Letting Jesus take the wheel…

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Deuteronomy 19:11 But if someone at enmity with another lies in wait and attacks and takes the life of that person, and flees into one of these (sanctuary) cities, 12 then the elders of the killer’s city shall send to have the culprit taken from there and handed over to the avenger of blood to be put to death. 13 Show no pity; you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, so that it may go well with you.

In this section of Deuteronomy, the Lord is giving to the Israelites the rules they were to live by as they prepared to enter their new homeland – the Promised Land (Canaan). V.11 mentions sanctuary cities which were cities available to those who accidentally took another’s life – what we might refer to today as “manslaughter”. You chop down a tree for wood, but the tree falls on another worker and kills them. Or the axe head flies of in mid-swing and strikes someone nearby, killing them. That sort of thing. It’s killing without intent or malice. Sanctuary cities were places where persons who committed such acts could be protected from retribution until a trial could take place to determine guilt or innocence.

V.12-13 indicate what to do if someone abused the privilege of sanctuary cities – fleeing there when they’d committed intentional murder. They were to be put to death. No jail time. No chance of rehabilitation. Execution. Period. The murderer was considered inherently evil and in need of destruction so as to “purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel”.

One of the most appealing aspects of the gospel of Jesus is the promise of a new start, both with God and with people. Human beings make lots of mistakes, so the notion of being forgiven of our wrongs and placed on the path to a better future is like a dream come true. Our past mistakes don’t have to define us.

I can tell you that the Lord gave me direction and purpose when I was floundering as a young adult. My education path reflects this. I started as a biology/pre-med student, then changed to marketing, then applied to law school but changed my mind before actually matriculating, then went to business school to study for an M.B.A. before finally landing in seminary. Ridiculous!

I could easily have spent a lifetime bouncing around from one thing to the next, never really finding a vocation that fit. But the Lord changed all that. Through Jesus I was given a fresh start, a purpose for my life that was greater than myself. As I write this I am so grateful to the Lord. God is indeed good.

Maybe you have something of a rugged past. You’ve made mistakes along the way. You have regrets. Join the club. I’m not sure I know of anyone who does not fit this description at some level. Fear not – there is hope for you. If you’ll give your life to the Lord Jesus he will show you the way. And I’m not just talking about those of you who may not be Christians, or at least not active Christians. There are many who are committed to being a part of the church, but still refuse to allow Jesus to take the wheel, to give up control, to follow the Lord’s leading. Today could be your day sister/brother – to start living the life designed for you from the start.

Heavenly Father we begin by thanking you for your grace and mercy. Everyone who reads this blog post has made mistakes. We have regrets. Today we ask for the grace to finally surrender our lives to you through Jesus Christ. Make us a sheep of your own flock, among those who follow where the Good Shepherd leads. Give us grace to trust you to lead us in everlasting life. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Good soil in a difficult time…

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Luke 8:4 When a great crowd gathered and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable: 5 “A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. 6 Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. 7 Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. 8 Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.” As he said this, he called out, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”… 11 “Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12 The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 The ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe only for a while and in a time of testing fall away. 14 As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. 15 But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.

This is one of the better known parables in the gospels. There were lots of people, many thousands, who heard Jesus teach and preach and heal people and cast out demons, and so on. Yet remarkably few actually accepted his invitation to follow him as a disciple. Why? Because it meant leaving everything behind: family, friends, home, business, and so on. It’s a lot to ask, no doubt. At the time of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit arrived, there were only 120 disciples. Total. So this parable tells us why there were so few.

There were many people who started following Jesus, but eventually went back home. They returned home when the authorities put pressure on Jesus and his disciples, threatening to put them in prison or worse. Or they left to check on their properties or businesses. Or to care for their elderly family members. Or whatever. I understand why people left Jesus after a time. I may very well have done the same.

But some disciples stuck with Jesus for the long haul and bore much fruit.

I want to commend you for reading this blog post today. There are many of you who are committed to doing so each day, even when (let’s face it) the content isn’t so great. You stay with it because you expect the word of God to bless you, to encourage you, to challenge you to become the person God created you to be.

These are difficult days in which many people are running on fumes. Bone tired. You know, the kind of tired that a nap can’t fix. It’s a weariness of spirit that overwhelms. You may be tempted to give up your discipline of being in the Word every day. You may think you’re just too tired. Or you’re too busy. Or whatever.

15 But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.

The key words in this verse are “patient endurance”. Being in the word is a marathon, not a sprint. As you maintain your practice, even through these difficult days, I can assure you the Lord will bear much fruit in you – and in others through you. Stay with it friends!

Lord, let it be so. Amen.

Christian communism?

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Deuteronomy 15:4 There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the LORD is sure to bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a possession to occupy.

This section of Deuteronomy discusses the economy in the Promised Land, the remission of debts every 7th year and the importance of giving to those in need. The expectation, as we see in our verse above, was for a people in which there would be no needy among them. Why? Because the Lord would bless them with abundance to share.

The abundance of the Lord was a communal concept rather than an individual one.

In some ways the economy described here in Deuteronomy, and the economy of the early church described in the book of Acts, sounds a lot like communism. Property belonged to everyone and was more centrally controlled. Of course, the communism of the 20th century was part of an ideology that rejected religion which may have been its undoing.

I wonder what might have happened had communism embraced Christianity and the direction of scripture rather than rejecting it. Would it have worked? I don’t know, but it’s an interesting thought.

Lord you are an abundant God, giving liberally to your children. Give us grace to give liberally to others in return. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

John the Baptist…

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Luke 7:18 24 When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 25 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces. 26 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 28 I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

Jesus is talking about John the Baptist here. I find v.28 particularly interesting. Since my bible reading plan sends me through the New Testament every year I read this passage at least once per year. And every year I sort of get stuck on v.28. What is Jesus getting at here? So I did a bit more digging this morning than usual.

First we have to think about John the Baptist. He was one portrayed in scripture as completely committed to following the ways of God. He was something of a zealot, choosing to live in the wilderness rather than in a city or village with other people. And frankly, he is portrayed as a bit of a weirdo. He is dressed in animal skins and eats locusts. Like I said, a weirdo. And yet I cannot think of anyone more committed to the law, nor one who actually followed the law more faithfully than John the Baptist.

John the Baptist is presented as an archetype of one completely faithful to the will and ways of God’s via the law.

So what does John do? He calls the people of Israel to be baptized in the River Jordan for the forgiveness of their sins, to get a fresh start in their faith life with God. The idea was they might become John’s disciples and grow in fidelity to the law – like John.

28a (Jesus said) I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John…

Pretty high praise from Jesus don’t you think? But then there’s this second half of the verse that makes things really interesting:

28 … yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

What does Jesus mean by this? There is the phrase “born of women” in the first part of the verse. Like everyone else in the days before Jesus, John the Baptist was born of a woman, but those who would follow after Jesus and become his disciples would be born of the Spirit. “Born again” as some like to say. And so, unlike John’s disciples, the disciples of Jesus would receive the Holy Spirit after Pentecost and would be invited to participate in the Kingdom of God breaking out through Jesus. As such their lives would look very different than John’s disciples.

John was one who followed the law and compelled others to do the same. His disciples did likewise, embodying the righteousness of the law and calling out those who didn’t measure up.

Jesus, on the other hand, befriended sinners in ways that John did not. Instead of calling them out, he loved them and invited them into a life of service, mercy, and grace. Jesus and his disciples would love their enemies, offer forgiveness rather than condemnation, and work miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit.

John and his disciples didn’t do those things.

So what does this have to say to you and me? Well, it means that the gospel of Jesus (and our place in it) is not so much about behavior management (following the rules) as much as loving others, showing mercy, and inviting those around us to embrace this life with us. It’s about being transformed from the inside out by the Holy Spirit, which was not available to John’s disciples. It’s about being used by God to change the world, beginning with ourselves.

Lord, let it be so. Amen.

Faith of a “thinker”…

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Luke 7:After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3 When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4 When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5 for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” 6 And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7 therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” 9 When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10 When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

In many places in scripture faith appears to be something of an emotional response, a “feeling” thing. People approach Jesus in desperation, crying out and begging him to be healed or to have demons cast out of them, or whatever. But here we have a “thinker” centurion.

The centurion’s appeal to Jesus is based on logic. The centurion is a man with authority, who does not have to be physically present to issue a command. He reasons that Jesus is able to do likewise. A messenger will do just fine. Jesus is blown away by this, “not even in Israel have I found such faith”. The fact that the centurion is not blubbering at Jesus’ feet or weeping openly at the sight of his healed slave doesn’t matter. His is faith based in the cerebral rather than emotional.

There are many Christians who function more out of the cerebral than emotional. I have known some who experience exclusion by an expectation of “feelings” as a response to God. Well, if you might be one of these, I hope you consider yourself affirmed by today’s passage. Faith is more about actions than feelings. Don’t let us “feelers” tell you otherwise.

Lord, thank you for the thinkers in our midst. They are a precious gift to the Body of Christ. Amen.

Bearing good fruit…

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Luke 6:43 “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; 44 for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. 45 The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.”

In this section of Luke we find Jesus giving instruction to his newly chosen disciples. Earlier in this chapter Jesus taught them to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. He then warned them not to make a habit of judging others. Let’s face it, hating our enemies and confessing other peoples’ sins and holding them in contempt comes easily to most human beings. That’s why the way of Jesus is so powerful and life-changing. Even world-changing. The way of Jesus, the way of the Kingdom of God, invites us to live quite differently than the world around us.

That’s great, but how are we supposed to actually do these things?

Excellent question. As we profess faith in Christ through baptism we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit, the presence of the living God. And by the grace and power of the Spirit we can “bear good fruit” (v.43). In Galatians 5 the apostle Paul tells us what good fruit looks like. It is…

love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control…” (Galatians 5:22)

One of the most obvious ways we can know how we’re doing in our walk with the Lord is to observe the impact we have on others. Do people in our relational orbits experience us as life-giving or life-taking? Do we inspire peace or anxiety in others? Do we build people up with our words or do we tear people down? Do people see us living more out of generosity or scarcity? Do we keep our promises to others or do we tend to break promises?

If I’m honest I have good days and bad days. I’m not always as life-giving to others as I’d like to be. The Lord has some work to do in me here. But the good news for me, and probably for you, is that God can do this work in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. By the Spirit the Lord turns our hearts toward love and mercy and grace. And as we mature in faith we become more and more like Jesus. But we have a ways to go don’t we? Lord, do a work in us. Make us more like Jesus. Amen.

Love wins.

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Luke 6:27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

This is an extremely challenging passage don’t you think? I’m something of a news junky, which is a hard thing to be these days since lots of news is bad news. But what makes things worse is our hostile posture toward people who think differently than we do. And I’m not just pointing fingers at others since I do the same thing sometimes.

The phrase that gets my attention today is “love your enemies”. Man. That’s a tough one. But Jesus showed us how to do this. “Love” here isn’t about warm feelings, but rather a willingness to treat others with dignity and respect. To serve them, returning good for evil. This is what Jesus did when he refused to reject sinners but befriended them instead. And by his authentic care for them turned them toward God the Father.

It’s interesting that hostility rarely changes an enemy, but love can. Who do you need to love today? Lord let it be so. Amen.

Relief from economic anxiety…

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Luke 6:20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

Jesus offers blessings to the lowly (yours is the kingdom of God) and curses to the wealthy (for you will mourn and weep). Does Jesus have something against people who aren’t suffering in poverty? I don’t think so. I think Jesus is more reflecting on an unmistakable reality we see in the gospels. Here are a couple verses from Luke chapter 9:

23 Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”

Over and over the persons who most readily acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah and follow him are the poor, the sick, the widow, the ones from the wrong side of the tracks. Why? They have very little to lose by following Jesus. The wealthy, on the other hand, have much to lose and so often choose not to follow. They choose the blessings of this life over the blessings of the kingdom of God – which are eternal.

I personally believe one of the reasons Christianity struggles so much in the Western world is because the West is relatively prosperous. Even people considered “poor” here are fairly well off by global standards. But every once in a while something shakes our world and curiosity about faith grows among us.

I believe we’re in one of those seasons right now as we fight to contain a deadly virus, wrestle with a deep economic downturn, struggle to be free from the grip of racism in our country, and more. As the Church we are in a place to offer good news in the midst of bad news, not just among the poor but the rich as well. So what is that good news?

There are many examples, but here’s one impacting many, many people right now. As a baptized child of God I can depend on my heavenly Father for economic provision in uncertain times. He has my back, all the time. Apart from the Lord if I lose my job, or my spouse loses his/her job, or my business falters, then I get crushed as the full weight of that situation falls on my shoulders. But when I am in covenant relationship with God, when I return a tithe of my income (10%) to the Lord as a sign of my dependence on God, then I have hope. Why? Because my heavenly Father has promised to provide all I need (not all I want, but all I need). For the many who suffer from economic uncertainty, this is good news indeed. It’s possible to move from anxiety to peace.

I’m just curious here. Is this an area of struggle for you right now? Are you feeling the weight of economic uncertainty? Are you worried you’re headed for disaster if you don’t figure something out – and fast? You’re not alone. You’re not alone because there is One who is glad to take this burden from you. Today, as in RIGHT NOW, you can change that situation for the better. It’s true. You can invite the Lord to be your provider from here into eternity. Trust me when I tell you that it’s WAY BETTER than providing for yourself. You have very limited resources, but God has every resource under heaven at his disposal right now. Let’s pray.

Lord, this morning many of us are being made aware of our need of you, particularly in the area of finances and material provision. When things are as uncertain as they are right now, the anxiety and worry that comes with it can be unbearable. We can be crushed under its weight. And so we claim before you today our need of you in Jesus’ name. Give us grace to return a portion of what we have received from you as a sign of trust in you. And thank you in advance for your faithfulness in this and all things. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Is that you Jesus?

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Luke 6:1 One sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. 2 But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 3 Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?” 5 Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” 6 On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. 7 The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. 8 Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” He got up and stood there. 9 Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” 10 After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored. 11 But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day (scribes and Pharisees) were highly concerned about keeping the letter of the law. Why? Because God had made clear when the law was given to Israel in the first place that violating the law would be disastrous for the Israelites. The OT reading for today from the Moravian Daily Texts is Deuteronomy chapter 7. Read that chapter and you’ll understand why the religious leaders were freaking out when Jesus appeared to be violating the commandment about keeping the Sabbath.

I wonder if Jesus were to appear today what conventions he might break, how I would respond, if I would recognize him. Hard to tell. What our passage today tells me is that Jesus would likely be very different from my imagination.

Taking time to abide…

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John 15:4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.

Jesus uses the image of a gravevine to illustrate an important spiritual truth. After all, grapevines were everywhere in Jesus’ world since grapes and wine were a staple of the Mediterranean diet. In this metaphor God the Father is the vine-grower, Jesus is the vine, and we Christians are the branches that bear fruit. Like most things in creation, grapevines do not bear fruit year-around.

There are times when the branches have to be cut back and the entire vine given time to rest. This generally happens during the colder months when branches are pruned. The branches that have been pruned almost look like they’re cut off completely, but they’re not. There’s just a nub left, but it’s still there. And while nothing appears to be happening with the branches during this time of abiding, nothing could be further form the truth.

During this non-growing season the entire vine and all the branches are being strengthened in preparation for the next growing season – when the branches will grow again, flowers bloom, then fruit emerge from the branches. So there is a rhythm of bearing fruit in the growing season, pruning, then abiding for several months to start the entire process over again.

In our passage Jesus says that Christians cannot bear fruit if we do not abide in Him. Like the plant, we need times of rest to be strengthened, renewed, and refreshed so that we can once again bear fruit for the Kingdom of God. One form of abiding is taking a Sabbath day each week. But periodically we need longer breaks, like retreat/vacation.

This coming week I’m taking time to abide, which means I will not be posting here until the following week. If you’d like to read earlier posts to this blog in order to continue your discipline, please feel free. I’ve posted 1,605 entries into this blog so there’s plenty to choose from!

I’ll look forward to resuming my writing on 6/29.

Lord Jesus, give us grace to abide in you, for you are the source of our capacity to grow fruit for your Kingdom. We pray this in your holy name. Amen.