Sunday, February 28, 2010

Vital Signs: Believe!

John 4:46-54

Today we’re continuing our series Vital Signs, where we are looking at Jesus’ miracles as recorded in the Gospel according to John.  As the Scripture stated, this is the second miraculous sign Jesus performed.  But before we start, let’s pray.

I was a junior in high school, I was at church camp, and I was in love (for those reading this and not just hearing it, you’ve got to read that in the most sarcastic, sappy voice you can muster). There was this young lady there at camp who I thought was fantastic looking.  She was just my type.  I was determined to make my move on her.  Through the week I tried to get to know her, not really successfully.  But then my sister, who shared a cabin with this young lady, told me about one morning, when the young lady in question had gotten dressed.  She was apparently admiring herself in the mirror, saying, “My shoes are brown, my pants are brown, my shirt is brown, my socks are brown, my hair is brown… my last name is Brown!”   This kind of summed up her personality. While she was great to look at, her other traits (like personality and intelligence) were, well, less than optimal.

Here’s the thing: there are plenty of people who simply pursue the sensational. It’s the same as people who are all of a sudden fans of whatever sports team is doing well – we call them “fair weather fans.” Kind of like all the fans who have jumped on the Cleveland Cavaliers bandwagon with LeBron James. Meanwhile some of you have suffered through years of being Cleveland fans…

In this passage, Jesus confronts the sensational nature of much of his ministry.  "Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders," Jesus told him, "you will never believe." (John 4:48).  Now, understand that Jesus wasn’t calling out this one man, the royal official.  He was talking to all of the people gathered around.  They were all waiting, wondering what kind of sign Jesus would perform.  They were all ready for him to go to the royal official’s royal house and do something spectacular.  They’d all heard about the water into really good wine incident that had happened right there in Cana of Galilee. 

Jesus wasn’t calling this royal official out for a lack of belief.  He was speaking to all the people.  Unless you see miraculous signs and wonders, you will never believe. 

What is your faith made of?  Does it hinge on the miraculous? If Jesus doesn’t do something miraculous, what happens to your faith? Last week I told you about the Big Wheel miracle, how God provided not only a Big Wheel for my fifth birthday, answering the prayers of my childhood faith, but provided one for each my brother and my sister.  And I’ve seen other miracles, too. When I was in high school, I remember one Sunday morning getting the news that my friend Jeff had been in a terrible car accident.  It was horrible, and Jeff’s life lay in the balance – the doctors gave him a very slight chance of survival, and if he did live, he would certainly be brain damaged, maybe in a vegetative state.

I remember praying for Jeff – we all were – and I remember visiting him at Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis.  I remember him lying there, unresponsive.  And then responding.  Then telling the nurse to watch her language.  Then recovering and doing well – maybe even better than he was doing before the accident! 

I certainly learned to trust in God’s providence through His miracles.  I learned to trust in His healing powers through his miracles. And Jesus does accept those who just believe because he performs miracles, but it’s clear that this isn’t the highest form of belief.  This person is merely a baby Christian. The Apostle Paul calls them “mere infants in Christ” to whom he gave “milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. (1 Corinthians 3:2).

I believe that we often receive miraculous signs as spiritual milk.  When we look at the Old Testament, sometimes we have to step back and remember that Abraham and Moses didn’t have the Bible to read – they didn’t know everything about God that we know.  This is what is called progressive revelation; they were learning as they went along – often through signs and wonders. A prime example is Moses leading Israel out of Egypt.  They saw with their own eyes the plagues that God inflicted on Egypt.  They walked through the Red Sea on dry ground.  Yet they grumbled and wondered if God had led them out into the desert to die.  Again and again.  They wondered how they would eat.  They wondered what they would drink.  They doubted that they could conquer the nations that God told them HE would drive out before them. 

They pretty much say, “We saw God working back then, but eh, we hardly believe now.” In fact, at the very time when Moses is up on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments from the LORD, the people are down below saying to Moses’ brother Aaron, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”  (Exodus 32:1)

Here’s the thing: they demand a sign, and then another sign.  They move from sign to sign, and in the in-between times, they wonder, “Where is God?”  This brings me to those who are angry at God.  I can understand wondering where God is, especially in tough or trying times, but there are some whose anger at God is really pointless.  They have been angry at Him for years because they’ve demanded a sign from Him and He didn’t come through.  Can we see the foolishness of this attitude?  We, God’s creation, supposing to demand our way of God, demanding Him to do our bidding.  We demand, by our words and actions, that God fit into our mold, do what we tell him to do, and play by our rules , and if he doesn’t, then we somehow think we have the right to rail at him, attack him, denounce him, or even disbelieve him. Honestly that’s not too different from a 2 year old throwing a tantrum because mommy won’t buy him the toy he wants.

This should remind us that any and all of God’s miracles should be seen for their true purpose.  God doesn’t just do miracles just to show off; they are always for the purpose of pointing people to God.  So when we see Jesus healing someone, it’s not completely for the sake of the sick person who has been healed or even for his or her family. If that was the purpose, then why would they still die?  Or, when we pray for a Christian’s health and they’re healed, why would God do that?  They were on their way to Heaven!  Why would we even want to jerk them away from their eternal reward?  Because God wants to use the miracle to point people to Himself.

When we have this view of miracles, we can pray, “Not my will, but Yours be done.”

Otherwise we’re demanding our will from God. I want you to imagine this scenario: I don’t believe that LeBron James can dunk.  Why not?  Because I don’t see him dunking right now.  Sure, he has dunked in the past.  But since I don’t see him dunking right now, he must not be able to.  So if LeBron can really dunk, he needs to show up right here and dunk right now.

Do you see how ridiculous that is?  Why should he go and perform just because this fair-weather bandwagon Cavs fan demands a dunk? Yet we do exactly that when we demand a sign from God, except instead of demanding it from the best basketball player in the world, we’re demanding from the Creator of the world.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews blames it on our immaturity.   In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.  Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity. (Hebrews 5:12-6:1) This effects us in this way: if we are mature, we can live by faith, not from miracle to miracle.

How do you know if you’re mature?  If you’re moving to solid food from milk?  Understand that the major difference between those two is who is doing the feeding.  Infants require someone else to feed them, while adults can feed themselves.  I hear people complain about their churches saying, “I’m just not getting fed here.” I want to say, “Oh, really?  Can’t you feed yourself yet?” Sure, there should be something we “get” from a service, but what if we treated our Sunday mornings as a time for us to bring something to God? The Old Testament is clear that when Israel came to the Tabernacle or the Temple, they came bringing their sacrifices.  It wasn’t about what they were getting from the Temple, but what they were bringing to God!

Maybe it’s time to evaluate what we’re bringing to God – and a time to begin feeding ourselves.  Understand that if you’ve never fed yourself, if you’ve never read the Bible for yourself, that it’s not easy and it’s not always pretty.  But when a toddler begins to eat, he or she does it with gusto.  So go all out, and they make a mess while they’re learning.  But they have others around to help them clean up, and soon they learn to do it themselves.

As an aside, this is why I think our cell group ministry is so important as an entry into the realm of feeding oneself – when you’re in a group of other Christians who love you and care for you, they can help you with the difficult parts of being a Christian!

So anyway, back to the passage: Know this: I’ve been speaking to those who have been Christians for a while here – you need to be eating solid food, feeding yourself, but here’s how awesome our Lord is: Jesus accepts you even if you’re just in it for the sensational.  Even though the royal official’s faith was tiny, even though he needed confirmation that Jesus would do something, even though he was just grasping at straws, Jesus heals his son.

Did you notice how this miracle has progressed over the miracle we witnessed last week?  Though the setting was similar, then we saw an inanimate object transformed on the spot: Jesus was there to turn water into wine.  Today we see a person healed.  Remotely.  Jesus wasn’t even there, and the man’s son was healed on the spot.

An amazing miracle.

Do you remember what I said about miracles always having a purpose? They always exist to point us to God. How does this happen through this miracle?

To get the higher purpose of this miracle, we have to read the passage closely.  Did you notice that John repeats himself?  He repeats Jesus’ comment Your son will live John 4:50, 52. This comes as a contrast to the royal official’s plea, “Come down before my child dies.”

Last week we saw Jesus miraculously providing wine for a poor couple, saving them from humiliation and possibly even a lawsuit.  Today we see Jesus providing life.  This is the point of Jesus’ miracle; to demonstrate that He (and He alone) is the Life giver.

This helps to prepare us for John 14:6, where Jesus proclaims, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” We wouldn’t have the basis to believe this if he hadn’t laid the foundation by not only saying it, but showing it.

Jesus shows that he gives life, and he tells us that he is the Life; there is no life aside from Him. 

I love the moment when Jesus releases the man, telling him, “You may go; your son will live.” Did you get his response?  The man took Jesus at his word and departed. (John 4:50)

Do you take Jesus at his word? Do you really?  Do you believe that Jesus is the Savior, the Messiah, the Anointed One?  He said he was. Do you believe that Jesus is the only way to God the Father?  Jesus said he was.  Do you believe that Jesus and God the Father are one?  Jesus said he was. Do you believe God will provide for your needs? Jesus said He would. 

Here’s the thing: I think we’re often ignorant of what Jesus really said about himself and about what he commanded.  If we take him at his word, we’re going to have to know his word.  That’s one of the reasons I’m reading the entire Bible during Lent.  I know several of you are reading along (and even ahead of me), but even if you’re not doing the challenge, you have to be reading your Bible. If you aren’t, how about start – if you wonder where to start, the Gospel According to John is a good start – that way you’ll be reading about Jesus and what he said about himself and the miracles that are the basis of our sermon series up to Easter. 

Maybe you’ve read the Bible, but it’s been a while; it’s time to read some more.  But don’t just read it; take Jesus at his word and actually obey what he says.  If you’re wondering how to do this, start your reading with a prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to reveal to you what you’re supposed to obey, and then mark in your Bible any commands – and write them down elsewhere, too. Perhaps get a journal where you write things down.  Color code.  Whatever it takes.  Then tell someone.  Don’t just expect your life to change on your own; we were made to be in community together.

Don’t just chase the sensational; the truth is, when the sensation is gone, so is the drive to follow it.  I started out this morning with a silly example from my life of young love at church camp – once I realized that she didn’t have much personality, I stopped chasing after her.  And that’s often what happens with people who chase after Jesus based solely on sensation.  Remember 9/11? I don’t know what it was like here, but most churches were packed out for the few weeks after.  But it didn’t amount to much on-going life change.  Here’s the thing: don’t just chase the sensational; get to know the Person.  He will transform you.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Vital Signs: Party Time!

I have to start out this morning by acknowledging that many of you made significant decisions last week as we decided together that “We will serve the LORD our God and obey him.” This is important as we enter into this time of our Christian calendar – if you’re not familiar with the Christian year, we started Lent this week, a 40 day period where we focus on holiness, repentance, fasting, prayer, and preparation for Jesus’ death, resurrection, and return.

This year during Lent I will be leading a series called Vital Signs. we will be looking at the signs and miracles Jesus performed as recorded in the Gospel according to John.  Understand as we go into this that these aren’t Jesus’ only miracles.  John himself reported that Jesus did many other things as well.  If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. (John 21:25).  But the signs that John reported are important for us for this reason: it was through these signs that Jesus revealed his glory and his disciples put their faith in him. (John 2:11)

When we’re reading John 2, it can be easy in our culture to really wonder about this miracle.  Why would Jesus do this? Let’s look at a little background before we go to how this applies to us. To understand a wedding feast in Jesus’ day is to know how to party.  The feast would be scheduled to go on for days.  Literally days.  And the host would be expected to provide for all of the guests; to not do so would be to risk humiliation and even lawsuit!  Can you imagine that – if you ran out of wine at your party, you could get sued!  Commentators have surmised that the hosts of this particular party were poor and that they “made the minimum provision, hoping for the best” (The Gospel According to John: NICNT: Leon Morris, p. 158). So when they ran out of wine, it wasn’t the case that they could just head out to the Wine Guy and buy some more.  They ran out, and they were humiliated.  

So Jesus provides for them in a very real way.  Though they only provided the minimum and hoped it would last, Jesus not only multiplied it for them, but he gave them the best.  God tends to do this.  He miraculously provides, and he does it in ways we wouldn’t have even imagined.

Now, it would be a mistake to not address the fact that this miracle runs face-to-face into one of our Christian cultural taboos; Jesus provided wine for this party.  I grew up in a very strong tradition in which all alcohol was completely prohibited, and sometimes I heard such explanations as “this wasn’t strong wine that people could get drunk on.” I appreciate what they’re trying to say, because the Bible is clear that drunkenness is sinful (Ephesians 5:18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.), but to assert that this wine was Welch’s is simply an unreasonable interpretation of the scripture. I’ve been in a fraternity; I know what it means to “bring out the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink” – it means that now that they’re drunk, they don’t really care what they’re drinking. This is a good time to make an observation: the Bible is clear that drunkenness is wrong. It does nothing to draw us closer to Jesus Christ. 

But the fact is, Jesus miraculously provided wine for this wedding party.  While I don’t intend to make this message all about alcohol, I will say this: alcohol itself isn’t demonic.  Even the Apostle Paul counseled Timothy to Stop drinking only water and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses. (1 Timothy 5:23). It is how we use alcohol that can be problematic.  It’s like food; food is good, but gluttony is bad.  It’s no different than money; money itself isn’t bad, but sometimes the way we use it is.
What it comes down to is this: how can we most glorify God through everyday experiences?  In this season of Lent, maybe you have chosen to fast from something, and you find that perhaps that food or drink or show has a hold over you.  You can no easily give up your caffeine, sweets, between-meal snacks, or extra portions than an alcoholic can give up his drink.  Is God being glorified by every aspect of your life, or has something else become a competing god?

There are many reasons why this passage is intriguing to me; certainly the alcohol issue is one of them, but also there is this: did you notice the interchange that Jesus has with his mother?  No, I’m not talking about him calling her “Woman” (the Greek doesn’t have the word “dear” – it’s the word gunae, which simply means “woman”; I think the NIV inserts “dear” so we don’t think he’s just yelling at his mom). Actually the word he uses is the same term he uses for her later, at the cross, when he entrusts her into the care of the disciple he loves. 

The problematic issue is the whole interchange between Mary and Jesus.  He asks herwhy do you involve me? My time has not yet come.” (John 2:4).  For Jesus to recognize this and to talk about his “time” foreshadows the moment when his time will come.  In John 12:23, Jesus says, The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” As he continues, he makes it clear that “the hour” is the hour of his sacrificial death, with which he will glorify God.  Jesus knows that he came to earth with a purpose, with a job to do.
And now isn’t the time to do it.

Yet, and this is amazing, Jesus goes ahead in obedience to his mother. Why?  I’m guessing it has something to do with Jesus being fully obedient to His Father.  Did you remember that “Honor your father and your mother” (Ex. 20:12) was one of the Ten Commandments?  Did you think that Jesus was somehow “above” following the Ten Commandments? If even Jesus was obedient to his parents, it makes it a whole lot more appropriate for all of us to be so as well.

Last week I mentioned that obedience doesn’t come naturally for us; if it did, God wouldn’t have had to include “honor your father and your mother” in the Ten Commandments.  As it happened, Jesus had to choose to be obedient to Mary.  If you’re like me, just thinking along these lines is hard; I tend to see Jesus as somehow automatically obedient already.  Yes, Jesus was God.  But he had to go through the same struggles as we do, which includes learning and choosing obedience.  And I believe this was an early test of his obedience.  Was he going to be obedient in small things? If not, how could God expect him to be obedient in big things?

A note to the teenagers out there: many of you have chosen obedience, and that’s awesome.  We’ve got some really awesome young people in our congregation.  But I wonder this: are you choosing obedience at home?  Are you choosing obedience in the small things?  Do you willfully keep your room clean just because your mom tells you to?  I realize and understand that your parents require you to do all sorts of little, really insignificant things that you don’t care about at all.  The job itself isn’t the issue.  Obedience is.  And when they know they can trust you with little things, they’ll begin to trust you with bigger things.

And Mary knew Jesus would be obedient, so she instructed the servants to do what he told them to do.
Then comes the miracle.  I’ve read this so many times that it sometimes loses its surprise: where there was water, now there is wine.  Jesus somehow changes the water into wine, really good wine at that.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised: we’re talking about the God who created the world out of nothing; why shouldn’t he be able to turn water into wine?  

Maybe because it’s not what we’re used to seeing?

But God is always doing new things, things that we’re not exactly used to.  Did you notice the response to the miracle?  The master of the banquet tasted the wine and complemented the bridegroom for the fantastic wine he’d saved.  No real mention was given to Jesus.  Excepting Jesus’ closest friends, nobody even knew that a miracle had happened.

This is frequently the case when a miracle happens even today.  Other people don’t realize what even happened.  To them, it’s just a little strange.  Like the one day when my brother, my sister, and I were all riding Big Wheels around the neighborhood – you wouldn’t think this was a miracle, that we had Big Wheels unless you knew our situation, that our family was too poor to afford them.  Or that I’d prayed, asking God for one for my fifth birthday.  Or that my dad had been riding his bike around to deliver flyers advertising the brand new preschool my mom was trying to open (yes, riding his bike; gas was too expensive).  And he found a little Big Wheel broken in someone’s garbage, and he thought he might be able to fix it up, so he strapped it to the back of his bike.  And then that guy with a truck asked him if he’d like more, because he had plenty of parts there in the back of his truck.  Enough parts for three Big Wheels.

My neighbor kids didn’t necessarily know that God had provided a miracle.  All they knew is that we had Big Wheels.  Likewise most of the guests at the wedding didn’t know anything about Jesus transforming water into wine. All they knew is that there was really good wine.

But Jesus’ closest friends knew, and they put their faith in him. (John 2:11).

They put their faith in him because they saw him in action.  They see a remarkable transformation.  Jesus takes water from the ceremonial washing jars and turns it into wine.  Remember that we’re not talking about a cooler filled with bottled water.  We’re not talking about Brita filtered water or probably even about fresh spring water.  People of this time and place often saved water in cisterns or caves.  When it rained, they filled the cisterns.  Then they drank the water.  No wonder their life expectancy was so low!  I just tell you this so you know we’re not even necessarily talking about really good water.

This is important because the Holy Spirit is still all about transformation, and He doesn’t merely transform inanimate objects like water into wine.  He is all about the transformation of lives.  Of your lives and mine.
He doesn’t simply take “already good” lives and transform them into “better” lives.  He takes rotten, stinky, smelly, dirty, sinful lives and transforms them into clean, pure, sinless lives.  And He does it all the time.  It is only through God’s grace that we are justified – which is when God, through Jesus’ gift on the Cross, takes away the guilt of all of our sins.

It is just as if we had never sinned.  Transformation. A change from sin to holiness.

Justification is the beginning of sanctification.  This is when God, by grace, removes our actual sin.  I want that to sink in for a moment. I know that some of you think of yourselves in terms of your sin.  Your past sin has no more hold over you because of God’s grace.  And If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (1 Corinthians 5:17). Did you get that? You are a new creation!  You aren’t the old sin-stained murky water from a cistern.  You are new.  You are new.  Have you ever had an experience where you caught up with someone you hadn’t seen in a long time, and they’re surprised at your transformation?  They remember the “old” you, but they see something different – something that can’t be denied.

But unfortunately sometimes the people around you don’t notice.  There are some who don’t accept that you are a new creation.  In fact, some of us right in this room fall into this trap.  If we started naming names of people you graduated with, you’d probably describe them based on who they were in high school.  This one was the football captain.  This one was stuck-up.  This one was a nerd.  This one was the homecoming queen.

Meanwhile, they, just like you, have lived five, ten, twenty, fifty years, and they are hardly the person you went to school with, for good or bad.  The question is: do you let them grow up?  Now, I want to bring this closer to home, into this room.  There are people in this room who you don’t like.  Don’t put on your shocked face; it’s true and you know it.  Some of you have good reasons, I know.  You’ve been hurt before by people right in this room.  And I understand that injuries caused by fellow Christians are some of the hardest injuries to suffer. Because these are the people who are supposed to be doing what’s right, and many of you remember the wrong they did.

As Christians, we’re called to forgive.  If we hold those grudges against one another, what we’re doing, honestly, is saying, “I don’t believe Jesus is powerful enough to transform that person.”  You look at that person and you still see the same old stone water jar.  But if you look inside, you’ll see something completely different.  Something transformed.  Someone transformed.  And if you’re unwilling to see it, that says more about you than about them. Imagine if the wedding guests behaved this way: everyone is talking about that wine, but I know we ran out about 10 minutes ago.  So I refuse to taste the “new” wine, because I “know” it’s just water.  You miss out on something fantastic because you refuse to believe.

How about starting today with a new attitude about those around you?  Start off with a clean slate, allowing Jesus to totally cleanse and transform you… and the people around you as well!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Today is the Day to Choose...

Today is the Day to Choose…
Joshua 24:1-24

It was the Fall of 1985; I was 14 years old, it was halftime of the last soccer game of the season, and we were tied.  I can remember the scene vividly, how our coach gave us a rousing pep talk. I can still remember the words he said to us, but they’re not really appropriate for a Sunday morning talk!  We went on to preserve the tie, the only game that season that we didn’t lose.  The halftime speech did what it was intended to do.

What makes a good halftime pep talk?  A reminder of who the team is – their history, maybe even their past failures as well as their successes.  A reminder of what has brought them there; what hardships they’ve overcome to get there and what has defined them as a team.  Do you think the New Orleans Saints mentioned Hurricane Katrina before or during the Super Bowl? During times of transition or difficulty, it is always important to be reminded of what’s most important and of who you are.

This is what we find in Joshua 24; Joshua was Moses’ successor as the leader of God’s people, but now he is coming to the end of his life.  This is the pep talk he gives the people of Israel as he prepares for his own death.

Today is the day to choose.

When Joshua reminds the people of their past, he reminds them about their forefathers, even including Terah, the father of Abraham, and how they used to worship other gods. It can be easy for us to jump past the first step, the beginning, because after all, we’re enlightened and we don’t serve other gods, do we? 
I wouldn’t be so quick to say that.  Our God doesn’t allow for serving him halfway.  Here’s what Jesus said about that: No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (Matthew 6:24). You can’t serve God and money – which one do you serve? You can look at your finances and determine which you serve. What percentage of your money do you really give to God?  To the church, to missionaries, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to serve the oppressed and persecuted? Really? Studies show that we Christians give around 2% of our income.  The tithe (10%) was a biblical standard, but Jesus advocated giving all, not just 10%. So if you’re unwilling to work toward giving a tithe, don’t lie and tell yourself that you’re serving God. Your god is your money.

I’m not finished.  Their ancestors worshiped many gods.  In fact, there were pretty much gods for everything.  Some of them were big names, like Ba’al and Molech, whose names we read in scripture, but there were numerous fertility gods, seasonal gods, and so forth.  And we have those today, just bearing different names.  Some of you worship success or career; you lay everything on the altar of your job.  You even hear worship language when people talk about the sacrifices they have made to move ahead in their career path. You sacrifice their time, giving all of your energy to move up the ladder. You sacrifice some of the best years of your life to get your career set, and you often sacrifice your family.  Doesn’t sound a whole lot different than followers of Molech, who were known for child sacrifices.

Maybe you worship the god of busyness. As long as you keep busy, as long as you feel like you’ve accomplished something, then you’re doing the right thing.  You try to fill the inner void you feel by doing more and more.  Many of the things you’re doing are good things, but when you do good things for the wrong reasons, though God may still use you, you are not living in God’s will.  Are you so busy that you don’t have the time to sit and listen to God’s still, small voice?  Is His voice drowned out by the noise of your life?

Maybe you worship a god named “stuff.”  You constantly are chasing after more and more. You need the newest car, the biggest house, the hugest TV, the latest gadgets.

Maybe you worship a god named “relationship.”  There are those among us who worship the family god – your family comes first, before the Lord.  While this seems good at the outset, it’s idol worship, plan and simple. I’m not advocating stepping away from your family, but worshiping them is not healthy as a Christian. God must be first.  This is why when Jesus was told that his mother and brothers were waiting outside to speak to him, he responded: Who is my mother and who are my brothers? (Matthew 12:48).  He radically changed family relationships, reordering family around the mission of God. How is your family life ordered? Is it ordered around God, or is your life with God ordered around your family?

But chances are, somewhere along your journey, many of you decided to follow Jesus.  I had the benefit of growing up in a Christian home, but that wasn’t the case with my parents. My mom’s “teenage rebellion” consisted of joining and becoming active in the church down the street.  There she found meaning and purpose.  She found people who loved her and appreciated her gifts, but even more, she found the God who loved her and gave her those gifts.  When I was a college student, I tried out all kinds of things, basically trying to “hedge my bets” – I wanted to be popular, I wanted to meet people, to have fun, to do all “the college things.” I wanted to be a good student (well, I didn’t really want that so much, I guess). I wanted to be a good Christian.  But these things proved incompatible in the way and order I chose to seek them. My friend David confronted me on that; “you introduced me to Jesus, but now I don’t see you living that kind of lifestyle” was his quote.  Truth be known, I was worshiping other gods.

But God delivered me from that and put Himself in my path.  He surrounded me with Christian friends like David, his roommate Nick, my fraternity brother Drew, and the whole group at InterVarsity Christian fellowship. He brought me to Russia on a mission trip. He uplifted me during the dark time of my life when my fiancĂ©e and I broke up. He brought me and Tara together and has given us two delightful sons. He provided for us when we were dirt poor, and He continues to provide for us.

Joshua focused on what God had done for the Israelites: He brought Abraham out and led him and gave him many descendents.  He sent Moses and delivered Israel from Egyptian captivity. When difficulty came (in their case, the Egyptians, who were pursuing them), Israel cried out to the Lord (Joshua 24:7), and God delivered them miraculously.

What’s your story?  Can you see God’s hand in your life?  What has God done for you?  For your family?  For your parents or grandparents? For your friends?  It is important to share how God has worked in your life; this is part of the pep talk: this can be an encouragement to others, but also to you! Remember what God has done. It’s not just about where you are right now, but where God has brought you.  We see again and again, especially throughout the Old Testament, the command to “remember.”  Remember what the LORD has done.  This is what Joshua is doing; he’s reminding the people, who are looking ahead to scary times, to remember.  God had been with them, leading them through tough times.  Bringing them out of Egypt, driving out enemies before them.  God gave them good gifts; they received the food from the land they didn’t work and they lived in cities they didn’t build…

The old hymn tells us to “Count your blessings, name them one by one” – today is a good time to do this. In fact, every day is a good day to count blessings.  I’ve told you before that whenever I have a hard time getting to sleep, I start naming things I’m thankful for, one for each letter of the alphabet.  I never even make it halfway through.  How about starting your day with a prayer of thanksgiving?  Every day, start out by reminding yourself how blessed you are.  See how that impacts your day.

Now we get to the challenge.  Joshua put it clearly. Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.  But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:14-15)

This is a real challenge.  It’s not just words.  It’s not just a plaque to go in our houses.  It’s real.  Who will you serve?  If I flew a dual Ohio State/Michigan flag in my office, I’ll bet I’d get comments on it.  People would ask me, “Which will it be? You can’t have it both ways.” I’ve got to choose a side.  Friends, Ohio State/Michigan is nothing when compared with the choice we’re faced with today.  Choose today whom you will serve.  If you hear nothing else today, make sure you hear this: you are making a choice, no matter what you think. If you choose to ignore this, you are making a choice.  If you choose to try to make your compartmentalized lives work, you are making a choice. If you choose not to choose, that’s a choice as well, and you can’t have it both ways. 

Many have chosen to accept Jesus as their Savior, but have never made him Lord.  Yes, there is a difference.  You understand that you need someone to save you from your sin, and that only Jesus can do it.  You have acknowledged that it’s only by his death and resurrection that you can have forgiveness and can lead the life you were meant to live.  Yet you refuse to be obedient in every aspect of your life.  Obedience doesn’t come naturally to us.  This is why the “terrible twos” are so terrible.  Any of you who have raised children – you know that obedience doesn’t come naturally. I’ll admit, I’m hard-headed and God sometimes has to use the Holy 2x4 method to get me to listen.  When I went through the United Methodist supervised years program, I packed a 3 year program into 5 chronological years, mostly because I needed to learn obedience.  Was I really going to be obedient to those God has placed in authority over me, or just to myself?

Making Jesus Lord is placing yourself in willful obedience to him in everything. Joshua made it clear that this isn’t easy. You are not able to serve the LORD. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you. (Joshua 24:19-20)

The people agreed that they would serve the LORD.  So Joshua told them to throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel.

This is where it gets personal.  What gets in the way of you serving God with a whole heart?  Have you been totally, 100% obedient to Him?  Is he your LORD, or just your Savior?  Or maybe neither. 

If you’re ready for full obedience, would you read along with me the response of the people: “We will serve the LORD our God and obey him.” (Joshua 24:24)

Each of you should have a post-it note. If there’s anything holding you back from serving God 100%, I invite you to write it on your post-it, then bring it up to the cross and give it to Jesus. If you are serious about serving the LORD and obeying him, today is the day to choose.  Make the right choice.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Today is the Day to Forgive the Deep Hurt

The closer the person, the worse the pain.  There is nothing that hurts like the pain suffered at the hand of a friend or family member.  Have you ever been hurt?  Badly?  The kind of hurt that leaves scars for the rest of your life?
Today I want to tell you the painful story of Joe Jacobson (yes, I took the name from Andy Stanley). Imagine a middle eastern teenager, only 17 years old.  His brothers were tending their father’s sheep, and Joe’s dad, Jacob, sends him out to meet them to see if everything was well with them. Now you have to understand that Joe was his dad’s favorite and he had never exactly ingratiated himself with his brothers. He had already brought bad reports on them (basically tattled) and as the baby of the family, he was his father’s favorite.  And he had those dreams. Dreams where his brothers were worshiping him.  So anyway, he headed to find them.  When he got there, he found that they had moved on an additional 10-15 miles.  So he followed them until he found them.

When he finally finds them, his relief quickly turns to confusion. They’re huddled together, obviously discussing something intently.  He expected a hesitant greeting but not what he got.  A beating? From his brothers?  Then he was being lifted, and his robe, the special one his dad had given him, was being ripped right off him. “Whoa, what’s going on? This is going too far!” Then they let him go –threw him down.  Down, down.  Then darkness. He could see light up above; he was in a cave of some kind, maybe even a dry well. The next thing he knew, he was being pulled back up. The joke has gone far enough. Maybe now they were going to apologize. But no, what’s this? A caravan? What’s going on? He realized that what his brothers meant to do.  They were going to sell him to these Ishmaelites. As a slave. 

All of a sudden, this was Joe Jacobson’s life. There he was, in a slave auction.  Didn’t they know that he was his father’s favorite son?  Didn’t they know that God Himself had made a promise to Joe’s great-grandfather?  Yet here he was, being sold as a slave in Egypt.

I want you to fast forward a few years.  Joe is now in prison for a crime he did not commit.  He actually had things pretty good for a while, bought by the captain of Pharaoh’s guard, helping that house to prosper.  But his master’s wife tried to seduce him, and though Joe did the right thing, he was still accused and who’s going to take the word of a foreign slave over the wife of the captain of the guard?  And now he is in the dungeon. He even helped out two of Pharaoh’s officials, but what had that gotten him? Forgotten.  I can imagine how his mind would wander back to the day his father gave him that special robe, how Jacob’s eyes had glimmered, almost tearing up as he presented his favorite son with this most beautiful gift.  And how proud he was to wear it. But that memory is quickly overshadowed by the memory of his brothers, his brothers, tearing it to shreds. Those questions still rise up: why, God? Why did they do this to me?

Still God is with him, even if he doesn’t really know what that means.  As we fast forward another 15 years, Joe is now almost 40, and he wakes up surrounded by luxury.  He reflects over the past years, about Potiphar, his former master, and how powerful he used to seem.  Now he, Joe Jacobson, the former slave, the one whose brothers hated him so much, he is now second in command over all of Egypt, the most powerful nation in the world! He is dressed to the nines, yet, his thoughts go back to that robe, the one his dad gave him, and though his current clothes are so much more expensive, so much more stylish, tears well up again.  He hasn’t thought that much about his dad, about his brothers; it’s too painful to deal with. Now he’s inundated with work, apportioning out the grain to the starving world.  The grain that Egypt had because he, Joe Jacobson, had interpreted Pharaoh’s dream. Well, God had done it through him.  And Egypt had kept grain.  All day, every day, Joe kept track of what was being given and sold, and continuously people from Egypt and all the surrounding nations came to him to buy grain.  And then he saw them.  They were older now, not nearly so fierce and intimidating, but they were unmistakable. He would never forget their faces or the last time he’d seen them.  He remembered that moment like it had just happened, them watching the caravan take him away, his pleading with them: don’t do this! Don’t let this happen!

Finally, after 22 years there they are, completely at his mercy. Joe is so shocked by this that he disguises himself and pretends not to recognize them.  It’s clear that they don’t recognize him.  I want you to put yourself in Joe’s position.  What would you do?  Would you turn them away? You’ve got that authority.  Or do you throw them in prison?  Or have them beheaded?  Their very lives are in your hands. Imagine the people who ruined your life, and now their lives are in your hands – you have total power over them.  What would you do? How would you respond?

In Matthew 18, Jesus told a parable about a man, a servant, who owed his master millions of dollars.  He had no way of paying the master back, so he begged the master to be patient; he would pay back everything.  The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt, and let him go. (Matthew 18:27).  So the servant goes out and finds his fellow servant, who owes him a debt of the equivalent of a few dollars.  He chokes him and demands payment and has him thrown into prison until the debt is paid. "Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."

So put yourself in Joe’s position.  What do you do? Now you are in charge.  You have the power over the ones who hurt you so much. What would you do? It’s hard to say what we would do, but it’s clear what happened with Joe. He forgave his brothers. Through tears, he said this to them (as reported in Genesis 45:4-5) "I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. Through tears, he kissed his brothers, forgiving them completely.  Indeed, after their father died, Joseph’s brothers came to him, trembling with fear, thinking, “He probably remembers what we did to him and he’s just been waiting until our father Jacob dies and then we’re toast.” But here’s what happened. (Genesis 50:19-21)  But Joseph said to them, "Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don't be afraid. I will provide for you and your children." And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.

Instead of holding a grudge, instead of paying them back, even giving them what they deserved, he chose to bless them.

So, how do we get there? You first have to learn to live with your past. For Joseph, this meant analyzing what had happened, but not dwelling on it.  He was clear on it; he knew it wasn’t a mistake – his brothers didn’t accidentally throw him in a well and sell him into slavery.  He knew they meant him harm.  Did you hear his words?  He knew what was going on. You intended to harm me” (Genesis 50:20).  Understand what really happened.  Don’t sugarcoat it. Some of you have had to face deep hurt in your life.  Abandonment, abuse, cruelty. What happened is what happened.  Joseph learned this lesson. If you are struggling with your past, perhaps a trained Christian counselor can help you. Read the “Emotional Health” messages back on the sermon website (just cruise over to and on the left under where it says “labels”, click on “Emotional Health” and you’ll find them). Your emotional health is completely vital, and if you haven’t learned to deal with and live with your past, you are a ticking time bomb.

As you learn to live with your past, the second step is to learn to live in the present. Joseph didn’t spend his time moping about his treatment at the hands of his brothers.  Again and again, even when he was in the dungeon, we read that the Lord was with him. Everything Joseph did prospered. He put all of himself into whatever he was doing.  How was he able to do this?  He understood that God and only God was the judge.  When he finally met his brothers after all those years, this is how Joseph responded to them: (Genesis 50:19-20) But Joseph said to them, "Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. Did you notice the question he asked?  Am I in the place of God?  He gave authority to God, where it belonged. He recognized that judgment is God’s and God’s alone. In his book Total Forgiveness, R.T. Kendall writes, 

“Total forgiveness is achieved only when we acknowledge what was done without any denial or covering up – and still refuse to make the offender pay for their crime.  Total forgiveness is painful. It hurts when we kiss revenge goodbye. It hurts to think that the person is getting away with what they did and nobody else will ever find out. But when we know fully what they did, and accept in their hearts that they will be blessed without any consequences for their wrong, we cross over into a supernatural realm. We begin to be a little more like Jesus, to change into the image of Christ.”

Finally, we learn to dream about the future. Once we release judgment to God, it’s like we’ve shed a 200# backpack of the pain we’ve suffered.  Now we can go ahead with life, with our dreams, with our goals.  Joseph recognized this: Genesis 50:20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. Joseph literally dreamed about the future.  And he interpreted others’ dreams as well. He recognized that God could use him for something great.  God had something awesome in store for him, something only he could accomplish.  And I believe that’s true for each of us.

So why is it important to give God our deep hurt?  First of all, it’s good for you.  Do you want to become a bitter old man or woman who everyone is afraid of?  Do you want  to live a miserable life?  Did you know that unforgiveness leads to physical ailments as well? Holding on to your pain will eat at you all your life.  It can end up killing you! 

Additionally, it’s good for others. I’m not even talking about the people who wronged you; chances are pretty good that they’re not giving you a second thought.  It’s not like your classmates who called you “fatty” when you were in grade school are losing sleep over their insults.  I’m talking about people you’re in relationship with now.  I know people who were constantly picked on as children who have become bitter, mean people as adults.  Nobody wants to be around them.  But releasing the hurt? It releases you to become better friends, better brothers or sister, fathers or mothers, or children.  Letting go of the deep hurt can be the first step to begin to heal your marriage, to become the person God intended you to be.

Finally, it’s important to give God our deep hurt because your life depends on it.  Not just this mortal life, but eternal life.  Jesus teaches us to pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” and he concludes the Lord’s Prayer with this admonition about forgiveness: For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive you. (Matthew 6:14-15).

This is the context we carry into Communion.  Before anyone comes to the Table, contemplate what forgiveness we need to give.  Then we will be free to accept the forgiveness that God gives us freely, without reservation, through Jesus’ gift on the Cross. Today is the day to forgive the deep hurt. Give it to God, who replaces it with peace.