In the Place of Life (1 Peter 4:1-6)

Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin. As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit. (New International Version)

I haven’t been a confessing Christian my entire life. And so, I can relate to Peter’s exhortation. I still remember what it feels like to live my life without any thought to God or spiritual matters. I also have many memories of giving my life to Christ and, for years, having people puzzled as to why I didn’t want to join them in activities which would clearly diminish my spirit and suck the soul out of me.

The thing about partying and immorality is that it’s a life filled with constant movement. Slowing down only makes one come face-to-face with what is truly inside the soul. And if someone has an empty vacuous soul, or a damaged spirit, or a broken heart, then attempting to drink or work away the inner pain makes sense when there’s no regard for God. 

The last thing I ever wanted to do was suffer, yet before my own spiritual awakening, it seemed I could never outrun the hurt no matter how hard I tried, even with all the constant locomotion.

But I found in a committed Christianity the slow and quiet place I so desperately needed. I discovered in ancient Christian practices of solitude, silence, and stillness the opportunity of finding my true self.

There are times in our lives when we need to explore the place between our hurting hearts and the hunting for joy. It’s actually a quiet place sandwiched between the ignominy of the cross and the celebration of resurrection. 

Within the geography of the soul, this is something of a lost country for many folks. Some people have never had the thought that such a place even exists. Yet, this is the very place which gives meaning and focus to a disjointed and frenetic lifestyle.

To be even more specific and focused, there cannot be a better life, a new life without a death to the old life and dying to self. There must be suffering before there can be glory.

I’m a heady sort of guy. Most things, for me, have to go through my brain. Although I have come to appreciate and value my heart and my gut, I still find myself sometimes gravitating toward my intellect as the answer for my stress. Yet, there are many times (maybe even most times) when I really need to get out of my head, connect to my gut, and wrap my heart around whatever problem or challenge is before me. 

I have been a devoted follower of Jesus for many decades now. Yet, I still encounter a sizable chunk of Christians who devalue the place between the real suffering on Good Friday, along with the very real death of Holy Saturday. In the tomb, there is no movement. All is silent and still. 

Jesus was in the solitude of a dark tomb. So, there’s no getting around it. If we want a Resurrection Day with all its celebration and glory, then we cannot circumvent the place of darkness and stillness.

To be a Christian means a readiness to follow Jesus and suffer as he did. It involves a willingness to stop our striving, manifested through constant movement, and embrace the disciplines of solitude, silence, and stillness with its contemplation and radical acceptance of what is – and not just what we want something to be. 

This requires the sense enough to pray and please a higher power than fair weather friends. It demands a Christian counter-cultural shift to face the ridicule of friends so that we might take some much-needed time to be with Jesus in his life, ministry, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension.

Put plainly and bluntly: If you and I want to live with Jesus, we must die with Jesus.

I could give you ten steps to having a better life, but this would ultimately mean nothing apart from the willingness to spend some time and sit in the place of suffering and death.

And, ironically, in doing so, we find the life that is truly life, and discover a way of existence which is far greater and better than we could have ever dreamed.

Merciful and almighty God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we submit ourselves to you, knowing that our lives are in the hands of a gracious and sovereign Being who cares deeply for all creation and every creature. May our longings for transcendence result in the deep and good desires of our hearts to be met fully in Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit are one God, now and forever. Amen.

I Am the Gate (John 10:1-10)

“Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.

Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them.I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (New International Version)

In an idyllic world, we would never have to contend with thieves and interlopers within the flock of God. But, as you well know, we live in a less than perfect world. The spiritual robber-baron is the one who poses as a religious figure, yet is really around to fleece the sheep.

Obviously, anyone who has to jump the fence, instead of entering through the gate, has something nefarious up their dastardly sleeve. In fact, these interlopers feel they have a right to get in, by any means, because of their inflated sense of self-importance.

Jesus, of course, is using metaphor and figure of speech to communicate something important: The thieves are robbing God’s honor for themselves and bringing harm to God’s people. By trying to take away the way, the truth, and the life, the religious leaders were spiritual burglars attempting to be both gate and gatekeeper.

In short, the religious leaders believed they were more important than Jesus; and they tried to keep Christ and the people from connecting with each other.

And that is the insidious form of all religious quackery – to keep people separated from what can help them the most so that the charlatan can soak up all the attention, authority, and accolades.

But a faithful and true shepherd enters through the gate with confidence and care. Such a person has no other agenda and no other concern than Jesus and what Christ has said, has done, and will do.

The pastoral ministers amongst us help lead the flock through the gate so that they might enjoy safety, security, and succulence. The shepherd calls people by name, and doesn’t generically yell at nameless folk, to bring them alongside the Good Shepherd.

Thus, we are to have a faithful concentration and commitment to Christ; a voice which is discernibly oriented toward pointing people’s attention to Christ; and a teaching and leadership which moves into the world in order to bring Christian speech and action that blesses the world.

One of the problems many persons experience is that they listen to strange voices, instead of the familiar voice of their trusted pastor and the voice of Scripture, reason, and history. They follow a pet preacher’s or person’s interpretation of everything without reservation, rather than seeking to hear the voice of God in everything which is said.

Big churches, large ministries, and eloquent people are not necessarily the vocal chords of God. We must be discerning and wise. Not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven. It’s only the person and the faith community which does the will of God that’s able to get in.

Wolves in sheep’s clothing exist. So, we must beware.

Idioms, figures of speech, and metaphors get lost on some folk. That’s what happened for Christ’s original hearers. A lot of head-scratching was happening because they couldn’t figure out what in the world Jesus was talking about. “They” are the people who interpret all of life through personal agendas and selfish means. Their self-absorption prevented them from seeing the person right in front of them, who he really was, and what he was actually saying to them.

I Am the Gate of the Sheepfold, by Kathrin Burleson

So, Jesus plainly told them that he himself is the gate of the sheep. “I am” the gate. Deliverance, reconciliation, freedom, and protection all come together in Christ to provide a good life, a life of abundance that is worth living. We have peace with God through the Lord Jesus.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we learn from Jesus the following:

  • The key to being a good shepherd is being faithful to Jesus Christ
  • The concerns of a good shepherd are to attract, bring in, protect, free, feed, and lead God’s people into a good life through Jesus Christ
  • The way for a good shepherd is to love the sheep, care for them, and be with them through thick and thin, as Christ does
  • The preoccupations of those who ignore entering through the gate, which is Jesus, are to gain for themselves what rightly belongs to God: glory, honor, praise, power, authority, accolades, and devotion.

Everything hinges on Jesus as the gate of life. In centering ourselves completely around Christ, and by giving up the false self of keeping up appearances to others, we find our true self, connected to God in which all our needs are fully met and satisfied.

Merciful Father, you gave your Son Jesus Christ to be the Good Shepherd. In his love for us, he laid down his life and rose again. Keep us always under his protection, and give us grace to follow in his steps, in the strength and enablement of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Word Is Life and Light (John 1:1-9)

In the beginning was the Word
    and the Word was with God
    and the Word was God.
The Word was with God in the beginning.
Everything came into being through the Word,
    and without the Word
    nothing came into being.
What came into being
    through the Word was life,
    and the life was the light for all people.

The light shines in the darkness,
    and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.

A man named John was sent from God. He came as a witness to testify concerning the light, so that through him everyone would believe in the light. He himself wasn’t the light, but his mission was to testify concerning the light.

The true light that shines on all people
    was coming into the world. (Common English Bible)

Jesus lives here. And that’s because he chose to – so that we might have an abundant life out in the bright sunshine of grace.

The Word has always been and always will be. The Word decided to show up on this earth in an unexpected way, to bring light, illumination, and awareness to a dark world and the shadowy places of our hearts.

Frankly, my friends, Jesus abides with your every dream about life and happiness, hope and fulfillment, purpose and direction, emotional healing and wholeness. Christ is for you, to experience a thriving and flourishing daily life. And what’s more:

To live the Christian life, to center your entire life totally and completely around the person and work of Jesus Christ, is an act of rebellion against all that is dark, unjust, and broken in this world.

Jonathan Edwards, one of the greatest intellects in American history, was a pastor, theologian, and scholar. He insisted that the hope of humanity lies with turning to and dwelling with Jesus:

“Conversion to Jesus Christ is a great and glorious work of God’s power, at once changing the heart, and infusing life into the dead soul…. Jesus Christ is the highest good of the reasonable creature. The enjoyment of him is our proper focus; and is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied.”

Jonathan Edwards

St. Augustine lived centuries ago. A big chunk of his life was apart from Christianity. He knew what it felt like to be without Jesus. Yet, after his conversion, life with Jesus was so compelling for Augustine, that his vigorous intellect and spiritual devotion were put to work, leaving an enormous footprint that can be found even today, in both the church and the academy.

Reflecting upon his life, and all he had experienced and accomplished, Augustine uttered this simple prayer to God:

“You have made us for yourself, Lord Jesus, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

St. Augustine

Arguably, Christianity’s greatest convert was the Apostle Paul. Once a vehement opponent to Christ and Christ’s followers, Paul had a dramatic encounter that left him completely undone. He gave his life to Jesus and became Christianity’s most influential missionary. Here is a smattering of his thoughts on Jesus:

Though he [Christ] was in the form of God,
        he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
        by taking the form of a slave
        and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
        he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
        even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8, CEB)

His glorious power will make you patient and strong enough to endure anything, and you will be truly happy… For God has rescued us from the dark power of Satan and brought us into the kingdom of his dear Son, who forgives our sins and sets us free. (Colossians 1:11, 13, CEV)

Nothing is as wonderful as knowing Christ Jesus my Lord… God accepted me simply because of my faith in Christ. (Philippians 3:8-9, CEV)

We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand—out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise… Christ arrives right on time to make this happen. He didn’t, and doesn’t, wait for us to get ready. He presented himself for this sacrificial death when we were far too weak and rebellious to do anything to get ourselves ready. (Romans 5:2, 6, MSG)

Jesus is the One who fills our hearts with love, delivers our wayward souls from emptiness, and sets our feet on the solid rock of faith and hope in God. The love of God is found in Jesus. And Jesus so closely identifies with us, that we enjoy God’s peace and healing in our lives. Not just personal transformation, but systemic change in institutions and corporations, families and neighborhoods, is possible in Christ. 

To live for Jesus is an act of subversion against all that is evil, dark, and unjust. Imagine a world where love rules, not hate; where creativity and faith abound, and are not squelched; and, hope, not hurt, fuels progress into a bright future. It is a world where the light of Jesus brings life.

“I am the light for the world! Follow me, and you won’t be walking in the dark. You will have the light that gives life.”

Jesus (John 8:12, CEV)

The God who said, “Out of darkness the light shall shine!” is the same God who made his light shine in our hearts, to bring us the knowledge of God’s glory shining in the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6, GNT)

I am grateful that God so loved the world, loved me and loved you, that he gave his one and only Son – the Sun of Righteousness for our benefit so that we might have life.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise Him, all creatures here below
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Water Is Life (Ezekiel 47:1-12)

Now he brought me back to the entrance to the Temple. I saw water pouring out from under the Temple porch to the east (the Temple faced east). The water poured from the south side of the Temple, south of the altar. He then took me out through the north gate and led me around the outside to the gate complex on the east. The water was gushing from under the south front of the Temple.

He walked to the east with a measuring tape and measured off fifteen hundred feet, leading me through water that was ankle-deep. He measured off another fifteen hundred feet, leading me through water that was knee-deep. He measured off another fifteen hundred feet, leading me through water waist deep. He measured off another fifteen hundred feet. By now it was a river over my head, water to swim in, water no one could possibly walk through.

He said, “Son of man, have you had a good look?”

Then he took me back to the riverbank. While sitting on the bank, I noticed a lot of trees on both sides of the river.

He told me, “This water flows east, descends to the Arabah and then into the sea, the sea of stagnant waters. When it empties into those waters, the sea will become fresh. Wherever the river flows, life will flourish—great schools of fish—because the river is turning the salt sea into fresh water. Where the river flows, life abounds. Fishermen will stand shoulder to shoulder along the shore from En Gedi all the way north to En-eglaim, casting their nets. The sea will teem with fish of all kinds, like the fish of the Great Mediterranean.

“The swamps and marshes won’t become fresh. They’ll stay salty.

“But the river itself, on both banks, will grow fruit trees of all kinds. Their leaves won’t wither, the fruit won’t fail. Every month they’ll bear fresh fruit because the river from the Sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will be for food and their leaves for healing.” (The Message)

Jesus said, “Let the one who believes in me drink. As the Scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”

John 7:38, NRSV

The coming of the Lord is what Advent is all about. It means that God is about to show up. And when God shows up, there are rivers of blessing and an abundance of salvation.

We need water

Just as we need water to survive, so we also need the living water which grants us eternal life.

Every living cell of our body contains water. 65% of your body is water. Up to 90% of plant tissue is water. Water defines our environment and shapes our landscape. We need at least two liters of fresh water to drink every day to stay healthy.

Just as each person on earth ought to have clean, safe, fresh water each day, but don’t, so every person also should have the living water of salvation and blessing flowing from God, yet they don’t.

Water constantly moves around the planet – on, above and below the earth’s surface. The cycle from rainfall to evaporation to rainfall is powered by energy from the sun. Water falls as rain, snow, and sleet. It collects in ice, rivers, groundwater, and the oceans. The water cycle naturally cleans the water.

Just as the natural processes of the water cycle give life and health to the planet, so the unseen spiritual processes working above, below, and on the earth exist to provide the life that is truly life.

Water in the Bible

Water is mentioned 722 times in the Bible. Water flows throughout Holy Scripture, reminding us of its importance, both spiritually and physically. Water is such an essential component of life that God created it on the very first day (Genesis 1:2). And water shows up at the very end of the Bible:

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes, take the free gift of the water of life. (Revelation 22:17, NIV)

Naaman the Syrian was cured from his leprosy in the waters of Jordan River (2 Kings 5:1-14). Water is used as a sign and a seal to purify and provide deliverance, as in Christian baptism (Romans 6:3-4; 1 Peter 3:18-22). And the power of water can also be a destructive force (Genesis 6:17; Exodus 14:1-15:21).

Living Water

Jesus, the source of Living Water, extends an invitation to all who thirst.

“But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.” (John 4:14, NLT)

Christ uses water for redemptive purposes, to bring comfort and help.

Jesus got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. (John 13:4-5, NIV)

“O Christ, He is the fountain,

The deep, sweet well of love;

The streams on earth I’ve tasted

More deep I’ll drink above.

There to an ocean fullness

His mercy doth expand,

And glory, glory dwelleth

In Immanuel’s land.”

The Sands of Time Are Sinking by Sam Rutherford and Anne Cousin

From a Christian perspective, the water flowing from the temple finds its fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus Christ. He is the living water that gives eternal life. We would do well to ensure that all people have access to clean physical water, as well as access to purified spiritual water.

Lord Jesus, Son of God, Savior of humanity, there is a river flowing straight from your heart into mine — replenishing, renewing, sustaining. 

May you, as Living Water, be persistent in me, breaking through every barrier in its path.

Send this hydropower through the dark crevices of my heart like a mighty flood overcoming and pushing everything out of the way that blocks its path.

I want my heart to be washed clean of any debris cluttering and blocking your life-giving flow.

May your love overflow onto your people — your grace, your mercy — into the lives of those we encounter, to your glory and honor, in spirit, and in truth. Amen.