Category Archives: grace

Getting What We Want

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Recently I read something about the power of the media to “control the minds of the masses.” As I read, the thought came to me that the media give us what we want to see. And politicians tell us what we want to hear.

We get what we want … but we don’t want what we get.

We say we want truth, but really we only want the truth that makes us feel better about ourselves, or the truth that confirms what we already think (or want to think). We don’t want the truth that tells us we’re wrong, that we’re going in a bad direction, that the Titanic is sinking. Former Vice President Al Gore recognized this in the title of his book, An Inconvenient Truth. Jack Nicholson’s character in the movie A Few Good Men nailed it when he bellowed, “You can’t handle the truth!”

Shortly after reading the statement about the media, I read my mom’s most recent blog post, in which she wrote about how she makes it a habit to look inside herself, to discover ways in which she still needs to learn and grow. Yet such introspection is hard. It’s uncomfortable. We’re not sure we can “handle the truth” about ourselves.

It’s easy to point fingers at the media, politicians, or anyone else we want. It’s easy to blame parents or teachers or society or even God for the brokenness we know we live with but don’t want to deal with.

What we need instead, though, is to stand in front of the mirror and point—to acknowledge that what is wrong in the world really is just a reflection of what is wrong with ourselves.

Maybe instead of looking at the media and seeing what we want to see, or listening to the politicians and hearing what we want to hear, we need to listen to the prophets—the prophets of old and the prophets of today—who speak God’s truth even at the risk of their own lives; who will point the finger at us and point our eyes toward God.

I’m Not Good Enough. Neither Are You.

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For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:20 (New International Version)

I ‘ve been camping out in the Sermon on the Mount lately. It’s always been a hard piece of the Bible for me: while others dove into the water and paddled out to the big waves, I felt like all I could ever do was body surf near the shore. They got the excitement of deep truths; I got sand in my shorts. But this year at my church, we’re getting back to basics, and at church it doesn’t get much more basic than Jesus. I figured we probably ought to spend some time with the longest recorded message from the Master, so here I am, camping out on the mount.

The Beatitudes—that list of “blessed are those who…”—seemed pretty straight forward. Until I actually started studying them. And with some help from Dallas Willard (The Divine Conspiracy), I realized they may not be anywhere near as straight forward as I thought. In fact, they all seem a little upside-down. That shouldn’t have surprised me, coming from a teacher who said things like, “the first shall be last” and “whoever wants to save their life will lose it.”

So I pressed on and came to the verse above. Now, I know enough about the Pharisees and “the teachers of the law” to know that no one—and I mean no one—was going to surpass their righteousness. When it came to following the law, they not only dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s, they made sure that every serif was in the right place. (Note: this is written in a sans serif font, which I’m sure the Pharisees would frown on as being too liberal.) What in the world did Jesus have in mind, then, suggesting that the only way to heaven is to out-Pharisee the Pharisees?

I was a high jumper for a few years in middle school. A pretty average one, I admit, but I have fond memories. (Except the triangular poles: those really hurt when you landed on them.) In high jump, they start with the bar at a pretty easy height—one every competitor ought to be able to get over. And as soon as you clear one height, they raise it. That’s where that cliché comes from, “raising the bar.” But Jesus starts out with the bar pretty much right up top. It’s like asking a middle schooler to compete against Dick Fosbury‘s 1968 Olympics gold medal record.

Well then I kept reading Jesus’ sermon, and he wasn’t done! He keeps raising the bar even higher: it’s not enough to steer clear of murder, now I’m not even supposed to get angry at them. It’s not enough to avoid adultery; even looking wrong at a woman can get me in trouble. (The original #MeToo?) And on and on he goes, inching up that bar of righteousness, until it’s definitely out of reach.

By the end of Matthew 5, I’m feeling pretty small. And then, as if all this bar-raising weren’t enough, Jesus slaps one more bumper sticker on the car: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (verse 48). Good grief! There’s no way! Jesus’ expectations are just too high; I can’t possibly meet them. Clearly, I can never live up to his demands.

But then I get another nudge. I turn over a few pages (and a few years of history) to one of the longest letters in the Bible, written by a guy named Paul. A guy who, by the way, was a Pharisee. And as Pharisees, he was tops. If anyone out-Phariseed the Pharisees, it was Paul. For a while, Paul made a mockery of Jesus’ teachings. Paul didn’t just get angry with people (mostly people who followed Jesus), he dragged them off to prison and worse: he made sure they got the death penalty. And then he met Jesus. In a spectacular, blinding, world-changing way. And it changed the world.

And decades after Jesus said “you have to be more righteous than the Pharisees,” Paul wrote that “no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law.” (He’s actually agreeing with Jesus, by the way; you just can’t read only Matthew 5 to know that.) Paul went on to write that “the righteousness of God…is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” (See Romans 3.)

So here’s the deal: if you want to try to earn your way into heaven, well good luck with that. In fact, you’ll need luck, because no amount of doing good will get you over the bar. (Neither will luck!) The good news is that Jesus already cleared the bar. He lived the sinless life that we can’t; he was the perfect sacrifice, dying in our place; and the faith that we need to have in order to be accepted by God? Well, he gives us that, too. And God, by his amazing, incredible, totally undeserved mercy, looks at you and me and sees one thing: the righteousness of his Son.

I’ll never be good enough for God. Neither will you. But Jesus is. All you need to do is believe.

Who Is This Woman?

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I recently started a new sermon series at the church I pastor. The series is called Scars Have Stories* and each week we’ll look at an individual in the Bible whose life is marked by pain, grief, and loss. We’ll also see how God uses that brokenness to bring redemption to that individual and to others.

The first person we met isn’t named in the Bible; she calls herself simply, “a Samaritan woman” (see John 4). Today we often refer to her as “the woman at the well,” because that’s where Jesus met her. For those of us who have been around church for most of our lives, this woman is just one of many familiar faces: seen but not known, except by what our pastors have told us. But she may not be who we think she is.

You have heard it said: Jesus goes where shouldn’t be, meets a woman he shouldn’t meet, and talks to her (GASP!). Then he tells her what she already knows: that is, she’s a dirty rotten sinner that no one loves, but he’ll love her, anyway. As a result, her life is radically changed and all the townspeople who know her see the change, come to meet Jesus, and believe in him, too. It’s an incredible story of evangelistic grace. But what if that’s not who she was?

But I tell you: Jesus goes where shouldn’t be, meets a woman he shouldn’t meet, and talks to her (GASP!). [No change yet, right?] But instead of poking away at her as if she’s a dirty rotten sinner, Jesus responds as if she’s an inquisitive spiritual seeker^. He listens to her questions and patiently redirects them until he has the opportunity to reveal himself to her … using that ancient name of God that no one would pronounce but she would undoubtedly know: I AM. Then this seeker runs to her neighbors and asks, “could this possibly be the Messiah?” They come, meet the stranger at the well, invite him to stay a couple days, and end up also believing.

Two women. Two stories. One Savior. Either woman could be who Jesus met. Either story could be true (we’ve seen both in other pages of Scripture). But I think this second woman, the inquisitive spiritual seeker, better fits the aim of John’s gospel, which is all about believing (see John 20:31). It also fits better with the immediate context of that gospel, which includes two other encounters Jesus had with spiritual seekers. In the preceding chapter (John 3), Jesus is approached at night by a religious leader, Nicodemus, who is also asking questions – and,  because of his great learning, is a bit slow to understand the answers Jesus gives.

Earlier still (John 1:43-51), Jesus had met a doubting seeker named Nathanael; Nate had a hard time believing that anything—or anyone—good could come from the backwater town he’d heard Jesus was from … until Jesus told Nate he’d seen what he could not have seen: Nate, sitting in the shade of a fig tree (and probably eating a nice, juicy fig). That divinely-inspired insight convinces Nate that Jesus is the Son of God.

Meanwhile, back in Samaria…. Many people believe that when Jesus reveals to the woman that he knows about her five previous husbands (and the arrangement with her current beau), he’s pointing out her sinful lifestyle. Remembering his encounter with Nathanael, though, I think it’s more likely that Jesus is using that same divinely-inspired insight to convince the woman that he is the Messiah. Just as that was the kicker for Nate, so it is for the Samaritan woman.

So, what’s the big deal? I think we can take three things from this:

  • first, a renewed view of Scripture. It’s easy to look at anecdotes like this encounter between Jesus and a woman and see only what’s on the surface. But when we look deeper (context, author’s purpose, etc.), we see something very different; we get a better look into what God is doing, a better understanding of who he is and how we works.
  • second, a renewed view of women in Scripture. If we’re willing to admit it, we will see that women in Scripture are central to the advancement of God’s kingdom. In a culture (then) that devalued women, Jesus elevated them; we must, too. We are all sinners saved by grace, and this woman is no exception. But that isn’t the central truth of her story; the central truth is that because of her testimony, an entire Samaritan village believed in the Messiah — a radical, counter-cultural transformation.
  • third, a renewed view of our own brokenness and loss. Sin or no sin, you don’t move through five marriages without brokenness and loss. Whether the Samaritan woman had buried five husbands (possible), been divorced five times (possible but not likely), or some combination of the two (probable), she undoubtedly grieved what was or what might have been. But in spite of—perhaps even because of—that loss, Jesus met her and used her to draw an entire community to himself. He can do that with our brokenness, too.

Who is this woman? We only know what the Bible tells us. But we can be sure of this: God’s promise remains:

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13)

CREDITS:

*Thanks to Dr. Dan Allender for that phrase, “scars have stories.”

^Thanks to Dr. Lynn Cohick, Dean/Provost of Denver Seminary, for introducing me to this different view of the Samaritan woman … and for generously sharing her research and writings.

Holiness Matters

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Make every effort to live in peace with everyone, and holiness; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. (Hebrews 12:14-15, NIV)

Working through these two verses was one of the most difficult tasks I’ve done in sermon preparation. A lifelong follower of Jesus, I was challenged, convicted, and amazed at how important holiness really is throughout Scripture – from Genesis to Malachi, Matthew to Revelation.

What I realized is that my holiness is essential to our church’s health. And I need to work at holiness. Yes, God sees me as holy, righteous, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection; but time and again, the Bible gives us the command to be holy.

But my holiness isn’t only up to me, and yours isn’t only up to you: we are instructed to help each other strive for holiness. “See to it” translates a word that carries the meaning of oversight – we’re supposed to look out for each other, hold each other accountable, help each other. That’s a challenge, of course, because we all err; we all fall short; we all sin.

Before beginning my message, I told our church, “This matter—holiness—is something that can propel our church forward or hold us back. I want it to propel us forward.”

For one of the few times in my ministry, I wrote out a full manuscript of the message and I’m making it available to the folks in my church. If you’d like a copy, you can download it here.

When Leaders Change

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(U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Joshua R. M. Dewberry. Public domain photo, cleared for release.)

During my four years of active duty in the Air Force, I attended a number of change of command ceremonies. They can be pretty impressive affairs, with all the troops lined up, flags from each squadron or wing under the command, and medals gleaming on the chests of the officers up front.

In the midst of all the pomp and circumstance, though, the official transfer of leadership is quite simple, only eight words: “Sir [or Ma’am, as in this photo] I relinquish command. … Sir [or Ma’am], I assume command.”

God led a change of command ceremony, once, too, and probably with no less pomp than the Air Force. After the people of Israel had been led out of slavery in Egypt, and after they had spent forty years wandering in the wilderness because of their sin of disbelief, it was time for leadership to pass from Moses to Joshua. What God said to Joshua during that ceremony—and what the people said to him—give us a clue about how to be successful as a church.

When I became pastor of The Journey Church in Sonora, California, I used this “change of command ceremony,” described in Joshua 1, as the text for my initial message. Here’s the basic message:

Whatever success in the church may mean—more people, more resources, more impact in the community and the world—success in God’s church demands three things: believe God’s promises, obey God’s Word, and follow God’s leader.

Believe God’s Promises. When Joshua took over, the Israelites were on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, looking west toward Canaan, “the promised land.” Centuries before, God had promised that land to Abraham. Forty years earlier, they had stood in the same place; but in the first failure of a church committee, by a vote of 10-2, they had decided to let fear reign instead of faith. As a result, they wandered in the wilderness until that entire generation had died. Now, on the edge of hope once again, they heard God repeat his promise: “I will never leave you [Joshua] nor forsake you. Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.” God promised a place and his presence; all they had to do was believe.

Obey God’s Word. We don’t much like the word obey; it’s too strong, too authoritarian. And besides, if you’re a Protestant (protest-ant) like me, you prefer to speak of grace. We need grace. We live by grace. We’re saved by grace – grace alone (solo gratia, in Martin Luther’s Latin vernacular). But grace—or our misconception of it—gets us in trouble, because we can tend to allow ourselves too much freedom, and then we slip into sin. But hey, more sin, more grace, right? Paul had a strong response to that attitude: NO! No, no, no; a thousand times no! (See Romans 6:1.) But God told Joshua to make sure he obeyed all the commands, and we have to keep that in mind, too. And the whole Bible commands obedience: Deuteronomy 6:6-7, Deuteronomy 32:46-47, Matthew 28:20, John 14:15, John 15:10, etc. Jesus makes obedience easier when he boils down all the commands in Scripture to two things: Love God and love people (Matthew 22:40).

Follow God’s Leader. This is where it got tricky as a pastor: challenging a church to follow me as God’s leader. But I reminded them of their unanimous vote a couple months earlier that said, in effect, what the Israelites told Joshua: “Whatever you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go. Just as we fully obeyed Moses, so we will obey you.” Of course, I’m sure that made Joshua a bit nervous, because he’d been around for a while and had seen how they’d obeyed Moses – with grumbling, complaining, and a whole lot of sin. He’d also heard what God had said about the people not too much earlier: “[T]hese people will soon prostitute themselves to the foreign gods of the land they are entering. They will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them.” (Deuteronomy 31:16)

None of this is necessarily easy. God sometimes delays his promises (check out Hebrews 11:13). Though he has promised never to leave us, sometimes he seems distant, silent, unresponsive (check out any number of the Psalms, or most of the book of Job). And his Word isn’t always easy to obey, or we can’t agree on what obedience looks like. And so often, our leaders say or do stupid things, offensive things, or we just don’t like them! But God never promised an easy life, an easy faith. It takes work, it takes patience, it takes humility.

In that first message, I reminded the church that God still promises his presence. I promised that I would keep his Word central to everything we do. And then I challenged them to respond in three ways:

  • First, to “examine the Scriptures” daily (see Acts 17:11) to see if I’m on track. I want my church to be in their Bibles regularly, consistently, and in community, because I believe that the Bible is best understood in community. I need them to know God’s Word.
  • Second, I want them to pray for me – especially if they have a problem with something I’ve said or done. One of the best ways you can follow your pastor—God’s leader—is to pray for him or her. It helps the pastor and it keeps you humble!
  • Finally, I asked them to encourage me, as the people of Israel encouraged Joshua: “be strong and courageous!” Any kind of leadership is hard; pastoring is especially so. We feel the weight of responsibility, and the role can both stroke our egos and tear away at our hearts. I’m my own worst critic, so I need encouragement: notes, kind words, a text, an email.

BELIEVE – OBEY – FOLLOW: God’s prescription for success.