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Doubting?

Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” -John 20:28
Even “Doubting” Thomas believes. It took an encounter with Jesus, but it happened. To meet Jesus changes everything.

The Meanest Man

Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.  –II Corinthians 5:17

“The meanest man in Montgomery County,”  is how my uncle, Don Ledbetter (known as “Doodle” by relatives and hometown people), was described to his son, D.K., by a man who knew him from his hometown.  Doodle’s funeral was Sunday in a rural church in North Carolina.  Where he had pastored for 20 years (fresh out of seminary), in a church built during his time there, a packed congregation listened to the story of an amazing life.  For more than 50 years, as pastor, teacher, District Superintendent and a hospital chaplain he served the Jesus he loved.  He completed a doctoral program in his seventies.

He was more like a brother to me.  My mother, his oldest sister, was more like a mother to him because their mother had died when he was five.  We played baseball together, hunted, etc. and attended college together.  I lived with his family for a while during my college days.  Though I moved away and didn’t get to see him much in later years, he was always special to me.  He often would have me preach in his church when I would visit.

The impact of his life on so many was obvious from the stories shared and the conversations with former classmates and friends of his and mine.

If you wondered how he got from the “meanest man” to that, you probably have guessed by now.  He knew Jesus.  As Paul Harvey used to say here’s the rest of the story.  The man who called him “the meanest man…” continued.  “I’m not a Christian but if I were, I want what Doodle has.”  What better evidence of a changed life.

I hope people who know me would say the same: “I want what he has.”

The Power of the Cross

heart-cross-thumb12673094the message of the cross…is the power of God. -I Corinthians 1:18, also Mark   15:22-39; Romans 5:6-10

The Cross is the power of God.  The NT says there is power in Jesus’ death!  Let me repeat that.  Maybe I need to say it a third time.  But no matter how many times it is repeated, there is dissonance, an incongruity. 

It is not that the words Death/power don’t belong together.  Death has power.  It is pervasive, it is inevitable, it is unavoidable.  In fact I think Saul Bellow was right when he expressed the philosophy of this generation by saying, “Death is God.  This generation thinks—and this is its thought of thoughts—that nothing faithful, vulnerable, fragile can be durable or have any true power.  Death waits for these things as a cement floor waits for a dropping light bulb.”1

The New Testament denies that.  It is says that God took the enemy’s biggest weapon, his most powerful and most destructive act and not only experienced it but used it to accomplish his own purpose.  It is through death that      Jesus entered Satan’s stronghold.  Jesus’ dying, the event, the act, has power to effect you, me, all of creation, then, now and for all time.

We are inclined to minimize the cross, the death in order to magnify, the resurrection, Easter.  In the gospels, in contrast, the “spotlight is on the passion”.  The New Testament exalts the cross as the central act of our salvation.  Malcome Muggeridge called the cross the intersection of time and eternity.  Paul, the apostle makes explicit what all the New Testament breathes: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Cor 2:2).

The good news is that Jesus died for you.  His death has power and it becomes effective when we, by faith, surrender our lives to Jesus.  John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, struggling with faith and life found that true one night. He described what happened:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

            “I did trust in Christ” is the telling fact.  That is how you can experience the power of the cross.  For help click here or contact me.         

 

1Christianity Today, 9/18/87, 20).

Too Good to Be True

The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ,…The people were all so amazed.  Mark 1:1, 22a

A computer lease we were looking at “seemed too good to be true.”  It was.

We all know the feeling—something is so wondrous so great, so joyful,  that it just couldn’t be true.

Such things just don’t happen in a mixed-up, disappointing, sin and sorrow-filled world.  And that is exactly the feeling created in anyone who really begins to “breathe” the atmosphere of the New Testament.  The news about Jesus seems almost too good to be true.

To be sure, the watered-down version that many have heard from their youth up and which the church too often seems to teach isn’t so hard to believe.  This collection of religious sentiments somehow  (we’re not quite sure how) built around the person of Jesus who was a very good man, is not hard to believe and creates no feeling of wonder and amazement and certainly had little power to transform lives.  But the unedited biblical version is a different story.

Get this—Jesus is the Son of God.  Even the demons recognized they were not dealing with just another human being, exclaiming, “You are the holy one of God!”  As Jesus came to John for baptism in the Jordan river, there is an accreditation, an approval expressed by God the Father: “You are my son, and I am delighted in you.”  God among mortals!  And we think, “That’s too good to be true.”

But notice the impact Jesus had on those who heard him, those who walked with him, those outside as well as within his circle.  As they heard his teaching, saw him in action, it seems Mark “ransacked” the Greek dictionary trying to express their amazement, astonishment, wonder, awe in the presence of this person.  It’s too good to be true!

In what is said to be representative of a typical day in the life of Jesus, he casts out demons, heals Peter’s mother-in-law who was sick with a fever, reaches out to touch one legally untouchable and cures the incurable leper.  His loving compassion and power which heals, and his wisdom which enlightens are amazing.

Then it begins to dawn on us what the NT is trying to say, “that is what God is really like.”  This Jesus, whom the whole world looks to as the epitome, example of love, concern, the best in human kind, is what God is like!  He is not just a man but God among men!  It’s all too good to be true!

Just like the man who saw Jesus heal his son of a spirit which caused him to fall into the fire and go through horrible agony, when Jesus asks, “Do you believe?” responds, “I believe, help my unbelief.”  We begin to understand a little of what the man was trying to express.  I do believe! I want to believe! But it’s too good to be true!

While we’re trying to catch our breath, get our minds around the idea, “God is like this,” we are brought to our knees by the this: Jesus is one of us.  His life becomes a pattern for me/you.  As surely as Mark will not let us forget that this is God’s own son, so likewise he will not let us escape the fact that He was a real human being.

He sets the pattern for every true disciple (Jesus follower).  A decision to trust God, acceptance of a calling/mission and dedication to it, set the boundaries of life.  And with that, there is the equipment, power of the Holy Spirit descending on Him, to give Him the ability to perform the mission.  So, we make our choice, dedicate ourselves, and God fills us with His spirit and empowers us.  But we think, “it’s too good to be true.

In his powerful book, A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken tell how he and his wife, became Christians.

They considered themselves pagans.  They began by believing the Christian gospel had nothing to say to them. Over a period of time, Vanauken and his wife began to consider the meaning of the gospel.  Not taking that way easily, He said,

“we discovered much more than we had expected: The personality of Jesus emerged from the Gospels with astonishing consistency.  Whenever they were written, they were written in the shadow of a personality so tremendous that Christians who may never have seen him knew him utterly: that strange mixture of unbearable sternness and heartbreaking tenderness.

What was happening seemed to happening against his will.  But as he read and thought and talked with these Christians what seemed almost too good to be true was becoming harder and harder to escape.  Vanauken saw the issue and saw it clearly:

Christianity had come to seem to us probable.  It all hinged on this Jesus.  Was he, in fact, the Lord Messiah, the Holy one of Israel, the Christ?  Was he, indeed, the incarnate God?  Very God of very God?  This was the heart of the matter.  [Did] he rise from the dead?  The Apostles, the Evangelists, Paul believed it with utter conviction.  Could we believe on their belief?  Believe in a miracle?

He goes on to describe his growing excitement. As he began to think that it all might really be true, it began to dawn on him that the highest aspirations and deepest longings of his life came together at the person of Jesus Christ and the gospel.  And almost against his will he is driven to Jesus.

As he read the New Testament, the incredibly good news broke through—and hoping against hope, for it was just too good to be true: Vanauken them came to a turning point: “I could not go back….I had encountered Jesus….It was a question whether I was to accept Him—or reject.  (When I saw that) I could not reject Jesus.”

When you really meet the Christ in the pages  of the NT, the sheer excitement of it all makes it seem too good to be true.  Mark’s whole gospel is predicated on the conviction that once he tells you what Jesus did and said you will know who He is—God’s own son, but also one of us;  our savior but also our example.

HAVE YOU HEARD THE GOOD NEWS ABOUT JESUS?
IT IS TRUE, YOU KNOW!

If you do not know Him, you can invite Him into you life now. click here for how.

We have found him

We have found the one -John 1:45

“The     Exciting Discovery—“We Have Found Him”

             Have you ever tried to tell someone of something that is so unusual, so different from the normal or expected that you knew when you told it you wouldn’t be believed.

Try to imagine John’s task—to tell of something so wonderful, so absolutely unique as to be unbelievable.  Then read and watch as he lays the groundwork, then builds his case to prove that the creator becomes flesh and blood and lives on this earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:19-51).

He begins by calling some eye witnesses.  First, he calls the most prominent and influential religious leader of his time—John The Baptist (called simply John by writer). 

The Baptist has raised quite a stir with his preaching, baptizing and a group from the religious establishment has been sent to find out what he’s all about?  Who could he be?  Is he the one to look for? The one God has promised?  Are you he? 

To John’s credit, he makes sure they are pointed to Christ and not a substitute (himself).  Do you know hard that would be.  John is the most popular person around, with all the acclaim and success which goes with that.  And he must now begin to point the crowds away from himself.  He immediately begins to fade into the background.  I am a voice only.  He is greater than I am.  Can you imagine a politician, a great religious leader downplaying his importance?
He tells his own disciples, the time has come, he has come.  You are not to follow me but him.   The faithfulness of John in doing his job is now clearly seen—“they followed Jesus.”

And immediately they become evangelists, that is, they began to tell others.  “We have found him.”  So the cycle begins all over.  Those who find Jesus want to…must, tell others about Him.

“Hallelujah, I have found Him who my soul so long has craved!   Jesus satisfies my longings; through his blood I now am saved.”  (From the hymn, “Satisfied” by C.T. Williams)

They Devoted Themselves

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Acts 2:42

Isn’t it amazing the physical feats of which humans are capable?  We are being treated to some stunning examples in the 2012 Olympics.  We have heard stories of great sacrifice and costly commitment from runners, swimmers, gymnasts and others to compete as an Olympian.  As we were talking about this with friends from our Small Group the comment was made:  “Wouldn’t it be great if Christians were as devoted as these athletes?”

And I remembered.  That is the exact term used to describe those early Christians in the book of Acts—devoted.  We say, dedicated, committed, focused.  Because that is what it takes to accomplish important things, especially doing one’s best.  We do not become like Jesus automatically, by coasting or accidently.  Being devoted speaks to priorities.  Devotion ultimately is about lifestyle.

Of course Christians are devoted to God/Jesus.  And that finds practical expression in devotion to the good news (apostles’ teaching), to each other (the fellowship), sacramental acts (the breaking of bread) and prayer.  All these things result in “doing good.” 

The surprising thing is that as popular as the Olympics is our culture does not like the idea of devotion/commitment.  It is not a popular idea.  But it is the driving force for those who belong to Jesus.

Prayer: the Essential Tool (Part II)

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. Ephesians 6:18a
I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.  John 16:23  (NIV)

There is much I don’t know about prayer, especially what you learn by experience.  But I know a lot about it.  The problem is that my beliefs and my knowledge don’t always translate into practice.  There is a great disparity between our belief (stated) and our practices.   We give lip-service to the importance of prayer.  We talk about it a lot.  We request prayer—for ourselves, others, for events, ministries.  We do pray (most of us).  We have our prayer list, prayer teams, even occasionally special times of  prayer, gatherings for prayer.

But I believe prayer is the weakest link in my discipleship.  It is the chink in my armor.  And I suspect, no I know, I am not alone in this.  I believe in prayer.  I am convinced it is the bottom line of discipleship.  And as Jim Cymballa says, “We are not New Testament Christians if we don’t have a prayer life.”1

Christians have always known that prayer is the essential tool of the Christian life.  Listen to what they say about it:

It changes the pray er.  “To pray is to change.  Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us.  If we are unwilling to change, we will abandon prayer as a noticeable characteristic of our lives.”2  “Prayer is designed more to adjust you to God than to adjust God to you.”3

God’s work is done.  “Most of the people we meet, inside and outside the church, think prayers are harmless but necessary starting pistols that shoot blanks and get “things going.”4  “Anything creative, anything powerful, anything biblical, insofar as we are participants in it, originates in prayer.5

We become recepients of God’s greatest gifts.  St. Augustine said, ” God does not ask us to tell him our needs that he may learn about them, but in order that we may be capable of receiving what he is preparing to give.”Kierkegaard insists, “The true relation in prayer is not when God hears what is prayed for, but when the person praying continues to pray until he is the one who hears, who hears what God wills.”7

Prayer is for everyone.  Everyone needs to pray.   Everyone can pray.   Steve Harper tells about visiting at Sunday dinner.  His hostess called on the youngest child to pray.  The little girl says, “God is great….”  Then mother turns to Harper and asks, “And now preacher would you ask the blessing for us?”  “All children pray, until we teach them not to.” (Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick)8

Nothing should be more convincing than Jesus’ model for us.  The great example is what Jesus said to his disciples on that last night with them (less than 1/10 of 1% of his ministry).  This is recorded in four chapters in John’s gospel.  One of those four chapts. is the prayer that Jesus prayed.  Can you believe that is not significant?  One fourth of what Jesus said that night is prayer, almost 5% of whole book of John.  Not teaching about prayer but praying.

Don’t let the tool get rusty.  Pray!

__________________________________________________________

1Cymballa, Fresh Wind Fresh Spirit, 50.
2Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline quoted by Maxwell, Partners In Prayer, 74
3Blackaby and King, Experiencing God, 174
4Eugene Peterson, Working The Angles, 32
5Eugene Peterson, Working The Angles, 28
6Bloesch, The Struggle Of Prayer, 29
7Bloesch, The Struggle Of Prayer, 63
8Betty Shannon Cloyd, CIRCUIT RIDER, Nov/Dec ’98, 12

Prayer: The Essential Tool (part I)

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. Ephesians 6:18a 
I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.  John 16:23  (NIV)

On Sunday, as part of a Father’s Day/birthday present from my wife Alana, we attended a service at the Brooklyn Tabernacle in downtown Brooklyn, NY.  What an amazing experience/place.  Perhaps you know of the award winning Brooklyn Tabernacle choir.  But there’s much more to the church than that.  Four two hour high octane, spirit-filled services on Sunday to overflow crowds which total more than 8,000 fuel all sorts of ministries in Brooklyn and around the world.  Pastor Jim Cymbala  faithfully and powerfully delivers God’s word.  As I witnessed the many ministries and life of the church highlighted I was awed by God’s powerful use of that congregation.

You might ask, “How does this all come about?”  A lot of things certainly could be credited, but there is one thing that to me is the most crucial to all that church is.  If you weren’t paying a lot of attention you might miss the announcement of a Tuesday night prayer meeting.  You might not catch the fact that around 5pm when the doors open for the 7pm meeting people begin to gather.  You might miss that literally hundreds of people show up each week for serious spirit-directed prayer.  In his book, Fresh Wind Fresh Fire, Pastor Cymbala attributes this to be what, more than anything, triggered and sustains the growth and life of “BT” as they refer to it.  This is consistent with the Biblical proclamation that prayer is the essential tool for God’s people.

More than 30 years ago as a graduate student in history at the UNC-Greensboro, I read a statement by historian Cain Brenton which I’ve never forgotten:  “Once we we have put something into words, we think we have accomplished it.”    He was writing about our substituting talk for action, discussion for accomplishment.

In no area is this more true than in the Christian life.  We talk a great game, but never actually do it.  Prayer is especially susceptible to this problem.  We can read books on prayer, preach sermons on prayer, have studies on prayer, develop great theories and never do much praying.  I am especially susceptible to doing that.  We actually have “prayer meetings” where little praying is done.  They are filled with Bible study, formal liturgies, music, teaching, etc. but not a lot of prayer.  Someone said that the syndrome of Protestant churches is that we have become “artful dodgers of a disciplined prayer life.”

I am sure what we are as a Christian or a church rises no higher than our prayer life.  To be continued.

Christians Are Connected

John 15:1-17  I chose you …to go and bear fruit

          What does Jesus really want from you?
          One of the most important things Jesus had to tell his disciples in those last crisis packed hours was His purpose for them, what He expected from them and how it could happen.
            He does this by way of an analogy of the grape vine.  As the purpose of a vine is to produce fruit—grapes so He says I have chosen you to bear fruit.  It is this which will glorify my Father.  For that to happen you must abide in me because without me you can do nothing.  Just as the branches draw their life and ability to bear fruit from the main vain, so you get your life and productiveness from me I am the vine.  “Abide in me”=keep my commandments(obedience), maintain your relationship to me, keep the connection.  “Without me you can do nothing.”
            He pointedly told them He had chosen them to “bear fruit.”  That fruit is a life characterized by love.  He told them what was necessary and what would happen if they didn’t.
                      I don’t think this was exactly what Jesus had in mind, but Gerald Kennedy tells of an inquiry made of a Methodist bishop about a preacher in his area.  “Why,” said the bishop, “He is dull.  He is supernaturally dull…No man could be as dull as he is without divine aid.”
          So what are the results of being connected, of “abiding in Christ”?

 EFFECTIVE PRAYER
            “ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you.”
            “so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” 
        
We are inclined to read this in one of two ways:

  • If you can believe strong enough, God will give you whatever you ask for.
              Little Johnnie was saying his bedtime prayers a week before his birthday.  In a loud voice he listed all the things he wanted.  “Don’t pray so loudly,” his mother instructed.  “The Lord isn’t hard of hearing!”  “Maybe he isn’t,” admitted Johnnie, “but grandma is.”
  • Or we ignore it, water it down, never take it seriously

The Bible and Christian history makes some incredible claims for the power of a believer’s prayer.  Frontier Methodist preacher, Francis  Asbury said, “Prayer is the sword of the preacher, the life of the Christian, the terror of hell, and the devil’s plague.”1
         
These statements need to be understood in the context.  They are about believers being fruitful, that is producing more believers.

GOD GLORIFIED BY FRUIT
      The measure of success is does it bring honor and glory to God.  As my preaching professor, James Robertson, used to say, Christians “adorn the gospel.”  Their lives are attractive and these lives attract people to Christ.  The reason there is so little impact of some Christians is there lives don’t attract to Jesus.  Richard Foster says, “People do not see anything to be converted to.  They look around at these Christians telling them to agree to these little statements and say the enclosed prayer.  They say, “But you aren’t any different from anybody else.  So, what am I supposed to be converted to?” 2

JOY
       First Jesus’ joy is in us, in our fruitfulness.  Then our joy will be full.  We experience the joy spoken of so often in the Bible.
          I confess to you, I am troubled when I apply those three tests to my life.  So I have to ask: How is my connection?  Am I abiding in Jesus?
          How about you?

What Are You So Happy About?

“Rejoice because your names are written in Heaven.” -Luke 10:20

There are some great benefits to being a Christian.

  • There is purpose and meaning for life,
  • peace with God and with ourselves.
  • There is opportunity to see the remarkable power of God to affect individual lives, to bring healing, both spiritual and physical.
  • The power to change society–
    • greed, hatred, corruption, indifference,  self-centeredness all have been overcome when the gospel has been heeded.
  • Hospitals and churches have been built.
  • the poor and the sick have been helped.
  • And there is opportunity to be part of the family of God.

But Jesus had a way of getting to the real issue, and he reminded his disciples of a very important fact.  Though the benefits of responding to God’s good news are many and varied, there is one central cause for the Christian’s joy—your names are written in heaven.  The ultimate reward is heaven, with all that involves.  The real benefit of knowing Jesus as Savior and Lord is life, eternal life, i.e. heaven.
How important those words, how important that is for us to remember in a world like this, when life isn’t going well for us.  It was Malcom Muggeridge who said, “The only ultimate disaster that can befall us,”…is to feel ourselves at home here on earth.”1  This is especially true when we are faced with our mortality, our death.  Death for the believer is simply arrival at the final destination.
The Gospel, the good news gives us that hope.  It is a simple (yet profound) story which we often make very complicated.  The Bible teaches that each person has a fatal affliction called sin.  The basic element in this affliction is failure to believe, to trust God, “un”faith.
However God, has provided the remedy—“God loved the world so much that he gave his only son [Jesus] so that whoever believes in him will not die but have life.”
In short, the gospel, the good news is that though each of us has been infected with sin, if we acknowledge it, confess it, place our trust in Jesus by surrendering our life to him, he will give us eternal life—ultimately heaven.
Every other benefit pales in comparison.

1quoted in Christianity Today, 12/8/72, p.54