Tuesday, March 14, 2017

You cannot see the Kingdom of God


For each of us there are things in life we don’t want to miss out on. When that thing comes up, whether it be an event or a gathering or something else, we do whatever it takes to go. If you have to miss it, sometimes the only way to stop yourself from being bummed out is to not think about it or distract yourself with something else. For those of you who are giving up something during Lent, this may be the tactic you use. If you remove yourself from the thing you are trying to avoid, you handle the loss better. By now, most of you know my opinion on giving something up for Lent—I’d rather see you start a new habit rather than give up something. But regardless, if your avoidance of a specific item helps you focus on Jesus, then praise be to Jesus!

I love live music. Sometimes I forget how much I love live music until I see it again and realize how much I’ve missed it. At times the Grammy’s or the iHeart Music Awards are enough to remind me how much I love it. Yet usually I get focused on the many other things I have to do in life and forget all about it again. Recently, John Mayer had tickets go on sale for his new tour. Sadly, the tour was not coming through St. Louis, and the closest stops were Chicago and Kansas City. I tried to forget about ticket sales starting and just remove the whole thing from my mind, but that didn’t work. Instead I found myself texting a friend who lives in Chicago to see if he wanted to go.  It wasn’t going to work for him because his baby is due close to the concert date. Next I texted my brother to see if he wanted to go to the show in Kansas City, but he is going to a concert the night before, so it wouldn’t work for him either. The day the tickets went on sale I still attempted to get tickets even though I didn’t have anyone to go with yet. I got pretty good seats on my first try, but gave them up thinking I could get better ones. When I tried again, just in that short time, the available seats were quite high in the venue, so I gave up and thought I can just buy the cheap seats later if I decide to go. You can imagine my disappointment when the concert sold out! John Mayer released another stop on the tour and I thought I had second chance, but still no St. Louis dates. I tried to convince myself that I am older now, and with kids around I can’t see him every time he has a tour, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit how bummed I am that I will be missing out.

Why do I tell you all of this? Most of you probably don’t care about missing out on John Mayer’s tour, but you care about missing out on something, and you know that feeling when you really want to do something but just can’t. It bothers you. And while you might try to ignore it, you find yourself looking for ways to justify going, or trying to tell yourself that you don’t care, when deep down you know you really do.

This weekend in our text Nicodemus meets Jesus.  During my reading and preparation, the Holy Spirit helped these words of Jesus jump out at me, “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus was a man who knew God, and he knew he did not want to miss out on the kingdom of God. It mattered to him. It would be like missing out on a John Mayer concert. Ok, it is way bigger than that, but you get my point.

Here’s the sad part, in an unchurched culture, there are many people who just don’t care about missing out on seeing the kingdom of God, or they have convinced themselves that they will see heaven because they are “good enough.” If Jesus were to say these same words (the ones above) to them, they would just say who cares, or there isn’t a heaven anyway. We can’t even get to the point of talking to them about baptism or anything else because they don’t think they are missing out on anything. Nicodemus had a strong motivation not to miss out on the kingdom of heaven. Here Jesus was talking to a person of faith, and therefore he had something to build on. What stood out to me is that we may read passages and have great enthusiasm to tell our friends and neighbors, but all that might be lost on them if they are not in a place to know they are missing out.

So now what? How do we help get them there? Unfortunately, I think if their families did not lay a faith foundation, then they have to hit a rock bottom moment to get there. Since we are born into sin we think we can handle things on our own, and when we think that, we don’t see a need for God. There has to be a rock bottom moment for us to get to the place to realize we need Jesus. And the only way we can help them is to be there when they hit that rock bottom moment. For our relationship, it means we have to be intentionally in their lives, so they know they can count on us when those rock bottom moments happen. This Lenten season I pray that you discover the people who you are talking with that may not be worried about missing out on heaven, as well as look for ways to introduce conversations of faith in your intentional relationships.

This weekend is CCLS Sunday. Christian day school provides another avenue to help families “get there” because the Christian faith is introduced at school. Since CCLS continues to strive for excellence, it attracts Christian and non-Christian families alike. This allows the children to see why not entering the kingdom of God would be so sad, and therefore starts conversations with families who may have never cared about this before. This is just one of the reasons our partnership with CCLS is so important and why we take time to celebrate it.

Tempting


Sometimes there are conversations and posts on social media where I really, really want to leave a comment and give someone another perspective that they can’t see for whatever reason. There are times I want to help people understand why they shouldn’t post this or that. I recently had someone inquire of me about how to respond to people who were posting a lot of negative stuff about Scripture. I have to admit, it is so tempting to publicly challenge these people, but quickly I am drawn back to Matthew 18 where Jesus clarifies that it is best to start one-on-one if we have an issue with a brother. Thankfully God’s Word brings me back in line. As I think about the times I get so frustrated at humanity and just want to write a bunch of responses to posts, I can truly understand why people get off Facebook altogether.

This is temptation 101, and Jesus laid the foundation for us on how to handle it. There is something specific about the temptations Jesus faced…they were specific to Him. They were designed to knock Him off track, and they were right in His weak spot. Now, with Jesus there is no weak spot, so the easiest way to show this is to show the human issue of hunger. After fasting for 40 days, Jesus would have been hungry, and we can all understand that. The other temptations are big boy stuff – the devil and Jesus are debating about protection and ownership of the world. Those are specific issues Jesus was facing.

It is hard to translate some of this into our context since most of us probably don’t fast, and I have no temptation to throw myself off a building and challenge God, nor am I tempted to start devil worshiping anytime soon. Yet, I am tempted to respond to those who write things on Facebook. Pastors are not immune to temptations. Some of my pastor Facebook friends are writing things about one another. At times I even feel the devil whispering in my ear to write a specific comment or line, but then Matthew 18 draws me back. (I use the term Facebook friends lightly, as there are lot of people who I am connected with via Facebook who may not truly be my friends.)

My memorization is image based. I have images of paragraphs and stories in my head as I am preparing for a sermon I am going to give. I memorize Scripture in the same way. I memorize the book and chapter, sometimes the verse numbers, but the actual wording is conceptual for me. I know Matthew 18 talks about going to your brother one-on-one, then bringing together two or three, and then including the larger body like the church. If I publicly react out of frustration to a Facebook post, I have just skipped the first two parts of Matthew 18 and jumped right into the last part about the larger body.

In this Lenten season my prayer is that we each take our habits, as they are linked to our personal discipleship, to a new level. The temptation of Jesus is a reminder that the devil is going to attack our weakest areas all the time, and those attacks are specific for each person. Our awareness of this allows the Holy Spirit to do the work He is trying to do in us also – to refine us. In our discipleship model, Read 1 – reading God’s Word daily – helps us grow and see Jesus in the midst of our lives. The Holy Spirit then can prompt us back to a Scripture passage in the midst of that temptation. Jesus laid the perfect example for us on how this happens as we read about His temptation. This is an ideal way to begin this season of reflecting on Jesus’ journey to the cross as we reflect on His example for us to follow in our lives.

Knowledge of God vs. Knowledge of Man


Audrey is in that new phase of investigating absolutely everything. Early on as a parent this phase annoyed me because I was constantly redirecting Jacob or Gavin not to get into something. But with Audrey, I am acknowledging how her mind is growing and changing every day, and it is intriguing to me the things she finds intriguing. Audrey is fascinated with the shower. You cannot leave the shower door open, even for a minute, or she will join you in the shower. Maybe it isn’t that shocking because who doesn’t love a warm shower, but the girl is drawn to it. Even after the water is off she will hang out in there for a few minutes before she crawls back out. Audrey is also fascinated with the dishwasher. I take this as a good sign because hopefully she will be the child most ready to help with chores. My question though is why, in her little mind, does she want to be in the middle of these specific things?

God begins us all as infants, with the same lack of knowledge that grows as we grow. Our world realizes knowledge is power, and has built a very profitable schooling system based on that premise. Maybe too profitable, since young people are accumulating so much student debt. Nevertheless we know knowledge is important. You can always learn more, but you can only learn so much so quickly. I was reading something the other day that said successful people keep reading and learning every day. There is always something more to learn, and the older I get I treasure those eye-opening, learning moments. When you learn something new, it changes your perspective on life.

One of the hardest things for me to understand is how an atheist thinks that they have gained enough knowledge in life to be sure that there isn’t a God. Many different people have tried to set out to disprove God, but the more knowledge they gained the harder it was to deny. But like anything in life, we can stop learning and choose to believe what we want to believe. There is just something that draws us to the idea of “a complete knowledge,” however if humans begin like Audrey, then who can know it all? At a recent conference I attended, it was said that when asked this question, “If you could have lunch with any person (past or present) who would it be?” that the majority of people would answer Jesus. This answer is from Christians and non-Christians alike. The speaker continued to say, “Who else would you say? Mother Theresa? Well, she is connected to Jesus. Gandhi? Well, he had ties to Jesus in some ways too.” So, imagine if you were the lucky one able to walk with Jesus and gain knowledge from Him. Now imagine the impact of walking with Jesus would have on a teenage boy.

The Mount of Transfiguration is a key moment where Jesus allows His disciples to grasp a piece of the knowledge of God. They are looking at Moses and Elijah and are just beginning to understand how big their God is. For those young men, their knowledge is expanding in ways they never thought possible. Our sinful nature will make us think, like Adam and Eve, that we can understand the knowledge of God, but the Mount of Transfiguration shows us the reality – that we can only have a glimpse of what God sees and knows. This weekend we will spend time looking at how this moment in history exemplifies how great Jesus is, and how our knowledge and God’s knowledge is so much different.   

Let's not talk about that


Abby has fallen into the routine of sleeping in the same room with her brothers. There was a short stint of unknown fear, which led to this arrangement. We will occasionally say, “Abby, when are you not going to sleep in the same room with your brothers?” Abby will reply, “Let’s not talk about that.” Out of a four-year-old comes such deep and adult like thinking; oh excuse me, a 4-and-a-half-year-old (if Abby heard me she would correct me).

Anger, lust, divorce, and oaths, as in our lesson for this week from Matthew 5, are just what any preacher wants to talk about. I am sure Pastor Z is thankful this is the text he gets to preach on while I am gone. No matter how much we trust or look up to a leader, nobody loves everything he or she says.  There are plenty of things that rub us the wrong way. In this case, with the leader being Jesus, and Jesus being perfect, it means that He is going to challenge us where we need to be challenged.

With the child-like faith of my youth, I questioned whether stepping on an ant was murder. As an adult, I often fly by such worries because I have so many more important things to worry about. Continuing with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, He brings us back to understand these laws the way they were intended. Murder is not just murder, but also includes anger that burns within someone. Lust is not just committing the act, but also just thinking about it. Divorce devastates a family no matter the sins that precede it. And finally, in our sinful world, one’s word is seen as not strong enough to trust, and so we think we have to add things to it to make it stronger.  Jesus says not so.

God, as our leader, is constantly shaping us. And while the cultural norms allow anger, lust, divorce, and oaths to thrive, Jesus calls us to truly understand what He wants for His people. He came to give grace to all people so that we can be what we spoke about last week—a unique spice to this earth & light to the world. Could we do this on our own? No way, no how.  That is why He gives us His grace as a gift.

Then comes the next step, the Holy Spirit working on us each of us, challenging us where we need to be challenged. For some of us He may challenge our anger. For others it may be the way we use our tongue. Perhaps it is our giving, or better said, our lack of giving. The Holy Spirit is restoring what was intended by the law, which somehow got interpreted softly along the way.

Challenges and changes we need to make are always hard to hear at first. But, each time I am reminded of an area I need to work on, I am also reminded of the grace of God. Jesus lived perfectly, and He gave me grace because He knew I could not do it without Him. My selfish ways want to pretend like I can do everything perfectly, but thanks be to Jesus I am not left in despair, because I do not do everything perfectly. The laws come from a God who brings hope to the hopeless (as we talked about just two weeks ago) and made us all unique to be the spice/salt of life (as we talked about last week). “God is Love” (1 John 4:8) is one of my favorite passages in Scripture. His grace restores us, and then He fine-tunes us to be His extraordinary servants. So often we face the tough challenge of seeing things differently than what the world may accept. But unlike the world, we have a peace and joy they cannot explain, and that is worth every challenge that comes our way.

Changing the Norms


A few years ago Jacob got to be principal for the day. He was so excited. He wore a tie to school and got to visit each Word of Life campus. He ate lunch with the current principal, and got to play with all the kids. I drove up that day to find my little principal in the middle of recess playing a game with a bunch of older kids.  Later I saw pictures of him playing with the preschool kids. For his final act as principal, he declared a free dress down day. Jacob’s innocence was undeniable. He had no clue what “power” was given to him for that day. My son is not perfect, but at least his understanding of power and leadership is pretty pure. Now granted, he is too young to understand the adult world.

Over the next several weeks, we will take time to look at Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We started last week as we looked at the Beatitudes. This is an impromptu series – “Changing the Norms.” No matter how hard we try to avoid these norms, they sneak up on us like a bad habit. Before we know it, we have accepted something we assume is the way things are, without any questions.

I am going to take this unique opportunity to show how the words of Jesus are relevant to us today. In fact, Jesus’ words have become even more relevant since our world is so focused on leadership right now. Again, I am not concerned where you fall on the spectrum, because all human leadership is flawed. This is one reason why God truly never wanted the children of Isreal to have a king. He knew an earthly king would always disappoint them. You can read all about that in 1 Samuel 8. But, the people were persistent and they begged God. While we cannot turn our eyes from the actions happening by our country’s leadership, let’s take this unique opportunity to look at the Sermon on the Mount with fresh eyes, eyes focused on the leaders, and our leader – Jesus.

Jesus had a unique way of changing the cultural norms. He was looking at the commonly accepted principles of the day and helping to guide people to a new perspective. That new perspective was so shocking that it was hard to hear at times. Jesus was helping to form people into what God intended them to be. A few weeks ago we said this formation starts with repentance, and then last week we said the next step was hope for the hopeless. Over the next few weeks we’ll cover another step – sanctification. The Pharisees had interpreted the law in a certain way, but Jesus was speaking with absolutely certainty the way the law was intended, and giving the people a new way to live. This was not always well received by the current leaders of the church, but God’s ways are not our ways. Jesus showed the people God’s intention for their relationship with Him, and with the Holy Spirit. After hearing Jesus, the people were ready to act. This week we hear about Salt and Light, a hopeless people hearing God speak that they are the key to the future of the city. Jesus spoke with authority, and He is still that authority today, no matter what norms are sneaking up on us.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Jesus' Inauguration Speech


I have been around speeches my whole life. In sixth grade my class had a competition to see who gave the best speech. I didn’t get to participate with the rest of the class because I had to go to Florida for my grandpa’s funeral, but I gave my speech when I got back. I ended up in the final running for who would be in the speech competition. Thus began my journey of public speaking. In Seminary I began to define my speaking further, as soon I would be doing a lot of preaching. Sure, I would be asked to speak other places as well, but preaching was going to be my primary mode of public speaking. I have had the blessing of working with great pastors who speak & preach very well. I have watched their gifts and uniqueness’. At times I have been tempted to critique those who are speaking, but as I have matured, I am able to just appreciate public speaking for what it is.

Weddings are one of those places where we see public speaking by people who are usually not used to doing it. Most of the time, the pastor leading the ceremony has a good handle on things, but at the reception things get a little nuts. I have story after story of speeches that I remember, mostly because of their oddness combined with nervousness. I have very few that are memorable because of the great delivery and preparation.

This past Saturday, Mindy and I attended the wedding of a shy couple. Everyone knows they are shy, and knowing this about themselves, the couple limited the number of guests they invited. Not surprisingly, many of those around them are shy too. Because of his shyness, the best man had his wife read his speech. When it came time for the man of honor (a male “maid of honor”) to do his speech, we had no clue what was coming.

Let me tell you a little of the backstory so you get a deeper appreciation of what I mean. The man of honor was the bride’s brother. A few weeks before the wedding he had a stroke. He is a young guy, so a stroke was very unexpected. For awhile He couldn’t talk, and there were questions about whether he was even going to be able to attend the wedding. He went through physical therapy and, thankfully, he was able to attend. When he got up to speak, there were questions about how challenging this would be for him. The room grew silent, and he laid out a heartfelt tearjerker! He transported the audience back to his childhood and that of his sister, where he would ask her, “Do you want to talk, listen, or just go to sleep?” He told everyone about the secret language the two of them share, which only they know. He went on to say that his sister was “his person,” and he doesn’t have many people in this world. My eyes welled up listening to the heartfelt connection he was communicating. I could see how deep this relationship was, and being a relational guy, I was caught up in his words. The delivery didn’t matter. As I listened, I wondered how he was going to connect this to the groom, who was hearing the story of a brother and sister and their deep relationship. But before I could think too long about it, he flawlessly spoke about how great the groom was, how thrilled he was to watch the relationship between him and his sister develop, and how happy he was for his sister that she had found “her person” to be with forever.

In those few minutes, every wedding speech I had ever heard was trumped. Mindy and I made sure to tell him how great his words were. I, knowing that public speaking is challenging for many people, wanted him to leave that night knowing he had done a magnificent job. He had no clue who I was or that I preach every week, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to be the unknown in the crowd who told him his words were powerful.

No matter how technological we become as a generation, technology will never take away from public speaking. The words of a person can immediately transport us into a different place, thought, or emotion. They also can leave us desperate or bored. When you speak publicly often, you know that you can fall into any one of these categories, if not all of them, even in the same speech! That is why it is so scary for people to do. Some would rather die than to speak publicly.

I can’t imagine what it was like to hear Jesus speaking for the first time. Those that understood the words He was saying understood the power of proclamation. Jesus was the only person able to fulfill everything He said, while at the same time fully meaning every word that came out of His mouth. The Scripture lesson for today is called the Beatitudes. It is often hard to explain to people. The words are a powerful proclamation of what Jesus came to do. At first you might think He is talking to specific groups, but He is really talking to all groups. Jesus was proclaiming to us a promise to fill the hole of emptiness we feel in our lives. We take time today to look at this powerful speech from Jesus, given to people that needed to hear words of promise. Nothing has changed for us today, as we hear God’s Word for us as well.

A Great Light


You might have noticed that I never turn on the florescent lights in my office. I despise those kinds of lights. I do whatever I can to avoid them. I have lamps all over my office, including new little lights that look like security cameras. They serve a dual purpose; helps fend off bad guys, and keeps my office bright enough at night for meetings so that I don’t have to turn on the fluorescent overhead lights. The other day I was sitting in the dentist chair and I noticed they have fluorescent lights, but theirs are covered with these cool light covers. The covers are blue with clouds on them. It takes the ridiculous intense light and transitions it into a beautiful sunny day. For a moment I felt like I was at the beach, but then someone started working on my teeth and I was quickly brought back to the reality that I was in a dentist’s chair, not a beach chair.

My point is, those lights at the dentist office are great lights. I have been walking around hating fluorescent lights, convinced I will never find a solution for them, and then I see these awesome covers that transformed my hatred into a love. I want some for my office now. I have visions of people immediately feeling like they are on the beach, or living in the beautiful blue skies of southern California as they enter my office. When I lived in southern California I was truly floored that we had blue skies almost every day. I loved it! I’d drive around with the top off of my Jeep.  At times I’d be frozen at a stoplight because I was starring up with eyes closed into the blue skies. Ahh…  Oh sorry. See what I mean, these are great lights that can take me to new places within seconds.

Make no mistake about it—Jesus was a great light. He immediately reshaped the dark version of this life with His great light. I could use a million stories about it being pitch black, but the truth is, half the time we are starring into the light and we don’t even know how great it can be! Sometimes our mind has human blinders on us, which creates the darkness. But in one moment, one dental chair, everything can change.

Jesus walked around, and person-by-person introduced each of them to the great light—Himself. Most of them were not literally in darkness, by any means, but they could not see what true light was. They were confused about the purpose of life and what hope could look like in this life. The disciples were some of the first to see the great light. They were pulled from their normal day jobs, brought to the great light, and followed it.  A light so great it would cause them to do what they never saw coming. They would walk away from the only lives they have ever known to follow this great light. What will this great light reshape for you? Where are the places you are still living in darkness even though you think you are living in the light?