Acts 14:19-28 – Strength through Suffering

William Ellery Channing quote

Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and persuaded the people to turn against Paul. So, they threw stones at him and dragged him out of the town. They thought they had killed him. But when the followers of Jesus gathered around him, he got up and went back into the town. The next day he and Barnabas left and went to the city of Derbe.

They also told the Good News in the city of Derbe, and many people became followers of Jesus. Then Paul and Barnabas returned to the cities of Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch. In those cities they helped the followers grow stronger in their faith and encouraged them to continue trusting God. They told them, “We must suffer many things on our way into God’s kingdom.” They also chose elders for each church and stopped eating for a period of time to pray for them. These elders were men who had put their trust in the Lord Jesus, so Paul and Barnabas put them in his care.

Paul and Barnabas went through the country of Pisidia. Then they came to the country of Pamphylia. They told people the message of God in the city of Perga, and then they went down to the city of Attalia. And from there they sailed away to Antioch in Syria. This is the city where the believers had put them into God’s care and sent them to do this work. Now they had finished it.

When Paul and Barnabas arrived, they gathered the church together. They told them everything God had used them to do. They said, “God opened a door for the non-Jewish people to believe!” And they stayed there a long time with the Lord’s followers. (ERV)

The Apostle Paul and his traveling companions went on three missionary journeys in the New Testament book of Acts. “Mission” is more than an activity the church does; it is an expression of the church’s identity. To be the community of the redeemed is to embrace and embody the grace and love of Jesus in proclaiming in both word and deed the good news of restoration to God in Christ.

What is good news for many is bad news for others, that is, those for whom are ensconced in power and take advantage of their position to maintain the status quo. Paul was much too radical for them, as he persistently spoke truth to power when needed – not to mention that his effectiveness as a missionary caused a religious, social, and economic impact wherever he went.

It only takes a few rabble-rousers to gin up an angry mob, and Paul saw his share of them. He sometimes escaped unscathed. Yet, in other situations, Paul was beaten or stoned, sometimes being left for dead. So, how does that square with a God who sees all and is able to protect all, especially his own devoted followers?

Paul and his missionary coterie were forthcoming about the nature of following Jesus. Here are a few various translations of their words to new believers (Acts 14:22):

Through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God. (ASV)

If we are to enter God’s kingdom, we must pass through many troubles. (CEB)

We have to suffer a lot before we can get into God’s kingdom. (CEV)

We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God. (NIV)

It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God. (NRSV)

Through many afflictions we must enter into God’s Kingdom. (WEB)

The various English words used to translate the original Greek word accurately depict what Paul was talking about. My own translation of the verse is:

It is through a lot of varied stressful adversity that we must enter the rule and reign of God.

Paul was doing so much more than explaining his own suffering. He saw his experience as paradigmatic for all who would follow Jesus. For it was Christ himself who exhorted people to count the cost of discipleship:

“Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple…. Those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.” (Luke 14:27, 33, NIV)

In doing the very thing which Jesus asks, the Christian life becomes pressurized from those who do not wish to see us:

Proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18, NIV)

Yet, we also have words from the Lord Jesus about how it all shakes-out for us when we deliberately and unflaggingly follow him with steadfast commitment:

“Blessed are you when people hate you, avoid you, insult you, and slander you because you are committed to the Son of Man. Rejoice then, and be very happy! You have a great reward in heaven. That’s the way their ancestors treated the prophets.” (Luke 6:22-23, GW)

Adversity quote

Late in Paul’s life as he reflected on his missionary journey experiences, he said to his young protégé Timothy:

You know about my persecutions and my sufferings. You know all the things that happened to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra—the persecution I suffered in those places. But the Lord saved me from all of it. Everyone who wants to show true devotion to God in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2 Timothy 3:11-12, ERV)

Christian faith is strengthened through the stress, pressure, and adversity of facing hardship through utilizing the words and ways of Jesus. So, receive these blessings from the Apostle Paul today:

And God’s peace, which is so great we cannot understand it, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7, NCV)

And now may God, who gives us his peace, be with you all. Amen. (Romans 15:33, NLT)

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen. (Galatians 6:18, NRSV)

Psalm 133 – The Blessing of Unity and Harmony

Ascend to Jerusalem by Dan Livni
“Ascend to Jerusalem” by Dan Livni

Oh, how wonderful, how pleasing it is
when God’s people all come together as one!
It is like the sweet-smelling oil that is poured over the high priest’s head,
that runs down his beard flowing over his robes.
It is like a gentle rain from Mount Hermon falling on Mount Zion.
It is there that the Lord has promised his blessing of eternal life. (ERV)

Unity, solidarity, and harmony are a beautiful blessing. Disunity, division, and fragmentation are an ugly curse. Within all families and faith communities are a diverse bunch of people – which brings the potential of both wonderful fellowship and disagreeing fights.

Today’s reading is a psalm of ascent. It is one of a group of psalms the Israelites would say and sing together as they made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem and ascended the temple mount to worship the Lord. Their common purpose and shared experience led to a blessed unity among all the worshipers.

The metaphors the psalm uses are meant to convey the feeling and impact of a unified people’s blessing as one harmonious bunch. The reference to oil communicates abundance and extravagant blessing beyond expectation. The gentle rain or the dew pictures the giving of life to a parched landscape. The psalm is a celebration of life’s simple pleasures, enjoyed with friends and family.

People created in the image of God are hard-wired for community. Rather than existing in isolation, doing our own thing, and keeping to ourselves, the Lord’s intention for humans is to be close enough to one another to rejoice with those experiencing joy and to weep with those mourning a loss. True community requires unity and harmony.

To live in harmony with one another means we regard everyone the same way by not playing favorites, being condescending, or giving more weight to one group more than another. It is a willingness to interact, work, and play with all kinds of people – not just those whom we like or help us get ahead in life. We are designed by our Creator to live and work together in common purposes. In fact, it takes a great deal of effort.

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:2-3, NIV).

Think about what we have in Christ: the encouragement he has brought us, the comfort of his love, our sharing in his Spirit, and the mercy and kindness he has shown us. If you enjoy these blessings, then do what will make my joy complete: Agree with each other and show your love for each other. Be united in your goals and in the way you think. In whatever you do, do not let selfishness or pride be your guide. Be humble, and honor others more than yourselves. Do not be interested only in your own life, but care about the lives of others too (Philippians 2:1-4, ERV). 

If we desire the enjoyment of blessed relationships we will engage in genuine conversation, focused listening, and equal dialogue; simply stating opinions at each other will not do the trick.

Yes, we are to work at unity and harmony because we can have a nasty tendency to think better of ourselves than what is true, and of others what is not so good.  We might inflate our positive qualities and abilities, especially in comparison to other people.  Numerous research studies have revealed the propensity to overestimate ourselves.

For example, when one research study asked a million high school students how well they got along with their peers, none of the students rated themselves below average. As a matter of fact, 60% of students believed they were in the top 10%; and, 25% rated themselves in the top 1%.

College professors were just as biased about their abilities – 2% rated themselves below average; 10% were average and 63% were above average, while 25% rated themselves as truly exceptional. Of course, this is statistically impossible. One researcher summarized the data this way: “It’s the great contradiction: the average person believes he is a better person than the average person.”

Christian psychologist Mark McMinn contends that this study reveals our pride. He writes, “One of the clearest conclusions of social science research is that we are proud. We think better of ourselves than we really are, we see our faults in faint black and white rather than in vivid color, and we assume the worst in others while assuming the best in ourselves.”

Where sinful pride rules, disharmony runs amok within a community. The acid test of harmonious love is how we treat the lowly. One of the great preachers in church history, St. John Chrysostom (the fourth century Bishop of Constantinople) had this to say:

“If a poor man comes into your church behave like him and do not put on airs because of your riches.  In Christ there is no rich or poor.  Do not be ashamed of him because of his outward dress but receive him because of his inward faith.  If you see him in sorrow, do not hesitate to comfort him, and if he is prospering, do not feel shy about sharing in his pleasure.  If you think you are a great person, then think others are also.  If you think they are humble and lowly, then think the same of yourself.”

We cannot function apart from harmony. Consider a tuning fork. It delivers a true pitch by two tines vibrating together. Muffle either side, even a little, and the note disappears. Neither tine individually produces the pure note. Only when both tines vibrate is the correct pitch heard.  Harmony is not a matter of give and take and compromise to make each other happy or satisfied.  Harmony comes through a common mission and purpose which engages in shared experiences of loving and caring for others.

My Christian convictions and tradition tell me that the Word of God is applied by the Spirit of God through the people of God.  We are to embrace community.  We are to do life together.  We are to view everyone as my brother or sister. After all, we are our brother’s keeper.

So, let us ascend the hill of the Lord together. Let us worship God together with glad and sincere hearts. Let us be mindful of all our brothers and sisters, no matter who they are.

 

Matthew 8:23-27 – Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up

To Tell the Truth

Then he [Jesus] got into the boat and his disciples followed him. Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”

He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.

The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” (NIV)

When I was a kid, every evening after supper and the news, I watched a show called To Tell the Truth.  The show featured a panel of four celebrities attempting to correctly identify a described contestant who has an unusual occupation or experience. This central character was accompanied by two impostors who pretended to be the central character. The celebrity panelists questioned the three contestants; and, the impostors could lie but the central character was sworn “to tell the truth.” After questioning, the panel then attempted to identify which of the three challengers was telling the truth. The host would conclude the show by saying the famous line, “Will the real ______ please stand up!”  The four panelists on the show often missed the real person, mainly because they had certain expectations of what the real person’s occupation or experience would be like.  And their expectations did not match the real thing.

People in the first century had expectations of what the Messiah would be like.  Their assumptions centered mostly in a manly Savior who would enter history and beat up the Romans, establishing the kingdom of God on earth with strong leadership over everyone.  And that was why they missed the Messiah because their expectations did not fit the real Jesus.

It is imperative we do not miss Jesus because we have certain expectations of who he is, and what he should do, based on our own experience, or on what we want, rather than what God is doing.

God is at work bringing all things under Christ’s authority. The kingdom of God expands and develops when people follow Jesus through genuine humility, confession of sin, and reception of grace. Satan and his demons are quite displeased when this happens because they do not want Jesus on the scene to bring deliverance.

The devil had his own aspiration to do away with Jesus so that Christ could not accomplish the mission of redeeming the world back to God. Wiley old Satan wanted the violent storm to kill Jesus. However, Christ’s authority and power overwhelmed the “natural” act.

Jesus calms the storm

The real Jesus is, in truth, beyond our expectations. The emphasis in the story of deliverance from the storm is on the person of Christ. The people were surprised that even the wind and the waves obey him!  They were afraid because of the furious storm. But Jesus was sleeping, not the least bit fearful. The disciples woke him, and the original text of the story has just three short staccato-breathed words expressing their abject fear: “Lord! Save! Dying!” Jesus seemed to lazily awake and chided them for little faith, for their inability to recognize who he really was. The disciples’ expectations of Jesus were way too low!

Many people believe that God hears and answers prayer. Yet, sometimes our faith can be so small that, when God answers those prayers in ways far superior to our expectations, we are slack-jawed astonished by it.  Matthew’s Gospel records several instances of people being surprised by the real Jesus:

When Jesus had thrown out the demon, the man who couldn’t speak began to talk. The crowds were amazed and said, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.” (Matthew 9:33, CEB)

Everyone was amazed at what they saw and heard. People who had never spoken could now speak. The lame were healed, the crippled could walk, and the blind were able to see. (Matthew 15:31, CEV)

When the followers saw this [Jesus withering a fig tree] they were very surprised. They asked, “How did the fig tree dry up and die so quickly?” (Matthew 21:20, ERV)

They were surprised to hear this [how insightful Jesus is to the human condition]. Then they left him alone and went away. (Matthew 22:22, GW)

But Jesus said nothing in answer to Pilate, and Pilate was very surprised at this. (Matthew 27:14, NCV)

The real Jesus is more marvelous, wonderful, powerful, and awesome than we know. Jesus will take care of us; he will not let his people be destroyed.  When we truly grasp the real Jesus, and how much he loves us, there is no room for fear, only faith.

Even though the disciples’ faith was small, Jesus still responded to it with grace because even small faith is faith. Grace is undeserved help. Our Lord helps anyone who approaches him, whether with little faith or big. Our small faith is no obstacle for Jesus in delivering us from the storms of life.

I am wondering if you are presently experiencing a violent storm in your life. Please know that Jesus can bring peace.

Perhaps you have a besetting sin that dogs you every day. Jesus can deliver you.

It could be that depression follows you like a lost kitten wherever you go.  Jesus can bring new life and fresh joy to your life.

Maybe there is a relationship you have lost hope over. Jesus can restore it.

Perchance you think your neighbor, co-worker, or family member is too far from God to ever know Jesus. By now you know the response. Our expectations of Jesus are much too small!  We can pray big prayers because we serve a big and powerful God who has the authority to command even the wind and the waves!

When the real Jesus confronts the world, he confronts injustice and the darkness within human hearts.  Some people are crushed by their awareness of sin, disobedience, and guilt. Therefore, they respond by hungering and thirsting after true righteousness. Others respond by trying to domesticate Jesus in serving their own ends.

The Gospel of Matthew portrays Jesus as both a powerful and compassionate God. Christ has authority over all things, and uses that authority to bestow grace, even in the face of the smallest of faith in his followers. Jesus cares about people and seeks to deliver them from the dominion of evil.

So, may we participate with Jesus in his agenda for this world.  May we submit to his rule and authority. May we exhibit the same care, compassion, and concern for people as Jesus does. May we identify the real Jesus to stand up.

Lord Jesus, Son of God, I believe all things are possible through you; help my unbelief! Take my small and seemingly insignificant faith and use it to calm the storms in my life and demonstrate your authority even over the wind and the waves. Amen.

Genesis 39:1-23 – Lead Us Not into Temptation

Joseph and Potiphar's Wife by Hermine F Schäfer 1964
Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife by Hermine F Schäfer, 1964

Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. Potiphar, an Egyptian who was one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him there.

The Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master. When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant. Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned. From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned the Lord blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph. The blessing of the Lord was on everything Potiphar had, both in the house and in the field. So, Potiphar left everything he had in Joseph’s care; with Joseph in charge, he did not concern himself with anything except the food he ate.

Now Joseph was well-built and handsome, and after a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, “Come to bed with me!”

But he refused. “With me in charge,” he told her, “my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care. No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” And though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her or even be with her.

One day he went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside. She caught him by his cloak and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house.

When she saw that he had left his cloak in her hand and had run out of the house, she called her household servants. “Look,” she said to them, “this Hebrew has been brought to us to make sport of us! He came in here to sleep with me, but I screamed. When he heard me scream for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”

She kept his cloak beside her until his master came home. Then she told him this story: “That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make sport of me. But as soon as I screamed for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”

When his master heard the story his wife told him, saying, “This is how your slave treated me,” he burned with anger. Joseph’s master took him and put him in prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined.

But while Joseph was there in the prison, the Lord was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. So, the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did. (NIV)

We learn a great about both God and Joseph in today’s Old Testament lesson: God is the supreme Sovereign over everything, and his providence is the force behind all of events; and, Joseph is morally conscious of his ethical accountability to the God who is always watching.

From a sheer worldly perspective, Joseph was a failure. Yet, from God’s vantage point Joseph was a resounding success because he was mindful of God despite his circumstances. Joseph was faithful in all his mundane workaday duties, which made him able to handle the advances and temptations of Potiphar’s wife.

The seductions of this life are legion. We are tempted at every turn to compromise our conscience or our convictions to either get ahead in life or avoid some difficulty. It would be easy to rationalize our actions, believing that a brief bedroom rodeo would not hurt anyone.  However, sexual infidelity is the opium of unfaithfulness to God. Cheating is cheating, whether we are caught, or not. Whitewashing the picket fence does not hide anything from God.

Seductions come in all sorts of forms: materialism and the allure of new stuff; preoccupation with comfort and painless experiences; shortcuts to job success and upward mobility; the hoarding and whoring of time; and, much more.

For me, an effective counter practice to the seductions of the world is to reclaim and redeem time through keeping the Daily Office (or the Divine Hours) – set times throughout the day in which I stop what I am doing and take a few minutes for Scripture and prayer. This practice reminds me that my life orbits God and centers in the Lord Jesus, and not the other way around.

Seven times a day I praise You, because of Your righteous judgments. (Psalm 119:164, NKJV)

We succumb to seduction whenever our lives are mismanaged, lacking boundaries, and without effective structure. Discovering a rhythm of daily life that works for you is vital to resisting temptation and realizing spiritual development.

God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. (James 1:12, NLT)

May you flourish and thrive with the ethical fruit of righteousness and experience the settled peace of a well-lived life.

Almighty God, blessed Father, Son, and Spirit do not lead us into temptation but deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.