Sunday, January 29, 2012

What's New (in the Desert)?

What’s New?
Isaiah 43:18-21

In September 2004, I went to Phoenix, Arizona for a youth ministry conference. I had never been to Arizona before that, but when I was there, every day the temperature was over 100°. We would walk on one side of the street on the way from the hotel to the conference center and on the other side on the way back, just so we could stay in the shade. The comedian Jeff Allen talked about the heat how people say, “It’s a dry heat – it doesn’t feel 118°. Now, it feels 290°! Run for it, kids, God has abandoned this place!”

There’s a reason the Bible continually references the desert as the place where God isn’t. At best, it is the place in between. At worst, it’s a place of testing.

Perhaps the defining moment in Jewish history is the Exodus – God delivering his people from slavery in Egypt. Sometimes memories can be a little deceiving; when the Israelites looked back at the Exodus, they focused on God’s power and deliverance. By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. (Exodus 13:21) The actual event was a little less straightforward. God delivered them from slavery, but He did not lead them directly from Egypt into the Promised Land.

Pharaoh and the Egyptians began chasing them, and the Israelites became terrified and cried out, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?” (Exodus 14:11)

Have you ever found yourself in the desert? If you’ve never been there, it’s hard to describe. The desert saps your strength. Maybe you’ve gone through some stuff and now you’re just tired. You don’t have the energy to fight anymore. You’ve thought about giving up. Maybe you’re even too tired to give up. If you’ve ever felt like that, you’ve experienced the desert. Maybe you’ve even gotten to the point where you feel like God has abandoned you. In one of his recent surveys, George Barna reports that 1/3 of church attenders have never felt God’s presence in a congregational setting ( accessed 1/26/12). That means they have been in church, but they have never experienced God there.

I’m not saying that to shame anyone or to put down any churches, because it’s not necessarily anyone’s fault that you feel far from God. One of the difficult things is that someone who is going through a spiritual desert often feels shame because you know intellectually that God will never leave you nor forsake you, but it’s been a while since you really experienced God.

Listen to how Deuteronomy describes the time in the desert: Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the LORD your God disciplines you. (Deuteronomy 8:2-5).

I want you to notice a few things about the desert from this passage. First of all, the purpose of the desert: the words “humble” and “test” are probably not on most of our list of “things I’d like to have happen to me today.” Yet God uses the desert to humble his people and to test us, to know what is in our hearts. And what is in our hearts? Jeremiah 17:9 tells us that on its own the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? The last two weeks I have been stressing that we can teach our hearts to go another way, but that it takes a lot of work. God therefore tests us to know what is in our hearts, to see if we will keep his commands.

When it comes to God, there are no standardized tests. The things that test one person might not be a test for someone else. The test isn’t how you perform in church. It’s never about looking the part. I’ve heard integrity described as who you are when nobody is looking – most tests don’t come when everything is fine (actually, one important test comes when everything is going well; that is the “who gets the credit?” test).  Tests come when things are tough. How do you respond when you are angry or frustrated? What kind of language do you use?  How do you treat other people?

The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks. (Luke 6:45)

I have heard a lot about building character – if something is hard, it’s said it builds our character. But the desert doesn’t build character; it reveals it. Why would God allow us to go through times in the desert? Because he wants to reveal our character. So often we allow external circumstances and situations to cover our character. We feel an emptiness inside, so we eat. Or we shop. Or we have another drink. But that emptiness is there on purpose: to steer us toward God. It’s kind of like when we have a fever; our culture wants to dispense fever-reducing medicines immediately, but a fever is an indicator that something else is wrong. If all we do is treat the symptoms and never get to the underlying cause, we will never get well.

When we follow the symptoms to the root cause, it is a need for full and complete reliance on God for everything. The desert teaches us humility. Humility is recognizing our place – it never compares itself to other people; in the economy of the Kingdom, there is no such thing as one gift being better than others. Instead, humility is recognizing our role as submitted to the will of God and fully relying on God for everything. God fed the Israelites manna in the desert, not simply to feed them, but to teach them that He can be trusted for everything. What is it that you don’t trust God for?

There are many times when we find ourselves in the desert, and I have heard people vent a lot of anger against God. Where is God – why has God left me? But the Bible affirms something else about the desert – not only is it a place of testing, but it is a place ordained by God for that kind of testing. In fact, God was the one who led the Israelites in the desert and who took care of them for forty years.  And in the New Testament, we read that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1).

It was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus into the desert to face temptation. Remember that God never tempts us; it is never God who dangles temptations in front of us. But God certainly allows temptations to exist, again, to test us, to discipline us, and to give us humility and to assure that we rely on Him for our every need.

I had to get to the purpose and existence of the desert to get to the scripture from Isaiah 43. “Forget the former things; do not dwell in the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland. The wild animals honor me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the desert and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen, the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise.

In a time of testing, it can be easy to regress, to go backwards. Our view of the past is often colored by our perception and our memory is often selective. We talk about the good old days when everything was better. Was it really better? Even if it was, it doesn’t matter. Today is a new day – and to dwell in the past is to deny that God is doing something new.

Were the Israelites better off in Egyptian slavery? When they were wandering in the desert, they began to grumble against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” (Exodus 16:3)

All they did all day was sit around at the Golden Corral, eating and hanging out. Never mind the little issues like backbreaking labor and laws requiring the killing of Hebrew children. Sometimes we forget what really happened in the good old days. But even when the good old days were really good, we can never recreate them. Today is a new day, and God tells us to forget the former things. Why is that? Because when we simply focus on the past, we fail to perceive the new things that God might be doing in our midst.

God is doing a new thing, and it might not be where you expect it. God describes it as making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland, where you might least expect it. God has a tendency to do things like this – to do things in such a way that only He can get credit for it. God took Gideon, the weakest one of all, as the leader of Israel’s army. You can read about it in Judges 7, where The LORD said to Gideon, “You have too many men for me to deliver Midian into their hands. So in order that Israel wouldn’t boast against God that their own strength had saved them, God cut down the size of the army to 300 men. Thus God gets all the credit for the victory.

When God makes a way in the desert and provides streams in the wastelands, did you notice what the prophet says happens? The wild animals honor him. Jackals and owls are never presented positively in the Old Testament. They are animals who appear in desolate places. And they honor the God who makes their desolate places into paradise. It is God who does it, so that we, his people, will bring him praise.

Can you look at your circumstances and realize that God is making a way in the desert? Our church attendance has been down. Finances have been tight. And guess what: God is still here. Some of you have been going through tough times. And guess what: God is still here.

So God tells us to forget the old things and to open our eyes to see the new things he is doing and to bring him praise and glory!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Live as God's Chosen

Colossians 3:12-17

Last week we looked at the first ten verses of Colossians 3; Jesus took upon himself every one of our sins and nailed them to the cross and we were raised with Christ, and because of this, we are commanded to set our hearts on things above. This isn’t just a suggestion; it’s a command. We can’t just expect our minds to go where they aren’t trained to go. I don’t ever remember being told how important it is to train my mind. Our culture lies to us and tells us how we are is how we are going to be, that there is no changing. Of course, every parent and teacher works on the assumption that we can change our kids, and society expects us to be able to, but why should we even want to change ourselves? Or to allow God to do so?

As we set our hearts and minds on things above, it is going to change who we are. Paul continues by telling us: Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, This is the context of God’s commands. God isn’t some cosmic meanie, just up there in the sky trying to bully us into changing. This is God’s love for us. If you hear nothing else today, hear that God has chosen you. God doesn’t choose based on the criteria that our cultures chooses; God chooses based on what would bring Himself glory. God didn’t choose you because you were already holy; God chooses you to make you holy. Because of what Jesus did on the cross, you have been made holy, which doesn’t mean you’re perfect. It means you are set apart by God for God. This is our primary identity now: God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved.

If you have ever watched a professional sports draft, there is a moment when each player is called up that the player will put on the cap or a jersey of their new team. We, too, are called to wear the clothing of our new team. We are called, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, to clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.

When anyone looks at us, they see what we’re wearing. Without these garments, we are naked, and the idea here is that if we’re walking around naked, without these clothes, we will be ashamed. So when someone looks at us, this is what they should see.

Compassion is not only feeling sorry for someone’s suffering, but is also working to relieve that suffering. I’ve heard it said: “let your heart dictate to your hand” – in other words, don’t just feel bad about people going hungry right here in our area, because feeling bad isn’t compassion. Compassion is working with the Food Pantry to feed them and working to find the underlying causes of their hunger, then working to alleviate those causes. Kindness goes along with this; it is abundant mercy put into practice.

We are also supposed to exhibit humility. We generally accept the ethos of Muhammad Ali: “It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am” – when someone is good at something, we generally expect them to toot their own horn. After all, who else is going to speak up on your behalf? That comes in direct contrast to biblical humility, which recognizes that we are hopeless sinners, capable of only evil on our own, but that the Holy Spirit is the one who moves in us to do good.

The Greek word that the NIV translates “gentleness” might be better translated “meekness” – even though we don’t use that term much these days. Meekness is great strength held under control. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you do it. Realize that you have great power. Your words carry great weight, having the power to heal or to hurt. Meek people recognize that God is a God of justice – he will repay. This goes along with the next garment:

Patience.We often look at patience through a short-sighted lens: let me be patient while I’m driving. I need patience for waiting in line. Give me patience with my kids. All these things are just practice to help give us real patience, the kind of patience that allows us to bear up under injustice and to allow God to bring justice. Do you really trust that God’s justice is enough? Or do you need to provide it yourself?  

Instead, we are called to Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. Last week I mentioned that the default position of our hearts is evil and deceit, and our hearts won’t go where they aren’t trained to go. Bearing with one another and forgiveness are not our default settings; who had to teach you to hold a grudge? Plotting revenge, gossiping, complaining, and grumping are not living as God’s chosen. God did not call us to clothe ourselves in these things! We ought to be ashamed when we stick to that default position. What are the issues we have with one another? Think about them in light of what Christ did for us. While we were still sinners, rebelling openly against him, setting ourselves up as little gods, saying we don’t need him. While we were in the middle of that rebellion, Jesus went to the cross for us. It wasn’t after we had repented. It wasn’t after we had told him sorry. We hadn’t even changed our actions.

That is how the Lord forgave us. We often require someone to have gotten their act completely together before we will forgive them. I know people who have resolved to never forgive. As a Christian, this is never an option. If you call yourself a Christian, yet you are unwilling to forgive, you are deluding yourself about your Christianity. I understand personally that forgiveness is hard and that it takes time to get there. I can understand needing to take the time to forgive and to then work through the pain that someone has caused you. I also understand that forgiving doesn’t mean becoming a doormat and allowing someone to trample you or abuse you. But if you are withholding forgiveness, you are setting yourself up as the Judge, a position that is only held by God Himself.

Remember that God is a God of perfect justice, that he will leave no sin unpunished. This means that even a so-called “little” sin that “doesn’t bother anybody” is an affront against God and it must be punished. Everything. And God, being perfectly just, will punish every sin. As Christians, we know that Jesus’ death has paid the price for all of our sin, but we have to accept that gift by faith. Otherwise God won’t force his forgiveness upon us.

When Jesus teaches us to pray, asking God to forgive us our trespasses just as we forgive those who trespass against us, he’s serious. We will be forgiven in the same manner we forgive others. Why? If you have ever been to school, you’ll know that there are tests. There are various reasons behind school tests – lately they have been tied to school funding and held as indicators of teacher performance, but the real reason for tests is to determine whether or not a student has learned the material. We get plenty of tests on this subject, don’t we? The big question remains: has God’s forgiveness of us transformed our lives, or hasn’t it?

In Matthew 18:22, Peter, who is probably the most outspoken of Jesus’ disciples, asks Jesus: “How many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:22-23) Then Jesus told a story about a servant who owed his master millions of dollars and couldn’t pay him back. When the master threatened to imprison the servant, he begged for forgiveness, and the master forgave his debt. But when that servant saw a fellow servant who owed him a few bucks, he choked him, demanded payment, and had him thrown in prison. When the other servants saw what happened, they told the master.

“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 handed 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 or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:32-35)

Have you forgiven? Remember that Jesus, through his death on the cross, has provided forgiveness for all your sins, every last one. So if you refuse to forgive others, remember that the consequence is that you will have to stand responsible for your own sin against God.

One of the biggest problems I’ve seen is grudges held within churches. People get into it with each other – of course we do. Everyone who has ever been in a relationship knows that there will be conflict in relationships. I always ask couples in premarital counseling how they fight, and if they say they don’t fight, their assignment before the next session is to have a good fight and report back to me. The only reasons why a couple doesn’t have conflict is if one member always gives in to the other or if they just don’t care enough to fight. Where there is no passion, there is no conflict. I can wear my Northwestern sweatshirt all over Columbus and never get a single comment about it, but when one of my sons wears a Michigan sweatshirt, I get a lot of comments. Why? Because Ohio State fans don’t have any passion about a rivalry with Northwestern; it’s not much of a rivalry. But they are passionate about the rivalry with Michigan.

There will be conflict in the church. Frankly, it is biblical. Acts 15 is all about conflict within the church. The church was depending on the tradition of circumcision, making it difficult for Gentiles to become Christians. Paul and Barnabas went up to Jerusalem to settle the dispute. The dispute ended with everyone encouraged, but at the end of Acts 15, Barnabas and Paul have such a sharp disagreement over bringing John Mark along that they part ways.

Even the Apostle Paul had a falling out with his close friend and mentor, Barnabas. But understand that never do we hear Paul badmouth Barnabas. They don’t go their own way, constantly belittling the other or complaining about the other. No, they go their separate way, ministering in the power of the Holy Spirit. Never does the scripture tell us who was right and who was wrong – there was simply a difference of opinion that was so strong these two separated.

Sometimes in our lives there comes a time when we separate from one another, only to minister fully in a new context. We have seen the issues firsthand. We have two services, not necessarily because we don’t have the room for everyone in one, but because we can’t agree on worship style. We don’t agree on the use of furniture. We don’t agree on the instrumentation. We don’t agree on the method of Communion. We don’t agree on what the pastor should wear. We don’t agree on the mission of the church or how to live it out. But the fantastic thing is what happened when Paul and Barnabas agreed to part, with Barnabas taking John Mark and Paul taking Silas. Instead of going off and complaining about the other pair – we don’t have Paul writing about what a loser and a traitor Barnabas is – the two pairs go their separate ways and minister in the power of the Holy Spirit, effectively doubling their witness.

Because they knew that the love of Christ binds us together – it does not separate. I think we can learn a lot from Colossians 3:14: And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

When Jesus was asked what the most important commandment was, he said “love.” Love God, love neighbor. That’s what binds us together. It’s not about music style. It’s not about hymns or praise songs, about guitar or organ. It’s not about robe or suit or jeans and t-shirt. It’s not about Communion by Intinction or in the pews. It’s about love. If your decisions are about taste and preference, remember that love is what binds us together in perfect unity. And that is what God calls us to: perfect unity.

So we can Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.  Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. I wonder if they had “worship wars” about which kind of music was best for worship!  And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

My prayer for us is that we move forward in unity and love. If we are to do that, we have to do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus. Recognize and understand that not everyone gets along together, not even as Christians. But that is no reason for us to make a public spectacle of our disagreement! I’ve told you before about the ministry colleague who I felt betrayed me – when that happened, I wrote a really pointed letter to the church. I had it all written out and ready to go, and I deleted it. That’s one of the problems with e-mail, facebook and twitter; people can type their zingers and hit “enter” or “send” and it’s out there. This isn’t the place or the forum for Christian disagreement! As it was, when I finally came to the place of healing and forgiveness, I realized that my former colleague really is a great administrator. That is where his gifting lies. And so when I needed some help in a matter where I saw him excelling, I asked him for help. And guess what: he was happy to give it. Remember the fight that Paul and Barnabas had over John Mark? Though they parted ways, by the end of Paul’s ministry, he writes to Timothy to Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. (2 Timothy 4:11).

This is what I pray for us; that while we may have some differences of style and form, that we may be helpful to one another in ministry. May God’s love provide unity – may we live as God’s chosen!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Set Your Hearts

Colossians 3:1-10

What do you have your heart set on? I’m not just talking about something you want, I’m asking what you really have your heart set on. There’s a difference. For example, once my dad and I were going out to eat, and there was one restaurant I really wanted to take him to. We got there only to find out that it was closed. I had my heart set on eating there, and although we ended up going somewhere else, nothing else really would satisfy. That is a good way to describe someone with their heart set on something; when nothing else will satisfy.

In Colossians 2, Paul makes the case for the new life we live in Christ. When [we] were dead in our sins and in the uncircumcision of [our] sinful nature, God made [us] alive in Christ. (Colossians 2:13)

Remember that this new life in Christ is not because of anything we do; we aren’t good people who sometimes do bad things; we are by nature evil and only by God’s common grace are we even able to do the slightest good thing. But if we have by faith received Jesus’ gift for us, the gift paid for in Jesus’ blood, that old person is no longer who we are. The old person is dead, having been buried with Him in baptism and raised with Him through your faith in the power of God, who raised Him from the dead. (Colossians 2:12)

Because of this exchange, all of the former rules and regulations by which the world lives are revealed as mere shadows of the things to come, but the reality is found only in Jesus Christ.

Now that I’ve set the stage, let’s shift our focus this morning on Colossians 3. Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

The old “me” is dead and buried; the “me” who stands here today has been raised with Christ. If you are a Christian, this is true of you as well. So God commands us to set our hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. I remember the old song with the lyric: “you’re so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good” – does anyone remember that song? Well, that song is a lie. There’s a “socially acceptable” amount of Christianity – if you go to church and maybe have a fish decal on your car and if you behave nicely, that’s surely enough, isn’t it? That way you’re “well-rounded” but you can still enjoy yourself; you can work hard enough to have a good career; you have something to talk about at the water cooler; you have a nice car and all the latest toys, and you make it to all the games. And you still have time to read your Bible and go to church and to serve in the food pantry once a month.
All good things, but there is a problem with this approach. God is a jealous God; God isn’t just one among many. God isn’t just part of a checklist or to-do list. God is the list. If your heart and mind aren’t set on him, you are missing the mark.

So set your heart on him.

Many of our problems in this life are really heart problems; we’ve set our heart on all kinds of other things, and when they don’t come through for us, we’re offended. As young people, many of us set our hearts on meeting just the right someone; if you can catch the right one, if you can just find your “soul mate,” then you’ll be fulfilled. First of all, understand that soul mates are made, not found. Love is intentional and requires lots of hard work. But if you’ve been in any relationship very long at all, you’ve already found out that people will fail you every time. You’ve set your heart on the wrong things, and your heart was broken.

Maybe you’ve set your heart on the American Dream; if you work really hard (or borrow way too much money) so you can buy all the stuff that will make you happy. But then the stock market crashed and you lost your retirement. Or you got sick and now you can’t enjoy everything you worked so hard for. Or maybe you got every toy you ever wanted and all it got you was a desire for more, more, more.

You will never be satisfied as long as your heart is set on anything of this earth. This earth, even the best aspects of it, are mere shadows of what is to come. That can be hard to grasp because this world is all we know, but have you ever seen a sunset that takes your breath away? Have you ever stared in awe at a natural wonder like Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon? There is a reason when you see them, your impulse is to praise God; it’s because God made them as a shadow of the things to come.

Set your heart on things above.

Sometimes we can just read over phrases like this. You can read right past this because you’ve heard it before. You read this scripture, then you finish up your Bible reading, say your prayer, then you shut your Bible and go about your day. If that’s you, and you think you’re pretty special because you got your quiet time in today, let me let you in on a secret: It doesn’t mean anything that you “got your quiet time in” if that’s all the time you’re spending with Jesus. The Bible tells us to set our minds on him, not just offer him a nod and get on with what we want.

I don’t say this to downplay the importance of spending quiet time with God; on the contrary, you should spend quiet time with God and you should spend loud time with God. You should spend alone time with God and you should bring God along with you to work and to the game and out with your friends. Your heart should constantly be set upon things above, which just might revolutionize the rest of your time.

What might your work look like if you are setting your heart on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God the Father? Maybe you think you work in a school, but God is calling you to be a missionary there. Many of us have the wrong idea about our careers; your job is your mission field. Sure, it’s a way for you to get money, but really it’s just an avenue for you to glorify God.

Set your hearts on things above.

Maybe this is all new to you, and you’re wondering how this happens. After all, nobody ever taught you how to do it. Someone brought you to church and you’ve been in Sunday School or even a Community Group, but you’ve never been taught how to control your mind or your heart. Here’s a little secret: your heart won’t just go the right way on its own. As Jeremiah 17:9 questions: The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

On my computer, when I create PowerPoint presentations, the default font is one I don’t like, so every time I type a on it, I have to go in and change the font. By nature our hearts are evil; deceit is their default position. Our hearts don’t just naturally go to things above. Don’t expect your heart to go where it’s not trained to go.

You are going to have to train your heart and your mind to go where you want them to go. Otherwise they will wander wherever. Setting your hearts on things above is intentional. Romans 12:2 tells us: Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. You’re way more conformed to the patterns of this world than you would ever believe! Renew your mind!

This goes right along with setting your heart and your mind on things above. If you want to think about something, you’re going to have to think about it. You will think about what you are thinking about. I remember when I was a kid, my brother got this cool computer game called Dungeons of Daggorath and we used to play for hours at a time. It had terrible 1982 graphics that I thought were really cool, and it had these roaring sounds to let you know a monster was close. After we’d played the game for a long time, it would be stuck in my head for hours. I’d even dream about it. This was what my mind was set on.

What do you set your mind on? What are you feeding your heart? Statistics tell me that there are some among us who are feeding their mind explicit images. Whether it’s internet pornography or movies, or trashy novels, or indecent television programs, whatever you’re feeding your heart is what your heart is growing into. There is no way your heart is growing into Christ’s likeness if you are feeding your mind something else.

Once when I was a little kid, I went with my neighbors to see the movie Darby O’Gill and the Little People, and it terrified me. I had nightmares about it, and it took me weeks to get over it. Finally the nightmares started to fade and after a time, they were gone. Why did they fade? Because I didn’t watch the movie again.

If you want your mind to be renewed, it won’t happen by filling it with the same old stuff! Continuing to do the same thing and expecting a different result is a good working definition for insanity. That’s why Paul says in Philippians 4:8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

This is why setting your heart on things above requires us to have renewed minds. Because without that renewal, we will return to default settings. But if you have accepted Christ, you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you will also appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:3-4)

This is why Paul tells us (Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature; sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Colossians 3:5) to put to death everything that belongs to that earthly nature. He lists out sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, greed, and idolatry. 

Then Paul goes where our culture doesn’t want him to go. (Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. Colossians 3:6) He goes all “wrath of God.” Our culture emphasizes God’s love, and, yes, God is love. We don’t like to hear about a wrathful God. But God is wrath – God will destroy sin and sinners. God loves us enough to not let our sin go unpunished. That’s why Good Friday is so personal to me; Jesus took my punishment, facing the fullness of God’s wrath.  He did that for us, so we don’t have to.

Because of the great exchange, we are no longer the same people we once were. This is why the Bible tells us to rid ourselves of anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips and not to lie to each other. (Colossians 3:8-9a)

A lot of Christians have somehow gotten the idea that all of this is the end goal of Christianity, that to be a Christian, you have to be nice to each other. That’s not how it happens. There are a lot of nice people out there who have no love for Jesus, are not Christians, and are on their way to Hell. Just because someone is nice and doesn’t use bad language doesn’t mean they are on their way to heaven.

Paul explains the reason we are on our best behavior: you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. (Colossians 3:9b-10)

The good news is that when you do set your heart on things above, God is continually renewing you into His image. Everything about you is coming into conformity with Christ. It’s not just about working to keep a New Year’s resolution; God has made you into a new person completely. And so, because of that, God is renewing you in His image. So set your heart on him.

If you are wondering how to set your heart on things above, it all starts with your prayer life. What do your prayers look like? I know this church has some wonderful intercessors in it, people who are always praying for one another. In fact, we put great emphasis on intercessory prayer, having a time for it every Sunday and have a prayer chain that anyone can call to enlist others in intercessory prayer. But that’s only a tiny aspect of prayer. Yes, God tells us to come to him with our needs, so don’t stop! But if you’re not praying in other ways as well, you’re missing out on a transformative relationship with God! Ask God questions, expecting answers. Ask God to speak directly to you through His Word.

Look around you for evidence of God at work. Whether it’s thanksgiving for the beauty of another day in which to serve Him, or praises for answered prayers, make sure you are paying attention to what God is doing and how God is working.

When you read the Bible (not if, but when), read for the big picture, but then go back and meditate on it. Look to see what the application is for you. Start evaluating everything you are doing with regard to its Kingdom value.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Because of Jesus, I am New

Because of Jesus, I am New

There is nothing like early Christmas morning, seeing the joyful sight of a Christmas tree with beautiful gifts under it. My kids are at the age where there is such excitement about what is under the tree. Really, who doesn’t love getting new toys? There are some areas where almost all of us like the new. I think I can safely say we all appreciate our indoor plumbing, furnaces, air conditioning in the summer. Who still uses rabbit ears to watch your black and white TV? Does anyone still use an 8-track player or a Victrola?

On the other hand, I remember when Tara’s grandfather died, his closet was full of gift boxes, all filled with the sweaters everyone had given him for Christmas. He would get a gift, look at it, grimace, and say, “ugh, another sweater” without ever even opening it. He didn’t want anything new; he was comfortable with his old, threadbare sweaters. I think it’s a man thing: we call it “my favorite” while our wives call it “a rag.” When we put it on, they ask us, “Were you going to wear that old thing?”

There is often something comfortable about the old, the familiar. Sometimes the new comes with the fear of the unknown or (even worse) the fear of the known. One of the problems with the new is that it’s hard to adjust, especially when you’ve been doing something one way for years. Learning a new skill or a new language can be hard. I’ve found that every year, running shoe companies adjust their shoes – the kind I ran in for 5 years suddenly didn’t fit right anymore, and you couldn’t get the old ones anywhere. Many of us remember the New Coke fiasco from the late 80s, where Coca-Cola changed their formula and nobody liked the new stuff.

But what happens when the old way wasn’t working at all?

In the time of Isaiah, God’s people had disobeyed, and the leaders of Israel had gone astray. They had turned to idols and set themselves up as gods, and this has angered the Lord. Their prophets were all false, but God has something new in store. In Isaiah 42:10, he declares, Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the ends of the earth, you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, you islands, and all who live in them. Let the desert and its towns raise their voices; let the settlements where Kedar lives rejoice. Let the people of Sela sing for joy; let them shout from the mountaintops. Let them give glory to the Lord and proclaim his praise in the islands. (Isaiah 42:10-12)

God commands that his people sing a new song. Why would God want a new song sung? Because God is doing a new thing! Songs in Bible times often (if not always) tell stories; every time you see a Bible character singing, whether it’s Moses, Zechariah, Mary, or people in heaven, read the lyrics of the song, because that’s going to be the most important part of that scripture. When God says we will sing a new song, he says that because he is going to give us new material for that song. God isn’t glorified in stale testimony; if your testimony of what God has done in your life is over a year old, then your testimony is stale and you need to sing a new song!

Who is singing? Everyone – from the ends of the earth. Those who go down to the sea, and the sea itself, which represented chaos and trouble. The desert, the place of trouble and temptation, is raising its voice. Even the homes of the enemies of God’s people are singing God’s praises, represented by Kedar (Ishmael’s son) and Sela (stronghold of Edom).

Why are they singing this new song? In Isaiah 43:18-21, God says: “Forget the former things; do not dwell in the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland. The wild animals honor me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the desert and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen, the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise.

I love this scripture; it’s not a new thing just for the sake of doing a new thing. God is doing a new thing so God can receive the glory. God makes a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland. God takes troubles, difficulties, the worst times, the worst places, and uses them to show his glory. Why is this? Because if God just used the good times, the nice places, and the easy, we would so easily be convinced that we had something to do with it. Because we will get the glory. Because we will not even notice that God has done anything at all.

God promises to make all things new. Listen to His words in Isaiah 65:17: “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.

There is a time and place for remembering the past. I remember listening to my grandmother tell stories about what things were like way back when – especially because the stories got better with each retelling. God doesn’t tell us to forget the past. Look through the scriptures and see how many times you find the word “remember.” God actually calls us to remember – why? To remember Him and who He is and what He has done. Has God blessed you? Remember! Has God delivered you? Remember! So why would God tell Isaiah that the former things will not be remembered or come to mind? It is precisely because God is talking about past troubles, troubles caused by our sin, and because of Jesus, God has forgiven us and has wiped them out. It’s not that God has somehow forgotten them; He has made them not-exist.

Because of Jesus, we are new! God is doing a new thing with us! This is what God intended when he spoke through Ezekiel: I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

You see, we can never make ourselves new. Why is it most of us make the same New Year’s Resolutions every year? Because we aren’t any good at changing who we are. But the Bible tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

This is why the former things aren’t remembered. Because we are not the same person any longer! When I was in high school, once a discipline notice came to my home regarding skipping school. Fortunately (for me) I was not the offender; it was a classmate with a similar name. So I wasn’t punished for the offense. This is something like what Jesus does for us, because we aren’t the same people who once lived sinful lives!

In Colossians 3, Paul explains what it means to live as new creations. The key point he makes is that we have taken off our old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. (You have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Colossians 3:9b-10).

Because of this, we are called to put everything that belongs to our earthly nature to death (Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature; sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Colossians 3:5) and to rid ourselves of all kind of sins that punctuate our before-Christ lives (But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Colossians 3:8). The

Christians do not continue to sin like that. If your life is punctuated by anger, rage, slander, and filthy language, if you are consumed by evil desires and greed, if anything takes precedence over God, then you might want to consider whether or not you really are a Christian. If there is no evidence to support the fact that you are new, you might not be! That would be like taking a defective item back to the store for exchange, only to be given the same item in return. We have been made new in Christ; there is no reason to have all the same defects as the old!

What does a new creation look like? Here’s how Paul describes the new creation to the church in Colossae: as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12-14) We are compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, and patient. We bear with each other and forgive one another. And over everything, we love. What do you say – do you look like this? This can be the day you do. They say a tiger can’t change its stripes, but God can and will transform a person.

If these words don’t describe you yet, there are all kinds of books and studies that say they will get you there, the ten easy steps to patience or two weeks to compassion, and I’ve even heard sermons telling me to “fake it until you make it,” but the truth is we can’t achieve any of this by working harder or trying harder.

If we could succeed by trying harder, then Jesus would never have had to come. God would have just put on a pep rally and we would have tried harder. But we need Jesus. On our own, we fail again and again, but Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23) God’s mercy and compassion are new for us every morning. God has every reason to wipe us out every day, but because of God’s great love, we aren’t. Instead, through Jesus Christ, God makes us new.

So how do we become new? Remember your baptism and be thankful, because it is through our baptism that we are made new. Romans 6:4 tells us: We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

We are given a new life by the same power that raised Christ from the dead. It is the glory of the Father that enables us to live a new life. When we try to do it on our own, we are essentially telling God that we don’t need him, that we can do it without him. So instead, we press into God, actually relying on him for everything. It will make everything different. It will transform your approach to finances. It will transform your relationships with other people. It will transform the way you work. It will transform everything. If this isn’t happening, it’s not because you don’t have enough of God; it’s only because you are not surrendering everything to Him. If you are a Christian, if you have accepted Jesus’ free gift, God has already given you all of Himself in the Person of the Holy Spirit. So invite the Holy Spirit’s transformation. Because of Jesus, you are a new creation.

To the new us, Jesus gives us a command. In John 13:34, he makes the command, even calling it a new command: A new command I give you; Love one another. That doesn’t seem new, does it? We all know we’re supposed to love one another. But Jesus takes it to another level. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. (John 13:34)

Don’t think this is just some touchy-feely version of love when we just force ourselves to just nice to each other. How did Jesus love his followers? He gave his life for us. When we love each other with the love of Jesus, we sacrifice for one another. The Christian life is not all about you. It’s not all about me. It’s never about each one of us looking out for our own interests. It’s about loving one another. It’s about loving other people, even when you don’t like them very much. There are some people who have stubbornly refused to love. I know this because God has convicted me on this, that there are people I don’t want to love. So what do I do? Pray for them. Ask God to transform your heart to make you loving.

Because of Jesus, we are new.