IT IS WELL WITH MY SOUL

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I’ve been recently convinced that I need to start writing about my pain. Ultimately, what follows will be a chapter in a book. Perhaps it can be helpful to those who are concerned about what the future holds in these uncertain times. Sorry, no recording this time. This week, this is what I have to offer:

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Oh, my brothers and sisters who are in pain and suffering, my heart cries out with you.

I know your confusion, your hurt, your anger at God, your frustration when others don’t understand. I know how insensitive well-meaning friends can be, hurtful without even realizing it. I know the dark lonely hours you spend, wondering if it will end, why it won’t end, why won’t God just do something?

This is for you. This is for me. This is for your loved ones who suffer with you. This is for us.

This is also for those who watch our suffering and don’t understand. You have compassion, but you don’t know exactly what to think, or how to act around your struggling friends.

This is also for those of you who secretly suspect that there must be some reason, perhaps a hidden one, why other people suffer and you don’t. You may not say it, but it crosses your mind that perhaps we suffer because of hidden sin, or because we spoke bad things into our lives. Perhaps we poor souls failed to follow the simple rules for godly living that will result in peace and prosperity for everyone wise and disciplined enough to stay on the path. To you, especially, I say: pay attention. Your souls are in grave danger. Give up pride, seek humility, read on and learn, lest you find your hands empty on the only day true rewards are given. I don’t give such warnings lightly.

Let me begin with my story. To be clear, I don’t think I have suffered more than anyone else. I am not competing with anyone here to see who has it worse. If you want to claim your suffering is worse than mine, I won’t argue one bit. I freely admit that I know dozens of people that I would never want to trade places with. That’s not what this is about. What I do want you to know that, at least in some way, I do know what suffering is. I am in it, even as I write this.

I am in pain.

Physical pain. Severe, constant, relentless, unending pain.

It started with a kidney stone. Not all kidney stones are equally bad. But the worst kidney stones, what I call “the real kidney stone experience,” is generally the worst pain anybody ever experiences in one’s life while remaining conscious. I have spoken with several women who delivered babies without any painkillers, and who have also had kidney stones. They report that the kidney stones are far worse. I’ve spoken to war veterans who were shot, and shredded by shrapnel. They report that kidney stones are far, far more painful than combat wounds. I have had several surgeries, including the kind where they make a large incision, and the post-surgery pain never remotely approached the real kidney stone experience.

A “real kidney stone” produces a pain so severe that if you can’t get relief within an hour, you desperately hope, and even pray, that you will die quickly. It is pain to the point of insanity. This is what I call 10/10 pain. If you have this level of pain, you seek medical help immediately. If you think you can go without medical help, you are not experiencing 10/10 pain. According to some doctors, most people don’t experience that level of pain ever in their lifetimes.

I have experienced it at least five times.

Due to two small tumors that developed when I was about thirty-five years old, I began to pass kidney stones roughly every six months. This went on for more than ten years until the problem was finally detected, and the offending tumors removed. I have passed somewhere around twenty-five stones.

Not every stone I had reached that 10/10 level of pain, but, as I mentioned, four of them did (more on the fifth time momentarily). The others may not have reached that level of insanity, but even a level of 7/10 puts you in a place where most of your energy and time is devoted to dealing with and riding out the pain. At that level, you might be able to watch TV, or play a mindless computer game to try and distract yourself, but meaningful work or interaction is not possible for more than a few minutes at a time. Most people take strong drugs if things get to 7/10. If those don’t work, the next step is the emergency room. By 8/10, and certainly by 9/10, everyone is heading there.

It took weeks at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic to identify and correct my tumor problem. My body finally stopped producing new stones, though, at that point, I still had several more in my kidneys waiting to pass. The Mayo clinic also explained what was causing the continuing pain problem.

All of that severe, intense pain that recurred regularly for more than ten years gradually changed my body. It did two things. First, it caused a rare kind of physical damage that cannot be surgically repaired. Second, it damaged my nerves. The end result is that even though I no longer produce them, I still feel the same pain as if I am passing kidney stone. I feel this pain all day, all night, every day for the past six years. That’s 2,190 days of kidney stone pain, or 52,560 hours, but who’s counting?

Of course I take pain medication for it. If I didn’t, I would have been dead a long time ago. What I have now is a virtual kidney stone that will never pass. That means the pain will never end. Medication does not really remove the pain. Most days I live at a 5/10. That’s halfway to insanity. On an average week, my pain creeps up to 7/10, or 8/10, two or three times. This is while I am taking pretty significant pain medication. Once in a while I’ll experience a few good days, where I might get down to four out of ten. Three out of ten is as rare as the Minnesota Vikings going to the Superbowl. This is not a low level of pain, pain I can ignore. If I take nothing for it, I end up in the emergency room. The last time I waited too long to medicate, I hit 10/10 pain for the fifth time.

If you want to try and experience what I feel on a minute by minute basis, trying lying flat on your back with your knees up. Tuck a golf ball just below your rib cage, two or three inches to the left of your spine. Now, rest all of your torso weight on that golf ball. That might approximate my daily, 5/10 pain experience. I am a strong, stoic person, so I may not be admitting to how much pain I really have. My wife tells me that I typically undersell it.

There is a reason I am emphasizing how bad my pain is, how difficult my daily life is. I want you to understand that what I go through is almost unbelievable, because what I want to say next is even more difficult to believe, but it is far more important.

I am so thankful to God for this pain.

I am closer to Jesus because of this pain.

Now, I don’t want to paint an unrealistic picture. Of course I struggle. Sometimes, I just don’t know how I can get through a day. I write a little. I try to go for a short walk. A car ride of more than forty-five minutes is certain to ramp up my pain something fierce. Sometimes playing a simple computer game helps distract me enough push the pain back just a little. I spend most of the time sitting or lying with a hot bag of rice on my kidney, which is the only thing that sort helps, besides medications that I should only take when I’m desperate. And I get desperate too often. I worry about getting the medications that keep me sane – many of them are controlled substances, and sometimes doctors make mistakes and that leads to lapses in getting what I need.

I want to be writing. I want to write this book. I want to finish the fifth in my mystery series. I want to write a book about house church. Meanwhile, I know I am called to feed the sheep of Jesus by teaching them Word, and by teaching them how to learn the Word for themselves. How can I do these things, things to which I feel strongly called, if all I can do is writhe in pain?

I need to remind myself to stop thinking in days. I need to remember to think moment by moment. Now is a good moment. A combination of things is keeping it at 5/10, and possibly I’ve had a few minutes of 4/10. I’ve just written five hundred words in one sitting. Before the pain, that would about a quarter of what I would have called a decent writing session. Maybe I should call that win for these days. Even now I feel the pain, crouching like a menacing shadow just beyond the light. It is growing. This good moment clearly has an expiration, and it isn’t far off. Soon it will be back to the grind.

But before I quit, I want to make sure you understand something of earth-shaking importance: There is something greater than the pain, something so good, so true, that even though the pain does not become less, it becomes less important.

Because I have been afflicted, I have experienced the love of God in a more deep, intense way. I am more certain than I have ever been of his love for me, and of mine for him. Experientially, I belong more fully to Jesus than I have ever before. This is not in spite of my suffering, but because of it.

I recently heard someone comment on the hymn, “It is Well With my Soul.” She said, “I wish I could have that. It just wish that it could be well with my soul, no matter what is going on.”

Brothers and sisters, today I do have that. It is well with my soul, in the middle of this moment-by-moment struggle, in the middle of five years of disappointed hopes and dead ends, and unanswered prayers. It is well with my soul as I cannot help but grunt or sigh in agony. It is well with my soul, though the prayers of thousands on my behalf have not been answered as asked. It is well with my soul as I toss and turn and squirm and try desperately to get comfortable to grab few hours of restless, unfulfilling sleep. It is well with my soul as I watch my writing career slowly grind down and lose momentum, because I do not have the energy to fight with this pain and do everything else I want to.

What I am about to say might require some major readjustments in your thoughts and attitudes. Especially, it  might require some adjustments to your heart.

It can be well with your soul too.

 

COLOSSIANS #12: THE POWER AND PURPOSE TO BE WHO WE WERE MEANT TO BE

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The only way to become who you are truly meant to be is to surrender your heart and life to Jesus. He is the creator of your heart, and only he knows completely who you are, and what you are meant to be. Looking inside of you, or following your heart, will not be enough. Adolf Hitler had a clear vision of who he was and what he was meant to be. He followed his heart with strength purpose and authenticity; and he was totally evil. Only Jesus can help us to be fully ourselves without becoming monsters.

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Colossians #12. Colossians 1:27-29

27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. Colossians 1:27-29

Last time we examined the mystery of “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” We found that it is not so much that we live our lives for God, but rather that Jesus Christ lives his life through ours. Our part is, in one sense, to get out of the way, and to not hinder the Life that Jesus wants to live through us. Now, in verse 28, Paul clarifies and expounds on this.

First, Paul says that he proclaims Christ, warning all people. The Greek word here  could be translated several ways: admonish, reprove,  caution. The idea is speaking to someone with idea of correcting a problem, or warning about some danger.

In our day and age, preachers and teachers seldom warn or admonish. The most popular preachers at the biggest churches, the ones you see on TV and on the internet, generally avoid telling people things that they don’t want to hear. They frequently have interesting messages that tend to affirm people and make them feel good, and they stay away from controversial or difficult topics.

But Paul is not just telling people what they want to hear. He isn’t agreeing with the culture, or affirming their basic self-centeredness. He is confronting them with the truth of Jesus, and the first part of the message of Jesus is that all human beings must repent.

17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17, ESV)

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15, ESV)

31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32, ESV)

45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem (Luke 24:45-47, ESV)

Repentance is a central part of the message of Jesus Christ himself. Therefore, part of the job of Christian leaders is to warn those who are not repentant. Many verses all over the New Testament tell us that leaders must correct, rebuke and warn. This is an integral part of what it means to proclaim Jesus Christ and his message. The grace and truth of Jesus confront us with our need to change. I believe that many, many of those who call themselves pastors and preachers in this day and age have been failing to warn and admonish. Warning and admonishing is not necessarily an effective church growth policy. People can misunderstand, and leave. Sometimes people understand perfectly, but they are still offended by the warnings, and they still leave. Yet, this is what Christian leaders are called to do. We are not called to create large churches, we are called to proclaim the message of Jesus.

Paul also engages in teaching. I have recently mentioned the importance of that ministry, so I won’t go into that again here. He adds that he warns and teaches “with all wisdom.” The word “all” here means, “all sorts.” In other words, all truth ultimately comes from God and agrees with the Revelation of scripture. Paul uses any and all means to communicate the truth and beauty of Jesus Christ to the world. When he was in Athens, he quoted from Greek poets. When he preached to Jews, he used the wisdom of the Old Testament. I often use analogies and illustrations and stories when I teach, or even movies or songs. All of this is appropriate, since God is the source of everything that is actually true and good. Don’t be afraid if you feel like God touches you through a “secular” song or movie, or book. All wisdom that is actually true and wise comes ultimately from our God, and all of it can be used to help us in our relationship with Jesus. I do want to make sure and add, however, that the ultimate revelation from God is the Bible alone. Confucius had some God-given wisdom, as did Aristotle and Socrates. But they also wrote things that were wrong. We cannot accept every single thing that they say. Instead, we should evaluate it against what we find in scripture. All wisdom and truth must be judged against the Bible. The Bible is the final standard for God’s Truth. It should be our first source, and the source that judges all others.

Paul says that purpose of this warning and teaching is “that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” I want to bring out some shades of meaning from the Greek here. When Paul says he want to “present” everyone, there is the idea that people being presented are firmly in a certain condition. They are standing, or existing, in a state of maturity in Christ. Picture a graduation ceremony. Each graduate has completed the course of study, and is ready to move forward.

The word “mature” is the Greek word telos, and the idea behind it is that some thing or person is fulfilling its purpose. A hammer being used to pound nails is accomplishing its telos. It isn’t just what we call maturity, it is the idea that a person is finally being and doing what they were made to be and do. That’s what it means to be mature in Christ.

I want to make sure we don’t misunderstand this. The text makes it clear that the purpose for which we exist is fulfilled only in Christ. You see, these days, we are all about being “who we were meant to be.” But the scripture makes it clear here that the only way to be who you are meant to be is to submit to Jesus Christ. He is the one who created you in the first place. He is the one who has the master plan for each person, and how each person’s role relates to everyone else’s role.

This is extremely significant. Many people think their purpose is to pursue whatever they feel deeply. But the human heart is deceptive and changeable. We do not clearly see our own failings, and we so easily lie to ourselves to pursue whatever it is we want. Sometimes the things we want change drastically as we grow older. Sometimes, perhaps, we want the same thing consistently, but what we want is wrong. As far as I know history, Adolf Hitler was “true to himself.” He was honest about what he wanted, and he pursued what he thought was his destiny with strength, purpose and authenticity. Even so, he was thoroughly evil. Hitler is an extreme example, but it is true that a great wave of unhappiness is in the world as a result of people trying to “be true to themselves.”

The only way to really “be true to yourself” is to follow Jesus. He is the creator of your heart. Only he can lead you, only he can truly fulfill the purpose of your life. You don’t accomplish your purpose by getting to know yourself better, you do it by fully surrendering yourself to Christ.

Paul’s own telos, his purpose, is to help others grow in Christ. His next statement is also very important, because it shows us something about how to live and grow in Christ. After looking at the Greek, here is how I would paraphrase verse 29:

For this goal I wear myself out, agonizingly struggling with the tremendous energy that God himself energizes powerfully in me.

You see two pieces here. Paul is toiling, but he is using not his own strength. The energy with which he toils is power that comes from God himself.

There’s an old phrase that some people find clever: “Are you working hard, or hardly working?” Actually, in Christ, it is both. Paul works hard, but, it is God who works though him. Next time you hear that phrase, let it remind you of the truth that if you let him, the Lord will work through you. Paul teaches the same thing to the Philippians:

12 Dear friends, you always followed my instructions when I was with you. And now that I am away, it is even more important. Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. 13 For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. (NLT, Philippians 2:12-13)

He tells us to work hard to show the results of our salvation. That sounds like it is all up to us. But then he adds that it is God who works in us, both to give us the desire, and the power to please him. We work hard, and yet, at the same time, it is God working hard in us and through us. Paul works hard, but it is God’s energy within him that does the work.

I think the key to all this is to be willing. Part of being willing is making our bodies and minds available to God.  For example, one part that is essential for us if we are to mature in Christ is to read the Bible. If you aren’t a reader, listening to the Bible is just as good. God will not take over your body, make you walk over to the shelf, take down the bible and open it up. You have to do that part. Or, you have to call up the audio Bible on your phone and start it playing. But then, once you read or listen, what you get out of it is up to God. This may surprise you, but the Bible is very clear that results are God’s business, not ours. You need to put the bible into your mind and heart by reading or listening. But the second part – the growing and learning and changing – that is what God himself will do, in his own way, and own time.

I don’t remember every meal I’ve eaten during the past month, but even so, those meals nourished my body. In the same way, the scripture I’ve read during the past month has nourished my soul. Sometimes, I can feel my soul being built up as I read. Sometimes I can’t. But I give God my time and willingness, and he provides the growth in his time and way. I read the Bible almost every day. Many days, what I read does not stay in my conscious mind for very long. But after 35 years or so of regular Bible reading, God has implanted his word deep in my soul, and he uses it to bear fruit on many occasions. How it bears fruit, and when, is up to him. My part is to give him my time, my eyes and my mind. In fact, here is some of what I’ve read during the past month:

4 [Jesus said] Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.
5 “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. (NLT, John 15:4-5)

That little piece, which I read a few weeks ago, is bearing fruit right now in this sermon. And it isn’t the first time I’ve read it, nor the first time it has helped me and others. It reinforces what Paul says in our text for today. Our first task is to make sure we are closely connected to Jesus.  Next, we make our voices and hands and minds available to him. Finally, we leave the results up to him.

So it is with everything. Jesus want to love and bless and my family through me. I have to give him my time and my words, but the way those things bring blessings to them are up to Jesus. I have to be willing to spend time with other people Jesus has put in my life. I need to be willing to speak, or help them in practical ways. But even as I give my time and my physical actions, it is  God who uses those things to bless others. I have been saying “I,” but truthfully, this is for all of us. It isn’t just for preachers: Paul made that clear in the Philippians verse I quoted above, and Jesus made it clear in the John 15 verse I just gave you. This is how we live. We use our voices and minds, and hearts and bodies, but it is God working in and through us at the same time.

Later on in Colossians, Paul says these things:

17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (ESV, Colossians 3:17)

3 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (ESV, Colossians 3:23-24)

We work, but God works through us. One of the biggest benefits here is that we can have peace by trusting that the results are up to God. I had to study to prepare this sermon. I had to put in a fair amount of time. I had to use my mind, studying the Greek, and remembering other verses that relate to this text. I read some things written by other believers. I used my abilities as a writer to organize these thoughts, and put them down, to the best of my ability, so that others can understand what this scripture means. In a little while, I will record a spoken version of what I have written. The whole process often takes in excess of 30 hours. But now that I am done, I trust that the Lord will do what he wants with it. If it touches your heart in any way, it is because God is working with his energy. Yes, I had to give my energy to God for this, but any positive effect is God’s responsibility. I can relax and trust that He will indeed bless someone through this. I’ve done my best, out of gratitude toward Jesus. He will take it from here.

In the spoken versions of all my messages, I begin with a prayer. The prayer is usually something like this:

Holy Spirit, Thank you for your Word. I pray right now that you will use me to help us understand your Word better. Use the scripture, and what I am about to say, to bless us, to change us, to draw us closer to you. If you need to, change what I am about to say. Or, change what people hear me saying so that we all hear your voice, and are brought closer to you. In Jesus’ Name, AMEN.

I pray that for each message. But really all of us should pray something like as we begin each day. We are here to be used by him, and the more we are his instruments, the more we fulfill His good purposes for us.

Why don’t you let him take it from here?

COLOSSIANS #11: THE LIFE!

We don’t live for Jesus. He lives his life through our lives. He expresses his purposes and glory through each of us in unique and important ways. This takes a lot of pressure off us. Mainly, we simply need to trust him to do it, and make ourselves available to him. This is the meaning of: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

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Colossians #11. Colossians 1:25-27

Paul has just said that he rejoices in his sufferings, and that he is engaged in suffering for the sake of the church. He continues:

25 I have become its servant, according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. 27 God wanted to make known among the Gentiles the glorious wealth of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (CSB, Colossians 1:25-27)

Paul records that God had a special plan for him to serve the church by making known the Word of God. Paul’s call was, in some respects, unique. God called him, and several other apostles, to teach and write the very words that would become scripture to us. But in another respect, there are others whom God has called, in a lesser way, to make the word of God fully known. This is a special call, given to some, not all, to teach the Bible to others. One reason I point this out it because in certain places, this idea has been lost, and it hurts the church. Where I live and minister, it is often called “the Bible Belt,” because Christianity is strongly rooted here. But often, though it is strongly culturally rooted, the Bible is not well understood, and there are many people who take it upon themselves to “become a preacher.” Many of these people are neither called by  God, nor properly equipped, to make the Word of God fully known, and they sometimes do great harm.

Martin Luther and those who led the Protestant Reformation taught about the “the Priesthood of all believers.” This is often misunderstood. What it means is that every believer has direct access to God, and every believer is called to use his or her energy and abilities in God’s service. It does not mean that all believers are equally called and equipped to teach God’s word to others. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul makes this clear.

4 There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit is the source of them all. 5 There are different kinds of service, but we serve the same Lord. 6 God works in different ways, but it is the same God who does the work in all of us. 7 A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. (NLT 1 Corinthians 12:4-7)

29 Are we all apostles? Are we all prophets? Are we all teachers? Do we all have the power to do miracles? 30 Do we all have the gift of healing? Do we all have the ability to speak in unknown languages? Do we all have the ability to interpret unknown languages? Of course not! (NLT, 1 Corinthians 12:29-30)

I think that at times, at least in my area of the United States, these things are not considered carefully enough. If someone is to be a teacher of the Word, he should be called, trained, equipped, and have the explicit approval of a church. In addition, the church needs every kind of gift, not just the gifts of Bible teachers. There are some who seek to become preachers who are depriving the church of their other, better gifts and calling from the Lord. I also want to make sure that we understand every gift is important and significant. Being a teacher of God’s word does not make me better than someone who, for instance, is called to glorify God through his work as a mechanic.

Paul says that part of his call is to make known “the mystery, hidden for ages and generations.” He often uses the term “mystery.” Although we get our English word for mystery directly from the Greek word here (mysterion), Paul’s meaning is slightly different than we might think. He doesn’t mean that it is a puzzle that needs to be solved. He means two things: First, that human beings cannot understand it or know it unless God reveals it. Second, he means it is a truth that has been hidden until a particular God-appointed time for it to be revealed.

Paul is talking about the gospel, and all of the meaning of it. The idea that God would enter the world and die in order to save his people was not something that ever entered the imagination of human beings. But even more, Paul lays out specifically the unique thing that was hidden for ages, and now has been revealed by God’s grace: “Christ in you, the hope of Glory.” This is a very theological phrase, but stick with me. There is something extremely important here, something that can make a real difference in our lives now, and for eternity.

Many Christians use this sort of terminology: “Jesus lives in my heart.” That is true. But sometimes, we get the idea that Jesus is like a roommate. We think of it a bit like this: Jesus is there, relaxing, his arms up on the couch, hanging with us. He’s there to comfort us when we’re down, or give us advice when we remember to ask it. Sometimes, he’ll warn us, other times, tell us we’re fine. Overall we get the sense of Jesus just “chilling” somewhere inside of us. But that isn’t really the Biblical picture. The Biblical picture is that Jesus Christ expresses his life through your life, and mine. That is what the phrase means: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Now, I want to be clear. We aren’t living for Jesus. We are letting Jesus live through us. The first one still relies on our own flesh-based efforts – we have worthy goals that we are accomplishing (or not) by our own effort. The second one is about completely relying on Jesus to do it. We have to give him our response – we have to say “yes” to Him and let him use our arms and legs and words, but we recognize at the same time that it is His Life flowing through our unique body and personality.

Jesus lived this way in his own relationship with the Father, while he was on earth. He said:

 “If you know Me, you will also know My Father. From now on you do know Him and have seen Him.”  (John 14:7, HCSB)

The one who has seen Me has seen the Father. (John 14:9)

Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me? The words I speak to you I do not speak on My own. The Father who lives in Me does His works.  (John 14:10 HCSB)

In that same passage, Jesus himself gives us a clue that he will live the life in us, just as the Father lived the life in him:

“I assure you: The one who believes in Me  will also do the works that I do. (John 14:12)

We often think this means we will imitate what Jesus did. I think, in light of the rest of the New Testament, that it means Jesus will live his life through us.

Either Jesus will do it as you let him, or you are on your own. Letting Jesus live through you calls for faith that in our passage today: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” So maybe you are in a situation where God is calling you to speak and act in love toward another person. You don’t feel very loving. Maybe some people wouldn’t even pray. They’d just grit their teeth and try to be loving. Maybe others would pray something like this: “Lord, give me the strength to love this person right now.” But that isn’t exactly right either. That means we are still living the life ourselves, even if it is with God’s help. I think our attitude should be more like this: “Lord, I don’t feel loving. I can’t love this person right now. You do the loving through me. I am willing for you to do that. I make myself available to you for that.” And then we trust Him to come through.

Maybe you need to forgive someone for something they have done to you. This is often one of the hardest things to do and let go of. Many times, we try to do it on our own strength. Sometimes, we begin to get a glimmer of a clue, and we say, “Lord help me to forgive them.” Again, the focus of that prayer is still myself and my own performance.

Remember what Jesus prayed for those who crucified him: “Father forgive them…” We often think of this as Jesus asking the Father for forgiveness on our behalf. And perhaps that is what it was. But what if it was the human-nature of Jesus, who was dependent on the Father to live his life through him, asking the Father to do through him what he, the human-nature of Jesus, could not do on his own? Given the verses in John above, that is a real possibility – this was Jesus, praying in dependence that the Father would continue to work through him and speak through him even in this extreme and terrible situation.

And so we can say, “Jesus, I feel bitter toward this person. I can’t forgive him myself. Even so, I give you permission to forgive through me right now. Lord forgive him – through me.”

Do you see how this could change everything? Our performance could never, will never, achieve our salvation. Jesus did that on our behalf. But our own performance will also never be enough live the Christian life either. Just think of it: It is the CHRISTian life. It is his life. He is the one who will live it. Our part is to allow him to; to respond when he speaks through the bible or in our hearts; to let him have our arms and legs and mouth and thoughts and the rest of us, so that he can life our life. This is why Paul puts it like this:

 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.  (Rom 12:1-2, ESV)

We are to present our bodies to Jesus, so that he can use us. We are to let him renew our mind, to transform us from the inside out so that we can hear and respond to Him living his life through us.

One of the wonderful things about this, is that we do not lose our person-hood when we do this. In Hinduism and Buddhism, the goal is to completely lose yourself into a kind of cosmic one-ness. But the Bible teaches that as we become one with God, we retain our individual personality, and in fact, he has plans and purposes for our unique individuality. This is where we come back around to the first point: we all have unique callings and giftings. Each one of us is important and significant.

Jesus wants to express his life through all these unique people. No one personality could possibly show all the many facets of Jesus’ power, His creativity, His person, His purposes. That’s why Paul says “we are the body of Christ, all of us parts of it.”

Jesus wants to live his life through me because he can show others some of his words and thoughts in a unique way through me. He can think and write through me in a way that he can’t through anyone else. Jesus wants to live through Kari because he can make a unique kind of music through her, songs that he can’t make through anyone else. I’m not saying we are better than anyone else. But we are different from everyone else. So are you. You get the picture?

He can show his compassion to people through you in a way that he can’t show it through anyone else. He can make a beautiful painting through you that he can’t make through anyone else.

I’m a poor craftsman, but at times I am forced to do farm or home-improvement projects. I have  dozens of tools. Each tool is there to do my work. They all express my will and purpose (or they would, if I was any good), but each one expresses it differently. The saw expresses my purpose in a way that looks completely different from the hammer. But they are both used to create what I am building or repairing. A tool that tried to be both and hammer and saw at the same time probably wouldn’t be very useful for either task. Even the hacksaw has a task that is different from the wood saw.

I am not asking you to try to be good on your own. I am asking you to trust Jesus to live his life, to express his life, through you, as you. You don’t have to become someone or something else – Jesus has already done all the becoming for you. He wants to use the unique person that he has made you to be. Your part is to trust that he wants to do it; to let him do it; and to trust that he is doing it, and the results are up to him.

COLOSSIANS #10: FILLING UP WHAT IS LACKING IN SUFFERINGS OF CHRIST

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When we Christians suffer well, trusting God and his purposes, even when we don’t understand them, it is a powerful testimony to the world. It shows the world that there is something so good, so powerful that even suffering is redeemed. It shows the world that suffering and love can, and do, go hand in hand. When we suffer well, it is like we are teaching the world about the sufferings of Christ.

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Colossians #10. Colossians 1:24-26 (Part B)

24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, 25 of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. Colossians 1:24-26

This is the second sermon on the same set of verses: Colossians 1:24-26. If you have not read the first sermon on this passage (Colossians #9), please go back and do that now. Some of what we learn in this sermon absolutely depends upon what we already received from the previous one.

We began last time by examining Paul’s words: “I rejoice in my sufferings.” Those are powerful words. Until we understand how it is possible to rejoice in our sufferings, we cannot understand this next phrase: “I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”

If you stop and think about it, this is a very puzzling phrase. What does it mean to fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ? How can Christ’s afflictions be lacking? Does this mean that the death of Jesus is not enough, and we need to suffer in order to be saved?

Paul uses some unusual language in this little phrase, but there is one other place that uses almost exactly the same Greek wording. That other verse comes in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The Philippian church collected some money and sent it Paul  to help support him as he worked for the kingdom of God. Paul was in Rome at the time, a long way from where they lived, so they sent the gift with a man named Epaphroditus. Epaphroditus arrived in Rome with the money, and he also assisted Paul in the work, but at some point, he got sick, and almost died. Paul says that he considered this sickness of Epaphroditus to be suffering for the sake of Christ, and he wrote this:

Therefore, welcome him in the Lord with great joy and hold people like him in honor, because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up what was lacking in your ministry to me. (Philippians 2:29-30)

The phrase “to make up for what was lacking” is almost exactly the same in Greek as our verse today where he says, “I am filling up what is lacking” in Christ’s sufferings.

In the first place, it is interesting to note that Epaphroditus was not persecuted.  “He came close to death for the sake of the Lord” because of an illness. This should show us that anything and everything that happens to us as we try to live for Jesus is “for the sake of the Lord.” His suffering was no less suffering for the Lord, even though it was not persecution, but “ordinary sickness.”

Next, let’s consider how Epaphroditus “made up what was lacking” in the ministry in the ministry of the Philippians to Paul. He didn’t raise the money himself. Also, Paul does not mean that Epaphroditus added the last, needed twenty dollars. What was lacking in the Philippian gift was a person to deliver it, to make sure that Paul got it. Epaphroditus made up for that lack. He provided the delivery, and the personal touch. He personally represented the love and fellowship the others felt for Paul.

So when Paul says he makes up for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ he does NOT mean that the suffering of Jesus was not enough to bring forgiveness of our sins. The whole New Testament is quite clear that the death of Jesus was entirely sufficient to forgive our sins, to make us holy and restore our relationship with God:

11 Under the old covenant, the priest stands and ministers before the altar day after day, offering the same sacrifices again and again, which can never take away sins. 12 But our High Priest offered himself to God as a single sacrifice for sins, good for all time. Then he sat down in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 13 There he waits until his enemies are humbled and made a footstool under his feet. 14 For by that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy. (NLT, Hebrews 10:11-14, bold formatting added for emphasis)

18 Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone. 19 Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. But because one other person obeyed God, many will be made righteous. (NLT, Romans 5:18-19)

1 So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. 2 And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. 3 The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. 4 He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. (NLT, Romans 8:1-4)

So, the sufferings of Jesus are entirely enough to save us. We cannot add to the salvation that Jesus obtained for us. His sufferings are not “lacking” in power to save us. But there is one thing that Christ did not accomplish while he was here on earth. He did not tell every human being about himself. He gave that assignment to the apostles, and to the whole church. Therefore, what “is lacking” in Christ sufferings is that not everyone has heard about those sufferings, nor understood what they mean. Just as the Philippians needed someone to deliver a generous gift, so Jesus needs Paul – and us – to bring the good news of his gift to the world. What is lacking is, in essence, the delivery of the gift.

Paul, and the other writers of the New Testament, take it for granted that bringing the good news to others will involve suffering.  Epaphroditus became physically ill while serving Jesus, and it is counted as suffering for the sake of Christ. So, in essence the sufferings of Christ – in his body, the church – will not be complete until all the world has heard the good news.

John Piper puts it like this:

What is lacking is that the infinite value of Christ’s afflictions is not known and trusted in the world. These afflictions and what they mean are still hidden to most peoples. And God’s intention is that the mystery be revealed to all the nations. So the afflictions of Christ are “lacking” in the sense that they are not seen and known and loved among the nations. They must be carried by the ministers of the Word. And those ministers of the Word “complete” what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ by extending them to others…

…Paul exhibits the sufferings of Christ by suffering himself for those he is trying to win. In his sufferings they see Christ’s sufferings. Here is the astounding upshot: God intends for the afflictions of Christ to be presented to the world through the afflictions of His people. (John Piper, Desiring God)

Let me give it to you in a different way. When people suffer, mostly, they just want it to stop. Suffering is seen as universally bad. Suffering creates problems for most people. Many people even turn away from the idea of God, because they feel that a good God would not allow anyone he loves to suffer.

Certainly, the Bible says that God the Father loves his Son, Jesus Christ. Yet Jesus Christ experienced a terrible, eternal quality of suffering that we can only begin to guess at. However, The suffering of Jesus was an act of love, because it saves those who trust him. The suffering of Jesus also shows us that Jesus was looking beyond temporary pain into eternal glory.

When we Christians suffer well, trusting God and his purposes, even when we don’t understand them, it is a powerful testimony to the world. It shows the world that there is something so good, so powerful that even suffering is redeemed. It shows the world that suffering and love can, and do, go hand in hand. When we suffer well, it is like we are teaching the world about the sufferings of Christ.

I am utterly convinced that many people have been encouraged by seeing me navigate this life of pain in faith. I think it has had a deeper impact on both me, and others, than there would have been from a miraculous healing. When people see that even in my suffering I find Jesus to be a good, all-sufficient savior, then I am, in a sense presenting the sufferings of Jesus to them. Because I am a  member of the body of Christ, it is not my suffering, but the suffering of Jesus.

Again, from John Piper:

Since Christ is no longer on the earth, He wants His body, the church, to reveal His suffering in its suffering. Since we are His body, our sufferings are His sufferings. Romanian pastor Josef Tson put it like this: “I am an extension of Jesus Christ. When I was beaten in Romania, He suffered in my body. It is not my suffering: I only had the honor to share His sufferings.”  Therefore, our sufferings testify to the kind of love Christ has for the world. (John Piper, Desiring God)

Suffering is an opportunity. It provides us with a chance to experience the grace of God in a special way. In addition, it allows us to present the worth of Christ to the world in a very compelling manner.

Just a few weeks ago, a prominent Christian singer from Bethel church lost her two year old daughter to sudden death. This was a terrible tragedy. It was also an opportunity for God to give that family special grace, and for them, by trusting that grace, to show the world the surpassing value of Jesus Christ. Instead, they chose to very publicly pray for the resurrection of the child. Though I have my small share of suffering, I cannot imagine what it would be like to lose a young child suddenly. I am not judging them, but I want us to use their example as a thought experiment.

Suppose God had answered their prayer for the resurrection of their child. What then? Yes, it would be a great miracle. But it would also leave hundreds of thousands of other stricken parents wondering why God did not choose to raise their child. It would tend to make people believe that the value of trusting God is mainly in what we can see, mainly in him making our lives better here and now. But that is not a Biblical viewpoint.

What if these parents had responded differently? What if they had immediately leaned into the grace of God to trust, even when they cannot understand? What if they had been able to say, “This is the most horrible thing I have ever experienced – and yet, I find that God’s grace is enough. I don’t understand, but I trust him, anyway.” I believe that would have been more powerful, and more helpful to others, than the resurrection of a single child among the millions of those who die young and tragically.

Between these past two weeks, we have learned that it is possible to rejoice in suffering, and also that suffering is a means by which God’s people can show the world that He is good, and He can be trusted. It would be foolish to go and look for ways to suffer. However, if and when you do find yourself in hard times, press into Him, trust Him. Once more, I leave you with one of my new favorite bible quotes:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (ESV, 2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

COLOSSIANS #9: REJOICING IN SUFFERING

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Jesus promises a future so good that our present struggles are tiny in comparison. He promises His own presence to be with us, and to strengthen us to endure suffering. He promises to take our present trials, and turn them into future blessings for us. All this means that we can truly rejoice in our sufferings.

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Colossians #9. Colossians 1:24-26.

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. (Colossians 1:24-26)

I am typing this on my laptop computer. The laptop is being supported by a large book called “The World’s Great Religions.” This has me thinking: Christianity is unique among the world’s great’s religions for many reasons. One of the ways Christianity is so different is because of how our faith helps us come to grips with suffering.

Hinduism tells us that suffering is all our own fault. It is karma in action. Every person suffers because of what they did, either in this life, or in some previous life. Buddhism tells us that suffering is meaningless. It is an illusion. We should not let it bother us. Islam and Judaism tell us that suffering is something to be endured patiently. It is evil, but God can help us through it, and we will be rewarded if we endure it well.

Only Jesus Christ makes it possible to actually rejoice in our sufferings. Paul’s statement here that he rejoices in his sufferings is repeated in many other places in the Bible. The bible teaches us not only that Jesus Christ can help us as we suffer, but also that suffering can be a source of joy and blessing:

Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance (James 1:2-3)

You rejoice in this, though now for a short time you have had to struggle in various trials (1 Peter 1:6)

A man who endures trials is blessed, because when he passes the test he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him. (Jas 1:12)

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part (2 Corinthians 8:1-2)

Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of the Messiah (1 Peter 4:12-13)

4I am acting with great boldness toward you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy. (2 Cor 7:4)

I could add a number of other verses. I could also add my own testimony. As I have surrendered in faith to Jesus, my sufferings of chronic pain have become for me a source of blessing and joy. Now, don’t get me wrong. I would love to see the pain end. There are days when it is a real hassle, and I get a little crazy trying to figure out how to cope. But I can also say that I am truly grateful for the pain. It has brought me closer to God. It has broadened and deepened my perspective on many things. I say, without hypocrisy, that my suffering has been a blessing. Though my pain is often difficult, Jesus has removed all evil from it.

One thing that can help us to rejoice in our sufferings is an understanding that this world is not all there is, and because of that, our struggles in this life are not as powerful or significant as the all the good that is coming to is in the future. Imagine you have an old-fashioned scale for comparing weights. There are two sides to the scale. On one side, place all of your struggles and sufferings. On the other side, place all of the blessings that God has given us through Jesus Christ, including our future eternal life. All of the good we have in Jesus Christ far outweighs all of the sufferings we experience in this life. Paul says that there is no comparison between the two:

That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18, NLT)

The good does not always outweigh the bad if we are only looking at this life. We must include eternity in the calculation. That is part of what Christianity is about. We can rejoice in sufferings because we know that this life is not all there is, and what we have coming is far, far better than anything we have yet experienced.

We will indeed find in the future that things are so good, the pain that we experienced in this life doesn’t even matter in comparison. But there is even more. We find not only that the good far outweighs the suffering, but also that the suffering provides some of the “raw material” that God uses to create future good for us. In other words, God doesn’t just “outbless” the suffering, he actually takes it and turns it into goodness for us.

17 And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.
18 Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. (Romans 8:17-18)

To share in the glory we must share in the suffering. That means that suffering is not just an evil to get through. Suffering is actually the means to glory. When we suffer as we follow Jesus (whatever the cause of suffering) God actually takes that suffering and turns it into future glory and blessing for us. Suffering  here and now creates blessing for us in eternity.

We have a glimpse of this when we consider the cross of Christ. Jesus Christ suffered terribly for our sins. On a spiritual, or metaphysical level, his suffering was unbelievably worse than we can even imagine, for the Bible appears to suggest that he suffered the eternal torture of hell. But the very source of his suffering – the cross – is the very source of his victory and glory. Without the suffering, there would be no glory. Without the pain, there would be no healing. Suffering and glory are deeply connected.

So we rejoice in sufferings because they are small compared to future blessings. We rejoice also because our sufferings are actually turned in to some of those future blessings for us. There is a third reason to rejoice in sufferings, and that is that God is with those who suffer in a special way. In Philippians, Paul writes:

10 My goal is to know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death (Philippians 3:10)

Paul seems to be suggesting that suffering creates a special kind of fellowship with Jesus himself. The promises of scripture never guarantee that we will not have to suffer – quite the opposite. But the bible does promise that when we suffer, he is with us.

2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isaiah 43:2-3)

God is with us when we suffer. Jesus was the only one who had to suffer alone. On the cross, in order to carry our sins, he was entirely alone. All others are comforted, if they are open to it, by the presence of God with them in suffering.

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I want to add another thought. Some people are not sure what sorts of suffering “count” as suffering for Christ, and what is only ordinary hardship that is found in this life. Let’s do a thought experiment to help understand this.

Imagine you are an American, and you take your family to Indonesia to be missionaries. You are there because you are serving the Lord. While you are there, you get malaria. Is that suffering for the Lord? It seems reasonable to say so. You are in Indonesia because you are serving the Lord, doing what he has called you to do. Following his call on your life led you to be exposed to malaria. If you had rejected his call on your life to be a missionary in Indonesia, you would not have been exposed to it.

Now, what if you are a Christian who was born and raised in Indonesia? You are following Jesus, and he leads you to be a carpenter, raise your family in faith, and be the Light of Jesus to your friends and neighbors. While living your life in your own country, surrendered to Jesus, you get malaria. Is that suffering for the Lord? I would again say yes. You, too, are serving the Lord the way he has called you to. You too, are living a life of surrender to Jesus. When we belong to Jesus, everything we do, and everything we experienced occurs in Jesus, and for Jesus.

The apostle Paul lived his life for Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 11:16-29, he mentions some of the ways in which he has suffered for Jesus. He certainly includes various persecutions in his sufferings. He also mentions being shipwrecked. He counts dangerous river crossings as part of his trials endured for the sake of Christ (2 Cor 11:26). He adds danger from robbers, from wild animals, from cold and exposure, and from traveling through the wilderness. He counts hard work as part of his suffering for Christ, as well as sleepless nights and going without food and drink.

When Paul was in prison in Rome, the Philippians sent him a gift. The gift was delivered by a man named Epaphroditus. After Epaphroditus arrived in Rome, he got sick. He became so ill that he nearly died. His sickness was not the result of persecution. There is not mention of the fact that it came from some moment when Epaphroditus was doing some amazing act of ministry. It was just “ordinary sickness.” But Paul describes it like this:

29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, 30 for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me. (Philippians 2:29-30)

Epaphroditus was living his life in surrender to Jesus. Therefore, when he got seriously ill, Paul describes it as nearly dying for the work of Christ.

My point is this: If you allow it, God will redeem all suffering. It isn’t just special, “holy circumstances” that count as suffering for Christ. Whatever trials come your way as you live in Christ are counted as suffering for Christ. And these are the trials – often ordinary, everyday hardships – in which we can and should rejoice.

Let the Spirit speak to you about this right now. Think of some area of your life, or in the life of someone you care about. Picture putting that suffering into some kind of container, and then deliver the container to Jesus. Let him take it. He will walk with you. He will give such a future that this problem seems small. He will take that container of suffering, and change it into eternal joy and blessing for you.

Trust Him.

THE SHOCK-WAVES OF A SINGLE CHILD

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If God really came into the world, we would expect that to create some changes. The event would reverberate through history. In fact, that is exactly what we find.

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CHRISTMAS 2019: THE SHOCK-WAVES OF A SINGLE CHILD

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us).

24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25, ESV)

The central claim of Christmas is that at a certain point in time, at a certain place in history, God himself came to earth as a baby. Matthew said that this God-child will be called Immanuel, which means: God with us. It is a stunning claim; if it is true, there are huge implications for every area of existence. Think about it this way: if God came to earth, it would be like dropping a boulder into a still, calm pond. The ripples would go out in every direction and disturb and change the surface of the pond. If God came to earth, it would change everything, and the changes would continue to be felt, long after the event.

So, what do we find? The God-child went around with the name Jesus. Jesus grew into a man who gathered followers, and he taught them God’s truth. Part of the truth that he taught them was about his own identity as God-in-the-flesh. Part of his mission was not just teaching, but also to die on our behalf, and he fulfilled that mission. What effect did all this have on the course of human history? Can we see any ripples in the course of human history?

I’m going to start with something that is frivolous, but actually somewhat remarkable, if you think about it. It is now roughly 2,000 years since Jesus was born. Even today, even in 2019, when we enter the season of remembering the birth of Jesus, millions of people behave better than at other times of the year. Throughout late November and December, people in the Western world are typically much more generous to each other, and to those less fortunate. We do little favors for strangers. We feed the poor. We give to charities. We overlook little offenses because we are influenced by the “season.” I think that the power of that original event can still be scene in how millions of people are a little bit more kind, caring and loving when we remember the birth of Jesus. That little child entered the world twenty centuries ago, and we still feel the shock-waves of it at the end of every year.

There are bigger things, also. One of the central truths that Jesus imparted to his followers was that all human beings are equal in value. Nowadays, we in the Western world take this for granted. But in the history of human cultures, this is a unique idea that came from one source: the teachings of Jesus Christ. Before Jesus, people in every culture, all over the world, took it for granted that human beings were NOT equal. Generally speaking, women were considered second-class. Noblemen were more valuable than peasants. Slaves existed to serve their betters. Adults were better than children. No one questioned this view of the world.

In recent years, as our culture has grown less Christian, some academics have tried to suggest that modern democracy arose only from ancient Greece, and Rome. They don’t want to credit Christianity with anything positive. It is true that the creators of modern democracy found inspiration in some of the writings of those ancients. But even the most enlightened of the ancient Greeks and Romans approved of killing unwanted babies (especially girls); of pederasty (that is men, sexually abusing boys); of slavery; and of the second-class status of peasants and women. They believed in a ruling class that was intrinsically better than anyone else. If there was a country today that practiced democracy in the same way as ancient Athens, that country would be condemned by the Western world for abuse of human rights.

No, the idea that all human beings are equally valuable came from Jesus Christ alone. That one idea has created innumerable ripples throughout human history. The teachings of Jesus on this issue elevated the status of women. His teachings are the source of the idea that children are precious and should be protected.

During the 1700s in the American colonies a revival of Christianity occurred. This was known as the first Great Awakening. It was the power of Christianity, bolstered by the first Great Awakening, that led the founding fathers to create modern democracy. Author Dinesh D’Souza writes:

The first great awakening, a Christian revival that swept the country in the mid eighteenth century, created the moral foundation of the American revolution.

…Historian Paul Johnson writes that the American revolution is “inconceivable… Without this religious background.”

Even before the Great Awakening, the political philosophers who inspired the American revolution (people like John Locke) were applying their devout Christian faith to political systems. The very idea of limited government, with rights to individual people, is a result of the teaching of Jesus. To put it simply: one of the ripples of the Christ-child is modern democracy. Millions of people live in freedom today because of that child born in Bethlehem.

In 1785, a British politician became a true follower of Jesus. The influence of Jesus on his life led him to believe that slavery was morally wrong, because, in the sight of God, all people are equally valuable. The name of the politician was William Wilberforce, and his Christian faith led him and sustained him as he created a movement that ended slavery in the British empire.

The abolition of slavery in the United States was largely a result of the second Great Awakening. Again, D’Souza writes:

The second Great Awakening, which started in the early nineteenth century and coursed through new England and New York and then through the interior of the country, left in its wake the temperance movement, the movement for women’s suffrage, and most important, the abolitionist movement.

Another one of the great ripples of this child coming to earth, was literal freedom for slaves. Slaves were freed only in countries where there was a significant Christian presence. Elsewhere in the world, slavery was ended only when Christian nations used their power and wealth to pressure other nations into freeing slaves.

Before Jesus, the Greeks and Romans had a few small facilities to take care of wounded soldiers. However, nothing like hospitals existed anywhere in the world. It was people who were trying to apply the teachings of Jesus who created the first hospitals; hospitals that were open for anyone in need. Even today, there are hospitals that exist for profit, and those that are run as charities (that is, they are not trying to make a profit, but rather simply to serve the community). Christian charitable hospitals outnumber all other charitable hospitals by a crushing majority. The compassion to help the sick, merely for the sake of helping them, is just one more ripple of this God-child.

In fact, there are so many significant ripples, that there really is not time to tell about all of them, nor to go into how they all came about. Universities would not be in this world if it were not for this God-child. Modern science would not have been possible without him. The whole idea of nuclear family, which is the only solid building block for stable, free societies, arose from this God-child. Our economic system, which recognizes human selfishness and manipulates it for human good, and has led to best standard of living the world has ever known, was made possible only by a Christian view of the world, which was only possible because of the child in the stable. Without that child, most of us would not be able to afford the presents under the tree.

Many of us don’t know a lot about history, or about other cultures. We may not have realized just how brutal and unfair life was before Jesus Christ came into the world. But his entry into history has profoundly changed the entire course of human culture. That is what we would expect to find if the claim is true.

Part of the power of this Child is that he not only entered history: he also enters the hearts and lives of all who will receive him. Just as his entry into the world caused profound changes, so also, his entry into our lives, personally, creates deep changes in us. When we invite him in, he brings love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. He changes our eternal future. He brings internal freedom, and wisdom, and compassion for others.

My prayer for you this Christmas is that he will indeed enter your hearts, and that you will continually receive, and rejoice in, the power of God with us. If you allow him to, you will find that it is the best Christmas present you have ever received.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

PREPARING FOR SECOND CHRISTMAS

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Sometimes it can feel like the Christian life might be a bit repetitive and boring. But we cannot live on continual excitement. We have to keep returning to get our spiritual fuel replenished, and sometimes that involves very ordinary, everyday sorts of things. Part of being ready for Jesus involves being faithful, day in, and day out. If we seek Him, he has the resources we need to remain faithful and ready.

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Advent, Week 3. Matthew 25:1-13

Advent is a time for preparation. The original “advent” was a time when many different prophecies were being fulfilled. Magi in Persia recognized an unusual configuration of stars, which signaled something portentous. Zechariah the Priest, and his wife Elizabeth, conceived a child, and Zechariah himself was struck dumb by a prophecy. Augustus Caesar got antsy about his empire, and called a census that made a descendant of King David return to his hometown of Bethlehem, along with his pregnant wife. When we read the New Testament narratives of Christmas, and the coming of the messiah, we get the sense that something big was coming, that the world was filled with anticipation.

In a sense, that was very true. But it seems clear that hardly anyone picked up on the fact that big events were brewing, that God was moving in history. No one recognized the Messiah when he came.

We recognize now that he came. We can trace back to the prophecies in Isaiah and from Moses and others, and we see how Jesus fulfilled them. But back then, very few people caught on. Jesus, while he was still on earth physically, promised that he would come back again some day. And he warned us that the day of his return will catch many people unprepared, just like the day of his birth. In the closing chapters of his book, the Apostle Matthew recorded some of the things Jesus said about his return. Today, we will look at one parable that Jesus used to describe this event. This the the parable of the ten bridesmaids in Matthew 25:1-13.

Back in those days, weddings were a very big deal. Many people were bone-cracking poor, but a wedding gave them a genuine reason to celebrate. In addition, most people were likely to get a lot more food at weddings than they usually would. In some cases the feast would go on for seven days, so those who were lucky enough to partake, may have counted on a wedding to help them through hungry times. All in all you might say that folks looked forward to a wedding the way we might look forward to… Christmas. Interesting, right?

The “business” of the marriage – the ceremony, you might say – took place between the groom and the bride’s parents, some of it up to a year before the marriage was consummated. After that year was concluded, there was a procession, usually after nightfall. The bridegroom would travel from his house to a place where he met up with the attendants of the bride (not exactly bridesmaids as we think of them, but close enough). The “bridesmaids” all carried lamps, or torches made from oil-soaked rags. Generally, these lights burned for about 15 minutes. When the bridegroom came, they formed a lighted procession around him, which traveled to the home of the bride. While they went along, others joined them, it became kind of a traveling party. They arrived at the Bride’s home, and she joined her husband, and from there, they all paraded joyfully back to the house of the groom. Immediately, the feast and week-long celebration began.

Jesus describes ten bridesmaids. They probably had their lamps lit in expectation of the bridegroom, because he says “they went out to meet the groom.” But he was delayed. Remember, this is a third world country, two-thousand years ago, before the invention of clocks or watches. Things happened when they happened. Usually, they happened on the correct day, but it was very hard to nail people down to specific times. Anyway, while they waited, either their lamps went out, or they eventually put them out. The groom was so long in coming that they fell asleep. When at last he came, they lit their lights again. Five wise bridesmaids had brought extra oil, and their lights were replenished, and ready to burn for as long as was necessary again. But the five others had no light left. By the time they had found oil, it was too late, and they were excluded from the feast.

Jesus tells this story as part of his teaching about his eventual return to earth. Most parables are told just to make a few simple points, and this is no exception.

First, there seems to me to be a strong correlation between “oil” and the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament, Kings and Priests were anointed with oil, to signify the Spirit of God. In fact, the word “anointed” came to signify “filled with the Holy Spirit.” I think Jesus was deliberate about choosing a story in which the presence of oil was the key point; and I think he did so because one of his main teachings here is about the Holy Spirit.

The message is here simple, but profound: You can’t get by on a one-time experience with God. Sooner or later, you’ll run out of spiritual fuel, and you could end up missing the Ultimate Wedding Feast, the return of Jesus.

Often, when you start your spiritual life with Jesus, it is very exciting. It changes everything. Sometimes, we experience a renewal of our faith, and that is also very exhilarating. But we can’t live on excitement forever. And it is exhausting to try to artificially generate new excitement to keep us going. At some point, the rubber meets the road. The bridesmaids were thinking, “I thought something was supposed to happen by now. This is dull, and boring.” It’s easy for us to begin to feel that way, spiritually.

However, we need to live what we know, day by day. Sometimes daily grind gets ordinary and boring, but it is where life is lived. Going to work, coming home, running errands, spending time in Christian Fellowship, serving others. It can feel like we get stuck in a rut, sometimes. And sometimes we do get in an unproductive rut. However, far more often, it is not a rut, it is just real life, and we need to be faithful, patient and persevering.

To make it through times like that, we need enough oil for our lamps – in fact, we need the Holy Spirit. If we hang around until the excitement fades, and then go look for more excitement somewhere else, we are acting like the five foolish bridesmaids. While they were out looking for something they had run out of, the wedding procession began, and they were left out of the feast.

Clearly, according to this parable, one experience with God is not enough. Ephesians 5:18 tells us to “keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit.” As we have seen somewhat recently, the apostles in Acts experienced a filling of the Holy Spirit over and over. So how do you get your lamp refilled?

We know the basics, right? We need to be regularly reading, or listening to, the Bible. We need to be regularly connected with other Christians in genuine fellowship, and worship the Lord together with them. We need to allow the Lord to use our lives to serve others. Some of that is what feels like a rut, sometimes, but we cannot hope to keep our lamps full without these things.

There are other things that can be added to these to help us. I think these others things could be different for different people. I can get refilled by reading a really good Christian book – something like “Waking the Dead” by John Eldredge, or “The Pursuit of God” by AW Tozer, or “Abide in Christ” by Andrew Murray. I have also found that the Lord often refills me through new music. I get refilled by being in nature, by thinking and writing.

Other folks get refilled in different ways – by exercising, or by making something with their hands, or writing poetry. For some it comes through times of concentrated prayer and fasting. Fasting is always good to try, if you are really stuck. Others, obviously, find it very useful to listen to sermons on the TV, radio, or the Internet. I am positive that if you ask God how he wants to replenish your oil, he will tell you, and make it available to you. Ask him, and then watch for his answer.

Here’s something else from this parable: No one else can be filled on your behalf. Remember that the 5 wise bridesmaids did not have enough oil to spare for the 5 foolish ones? Jesus included that detail in order to illustrate this point. You have to take responsibility for yourself to get the oil you need on an ongoing basis. No one else can do it for you, any more than they can eat a meal to satisfy your hunger.

Finally the time to replenish your oil is now. One of Jesus stated points is: “Therefore be alert because you do not know either the day or the hour.” Don’t think, “well, I’ll deal with my spiritual issues after Christmas.” Christmas might not come this year. Jesus may come back first. Even if he doesn’t, any person could die at any moment in an accident. Refilling your oil – getting refilled by the Holy Spirit – needs to be a priority.

GIVING THANKS FOR THE BAD THINGS

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THANKFULNESS 2019

This will not be a normal, full-length sermon. I want to spend this week in Thankfulness. Although Thanksgiving is not one of the feasts given in the Law of Moses, it is certainly a Biblical idea. Look at a small sample of verses about thankfulness from the New Testament:

Rejoice always! Pray constantly. Give thanks in everything, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  (1Thess 5:16-18, HCSB)

And let the peace of the Messiah, to which you were also called in one body, control your hearts. Be thankful. Let the message about the Messiah dwell richly among you, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, and singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.  (Col 3:15-17, HCSB)

Devote yourselves to prayer; stay alert in it with thanksgiving.  (Col 4:2, HCSB)

4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your graciousness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses every thought, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable — if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise — dwell on these things. (Philippians 4:4-8 HSCB)

6 So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. (Colossians 2:6-7 NIV)

Literally hundreds of times, the Bible exhorts Christians to be thankful. As we look at the small sample of such verses above, it is clear that Christians are supposed to be people who live with an attitude of continual thankfulness toward God. Taking it one step further, to having a feast-day for thanksgiving is only natural. It should never be consider necessary, however: Jesus has done all that is necessary. But a festival of thanksgiving can certainly be useful in orienting our hearts toward God in the right way.

This year, I want us to spend some time in real thanksgiving. I’ll offer some thoughts to help keep us focused and oriented. Many people have discovered that thankfulness can absolutely transform your life. So, for example, say you have a job that you really hate. But, if you start each day by thanking God for the things you don’t hate, you find that it balances out the negatives in your life, or at least, it does to some degree. I often start my thanksgiving with something small, like hot water as I take a morning shower, and towels, and coffee. The more I thank the Lord, the more I think of other things I can thank him for. Many, many people have found this sort of thing to be very helpful in maintaining a peaceful heart and positive attitude.

I want to challenge us this year to take it one step further. I speak from personal experience when I say that I have learned to thank God even for things that I really, really don’t like. To do so, is an act of trust. When I thank God for something that I wish he would change, I am acknowledging that He is in control, and I am not. I am reorienting myself around the truth that he knows better than I do. I am agreeing with his Word, that:

We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

This can be tremendously freeing. It can create a vast reservoir of peace and joy in your life. I know this to be true, because I have experienced it. In my struggle with chronic pain, I began to find real peace and joy when I started to thank God not, in spite of the pain, but for the pain. At the same time I began to thank him for all of the other stupid stuff that was going on my life that I wished was different.

When I started doing this, it was  pure act of will. I said, “I think I need to do this Lord. So, I don’t feel thankful, but even so, I am thanking you for this pain.” I went on and thanked him for financial hardship, and several other things. One of the first times I did this, Kari and I did it together. I won’t say we ended by feeling truly thankful, but we did start to feel a little bit more peace.

As it became more of a habit, I can now say that I am truly thankful for the pain (not just in spite of it). The pain is still there. I still have to figure out how to cope with it. But the fact that I am suffering is not a source of angst or frustration with me. God is working through it to create the best possible outcome for me, and I am so thankful for that.

So, this season, won’t you join me? Join me not only in focusing on the good things, but also in thanking God for the things we wish he would change.

I recognize that I didn’t arrive at this point on my own. It was a gift of God, who, by the Holy Spirit, empowered me to begin thanking him in this way. If you are willing, he will give you the same gift. Let’s ask him to do that right now, so that we can begin to experience the height of joy and depth of peace that thankfulness can bring.

COLOSSIANS #8: RECONCILED

 

 

Even though we were hostile toward God, and alienated from Him, he gave his life to restore us to Himself. He is the Lord and Master of the universe, and when we receive him, he also becomes the Lord of our lives. Though this can be scary, we can trust his love for us, because he loved us before we cared about him. Continuing on in faith means that trusting Jesus is not a single, one-time thing, but, rather a lifelong journey that affects every aspect of our lives. When you receive Jesus, the “truest you” has already been made holy and blameless. That reality is more powerful than our experiences of struggle here on earth.
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Paul is moving in a clear direction. He starts with Jesus as the Creator of all things. He is God in a visible form. He holds the highest rank in the universe. Then, Paul gets more personal. Jesus is the head of the body, the church. We are related to him. He is not just chief of the universe, he is our chief, our leader. Paul moves from the impersonal toward more and more personal. Jesus is not only our leader in the church, he is our leader in resurrection. In verse 19, Paul makes sure we understand, once more that if we are looking at Jesus, we are looking at God himself: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” After this reminder, he gets even more personal. Jesus is not just the Creator, not just the highest rank in all creation, not just the leader of the church, but also, it is through Jesus that we are brought close to God. He is the one who has reconciled us to God. He is our savior.

This is the wonder of Jesus – he is both Higher and more Majestic than we can imagine, and yet, at the same time, he  cares for you, personally. He is Lord and master of the universe, and also, the one who loves you, personally. He inhabits and fills the entire cosmos – and yet he also makes his home in your very soul. The very leader of the world is also your friend.

Sometimes people make a distinction between Jesus as savior, and Jesus as Lord. There are Christians who appear to believe that you can receive Jesus as savior, but still not have him as Lord. Paul reverses this. He makes sure we understand that first, Jesus is Lord of all: Lord of All Creation, Lord of the church, Lord of Us – only when we have that straight does Paul talk about Jesus as savior. He is not savior unless he is Lord. If he is not Lord, he cannot be savior – the two go together. What this means practically is this: If you want to be a true Christian, it means surrendering your entire self – your will, your heart, your mind, your life – to Jesus. This doesn’t earn salvation, but it is the only way to receive salvation. If we retain control, we are not trusting Jesus, and if we don’t trust Jesus, we aren’t saved.

Now, I don’t mean that we do this perfectly. But it is our intention to let Jesus have our lives, even if in reality, we sometimes try to regain control. Failing is normal. But you cannot say, “I’ll take salvation please, but I withhold the right to live however I want to.” Salvation involves giving up on ourselves, and putting all our hope in Jesus. Paul makes sure that we know that Jesus is worthy of our trust. He is creator, chief, first in all things. He went through death before us. He went through resurrection before us. He does not ask of us anything that he himself did not do first. We can trust him with our lives, because he has already done all that we needed.

Paul says that the Colossians were once hostile and alienated in their minds. This is true of us, even if we have followed Jesus for as long as we can remember. We were born with a spiritual genetic defect called sin. Our condition at birth was alienated from God, and hostile in our minds. That is every single human’s “natural condition.” Children do not need to be taught how to be selfish, or mean, or angry or how to lose self-control. All of that comes naturally. But children do need to be taught how to be kind, to share, to think of others and how to control themselves. Every single human being is born alienated from God, hostile in mind to him.

God did not wait for us to shape up:

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (ESV) Romans 5:6-11

Here in Colossians, Paul describes that process in more detail:

22 [you] he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him

When Jesus died physically by crucifixion, there was something else going on spiritually. In the spirit realm, he included all those who would trust in him in his death and resurrection. When Jesus died on the cross, for all intents and purposes, our sinful flesh was punished and killed along with Jesus. Through faith, this is the truth: we died with Jesus on the cross. Our sin was punished on the cross by his death.

Being born in sin, we were helpless to do anything to make ourselves better. Jesus did that for us. We don’t deserve it. We cannot earn it. There is nothing in the universe more valuable than the life of Jesus, so there is nothing we could possibly earn or borrow or even steal to pay for our salvation. We receive it as a gift, or not at all.

By the way, this is why Christianity is the source of the concept of human equality. The teaching is that we are all equally lost. No one can claim to be intrinsically better than anyone else. And our salvation is not earned, so not even anyone who is saved can claim to be a better person – we are what we are by God’s grace alone. The death of Jesus declares that we are equally helpless. It also shows us that he puts such value on every human being that he was willing to give his own life to save us. At the foot of the cross, the ground is perfectly level.

Jesus reconciled us in order to present us to God as holy, blameless and above reproach. This is already the second time we have encountered this idea in Colossians, and we aren’t out of the first chapter yet. It will come again later on. We live in two worlds at once: the physical world, and also the spiritual world. In the physical, natural world, we look around and say, “I am not holy and blameless. I am not above reproach. So this text must be wrong.” But in the spiritual realm, you already are holy and blameless and above reproach. The bible teaches us that the spiritual, unseen world is greater, and more permanent than the world we see.

It’s a little bit like the movie, the Matrix. People are living lives, falling in love, fighting, struggling and so on in a world that is imaginary. They are wired to a virtual reality. It looks and feels real to them. But if they could escape, they would find there is a more powerful reality, and what happens there can change everything in the virtual world. For our purposes, the physical world is like the Matrix, and the spiritual world is the “real world.” Paul describes elsewhere like this:

17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (ESV, 2 Corinthians 4:17-18)

The things that are seen (the physical world) are transient. That word means, “temporary, of short duration. Not permanent.” But the unseen world – the spiritual realm – is eternal. It lasts forever. So when we look at ourselves in the physical realm and see someone who is far from holy, we need to understand that such a thing is temporary. Yes, for now, for a short time, we don’t look holy and blameless. But in the spiritual realm, the world that lasts forever, we are already holy and blameless. And that realm is greater, and lasts longer.

Paul ends this section with a final thought:

23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. (ESV) Colossians 1:18-23

You are reconciled to God, you are holy and blameless and above reproach before God, if indeed you continue in the faith, not shifting from the hope of the gospel. It is important for us to understand this. Being reconciled to God and being made holy and blameless are things that come through Jesus Christ alone. We receive them by trusting in Jesus. If we were to shift our trust from Jesus onto someone or something else, we cannot receive these things. It is not that we earn them by trusting Jesus. It is not that God punishes us by taking them away if we stop trusting Jesus. But Jesus is the only way to receive these things. So, if we refuse to get them through him, there is no other way to get them.

Imagine a beautiful island in the ocean, with some of the most stunning scenery in the world. There is no bridge to it – it is too far out into the ocean. There is no airstrip on the island. It is privately owned. The owner welcomes guests, and he accommodates them, provides rest and entertainment and delicious food, all for no charge. Regularly, he sends a ferry to the mainland to pick up whoever wants to come. But some people don’t like the look of the ferry: they think it doesn’t look comfortable enough for their tastes. Some people think it doesn’t look seaworthy, and they don’t trust it to keep from sinking. Others just don’t want to travel by sea – they’d prefer to fly. But this island is private property. The Owner doesn’t have to allow anyone at all to come there. If you want to go, he has provided the ferry. If you refuse to take the ferry, then there is no other way to get there. He isn’t mean or exclusive: anyone who wants to can use it. Many have, and they’ve told others that it is just fine. But if you reject the only way to get there, you have excluded yourself from the island. Everything is free, but you can’t receive it unless you take the ferry.

So it is with Jesus. We must continue on in faith, because without faith, we cannot receive all that Jesus does and is for us. Paul says we must continue, because it isn’t a one time deal. It is not all like buying a ticket for heaven, or life insurance. No, if we truly trust Jesus, it changes our whole life. It effects how live and the decisions we make for the rest of our lives. If it does not have that effect on our lives, then I question whether or not we truly believe it. I don’t mean that we will suddenly behave perfectly. But when we truly believe something this big and important, it will have an effect on us. It won’t make us immediately perfect in this natural world, but it will begin to work on us.

For now, I want us to focus on this fact: In the eternal spiritual realm, you are already holy and blameless. You are above reproach. That “you” is more real and permanent than the “you” that keeps failing. Jesus has given those gifts to the spiritual you, and he wants them to define who you are. Trust him!

FINDING FREEDOM, FIGHTING STRONGHOLDS

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FINDING FREEDOM, FIGHTING STRONGHOLDS

31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”
34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (ESV) John 8:31-36

 When we talk about following Jesus, there are certain things that we can do that are like opening up channels to the Holy Spirit. If we are serious about the fact that Jesus is our Lord and savior, we ought to do these things, in order to grow closer to him, and be the people that he intends us to be.

I’m talking about things like  reading your Bible every day. Now, don’t sweat if you a miss day, or even two or three, once in a while. But if want to allow God into our lives in greater measure, if we want to grow spiritually and become what we were meant to be, we can’t do it without regular infusions of God’s Word, which we get from the Bible.

Prayer is another one. If  you are struggling in your Christian life, and you never pray, there is no mystery about why you struggle. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 says we ought to pray continually. It’s like a long, ongoing internal conversation with God, along with times that are dedicated specifically and only for prayer.

There is also fellowship with other believers. If we don’t have regular Christian community, our walk with Jesus will suffer. The same is true of worshipping God with other believers, and also serving others. All of these are practices and disciplines that are channels between us and God. The Lord can and does use things to pour more of his love and grace and joy and peace and so on into our lives. We really cannot expect to move closer to God without them.

Now, I want to make sure we have this straight. We don’t do them to please God, or to motivate him to bless us. These are means by which we can connect with the Life he offers. He still has to choose to bless us – we can’t make him do it. But he has designed us as human beings to need these things, and also to have them as resources to help us.

If we do these things regularly, it is likely that we will, at God’s chosen pace, grow in our faith, and also grow in the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.

However, there are a few situations in which these things are not enough. The first situation is one that I have experienced during the past few years. At times, the Lord calls his people to suffer. No matter how hard we try, there is at least part of life that simply cannot work, because God has given us the honor of growing through suffering. This is a mystery, of sorts, but there can be wonderful grace as we suffer for him. Sometime, I’ll expound more on this.

There are times, however, when we suffer unnecessarily. You see the Bible insists that we are in a spiritual war. Sometimes, we face struggles and hardships because we are not paying attention to what is going on in that war. Listen to some of what the Bible says about this:

Our struggle is not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12); the devil stalks around like a roaring lion, seeking to devour us (1 Peter 5:8-11); the devil has schemes against us (2 Corinthians 2:11) we are waging spiritual war (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).  We are urged to participate in that war:  We should act as soldiers of God (2 Timothy 2:4); we must resist the devil (James 4:7); fight the good fight (1 Timothy 1:18 and 6:12) and contend for our faith (Jude 3).

You see, sometimes we think it’s hard to be a disciple because…it’s just hard.  But why is it hard?  Because we have enemies who make it hard for us.  These enemies are not flesh and blood.  Our battle is

against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm (1 Timothy 6:12)

“Rulers” and “authorities” do not refer to earthly government, but to different sorts of evil spiritual entities called the devil and demons.

Now, there are two mistakes we make in the spiritual war. The first is assume that neither the devil nor his demons are real, or that the threat they pose is not significant. Prior to September 11, 2001, in the United States, Americans were only dimly aware of radical elements of Islam that hated the United States. No one took the threat seriously, and that resulted in tragedy. Let’s not make the same mistake with regard to the spiritual war.

The second mistake is to imagine that everything that ever goes wrong is because of the devil. If you never maintain your car, and it breaks down on the way to church, that probably is not spiritual warfare. Sometimes mental illness is medically based, requiring medications and other treatments. Sometimes, life just doesn’t go the way we planned. It is not necessarily all the fault of the devil.

This is tricky, for instance, when we talk about something like depression. My wife Kari has struggled with depression off and on throughout her life. One time, we prayed about it, and we were convinced that her depression had a spiritual cause. We engaged in spiritual warfare, and the depression lifted for several years. After many years, it returned. We prayed, and we realized that Kari’s life was very hard at that time, and her depression was a natural result of her circumstances, and so we needed to change some things.  A third time, the depression returned, and this time we were led to seek medication, and found that in this third case, there was a chemical imbalance. I encourage you to seek out all possibilities, but do not discount the spiritual one until you have investigated it.

The Bible also tells us that these entities work against us primarily by influencing how we think and feel. The battleground of the spiritual war is in our mind and emotions.

And so, at times, there may be a kind of spiritual block that is interfering in your relationship with Jesus. The Bible calls these spiritual blocks: strongholds.

A stronghold is a place in your life that is not fully surrendered to Jesus. Maybe it helps to think of it as a room in your house that is locked off from the rest of the house. Inside that room, it is not Jesus who is in charge. We may think we are the one in charge in that area, but the truth is, if we have locked it off from Jesus, that area will be under the influence of the devil and his demons. If you walk past that room, they can use that as a base to dart out and attack you.

3 For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, 6 being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. (ESV 2 Corinthians 10:3-6)

If there is some area of your life where you seem stuck, where you can’t get victory and you just don’t understand why, there is the possibility that it is because of a spiritual stronghold.

Bitterness and unforgiveness are major sources of spiritual strongholds. In Ephesians 4:26

26 And “don’t sin by letting anger control you.” Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 for anger gives a foothold to the devil. (NLT Ephesians 4:26-27)

Jesus himself said that when we refuse to forgive others, we are closing our selves off from God’s forgiveness:

14 “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. 15 But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins. (NLT) Matthew 6:14-15

Now, I don’t think God is being vindictive. I think that unforgiveness creates a major stronghold that interferes with us being able to receive God’s grace. It isn’t God being mean, it is us cutting ourselves off from his grace.

Other strongholds can be created when we make a firm decision – what I call, an internal vow – that excludes God. Perhaps a woman grew up in poverty. At some point, she felt so humiliated by her family’s condition that deep inside, she made a vow, something like this: “I will never, never allow myself to be poor again.” But what if the Lord calls this woman to marry a missionary, or to have a career in some area that doesn’t make much money? Her vow excludes God’s authority in her life, and it will cause all sort of issues later on.

Some people make vows that they will never allow themselves to be emotionally hurt badly again. Sometimes this works in the short term, but usually that sort of thing gives an opportunity for the devil, because God often calls us to self-sacrificing love for others. That sort of stronghold could really play havoc in a marriage. It could seriously interfere in someone’s ability to be close to others.

Addictions often accompany strongholds, or vice-versa. Without consciously saying it, we have decided God can do anything he wants, but he just can’t touch my habit of….fill in the blank.

Any area of your life that is not fully surrendered to Jesus will be unfair game to the forces of evil. Any place where you are excluding God can become a stronghold.

There is, however, terrific news. One of the reasons we create strongholds in the first place is because we don’t trust that God will truly do what’s best for us. Or, we think he will do what’s best for us, but we believe that we find that very unpleasant. You will indeed find God’s purposes for you to be troublesome and unpleasant for as long as you hold on to your own right to manage your own life. However, when you surrender to the Lord and receive whatever he wants to do in your life, you can find grace and joy in any situation.

I know what I’m talking about. I have suffered severe, intense pain for the past four years. The short description is that it feels like I have been trying to pass a kidney stone, 24/7 365 days a year, for more than four years. The first two years were horrible in every possible way. I still find it daunting to get through some days. However, I also find a great deal of joy, peace and meaning, even in the midst of this, because I am accepting whatever the Lord is doing. I believe he is good, he is powerful and he loves me. The pain has impressed that into every fiber of my being. So, even that which looks terrible from the outside can become joy and blessing when we surrender to Him.

The good news, we can be free, and the Lord has made it simple to be free.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (ESV Galatians 5:1)

In the first place, Jesus took all the guilt of our sin upon himself at the cross. In Jesus, you are now declared “not guilty” – even of the sins you have committed. Second, through the cross, Jesus defeated the powers of evil:

13 You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. 14 He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. 15 In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross. (NLT Colossians 2:13-15)

The spiritual powers of evil – including those which inhabit any strongholds – have been disarmed by Jesus. They have suffered a public defeat. Therefore, when we command them in the name of Jesus, they must go. They go, not because we are strong enough to resist them, but because Jesus will back us up when face them. He will make them go way when we tell them to.

The Lord has already defeated the devil. So, for us, destroying a stronghold has three simple parts. First, we identify the stronghold. Next, we repent of it, and ask Jesus to come and take control there. Finally, we speak a prayer by the authority of Jesus, telling the powers of evil to release that stronghold. I have helped many people clear there lives of various spiritual strongholds. I have cleared a few out of my own life, also. It can be shocking to see how free and joyful we can be when all areas of our lives belong fully to Jesus.

I don’t mean that we are perfect, and we never thwart his will. But a stronghold is a place where we persistently, continually thwart God’s control of our lives. When are free of such things, it makes a tremendous difference.

Really what I am talking about is taking inventory, and consciously allowing Jesus to be in control of every single part of your life. Paul did that, and that is why he wrote this:

20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (ESV, Galatians 2:20)

That life, by the grace of God, is a life of love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. It is also a life filled with tremendous hope.

Take  a moment right now to examine your heart. Pick a time this week when you will spend an hour – or several – thoroughly surrendering every part of your life to care of our loving savior and Lord, Jesus Christ.