built upon them unstable. Do our spiritual foundations have cracks in them? Do they need to be inspected? Do we need to do some wrestling with our foundations? Are we built upon Jesus, our cornerstone, or something else?

The Apostle Peter, the one who began as a fisherman, quoting the prophet Isaiah wrote in his first letter:

“’See, I lay a stone in Zion,  a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.’ Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’” .           (1st Peter 2:6-7)

Do we trust our chosen, precious,  like never before Savior–or do we reject Him? Do we trust that his Kingdom is here right now? Do we trust His spiritual, intellectual, and physical authority? Do we trust Him enough to be teachable, intentional, available? Do we trust Him enough to  remember that compassion means to connect ourselves to those who are suffering as if we ourselves are suffering? Do we trust Him enough to touch the untouchable? Do we trust Him enough for forgiveness to be as natural to us as breathing? Do we trust Him enough to lovingly challenge the religious culture of the day? Do we trust Him enough to let our attitude toward all people be one of love? Do we trust Him enough to let Him live through us? Do we trust Him enough to be misunderstood?  Is He our precious cornerstone? Do we believe that His ways are right? Do we trust Him enough to live like Him and to be like never before people? What foundation are we building on?

I’m going to throw out some current events, not to be controversial but to give us opportunity to let the Holy Spirit examine our hearts. Transformation requires intentionality. Let’s be intentional in knowing where we land, and why we land there. If something makes us squirm or feel defensive, let’s sit with and ask the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth.  Let’s wrestle with which foundation we land on in each of these situations–is it Jesus our cornerstone, or something man made that is vulnerable to cracks?  The situation at our border, people seeking asylum, children living in cages, refugees and immigrants as a whole–which foundation? Women who have had abortions–which foundation? Our politicians and the way they model how to treat people–which foundation? The LGBTQ community-which foundation? Muslims–which foundation? The injustices that our fellow citizens who represent our nation’s ethnic minorities try to raise awareness of–which foundation?  Families who’ve lost children to gun violence–which foundation?  Hurting, angry disenfranchised white males who become mass shooters–which foundation? Religious leaders who’ve used their power to sexually abuse others and the cover ups that have followed–which foundation? If Jesus were standing right here in the flesh, where would he be? Let’s wrestle. Let’s let Him teach us. He is not Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, or Tea Party –He is Jesus. He is not American–He is Jesus. He is not Baptist or Catholic, or Methodist, or Episcopalian, or non-denominational–He is Jesus. The only way He can be described, as Laura highlighted above, is by Himself. Jesus is Jesus.

Pastor Beau reminded us that Jesus will never ever, ever use His authority and power to be abusive–ever. His authority and power teach us how to fight battles in the spiritual realm. His way of relating to people teaches us how to relate to people–and that even as he pushed back against the thoughts of the religious leaders, he wasn’t taking jabs at them; he was giving them opportunities to change their way of thinking (repenting) about who God is and what His mission is. He loved them all. He loves us all. He. Is. Love.

Beau reminded us that the ministry of Jesus was a monumental shift between the Old Testament and New Testament which can also be called Old Covenant and New Covenant. Jesus came to establish a New Covenant–a covenant in His blood. A new wine skin into which the old wine could not be poured.  New. Different. Like never before.

In John 18:36 Jesus told Pilate that His kingdom is not of this world.

In Luke 17:21 Jesus tells his followers that the Kingdom is within us.

We can’t miss this if we are going to live as like never before people. The Kingdom that is not of this world is within usthis very Kingdom that Jesus taught us to pray would come to earth, the very Kingdom that takes over the world and becomes the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Messiah (Rev. 11:15)-this Kingdom is our mission. This is what we are to be about. His Kingdom coming on earth, His will being done on earth.

Every current event that I listed above would not exist if His Kingdom was reigning here. There would be no need to seek asylum, there would be no need to escape violence, there would be no “us and them”, there would be no abortion because women and children would be cared for by all of us, there would be no violence at all, there would be no injustice, no disenfranchised, no hate, no abuse of power, no pre-judging (also known as prejudice), no hateful rhetoric–there would be love. His kind of love. 

The Apostle Peter told us:  “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual houseto be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1st. Peter 2:5). 

We are living stones being built on the foundation of Jesus, our cornerstone. Jesus told the religious leaders of His day “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” (Mt. 9:13 NLT)

Knowing that we are all in this together, that none of us is righteous in our own strength–the spiritual sacrifice which we are to offer to God is mercy. Mercy is a noun which means kindness, compassion, especially toward those undeserving of it,  and whose synonyms include grace, favor, goodness, gentleness, tenderness, love. (www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/mercy). We are all undeserving of His mercy, yet we have received it and continue to receive it in overflowing abundance from our like never before Jesus. Do we, in turn,  offer mercy as a spiritual sacrifice to the people of the world?

As we pause in our series for this Selah moment, may we reflect on what we’ve heard so far, may we be committed to presenting our like never before Savior to the world around us by being like never before followers of the one who lives in us.

Let’s enter in like never before.

–Luanne

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Like Never Before: Forgiveness

As we continue our series through the Gospel of Mark and discover how Jesus did things like never before, we get to experience his encounters with real people who were seen and touched and loved by him while he was here in the flesh. These are beautiful encounters that are packed with more nuance than we will ever be able to grasp. Our encounter in Mark 2:1-12 is one of these.

Last week, we looked at Jesus’ compassion in his encounter with the leper. We saw how in that encounter, Jesus actually exchanged places with the leper. The leper went away healed. Jesus, because he had touched the leper, stayed in solitary and lonely places.

This week’s encounter finds Jesus heading back home to Capernaum.  He no longer goes to the synagogue to teach like he had done before. Instead, he goes to a house, and as was the case when he was in solitary and lonely places-the people came to him, so the house was full and the space outside the house was full. As Jesus was sharing his message with those gathered in the house, four friends of a paralyzed man tried to get their friend to Jesus. They realized that they were not going to be able to carry him through the crowd, so they came up with a plan. They climbed the stairs to the roof, dismantled the roof, and lowered their friend to the feet of Jesus.

There are so many things that I love about this moment. One, the faith and determination that the friends demonstrated; Jesus was in town and they were not going to miss this opportunity. Two, they dismantled the roof of the house and made a hole large enough to lower their friend and his mat through the roof. Picture in your mind the crowded house, Jesus teaching, and all of a sudden debris begins to fall on them as the hole in the roof appears. I wonder if Jesus laughed. I imagine that he was delighted with this demonstration of friendship and of faith. I imagine the homeowner wasn’t quite as thrilled.

And then, the like never before happens…

But before we get to that part of the story, let’s look at three biblical mindsets.

Romans 12:2 addresses a fixed mindset–it’s our default mindset. Scripture challenges us  to get rid of that mindset and replace it with a new one. I like the way that J.B. Phillips words it, he says, Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within…, the NIV says Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…the NLT states it this way, 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.  

We are getting ready to encounter some fixed mindsets in our story, and fixed mindsets have a tendency to be reactive. We can probably all think of someone, or maybe even ourselves, who have reactive tendencies. Is it because our mindsets are fixed?

The second mindset is one that “leans toward” that bends toward a certain direction. Philippians 2:5 demonstrates this one when it says,  In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus (NIV). Pastor John put it this way, he said let the leanings of your mind lean in the same direction as the mind of Jesus. As long as we know Jesus well enough to see how he treated people, we can know that his mind is not self-serving, that it always leans in the direction of love.

The third mindset is highlighted in 1 Corinthians 14:20 which states do not be children in your thinking… in your thinking be mature. (ESV)  In this verse, the word for thinking comes from the word “diaphragm” which is the membrane in the body that helps us breathe. Breathing is natural to us, we don’t focus on it a great deal. Thinking is natural to us, we don’t focus on it a great deal, yet our mindset–which can be as natural to us as breathing, needs to be transformed so that our mindset becomes like that of Jesus–he wants his mindset in us to be as natural as breathing.

Back to Mark 2.  The friends of the paralyzed man lower him down and he lands in front of Jesus. It would have been impossible for the people in the house to ignore this moment. Do you wonder how they were responding? Were they talking about it, or has this moment rendered them silent? Were they laughing or were they mad? We know that there are “teachers of the law” in close proximity. (How did they get the front seats in this crowded house?)

Before the paralyzed man has said a word, Jesus said to him, “Your sins are forgiven.” Hmmm. What must the paralytic have been thinking in that moment? Is that why his friends went to such great lengths to get him to Jesus?  What is going on here?

Jesus knows our greatest need, and Jesus often times acts in unpredictable ways. In just a moment we are going to get to the part of the story where we know that Jesus knew the thoughts of the teachers of the law. Did he know the thoughts of the paralytic man? Was the man thinking to himself, “I’m not worthy to be in the presence of Jesus?” “I’m not worthy to be the center of attention?”  “I shouldn’t be here?”  We don’t know. But what if that was the case, and Jesus was addressing that mindset by letting the man know that nothing in his life was being held against him, that he could let go of guilt and shame, and that Jesus deemed him forgiven and worthy to be exactly where he was in that moment. If, as was the religious custom of the day, the man was being blamed for being a paralytic because of his sins, Jesus was taking care of that mindset as well.

However, the fixed mindset of the teachers of the law couldn’t see the beauty of the moment. Some of them were thinking to themselves  “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

So Jesus in his brilliance, but I also think in his love for the teachers of the law, addresses them in their own language.

They thought, “Why does this fellow talk like that?”  Jesus responds “Why are you thinking like that?”  Question for question.

They thought “He’s blaspheming!” (For a charge of blasphemy to be brought against someone, the blasphemous words had to be spoken.) Jesus responded, Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’?

They thought, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus responded, want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. So he said to the man,  “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.”

There is so much packed in these verses. When Jesus spoke forgiveness to the paralytic man, he was breathing out what is natural for him. His nature is love, His nature is forgiveness. His ministry is reconciliation. The man did not ask for forgiveness, he didn’t have to jump through a number of religious hoops to receive forgiveness–Jesus just spoke it over him–because Jesus has authority on earth to forgive sins. All of them. And He has offered this gift to all of us. No one is excluded. And then he demonstrated his authority over the things of earth by physically healing the man. The man became the living parable that the authority of Jesus to forgive us changes our lives.

Jesus has the unique ability to be fully present with the people he encounters. He was fully present with the paralytic man–but he was also fully present with the teachers of the law. He was for all of them. He met the paralytic man where he was. He also met the teachers of the law where they were. He used questions, reasoning, and logic–their language– to address their thoughts.

Before the man was lowered, Jesus had been sharing his message with those gathered in the house. Earlier in the book of Mark, we learn that the message of Jesus was “Repent”–which literally means ” change your mind…get a new mind”, “because the kingdom of heaven is here.”  So to the group in the house, including the religious authorities of the day–the men who interpreted the religious law for the common people–Jesus is saying there is a new way to think about God. He is full of love, He is ready to forgive, He is here, and He is changing things.

The new covenant that Jesus introduced fulfilled all the requirements of the law in Him. Jesus forgave the paralytic man before he ever went to the cross–he has the authority to forgive- period–and he does not withhold his forgiveness from anyone. He demonstrated his authority to the teachers of the law, to the crowd in the house, to the friends of the paralytic man who were watching from the roof, to the man who was forgiven and healed, and to you. You can know, beyond a shadow of any doubt,  that God is for you. You can be free from legalism and rules. You can be free from the fixed mindset of this world, including the fixed mindset of religious systems. Every single moment in your life that has not measured up to the perfection of God is forgiven, so that, you can have an organic, real, personal relationship with a God who loves you more than you will ever comprehend. You don’t have to do anything to earn it.  Will you allow your mind to think the way Jesus thinks? Will you allow the Spirit to so totally change your mind, mold your mind, transform your mind,  that Christ’s way of thinking becomes as natural to you as breathing? Will you embrace God’s for-give-ness that He demonstrated in His give-for you?  And will you join him in giving for others?

The beautiful result of the rest of our encounter with the paralytic man was, He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this before!”

May we be such pure reflections of the heart, the mind, the sensitivity, feelings, intellect and actions of Jesus that the world sees the beauty of God through us and draws close to Him in praise, because they’ve never encountered anything like Him before…

–Luanne

Last week when we looked at the story of Jesus healing the leper, we remarked that as Jesus touched him, the kingdom came and invaded the life of the leper. In that story, it was a touch from Jesus that caused a collision of the heavens and earth. This week, it was Jesus’ words that carried the weight of the kingdom. His words, unprovoked, gushed out into the paralytic’s reality–and changed his life forever. Luanne wrote:

“The man did not ask for forgiveness, he didn’t have to jump through a number of religious hoops to receive forgiveness–Jesus just spoke it over him…”

Pastor John told us on Sunday that Jesus’ forgiveness of the paralyzed man says nothing about the heart of the man (we have no idea where his heart was) but that it says everything about the heart of Jesus. Luanne wrote about the heart of Jesus being for everyone who was present. His awareness and his focus were on the paralytic AND on everyone else in the room… the owners of the home, the friends on the roof, the teachers of the law in the front row, the others among them who needed healing. He was aware of all of them, and He chose his words accordingly.

I wonder what he was teaching about, what stories he might have been telling, before the roof began to open above them… Surely Jesus knew the thoughts of those around him before the paralytic entered the room. Perhaps his words to the man carried even more impact than we can know based on the record of the story that we have in our Bibles. We know that his thoughts are higher than ours, as are His ways, which, like Luanne said above, are often unpredictable. Regardless of what he’d been talking about, he chose to respond to this interruption by breathing out forgiveness. Forgiveness that was not asked for, earned, merited in any way, or sacrificed for… He washed away this man’s shortcomings not with blood, but with his breath. The same mouth that spoke creation spoke forgiveness. And he had (as he has now) full authority to do so. This is a big deal, and worthy of further study, but I’ll leave you to ponder and pursue that further on your own, if you so desire.

This kingdom collision moment stirred up the crowd. Jesus’ declaration of forgiveness set the minds of the teachers of the law (and probably the minds of everyone else, too) ablaze with questions. What we see in this story from these religious men is the picture of where their minds were fixed.

Luanne wrote about the three different definitions of “mind” that Pastor John spoke to us about on Sunday. The first one referenced is the fixed mindset, the one that is our default. This one is a fortified structure–it’s solid and largely unmoving, as the word “fixed” would infer. Both John and Luanne explained that this is the mindset that needs to be changed, renewed, transformed.

As I thought about this fixed, rigid, frame of mind, I found myself thinking about Ezekiel 36:26:

 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

When I looked into this verse a little more deeply, I found that the Hebrew word that is translated “heart” in this verse is the word “leb.” This little word is used over 500 times in the Hebrew scriptures. It is translated “heart” in most cases, but it is translated “mind” or “understanding” a combined 22 times. The definition of the word is interesting… It means “inner person: mind, will, heart, understanding, soul, thinking, knowledge, inclination, determination of will”, and is also used widely to mean “the center” of anything. The Greek English Lexicon of the NT based on Semantic Domains states that the “Hebrew term ‘leb’, though literally meaning ‘heart’, refers primarily to the mind.”

I don’t know about you, but I find this pretty captivating… especially if we replace the word heart in Ezekiel 36:26 with our understanding of what the original word referenced, the idea of the mind.

It gets better. The Hebrew word “leb” has a Greek equivalent that we see all over the New Testament. This word is “kardia”. It is one of many words that is translated “heart” in the NT, and it shows up twice in this week’s passage–both in reference to the teachers of the law:

But some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts (kardia)…    (Mark 2:6)

Immediately Jesus, aware in His spirit that they were reasoning that way within themselves, said to them, “Why are you reasoning about these things in your            hearts (kardia)?” (Mark 2:8)

I am using the NASB because it is a more direct translation, but it is very interesting if you read through different translations of these verses how interchangeably the words “heart” and “thinking” are used.

Though we know Jesus was able to speak Greek (evidenced by His exchanges with the woman with the demon-possessed child in Matthew 14, as well as His conversations with Pontius Pilate), it is generally agreed upon by historians and theologians that he most likely spoke Aramaic, a sister language to Hebrew. More than likely, given his audience in this week’s passage, he was speaking Aramaic. So we don’t know exactly what words he used. What we know is that whatever words he used, the Greek word that translators chose in these two passages for “heart” is the one that is the equivalent to the Hebrew “leb”. I apologize if I’m being too much of a word-nerd here, but I find this fascinating…

These teachers of the law were working from a fixed, rigid framework–let’s say, a mindset that was set in stone. We know that it is this frame of mind that needs to be changed to become like the mind of Jesus. And when Jesus addresses these men, he uses a word that they would have recognized as interchangeable with the word from the scripture in Ezekiel. Could it be that he was offering to remove their hearts/minds/centers of being that were set in stone and replace them with hearts/minds/centers of being that were instead made of flesh? Able to bend, move, lean toward him rather than away? Is this part of how Jesus was loving these teachers of the law in his midst whilst loving the paralytic into the freedom of forgiveness? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that, like Luanne expressed above, Jesus is always FOR everyone. All of us. Period. So I don’t find it a stretch to imagine that in this moment, Jesus himself was offering to replace their fixed mindsets, inviting them to adopt his way of thinking in place of  their own rigid ones.

This is such an important thing for all of us to understand, to grasp, to see in ourselves. Luanne wrote, “…our mindset–which can be as natural to us as breathing, needs to be transformed so that our mindset becomes like that of Jesus–he wants his mindset in us to be as natural as breathing.” If we are to be vessels that carry the kingdom of Jesus to the world around us, we have to be disciples of Jesus, learning from him constantly, being made more like him every step of the way. This is what the renewing of our minds, and being transformed is all about. Dallas Willard, in his book The Divine Conspiracy, says it this way:

“And as a disciple of Jesus I am with him, by choice and by grace, learning from him how to live in the kingdom of God. This is the crucial idea. That means, we recall, how to live within the range of God’s effective will, his life flowing through mine. Another important way of putting this is to say that I am learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live my life if he were I. I am not necessarily learning to do everything he did, but I am learning how to do everything I do in the manner that he did all that he did… I am learning from Jesus how to lead my life, my whole life, my real life.” 

I am learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live my life if he were I… 

Since I read that passage a couple of weeks ago, that one line won’t leave my consciousness. How would Jesus live my life–in every moment–if he were me? It changes my responses. It refocuses my mind and priorities. It helps me let go and forgive when I don’t want to. It makes me take notice of others who do this well, those around me that I can learn from.

And it reminds me to simply pay attention. How did Jesus live? What did he do and say? How did he love? In this week’s story, we read of how forgiveness is as natural as breathing to Jesus. And we know that we are to be transformed more and more into his likeness. But forgiveness doesn’t always come so easily to us… How are we to get there?

We have to breathe in what Jesus breathes out so that it can then live within us and grow within our hearts and minds. It’s like CPR for our souls. When we inhale the life-giving love and forgiveness of Jesus, we inhale the kingdom. As the kingdom lives and breathes within us, we become more like Jesus, so that we can grow into people to whom forgiveness is as natural as breathing. And then we can exhale this life, love, forgiveness–the ways of the kingdom–to those around us.

As we move forward, I pray that we learn to ask ourselves how Jesus would live our lives if he were us. And I hope that we’ll learn to let our minds lean toward him, to bend toward his way of thinking. Let’s ask him to replace our hearts/minds/centers of being that are fixed and stony with hearts and minds of flesh that are able to love and forgive the way he does. Let’s ask him. His response to us is as natural as breathing for him. We can trust him to exhale love and forgiveness–the kingdom life–into our lives just like he did for those he encountered in our story this week. And as we breathe him in, we’ll grow into people who can love and forgive like never before.

–Laura

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Compassion (Like Never Before)

Leper.

What comes to mind as you read that word?

Leprosy isn’t a disease we hear much about today. Only a handful of cases are diagnosed in the United States each year, and with modern medicine, it is absolutely curable. But it wasn’t always that way…

During the time that Jesus walked in human skin, leprosy was a death sentence. It was terminal–there was no cure. But worse than the death sentence was the life sentence it carried… We picked up our story of Jesus in Mark 1:40-45 this week. These verses tell us the story of a leper. Consider this man’s reality with me for a moment…

We don’t know his name, or who he was before the leprosy. We know nothing of the life he’d lived before. He had been banished from human contact, with no hope of being touched by anyone again. Perhaps he’d been a husband, a father. If so, his family was now to regard him as though he were dead–even while he lived. Never again would he embrace his wife or hold his children. In fact, his wife may have already remarried, as she would have been regarded as a widow…

Even if someone dared to touch him, he wouldn’t feel it–the disease affected his nerve endings and destroyed his ability to feel. His leprosy made him numb. For the rest of his life… He was sentenced to a life in the shadows–and even there, people would avoid him, because they believed even his shadow was contagious. He was sentenced to a life of shame and obscurity, and who he used to be mattered not. From here on out, his identity was “leper” and “unclean”. If he dared come near a town, he’d be obligated to shout out that word to warn people to stay away. “Unclean! Unclean!” This was his name now. He lived his life as the walking dead.

Rejected. Unclean. Isolated. Ashamed. Lonely. Broken. Numb. Disgraced. Discarded. Forgotten. Unnamed. Untouchable. Hopeless…

He would live alone. And then die alone. Would anyone notice he was gone? Likely not, for his life ended the day his leprosy appeared. He had been dead to them–all of them–since then.

But Jesus…

Maybe the leper had heard rumors of this man from passers by… Maybe another leper had spoken of him… We don’t know how this man knew about Jesus, but he’d heard enough to recognize when he came near. And one day, as Jesus was traveling throughout the region of Galilee, preaching, healing, and casting out demons, this leper fell at Jesus’ feet. He knelt before the One he had heard of, grasping at hope and brimming with belief…

“If you are willing, you can heal me and make me clean,” he said. (Mark 1:40b, NLT)

Somehow, he knew Jesus could cure the incurable. He believed in His ability to restore him to health.

But maybe he wouldn’t want to…

The paralyzed, blind, demon-possessed, and otherwise afflicted had experienced healing at the hands of Jesus. But him? A leper who was already regarded as dead to his community? Maybe Jesus wouldn’t go that far.

“If you are willing…”

I can picture his eyes, pleading, daring to hope–but wide with a bit of fear… Was he crying? Did he look at the ground, or did he glance at the eyes looking back at him? If he did, did he see the deep pools of Jesus’ eyes fill as the emotion within Him surfaced? The vulnerability of this moment–for both men–causes me to pause, to linger, to imagine what each of them might have been feeling…

Have you ever pleaded with anyone? Knowing they had the power to help you, the ability to meet your need, if only they wanted to? Has anyone ever pleaded with you that way? Do you know the desperation of a moment like this one?

Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out and touched him. “I am willing,” he said. “Be healed!” (Mark 1:41, NLT)

Compassion… Pastor John spoke of compassion as the deepest of human expressions. It is a feeling that originates in the gut, more specifically in the bowels. Something deep within feels the suffering of another. It is more than coming alongside one who is suffering. It isn’t a surface emotion, like sympathy; it doesn’t carry the condescension of pity, and it doesn’t remain detached like empathy. It is entering into the suffering of another as though it was happening to you.

Jesus was filled with compassion for this man, moved by it. In this moment, it was as if he became a leper, too, and felt the hopelessness, the sorrow, the depth of his agony… Again, I imagine Jesus’ eyes as He entered into this man’s existence, knowing the man’s rejection and loneliness would transfer to Him as He granted this request… Did His chest tighten as He realized that what He felt for this man–the rejection and isolation that was headed His way as soon as people heard the news of his healing–would pale in comparison to the rejection, betrayal, and death that He would soon feel? As His compassion and deep love for humanity led Him to the end of His own life on this earth?

I don’t know the answers to the many questions this story provokes. But I do know that Jesus didn’t hesitate. Didn’t count the cost and weigh His options, though the cost to His very well-being would be extremely high. His response was not an emotionally driven knee-jerk reaction, though His emotions were absolutely in play during this interaction. How do I know this? Because of what the word “willing” means here…

In the Greek, the word is distinguished as “an active option”, and differentiated from “subjective impulse”. It means “to will, have in mind, intend; be resolved or determined, to purpose; to desire, to wish; to love; to like to do a thing, be fond of doing; to take delight in, have pleasure.”

When Jesus said He was willing, it wasn’t a flippant decision. It wasn’t a begrudging yes. It was an expression of deep love and purpose, something He was delighted to do, something that–while the cost to Himself would be very high–He was determined to do.

And He didn’t only say the words. He reached out and touched the man… 

Can you even imagine this moment?

We don’t know how long this man had suffered. How many days, months, years it had been since anyone reached out to touch him… He clearly believed that Jesus was able to heal him. But to be seen, heard, and then touched by the Jewish rabbi/God-man? Touched by this One who knew and understood that to touch him was to violate every social, medical, and religious law, rule, and recommendation regarding people of his kind? I imagine the thought didn’t even cross his mind.

Can you picture the shock on his face as the hand of Jesus moved his direction? Did he flinch, or try to move out of the way so he wouldn’t contaminate Jesus? Did he gasp or try to say something? Did he even see it coming, this collision of heaven and earth? Or was he staring at the ground, ashamed of his need and afraid of the response he would receive? We aren’t given details of the interaction, so we’re left to wonder… Did Jesus gently lift the man’s chin so he could see the love on His face as He voiced His willingness? Did He tenderly cup his face in both hands? Did he reach for his hands and lift him to his feet? Leprosy had robbed this man of the ability to feel touch. Did Jesus’ hands linger on him until he could feel the warmth of the Healer’s hands break through his numbness?

I don’t know. But every possible scenario causes my breath to catch in my chest…

Sweet Jesus, how beautiful you are… How kind… 

Touching him let the leper know that Jesus was willing to accept the cost of compassion. And it would cost Him everything, as it was the beginning of the violence and rejection Jesus would face at the hands of those He came to heal… Touching him told the leper that Jesus was willing to take his place, to share his pain, to connect with him. This went far beyond concern. Jesus got proximate to this man. He took the time to look and see beyond the surface, to listen so that He could really hear. He set aside the “wisdom” of the culture around Him that said this man might as well be dead, that he was hopeless, and beyond the reach of mercy. He chose to engage deeply enough to feel the full extent of this leper’s pain. He got close enough to smell the stench of his disease–and He continued to move toward him, not away. Because compassion takes us all the way. All the way into the pain of the one in front of us. Beyond the judgments, assumptions, and invisible walls of separation. Compassion takes us beyond our comfort zones and often, right into a danger zone. And then it takes us further… Jesus touched him…

The nuance of this story is lost on us if we move through it too quickly. Take a moment to place yourself there. If you had a front-row seat to this interaction, what would you see? Hear? Feel?

Jesus touched the untouchable… In that moment, as Pastor John told us on Sunday, the Kingdom came and invaded the life of this leper. I can’t articulate how much I love that. This story, contained in six short verses, shows us what the kingdom looks like. The way of the kingdom is the way of self-sacrificing love. If we haven’t allowed compassion to move us out beyond ourselves into love that chooses to identify with and take the place of another, we haven’t become carriers of the kingdom. The kingdom has come–Jesus brought it with Him and He modeled what it looks like over and over again. It is here, among us, inviting us to step into it, to carry it to every corner of this earth–but I think we sometimes have the wrong idea of what “Your kingdom come” actually means…

Kingdom love always co-suffers with the “other”–whoever that may be. Kingdom love doesn’t pick and choose who’s worthy to be invited in. Kingdom love doesn’t shame people to Jesus. Kingdom love doesn’t “truth” people to Jesus. Kingdom love doesn’t judge people to Jesus. Kingdom love wears the shoes of compassion–or it isn’t Kingdom love at all. 

Jesus showed us what Kingdom love looks like and what it does. It moves us to go. To go to the ones we’re told to disregard, to be afraid of, to ignore, to disdain, to stay away from. To the ones who could hurt us, infect us, and change our “status”. The Kingdom moves us to go to them, and to engage with their stories. It moves us to enter into their lives, knowing it will cost us. Kingdom love says, “I’ll take your place. My life, given for yours.”

In Jesus’ day, the leper represented the dirtiest of humanity. The leper’s level of “uncleanness” was second only to a decomposing corpse.

But Jesus… He changed everything. He brought the kingdom to this man, fully aware of the cost.

Who are the “lepers” of today? Who are we unwilling to engage with, unwilling to get proximate to? Who do we regard as “unclean”, “hopeless”, even… better off dead? Who do we judge from a distance, post about on social media, and see as less than human? Who, if we choose to enter into their lives and their pain, could cost us? Who are we unwilling to touch because the social, physical, financial, and professional risks are just too high? Who are we afraid of?

Is it the LGBTQ community? 

Women who have had abortions?

Undocumented immigrants?

Muslim refugees? 

Prisoners on death row?

The sick?

The elderly?

The disabled?

Democrats?

Republicans?

People who don’t look like you?

That estranged family member?

Yourself…?

Who are the lepers in your world? Who is hiding in the shadows, hopeless and rejected, asking, “Do I have worth?”, “Is there any hope for me?”, “Are you even willing to look at me, hear me, touch me?” What would it take for you to move toward that person, toward that group?

Jesus isn’t walking the earth in human skin today.

But His Church is.

The Kingdom invaded one leper’s life on an ordinary day that changed both his and Jesus’ life forever. We are invited, and called, as Kingdom-bearers, to be moved by compassion and love and carry that same Kingdom–the one that also invaded and transformed our lives on ordinary days–into the hardest places, to the most broken of lives.

Think constantly of those in prison as if you were prisoners at their side. Think too of all who suffer as if you shared their pain. (Hebrews 13:3, J.B. Phillips)

This verse calls us to remember those who suffer, to think about them constantly. This will cultivate our concern. But Jesus taught us by example that compassion is more than simply thinking of those who suffer. Compassion is concern that has learned how to walk, how to move and get proximate to those we think of and pray for. This is the way of the Kingdom. Walking in compassion identifies us with the One we call Savior.

Friends, we can carry healing, kingdom love to a hurting, dying world… Jesus has entrusted us to carry His kingdom–

Are we willing?

–Laura

A few years ago, I was walking to work and pondering the word “remember”. I was struck by the fact that the opposite of remember is not forget–the opposite is dismember. Hebrews 13:3, that Laura wrote above, in many other translations uses the word remember… The NLT version reads:

Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself. Remember also those being mistreated, as if you felt their pain in your own bodies. 

That verse is the very definition of the compassion Jesus modeled. We (I) too easily dismember ourselves from the pain of others–yet Jesus says connect yourself to others, re-member, attach yourself to them. Enter into their story with them. Feel with them. Suffer with them. Become them, as much as you are able to.

Compassion is greater than pity, which can be condescending.

                          Compassion is greater than sympathy, which can be superficial.

                                         Compassion is greater than empathy, which can be too distant.

                                                                           Compassion wants to take their place. 

Is anything about compassion easy? No. Compassion is self-sacrificing. Compassion is loving others so well that we are willing to exchange our lives for theirs. Compassion looks like Jesus.

Laura wrote beautifully about the leper’s encounter with Jesus–she slowed us down, put us in his shoes, caused us to think about what he may have been thinking, feeling, experiencing. Can you imagine what his life was like?

So here he is, this total outcast who is not supposed to come out of the shadows, yet he not only comes out of the shadows but approaches Jesus. Up until this moment  in the book of Mark, Jesus has been ministering to the masses. He’s been teaching in  synagogues, he’s been healing large numbers of people. But Jesus, (I love him so much), in this moment, becomes all about the one man.  The one. The one rejected, isolated, unclean, untouchable man.

Jesus touches him. I wonder if this man who couldn’t feel felt the touch of Jesus immediately, or if Jesus gave him a moment to see that he was being touched, even while he was still diseased, and gradually let the touch become felt?  The moment of Jesus’ touch makes me think of the verse God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:8). While we are still diseased, he touches us, while we are still diseased, he takes our place. He didn’t heal the man first and then touch him. He touched him while he was still sick. He does this for us–do we do this for others? If he hadn’t/doesn’t love us in our brokenness, we have no chance to be in relationship with him. We cannot fix ourselves. And compassion like this is the proof of God’s love-if we are the carriers of His love to this broken world, what does compassion look like for us?

Compassion will cost us something. For Jesus, in this encounter, it cost him the ministry that he previously had. After Jesus asked the man not to tell anyone, but to go show himself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that were required as a testimony of his healing (vs. 44-45) the man did what we might do as well–he told everyone. The result was that Jesus could no longer enter a town openly, but stayed outside in lonely places. (vs. 45)The man, who had previously been isolated, banished to live outside in lonely places, was now free to be part of society again. Jesus was now the one living in lonely places.

There is so much in this encounter. So much. Many of us recognize that Jesus died in our place. He gave His life in exchange for ours–and we are grateful. But what He models in this story is that this very human earth life we live–he is willing to exchange for His.  I think this is a key point in what it means to be a Jesus-follower. If his life now lives in me, do I look like him?

In trying to think of people who model compassion, my mind kept going to the Ten Boom family, Christians who hid Jews in their home during World War 2. They were arrested–they knew all along that arrest was a possibility–but they were willing to show compassion, Jesus’ kind of compassion–the entering in and suffering with kind of compassion. Only one of the Ten Booms survived the concentration camp. Her name was Corrie, and she wrote an incredible book called “The Hiding Place” that tells their story.  They broke the laws of Nazi Germany in order to fulfill the law of Christ–“love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31),  and greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13). Which laws are most important to us?

The call for Jesus-followers— we are to be him by letting him live the life that he exchanged for ours through us.

We just finished our season of 21 Days of Prayer and Fasting, and this year many of the needs we were interceding for were heavy and hard. Friday night, as I was praying, a worship song that lifts Jesus up and recognizes that He is on the throne came on. It’s a song that I usually love, but Friday I could not sing it. Instead I was saying to Jesus, I know that you are on the throne–but right now I don’t need to feel that distance. I need to know that you are right here, right now, and that you hear our cries on behalf of these we are praying for. The need felt overwhelming to my heart and I was hurting for so many.

Saturday morning, our last time together for this season, communion was being served. As I was praying, my eyes kept being drawn to the bread and the juice. God reminded me that bread and juice come from the earth–they are elements of earth. He reminded me that Jesus–our bread, our wine–is fully present here, fully human even while being fully divine. I needed to be reminded of his humanity, and I was.

After Jesus went to live in lonely places, Mark concludes this encounter by telling us the people still came to him from everywhere. Jesus had proven that he is in this with us. He touched a leper. He is here. He will touch you, and give you the freedom to touch others–not just the ones who are easy to touch, but the ones who when you touch them, when you speak up for them, when you love them, it may cost you something. It’s the Jesus way–and nothing is more beautiful.

Love so amazing, so divine

                                                                      Demands my soul, 

                                 my life

                                                    my all…

                              (When I Survey, Isaac Watts)

Re–member.

–Luanne

Image result for compassion quote henri nouwen

 

Prayer (Like never Before)

Prayer. How does one even begin to understand it? There are entire books, lots of them, written about how to pray. I’ve read a number of them, I’ve tried a number of the different methods suggested in them. I’ve searched for the “right way” to pray. And I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way to mess up prayer is not to pray.  I’ve let go of formulas, and just show up with a desire to connect with God. Some days I don’t pray a word, I just sit intentionally in God’s presence. Some days I pray with words. Some days I read scripture and converse with God as I read. Some days I intercede for the world and for people I know. Some days I journal. Some days I worship with music. Some days I read the prayers of others and make their words my own.  Most days I ask Jesus what He wants our time to look like that day. Sometimes I feel a strong sense of connection, some days not so much, but my “feelings” aren’t what my prayer life needs to be about. Connecting with my Father (which includes listening) is what prayer is about.

Sunday, in our Like Never Before series, Pastor John had us look at the prayer life of Jesus.  Last week we looked at Jesus’ authority and the long day that He’d experienced. He’d taught in the synagogue, driven out an impure spirit, healed Peter’s mother-in-law, and after dark when  “the whole town” showed up at the house, He healed many and drove out many evil spirits. (Mark 1:21-34). I imagine He was tired at the end of that day. How did he even get all of those people to finally go home so he and his disciples could rest? Do you ever think about things like that? I do.

However, the following day we learn that very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. (Mark 1:35). In that moment Jesus was showing us the the priority of His life–His desire to connect one on one with His Father, before any other distractions of the day called to Him.

I am an early morning pray-er. I’ve learned that, for me, starting my day with Jesus, before anyone else is up, works best. However, not everyone rises early and that’s okay. Prayer is not a legalistic activity. It’s not about the time of day–it’s about the connection. Prayer is about our need to connect with the One we are following. Prayer helps us to understand God’s will and God empowers us to carry out His will as we spend time with Him.

What Pastor John showed us Sunday about  Jesus’ prayer life are that His words and actions matched. He connected both soul and body to prayer. And He connected heaven and earth in prayer.

In Matthew 6:5-8,  Jesus teaches us some things about prayer. He says:

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.
 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
In other words–don’t pray to impress others, and just because someone prays out loud doesn’t mean they have an intimate relationship with God. We aren’t in a place to judge the hearts of others, but Jesus did tell us that we can have an idea based on the fruit of people’s lives. Is there evidence of Holy Spirit fruit?
Pastor John even reminded us not to say to people “I’m praying for you”,  or “I’ll pray for you”, and then not pray. Anything that makes us sound good, but not followed through with could be what Jesus was addressing, and our only reward will be that people think we’re great.  Jesus wants us to  spend some alone time with God–connect with Him in solitude–whether anyone else ever knows that we do that or not. And then He modeled exactly that in Mark when he left the house early to go pray. (Note: prayer is not legalistic and corporate prayer is absolutely something that the church does together; however, corporate prayer alone will not sustain us and help us grow.)
When Jesus left the house early, He was involving His physical body as well as His soul in the act of prayer. He got His physical body out of bed. He walked to a solitary place. He got Himself into a position of prayer, and he prayed. There was intention in what He did with His physical body. And then He connected His soul, the part of us that we can’t see–our thought life, our emotions, etc. with God. Pastor John pointed out that it was not outside obligation that caused Jesus to get up–it was the internal desire of His soul that wanted to connect with His Father that caused Him to move.
I find that the longer I walk with God the more I have that internal desire to connect with Him.  Without a doubt, there is some discipline involved in making time to connect with God, but once the discipline has been established, that time of connection becomes as life-giving as food and water. If you haven’t experienced that yet in your walk, don’t guilt yourself, just ask the Holy Spirit to give you the desire, and then follow through with intentionality. I can honestly say that I am not who I used to be. God has changed me, and it has been through my time with Him. I don’t know how He’s done it, but I know that He has. It is true that whatever we are doing with our physical bodies shows the priorities of our soul. Our inner life is reflected in our outward actions. If prayer becomes a priority, our lives will change.
Possibly my favorite part of prayer is that it connects heaven and earth. Jesus began His ministry by saying “the kingdom of heaven is here”. Somehow we’ve missed the significance of this in modern day Christianity. Our focus has become the after-life and we talk a lot about going to heaven when we die; however, that was not the message Jesus focused on, nor did the Apostles in the book of Acts. The message they preached is that God’s kingdom has come to us—right here, right now.   Jesus taught us to pray “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. He taught us to “Seek FIRST the kingdom of God”-right here, right now. Christianity is not about what happens after death, it is about life right here, right now. We have got to understand this! And, I’ll say it again, we have got to know the real Jesus in order to know what heaven on earth looks like.
I write these next statements gently, knowing that we all wrestle with making Jesus in our image, but we must be willing to recognize when we have done that and change our way of thinking to reflect who He has shown Himself to be.
If the Jesus you follow is connected to a political party, either one, He might not be the real Jesus. Jesus is connected to the “party” of the Kingdom of Heaven.
If the Jesus you follow is not concerned about people who are oppressed, who live in poverty, who live in danger, who are discriminated against, who are treated as less than, and who are unwelcome, He might not be the real Jesus. Remember the lepers, the women, the foreigners, the demon-possessed, the uneducated, the outcasts who were Jesus’ friends and ministry partners.
If the Jesus you follow favors your religious denomination, your nationality, your state, your education, your points of view, He might not be the real Jesus.
If the Jesus you follow is angry about “rights”–the right to pray in public, the right to post the 10 Commandments, or any other “rights”–He might not be the real Jesus. Jesus is gentle, and kind, and concerned about our transformation from the inside out.
Following the real Jesus means that we become like the real Jesus and the kind of people attracted to Him will be attracted to us.
How do we get to know the real Jesus? Connection through prayer, through the gospels, and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Seeking God in this way, leads us to what He says is eternal life. In John 17:3 Jesus prays Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.  
When we know Him, we know God’s will, which is to spread the message that the kingdom of heaven has come to earth, the love of God is available to everyone, we were created with divine purpose and can be part of His kingdom and its advancement on earth…and He’ll lead us every step of the way, showing us our next steps, just like the Father did with  Jesus while they were alone together.
Jesus, while he was still praying in that solitary place, was interrupted by the disciples who said  “Everyone is looking for you!” (Of course they were, Jesus had healed, and delivered people from demon possession the previous night –nothing like this had ever happened before.)  Yet, Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come. (Mark 1: 37-38)
I imagine the disciples were a little surprised by that. Yet Jesus, in His time with His Father, knew what to do next. I’m sure people were disappointed in Him–He didn’t do what they wanted. But He is Jesus. His life is all about the Father’s will, body and soul, words and actions, connecting heaven and earth–all fueled by connection with God through prayer, and He invites us to do the same. Will we enter in?
–Luanne
Luanne wrote, “It is true that whatever we are doing with our physical bodies shows the priorities of our soul. Our inner life is reflected in our outward actions. If prayer becomes a priority, our lives will change…”
What we do with our physical bodies shows the priorities of our soul With the exception of cases of physical disability that can prevent us from doing with our bodies what our souls long to do, I absolutely agree with this statement. We make time and space in our lives to do the things our souls prioritize. Even in the midst of life’s responsibilities and demands, we find a way to do the things our souls desire. It’s how we’re wired. Sometimes the wiring gets crossed though–we’ll come back to that in a minute…
During his message, Pastor John mentioned that whether Jesus needed to or not, His getting up early to pray showed us what He wanted to do–where His heart and His priorities were. We know He was fully God as well as fully man. So we could argue that He didn’t NEED to go away to connect with God. We don’t know for sure how that all worked. But to me, seeing that it’s what he wanted to do, what he longed to do, speaks deeply to my heart and reminds me of my own longing. We come into existence with eternity set in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and with an ache for “home” that we can’t really explain… In Jason Upton’s beautiful song, “Home to Me”, he articulates this ache a bit:
“…Before my lungs could breathe, I was alive in you;
Before my eyes were open, before my tongue could speak,
Before the bond was broken between you and me;
You were home to me…
You are where we all have come from,
You are where we long to go…”
Jason writes of a longing we all have, whether we’re aware of it or not. It’s the desire to live in the realm of the kingdom of the heavens, the kingdom Jesus brought to earth with Him–the kingdom that is absolutely available to us, if only we’ll make it a priority, like Jesus did, to plug into it. The last line of Upton’s song is,
“Let the way of Jesus lead us back where we belong.”
This is the opportunity we always have before us. The life of Jesus–His ways–will lead us where we belong, if we choose to follow Him. He showed us how to plug into the power source of His Kingdom. And it all begins with prayer. We are wired for it. But, like I mentioned above, sometimes our wiring gets crossed. We know that Jesus taught us to seek his Kingdom daily, to ask our Father for our daily bread… yet so often we settle for the bread of our yesterdays… And, I believe, this is what leads us to follow an idea of Jesus that is nothing like the real Jesus.
The concept of “daily bread” has cycled through my mind on repeat for about a week now…
I think we sometimes try to master the gift of daily provision. We try and hoard what we’ve been given today, and expect it to carry us into our tomorrows. We want our initial experience with Jesus to “cover” us, and to guarantee our eternity, without any further “plugging in” to His kingdom and His ways. We intuitively know that doing so will change us and our priorities–priorities that, along the way, have covered up our primal longing to connect with the Creator of our souls. But when we eat today’s bread tomorrow, and the next day, and on into the next month, year, decades, etc…, we end up eating stale, decomposing, bread. It makes us sick–and it leads us to follow a “Jesus” that doesn’t exist.
I’m not saying that the bread of yesterday was bad. It was what we needed then. It served it’s purpose for that day. It was intended to carry us to the next day, when we could again go to the source for that day’s bread. Bread doesn’t stay fresh for long. It molds, it rots, it gets stale, it decomposes. But Jesus is the bread of life, right? He won’t ever get stale or rotten, right? Right… IF we stay plugged into Him. But a taste of Jesus, a one-time experience of Jesus, in our imperfect human hands? That can absolutely “go bad” and decompose as the dirt of us mixes with the beauty of Him. This is where theologies that look nothing like His kingdom begin. We must go back to the source, daily, if we expect our relationship with God to stay fresh, and if we expect to grow into people who reflect the One we say we follow.
Luanne wrote, “I can honestly say that I am not who I used to be. God has changed me, and it has been through my time with Him. I don’t know how He’s done it, but I know that He has.” Coming to Jesus daily, knowing He is the daily bread we need, and seeking His kingdom first allows God to do His good work within us and change us in the way Luanne wrote about.
But eating old bread changes us, too. Plugging into our old understanding of Jesus, praying disconnected, formulaic prayers, doing religion for show–all of these are examples of what can happen when we try to make what we were given at first into what sustains us into eternity. We have to keep plugging into our Source. When we come to our God daily, hungry for the Bread of Life and thirsty for Living Water, we tap into the new wine of the kingdom of Jesus… We become familiar with His ways, and we begin to realize that His kingdom is exceedingly bigger and abundantly better than anything we’ve imagined. When this realization dawns on us, we stop trying to make today’s provision last into tomorrow, because we can’t wait for the fresh revelation tomorrow’s bread will bring. Continuing to return daily, remaining fixed in the presence of Jesus, will remind us of our own weakness and smallness as we encounter His power–the power of earth and heaven becoming one in His presence. We begin to see more and more of the heart of our God as we seek Him in prayer. Our own hearts expand, and so does our vision. We begin to see those around us, and we begin to see the stark contrast between the Kingdom of the heavens and the kingdoms of this world.
And… sometimes the presence we encounter in prayer is overwhelming. We know that choosing to follow this Kingdom path will lead us to rearrange our priorities, to be open to being changed at our core–and that can feel like too much. So we choose, sometimes, to choke down the rotting bread of yesterday and tells ourselves that’s good enough for this life. Our actions, words, and mindsets reveal the kind of bread we’re eating, as well as the priorities of our hearts. But we go on filling the ache for “home” with bread that, unbeknownst to us, is making us–and others–sick. Eating the old bread keeps us just full enough to check out, and allows us to mostly silence the cry of our souls for the bread of life that satisfies.
Eating the old bread doesn’t disqualify us from an eternity with Jesus–but it does render our present lives entirely useless for Kingdom purposes. It will keep us from experiencing the empowerment and freedom that only comes when we plug into the Kingdom. Plugging into the Kingdom happens when we follow the way of Jesus and connect with our God through prayer.
Have you been feasting on the maggoty bread of your yesterdays? Are you plugging into a source that has rewired your priorities? Take heart. There is fresh bread available for all of us. Is your heart not in it yet? Just move. Move toward God. He’s waiting for you. Ask Him for today’s bread. Let it carry you today. Then come back tomorrow and ask Him for that day’s bread. And the next day, and the next. The Bread of Life will fill you and heal the sickness of yesterday. And as you connect with “home”, your priorities will change. And you will change. There is no “right way” to pray, to connect with your Father. But Jesus did give us a model of where to begin. Let the way of Jesus lead us all back where we belong…
   Our Father in heaven,
        let Your name remain holy.
    Bring about Your kingdom.
    Manifest Your will here on earth,
        as it is manifest in heaven.
   Give us each day that day’s bread—no more, no less—
   And forgive us our debts
        as we forgive those who owe us something.
 Lead us not into temptation,
        but deliver us from evil.
(Matthew 6:9-13, VOICE)
–Laura
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Like Never Before #2

We began a new series last week called “Like Never Before”. We looked at Jesus’ words in Mark 1:14-15 where He told us what God is all about. He let us know that the time had come, the Kingdom of God had arrived in the here and now; He encouraged us to repent (change our minds) and believe the Good News (gospel). God is here, His Kingdom is here, He has come near. Good news indeed!

After telling us Jesus’ message, the next thing that Mark tells us is how Jesus called His first disciples (vs 16-20). And, as is always the case with Jesus, it didn’t look the way one might have expected. We sometimes become so familiar with the accounts of Jesus in scripture that we forget how radical His ways were. One would think that God in the flesh would look for followers in the temple, or among those who were well versed in the Torah, but that wasn’t His way. Is it possible that He went elsewhere because often times the religious think they already know everything there is to know about the ways of God? Could it be because the religious have expectations of how God is supposed to act–how He’s supposed to relate to sinners? Could it be that the religious don’t want their belief system messed with?  Could it be that they are comfortable with it the way it is? Could it be that  the religious struggle to believe that everyone counts in God’s kingdom?These are definitely attitudes for us to think about and guard against in our own journeys of faith.

So, Jesus, in His unorthodox way of doing things, took a walk along the seashore where there were common fishermen and He called out to them. First to Simon (Peter) and his brother Andrew, then to John and his brother James. He invited them to come after Him and told them He would make them fishers of men.

Mark tells us that “at once” and “without delay” they dropped everything and followed Jesus. Stop and think for a moment how remarkable that whole scenario is. Jesus is inviting regular common laborers to join Him in His mission. They don’t have a clue what they are really getting themselves into, but they followed immediately. What does this tell us about the type of followers that Jesus is looking for?

Pastor John highlighted three things:

1. Trust. Jesus is looking for followers who will trust Him completely. He is looking for those who will go where He leads without having to know all the details. He is looking for those who will drop everything to be with Him and join Him in what He’s doing. Jesus says to these men in verse 17, “Come after me.”  

“Come after me” can be interpreted in two different ways: it can be the literal following–He goes ahead and we come after, or it can be intense pursuit. I think both are fitting.

Do we trust Him enough to go after Him with all that we have and all that we are wherever He leads?

We won’t do it perfectly. Peter was the first disciple called, and he denied Jesus a few years later. Even so,  Jesus didn’t leave Peter behind. He again went to Peter by the sea, fixed him breakfast, asked Peter if he loved him, and continued to invite Peter to be part of what He was doing.  Peter followed Jesus once again and was powerfully used by God after Jesus’ ascension. That should give all of us some hope. God is not after our perfection, but He is after our trust. Will we trust Him with our lives?

2. Teachable: Jesus says to Peter and Andrew–come follow me and I will teach you how to fish for people.  Jesus was telling them that he was going to teach them something new. He was going to turn them into something that they weren’t before. To be teachable, we must be willing to be changed. There is no growth without change. We have to be willing to let go of old positions, old understandings, old ways of thinking, and go with Jesus.

I think maybe this is one of the reasons that Jesus didn’t go to the religious. He went to men who had no religious baggage, and they were willing to let go of the familiar and learn something new. Again, I think there is much here for those of us who’ve been around church for awhile to think about. Jesus, later in His ministry, confronted the religious leaders and said to them: “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’ For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.” (Mark 7:6-8 NLT)

That’s not to say that Jesus didn’t love the religious community. He wept over Jerusalem because they had rejected Him and the peace He offered (Luke 19:41) —  they were not teachable.

Are we teachable? Are we willing to wrestle with our own traditions to see if they line up with the teachings of Jesus? Are we willing to wrestle with cultural Christianity and get to the heart of the true message of Christ–the real good news that He Himself preached,  and not what we’ve turned it into? Are we willing to let the Holy Spirit take us deeper? Are we teachable?

3. Task-oriented: Jesus told his first followers what their purpose would be. He was going to make them “fishers of men”. In the days when Jesus walked the earth, the fishermen did not use a hook and bait–they used nets. They knew when to throw them, how to throw them, and how to bring them back in. They didn’t fish alone; they worked together. Fishing was their livelihood. If they didn’t fish, they didn’t eat. Their lives were totally about fishing.

Most of the fishermen/women I know today  fish recreationally. They use a hook, they use a lure, they basically trick the fish, then get it caught by the mouth and reel it in. Pastor John pointed out that, unfortunately, that’s how much of the church “fishes” for people. We bait and hook people with guilt and shame, and I’ll add fear, then reel them in on that line–which is never the way of Jesus. Lots of the bait and hook “fish” don’t stick around for the long haul, or they don’t get past thinking that God is mean and angry with them, and therefore never encounter the love and freedom that He has for them or the joy that can be found in Him.

A net holds fish, it doesn’t hook fish. Are we casting a net that attracts people to the God who loves them, or are we fishing through condemnation?  Jesus was incredibly attractive to the outcasts of the day. He valued them and let them know they were loved, wanted, worth spending time with, treasured. He did not manipulate people into His Kingdom. He is not an “us and them” kind of Savior. Is this the Jesus we show to the world?  Do we model the real Jesus who got in trouble because of who He hung out with, or do we model  the Pharisaical religious community who judged the world and those they perceived as “sinners” harshly? Again–things to think about.

Ultimately, what is it that Jesus wants us to be about?  He wants us to be about exactly what He was about–letting people know that God is here, His Kingdom is here, He loves us–all of us, He has new life and new purpose to give to us.  Whatever we’ve thought about God in the past, Jesus tells us to change our minds about it (repent),  because He is here full of all embracing, totally unconditional love–it’s His very nature–and that’s good news. And then He invites us to join Him in sharing this good news with everybody everywhere.

This is our call:

Go in MY authority that I am giving to YOU and make more disciples. Show them who I AM so they will believe in ME, so they will follow MY words, MY teachings. Let those who choose to come after ME proclaim I am their Lord through baptism. And know this, there will never be a day that I AM NOT WITH YOU. (Mt. 28:19-20 paraphrase)

Jesus tells us to follow His teachings and teach His teachings to others. To be a disciple means to be a student. Are we students who know our Teacher well enough to know His teachings, to trust Him, to let Him continue to teach us, and to give our lives for the task that He’s laid out before us so that others can become His students, experience His love, and join us in making more disciples? This, my friends, is how the world will be changed–one precious person at a time.

–Luanne

As I listened to the message on Sunday, I couldn’t help but think back over my life, and my own personal journey with Jesus. I love that Jesus went to the unlikely, those on the outside, to invite them to be his closest followers and friends. I love that He did things his own way, that He was radical, and that He always showed up in unexpected places. But I haven’t always loved these things about Jesus…and I don’t always love these things, even now.
At certain points in my life, I’ve been the fisherman willing to drop everything and follow Jesus as a trusting, teachable, task-oriented disciple. I’ve also been the religious one in the temple–a know-it-all Christian with expectations of how God will show up. For me, this wasn’t a “before and after” thing. I can look back over my life and see seasons when I was in one camp, and seasons when I was in the other. I hate that about me…
Within my one self, I am capable of religious bigotry, and I know that I’ve lived a good many of my total days as a prideful, judgmental “Christian”. I know that I’m capable of drifting back to that space in any given moment, too, under certain circumstances. I wish that wasn’t true. But it is.
It’s also true that as an eight-year-old girl, I ran to Jesus with reckless abandon. I fell in love with the beauty that only One possesses long before I had any sense of what falling in love even was. In that season? I was a trusting, teachable follower, and all I wanted was more of Jesus. I had a fair amount of religious baggage already, and it would rear its ugly head down the road, but Jesus had my whole heart. He had pursued me, called me, and I wanted to follow Him wherever He would lead me.
I could cite example after example of the times I’ve been the arrogant, privileged, religious, put-God-in-a-box, “in the know” “Christian”, too. The list is long. In fact, just this morning the Holy Spirit convicted me about an area where I’ve been acting this way, an area where I need to repent–change my way of thinking so that it aligns with Jesus’ way of seeing the situation.
I could also cite many examples of times I’ve felt like the outsider, the one on the sidelines, the one whose presence doesn’t matter at all. These are the times I’ve felt unseen, unworthy, unqualified, and just plain unloved.
Do you know what is so beautiful about Jesus? He comes to both versions of me (and all the versions in between) and issues the same invitation every time. I’m so grateful this is true. This is what I couldn’t stop thinking about as I pondered this message… How, so often, I’m not trusting Him. I’m not very teachable. And I lose my focus on the task at hand. And yet, He comes. He pursues me and He chooses me-even when I’m in the “wrong” camp. I’ll never get over the love of Jesus, the grace and mercy He continually extends to the mess of me…
I completely agree that Jesus was looking for those who would allow Him to make them into a particular kind of follower–those who would trust, who would be teachable, and who would be task-oriented. The story clearly shows us that. I just believe, based on my experience of who Jesus is, that He chooses all of us. I believe his invitation was the same to everyone He encountered as He walked the earth. The story of Jesus includes many interactions between Jesus and the religious. He ate meals with them, engaged in conversations with them, and invited at least a handful to follow Him, though, sadly,  most did not. I believe there must have been many times that He extended the invitation, because Jesus doesn’t change. If He invites ALL now, He invited, or chose, ALL then, too. We know that many of the religious elite eventually put their faith in Him, and were leaders in the early church after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. I’m certain that Jesus issued many invitations that didn’t make it into what we have come to know as Scripture, because not everything that happened was included. We know that. But because we know Jesus and we know that He came with a reckless, unchanging love and a desire to reconcile ALL people to Himself, we can safely assume that there was no one that He didn’t choose. None were worthy of being chosen. But He wanted all of them–and all of us–anyway.
I absolutely believe Jesus invited all–including the judgmental, arrogant, religious community–to follow Him. And that is good news for those of us who find ourselves in that camp today–or even just from time to time. He is always calling and pursuing. But as was the case for many in His day, sometimes we don’t hear the invitation for what it is. We have expectations of how Jesus will show up, what He will say, who He’ll consider worthy of His invitation. We choose to reject things that don’t line up with what we have come to believe is true, and in the process, we often reject Jesus Himself. We end up rejecting Him because we don’t recognize Him, and we’re unwilling to let Him “make us become” who we could be in His hands.
Our response to the invitation of Jesus is what reveals what’s in our hearts. Whether we find ourselves in a boat on the water or studying in the temple, the invitation is the same. We get to choose whether we want to follow or not. And when we choose to follow Him, we are trusting Him to cultivate the heart of a follower within us. It’s not something any of us innately possess that sets us apart from anyone else. It’s something Jesus grows within us as He makes us into people who are becoming more like Him. There is no formula to being chosen by Jesus. He’s already chosen all of us. He came to show us just how far Love will go, how much Love will sacrifice, and how the way of Love stands above all other ways of living life. And He’s invited all of us into that love as our new way of being in the world. As Luanne wrote above,
“He wants us to be about exactly what He was about–letting people know that God is here, His Kingdom is here, He loves us–all of us, He has new life and new purpose to give to us. Whatever we’ve thought about God in the past, Jesus tells us to change our minds about it (repent),  because He is here, full of all embracing, totally unconditional love–it’s His very nature–and that’s good news.”
Jesus is the good news. For all people. And He’s invited us to share that beautiful message with all people, everywhere. Will we leverage our lives, as He did, to make Him known? Will we live out the love of Jesus like never before?
–Laura
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Like Never Before-Week 1

The first Sunday after Christmas marked a turning point, a launching-type moment. You could sense it in the air at church, feel it as we worshiped together, and hear it in the words Pastor John spoke to us. I’ve felt the stirring of the Spirit within me and I know I’m not the only one. God is shaking things up–so it’s fitting that our new series will take us down an old path… but through new eyes and with a new vision.

Our new series will take us through a good portion of the book of Mark. Pastor John has titled it “Like Never Before”, and those words carry a dual meaning. We will look at the ministry of Jesus–how He came and lived like no one ever had before. And we will be invited into becoming like this One we follow–letting His life indwell and transform us–in ways that we never have before, as we follow His lead to become the Church that He has always desired that we be.

This is what the Eternal One says, the One who does the impossible, the One who makes a path through the sea, a smooth road through tumultuous waters, Eternal One: Don’t revel only in the past, or spend all your time recounting the victories of days gone by. Watch closely: I am preparing something new; it’s happening now, even as I speak, and you’re about to see it. I am preparing a way through the desert; Waters will flow where there had been none. (Isaiah 43:16, 18-19 VOICE)

I came across this paraphrase of these verses this morning, and it felt so appropriate to include it here. When Jesus came to us with skin on–Emmanuel, God with us–He ushered in the new. He came as the answer, the fulfillment to the old covenant and the King of this new way that we’ll hear Him speak of over and over and over again–the way of the kingdom. His kingdom.

This week’s passage took us into the middle of the first chapter of Mark:

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,”he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15, NIV)

Before we launch into these two rich verses, I want to touch on the first thirteen verses of this book. The very first words of the book of Mark, according to the NIV, read like this: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God…” I want to note here–because we’ll come back to it later–that “good news” in this verse as well as in verse 14 above is translated from the Greek word “euaggelion”. This is the same word that is translated “gospel” at least 67 throughout what we call our new testament. Hang onto that and we’ll come back…

Mark 1: 2-8 chronicles the work of John the baptizer, the one who some thought was the Messiah, but who was actually the forerunner–the one who prepared the way for Jesus. Verses 9-11 record Jesus’ baptism by John, and verses 12 & 13 tell us of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. Our series begins after that, as Jesus launches His ministry with bold, authoritative words. I included the NIV translation of these verses above; here is how J.B. Phillips says it:

It was after John’s arrest that Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God, saying, “The time has come at last—the kingdom of God has arrived. You must change your hearts and minds and believe the good news.” (J.B. Phillips)

Jesus came proclaiming the “gospel”, the “good news”. The good news of what? Himself. Look back at Mark 1:1. Mark wrote “…the beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah…” The good news was about Jesus.  What was it? Simply, He is here. Now. Messiah, God with us. The answer. The prophecy fulfilled. The King who had finally come to change everything and bring His kingdom to bear here, among us.

The “Gospel” was never meant to be a “sinner’s prayer”, a ticket to heaven or even, solely, our salvation. The Gospel, the good news, is: Jesus, the image of invisible God, God in the flesh came to us. He so loved us, valued us, desired relationship with us, that He came down into our grimy, broken existence to change everything. He, himself, IS salvation. To know Him is to experience salvation. But it doesn’t stop there–and that is what Pastor John brought to us on Sunday. Jesus absolutely saves us–no question about that. My life has been saved because I encountered this One who pursued me in my brokenness and won my heart with His extravagant love. But He does more than save us. He transforms us–from the inside out.

Mark 1:7-8 out of the Message paraphrase translates John the baptizer’s words like this:

As he [John] preached he said, “The real action comes next: The star in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will change your life. I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. His baptism—a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit—will change you from the inside out.” (emphasis mine)

When Jesus says in verse 15, “Repent and believe the good news!”, He is not saying, as we’ve so often been told, “Stop sinning and say the sinner’s prayer so you don’t go to hell!” No. He is inviting us into the process of transformation. As we study and search the record of Jesus’ earthly ministry, we’ll find many things, many different ways of doing things, and much that challenges us to do the seemingly impossible. What we won’t find anywhere in the story of His life on earth is Him offering a one-time salvation experience that stops with that moment. He wasn’t satisfied with a statement of belief that went nowhere. He wasn’t looking for the masses to declare that they’d accepted Him as Lord on the temple steps and then go home to return to life as usual. There are many mentions of the word “salvation” in various forms in our new testament, but most of those occurrences were post-resurrection, and not said by Jesus. In fact, if you read the words of Jesus, you’ll find that He speaks of “salvation” very few times. What He can’t stop talking about is the kingdom.

What is the kingdom? We could try to define it many different ways, and they would all probably be part of the whole picture. But the original Greek word is defined like this:

royal power, kingship, dominion, rule; not to be confused with an actual kingdom but rather the right or authority to rule over a kingdom–the royal power of Jesus as the triumphant Messiah

This is the kingdom Jesus speaks of in Mark chapter 1… His authority as God, His right to rule, and the power to do so. And He will spend the rest of His time on earth showing us what that kingdom looks like, and how it operates. And it’s like nothing anyone had seen before. His is an altogether different kingdom, unlike any that came before or any that would come after.

We’ll see the picture of this kingdom develop as our series continues. For now, in this week’s passage, Jesus tells us that this kingdom is “at hand”. I could jump up and down over what these words mean in the Greek!!! The word translated “at hand” is “eggizo“. It means, “to bring near, to join one thing to another“. It comes from the root word “eggys”, which means, “near: of place, position, and time”. And the root word of this word means, “to squeeze”.

So, if you’ll allow me to take a little bit of creative liberty, we could put it together like this:

“The kingdom, the triumphant rule of Jesus our Messiah, has been brought near. So near, in fact, that it has squeezed into our place, position and time to join together what had been previously separated–that is, the heavens and the earth.”

Jesus came as fully God and fully man, as one born of both heaven and earth, that the two realms might be joined together under His Lordship. “To join one thing to another” is used elsewhere in scripture to describe the union between husband and wife. It is an intimate oneness. This is the language Jesus used to talk about this kingdom that is now available to us through Him.

But He said something else right before he spoke this declaration about the Kingdom. He said, “Repent.” Earlier, I included the J.B. Phillips translation of our key verses. The word “repent” shows up differently in this translation. These are the words used in place of “repent”: “change your hearts and minds”. This is actually a far more accurate translation of what Jesus was saying than what we have come to understand the word repent to mean. To repent is to change the way we think. This is what Jesus was offering to His listeners in these verses. An invitation to change the way they thought about Him, about the prophecies of old and their expectations of how they would be fulfilled, and about what this new kingdom would look like.

Jesus is offering us the same invitation today…

Many of us have gotten stuck somewhere on our journey. Maybe we said the sinner’s prayer and stopped there. Maybe we learned a little and grew to a point, but life got in the way. Whatever our individual stories may be, we are all invited to change the way we think, to let Jesus transform our minds and grow us like never before. Transformation is always a product of the renewal of our minds. And it is essential to our becoming kingdom people who actually are growing into the image of the Jesus we follow…

William Paul Young writes in the Foreword to the book Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God,

“If transformation is by the renewal of the mind and I have never changed my mind, then be assured I am actively resisting the work of the Holy Spirit in my life. Everyone who grows, changes. But it is hard work to change, to be open, to take the risk of trust. Change always involves death and resurrection, and both are uncomfortable. Death because it involves letting go of old ways of seeing, of abandoning sometimes precious prejudices. It means having to ask for forgiveness and humble ourselves. And resurrection is no easy process either; having to take risks of trust that were not required when everything seemed certain, agreeing with the new ways of seeing while not obliterating the people around you, some who told you what they thought was true but isn’t after all. Transformation is not easy; ask any butterfly.”

Transformation is not easy, that much is certainly true. But it is essential to our growth, to our learning to thrive, and to our becoming the people–and the Church–that actually look like the Jesus we say we follow. Transformation is at least as important as our initial salvation experience, if not more so–because transformation is the process in which we are joined so intimately with our King that his kingdom is conceived in and then born through us.

Church, are we willing to do things in a new way, in a way like never before, so that the world around us might see the Jesus that they’ve never been able to see before?

–Laura

I am very excited about this series, and I’m also very aware that those of us who know the stories of Christ can have a tendency to glaze over a bit and sit back comfortably thinking we’ve heard it before. We rob ourselves of the opportunity to be “wowed”, to let the Holy Spirit teach us something new, to be awestruck and further transformed into the likeness of Jesus.  I agree with Laura–we can all get a little stuck. Our Christianity becomes formulaic, it becomes about church attendance and Bible study, so, I too want to reiterate that  Christianity is about transformation (personal, corporate, societal etc.)–a beautiful process that will continue as long as we’re on planet earth, if we’ll let it.

I imagine most of you will agree with me, that these are difficult days in our nation. We are divided, polarized, angry, and hateful. Unfortunately, the church, primarily the white evangelical church is right in the middle of the “ugly”.  How did this happen? I think Brian McLaren is right when he says we reflect the image of the God we believe in. Who is God? What is He like? How does He treat you? How does He treat the people you don’t care for? Does He have favorites? Is He loving? Is He angry? Is He kind? Is He mean?

Your answers to these questions, and many others like them, will reveal what you believe about God. The question then becomes are you believing in the God who is fully revealed in Jesus. Does your view of God look like Jesus?  Because if you have seen the Son, you have seen the Father (John 14:9). Jesus is the image of the invisible God. (Col. 1:15) Does your God look like Jesus? Does your reflection of God look like Jesus? Is the image of God in you the image of Jesus? It’s key that we get this right.

As we head into this series “Like Never Before”,  let’s pay close attention to the God revealed in Jesus, beginning with Jesus’ words in Mark 1.

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,”he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15, NIV)

The time has come...  God designed that planet earth would be governed by time. We all understand our lives in terms of seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years. God, who knows what He’s doing,  has designated times and seasons with specific purposes in mind. In the scriptural accounts of Jesus, we see many references to the time had come, or the time had not yet come…etc.  In Luke 2, we read about the birth of Christ and the time came for Mary to give birth. In her case, it meant that the months of pregnancy– of waiting –were over. She was going to get to see the face of her sweet baby, the face of God.  Jesus was ready to be born–it was time. God’s ordained time.

When Jesus proclaims “The time has come”…He is saying your long season of waiting is over. This is the birth of a new thing. I am going to show you the very face of God. All of time has been pointing to this moment. You will see His face in me. You will get to know Him in me. You will experience His heart in me. He will be fully revealed in me. THE time where everything changes forever has come. This simple statement is huge. Jesus is announcing a world altering event. Huge.

The kingdom of God has come near...I like the translations that say, The kingdom of God is at hand…. I like that because “near” can still be distant. I live near my place of work, but I drive to get there. At hand signifies I can reach out and grasp it right now. I currently have notebooks, pens, a throw pillow, my phone, my computer, lots of books, a lamp, and some Kleenex “at hand”.  The kingdom of God is at hand. It is readily available. You can reach out right where you are and grasp it. The dominion of God is here, available to you.

Jesus taught us to pray may your Kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. (Mt. 6:10), giving us the key as to what it looks like for His “at hand” Kingdom to be present here. When God’s will is being done, His Kingdom is here. I’m almost afraid to write that because His will has been interpreted so many different ways and many atrocities have happened/are happening in His name.  That’s why it is imperative that we know Jesus, the full revelation of God, who makes the ways and will of God very clear. Pastor John broke it down into very simple terms in our first service when he told us that  to pray “your Kingdom come” means that we want God’s love, grace, and mercy here, on planet earth--and I’ll add that it’s for everyone. We want God’s love, grace and mercy here, for everyone.

Repent. Laura wrote above that “repent” means to change your mind. It is the Greek word metanoia– which literally means to change one’s mind, a transformative change of heart, a conversion. Think about the process of the butterfly that Laura wrote about above…it goes through meta-morphasis. Total change. The Oxford dictionary says that the word conversion is “The process of changing or causing something to change from one form to another. ‘the conversion of food into body tissues'”.    

The Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 12:2 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.  The NLT version translates the phrase “renewing of your mind” to “by changing the way you think”.   And the result of not following the world’s ways by thinking a new way is that we’ll know God’s will–the ways of His Kingdom, His dominion, His reign–and we will be transformed and transforming into something new.

Believe the good news: What good news? Everything that Jesus has just said. Believe that the time is here, God’s Kingdom is here, you can be part of it–

You can be part of it. This is good news. In that day, the religious elite kept everyone else out. According to them, unless you looked like them, acted like them, had their education, were their gender (male), were part of their ethnic group, you were out. And they put all kind of demands on the “commoners” who wanted to be close to God, making it impossible, in their system, to be close. Jesus said—those days are over. God has come to you–the commoners. God loves you…you who think you’re not worthy of God’s love. He loves you. You who have been told you’re unclean–He loves you. You who have nothing to offer–He loves you. You who have made horrible choices and have tremendous regrets–He loves you. You who don’t really want anything to do with Him–He loves you.

Believe the good news–the gospel—the kingdom of God is here and Jesus is what God looks like. The time has come. Believe Him and then join Him in bringing His love, His grace, His mercy here…everywhere to everyone.

–Luanne

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Advent #4: Peace

It is Christmas time,  and as I sit to write this my house is still and quiet. My heart is filled with gratitude over the significance and beauty of this day that we celebrate. My gratitude to God for coming to us overwhelms me. Where would we be without the gift of God in the flesh?

Each year, I ask for fresh revelation. I don’t ever want to be so familiar with scripture that I miss something new God wants to show me. There are always new things to notice, to ponder, to wrestle with, to be transformed by. Sometimes things I haven’t seen before rock my world and lead me to dig in to scripture for months. It is always fresh because the Holy Spirit makes it so. Pastor John’s sermon on Sunday gave me some things to ponder.

The Peace candle is also called the Candle of the Angels–the angels who announced that God’s peace had arrived on earth in the form of a newborn baby. His Shalom–His answer for all that is wrong in the world, all that creates chaos, all that is broken, was embodied in this tiny homeless baby who had been laid in a livestock feed trough.

The words of the first angel to appear read like this:

And there were shepherds residing in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Just then, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid! For behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today in the City of David a Savior has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord! And this will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there appeared with the angel a great multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests!” Luke 2:8-14

In their greeting, Luke used the Hebrew word “Savior” the Greek word “Christ” and the blended word “Lord” which was understood by the Hebrew people as Adonai, their name for God, and the Roman world was quite familiar with the significance of the word Lord. Right there, in the declaration of the angels is the first public announcement that God is here on the earth, that He is here for everyone, and that His peace is available. Those on whom His favor rests are those who recognize Him and step into life under His Lordship. What those on whom HIs favor rests really means is those on whom His kindly intent rests, His kindness–the very thing that leads us to repent (Rom. 2:4)–available to all people everywhere.

The shepherds are the ones who receive this message. The shepherds whose very profession causes them to be unclean. They are at the bottom of the religious hierarchy, unable to enter the temple themselves. They are outcasts, “less thans” — and, as often happens with those deemed “other” or “outsiders”, they have been stereotyped. They were stereotyped as dishonest people, so much so that they were not allowed to testify in court. Their testimony was always considered invalid. Yet, these very people, are the ones God chose to confirm that the angel’s message was true.

I can’t help but make the connection that another stereotyped, less than, people group during this time period whose testimony  would be considered invalid were women. Yet, who did Jesus honor by giving them the awesome ministry of telling the disciples that He was alive? (Mt. 28:7-10)

I think there is much for us to ponder in God’s deliberate choices here. We must always be extremely careful with stereotypes. Those considered other, less than, and marginalized may be the very people that God is using to show us more of Himself and His Kingdom’s ways.  In His Kingdom the last are the first, the least are the greatest, the humble are the lifted up, and His ministry of making things right–peace for all humankind–belongs to all of us who call Him Lord. We minister to Him when we love the hungry, the imprisoned, the poor, the naked, not as less than, but as Christ Himself. (Mt. 25). And I know from personal experience, He has much to teach us through the marginalized.

So our first unlikely messengers, the shepherds,  after they see Jesus, leave rejoicing and go tell everyone. Our second unlikely messengers, who actually declare Jesus as King, are the Magi.

Matthew 2:1-2 tells us all the detail we get about them in this story: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem  and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

There are lots of assumptions made about the Magi–we most always see them in a group of three riding on camels, and they show up at the manger. Scripture doesn’t tell us that there were three, or what their names are, or that they rode on camels. What we do know is they came a long distance, they knew, when they saw his star, that the King of the Jews had been born, and they came to worship him.

First important thing to note–these are not Jewish men. The Magi are Gentiles, considered pagans. What is God doing by including these outsiders? Not only are they Gentiles–they are mystics.

We don’t know much about these particular Magi, but this is not the first time Magi appear in scripture. Magi were members of many ancient cultures–the Babylonians, the Chaldeans, the Medes, and the Persians. They were interpreters of dreams, astrologers and astronomers, priests and teachers/anointers of kings.  In the Old Testament book of Daniel, in the account of King Belshazzar’s encounter with the writing on the wall, we learn that Daniel, who had been taken to Babylon during the Israeli exile, became chief Magi under King Nebuchadnezzar:

The king summoned the enchanters, astrologers and diviners. Then he said to these wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing and tells me what it means will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around his neck, and he will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.” Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant.  So King Belshazzar became even more terrified and his face grew more pale. His nobles were baffled.

 The queen, hearing the voices of the king and his nobles, came into the banquet hall. “May the king live forever!” she said. “Don’t be alarmed! Don’t look so pale!  There is a man in your kingdom who has the spirit of the holy gods in him. In the time of your father he was found to have insight and intelligence and wisdom like that of the gods. Your father, King Nebuchadnezzar, appointed him chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners.  He did this because Daniel, whom the king called Belteshazzar, was found to have a keen mind and knowledge and understanding, and also the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles and solve difficult problems. Call for Daniel, and he will tell you what the writing means.” Daniel 5:7-12.

When Daniel was brought in, he made it very clear that he served the Most High God, and Daniel said to the king that the Most High God is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and sets over them anyone he wishes. (v. 21)

Daniel was a Magi. Daniel was an undeterred, courageous, uncompromising lover and follower of the Most High God. Daniel counseled three kings in Babylon. He had great influence. Is it possible that the Magi that came to worship Jesus knew that the King of the Jews would be born because Daniel was a faithful witness to God’s promises and prophecies 600 years before?

Matthew continues, in his account to let us know that the Magi went to King Herod to find out where the King of the Jews was to be born. Herod called in his priests and teachers of the law to find out, and Herod was greatly disturbed. Once the Magi learned that the prophecy spoke of Bethlehem, that’s where they went. The star led them to  the right house. They were not the least bit concerned that Jesus wasn’t in a palace. They presented him with gifts, and they worshiped him. They were declaring that Jesus is King.

God’s ways are not our ways. The religious community of Jesus’ day rejected him as King. He was a threat to their traditional way of doing things, and a threat to their power. The political community of the day certainly had no tolerance for a competing Kingdom. But God’s plans and ways will not be thwarted by our fallen world’s systems. He chooses foreigners, outsiders, oppressed people, mystics, and anyone else He cares to use, to draw us to Himself. Are we willing to let go of stereotypes? Are we willing to let the box we’ve put God in fall away, so that we can see Him, know Him, serve Him, love Him, and be instruments of His peace in this world that so desperately needs to experience His kindness and His love?

What have I to offer
To heaven’s King
                                                    I will bring my life, my love, my all…                                                   (Chris Tomlin, Adore)

My life, my love, my all. May this be the gift we offer to Jesus as we celebrate Him this season.

–Luanne 

Luanne wrote:

His Shalom–His answer for all that is wrong in the world, all that creates chaos, all that is broken, was embodied in this tiny homeless baby who had been laid in a livestock feed trough…”

I took the liberty of highlighting Luanne’s use of the word “all” above, because it so very important in our attempts to understand what the Shalom–the peace–of Jesus is all about. If Shalom is setting things right and bringing wholeness and restoration to ALL that is wrong and broken (and it is that…), then peace is only ever possible if ALL are included to the same degree. Where any are excluded, or where there is the absence of chaos but only through the means of hierarchy, there is not Shalom. Because in those instances, things are only really “right” and “whole” for some. The Prince of Peace came to rewrite our definition of peace. It was never meant to be exclusive.

The Shalom that was ushered in with Jesus’ incarnation “set right” all previous exclusion and rejection. From the day of His birth through His very last breath, we see this play out in extraordinary ways…

Luanne wrote about the shepherds–how they were viewed in society, and how their testimony was null in the eyes of the people of that day. She also wrote about the women–the first to preach the good news of Jesus’ resurrection–and how their testimony was also worth nothing in the courts of that time. I can’t help but think of the servants who were the only ones to see Jesus turn water to wine during the wedding feast at Cana (John 2), and the Samaritan woman (that’s two strikes against her according to the culture of that day) who experienced the Shalom of Jesus and went on to tell her whole village–and many believed in Jesus based upon her testimony. These are only a few examples of Jesus bringing restoration to all… Inclusion where exclusion and hierarchy had previously reigned. Acceptance where there had been only rejection. Healing and freedom where there had been brokenness and shame. He came to set it all right…

Do you know what is so mind blowing about all of this? All of these stories made it into our scriptures. They were written down by men who, according to the accepted practices of their time, could have completely dismissed their words. And what would we have if they had?

The two most important events in the life of Jesus–the incarnation and the resurrection–were reported by outsiders whose testimonies were invalid in all of the courts of that day. These stories that we celebrate on our two most important Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter, were first told by those who were most dismissable. Our all-powerful, Holy God chose those who were least likely to be believed, those most on the outside, and entrusted these precious ones with the biggest headlines that would ever be written. Because this powerful, holy God is perfect love and His disposition is kindness and He is a God who sees and sets right the wrongs of this life. This God saw to it that if the “haves” wanted to know the story, they would have to be quiet and listen to the “have nots”. And we see this invisible God in the person of Jesus who came, as Luanne said, as a “tiny, homeless baby”–so that His life could deliver true Shalom to ALL…

When Shalom comes, this peace that includes and restores all things, it can feel like rejection and loss to those who have become accustomed to being the “elite”. We see this play out during the life of Jesus, too. How, as He elevated those who had lived under the feet of others–under the weight of power structures and systems that oppressed them– those who had the power and stood on top were very unwilling to be brought down to the foundation of equality Jesus was rebuilding (the foundation was first set in Eden–broken humanity destroyed it). His ways felt like loss to those who were on top. And it was loss–loss of all that was keeping them from the wholeness that is only possible Jesus’ way.

I am so grateful that the story of Jesus was written through the testimony of the leasts, the lasts, the lowly, the rejected. I am so grateful there were some who did believe their testimony–because what if they hadn’t? I believe this love story of God coming for all of us would have still been told, because God is, well God and all… But I love that it was told by those who had probably never before been entrusted with news that carried any real weight–yet, here they were, carrying the weight of Glory within their testimonies… 

It can be tempting to see this as a reminder that even when we feel less-than and unqualified to share our testimonies, we should share them anyway–and, maybe there are times we need to remember exactly that… But I would challenge all of us to take a good look at ourselves and our “place” in the world before we land in that place. Who around us is stereotyped? Whose testimony is deemed invalid in our time? Who are those seen as unclean in our culture? If the answer to those questions is not us, then we need to understand that we’re the ones who’ve become accustomed to being the “elite”. And we’re invited into the Shalom of Jesus. We are invited to come down to the level ground of Jesus to listen to those who He’s brought up to that same foundation. The foundation of the Prince of Peace–real, lasting, all-inclusive peace. Where all is made right, and all are made whole. Where all are invited to call Jesus our Life, our Lord, our King. On this foundation, the Kingdom of heaven comes. And the ways of this Kingdom are love and Shalom.

Are we willing to give our lives, our love, our all to the King of this Kingdom?

–Laura

shepherd pic

Advent #3: Joy

In September of 2011, my book club read Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts. Her book fell into my hands during a confusing season in my life, just a few months before a very dark season in my life. I began to practice very intentional gratitude, writing down three things a day for which I could be grateful. This practice of counting gifts– being grateful, ended up saving my life. Ann writes, As long as thanks is possible, then joy is always possible. 

Joy. The theme of the third Sunday of Advent.

Pastor John took us on a journey through Colossians 2:6-7:

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened (established) in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

He highlighted four truths from these verses that will lead us to joy.

In order to live our lives in Jesus, we first must identify who is Lord of our lives. Is it Jesus or is it me?  For Jesus to be Lord means that I yield my will to his, my desires to his; I  walk with Him, spend time with Him–He is the focus of my being.

1. Live in Jesus: The Apostle Paul encourages us–once we have settled who is Lord– to continue to live our lives in him. To continue signifies an ongoing action. I think sometimes in modern day western Christianity, we emphasize the gift of eternal life , but de-emphasize living our everyday lives in him. We check our quiet time or our prayer time off of our “to-do” list, and carry on with our day any way we want to. To truly live in Christ means that my choices, my behavior, my attitudes, my thoughts, the way I influence and am influenced all show that Jesus is my Lord. And may I point out, that Jesus doesn’t make us mean. One can not look at his life in the gospels and come to the conclusion that his followers are to be hateful and mean, so if my life is lived in Him, my behavior and choices will draw people toward him–but this absolutely can’t be manufactured. It is an overflow of the life source of Jesus in us, which brings us to our second truth:

 

2. Rooted:   At this time of year, there are Christmas trees all around us. Some are real, some are artificial, neither one is alive. The real trees, once they’ve been cut, begin the dying process immediately because they’ve been separated from their life source. They no longer have roots that are bringing them nourishment and the ability to grow. The artificial ones never had a life source. They are pretty, but they are fake.

Jesus tells us the importance of staying connected to Him as our life source. He knows that connection to Him leads to life and to joy. He says:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener…Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.  If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.  If you remain in me and my words remain in you, …you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples… Now remain in my love...If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love… I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete…. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you… This is my command: Love each other. “(Excerpts from John 15: 1-17)

Connection to Jesus, our life source, leads to His joy, which is the only real joy that exists.

Once we’ve settled who is Lord–which source we will draw our life from, which source our roots will tap into– we can then be:

3. Built up: To be built up means to grow or build upon the foundation that has been laid.  I’ve said this before, and it will probably come up again, but I can not emphasize strongly enough that we do not transform our own lives. Christianity is not a behavior modification program. Jesus transforms our lives. Our part is to intentionally connect to Him. I can look back over my life, and easily see that I am not the person I used to be. (Praise His Holy Name!) He has changed me. I don’t know how, but I know that it’s real. Spending time with Jesus has changed me. Loving Jesus has changed me. Being rooted in Him as my life source, knowing that apart from Him I can do nothing, making time to be with Him, checking in with Him throughout the day, owning it when I mess up (which is frequently), staying connected to His love, has changed not just my life, but me–in the very depths of my being. And the beauty of a relationship with Jesus–there is always more to know, more mystery to explore, more layers to allow Him to peel back, more growth to be had. It’s a living relationship. Pastor John worded it this way, he asked us to ask ourselves “What’s your next step?” We all have one. Take the step. Build. Grow.

My dad is one of the most beautiful examples of a life being built on Jesus that I know. He had his 89th birthday last month, and do you know what his one requested Christmas gift is? A new study Bible. His roots go deep. He and I still have wonderful conversations about new things being revealed to him. As long as you are still living and breathing on planet earth, there is more of Jesus to know; however, living in Him, being rooted in Him and built on Him is not “rule” following. That does not lead to life. Being connected to Him, the resurrected, alive, very present Jesus,  leads to life.

I won’t pretend like there aren’t (many) times a day that I have to make a conscious choice to make decisions that honor Him, but I don’t do that out of obligation or “have-to”, or performing. It comes from being in love with Jesus, with determining that He is my Lord, and asking the Holy Spirit to strengthen me and help me in my choices. True, the ultimate decision lies with me–God has not made us robots–but choosing His way, His life, leads to my life, and to joy.

4. Strengthened (Established) in the faith:  I’m not going to lie, sometimes I don’t like the phrase “in the faith”, because of what it sometimes implies; something boring, stagnant, fixed, but to be established in the faith means that my beliefs are actuated into something real and living. My beliefs that God is who He says He is, that He fulfills His promises, that He loves me unconditionally, that my life is founded on a very real, very alive, very active resurrected Savior with whom I visit every day, leads to living differently, seeing the world differently, seeing people differently–and that relationship allows me to:

Overflow with thankfulness, which leads to joy: the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess 1:6), righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17),  I get to be a disciple  who is  filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:52).

Remain in the vine, be filled with the Spirit, be grateful, and the fruit of God’s joy will overflow in your life, and people will be drawn to Him through you–no matter your circumstances.

As long as thanks is possible, then joy is always possible. 

–Luanne

What does a tree do when it is thirsty? Its roots reach and twist and search for water. It knows it has to have water. It’s built into the DNA of the tree. If it finds water, it drinks and it grows. If it doesn’t, it eventually withers and dies.

We are a little more complicated than a tree. We are born into this world and as long as we are breathing, and our organs are all functioning, we are considered “alive”. But we come into this world spiritually dead. Dead things can’t reach for anything… So how do we ever come alive?

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart… (Ecclesiastes 3:11a, NIV)

There is a longing in each heart that we can’t explain away. There is a reaching of our roots for soil that will satisfy… a desire not created or contained in our humanity but placed there by the Divine, that we might discover all that our eyes cannot see. It is Jesus, the Word that breathed creation, that was with God in the beginning; the Word made flesh that dwelt among us–it is He who wakes us up and reveals our need for Him.

“Even as He exposes the need, His is the Presence that meets it.” (Emily P. Freeman, The Next Right Thing podcast)

Zephaniah prophecied these words more than 600 years before the birth of Jesus:

On that day the announcement to Jerusalem will be,“Cheer up, Zion! Don’t be afraid! For the Lord your God is living among youHe is a mighty savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.” (Zephaniah 3:16-17, NLT)

That day that Zephaniah spoke of came. We remember the angst of the waiting and the Glory of His coming with lyrics like these:

“O come, O come, Emmanuel… and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lowly exile here–until the Son of God appear…

“Long lay the world in sin and error pining–til He appeared and the soul felt its worth!”

He set eternity in our hearts that we might wake up to our neediness. And then He came. He appeared in the flesh as the One who meets our need.

But… we don’t always reach for what we need. We don’t always reach for the right water. Sometimes we wake up to our need, by the grace of God, but reach for everything but Him to meet it. We drink from stagnant ponds of self, performance, others, approval, riches, fame, and many more… in a futile attempt to find the life our souls long for. Instead of plunging deep into the soil of Christ, our roots sometimes crawl around on the surface, frantically searching for what is readily available to us if we would only stop reaching higher and higher… and instead, allow our roots to go down and be hidden in Him…

The soil of Christ is the only place we’ll find the living water our souls crave. Rivers of living water flow just below the surface, and we are all invited to tap into this source. But the life of Christ and His Kingdom always involves going down. The upside-down way of the Kingdom requires that self be buried in Jesus, fully submerged in His life. It’s only when we willingly go low that He can raise us into “…oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of His Glory.” (from Isaiah 61:3) We must be rooted in the soil of Christ, continually drinking from His rivers of living water. This is the beginning of living in Him. Luanne wrote:

“…if my life is lived in Him, my behavior and choices will draw people toward him–but this absolutely can’t be manufactured. It is an overflow of the life source of Jesus in us…”

Behavior modification and all attempts at finding life anywhere but in Christ are part of living above the surface. Manufactured life eventually repels others rather than drawing people in, because every one of us is searching for the one thing that is real to satisfy our thirst. People may buy an act for a while–but the eternity set within our hearts will cry for more when we drink for too long from what is artificial. What will draw others, Luanne said, is the overflow of the life of Jesus in us that is revealed in our changed behaviors and choices.

But first, before we can overflow, we have to drink. We sink our roots deep into the soil of Christ and–because He doesn’t make it difficult to come to Him–we find that, as soon as we break through the surface, as soon as we acknowledge Him as our Lord, as the One our souls ache for, we find ourselves surrounded by rivers of life. We don’t have to dig around in this soil, performing for and pleading with Jesus to satisfy our thirst. It’s immediate. And who is invited into this immediate satisfaction of our desperate thirst?

On the final and climactic day of the Feast, Jesus took his stand. He cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Rivers of living water will brim and spill out of the depths of anyone who believes in me this way, just as the Scripture says.” (John 7:37-38 Message)

Anyone. All of us. And in case we weren’t certain after those words, there are these words:

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” Let anyone who hears this say, “Come.” Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life. (Revelation 22:17 NLT)

Anyone can come. And not only once… The verse says “let anyone who desires drink freely… As much as we want.  If we accept the invitation to freely drink in deep draughts from our source, if we continually go to Him, drink in His life, we’ll find that “… Rivers of living water will brim and spill out of the depths of anyone who believes in me this way…” We become what we continually consume. If our lives are hidden in the soil of Him, and if we are continually drinking in His living water, we’ll find that–as Luanne said before–we will overflow. Rivers of living water will spill out of us. Rivers move and flow, carrying life, and growing new life, both within and all around them. Ezekiel 47:12 says it this way:

 Fruit trees of all kinds will grow along both sides of the river. The leaves of these trees will never turn brown and fall, and there will always be fruit on their branches. There will be a new crop every month, for they are watered by the river flowing from the Temple. The fruit will be for food and the leaves for healing.”

Beautiful… Life. Change. Growth. And none of it on our own… Luanne wrote:

“He has changed me. I don’t know how, but I know that it’s real. Spending time with Jesus has changed me. Loving Jesus has changed me. Being rooted in Him as my life source, knowing that apart from Him I can do nothing, making time to be with Him, checking in with Him throughout the day, owning it when I mess up (which is frequently), staying connected to His love, has changed not just my life, but me–in the very depths of my being…”

I could say those same words about my experience with Jesus. Our experiences are unique to each of us, of course, but the result is the same: I have no idea how He’s changed me, but I know that He has. I know I’m nothing like the me I was before I was rooted in Him. Somehow, my life was absorbed into the life of Jesus and step by step, He is working His life and ways through every fiber of who I am. He is rewiring my heart, renewing my mind, refocusing my thoughts, restructuring everything about me so that as time goes by, I’m a display of HIS glory, not my own. This transformation process is what grows His fruit in my life. Because of His life in me, love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and JOY can grow and exist in me… and then, overflow out of me.

This assurance of His life working in me, changing me, is why thanks is always possible. Because regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in, regardless of the sorrows of this life, if we are rooted in Him, that’s a forever thing. Nothing and no one can remove us from our life source. Roots planted in Him, hidden in Him, cannot be separated from Him. Even if we are cut down above the surface, our roots remain connected to our source… And even a stump can grow again…

But on this humbled ground, a tiny shoot, hopeful and promising, will sprout from Jesse’s stump; A branch will emerge from his roots to bear fruit… (Isaiah 11:1, Voice Translation)

When we’re rooted in Christ, we’re connected to life that will never end. For this reason, no matter what, thanks is always possible. So, joy is always possible.

“Joy to the world, the Lord has come…”

And He keeps coming, and bids us, “Come, and drink freely from the water of life.”

Repeat, repeat the sounding JOY…

–Laura

Image result for living evergreen tree in snow