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Good Life

Yet another good friend has been told she has just a few months to live. Cancer is such nasty business, even if they can fix it. Doctors use chemo and radiation to blast and kill the disease, killing many healthy cells in the process.

But, wouldn’t it be nice if there was a therapy that would cause the healthy cells to become so robust that the cancerous ones wouldn’t have a chance? I’ve heard the best way to get rid of weeds in a lawn is to get the grass growing very vigorously. I wish they could do that for cancer. Or, for many of the other terrible problems that exist in this world.

When Jesus taught us to pray “Thy kingdom come,” He wanted us to ask God to send such life-giving power to the world that it would overpower sin. The goal, He said, is for life on Earth to be in perfect harmony with God’s will, just as it is in Heaven.

Jesus, Himself, is the answer to that urgent prayer. As John wrote, “In Him was life and that life was the light of men.” In the same way that we yell, “Go!,” as a halfback breaks free and heads for the goal line, we are also to join together and cry, “Come!” as God’s perfect Kingdom inevitably approaches.

Not Even Close

Now what?  Within a few days, most retirees ask themselves that question.  I also asked God and was startled by His specific answer.  No, I don’t hear Him audibly but am occasionally sure Who is speaking.  His answer?  “Spend time getting to know Jesus.”  What???  I had spent the last 25 years doing just that, I thought, in seminary and serving as a pastor.  I felt a bit offended, felt like saying, “Hey, God, I’m a professional…”  He didn’t budge.

I can’t say I embarked on an orderly, intense process of study; it’s not in my wiring.  But, over the last several years, His assignment has been on my front burner.  Here’s what I have learned: I don’t have even the slightest sliver of a clue of Who Jesus really is.  Not even close.  The magnitude of Jesus is beyond my capacity to understand.  Like, as Albert Einstein once said, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”

Speaking about worship, Annie Dillard asked, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we blithely invoke?” and suggested, if we did, we’d wear crash helmets and life preservers in church.  I’m beginning to see how right she is.  John spent the better part of three years in daily contact with Jesus.  And yet, when he encountered a vision of Jesus on the island of Patmos, he could hardly comprehend what he was seeing and cowered in fear.

Here’s how Paul tried to express the magnitude of Jesus.  Take time to ponder the full impact of each phrase:

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.   (Colossians 1:15-20)

Future Perfect

Did you invest in Bitcoin last year?  If so, perhaps you made a killing.  Or, perhaps you lost your shirt.  Nobody but nobody saw the wild bitcoin ride coming.  But then again, who knows the future about anything?  As Yogi Berra quipped, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

Can you think of any system of faith that has accurately predicted the future?  The God of the Bible sets His predictions up as a test of His credibility.  He said, “If these things don’t happen, don’t waste your time with me.”  And why should we?  Who wants to worship and depend upon a god that is constantly slapping his forehead and saying, “Well, I didn’t see that coming”?  I am amazed by how much of the Bible was written to foretell events that would eventually happen hundreds of years into the future.  If you are trying to decide if God exists, or, if He does, which one He is, here is how He says you can be sure:

3 I foretold the former things long ago,
my mouth announced them and I made them known;
then suddenly I acted, and they came to pass.
4 For I knew how stubborn you were;
your neck muscles were iron,
your forehead was bronze.
5 Therefore I told you these things long ago;
before they happened I announced them to you
so that you could not say,
‘My images brought them about;
my wooden image and metal god ordained them.’
6 You have heard these things; look at them all.
Will you not admit them?
“From now on I will tell you of new things,
of hidden things unknown to you.
7 They are created now, and not long ago;
you have not heard of them before today.
So you cannot say,
‘Yes, I knew of them.’ (Isaiah 48:3-7)

He went on to predict, through His prophet, Isaiah, the rise and fall of nations, the exile and return of Israel, and then the birth, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection and triumph of His Son, Jesus.  It all happened between 100 and 700 years later.  Except the last part, which is still coming.  Given His track record, skip Bitcoin and invest in God.

No Last Drop

Picture a pitcher, a vessel so full the water quivers at the lip, ready to spill at the slightest bump.  Think of a plate of pancakes so awash in syrup it’s dripping off the side onto the table.  Got the picture?  That’s the meaning of the word translated, “fullness,” in the Bible.  You cannot plumb the depths of fullness.  Fullness bespeaks an inexhaustable supply.

Which is why you want to pause over that word in this line from John about Jesus. 

John 1:16

For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

People who get to know Jesus soon discover there is no end or limit to His grace.  He’s never too busy, too tired, too disappointed, too mad or just plain distracted.  His grace is poured out from fullness.  It’s not that He always gives us what we want.  Jesus doesn’t spoil His kids.  But in His wisdom and from His fullness, He generously provides what we need.

This past year His grace upon grace to me has provided in ways I didn’t realize I needed.  I am deeply thankful.  Here’s a prayer for a joyous Thanksgiving for each of you.

Stepping into Life

He knew he’d be arrested again, but that was what he wanted.  It was too too scary out here.  In prison he would be locked up, but at least he’d know what to expect.  He’d know the rules, know he would eat three times a day.  So when they let him out, he arranged to go right back.  For us on the outside, that doesn’t make much sense.  Sure, it’s more unpredictable out here in real life, but it’s also more free.  Without freedom it just isn’t living.  We understand that, but for some who have been locked up most of their lives, they can’t see it.

Like the people of Israel who suddenly found themselves released from slavery in Egypt following Moses out into the desert.  He thought they would relish the sweet aroma of freedom in their nostrils. But they didn’t get it.

11 They said to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” Exodus 14:11-12

2 And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, 3 and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Exodus 16:2-3

We read that and think, “How could anyone prefer to live in slavery?  How could they choose not to be free?  But slavery was all they knew.  They were more comfortable as slaves.  Stepping into real life was too scary.

If you are tracking with all that, consider these words of Jesus:

25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. Matthew 16:25

Jesus invites us to trust Him and follow Him.  But, having surrounded ourselves with things that make life seem predictable and secure, it may seem as though He invites us into a desert wilderness.  It may seem too scary.  But in reality, Jesus invites us to step into real life and real freedom.

1 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1

What Smokey Says to Churches

What’s the worst thing about church?  Ask ten people that question and the chances are most of them will say something about hypocrisy.  Too many church people robe themselves in the look and sound of Christian-eze, while on the inside they struggle like all the rest of us.  Sound familiar?  

If so, you may be intrigued to know how Jesus taught his boys to act when they began to attract great adoring crowds of followers.  He did not tell them how to greet people with spiritual sounding phrases.  He did not tell them to raise their hands during the praise choruses, or to look pious during prayer time.  He taught them to watch out for trying to act all holier than thou just because they were His disciples.  

In the meantime, when so many thousands of the people had gathered together that they were trampling one another, he began to say to his disciples first, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.  (Luke 12:1-3)

Boys, He said in effect, it’s so easy to put on airs when you see how many people have showed up, to start acting like you are better.  Watch out!  Be real.  Don’t be hypocrites!

Of course, in our day, the same caution applies to the folks who show up at church, not just to the leaders.  There is an awful lot of pretending that goes on in the lobby.  Words and expressions that don’t match what we really think and feel.  True, that stuff frequently goes on in many other places – not just at church.  But Jesus knew hypocrisy is cancer in a church.  Because, if people feel judged, they will never get to know the One Who did not come to judge them but to save them.

And the way to fix it begins with you.  Like what Smokey the Bear says: “Only you can prevent…”

Finished

It’s no fun stepping on a nail.  It was just a small nail, but it hurt like crazy.  The pain of the Crucifixion must have been unimaginably horrible.  No wonder so much has been written and sung about the agony Jesus endured on the cross.  And yet, consider this surprising thing He said as He waited for that terrible day to come:

I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!   (Luke 12:50)

Jesus was not looking forward to being crucified.  His prayers in Gethsemane bear witness to how awful He knew His next day would be.  But the distress He felt as He waited was the distress of yearning for His work on the cross to be accomplished.  Because it was not until the price for sin was fully paid that God’s Spirit could be given to people like me, by God’s love, grace and perfect justice.  And without that life-giving Spirit, we all were doomed.  When Jesus looked around, everyone He saw was headed for Hell.  It distressed Him; He could hardly wait until He made eternal life possible for everyone who would receive Him by faith.

“I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am He you will die in your sins.”  (John 8:24)

“…I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.  (John 10:10b)

“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.”  (John 6:63a)

Even though He knew how badly it would hurt to make God’s Spirit available, He loved me more.  And you, too.

That’s why, with His last breath, 

When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.  (John 19:30)

Sort of finished.  His part was finished.  But it’s not completely finished until you accept it.

A Tribute

“Grab ’em by the throat, slam them up against the wall, and hang on until you are done.”  That was the advice of the greatest professor of preaching this world has seen in recent years.  Haddon Robinson, who died yesterday, left his indelible mark on countless congregations by carefully and passionately equipping preachers.  I am one of those in his debt.  He used to say, “It is a sin to be bore people in the pulpit because it gives the idea that God is boring.  And God is not boring!”  

Haddon Robinson insisted preachers speak from the heart, after deep and careful study of the Word, without notes.  In class, even marking your bible was cause for a failing grade.  Which is why I was so surprised to see a page of notes in his bible just before he rose to preach.  It was at Gordon Conwell Seminary, at an event to honor him and to name their school of preaching for him.  But when he placed the bible on the pulpit, a sudden puff of air blew those notes off his bible and wafted it away, to fall in the first row.  He shrugged his shoulders and then proceeded to deliver one of the most powerful sermons I’ve ever heard – with no notes.  I mentioned it to him a couple of years later and he laughed and said, “There is a God…”

He wass right about that; there is a God, and Haddon knew Him well.  Countless others will come to know Him well too, as a consequence of his instruction.  Well done, Haddon.  You have served Him well.  

Ruins are Ruined

These are the ruins of the synagogue that was built in Capernaum sometime three or four hundred years after the time of Jesus. It was the most magnificent building in town.  Rightly so, because it was the place where people came to try to draw close to God.  The idea was that the greater and more magnificent the building, the closer one could get to God.  That concept is still practiced today.  That synagogue  was probably built on the original foundation of an earlier synagogue that had fallen down, likely the one in which Jesus spoke the following words:

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  (John 6:51)

This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”.  Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum.  ​(John 6:58 — 59)

The bread he was referring to was Himself.  When you visit the synagogue you stand among dilapidated ruins.  You also can visit enormous, ornate, modern houses of worship and sometimes be standing among ruins.  Ruins, because in some of those places it is very tough to draw close to God in a lasting and meaningful way.  But when you come to Jesus by faith, you are filled with God’s presence in a continuing way, with His Fresh Bread of Life.