Category Archives: grace

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.

The Long and Winding Road*

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With both apologies and gratitude to Sir Paul McCartney and his mates in the Beatles, the long and winding road is an apt description of the journey my family has been on for the past four years. What began as a somewhat uncertain yet anticipatory search for a Lead Pastor role melted into a desert meander through loss, death, grief, depression, questioning, doubting, and more. Yet milestone after faded milestone seemed to confirm two things: first, we were on the right path; and second, that path was leading to a pastoral role. Specifically where the path would lead was an unanswered question.

When God leads people on a journey, there’s always a purpose. Sometimes the purpose, or the path, or both, seems harsh, as with Jonah’s three days living as seafood or the ancient Israelites’ forty-year wilderness sojourn. Sometimes the purpose is simply to train, sometimes to discipline, sometimes to strengthen or transform. Sometimes God uses the journey to refresh and restore, as with Elijah after his battle-to-the-death with the prophets of Baal.

During our journey these past several years, God has been doing some hard work in my life, chiseling off rough edges, testing my commitment to his purpose, leading me from pride toward greater humility (a journey nowhere near complete). One of the most profound shifts I’ve seen in myself is a desire to love—really and simply love—whatever community he might call me to lead. That desire hasn’t always been there for me; so often, I’ve looked more at what I can change in a church than what I can love.

This weekend I stood before the congregation of a small, 150-year-old church in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. After my message (from Colossians 3:12-17), they were going to vote, as all good Baptists do, on whether it was God’s will for me to be their next pastor. With the ten new members being received that morning, the congregation stood at about 50 people – three-fourths of whom are over 65. I could count the children’s ministry on one hand…maybe with a finger to spare. The youth group was doubled in size by my daughter’s presence.

As we were getting ready for church that morning, my wife asked me what percentage I was looking for if we were to say yes to the church’s call. The number in my mind from the start had been 89%; I don’t know why, that’s just what came to my head and planted itself there. Eiley wondered if that was too high; What if it’s only 85%? Or 80?

The vote was overwhelming and humbling: unanimous! That is so unlike my past experience with churches, especially Baptist churches (my tribe). I have heard people say they always vote No just on principle! (I’m not sure what principle that is.) But this small body of hope-filled followers of Jesus is united in their desire to have me as their pastor and to lead them into the next phase of their life—of our life together.

And so, our journey takes a new turn. With a church called, ironically (and appropriately), The Journey. I wonder where this long and winding road will lead.

 

*Photo of Paul McCartney’s High Park Farm in Scotland copyright and owned by Stuart Brabbs. Licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:High_Park_Farm._-_geograph.org.uk_-_434107.jpg

Christmas Gifts

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The house is still as the sun peeks slowly over the eastern horizon. The pungent aroma of onion cooking for quiche mixes discordantly with the sweet smell of gingerbread in the oven. Packages sit under the Christmas tree – for a few more moments, at least. And I sip coffee and read from the prophets Isaiah and Micah, and from John (“the disciple whom Jesus loved,” as he was wont to describe himself, unnamed).

Yesterday I pondered the responses of Zechariah, Mary, and Joseph to their respective visits from Gabriel, the Messenger of God. Disbelief. Bewildered trust. Obedience (though undoubtedly mixed with practical questions about honor, integrity, and righteousness).

Today’s readings are filled with prophetic hope for a derided nation, honor for a forgotten village, longing for salvation and rescue from enemies. Promises of a Savior, Rescuer, Judge; of justice and the restoration of an ancient, royal city.

The baby whose birth we celebrate today may not have been exactly what people had in mind when they read the stories in the antiquated scrolls. As he grew up, as he began his work, as the work seemed to end on a brutal Roman cross… the disappointment and disillusionment only grew.

Today—Christmas Day, 2017—the likelihood of disappointment and disillusionment is just as real. The peace we heard about in yesterday’s Christmas Eve sermon is elusive not only in the nation but even in our families. The justice promised with the coming of the Messiah seems as distant now as Micah’s writings from two-and-a-half millennia ago. No wonder the gifts that ring our trees have taken center stage: they’re here, real, tangible…even if they, too, often carry a degree of disappointment.

The work for justice, righteousness, and peace that began in a stable in Bethlehem (and long before then)…; the work that reached a climax on a cross on Calvary…; the work that a ragtag band of men and women were left to carry on…; that is our work, our task, our mission.

The wise men brought the newborn King gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It’s said that the gold symbolized his royal lineage, frankincense represented the worship due him, and myrrh foretold his sacrificial death. Perhaps this year, we can offer gifts to Jesus, as well. Perhaps we can offer a tireless striving for justice in our communities, nation, and world; perhaps we can live lives of righteousness – not legalism, but right living on behalf of others; perhaps we can work to bring peace into our families, workplaces, schools, communities.

What gifts will you offer this Christmas?