James 4:1-7

            “Do you know where your fights and arguments come from? They come from the selfish desires that war within you. You want things, but you do not have them. So you are ready to kill and are jealous of other people, but you still cannot get what you want. So you argue and fight. You do not get what you want, because you do not ask God. Or when you ask, you do not receive because the reason you ask is wrong. You want things so you can use them for your own pleasures.  So, you are not loyal to God! You should know that loving the world is the same as hating God. Anyone who wants to be a friend of the world becomes God’s enemy. Do you think the Scripture means nothing that says, ‘The Spirit that God made to live in us wants us for himself alone’? But God gives us even more grace, as the Scripture says,
‘God is against the proud,
but he gives grace to the humble.’ Proverbs 3:34
So give yourselves completely to God. Stand against the devil, and the devil will run from you” (NCV).
 
            There is a lot that can be unpacked here in these practical verses filled with dense meaning for our lives.  But a simple observation will suffice for today:  Prayer to God requires humility.
 
            The person who is captain of his own soul, moves and shakes the circumstances around him, controls and manipulates people, and who throws tantrums and verbally decapitates others to get his way sees himself as the way to get what he wants.  God only comes into the picture if he cannot seem to take for himself what he so desires.  Prayer is the last ditch attempt to control God.  And God will have none of it.
 
            All things must begin with prayer, be sustained by prayer, and end with prayer.  If we ask anything in the name of Jesus, it will be heard by God and answered by him.  God is God, and I am not.  Therefore, I must come to him with this understanding, with the humility to recognize that I desperately need him for everything.  Take some extended time today and meditate on these verses, letting prayers arise to God as a result.  For in the weakness of our surrender we find the strength of life.
 

 

            Holy God, you cannot abide with the ways of this fallen world.  Help me to connect with you on your terms in your way so that my faith might be active and effective in all I do for the sake of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Mark 7:24-30

            Not much happens until something becomes urgent.  A doctor, a financial planner, or a preacher can tell us something until they are blue in the face.  But it won’t mean much without a sense of urgency that some sort of change must occur – that the way things currently exist isn’t going to cut it any longer.  When it comes to the Christian life, law and duty can only take us so far – we need the gospel of grace.
 
            Today’s Gospel lesson has a Gentile Canaanite woman (who is about as far from God as one can get in the ancient world) coming to Jesus with a keen sense of urgency.  She is not concerned about appearances or masking her pain; she cares about seeing her daughter healed of her terrible suffering from demonization.  The woman sees in Jesus the answer to her daughter’s problem.  She begged Jesus to act.  But Jesus puts her off.
 
            A superficial reading of this story might lead us to think that Jesus is either aloof or elitist.  But I think a better way of looking at Christ’s response of not immediately healing the daughter is looking at the episode through the lenses of patience and perseverance.  God is not some coin machine that we can drop in a dollar and get immediate change.  The Godhead is not some system to figure out in order to work the angles to get what we want.  Here’s what I believe the real point of the story is for us:  The woman had to go hard after Jesus, to keep going after him, and to exercise her faith muscle to its fullest extent.
 
            The woman looked for grace, kept going after God’s mercy, and was honored for her persistent faith.  We don’t need to write an essay to God in prayer about why he should answer us and try and convince him of our righteous cause – we just need to seek the mercy of God in Christ with determination.  Begging isn’t pretty and it isn’t comfortable.  But being poor in spirit is the only posture that Jesus is really concerned about recognizing.
 

 

            Gracious God, I beg you to bring healing, spiritual health, and relational wholeness to your church everywhere so that the name of Jesus is exalted in the world.  Amen.

Remain Humble

 
 
            One of the most real of realities when it comes to church ministry is this:  you can do everything that needs to be done in laying strategy, planning for ministry, and implementing it – but still fail.  Not every ministry goes as planned.  Not every person is blessed by what you do.  We are all limited in our imaginations, resources, and spiritual gifts.  There is no ironclad prescription for church success.  But you probably already know this from your own personal experience, or just from watching others.  You will never find any pastor or Christian ministry leader who controlled every variable and planned for every contingency and always pulls-off every endeavor to perfection.  Sometimes we just need to be reminded that there are no guarantees.
 
            We must, then, come back to the practice of self-control – of continually monitoring our own internal motivations and desires so that they are in constant alignment with the words and ways of Jesus.  Another one of those really real realities when it comes to church ministry is that pride and hubris are far and away the most insidious problems a pastor or leader will ever face.  It is gratifying to be a leader and exercise pastoral care, teach others, and mentor young people.  It’s also far too easy to be seduced by your own perceived power and importance and blame any shortcomings on cranky parishioners.
 
            Humility is the path to resolving arrogance and the only true road of Christian discipleship.  Out of all the characteristics that Jesus could describe himself, the only two words he ever used were “gentle and humble” (Matthew 11:29).  Jesus is our perfect and true example of the leader who always ministered with a complete sense of his divine power, human limitations, and concern for others.  Christ never believed he was the reason for his own success, but always connected what he did and was doing to the will of his Father in heaven.
 
            You can only avoid the seduction of arrogant pride when you recognize that you are not God and need the help of others.  Wise church leadership knows they can’t do it alone and they act accordingly.  Truly humble pastors dig a hole, throw their ego into it, and pour concrete on top of it.  They do not continually chatter-on with certainties and answers but, instead, are committed to deep listening to those around them.  They give generous and sincere credit to others.  They think about how to build up the Body of Christ, not their own puffed up press about themselves.
 
            It takes a lot of courage to be humble.  It requires a lot of bravery to admit you are not always right; that you cannot always anticipate every congregant’s needs; that you cannot solve every problem in the church; that you cannot envision everything the church is supposed to do and to be; that you are not always congenial; that you make mistakes; that you are sometimes grumpy like everyone else; and, that you are a real live human being.
 

 

            When a pastor lets his/her guard down and becomes real and vulnerable, then biblical faith can begin to take root and together clergy and laity can create something that they never could alone.  We all must remain humble and unassuming.  We all need to persist in being open and full of wonder to God’s world and Christ’s church.  We all need to be down-to-earth and keep our feet on the ground no matter the level of success or failure.  We all are dependent on God.

Philippians 1:12-18

            It was President Ronald Reagan who said, “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”  The ability to have a disinterest in attention and freedom from selfishness comes from a place of humility and strength – the strength to know oneself well and be secure in that knowledge, as well as the humility to care more about the cause than self.
 
            The Apostle Paul had so learned humility from his Lord, and was so thoroughly convinced of the gospel’s centrality that he did not care who got the credit when it came to proclaiming Jesus.  “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will….  The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.  What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.”
 
            The burning, driving, constant, and passionate pursuit of Paul was the advance of the gospel.  He wanted the entire world to know Jesus Christ crucified, risen from death, ascended and coming again.  And Paul would do anything and drain himself of every drop of self-centeredness in order to champion that great cause of seeing people repent and believe the gospel.
 
            Is your heart enamored with Jesus?  Is it hot with the desire to see the gospel of grace transform the world?  Do you lay awake at night wondering how to introduce Jesus to others?  Is the great cause of your life to find ways of meeting the world’s deep need with the deep love of Christ?  Attention and recognition are overrated.  Instead, give up your life and you will find it.
 

 

            Gracious God, thank you for the example of your servant Paul.  I rejoice in what you did in and through his life.  I am available for your purposes.  Use me in the advance of your gospel of grace so that I might more fully participate in your grand forgiveness mission.  Amen.

2 Kings 22:11-20


             It is hard to fathom that things had spiritually degenerated so much in the kingdom of Judah that the Book of Law, God’s Word to Israel, was completely lost.  The Law was tucked so far back in the temple, and had gathered so much dust, that everyone simply forgot it existed.  Yet, maybe we in the Western world can relate to this more than we think.  When a plethora of Bibles and translations exist, yet they gather dust on the shelf and we have not cracked it open since….?
             We are approaching the end of the Christian Year which always culminates in Christ the King Sunday.  As we journey with Jesus and ascend his holy hill, we anticipate corporately acknowledging Christ’s lordship.  The best and most biblical way to do so is through penitent humility.  King Josiah’s officials had found the Book of the Law and brought it to him.  After they read the words, the king became completely undone with humble repentance.  He realized that the life of the nation had not revolved around the majesty and kingship of God, and it cut him to the core of his being.  
             The first and most appropriate response to the realization of God’s sovereignty and Christ’s lordship is humility.  Without it there is no going forward; there is only the ghastly state of remaining stuck in one place with ancient dust accumulating on our static hearts.  But with humility there is repentance; and with repentance there opens up the grand vistas of hope, new life, and fresh beginnings.
             Try something quite different from your regular experience today.  Put on some old clothes and read carefully the words of Scripture.  Take the time to acknowledge some sin of omission in your life.  Then, tear your clothes; yes, rip your shirt.  Allow yourself to feel, like Josiah, the realization of missing the mark.  But do not remain in this condition.  Drink in the grace of God in Christ and receive the forgiveness that is yours through Jesus.  The trajectory of our Christian lives will be determined by the depth of humility we experience, and filling the hole with mercy.
             Awesome God, although I might not always perceive your majesty and sovereignty, you stand above all creation as the Lord whom I am to submit to in all things.  I come to you in great humility of heart and vow to obey everything I read in your Holy Word through Jesus Christ, my King.  Amen.

Baptism of the Lord

 
 
Taking a Sunday each year at this time to consider the baptism of our Lord Jesus is a regular staple in the Christian Calendar.  Christ’s baptism is a theologically profound event that announces the fact of his divinity in a dramatic way; it helps us understand our Lord’s identity, as well as his mission.
 
Because God the Father acknowledged Jesus as God the Son, we know that through Christ’s words and actions that we are encountering God’s will for us.  Jesus is the hinge upon which all history turns.  The centrality of Jesus for everything we say and do is confirmed and expected through this event of his baptism.
 
Jesus came to be baptized by John in the Jordan River not because he personally needed to repent of sin.  Rather, through his baptism Jesus identified with us as humans and signaled that he will be the true way of life for all people.  With the Father’s affirmation of Christ, the Lord Jesus is our authority.  All authority on heaven and earth has been given to him.  He is the author and finisher of our faith.  So we must pay careful attention to Jesus.
 
It just may well be that the name of Jesus is so familiar to us that we actually end up ignoring him.  Or, we might be so disappointed with Jesus that, over time, we simply slide away from him.  That this is a clear possibility is why the author of the book of Hebrews exhorted:  We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.  For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? (Hebrews 2:1-3). 
 
            Heaven was “torn” open (Mark 1:10) at Christ’s baptism; it is the strongest possible of words to communicate the striking reality that God does not remain far away, but has come near to us in his Son, the Lord Jesus. In Hebrews, a book saturated with the centrality and superiority of Jesus, we are confronted with the importance of Christ:  In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.  The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.  After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven (Hebrews 1:1-3).
 
            This term for heaven being “torn” open appears again at the death of Christ.  The curtain of the Temple that separated the inner sanctuary from everything else was ripped in two from top to bottom – signifying that once for all God is near to us and has become close to us in the person of Jesus Christ.
 
            Since Jesus is the rightful ruler of the universe; since he has authority over all things; since he is a faithful high priest always living to intercede for us; since he has the power to transform and give new life; since deliverance can only be found through Christ our Lord; our proper response is confession, repentance, and the expectation of change.
 
            Our Lord’s baptism exposes all the things we rely on other than Jesus:  our own ability to set goals and accomplish them through sheer willpower; our own ingenuity; our own experience; our own ideas to work things out.  Any person on earth can attempt these things, but only Jesus can change us (and our own heart transformation is what is needed).  Rather than expecting everyone and every circumstance to change, God calls usto change through the empowering presence of the Spirit, the same Spirit given to Jesus.
 
            Instead of relying on other things or people, we are to rely on Jesus.  We might think that personal change is not necessary – that there is plenty of evil in the world that needs to turn around, and lots of people worse off than us that need transformation.  But if you find yourself complaining more than being thankful; if you spend more time on social media than in prayer; if being a good person is more important than asking God for help; if you find yourself feeling sorry for yourself more than helping others; if you think this blog post is more for other people than yourself; then, today the baptism of Jesus calls us to confession, repentance, and inner change.
 

 

            Just as it took humility for Jesus to be baptized by John in the Jordan, so it takes humility for us to come to Christ and admit our need for help and for inner transformation.  May it be so, to the glory of our Lord Christ.

Real, or Fake?


Some things are pretty unrealistic.  But for most things in life, you often cannot tell a fake by the external appearance.  When it comes to Christianity and the true worship of God a person might give a good outward performance, but actually not be the real deal because he or she is full of bitterness and death on the inside with a heart far from God.
What is sobering for devoted believers in God is the reality that the Church may have people who are religious on the outside but not really be a Christ follower on the inside.  Having all the outward signs of faith without an inward reality is like putting perfume in a vase – it might smell like flowers but the flowers aren’t really there.  
            At the heart of Jesus Christ’s teaching is to be humble and avoid pride by not comparing ourselves to others and wondering if we are getting our due attention; rather we are to compare ourselves only to Christ and the Word of God and, so, become truly meek and humbly serve others out of a genuine heart that loves God.  What we proclaim and profess cannot be separated from who we are.
Jesus condemned the religiously committed Pharisees because they put heavy burdens on people and were unwilling to help them carry those burdens.  Throughout Jesus’ ministry he approached the crowds with the understanding that they were following him for a variety of reasons, some noble and some not so noble.  Some of those people heard of Jesus and genuinely wanted to be healed.  Some followed him because their hearts burned within them when he spoke and they wanted to know God better.  Some desired a true way of living and saw in Jesus fresh hope for their lives.  Yet others followed Jesus around wanting to see the next cool miracle, to maybe get a free handout, or just to hear him so that they could tell all their friends that they heard him speak and saw him heal.  Jesus was always trying to press and challenge the vast crowds of people into a genuine, real righteousness from the heart that would submit to God’s kingdom.  But the Pharisees and teachers of the law kept undermining Jesus, talking behind his back, and tried to stir up resentment against him.  
            The Pharisees’ motives were not to help people know God better through service, but to just talk a good line.  Interestingly, Jesus did not chastise them for what they taught (Matthew 23:1-12), but leveled condemnation on them for not helping people live-out their obligations.  The Pharisees knew their bibles and had a high view of Scripture.  The problem was not so much their doctrine but that they did not practice what they preached.  It isn’t so much what the Pharisees taught as howthey taught it – it was neither gentle, nor had any grace.  People need one another in order to truly live for God, but if there is a double-standard that exists among folks in the church then there is only heavy loads that aren’t getting carried because some individuals think they are above helping others or think too little of themselves and believe God could not use them.  In both cases the person declares “someone should do something!”  Someone should give, someone should pray, someone should visit, someone should tell that person about Christ, someone should help.  To which Jesus would say that someone is you!
            Jesus also condemned the Pharisees because they loved to do things for a show, for the attention.  Everything the Pharisees and the teachers of the law did was for others to see.  They thought they deserved the accolades of others.  We can be hard on the Pharisees, yet whenever we plaster on fake smiles, only obey and serve when others are looking, and/or pretend like everything is just peachy keen when we are dying inside then we have fallen under the same condemnation and are in need of putting aside caring so much about how we look to others and grieve, mourn and wail asking the God of grace to have mercy on us.  We can be so obsessed about the right thing to say that we never say what is really on the inside because we think it isn’t spiritual enough and we fear looking bad.
The Pharisees also were men who sought status and prestige.  Respect and honor was everything to many Pharisees which is why they wanted the positions of prominence and insisted on being recognized for whatever they did in the synagogue.  In public they insisted that the people respect them in their greeting and acknowledgements.  They did not want to look bad, ever.
            But facades will not do for Jesus.  Pharisees are very predictable because they always act with the spectator in mind, and seek to elicit praise and respect everywhere they go.  To Pharisees, it does not matter what is on the inside as long as the outside looks good.  In his autobiography, Be Myself, Warren Wiersbe writes about his first church building project as a young pastor in Indiana. He and the church’s building committee were working with a church architect. At one of the committee meetings, Wiersbe asked the architect, “Why do we need such an expensive, high ceiling in the auditorium? We’re not building a cathedral. Why not just build an auditorium with a flat room and then put a church façade in the front of the building?” Wiersbe writes that in a very quiet voice, the architect replied, “Pastor, the building you construct reflects what a church is and what a church does. You don’t use façades on churches to fool people. That’s for carnival sideshows. The outside and the inside must agree.”
So, what do we do when we realize that the outside of our lives and the inside don’t match?  We become humble and meek just like Jesus.  We are to revere and honor God, not people.  Putting people on a pedestal is not good because they are just people.  Instead of the mentality “look how great I am!” we are to treat everyone as an equal because at the heart of thinking people owe me something is the idea that I am better than the other person.  The answer to that attitude is to adopt Christ’s meekness and humility.  The zeal to feel important and respected is to be transformed into the desire to serve others.
            The way up is down.  We are to descend, not ascend, into greatness.  So, what does humble meekness look like?  Taylor University is a Christian college in Indiana. Years ago, an African student, Sam, was going to be enrolling in their school. This was before it was commonplace for international students to come to the U.S. to study. He was a bright young man with great promise, and the school felt honored to have him. When he arrived on campus, the President of the University took him on a tour, showing him all the dorms. When the tour was over, the President asked Sam where he would like to live. The young man replied, “If there is a room that no one wants, give that room to me.” Over the years the president had welcomed thousands of Christian men and women to the campus, and none had ever made such a request.  “If there is a room that no one wants, give that room to me.” That’s the kind of meekness Jesus talks about in the Beatitudes.
If there is a job that no one wants to do, I’ll do that job.
If there’s a kid that no one wants to eat lunch with, I’ll eat with that kid.
If there’s a piece of toast that’s burnt, I’ll take that piece.
If there’s a parking space that’s far away from the church, I’ll park in that space.
If there’s a need is someone’s life, I’ll meet that need.
If there’s a hardship someone has to endure, I’ll take that hardship.
If there’s a sacrifice someone needs to make, I’ll make that sacrifice.
            The greatest among you will be your servant.  Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.  This applies not only to individuals but to groups of people and churches as well.  If we never get out of our comfortable little band of people, then we need to ask ourselves why not?  If we never look beyond the four walls of the church building in order to serve someone, we need to ask ourselves why not?  If we have a chronic critical spirit toward someone then we need to ask ourselves if the genuine article is within us?
            The kingdom of God is not a matter of outward eating and drinking and displays of spirituality but is a matter of inner righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.  May we all serve one another deeply from a heart of love and grace.