Hebrews 4:14-5:4 – Our Great High Priest

praying

“Since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.  Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

Metaphors matter.  That is, how we picture God truly influences the way we live.

Yesterday I met with a young man who was severely distressed, depressed, and had attempted suicide several times in the past months.  After listening to his story, I asked him a question: “How do you see or picture God?”  Without hesitation, he answered, “God is my CO (Commanding Officer).”  He went on to portray and picture General God who gives commands and good soldiers who obey what’s expected of them.

As a soldier, you would never walk up to your CO and vent all your feelings.  You wouldn’t have a dialogue.  There would be no extended conversations.  In the throes of trying to deal with emotional trauma, General God isn’t a metaphor that’s helpful.

Today we are reminded and invited to consider Jesus, the Son of God.  He is pictured as our great high priest.  A priest is a person who intercedes for you with God.  He stands in the gap and effectively communicates your needs, desires, and feelings to a gracious and loving God.  When you are too emotionally tired to face another day, Jesus our great high priest has your back.

No soldier would ever have the confidence to approach General God with their abject weakness or their ongoing temptations.  There is only the giving and receiving of orders and strategies to be implemented.  Far too many Christians have such an understanding of God and think there is something wrong with them when they cannot live up to be the kind of soldier that would make others proud.

But grace and mercy are found through the confidence of approaching our high priest.  Jesus thoroughly, completely, and graciously understands first-hand what you are dealing with, and he is able and desirous to help you.  As our permanent high priest, he is uniquely positioned to hear us, empathize with our situation, and care for us in ways which truly aid us.

It’s easy to get discouraged.  It takes no effort to find yourself on the outside of happiness and on the inside of a black hole.  Living in this broken world can sting and hurt like hell.  Yet, we have a savior who has brought deliverance from hell by taking on hell itself.  Jesus knows better than anyone what brokenness feels like by absorbing all the sin of the world on the cross.

Jesus sits on the right hand of the Father in heaven awaiting your approach with merciful eyes and a compassionate heart.  Jesus is our risen and ascended Lord.  He is much more than a military officer.  He is our ample and able great high priest.  He is awaiting you now….

Ascended and living Lord Jesus, you are my colossal high priest.  You live to intercede for me.  What a privilege!  May you strengthen my nascent faith today and bolster my confidence as I consider your grace and mercy in this messed-up world.  Thank you for your kindness, empathy, and ability.  Amen.

Ephesians 1:7-14 – God Is Good

20180309_102748

Ephesians 1:8, Contemporary English Version of the Bible

“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight, he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.  In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.” (Common English Bible)

Believe it or not, verses 3-14 of Ephesians chapter one, 12 verses in all, are one single sentence in the Greek language the Apostle Paul originally wrote this in.  Thankfully, and understandably, English translators have created multiple sentences for us so that we can better make sense of the text.  It’s almost as if Paul was so excited to talk with the Ephesian church about who they are in Jesus Christ and what they possess in him that he blurted out with enthusiasm and wrote with fervor without stopping to take a breath.

Paul heaps word after significant word on top of each other in a flurry of provided spiritual blessings the believer in Christ enjoys.  Redemption, forgiveness, insight, protection, inheritance, and salvation are just some of the blessings given.  If that wasn’t enough, God has graciously given us his Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the one who comes alongside and helps us to live into the blessings we possess because of the person and work of Christ.

redemption

It’s as if we came to Christmas day expecting a package of underwear and found instead a bunch of big boxes with some of the most lavish and expensive gifts we’ve ever seen!  This says much more about the giver than it says about us.  It was according to God’s good pleasure in Christ that believers in Jesus have such privileges.  Like the parent who sits back and watches the unpackaging of presents happen with great joy, so God delights and is pleased with what he has given to us.

First and foremost, in the entirety of Holy Scripture, all the stories and narratives, teachings and writings, are about God.  He is both the subject and object of each book of the Bible.  Every good thing we have in this life is because of God’s grace.  Each positive experience is a direct result of God’s steadfast love toward his people.  All good gifts come from a good God who is pleased to give them.

Not a one of us purchased our own gifts and stuck them under the tree.  God bought them all with the precious blood of Jesus and sent the Spirit to deliver them to us.

Take some time today in a quiet place and reflect on just one of these words in the text.  Think about redemption or forgiveness, salvation or grace, or any of the words which grab you.  Say it over and over, quietly and loudly, thoughtfully and with flavor.  Consider what God did to bring you that gift.  Contemplate the way(s) in which you have received the gift.  Plan one way in which you might share your gift with another person.  Then, give glory and praise to God for his grace to you.

May your meditation lead to a deeper appreciation of what God has done for you; and may that revelation result in praise, honor, and glory to the One who accomplished so much on your behalf.

Gracious God, you have revealed and made known the way of deliverance from the power of darkness and brought me into your marvelous light.  Help me to better understand all the ways you have acted on my behalf so that my life might reflect your grace and steadfast love to the world; through Jesus Christ, my Savior, in the enablement of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Romans 3:21-31 – 8 Words That Can Change Your Life

cross of christ

“But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because… he himself is righteous and he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.” (NRSV)

500 years is a long time.  It was that long ago when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Church door.  It sparked the flame of Reformation, a legacy we still live with today.  Protestant Christians have a rich spiritual heritage in acknowledging and affirming the veracity of Holy Scripture and its central message of Christ’s good news of salvation.

8 words changed Martin Luther’s life, changed the course of history and Christianity, and can change our lives, too.

1. Law

The role of the law is not to save nor to sanctify, but to reveal the true state of our hearts.  The law can only condemn; it cannot save you.  Obedience is important yet cannot be done by sheer willpower.  Deliverance does not come by turning over a new leaf; that approach only gets you caught in cycle of regret, promising not to do it again, and returning to it.  Law makes us feel the great weight of our darkness.  We need to feel and know what that darkness really is….

2. Sin

Sin means missing the mark, falling short.  We must agree with God about what sin really is, without sugar-coating it.  We tend to think of sin as some terrible action like assault or murder, yet sin is primarily thought of in Scripture as not giving God his due – of de-godding God and replacing him with something else.  You and I need to be realistic about the bad news of sin before we can ever receive the good news of forgiveness.  You can’t be forgiven unless you can admit that you have done, or not done, something that warrants needing to be forgiven.  Moving forward in hope can only happen when we possess…

3. Righteousness

Righteousness means right relationships; unrighteousness means broken relationships.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for right relationships.  Like illegal aliens who cannot make themselves citizens, God grants us spiritual amnesty because we can’t make ourselves legal or righteous.  Through righteousness God has made it possible for us to live in harmony.  Holding onto bad relationships is like a dog returning to its vomit; there is no need for it because God has given us…

4. Justification

This term is a picture of the court of law.  It communicates for us that righteousness comes because God justified us, that is, he did for us what the law could not do – he sent his Son to be a substitute for us.  You can’t justify yourself by obeying the law or simply by being sorry.  Without the next word, we will wallow in our guilt because we need this for our justification to really live….

5. Faith

Faith is a gift given by God.  We do not generate faith within ourselves because sin estranges us from God.  We need God to act.  God’s righteousness can only become operative through faith.  You must hold out your hands and receive a gift to possess it.  You must come to the end of yourself to exercise faith.  You need to see that your sin is bad enough to have made your life unmanageable and that you have dug yourself in a hole too deep to get out of yourself.  If you think you can handle it, you are going back to the law, living in denial and not by faith.  We also need…

6. Grace

Faith must have an object, and that object is the cross of Christ.  It’s grace which gives faith and saves us.  Our denial is so great about our sin that we can’t reach out to God unless God acts.  Even while we were sinners, Christ died for us.  Opening the gift given to us, we find that we are given…

7. Redemption

Redemption is a word referring to a slave market.  We are slaves to sin.  We need someone to purchase our freedom.  The blood of Christ paid for my sin.  He bought me through his death.  Jesus has taken care of the sin issue through…

8. Propitiation

“Sacrifice of atonement” is the meaning of propitiation.  It is the satisfaction of God’s wrath against sin.  Because God loves, God has wrath; he is not okay with sin running amok in this world.  We are forgiven through the blood of Christ.  We are free to live into the gracious joyous life of God in Christ.  Yet, not all of us do so.  For example:

If the institution that gave me my car loan came along and forgave or satisfied the debt I have on my car, it would be weird if I kept making loan payments.  But that is what many people keep doing with their lives because they don’t really believe they are forgiven and loved by God.  We think God is constantly upset or, at least, agitated with us since we screw-up so often.  So, we live by law hoping that God will applaud our sincerity and our effort, wishing that everything will be okay.  But everything won’t be okay with that approach because God wants our faith, not our promises to be better.  His question to us is:

Do you trust me?  Do you trust me to deliver you from your sin?  Do you trust me to work out the situation that you’ve made a mess of on your own?  Do you trust me to provide for you everything you need? 

Live into your spiritual heritage. Don’t return to the law. Bask in the gracious gift of your freedom in Christ.  Live and enjoy Jesus because you have been made righteous, justified, and redeemed through the precious blood of Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 2:1-10 – Saved for a Reason

 

“You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith.  This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed.  It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. We are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.” (CEB)
 
            Christians are not saved so that they can just sit in a worldly holding tank until Jesus comes back.  Deliverance is only one dimension of God’s plan.  We are saved for good works to be done in the here-and-now.
            A Christian knows that he is saved from his sin through the forgiving work of Jesus Christ.  It’s an act of sheer grace on God’s part.  A believer is not born again through her effort any more than a baby’s birthed because of her own doing.  It is thoroughly the work of God.  Even the faith needed to believe is a gift graciously provided by God.
            But that’s not the whole story.  God also has some plans and purposes in mind for his people.  Christians were birthed into a new spiritual community with new commitments to do all kinds of good deeds.  It’s as if sin were a weight or an obstacle that has been removed so that living a life full of goodness can now plow ahead and do its work.  To be saved is to be freed for a vigorous moral life.
            The great problems of our world are spiritual problems which require believers in Jesus to take the lead in agitating for change.  Expecting human governments or corporate systems to take the lead in moral transformation is like asking the fox to guard the hen house.

            Christians, churches, and spiritual communities are to labor at the gates of hell for the lives of women caught in sex trafficking; provide uplift and the tools to a better life for those in grinding poverty and hunger; challenge the idolatry of the American gun culture; and, hundreds of other realities of living in a fallen broken world.
            At their core, these are not political, social, or cultural issues – they are spiritual.  Mass murder violates God’s command to not kill.  Hunger and poverty too often result from greedy leaders in power who covet resources for themselves, violating God’s commands to provide for the poor and needy.  Sexual slavery treats persons as chattel property and not as image-bearers of God.
            God has delivered you from sin so that you can take on the immorality of your world.  Perhaps you have a boss who is nothing more than a master of a small world and bullies and manipulates his employees.  Maybe your local municipal authorities simply aren’t seeing or purposely turn a blind eye to moral evil in their town.  It could be that within your own family there are problems of addiction which need to be graciously confronted and dealt with.
            God has placed you in the place you are right now for just this time so that you can do good works, both big and small, taking on an immoral establishment as well as little acts of kindness.  Doing good comes in all sizes, and all of us are to share our lives for the betterment of others.
Saving God, you have only good plans for your world and your people.  Use me today and every day to be an agent of blessing and goodness, working for the benefit of others who need the power of Christ’s resurrection in their lives.  Amen.

1 Timothy 1:12-20 – Grace for the Biggest Sinner

“This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I’m the biggest sinner of all.” (CEB)
 
            Toward the end of his life, the Apostle Paul reflected upon the grace given to him by God.  In writing to Timothy, his protégé, he distilled his reflections into one short succinct phrase: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. 
 
            Before Christ got a hold of his life, Paul actively opposed Christians as much as he could.  He had the persecution of Christ’s followers down to a science.  But God had mercy on Paul and delivered him from his misguided and tortuous ways.
            Paul was forever grateful for the grace of God.  He knew he didn’t deserve anything from God.  Paul knew firsthand the words of the Lord Jesus: “I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17)
 
            Once your heart has been captivated by God’s mercy, you are never the same.  Your life has a new and wondrous perspective.  Your soul is filled with love.  Your mind is changed and charged with the realization that God is not only good but has given you a status as his beloved – a privilege and a position which you neither earned nor deserve.  Gratitude erupts from your lips: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, to save me, the chief of sinners!”
 
            You don’t need a past like Paul’s to know God’s grace.  Whether you are now a follower of Jesus after having lived a life far from God; or, you can’t remember a time when you didn’t know God; or, you grew-up in faith, walked away from it all, then were captured by grace and came back to Christ; from whatever backgrounds we all come from, it is the saving grace, the delivering mercy, the infinite love, the abiding compassion, and the undeserved kindness of Jesus Christ which makes your world spin the opposite direction on its axis.
            Take time throughout the day to utter that simple phrase over and over: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  What does this mean for the world as it is right now? What does it mean for you?

 

Loving Lord Jesus, there are not words to express my gratitude for your salvation given to me.  I was once lost, but now am found by the endless mercy of God.  May sinners be saved, as was your servant Paul, so that the world will be undone and changed forever by grace.  Amen.

The Morality of Caring

20170705_152842

Every individual person I meet is interesting.  Everyone has a story.  Each person has values which are important to them, and you can usually tell what a person treasures.  For example, my wife cares about kids.  Children are a high value to her.  You can tell immediately when meeting her that that’s true.  When engaging a family for the first time, she will inevitably talk to the child before addressing the parents.  Mary cares about any kind of issue in the world which has to do with children.  She has a strong sense of morality for all of them.  She loves kids.

Have you ever thought about what is of most importance to you?  What we care about most is where our sense of morality lies.  Jesus put it this way:

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21)

Perhaps you have discovered, like I have, that everyone is moralistic.  That is, each one of us live by a certain code of ethics.  There are morals which we will live and die by.  These are values we esteem above all others.

Although there are hundreds of laws in the Bible, the highest standard of ethics and morality is contained in just a few chapters of Holy Scripture: The Ten Words (Commandments) found in the Old Testament chapter of Exodus 20; and, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount found in the New Testament chapters of Matthew 5-7.  Furthermore, these few chapters can be distilled into a few short ethical phrases: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and, love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39). In other words:

Every moral teaching found in Holy Scripture comes down to love (Mark 12:30-31)

Throughout the history of the church, the highest ethical values have always had to do with knowing and loving the Creator, Sovereign, triune God – Father, Son, and Spirit – and the majesty of his creatures, humanity, created in his image and likeness.  The imprint of that image is deep within us, even if marred or forgotten.

The movement and trajectory of Holy Scripture is a good and benevolent God making and keeping promises to his creatures.  Even when they fall and try to create small petty worlds of their own, a gracious God is active, wooing lost people back to himself.

The Bible is an unfolding drama of redemption in which a loving God goes far out of his way to bring back straying, hurting, helpless people. (Luke 15)

prodigal son

Which is why, for me, attending to the inner person of the soul, teaching people the words and ways of Jesus, and providing spiritual care to others is a high value.  I love God, and I love people.  It’s easy to understand, then, why I: treasure times of retreat in which there is solitude and silence; connect with God daily in contemplative prayer and meditative Bible reading; pay attention to hurting people and seek to bring them grace, mercy, faith, hope, love, and gentleness; seek to act with civility and respect toward others I disagree with, or just don’t like very well; and, actively engage others who don’t share my values of faith in God, hope for healing and wholeness, and love for the common good of all people, no matter who they are.

I have a deep conviction that the care of the soul is just as important as the care of the body; that attention to exercising the mind with Holy Scripture is just as important to overall health and well-being as cardio workouts and sensible eating; and, that the ultimate hope of the world resides with knowing Jesus Christ, and not with a lesser hope that wishes things will work out in the end if I’m sincere to my personal ethical beliefs.

The rub to all of this is that I have my ideals and ethics, my morals and mores, my values and convictions, yet I don’t consistently live by them. *Sigh* I’m sure you relate.  The Apostle Paul certainly did:

“I don’t know what I’m doing, because I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do the thing that I hate…. I don’t do the good that I want to do, but I do the evil that I don’t want to do.  But if I do the very thing that I don’t want to do, then I’m not the one doing it anymore. Instead, it is sin that lives in me that is doing it.” (Romans 7:15-20)

moralvalues

If honesty and being real is of high value to you, then you and I can admit that we blow it, a lot!  But we can come back to the love of God which is there waiting for us to confess our need and receive grace:

“I find that, as a rule, when I want to do what is good, evil is right there with me…. It wages a war against the law of my mind and takes me prisoner with the law of sin that is in my body.  I’m a miserable human being. Who will deliver me from this dead corpse?

“Thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:21-23)

It simply isn’t helpful to tell other people to “get over it.”  All people need deliverance from the power and presence of their inner (and outer) brokenness.  A person cannot remove destructive vice and heal their own soul any more than someone could remove their own cancerous tumor and heal themselves.  We all share the common human condition of needing the living healing water of Jesus Christ.

living-water

Which brings me back to God and the care of souls – being with Jesus has led me to grace and faith, hope and love, mercy and encouragement, forgiveness and reconciliation.  These are values for which I embrace and will not deviate from.  Even though I live them imperfectly, there is a perfect God who has my back.  He loves me, and He loves you.  I’m okay if that’s labeled as moralistic.

Grace is the Word

            One of my all-time favorite stories in the entire Bible is one that many people are not familiar with.  As far as I’m concerned, this story deserves to be up there as a hall-of-fame kind of story.  It is tucked away in the Old Testament book of 2 Samuel, almost as a parenthetical aside to the great victories and kingdom of David.  Within this one story we get to know the true heart of ministry, and the shape of what our Christian calling can look like in a world gone mad.
            David was at the pinnacle of his success.  For years, he roved all over the place hiding from King Saul.  David’s only crime was that he made the king jealous – envious enough for Saul to put out a hit on him.  Saul eventually was killed in battle, and David ascended the throne with a series of great military victories on every side of Israel.
            It is important to keep in mind that in the ancient world, kings who ascend the throne typically begin their reign by killing any-and-all potential rivals to the throne.  It was so common as to be expected.  So, if you are reading 2 Samuel 9 for the very first time and David begins by saying, “I wonder if any of Saul’s family are still alive,” you expect the hammer to come down.  David is going to secure his throne with eliminating Saul’s family.
            But David, in a twist that befits the heart of a man of God, gives his reason for wondering: “If they are, I will be kind to them, because I made a promise to Jonathan.”  Rather than find relatives of Saul to kill, David wanted to find family members, so that he could show kindness.
            This is how it is supposed to work in the kingdom of God, and in the Body of Christ – kindness to someone who does not deserve it.  Turns out Mephibosheth was still alive, and David graciously plucked him from his life as a disabled person and brought him to the palace to care for him.
            “Kindness” is a beautiful word.  It is translated as such from the Hebrew word “chesed.”Chesed [pronounced “hes-ed”] is God’s steadfast love, his infinite mercy, his loyal commitment to always watch over and care for his people.  And that is exactly what David did for Mephibosheth.
            Oftentimes, church leaders and parishioners wonder how to attract solid upper middle-class people.  Or, at least people who are much like themselves.  Those put-together-people would be able to help support the church, sustain the budget, and provide fresh volunteers for getting things done.  It is the standard operating procedure for many places.
            But what if we took a lesson from David and turned this on its head.  Instead, we scan the horizon and wonder if there are any broken people out there in our sphere of influence for whom we can show God’s steadfast love, mercy, grace, and kindness.  And then do it. Without forming a committee.
            David made a space at his table for Mephibosheth.  One practical way we can show grace is by opening our dinner table to another.  Anyone can do it.  My wife and I, back in our early years, didn’t even have a kitchen table.  But that didn’t stop us.  We invited people to share peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with us on the floor of our tiny apartment.
            We can create space and loving mercy at church by opening the Table to the spiritually disabled.  Broken and hurting people need the healing of communion with God and the Body of Christ more than anyone.  In some sense, this is all of us.  Everyone needs the healing which can result from participating in the Lord’s Supper.
            Like David, inquire about the people in your neighborhood and community.  The first step is to find out who they are.  Then, second, find a way to meet them.  And, third, just say “hi” to them.  Let an invitation to share food together arise organically and naturally, without being forced and having an agenda other than the curiosity to discover another person.

            This can be done at church, as well.  Scanning the building for lost and lonely people, you will see them if you look.  Walk across the room and engage them in a merciful conversation worthy of your spiritual ancestor, David.  Pay attention to how the Spirit leads, and follow.  Let us know how it goes.

 

            All of God’s Word is about God’s merciful wooing of wayward people back to himself.  The Lord specializes in unfocused, fuzzy lives; and, gives grace.  Truly, grace is the Word.