The text from each of Dr. Dortch's sermons is available here. Click here for sermon videos.
Begin With The Basics: The Harvest is Plentiful
Sunday, February 27, 2011 Comments (0)
The church is in trouble – not so much this church, but the church in general is in trouble. I say that because of the studies that show how young people, once they leave the nest of adolescence, don’t seem to be all that interested in coming back as young adults in big numbers.
The biggest issue is that young adults view the church as judgmental. That’s the term they use, 87% of them, almost nine out of ten. I interpret that assessment to mean that the church, from the perspective of young adults, has turned its back on the larger world, and the vast majority of them just don’t want to be a part of an institution like that.
And the truth of the matter is that many churches have turned their backs on the larger world. I don’t know that they have done so because they consider themselves to be morally superior to the world as much as because they have come to believe that the problems that exist in the world are too large to take on. What are we going to do about the unrest in Northern Africa? What difference can we really make with respect to the economic downturn in our country? What can we even do about the challenges that we face right here in the Big Bend region of Florida? Those are tough questions, and you have to admit that it’s much easier for us to retreat from those questions rather than to take them on. It’s much easier for us to settle into our favorite pew on Sunday morning, surrounded by friends and familiar faces, where we don’t have to concern ourselves with all the violence, suffering, and turmoil taking place around us. How does the old saying go? “Out of sight, out of mind.”
As someone has written, there is a “hole in our gospel.” That’s the title of a book by Richard Stearns that has caused me to reassess my way of seeing the church. Stearns’s point is that while churches promote a private and personal relationship with God, which they should, they also need to be emphasizing a public and transforming relationship with the world. While engaging in private and personal acts of devotion such as going to church on Sundays and saying grace before meals and avoiding the most serious of sins are indeed important and worthy expressions of one’s faith, at some point a person has to ask himself the question: “Does Jesus expect anything more?” “Does Jesus expect me to do anything about what’s happening around me in this world?”
And according to this passage from Luke’s gospel, Jesus does. “The harvest is plentiful,” Jesus says, “but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest (technically, “beg” the Lord of the harvest)…to send out workers into his harvest…” (Luke 10:2). Notice, the trajectory Jesus is encouraging is an outward trajectory, not an inward one. The focus is on the “harvest” and the need of willing workers to get out from their comfortable and familiar stations in life to bring in that which the Lord of the harvest deserves.
Traditionally, we have interpreted this passage to mean that Jesus is asking us to pray for more vocational ministers to be active in the work of the Kingdom – more pastors, more missionaries, more evangelists. And certainly, I would be hopeful that our church would the kind of place where God would raise up and call out such people for the joys of vocational ministry.
But there’s a deeper message in this message that involves all of us, vocational and non-vocational ministers, clergy and laity. The message is that there is so much opportunity to advance God’s work in our world today that Jesus is calling on every believer to get involved in the action.
Don’t miss the beginning verse, where Jesus himself “appoints seventy-two others, besides the twelve, to be involved in harvest efforts. These additional appointees weren’t less educated or less talented or of a lower status than the twelve whom Jesus originally called. It’s more the case that, from Luke’s perspective, Jesus was committed to covering the entire region of Judea, just as he had been committed to covering the entire region of Galilee, which he had done by sending the twelve out earlier, as recorded in Luke 9. In other words, in reality, this was Jesus’ mission, and the appointment of these additional ambassadors represented the means by which Jesus was determined to accomplish this task.
Do you see how this reality must redefine everything we are about as a church? The “mission” that we have as a church is not something that begins with us. Our understanding of mission is something that we receive from Jesus; it’s his mission. He is the “Lord of the harvest.” And the reason we exist as a church, the only reason, is to serve the mission of Jesus – in worship, in outreach, in education, and in nurture. Though you hear it said frequently that “the church has a mission,” it might better be said that because the mission begins with Jesus, “the mission has a church.”
Where are you this morning in that respect? How committed are you to joining Jesus in the work that he is already about in our world today through the presence of his Holy Spirit? It may be the you’re planning to participate in some act of ministry that our church is putting together, such as the trip that our college students are making to New Orleans in the next couple of weeks, or the tour that our young people will be on this summer, or the summer experience in Haiti, or some other local endeavor through one of our small groups. But the mission of Jesus isn’t just limited to what our church is about. It may be that you’ve committed to serving that mission through some involvement with a homeless shelter or a community relief center or a campus service project. As I heard someone once say: “It’s not only what you believe that counts; it’s what you believe enough to do.” And when it comes to the harvest, it means getting up from our comfortable and settled places and going out into this world to be the hands and the heart of Jesus.
How do we make that happen? Look at how Jesus instructs these appointees as the passage in Luke 10 continues.
In the first place, he tells them to go peacefully. “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’” Jesus intends for us to engage in work that promotes harmony and well-being, which is 180 degrees from how our world views the presence of his disciples today. Too many see the church as the source of conflict and trouble. In all of our efforts we must be a settling and encouraging presence. We must be “peacemakers.”
Then Jesus tells them to go lightly. “Don’t take a purse or a bag or sandals.” In other words, don’t get bogged down with the stuff of this world so that you cannot afford to take advantage of the opportunities to serve the mission of Jesus that come your way. How many times have you heard people say, “I would love to do that, but I have this obligation or this commitment, or this responsibility,” and you know that the real reason that refuse to be a part of what Jesus is calling them to do is because they’re more concerned with their agenda than they are with his. Don’t get bogged down with the stuff of life. Go lightly.
And lastly, Jesus says to go steadfastly. “Don’t greet anyone on the road.” “Stay where they welcome you. Don’t move around from house to house.” Jesus calls us to be involved in the mission for the “long haul.” Granted, there will always be “short-term” opportunities to serve the cause of Christ, but the most enriching and fulfilling times of ministry you will ever experience are those that come from staying with a work so that you’re able to see the transformations that only Jesus could have made possible. Be focused on the work that Jesus calls you to do, and give it your very best, for the long haul. Go steadfastly.
What if this morning each of us here today decided with a renewed commitment to embrace the whole gospel, not the gospel with a hole,” and dedicated ourselves to embodying it in whatever ways, big or small, might serve the mission of Jesus? I think not only would we be able to address so many of the hard and difficult challenges of the present day, I think we would also find our faith deepened in the process. We’d find that our joy wouldn’t be diminished in the least; in fact, we’d find it increased.
This past November, I came across what I thought was a truly amazing story that involved a young couple who had just gotten married. The ceremony had just ended and they were posing for their wedding pictures on a scenic ledge, when a woman who was unrelated to the wedding fell into the water and started to drown.
Still dressed in his tuxedo, the best man jumped in and brought the woman back to shore. Then the bride, who was a registered nurse, waded into the water and started administering CPR. By the time the paramedics arrived, the woman who had fallen in had regained consciousness. According to the lead paramedic, the woman was incredibly lucky that the bridal party was there and that they acted so quickly and responsively by getting her to shore. After the rescue was over and it was apparent that the woman was going to be OK, the drenched but heroic best man and bride returned to the reception and went back to celebrating the day.
In many ways that story is a parable of what the church is called to be about in this tough and dangerous world in which we live. The Bible calls us “the bride of Christ” and we have gathered to experience his presence in our worship. But at the same time, we are prepared to dive into mission, even when the mission is inconvenient and costly.
I have always been inspired by a comment attributed to William Sloane Coffin, former pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City. “I love the recklessness of faith,” mused Coffin. “First you leap and then you grow wings.”
Open your eyes to the needs that exist all around you. Open your heart to the place where your deepest gladness lies. See where those two meet – your heart’s gladness and the world’s great need – and then leap. And ask Jesus to call others to leap with you. There is more than enough work for all of us, and if the harvest is to happen, it will take all of us to reap the benefits of what Jesus, the Lord of the harvest, has made possible.
Begin With The Basics: The Path is Narrow
Sunday, February 20, 2011 Comments (0)
As long as I’ve been in ministry, which began for me as an eighteen year-old summer youth minister, I have measured my effectiveness by the number of people involved in various ministry activities. We had this many people at Bible Study. We had this many people in Sunday School. We had this many people in worship and this many people join the church.
And though ministry is most definitely about people and helping people move closer to God, you have to wonder why we ministers are so obsessed with the numbers of people we are able to work with when Jesus clearly told us not to expect a big response. “Small is the gate and narrow is the road that leads to life,” said Jesus, “and only a few find it.”
Jesus did not mean by that teaching that the number of people who receive the life he came to offer is limited by available space. Jesus did not mean to portray God as a kind of Celestial Fire Marshal who shuts the doors to a venue when a certain number of people occupy the room. Jesus instead was calling attention to the fact that the number of people who will ultimately experience the life he came to make possible will be determined solely by those who choose to experience it, and unfortunately, that number, according to Jesus, will be smaller than any of us thinks. “Small is the gate and narrow is the road, and only a few find it.”
Contrary to what some may say, Jesus wasn’t exaggerating with this teaching. There are too many places in Scripture where Jesus warns his hearers not to possess a false confidence. Though many might say that they want to follow Jesus, the fact of the matter is that few people are willing to do what it takes to follow Jesus. Few people are willing to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow after Jesus.
For whatever reason, we humans seem to be wired to do as little as we have to do to get by. We seem only to be interested in the minimum. “That’s not in my job description.” “I only have to do this much for the assignment.” “I’m only obligated to give this much.” We seek the path of least resistance, until we come to understand just where that path eventually leads and only then are we willing to consider doing all whatever is necessary to make a situation the best it can be.
I have a friend that I see three or four times a year. The last time I saw him he had lost about thirty pounds. He had gone on a strict diet. He had started a rigid exercise program. He looked fantastic. And so I asked him about the weight loss and how he managed it. “I watch everything I put into my mouth. I walk three miles a day. I have changed my way of life completely.” “What made you do it?” I had to know. “What was your motivation? What was your inspiration?” “Oh, that’s easy,” my friend replied. “One day I went to the doctor for my annual physical, and when the blood work came back, he looked at me with as serious a look as I had ever seen him have and then he said to me, ‘If you don’t change the path you’re on, you’re going to die.’” “If you don’t change the path you’re on, you’re going to die.”
I can’t think of a better way to couch this teaching of Jesus. “If you don’t change the path you’re on, you’re going to die.” Indeed, the dominant theme of this teaching of Jesus is “life” and the means by which we come to that life. This teaching calls into question two grand assumptions that most people carry with them through their everyday existence: (1) that all paths lead to the same place; and (2) that most people will eventually find their way there. Jesus cancels out both of these assumptions by pointing how the way to the life he came to offer is the path less traveled and most people miss it because it is the more difficult way and requires the greatest effort. “Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow is the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
What about you? Are you confident that you are on the right path, or are you guilty of going along with the crowd, which in effect is taking you farther and farther away from Jesus?
Max Lucado is one of the best selling Christian authors in the world. In one of his books, he tells the story of how dangerous it can be to follow the crowd. One morning, he got up early to catch an early morning flight to a speaking engagement. He was tired and when he got to the gate, it wasn’t long before he dozed off while waiting to board his plane. He was aroused from his sleep by the noise of the crowd moving toward the entry ramp to the plane. He quickly gathered his belongings, got in line, and found his seat on the plane. As soon as he sat down, he slipped off for another nap.
When he awakened to the bright morning sun that was pouring through his window, he heard a strange message. A flight attendant said, “Please raise your seats to their upright position and make sure that your tray tables are locked and your seatbelts are fastened as we make our final approach into Houston.” There was only one problem. Lucado was headed to Denver. What happened? He had napped at the gate, missed his correct flight, and awakened to join the crowd on a plane that was headed in the wrong direction.
Fortunately for Lucado, it was possible for him to make his way to Denver by getting on another plane. But it’s not that easy for people who are on the wrong path in life. Following the crowd that seems to be going in the right direction will take you to the wrong place. Discipleship is not a popularity contest. In order to experience the life that Jesus came to offer you must be willing to follow him on the road that is less traveled.
What does that path look like, and more importantly, what does it require of us?
In the first place, it requires that we sell out. It requires that we yield to Jesus everything that we’ve got. Every now and then, you’ll see a store that has a “Going Out of Business” sale. Sometimes that’s because the business couldn’t make it. But other times that’s because the owners of the business have decided to retire and are ready for a new situation in life. Our “selling out” to Jesus suggests both. We can’t make it in our power and we’re ready for the new situation that only Jesus can make possible. But according to this teaching, neither of those things will happen as long as we try to hold on to our life or be satisfied with the minimum. Following Jesus means ultimately that we yield our life to him and offer him the best that we have. It means that we sell out.
It also means that we step out. It means that we step out from our comfort zones to be able to follow hard after Jesus. It means that we refuse to take the path of least resistance, but that we welcome the opportunity and the challenge of living for Jesus in every aspect of our existence. It means that we step out from the crowd because we take seriously Jesus’ teaching that discipleship is not a popularity contest. It means that we are willing to turn our eyes toward Jesus and no one else. It means that we are willing to step out.
And finally, it means that we are willing to seek out. It means that we are willing to look for ways that we can faithful in our everyday affairs. It means that we are willing to join our Sunday life with our life the other six days of the week. It means that we are so serious about our discipleship that the decision to follow Jesus is a decision that we are willing to make every single day of our lives. It is a continuous decision. It means that we are willing to seek out.
Can you take those steps this morning so that you enter through the narrow gate and follow the narrow road, which is the road less traveled?
Back in 1993, the NCAA Division II cross-country championship was held in Riverside, California. 128 runners from across the country gathered in Riverside to vie for the title. Unfortunately, on of the turns on the 10,000 meter course wasn’t very well marked. In fact, it turned out that only 5 of the 128 runners stayed on the right path.
Mike Delcavo, of tiny Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado, was one of the runners. He was in the middle of the pack when he came to the turn in question. He made the correct decision, but noticed that others had taken a different path. To his credit, Delcavo began waving at the other runners to follow him, but only four did so. Can you blame them? 123 runners took the wrong path, because that is where the majority was going. As he thought he might win the race, the pack appeared back in front of him around another turn, having run about a kilometer less than he had. Race officials huddled up after all the runners had crossed the finish line and determined that the abbreviated course that the majority had taken would be considered the “official course,” which meant that Mike Delcavo, who took the correct path, ended up finishing 123 of the 128 runners.
You say, “That’s not right.” And I agree. And more importantly, so does Jesus.
Remember that when you come to your next fork in the road, and though you see the crowd herded and headed in a particular direction, don’t mindlessly follow along with them. Be looking for Jesus, for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. Be one of the few. Be one of the faithful. Be one who gets it right.
Begin With the Basics: Love is the Key
Monday, February 14, 2011 Comments (0)
The Lord’s Supper
Every survey that I have seen shows that there is very little difference between those who profess faith in Christ and those who don’t. It doesn’t matter what area of life is being surveyed, Christians really have not distinguished themselves all that much from non-believers. The divorce rate between the two groups is virtually the same. The level of generosity between Christians and non-Christians only varies a small amount. Even the amount of volunteer service between believers and non-believers isn’t really that much different, which I frankly find somewhat surprising. I would think that Christians would volunteer more, but evidently we don’t.
Part of the reason for our lack of delineation is because we are a people in process. Contrary to the culture’s belief, we Christians are hardly “finished products.” There is a good bit of growing we still have to do. There are rough edges that need to be sanded down. There are lessons we still have to learn. We shouldn’t be held to a standard that we are still striving for, should we?
Part of our lack of differentiation is because we are a people in process, but part of it is because we have yet to be willing to make the hard choices that make such differentiation possible. We have not chosen to be set apart from the rest of the culture, not in any significant way. If anything, we would prefer to blend in and not call attention to anything spiritually distinctive about us. Otherwise, there would be marked differences in all of the areas I just mentioned – our family life, our giving life, our service life. There would be differences in these areas, and many others. But there isn’t, and deep down in our heart of hearts, we know this is just not right.
I was reminded of that fact this past week as I was up in north Alabama leading a preaching workshop for an ecumenical group of ministers in the Birmingham area. There were Baptists, Presbyterians, an Episcopalian, and a Roman Catholic. We were meeting at the St. Bernard monastery, where a Benedictine order has been present for over 125 years. Part of our time was spent with the monks in prayer, and I have to confess that there was something holy about participating in devotional practices with a group of believers who are perpetuating a tradition that goes back almost 1600 years. I remember thinking to myself, “So this is a part of what it’s like to ‘come out from among them and be ye separate,’” as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6:17. And though I enjoyed my experience for a season, I certainly don’t feel called to embrace such a life on a permanent basis. But what I did leave feeling a deeper sense of call toward was a way of life that incorporates that sense of humility and devotion and service and faithfulness in a way that engages the larger culture and by God’s grace might transform it. But how can such engagement happen? Perhaps it can happen, John tells us, through the power of love.
Think about it for a moment; in a world of division and strife, is there anything that could set us apart as believers in Jesus Christ more than a commitment to love? You look on the news and you see rioting in the streets of Cairo and bickering in the halls of Congress. You see victims of greed and corruption, not just in other countries, but also in our very back yard. You see polarity and incivility in personal dealings just as much as in political ones, and as a Christian, you know deep down in your soul that nothing can save us except for the power of love.
That’s where the word of God points us in this first epistle from the disciple John, who at this time in his faith journey had come to be known as “the Elder.” Christian tradition has it that during the time that John was a disciple of Jesus, he was probably the youngest of the bunch. That’s why, along with his brother James, he was nicknamed by Jesus, “Thunder Boy” (Mark 3:17). Youthfulness does tend to reflect enthusiasm and activity, but also impulsiveness and impatience. And when you look at the how the Gospels describe John, he definitely expresses all sides of those tendencies. But now, in this epistle, John is older and wiser, and as he looks back on what lessons he has learned from following Jesus as long as he has, he boils the essence of discipleship down to one basic – “Love.”
It reminds me of the story of the shortest sermon ever preached. It came time for an Episcopalian minister to deliver the homily in a Sunday service, and standing before his congregation, he looked at them after having finished reading the Gospel lesson, and said, simply, “Love.” At which point he continued to look at them for what must have seemed to be an eternity before sitting down. “Love.”
In this brief but brilliant letter, John offers believers the same challenge, “Love.” And what I appreciate about John’s challenge is his reminder that this love to which we are called is not something we have to generate by ourselves; our call is only to reflect a love that ultimately originates with God. “We love,” John writes, “because he first loved us.”
Do you understand what that means? It means that we don’t have to come up with the motivation or the inspiration it takes to treat other people with respect and civility. It means that we don’t have to produce within ourselves the strength that it takes to offer someone else a helping hand. It simply means that we are channels of a love that is grounded in the Character and Being of God, who loved this world so much that He gave His Only Begotten Son. It means that we don’t have to manufacture the power to bring people together and to bring them to God; we must only be connected to the Source, which is God Himself, and to stay connected to that Source, not allowing anything to clog up or choke the power of His Spirit so that God’s love in Jesus Christ might flow freely and lavishly and extensively and, most of all, redemptively.
As you know, it rained this past Wednesday during the night, and it rained heavily, at least in my neighborhood. And when I went out in the morning to walk the dog, I noticed that the drains in our neighborhood had become clogged up by large amounts of fallen leaves. Water had backed up because of the clogged drains and with it there was all manner of flotsam and jetsam. It was disgusting. And I thought to myself, “Somebody’s going to have to get down there and clear that clog up, and I’m glad it doesn’t have to be me.”
But then I realized, “Maybe it does have to be me.” Maybe in my own life there are clogs and obstructions that have kept me from allowing the runoff of God’s favor to flow through me into the lives of others. Maybe in my own life there is some spiritual debris that I have to have cleared up so that God’s love in Jesus Christ can do its transforming work in someone or some situation that God has allowed to come into my life.
And maybe you do, too.
John gives us a clue as to how those clogs can be removed in the first chapter of this letter: “If we confess our sins, He (that is, God) is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Other translations render the word purify as “cleanse” or “purge” or “take away.” In other words, when we acknowledge our inability to adequately be a pipeline of God’s love in Jesus Christ, that love removes those other affections and loyalties that choke out and clog up the flow so that we become able in the power of the Spirit to relate to others in such a way that they experience the difference that God’s love can make in their life.
Can you make such confession this morning, especially as we prepare to receive the body and blood of Christ, which represents God’s active, unconditional, and persistent love in Jesus Christ? Can you open your life to the power of God’s love, which like a mighty river, flows through us in ways that bring God’s justice and righteousness to bear on everyday life?
Are you familiar with the story, “Babette’s Feast?” The story first appeared in the Ladies Home Journal back in 1958, but came to the big screen in the late eighties. The story centers around two elderly women, Martine and Phillipa, the daughters of a very strict pastor in the isolated village where they live. Growing up, the women had been tempted to live a life of sensuality. Martine almost left the village after having been wooed by a dashing young lieutenant in the Swedish court, while Phillipa was sought after by the director of the Paris Opera, who was impressed by the purity and clarity of her voice. But both women ultimately rejected those worldly pleasures to assist their father in his work in the village, and when he died, they took the work over.
Things did not go well after their father’s death, neither for them nor for the other villagers. There were conflicts and divisions. Nearly everyone in the town had experienced a falling out with someone else. The village was for all intents and purposes a joyless place to live.
Then one day, Martine and Phillipa take in a political refuge by the name of Babette, who lives with them as a servant, housekeeper, and cook. When the 100th anniversary of their deceased father’s birth comes around, the two sisters decide to throw a feast, and Babette, a recipient of an unexpected fortune, offers to pay for and prepare the dinner. What no one knows is that Babette had been one of the greatest chefs in Paris, and the meal she has planned is to be a gourmet feast.
The day of the meal arrives and the guests all show up for the grand occasion. An elderly woman who is a member of the church asks to invite her nephew to join her at the dinner. It turns out that the nephew is none other than the dashing young lieutenant from Martine’s past, who now is a General in the Swedish court. The General as a young lieutenant had chosen a military career over happiness with Martine, and over the years he has wondered if his choice had been the best one. Indeed, there will not be a person at the table whose heart has not been clogged up by some form of regret.
Everyone sits down and begins to eat. They are amazed at the quality and preparation of the food, whose power begins to break through the defenses of everyone gathered. One by one, former enemies begin to soften toward one another. The things they say to one another and the forgiveness they offer one another are as sweet and fulfilling as the food and drink they pass between one another. Two women who had not spoken to one another for years now touch foreheads affectionately and wish one another God’s blessings. Phillipa breaks out in song and everyone remembers her pure and beautiful voice, which no one has heard for far too many years. The General rises and quotes Psalm 85, claiming that in this feast “mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another.” It is a transforming time for everyone who shares in it, and hearts that once were shut up have now been opened up by the feast that everyone has enjoyed.
And this morning, I pray that at this feast, we will come to do the same thing. I pray that our hearts will be opened so that we might love others as God in Christ first loved us.
Yes, as the old song has it, “what the world needs now is love, sweet love.” The world needs this love, as represented by this feast we call the Lord’s Supper, and we are the only persons who are capable of sharing it.
In a world where too often you need a scorecard to tell the believers from the non-believers, how can you make sure people around you know whose side you’re on? I think this table gives us the answer: “Love.”
Begin With the Basics: The Bible Is True
Sunday, January 30, 2011 Comments (0)
Last week I was with a group of pastors that gets together every year for encouragement and support. We share joys and sorrows with one another, much of which happens in the midst of a round of golf.
Most of the gang I have known since seminary days, so we have a history. One in the group is your quintessential Type A personality – driven, competitive, always looking for a strategic advantage (unlike yours truly, who is laid back, cooperative, and always willing to take a back seat; actually, not). I guess all of us are Type A’s, otherwise God wouldn’t have put us in the positions we’re in.
Be that as it may, since we were all playing a new course and some of the shots were “blind shots,” meaning that you couldn’t see where you needed to land your ball, I was grinding from the “get go” as to where I should hit and how far I should hit.
On about the sixth or seventh hole, I noticed one of my playing partners scouring a little book, called a “yardage book.” A yardage book contains a map of each hole that gives distances and shows hazards, and tells the golfer what’s out there he can’t see. It’s a guide to help the golfer negotiate the course to the best of his ability. “Where did you get that book?” I asked. “Oh,” he said, “They gave it to me as we were heading to the first tee. I’ve got the rest of the group’s books here in my bag.” Somehow, I didn’t think he was that committed to helping the rest of us work our way around the course.
I’m not by any stretch of the imagination the best golfer in the world. But I can’t tell you how much better I played once I had in my possession a book that removed so many uncertainties and offered so much confidence.
This morning we pause to reflect on that same resource that God has made available to each of us so that we might have understanding of what’s before us in this game of life. This morning we pause to reflect on the Bible and how the Bible is a sourcebook of help and hope.
Of course, there are some who believe that the Bible is flawed. There are some who would argue that the Bible is contradicted by new discoveries that call its truthfulness into question.
But when you look at what the Bible says about itself, you come to see that the Bible is not intended to be a science book or a math book or even a history book. When you see what the Bible says about itself, you come to see that it was given to be a book of faith and practice. And in that respect, we can say that the Bible is “truth without any mixture of error.”
For example, look at this passage from Paul’s second letter to Timothy, his son in the faith. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness so that the man of God (or woman, as the case may be) may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” – faith and practice.
The primary declaration of this passage is that all of Scripture is “God-breathed,” which is to say that the Bible is not the product of human thought or imagination. Certainly, God worked through the talents and abilities of each of the Bible’s authors, but the point of the text is that every verse in the Bible reflects the heart of God to awaken, inspire, and direct those who read it to experience the very best in life. As God breathed life into Adam in Genesis 2, so God breathed life into Scripture so that you and I who read it can find help and hope for the living of our days.
The truthfulness of the Bible for me is displayed in the way that it so accurately and powerfully relates our human story. I remember one of my professors in seminary saying that he had done an exhaustive study of the 36 different story lines that Goethe had identified back in the late 18th century and how all of those story lines are reflected in the Bible. In other words, the Bible does not ignore any aspect of our human experience.
And beyond that, it is so honest. Have you ever noticed how the Bible refuses to “white wash” so many of its main characters? In other words, if the authors of the Bible had intended to provide a less than forthright account of it heroes, don’t you think they would have left out some of the embarrassing aspects of the stories of Noah and Moses and David and the disciples? Don’t you think that they would have made those characters and others “squeaky clean?” But they didn’t, and because so, you can trust the Bible to be “straight up” in its description of people and places and events and their significance.
I know this morning I am “preaching to the choir.” I know this morning that this group before me doesn’t need to be convinced about the accuracy of the Bible. I know that the vast majority of you trust in the Bible and would not question it in the least. You accept the old maxim: “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it.” And even some of you would take it farther: “The Bible says it; that settles it, whether I believe it or not.”
But to confess that the Bible is true is a statement of faith that not everyone in our culture can accept. How can we show them the accuracy of God’s Word and more importantly, its value for everyday life? Why should we not be sharing our “yardage book” for life, or, better yet, how can we best share it? That’s where I would offer the following points of application.
In the first place, learn the Bible. The amount of biblical illiteracy from those who claim to believe the Bible has reached alarming levels. I saw a statistic the other day that said how in the face of the fact that over 90% of Americans own a copy of the Bible, more people know what goes into a Big Mac than they know what’s in the Bible. Granted, there are more “ingredients” to Scripture than there are in the famous burger, but at the very least, we ought to know something of the man stories and people and places and things. And beyond that, we ought to be committed to growing in our knowledge of the Bible, because there is always more to learn about the sacred text. It is a fountain of truth that really does flow “deep and wide.” Learn the Bible.
In the second place, listen to the Bible. Not many of us are good listeners, especially when someone is telling us something that we think we have heard before. We tune out. We figure that there’s no new information to be gathered. Some of us bring that weakness to the sacred text. We are so familiar with the Bible that we fail to recognize the “strange, new world” (Karl Barth) that the Bible always evokes. I have come to discover in my own life that instead of reading the Bible, I always do better when I allow the Bible to read me. And that takes a willingness to humble one’s self and listen. It might help if you actually spent some time reading the Bible aloud in order to be able to hear its message in a fresh way and experience the “alternative world” (Brueggemann) that the Bible invites us to explore. Listen to the Bible.
And, finally, live the Bible. To me, this is where we have failed in convincing a skeptical culture as to the truth of the sacred text. Our lives fail to show that the Bible has made any real difference. We still our living “blindly,” finding ourselves in way too many “hazards.” As you learn the Bible and listen to the Bible, perhaps the ultimate question to be asking yourself is, “How is the Bible asking me to change?” “How does Scripture teach me to reorder my life so that I can experience the best God has for me to know?” I love the way one defender of Scripture puts it (William Willimon), when he says, “Instead of trotting out our little arguments for the Bible’s truthfulness, we ought instead to be trotting out our little lives.” Or as James 1:22 says it, “Be a doer of the Word and not merely a hearer.” Live the Bible.
This is the time of the year when the cold weather can make driving difficult, especially in the morning. Even here in Tallahassee, it’s not unusual to find yourself late for work or class and as you run out the door to jump in the car, you find the windows are all frozen over. If you’re like many people you try to scrape away a peephole so that you can get on your way until the defroster does its job. But I think all of us would admit how that’s neither the safest nor the smartest way to drive. But we do it anyway because, after all, we’re in a hurry.
How many of us are “peephole living?” How many of us have carved out a little limited vision of life simply because we have not taken the time to allow the warm and stirring breath of God to clear things up and help us see the way?
There’s a better way to go through life. Take this holy Book. Learn it. Listen to it. Live it. And you will discover just how profitable it is and how true it is in helping you to negotiate the twists and the turns, the ups and the downs, the ins and the outs of this thing called life and, in the process, making a difference for Christ by helping others to do the same.
Begin With The Basics: Salvation Is Free
Sunday, January 23, 2011 Comments (0)
In this desperate business climate that we live in you have to be careful about offers that sound too good to be true. It seems like almost every day I get some kind of “free” offer for some product or service. But when you read between the lines, you discover that there’s something you have to do, some resource you have to lay out, before you benefit from the “free” offer. “Buy two; get one free.” “Get a free gym bag with a one-year subscription.” “Get a free credit score if you sign up with two other services.” I guess that the old saying holds true. “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” If an offer seems too good to be true, then it probably is.
And quite honestly, there’s a part of us that likes things that way. Sure, we may enjoy getting a break every now and then. Every now and then we enjoy getting something for what appears to be nothing. But there is a greater part of us that enjoys looking at what we have, however much or little it is, and knowing that, as the old commercial put it, “we earned it.”
Rob Bell is a pastor/author in the Michigan area. He writes about a time he was enjoying breakfast with his father and son at a nice restaurant in Grand Rapids. As they were finishing their breakfast, he noticed that the waitress brought the check, then took it away, and then brought it back again. The last time she brought it back, she placed it on the table, smiled, and said, “Somebody in the restaurant paid for your meal. You’re all set.” And then she walked away.
Bell says that though he was grateful for that silent generosity, he also felt a sense of helplessness. There was nothing he could do. The check had “been taken care of.” To insist on paying the check would have been pointless. All he could do was trust that what the waitress had told him was true and accept it, which meant getting up and leaving the restaurant. And yet, he confessed a nagging uncertainty.
I think that’s what many people feel when it comes to the gospel of grace, a nagging uncertainty. Does God really accept me through my faith in Jesus Christ? Is there not something I have to do to earn His salvation? Did Jesus pay for all of my sins when he died on the cross? It just seems too good to be true.
Those are the kinds of questions that the Apostle Paul was speaking to in his letter to the Ephesians. Most of the Christians in Ephesus had come from a Gentile background, which is the same thing as saying that they had grown up as pagans. Each of them had a past, in the worst sense of that word. Each of them had much that they needed to overcome. So, when Paul came into their city proclaiming God’s desire to deal with their old natures through his grace in Jesus Christ, they had to be given assurance that such a gospel was not too good to be true.
And that’s what Paul does in this passage of Scripture. “For it is by grace you are saved, through faith,” Paul says. Grace is God’s unmerited favor toward His flawed and imperfect creation, which is the sole foundation of our salvation. In other words, there is no gospel without the reality of grace. We could not do enough good to earn our way into right standing with God. Grace is God’s gift of Himself in Jesus Christ to do for us what we otherwise could never do. In fact, when Paul speaks of grace as “the gift of God,” a more literal reading of the text would be “God’s is the gift.” Grace is God’s gift of His redeeming presence that changes us by taking us out of our sin-driven existence and lifting us into a life that is rejuvenating, joyful, purposeful, and fulfilling. Without grace, each moment in life is an anxious, uncertain, debilitating, grinding chore. But with it, we are given a second chance. With it, we are born again.
Grace is, as Anne Lamott describes it, the ribbon of mountain air that finds its way through the cracks, which I think is a wonderful analogy, especially when you consider how we stink things up so much of the time. But faith, on the other hand, is the means by which that grace becomes effective. Faith is our acceptance that the “check” has been paid so that we get up from the table, leave the restaurant, but do so as a changed person.
This interplay between God’s gift and our acceptance has been beautifully compared to the game of “Catch,’’ which frequently is played between parent and child, certainly in the very beginning. You know how the game goes. There is a ball that is thrown between parent and child, but interestingly enough, the game is not called the game of “Throw.” Instead, it’s called the game of “Catch.” Certainly “throwing” is a part of the process, and if a person “throws” well, then the game is surely more easily played. But what compensates for the errant throw? Is it not the ability to “catch?” Is not the reception of the “throw” what the game is all about?
When it comes to our standing before God, there are too many of us who are obsessed with our “throwing.” But according to what Paul is saying to the Ephesians, what really makes the difference is our ability to “catch,” our ability to receive what God in Christ has sent our way.
Can you do that this morning? Can you stand before a Holy and Righteous God, your Creator and Redeemer, and can you open your arms and your heart to receive the grace that He extends to you in Jesus Christ?
What does that look like? What does it mean to be on the receiving end of God’s grace in Jesus Christ? Let me offer you three suggestions.
In the first place, it means that you are willing to accept the fact that God has accepted you. You accept your acceptance. I think that’s where most people “miss it.” That’s certainly where many in Ephesus were “missing it.” Most people believe that they’re not good enough or not worthy enough or not deserving enough. Of course you’re not; no one is. But God loves you anyway. That’s what they call it “Amazing Grace.” God sees something in you that you may not even see in yourself, and you just have to accept it. You just have to accept His acceptance of you.
And that leads to the second point – it means that you are willing to apply that grace to the places in your life where it is most needed. “By grace you have been saved,” Paul say to the Ephesians. That word for salvation means “healing” and “wholeness.” Think of the number of times in the gospels when Jesus performs a healing and then says to the recipient, “Your faith has made you whole.” In other words, God is not interested in cleaning up your soul to let you go back and get it dirty again. God wants to make you a new person, with a new start. As someone has said, “God loves us just as we are. And He loves us too much to let us stay that way.” Experience God’s healing by applying His grace to those places where you need it most.
And then finally, being on the receiving end of God’s grace means that you are willing to allow it to direct you in terms of your everyday experience. Someone has noted that as the New Testament describes the experience of grace, it is both pardon and power. It is forgiveness of past sin, but it is also power for future life. Indeed, grace holds out the promise that God judges people not by what we have been (or not been), but by what we could be; not by our pasts, but by our future. I believe it was the renowned evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer who described true spirituality (a buzz word in today’s culture) as “living moment by moment by the grace of Jesus Christ.” Even as Jesus said to the woman caught in the act of adultery as he forgave her, so hear him say to you, “Go your way and sin no more.” Allow grace to direct you into a future that is better than you ever dreamed possible.
John Ortberg is a Presbyterian pastor in California. A couple of years ago, one of his children was graduating from Azusa Pacific University, which is a Christian school in Southern California. His wife Nancy was to speak at that commencement ceremony, which enabled the two of them to be invited to a special gathering of about 50 people who were a part of the graduating class 50 years ago, plus a few faculty members.
At the gathering, John Wallace, the president of the university, brought out three students who were graduating that year and were leaving upon their graduation for India, where they would serving the poorest of the poor. The students thought they were there to receive a blessing from the president, which they were. But then something happened that they didn’t know was coming.
The president turned to them and said, “I have a piece of good news for you. There’s somebody you don’t know – an anonymous donor – who is so moved by your commitment that he has made a gift to the university in your name, on your behalf.” He then turned to the first student and said, “And because of this gift you are forgiven your debt to the school of $105,000,” at which point that student immediately began to cry. He turned to the next student. “And you are forgiven of your debt of $70,000.” And then to the third student, “And you are forgiven of your debt of $130,000.” None of the students had any idea anything like this was about to happen. They were ambushed by grace, and they were blown away by the thought that somebody they didn’t even know would step forward to pay their debt.
And this morning, you and you and you are forgiven of your debt that is too great to be calculated. And so am I, if we will receive it. “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith – and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God,” and a gift that no one can ever afford to miss.
Begin With The Basics: Jesus Is Lord
Sunday, January 16, 2011 Comments (0)
For about the last fifty years, our American culture that has taught us to question authority. I know that teaching has proved more problematic for some than for others, especially those who may have served in the military or some other organization that lives out its mission by means of some hierarchical structure. But the truth of the matter is that every one of us has deeply imbedded within us an independent streak about a mile wide, a measure of self-determination that causes us to want always to be in control.
It shows up in the most subtle of ways. Who drives on the long journey? Who handles the remote control? Who “mans” the computer when everyone is gathered around looking at “You Tube?” Who chooses where everyone is going to eat after Sunday church? I think you see what I’m talking about. Most of us are quite at home when it comes to power and yielding to authority is not something we do naturally.
Some years ago, the Chicago Tribune did a story on a man named Kevin Baugh, who has his own country, the Republic of Molossia. You’ve never heard of Molossia? That’s understandable, because it consists of Baugh’s three-bedroom house and 1.3 acre yard outside of Dayton, Nevada. According to the article, Baugh has a space program (which consists of a model rocket), a currency (which is pegged to the value of chocolate-chip cookie dough), a national sport (which he calls broomball), and a navy (which is an inflatable boat). And he has a website. As the article goes on to explain, Baugh is one of an eccentric group of nation builders who raise flags over their front yards and declare their property to be, as Baugh puts it, “a kingdom of me.” Of course, Baugh does all of this tongue-in-cheek, though in truth he is living the dream of many, to be Lord over a “kingdom of me.”
What distinguishes Christians from all other peoples is the recognition that this impulse to be Lord over a “kingdom of me” can never be allowed to take root. For Christians, the one confession that defines our way of life is the confession, “Jesus is Lord.” It is a confession that goes back to the very beginnings of Christian faith and seems to be the one that was demanded of all converts at their baptism. As the Apostle Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). In other words, the authority of Jesus over all realms and powers is connected to his resurrection from the dead, an authority that has placed him in a position where he is due our worship, our praise, our devotion, and our obedience.
That’s certainly how Matthew remembered his experience with the Risen Jesus in the gospel that bears his name. The 28th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is the Resurrection chapter and our text for the morning comes from that part of the chapter known as the Great Commission: “Go, make disciples, baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teach them everything I have commanded you.” We know the Commission. But do we understand the authority that stands behind the Commission? I’m not so sure that we do. “All authority,” Jesus says, “in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
We may not understand the authority behind that Commission, but I promise you that those first followers of Jesus surely did. Why can I say that? I can say it because of how the required confession of Jesus’ day was this confession: “Caesar is Lord.” “Caesar is the ultimate authority.” “Caesar is the one who is worthy of devotion and absolute commitment.” Therefore, the Christian confession was a subversively political statement as much as it was a piously spiritual one. Whoever was caught by Rome saying “Jesus is Lord” was in direct defiance of Caesar’s instruction so that the person confessing Jesus may end up losing his or her life, which of course many of the early Christians did.
No one here this morning, at least not here in America, is in danger of losing his or her life by making that confession. But to suggest that there is not a price to pay for confessing Jesus is not altogether true either. Ask those who have suffered the loss of family or friends or opportunities for promotion or advancement. People who are serious about the Lordship of Christ can have no higher loyalty so that when life places them in a position where they have to choose what’s best for them versus what’s best for the cause of Christ, they always, without fail, choose with joy the cause of Christ.
How can that be? It’s not natural to surrender my will for the sake of someone else’s. No, it isn’t. It’s supernatural, and the reason Christians do it is because they see in Jesus God’s answer to the real needs of this world – for meaning and for purpose, for freedom of soul and spirit, for redemption and for hope. Christians believe that when one yields to Jesus and allows him to be in control of one’s life, life takes on a richer and fuller dimension because it is from that point on not driven by our urges and desires, which most of the time are not in our best interests. “If I had more money, my life would be better.” “If I had more responsibility or more stuff, my lot would be improved.” No, that’s not necessarily true. But what is true is that your life would be better if you had more Jesus; or, better yet, if Jesus had more of you.
How does one do that? How does one let Jesus have more of him or her? Let me offer you three suggestions.
In the first place, you can let Jesus have more of you by taking the most important area of your life and yielding that area to the Lordship of Christ. Go ahead and identify that part of your life that is supremely important because that is the one area where Satan poses the greatest threat to your destruction. Invite Jesus to reign supreme in that part of your life, and you will soon see how following Jesus in that part of your life, along with all others, will afford you a quality of life that you never thought possible. Yield to Jesus.
In the second place, you can let Jesus have more of you by praying for boldness so that you might show Jesus’ Lordship in your everyday witness. As Matthew so clearly shows us in his gospel, there is a strong connection between the authority of Jesus conferred upon him by the power of God and our obligation to be witnesses to that authority by how we make disciples and then baptize and teach them. For about 2,000 years the percentage of Christians in this world has remained stuck at around 30%, and the only reason that we are not making more headway is because of our reluctance to offer testimony to the Lordship of Christ. Experience the blessing of seeing someone come to a saving knowledge of Jesus because of something you said or did. Witness to Jesus.
And lastly, you can let Jesus have more of you by investing yourself with others in some form of ministry that will make Jesus’ Lordship on earth a more visible reality. The book of Revelation speaks to how in God’s time the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ (Rev. 11:15). As individuals there is only so much we can do in that respect. But when we join our hearts and hands with one another, this world can be turned upside down for the cause of Christ, even as it was in the book of Acts. Discover the exhilaration of being a part of God’s kingdom work in concert with others. Serve for Jesus.
The greatest lie being perpetrated today is the lie that says that Jesus is just another teacher of moral values who lived a long time ago, and you can take him or leave him; it makes no difference whatsoever. But it does. What you do with Jesus and what you allow him to do with you makes all the difference in the world.
Philip Yancey addresses this truth in his recent book, What Good is God?, which I actually read for last week’s sermon. In the book, Yancey writes about the 2004 election in the Ukraine in which the reformer Victor Yushchenko challenged the entrenched party and nearly died for it.
On Election Day, the exit polls showed Yushchenko with a comfortable lead, but through outright fraud, the government, representing the entrenched party, reversed the results. Yancey explains that during their evening broadcast, the state-run television service reported that Victor Yushchenko had been decisively defeated. But in their efforts to conceal the truth, there was one feature of Ukrainian television they had not considered, the translation that is provided for viewers who are hearing impaired.
On the small insert in the right hand corner of the screen a brave woman who had been raised by deaf-mute parents was giving a different message in sign language. “I am addressing all the deaf citizens of the Ukraine,” she signed. “Don’t believe what they are saying. They are lying, and I am ashamed to translate these lies. Yushchenko is our President!”
No one in the studio had any idea as to the radical message she was signing. And inspired by her bold witness, deaf people in the Ukraine went out to lead what became known as the Orange Revolution. They began text messaging their friends about the fraudulent elections, and soon journalists picked up on their courage and began refusing to report the party line. Over the next few weeks, over a million people wearing orange flood the capital city of Kiev demanding new elections. The entrenched party eventually buckled to the demands. Another election was held, and this time Victor Yushchenko emerged as the clear winner.
I think you know the “party line” of today’s culture. “Might makes right.” “He wins who has the most toys.” “Nice people finish last.” “Don’t make waves.” “If it feels good, do it.” I could go on and on. But they’re all lies. Here’s the truth: “Jesus is Lord.” And one day, as Scripture promises, “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11). Why give your allegiance to anything else but Jesus? Know his victory in every area of your life by making that confession today.
Begin With The Basics: God Is Good
Sunday, January 09, 2011 Comments (0)
If you think back to your earliest memories of God, chances are that they’re connected to that little prayer, which was most likely the first prayer you ever learned: “God is great; God is good. Let us thank Him for our food.”
While many people might look at that prayer as infantile and empty, I tend to think otherwise. I see it as a beginning point for pondering the greatest mystery in all the universe – the mystery of God.
How can our feeble minds grasp all that the term “God” represents? If we could, then whatever God it was that we had grasped would hardly be One worthy of our devotion and praise. In all probability, the God that we had grasped would be little more than a “super-sized” us.
And it is for that reason that I think the perfect place to begin pondering the nature and being of God is the simple statement, “God is good.” That’s because the one thing we can be certain about with respect to ourselves is that we are not good, at least we are not good all of the time. So, when we reflect upon the concept of goodness as something that originates with God, we are asserting that all of the benefits and blessings of life stem from some Presence outside of ourselves. We are saying that the benefits and blessings of life are more than mere accidents or coincidences that we bump into along life’s way. We are saying that the benefits and blessings of life all derive from an overarching Source of well-being whose very essence is to work in ways that ultimately serve our best interests.
Can you pause this morning to consider a God like that, a God who ultimately always has your best interests in His heart?
I think most of us here this morning would like to believe in a God like that. Who wouldn’t want to believe in a God who only wills good? The only problem with our believing in that sort of God is that some of us have been forced to live through times of difficulty and despair that have raised questions about God’s goodness. In other words, if God is good, then why is there so much pain in the world? Why is there so much evil, suffering, and pain? You see, those questions are not the exclusive property of atheists and agnostics. Even well-intentioned souls have been known to mumble them when the “slings and arrows of our human existence” have become more than we could handle.
And what I appreciate about the Bible is the fact that it doesn’t hesitate to include stories of people who felt no compunction about raising the same questions and about challenging the premise of God’s goodness. Consider Job, who could not comprehend how God could have been responsible for the loss of his family, his fortune, and his health. Or note how the prophets, particularly Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, wrestled with the reality of exile in the face of God’s promise to protect Jerusalem for His own glory. Or from the New Testament, how many of us resonate with the Apostle Paul, who shared with the Corinthians his agony over trying to figure out why God had not removed his “thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12:7-10)?” After reading such accounts, there are some who have concluded that either God wills to overcome with evil but is not powerful enough to do so, or that God is powerful enough to deal with evil but, for some reason, chooses not to do so.
I personally consider that conclusion to be a false choice, as though there are no other options. I personally consider the Bible to declare that God is very much able to deal with the issues of pain, suffering, and evil and wills to do so, and is in the process of making that happen, in large measure through the faithfulness of people who choose to trust in His goodness and allow themselves to be instruments of His good will.
This morning I have chosen for our text a single verse from the prophet Nahum. That’s normally a dangerous practice to use one verse as a foundation for a sermon like this. But in this case, I believe it offers as simple and succinct an explanation of how we balance our belief in the goodness of God while acknowledging the reality of evil in the world. “The LORD is good,” Nahum says, “a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in Him.”
The name Nahum means “comfort,” and his very presence on the scene at a time when the evil nation of Assyria was making life difficult for God’s people was God’s way of saying to them, “Things are not always as they seem to be. Evil may appear to be having its way in the present hour, but good will prevail.” “The LORD is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in Him.” Nahum’s prophecy was intended to encourage the people to be confident about God’s refusal to allow the evil of Assyria to continue forever. And sure enough, in the year 601 BC, the capital city of Nineveh fell and with it, the Assyrian Empire crumbled.
So, what does that mean for you, and more importantly, what does it mean for your future? Among other things, it means that we can never draw lasting conclusions from a particular moment in time, especially when that moment may be harsh and difficult. It means that in the face of whatever good or bad may be taking place at a given moment, it is best that we trust that moment to God, believing that He has our best interests at heart, and in His time, God will bring good out of evil, blessing out of misery, and favor out of pain.
Arie Brouwer was a former head of the Reformed Church in America. His life and ministry was cut short by a serious illness that claimed his life at 58 years of age. In one of his last writings, he reflected on his search for God’s goodness in the face of his health challenges. He noted that God’s Almightiness is spoken of 10 times in the New Testament and that all but one of those times are in the book of Revelation, the book in the New Testament that addresses the end of all things. Brouwer concluded that because of this fact, that God’s ultimate triumph will take place at the end of history, we must believe that God is with us in our present struggles and that His grace will bring good even where evil appears to have carried the day.
But what does that mean for the present? Does it mean that God’s hands are tied? Does it mean that God is powerless in the face of all that is not good in our world today? No, it does not.
Let me borrow an analogy from the famous apologist of the last century, C.S. Lewis, and tweak it for our setting today. Imagine that you been assigned to create an important presentation and that you have labored on that presentation until you have made it perfect. Imagine that in the middle of the night, after you have finished, a sinister person comes behind you and mars that presentation so that it looks nothing like you intended it to be. In Lewis’s words, your presentation has been “deranged,” in the classic sense of that word. What do you do in the face of such “derangement?” Do you give up? Do you give in to the evil that has marred your perfect presentation? If you’re a person of any character, you do not give up. You go back and correct that which is wrong and you “rearrange” everything to how you originally intended it to be.
I think you can see the connection. The book of Genesis is clear as to how in the beginning God’s creation was “very good.” And as the book of Genesis also tells us, when sin entered the picture (a sin by the way for which humans are responsible), God’s good creation became marred so that the evil, pain, and suffering that we must endure reflects the “fallenness” of God’s good creation. But contrary to popular opinion, that’s not the end of the story. The good news is that God has not abandoned His original purposes. In Jesus Christ, God has dealt the forces of evil a mortal blow, and even now God is in the process of “rearranging” everything as He intended to be. And the best news of all, which Nahum was trying to emphasize with his prophecy, is that God does that “rearranging” work through people who trust in His goodness, people like you and me.
“The LORD is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in Him.”
So, what does life look like for those who give themselves over to that promise? Let me offer you three brief applications.
People who trust in the goodness of God are always quick to celebrate God’s favor in their everyday experience. They never take for granted the many positive experiences of life, and they are always careful to attribute those good times to the heart of a good and Benevolent God. Maybe this week you can make a commitment to whisper a word of thanks to God for every good thing that happens for you.
Secondly, people who trust in the goodness of God are always careful to pray for God’s perspective in the face of life’s most difficult moments. They recognize that what we consider to be not so much in our best interests may be something that looks different to God. And so, they pray for God’s perspective in order to be able to see how God might draw near in His mercy and grace to take that difficult experience and use it for our good. If this present moment is a less than pleasant one for you, can you commit yourself to that sort of prayer? Can you pray for God to use that experience to teach you or to prepare you or to strengthen you or to grow you?
And lastly, people who trust in the goodness of God are always looking for ways to be instruments of God’s goodness to those around them who are not so well off. They don’t act as if they are the only people who have something at stake. They are more concerned about what God has at stake and how they can be His hands and His heart in situations where evil seems to have won the day. I’m reminded of something that Mother Teresa once said when someone asked her about the goodness of God when there were starving people around the world. Her response to that very good question was, “If sometimes poor people die of starvation, it’s not because God didn’t care for them, but because you and I didn’t give enough.” This week can you open your eyes to the pain and the suffering that may be happening right around you, and for the glory of God can you offer something in response in God’s name and for God’s glory?
Nancy Spiegelberg is a children’s author. Of her many books, one is titled I’d Like to Ask God. A snippet from that book appeared in a devotional for Our Daily Bread some years ago. The devotional reminds us that though God is big enough to handle all of our questions, at the end of the day God desires us simply to trust in His goodness and to believe He has our best interests at heart. Spiegelberg ends her devotion with this little prayer: “Lord, I crawled across the bareness to you with my empty cup, uncertain in asking any small drop of refreshment. If only I had known you better. I’d have come running with a bucket (“Bibles and Buckets,” Our Daily Bread, 7/10/99).
God has so much to offer to those who will trust Him. Whether you are happy or hurting, run to Him now. He is waiting to receive you. God is waiting for you to come in order that He may do you good.
The Relevance of the Incarnation
Sunday, December 19, 2010 Comments (0)
In a syndicated newspaper cartoon, Santa Claus is at his work bench putting a new toy together. From his nearby television set he hears a reporter saying, “We continue to look at the real meaning of Christmas – sales indicators. Consumers have dramatically cut back on their borrowing, which could slow the economy, but which also might be a healthy development after their earlier borrowing boosted the economy. Still, analysts are concerned over the stimulation that could result in sluggish sales leading into the all-important Christmas sales period.” In the last panel, Santa looks up and says to himself, “It used to be a lot easier to know if they’ve been bad or good.”
Of course, there aren’t many of us who would admit to our being less than good, especially at this time of the year. I’m thinking of some children’s letters to Santa I came across some years ago. One goes like this: “Dear Santa: In my house there are three boys. Richard is two. Jeffrey is four. Norman is seven. Richard is good sometimes. Jeffrey is good sometimes. Norman is good all the time. Signed, Norman.”
There may be a little more of Norman in us than we would care to admit. The fact of the matter is that we are not good all the time, and because of that fact, we are in desperate need of a power from beyond ourselves to lift us above our flaws and imperfections to the life that is accessible only to the pure and unblemished.
And that is what makes the doctrine of the Incarnation so relevant to our everyday existence. As Paul states the doctrine in his second letter to the church at Corinth, “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not counting men’s sins against them.” In other words, even though God sees our flaws and imperfections, God is not so turned off by them that He has no desire to enter into a relationship with us. Instead, through his coming to be among us in the person of Jesus, God has taken those flaws and imperfections, those sins, upon Himself, so that as we accept the gift of His Son Jesus, we are forgiven those sins and brought into a relationship with God just as if we had never sinned in the first place.
Please understand; the relevance of the Incarnation is not that God simply overlooks our flaws and imperfections in the same way that you and I might overlook a flaw or imperfection in another person just to be able to have a relationship with them. Paul is saying that in the person of Jesus, God has taken upon Himself our flaws and imperfections so that their sting and stain, their power and pain, might be removed and nullified in order that we might be able to live in His presence with comfort and joy. As Paul will say in the next verses, “God made him (that is, Jesus) who knew no sin to become sin (that is, to take upon himself our sin) so that through him, we might become one with the righteousness of God.” In other words, the atoning work of Jesus, which culminated in his death on the cross, was actually begun in his birth in the Bethlehem manger, and was lived out in his words and deeds, all of which was God’s design to draw us back into a relationship with Him.
The great writer and preacher Max Lucado tells about a neighbor of his who was trying to teach his six year old son how to shoot a basketball. They were out in the backyard, where his father had set up a regulation ten-foot high rim. The father shot a couple of times, saying, “Do it just like that, son; nothing to it. It’s real easy.” The little boy tried for all he was worth, but couldn’t get the ball more than five or six feet in the air. “Come on; you can do it,” encouraged the father. But the more the son tried, the more frustrated he became. Finally, after about the tenth time of hearing his father say, “You can do it,” the boy said to his dad, “It’s easy for you up there. But you don’t know how hard it is from down here.”
“You don’t know how hard it is from down here.” You and I can never say that about God. When God came down to us in the person of Jesus and lived among us, He walked where walked, He suffered what we suffer, He was tempted as we are tempted, and He offers us “down here” a power from “up there” that enables us to rise above our flaws and imperfections, our sins and our transgressions, if only we will receive it.
At this time of the year, we find ourselves preoccupied with making sure that we get the right gifts for everyone, and understandably so. No one wants to go to the time and the expense of getting someone a gift, only to have that person open it and show disappointment or, even worse, disapproval. And the real dilemma comes when we have on our list the person who has “everything.” What do you get the person who has “everything?”
Well, first of all, rest assured that there is no one who has “everything.” In fact, I had to chuckle the other day when I came across a story about a sign that someone saw in a stationary store. The sign read, “For the man who has everything – a calendar to remind him when his payments are due.”
That story is so descriptive of where so many of us are, both materially and spiritually. We have over obligated ourselves in so many ways, and whereas we might be able to dig ourselves out of our financial debt, there is no way we can do so with respect to our spiritual debt. There is not enough good that we can do to make up for the amount of wrong we have done against God. But again, the relevance of the Incarnation is that we don’t have to live in anxiety and despair over that inability. God has drawn near in the person of Jesus to take that sin upon Himself that the burden of it might be removed and we might be able to face each day with promise and possibility.
How might I illustrate the relevance of the Incarnation? I borrow this story from Paul Richardson, a California pastor, who saw its relevance while going about a holiday pastime, the task of selecting the perfect Christmas tree. Surely you can relate to that chore. Everyone wants the perfect tree – full and fresh, perfectly shaped and gloriously erect.
As Richardson describes his experience, “there it stood, the best tree in the lot. It was the second Christmas of our married life, and with newlywed-like impulse, we decided to forego the two-foot high plastic tree that graced our table the year before. We had found the perfect Christmas tree instead. It was wide at the base and came to a perfect point at the top. With blissful Christmas cheer, we paid the $25 and maneuvered it into our ’77 Chevy Citation and drove to our apartment.
I cleared a spot next to the couch and set it up in the corner. At least I tried to set it up in the corner. Our perfect tree immediately fell, turning our tree stand into green and red scrap metal. Another tree stand and multiple attempts only brought about the same problem; the tree wouldn’t stand up.
When I probed into the forest of green needles, I discovered our perfect tree had a huge flaw. The base of the tree began straight and centered, but the middle of the trunk contorted into a pretzel-shape, twisting this way and that, but then coming straight out on top. It was perfect on the outside but perfectly flawed on the inside. It could never stand on its own.”
Richardson goes on to say that they were able to prop up the tree so that it functioned acceptably that particular Christmas. But the more he thought about his experience with the tree, the more it spoke to him about the story of Christmas and the story of the Incarnation. On the outside, we like to show that we have it all together. “Tis the season to be jolly.” But inside, we know differently. Inside, we have to deal with the hurts and the pains, the disappointments, anger, and the bitterness. And worst of all, there is the contortion of our souls that the Bible calls our sin.
Richardson realized that no matter how many ornaments he and his wife hung on that particular tree, they knew it could never stand on its own. And no matter how many ornaments we might attach to our lives, we can never be right with God on our own.
The Christmas story is not about God seeing how nice we were and coming down to spend time with sweet people like us. The Christmas story is a story of God seeing twisted, hurting, sinful people, and coming down in the person of Jesus to redeem us. It is a story about love, and God’s desire to save us from our sin. While it may have begun with the joy of a baby being born, it also ended with that baby growing up and taking our sins upon himself and dying on the cross.
A television reporter was walking the streets of Tokyo at Christmas time. Much as in America, Christmas shopping is a big commercial season in Japan. The reporter stopped one young woman on the sidewalk and asked, “What is the meaning of Christmas?” And laughing, the young woman responded, “I don’t know; isn’t that the day that Jesus died?”
Little did she know how much truth was in her answer.
It probably did use to be a lot easier to tell when people were good or bad. But this much we do know: no one is good all the time and no one has everything he or she really needs. Until, that is, a person receives Jesus as God’s gift of salvation. Only then will God not count your sins against you, and only then will you receive everything that you really need, both in this life and the next.
The Result of the Incarnation
Sunday, December 12, 2010 Comments (0)
If you listen to much music on the radio any more, then you know that we are officially in the Christmas season because of how the holiday music is getting more play. In fact, there are some stations that play only holiday music at this time of the year.
I like these stations. Music helps me get into the mood of the season, (which is why I am so looking forward to our program tonight). But if you listen closely to some of those holiday tunes, it won’t take you long to get the picture that for a number of people not everything about Christmas is comfort and joy; for a good number of people there is loneliness and despair.
One particular tune that, quite honestly, drags me down at this time of the year is the old Christmas standard, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” You remember the song? “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.” One of the saddest parts of the Christmas holidays has to do with the separation that so many obviously experience during this time of the year – soldiers who are away on duty, students who have to stay in town for holiday jobs, young families who just don’t have the money to go anywhere, and worst of all, people who are at odds with family and friends and who just don’t want to have to deal with all the difficulty.
I think all of us can agree – Christmas is a time for people to be together. Indeed, the real message of Christmas is that by God’s drawing near in Jesus opposites can come together, enemies can halt their hostilities, and conflicts everywhere can be swallowed up in peace and grace. The Apostle Paul spells out so vividly what I call the “result” of the Incarnation when writing to the believers at Corinth, he exulted in the fact that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Cor. 5:19b).
Reconciliation was a matter on Paul’s mind. Indeed, 2 Corinthians reflects Paul’s efforts at bridging the divide that had come about between him and the Corinthian Christians. Some in the church had started to be critical of Paul. “He’s not really an apostle,” they said. “He talks an awful lot about money.” “At one time he was hardly what you’d call a friend of Christ.” And to Paul’s credit, instead of wasting his breath answering every single one of these criticisms, he pointed to the reconciling work of God in Jesus Christ that creates a “new situation” where the old one is less than ideal.
And who among us doesn’t really yearn for a “new situation?” In fact, isn’t that what all of our Christmas lists are really all about? When we make our lists, what are we saying? I don’t know that we’re in some way confessing to our selfishness. Well, maybe some of us are. But for the most part, when we make our Christmas lists, we are giving others an idea of how something is missing in life and the gifts that others give us make it possible for us to enter into a “new situation,” where a void has been filled and a need has been met.
I don’t think I’m rationalizing our Christmas gift-giving practices; I really don’t. I honestly believe that our heart’s desire is to receive something that will make life better. And sometimes we do; sometimes we get a gift that totally revolutionizes our life. But sometimes we don’t; sometimes we get stuck with something that we can’t wait to stick in the closet or take to Goodwill.
But here, Paul points us in the direction of the greatest gift of all – the gift of God’s presence in the person of Jesus Christ, which when we receive him always creates a “new situation” that is so much better and more blessed than the old one. In Jesus Christ, God has drawn near to fill all the emptiness in our hearts and to invite us to join Him in a new level of life that is purposeful and significant. In Jesus Christ, God has drawn near to enable us to overcome the difficulties and divisions we might have developed with other people because of how His mercy and grace overflow in us and pour out into those places of alienation and estrangement. In Jesus Christ, God has drawn near to make us feel “at home.”
Not only does music take center stage at this time of the year, so do holiday movies. Every year the big screen offers us new stories that strike chords in our hearts that don’t seem to get struck at any other time of the year. One such movie that came out years ago was the holiday class, “Home Alone.” Do you remember that movie? Macaulay Culkin was an adorable little eight year-old whose parents someone left him behind as they had decided to take off for France on their Christmas holiday. Left at home, little Macaulay had to do his best to defend his home against a couple of comical burglars. That movie, as you remember, struck such a chord that Hollywood came out with Home Alone 2, 3, and 4!
All I can remember is thinking, “How does a parent forget his child?” “How does that really happen?” And yet it happens all the time. Parents get busy. Parents get preoccupied. Parents assume the other parent is handling the kids. And some parents, amazingly and tragically, simply don’t care.
But God does. The result of the Incarnation is that God has drawn near in the person of the Bethlehem baby to offer whatever resources are necessary to heal your hurt, forgive your sin, bear your burden, and provide you with a better life.
Gregory Boyle is a Catholic priest who runs “Homeboy Ministries,” which is a ministry that helps the working poor, homeless immigrants, and gang members who are trying to escape life on the street. His personal mission statement goes like this: “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”
He recently published a book about his work, titled “Tattoos on the Heart.” In it, he tells the story of Rigo, a fifteen year-old gang member he was working with in prison. Rigo had come to a worship service and Father Greg was asking him about his father. It was the wrong question. “He’s a heroin addict,” Rigo explained, “and he’s never been in my life. He used to always beat me.” And then rocking back and forth, he started talking about a particular episode from his childhood when his father beat him with a pipe. “With a pipe,” he emphasized to Father Greg, tears streaming down his cheek.”
As Boyle put his arm around Rigo, he decided he’d better change the topic of conversation as quickly as possible. “What about your mother?” he asked. After he composed himself, Rigo pointed to a small woman on the other side of the room. “That’s her over there,” he said. “There’s no one like her.” “I’ve been locked up for a year and a half, and she comes to see me every Sunday.” “And do you know how many buses she has to take to get here?” “Seven,” Rigo said. “She takes seven buses just to see me!”
As Boyle heard the story, he thought about God and how much God has done to draw near to us in spite of our unworthiness and imperfection. He thought about how we have a God “who takes seven buses just to arrive at us. He thought about how all throughout Jesus’ ministry – his birth at Christmas, his fellowship with sinners, his healing of the sick, his death on the cross – God was showing us His heart, a heart that is always willing to take the long journey of love just to find us. What Boyle is saying is that the good news of Christmas is that it’s not so much that we have to live with the regret and despair of not being able to “go home” to God. The good news of Christmas is that in the person of Jesus, God has made the journey to bring a sense of being home to us.
Several years ago, there was a commercial that a popular grocery chain did that I thought was just absolutely sublime. The commercial focused on a young medical resident who was away from home for the holidays. Given his grueling schedule there was no way he could get away from his duties, and he was clearly bummed by his predicament. He had just a moment to call his family, and the scene cut to them as they were setting the table for another holiday feast. The young resident said his good byes and went back to his shift. The next scene had him leaving the hospital for what he thought would be a lonely Christmas morning. By the time he arrived at his modest apartment, you could tell by the way that he put his key into the door that he really wasn’t looking forward to spending Christmas by himself. But amazingly, when he opened the door, there was his family. They had gathered together to come his way for the Christmas holiday. Their celebration preparations that he had been hearing on the phone were ones that were coming from his own apartment, because his family had come that long distance to be with him.
And that is what the Incarnation of God in Christ brings about for us. God has drawn near to us. God has drawn near to you. Wherever you are in life, you really can experience the comfort and joy of Christmas. If you will open your heart to the gift of the Bethlehem baby, whatever division and difficulty may have been marking your life, can be swallowed up in the reconciling, forgiving, restoring love of God that without question, makes all things new.
The Reality of the Incarnation
Sunday, December 05, 2010 Comments (0)
Last year, on Super Bowl Sunday, immediately after the big game, CBS TV unveiled a new program that in the subsequent months has zoomed to the top of the Nielsen ratings. The program is something of a reality show, called “Undercover Boss.” The title says it all. A senior executive is dressed down so that he or she looks like “one of the gang.” Then the executive, now dressed incognito, assumes a menial position in the enterprise in order to see how “the other half” works. The boss goes “undercover” and does the same grunt work that his or her most lowly employees do, and all the while no one knows it’s the boss! What has impressed most of the viewers of the show is the way that so many of the executives are so out of touch with what life is really like at their particular places of work; that is, until they become one with the lowly workers and then, as workers, their perspective dramatically changes.
From the very moment I saw that show I thought of the doctrine of the Incarnation. The word Incarnation means “enfleshment,” and it refers to the manner in which the Almighty and Everlasting God, the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, has drawn near to us mortal humans in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Apostle Paul expresses it this way in his second letter to the Corinthians: “God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:19a). In other words, from the very beginning, those who worshiped Jesus did so because of how Jesus conveyed to them the very presence of God. For centuries, yea millennia, people had assumed that God was too far removed for humans to experience Him. Then Jesus appeared, and those who encountered him – who heard Jesus teach, who saw Jesus heal, who witnessed his death and his resurrection – those persons came to understand that when they were in the presence of Jesus, they were also in the presence of God.
But what bearing does all of this have on my life? That’s one of the issues that must be dealt with any time we deal with a theological notion such as the doctrine of the Incarnation. So God revealed His nature and being in the person of Jesus; what difference does that make as far as my everyday life is concerned? I think that’s an important question, and one that very well could determine the level of meaning this Christmas comes to hold for you.
So, let’s think about that question for a moment this morning. What difference does the Incarnation make in my life and why should I give attention and energy to it at this particular time of the year? Let me offer some implications for you to consider.
In the first place, the reality of the Incarnation is important because it assures you that you are not forgotten by God.
One of the Christmas traditions that many people observe is the “drawing of names.” At home or at work, at school or in some social organization, people will place each other’s names in a hat and then draw a name out as someone to get a Christmas gift for. The obvious reason for “drawing names” is to hold down the expense of exchanging gifts. Especially in these harsh economic times, people don’t have as much at their disposal, so drawing names is a way of managing the amount of money people have to dole out for Christmas presents.
But I think there’s another reason we often overlook. “Drawing names” makes certain that no one in the group gets left out. The worst experience someone can have around this time of the year is for gifts to be exchanged and no one bothered to think about you. Being overlooked at Christmas is enough to make a Scrooge out of any of us.
If we are honest with ourselves, there are times we wonder if God really knows that we exist. I say that because of how so much of our everyday life just doesn’t seem to work out like we had hoped it would. So much our everyday life is filled with trials and tribulations. You wonder if perhaps God is too busy with other people’s concerns that He has somehow managed to forget about you. It’s not that we dispute that God exists; we just wonder if God is all that invested in us as individuals, that maybe our little lives don’t matter to Him as much as they do to us. Otherwise things wouldn’t appear to be as hopeless as they sometimes do.
But what does the message of Christmas tell us? It tells us that in the person of Jesus God moved in our direction for our good, and that he did so from the very beginning of Jesus’ coming to earth. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, God was reconciling the world unto himself in Christ, and as the Christmas story reminds us, God was doing it even as a lowly infant lying in a manger. How did the angel express to Joseph the significance of the child that his betrothed Mary bearing? “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name ‘Jesus,’ because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). And what does Matthew add to that account? “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel,’ which means, ‘God with us’” (Matt. 1:22-23). That account means that unlike the “Undercover Boss” who might identify with his subordinates in order to discover something they are doing that might be taking away from his business, in the case of Jesus, even from his birth, Jesus represents the promise that God is for us and that His coming to be one with us is confirmation of that fact.
You may be here this morning and be of the opinion that God exists, but that He is too far removed from where you are in life. You may be of the opinion that your life holds such little value to God in the grand scheme of things. But that is not so; Christmas says it is not so. God’s coming from on high in the person of Jesus is all the proof that you need to accept the fact that God has not forgotten you.
But there’s something else the doctrine of the Incarnation begs you to consider. Not only does the Incarnation assure you that you are not forgotten by God; in the second place, it declares to you that God understands what you’re going through in life.
One of the great misconceptions we have about the Incarnation is that it only represents the fact of Jesus’ divinity – that Jesus represented the fullness of God. The truth of the matter is that from its earliest expressions, the doctrine of the Incarnation was actually devised to articulate the real humanity of Jesus – that he represented the fullness of God in human form.
Some of the earliest disagreements to divide the first Christians were over differing views regarding the relationship of the divine and human aspects of Jesus’ nature. One early view was that Jesus was a divine being who simply “seemed” to be human. Another was that he was a man who at some point “became” God. Others contended that he was half God, half man. Amazingly, one early church leader, a 2nd century bishop by the name of Apollinarius, even compared Jesus to a mule that comes from a horse and a donkey.
All Christians should be certain of the view that prevailed – that Jesus is and has been from all time both fully human and fully divine. As one of the early creeds of the church, the Nicene Creed, formulated in the early 4th century, explains it: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, the only begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father…who for us men and our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man….”
In other words, by becoming one with us in the person of Jesus, God is able to share our sorrows, bear our burdens, and atone for our sins. By becoming one with us in the person of Jesus, God is able, as Paul says, to reconcile us to Himself.
Matt Proctor is a pastor/writer who serves up in Iowa. Some years ago, he wrote an article for Christian Standard magazine in which he reflected on the Incarnation of Christ by means of an experience with his two sons, ages five and three at the time. Proctor writes about how they always got a kick when they all dressed the same. When the kids put on a pair of jeans and a blue shirt, they’ll ask their dad to do the same. When they play football, they’ll ask their dad to get on his hands and knees, so they’ll be at the same level. During the summer, Matt had scraped his leg while working on the house, and when he did, one of his sons, who had just taken a fall himself, came up, showed Matt his scar, and said, “Look dad; we’re the same. We’re the same.” In other words, “you know what it’s like to suffer and bleed.”
And that is precisely what the doctrine of the Incarnation suggests. From his very birth, Jesus came into this world knowing hunger and requiring nurture. And as he grew, Jesus became aware of what’s it like to suffer and bleed. On the cross, he prayed out of a sense of abandonment and isolation. He knows how you feel when life takes a turn for the worst. And by his presence, he shares your pain, and he redeems it.
You are not forgotten by God. He knows what you’re going through. And finally, and most importantly, you should consider the reality of the Incarnation because it guarantees you that you will be able to experience God’s provisions in your hour of need.
If only God became one with us in the person of Jesus for the purpose of identification, that would hardly be enough. We all know the emptiness of the pseudo-empathetic expression, “I feel your pain.” We don’t just want a God who “feels” our pain; we want a God who does something about it.
And that is what we have in the God who has drawn near to us in Jesus Christ. His purpose in coming to us in Jesus was to deliver us from the pain of sin and transgression, some of which we have brought upon ourselves, but some that we have not. The good news of Christmas is that God has intruded upon this hapless and hurting world in the form of the Bethlehem baby in order to assure us that our pain will be swallowed up in His victory, a victory He has made possible through our willingness to embrace His presence in the person of Jesus.
You’ll remember how just a couple of months ago, the news was dominated by the attempted rescue of the Chilean miners. For two months 33 miners were trapped in a gold and copper mine in the northern region of Chile. When they were brought to the surface, the estimates are that over a billion people watched their rescue on television. I was especially taken by a CNN report where a reporter asked the daughter of a rescued miner what it was like for her and her family, to which she replied, “It’s like my father has been born again.”
The next morning, all of the morning shows had a segment on the rescue, which technically, was still going on. On one of the shows they were interviewing a young 25 year old woman named Jessica McClure. Do you remember her? When she was just 18 months old, Jessica fell into an open 22-foot oil well in Midland, Texas, and the entire country became equally obsessed with the rescue of “Baby Jessica.” Unlike the adult miners in Chile, who were in contact with their attempted rescuers from the very beginning, this one involved an 18 month old child. How would they let her know that help was on the way? After several hours of deliberation, someone suggested that they let someone down into the well to let Jessica know that they were working to get her out. After all, she was just 18 months old, how else could they comfort her other than the presence of someone with her to assure her that she was not alone?
As with both parties, you and I are trapped by the flaws and imperfections, the sins and transgressions of this mortal life. But in Jesus, God has drawn near to be with us and to rescue us. But in order to experience that deliverance, we must embrace His presence and trust ourselves to His salvation. We must confess our need and open our hearts to His resources so that we might know His provisions that are more than sufficient in our hour of need.
The good news of the Incarnation is that our “Boss” has come down from on high to share our trials and tribulations and to see us through them to a better day. But He does not wish to remain “undercover.” His desire is for us to see Him, even in the form of a baby born to simple parents in a simple stable in the simplest of surroundings. His desire is for us to see Him, to recognize Him, and to receive Him. For he is God’s greatest gift and with him comes the assurance that God sees us, God shares with us, and most importantly, God will save us. What more could anyone possibly ask for?