O Lord, wondrously show your steadfast love…

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Psalm 17: 6 (King David writes) “I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God; incline your ear to me, hear my words. 7 Wondrously show your steadfast love, O savior of those who seek refuge from their adversaries at your right hand.” 

As king of the Israelites, David had lots of resources at his disposal to address any problem. What I appreciate about him is his willingness to seek the Lord as the answer to his problems. If you read the scriptures you know David messed up on many occasions in multiple ways, but there is one thing he always got right. He was absolutely clear that Yahweh was his God and that he belonged to Yahweh alone, not to the many other “gods” in his world at the time. Because he’s clear on his identity as a child of God, David does not hesitate to share his expectations of God, “Wondrously show your steadfast love…”.

It’s been a week since I wrote something here. It has been a trying week. I wrote my previous post from an ICU waiting room as I was attending to my brother Chris and the rest of our family as we waited nervously for word of his health after a cardiac arrest. A week later he is still being evaluated and the outcome remains uncertain. And so these words from David speak to me today.

Heavenly Father, by the grace extended to me and my family in Jesus Christ, I am confident of who I am and who you are to me. You are God. I am your servant, as is my brother Chris. Lord be present with my family is this difficult time. Lay your healing hand on my brother that he may live and not die, and may proclaim your glory to the world. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Proclamation in an ICU waiting room…

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Acts 13:47 For so the Lord has commanded us (the apostles), saying, ‘I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles, so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’ ” 48 When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers.

Two things collide in this passage with wonderful results: the word of the Lord and those who “had been destined for eternal life” (v.48). Without proclamation of the gospel the response was not possible. One begat the other. This morning I’m pondering what proclamation looks like in our day. In my day.

I’m presently in a hospital ICU waiting room outside of Austin, Texas. My brother Chris had a heart attack two nights ago. He’s been in a medically induced coma until this morning when they started bringing him out of it. We’ll see later today what his prognosis will be, if there will be lasting damage. Waiting has been awful. He’s one of the most fit people I know. No existing heart issues. No medications, none needed. Careful with diet and exercise. Then this. We are close to the same age.

There are others here in the waiting room, my family members and others. One can see the anxiety on the faces. A few minutes ago we heard a “code blue” warning go off. I was leaving my brother’s room to go back to waiting area when it went off. I walked by the room where they were working feverishly to resuscitate someone. I had to reassure my family it was not my brother. It doesn’t take much to stir anxious people.

So today I’m asking myself what proclamation looks like – in this waiting area. For now I think it means praying – not just for my own family but for the others waiting here. Lord be present among us today. Send your healing angels to minister to those holding on to life in this place. Amen.

God resists our desire for “formulas”…

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Acts 12:1 About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.) When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover. While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him. 

This passage from Acts 12 describes how James, one of the key leaders among Jesus’ original 12 disciples, was arrested and “killed with the sword”. Then Peter, another key leader among the disciples, was also arrested. However rather than being killed, Peter was freed by an angel of the Lord and walked out of prison without a scratch.

James died while Peter walked. Why? I wonder if James’ family asked that question of God. It would be natural to do so. I have no doubt people fervently prayed for James as they did for Peter, but the outcome was different – and no explanation given. It just is what it is.

As human beings we search for consistency. If prayer and fasting led to freedom in one case, we’d like it to produce the same result in the next, but that’s not how God works. I have been frustrated by this more times than I can count. All I know is that faith cannot be reduced to a formula. Should we enter prayer and fasting when someone is struggling or in trouble? Absolutely. Will prayer and fasting always result in the outcome we want? Definitely not. Why not? I have no idea.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us trusting God for outcomes. That kind of trust is also called “faith”. Lord, give me faith in all circumstances, especially when I don’t understand. Amen.

God welcomes sinners and idolaters… surprise!

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Acts 11:11 At that very moment three men, sent to me (the apostle Peter) from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered (the Roman centurion Cornelius’) house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” 

One of the most disruptive and yet beautiful things that God accomplished through Jesus was the massive expansion of persons potentially included in the community of faith. No longer was it just “righteous” Jews who were called to faith, but all people – especially the people deemed unworthy of God’s blessing and favor: lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, the uncircumcised (Gentiles), even a Roman military commander named Cornelius and his household. For centuries such people were considered hopeless sinners and idolaters, but through “the repentance that leads to life” they were recognized as children of God who received the Holy Spirit.

Like many churches, the church I lead as pastor saw our outreach work curtailed during Covid. We didn’t stop completely, but the level of outreach and service ministry activity went way down. I’m hopeful that changes in 2023. This passage reminds me how the Lord may bring to us persons we think are out of bounds in some way. I expect we may be challenged to be open to whomever the Lord introduces us. Lord let it be so. Amen.

Forgiveness of sins is indeed good news for all kinds of people…

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Acts 10:34 Then Peter began to speak to (the Roman centurion named Cornelius and his entire household): “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” 

In the book of Acts we see the gospel move from Jerusalem and Judea (home of the Israelites) to other peoples and cultures – in this case, to a Roman military leader and his household). The surprise of the gospels and Acts is how many Jews were reluctant to believe Jesus was the promised Messiah, but non-Jews seemed more open. Probably because they didn’t have pre-conceived ideas about the Messiah in the same way as Jews, who expected someone to rule from a throne with military might a la King David.

Anyway, I’m noticing the nature of the good news Peter is sharing with Cornelius and his people. Peter was “preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all” (v.36). In other words, even Gentiles were able to have peace with God the Father by the forgiveness of sins offered through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Son. “Everyone who believes in (Jesus) receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” I don’t imagine it was common for Roman soldiers to be concerned with sins against the Jewish God, but we were told earlier in this chapter that Cornelius was “a devout man who feared God”.

As a pastor I often hear how our culture is growing increasingly secular in nature, which is undoubtedly true. But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t continue to call people to himself – Christian or not. Something important for me to remember, particularly in preaching and teaching. Lord Jesus, you are indeed Lord of all. Make me and those reading this blog post proclaimers of the good news of Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Lord leads the way… to a new people…

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Acts 10:23 The next day (Peter) got up and went with them, and some of the believers from Joppa accompanied him. 24 The following day they came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 On Peter’s arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshiped him. 26 But Peter made him get up, saying, “Stand up; I am only a mortal.” 27 And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; 28 and he said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?” 30 Cornelius replied, “Four days ago at this very hour, at three o’clock, I was praying in my house when suddenly a man in dazzling clothes stood before me. 31 He said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32 Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon, who is called Peter; he is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.’ 33 Therefore I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.” 

Sometimes it’s not easy to discern what the Lord would have us do in life, which way we should go, and so on. But sometimes God makes it perfectly clear, as was the case here with Peter. The challenge for Peter was not hearing from the Lord, but obeying the Lord despite the fact he was being sent to Gentiles, which Jews were not to associate with (v.28). God pushed Peter outside of a boundary he had observed his entire life – a boundary God himself had established. But times had changed and the Kingdom of God was advancing in new ways through Jesus.

This year I am hopeful the church I lead as pastor will lean into outreach with renewed vigor after spending three years being somewhat limited in our outward focus. It seems that Covid is here to stay. Yet the mission of the church to make disciples of all nations remains in force – virus or no virus. My prayer this morning is that the Lord would reveal to us the persons he has prepared in advance to receive what we have to offer – new life in Jesus Christ. My expectation as that such persons may be culturally different than our current church community – perhaps ethnically, socio-economically, or in some other way. This is never easy but, empowered by the Holy Spirit, it is possible. Even necessary. Lord let it be so. Amen.

Venturing “out”…

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Acts 9:23 After some time had passed, the Jews plotted to kill (Saul, the former pharisee and persecutor of Christians whom Jesus called to become a Christian apostle), 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night so that they might kill him; 25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket. 26 When he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples (the ones he had been persecuting before his conversion); and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 So he went in and out among them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 He spoke and argued with the Hellenists (Greek-speaking Jews); but they were attempting to kill him. 30 When the believers learned of it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus (his hometown). 31 Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers. 

As I mentioned before, Saul would later become known as the apostle Paul who was a key figure in the development of the early church and author of several books of the New Testament. I get why the Christians in Jerusalem were initially afraid of him. He’d been an enemy of the church until Jesus struck him down on the way to Damascus and called him to be a Christian apostle instead.

V.28 indicates a repeating rhythm as Saul went in with his fellow Christians and then went out to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Reminds me of a pendulum that swings from one side to the other. There is gathering and sending. Repeat. As I think about my own local church over the last three years we (understandably) focused more on gathering than sending. Frankly, for a while it just wasn’t safe to go out. Fortunately things are better three years into the pandemic if not 100% safe.

But to be honest “safe” wasn’t really a chief concern for the early Christians. In fact, the more unsafe it became for them the faster the church grew. As I think about directions for 2023 I think it’s time for us to swing from the “in” to the “out” side of things. It’s in sharing the good news of Jesus in word and deed – out there – that we reach those who would never walk through the doors of our church.

Lord Jesus, give us grace to overcome our fear and venture “out” into our world as we are intended. Amen.

From two different worlds…

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Acts 9:10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength. 

Saul was a promising young pharisee who encountered the risen Jesus on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus. Why was Saul going to Damascus? He was going to round up as many Christians as he could find to have them arrested, imprisoned, or worse. Saul was a young man who was going places in the world of Jewish clergy, one with a first-rate education who was also a Roman citizen – a big deal in the ancient world. But on the way to Damascus, Jesus rendered him blind and sent him to the house of a Christian believer named Judas (no relation to the disciple who betrayed Jesus).

Saul, the Jewish pharisee, would take on a new name and identity as Paul the Christian apostle.

It’s interesting to me how the apostle Paul was so different from the twelve original disciples of Jesus, several of whom were simple fishermen from the coastal area of Galilee. They were on opposite ends of the establishment spectrum in the Jewish world. In today’s world you might say the original disciples were educated on the streets. Paul, on the other hand, was like a Rhodes scholar from an Ivy League school. Jesus found value in both kinds of people to further the mission of the Kingdom of God.

Lesson? Jesus can and will use someone like you if you’re willing to say “yes”.

The challenge of scriptural comprehension…

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Acts 8:26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him…35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.

I remember many years ago when I first got interested in scripture. At the time I was reading a fair number of secular books on business and leadership. One of my favorites was “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey, which had just recently been released. You may have read it yourself as it’s something of a classic in that particular literary genre. I read several other books of this kind, hoping to find the roadmap to success – whatever that looked like.

Anyway, at some point I picked up a bible and started reading in the gospel of Matthew. It didn’t take long for me to realize this book was… different. Lots of it didn’t make much sense to me. I came to learn the bible wasn’t a normal “story”, but a compilation of many kinds of literature created in the context of multiple ancient cultures with which I had no connection or understanding. To be honest I almost gave up. But then my “Philip” came along.

No, the Lord didn’t send a person to guide me through scripture, but instead prompted me to buy a study bible – the sort that has notes at the bottom of the pages to help explain the body of text. These notes were literally a God-send and kept me reading when I might have quit. By this time, in my early 20s, I’d started attending a church in San Antonio and teaching some of the youth. In my experience, nothing encourages learning like the task of teaching. I was teaching stuff on Sundays that I’d just learned the night before! So where am I going with this?

First, if you find yourself struggling to understand scripture you’re not alone. I’ve been at it for almost 40 years. I’ve read through the bible front to back many times now and still get stumped on a regular basis. That said, rest assured the Lord can still speak to you through the parts you can understand – and will grow your comprehension the more you read it. If you’re looking for some good bible resources for purchase I recommend http://www.logos.com. I’ve been a user of this software for almost 30 years now and believe it’s the best stuff out there.

Mostly, spend a moment in prayer before you begin reading. I’m confident a prayer for greater comprehension of God’s word is the sort of prayer the Lord wants to answer. Lord, let it be so. Amen.

Opportunity in adversity…

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Acts 8:1 That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison. 

Before Jesus ascended to heaven he told his disciples:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. – Acts 1:8

Well, the Holy Spirit showed up not long after and the first Christians came out from hiding – preaching the gospel and seeing many come to faith in Jesus Christ. However, it took much longer for the movement out from Jerusalem (Judea, Samaria, the ends of the earth) to take place. In fact, we’re told in our passage above it was “severe persecution” that got the church moving beyond its original territory. What’s interesting is that the attack on the church, designed to destroy it, only served to expand its reach. What the enemies of the church intended for evil, God used for good. It happens more than you might think.

This time of year is hard on many, for lots of reasons. Most people I know are going through some kind of adversity. How might the Lord be presenting an opportunity in the midst of your struggle? Lord open our eyes to see possibility as we deal with adversity. Amen.