Being Useful

Many people wander through life concerned about such things as their purpose and can be quite undone by the uncertainty that this causes. People have spent countless hours and dollars trying to figure out why are they here and what are they supposed to be doing, and I admit that this can be a struggle. Still, there are other people who couldn’t care less and who are perfectly happy just to drift through life as it were, with no purpose, and no real interest in seeking greater purpose. To both of these types Jesus speaks as his sermon on the mount continues as he deals with Salt and Light.

Jesus calls his would-be followers the salt of the earth. Now what does he mean by that? To modern ears that phrase means someone who is humble, meek, and down to earth, certainly not a snob. While I think this is an appropriate meaning, I believe that Jesus referred to more than humility. Salt was, and is, a very important mineral, used for cleaning, preserving, and flavor. As followers of Christ, we are to be about all of this work. We are to help the world around us be cleaner, or purer rather. We are to stand up and speak out against the baser elements of life and not tolerate immorality to reign. As for what is the standard of moral vs. immoral, look to the Bible. Also we preserve to try to reduce the decay and rot of sin by instilling Christ and His teachings in the world. Lastly, we add flavor, not by doing away with fun, life, and joy, but by showing the world that they can have all this in Christ far better than without Him. The Christian life is one of love and joy. We have hope assured and an inheritance beyond belief, so no need for gloom, but smiles of delight. This is the flavor we offer to a bland world. Still, Jesus continues that if we, as salt, are not going to serve our purpose, then we might as well be thrown out. If we become impure and degraded to where we aren’t doing any of these things we stop being good for anything and will be cast aside. Not terribly comforting but it serves as a reminder that we aren’t just to be, but to be about our Master’s work.

He then transitions from salt to light. While this is a tremendous compliment, since Jesus calls himself the light and life of men, it is also a tremendous responsibility. We, who are possessors of the true light, or more realistically the reflectors there of (think the moon vs. the sun), are to be beacons by which humanity can see God more fully. We are to shine brightly wherever we are, in whatever situation we find ourselves. Our faith must never be something we consider with shame or dismissal, but always something we are willing to show and share with the world. Again, we have a purpose and that is to drive out darkness. If we hide that light or do things to purposefully diminish it, then we are not serving our purpose and become useless instead of useful.

So are you being useful? Are you being that salt, helping this world to be cleaner, purer, and more joy-filled, or are you dragging it down and becoming the opposite of what you have been called to be? Are you reflecting the light of God and shining before men, or hiding it so they won’t see or worse still, willfully preventing that light from shining in an increasingly dark world? This is a balanced position to be in and it takes work and effort. None of us are perfect, nor gets it right all the time every time, and sometimes we miss the opportunities God has given us to demonstrate our usefulness. So we return to Him to mine for the treasures He has to give, and to be filled again with the radiance of the true light so we might shine brighter and brighter. As long as we are here and have breath, we can and ought to be useful for the kingdom. This is our purpose and role in life, so that all we do may point others to the Father, that they know the joy and fullness of a life filled with His light.

Fear Not!

In times such as these fear is a very real and palpable emotion. There are many unknowns and uncertainties which breed stress, worry, and fear. Between social media, the news, and what we see around us it can be all to easy to get caught up in the events of the world and let them carry us away to dangerous and unhealthy places. As our emotions carry us along like leaves on the March wind, we must force ourselves to return to what we know. For the Christian times like this should lead us closer to God.

The Bible is constantly reminding us that God alone sits on the throne of the universe. That He is a God of order, not of chaos and confusion. This reminds us that regardless of what people and nations may do God, not man is in charge. It also reminds us that whenever discord reigns, it is not the work of the Lord. We live in a fallen world and Satan does have power to create confusion and sow disorder, but his time is limited. The failings of institutions and their inability to deal with problems reinforces our understanding of the limited power we humans really have on the Earth. It should also drive us back to the Father.

Throughout the Bible God and his messengers are constantly having to tell people to “fear not”. We see this most often in the Christmas story, but it also comes up as Jesus is about to be crucified. He reminds his followers that while he will be leaving, he will not abandon them and he will come again. The darkness of the cross is ultimately overshadowed by the light of the Resurrection. It might be dark now, but the morning is coming and with it will come the brightness of the sun and knowing this we can be filled with hope and peace. This is real peace, not as the world knows it but as God knows it. A peace that is not based on circumstances or the direction of the wind, but in the steadfast knowledge that God sits on the throne and while we may be powerless to change the world, He is not. That everything in this world is only temporary and is only for a season, but He endures forever.

This is the peace, love, and joy that Christ came to provide us by reconciling our fallen-ness with God’s holiness. Because of what Christ did, we can be adopted into the family of God and be entitled to all the rights and privileges thereof. This includes eternal life with God filled with and surrounded by his perfect light and love. Knowing what awaits us and knowing that nothing, no person, no nation, no institution, no virus, no affliction, no power can take that from us or separate us from it allows us to have a level of peace and calm in an ever changing world. This is real peace and real comfort as can only come from God.

This my earnest prayer, that God will abate this disease and we all can come to know His love and comfort and peace and lean on him all the more. That those who have been afflicted will be healed and restored to full health and his comfort will ease the panic and fear filling the world. That people and leaders will hearken unto His wisdom and judgment and His leading and not give way to our own fragile understanding. This I do pray in Christ Holy name, Amen.

Be well, be safe, and rest in the Lord.

Breaking God’s Heart

What is sin? In Ephesians 2 Paul talks about how we were dead in our sins and trespasses. The word he uses for SIN means to miss the mark. Think of shooting at a target and missing or trying to throw a basketball and having it bounce off the rim. Pretty much anytime one misses the mark God has set, this is Sin. The word he uses for trespass is to slip or fall, you could include stumble. Pretty much any time one does walk perfectly on the line God has set, this is also sin. Since all of us have failed at some point to hit the mark, and all of us have veered off the path God has established, then in short we all have sinned.

This is a disquieting thought as most of us don’t like to think of ourselves as sinners. A sinner is a bad immoral person who does horrible things, not someone who is almost always nice and works hard and says hello and goes out of their way to be helpful, that person couldn’t be a sinner. We like to separate ourselves from the image of the sinner we have in our head so that we can exclude people we know and like, and even that person we see in the mirror from being a sinner because they don’t fit the mental image we have created. But when we change it up to being someone who doesn’t quite measure up, make the mark, and veer off the path, even a little, even the occasional stumble, then that changes everything. Everyone has fallen short of the Glory of God. This is because God is perfection and as we all know, no one is perfect.

Still that doesn’t quite square it all the way does it? No because some people do really horrible things and others, well not so much. Why should someone who does something seemingly insignificant get the same punishment as the person who did something really horrible? After all our law courts don’t work that way. In fact the U.S. Constitution specifically prohibits such things as unusual and overly harsh punishments. This would be all well and good if we were only dealing with the law, but sin impacts something more than just God’s perfect law. Because if all it were was the law, then there would be a set punishment and so forth. And yes there is a set punishment, that punishment for our sin was carried out on Christ, who suffered on our behalf, but that’s not quite the end of it.

You see, while God is perfection and so his standard is such, he is also Love as the scriptures tell us. So when we sin, when we miss the mark, when we slip and stumble and violate God’s law, will, and desire, we are not only breaking the law…we are breaking God’s heart. When we think about it that way it becomes even more devastating. For what can you do when you break someone’s heart. Yes you can plead for mercy and forgiveness, you can promise to do better, but you can never put all the pieces back together again. So the next time we think, oh its just a little sin, and why is it such a big deal? Its a big deal because in that sin, we are breaking the heart of God.

Now before I just leave you with that, which I think would be rather a poor thing to do on a Friday, we turn to Grace. For you see, as we have noted, there is no simple atoning for a broken heart. The only answer is that the poor soul with the broken heart must choose, of their own free will, to forgive the person who broke their heart. Sure that person can do all manner of things to try to show and convince the other that they truly are sorry and won’t ever do it again, but not until that broken hearted person steps out in grace, there is nothing but the knowledge of what we have done. This is exactly what God has done. In his free and sovereign will and full of mercy and Grace he has made it possible that we might be forgiven. He did this through his son Jesus. This is what makes grace so amazing in that though we deserved and earned it not, and nothing we could ever do could rise to that level, God decided to love us and do it anyway.

So as you go into your weekend, yes recognize what sin is and why its so terrible and why even the tiniest sin is deserving of punishment, but don’t stay there, be raised with Christ in the fullness and richness of the love and grace of God.

Knowing God

I need to preface this by saying this is a slight divergence from my normal post. This comes from a study in the book of Ephesians and drawing from William Barclay’s commentary on that Book. A couple of points I have found in that commentary I believe are very profound and necessary, especially in today’s climate and culture. Furthermore, I believe that the comments made by Mr. Barclay are in keeping with scriptural truths, which as will become clear in this post, are absolutely essential.

In the first chapter of Ephesians Paul prays that the readers may grow in the knowledge of God. This is an incredibly important concept for the Christian and a remarkable divergence from most religions of the world. In most faiths it is almost impossible that the followers could know their God let alone be in an intimate relationship with Him. Amazingly this is precisely what Christianity claims is the desire of God. That we would know him as fully as we can and be in constant relationship with Him. In so doing we will grow into what God has desired for us, and that is to be conformed, not to this world but to the image of Christ.

To this end, it is imperative that we learn, know, and pay attention to what God says. This should be our driving question on decisions about lifestyles, about right and wrong, about good and evil, what does God say? What matters is not what I or you think, feel, or believe. It’s not what some other person, be they a parent, professor, preacher, or theologian says, thinks, or believes, but in short what does God say.

I do believe that God speaks to us in all manner of ways, but his most complete revelation to us is in the person of Jesus Christ. So our first stop on learning what God says should be to look at what Christ has both said and done as recorded for us in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In paying attention here, we very much get a idea on the character and nature of God. Following this, we expand out to the rest of scripture which is also God breathed / inspired. Since as we are told that God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, there will be no new light, revelation, or communication from God that will contradict what has already been told us in scripture. If you think you have gotten some message from on high that does this, then, I am sorry, you are mistaken. This is not just my opinion, which as noted isn’t nearly as important as what scripture says, but what scripture says. God doesn’t change and if anyone tries to teach you something different from what the Bible says, they are wrong, or as Paul says, let them be anathema (cursed).

I know in this modern or rather post modern world we live in, the idea of absolute truth is not in vogue, but it still exist whether I like it or not. You can disagree with what the Bible teaches, but that doesn’t change it being correct. Denial of the truth doesn’t make it any less true. We have been given an enormous privilege in that we have the ability to know and commune with God and be in relationship with Him. This requires work and effort on our part, but really, isn’t it worth it to be able to get close to the God of the Universes? Don’t just take my word for it. Go read and study and learn for yourself. Fill yourself from the words of the prophets, the apostles, and even Christ himself. Paul’s prayer, is my prayer, that we all would be filled by the spirit of wisdom and we all would know the fullness of God whom has done so much for all of us.

Make a U-Turn

Following his time in the wilderness, Jesus begins his public ministry in Galilee. Matthew tells us rather briefly in Chapter 4, that following the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus went to Galilee and started preaching. His message: repent for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand. This is essentially the same message that John had been proclaiming. The main difference is that John was trying to prepare people for what was to come. Jesus is what was to come, so even though it’s the same message, it is much more poignant and powerful due its source.

It is suffice to say, repentance is an integral part of what it means to be a Christian. It is required in fact, and sadly it is also somewhat misunderstood. The easiest way I can describe it is, it is the act of recognizing you are headed in the wrong direction, stopping, turning around, and heading in the right direction. It is in fact making a U-turn with both your thoughts and actions. Whether we like it or not, we all must recognize that we are fallen creatures. We have sin-filled lives and do things that are outside of God’s will for our lives. With every step, we move further from God and his kingdom. The sooner we recognize that we are headed in the wrong direction, the better. This is in fact step one. The second step is almost as difficult. It’s stopping. We come up with all sorts of reasons why we can’t stop. “This is who I am”. True, but it’s not who you were meant to be. “I just can’t help it.” Maybe not, but Jesus can. “I don’t have time,” “I need to wait until the time is right,” “There isn’t any hope for me, I’m too far gone,” “It’s too hard,” or possibly worst of all, “It doesn’t really matter what I do”. All of these are lies fed us by the enemy to keep us heading down the wrong path even if we know we are going in the wrong direction.

Once we become aware that we aren’t where we need to be, we must stop. Thirdly, we must turn around and head in the right direction. Again, there is no point in waiting for the perfect spot, time, or occasion for turning around. We need to do it as soon as possible. The sooner, the better. No excuses, no stammering, no self-esteem building justification. Simply stop, turn around, and start moving again. This isn’t easy, but thankfully we don’t do it alone. Once we start moving in the right direction, Jesus will walk with us every step of the way. Through all the rough patches, pot holes, hills, valleys, everywhere. The process doesn’t end there; We have to keep evaluating and assessing. Am I still going in the right direction? Have I taken the exit I shouldn’t have? Have I allowed the world to distract me and veered off the road? If so, just get back on and continue on. Remember, the true assessment isn’t how well I’ve stayed on the path; it’s that I have focused on Christ and continued to pursue Him no matter what.

So where are you in life today? Are you headed where God wants you to go? Are you actively pursuing him? If not, stop, turn around, and head towards him. He is right there waiting for you, to walk with you. Remember the kingdom of heaven is near. The Holy Spirit awaits to go with you, and you will never have to walk alone.

Passing the Test

Continuing where we left off, we will look at the next two tests / temptations that Satan faced Jesus with in the wilderness. It’s also worth noting that Matthew and Luke reverse these in order. This is more about audience than accuracy. They both record the same facts, just one places the scene at the temple before the scene with the Kingdoms. Matthew was emphasizing the Kingship and Lordship of Jesus by going from smaller (the bread) to largest (the whole world) where as Luke seems to be pointing more towards the relationship between Jesus and more Jewish claims. Since we are focusing on Matthew 4, we will stick with his order of events. In addition we must remember that this whole scene had to be related by Jesus to his disciples. Matthew was an eye witness whereas Luke got his information second hand at a later time. Both tell the same story in a slightly different way, which is what one expects when dealing with such information.

The scene at the temple is what a Jewish person was expecting of their messiah. He would appear on top of the temple and descend. By doing this Jesus would stun the crowd and leave no doubt about who he was. So why didn’t he do it? Simple, his kingdom was not about flash and show. He wasn’t going to pull some big stunt just to draw a crowd. The what? The people would want even bigger and flashier demonstrations of power. God parted the Red sea and the Israelite’s didn’t believe or have faith, so why would a man jumping off the temple safely be any different? Later, Jesus would raise people from the dead and yet they wouldn’t believe. No, if people were going to follow Jesus, it would be because they loved him, not because he entertained or wowed them. It’s a reminder that the life of a Christian is not always flashy or impressive, and sometimes can be down-right tedious. Following the rules isn’t very sexy or glamorous, but it is important. The emphasis is doing things because they need done, not so one gets attention. How much would actually get done in this world if no one cared who got the credit?

The final scene takes us up to a mountain and before the kingdoms of the world. Jesus can have it all, obtain his goal of the world following him, if he will only bend a little, just one knee, and he can have it all. Again this is what the Jewish people expected. A messiah that would dominate the world. So why not? Again, simple. The world means little if you aren’t aligned with the creator. Satan only has power because he has been allowed it. Man’s decision to ignore God led to a curse that still reverberates today and gives Satan a chance. People can follow him if they choose, but beware the consequences. Jesus knows that if he breaks from God, all is lost. Sure, having a level of power may be fun and think of what he could do if he was in charge and everyone had to listen to him, but it’s simply not worth it. Jesus’ kingdom was not one where might makes right, but where love conquers. It’s not as easy or as fast, but it’s more lasting. Is it easier to do something for someone you love or simply because you have to? Not a difficult question. It also would have meant compromise. Compromise in itself is not bad or wrong, but there are some things on which we just cannot compromise. God is one of them. If you walk away from him, you really have nothing left. You may gain the world, but you will lose your soul. One is temporary and fleeting, the other is eternal. Which one is worth more? How much would you sell it for?

Jesus was able to endure these because he is intimately in tune with the Father and remained focused on God and what God wanted. Not what was easy, not allowing the ends to justify the means, but simply doing what God said and allowing that to govern every step, every choice. Many would say, “But yeah, he’s Jesus, what chance do I have?” If you are a child of the king, a very similar one. You, too, have been baptized by the spirit and so filled. You, too, have a direct line to the Father. You, too, are never far from Jesus. It’s not easy; it wasn’t for him, and yes, because of the fallen world, and our inherent brokenness, we are going to get it wrong. But as we are reminded, there is nothing we are tempted in that is not common to man and God will always provide a means of escape. For us, the question is do we have the faith to trust God and not ourselves?

Tempted and Tried

As the fourth chapter of Matthew opens, we see Jesus being led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit so that he can be tempted / tested by Satan. This poses a ton of questions for us, not all of which we have answers for. Nevertheless, we can draw some conclusions from this fact alone. First, this process was something that Jesus had to go through, and it would not be easy. He doesn’t just get a free pass because he is Jesus. Second, when we experience tests and temptations and trials, God may not be causing them, but he is allowing them. (See James 1:2,3). Just as Jesus was able to resist temptation, so too are we. We are provided, by God, an escape, if we look for it (See James 1:13). Another interesting point is that the word used here (4:1) for tempt, which appears 39 times in the new testament is more commonly translated to test, such as when the Pharisees asked Jesus a question “testing” him and a related word is used in James 1:2 as “trial.”

Through these temptations Jesus is given an option of demonstrating just what type of Messiah he is going to be and if he is going to follow the way of the Father or the way of the world. Each test presents a different challenge and how both Jesus and Satan respond to each tells us much about both. It’s also to be remembered that this testing follows 40 days of fasting on the part of Jesus. Whether this was a literal 40-day period or a phrase meaning a given length of time, the result is the same. Jesus had spent a length of time alone in the wilderness with his Father preparing for his public ministry. While there would be times when Jesus would go out by himself, never again are we told in the gospels about such a time as this. By the end he was physically weak due to the fasting, as we are reminded of his humanity, and it is no wonder that Satan would choose a time such as this to try Jesus. It is often when we find ourselves at a low point that the Devil will come at us, hoping to exploit our frailty.  Jesus had spent this time in perfect communion with the Father and thus they were linked, as only the Father and Son could be in the God head. It is another point that Satan will often try to disrupt that link we have between ourselves and God, and the closer we move toward God, the more Satan will try and pull or push us away.

The first test…. turn the stone into bread. Not much of a test, Jesus is hungry, and Jesus can command nature and we know that later he will supernaturally feed the multitude with fish and bread. So why would Jesus not do this and why is it a test at all? First, because it would be selfish and based on personal gain and benefit. Jesus is alone. This isn’t about having compassion on the multitude which have gathered. This isn’t about providing for starving persons as God did in the wilderness with manna, but about satisfying personal want. Secondly, it points to the idea of impressing people by giving them stuff – buying their vote, if you will. Sure, Jesus could get people to rally to his side if he gave them free food, or free stuff to meet their material needs, but that doesn’t do anything for their heart. After all, what we have in this world is not permanent and Jesus is looking to give people eternity. We are also reminded that even though God did feed the Israelite’s in the wilderness, it did not build faith. They ultimately wanted more and grumbled over their meager provisions, forgetting that they were previously worried about starving. Jesus reminds the Devil that people need more than bread, they need God. Let us remember the same when we are tempted to give up on God because we don’t have all we “want” or think we need, rather that God has given us far more in his son who died for us. God wants us to love him because he is (just as he loves us) not because of what he can do for us (give us bread, grant wishes). Jesus as a messiah was going to meet peoples’ deepest need for a restored relationship with God, not simply buy their affection. Don’t let Satan fool us into believing material prosperity equals happiness, fulfillment, or joy. All the world has to offer will be left behind one day. As Jesus would later say, what good does it do to gain the world but lose your soul?