Monday, September 5, 2016

Direct Orders

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” John 20:21
This Labor Day weekend my wife and I were blessed with the chance to view the Ark Encounter in Williamstown, KY with our friends and family on what we later found out was a record-setting day for attendance. We were able to spend the day inside a very convincing ark-shaped museum full of displays which illustrated life before, during, and after Noah’s ark. There were life-like animals of all kinds in cages, a section showing how the living quarters might’ve been arranged, and many other displays on the Biblical narrative of Noah and his family. Overall, it was a fun learning experience.

However, it did not start out all sunshine and rainbows.

After arriving at the park and getting out of our cars, we found the Labor Day crowd made the line to get inside the ark so long that it wrapped around the parking lot. It was at this moment we realized we were in for quite a wait. We didn’t drive all that way just to turn around and leave; so we joined in the line. There were thousands of people there from all over North America. We saw license plates from Texas, Wisconsin, and even Canada. Even though we knew it would take hours to get inside the ark, it was great to see so many people coming together to learn about God.

To make matters worse, after just a few moments of standing in line we heard a few people walking by talk about how the line we were in was the wrong line. We were told by another park visitor that the line we were in was for people who had already bought tickets. Moments later, another person told us that we were in the right line.

Basically, we had no clue what to do, or even how to find out.

Confusion set in as we debated amongst ourselves what would be the best course of action. We asked the people in line around us, but they were just as confused. There were no park employees in sight, and our only information was contradictory hearsay from other people walking by. No one could give us a reliable answer on where we should be going, or what we should be doing. No one seemed to know what to do. Just like the people of Noah’s time, we were directionless and confused. The time of Noah predates God giving Moses the Law by many centuries. This means the people had to rely on their own understanding when it came to right and wrong. After being a part of the mass confusion that took place at the ark this Sunday, it’s all too easy to understand how the world would descend into wickedness without formal instruction and leadership.

Thankfully, we were able to figure everything out soon enough, but the long line still loomed ahead of us. We waited in line on the blacktop parking lot for almost an hour before finally getting under the shade of the ticket booths, which itself had another hour full of lines. After purchasing our tickets, we finally found a cool respite from the Labor Day sun in an air-conditioned bus ride to the ark where we found, you guessed it, another line! By the time we got inside the ark I think my family was very tired. It was hot. The lines took roughly three hours to get through. We had already put ourselves through so much, and now we have three whole floors worth of ark to see. We were tired, sweaty, and slightly cranky.

Yet, as we entered the ark, God placed a question on my heart…

“What if I chose you and your family for the ark instead?”

Our difficulties pale in comparison to what Noah and his family went through. After all the hard physical labor of making the ark, they then had to live inside it while the storm raged outside. Now, it’s easy to make analogies to all types of trials using the story of Noah’s ark. If you grew up in church, I’m sure you’ve heard a sermon or two on how God will help you weather the storms in your life, whether it’s financial trouble, addiction, depression, or grief. All this is true, but I think God wanted me to look further still. God wanted me to see that He is not only here for us when we have personal, spiritual trouble. He is here all the time. He is here for us as terror attacks kill thousands. He is here for us as hunger and starvation continues to affect millions. He is here for us as human trafficking continues to make more slaves in the present day than there have ever been before.

The answer to the question God placed on my heart is bigger than I first thought it would be as I began to think on the possibilities. At first I thought, “Well, it would be hard for my dad to live with all the snakes and without all the diet Coke.” Furthermore, in addition to the difficulties of living on the ark, there is the terrible fact that everyone else would die. I can’t imagine all my extended family, my friends, my coworkers, my patients, my neighbors, everyone gone. This thought brought me to my answer...

God did choose me.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” John 20:21

God chose all of us. We are required to be a source of the Gospel to the whole world. We are the salt of the earth. If we don't share the truth, who will? If we don't share the Gospel of Jesus, then we let the world around us drown. We have received formal instructions from Jesus himself that we are to be ministers of the faith. It is our responsibility to spread the Gospel of Truth to the entire world. God didn't ask Noah to build the ark, He commanded Noah to do so. It was a direct order. We, too, are not given the option to refuse. Jesus doesn't say, "I hope you tell people about me." He demands that we do so.
We are much luckier than Noah in many ways. We are able to view the ark in cool, air-conditioned comfort while I'm sure he perspired in the humidity. We are able to walk along the ark with ease while I'm sure he constantly fought against the rocking of the ship to keep his balance. We can enjoy the sights and exhibits under plentiful lighting while he walked around by dim candlelight most of the days below deck. However, the biggest, most meaningful difference is that while Noah had to watch people drown in the flood waters, we have an unlimited supply of life-preservers to throw to anyone who is struggling in the storm.

The story of Noah's ark might seem so unique and miraculous when compared to the everyday life of our 21st century, but remember that we have been assigned a mission from God as well. Just like Noah, just like Jonah, just like Moses, David, Lot, Abraham, Paul, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, we have all been sent by God to do His work. We may not have to build an ark to bring our family safely into the new world, but we must carry everyone to Jesus Christ, the only one who can save them from the pain of sin.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Live for God

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. Luke 14:25-27

Salvation through the repentance of sin and the acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is the foundational cornerstone upon which every other tenant of the Christian faith is built. It's important that we do not underestimate the gravity of Christ’s words from Luke 14.  It can be all too easy to gloss over these words because we have heard them so many times before. Make no mistake, these words are not to be taken lightly. With these words Jesus calls for complete submission to the will of God. Across all four Gospels we find Jesus preaching this same message multiple times; repent, and give your life to me. Paul would later echo these words in his letters.

 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Galatians 2:20

Sadly, salvation is often treated as a means to an end. Our selfish human nature will seek to twist all things- even grace. It is easy to fall into a trap with thoughts of self- promotion, arrogance, or jealousy. In 1 Samuel 18 you can read about how King Saul becomes jealous of the anointing on David. Many of us are guilty of the very same sin when we become jealous of a fellow Christian’s gifts from God.  We might envy their gift of prophecy, or we might envy how God uses them as a vessel for healing power. We might even envy their leadership position within the church. However, this jealousy is a tool of the enemy to distract you with someone else’s gift so that you never discover the gifts God wants to give you.
Sometimes we put the cart before the horse. Which is to say we become so caught up in trying to be who we think we ought to be that we miss out on who God wants us to be. We can become so caught up in praying for miracles that we forget to pray for souls. God has called each and every one of us to give our lives to Him by accepting the salvation of Jesus Christ. Unless we sow the seeds of salvation we will not reap the fruits of the spirit.

Unless we sow the seeds of salvation we will not reap the fruits of the spirit.
Unless we sow the seeds of salvation we will not reap the fruits of the spirit.

I can’t say that enough. We are called to repent. We are called by the conviction of the Holy Spirit to confess our sins before God, accept the sacrifice of our Savior, and likewise sacrifice ourselves to God to live as servants to His will. There is nothing without the salvation of Jesus. The perfect sacrifice of Jesus is what makes us able to be in the presence of God. It’s what makes us able to be living temples of the Holy Spirit, and therefore bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Everything starts with the rejection of self, and the acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Savior. In Luke 14 Jesus does not try to make His Gospel easy to swallow.  He makes it very clear that you’re not welcome unless you’re willing to give up everything. God doesn’t offer a “try me for 30 days, money back if you’re not satisfied.” God doesn’t accept you coming with any demands or any preconceived notions about the type of spiritual fruit you’re willing to bear, or the type of ministry you're willing to perform. God says, “Come prepared to lose your life or don’t come.”

The Book of Job tells us about a successful man of God who was tried by Satan. In just a day Job lost all his children, all his servants, and all his livestock. As if this wasn't enough, Job was then cursed with a terrible illness. Rather than turn against God, who allowed all these terrible things to happen, Job humbled himself before God, and continuously reminded the people who watched him suffer that his life, his health, his birth, his death, wealth, family, mind, body, and spirit belongs to God. Job's response to all these trials is the most perfect example of Christian living in the Old Testament. Long before Christ’s words in Luke 14, Job lived the perfect example of what God has called all of us to do: to lay our lives down before Him, and submit to His will. After hearing the terrible news of the death of all his children, servants, and animals Job says,

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job 1:21

How many of us can say we have a faith like Job? How many of us serve God unconditionally? How many of us go to God with our only request being that he forgives our sins and guides us in His will for us? God is not looking for a compromise. God is not looking for followers who are only interested in signs, miracles, and opportunities for advancement. God wants us to give Him our entire lives. God wants us to praise Him when we are at our lowest point and our highest point because God is present in the lows and the highs!

If you live for God, then I have all the confidence in the world that the gifts will come when God wants you to have them. Do not worry about speaking in tongues, or healing the sick, or prophesying. These things will be given to you according to God’s plan for you. Understand that God is working all the time. He is working just as much when you become sick as He works when you are healed. God is working just as much when you’re taking the trash out as he does when you’re prophesying. All you have to do is live for God which means doing everything to the glory of God. If you do all things for God then God will work through all the things you do.

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters. Colossians 3:23

Monday, August 22, 2016

Starting Over...Again

But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins. Matthew 1:20-21

What a glorious sight it must have been to behold the first temple in Jerusalem. Generations upon generations fought, and died for their promised land. Many grew up hearing of God’s promise, but never saw it fulfilled. So what better way to honor the God who brought them through all that hardship than to build a temple in His name. It was conceived by David, who thought that God deserved more than the tent and tabernacle they had been using. God’s response was along the lines of a parent who receives some macaroni art from a child,

“Oh, thank you, David. I don’t remember asking for this, but thank you.”

God knew that David’s heart was in the right place, but, after all, God has all of heaven as a dwelling place. God didn’t let David build the temple because he already had other things planned for him, but said he would let his son and successor to the throne, Solomon, build it. So, it came to pass that the temple was completed sometime in the mid-10th century BC during the reign of Solomon as King of Israel. The splendor and glory of the temple was due to much more than its size, much more than its priceless materials, but was due to being a sign of God’s presence and providence.

Unfortunately, just 410 years later, the temple was destroyed by the Babylonians led by King Nebuchadnezzar II. He laid waste to not only the temple, but to the very walls surrounding Jerusalem. Many were killed during the siege, and others were taken into captivity. The Jews had to start all over.

The overwhelming majority of surviving literature from the earliest centuries are autobiographies from the Kings, Pharaohs, and other rulers of the time. The rest come from historians, sometimes called chroniclers, and prophets like Moses, Samuel, and others. The Bible, as you may have realized, is mostly written by God’s prophets. However, there are a few examples that do not follow this formula. One such example is the Book of Nehemiah. In it we find a new kind of story not just unlike any other in the Bible, but unlike any other writing of the time. Nehemiah’s lack of noble birth, his relationship with God, and his complete faithfulness in God’s promises makes his story more relatable to the times in which we live today than any other book of the Bible.

Nehemiah is not called by hearing God’s voice like the prophets. Nehemiah is not moved into action by an encounter with an angel. He doesn’t see a vision, dream a dream, or interpret a sign. The single most important thing that sets his story apart from all others in the Bible is that Nehemiah takes it upon himself to rebuild the broken walls of Jerusalem. He has no noble birth which obligates him to this task, and completely lacks any divine decree or appointment. While serving as a cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes I of Persia Nehemiah hears of the destruction of Jerusalem, and is so affected by the news that he breaks down into tears. He then begins a period of fasting and prayer to ask God for forgiveness and grace. Nehemiah shows complete faithfulness to God in his prayer:

Remember, I pray, the word that You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations; but if you return to Me, and keep My commandments and do them, though some of you were cast out to the farthest part of the heavens, yet I will gather them from there, and bring them to the place which I have chosen as a dwelling for My name.' Now these are Your servants and Your people, whom You have redeemed by Your great power, and by Your strong hand. O Lord, I pray, please let Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant, and to the prayer of Your servants who desire to fear Your name; and let Your servant prosper this day, I pray, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. Nehemiah 1:8-11

Now, I don’t know about you, but God has never spoke to me through a burning bush. Nor have I ever met an angel. Nehemiah never experiences these things either, but still has such faith in God that he doesn't hesitate to begin the monumental task of rebuilding Jerusalem. His faith is exactly the kind that is often asked of us in this age, for Jesus said,

“Blessed are those who have not seen, but still believe.” John 20:29

Nehemiah petitions his King for resources, he collects supplies, and organizes labor. He fights the opposition from the enemies which surround Jerusalem on every side. He even combats opposition from other Jews inside Jerusalem, but completes his task of rebuilding the walls. Nehemiah may have never experienced the divine, but look at all he accomplished for God.

However, the second temple would be destroyed just 420 years later in 70 AD by the Roman occupation. Jewish historian Josephus had this to say about the destruction of Jerusalem,

Caesar gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city and Temple, and the wall which enclosed the city on the west side. Part of the wall was spared, in order to afford a camp for those who were to lie in garrison in the Upper City, as were the towers also spared, in order to demonstrate to posterity what kind of city it was, and how well fortified, which the Roman valor had subdued; but as for all the rest of the wall surrounding Jerusalem, it was so thoroughly destroyed that there was nothing left to make those that came to Jerusalem believe it had ever been inhabited. -Josephus, The Wars of the Jews

All their hard work was undone.

However, we, being redeemed people, know that the presence of God no longer resides in a temple, tabernacle, or ark, but occupies His people. The entire life of Jesus Christ is proof that God is always willing to help us begin again. Christ himself did not come as a fully grown man, but started his life from scratch. God came as a child just as Isaiah prophesied,

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6

Not long after our creation we messed things up, but God helped us begin again by sending His son Jesus to make us new. Even today, Jesus lives so that any who come to God can begin a new life free from addiction, sin, anxiety, and despair. Sometimes, God is completely silent when we ask for a miracle. Perhaps in those times God is saying, “Just like Nehemiah, you don’t need a miracle, you just need to start over.” Often we pray for a miracle, but what we really need is to simply try again. Never be afraid to start all over. Grace only happens when we feel the conviction to start over. God said you deserve a fresh start. Who are you to disagree?

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Living Water

On the last and most important day of the festival, Jesus stood up and cried out, "If anyone is thirsty, he should come to Me and drink! John 7:37

The story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt is likely familiar to everyone whether or not they were raised in a church. The Israelites were suffering under the rule of the Egyptians, and Moses, being chosen by God to lead the Israelites, formally requests their freedom with those famous words, “Let my people go.”

When this bureaucratic approach doesn’t work, God brings plagues upon the land, being careful to instruct the Israelites on how to protect themselves from this wrath. These plagues eventually convince the Pharaoh to let Moses and his people go; a decision that is quickly reversed by the leadership in Egypt. The Egyptians chase the Israelites to the Red Sea, which is parted for the people of God who pass through unharmed. The Red Sea then destroys the Egyptian army when it closes upon them. These miracles which ensured the deliverance of the Israelites provided some of the first proof to the Israelites that God will protect them and provide for them.

It was not long after their liberation from Egypt that the Israelites begin to fall into that all-too-easy human behavior; complaining. It only takes one chapter for the people to become agitated at their discomfort. At the beginning of Exodus 15 we read a song of praise for the God that delivered them. The chapter begins, “I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him."

The beginning of Exodus 16 is a stark contrast to the praises of the previous chapter. The Word tells us “on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt.  In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”

God has provided for them, and met their every need. However, they are unsatisfied. Not even two months in they are already sick of the food, and ready to go back to Egypt. God sometimes gets an undeserved bad reputation; especially when people read the Old Testament. “The Old Testament God” I’ve heard people call him. They characterize him as vengeful, wrathful, and furious. However, I think God proves them all wrong in this chapter. Rather than curse the Israelites for their ungratefulness; rather than destroy them for their unfaithfulness; God listens to them, and sends manna and quail to feed his people.

In the next chapter we read that they traveled, but couldn’t find water. What do they do? They aggravate Moses like a van full of kids aggravates their father on a road trip. I can almost see it now…


“What? What? What could you possibly want now?"

“Well, we are thirsty, Moses.”

“I’ll turn this Exodus around if you all don’t stop complaining!”

Again, we see that God meets their needs. He doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t curse them. He doesn’t say, “Keep going another hundred miles, and I will put water there." God meets them where they are. His children are thirsty, so he gives them water. He instructs Moses to strike a rock with his staff, and outpours the running water. Not just a pool of stagnant water, but a fresh spring of running, living water.

If you’re wondering why I would start with a verse from the Gospel and immediately begin a long explanation of the Exodus in the desert, it’s because I said all that to explain and give weight to what Jesus is saying in that verse. The festival they are celebrating at this time is called the Feast of the Tabernacle. It was a joyous celebration of the days when God’s people roamed the desert while God miraculously met their every need. Think of how you feel after working all day in the hot sun, and you get that first ice-cold drink. This very moment in their history is what they are celebrating years later in the time of Jesus.

Tradition says that every day during the festival a Jewish priest would go to the wells of salvation, from the spring of Gihon, the same water used to anoint Solomon as king of Israel, and would draw a jug full of water. The people would follow the priest like a parade. They would sing and dance behind the priest all the way through town on their way back to the temple. Once there, the priest would pour the water on the altar; reminiscent of the day when God caused water to spring out of the rock in the desert. On the last and most important day of the festival, Jesus shows up, and decides to steal the show by saying, “If anyone is thirsty, he should come to Me and drink!”

Jesus makes a bold, unmistakable proclamation here. He is saying, “I have something greater. I have something greater than water. I have something greater than a festival. I have something that will sustain you better than your parade, better than your traditions, and better than your history.”  We, being redeemed people, know that Jesus did not have water for our cups, but the Holy Spirit for our bodies. After Jesus died, was resurrected, and ascended into Heaven the Holy Spirit poured out onto those with faith in God’s Son, and continues to do so to this very day.

This being said, it’s still human nature to complain. Just like the Israelites in Exodus, we all love to feel sorry for ourselves. We all love to amplify our sufferings, and downplay our blessings. Sometimes it may feel like you are going through a desert. Sometimes it may even feel like God has abandoned you. Sometimes it feels like God is never going to help. In those times I urge you to pray, and remember that the Spirit of God is always with you to provide for you wherever you are.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Peace of God

Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were locked where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” John 20:19

Our lives and our times are a heavy burden to carry. It is easy to become overwhelmed with concern when so many terrible things are happening to everyone every day; disease, terrorism, famine. The list is too long to continue. Life has almost always been this way. In the story of life on Earth, we know the separation of man from the presence of God and the entrance of sin into the world begins a long history full of suffering.

Not long after this separation, God starts to inspire a hope for reconciliation and peace between us, the created order, and Him, the Creator. When the Old Testament prophets spoke about this peace they most commonly used that famous Hebrew word- Shalom. Shalom means much more than peace. It means wholeness, harmony, completeness, and tranquillity. This peace is perfectly described in Isaiah 65 where God speaks about a "new heavens and a new earth" where "the wolf and the lamb shall feed together." We see this poetry from Isaiah portrayed in paintings, movies, and coloring books. It inspires in us a feeling of peace and comfort that can only come from the final fulfillment of God's plan where we all share in the glory of all creation being made new.

This very same dream, this longed-for peace was deep in the heart of every Jewish child, and it was in the hearts of the disciples that day when they gathered together after the death of Christ. I'm sure they were told a thousand and more times as they grew up that one day a Messiah would come who would restore the kingdom of God and bring about that everlasting peace so desired by everyone. Yet, here they are, the man they thought was the Messiah has been killed, and they meet behind locked doors out of fear that the very same fate of crucifixion awaits all of them for being a part of the heretical ministry of Jesus. Everything they thought they knew for sure had just been ripped away. They thought they had found the Christ, the anointed One, the King, but could only watch hopelessly while he suffered a horrible death then meet days later to try and decide how they will make it out of the city alive. Instead of the redemption, reconciliation, and peace they were so sure had finally arrived, they find panic and despair.

Then, Jesus appears to them at their most desperate moment, and simply says, "Peace be with you."

I have to say, these are my favorite words of the whole Bible because it's here that everything truly sinks in for the disciples. They thought they were lost, but then their shepherd appears. Christ's words at this moment say much more than simply, "don't be afraid of the persecution you're currently under." With just these four words Jesus says, "You don't have to fear your death. You don't have to fear anything. The kingdom of God is here. I am the Christ. I have fulfilled the law, and I welcome you into the presence of God. Just as Adam and Eve once walked with God so many years ago, so now will you walk with God. The time of separation is over, and you will now know God's grace and His peace."

Then, Jesus breathed on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. They became the living temples of God's presence, just like Paul would later talk about in his letters. Because Jesus had made the perfect, sufficient sacrifice, God's presence could now be with every human. Because Jesus died on the cross for our sins and was resurrected we, being redeemed people, could now be welcomed back into communion with God. Much more than a tabernacle inside a tent, more than a temple carved from stone, even more than the Son of God walking and talking with people during his ministry, God's Holy Spirit could now be with everyone everywhere to the ends of the Earth. Hallelujah.

We are redeemed people. We are invited to take part in the peace of God. We are invited to find solace in the fact that there is nothing more we can do to appeal to our God. Jesus has made the perfect sacrifice. It is faith in Him that washes our sins away, and brings everlasting peace by the presence of the Holy Spirit. The disciples left with peace, and kept that peace until their dying days. What was once despair and fear of their death was turned into peace that gave them the confidence to be martyrs for their faith. The disciples found that peace from Christ, and you are welcome to it, as well. You need only to ask God, who gives freely to all.

Peace be with you.