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.

Hebrews 2:1-4 – Learning to Pay Attention

“We must give our full attention to what we were told, so that we won’t drift away.” (CEV)
 
            My three girls all have attention deficit disorder (A.D.D.).  You might think this is a disadvantage.  Rather, since the biology of their brain doesn’t have a good filter for sifting out all the stimuli they hear each day, each of them are much more intentional about picking out the voice they want to hear and engaging with it.  Whereas you and I might take this for granted, my girls know the value of creating the skills to pay attention.
            We stand at the cusp of Lent, just two days from now.  A healthy way of looking at this important season in the Christian Year is that it is a time to listen.  It’s the opportunity and privilege of giving our complete attention to Jesus as we plod along the 40-day path to Easter.  And we need to develop some solid skills in paying attention, whether we have A.D.D. or not.
            The cost of not developing such skills is that we will drift away.  Taking for granted that we are Christians, that we know something about salvation, and are basically good people might only be setting us up for spiritual failure. That is, we think we already know about Christ’s person and work of salvation, so we don’t really pay attention.  Bad idea.
            Assuming we are paying attention is not the same thing as actually doing it.
Assumptions lead to drifting away from truth.  We are meant to have continual and constant reminders of Christ and his redemptive events.  This is what Lent intends for us.  To ignore the wisdom of two-thousand years of church practice puts us in a precarious position of being lost in a sea of competing voices.
            For the next six weeks, make the choice that you will pay attention to Christ each day through:
·         Reading the Scripture every day with a combination of standing and sitting, reading silently and out loud.
·         Holding a cross or other Christian reminder in your hand and feel free to fidget with it.
·         Journaling your thoughts in a notebook.
·         Imposing a time limit on yourself each day for the next 40 days.
·         Using different versions of the Bible to read throughout Lent.
·         Going outside occasionally and praying while walking.
·         Focusing on your breathing. Breathe out: “Speak Lord.” Breathe in: “I am listening.”
·         Drinking some coffee, tea, or something soothing.
·         Being mindful of distractions and acknowledging them without judging yourself.
The point is to have an intentional plan for paying attention.  Don’t assume you’ll just be focused.

 

May your journey with Jesus this season be a fresh experience in knowing him better.

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.

Romans 7:14-25

            “I don’t understand why I act the way I do.  I don’t do what I know is right.  I do the things I hate.”  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 low-level discouragement that underlies almost everything we do.
 
            Paul’s prescription for dealing with this does not rely on law.  That’s right.  Paul understood that putting our willpower and effort into obeying commands gets us nowhere because we will eventually fail.  The law just shows us how bad off we really are in this world.  We are a bundle of contradictions, doing good, then bad, and flip-flopping back and forth with great frustration.
 
            “What a miserable person I am.  Who will rescue me from this body of that is doomed to die?  Thank God! Jesus Christ will rescue me.”  Sheer willpower and obedience will not work because what we really need is a Savior who will deliver us from ourselves.  Grace, then, is the operative power that changes lives, and not law.  Freedom from the tyranny of our misplaced desires 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 practical freedom from all that is damaging and destructive in my soul.  Amen.

Hebrews 2:1-9

            Here we are at the end of another Lenten season with Spring upon us and Holy Week’s near arrival.  For many people this is simply old hat.  The redemptive events of Jesus are so familiar to some of us that it runs the risk of being, well, boring.  After all, we know this stuff already – why keep doing this continual Church Calendar thing? 
 
            While some might cry out that lectionaries, the Christian Year, Holy Week, and liturgies are just vain repetition, I would argue otherwise:  we are in grave danger of not paying attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.  Like a beach-goer out on the lake drifting on her flotation device far out from shore, we are unaware of how far we have strayed from our spiritual moorings.  If the passion and death of Jesus can only get a shoulder shrug and a “meh” out of us, there is a real problem.  We have ignored Lent’s emphasis on repentance and want the destination without the time it takes to get there.
 
            “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” protests the author of Hebrews.  The events and services of Holy Week are designed to help us pay attention, to remember, to give thoughtful reflection and due diligence to the incredible work of salvation that Jesus has pioneered and achieved for us through the cross.  The sin which we must turn from is not the overt commission of having done something really bad, but the negligent omission of not doing anything, of treating Holy Week just like any other old week.  Lord, have mercy.  Christ, have mercy.
 

 

            Gracious Lord Jesus, you went to the greatest lengths possible to redeem us from sin’s terrible bondage.  As I contemplate your passion in this next week, lead me to fresh appreciation and a depth of gratitude that goes beyond comprehension.  Amen.

John 11:45-57

            We are moving inexorably toward the cross and Good Friday.  The season of Lent marches on and within a few weeks we will be considering if we were there when they crucified my Lord.  Today’s Gospel lesson chronicles the forward progress to the ultimate suffering and death of Jesus.  Within the Apostle John’s account, two streams run parallel with one another.  There is a group of Jews who observed Jesus, listened to his teaching, saw his miraculous works, and believed in him.  Alongside them is another group of Jews who experienced all the same events and heard all of the same words of Jesus.  Yet, they respond in a very different manner by plotting how Jesus might be arrested and killed.
 
            Caiaphas, the high priest, spoke to his fellow Jewish leaders perhaps without even knowing the truth and deep import of his prophetic words:  “You know nothing at all.  Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.”  Indeed, not only did Jesus die for the nation of Israel, but on behalf of all nations, and all people. 
 
            Now is the time to begin in earnest a consideration of the cross of Christ.  The implications of his death are magnanimous.  The extent of his atonement for the people includes redemption from the slavery of sin; reconciliation between us and God; satisfaction of God’s wrath against the sin of the world; and, victory over Satan, death, and hell.  March Madness for the Christian is setting aside some significant time for prayer, confession of sin, repentance, contemplation, spiritual conversation with other believers, and fasting as we anticipate the holiest week of the year.
 

 

            Precious Jesus, you endured the machinations of people and the plots of others so that you might face the cross in all of its foulness and degradation.  Enable me to walk with you along the road of suffering.  In doing so, may I know you better and better and know the life that is truly life.  Amen.

Heart and Mouth

 
 
Confession with the mouth and belief in the heart are both necessary for salvation (Romans 10:8-13).  John Wesley was an Oxford don who became an Anglican priest.  He had all the intellectual tools to rightly handle the intricacies of theology and teach the Bible.  Yet, when he first started out, there was no heart behind it.  On a voyage across the Atlantic to America, Wesley spent much of the time on the ship with a group of German Pietists, that is, men and women who deliberately had a heart behind their practice of Christianity.  The Germans deeply impressed Wesley, and he realized that there was something very important missing from his own religion.  The ship encountered a storm and Wesley was afraid for his life, but the German believers seemed unfazed, having a faith of the heart that John could not explain.  He wanted what they had.  When death stared him in the face, he was fearful and found little comfort in his religion. John Wesley confessed to one of them his growing misery and decision to give up the ministry. “Preach faith till you have it,” one of the Germans advised. “And then because you have it, you will preach faith.  Act as if you have faith and it will be granted to you.”
 
Wesley acted on the advice. He led a prisoner to Christ by preaching faith in Christ alone for forgiveness of sins. The prisoner was immediately converted. Wesley was astonished. He had been struggling for years, and here was a man transformed instantly. He found himself crying out, “Lord, help my unbelief!” However, he felt dull inside and had little motivation even to pray for his own salvation. Back in England, in the year 1738, Wesley was in a church service and someone read from Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to Romans. About 8:45 p.m. Wesley recorded:  “while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
 
 
 
Simply uttering the words with our mouths, “Jesus is Lord,” by itself does not constitute deliverance and salvation for people.  The heart must also be involved.  Yet, having said this we must also consider the reality that only focusing on the heart without having the mouth involved is an insufficient faith.  There must be a ground of solid objective evidence for our faith – a real historical base from which our hearts can tether themselves.  The mouth needs to confess that Jesus has indeed risen from the dead and is Lord of all, having secured salvation for us through his blood shed on the cross (Romans 10:9).
 
If we only focus on the heart, our hearts will condemn us.  We need to say the words of our faith, to confess them with our mouths, over and over and over and over again until we believe them.  We are not just to wait for our hearts to feel like having faith and living for God, because our hearts can be desperately wicked and they will keep deceiving us.  The heart must be informed by God’s Word.  We are to take the words of Holy Scripture by faith and trust what those words say.  “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
 
We need to have a right confession with our mouths; and, we need to really believe in our hearts.  Both must be present for saving faith.  When mouth and heart work in concert with each other something happens:  “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13).  It does not matter whether that call is melodious, sweet, and in tune, or whether it is a jumbled off-key joyful noise; both will be saved.  Only uttering the right words like some magical incantation does not save us.  Only having a sincere heart does not save us.  One cannot achieve salvation through self-effort, or making oneself worthy to be loved.  No one is saved by finding the right combination of words in prayer, or having some nice feeling that everything is okay.  Deliverance from sin, death, and hell does not result from getting cleaned up so that we are attractive to God and others.  Calling on the name of the Lord with both mouth and heart, trusting in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, saves us.
 

 

Church ministry, then, is to aim at both head and heart.  It is to provide robust biblical teaching coupled with heartfelt belief and practice.  People are neither only brains on a stick, nor walking headless hearts.  They need intellectual rigor targeted straight toward the heart because we are holistic creatures who must have a salvation that believes in the heart and confesses boldly with the mouth.