Saturday, May 19, 2018

Heroes? Samson

Judges 13:1-5
Again the Israelites did evil in the Lord’s sight, so the Lord handed them over to the Philistines, who oppressed them for forty years. 

In those days a man named Manoah from the tribe of Dan lived in the town of Zorah. His wife was unable to become pregnant, and they had no children. The angel of the Lord appeared to Manoah’s wife and said, “Even though you have been unable to have children, you will soon become pregnant and give birth to a son. So be careful; you must not drink wine or any other alcoholic drink nor eat any forbidden food. You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and his hair must never be cut. For he will be dedicated to God as a Nazirite from birth. He will begin to rescue Israel from the Philistines.” 

Many of us know the story of Samson. It falls within the pre-king history of the people of Israel, during the time of the judges. You remember the pattern that the people fell into: when they had a good leader, things were good and they had peace, but as soon as the leader died, they turned away from God and sinned. Then God would allow them to be overpowered by their enemies. Then finally they would cry out to the Lord, who would send deliverance in the form of another leader.

We see in Judges 13 the story of the birth of Samson. Many of you already know about Samson and his great strength. You might also know about his relationship with Delilah. But what you may not know is the rest of the story. I want to read Judges 13:1-3.

One day when Samson was in Timnah, one of the Philistine women caught his eye. When he returned home, he told his father and mother, “A young Philistine woman in Timnah caught my eye. I want to marry her. Get her for me.”

His father and mother objected. “Isn’t there even one woman in our tribe or among all the Israelites you could marry?” they asked. “Why must you go to the pagan Philistines to find a wife?”
But Samson told his father, “Get her for me! She looks good to me.”

Delilah was not Samson’s first conquest. He first went after a Philistine woman named Timnah. Proverbs 25:28 tells us that, “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” In his relationships, Samson demonstrated that he had no self-control. He saw, he wanted, he got. He never listened to anyone’s counsel when it came to women.

Samson also ignored God’s command to stay apart from the Philistines —this wasn’t about the fact that they were foreigners; it was about the fact that they worshiped foreign gods! Timnah and Delilah had this in common; they did not worship God. Samson also violated his Nazirite vows by spending his time at drunken parties. Eating honey he found in a lion’s carcass was also against his Nazirite vows.

The issue is not with Samson’s specific sins. The issue is that Samson paralleled Israel. Just as Samson was tempted by foreign women, Israel was tempted by foreign gods. Just as Samson failed to live a holy life, so did Israel. It can be easy to point fingers at people who commit certain sins, but the reality is, all sin separates us from God.

Many of you know that Samson experienced the consequences of his unfaithful life. Delilah tricked him into telling the secret of his strength, and when he did, the Philistines shaved his hair. He was mocked, blinded and shackled and made to grind grain in the prison mill.

Now the lords of the Philistines gathered to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god and to rejoice, and they said, “Our god has given Samson our enemy into our hand.” And when the people saw him, they praised their god. For they said, “Our god has given our enemy into our hand, the ravager of our country, who has killed many of us.” And when their hearts were merry, they said, “Call Samson, that he may entertain us.” So they called Samson out of the prison, and he entertained them. They made him stand between the pillars. And Samson said to the young man who held him by the hand, “Let me feel the pillars on which the house rests, that I may lean against them.” Now the house was full of men and women. All the lords of the Philistines were there, and on the roof there were about 3,000 men and women, who looked on while Samson entertained. 

Then Samson called to the Lord and said, “O Lord God, please remember me and please strengthen me only this once, O God, that I may be avenged on the Philistines for my two eyes.” And Samson grasped the two middle pillars on which the house rested, and he leaned his weight against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other. And Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines.” Then he bowed with all his strength, and the house fell upon the lords and upon all the people who were in it. So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he had killed during his life. Then his brothers and all his family came down and took him and brought him up and buried him between Zorah and Eshtaol in the tomb of Manoah his father. He had judged Israel twenty years.  (Judges 16:23–31)

What does this all have to do with us?

We might think of Samson and his Nazirite vow as someone unusual, held to a higher standard, but God calls every Christian to live a holy life — 1 Peter 1:16 references Leviticus 11:44 where God tells his people, “Be holy, because I am holy.” Samson took a Nazirite vow. The word Nazirite means “to be separated” — which has the same meaning of the word “holy” or “sanctified.”

Samson did not live a holy, separated, or sanctified life. There are many people who live most of their lives for the Lord, but they fail to set apart their relationships. They go to church. They volunteer, even lead. But their lives are riddled with sin. Some are abusive. Gender-based violence is even a problem in our churches here in Zambia, as Christian husbands fail to live holy lives at home. Some young men are so desperate for a woman’s love and affection or so inflamed by lust that they will do anything to get this woman. In Samson’s case, he ignored the counsel of God and his parents. He had no self-control. He had no self-discipline.

Remember that you do not have to be perfect to accomplish God’s will. God calls us to be open, available, humble, and growing in spiritual maturity as evidenced by the Fruit of the Spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. We are CHRISTIANS. We are not just Christians during church services. We are not just Christians when we are surrounded by our church mates. We are not just Christians when things are going according to plan and are very convenient for us. The life of a Christian is a life of overcoming. It is NOT a life of conforming. Any dead fish can swim down a river, but it takes a live and strong fish to go against the current. In the same way that it takes an active, zealous, and faithful Christian to go against the influence of this world and eventually be part of God’s Kingdom.

 If we are going to live holy sanctified lives, we must ask ourselves these questions:
“When am I going to decide and give 100% of all my mind, heart, and strength to God?”

“What are the things that easily ensnare me and prevent me from surrendering my life to Him?”

“Whose counsel am I listening to?”

“How can I practice self-discipline? What areas in my life need discipline?”

When you’ve asked these questions, then it’s time to put into practice those answers that God gives you!

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Heroes? Deborah

Judges 4:1-5

Today is Lay Activities Special Day. Ever since God began choosing people, his Kingdom has always been all about the lay people, the regular people. There were always leaders of the people, but it is God who causes the ordinary people of God to become great. We humans look at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.

After Moses died, Joshua became the leader of Israel. They began their conquest into the Promised Land, including the famous battle of Jericho where God brought the walls down. The people served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the Lord had done for Israel. (Judges 2:7)

But after Joshua and his generation died, things went downhill fast. After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They aroused the Lord’s anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. (Judges 2:10-13) Because of their disobedience, God allowed their enemies to overrun them — in fact, the scripture says that the Lord’s hand was against them to defeat them!

So every time this happened, God would raise up a warrior leader (otherwise known as judge who would rule over the people and save them out of the hands of their enemies. But as soon as the judge died, the people became even worse than their ancestors. This happened again and again and again. 

One of my favorite judges was Ehud, the left-handed assassin, who killed the king of Moab and led Israel to eighty years of peace. But after Ehud’s death, the Israelites again did what was evil in the Lord’s sight.

So God hands them over to a Canaanite king. Finally, after twenty years of oppression the Israelites cry out to the Lord for help, and the Lord raised up for them a judge. This judge was different from all of the others because previous judges were all warrior-leaders, but Deborah was a prophet. In other words, Deborah did not just lead the armies, Deborah spoke for God. 

It was through Deborah that God delivered his people from the hands of their enemies. Now, in this period of history, women were not on the same level as men. You can even see this by the fact that Deborah is introduced as related to her husband — a woman received her worth from her father, her husband, or her son. But Deborah’s true worth comes from God and from her role as a prophet.

The story of Deborah is rather interesting — she had a word from God for the military leader who didn’t want to do what she told him to do unless she came along. She told him, “OK, but now a woman is going to do your job for you.” This can be a word for any of us; when God tells us to do something, God will give us everything we need to complete the job. God will equip us in every way to be obedient to him.

But the sad fact is, as long as Israel has a good leader, the people generally do what’s right. Then as soon as that leader dies, the people immediately turn to evil. In the Book of Judges, we see multiple times this phrase: In those days Israel had no king. Everyone did as they saw fit. (Judges 17:6; 19:1; 21:25) In those days the nations saw their king as the one God would pass blessings down to. He was then responsible to distribute those blessings to the people. God never worked that way, and we’ll see that even from the first days of Israel’s monarchy, this concept was abused. God didn’t work that way because he chose all of his people to be a kingdom of priests. All of God’s people were blessed by God to be a blessing to the nations! But it didn’t work. Because while they are being watched, the Israelites behave decently.

But as soon as that ruler dies, they do what’s evil. Integrity is doing what’s right when nobody is looking. If we always do what’s right, we would never even have to worry about corruption. But as humans, we sin and fall short. Again and again. And when we disobey, God uses many various means of discipline. But nobody can force us to realize the truth: that our sin, our issues, our problems, they all stem from our behaviors. And our behaviors stem from our values. We do what we prize. We follow what is important to us. But our values come from our beliefs. And our beliefs come from our unique belief systems, coming from our family, our tribe, our culture. 

So the fact was, Deborah came and as God’s prophet and judge, she led God’s people into peace. But in reality, until their belief system changed, until their view of God and themselves changed, there will be nothing different. This is why Paul writes in Romans 12: Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. At the end of Judges 5, after Deborah led the people to throw off the yoke of oppression, Israel had peace for forty years. But they had not been transformed. Their minds had not been renewed. So Judges 6 begins this way: The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord…

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Be Strong and Courageous

Deuteronomy 31:1-6 When Moses had finished saying these things to all the people, he said, “I am now 120 years old and am no longer able to lead you. The Lord has told me that I will not cross the Jordan River. But the Lord your God himself will cross over ahead of you. He will destroy the nations living there, and you will take possession of the land. Joshua is your new leader and he will go with you, just as the Lord promised. The Lord will destroy the nations living in the land, just as he destroyed Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites. The Lord will hand over to you the people who live there and you will deal with them as I have commanded you. Be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid of them! The Lord your God will go ahead of you. He will neither fail you nor forsake you. (NLT)

As Christians, we do not look for the living among the dead. We choose life, not death. Last week we were reminded that we choose life by loving God, by walking in His ways, and by keeping His commandments. God promises rewards, life, abundant life, and blessings to those who seek life by seeking Christ. Immediately after last week’s passage, we find the passage that we read today.

Moses finished saying all these things, and now he is handing over leadership to Joshua. Now, most of us have experienced leadership changes. As a Methodist pastor, I have followed several different pastors, even in long lines of pastors. Some of those pastors have been really great leaders, but sometimes that particular church can hold on to the former pastor or to their past history instead of moving forward. Some of these churches revere their former pastors or former leaders almost more than  When we hold on to the past, we are looking for the living among the dead. One of the most deadly phrases a church member ever can say is “We’ve never done it that way before.” Nothing blocks the ministry of the Holy Spirit more effectively than a Christian saying, “I will not do anything new because we’ve never done it before.”

Moses is handing ministry leadership over to Joshua. He will no longer lead the people of Israel and will not enter into the Promised Land. But he is clear that while Joshua is their new leader, it is truly the Lord who will continue leading them. What does this mean? It means they would not enter into the battle alone — that God would lead them.

Some of you know you are entering a battle. You know that the days ahead will be difficult, and it makes your faith waver. Have you already experienced God’s victory? You know you can count on Him going forward. This is why Moses can say to Joshua and to the people of Israel, “Be strong and courageous.” Strength and courage do not come from confidence in our own abilities, but from confidence in God, the one marching with us.

Though we are fighting spiritual battles, our minds are not focused on the enemy. Satan is a threat who can undermine our confidence, but rather our minds are fixed on God, who will not fail or forsake them. With full confidence in the presence of God in our midst, we cannot fail to be victorious.

If we want to look at the same topic in a different context, we can look at Ephesians 6:10-14, the armor of the Lord.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Therefore stand…

Paul tells the church in Ephesus to be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. He doesn’t tell them to just put on the armor of God. No, the armor of God is ineffective unless it is preceded by strength in the Lord. It is the Lord who enables us to stand against the schemes of the devil. “Be strong in the Lord” literally means “Strengthen yourselves in the Lord,” and it has the same intent and the same weight as God telling Joshua to be strong and very courageous.

God tells his children to be strengthened in “the power of his might”— the same power he mentioned earlier: “the surpassing greatness of his power in us who believe”; it is the “operation of his mighty strength” by which he raised Christ from the dead (Eph. 1:19–20); it is the power with which Paul has prayed that his readers may be strengthened by the Spirit of God in their inner being (Eph. 3:16). Now we are told one way in which this power can be effective in our lives—in enabling us to resist those forces in the world that are hostile to our well-being and opposed to the gospel.

Friends, we are facing forces in this world that are hostile to our well-being. We face daily forces that are opposed to the gospel. 1 Peter 5:8 pictures Satan as a mighty lion, seeking whom he may devour. When facing Satan, it is not enough to fight him in our own strength. Can you imagine, facing a lion, saying, “Look how strong I am!” But instead, we are to face Satan in God’s strength. Putting on the full armor of God. You see, God’s armor is trustworthy, because God is trustworthy. He gives us everything we need to stand strong and courageous. God does not call those who are equipped. God equips those he calls. And he equips us with strength and courage.

In times of great hostility, when Satan’s attacks are the strongest, when evil’s power seems overwhelming, when the temptation to yield is strong, this is when God’s armor and divine grace and strength is most necessary. God gives us the strength and courage to resist the devil and to stand firm.

The picture is of a Roman centurion, who had to be the kind of man who could be relied upon, when hard-pressed, to stand fast and not give way; and the same quality is necessary in the spiritual warfare. “Having done everything” is explained by J. A. Robinson as “having accomplished all that your duty requires.” When all that has been accomplished, the one thing needful is to stand one’s ground.

Remember that God never requires us to go somewhere he hasn’t already been. Sometimes Christians think of missionaries as “taking Jesus to the people” of a certain land. But we can’t take Jesus there; he was there in Creation! We might be introducing people to Jesus, but we’re not the ones taking him around his world!

Last week we talked about walking in God’s will, how God usually instructs us one step at a time. Today’s scripture also reminds us that when God instructs us, God strengthens us and gives us courage. How? Because he will lead us every step of the way. He will go ahead of you. He will neither fail nor forsake you. This gives us hope and drives out fear, while God commands obedience, he also provides the strength to give us courage to do his will, even in the most difficult situations.

So the final question is this: What would you do if you were strong and courageous?

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Choose Life

Deuteronomy 30:11-20 “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. 
“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” 

Last week we went with the women to where Jesus had been buried, only to find an empty tomb. Then two brilliantly shining men appeared and asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” They were expecting to find a dead body — but Jesus isn’t dead. He is alive!

But Jesus’ resurrection was not the first time that the people of God were instructed to seek life. Now the background of today’s scripture: the book of Deuteronomy is called the second giving of the law. That’s what the word Deuteronomy means, deutero = second; nomos = law. At this point in history, Moses is finishing his ministry. Moses was the great leader of God’s people — he led Israel out of Egyptian slavery, through the Red Sea. He led them as they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. He went to the mountain and met with God, and God gave him the Ten Commandments. Now he is at the end of his ministry; he wants the people of Israel to make a choice.

I’ve been in places where a leader gets everyone all excited about the decision they are making. They make the choice look very attractive, and they get the people emotionally charged up to make the decision. But when they go out from the church, they realize that they cannot follow through. But Moses tells the people that this commandment that he is giving them is not too hard. It is something they can accomplish. And it is not far off; they don’t have to wait to start. They don’t need an angel or a missionary to bring it to them.

I want to pause here for a moment. There are people who think that the only way the Methodist Church in Lusaka or in Zambia can be successful is if a missionary does it for you. I have been personally chastised and embarrassed by our own district members because I have not built for you a building. Some people have a worldview called “entitlement.” This means you expect someone else to do everything for you, to find you a job, to give you money, always expecting a handout. Moses is saying, “You don’t need someone else. But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.” (Deuteronomy 30:14)

We don’t need someone else to do it for us. We don’t need someone to tell us or explain to us; what we need to do is to obey what God has told us. We often ask a lot of questions about God’s will, about what God wants from us, and we can make it so complicated and hard. Moses explains things simply. But he also shows how important this is. The choice is the choice between life and death, good and evil. 

How do we get life? We refuse to seek the living among the dead! Deuteronomy 30:16 tells us: 
“If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.” 

God tells us: “obey Me.” How do we obey him? Love God. Walk in his ways. Keep his commandments. You want to know God’s will for your life? Obey God. Love him. Walk in his ways. Keep his commandments. There are plenty of people who want to know God’s will for their lives, but they don’t want to be bothered by these little things like obedience. They don’t want to walk in his ways; they want God to walk in their ways. And when God does not do that, their hearts turn away. They worship other gods and serve them. Now, most of us do not think about other gods, like Baal or Molech, but what we do is turn to other things. Other things become more important than God. We seek first after money. We seek first after relationships. We seek first after the approval of other people. Then we find ourselves living terrible lives, without money, without relationships, without the approval of man, and, most importantly without God’s blessing.

The sad thing is that we are all seeking life, but when we seek anywhere else but in God’s good and perfect will, we are seeking the living among the dead. And the result of seeking life among death, looking in dead things for the means of life, then we receive death. This is also God’s promise to his people! 

But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. 

The choice is before us. Life or death. Blessing or curse. You don’t need a pastor or a missionary to tell you this. You don’t need an angel visit or a vision or a dream to give you this word of Truth. 

Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.

This is our objective. This is our goal. This is why Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10). And this goal comes from our choice: choose life. Choose obedience. 

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Why Do You Seek the Living Among the Dead

Over the last days, we have been looking at some of the more important characters of Holy Week, looking in depth at Judas Iscariot and Simon Peter. Both were Jesus’ disciples, but Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus and Simon Peter denied that he even knew Jesus. While both ministered alongside Jesus for three years, when Jesus was crucified, they, along with the other disciples, abandoned Jesus. 

There are certainly other characters involved in Holy Week. Perhaps next time we could look at Pilate or Caiaphas. But none of these, nor Joseph of Arimathea, who gave his tomb to bury Jesus, nor the women who discovered the empty tomb, none of these are the central character to Holy Week.

The main character in Holy Week is none other than Jesus. Remember in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus was praying? He had a choice in the matter here. He could have said, “No, I’m not doing this.” But instead he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done. He chose the cross.

When Jesus went to trial, he refused to speak up in his own defense. Why? Because he would have swayed Pilate, Caiaphas, and even Herod with his wisdom and innocence. But instead, he chose the cross. 

And so Jesus died a criminal’s death on the cross. He died, and was buried in a tomb. His very interesting three year ministry was over. Except that it wasn’t. 

We can find the rest of the story in Luke 24:1-10. On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ”Then they remembered his words.

When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. 

Perhaps my favorite moment in this passage is when Jesus asks, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?

This is a brilliant question. It is brilliant because with that one question he changes our focus. Our focus changes from death to life. In reality, all life apart from God is really merely a slow death. As Jesus said in John 10:10, “The thief comes to steal, kill and destroy, but I have come to bring life, and life abundant. 

When we live life under our own power, in our own strength, we are seeking the living among the dead. But Jesus alone gives life. There is no life apart from him. As he told Mary and Martha before he raised Lazarus from the dead: I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even if he dies. And those who live and believe in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26) 

Therefore, our Christian focus is no longer the cross, but the empty tomb. We do not focus on the death of Jesus, but his resurrection. Some Christians like to point to Jesus death as the turning point of history. When he said, “It is finished” he did away with the old system of sacrifices, as he took all of the sin of the world, past, present, and future, upon himself. However, when he rose again, his resurrection refocused everything, from death, to life. 

Because he lives, we, too, can live. Because his tomb is empty, we know his claims are true. He was not simply a martyr who believed in a cause enough to die for it; he died for us, but he rose again! 

And if our lives are oriented toward the resurrection, then we will live and strive as though knowing Jesus and being with Jesus is the greatest possible future.  We learn that from the apostle Paul in Philippians 3:10—“I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, and so, somehow to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead” moves us from the death of the cross to the life of the resurrection.  That redirection enables us to live lives of radical sacrifice, love, and hope.

Now, can you imagine how the women were feeling when they went to the tomb on the first day of the week? Mourning. Wondering. Fear. With all the strong emotions, it’s tempting to interpret everything through their feelings. We can feel so deeply that we give our feelings the last word. We can say to ourselves or others, “I don’t care what they say or what the facts are or even what the Bible says.  I know how I feel!!”

But this question—“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”—confronts their feelings. The question confronts the authority of their feelings by pointing to a higher authority, a more sure source of knowing. The question points to God’s word. We have to believe… and remember. Our feelings can betray us. But remember what Jesus told his disciples shortly before he was crucified: (John 14:1-4) “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.

We most need that redirection from feeling to Scripture when our feelings are strongest and our experiences most surprising. That’s when we need to be focused on God’s word because that’s when our hearts and minds are most vulnerable.  This question powerfully redirects the mourning disciples from their feelings and fear to the solid promises and reality of the Gospel. Living in light of the resurrection keeps us living in light of God’s promises. No matter what is going on around you, you can trust in God’s promises. Do you actively live in that light? If not, why not? A key is spending regular time in the scriptures. That way, when you need them most, when you are feeling your worst, you will have them as a treasure to give you hope.

Finally, when we refuse to look for the living among the dead, we are moved from grief to joy. If Jesus is alive and is not dead, then all who trust in Him have the supreme reason to rejoice. As Peter writes in 1 Peter 1:3-4 “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In His great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead….

Verse 6:“In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.”

Because of the resurrection, we have a new birth and an eternal inheritance that gives us joy and praise greater than our grief. So much so, Peter writes in verses 8-9:
Though you have not seen Him, you love Him; and even though you do not see Him now [while suffering through trials] “you believe in Him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

If you want to be happy and full of joy in this life and the life to come?  Focus on Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus was raised from the dead and He Himself is our inheritance. He gives us joy unspeakable, even in the face of our own struggling and suffering.

We do not seek the living among the dead. Jesus is alive, and everything has changed because he lives!

The Characters of Holy Week: Simon Peter

Yesterday we looked at Judas Iscariot, the villain of Holy Week. It is easy to describe him as the villain among the disciples, as he did the unthinkable; he betrayed Jesus to his death. Today we look at another disciple, Simon Peter.

John 1:41-42 records when Peter first met Jesus.
Peter’s brother, Andrew was a follower of John the Baptist. They were together when John saw Jesus and pointed him out. “Look, the Lamb of God!” The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).

Cephas, or Peter, is translated “the Rock.” So Jesus renamed Simon “the Rock.”

One of my favorite stories about Peter comes in Matthew 14. Jesus sent his disciples across the lake in a boat and went to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.
Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.
But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Peter was the one who got out of the boat and walked on water!

Peter is also the one who made the great confession of faith, In Matthew 16:13-18, when Jesus asked his disciples “Who do people say I am?” “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 

At the Last Supper, when Jesus told his disciples that one of them would betray him, Simon Peter joined with the others in questioning him. “Surely not I!” Simon Peter told Jesus, “I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus told him, “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!” 

So, in John 18, we see Jesus arrested. 

15 Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus. Because this disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard,16 but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, came back, spoke to the servant girl on duty there and brought Peter in.
17 “You aren’t one of this man’s disciples too, are you?” she asked Peter.
He replied, “I am not.”
18 It was cold, and the servants and officials stood around a fire they had made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself.

Meanwhile, the high priest questioned Jesus. And as this happened, Simon Peter was still standing there, warming himself. 

25 So they asked him, “You aren’t one of his disciples too, are you?”
He denied it, saying, “I am not.”
26 One of the high priest’s servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, challenged him, “Didn’t I see you with him in the garden?” 27 Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a rooster began to crow.

Matthew 26:75 tells us that Peter went outside and wept bitterly.

And Jesus was crucified. Dead. Buried.

We know what would happen next. Jesus rose again, victorious over death. But what of Simon Peter? … He went back to fishing. And one day, while he was fishing, Jesus showed up on the shore! They had caught no fish, but Jesus told them to cast on the other side of the boat, and when they did, they caught so many fish that they couldn’t even haul in the net. John recognized Jesus, and when he did, he said, “It’s the Lord!” At that, Simon Peter jumped in the water and swam to the shore to meet him.

We pick this story up in John 21:15. 
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

Simon Peter and Judas Iscariot found themselves in similar positions. Both of them were Jesus’ trusted disciples. Judas betrayed Jesus. Peter denied that he even knew him. But the difference was — where Judas continued to take matters into his own hands, delivering his own judgment in the form of suicide, Peter went back to fishing. He figured that he had washed out of Jesus’ program, might as well go back to what he knew. But Jesus had other ideas. He reinstated Peter, who went on to be a leader of Christ’s church. 

What does this have to do with us? We may be sinners. We may have done wrong. We may be full of guilt and shame. But Jesus gives second chances.

Friday, March 30, 2018

The Characters of Holy Week: Judas Iscariot

Rarely has there been a clearer villain. He was hand-picked by Jesus as a disciple, one of only twelve to be in Jesus’ inner circle of closest friends. Yet he betrayed Jesus to his death. It can be easy to simply dismiss Judas as the “bad guy” in the story, but as with everyone, his story is much deeper than simply the villain.

As I reminded you yesterday, there was a reason Jesus chose Judas to be one of the Twelve. The Twelve regularly went on mission, healing the sick, driving out demons, preaching the Gospel, and there is nothing to indicate that Judas was not a part of this ministry. He was so much a part of the Twelve that John 13:29 indicates that he became their treasurer. Jesus saw him as a follower and a disciple and even among the disciples, Judas had a position of leadership.

Unfortunately the Bible does not record Judas doing much more that we can call positive. In John 12:3-5, we see Mary taking a expensive bottle of perfume and anointing Jesus’ feet with it, drying his feet with her hair. While others were doubtlessly moved by the selflessness of Mary’s actions, Judas questioned her motives, demanding, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” John interprets in Judas’ question a deeper motive — Judas was the disciples’ treasurer and he apparently regularly helped himself to their money. He took a payment from the priests, thirty pieces of silver, to betray Jesus. The Apostle Paul later records that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” and it seems that Judas had that love of money.

There are those who say that Judas was bad from the beginning. They say that he never really followed Jesus. I don’t think the scripture says that or suggests that at all. But I do think that Judas had some wrong expectations of Jesus.

Though Jesus explained things multiple times, that the Messiah must suffer and die and on the third day rise again, it does not seem like the disciples understood what he was saying. They understood the concept of the Messiah incorrectly. They thought since the Messiah was to be in the line of David, that he would be an earthly king, like David. David was known for his leadership over all of Israel. But due to bad, sinful leadership, Israel and Judah had not continued as a united kingdom. After David’s son, Solomon, the country divided. Soon they were exiled. And ever since then, the people had been looking forward to a Messiah who would unite the kingdom and rule over it like in the old days.

Except that wasn’t really what the Messiah came to do. It became obvious in those last days. There were those who wanted to make Jesus king by force, as reported in John 6:15. I think Judas thought, “I have a unique opportunity to force Jesus’ hand in overthrowing Rome AND I can make some money on the side.”

It could be that he thought, “If I turn Jesus over to the authorities, he will show his power. I know he has the power to do whatever it takes. Now is the time.” And so he betrayed Jesus. Now, to be sure, this is just a guess on my part. But we know the rest of the story. Judas left the Passover meal, and shortly thereafter, Jesus Peter, James, and John, and they went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. 

While [Jesus] was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him.
Jesus replied, “Do what you came for, friend.”
Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him.

And Jesus was beaten and mocked, and eventually was sent to his death on the cross.

Why do I spend my time on Judas?

It is easy to scoff at Judas and call him the betrayer, but the truth is, we are all but one step away from Judas ourselves. We all have the capability of becoming like Judas. You see, many of us in the church have our own ideas of how God should move. We want God to do certain things, and we are convinced that if God doesn’t do things like we want him to do them, then we should take matters into our own hands. The prosperity gospel is all too prevalent; people think they can manipulate God into giving them money and financial wealth and physical health. And when God does not do what we demanded that he do, then we turn our backs on him.

Judas also embodied the spirit of the crowds. The crowds shouted “Hosanna” when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, but in a few short days, they were shouting “Crucify him!” Likewise, Judas was a follower of Jesus when it served his interests — when it helped him get money — but when following Jesus didn’t serve Judas’ goals, Judas betrayed him. 

We do the same thing. We can be church members all our lives, but if some day we don’t like the new program the pastor is leading, then we launch a full-on revolt. When the church doesn’t make me the big man anymore, then it’s time to tear down everyone around me, and we often do it just like Judas, in secret meetings at night. 

Each of us is but a step away from being Judas ourselves, but we all have a choice. Just as Jesus told his disciples in the Garden: “Watch and pray, so that you will not fall into temptation.” I will go so far as to say that I firmly believe that had Judas approached the resurrected Jesus and asked forgiveness, Jesus would have reinstated him. So no matter what you have done, no matter how you have taken matters into your own hands, no matter how you have sinned and betrayed Jesus, the very fact that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, the fact that he rose again victorious over sin and death, means that forgiveness is available in Him.