Letters to the Old and the Young (2 Timothy 2:1-7)

Paul and Timothy by Unknown artist, 1886

As for you, my son, be strong through the grace that is ours in union with Christ Jesus. Take the teachings that you heard me proclaim in the presence of many witnesses, and entrust them to reliable people, who will be able to teach others also.

Take your part in suffering, as a loyal soldier of Christ Jesus. A soldier on active duty wants to please his commanding officer and so does not get mixed up in the affairs of civilian life. An athlete who runs in a race cannot win the prize unless he obeys the rules. The farmer who has done the hard work should have the first share of the harvest. Think about what I am saying, because the Lord will enable you to understand it all. (Good News Translation)

The Apostle Paul was a spiritual father to Timothy. Oh my, how we desperately need Paul and Timothy relationships today!

Too much independence breeds nothing but goofy thinking, messed up emotions, extreme ascetic practices, doctrinal heresy, and shallow spirituality. A good and godly spiritual father or mother is an absolute necessity to properly guide others, pass on sound teaching, and model how we ought to live.

I’m going to address two groups of people: older generations and younger generations….

Dear Older Generations:

Hey, if you are concerned about younger generations, then by God do something about it!

Heed the words of Paul to Timothy and be a spiritual director of souls to those who are like sheep without a shepherd.

Get your mental and emotional energy off of retirement, your economic portfolios, only giving money, and placing your hope in political elections.

You have built a lifetime of knowledge concerning personal piety and ethics, human behavior and community, and divine ways and means of living. Don’t squander it by dying and leaving only a material inheritance. Rather, die to self, and leave a spiritual legacy of mentoring others in the faith.

Guide a younger man or woman in discerning between the workings of the Holy Spirit and the machinations of evil spirits. Help them unlock the mysteries of being united to Christ. Assist them in moving into greater self-awareness and God-consciousness.

Keep learning and growing. Don’t rest on your laurels. Continue navigating the circuitous ways of the interior life – and leading other younger Christian disciples into the life of the Spirit.

Warn and encourage with all spiritual wisdom. Warn against the temptations of wealth, security, and attention. Don’t be the answer guy but learn to ask good and helpful questions which pilot the soul and inspire the spirit – instead of rigid lectures telling others what exactly to do and how to do it.

Don’t be a putz, a schmuck, a curmudgeon, or a blockhead. Be winsome, kind, self-effacing, gentle, and above all, humble. You have learned many things in the school of hard knocks. So, give the space and grace for younger generations of people to fail and be trained by their mistakes. And be there to help them get back up.

With sincerity and humility,

Pastor Tim

Dear Younger Generations:

This may or may not be obvious: You don’t know it all. And you cannot do it all by yourself. You need a spiritual guide.

So, go find one. Actively seek for a spiritual father or mother. In your search, look for a virtuous person, especially looking to see humility, self-control, service toward others, wisdom, deep and prayerful contemplation, a heart for God and a love of neighbor.

This may take a while but that’s okay. The journey is as much or more important than the destination. Once your search finds such a person, take advantage of the opportunity by submitting fully to your mentor with obedience. Follow their advice because they’ve been there, and they know what is useful for you.

You haven’t reached the Promised Land. There is a lot of wilderness wandering that needs to happen, a lot of soul-searching, and many temptations to face down. Your director knows these challenges better than their back door, so don’t think for a moment that everything is going to be victory in Jesus. Suffering can be your greatest teacher.

It isn’t the outer person who needs all the attention; it’s the inner person. And the journey to the heart is fraught with many trials.

Stick with the process. Don’t flame out early. Persevere, endure, and don’t give up. Work hard at not having a “meh” attitude. Expect to struggle with spiritual laziness, emotional heaviness, physical weakness, fearful apprehension, depressing despondency, desertion of hope, and dark thoughts.

Nobody is going to give you a shot in the arm which inoculates you against harm, heresy, or half-baked obnoxious people. Every good thing in life requires a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears, so be willing to roll up your sleeves and put in the work of sanctification.

The Christian life is a marathon, not a hundred meter dash. When the metaphorical bear jumps on your back, and you feel you cannot go on, remember that your spiritual mentor has your back – not the bear.

Be patient and do the consistent practices which will add up to a godly life, blessing both the church and the world.

With encouragement and love,

Pastor Tim

Less Is More (Luke 17:5-10)

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.

“Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So, you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” (New International Version)

You and I do not need control. Authority and power belong to God. And we are not God.

You and I need faith. And, since we belong to God, who is the ultimate authority and controls all things, we already have it.

You already have what you need: Jesus. There is no need to hustle and cajole for something you do not need.

Jesus tells his disciples two parables designed to reorient their thinking and their lives around God, and not around the typical worldly tools of power and authority.

We find self-control something very hard. We’d rather have plain old control.

In the 1990s, The Department of Transportation set aside $200 million dollars for research and testing of an automated Highway System. The plan was that this system would relieve traffic problems by placing all cars that entered the highway on “super cruise control,” allowing them to move in unison as they traveled in heavily congested cities.  

Such travel would be made possible by using special magnets embedded in the asphalt every four feet, which would transfer signals between the vehicles and a main computer system.  

Steering, acceleration and braking would be controlled by sensors, computer navigation systems and cameras along the side of the road. Control would be returned to drivers as they exited the highway.  According to the technology manager of the project, “The only thing we can’t do yet is get people to comfortably trust the system. It’s not a technology issue.”

The grace of God in Jesus Christ is our fail-safe system designed to put us in “super cruise control” when dealing with circumstances and relating to people. There is just one difficulty with the system: Getting people to comfortably trust it.

The real problem is that we prefer to retain control of life’s steering wheel, even though it is this tendency that drives us to discontentment and endless relational conflict. Rather than insisting on doing life our way, we need Jesus to take the wheel.

And the irony to all this is that we already have what we so desperately seek.

Just a little bit of Jesus makes a large impact on the world.

            Our Lord’s entire kingdom movement looked as insignificant as a mustard seed. Christ’s little band of disciples were, at best, a motley crew of very human characters who vacillated between faith and doubt; they spent as much time arguing amongst themselves as they did engaging in ministry. Yet, it was these same people who ended up turning the world upside-down.

            The insignificant and small looking mustard seed eventually becomes a world-sheltering tree. In the same way, a barbaric, bloody, seemingly insignificant cross became the means of changing the world.

            We, even though imperfect and small, can become, with Jesus in us, a healing force for the world. Little is much when God is in it. Although Gideon believed he needed to be in charge of a large army to defeat Israel’s enemies, God whittled his soldiers down to just 300, against a force described as an army with men as many as the sand on the seashore. Victory was no problem. Gideon already had what he needed: God. (Judges 7:1-25)

Never underestimate the potency of our little bit of ministry with Jesus animating it. Our…

Kind words spoken in the name of Jesus…

Hidden prayers uttered silently behind closed doors…

Secret giving in which the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing…

Gentleness in the face of violence…

Humility in the midst of pride…

Mercy given instead of judgment…

Peacemaking wherever frustration exists…

These and so much more, when energized by Jesus, becomes a mighty force for good and change in this old fallen world.

Yet so many Christians think they need all kinds of power, authority, and control – then mountains can be moved, trees uprooted, and things can happen.

With this misguided notion, we too easily succumb to the temptations of winning success, spinning a superior self-image, and pinning down power to get what we want and need.

However, we already have what we need, Jesus, and we do not need what he has – power and authority; we just need him.

The Lord Jesus has shown us the way in this. In Christ’s incarnation, he emptied himself and became like one of us – eschewing the typical power dynamics of the world. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus spends 40 days in the desert fasting – making himself empty.

And at the end of that time, the devil came to Christ and tempted him in the very same ways we are tempted (Matthew 4:1-11):

Satan: “You need to be successful.”

Jesus: “Nope, don’t need that.”

Satan: “Well, you definitely need to be on the right religious track.”

Jesus: “Get out of my face. I don’t need to play that game.”

Satan: “It’s simple. You can do your Father’s will with the tools of power I have.”

Jesus: “I’m not going there. I don’t need your sort of help.”

In submitting to his Father’s plan and will, Jesus showed us the way to live as his followers.

We, too, have to stare the same three temptations in the eye: the belief that I need to be successful, to be right, and to have everything under control.

The truth, however, is just the opposite. In actuality, we need to be poor in spirit, powerless,  and humble – not full of strength and control.

Jesus said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul responded, “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10, NIV)

In reality, we need to be open and vulnerable – not spinning a self-image which projects strength, authority, and power.

 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8, NIV)

We need to be meek and gentle – just like our Lord – not puffing our chests out with a show of strength and authority.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, NIV)

Less is truly more. Only those who have nothing to prove and nothing to protect can receive Christ. And Jesus himself will lead us on this path of self-emptying.

We already have Jesus. Therefore, we already have everything we need. Even a smidgeon of Christ is more than enough for us. What we may think we need – to win at success, to spin a narrative of rightness, and to pin down control through power and authority – amounts to nothing in the kingdom of God.

Instead, what we really need is to walk in the way of Jesus – to be weak through self-emptying, to leak out our pride and embrace humility and vulnerability, and to be meek by having a gentle spirit.

Being a servant is a good thing. And being a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ – the author and perfecter of our faith – is the only vocation we need. With Jesus, less is more.

Almighty and everlasting God, we are far too often influenced by what others think of us. We pretend to be in control, with it, in charge, and strong. Prevent us from trying to attract attention. Don’t let us gloat over praise on one hand or be discouraged by criticism on the other. Nor let us waste time weaving imaginary situations in which the most heroic, put together, and powerful person present is me. Rather, show us how to be humble of heart, just like your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit are one God, now and forever. Amen.

Matthew 18:6-9 – Say “No” to Temptation

“If you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.

What sorrow awaits the world because it tempts people to sin. Temptations are inevitable, but what sorrow awaits the person who does the tempting. So, if your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one hand or one foot than to be thrown into eternal fire with both of your hands and feet. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.” (New Living Translation)

It’s probably a good idea not to get on the wrong side of Jesus.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus utilized a variety of teaching methods to communicate his message. In today’s Gospel lesson, Christ used the language of hyperbole to arrest attention and get his point across.

A universal truism of this world is that sin exists. In Holy Scripture, sin is anything people do or say – or fail to do and say – which damages or destroys another’s or one self’s physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual wellbeing.

Greed, envy, gluttony, sloth, anger, lust, and pride abound no matter where one goes on this planet. Sin is downright awful. It causes people to stumble, and, when unchecked, leads to personal and corporate chaos, unrest, and destruction. 

Whenever sin is viewed merely as a character flaw, or simply part of the fabric of organizations and institutions, then hellfire is not far off. Hell exists because of sin. 

We get the flavor that Jesus took sin quite serious. Christ considers sin so terrible and heinous that he deliberately used the height of hyperbole to communicate that radical, drastic, and decisive action must unequivocally be taken to get rid of it. 

The Lord Jesus wanted there to be no mistake in his communication: Sin is not something to dabble in or take a shallow approach; rather, sin must be eradicated, at all costs. The language is severe: If your hand, foot, or eye causes you to sin, cut it off. It’s better to enter life crippled or blind rather than be thrown into a suffering hell.

Temptations will inevitably come. Yet, how we handle those temptations and what we do with them is of eternal significance. 

We must get to the root of the sin – which happens through succumbing to temptation – and re-arrange our lives, alter our schedules, and change our lives in a radical way to remove putting ourselves in a position to sin. 

Solid daily spiritual habits of Scripture reading and prayer; time for sleep and rest; attention to Sabbath; and a regular exercise regimen are all ways to help ensure that temptation will not win the day.

And God forbid that we cause another to sin because we are hangry, tired, and out of shape because we’ve neglected ourselves for far too long. Self-care isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. Other people get hurt when we hurt ourselves.

Your self-care is always a valid excuse to say “no.”

If we take the words of Jesus to heart, perhaps we will gain awareness of the ways we need to metaphorically cut off a hand or gouge out an eye. For many people, this means learning to say “no.”

There doesn’t always need to be an explanation for assertively and courteously saying the word “no.” If an explanation is warranted, it should be brief. The word “no” doesn’t mean we are selfish pricks trying to wriggle out of responsibility. “No” simply realizes we are finite creatures with limited time, energy, and resources. Unlike God, we cannot do it all.

Setting personal boundaries is both wise and necessary. Without them, we let others chain us in bondage to their agendas. A lack of personal boundaries also typically means that the boundary-less person continually violates others’ boundaries. Since there are no fences in their own lives, they feel they can hop anybody else’s fence in front of them.

Violating someone’s space through mental or emotional manipulation, spiritual abuse, or bodily harm is sin. Jesus wants radical action to deal with such offense of others.

For the Christian, priority must be given to saying “yes” to Jesus, which then allows a “no” to come when there are competing priorities. A person unclear on their values and priorities will chronically violate others. If you have a specific plan of doing the will of God before being confronted with another person’s request, you’re more likely to stick to your original plan.

Jesus continually said “yes” to the Father. This framed and formed his earthly life so that he crossed social boundaries to speak to a Samaritan woman, a tax collector, and a leper – while maintaining the respect of another’s personal boundary by asking if they want to be helped and healed.

Sin is horrible – which is why Jesus went to the ultimate length to deal with it. He sacrificed himself and suffered an ignominious death so that sin’s power would be crushed, so that you and I could say “no” to temptation.

Holy God, you sent your Son to this earth to deal decisively with the world’s sin.  I choose today to walk in the forgiveness you offer through Jesus, and to avail myself of the Spirit’s power to forsake temptation in all its forms.  Amen.

James 1:9-16 – The Rich, the Poor, and God

Photo by Suliman Sallehi on Pexels.com

Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wildflower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls, and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. (New International Version)

The social milieu of the New Testament world was a society firmly stratified between the rich and the poor.  There were very few opportunities for uplift with the lower class. There were no laws protecting the rights of workers and the disadvantaged, and the rich often used and abused their power over them.

However, the Apostle James had a different angle, a divine perspective, on the situation.

The poor person is rich

The lowly poor person actually has a high position because their poverty enables an openness to God and leads them to rely on God’s enablement and provision.

Whenever you find yourself with few material possessions; struggle to keep food on the table; and find it difficult to pay the bills – then, you are stripped of the illusion of independence and are left vulnerable before God. In this state of humility, the believer cries to God. Trust becomes necessary for survival.

God cares about our poverty of spirit – our humble and contrite hearts. A person can be poor, but, at the same time, spiritually advantaged. We are loved by God neither because of wealth nor poverty; we are loved because that’s what God does.

It is possible to be poor, and not humble. Conversely, it is possible to be rich and trust God. Chronically complaining of a lack of funds and always desiring more money – or trying to act like we are not poor (or the rich trying to act poor) – will not get an exalted status with God.

The choice is: Will we pour our lives into things, or people? Will we define success as worldly wealth, or as acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God?

It is quite possible to have very little, but to be rich in faith and relationships. 

The rich person is poor

Wealth is not bad, per se. There are plenty of godly and wealthy persons in Scripture, like Abraham and Job. The problem is people who rely on what they own rather than on God. (Luke 12:13-21) 

Anyone who trusts in things is the true underprivileged person. The lack of faith and humility makes them like a sirocco wind – a hot and humid southeast to southwest wind originating as hot, dry desert-air over North Africa, and blowing northward into the southern Mediterranean basin. 

The original readers knew all about these winds that could unpredictably come through their area and wither perfectly good and apparently strong plants.

The rich person who trusts in wealth is like that plant. It grows up, flourishes, and is beautiful. Yet, the next day, it is completely gone – annihilated by the hot wind. Like a cornfield in a massive hailstorm, or a flower in a severely hot sirocco wind, you can count on the biblical reality that the rich cannot stand in the judgment, if they are looking to wealth for power, control, attention, and status. 

Even though it might seem the rich person is exalted, and the poor person is in a low position, in the end, the rich will suffer, and the poor will be vindicated. Faith determines success – not money. (Luke 16:19-21)

The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord made them both.

Proverbs 22:2, CEB

Blessed is the person who perseveres under a time of trial and testing of faith. God is pleased when we learn to endure hardship and let it mature us into better people. For such people, God promises to give the crown of life.  God sees your hardship and promises life. This hope helps sustain us over those times when we might wonder if the trial will ever end.

Sometimes, however, we face suffering not because of the circumstances which God brings in our lives, but because of our own unwise response to difficulty. We compound our problems by blaming our troubles on others and refusing to face-up to what God is trying to teach us. 

Our bruised hearts can send us desperately looking for someone to point the finger when we are confronted with our own trouble – even God.

“There are two eras in American history: the passing of the buffalo and the passing of the buck.”

Will Rogers

We are sometimes so desperate to justify ourselves that we make illogical and irrational statements, such as: 

  • “I would not worry about the future if I had just a little more money, and no health problems.”
  • “If you knew what I’ve been through, you would know that I could never forgive that person [or God].”
  • “I’ll never be happy as long as _______ is in my life.”
  • “I would be more generous if God gave me more money.”

So, what will it take to stop making excuses, blaming others, and start pleasing God instead of everyone else? What will it take to face down the difficult stuff you don’t like in your life?

Don’t blame God

God cannot be tempted. God hates injustice. It is a moral impossibility for God to even consider attempting to do evil because of perfect holiness. Since God cannot be tempted by evil, God therefore cannot tempt people toward evil.

We blame others because it is a cheap, easy, and pathetic way of absolving ourselves from responsibility, unwise choices, words, and actions. There are only two ways of living with guilt: either we humble ourselves through confession and repentance; or we blame it on someone else.

God tests our faith to improve our character and bring us toward greater spiritual maturity. God does not force us to make bad, immoral, or evil choices because of hard circumstances. God may have very well brought the trial and testing into our lives; but how we respond to it, is up to us.

The source of temptation is us

The real culprit behind temptation is one’s own personal desire or lust for something. It is our own strong intense have-to-do-it, have-to-say-it, and have-to-have-it mentality which is at the root of temptation. 

We all have legitimate needs and desires for love, security, companionship, and to make a difference in the world. Yet we can often seek illegitimate means to satisfy those needs. Temptation lures us to satisfy our legitimate needs in illegitimate ways, and then hooks us like a fish. 

The result of giving-in to temptation is ultimately death

The Apostle James used the familiar language of childbirth to convey the consequences of sinful desires. Temptation, like a smooth operator, comes along and gives us a slick pitch about how our troubles can be taken care of through blaming others, even God.

Then, all of sudden, like a lost and lonely person desiring to be satisfied, we entertain the idea and go to bed with the idea. We sin. Now it is within us. Like a fetus, the small sin grows inside us. Eventually, this pregnancy must end. But instead of giving birth to life, there is the agony of death.

If the result of the person who perseveres under trial and endures the testing of faith is being with and enjoying God forever, so the result of the person who chooses to fulfill evil desires through succumbing to temptation is separation from God – it is death.

Conclusion

Every one of us struggles in some way with temptation. We don’t all wrestle with the same demons, but we all are tempted in some manner. The cycle of guilt and separation from God can be broken through humility and submission to Christ. The good news is that the power of sin can be broken.

Don’t let anyone fool you by using senseless arguments [blame-shifting]. These arguments may sound wise, but they are only human teachings. They come from the powers of this world and not from Christ. God lives fully in Christ. And you are fully grown because you belong to Christ, who is over every power and authority. Christ has also taken away your selfish desires, just as circumcision removes flesh from the body. And when you were baptized, it was the same as being buried with Christ.  Then you were raised to life because you had faith in the power of God, who raised Christ from death. You were dead because you were sinful and were not God’s people. But God let Christ make you alive when he forgave all our sins. (Colossians 2:8-12, CEV)