Sunday, December 25, 2016

Have Yourself a Messy Little Christmas -

On my parent’s coffee table every Christmas sat a nativity scene. There was a wooden stable with a kind of Bavarian peaked roof. There was a cross-legged wooden manger with clean hay in it. 
Baby Jesus lay dressed in swaddling clothes of white and gold. Mary sat behind the manger in white and blue, with a beautiful, porcelain face. Joseph stood beside her, looking down on them. There was an angel on the roof, a female one (ever notice how angels look like Barbie dolls with wings?)  The shepherds were smooth shaven, in earth-toned robes, always carrying a sheep on their back.  The Wise Men stood there in fancy dress. There were sheep, cows and camels peacefully resting nearby. Everyone, even the animals, looked adoringly at the Child. It was a domestic scene, the perfect family.

I was grown before I realized that it was wrong in almost every aspect. The stable wasn’t a stable. It was a cave underneath the inn. The manger wasn’t wood. It was probably stone. Animals don’t stay still in their stalls. They snort, snuffle, and generally get in the way. Instead of friendly beasts, think fleas and lice. The shepherds were probably Arabs, not Jewish, and they definitely were not clean. The wise men didn’t even arrive until two years later. 

The Nativity may have been a miracle, but for Mary and Joseph it was a mess. They had no help. If something went wrong with the delivery, was there even a midwife there to help? Joseph was a carpenter, not a doctor, so how was he supposed to help deliver a baby?

Mary didn’t look fresh and clean. After all, she just had a baby! Childbirth is a messy business. I’ve seen a lot of women after they had just given birth, and not one of them looked as fresh as Mary. She had just been through fourteen to twenty-four hours of hard labor and pain. As far as that carol that says, “The Little Lord Jesus no crying he makes”—have you ever seen a baby that never cried? The Bible never suggests that Jesus didn’t cry.

There is one thing that the Christmas scene gets right—the most important thing. The Son of God was born and changed the world forever. 

We’ve sanitized that scene in our minds, and in doing so we’ve made it into something that it wasn’t. Jesus wasn’t born into a perfect world or a perfect family. Jesus was born into a world like ours—where people get lost and run out of money, where travel arrangements get messed up, where there is noise and desecration, and strangers drop by unexpectedly and become a burden on us. He was born into a world where people get sick and die, and we can’t always know which will happen. He was born into a world where people can be cruel. Herod, callous and unfeeling like that innkeeper, or late, like the Wise Men, or cold and tired like Joseph and Mary. He was born to experience all these things—poverty, homelessness, bigotry, and the shame, not because we deserve it, but because we are born into this world.

This is a messy world. For a time, His parents were refugees in Egypt. The king tried to kill them. When they finally returned home, they tried to reestablish their lives after two years absence. Joseph seemed to have died early, so Mary knew the frustrations of raising kids by herself. Jesus and his brothers did not get along.  Later in life, they tried to have Him committed as a lunatic. Jesus knew how hard it was to work as a tradesman. He knew the frustration of taking on a big job for a rich man, and have him make up an excuse to not pay. He knew about paying taxes. The Roman tax code changed about every other day, and you were expected to keep current on it or be cheated by the tax man.  He knew what it was like to work all day on a piece of furniture, only to have it break on you.

Whenever he preached, he was misunderstood. Wherever he went, people wanted to argue with Him. Some thought that he had a demon. Jesus had a successful ministry, but it melted away by the time he was crucified. As his followers increased his critics decreased, until the world killed Him. 

None of this would have happened in a perfect world. In a perfect world, the good are rewarded, the wicked are punished, children never grow up hungry, and parents never fight. This isn’t our world. 

Jesus was crucified, because perfect God met Imperfect humanity, and people just couldn’t stand it. 
But even so, Jesus loved this imperfect world. He loved even the people who crucified Him. He loved the cheaters, the liars, the crooks, the proud, the vain and the pompous. He loved the gossips and drunkards and prostitutes. He loved the kings and beggars. He loved them, not because of their sin, but in spite of their sins. John 3: 16 says,

“For God so loved the world that he gave His son.”

 Jesus chose to live in this messy world, so that he could bring this messy world something better.
The cross was messier than the manger. The cross was a place of shame, of injustice, of blood and pain. It was the worst death the world could give Him. But He loved us, even from the cross. 
If you could ask Jesus if He would do it again, I believe he would answer “yes”.  To see people change was worth it. To follow the will of his father was worth it.

What about you? None of you will have a perfect Christmas. You may not get everything you want. You’ll fight with relatives. You’ll be rushed and hurried. You may even get sick. You have to pay the bills. But in the midst of all this imperfection, the perfect still exists. The perfect is the love of God. Christmas is not perfect, but it reminds us of the one pure and perfect thing that ever came into this messy world.  

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Jesus, the Light of the World - John 1: 1-14

If any of the Gospel writers could write about Christmas, it was John. John became the protector of Mary, and spent many days with her. Yet John leaves out the story of Christ’s birth. He was more interested in why Jesus came than when or how. In a sense, though, John wrote more eloquently of Christmas by calling Him the Word of God, and Light of the world. Light is a powerful metaphor for Jesus.

Today, we assume that there will always be light with our electric light bulbs. But in John’s day, light only came from three sources—sun, moon and fire. It’s obviously firelight, not moonlight that John had in mind. “The light shined in the darkness, and the darkness could not extinguish it.” He compares Jesus to firelight shining in the darkness of sin.

What does Jesus share with firelight? 

1.  Light banishes darkness just by showing up.The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness cannot overcome it” Darkness cannot overcome the light, because darkness is the absence of light. The minute light shows up, darkness is gone. 

Imagine being in a cave, deep under the earth.  The darkness is so complete that you can see nothing. You cannot move because of it. But even with the smallest light your eyes can adjust to it. You can begin to move around even by the light of a tiny LED bulb or a single candle. 

Once we see Jesus even dimly, we  move from darkness to light. One candle can light a whole room. We don’t have to be scholars to have knowledge of God. All we have to do is come to Jesus, and see His light. He will reveal all things to us. 

3.  Light warms us. In John’s day, there was no light without warmth. Jesus did not do something we just see, but something we feel as well. He is like sunshine on our faces. 

The story of Christmas is a story of warm emotions. Shepherds were terrified, then rejoiced. Mary and Joseph were happy to have a baby. The Wise Men rejoiced to find Him. Hannah in the temple and old Simeon rejoiced to see the baby in the temple. It’s supposed to be heart-warming. Light warms our hearts.

Sometimes we can’t feel the warmth of our faith. That’s true of fire as well. We can see fire farther away than we can feel it. But as we draw closer to Him, we can eventually feel the warmth.  Not feeling Jesus doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with us, any more than not feeling a fireplace means that there is no fire. But as we draw close to Him, He warms our hearts and gives us joy.

There is a difference between drawing close to the church and drawing close to Christ. Many people don’t feel the warmth of Christ, because they are drawing close to His reflection, not His person. We see Jesus in the church and in others. They can reflect the light of Christ, but the warmth of Christ, the Source of our joy comes from meeting Him. Don’t just seek Christ’s reflection. Seek His Person. His presence can comfort us in our coldest and saddest moments.

3. Light pulls us together.  In ancient homes, the hearth or campfire was the center of every group. As people surrounded the light, they drew closer to each other. In the celebration of Christmas, we are drawn together. Christmas is a model of the peace that is to come as we gather around the throne of Heaven.

Tonight we celebrate the Lord’s Feast. We call it by many names—Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, Mass. But the name we prefer in our tradition is the word communion. Communion means literally “brought together.”  When we are united with Christ we are united to each other. We take the bread together to symbolize that unity. 

Charles Colson, in his biography Born Again wrote about his life after going to prison as a Watergate conspirator. He was one of Nixon’s Republican aides who once said that he would be willing to run over his own grandmother to get Nixon reelected. He found Christ while in prison. After his release, he lived in a half-way house with several other notorious prisoners, who had also become Christians. They included a liberal democratic senator, a leader of the Black Panther Party, and a former Grand Dragon of the KKK. There could not have been a more diverse group, unless you count Christ’s disciples, who included fishermen and slaves,  tax collectors and tethey were brought together in Christ. When Jesus came into the world, He became the common ground for all the world to meet.

This is important in our country today, where there is so much division. Christ brings us together when politics, race, and culture divide us. Satan uses political and cultural divisions to divide the world. The light of Christ unites us around the same fire.

4.  Fire is contagious. How could the birth of one baby in Bethlehem warm the entire world? One by one, people who were touched by Christ’s light glow themselves.  

He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God--children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The Word literally became flesh by being born as Jesus. The word literally becomes flesh also every day through being born again in the lives of believers by the Holy Spirit. When people get close to Jesus  they catch fire. To everyone who believes on his name,  has the power to become like Him. We glow with the same fire He had.

The shepherds came to the manger terrified, but left carrying the joyful light. The Wise Men came mystified but went away bearing witness. It was not an intentional thing, but a byproduct of the fire of Christ burning in them.

Tonight, we enjoy the light of Christ.  Tomorrow, we will carry the light of Christ. We are the Light-bearers, taking his Joy and peace to all people. Let us bear that light into every area of our lives into all places where darkness still reigns, so that the promise of the Scripture may be fulfilled.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Pool of Bethesda - John 5: 1-15

 “Bethesda” may be translated either as “house of grace” or “house of disgrace.”  Based on what was going on there, the second meaning seems a better fit.

Scholars have identified Bethesda as related to a kind of Greek temple called an asclepion. These were dedicated to the god Asclepius, who was the god of medicine and snakes. Each one had a pool where people bathed with other sick people, and then waited for a sign for some sign of healing.

 Sometimes, the priests gave them drugs, to make them dream and have visions. Other times, they lay beside the pool and allowed snakes to crawl over them. If a snake touched them, they would be healed. Another device they used was to have priests operate air pumps that made the water bubble. When the water bubbled, the first one in the water was healed. It was all fake and trickery, but the sick people were desperate, and paid to get in.  These temples were in every major city, and made a fortune. In Jerusalem it was forbidden to worship Asclepius, so  they claimed instead that an angel was troubling the water. They just left the pagan god out of it, and substituted an angel.

This was not only immoral, it was also very dangerous. Imagine sharing an unsanitary pool with hundreds of sick people!  Imagine the awful spectacle of hordes of sick people fighting to be the first in the pool! What a horrific sight it must have been!

That day when Jesus came to the pool, why didn’t He shut it down? Remember that day when Jesus made a whip and drove the moneychangers out of the temple—why didn’t He do that here? Instead of stopping it, Jesus chose to ignore it.  Instead, he spoke to a lame man on the edge of the crowd. Or better yet, why didn’t Jesus use His divine power and heal them all? He didn’t interfere, but instead went and talked quietly to one man on the edge of the crowd.   

There are a couple of reasons He didn’t. First, it wasn’t the right time. Jesus’ time was limited. He had to proclaim the Kingdom of God and be crucified on the Passover in Jerusalem. It was a strategic use of time and effort, not just a passionate response. There was so much evil in the Roman world—slavery, child abandonment, ritualized murder and death, disease, homelessness, poverty, unemployment, and so forth—that if He took on them all, he would have done nothing else. Second, Jesus allowed people to keep their idols. He invited people to turn from their idols, but He didn’t break them. Instead, Jesus wanted to break the power of idols in the hearts of people by inviting them to follow Him. If you break a person’s idol without giving them anything else, then they will just get another idol. If he took away the pool of Bethesda, someone would just build another one. So instead of breaking idols, Jesus invited them to turn to Him.

There are two view of how Christians should relate to the society around us. They are not mutually exclusive, but they are a matter more of emphasis. One view is that Christ came to reform society. Christianity is a political movement more than a religious movement. Jesus came to set up the Kingdom of God on earth by overcoming wrongs.  The other view is that Christ came to reform individuals. When individuals are changed, then society is changed. We can’t take down the idols in society, but we can help individuals turn from them and see Jesus. This story supports this latter view.  Jesus didn’t take down the idol of the pool, but he took one man from it, who would then testify to others about the true source of life. 

The crowd around the pool were not just sick people--they were deluded. They really believed this place would heal them. Jesus doesn’t mess with our delusions. He just offers us the truth. As long as those people looked to the pool, instead of God, they would never be really healed.

We don’t have such a pool, but we have other delusions. Our delusions promise us health, wealth, and happiness, but give us nothing. Stand outside a convenience store on the day of a big jackpot and you will see the poor, greedy and desperate people line up for tickets, hoping for a lucky number. Turn on game shows where people audition for their one shot at stardom. Watch open tryouts for the major-league baseball and football, where they only take one in ten thousand. It’s insanity to think that anything which depends on luck or chance will ever make our existence worthwhile.

God doesn’t give us a chance for happiness. He gives us happiness, guaranteed. If the only way we can find happiness is through a chance of circumstance, then we don’t understand the plan of God for our lives. God offers us help by offering us Himself in the form of Jesus. When we find Jesus in our lives, whether we have good fortune or bad, we have a source of happiness that will sustain us.  There are times in life when we should and must take chances. But happiness is not a chance. God’s grace is not a chance. It is a reality for anyone who will look away from the crowd and look to Jesus. 

This is another example of how Jesus looks away from the crowd to minister to one individual.   People mattered to Him one by one.  Anyone who comes to Jesus, anyone who meets Jesus can and will be changed. But in order to experience the grace of God we must follow Jesus. 

In our story, the man is changed. We can see the process of this change in the three statements that Jesus makes to this man.

First, came a question, “Do you want to be healed?”  Sounds like a silly question, doesn’t it?  If he didn’t want to be healed, why was he hanging around the pool?

It’s not a silly question at all. This man had settled down into a sick routine of life. His life was not prosperous, but at least it ws familiar. The man was being fed either through begging, relatives, or living off the public dole. He had companions. He didn’t have to work. Charity and public assistance becomes a habit after a while, and there’s nothing harder for any of us to accept than change. After a while, charity becomes addictive. 

Healing brings changes and some of those changes can be painful.  But when God gives us an opportunity to be whole, then we must be willing to receive it. That always means embracing a new lifestyle  and a new attitude.  

Alcoholics, drug addicts, and other addictions often will say they want to be rid of their addiction. But when change is offered to them, they usually choose to avoid the pain and stay with their sickness. They chose to stay as they are, rather than face a new life. 

A man came to Jesus one day an and said “Master, what must I do to receive eternal life.”  Jesus told him to keep the commandments. Then he listed some of them—do not steal, do not murder, do not commit adultery, and so on. Beside each one, the man put a little mental check mark—done that, done that, done that. All these things he was already in the habit of doing.

Then Jesus threw him a curve ball—“Give all you have to feed the poor, and come and follow me.”  Wait a minute! The man thought.  I didn’t plan on this!  Jesus always does this to us. The biggest thing Jesus asks for each of us, if we want to be well, is to surrender our habits to Him. Break out of comfortable shells and look at life in a different way.  Being healed is always going to cost us. We must be willing to choose change over comfort and routine and break free by looking at Him. 

The second thing He said was, “Take up you bed and walk.” Walking is leaving somewhere and going to somewhere. First he left his couch. Sickness, depression, and laziness puts us on the couch. We must leave the comfort and safety of our old routines. Second, he left the crowd. People have told me that they would rather go to hell than heaven, because all their friends are there. Don’t continue in delusion, because that is where your friends are, but trust God to give you some new companions when you start your new life. Third, we must break our lifestyle of dependency. You can’t stay an invalid, being helped by others, but you must be willing to stand on your own. God will help you do this, but you must be willing to stand alone.  

Walking is going to somewhere. After Jesus left this man He headed for the house of God. 
If we do not come to God, then we will fall back under delusion. It was only there, at that time that Jesus was revealed to this man as the Son of God.

Come to church. You can meet God anywhere, but God has set aside a place for us to meet him in the company of others. That place is in the fellowship and worship of a church.

The third thing Jesus said was, “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.”  
Why does He say this? Is Jesus suggesting that his illness came from some sin that he committed?  Not at all. It’s not the cause of his lameness that is the problem, but his continuing delusion of thinking this pool will save him. His “sin” was looking in the wrong direction. He was looking for an angel disturbing the pool to be his savior, not God Himself. This is idolatry.

The tendency to idolatry is never far from any of us. None of us are immune to it, or to going back into idolatry at any time. That is why we need to not only look to Jesus, but to keep looking at Him. That is the difference between justification and sanctification. Justification is to be forgiven for our sins. Sanctification is the process of being cleansed from our sins. If we accept God’s forgiveness, then we will have eternal life. But to live holy lives, we must follow Him. Christians sin even after we have been saved. That doesn’t make us unsaved, but it still makes us a mess. We must not go back to the idols that used to dominate our lives.

Jesus offer us healing—not a chance for healing, but a guaranteed healing on the Cross. But first we must ask ourselves if we are willing to receive it. Then having received it, are we willing to set aside our idols daily, and follow Him. Being a follower of Jesus isn’t easy, but it is the only guaranteed way of salvation, given to us by God Himself, so we can be truly whole.  

Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Congregation of One - Luke 19:1-10

The ministry of Jesus lasted approximately three years. The first year was of introduction and proclamation. From a human standpoint, it was very successful. Thousands came out to see Him. The second year was the year of resistance and opposition. By human standards it was unsuccessful. Jesus was preaching a hard message, and the religious leaders marshaled resistance against Him everywhere. At the same time His disciples grumbled and feuded among themselves. Things got so bad that he even asked His disciples if they were going to leave him, too. He was forced out of Judea and Galilees, and went into the wilderness on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee. 

The third year of Jesus’ ministry was spent in teaching and preparation. He slowly traveled down on the east bank of the Jordan River, preaching, teaching and performing miracles. Finally, in the month before the final Passover when Jesus was crucified, He approached Jericho, which was the gateway city for Judea and Jerusalem. As He did, the expectation of the crowd swelled again. Once again, the people began to look at Him as possibly the Messiah. Jericho is a large city east of Jerusalem, at the end of a mountain road. The road rises from Jericho and winds for forty miles before you reach Jerusalem.

It would have been a good place for Jesus to stop and preach, teach and heal. It was the last time Jesus would be in a major city before Palm Sunday. Crowds of pilgrims were passing through on their way to the Passover. Jesus could have stopped there and done some amazing ministry. But instead of stopping, He just passed through. 

Imagine the scene--hundreds, maybe thousands of pilgrims and citizens lining the road to see Jesus!  The dignitaries from the synagogues would have been in front. Beggars and sick people crowding the thoroughfares, pleading with Him to heal them. Spiritual seekers waited to hear Him preach. Pharisees and Scribes wanted to debate him.  What would he do in the short time He was with them? Would he preach, teach, heal, or debate—what would he make of those precious few hours?
Here’s what he did. He saw one little man in a tree and spent the whole day with him. A town full of sinners and sick people, and he spent all his time with just one man—a chief tax  collector who was the most hated man in town. It made no sense-no sense at all! Why did He waste such an opportunity? 

Zacchaeus as chief tax collector was universally despised. He was so hated that people wouldn’t even get out of the way and let him pass. He couldn’t even find anyone to give him a boost into the tree. He had to climb it all by himself.

Now, why should we care today what Jesus did that day in Jericho?  Does it make any difference to us where Jesus spent that afternoon? It does make a difference. It makes a life changing difference—at least, it does to me personally.  Jesus’ actions exposes and rebukes my greatest sin in ministry.   
Today, I want to speak to you not as pastor, but as a sinner.  I want to confess my greatest sin in ministry.  It is pride.  I love the limelight too much, and the praise of others.

I started my career as a youth director in a church with about seven hundred members. We had about a hundred and twenty young people. When I was twenty-three, our senior pastor had a heart attack, and I had to function as pastor for several months. I got good reviews. I was even asked to preach at Synod twice in my twenties. It was a great feeling.  I loved the praise and attention. I began to think of myself as “God’s man of faith and power.”  The pastor was retiring in a year or to, and he even suggested that I should stay and apply to be senior pastor. 

But the church wasn’t enough for me. It was too traditional, too stuck in the past. I wasn’t doing enough in the community. I wanted to see it bigger and livelier. Most of all, I wanted to have an influence far beyond the local church. My thoughts were to have a national, not just a local impact.

 An opportunity came up to plant my own church, and I took it. I thought in a year or two surely I would have a church of several hundred. But after four years, I had built it up to only about fifty. Looking for better opportunities, I left and took a church in Florida. I had a successful ministry there, adding about a hundred and twenty over seven years, but it wasn’t enough. I missed the acclaim that comes when you preach to hundreds. 

I accepted a call to a church of more than five hundred. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted more. I wanted to see exciting, soul stirring revival. I became dissatisfied. My dissatisfaction turned inward, and I fell into depression. Finally, I walked away.

I thought I would be called to a bigger church, or some soul-stirring ministry, but dozens of churches turned me down. God opened only one door for me, to the last place I ever wanted to go, a small church so far out in the country that there was little or no chance for growth. For a long time, I was bitter and resentful towards God that he seemed to have abandoned me. 

Slowly, God showed me the error of my ways.  Pride was driving me, not the Spirit. That little church at first seemed unimportant, but God’s Spirit was there. It was a place where I learned the importance of small things, and seemingly unimportant people.
I have told you my story for one reason, because we are all ministers. You are a minister of the Lord, the same as I. The only difference between us is that I have the responsibility of ministering within the institutional church, while you minister in the world. The vast majority of us will never minister to a lot of people, or in a way that will call a lot of praise or acclamation. Most of us minister to just a few or even one. You all shepherd someone. Your “flock” may be a youth group, a Bible study, a group of friends, acquaintances or your family. At some time, most of us will have a flock of one or two people like a baby, an aging parent, a sick husband or wife. You may spend years caring for only one person. You may think there are things more important that you are supposed to do, but there isn’t. This is a truth that escapes the career-bent--that loving one or two people completely is sometimes more important than the whole world.  

Many famous ministers have committed themselves to preaching and teaching the Gospel. But in the process they have forsaken their true flock, that one person God sent to them, that only they can love. I have known many preachers who have been faithful in the pulpit, but who have neglected or been unfaithful to their wives. Many have loved their congregations but lost their children. Dr.  R. A Torrey was one of the most influential preachers of his generation, yet none of his children stayed with the Lord. Francis Schaeffer was one of the great teachers of my generation, but his son stands today against everything he taught. Rick Warren is one of the greatest preachers of today, yet his son committed suicide. We cannot know why these children chose the paths that they did, but we cannot help but wonder if we, in saving the world, often miss the little people around us. If we ignore the importance of persons in our quest to change the world, then we will have missed the true purpose of God.
Jesus could have stood in that crowd in Jericho and delivered one of his great sermons. He could have healed a bunch of people, and received praise from the crowd. But instead He turned his attention to one lonely little man, He was not interested in reputation or acclaim, but in helping people one by one.
Think of the stories you remember about Jesus. Most of those stories center not on crowds, but individuals like Mary Magdalene, Peter, Nicodemus, Lazarus, the woman at the well, and so many others. These were private, not public ministry. Other people told the stories later, but most of it was totally invisible to the crowd. They were ministry opportunities taken by the prompting of the Spirit to a congregation of just one person. Jesus’ ministry style was to put the individual ahead of the crowd, to let changed lives be the witness to the world.

Billy Graham was once asked if he could live his ministry over, what would he change. He replied that he would devote himself to two men, whom would devote themselves to two men, who would devote themselves to two others, and so forth. He calculated that if he did, he would reach more of the world than all his books, crusades and television shows combined. The world is won one person at a time. A city full of people demanded Jesus’ attention, but Jesus gave it to one little man in a tree.
It’s not the big crowds that should interest us, but the little man in the tree. Ninety-nine sheep were in the fold, but the shepherd left to seek one. 
Zacchaeus’ story doesn’t end on that day. An afternoon with this man had a vast impact on the city of Jericho. Zacchaeus gave away half his income to feed the poor. Imagine what would happen if the richest man in our city made a pledge like that!  He became an honest tax collector, and as chief tax collector, he would have demanded that all the tax collectors under him did the same. Unfair taxation was the biggest gripe against the government. Jesus ended that practice in Jericho in a single afternoon!
We don’t know how far our influence will reach when we adopt a congregation of one. It may not go any farther than that one person, but that is all right.  We need to be reminded that God’s greatest works are done through networks of people being changed, and then changing others. Righteousness is from one person to another, by individuals meeting individuals.

I’d still like to preach to hundreds of people, and to see the world touched through me. But I have no power make that happen. That is up to God. The only thing I have to do is to be the best pastor, the best father, the best son, the best husband and the best friend I can be to one person at a time. We all must look for that one person who is our flock, and give our lives for them, and to do that all our lives, one person at a time.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Art of Thankfulness - Colossians 3: 15-17

This passage speaks of two kinds of thankfulness—thankfulness to each other and thankfulness to God. 
The art of thankfulness was practiced in ancient times better than we know it today. The Vikings believed not to be grateful was the greatest sin a person could commit. 

Why don’t people today say it more? One reason is because we live in an informal age.  Common manners,  such as “please” and “thank you” have gone out of fashion. Another reason is because  we’re too busy. Who has time for “thank-you” cards when there’s so much to do? We get preoccupied, and we forget to be thankful.  

But giving thanks is a duty and a necessity for all Christians everywhere. Look at Colossians 3: 1-3  “ 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. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”

The word “Christian” doesn’t mean a follower of Christ, but someone who lives in Christ. Like a citizen of the Carolinas is a Carolinian, and a citizen of Georgia is a Georgian,  a person living in Christ is a Christian. To God we are hidden in Christ. like a Russian nesting doll. But in the world, Christ lives in us. The outside face the world sees is ours.   When God sees us, He sees Christ. When the world see Christ, it sees us. Whatever we do reveals the Christ within. When we are judgmental and legalistic, the world concludes that Christ must be the same.  When we love others, then the world sees that Christ loves them, too. We are showing them the nature of Christ.  

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another."  The word “admonish” is an unfortunate translation of the Greek word nouthetos, which means an appeal to the mind or reason. It means a revelation of the will of God. It is not just a revelation of what we do wrong, but also what we are doing right. Criticism reveals what we have done wrong.  Praise and thanksgiving reveals what we have done right. If we criticize, we must first praise. Thanksgiving is an acknowledgement of the favor and good deed we have done to God. We must recognize the good deeds of others, and we must proclaim those good deeds to the world, whether or not the person wants them revealed. 

Jesus doesn’t tell us not to praise the good deeds of people. He tells us not to boast or praise ourselves, but instead to praise others. When we praise others, we are acknowledging that what they have done is a good example to the world. When we refuse praise, we are being ungracious, and are stifling the witness or our own good deeds. 
The same is true of our thanks to God. We must not take God for granted, either, but we should praise all things that come from Him. 

When we give thanks to God, we must do it in a language people understand. Let me suggest three ways we can express thanks to an individual who has blessed us.

The first way of expressing thanks is the most obvious. Just say it!  Put your appreciation into words. There is no substitute for a verbal acknowledgement of a job well done.

In Florida, we bought a house which had few plants in the yard. A friend from the church owned a nursery, and asked me to come look at his shrubbery.   He spent an hour walking with me among the plants, explaining what was best for my yard, and loading them on his truck for delivery. It was hundreds of dollars of plants, I tried to pay him, but he would not let me. “No charge”  he said.
I was stunned. “I don’t know what to say. “
“Two words” he replied “THANK YOU!”  That was all the payment he wanted.
But what if, when you do something good, you don’t want to be thanked? Some people have trouble receiving thanks.  

We may not seek praise, but we need to receive it, for two reasons. First, because the people who thank us need to say it. They need to make visible in their lives the attitude of Christ, who is thankful for all we do for Him. Second, other people need to hear us praised when we do something right.  Those who praise us publicly hold our good deeds up before the world as examples of faithfulness. This is not for your sake but for theirs. You are a living example of Christ’s behavior before the world.

The second kind of thanks is also important. Tell others!  Let others know. Practice “good gossip” on every occasion. He bragged on the churches all the time.  If he could find anything to praise, he gossiped about it all over the place. Let mistakes and evil deeds go unmentioned, but shout the good that people do from every housetop.
One reason we hesitate to talk about people’s good deeds is because we are afraid of leaving someone out. If we praise one person, what about the others that don’t get mentioned? Praise is not a limited commodity. We never run out of praise. If we fail to mention one, we can always mention them later. The reason people get jealous over praise is not because someone got what they should, but because we haven’t yet praised them. Praise and thank everyone everywhere to everybody, and never stop doing it.

The third way is even more simple yet-- Show your thankfulness!  Express your appreciation in a tangible way. If someone does a good turn for you, do one back, if you possibly can. 

Some people don’t read “thank-you”notes.  Some are hard of hearing and don’t hear you when you say it. But you can’t ignore a favor or a good turn done as an expression of thanks.  

 Just as we give thanks to others, so we should give thanks to God. Colossians 3: 17 says “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.”
Imagine the scene at a thanksgiving, gathered around the family table. Mamma has cooked the meal, and it’s wonderful. Yet no one says thank you, not one child thought to say it! If you were Mamma, would you be happy?
Yet when we sit at God’s table, we receive God’s blessings,  how can we not give thanks?

Gerald Manly Hopkins wrote that the world is ablaze with the grace and blessings of God. The world is like Moses’ burning bush. The fire of God’s grace sets everything ablaze, but it is not consumed. It shows us in every place the light of God’s glory. Yet we do not acknowledge that fire, and are not moved by it, until we acknowledge it, and give thanks.

In some parts of Mexico, hot springs and cold springs are found side by side. The women will boil their clothes in the hot springs, and rinse them in the cold springs. A tourist said to his friend, "They must see God as being very generous. "No Senor, they complain, because He does not give them any soap!"
How do we show God our love?  Thankfulness is the same whether it is practiced to God or other people.  (We might even write God a"thank you " note!)

First, we tell God!  Worship is coming into God’s presence with praise and thanksgiving to God.   
 Tell others!  When we tell one another what we have to be thankful for, we help build that attitude of gratitude. When we rehearse with others the things God has done, we become more thankful ourselves.

Third, show your thankfulness! Whatever we do, we do in the name of Jesus. It is not what we say in church, but how we act throughout the week that really shows the depth of our determination to be thankful. When we live in Christ, everything we do is done with the realization that He is looking over our shoulder. 

Tony Compolo tells the story of a man who boarded an Amtrak train to New York, who sat across from two young men. Something was seriously wrong with one of them--his head kept bobbing up and down, and he could not feed himself. He was constantly being attended to by his friend.

 "Please excuse him mister," the other one said,  "He wasn't always this way. We were buddies in Vietnam. He saved my life. I got shrapnel in leg, and this man pulled me through the jungle when I couldn’t walk. Then a piece of shrapnel got him, and pierced his brain. He hasn’t been right ever since. I have to take care of him.”
"That's very generous," the traveler said.

"Generous?  No way!" The man said. "What he did was generous!  I have to do this--he's my brother" 
Gratitude to God makes debtors of us all. A gratitude debt is the greatest debt of all. If we owe a legal debt, we may lose our possessions,  but if we fail to repay a debt of gratitude, we lose a part of our soul.

We are under a debt of gratitude to Jesus.  Live as one under a debt. It is only by God's grace that you live. Give thanks always in word and actions to the One who died for you.   

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Sitting Beneath the Fickle Vine - Jonah 4

Jonah sat down in the desert outside Nineveh after preaching in the city that the people would be destroyed in forty days. He wanted a front-row seat to the holocaust. But there were no fireworks and he preached God’s destruction. When God didn’t destroy them, he got angry with God. The last thing Jonah wanted was to meet Ninevites in heaven!
The desert is a hot place. If you sit there for long, you’ll get heat stroke. So God prepared a vine to shield Jonah from the sun, to “save him from his discomfort.”

“His discomfort”? Consider the irony of Jonah’s situation. He’s waiting for a holocaust, and he’s worried about his own discomfort? He prays for shade while thousands are under a death sentence?  It’s like passing out umbrellas at a public hanging!

So why does God help Jonah? He’s doing it to teach Jonah a lesson. After Jonah was comfortably situated under his vine, God sent a worm to eat it. 

Then Jonah got mad. “It’s better to me to die than to live!” He whined, because God took his shade away. He even says. “God, what have you got against this poor plant?”

God rebuked Jonah in vs. 10-11, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” You felt nothing for a city full of people, so how then can you care more for a plant than for them?

When I was a boy, we went to a drive-in theatre to see a re-release of Gone with the Wind. (Drive-ins were places where young people went to ignore movies). We all had a great time, though one boy talked constantly every scene. “Booring!” he kept saying. One scene showed the burning of Atlanta, and a huge field of dead and wounded soldiers.  “Boring,” he said. Later came a scene where a horse was being beaten, and this boy turned out to be an animal lover. He started crying, “Look at that poor horse!” Thousands didn’t move him, but one horse did. 

We’ll get upset about our pets. We’ll get angry about the destruction of the environment, yet we can stomach the quiet holocaust of souls all around us.  Most people don’t know their right hand from their left when it comes to the things of the Spirit, yet we only look at our personal vines. The rest of the world may go to hell, but if things are OK at home, then we’re fine with it.  

What if Jonah weren’t angry with the Ninevites, but only indifferent? It would have made no difference, whether he was mad at them or cared for them. As long as he camped outside the city, the result would be the same. The only way he might have made a difference was to stay in the city and teach them right from wrong.

In college we preached in the jails, bus stations, college campuses, and streets, telling others about Jesus. Many people made decisions for Jesus. We told each other about numbers and converts and bragged about our witnessing. But at the end of the day, the people we led to Jesus went back to their lives. If some of them stayed with Jesus I wouldn’t know, because we abandoned them. We went home and sat under our vines.

There is no record of Nineveh’s repentance anywhere except in Jonah. We have many of the official records of Nineveh, but nothing is written of this Jonah or this repentance. It didn’t last. They went right back to conquest, tyranny, and idolatry.

It’s more fun to make babies than to raise them. It’s more fun to make disciples than to disciple them. But if we don’t continue to care for them, then we are pretty much guaranteeing their failure. Changing a soul takes time. When we are born again we start out as a baby, but without nurture we die. Conversion is a process that requires training, patience, love, and a sense of acceptance into a new community. People receive just enough Gospel to get inoculated against it. We have to continue to be involved in the lives of those we help.

But in Nineveh, the only person who could have given them care and instruction was sitting in the desert under a vine, waiting for their destruction! Why wasn’t he in the city?

This is typical of our modern approach to charity. We want to help the poor, the lost, and the sinners, as long as we don’t get our hands dirty. Keep them at an arm’s distance, while we sit under our comfortable vines.

Jonah didn’t have to go into the city to follow up with the Ninevites--he might have taken one or two with him out into the desert and taught them the Bible as they sat under the vine. Those two people might have gone back and trained the others, but he didn’t do that, because he didn’t care. He had already done the preaching, let someone else do the training! Jonah didn’t sully his hands becoming involved with Ninevites!

In the 60’s Joseph Bayley wrote a wicked little satire on the problems of modern evangelism called The Gospel Blimp. In it, a group of Christians are attending a barbeque in the back yard of a church friend. The friend, George, asks them to pray for his next door neighbors, who are not Christians. The group strategizes over how they could reach these neighbors, and they decide to hire a blimp with flashing signs to display Scripture over their house. They organize a ministry “International Gospel Blimps, Incorporated” to take donations for the blimp. They wrap Gospel tracks in cellophane (called firebombs) and throw them out all over town. Soon his neighbors’ gutters are clogged with tracts. The ministry grew and grew, until there was a fleet of blimps in other cities. There were constant fundraisers to keep it going. Eventually the ministry falls apart as they squabble about who should lead it, and what vision they should pursue. George becomes disillusioned and drops out. 

Then one day, George holds another barbeque, and invites the same old people. He also invites his neighbors, who had just became Christians. The others are excited. What led them to Christ? Was it the billboard flashing in their window, or the tracts clogging their gutters? No, they confess that all that just made them mad. What made the difference was that when George quit the Gospel Blimp, he and his family had time to make friends with them. They treated them as people, not projects. In that friendship, they saw the light.

Preaching to the lost, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and healing the sick isn’t all that God wants. If we hold ourselves aloof from the people we try to reach, we will fail. People don’t want to be numbers or objects. They want to be treated as people, who are individually of infinite value to God. We have to love lost, disciple the lost, and identify ourselves with the lost. They are not objects—they have names and faces. We must not be aloof from them, we have to stay with them.

Jonah didn’t get this until God killed his vine. When God took away his comfort, he had to live like a Ninevite.
This last summer in July, the temperature in Nineveh reached 53 degrees centigrade, or 126 degrees Fahrenheit. If I had been there, I would sure have appreciated a vine, or better yet--air conditioning! But they don’t have vines, and few have air conditioning. I wonder how people keep their sanity under such conditions? 
It’s easy to criticize the lost when we don’t have to live under their conditions. It’s also easy to misunderstand the difficulties of their lives. But when God identifies with them and wants us to do it, too.  We must be willing to live among them if we are going to help.   

Christians in America for generations have lived under a comfortable vine. We’ve enjoyed the protection of the state. We’ve had worship days preserved by law for church use, respected by the schools and stores. There was a time when employers would not dream of making us work on Sunday!  Movies and television shows respected Christian values. We thought it would always be that way.  Conversion was easy when the culture was halfway Christian already. Most people went to church, and all we had to do was get them to come to our church.  There were more churches than restaurants and gas stations—one on every corner. Even if the culture did not embrace Christianity, it certainly embraced churchianity! 

We were wrong to think that would last forever.  People forgot that Jesus and America were different.  We made an idol of the vine that kept our churches and families safe. But today the worms have just about eaten that vine. There is no protection for the church or the Christian family, nor is it likely to return.

God allows this for a reason, so we’ll get ourselves out of the desert and back into the world, making disciples and building friendships. It isn’t enough to preach to the lost-, but we must also embrace, accept, and include them. We must not compromise our morals or our message, but take that message out into the world in which we live like strangers and aliens in a hostile world. We must show our world—our Nineveh—a caring face, following Jesus into the dirt and mess of their lives. Not only that, but we must invite them into our lives, opening our homes and our hearts without feeling sorry for it later. We must not seek comfort for ourselves, but we must seek to comfort others. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Ghost in the City - Jonah 3

Over the years there have been several stories of people swallowed by whales. Most of them fall into the category of “tall tales” probably inspired by the story of Jonah. The most often told of these stories is that of of James Bartley, which appeared in the New York Times in 1891. While the story is probably not true, one detail of the story seemed interesting. It was the description of what the man supposedly looked like when he was cut from the whale.
“During the brief sojourn in the whale's belly, Bartley's skin, where it was exposed to the action of the gastric juices, underwent a striking change. His face and hands were bleached to a deadly whiteness, and the skin was wrinkled giving the man the appearance of having been parboiled ...”

When Jonah came out of the fish, he probably would have looked this way—skin a ghostly pallor and wrinkled skin—like a man returned from the dead. That is exactly what he was. He resembled the walking dead!

Now imagine the effect a man with such an appearance would have in a superstitious city like Nineveh. Here is a walking ghost, fresh from a fish’s belly, walking through their streets shouting that the city would be destroyed in forty days. The whole effect must have been horrifying. No wonder they repented!

Now let’s imagine what it would have been like if Jonah had obeyed the first time. He would arrive in the city as an ordinary, middle class merchant. I seriously doubt it would have had such a devastating effect. More than likely they would have laughed him out of town! Our appearance makes a difference. If we look and act like we have just come from a fresh encounter with God, then more people will think that we actually have!

Jonah’s journey to Nineveh gave proof to what he said. No one would have believed Jonah without his physical appearance and his incredible story. Jonah’s rebellion, disaster, and deliverance did not disqualify him for speaking for God. On the contrary, it made us believe it. His failure and near death became the instrument of his success.

Christianity is unique among religions in that it recognizes the importance of defeat. We do not really live until we die. We are not exalted until we are humbled. If Christ had not died, there would be no resurrection.

His ministry on earth was by all human measurements a failure. It lasted three years, before the Romans crucified Him. But when He rose from the dead, He was like Jonah, displaying on His own body the living symbol of God’s Grace. He even quoted Jonah’s story as the foreshadowing of His. In Luke 11: 30, Jesus said, “For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.  His return from the dead, like Jonah’s was God’s declaration of victory.

What was true of Jesus was also true of His disciples. Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ greatest woman disciple, yet she had been a prostitute, infected with seven demons. Paul was a persecutor of Christians and a murderer, yet Jesus made from him His greatest apostle. Peter was a coward and a liar who became the head of the church. Those who fail God at first often become His greatest prizes. Their blemishes become trophies.

The same can be true of us. Our failures, may be transformed by God into trophies of success. When we fail, we may either give up or repeat them over and over, or we can trust God and learn from them.

Failures do not have to be fatal. Look at the example of Abraham Lincoln. In 1832, he lost his job. The same year, he ran for state legislature and lost. In 1833 he went into business, failed, and declared bankruptcy. In 1834, he was elected to the state legislature, but in 1835 his sweetheart died and he had a nervous breakdown, which continued to plague him with severe bouts of depression for the rest of his life. He ran for speaker of the state house of representatives and lost in 1839. In 1845 he ran for congress and lost.  Later he won, but in 1848 he lost re-nomination by his own party. In 1849 he ran for land officer and lost. In 1854 he ran for the U S Senate and lost. In 1856 he was defeated for the vice presidential nomination, and in 1858 he again lost a bid for the senate. Yet in 1860 he was elected President of the United States.

How could a man with so many defeats win such a prize? It is not in spite of his defeats, but because of them. Defeat made him who he was.  It was not in spite of his time in a fish’s belly that Jonah became great, but because of it. It’s not in spite of your failings that we become Godly but because of them. God only uses people who have first been broken on the wheel of suffering. When suffering refines us, only then can we be trophies of God’s grace.

Defeat can perfect us or defeat can destroy us. Whether or not we become trophies or tragedies has a lot to do with how we react to it later. In Jonah’ story we see some evidence of how Jonah was able to connect with God, who turns his defeat into success.

First, Jonah’s defeats resulted in an attitude of dependence upon God.

Jonah recognized that everything that happened to him came from God. Even so, he did not blame God for his problems. Jonah knew that his trouble was his own doing, but he also realized that God’s hand was behind it all. He never attributed either his failure or his survival to anything but God’s hand. 

A proud person blames God for his defeats and takes credit for his successes. When things are going badly, we say, “Why is God letting this happen?” When things are going well we say. “Look what I did!” The wise person, however realizes that everything comes from God—successes and defeats as well. A wise person is not a blamer. He recognizes that all that has come to pass has God’s hand in it. When things go well, he doesn’t take the credit, but continues to acknowledge that God is in charge.

All of us have a judgmental streak. This does not necessarily mean judging others, or having a propensity to want to blame someone for everything. When things go wrong we say, “Whose fault is it?”  It may be no one’s fault or everyone’s fault. It is not up to us to assess blame or credit in every situation. There is no need to point fingers. Things happen because God allowed it. Out of each situation, God can bring good. We do not need to know his plans, but only to obey what we He has revealed. 

Second, Jonah used defeat as an opportunity to change his mind and his actions.

God expects us to use our problems as a learning experience. When Jonah was regurgitated on the Syrian coast, he didn’t try to go to Tarshish again, even though it was not very far away. Instead, he learned to obey God and struck out for Nineveh. He changed his mind about running and journeyed towards the destination that God intended for him all along.

The word “repentance” is often misused and abused. It’s not about feeling guilty or ashamed for our sins. It literally means, “Change your mind.”  Look at your situation differently. You don’t have to feel ashamed for your past, just let it go and face in a different direction. It’s not about what you were, but where you are headed. Repentance is looking forward, not backward. 

Most people do not learn from their mistakes, but repeat them over and over. Einstein once said that insanity was doing the same thing over and over, while expecting different results. We develop a habit of defeat and despair. For Jonah to turn back and go to Tarshish after coming out of that whale would have been insanity. Instead, he went forward and took his place in the world. 

Third, Jonah was open about his defeats.

Jonah did not hide his mistakes. He might have hidden them. It’s embarrassing he was so weak or angry that God had to send a fish to swallow him before he would behave right. Pride could have kept him from saying anything. He might have thought (as many do) that admitting our mistakes undermines our witness. He may have reasoned, “If these Ninevites knew my faults, they wouldn’t listen to me.” Pride, shame and fear make liars of us. They make us pretend to be better and more competent than we are. As a result, no one believes us. We are ashamed and afraid so we pretend we are not always good people.

God won’t build His kingdom on a lie. He demands openness and honesty, even in our testimony. Being honest and transparent about our failures gives God an opportunity to shine through our past. Jonah’s fish experience became the basis for an effective ministry.

Fourth, Jonah followed his defeat a renewed effort at obedience.

Jonah could simply have given up. Being three days in a fish’s belly must have been an exhausting experience. Jonah could have used the excuse of post-traumatic stress. He could have argued with anyone that he couldn’t do anything now because he was too emotionally scarred. 

But Jonah didn’t rest for long. He got up and went to Nineveh. He got up and tried again. 
Lincoln’s life was full of defeats, but it was also a record of continuing effort. He kept coming back. He never stopped after defeat, instead he changed direction.  

Imagine the scene of Jonah on the shore. He is laying on the sand, weak and half-starved. He looks horrible. No doubt in his mind all he can think of is a good meal and a dry bed. He wanted to sleep. Part of him would be happy just to lay there and die. But instead, he got up. He took a couple of faltering steps. But which way? North to Nineveh or south to Tarshish and Jerusalem?  I can imagine Jonah crawling, then walking down the first path he found, but north, not south. If he went south, no one would ever hear his name. He might be a curiosity, an urban legend like James Bartlett, the whaler who was allegedly swallowed by the whale, but if he went north, he would be the prophet Jonah, whose name would live forever. One way turned him into a curiosity, the other way, he became an instrument of God.

When your history is written, what do you want it to be?  Do you want to be a footnote in history, or history itself? Do you want to end your life as a footnote, or God’s instrument? That is a choice you make every day, and especially every time you face defeat and disaster. You have a choice of learning from your mistakes, and trusting and obeying God, or giving up and going home. Make the right choice, and God will use you. Don’t let past defeats dictate your future. Keep going for God’s sake.   

Monday, October 31, 2016

Prayers from a Shark's Stomach - Jonah 2

Jonah tried to run from the call of God on his life. In his disobedience, he abandoned God’s people and set sail for Tarshish, in modern Lebanon. But God would not let him go. God brought a great storm on the waters. Jonah was cast into the sea, but he did not drown. Instead, a great fish swallowed him. Even so, Jonah lived. 

Both Jonah’s calamity and his salvation came directly from God. The storm was an act of God. The impossible fish was from God too--no ordinary fish would have been big enough to allow him to live in his belly. God was in charge from start to finish.

The story of Jonah is true, but it also has symbolic meaning. When we disobey God, calamity comes. When calamity comes, God preserves us so we can have time to turn our lives around. We may not endure a physical storm, but we all have calamity come to us in one form or another--divorce, bankruptcy, nervous breakdowns, loss of job, loss of health, addictions, failures, and defeats. Our disaster may seem total—like being swallowed by a shark.  But we do not die. God uses our defeat to redirect us towards a greater destiny and a more fruitful manifestation of His will.

Does everyone who gets swallowed by sharks survive? No! Jonah is an exception to the norm. Not everyone who faces catastrophes today survive either. Jonah should have died in that fish’s belly.  We don’t know how he survived, but we know why he survived. He survived because he reached a decision in that fish—a decision that he carried with him when he came out of it. If he had not come to that decision, he would have remained fish food.   When we undergo disaster, we either change or die. That change starts with our relationship to God. 

Jonah 2 is Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish.

Prayer is a direction of thought, feeling and action towards God. When we undergo a calamity, we turn our thoughts to God.

The opposite of prayer is panic. Panic is when our thoughts and emotions direct us, instead of us mastering them. Panic drives us to give up, run away, or strike out at others. You can’t panic and pray at the same time--you either do one or the other. Jonah realized it was no good wasting his emotional energy on needless panic, so he focused that energy in a productive way by turning it into prayer to God.

Jonah’s prayer thoughts focused in three directions—backward in a truthful assessment of life story, upward in a recognition of God’s glory, and forward in thankfulness to his future salvation.
Jonah looked backward.
Proverbs 29: 18 states, “Without vision, the people perish.”  Vision comes from how we tell the story of our lives. The way we interpret the past determines how we live in the present and future. In the midst of disaster, we must examine why things have happened so we can regain our equilibrium and recover our hope.

A testimony is a critical part of a Christian’s spiritual armor. It is not just for telling others about Jesus, but for reminding ourselves of what God has done. Our testimony is the recollection of what God has already done in our lives. 

Jonah in his prayer reveals his interpretation of his recent past. He recognizes that everything that has come upon him came from the hand of God.  God caused the storm. God caused him to be cast into the sea. God sent the fish to swallow him just as he was going down for the last time. Jonah also realized that the only reason he was alive was because of that fantastic fish. What looked like his worst nightmare turned out to be his only salvation.

Every obstacle in your path is God’s obstacle. God has set it there for a reason, to make you stronger and better. Instead of thanking God for this, we either curse Him or doubt Him. If we say God did not create it, then we are inferring that something else did--something more powerful than God. If we say God did create it, and will not provide us a means of coping, then we make God our enemy. But if we recognize that the insurmountable obstacles in our lives are God’s way of changing our direction to a better direction, then we see them as agents of mercy, not means of destruction. The storm and the fish were God’s way of demonstrating how much he loved Jonah. 

Our testimony is the record of God’s work in our lives. Jonah testified to himself that he did not drown. If God had brought him that far, maybe He would bring him a little farther. If God’s hand had brought him safe so far, maybe he would bring him home. That’s what our testimony is—something we tell to ourselves when we are ready to panic and run. Our testimony are the memories that remind us of God’s faithfulness. Putting our testimony in words gives us a tool to fight despair. 

But what if you don’t have a testimony?  What if you cannot think of a way to interpret your story as God’s deliverance? That is where other people can help you. When others tell their testimony, it gives us reason to believe. 

Look at the stories of others.  Jonah testified to what God can do even when you are lost at sea.  Daniel testified to what God can do in a den of lions. Joseph testified what God can do when you are abandoned in a pit and sold into slavery. Mary Magdalene testified to what God can do when you have seven demons in you. Look at the testimony of others and know that God is still in charge. 
Jonah looked upward.

Seeing what God has done in the past leads us to focus on the present. Eastern religions have a word for this--mindfulness. Mindfulness is accepting the present as it is without fear or worry.  It is appreciating the now without waiting for things to get better. It is approaching today with thankfulness and appreciation. 

Jonah didn’t wait till he got on land to start thanking God. He thanked God for his current situation, because he isn’t dead.

We need to be mindful of the blessings we have now, and not judge our lives by where we were or where we want to be. Living too much in the past or future will make us miserable.

I had a friend who had been in the oil business in Texas. In those days, he had a salary that was many times what I made as a minister. He had one child, I had three. His wife did not have to work. His son went to a wealthy private school. But he lost his job and moved to take a job with half the salary. It was still more than what I made. Yet he came to me for counseling, because he was afraid he would not be able to keep his son in a private school and his wife might have to get a job. He was sincerely miserable because he had less than he used to, which was still more than most people. He could not thank God for the abundance he had today. This is the opposite of mindfulness. When we focus on what we don’t have instead of what we have, then we get depressed. But thanking for what we have brings us contentment. 

Jonah didn’t whine about being stuck in a shark’s stomach, but he gave thanks that he wasn’t dead. His mind focused on the present, that God had preserved his life. 

Jonah also recognized that he was better off than most people who were not in the digestive tract of a shark. He prayed, Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. He pitied those whose faith was misplaced. Jonah knew that if he died in the fish’s stomach, he was still more blessed than those who followed vain idols, because he was going to heaven and they were not.  
Don’t envy the rich and popular. They will go to their graves and die in sin. We will die in the Lord, and whatever happens to us is more blessed than what happens to the lost.

Richard Wurmbrandt was a Romanian pastor who was kept for eighteen years in a Soviet prison for preaching the Gospel. When he was first arrested his torturers would play a game with him where they would put a gun to his head and count down from ten, threatening to kill him, just to see how he would react. The first time they tried it, Wumbrandt realized that in ten seconds, he would be with Jesus and a look of ecstasy came over his face. He shouted, “Go ahead, I’m ready.” He came to pity his torturers, because he knew that in God’s eyes, he was far better off than they were. 

I wish all of us could see people the way Jonah did—that we are better off in a fish’s belly with God, than in a mansion without Him.  

Jonah looked forward.

      Jonah repented of his running from God.  Repentance is not a feeling of remorse, nor is it detailed recollection of past wrongs, but it is a decision about the future. Repentance is a decision to change our direction in life.  Repentance is not tied to our feelings of guilt, but to our experience of hope.  It is saying, “I am not the man I was. I can be better.”

Jonah realized if God was keeping him alive in that fish, then he must have a plan for his life. It was not God’s will that he would die in the fish, but that he would survive and do something with his life.
We were created to do something for Christ, not to die in despair. God has a plan for us, which includes making a difference in life. We all do something different, but as long as we are alive, He can still use us.  

My mentor in the ministry was a man named Dr. Robert Marshburn. When he was about my age, he suffered a massive heart attack, and almost died.  He recovered, though and went on to enjoy several productive years of ministry.  Dr. Marshburn told me that he was lying in the bed feeling fretful and anxious. Then a verse came to him that became his life verse from that point on—Jeremiah 29: 11, “For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” That heart attack was his Jonah experience. Whether it’s a heart attack or a shark attack, we all come to a point of decision whether or not we will embrace God’s salvation or perish in despair.

God has a plan and a purpose for your life. Embrace that purpose and trust in Him.