Rule in Our Hearts Alone

“In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  – John 1.1-5 TNIV

The Word came to challenge the darkness! All of John’s Gospel points to this one statement: The Word became flesh and dwelled among us. And, the Gospel reframes the meaning of God bringing life and light every step along his journey. He exposed the darkness by his very presence among the people. Yet, the populace rejected him. We have much to learn about Christianity if we fail to understand the way in which God brings his presence into our hearts. The Word reaches into the dark places of the soul and shines a light, and brings life.

This is the greatest drama! When we open up the bible we have every opportunity for God to become flesh and dwell within us and among us. I love how Mark’s Gospel boldly puts this concept of the Word becoming flesh, “The time has come,” he said. “The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1.14-15). The coming of the Kingdom begins with the first step: repentance. Repentance comes by way of humility – humbling ourselves and allowing the Word to dwell within us. In the beginning when God spoke, all of creation was formed. God spoke into the darkness then light and life were formed. When God speaks, things are created. To be sure we are created in his image. When we speak, things are created as well. God’s words were pure love. Our words are tainted with broken understandings, big assumptions, and false realities that we design by our own imaginations. God’s Word will stand forever, but our words are temporal.

The Word became flesh and dwelled among us as a catalyst for conflicts, complaining, and complications. “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace on this earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matthew 10.34). When our worldview is challenged by the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, then conflict, complaining, and complications are surely part of the dialogue. We are living in a season of explosive growth in sharing our ideas with the use of the internet. Human words travel through the internet faster than ever before. We can see how society is immediately impacted with the speed of our conversations. Our traveling words have grown from foot delivery, to horseback, to steam engines, to motorized vehicles, to airplanes, and now the world-wide web.  In a very real sense our human words have become flesh and are dwelling among us. Our words do become flesh and dwell among us. So we must be very careful with how we share our words and ideas. We are responsible for every word we speak and share.

The Word requires us to be self-disciplined in the area of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation. There is much fear when it comes to actually listening to one another. We shut each other down, and distance ourselves for fear of being exposed and experiencing self-mortification. When we really love in humility, we don’t hide our sins and failings or run away when a little discomfort invades our space. How can we know that we can deeply love one another if we cannot stand in the face of our own mortality, and extend a willing hand to a brother or sister in moral crisis? How can we deeply love one another if we fail to share our deepest hurts, longings, and failings?

Healing happens in the presence of a confessional community. The Word calls us from our thought-life about Jesus into an actualized reality of living as the Word made flesh within us. We are called to live an Incarnational life as part of the corporate body of Christ on this earth. We are to live as confessional, relational, and forgiving people. When the Word becomes flesh and dwells within us a new integration happens between our head, our hearts, and our hands. The Spirit dwells within us even stronger. There is a counterfeit word that is shaping our lives. Most often it is pride, fear, and our own self-importance that keep us from realizing our potential. When the Word manifests his love within us, it will always dispel the darkness.

Almighty God, You are the healer of our minds. You are the Word made flesh and dwelt among us. Through the season of Advent may our hearts be patient in waiting for Your appearance in our lives. May we discover the hope, love, joy and peace you offer in our minds so that our hearts, hands, and habits reflect your holiness. Amen.

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Christmas Hope

Isaiah 64.1-9 

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” – Proverbs 13.12

As we look around us, real hope is a very illusive concept. We find ourselves hoping in the weather, a victory of a sports game, or a bonus or raise at work. Things we can’t control are a constant source of worry for us. When we watch the news, we hear the stories of hopelessness that our culture will never improve to the place of utopia. Why can’t people just get along? Even the church as a community finds itself bickering over culturally hot topics and business management styles. Hope becomes a commodity sold through advertising and entertainment.

We find ourselves trying to manufacture and sale hope as if it is something that can be humanly produced. I find myself saying, We can only hope for the best outcome. As if God’s hand is not already at work in my circumstances. As the church, we often find ourselves resorting to hoping in heaven. When we can’t understand God’s involvement in our situation – or lack thereof, we look for a better day when we all die and go to heaven. But real hope comes to us in the form of a man: Jesus. In Jesus we have all the hope we need for each situation and each trouble that comes our way.

Our culture defines hope in many ways as mind of matter. Hope is defined in Merriam-Webster as aspiration,  desire,  wish,  expectation,  ambition, aim, goal, plan, design; dream, daydream, pipe dream. Hopefulness, optimism, expectancy, confidence, faith, trust, belief,

conviction, assurance, promise, possibility, chance,  prospect,  likelihood,  probability,  possibility or  longshot, expect, anticipate, look for, be hopeful of, pin one’s hopes on, want, wish for, long for, dream of, aim, intend, be looking, have the intention, have in mind, plan, aspire. The opposite of hope is pessimism.

However, when we look at the biblical definition in the Scriptures, it is easy to see that hope can be found only in our relationship with God. Hope cannot be manufactured or created by human hands. Hope begins with a choice to belief in God’s only Son Jesus Christ. Through him we have the hope that our lives will forever be changed to reflect God’s will for us. Our hope is in Jesus – his birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension to his throne in heaven, his reign as King, and the new heaven and earth that will surely come. Our hope is Jesus.

When we review the writings from Isaiah the Prophet, we can quickly ascertain that he seeks to keep God’s promise alive among his people. The community was standing on the edge of losing its spiritual identity as the people of God, not to mention a nation. The situation was created both by the people choosing to disconnect from God and God choosing to distance himself from the people. The relationship has been broken, hearts have become hopeless.

The people are crying out to God for mercy, but God has chosen to remain silent. Isaiah now offers himself as a mediator, a go between God and his people. The prophet seeks to honor God and support the recovery of the people’s peace. Isaiah unites his voice with the people in their sin, then seats himself as their proxy through the confession of corporate sin. Collectively, the community is guilty by association with one another. God has disconnected himself, and Isaiah is urging God to break the stalemate with all the love and passion of a true prophet. Isaiah anticipates creating a weather front of change. He creates a low-pressure system by confession, and anticipates the high-pressure system of God’s mercy to swoop down and restore the people to true hope.

Isaiah’s next strategy to charm God is by reminding God of all his wonderful deeds that he has performed for his people, and reminding the people of who God is. God has shown much hesed loving kindness to his people so Isaiah is intent on reminding God that he has provided on more than one occasion. Isaiah called the people to remember God’s provision and protection. Isaiah reminded them that obedience to God’s will and confession of sins have always been the keys to restoration and God’s breaking his silence. It is easy to hear Isaiah’s passion and love for God and his people in these writings. His heart is to take both God and the people and put them in the same room together, inviting them into a dialogue.

It is often hard for us to remember things. We are a forgetful people. Pain in our hearts lead us to forgetfulness. Even when we remember, we all remember differently. Every person here will go home with a completely different memory and recollection of today’s events. The pains, worries, and troubles in our hearts will cause us to forget. By next week you might have forgotten everything but the fact that you sat in your seat, and an emotion will anchor that memory in your memory. The tricky thing about memories is they can be easily distorted by our feelings. Pain in our lives can overwhelm our hope in God causing us to disconnect. Isolation in our pain often reflects a similar relationship with God. Having recently experienced a brain injury where I misplaced my memories, the painful memories of the accident were the ones to surface first, followed by emotionally painful memories from my childhood. Happy and loving memories came back but the emotional painful ones certainly outweighed the good ones.

Isaiah’s next strategy is to address God’s silence in the situation. There are times we may feel disconnected from God, but unsure of how to open that dialogue again. To Isaiah the road to God is always paved with repentance. If the road to God’s silence is broken with confession of sin and obedience to God’s will, what do we need to repent? In this passage, the writer is pointing to the grieving of the spirit through rebellion. When we rebel against God, God becomes our enemy. God will fight against us when we are at odds with his Spirit. When we rebel, our hearts become hard and calloused. Indifference toward God is often met with God’s jealousy. Being redirected by God may cause us to recoil in our friendship toward him and the church. We may fall into a pattern of spiritual self-reliability and spiritual self-resourcefulness that leads us to spiritual smugness.

As Christians we know in our hearts that we are not self-made people. Yet, there are times when we are pleased by our self-achievement. We may not realize that when we move away from God, we question his character and his nature. We question who we worship. We find ourselves lamenting in spiritual pain wondering, doubting, and worrying about life and how we are going to live it!

Next, Isaiah pleads with God to become a divine warrior to right the relationship, appealing to God’s honor and sole sovereignty of life itself. But Isaiah knows that God is only one part of the deal, the people have to fulfill their part of the bargain. Our re-entry point in our relationship with God is always repentance. We must cut through our divisions, differences, and offenses to find God’s will. Ultimately, when we have been chastised by God we can only wait upon God’s mercy. The prophet stands in the middle and cries “uncle.” Even so God may choose to remain silent and unyielding in the relationship, which offers us time to assess his personhood, character, and nature. As we ponder God vision of the future will come. The vision of the people will return, and human hopelessness subsides to form a fresh perspective.

Hope has sustained God’s people during the darkest seasons of God’s seeming silence throughout history. Confessing God’s name and trust in that name all the while experiencing suffering and feelings of abandonment will shape our hearts and fill us with hope. For we are the clay the work of his hands, and God is the potter of our souls. We are vessels being formed in the image of God, shaped by seasons of hope.

Hope seems to be a commodity sold on the shelves of stores and across the internet each and every Christmas. As I have pondered for myself have I lost real hope and become a victim of temporal hopes of our culture that will lead me down the wrong path away from God. Does God seem distant and uninvolved? The greatest challenge for faithful folks like us who come to church every Sunday is to assess our relationship with God. Doing a relationship inventory to discover if there are places in our lives that disappointments remain as barriers to a closer walk with Jesus. We lay those challenges in our lives at Jesus feet today.

Having worked as a chaplain in a hospital, I could share hundreds of stories about how families hoped in medicine, hoped in time, hoped in doctors. But in the end when nothing worked to save their loved one, they were left empty handed with false hopes. Some would come to Jesus, but others would remain in spiritual pain, hopelessness, and soul suffering when they discovered that all the human interventions in the world couldn’t change the outcome. Our hope in Jesus can be tremendously challenged in the face of medical problems and financial troubles. But Jesus understands our sorrows.

Jesus knows what it means to experience sorrow. Isaiah refers to the Messiah as the Man of Sorrows, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Is. 53.3 ESV). Hope was met with spiritual pain of broken relationships, hopeless situations, and the need for forgiveness. Hope often asks the question: what does this mean? Hope leads us to the place of reconciliation with God, self and neighbor. It leads us to call on the name of the Lord, crying out for God’s help in the midst of our suffering. Ultimately, we know that hope is a person: Jesus.

Almighty God, we give thanks for your Son, Jesus, you alone are our hope. We lay down our false hopes in humankind, and choose to put you as the hope we seek in all things. We don’t hope in heaven, we hope in Jesus who has provided the way for us to live Eternal Life the moment we accept him as our Savior. Amen.

Every Longing Heart

“And Mary said, ‘My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant, from now on all generations will call me blessed….’” – Luke 1.45-48

Hope give us holy character. Hope causes us to stand in the middle of this messy world and to see the vision of the future. Hope sees beyond the now to something better. Hope forms us, shapes us, creates us, delivers us from our troubles. Hope does not disappoint us. It does not leave us in the mess, but calls us from our troubles into the future promises of God. Hope influences how we understand our circumstances and our pain. Hope challenges us to live into the holy mystery of God, the Incarnate Babe and the Suffering Servant. Hope calls us to live in humility.

Humility opens us up to understanding our collective brokenness. I often joke with my kids that science is like the weather, if you live long enough the “scientific truth” will change. At one point in history we believed that the world was flat, yet we are still discovering God’s created order. Science would be hard pressed to explain our Christian beliefs in a virgin birth. It’s easy for us to reason our way through circumstances but some details will always elude us. We will draw conclusions that are just fabricated by our own suspicious minds. Suspicious minds are a great way of describing the religious leaders in the New Testament. They were suspicious about Jesus in every way.

Humility calls us to not take sides, but to look beyond our own preferences. We like to believe that there is only one right and one wrong way of looking at a situation. There can only be one possible answer to the problem, only one viewpoint. But wisdom proves us all wrong, because outside of being God we are never going to have the complete picture of reality. It a scary thing to become the Savior of a people, but we can fall into that role very easily. The church only requires one Savior, and we are not.

Humility is the place we arrive at when we admit our shortfalls. Humility is not a place of abhorring ourselves, but of loving ourselves more. Humility is the place of discovery where heaven meets this earthen vessel, and God becomes more inside of me, and I become less. Christmas is about becoming less, not more. Humility is the pathway to finding the love of God that desires to dwell within us. The call toward right relationship with God becomes more important than the urge to be in wrong relationship with people.

Humility calls us to become accountable to one another, supporting one another in our weaknesses. Confession becomes a mysterious way of the cross that brings us into deeper maturity. Incarnational living happens when two or three are gathered in God’s name and offer their faults, sufferings, pain, and death to one another in intimate fellowship. Love calls us to continually live in humility where we understand the struggles we face and acknowledge our weaknesses. This act of confession is not a downer, but divine grace. It is not depression. It is not self-abasement. It is not dryness. It is the call of the disciple to take up the cross and follow humbly relying on God as Savior and Lord.

Hope reorients our lives to be holy. The season of Advent reorients our cultural understanding of the Gospel. Traditionally, the texts we read during the Advent Season are preparatory in nature – only prophetic texts from the Old Testament and second coming texts from the New Testament about the Messiah. Traditionally, the Christmas stories are told on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day proper. It is really difficult for us to imagine how we might live counter-culture to our popular view of Christmas. Just for a moment imagine with me that you and I might have the opportunity to experience Christmas afresh – with new eyes and ears this year. How might we together rethink Christmas? Hope calls us into anticipation of the coming Savior. Patience is the characteristic of hope. Hope comes in the waiting, waiting for God to intervene and rescue us from our condition our sorrow, grief, loneliness. Hope does not disappoint us. Our hope is a person: Jesus. And that makes our hearts sing with hope!

Almighty God, fill our hearts full of hope, love, joy and peace! Enable us to live in humility surrendering to your work within us. Strengthen us to be your pure and holy Bride. May we whole-heartedly wait for you to rescue us from our troubles. Amen.

Christ the King, Our Good Shepherd

Psalm 23, Ezekiel 34, Matthew 25, John 10, Ephesians 1-2

We have been on a journey of recounting the life stories of characters in the bible. We have studied the first family, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Joshua. Now we have arrived to the character of Christ the King, Our Good Shepherd. As we reflect on Jesus’ lifestory we are pursuing an understanding specifically of his role as King of a Kingdom, the Good Shepherd of his people. Since it’s Christ the King Sunday we might ask ourselves, Who is this King we seek? Who is this Shepherd of people? Let’s dig deeper.

In the beginning when we think about the history of Christ Jesus, we must begin at the beginning! In the beginning of all time and space, God had a plan. The beauty of creation was marred by humanities need for independence from the Creator. Creation was given the ability to choose. A great gift bestowed upon humanity with a great responsibility! The gift of choice was exampled by Eve and Adam then Cain. With each opportunity to make a decision comes the equal opportunity to make a mistake. It is so disheartening when we come to realize that life is full of decisions with just as many opportunities to make mistakes.

I can only imagine what life was like in the early stages of development when Eve and Adam became aware of the consequences of their choices and decisions. Adam was given a lot of practice early on by naming the animals. So many decisions. So many choices. Then Eve steps into the picture. She has not been trained yet in her decision-making process. Her first opportunity to make a godly decision was met with evil opposition. The evil one brought temptation into the garden, and good decision-making became a difficult challenge ever since. Eve and Adam gave way to bad decision-making, yet, God would rescue them from their choices.

Later Eve will give birth to two sons who find themselves in a competitive relationship that would lead to jealousy. Cain would bring a meager gift for God, while Abel would bring his best gift. Cain will make a dastardly (chicken-hearted) decision to take his brother’s life into his own hands, and Abel’s blood would be spilled. Cain made a life altering decision by his own hands. There can be great suffering when we make poor choices, and even greater suffering when we make dastardly (spineless) decisions. From the very beginning of time and space God knew we would need a shepherd to search us out when we make a dastardly (cowardly) decision, to seek for us when we are lost, to rescue us from the choices of our own making, and to gather us from the lands from which we have been banished.

Old prophecies have been spoke about this Good Shepherd who would come to the people and rescue them. From the outset of creation history came the promise of restoration and our need for a good shepherd. God loved us so much that in our very DNA is the opportunity to make both good and poor choices. We have the opportunity to choose life or take matters into our own hands. When ancient peoples looked for God, they found a God who would rescue them from their own poor choices and make a way when there seemed to be no way. And, God promised them that one day there would come a shepherd who would make it easier to make good choices. Noah hoped for a better day when better choices would become a new lifestyle (No wonder he was so disturbed by his sons’ behavior).

Abraham looked for a day when the shepherd would bring a new way of living that would rescue the people from sin and death. We could go on down the lineage of Israel’s leaders and hear the many hopes and dreams for a shepherd who would rescue them from their poor decisions. Poor choices lead us down pathways that separate us from God. Sometimes we go willingly, and other times we regret our decision the moment it is conceived. There are times in our lives when we have made those poor choices and dastardly deeds, then we wonder if we will ever recover from the mess we’ve made of our lives. Sometimes we are thrown into those places by poor choices of others, and we have reaped the consequences of our family members’, friends’, and colleagues’ poor decisions.

Jesus entered into time and space by the act of the Incarnation. He fulfilled all of the Law of the Covenant through circumcision on the 8th day, and traveled to Jerusalem with his family on pilgrimage to the holy city where he sat in the temple courts discussing theology. There came a day when God the Father did indeed send his only Son into the world to become one of us. One who is given the opportunity to make both good and poor choices. He would grow up to fulfill the Covenant Law, and be obedient to the requirements of the code of conduct set down by God the Father Almighty. He made good decisions. Ah! But there was that one time when he scared his parents by going missing! When he had the chance to make excuses for himself or accuse his parents, he simply replied, Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house. And, he continued to revere and honor his parents throughout the days of his life until the moment he died. He thought of his mother’s well-being even with his last breath.

Jesus emerged on the scene in Israel following the will of his Father through the act of personal baptism for the repentance of sin and a three-year ministry culminating in his passion, death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. Jesus would be submissive to John the Baptist’s preaching and teaching on the Kingdom of God by laying down his life to be baptized with water, a symbol of repentance, even when he remained his whole life without sin (Mk 1). Jesus got angry and cleaned out the Temple Courts, yet he did not sin. Jesus was frustrated with the religious people, Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Scribes, but did not sin. Jesus critiqued the ill-intensions of the mind when he called out the lust in a person’s heart is the beginning of sin not the actual act itself. Stop. Drop. Roll. When Jesus faced opposition in his own hometown by being threatened with his own death by stoning, he stopped what he was doing. He dropped out of the way, and he rolled out of town in a hurry. Rather than making poor choices, Jesus was able to self-regulate his behavior. He stopped, dropped, and rolled to safety.

Jesus was faced with accusations, beatings, suffering, crucifixion, and death. Yet he took the pain and wounds upon himself without resorting to bad decision-making. He did not kill, maim, hurt or injure a living being but remained faithful to the Law of the Covenant. Heart. Head. Hands. Habits. His heart was in the right place. His head was screwed on right. His hands were kept in check. He self-regulated his habits and monitored his behavior for holiness. All the bad decision-making in the world can’t take away God’s design for us to be restored to perfect health and wholeness. Restoration is the very reason why God came to live among us. God rescues us from ourselves. When we finally figure out that God’s design all along has been to rescue us from the danger we impose on ourselves from the choices we make, then we discover the truth about who God is. All our shameful deeds can’t hold a candle to the love found in our rescuing shepherd Jesus Christ.

Jesus’ death gave birth to new life in a resurrected body that would be the first from all humanity to overcome poor decision-making to set us right with the Father. To be sure Jesus would visit his disciples and awaken them to new possibilities of redemption from wrongheadedness (bad judgment, naive).

During my recent accident in Serbia, I had a picture flash before in my mind during the fall. I had a vision of an angel putting a pillow on the ground where my head would hit the concrete and a coffin that would hold my body. In that moment I believed that I was going to die. I talked to God about everything in the split second it took to hit the ground. I remember asking God to help me figure a way out of my situation so I wouldn’t die, and I heard the words stop, drop, and roll! You can just imagine my confusion as those are the instructions to escape from fire not instruction for falling. But I did just that – I pulled myself upright to reposition my body for the fall, I attempted to drop more vertical than horizontal, and I rolled to the left to help ease the momentum and force of my fall. God spoke to me some months later that when we find ourselves in trouble we must stop what we are doing, drop to our knees in prayer, and roll out of harm’s way. Sometimes trouble is thrust upon us by others, or the result of unforeseen circumstances. It is in the times that we struggle most with being wounded and weak that we need a good shepherd to strengthen and encourage us.

The Ascension of Jesus to heavenly places, the unseen reality just beyond our senses, is the key to our Good Shepherd’s empowerment to aid us in our victory over sin and death. Jesus has been seated in a place of authority and power. Ephesians helps us to discern the fullness of God’s power fulfilled in Jesus Christ (Eph. 1-2). Jesus has been raised from death, and he is seated in power at the right hand of God. Jesus is far above all other rule, authority, power including angels, and any other power that might become created in the future. God has put everything under Christ’s Lordship on earth and in the Church. Jesus died and now lives eternally to reign the Kingdom of God. Jesus became the One who would rise to power over the choices of the nations and her peoples. He now lives in heavenly places to watch over the flock of God’s people. Jesus became the Shepherd of his Sheep with a vision of hope, love, joy, and peace.

We celebrate the Ascension of Jesus as he is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty in heavenly places, governing and judging the decisions of the people of this earth. Because Jesus rules with all dominion, power, and authority, we can come to Jesus when we have made mistakes and receive mercy, forgiveness, and grace for our poor choices. Our poor choices can be blotted out and erased, washed away forever by God’s unending love. We only have to choose!

Choosing good is a full-time job. We each are faced with a million and one decisions daily. Most of those decisions are so rote that we manage our lives without much of a thought or care. But several times during the day we are faced with major decisions that can redirect our lives. How we dress, how we eat, how we drive, and whether we wash our hands can have a lasting impact on our health and well-being. There is a technique used among the sociologists, psychologists, counselors, and pastoral leaders called Cognitive Behavior Therapy to promote better decision-making among people. But we as Christians know that all the boot strap mentality won’t get you anywhere without a little help from Jesus.

Jesus is ruling in all power and authority in unseen places so that we can get a victory over ourselves. Jesus illustrated this point with the Apostle Paul! Don’t miss this transformational moment when Paul is knocked off his feet and forced to face how his decisions had shaped who he had become. What a horrible reality to wake up to… destroying the very people that you were meant to love. Paul lives in the wilderness for three years before he could regain his right mind –the mind of Christ, yet even then the leaders of the church were hesitant to let this man back into any sort of decision-making ability.

Jesus invites us into thinking rightly. Take an inventory of Peter’s life choices. When we witness Peter’s choices at Jesus’ death, we discover he just couldn’t help himself but deny who he was and who Jesus was. In short, he lied repeatedly about his relationship with Jesus (God). Wow! Those are some pretty bad decisions and poor choices of words. Can I get an amen!? Yet, when Jesus spends time visiting with the disciples after the resurrection, we can witness Jesus inviting Peter to correct his poor choices on the beach over a meal of fresh grilled fish. For every time Peter made the choice by saying I don’t know the man, Peter was invited to affirm his love for Jesus by replying Yes, I love you, Lord. Jesus’ hospitality toward Peter is to invite and provide hospitality – even a meal. Peter has only to say Yes! Restoration from poor decision-making begins with a Yes!

Spirit of Jesus has been sent to the Church for our strengthening and nourishment. The gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, is the solution to our decision-making drama. From the very beginning of time humanity struggled with good decision-making. Jesus has sent his own spirit to live within every believer to help us in our struggles. The Spirit of Jesus has been given to us to provide a way for each one of us to find a way out of our predicaments. The Holy Spirit empowers us to confess, repent, turn, and go a different direction in our lives.

Jesus reigns over both the seen and unseen realities we live in. His Kingdom is in full session as he trumps over his enemies, and rides victoriously to the consummation of the new heaven and the new earth. It seems to me that when we think about Jesus in these days, we tend to take away his vibrant authority and his dynamic power to change our decision-making process. We minimize his role. We live our lives as though Jesus is impotent, and we are powerless to change. The simple response to our condition is to surrender. Bow the Knee. Recognizing that Jesus is our King gives us victory over ourselves. As we gain victory over ourselves, we win the war between the choices of good and evil. The Kingdom of God is bound by the war between good and evil choices that we may have victory over if we are willing. We can experience a landslide victory over poor choices and reprehensible deeds if we will honor the authority of Jesus. Submitting to the good that is available for us in Jesus Christ is the key to new life.

John Wesley required of his disciples that they do good and do no harm as well as to following the ordinances of prayer, scripture, worship, communion, and fasting. These are the core values of the faith we live. Yet we cannot live this faith without the One who makes us faithful. It is the longing of every heart to find hope, love, joy, and peace in life. Every heart knows the challenges of living in this world as we each have made our share of poor choices. The good news is that Jesus is our good shepherd. He is our leader, the One who can deliver us from the harm that we do to ourselves.

Ezekiel explains this situation to us in our text today. Bad decisions are part of our selfish DNA, but that is not what God intends for his people. Ezekiel clearly points out that self-centeredness destroys the nation and her people. Leaders who care only for themselves ruin communities by satisfying their own desires and thus destroying the fabric of the community. Scripture calls these leaders “false prophets” but we don’t use that language anymore. What we can glean every clearly from the text is that the selfish leader of the community will create suffering for the people. They feed and clothe themselves. They do not feed the flock. They run when trouble comes. They think only of themselves. Scripture uses the language of “good shepherd” but we really don’t use that phrase anymore either. However, we can glean from the text that the good shepherd is out searching and seeking, protecting and leading, binding and caring, strengthening and feeding the flock.

Just because the sheep have experienced a “bad leader” doesn’t mean they can be “let off the hook” so to speak. God expects the sheep to continue to be good and do good even when their role model for leadership is corrupted by poor decision-making. In this passage even the “false sheep” who live selfishly will be called to account and judged by the good shepherd. Enriching only one’s self at the expense of other sheep weakens the community.

The good shepherd will seek out to aid and rescue the sheep who are sickly, diseased, broken, scattered, and lost. Our good shepherd will lead us by still waters, refresh our souls, and ensure that we lack nothing (Ps. 23). And, the good sheep will feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome a stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the imprisoned (Mt. 25.31-46). The good sheep hear the voice of the good shepherd and follow his leadership (Jn. 10). Our good shepherd will care for us when we hide our pain, fall apart, and become distressed. When we are in danger, our good shepherd teaches us to flee from isolation and huddle together in community for safety. Our good shepherd encourages us to develop self-awareness of morality (good thinking) and community ethical (good behavior) decision-making.

The long and short of the matter is that we have a good shepherd who loves us so much that He died for us to be successful in life and in our everyday decision-making. Our job is to become good sheep who listen to the voice of the shepherd who leads, guides, and directs each one of us individually in our personal lives and collectively in community. When we listen to his voice, we discover the hope, love, joy, and peace of the already and not yet visible Kingdom of God breaking into our ordinary everyday lives. The moment we choose with our head, heart, hands and habits to become holy, God is there to make those life altering decisions with us! We just have to humble ourselves like the Apostle Peter, saying, Yes, Lord, you know that I love you!

Our Good Shepherd, I give thanks for your humble service in caring for your sheep. You are always seeking, saving, rescuing, protecting, and caring for your people. Help me to choose today to lay down my decision-making process that is based in my own way of thinking to take up new decision-making strategies that begin by listening closely to your voice and following you. And, when I forget, I ask that you rescue me from danger and pursue me when I am hiding from the truth. May the choice to love you always be my first decision. Amen.

Joshua’s Story: A Call to Faithfulness

Exodus 17-Joshua 24

Joshua is a well-loved Old Testament character with numerous stories that we often share with our children like the Battle of Jericho. We find our first exposure to this character named Joshua when Moses recruits him to lead the fighting of the Amalekites. It was the Israelites first battle after leaving Egypt (Ex. 17.9). We remember this battle best because of the dynamic way the Israelites won. Aaron and Hur held Moses hands up as the battle was waged. When Moses’ arms were up, the Israelites were winning. When Moses’ arms grew tired and rested, the Israelites were losing. Early on in Moses’ leadership we find Joshua tied very closely to his ministry. The Scriptures tell us that he was Moses’ aid from the time of his youth (Nu. 14.8, Josh. 1.1).

We see young Joshua who is like a personal secretary and body guard for Moses. Joshua goes with Moses to the Mountain while God delivers the commandments. Joshua hears the revelry in the camp, and warns Moses (Ex. 24.13). Whenever Moses met with God at the Tent of Meeting, Joshua was nearby to be sure! Even when Moses finished talking with God and left, Joshua would stay in the Tent of Meeting waiting on God (Ex. 33.11). As Moses grew weary in leadership responsibilities, he was inspired to commission 70 elders (plus 2 in the camp) over the people. Joshua was very loyal and became jealous for Moses’ sake (Nu. 11.28). We might recognize a similar story in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus commissions and sends 72 into the towns and by-ways to preach the good news with signs and wonders (Lk. 10.1-23).

Joshua learned early on to revere God and serve him only (Josh. 24.14). Reverence would lead Joshua to serving God faithfully and loyally. To be sure Joshua believed God unconditionally, especially when it came to the hope of entering into the Promised Land.  In fact Joshua and Caleb were the only survivors of their generation to leave the wilderness and enter the promised land (Nu. 26.65). We know that faithfulness and loyalty even in the best of circumstances can be challenging as it proved to be for the Israelites. But thanks be to God, Joshua would become our inspiration for today!

When Moses is about to die, Joshua is named his successor. God speaks to Moses affirming Joshua’s leadership abilities and requires Moses to place his hands on him (Nu. 27.18). Moses will invite Joshua to stand before the High Priest Eleazar and the entire Israelite community to be commissioned in their presence (Nu. 27.19). God requires Moses to “…give him some of your authority…” (Nu. 27.20-23). Moses must bequeath his authority upon his successor for leadership. Spiritual leadership authority is transferrable to those whom God chooses to be the recipient of that blessing.

Joshua had been Moses’ assistant from his youth, and it would be this young man who would lead Israel to inherit the Promised Land (Deut. 1.38). Moses’ job was to encourage him! To be sure Moses would affirm Joshua by speaking prophetically into his future proclaiming victory over the Israelite enemies (Deut. 3.21). Joshua would receive from Moses his commissioning, encouragement, and strengthening to sustain him in his coming endeavors (Deut. 3.28). Make no mistake about the victory; it was God’s handiwork that secured the victory for Joshua (Deut. 31.3). Moses instructs Joshua to be strong and courageous then conquer the people and divide the land (Deut. 31.7). When death came knocking on Moses’ door, God would be the one who had the final say about Israel’s next leader. Joshua and Moses would stand in the secret place called the Tent of Meeting together; God himself would commission Joshua for the task ahead (Deut. 31.14). God promised Joshua that he would be with him and fulfill the promise that was sworn on oath (Deut. 31.23). Joshua’s work was to be strong, courageous, and obedient. The spirit of wisdom filled Joshua, and the people listened and obeyed what God required of them (Deut. 34.9). The people were submissive to Joshua’s leadership, “Whatever you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go” (Josh. 1.16).

What guaranteed Joshua’s success? Revering God. Being inwardly strong and outwardly courageous by believing God would do everything God promised. Joshua had to remember that he was chosen by God and that God would be with him. The work of a faithful leader is reverence and obedience. That’s hard work for the fallen nature to be sure. When God begins affirming Joshua early in his ministry, God requires of Joshua complete obedience. He is not to deviate from God’s plan not one bit to the left or the right! God reminds Joshua of the importance of reciting God’s word over and over, day and night. God’s promises and his word are key ingredients in remaining faithful and loyal for a lifetime like Joshua (Josh. 1.1-9).

At the end of Joshua’s days he appeals to his fellow Israelites to live with a high standard of accountability. Joshua has pledged his life to God by living in reverence and service, and he invites his fellow Israelites to do the same. The notion of reverence requires one to fear God with a posture of absolute faithfulness of heart, mind and soul. The inward life must fully be devoted to God and devoid of everything else. The human will must line up with God’s will. Reverence leads to service. Service is devotion to God with a singleness of heart, mind and soul. This devotion requires complete disposal of our time, resources, and abilities to God’s plan. Service requires us to dispose of the idols in our lives that include philosophies, education, and work that leads us on pathways contrary to God’s plan. Devotion is not to be rote memorization nor should it be vague ascent to concepts about God or wisps of songs whispered. Devotion requires a communal act of confessing God as the one true God. Can you think about what the cultural or societal norms might compete with God? What’s competing for your ability to be fully devoted to God?

The significant concepts that Joshua makes in his final appeal to his fellow Israelites remains hidden from sight. There is no way we can discern if God’s people are really reverent or devoted to God by their words. We can only guess! We see from the passage that devotion to God is a constant challenge for God’s people. Joshua even states, “You cannot serve the Lord…” (Josh. 24.19). Devotion is impossible because God is holy and we are not. Thanks be to God that Jesus Christ has paved the way to keep us in right relationship with God. We will surely fail to remain faithful and loyal to God, yet, when we turn and ask God for forgiveness we may find reconciliation. Our relationship may be restored!

Our promise to love God is much like a marriage covenant. Only God requires us to remain married with him for a lifetime, uninterrupted. Our relationship is to be filled with intimacy, commitment, and faithfulness much like a marriage. We are continually faced with the temptation to turn away from the covenant promise, to listen to other voices, and join our hearts and minds to things that break God’s heart. God calls us to “this day” promises. This is the day we have to choose for ourselves whom or what we will revere and be devoted. What we revere is what we are devoted. By definition “revere” means to feel a deep respect or admiration for something or someone. What do we bow down to?

Joshua declares, “…as for me and my house, we will be devoted to God…” So what is required for living in the household of God like Joshua is suggesting? Living in God’s household means living right, but not for the sake of doing good and not harming others. The Lord requires of us devotion so that we can be in right fellowship with God, ourselves, and our neighbors. John Wesley once stated that entire sanctification is the full salvation from our sinfulness and a complete infilling of love that empties our hearts from the desire to sin and filling the whole capacity of our soul with only love (Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation”). Our main doctrines as Methodist keep our minds focused on three key concepts of personal salvation – repentance, faith, and holiness. All of these enable the seeking Christian to move ever deeper into a relationship with Jesus Christ. Every hindrance must go! Every doubt must dissolve! And, every activity that prevents us from growing into fellowship of the Holy Spirit must be swept away!

In today’s professional scene we discuss healthy boundaries all the time to ensure people with power do not impose their wounds upon other people. You’ve heard it said, Hurting people hurt others. God knew about boundaries long before we began attending healthy professional boundary training! Joshua teaches us the goal of our faith is a very important boundary between our hearts and the culture we live in that takes the place of our relationship with God. The notion of forgiveness is partnered with reconciliation. Reconciliation is aimed toward God!

The story of salvation begins in Genesis at the very beginning of what we understand as human history. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Gen. 6.5 NRSV). It takes a Savior to redefine our fallen nature in our hearts, soul and mind. I love how Wesley describes the life stages of grace! God is with us even when we have yet to discover that there is a God; we call that prevenient grace. God is with us when we discover that we are broken and unable to repair our own brokenness; we call that justifying grace. God is with us as we grow-up in our believes and learn that God offers us inward transformation of our broken-hearts, minds, and souls; we call that sanctifying grace. God’s grace is so gentle! He knocks on our hearts, and waits for us to open the door and invite him inside. He longs to fellowship with us, but he waits for us to make the choice. God loves us so much that he would never violate our will. When we ask for help, he is quick to oblige.

Did you know that early Methodist only required two things from those who joined their societies, “…a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins” (BOD 78). Most people have heard the general rules (BOD 78-79). First, do no harm. Second, do good. Third, stay in love with God by attending to the ordinances of God such as public worship with preaching, studying the Word, regular communion, family and private prayers as well as fasting and abstinence. We enter into membership through baptism and profession of faith which we take very seriously.

As professing members we choose to covenant with God by renouncing evil and making free-will choices to resist evil. We confess, trust, and promise to serve Jesus Christ. We pledge to remain faithful to church and evangelistic efforts to reach the world. We promise to loyally participate in the church by faithfully offering our prayers and presence, our spiritual gifts and God-given talents as well as our service and witness. We accept both the Old and New Testaments as presenting the fullness of our Christian faith. This is our church covenant.

Psalm 86.11 asks God himself for an undivided heart that the psalmist might revere God. When was the last time you asked God for an undivided heart? Do you know what is dividing your heart? Remember these words from 1 Samuel 16.7, “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” We will never truly learn how to live a godly life until we are willing to die to the divisions in our hearts. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus denounces the towns that did not receive him, their hearts were not devoted to God. Jesus says this… “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11.25-30

Joshua’s invitation is that we take the light yoke of reverence and devotion upon ourselves. God offers to break us free from our addictions and vices when we willfully choose to surrender those things that cause our hearts to be divided. Joshua tells us that it is impossible for us to live in right relationship with God! We experience this inability to choose to live differently when we experience our vices and addiction defeating our good intentions. Good intentions and decisions of the will are limited in the flesh. Paul understood his limits in Romans,

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin” (Rom. 7.21-25 NIV).

Hear the Good News! We can have victory over the sinful nature. Christ’s death, burial and resurrection gave us victory over sin and death – the power of forgiveness. But there’s more to our salvation… Christ tells his disciples when he ascended to the right hand of God to be seated in all authority that he would send us the power to lively through the Holy Spirit. John Wesley said it this way, “By salvation I mean, not barely (according to the vulgar notion) deliverance from hell, or going to heaven, but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health… the renewal of our souls after the image of God in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, in mercy, and in truth” (Randy Maddox, Ministry Matters, “Reclaiming John Wesley’s Holistic Salvation”).

Wesley consider the deliverance from hell and the pathway to heaven the absolute minimal experience of salvation! There is so much more. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, we are given the inward power (tenancy) to overcome our sinful nature and brokenness. You might recall that within the song “Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing” is the very point that Wesley inspires us to grasp… God can help us find freedom through the power of the indwelling Spirit.

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,
Mount of Thy redeeming love.

Sorrowing I shall be in spirit,
Till released from flesh and sin,
Yet from what I do inherit,
Here Thy praises I’ll begin;
Here I raise my Ebenezer (Stone of Hope 1 Samuel 7.12);
Here by Thy great help I’ve come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.

Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood;
How His kindness yet pursues me
Mortal tongue can never tell,
Clothed in flesh, till death shall loose me
I cannot proclaim it well.

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

O that day when freed from sinning,
I shall see Thy lovely face;
Clothed then in blood washed linen
How I’ll sing Thy sovereign grace;
Come, my Lord, no longer tarry,
Take my ransomed soul away;
Send thine angels now to carry
Me to realms of endless day.

If you struggle with faithfulness as Joshua describes, there is hope. In Christ Jesus you are forgiven and in the power of his Spirit you may be set free to become more faithful. If you have not experienced this freedom, perhaps you have not yet found your way to the fullness of your salvation. Today is the day to invite Jesus into your heart beyond the nod of escaping from hell and desiring an afterlife. God wants all of your heart, mind and soul.

Jesus teaches his disciples on the eve of his Ascension into to heaven, “On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about’” (Acts 1.6 NIV). The invitation was to wait for the power that would sustain their faithfulness. You see all of the disciples failed in their ability to remain faithful. Knowing who Jesus is and accepting that he was the Son of God was not enough. Faithfulness required the indwelling Holy Spirit. If you do not have assurance that you have received the sustaining power of God’s presence within, realize that discipleship in the faith is a process. It is not a once and done deal. Our baptism places a deposit of the Holy Spirit within you, but it is in our inward faithfulness of meeting with Jesus daily that the Holy Spirit becomes more real, empowering us to become faithfully reverent and wholly devoted to the One True God.

Today if you hear his voice, harden not your heart. Welcome a closer walk with Jesus through his indwelling presence that you might become more faithful on the inward journey of saving grace.

Becoming Saints: Joseph, The Journey

But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I God? You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it…” – Genesis 50.19-20 CEB

Becoming saints is a life-long process of being transformed from our selfish desire into a surrendered vessel that God can use. Last week we were in Hebrews where we listed the faithful of God and heard what the author instructed for the believers who had given up. He informed them to run the race marked at for them! The sermon today highlights the life of an Old Testament character named Joseph (Heb. 11.21-22, Gen. 30, 37-50). We will begin at the end of his life and recapture his faithful journey.

Joseph died old and full of years at 110 (Gen. 50.26), after being a son of Jacob/Israel, a grandson to Isaac, a great-grandson to Abraham, a brother to Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Dinah, and Benjamin, a father to twins Manasseh and Ephraim, and a grandfather. From a very young age Joseph was gifted spiritually and mentally. Although Joseph is Rachel and Jacob’s first child, he is Jacob’s 12 child. What a large family to be born into! Family systems are everywhere!

There’s really no reason for us to assume we can discern why God gave Joseph the spiritual blessing of prophetic insight when he did. But somehow there’s comfort in knowing that God was working behind the scenes in Joseph’s life to guide and direct his brothers’ actions to preserve his life rather than killing him. Jealousy between two wives drove the children into madness. What brother would sell their younger (immature) brother into slavery?

How many times have we intentionally thrown someone in a well or sold them down the river? Usually those people we dismiss are close friends and family members, and often carry a God-given purpose that we disagree with. Sometimes our arch-nemesis will be someone who God calls to ministry that is opposite of the ways you would do ministry. But nevertheless, they are called and God has a plan for them. Yet, you or I will hold them at arms’ length in distain. In the family of God we often do this and continue to hold pleasantries with each other, or even sweep things under the rug when a new pastor comes to town in hopes of never having to be reconciled to that person. So I ask you: Who have you disregarded? Who have you tossed into the cistern?

If we are going to experience a move of God among us, we must engage those in relationship that we have refused to walk with. We are to choose to join together with people that we would rather not be associated with in a deeper way. The brothers collectively told a story about their brother Joseph that was deceitful and eventually they would have to own the truth about what they had done. The most difficult places in our lives are the untruths that we have told to cover up our own actions.

Joseph’s life has many twists and turns much like our own lives. Becoming a Saint entails persevering in hardships and surviving the tests that come our way. When we are young we belief our lives should be a flat road, moving forward without any resistances to our hopes, dreams, and plans. We are confounded when our lives take a different turn than what seems profitable for us. We get stuck and resort to selective remembering about the “good old days” or we talk about the “if onlys” in our journeys.

We fantasize about our greatest sources of pride or victimize ourselves when we have failed to succeed. When we journey through a life altering situation, it is important to take time to reassess and gain a bigger picture of our live narratives. Joseph could have easily fallen victim to his circumstances and reminisced about his childhood or found himself sorting through all the “if only” things that could have happened.

When we look at Joseph’s life we see the Great Reversal of a plot-line. Joseph was born with all the struggles of families, yet he was gifted with administrative skills and a supernatural spiritual awareness of God. Joseph struggled to relate to his brothers, and found them lacking in good moral decision-making and godly ethical behavior.

Perhaps before we are too hard on Joseph for calling out his brothers, perhaps we should assess the poor judgment of the family system. Their moral-ethical standards were low enough to sale their brother into slavery and plot to deceive their family indefinitely in the disappearance of that brother. Healthy families would not consider the evil they perpetrated, they would work through their differences even accepting correction.

Joseph’s life is bookended with family, and in the middle of his days, he leads a life of trials and tests, waiting patiently for God to move him into a position of authority as he had promised in his dreams. When he rises to authority to become the caretaker of the family, Joseph is sold to Midianites and walked to Egypt with his robe having been removed and used as evidence against him (Gen. 37.31-33).

He has been placed in a home in Egypt as a slave where he is sexually harassed daily and eventually assaulted leaving his garment behind to be used as evidence against him (Gen. 39.10-23). He is imprisoned, and given responsibilities to care for the other prisoners. Joseph remains in the care of government officials until he is appointed by Pharaoh to become the administrator over all the lands of Egypt ensuring that people would not starve during a great famine lasting seven years.

Joseph’s spiritual gifts flourished in the seasons of trials and tribulations; he remained faithful to the voice of God. When Joseph gains an opportunity to share his understanding of God with others, he quickly steps in to interpret the dreams of the wine steward, chief baker, and pharaoh himself. Joseph will find himself elevated to great power in Egypt, second only to the Pharaoh himself. Joseph remained faithful to God’s voice and God’s leading in the middle of his mess.

To be sure Joseph’s brothers would not have viewed 17-year-old Joseph as following God’s leading. But his brothers will find themselves prostrate before him offering to enslave themselves to his care before they are fully restored in their relationship with Joseph. Joseph learns that the call of a prophetic voice requires more than shepherding and managing people. It requires more than godly moral decision-making and ethical behavior. It requires the experience of forgiveness.

Hardship reveal our true character and moral grounding. The amazing story of Joseph’s tale is how his life was joined to God’s Greater Drama of forgiveness. He was betrayed, sold for a price, accused, imprisoned, and abandoned. Sound like someone else we know? Perhaps Jesus. But his scars became the wounds that saved the multitudes of people during the great famine of seven years. His scars carried him to success of saving many lives.

God’s loving kindness (hesed) surrounded Joseph (Gen. 39.21, 40.14). Joseph understood that he couldn’t earn his freedom from prison or fulfill his dreamy destiny of becoming the leader God required of him to become. But he humbled himself and asked for those around him to show him favor in the midst of false imprisonment. Joseph didn’t give up on God’s faithful plan even when it looked hopeless. Joseph continued to find meaning and hope in his suffering. When he felt forgotten, he continued to watch for opportunities for God’s favor. Joseph never relinquished the fight to be faithful.

By the end of the story Pharaoh has put Joseph in charge of everything in the land of Egypt. Joseph will marry and have children of his own. I love how Joseph names his children! His first child Manasseh means to “forget” and his second child Ephraim means “fruitful” (Gen. 41.51, 52). Joseph believed that God was the one helping him in his troubles and it was God who would make him fruitful in his despair. To be sure God has been co-authoring the story of Joseph’s life. There is no earthly way possible for Joseph to write his own story.

As Joseph’s family is restored to him in the land of Goshen in Egypt, Joseph’s will eventually bury his father. At that time his brothers will become fearful once again. They have not resolved the pain of their sin in their hearts, but Joseph will assure them. Hear these words, “Don’t be afraid. Am I God?’ he asks them, “You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it, in order to save the lives of many people, just as he is doing today” (Gen. 50.19-20).

Where do you find yourself in Joseph’s story? As the victim or the perpetrator? God’s plan is for both to be reconciled and made whole. No one is left outside of the God’s plan for restoration. There is good news! God is faithful, showing us loving kindness when we don’t deserve it. God empowers us to resist being offended by family, friends, and strangers. God through his sacrifice of Jesus Christ empowers us to forgive the unforgiveable and love the unlovely.

What amazes me about Joseph’s countenance is how joyful he seems to be when he declares forgiveness for his brothers! Rather than holding on to the bitterness of offense, Joseph let it all go. He held nothing back as collateral damage toward his brothers. He didn’t have a tally sheet of wrong-doing stashed away in his pocket to pull out and remind others that they had made a bad decision. The act of forgiveness was complete – gone forever! Hear the Good News! Christ died while we were yet sinners that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven!

Faithful, Hopeful, and Full of Love

Hebrews 11-13

We have journeyed together through much of the book of Genesis. Today we take a hiatus to recognize a broader group of faithful people who we might call the saints of old. The stories of the faithful are listed for us in Hebrews 11: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham & Sarah, Isaac & Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Baruch, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets. This leads us to the concluding points in chapter 12 of Hebrews.

Hear these words, Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. – Hebrews 12.1-3 NIV

It seems that believers are not running a faithful race in the Kingdom of God. The author of Hebrews is attributed to the Apostle Paul who is never short on words of encouragement for Christians who have been shirking their responsibilities. Paul invites us to ponder the race marked out before us, and the finish line with Jesus, our great reward. Not all of us run, but we can all understand the importance of paying attention to what’s in front of us. When I walk, I must watch my steps or risk a fall. When I hike in the woods, I know that I need to keep my eyes on the path or risk getting lost. When I drive, I have to keep my eyes on the road or risk an accident. Paul helps us to understand that there are “things” that hinder us and “sin” that entangles us so we must watch out for where we are going.

The children of God have fallen into opposition and are at risk of not enduring their crisis. In true Pauline articulation, we are parented to lay hold of hardships for the sake of disciplined children. Paul’s parenting is tough stuff.

Listen to his words, “In your struggle against sin, you haven’t resisted yet to the point of shedding blood…” (Heb. 12.4).

When we become parents, the reality of death becomes more real to us. Children often scare us with illnesses, diseases, and accidents that make us a little more sensitive to the fact that as soon as we are born we begin the process of dying. Mark Buchanan in his book entitled, “Things Unseen: Living in the Light of Forever” reminds us that we are born to be heaven-minded. We know as did Solomon who wrote Ecclesiastes, there is a time for everything (Eccl. 3.1-8). The musical group called the Byrds sang about it in their song “Turn, Turn, Turn.” Tim McGraw’s song drives home the point that we are all called to “Live Like You’re Dying.”

Paul teaches in the Letter to the Colossians, “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Col. 3.1-4).

The Letter of Hebrews invites us to move from a passive faith to an active faith. To be sure we are called to grow in our discipleship adventure. Sanctification cannot be accomplished all by ourselves; we require others whom we can join together for the sake of rubbing off our rough edges. I love how Kevin Watson describes as our common goal, “Christians are made, not born” (Watson, Class Meeting, 139). We build upon our foundation in Christ Jesus with the principles of discipleship. We are called into a daily devotion to our relationship with God. Our personal presence is required in this process. Jesus qualifies what kind of love he is expecting from us: heart, soul, and mind! Jesus expects us to be self-aware. We may grasp Jesus’ expectations of his disciples in Matthew’s Gospel.

Hear these words, Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22.34-40 NIV

We cannot stand on the outskirts of the faith, and call ourselves Christians. We must engage in an active relationship with God, then with our neighbor. We can only love our neighbors as we love ourselves. What a peculiar thing for God to teach us in the Great Commandment! There are times that we must take the opportunity to love ourselves so that we can love our neighbor. This is not narcissistic (meaning self-absorbed). Actually, it is the opposite. God hopes we will catch on to this idea that how we treat ourselves is ultimately how we will treat others. We are called to show up in our relationships, actively listen to the needs of others, respectfully care for each other, honor confidentiality (not secret-keeping), humbly walk with an understanding that we are all different, and remain vulnerable by admitting our limits. We must all cultivate self-awareness in light of what Jesus teaches us here in this passage.

Even though John Wesley required intense discipleship commitments, he never brought people into his groups kicking and screaming. God gives us the option of how committed we want to be including that fact that some people we refuse salvation. On the flip side of our discipleship commitments is the possibility of becoming legalistic in our approach. Sometimes we fall into the old adage, It’s my way or the highway. We require a limited view of discipleship whereby we must earn our way to salvation. When the truth be known, legalism is much easier than self-awareness. Self-awareness requires us to bare our souls to another person admitting our faults and flaws.

Ideally, the purpose of discipleship is to pry our fingers away from the things that hold us back from the love of God and neighbor. Sometimes we would like to hold on to the things that hurt rather than trusting God to hold us while we hurt. We like to control our situations for fear that we might find ourselves vulnerable with the brokenness of others. So often we become information driven (biblical literacy and doctrine focused) to elevate our discomfort that others might see some vestige of emotional pain and spiritual suffering. What we fail to understand is the ways of God’s grace drawing us into uncomfortable experiences that helps to draw us closer to the Father.

When we think about people who have impacted our spiritual growth, we might consider including John Wesley as our spiritual parent. Our spiritual parents teach and guide us in the ways of being heaven-minded. To be sure Wesley would recommend to us faithfulness in our attendance to worship, daily personal prayer, searching God’s Word, communion (as often as is available even daily), fasting or abstinence, and holy conferencing. Truly, we are called to watch over one another in love. These guidelines for faith help us to do good and not harm others. These are the basic criteria that keeps our hearts, minds, and souls heaven-minded.

In my recent experience of falling and suffering from a severe concussion, I was given an experience of heaven. In the vision I experienced the faithfulness of Jesus as my companion in the midst of the trial, and the tenacious love of my Heavenly Father defending his beloved child against judgment. I remember experiencing  submission to the will of God all the while asserting my plea for God for the care of others. I remember being asked to bring my works before the Lord to determine my heavenly reward. As I brought forward all the things that were written down that I considered worthy of heavenly reward, I had the distinct impression that all my good works were but mere finger paintings. As the fire came to consume my works of devotion, only a few jewels were in my crown. As my vision concluded and I was sent back to this earthly vessel in complete obedience. I knew without a doubt my job was to share the lessons that I had learned in my own life journey. Jesus helped me to understand that the most important part of my Christian faith was giving myself away just like Jesus. Learning from my mistakes, poor decisions-making, and unfaithfulness to God, then sharing those nuggets of truth with others is the greatest gift I could ever share with others.

When we look at the Greek language that Paul uses in Hebrews to describe faith, the subtle wordplay would imply an ethical meaning that having faith is the courage not to shrink back or retreat, and instead move forward. When we find ourselves in a place of great difficulty, our bodies move into an automatic response of fight, flight or freeze. Faith moves us into responding spiritually appropriate in the most trying of times. Faith brings about the future into the now. Faith empowers us to belief in the impossible for the sake of Jesus Christ, not our own preferences. Faith looks beyond the here and now to the future. Faith longs for heavenly things to become present in the here and now. Dr. Ben Witherington would always speak of our heavenly reward as the “already and not-yet” reality we as Christians experience.

It’s hard for us to get our minds wrapped around this spiritual reality we live. But we have the joy of discovering it together in the community we call church. Faith is believing in the unseen reality just beyond our senses. When we reflect on what it means to fully live into our Christian life, Paul teaches us that three things will remain after all else: faith, hope, and love. These are the qualities of heaven. Augustine said, “God should be worshipped with faith, hope, and love” (Long, Hebrews, 186). At the end of our days the question remains will we hold to the faith, hope, and love for God we profess today.

The heroes of the past call us to continued faithfulness today. Imagine a stadium full of people rooting on their favor teams as competitors play on the field. Now imagine yourself on the field ready. Can you hear the saints cheering you on? One of my favorite movies is “Chariots of Fire.” In the movie a young man professes that he feels God when he runs. Do you feel God when you succeed in your daily life? Can you hear the music of success?

The author inspires us to meditate on Jesus who has taken his seat in heavenly places at the right hand of God. The Greek implies that the exhausted runner has quit mid-race, collapsed on the field. The best way to avoid calamity in our walk is to keep our eyes on Jesus. Jesus has ascended and he has left us words of encouragement to press on!

Hosea invites us to go deeper, “Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord; his appearing is as sure as the dawn; he will come to us like the showers, like the spring rains that water the earth” (Hosea 6.3 NRSV).

Lord Jesus, our lives can be complicated. We long to remain faithful, hopeful, and full of love for you. We seek to know ourselves in our hearts, minds, and souls so that we may love our neighbor has ourselves. Empower us with your mercy and grace to press on to heaven-minded living. Amen.