Monday, April 30, 2018

Smells like Jesus - 2 Corinthians 2: 14-16

I once preached a children’s sermon on witnessing, where I brought in a bottle of perfume. I explained that when I sprayed the perfume in the air and the little droplets spread throughout the room. As we spread out into the world, we represent Him and are like him. Then I asked the children what we Christians are supposed to do in the world. They answered as one voice--“Smell!” 

We Christians either bring the sweet fragrance of Christ everywhere we go, or we will stink up the room. Without genuinely being transformed into His image, we just stink like a cheap knock-off cologne.

Being Christian isn’t something we do--it’s something we are. The kind of person we are is what people will think Jesus is. If we are loving, caring, gentle, kind, and thoughtful, then people will think that Jesus is the same way. If we are judgmental, angry, defensive, and proud, then they will say the same thing about Jesus.

Jesus says in John 15 that if the world accepts us, it is because they first accepted Jesus, and if they persecute us, then it is because they persecuted Jesus. But this works both ways. If they reject us due to our misbehavior, they will reject Jesus as well. If they see in us traits that are admirable and good, they will think the same thing about Jesus, too.

Think about the smell of springtime—flowers, spring rain, clean air, good soil, newly mown grass. What a great smell it is! It’s the smell of life!

Now imagine the smell of rotting bodies, manure, skunks and stale air, old cigars and sweaty socks. This is the smell of death, and we hate it! 

Suppose you came to church this morning, and a springtime smell came wafting into your nostrils.  Would you like to enter? Who wouldn’t like to sit in the smell of springtime and life and fresh breezes?

Now suppose instead you opened the door of the church and the smell of death was here. How quickly would you want to clear out?  You’d never want to come back again.

No wonder people don’t want to go back to church—churches often stink!  Churches stink because Christians stink. It’s not that they are phony Christians. There are some phonies among us, but most people who go to church are sincere children of God. No, they stink because they haven’t had a bath in years, at least not in what counts. 

When a person finds Jesus, they are cleansed spiritually. They come to Jesus and willingly repent of their sins. They admit to their guilt and shame and realize that without Christ they are lost. Then, they are bathed in the blood of Jesus—in His sacrifice, all is forgiven. This process is what John means in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

If you’ve had children, at some point you must have given them a bath. But children get dirty again. Christians are the same—once we are bathed in the blood of Jesus, we go back into the world and wrestle with the same pride, jealousies, sinfulness, anxieties, fears, and worldliness. We try to keep out of it, but we fail. So, we must be cleansed again. We love our children, clean or dirty. God loves us, clean or dirty. But He would rather us be clean. So we must strip off our pretentions of righteousness and perfections and humble ourselves to bathe again in the love of Jesus. If we don’t we’ll soon smell just as bad as we did before we met the Lord. 

 There are children of God who haven’t bathed in the blood of Christ since their conversion--God’s dirty children. They were forgiven, so they see no need to change. Why bother to take a bath if people have already forgiven your lack of bathing?  Why change your ways if you don’t have to?  These are smelly Christians, who seem to be daring God to show us how much dirt they can have on their bodies and still have God let them into his house.  God is very tolerant, to be sure, but other people are less so. When the church starts to act worse than the people around them, don’t be surprised when people do not find God attractive. 

The purpose of Christian sanctification is not to make us acceptable to God. He already accepts us. It is not so that God will give us a reward for being “nice” either. The purpose of sanctification is so we don’t stink up God’s house. If we represent Jesus, we ought to smell like Jesus.

Poet Carl Sandburg was not a Christian. He had very little respect for the phony churchmen of his time. He expressed his contempt for one of them in his poem, “To a Contemporary Bunkshooter.”  Here’s what he wrote.  

“You come along. . . tearing your shirt. . . yelling about Jesus. Where do you get that stuff? What do you know about Jesus?

Jesus had a way of talking soft and outside of a few bankers and higher-ups among the con men of Jerusalem everybody liked to have this Jesus around, because he never made any fake passes and everything he said went and he helped the sick and gave the people hope. . .

“this Jesus was good to look at, smelled good, listened good. He threw out something fresh and beautiful from the skin of his body and the touch of his hands wherever he passed along.

You slimy bunkshooter, you put a smut on every human blossom in reach of your rotten breath belching about hell-fire and hiccupping about this Man who lived a clean life in Galilee.”

Sandburg was not a fan of the church, to be sure. But what did he think of Jesus? He spoke soft and gently. He gave people hope and helped the sick. He looked good, smelled good, and listened good. He threw out something fresh from his skin and his hands. In other words, he liked Jesus. It was just his people he hated, because to them, they stank.

But what if we could smell like Jesus—that is, if our words and actions, our thoughts and emotions were like Jesus? It’s is not an impossible dream. We can be. In fact, that’s what we were called to be.  Look at these verses.

I John 3:1-2, “See what kind of love God has lavished upon us, that we should be called the children of God. And so we are! Who knows what we shall be, but we know that when He appears we shall be like him, for we shall know him as he is!”

If we live in a room full of decaying bodies and cigarette smoke, we will stink. But if we sit in a room full of flowers and perfume, we will smell good. If we sit with Jesus, we will take on his characteristics, but if we sit among those who are anything but Christlike whether they are in or out of the church, we’ll be that way, too.

1 Cor 11:1, “Be imitators of me, just as I imitate Christ.”

Paul makes two bold statements. The first is that Paul imitates Christ. He is bold enough to claim that he acts, thinks, feels and smells like Jesus. The second is that those who hear him should imitate Jesus, too. Be like me, because I am like Christ. The goal of every believer is to be like Christ in every way, so when people meet us, they meet Him.

Being a witness isn’t preaching, healing the sick, or feeding the hungry. It’s just smelling like Jesus. It is living in a way that the smell of us makes people hungry for Jesus like the smell of bacon makes us hungry for breakfast.

Missionaries can’t just preach—they must live among others as Jesus lives in them. They must embody unqualified love of others. We don’t go out in the world to save the world, but to be saved in the world, and to show people that we can live a different kind of life. We do not make pests of our selves any more than Jesus does. We do not lead off with rebukes and cynicism, but with caring for others. When others disagree, we don’t argue--we listen. We share the Gospel with grace, not force.  When we see a person who is hurting, we don’t take advantage, but build them up, even if they are our enemies. When we see a person hungry we feed them; when they are lonely we befriend them; and when they are lost, we give them the gift of life. 

Smelling like Jesus is not a byproduct of preaching and sharing the Gospel. It is the gospel and cannot be separated from it.  

William Barry writes of a young monk who gladly dedicated his life to Jesus. One day, his order gave him an opportunity to join a highly dangerous mission where he might be martyred for the cause. He didn’t hesitate to volunteer, with the hopes of being a glorious sacrifice for his Lord. He shared this with his Spiritual director. 

In that same session, he talked about his relationship with his friends. They never called him to get together—he always had to call them. No matter, he said to himself nobly—he’d still meet with them, because he was called to sacrificial love. 

His spiritual director noticed a difference in the tone of voice when he talked about this great mission and this slight difficulty with his friends. There was a joy in martyrdom, but a grim-faced determination in a slight, possibly imagined avoidance from others. 

Barry made a profound point about this. Our spiritual condition isn’t revealed in our works or great sacrifices, but in the noses of those around us.   We don’t grow in faith in grand gestures but in little acceptances. It is our everyday relationship that the true test of character is shown. 

How much are you like Jesus in your homes? In the marketplace? In school? With the neighbors? That’s where your faith is really grown and tested, where people know it’s real, in the smell we give out every moment of every day. 

Monday, April 23, 2018

Facing the Enemy - Nehemiah 4

Whenever we do Go’s work, opposition always shows up. Satan, the evil mastermind, opposes everything God does. He is always trying to overthrow our work. 1 Peter 5: 8-9 says:
“Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.” 
Often his hand is revealed in suspiciously bad timing. A kid will cry just when your washing machine breaks down. Your husband comes in griping just after you’ve been up all night nursing a sick child. When you are praying, a salesman calls. When you are going to church, someone gets sick. He hits us when we are the weakest. 

When the Jews rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, the devil raised up three princes of neighboring kingdoms--Sanballat, Tobiah, and Gershom—to attack the Jews. As the story progresses, the threat level escalates.

Satan attacks us, our families and our churches. That’s why we need walls, not to force our will on others, but to live in peace with our neighbors. But if we do not have a wall, there is nothing to keep Satan from having his way from us. God is our wall, but we must lean upon Him. 

Here’s a family who needed a wall. They had four teenage children. The oldest one had gotten married at age seventeen. The second one was sixteen and pregnant, and they had begged me to perform the wedding. One night they had a medical emergency and they all went to the hospital. With them in the waiting room was a stranger in his twenties who had his arm around their daughter, barely sixteen. They were an obvious couple.

I was incensed. I asked the father and mother to step outside and let them know what I thought.  “You’re right,” they said. “But what can we do? If we don’t let them be together, she might never have anything to do with us.” This family had no wall.  The parents did not protect their children, and they were reaping the harvest of that neglect. 

You need a wall, for yourself. Satan is after you, and you need God’s protective power. Churches need walls. Satan will send enemies in the church to destroy it. There are plenty of enemies in the world, who’s only purpose is to bring down what God has done. We who bear the responsibility must stay on guard constantly.

So what do we look for? First, against judgmental and critical spirits. Sanballat mocked the wall-builders in Nehemiah 4:2:

"What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble-burned as they are?"

No doubt they thought they were being funny.  Making jokes are one of the most serious things we do. When we argue with a person, we expect them to argue back. But being funny cannot be debated. It cannot be countered, without the person saying, “Look, I was only making a joke!” Our comedians in America are more influential than our politicians, because they determine who is supposed to be ridiculous without ever having to prove it,
“What are those feeble Jews doing?” Sanballat jokes that the Jews are weak and helpless. The weakness is implied, not argued.

“Will they finish in a day?” No one seriously thought the wall would be rebuilt in a day. It’s an exaggeration.
“Can they bring these stones to life?” No one thought they could bring stones to life. They meant that they were too late to build it.

Sanballat’s associate, Tobiah, added a fourth own taunt, "If even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!" If you made any progress, it’s worthless. Satan wants to make us think that our work has been in vain.

Too weak. Too little time. Too late. Worthless. Whether we are rebuilding a church, a life, or a marriage; the devil still makes the same outworn jokes. We aren’t strong enough. We don’t have enough time. The situation is too far gone. He doesn’t actually argue, he just jokes. If it is so obvious to the comedian, it must be true. These are not arguments, but lies sewn by the devil. People believed it, because someone made a joke out of it. 

When jokes fail, they move on to threats. They aren’t just ridiculous—They’re dangerous!  Christians oppose free speech! They’re plotting to kill Muslims and gays! Christians are going to overthrow the country! They must be stopped! 
The persecution of Christians is seen as self-defense. People argue that the rules of tolerance and civility ought not to apply to certain groups, because they are “dangerous.”  These men implied that the Jews could not be tolerated, because they were too ‘different” from others.

When that didn’t work, they turned to the use of force. There are all kinds of coercion, and most of it isn’t physical. There’s professional violence, which is banning Christians from certain occupations. Blocking them from public discourse. Laws are passed that discourage the practice of free conversations. Today, there is an increasing rationalization of censorship of ideas. When all this fails, only then does it become a matter of physical violence. Listen to this next part in Nehemiah 4:6-8:   
“So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart. “But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the men of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem's walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry. They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it.”
They faced an invading army. Swords against prayers. Could the prayers of the Jews be enough to deflect the advance of a murderous army?  Nehemiah’s response is a resounding “Yes!”  Nehemiah said:

“‘Don't be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.”

There are three significant statements in his speech— Don’t be afraid, remember the Lord, and fight for your brothers. 

Don’t be afraid. Don’t become paranoid or fearful. There is no reason to fear our enemies if we are confident of God’s love and protection. Don’t hate your enemies—love your enemies.

What is a terrorist? A terrorist is a person who sets out to provoke terror—fear—in his enemies. He does this by random acts of violence. When we fear terrorists, we are giving them what they want. The whole purpose of their actions is to make us afraid to go out of our houses, to force us to live behind locked doors. 

But God has not given us a spirit of fear. If we fear the world around us, we are not trusting God.

Remember the Lord. Nehemiah and the people of Judah gave us an example of how to respond to this kind of persecution. Don’t worry about defense, but look to God to defend you. Instead of looking for their swords, Nehemiah prayed to the Lord. Look at verse 4.
 “Hear us, O our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders.”
People are not out enemies--Satan is. Jesus didn’t rebuke Peter when he tempted Him not to go to the cross--He rebuked Satan. The devil entered in the heart of Jesus’ dearest friend. His enemy wasn’t Peter, but the devil in Peter. 
We can’t prevent all attacks of the devil, but Jesus will support us through persecution. We will be attacked, but God gives us the strength to resist.

But prayer is not all they did. They also paid attention to the situation, and defended themselves.

Fight for your brothers. The Christian life is a battlefield, not a recreation room. We are at war, and we must fight. We do not fight for ourselves, but for our brothers and sister, our sons and daughters. When we remain apathetic, we allow the devil to hurt them.

In the rest of the chapter, Nehemiah spells out the steps he took to assure protection of the people.
 First, every man was to arm themselves. For us, this has nothing to do with physical weapons. Remember where the battlefield is. It is in the spiritual realm. 2 Corinthians 10:4:

“For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but are mighty through God for the pulling down of strongholds.”

 You must be trained in prayer, Scripture and love. One unprepared believer can cause havoc in the church. Eternal vigilance is the price of godliness. When we follow Christ, we must always be ready to defend ourselves against the devil.

Second, everyone defended each other. While half worked, the other half defended. For us that means praying for each other, encouraging each other, educating and noticing each other. When you see a brother in trouble, do you pray for him, or abandon him to the enemy? They bound themselves together to help resist attacks. 

Third, they encouraged each other. Verse 10 shows more than anything in this passage the desperation of the situation. “The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.”
Wars are decided by two sides fighting until one becomes too tired to fight. Soldiers need breaks, and people need encouragement. Some of the biggest battles in history have been decided over which side had a good night’s sleep or a good breakfast. Care of the troops is critical. Care of God’s people is critical, too, if we are to defend against a hostile world. 

Third, they never forgot that it was God who defended them.  Their strength was not in themselves, or in their brothers, but in God.

It isn’t hard to live a godly life. It’s impossible!  You’ll get tired. You will make mistakes. You will give in. Only by God’s grace can we survive. But Zechariah 4:6 says, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord.” Jesus will fight for you.  Don’t be afraid. Lean upon His grace and His power, and He will help you through.

Monday, April 16, 2018

How Do We Rebuild? - Nehemiah 3

Nehemiah 3 is one of those passages that we read quickly or skip over entirely. It is a list of people who worked on the wall, and what they did. This looks about as interesting as a laundry list. But if we read it carefully, this passage, there is something here that can have a profound impact on our lives.

Nehemiah 3 is made up of forty-seven brief stories of people who rebuilt the wall. Some are no more than a mention. Others describe in detail what they did to rebuild the wall they built. Don’t get bogged down in detail--look at the people. See how they divided up the work, how they helped each other, and how they worked diligently. Then, ask yourself how we compare to them in our building of the kingdom.

We can learn three principles from their stories.

The first principle is this--Each began at home with their own private responsibility.

The task was clear. The goal was obvious.  Each person was willing to accept his or her personal responsibility. Each one concentrated first on where they were living. 

This is a principle the old theologians called subsidiarity. We know it better as your job begins in our own homes and our own neighborhoods.    

Each one could find an excuse not to take on their own part of the wall. They didn’t. There were plenty of excuses they could have used.

They could have said, “It’s not my kind of work.”

Eliashab, the high priest is the first one mentioned. A priest works with his mind, not with his body. No doubt he was tired from looking after spiritual needs, but he rolled up his sleeves and hauled bricks with the rest of them.

Hananiah was a perfume maker. What does Max Factor or Givanchy know about carpentry? Yet that did not stop this man from building not one section, but two. Evidently, after he repaired one, he found out he liked it, and did another.

What about the goldsmiths and the merchants? They were specialists, but they put down their money counters and their little hammers and took up the trowel and the brick buckets.

They could have said, “No one told me what to do.”

The sons of Tekoa might have used that excuse. The only negative comment in the chapter was towards the noblemen of Tekoa. They were too proud to work under the contractors. But the men of Tekoa worked anyway, even without leaders. When their leader failed, they kept on going. In fact, just like the perfumers, they built two sections!

The women could have said, “It’s men’s work!”

They didn’t let their gender get in the way. Notice the daughters of Shallum. Shallum had no sons, so his daughters pitched in and did the work. In a society where women are kept under veils, these girls tramped through the dust and lifted rocks like men. They gave up their assumed gender roles to do the work of God.

They could have said, “It’s someone else’s property. Let them do it”.

A man named Meshullam built in front of his living quarters in verse 30. This man lived in an apartment. He was probably a temporary resident in Jerusalem, yet he worked as hard as anyone else. If anyone would say, “I won’t help. This isn’t my city.”  Meshullam showed them better.

They could have said, “I’m too young.”

Hanun, the sixth son of Zalaph took his own section of the wall, according to verse thirty. Where were his five older brothers? We don’t know, but their little brother was building the wall.

When it comes to the rebuilding of the kingdom, setting up the spiritual walls and standards, we have all kinds of excuses. There are a hundred reasons for not praying. We can come up with all kinds of reasons for leaving our Bibles unopened, for not giving, not witnessing, or building bridges of forgiveness. But when we read of these people, and what they undertook it puts us to shame. Spiritual walls are more important than their physical walls.   We all have our place in its rebuilding.

  Spiritual walls run right through the center of our souls. They protect our homes, businesses, and our private lives. Our private walls affect the health of our church. To be responsible for our part of the wall means that we take responsibility personally for our own spiritual walk. 

The second principle is this--they linked arms.

 Most of the time, people worked on the portions of the wall near their homes, but there were some exceptions. The first was Eliashab, the high priest. He worked on the wall near the temple.  Meanwhile, Meremoth worked in front of the high priest’s home. Since the priests were working on another part of the wall, someone did his home for him. Another example are the men of Tekoa. They finished quickly, so they helped on another part of the wall.

People from outside Jerusalem worked on the walls. The surrounding villages came to make sure Jerusalem was safe. They got nothing out of it, but they built anyway. 

 They couldn’t all do the same quality of work. Some of them finished their section “laid its beams and put its doors and bolts and bars in place.” This was probably what contractors mean today by a “lock and key job.”  Others just built the wall.  Someone else with greater skill to put on the finishing touches.

All along this wall, there is a wonderful mix-up of people. Perfume makers and goldsmiths gave themselves to unaccustomed work. Women worked with men. People helped each other out.  Because of this, they all had a wonderful time. God’s work needs to be done, even if we are the only ones doing it. But God’s work goes easier when God’s people link arms and work together.

After high school, I spent a summer working at a children’s camp. One lazy afternoon, the kids were bored; someone suggested we play Red Rover.  The children made lines by holding hands, and then called over one of the others to try to break the line.

The game went well for a while, until someone suggested that we counselors also play. Red Rover is not to be played by adults. It becomes about as genteel as football or rugby. When a hundred-and- eighty-pound man comes running at your line at full tilt, you can be assured that you are going down.  There is no way to stop him. 

We tried linking hands--that didn’t work. I still have scars from it. Then, we linked elbows. But when we linked our elbows and dug in our heels, a whole line of us could just stop one of those chargers. We got bruised and battered, but we didn’t go down. 

The devil tries to break our unity. He charges us at the places we’re weakest, where one’s work meets the other. But when we link arms and hold each other up, we lock him out. He can’t penetrate the wall when we cooperate. 

Third, we follow the Leader.

There is only one reference to the supervisors. There’s no talk of architects. It didn’t just happen. The vision came from God. Nehemiah conveyed it to others, who were able to put it into reality. Then the rest of Jerusalem carried it out. The supervisors were not worthier than the workers, but they had the specialty of leadership. In the lists they are barely mentioned, but they were essential. 

When we set out to do God’s work, we need two essential elements. The first is leadership.  Leaders look to God for direction. Leaders must look up, not down. They must look to God’s word for their inspiration and be men of prayer and study.

Equally important is followership. People must be willing to trust their leaders. When God’s people wandered in the wilderness for forty years, whose fault was it? Was it Moses? No, the people didn’t want to believe, so they did not follow. They were left leaderless by choice. If we do God’s will, we must trust God’s leadership, and the leadership God gives us. We must put aside our pride, our selfishness, and our vision of what the church ought to be and follow the direction that God gives us. 

We need to trust each other. In the Reformed tradition, we have always believed that the Holy Spirit works through the structure of the church, not perfectly, but better than through individuals trusting in only their own judgment. We believe that God has a plan for us, and that he will express that plan through the councils of the church.

How did the leaders lead? If we look here, we can see some of its principles. 

They led by encouragement. Notice how encouraging and upbeat this passage is. Everyone is praised by name. The only criticism is against those who would not work at all. Even if the effort was half-hearted or half-done, they receive personal praise. Good leadership encourages far more than it discourages.

They led by service. Everyone had a place on the wall. They got right in there with everyone else. They led from the front, and nor from the back.

They led with grace. They trusted God’s grace in the people below them. They did not stand over the shoulders of the workers telling them what to do. Instead they believed that God was leading them the same way God had led the leaders.

Now it comes to us. What lessons have we learned? There are three.

1.       Begin at home.

2.       Link arms.

3.       Follow the Leader.

Let’s keep our eyes on what our walls need to be. They are spiritual walls, built by spiritual means. Buildings of bricks and mortar are important, but not as important as building a kingdom of the spirit and of grace. Let’s follow the Leader. Always ask ourselves, what does God most want for us.  Keep focused on that task, and God will bring us victory.

Monday, April 9, 2018

God is our Builder - Nehemiah 2: 1-8

As we saw in Chapter 1, God placed the burden in Nehemiah’s heart to restore the wall of Jerusalem.  Usually, when God places a burden on our heart, God intends to use us to do it.   

Nehemiah responded to this burden by praying. The real work of a believer isn’t action, but the inner work of prayer. He prayed to restore the inner wall of Israel’s relationship to God. God is the inner wall of protection that makes it possible for us to build outer walls. Our help comes from God, not our efforts.

We often think of outer construction as more important than the inner construction of a relationship to God. God’s work is more important than ours. It is far more important to have a strong relationship with God than strong outer walls. When we are in crisis, we usually put prayer last in our priorities. But a relationship with God comes first.  Haggai 1: 1-6 says:
‘This people says, “The time has not come, even the time for the house of the Lord to be rebuilt.” Then the word of the Lord came by Haggai the prophet, saying, “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses while this house lies desolate?” Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts, “Consider your ways! You have sown much, but ]harvest little; you eat, but there is not enough to be satisfied; you drink, but there is not enough to become drunk; you put on clothing, but no one is warm enough; and he who earns, earns wages to put into a purse with holes.”

Nehemiah no doubt knew Haggai’s words.  Build your heart before you build your walls.  Establish the habits of Godliness before physical protection.

One of the biggest mistakes Christians make is thinking that if we don’t work for God, God’s work won’t get done. The opposite is truer: when God works, we should get out of the way and let Him do it. Our first duty to God is to surrender, not action.  God grants us the privilege of participating in what He is doing, but God doesn’t need us to defend or protect Him. It isn’t our place to protect God, but God’s work to protect us.

Think of building the Kingdom of God like a big construction project. In our human-centric view, we see God as the architect, sitting some office hundreds of miles away. God draws up the plans, but we are the general contractors, the skilled workers and the carpenters who make the daily decisions on the project site and do the indispensable labor to get it done. God makes the plans, but we do the work.

That’s how we see it, but that’s not how God sees it. God isn’t just the architect, He is in charge on the ground. He’s the carpenter, framer, cabinet maker and painter. It’s His labor from start to finish.  The Kingdom of God isn’t a place where we display our skills, but a place where God is showing off His power. It’s His project, not ours.

So who are we? We are the day laborers, working alongside of Him, doing what we are told from day to day. We don’t have the overall blueprints. If we had them we couldn’t understand them. If God were to show you the great blueprint for your life, could you read it? God doesn’t need construction bosses who push others to work. He simply gives us guidance to work in the area He assigns us.

God gives us some commands to follow, both in our personal life and in our outer actions. Some of those commands are found in the Sermon on the Mount and in the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. 

“Love your enemies.” “Be anxious over nothing.”  “Do not return evil for evil, but repay evil with good.” Do not be angry without cause.” 

He shows us that He plans to produce in us love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, humility, faithfulness and self-control. But He doesn’t tell us how He intends to do it. He gives us the model of the structure we will be—Jesus—but He doesn’t reveal the steps we must go through to attain it. If we knew that, we would probably panic. We know, though, that we can’t become what He wants us to become by relying on ourselves, but by trusting and following day by day.

We don’t know how He plans to change the world, either. Eventually He will reign over everything and wars will cease, sickness and poverty will be destroyed, and even death itself will be conquered. In that day we will join Him in ruling the universe! Only a fool would assume they could rule without God. So why do we think that we can rule even the smallest part of our lives without God? He must build the Kingdom, because we can’t.

Even so, God called Nehemiah to rebuild the wall. But in order to keep Nehemiah from thinking he could build it on his own, He put barriers before Him that would have made it impossible for him to do it on his own. 

The first barrier was Artaxerxes, king of Persia and Nehemiah’s immediate boss. Artaxerxes was an absolute ruler. If anyone challenged his leadership, they died. He was especially tough on his inner circle. No one dared challenge him, question him, or even ask him for a favor. All servants of his royal household were eunuchs, so they would have no family. They could make no personal requests.

  Nehemiah couldn’t ask for a leave of absence to go to Jerusalem, nor could he request a personal favor. Such requests got you killed.

Nehemiah was stuck. The king’s favor was an impossible wall that kept him from doing what he was called to do. 

When it comes to doing God’s work we experience all kinds of “stuckness.” 

I can be emotionally stuck. If God calls me to climb a mountain and I’m afraid of heights, then I’m stuck. If I am claustrophobic, I won’t go cave exploring. If I am shy, I probably won’t be a good salesman, either. If I’m called to witness to my neighbor and I’m afraid to speak, then I’m stuck, too.

I can be intellectually stuck. I’m not all that smart. I may be interested in theoretical physics, but if I got low marks in math, I would be stuck in becoming a physicist. If someone asks me to teach Sunday school and I haven’t studied the Bible in years, I may think I don’t know enough.   

I can be circumstantially stuck. Our church requires that a pastor go to school for three years, then be able to pass a presbytery examination. If I can’t drop three years of my life to full time study, and if I can’t agree with the church teachers, I can’t be a pastor in this church. I’m stuck. It requires the freedom to and the means to drop everything and devote myself to it. If I want to be a missionary in the church, I have to raise support.  f that support doesn’t come in, then I can’t go. I must accept circumstances that won’t change.

When we come to a barrier that keeps us from following what we think is God’s calling on our lives, then I must discern whether I have misread God’s calling or whether it just isn’t God’s time. God is still working on us, clearing out the barriers and helping us find our place in God’s plan. 

Barriers creates three problems for us. The first is the danger of giving up. If it seems too hard, we stop trying. With God, all things are possible.

The second danger struggling against God. God puts barriers in our lives to force us in some other direction. All things are possible, but not all things are God’s will for us as individuals. God can give me superpowers, but He isn’t likely to do it, because He doesn’t want us to have it. He put us in this world to live as human beings, not as gods. We aren’t in heaven yet, so there must be boundaries on us.

 The third danger is that we struggle to break down barriers on our own, instead of waiting for God. Suppose you are stuck in an elevator. You bang on the door, but nothing happens. You try to crowbar it open. You scream and yell, but nothing happens. Then someone with you pushes the elevator button, and it opens immediately. We are always trying to force God’s doors open by our own effort, we have to follow God’s instructions. 

Nehemiah kept trusting God. He had no money or time to build the wall and couldn’t ask for help. So he prayed day and night for God to open the door. He didn’t care who built the wall, as long as it got built, but God ultimately did it.  

Nehemiah kept humble. He obeyed the rules. He did not disrespect the king. He remained a loyal servant. The king was not his enemy, but someone God put in place to rule.

Nehemiah kept honest. He didn’t pretend to be happy, but let his feelings be known. We shouldn’t pretend everything is all right when it isn’t.  Nehemiah’s feelings showed on his face. Artaxerxes, who had learned to trust and respect Nehemiah, saw this and asked, “What’s wrong?”

When Nehemiah saw a way, he followed it. When the door opened to put forward his petition, he wasn’t shy about doing it. One word to Artaxerxes accomplished more than a decade of labor in Jerusalem. God’s will provides a way when we ask in His Spirit and trust in His power. 

One more question—if God can do it all without why does God need us at all? If he can be the architect, the general manager, the plumber, electrician and framer on the project, does He really need the laborers?  The answer is simple--He doesn’t! God doesn’t need your help, but He wants it. He loves you, and delights in our participation.

My dad was an amateur carpenter. When I got old enough, he taught me to use a hammer, drill and screwdriver. He was always careful not to let me use tools I was not ready for, but when I was ready, he delighted in teaching me. When I got older, I realized that it took him longer to do a project, because I was there than if he were working alone. I was proud to work alongside my father.

God is the same way, God enjoys us working alongside Him, not because He needs our help, but because He wants our company. God looks on us as a proud parent, delighting in the things we do.  

Unlike our parents, He isn’t preparing us to take over without His supervision. Instead, he gives us more difficult and complicated tasks, and continues to stay with us, so He can be glorified in our service. 

The ultimate result of our work is not to build projects, but to build us. If he just wanted to build things, He can do it better without us. But we are what He is building, and He is proud of His handiwork in us.   

Monday, April 2, 2018

From Grief to Joy: A Message for Easter Sunday - John 20:1-18

Grief is an unpredictable thing. We know that when there is death there will be grief, but we can’t know who will experience it the most, or how grief will affect them. I have conducted over a hundred and fifty funerals, served as a hospice chaplain, a pastor, and a teacher of chaplains. I have experienced grief first hand through the death of friends and family. Even so, grief mystifies me. 

You never know who will experience grief the most. The people you think will be the strongest can fall apart. The people you think won’t be able to take it may come through the grief stronger than they began. You never know who or when we will feel it, and when it will hit the hardest. 

The unpredictability of grief has to do with several factors. One is our inability to read the heart of others, or even ourselves. We think we know ourselves and others, because we know only what’s on the outside. We confuse the outer expressions of grief with inner feelings. People can successfully mask their grief, even from themselves. If we aren’t aware it’s there, it can burrow deep and do a lot of damage. People don’t get the help they need, because they deny they have a problem. Grief is like a burrowing worm that can easily be taken off our skin, but if we don’t acknowledge its existence and deal with it early, then it can burrow into our psyche and cause great damage. That is why it’s important to appropriately express our grief in words and tears, so we can get rid of it.

Another complication is compounded grief. Griefs piggyback on other griefs. A person who loses one loved is more likely to have trouble if they are also grieving other losses. If we are struggling in other areas of life and we haven’t resolved those griefs, it makes the new griefs worse. Residual griefs from other losses hide within us and can sometimes come out years later amid other griefs.

All this makes comforting the bereaved a challenge. We want to give them advice on how to live, or words of comfort from the Scriptures. We give them platitudes that mean a lot to us—statements like “It’s God’s will” or “He’s in a better place.” But this may not be where the grieving person is, and they may not be ready to hear it.  Despite how well-meaning our words, we can easily say things that are resented by the mourner and can often be misinterpreted. The best approach when comforting the bereaves is to preach less and listen and cry more. 

It’s challenging to know who needs the most comfort at a funeral. Is it the next of kin, or that little nephew who’s crying in the corner?  Is it the friend who came to support, but unexpectedly relives pain of his own mother’s passing? It’s often impossible for us to know who needs our attention first. We just trust God.

 The story of Good Friday and Easter can be read in many ways. At its heart, though it is a story of grief and comfort. Imagine yourself in the upper room in Jerusalem on the night after Jesus’ death?  Looking around the room, who do you think needs comforting the most. Or imagine yourself on the other side of that mourning, on Easter at sunrise.  Who needs to hear the good news of comfort first?  Suppose you were Jesus, fresh from the tomb. Who needs to see you the most?

If I were Jesus, I would have picked mother Mary. She was the next of kin. Or maybe I would have picked Peter. Peter absolutely fell to pieces after His death. Or maybe it would have been John, who called himself, “The disciple whom Jesus loved.”  John was the only disciple who saw Him die. But when Jesus first rose from the dead, he appeared first to a former prostitute who had no blood relation to Him, and who he had known for less than three years. Jesus chose her to comfort first. Why?

Modern historians and writers have attempted to reconstruct the common view of Mary Magdalene and who she was. Many writers have balked at the idea of Mary being a prostitute. While we have nothing in the Bible that says what she did for a living, I believe that prostitution is her most likely profession. Mark and Luke both record that Jesus cast seven demons out of her, which implies that before her conversion, she must have been pretty bad. His home town Magdala was the port where the fishermen gathered to preserve and sell their catches, which means that it was probably a rough town. There were probably a lot of loose women around the town, and it is very conceivable that Mary was one of them. 

Any attempt to defend Mary’s reputation totally misses the point. God doesn’t favor people of good reputation. Sinners often become closer to God because they are repentant. Those who think they have a good reputation usually miss the sinfulness of their hearts, and never learn to depend on him. People of good reputation crucified Jesus, not so-called “sinners”.  All that really matters is that Jesus freed her from a terrible life. There is no shame in what we were; but joy and hope in what we can become.

Try to imagine what Jesus meant to Mary.  There is a woman imprisoned by seven demons, living in shame. Every man she ever knew used her.  Every love she had was just a cover for lust or manipulation. Then she met Jesus, who did not see her as a slave or sex object. He set her free from her inner demons. He demanded nothing, asked nothing, but gave her freedom and respect. Nothing in Mary’s life was ever so beautiful as His love. 

Most people never experience God this way. Most people see God’s love as being like the imperfect love that others have always given them. Human love is a business transaction. We give to God by being moral people, working in the church, tithing, etc. We expect that in return, God will grant us riches, safety, and prosperity. When we don’t get prosperity, we think God has failed us. This is a business transaction not a love relationship. When my kids act out, I don’t stop loving them.  

Jesus may have been the first person in her life that treated her as a friend, not a business partner.  He did not demand her obedience, but she gave it out of her own free will. This was the best relationship of her whole life. Jesus was probably all the family she had left.

So, what do you do, when the person who has given you the only real love you’ve ever known dies?  
 If Jesus stayed dead, the others would be saddened, but they could go back to their old lives. Peter and John could go back to fishing. Mary had other children in Nazareth. But what did Mary Magdalene have? Her life before Jesus was an unbearable mess? Jesus wasn’t just a friend—He was her only friend.

Mary’s loyalty to Jesus is touching. She went with the other women to the tomb, to anoint the body. They couldn’t finish the job on the day Jesus died. So, the first day the gates reopened, they went back to finish the preparation of the body. Mary went, just like she was a member of his family.   

Imagine their surprise when they found the soldiers gone, the door open, and the body missing!  Imagine if your mother died and you went to the funeral, only to be told that someone had come in the night and stolen their body! This is what happened to Mary.

Before the other women could get moving she ran and told Peter and John. “They’ve taken away our lord!” Peter and John had a footrace to get there first! When they arrived, they saw the same thing.
Mary breaks down. She can’t take it, so she sat beside the tomb and just started crying.

Inside the tomb are two men—caretakers, or so they think. They tell her that He isn’t there. But Mary doesn’t hear the rest of what he said. She’s still in shock. The other words they say, “He is risen.” Doesn’t register with her. She’s lost in her anger and grief.

Then she hears a familiar voice call her name--“Mary!”

Often when people experience extreme grief, they have a temporary psychotic break--hallucinations. But this wasn’t a hallucination. It’s Him in the flesh. She knows this, because she throws herself on Jesus. Jesus allows this, but after a while, He tells her to let go. He has other people to see. His body can’t stay with her forever, any more than our loved ones can stay with us in bodily form. Jesus can and will stay with her, but not in the flesh. His Spirit will always stay beside her.

Jesus made His first visit after the resurrection with an ex-prostitute. It’s probably not what we would do, but Jesus isn’t us. He’s God, and His actions and motivations are pure love. He loves us, not because of who we were or are, but because he chooses to love us. 

Now, what is the relevance of this story to us? It is this—God doesn’t love us as part of the crowd. He loves us as individuals.  We have a general playbook on love. He didn’t just say to Peter, “Get everyone together and I’ll tell them all I love then and that I’ve come back.” No, He knows us by name. He senses what we need. He recognizes our heart and makes us all His priority.

Sometimes, our vision of God does more harm than good. We picture God as the grand marshal in a parade, waving at the crowd from a distance. Or we see God as the minister at a funeral. Standing up front he offers generalized comfort from a message he preached a hundred times before. God is all powerful and all knowing, but that isn’t all. He doesn’t stay on the parade float, He jumps off to meet us in the crowd. He doesn’t stay behind the pulpit--He sits beside us and holds our hand. That’s what communion means. God brings His body and blood to you. 

Close your eyes and imagine God coming to you. Imagine you are in your private room, and you hear soft, sandaled footsteps approaching. You slowly open your eyes, and there before you is Jesus.  His brown eyes are staring directly into yours. His calloused hands take your hand. He smiles and utters your name. Then he waits for you to speak.  What will you say to Him?  What will you ask Him? He is ready to hear.

To Jesus, you are not part of a crowd. You are not a client, a parishioner, a giving unit, or even a sinner. You are who you are, and He cares about you. He measures your need and gives to you in the way that will be best for you. He brings you comfort, not ritualized stylized, or even theologized comfort, but the real comfort of a real friend.

I hope you enjoy the Easter celebrations. But more than that, I hope you hear Jesus call you by your name. He is not limited by time and space. He gives you His full attention. The God of Love is reaching out to you. I hope you will respond.