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The Cross: God Forbid!

The Cross: God Forbid!

Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You. -Matthew 16:22

Up to his point, the life of Jesus is a story of success and popularity. Healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, feeding the hungry, teaching about lilies of the field, blessing the little children, even raising the dead, he has attracted a tremendous following.

Jesus now begins to show his disciples what his life is really all about. Peter’s great confession–“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” has been affirmed by Him. He has given them the assurance of the future of his church. And Matthew says, “From that time on Jesus began to explain that he must…suffer…and…be killed. Whereas, Peter incredulous, exclaims, “God forbid it.” (“You’ve got to be kidding!”)

And Jesus answers, you’re not on God’s side but man’s. Not only must I go to the cross, but if you are to be my disciple you must come with me. And as time goes on and Jesus begins to make clear what that means and where it leads, he loses the crowds shouting hosannas to those shouting “crucify him.”

Someone has said, “A gospel which centers on a cross and finds victory in death makes no sense whatsoever,…A gospel which turns life upside down and demands that we make every human loyalty subsidiary to our allegiance to Jesus Christ flies in the face of everything that men naturally find acceptable.”

Those on the other side of the cross, looking ahead to it or standing before it on that fateful day, always were with Peter: “God forbid.” They did not know “Friday” and “Saturday” was followed by Sunday.

 

It’s “Christmas” Everywhere, But….

In C.S. Lewis’ children’s books, The Chronicles of Narnia, he describes a land where “it’s always winter but never Christmas.” It’s a dark, hopeless place ruled by an evil queen.

For us, it seems to me, we live in a land where it’s “Christmas” everywhere. And sometimes, it seems it’s always Christmas too. There’s “Christmas in July” sales, or Hallmark movies. Of course decorations even begin to show up before Halloween. And the movies on TV begin in earnest. And it’s not just Hallmark either. Lifetime shows them around the clock every day.

They are about family, romance, and happiness. There is a lot of talk about the magic of Christmas. Everybody is nice to everyone by the end. They certainly provide a little relief from the daily news punctuated by anger, bad temper, suffering and all the other negative things of the human existence.

However, most of this “Christmas” is not the Christmas of the good news. Even if, here and there, are references to a story of a baby and a manger, rarely, if ever, is it about the real story.

The angel’s word to Joseph puts it in perspective. “You shall call him Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.” To the shepherds on the hillside it was “to you is born this day…a savior.”

You see what’s missing is Jesus, specifically a savior, the savior. It’s not just a temporary, feel good, escape from the bad news all around us. It is the good news of a cure for all this, for me personally and you, and for the whole world.

That’s truly “good news of great joy.” And it’s to be shared.

Merry Christmas!

God’s Determination—Our Expectation

The Lord Almighty is determined to do all this. -Isaiah 9:7 (GNT)
The people were on the tiptoe of expectation. -Luke 3:15 (NEB)

“God’s Determination—Our Expectation”

What do you expect as Christmas approaches?  Let me tell you what many people expect—stress, busyness, debt, dread.

One woman “wondered aloud whether it was worth celebrating anything anymore at that time of the year.  The way she put it was that along about Halloween she feels she’s stuck behind the wheel of a car she can’t control.  By Thanksgiving she’s going 40 miles-an-hour, by mid-December she’s racing along and 80 and on Christmas Day she always runs into the same brick wall.  “No matter what I do,” she says, “I wake up at the end of the holiday season feeling like I’ve been in a collision.  Our family is an emotional, physical, and financial wreck!” (Fred Rogers)

“The cruelest and loudest message of the season, shouted from millions of television sets, newspapers and magazines, seems to be: “To spend more is to love more…and to be more dearly loved.” (Rogers)

“The Christmas season has come to mean the period when the public plays Santa Claus to the merchants.” (John Haynes Holmes)

So the experience of many is “overworrying, overworking and overspending.”  One week during Advent I had a businessman express to me, what has become a common sentiment, “I’ll be glad when it’s over.”  My guess is that some of you have the same feeling whether you express it or not.  And you probably feel guilty because you know it shouldn’t be that way.  Can I confess to you that pastors are not immune to all this.  Or at least the one I know best.

One of the dangers of all this is that we lose our sense of expectancy, anticipation.  That is why a season of Advent is so important. It reminds us that the good news, the gospel calls us to anticipate, to expect.

Those people were in bad straits. But they had a promise. Some of you are struggling. But you have a promise. As Michael Card put it in this song The Promise “What more could God have given?” Because the “name of the promise was Jesus.”

Someone has said, “All we could ever imagine could ever hope for, He is….He is the Prince of Peace whose first coming has already transformed society but whose second coming will forever establish justice and righteousness.  All this and infinitely more, alive in an impoverished baby in a barn.” (source unknown)

What a powerful insistence that God is determined to do this.  We are to live in expectancy. The light of Jesus shines. The power of evil will be overcome and we will be part of God’s kingdom of peace, justice and righteousness.  Hallelujah!

Ephemeral Plant or Spiritual Redwood?

The yeErythronium americanum, Yellow trout-lilyllow trout lily is an ephemeral plant. The word ephemeral means transitory or quickly fading.¹ It is beautiful but it doesn’t last. Compare that to the giant redwood trees which live and thrive for hundreds of years.

Bill Easum and Tom Bandy have been involved in helping churches all over North America understand our times and themselves in relation to the mission that Jesus has given us—to make disciples. In a book, which they co-authored, called Growing Spiritual Redwoods they talk about some of the differences between “declining” and “thriving” congregations.

In these “thriving” congregations which they call “Spiritual Redwoods,” leadership is “all about letting go of control. The organization does not tell people what to do, but helps people discern their callings themselves, and then equips them to pursue those callings with excellence.” One thriving-church leader was asked, “How do you decide what ministries to begin?” She answered: “We tell people that if the Lord lays it on your heart today, you can do it tonight, and tell us about it tomorrow!”

That kind of environment, climate depends on some basic factors:

• A clear commitment to Jesus. Nothing matters except the
gospel. “The body of Christ will sacrifice anything and
everything—property, offices, financial security, traditional
music, familiar heritage—for the sake of the gospel.”
• A clear understanding of our mission (purpose)—to make
followers of Jesus (disciples). There is a passion for
transforming lives.
• Ministry is part of being a follower of Jesus.
• High expectation from each follower.
John 14:12- The truth is, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works,…

Messiah church—ephemeral plant or Spiritual Redwood? It’s up to us to decide.

¹Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
photo credit: flickr.com/

Thanksgiving

Today in countless homes, in all kinds of places people will think about and tell about things for which they are thankful. The list is long for most of us and most of us realize there are even more things than we are aware of.

However, the most intense moments of thankfulness are not found in times of plenty, but when difficulties abound. Think of the Pilgrims that first Thanksgiving. Half their number dead, men without a country, but still there was thanksgiving to God. Their gratitude was not for something but in something. It was that same sense of gratitude that lead Abraham Lincoln to formally establish the first Thanksgiving Day in the midst of national civil war, when the butcher’ s list of casualties seemed to have no end and the very nation  struggled for survival.

It is exactly the type of situation referred to in the Bible: give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (I Thess 5:18) Our list of “fors” might be short. Perhaps in your own life, right now, there is intense hardship. Try following the directions of the Psalmist: Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth… Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. -Psalms 100:1a, 4 (NIV)

Praising God, giving thanks won’t change your circumstances but it will change you. True thanksgiving is accompanied by joy. Through grace it is God’s gift to you.

Have a joyful Thanksgiving Day!

P.S. A personal story: Today I started my day with this song that I had not thought about for a long time and I experienced the results of praising God.

Disappointment

We rejoice in the hope of God’s glory. And hope does not disappoint. -Romans 5:2, 5

Have you ever been disappointed? If not, I would like to meet you.

It’s no fun. It can be devastating. So no one likes it.

For followers of Jesus (Christians) disappointment can be especially problematic. We can be disappointed with circumstances and events. But the disappointments often are in people. A close friend, a husband, a wife, other family members disappoint us. That can be especially painful. The church can disappoint us. But the most difficult of all disappointments is disappointment  with/in God.

But have you ever thought about the first cause of disappointment? What precedes any such experience? What is a prior necessity to your being disappointed? It begins with expectation. That is the prerequisite to disappointment.

Sometime ago I wrote about the place expectations play in the Christian gospel and life. God’s promises form a foundation for Christian understanding and living. But wrong expectations and the resulting disappointments are a great danger to faith.

Expectations that God will shield you from all difficulties, make you successful, and such are inevitably pathways to disappointment with God. And disappointment with God is of all things the worst. It can easily shut the door to real faith and confidence. God is not a cosmic Santa Claus that fulfills all our childish and sinful desires.  He does not rescue us from disappointments resulting from wrong expectations.

But our hope in what God has done for us in Jesus will not disappoint us.

 

 

Easter Is Forever

I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. – Rev. 1:18   (NIV)

If you are a western Christian, you probably celebrated Easter last Sunday. On Monday, Easter was over. Unless you live in certain places (such as North Carolina) where “Easter Monday” was a public holiday until 1987. Other places, such as the White House (White House egg roll) and other countries it is observed in various ways. And this fits in quite well with the thinking of most people who think of Easter as an event or a short season of the year. In western cultures it is a season that lasts for seven weeks (until the 50th day, Pentecost). For many eastern Christians it lasts until the 40th day after or Ascension.

However, the early Christians and the New Testament understood it quite differently. They knew that the resurrection of Jesus was the beginning of an eternal reality.

“The key to understanding all of this for the early followers of Jesus was not just their knowledge of God himself, which we have so heavily emphasized, or their knowledge of the multitudes of non-physical beings or angels that serve him.  The absolute bedrock of their confidence concerning their future was, rather, in their experience of the postresurrection Jesus.” (Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 395)

They knew Jesus is alive and that Easter is forever. And that being a Christian is a faith relationship with the living Jesus. It is expressed in at least three very important ways. Jesus is our companion. He is with us (“I am with you always.”-Matt. 28:20). He works through us, enabling us to bear fruit for the kingdom. He is in us (Jn 14:17- with you will be in you.) shaping us so that we will ultimately be like Him.

Tomorrow, Sunday (the day of resurrection) is a reminder that Easter is forever. Hope you celebrate it tomorrow and every Sunday by worshiping with your Christian community.

Never Alone

*

 Love, Joy, Peace, Happiness, Wonder—are all emotions often connected to Christmas. Throw in the ideas of family, parties, celebration and you have a package of how Christmas is usually communicated.

However, there is another emotion or experience for many people that is connected to Christmas. It is loneliness. Do a web search for “Christmas, loneliness” and you will discover just how much there is about this connection. Now, obviously, there is a lot of loneliness that has nothing to do with Christmas.

We are in what some are calling a “loneliness epidemic.” The headlines from a National Public Radio story declared, “Americans Are a Lonely Lot.”  According to a study this year from health insurer Cigna, “most Americans are considered lonely.”

However, it does appear that the Christmas season exaggerates the sense of loneliness for many people. It has been a common theme of popular Christmas songs over the years such as a 70’s classic: “Lonely This Christmas.” (And no, it’s not Elvis, even though one youtube video says it is.)

So, what is the Christian reaction to this? The Christmas message itself suggests the most important thing. We are not alone. No one is. Jesus’ own words are clear:

“I am with you always.”
“I will never leave you or forsake you.”

Then, we are to reach out in ways that help lonely people. If we look, they are all around us in the obvious places such as nursing homes. They are also among our neighbors and those who are missing a loved one this year or who really have no one. Some, for whatever reason just think, “no one cares.” Let them know Jesus does.

From Messiah's December Newsletter
*Picture is on this web site affairwithcoffee

It’s Worship– TOGETHER

So let’s come near God with pure hearts and a confidence that comes from having faith. Let’s keep our hearts pure, our consciences free from evil, and our bodies washed with clean water.  We must hold tightly to the hope that we say is ours. After all, we can trust the one who made the agreement with us.  We should keep on encouraging each other to be thoughtful and to do helpful things.  Some people have gotten out of the habit of meeting for worship, but we must not do that. We should keep on encouraging each other, especially since you know that the day of the Lord’s coming is getting closer.Hebrews 10:22-25 (CEV)

In bold headlines, the Morning Report for August 1st of Religious News Service: “Empty Pews”, “Why fewer Americans are attending religious services.” If you a Christian in a typical church, you are seeing less on Sunday mornings (and other times also). If you are in an exceptional church, where attendance is growing, you probably have heard about declining church attendance and celebrate your experience.

The RNS report says, “Fewer adults are attending religious services in the United States, but not necessarily because they don’t believe.” To be sure, there are those who simply don’t believe. But “some express their faith in other ways, others haven’t found a church they like…. others say they don’t feel welcome.” And you won’t have any trouble finding things like this article: “Six Reasons People Aren’t Attending Your Church.”

There are certainly many different individual reasons. However, I am convinced that a major underlying cause is our failure to appreciate a basic component of the life of those who follow Jesus. We do it with a community of fellow travelers. We do it in face to face relationships. And it is not optional.

Of course there are exceptional cases such as those who have physical impairments. And I don’t mean to sound harsh or unloving. But not having a church which I like or where I feel welcome, a pastor I like, music I like, theology I agree with or a host of other reasons do not negate the fact that being Christian is a shared experience. And the primary expression of that is corporate worship. All excuses aside, New Testament Christians/followers of Jesus worship together. I can’t free-lance and call myself a New Testament follower of Jesus.

Underlying all of this is a simple spiritual principle affirmed by Jesus: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” God’s presence is different when we are together. So find a gathering of fellow followers and worship with them. Jesus will meet you there.

“Volunteers” Is the Problem

“Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things so; I will put you in charge of many things.  Come and share your master’s happiness! Matt. 25:21 (NIV)

Not long ago I was reading a church newsletter. It was a nice example of an informative, visually appealing church communication. But beginning on the first page (the pastor’s page) there was a concept that was communicated more than fourteen times, often in bold headlines. Over and over it was stated that volunteers are needed for this or that. It told me something not only about many in that church, but in churches everywhere. I am convinced one of the problems we have is that many Christians think of themselves as volunteers.

The word volunteer is used only 5 times in the Old Testament. Never is it used in the New Testament. In the New Testament, followers of Jesus are over and over referred to as servants (“only servants”-I Corinthians 3:5).

Volunteers work, are engaged, as they will. Servants work, are engaged, according to the master’s will. Volunteers wonder: “Do I have time?” “What will I get out of this?” “Will it make me look good?” “Will it make me feel good?” “Will it produce good things?” “Is it important to me?”

A servant has one question: “What does the master want?” Granted, in this world, that is not always a question easy to answer for Christians.

But Christians are under orders. They are called to serve, admonished to serve, expected to serve, gifted to serve as God directs. It is our purpose. And our great reward is to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”