Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Living in the Light

Ephesians 5:8-20

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) 10 and find out what pleases the Lord. 11 Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. 12 It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. 13 But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. 14 This is why it is said:
“Wake up, sleeper,
    rise from the dead,
    and Christ will shine on you.”
15 Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. 18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I have always enjoyed reading newspapers. One thing I have found when reading newspapers is that if the story took place at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, it is not going to be good news. You never have a story of something wonderful happening at that hour of the night. It is always bad news. It will be news about someone fighting or stealing or killing.

The Bible often contrasts living in darkness with living in the light. In fact, the context of today’s Scripture in Ephesians includes a very clear contrast between the two. For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. (Ephesians 5:8-11).

Do you see the contrast? Once you were in darkness, now you are light in the Lord. Then we see the contrast between the fruit of the light with the fruitless deeds of the darkness. This is the context of what we read earlier. It is clear; as Christians, we do not belong to the darkness.

I find it very interesting that Paul does not here go into a list of the deeds of the darkness. Earlier in this chapter, he admonishes against sexual immorality, impurity, greed, obscenity, foolish talk and course joking, but this is not meant to be a complete list. Sometimes we as Christians can start looking at a list like that and say, “Oh, I don’t do this or that, so I must be pretty good.” Meanwhile, we are doing all sorts of other bad things that aren’t on the list. This is not an exhaustive list. Indeed, when we see what Paul actually wrote, he says to avoid the fruitless deeds of the darkness. What defines these deeds as belonging to the darkness is the fruit which comes from them. There are all kinds of things we can do which aren’t bad in themselves, but which do not lead to the fruit that God desires from us.

So Paul tells us to be careful in how we live. Many times we live our lives without examining what we are doing. We live day by day, doing what we need to do, never thinking if it is what we ought to do. Never thinking if it glorifies God. Never thinking about the fruit of our decisions.

There have been times in my ministry when I have heard complaints about my preaching, that what I was preaching was too hard to follow. They have said things like, “we’re not ready for that.”  But the reality is that we are not promised tomorrow. We are not even promised this afternoon. We are only promised right now. Make the most of every opportunity.

In 1650, Jeremy Taylor wrote a treatise called The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living. www.ccel.org/ccel/taylor/holy_living.iii.i.ii.html

He suggested waking up early and thinking about God the very first thing, spend time with God throughout your day (no matter what you are doing), and immediately before sleeping at night, evaluate your day. During the day, don’t waste any time, for every day well spent might become a “day of salvation.” Especially if you are busy, set apart a time for fasting and prayer and confessions, meditations, and time with God, lest you be distracted by the world.  Let your free time be spent praying, reading, meditating, works of nature, recreation, charity, friendliness and neighbourhood, and means of spiritual and physical health; always remembering your calling in Christ – beginning and ending each day with God.

The reason he advised each Christian to evaluate our day is because it is easy to simply live, yet not live for Christ. Be careful how you live, says Paul. Be wise about your life. Are you living like a child of the light? Is your life characterized by goodness? By righteousness, being in a right relationship with God? With truth? If you meet someone new, would they know you are a Christian if you didn’t tell them? Every moment is important – you never know how God might want to use you in the moment. As Jeremy Taylor put it, any day might end up being a day of salvation for someone.

Therefore, do not be foolish. Now, this is a term that has changed meaning over the years. We think of foolish as simply being silly. And while this scripture warns against unwise use of our time and our lives, it’s not really saying “don’t be silly or whimsical.” In the Bible, a fool is one who has rejected God’s ways and lives life as if God and God’s will were of no consequence. As Psalm 14:1 says: The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”

So in this context, Paul is saying, live your life, each moment, as if God does matter, as if God’s will is first and foremost in your life. That will impact everything you do. Then Paul tells the Ephesians some practical wisdom: Don’t get drunk. I find it strange that Zambia is a Christian nation, yet there is a huge problem with drunkenness. That can only mean one thing: it means that we are a Christian nation in name only. And I hear that some in the church spend their time getting drunk. That’s not wise living. That’s not godly living. The Bible is clear – not because wine itself is bad, but because it leads to foolish living and to excessive indulgence.

Instead, we are told to be filled with the Spirit. The Holy Spirit fills us, prompting us to understand God’s will and wisdom, prompting us to love God and neighbor. Many people say they don’t know what God’s will is or they ask what God’s will is for their lives. Meanwhile, they are not spending time in prayer. They aren’t spending time in God’s Word. Or, when they are in the Word, they pick a sentence here or there, completely out of its context, and then they say “this is God’s word” – meanwhile, Jesus said something completely different.

When we try to understand what the Lord’s will is, sometimes it’s not clear. But Jesus said to the people, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t be stumbling through the darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” (John 8:12)

In other words, follow Jesus. What do I mean by that? Be faithful to not only know and understand Jesus’ words, but do what he said! Obey his commands! Only a fool would hear Jesus’ words and disobey.

When we are filled with the Spirit, following Jesus faithfully, then we will have joy. Not always happiness, which can be manipulated by so many things. But joy, which is independent of outward circumstances. Throughout the whole letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul expressed joy while imprisoned.

How can you sing and make music to the Lord, giving thanks even in difficult circumstances? Jesus says in Matthew 12:34 that out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.

How do we get from where we are to where God calls us to be? First of all, acknowledge that Jesus is indeed the Light of the World. That is key, because if you don’t, you will continue to stumble in the darkness. If we do not know him, we remain in the darkness, controlled the sinful nature, and, according to Romans 8:8, Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.

So instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit. You might wonder, how do I become filled with the Holy Spirit? By God’s grace, the Holy Spirit pursues us from before we even know God. When we accept by faith the gift of salvation, and when we ask God, we receive the Holy Spirit. As Jesus said in Luke 11:13 “If you, then though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” However, if you’re like me, there are times when you hope for more of the Spirit.

Here is the difficulty: we do not get more of the Spirit. We cannot. Because God gives us the fullness of his Spirit at our salvation. There is not “more” Spirit to be given! However, if we want more of the Holy Spirit’s influence, we need to take the example of John the Baptist, who testified about Jesus: He must become greater; I must become less. (John 3:30).

We allow him to become greater by setting our minds on him. Set your hearts (and minds) on things above. (Colossians 3:1, 2). Focus on the teachings of Jesus. And continue to pray for God’s wisdom – wisdom from the Holy Spirit to fill your heart to overflowing – and for that overflow to pour out in joy and in love of God and neighbor.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

7 Words: Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit

The Seventh Word:
“Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit!”
(Luke 23:46)
Easter Sunday
(Luke 23:44-49) 44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45 for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.
47 The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.” 48 When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. 49 But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.

All week, we have been looking at Jesus’ words from the cross. We are reminded that while God had a plan all along, a plan of resurrection and glorification, this doesn’t mean Jesus had an easy time. Jesus suffered terribly. And at noon, even nature itself responded as Jesus died. Darkness came across the land as the sun stopped shining.

Even the Temple was affected, as the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple, was torn in two. And Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46)

When I was planning out the program for the Easter Revival and chose the seven words of Jesus, I realized that I only had seven opportunities to preach. And I like to use a different text on Easter. The empty tomb. He is Risen! So I thought about maybe skipping one of the words of Jesus from the cross, but I couldn’t choose one to drop. It didn’t seem right to only preach on six of Jesus’ seven words. And I couldn’t combine two, because there simply isn’t enough time. So today, on Easter Sunday, we get Jesus’ last word from the cross.

There is something unique about this word. While Friday’s word: “It is finished!” was a word of victory, this word is pronounced victoriously. When someone is on the cross, their death is generally a torturously slow death of asphyxiation. They are unable to breathe. But Jesus summons enough strength to speak out in a loud voice. This isn’t a coincidence. Once again, Jesus prays from the Psalms. This time his prayer is from Psalm 31:5 Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, Lord, my faithful God.

Jesus prays a prayer of trust and a prayer for rescue.

Sometimes we can get confused about terminology. In the US, when we talk about “spirit” we often think of a dualism: the body and the soul, two parts of one person. But the spirit, in Hebrew and Greek thought, comprised the person’s whole being. So the prayer is, as Eugene Peterson paraphrase in The Message: “I’ve put my life in your hands.

Jesus trusts God with everything.

And things go dark. Darkness reigns over the earth for three hours. Satan laughs in victorious glee. Jesus is delivered to death, to the grave.

But that’s not the end of the story. You see, on the third day, Sunday, he rose again! Luke 24:1-8 tells the story: On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ” Then they remembered his words.

When Jesus prayed in faith, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” he was acting in faith. Only God could save him. And we see that God did save him. God was faithful. It can be easy to only look at the cross from this side of history. We already knew how the story would unfold. We knew that Jesus would rise again. But we have the benefit of hindsight. Jesus was living in that moment, with faith that God would rescue him, but it hasn’t happened yet. It reminds me of the faith of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, facing the fiery furnace.

(Daniel 3:17-18) If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

This is Jesus’ level of trust. He is facing death, he is facing abandonment, even by his Father. He is dehydrated and spiritually thirsty. He has taken the world’s sin upon his shoulders. Yet he doesn’t give up his faith. Instead, he gives himself fully to faith, saying, “Even though things are at their worst, I still trust God with everything.”

What I love about Jesus’ last words from the cross is that even as Jesus spoke them, so can we. Thankfully, most of us will never know what Jesus experienced, and we will never go through the depth of what he experienced. But because of Jesus, even when we are at our worst, in our deepest struggle, because his spirit lives and moves within us, we can pray this same prayer. When we come up against darkness that doesn’t quit, death that steals our life, we can choose to trust in God. To say, “Father I trust you with my life.”

There are times when our faith is misplaced. Some trust in money: the almighty kwacha or the almighty dollar. It seems like money makes things better. That is sometimes true, as long as your money serves you instead of the other way around. But the problem with money is it’s never enough. It never satisfies. Sometimes we trust in people, and they always let us down.

But our trust and faith in God is not misplaced. Jesus demonstrated whole-hearted faith and obedience on the cross, and his faith and obedience were rewarded. Indeed, today we celebrate because the cross is empty, and so is the tomb! Jesus is alive! God raised Jesus from the dead. We have the assurance that God is faithful.

In closing, I need to ask you: Have you put your life and, indeed, your life beyond this life, into God’s hands? Have you accepted that you cannot save yourself, that you are in need of a Savior? If not, it is time to pray the same prayer that Jesus prayed on the cross: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.

If you have given your life to God through Jesus Christ, are you making a difference in the world? Are you allowing God to use you to be a blessing to someone else?

7 Words: It is Finished

The Sixth Word:
“It is finished!”
(John 19:28-30)

28 Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. 30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

I love long-distance running. I have loved running since I was a little boy. But there is something about running a long race. My first long race was a 40 km trail race. It was over some very difficult terrain, and the last two or three km were all uphill. When I saw the finish line, I got tears in my eyes. I was finished, not just done with the race, but I was finished. I had nothing else left. You’ve probably seen football matches where, at the final whistle, the players collapse on the field. They’ve given their all. They are finished.

Jesus has been through an ordeal much more grueling than a 40 km race or a 90 minute football match. He has been tortured, whipped, and beaten. His followers have abandoned him, and, in Peter’s case, denied that they even know him. Jesus was made to carry his own cross, after which he was nailed to it and hung to die a terrible death. And at this point, he finally utters those words: “It is finished.

When Jesus said those words, it certainly would fit that Jesus felt relief that the end was in sight. His suffering was over. It is finally done. But the Greek word that we translate “it is finished” is tetelestai, and it means more than just “it is finally done.”

I love the way Eugene Peterson expresses this word from Jesus in his paraphrase The Message. “It’s done . . . complete.”

This is more than “it is finally over.” This is a full report of “mission accomplished.” God sent Jesus here to earth for a purpose, and Jesus had accomplished that purpose. He initiated and inaugurated the Kingdom of God. He revealed God’s character in a new, incarnational way. When God spoke to Moses, he told him His Name: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. (Exodus 34:6-7)

Jesus came and lived out God’s Name. He showed compassion and grace. Slow to anger? He allowed a corrupt trial and never even spoke out in his own defense, even though he was innocent of all charges. His love and faithfulness abounded, and his love extended, not to thousands, but to millions, even billions as his mission, that which he was accomplishing on the cross, forgave wickedness, rebellion and sin. Jesus opened heaven’s doors wide open for anyone, through faith in him, to enter in. Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom of God, for all of us to live, to live life to the full, fully in the reign of God.

Jesus completed the work for which God had sent him to earth. Jesus completed the work of salvation. This means that we don’t need to add to it. It’s not about how hard we work; our work does not accomplish our salvation. Yes, the Apostle Paul tells us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12), but he does not say “work for” – he says “work out.” There is a difference. The difference is that if we have to work for it, then it should stand to reason that it would be possible for us, if we work hard enough, to achieve salvation on our own.

Is that possible?

The standard, God’s standard, is perfection. If you have messed up, even once, and after that, you’ve been perfect, then it’s not perfection. Perfection is 100% perfection. And that is God’s standard. So if you want to try to do it on your own, that’s what you have to aim for. And if you’ve already messed up, forget about it. But Jesus’ act on the cross has paid our debt. Not only does he provide forgiveness for our sins, but he actually erases our sins, makes us as if we had never committed sin in the first place. That’s why it’s important to know that in Christ, we are new creations. The old is gone. The new has come. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (1 Corinthians 5:17)

Jesus did what you or I could never do. He took our sin upon himself and gave us new life in return. Jesus finished his mission, and we benefit from what he did. Because of what he finished, we don’t have to be “finished” – done, all out of energy. We have new hope every day. We also know that because he completed his work, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6)

Until the day of Christ Jesus, we can live in the confidence of Jesus’ victorious words of completion: “It is finished.”

Thursday, April 2, 2015

7 Words: I am Thirsty

The Fifth Word:
“I am thirsty.”
(John 19:28)

Today as we reflect on Jesus’ last words from the cross, I want to start elsewhere. I want to start earlier in Jesus’ ministry, in John 4. Jesus was on his way from Judea to Galilee, and on the way, he went through Samaria. Around noon, he stopped by Jacob’s well to rest. There he met a Samaritan woman who had come to draw water. He asked her for a drink. She responded, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:9-14)

It is very interesting to me that whenever the John the Evangelist talks about thirst, he brings it back to the spiritual metaphor. Thirst for John isn’t just a thirsty feeling. It isn’t just the need for water. It comes back to our need for Living Water, that which only Jesus can provide.

So we find Jesus, on the cross, experiencing extreme thirst. He has lost blood and sweat and is badly dehydrated. On its most basic level, Jesus’ statement, “I am thirsty” was, on the most obvious level, a request for something to drink. In response the soldiers gave Jesus “sour wine” (v. 29), a cheap beverage common among lower class people in the time of Jesus.

But Jesus didn’t just ask for a drink simply because he was physically thirsty, but also in order to fulfill the Scripture. Though John doesn’t specifically reference the scripture, he was thinking of Psalm 69, which includes this passage:
Their insults have broken my heart,
and I am in despair.
If only one person would show some pity;
if only one would turn and comfort me.
But instead, they give me poison for food;
they offer me sour wine for my thirst.
(vv. 20-21)

Jesus’ thirst also fulfilled scripture. But it was also a spiritual thirst; as Jesus suffered, he embodied the pain of the people of Israel, that which had been captured in the Psalms. Jesus was suffering for the sin of Israel, even as he was taking upon himself the sin of the world. His thirst was spiritual as well as physical.

In the book of Ezekiel, chapter 47, we see a prophecy about water coming from the Temple. The river was so pure that even where it empties into the sea, it makes the salt water fresh. Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live. (v. 9)

Jesus lived out this prophecy – do you remember what happened when he touched a leper or an unclean woman? The Law said that anything or anyone who touched something or someone unclean became unclean themselves. So if you knew someone with leprosy, you couldn’t touch them, even if they were your child, without becoming unclean yourself. But Jesus went out and touched them and healed them, and instead of becoming unclean, he made them clean. Because he is that stream of Living Water, making everything he touches clean.

In Revelation 7, John sees a vision of a great multitude in white robes, so numerous that no one can count them. (Revelation 7:13-17)

Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”
 I answered, “Sir, you know.”
And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore,
“they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.

Listen to this: ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’ nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’  ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”

While Jesus suffered greatly, he knows that others will suffer as well. Jesus died suffering. And right now, in our world, Christians are dying, suffering. Islamic State is killing Christians, raping Christian women and even beheading Christian children and celebrating as they do so. Churches are being bombed and Christians killed in Pakistan. In North Korea, in Saudi Arabia, it is illegal to be a Christian. Christians have been chased from Ethiopia, where one of the oldest Christian groups has worshiped for two thousand years. In his thirst, Jesus fulfilled prophecy, but also, his thirst leads to another prophecy, the prophecy from Isaiah 49 that the elder speaks of in Revelation 7.

Jesus is the spring of Living Water, but on the cross, that water was fouled by our sin. But in his resurrection, Jesus makes that Living Water available for all who would come to the fountain. The problem is that we are thirsty for all kinds of other things. We thirst for money and power. We thirst for material things, things that will not last. But until our thirst is for Jesus, for his Living Water, we will never be satisfied.

Does your soul yearn for the Living Water that only Jesus can supply? If you are satisfied, like the Apostle Paul, you have learned to be content in all circumstances, it is because you do have the one thing that you need for such satisfaction. You have Jesus Christ’s Living Water flowing out of you.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

7 Words: My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me

The Fourth Word:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
(Mark 15:34)

One thing I’ve heard frequently, especially since I have arrived in Zambia, is what is sometimes called the Prosperity Gospel or “Health and Wealth Gospel” or “Name it and Claim it.” This is the teaching that if you ask for something in faith, God will necessarily give it. In this teaching, suffering is never in God’s will, so if one suffers, it stands to reason that they are out of or apart from God’s will. Perhaps they have sinned and they suffer the consequence of sin. Perhaps they do not have enough faith, and so they suffer.

There are several problems with this teaching. The big reason is that it does not fit within the context of scripture. Though there are some verses that seem at first blush to support this teaching, in context they do not. When the Apostle Paul begs God three times to remove the thorn from his flesh, God does not remove it in order that through Paul’s weakness, God’s strength will be manifested.

And in this scripture, we see Jesus, who never sinned, whose obedience to God went all the way to death on a cross. We see him suffer abandonment. When Jesus cries out, he echoes the beginning of Psalm 22:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far away when I groan for help?
Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer.
Every night you hear my voice, but I find no relief.
(vv. 1-2)

Jesus wasn’t just reciting scripture; he was praying scripture. This is an important distinction. When you have allowed scripture to penetrate your heart, you will find that the emotions you experience have been expressed before. There is nothing wrong with expressing your true feelings to God. God already knows what you are going through, so you don’t need to pretend that you aren’t.

But even though this was the worst possible suffering, Jesus wasn’t just expressing that he was at the depth of despair. He was expressing true abandonment by God. How can this be, as God has promised to never leave us or forsake us? We read in Psalm 23 that Even though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me…

Worse even than the pain of torture on the cross was the pain of being abandoned by God. Why did God abandon Jesus? At the moment of his crucifixion, Jesus took upon himself all the sin of humanity. All the past sin, the present sin, and the future sin. Including your sin and mine. 1 Peter 2:24 tells us that He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. But he didn’t simply take our sins away. As we read in 2 Corinthians 5:21, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. He became sin for us. And our God is a Holy God, and he cannot allow sin in his presence, so when Jesus became sin for us, he was cast from God’s presence.

Know that Jesus’ faith was never in question. He still calls him “My God, My God” – indicating their continuing relationship. He doesn’t doubt. But he still feels the weight of that abandonment. He knew that God was everything he needed. He didn’t need God plus something else. God’s presence was like the air he breathed – necessary for life itself. And Jesus experienced the anguish of being without him.

So today I want to finish with two questions. First of all, do you feel abandoned? You are not alone. If you are in Christ, you are never alone. Jesus experienced true abandonment so that you don’t have to. He has been where you are. And if you are in Christ, you have been given the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, who is always with you, never to forsake you. Because of what Jesus did for you, you are never alone.

The second question is have you given your life fully to Jesus? Is abandonment by God the worst thing you can possibly imagine? If not, then maybe you need to give him your whole heart. You need to depend on God like you need air to breathe.

When I survey the wondrous cross,
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God;
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” by Isaac Watts (1707)

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

7 Words: Dear Woman, Here is Your Son

The Third Word:
“Dear woman, here is your son.”
(John 19:25-27)

We have been looking at Jesus’ seven words from the cross. His first word was a word of forgiveness. He told his followers to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them, and even while he is being tortured to death, his heart is for those who caused his suffering. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

The second word was a word of salvation. He told the criminal on the cross “Truly, today you will be with me in paradise.” He opens the door to heaven to those who will in faith accept him.

Today we come to Jesus’ third word. While Jesus suffers on the cross, he is not the only one who suffers. He recognizes that there are others who are suffering along with him. What will happen to those who he leaves behind? What will happen to his disciples? Will they be able to carry on his work, or will they end up as he has? What will happen to his mother? In Jesus’ time, a woman was given her worth based on the man she was related to. When she was a little girl, her worth came from her father. When she was older and got married, her worth came from her husband. And after she had children, her worth came from her sons. But not only her worth, but her protection and her provision.

By the context, we can assume that Mary is a widow. Although Joseph is mentioned twice by name, he never shows up in John's gospel at all. He has presumably died by the time Jesus reaches adulthood, which makes Mary an 'almana,' or widow, whose status depends on the surviving members of her husband's household. When Jesus dies, she will belong to no one. There will be nobody to take care of her. She will be responsible for everything, all on her own.

Mary has only made two appearances in John’s gospel. This is the second; the first time she showed up was at Jesus’ first miracle. It happens in John 2, where Jesus, his disciples, and Jesus’ mother were all at a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and they ran out of wine. (John 2:3-4) When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.” “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”

Jesus said that his hour had not yet come. But now, his hour has come. And there is Mary again with Jesus. She is not alone. Her sister is there, along with Mary Magdalene and Mary the wife of Clopas. The beloved disciple is also with her as well. Scholars and tradition identify this disciple as John himself. We don’t know why he is there, but it is clear that he alone among the disciples is there.

When Jesus looks down from the cross, he sees them, and he speaks. He looks at his mother, and using the same term as he used at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, he says, “Dear woman, here is your son.” Then he looks at the disciple standing beside her and says to him, “Here is your mother.” From that hour, John says, the beloved disciple took Jesus' mother into his own home.

Just like in yesterday’s message, and the day’s before, Jesus not only talks the talk, but he walks the walk as well. He doesn’t just talk a good game; he lives it out, and even in his dying breath, he epitomizes what James would later say is pure religion. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)

Jesus mercifully gives her a new son. He takes care of the widow in her distress. While Satan tears families apart, using HIV/AIDS, using sin, using divorce, using disease and all kinds of other means, Jesus fashions a new family. Remember that when Jesus breathed his dying breaths, he was caring for family. He was caring for orphans and widows. As for us, we who are so alive and well, how do we live this out?

And he still does this today in the church. Look around you. This is your mother. This is your father. This is your brother. This is your sister. This is your son. This is your daughter.

For some of you, you don’t know family. Or you do, but family is a bad word. Maybe your family wasn’t or isn’t so great. Through Jesus, God has invited you to be a part of his family. You are his sons. You are his daughters.

We have been brought together as family. And we are to care for our family. As a child, I learned a chorus that our church would sing, a song by Bill Gaither.

I'm so glad I'm a part of the Family of God,
I've been washed in the fountain, cleansed by His blood!
Joint heirs with Jesus as we travel this sod,
For I'm part of the family,
The Family of God.

Monday, March 30, 2015

7 Words: Truly, Today You Will Be With Me in Paradise

The Second Word:
“Very Truly, today you will be with me in paradise.”
(Luke 23:43)

We are part of a culture who says one thing but does something else. Zambia is a Christian nation, but daily, we all see corruption, abuse of power, abuse of women and children, misuse of money, stealing, lying, and all sorts of other sinful behavior. Our politicians promise us heaven but don’t deliver. People attend church, or at least claim allegiance to a church, but their lives do not demonstrate the Fruit of the Spirit.

We are just like the people to whom Isaiah prophesied when he said, The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.” (Isaiah 29:13)

As Jesus hung on the cross, he was mocked by the religious leaders and the soldiers. He hung between two criminals, and one of them, even while being crucified himself, also mocked Jesus. The Bible tells us that one of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39)

He was not really asking Jesus to save him. He was mocking Jesus and his supposed inability to save anyone. After all, his very name, Jesus, means “God saves.”

The other criminal responded differently. Scripture tells us that the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:40-41)

He recognized that it was his own crime that had put him there. He was guilty, and the punishment of his crime was death, so he was getting what his deeds deserve. Romans 6:23 gives it to us plainly. For the wages of sin is death

His death was the just punishment for his sin. He knew it and accepted it. But he also recognized that Jesus’ punishment was unjust. He had done nothing wrong. He had never sinned. Yet he was there on the cross, dying anyway. And in a last moment of deep faith, he said to Jesus, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42)

And Jesus responded with today’s word. Luke 23:43: Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Every day we are faced with the choice of how to respond to Jesus. We have sinned – Romans 3:23 reminds us that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God – and the fair pay for our sin is death. God made this clear in the Garden of Eden. But even as we recognize that we have all sinned, we have a choice of how we respond. We can lash out, mocking God, daring God to punish us. Now, some of us don’t do this blatantly. We wouldn’t think of it. But in our actions, we are no better than the first criminal on the cross. We have been in church enough to know what God requires of us, yet our behavior doesn’t look any different from the world, from people who don’t even know Jesus. We are greedy. We are self-serving. We are hard-hearted and callous. In John 14:15, Jesus says, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” It’s pretty clear that some of us, by our actions, demonstrate that we don’t love Jesus.

The big question, then, is have you put your trust in Jesus? Have you staked your life on him? Have you gotten to the point where you have asked him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”? Do you have the assurance that when your time comes, you, too, will be with him in paradise? There are some people who answer this “yes” because at one point they made a decision for him, but they live every day as though they want nothing to do with him. If you want to be with him in paradise, if you want to see him in heaven, live with him every day here on earth! Make him not only your Savior, but your Lord as well.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

7 Words: Father, Forgive Them

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34

[Before we get started, I want to acknowledge several things. First of all, it is an honor to be invited to come and preach as a guest preacher. It is a distinct honor to be trusted with the Word of God, even though we have had little or no interaction before. This week as we worship together, I hope to get to know you better and for you to get to know me as well.

The second thing I’d like to acknowledge is that it is hard to preach to people I don’t know. I don’t know your names, I don’t know what you’ve struggled with, and I don’t even know your language. I apologize for needing to use a translator, but I thank you for the chance to bring God’s Word to you.]

I also admit that I am not fluent in your culture. There are things that are perfectly normal here in Lusaka that are completely foreign to me as an American. There are things that I do that you would find completely crazy, but they happen all the time in the United States.

One thing I’ve found out is that we deal with conflict very differently. In the United States, there are different ways to deal with conflict, but what seems to work best is directness. If you’ve wronged me, if at all possible, I will go directly to you and tell you. For example, three years ago I was moved to a new district, and my new district superintendent asked me to serve on the district leadership team. After I had been serving on the team for a year, we got a new superintendent. I was a couple of minutes late to the first meeting, and when I got there, the new DS told me, “you can wait out there…”

I was pretty offended… “I’m part of this team; why shouldn’t I come in?” After all, the reason I was late was because we had a brand new baby. So later, I went to the DS and asked him what the story was (see that – direct confrontation) and I found out that the former DS had not really added me to the team at all. But what I wanted to point out here was that I directly confronted the DS about the issue, and in my culture, that is completely expected and not offensive whatsoever.

However, when I was in Russia, I asked my roommate if he had taken some of my cold Cokes from the fridge, and he was very offended that I had confronted him directly. In their culture, I should have gone to his friend and asked instead of asking him directly.

But no matter what our home culture is, and no matter what it is that might offend us, the fact is that Jesus calls his followers to a life of forgiveness. It is also one of the hardest things for most of us to do.

Because we have every reason to be offended. We have suffered every sort of wrong, no matter who we are or what we’ve done (or not done) to deserve this treatment. But whatever we have suffered, Jesus has suffered it along with us. And his response: He asks God to forgive them, because they don’t know what they are doing.

There are lots of people who tell us what to do. Jesus not only instructs, but he shows us as well. While he is dying, being tortured on the cross, he asks God to forgive those who are killing him. Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” This is how he lives it out.

It makes sense that the first word of Jesus from the cross is a word of forgiveness. That’s the point of the cross, after all. Jesus is dying so that we might be forgiven for our sins, so that we might be reconciled to God for eternity.

But the forgiveness of God through Christ doesn’t come only to those who don’t know what they are doing when they sin. In the mercy of God, we receive his forgiveness even when we do what we know to be wrong. God chooses to wipe away our sins, not because we have some convenient excuse, and not because we have tried hard to make up for them, but because he is a God of amazing grace, with mercies that are new every morning.

As we read the words, “Father, forgive them,” may we understand that we too are forgiven through Christ. As John writes in his first letter, “But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness” (1 John 1:9). Because Christ died on the cross for us, we are cleansed from all wickedness, from every last sin. We are united with God the Father as his beloved children. We are free to approach his throne of grace with our needs and concerns. God “has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:13). What great news!

When we recognize Jesus’ heart, that in his dying breaths, he asked God the Father to forgive those who were crucifying him, then it puts our offenses and those who have sinned against us into perspective.

Peter asked Jesus how many times they should forgive someone who sinned against him – up to seven times? (Just as an aside, he was being generous). Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” He goes on to relate a story about two servants.

The first servant owed his master ten thousand talents, meaning millions of kwacha. Because he couldn’t pay his master back, the master ordered that he, his wife and children, and everything they had, be sold to repay the debt. “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.”(Matthew 18:26-27)

“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii (a few kwacha). He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. (Matthew 18:28)

Though the second servant begged, because he could not pay back the debt, the first servant had him thrown in prison. The other servants saw what happened and they reported back to 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 turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.” (Matthew 18:32-34)

Jesus ends with a zinger: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

Is there any doubt that God calls us to forgive? We know we are supposed to forgive, but did you ever think that the unforgiveness that you hold is sinful? The debts others owe to us are in no way comparable to the debt we owe to God. God has forgiven our million dollar debts… how have we responded to the debts that others owe to us?

Did you notice how the parable ends? The unforgiving servant is turned over to be tortured. Honestly, living in unforgiveness is torture itself. People are often unable to receive healing when they won’t release others and forgive them. Many mental issues are tied to bitter unforgiveness. Doctors have even linked unforgiveness and bitterness to diseases such as arthritis and cancer. Furthermore, the servant has to pay off the original debt. God the Father will do the same for any believer who does not forgive a brother’s offense. Why would God require this of us? Because when we withhold forgiveness, we are in fact standing in judgment over them. We are playing God. We are saying that Jesus died for my sins, but he’s not sufficient for yours.

We can’t have it both ways!

If you are feeling put on the spot here, please know that this is a message of mercy and warning, not harsh judgment. I’m not trying to cause guilt and shame if you haven’t forgiven someone. I know how hard it is. I have been betrayed, and I know it’s hard.

Satan wants us to sit in judgment over others, withholding forgiveness from them. He reminds us of the pain they caused us. He reminds us of the wrongs they’ve done again and again. When someone has been hurt by someone else, human justice says “They will stand trial for what they’ve done and pay if found guilty.”  God is the Judge, and He will pronounce righteous judgment, repaying everyone according to His righteousness.

So how do we escape the trap of revenge and unforgiveness? We put on Christ. Ask the Holy Spirit to change your heart. You have to start with a willing heart. If your heart isn’t willing to forgive, your responsibility is to allow the Holy Spirit to transform you.

The next step to healing is to recognize and admit that you are hurt. Your hurts are real. Forgiveness does not mean that you have to pretend you weren’t hurt.

When you have forgiven, God calls you to take it a step deeper, to pray for the person who has hurt you. And you’ll realize that you have laid down a heavy burden, and you are closer to Christ!