Hebrews 8:1-13 – Deliverance through a Manger

God Is With Us, by Malaysian artist Hanna Varghese, 2006

Now the main point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by a mere human being.

Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer. If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already priests who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. Therefore, Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” But in fact, the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.

For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said:

“The days are coming, declares the Lord,
    when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
    and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
    I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
    to lead them out of Egypt,
because they did not remain faithful to my covenant,
    and I turned away from them,
declares the Lord.
This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel
    after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
    and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
    or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will forgive their wickedness
    and will remember their sins no more.”

By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear. (NIV)

Our wait is nearly over. Christmas Day is almost here. The Messiah is coming. I genuinely believe that Jesus is the mid-point of history; everything for all time hinges upon Christ’s incarnation. The most cataclysmic event in the history of the world is a birth. The hopes of humanity are focused, of all things, in a stinky old feeding trough for animals – a manger.

Yes, Christians put a lot of focus on the cross and resurrection. Yet, the incarnation was the signature event of God’s breaking into this world. The inconceivable was conceived. God became human. Nothing would ever be the same again….

Nativity by African artist Joseph Mulamba-Mandangi, 2001

Jesus is our great high priest, the nexus between heaven and earth. All else are only mere shadows of the real Savior. Christ is the hinge upon which our own personal lives turn. The old system of law fades and gives way to the person for whom it all pointed. For the law, as important as it was, has never been able to save. In Christ there is a new covenant established by grace, taking care of the sin issue once for all.

Through the Christ child, all other means of deliverance have become obsolete. No matter how much he washed his hands, Pilate could not wash away his guilt. Despite all our efforts to hide or undo our shame, it will not go away. It is through Jesus that all guilt and shame have been banished. Human iniquity is taken away. All that we have done and left undone is forgiven – our sin is purged forever.

A new age has dawned. A new era has been inaugurated. The miracle of the Nativity explodes with continuing effect throughout history. Its continuing effects can still be felt, two-thousand years later. Nothing will ever undo the power of love and grace which was unleashed in the little town of Bethlehem.

Here is a clear and confident declaration to any and all in despondency or despair, no matter the reasons why: We may feel crushed, dejected, confused, or broken because of this past year’s events; but our salvation depends not on our mood or the constant changing of circumstances. Christ has offered himself once for all. The work is finished. Our faithful high priest is even now interceding for you and me in heaven.

Our faith is grounded not in our pedigree, our position, or our ability to produce but forever in what Christ has done in becoming human on our behalf. See the manger where he lies. Know that salvation is before us. Believe the promise of God.

May this eternal truth be always on our hearts:
That the God who breathed this world into being
Placed stars into the heavens
And designed a butterfly’s wing
Is the God who entrusted his life
to the care of ordinary people
became vulnerable that we might know
how strong is the power of Love
A mystery so deep it is impossible to grasp
A mystery so beautiful it is impossible to ignore.

Matthew 12:43-45 – True Repentance

Freedom by Zenos Frudakis in Philiadelphia, Pennsylvania

Jesus said, “When an evil spirit comes out of a person, it travels through dry places looking for a place to rest, but it finds none. So, it says, ‘I will go back to the home I left.’ When it comes back, it finds that home still empty. It is all neat and clean. Then the evil spirit goes out and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself. They all go and live there, and that person has even more trouble than before. It is the same way with the evil people who live today.” (ERV) 

Nature abhors a vacuum. A tilled plot of soil will be overtaken with weeds if nothing is planted and nurtured in the turned-over dirt. The pecking order of a brood of chickens cannot handle the death of the top hen without filling the position almost immediately. And, in the spiritual realm, the exorcising of a demon will not simply leave a person empty of evil – his/her life will be filled with something in its place. 

Today’s Gospel story, told by Jesus, about the man who is delivered from an unclean spirit, is a powerful and simple narrative on the necessity of true repentance. Genuine freedom is more than getting rid of something bad and destructive; the evil must be replaced with something good and useful. That is, biblical repentance is both a turning away from ungodliness and an embrace of righteousness.

We are delivered from evil so that we can start living into the righteousness and peace intended for us. 

For example, the Apostle Paul exhorted the Ephesian believers to not only stop stealing but also to get a job and start sharing with others. They were not only to stop lying and using their tongues for gossip and slander and start using their words to speak truth that builds up others. (Ephesians 4:25-32) 

The spiritual principle is the same as the nature principle: A empty vacuum will always be filled. The man who did not fill his life with God ended up having a problem with evil seven times greater than when he started. 

If anything, or anyone, is emptied of its unhealthy elements and practices, it is imperative that the hole be immediately filled with healthy disciplines for life. 

Whether dealing with addictions, bad habits, or any kind of evil influence, a two-pronged approach is needed for its eradication. We expel the evil by replacing it with godliness. The man struggling with pornography or adultery must not only stop the behavior but take up the mantle of being a champion for women’s issues. The woman who has no healthy boundaries and allows herself to be used and abused must not only separate from the problem or person but adopt her identity in Christ as a precious child of God and enforce righteous limitations.   

None of these examples are meant to be simplistic answers to complex situations. Rather, they illustrate why so many people do not experience freedom and continue to have even greater enslavement to their passions and sufferings. 

Freedom is realized through replacing old practices with new disciplines that directly attack the old. 

We all have needs. How we get those needs met is often a mixed bag of both legitimate and illegitimate ways. In a perfect world, everyone would be aware of their needs and be able to express them to one another without shame, anxiety, or anger. Since we live on a blemished fallen planet, we end up trying to meet our needs indirectly through hustling for love, hoarding resources, and controlling others – all harmful ways which destroys souls and relationships. 

So, unless we focus on positively meeting our needs, we must go a step beyond dropping a toxic relationship, cutting up a credit card, or saying “no” to another responsibility. We often get into our mess to begin with because we are out of touch with ourselves and our needs. We need affection and encouragement, and there is no shame in needing this. We need security and safety, and there is no problem in acquiring this. There are some things we need to control, and that is okay. 

If we fail to address our needs, we might do the necessary work of deliverance, then turn right around and become worse off than before by filling the empty place of our lives with:  

  • Being all things to all people, as if we were the Messiah.  
  • Being successful so that we stay ahead of being needy.  
  • Pulling inside ourselves and trusting nobody.  
  • Distancing from our needs and pretending they are not there.  
  • Being continually vigilant so that we are never hurt that way again.  
  • Keeping a positive spin on everything, as if there is no negative stuff in the world.  
  • Challenging other’s opinions and behaviors to keep the focus off our needs.  
  • Becoming a wallflower so that we can never be the brunt of someone else’s vitriol or evil. 

Instead, we can let Jesus fill the emptiness with love, purpose, peace, joy, attention, and grace. Christ is the Savior who delivers us from evil, and the Holy Spirit is the Sanctifier who carefully applies the work of salvation to our lives.

When our hearts and minds are full of God, there is no place for the demons to get in. 

True repentance equally forsakes evil and embraces righteousness; replaces the unhealthy with the healthy; jettisons the illegitimate and seeks the legitimate; and puts away unnecessary suffering and pursues peace and joy in the Spirit.  

O God, I no longer want to live with saying I’m sorry and going right back to the old pig slop of sin. I cannot change on my own.  I need Jesus to both take away the sin and give me a new life of living for him.  Lead me not into temptation but deliver me from evil Help me to make choices that put to death the old way of life, and the courage to live into my forgiveness in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Matthew 8:14-17 – A Changed Life

Jesus Heals Peters Mother In Law
A mosaic of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law, from a Byzantine Church, c.1100 C.E.

When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.

When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“He took up our infirmities
    and bore our diseases.” (NIV)

One of the great realities we run headlong into with the New Testament Gospels is that Jesus has the authority to heal and transform the world… and me. Forty-one years ago, today, I experienced the reviving and revolutionizing work of Jesus Christ. I realize not everyone has a specific time they can point to when God does something miraculous, and I also do not expect that everyone’s experience of the divine must conform or be like my own. No, my encounter with God was just that, mine alone. Yet, I hope you find some encouragement and solace in my brief story.

I was probably the least likely person to become a follower of Jesus, let alone to have shown any promise toward the pastoral and religious life. I had serious reservations about the veracity of faith, the relevance of church, and the importance of religion. Although, outwardly, my family made attending our local church mandatory, inwardly, I felt the entire Christianity thing to be boring, irrelevant, and contrived. I was much more likely to behave passive-aggressively than piously.

But I began to rethink and revisit my doubts and epistemic assumptions about all things God and Christianity. The love of Christians around me stirred the internal upheaval. I had come to view the world as a cruel place and saw other people through jaded lenses. Relationships were for me a necessary evil. So, when love and grace entered my orbit, it threw me into sort of an existential angst. Having come to settled-thinking in my understanding of a dark world and having learned to navigate it with the tools of sarcasm and skepticism, genuineness and authenticity were a complete monkey wrench in my cosmology.

To put the whole matter succinctly, Jesus touched me. My small sin-sick heart was healed and enlarged. I walked away completely changed. I cannot accurately say what happened any more than I could tell you how a transplant doctor puts a new heart into the chest of a person. I can only speak to the results: newfound joy instead of nihilism; new desires to bless others and the world instead of looking for ways to disengage from people; new speech and wanting to edify and encourage people instead of sly words of putting others down; and, perhaps most surprising of all (to me) a thoroughly new desire to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Pastor Tim

The love of God in Christ made all the difference for me – and still does, all these years later. I stand in a long Christian tradition of outsiders and misfits entering the kingdom of God through spiritual metamorphosis – going all the way back to today’s story of Jesus healing and transforming.

In the first century, Jewish women were not allowed as far inside the temple as Jewish men.  Lepers could not go in, at all.  Centurions and Gentiles could only get into the outer court, emphasizing that they were outsiders.  In the synagogue service, women sat in the back, under the balcony. There were pious men who would pray, not in a spirit of humility, but thanking God they were not women.  In this healing account of a woman, no one asks Jesus for healing; he just walks into a house and heals Peter’s mother-in-law just because he wants to!

Christ’s authority, concern, and healing power even extended to the demonic realm. It perhaps goes without saying that most people would not want to hang-out with demonized people who carry a load of problems and sickness with them; they are yet another example of the classic outsiders.  If we take seriously that Jesus is our model for ministry, then we need to take passages like this seriously and connect with outsiders and bring them to Jesus.

The Old Testament quote comes from Isaiah 53:4. Sickness relates to sin – not always personal sin, but from living in a fallen and fundamentally broken world.  In other words, when the biblical text says that Jesus took up our infirmities and carried our diseases, it is saying that Christ takes our sin upon himself. His healing acts are tied to the cross.  There is new life and spiritual health in the cross of Jesus Christ.  We come to the foot of the cross as spiritual beggars, looking for grace and mercy in our time of need because Jesus has the authority to extend healing and deliverance from every sin and every sickness and every problem known to people.

Through Jesus Christ there is and can be healing for damaged emotions, broken hearts, pain-ridden bodies, and sin-sick souls. There shall be joy through mourning. There is life through death. A new day will dawn, carrying fresh grace and unique mercies for the journey ahead. Behind it all is the God who is still in the business of renewing minds and hearts, and reforming attitudes and actions through extravagant and inexhaustible love.

God of all creation forgive my foolish thoughts and errant ways; clothe me in my right mind; and, calm my troubled heart. My soul is off, and I cannot seem to find my balance, so I stumble and worry constantly. Give me the strength and clarity of mind to find my purpose and walk the path you have laid out for me. I trust your love, God, and know that you will heal this stress, and mend my spirit. Just as the sun rises each day against the dark of night, bring me clarity with the light of God, through Jesus Christ, Savior and Lord, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Romans 7:7-20 – Facing Our Bundle of Contradictions

contradiction
“Humanity is an embodied paradox, a bundle of contradictions.”-Charles Caleb Colton, 1780-1832

What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.

Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. (NIV)

The Apostle Paul’s vulnerable expression of his dilemma resonates deeply with many people. There are times when we say things to ourselves such as, “I told myself I wasn’t going to be like my mother, and here I am responding just like she would;” “I know better than to drive by the liquor store on my way home and pick up a pint of vodka, yet, I still did it;” or, “I don’t want to die, but my thoughts keep racing about a plan for suicide.” And, there are many more situations in which we are both frustrated and befuddled by our doing the things we do not want to do, and not doing the things we want to do.

Yes, indeed, Paul’s existential angst is a timeless description of our common human condition. We all can relate to the seeming inability to do what is right in so many situations. It can really drive us nuts, even to a constant and never-ending low-level discouragement that underlies almost everything we do.

Paul’s prescription for dealing with this does not rely on law. He understood that putting our willpower and effort into obeying commands gets us nowhere because we will eventually fail. Neither our brains nor our spirits work that way. Our willpower was never designed to be the driver of what we do and do not do. If anything, willpower, and the lack thereof demonstrate just how much we are climbing the ladder on the wrong wall. People are a bundle of contradictions, doing good, then bad, and flip-flopping back and forth with great frustration.

God’s law was not crafted to transform us from the inside-out. The law has three solid purposes, none of which are meant to bring deep personal transformation: attention to the law works to restrain sin in the world; use of the law provides us with a helpful guide for grateful living in response to divine grace; and, it’s use here by Paul is to show us how bad off we really are in this world and in need of forgiveness.

We need a change of habits, and this is different than adopting a list of laws. Habits are developed from our desires, our affections. In other words, we do what we love – more specifically, our ultimate love(s) drive us to do what we want. To put it in a straightforward way: We sin because we like it. And the path to overcoming any besetting sin is to have an ultimate love trump the lesser sin which we like.

St Augustine quote 2

For example, I have developed daily habits or rituals of faith which enable me to commune with God. I love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and this ultimate love enables me to push out all competing gods who want my devotion. I also love my wife with all my heart. We work on developing habits of a marital relationship which reinforce our love for each other. Love is what drives me to do right and good by her.

So, what do we do when we mess up? For the Christian, no matter what the question is, the answer is always grace. God’s grace in the finished work of Jesus Christ applied to us by the Holy Spirit is the operative power that changes lives. The law has no power to do that kind of work. Freedom from the tyranny of our misplaced desires and disordered loves comes from Christ’s forgiveness through the cross. Like a lover enamored with his beloved, our desires become oriented toward Jesus for his indescribable gift to us. That is the strength of grace.

Saving God, I thank you for delivering me from sin, death, and hell through your Son, the Lord Jesus.  May your Holy Spirit apply the work of grace to my life every day so that I can realize spiritual healing and practical freedom from all that is damaging and destructive in my soul.  Amen.