Tuesday, June 12, 2012

When Sin Stands in the Way of Your Closeness to God

In her book, When You Don't Know What to Pray: How to Talk to God About Anything, Linda Evans Shepherd includes a chapter on praying to experience God's presence in our lives. Included there is a list of those things that may prevent us from enjoying closeness with God. Number one on her list is unrepented sin. Shepherd writes:
...it's not like God quits loving us, it's more like we can't hear his music because we're tuned to another station. We need to tune our antenna to God! We need to stop watching the shows we know we shouldn't see. Quit listening to music we know we shouldn't hear. Quit saying those things about our pastor, our family, our spouse, our co-workers, and our neighbors we know we shouldn't say. Stop sleeping with those people to whom we're not married. Block the porn sites. Stop with the drugs and the alcohol.

God hasn't moved. He hasn't left us. However, if we have sin in our lives, we need to clean up our act so we can enjoy his sweet spirit.

If we don't start taking our Christian walk more seriously, we're going to reap disaster in our personal lives, our families, our churches, and our community. Why? Because when we go our own way we'll zoom headlong into trouble. So, if you're doing something you shouldn't, stop it, right now. Put it down or turn it off and walk away.
Good advice! Except that, from my reading of the Bible and my own personal experience, I would put it slightly differently: Run away!

Shepherd lists several other reasons we may not be enjoying God's presence:
  • Lack of invitation
  • Unanswered prayer
  • Grief
  • No understanding of the depths of God's love
Just before He ascended to heaven, the resurrected Jesus promised believers, "I am with you always." The great thing about the promises of Jesus, God enfleshed, is that they're valid and real even when we don't feel them. Neither God nor our faith are captive to our feelings. So, even when we don't feel God's presence with us, He's still there!

Monday, June 11, 2012

What Leadership Is

John Schroeder cites this from Jonathon Leeman:
Leadership is not about running after all your dreams and ambitions, it’s often about getting on your hands and knees and making your life a stage on which those you love can pursue their ambitions, hopes, and ministries. It’s about building up as much as it’s about moving up. It’s about equipping and enabling and empowering.
John then quotes Philippians 2:5-8, worth quoting again here:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.  
That, is leadership, and why there are very few true leaders in the world at any given time and why most people have never heard of them.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Clash of Households

[This was shared during worship today with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]

Mark 3:20-35
The words of Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson are as likely to offend us as they did the first people to hear them in first-century Judea. In a few short verses, Jesus turns His back on His family from Nazareth and on the scribes, who stand as representatives of God’s people, Israel. He says that His ultimate loyalty in life does not go to His family, nor His country.

Please pull out a Bible and turn to Mark 13:34-35, the last verses of our lesson. We’re told: “And He [Jesus] looked around in a circle at those who sat about Him and said, ‘Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother.’”

We’re going to dig more deeply into this passage in a moment. But first, we need to understand the context in which Jesus says these words. What was going on before the set of personal encounters in which Jesus said these things?

In Mark 3:13-19, Jesus, we’re told, went up on a mountain and called twelve people to be His apostles. Jesus was going to train these men for the time after His death, resurrection, and ascension. At that time, they would be sent to spread the good news of new life for all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus as God and Savior. Ancient Israel, God’s people, you remember, were founded on the twelve sons of Jacob, who became the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel. In Jesus, God is now extending the offer of new and everlasting life with God to all people--Jews and Gentiles--who believe in Jesus Christ. The apostles are to be the founding fathers of a new community of faith, the Church, a new creation, that lasts for all eternity.

After Jesus calls the apostles, Mark 3:19 tells us that Jesus and His new founding family of faith, go into a house. Some translations say "His house,” which would make sense because we know that by this point in His life, Jesus had left Nazareth and was living in a house at Capernaum, on shores of the Sea of Galilee. But this seemingly insignificant word, house, is really important for what comes in our gospel lesson. In it, the confrontation between the house of Jesus and the house of Satan comes into full view, as does a shocking revelation of who lives in those two places.

Verse 20, the first verse of our Gospel lesson, says that a huge group of people crowded around Jesus’ house. People had been crowding around Jesus from the moment that He began His public ministry, telling people: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” By this point though, Jesus' family is starting to freak out. Look at verse 20: “...when His own people [that is, Jesus’ family from Nazareth] heard about this, they went out to lay hold of [Jesus], for they said, ‘He is out of His mind.’”

No, you’re not misreading this passage. Jesus’ own family turned against Him, including we’ll see, His mother, Mary.

They want to try to get Jesus out of the house, away from the apostles and the crowd, and presumably back to Nazareth.

The passage says that they wanted to “lay hold of Him,” a phrase that translates the word, kratese, from the Greek in which Mark originally wrote his gospel; it means arrest and it’s the same word that Mark used of the arrest of both John the Baptist and Jesus Himself.  Jesus’ family want to stop Him from continuing His ministry. They say that Jesus is “out of His mind,” literally “beside Himself.” In those days, mental illness, being out of one’s mind, was equated with being possessed by a demon! This is what Jesus' mother and brothers think of Jesus!

Why would they think that? Probably because, as Pastor Meda Stamper writes, Jesus was violating the family “script.”

In first century Judea, loyalty to family was equated with loyalty to God and country and there were certain things family members were expected to do. For example, the oldest son was expected to inherit the lion’s share of his father’s estate,  take his widowed mother into his home, and continue the family business and way of life.

But Jesus had violated all those expectations. He’d left Nazareth, forsaking the family business and while we know that He would later provide for the care of His mother, Mary, by entrusting her to His friend, John, He didn’t have Mary living with Him in Capernaum.

Maybe when Mary had so faithfully accepted that her firstborn was going to be the Messiah, she hadn’t thought it would entail His dropping everything, leaving His family behind, and being so radically committed to doing His Father’s will.

In any case, one can easily imagine the conversations of Mary and the rest of Jesus’ family: “Jesus has gone out of His mind, mother." "We have to get him away from all those people.”

Sometimes, our families are the people who will work the hardest to keep us from Jesus Christ.

A pastor in New York City reports that one of the biggest obstacles his congregation faces in reaching out to young people involved in selling drugs is the pressure they get from their parents. You see, selling drugs can bring a lot of money into a household. When a young person involved in that trade finds himself wanting to know more about Jesus Christ, wanting to hear how through Christ, God can forgive their sins and give them new lives, their parents become concerned about losing all that income. So, the parents will tell them things like, “Stay away from those Christians. Why do you want to become a religious fanatic? Why do you want to turn your back on your family?”

I remember the reaction of some of my extended family members after I had come to faith in Christ and made it clear that, on Christmas Eve, Ann and I would be arriving for the family gift exchange after we had worshiped at the Christmas Eve service. You’d have thought I had just told them I was planning to rob a bank. Why, one of them wondered, would you want to disrupt the family’s Christmas celebrations by going to celebrate Christ’s birth with Christ’s family, the Church? This was the kind of opposition to His faithfulness to God the Father Jesus faced from His own family.

But they weren’t the only ones against Jesus’ pursuit of the will of His Father.

In verse 22, the scribes, guardians of Jewish religious faith, come after Jesus, too. Look, they say of Him, “He has Beelzebub [another name for Satan]” and “By the ruler of the demons He casts out demons.” Satan, the scribes claim, possesses Jesus and it’s through the power of Satan that Jesus is able to cast out demons.

Look at verse 23 to see how Jesus responds to their accusations. “How,” Jesus asks, “can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, the kingdom cannot stand.” In other words, if Satan is setting out to destroy his own kingdom--the household of Satan--by giving Jesus the power to cast out demons, Satan’s house wouldn’t stand for long.

Jesus cuts their argument to pieces--clearly demonstrating that He isn’t out of His mind or filled with a demon. I love the way Eugene Peterson renders verse 26 in The Message. There, Jesus says: “If Satan were fighting Satan, there soon wouldn't be any Satan left.” So, Jesus is saying, whether I am sent by God or by Satan, the jig is up for Satan. His kingdom--His household--is being destroyed.

But in reality, Jesus says in verse 27, something else is happening: Someone stronger than Satan, God Himself, is entering the house of Satan and stealing away those who have been kidnapped by Him through sin and death and giving new and everlasting life to Jesus, the stronger one.

What Jesus says next is critically important. Neither His family nor the scribes believed in Jesus for one simple reason: They refused to heed the witness of the Holy Spirit and the simple evidence before them.

Jesus was doing all that the Old Testament prophets had revealed hundreds of years before that the Messiah, God’s anointed King, would do. But instead of believing the witness of God’s Holy Spirit about Who Jesus was, Jesus’ family and the scribes accused Jesus of having a demon.

So, Jesus says, beginning in verse 28: “Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven...and whatever blasphemies they utter [blasphemy is showing contempt for or insulting God] they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal damnation.”

The New Testament teaches that the Holy Spirit has two major functions. He convicts of sin, showing us that we deserve separation from God, and He convinces us of God’s grace, God’s charitable love and forgiveness, offered to all with faith in Christ.

The Spirit teaches that through Jesus and our faith in Him, we leave the household of Satan, where people live in bondage to sin and cannot free themselves, and enter the household of God.

When people willfully refuse to heed what the Holy Spirit teaches about Jesus, they erect a wall between God and them. The free gift of new life offered by Jesus can penetrate any heart and make any person new. But not if they refuse to believe the witness of the Holy Spirit about Jesus, the Son of God.

In his book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis points out that there are three ways we can view Jesus.

We can say that Jesus is a lunatic, which is what Jesus’ family said of Him. Jesus claims that He and God the Father are one, an assertion which, as Lewis says, a bit like a man claiming to be a poached egg. Yet, all you have to do is consider the coherence of arguments like the ones Jesus offers in our gospel lesson and know that Jesus was not crazy.

We can say that Jesus is a liar, which is what the scribes said, claiming that Jesus was really an agent of Satan. But the miracles He never performed in His own interest, but for the well being of others, and His resurrection from the dead are strong indicators that when He claimed to be God and Savior of the world, Jesus was telling the truth.

The evidence then, indicates that Jesus was neither lunatic nor liar. So, Lewis says, if Jesus is neither of these things, He must be precisely Who He claimed to be: the Lord God in human flesh, “the way, and the truth, and the life,” the only way to everlasting life with God!

Turn for a moment, if you would, to John 6:29.  Jesus says: “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him Whom He [the Father] sent.” We become part of the only family that will outlast this fallen, dying world, the household of Jesus Christ, by believing in, staking our whole lives on, Jesus and no one and nothing else. This is the will of God for every human being.

And if you believe in Jesus, His words in Mark 3:35 should give you comfort and power every day you live. Read them with me now: “For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother.”

Many things in this world can work to drive a wedge between Jesus and us: Our families, friends, careers, and country, to name just a few. But none of those things can bring us life with God, peace with God, or the hope of eternity. Only life with Jesus can bring us these things and much more. When the world--even the people closest to us who we love the most--tries to put anything ahead of Jesus and the will of God that we believe in Him, we must learn from Jesus and resist that pressure. When we do that, Jesus says, He will keep a promise to us, a promise sealed by His death and resurrection: "The one who endures to the end [keeps believing in Christ] will be saved."

When you and I believe in Jesus, we are the brothers, sisters, and mothers of Jesus, members of the family of Jesus. And when we remain as steadfast members of Jesus' household, by the power of the Holy Spirit, resisting the world's attempts (and the devil's attempts) to tear us from the hands of Christ, we have life with God today and forever. That’s good news!

But don’t keep it to yourself: Tell others about the new and everlasting creation of which they can be a part when they believe in Jesus. Invite them to become part of God’s eternal family too. Amen