Sheep Without a Shepherd

The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.

— Mark 6:30-34

When I was associate pastor in Palm Beach Gardens, FL, one of several hurricanes missed us and crossed the state a few miles north of us. One Sunday, a very weary woman came into our service. She introduced herself as a Disciples minister, then broke down crying. She was from San Diego and had come here to help with the destruction from the hurricane.

She told heart-wrenching stories about people living in their storage sheds, with plastic tarps for roofs and wood fires for cooking. She told us about her work with the physical needs of the people she met, but also about the extreme emotional toll the storm had on the people. She was from out of town, so she did not represent an area church.

We discussed ways that we could help in an already crowded field of volunteers. She suggested that if we volunteered, we might be able to recruit people into the church.

I’m sure you know that Disciples churches aren’t exactly evangelical. My senior pastor and I had a sense that although there were no Disciples churches in the affected area, there were plenty of churches where people could and perhaps should attend. Besides, we were too far away. We just had a sense that it would be taking unfair advantage of a natural disaster if we used it as a platform to gain members.

Her response was, “Well, SOMEBODY should bring them in!”

I will never forget that event. We were convicted of finding an excuse to avoid recruiting new church members. Our excuse sounded legitimate – that there were other churches closer, that the people probably had a different denominational background, and so on. But while we were making excuses to not evangelize, apparently so was everybody else. In the midst of the destruction, the people were like sheep without a spiritual shepherd.

I bet we have excuses for not evangelizing. There are a lot of churches in Guyton. A lot of people have backgrounds and families in other denominations. We aren’t big enough for some people. We don’t have a big singles group. We are too liberal for some people and too conservative for others. But the lesson I learned is that if we are not shepherding people into the kingdom of God, they are likely to be sheep without a shepherd.

In today’s Gospel story, Jesus has taken His disciples by boat to a solitary place. Jesus had sent them out two by two to evangelize, and they had returned to report on their success. Jesus was suggesting that they all take a break in a solitary place. But the people figured out where they were going, and when they landed the boat, that place was not so solitary. It was full of people looking for answers, looking for a teacher, looking for a shepherd. Jesus and the disciples needed a break, but the people needed a shepherd. So Jesus forgot about his needed break and started teaching the people.

This story comes just before the feeding of the five-thousand, which comes before the event of Jesus walking on water and calming a storm. Between those two events, Jesus was praying alone on a mountaintop. That was His time to recharge.

The story says that Jesus had pity on the people, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. The same phrase is used in Matthew. Let’s look at that, in Matthew 9:35-38:

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

“The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” There were plenty of people working the field after the hurricane, but there was nobody harvesting those who were ripe for spiritual revival. In John 4, Jesus has so impressed a Samaritan woman that she brought the whole town out to hear him. It was another time that Jesus needed a break.

The disciples had gone to get food. “Rabbi, eat something,” they said. Jesus answered, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest.’?” How is that a saying? It must have been that when one person says, “We can’t take a break,” or “Why are you doing nothing?”, the person resting might say, “It’s still four months until harvest.” It’s kind of like saying, “What’s the hurry?”

Jesus goes on to say, “I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.”

We all tend to make excuses for why we aren’t out inviting people to church, or testifying about the Kingdom of God. There’s lots of time, we say. What’s the hurry? The people aren’t ready. Somebody else will do it. Our barns are not big enough.

Meanwhile, lost and hurting people are looking for a shepherd. It doesn’t matter that we aren’t good enough, big enough, rich enough, loud enough, contemporary enough. It doesn’t matter if we need a break. No excuse matters, because we are not the shepherd; Jesus is.

Here’s the question: Are we going to go another week without inviting someone to church? Why? Do we really think everybody has a church, or are we just afraid to ask? Look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest! There are workers in the field who really have their hands full, and they are asking the Lord of the Harvest to send more workers.

Guess what? We are more workers. We are those who are too often sitting on the sidelines, waiting for instructions or for the ideal opportunity. Meanwhile, there are people who are lost and confused – Matthew says they are harassed and helpless – and they are like sheep without a shepherd.

You can be an answer to prayer. We can be workers in the field, gathering the harvest, bringing in the sheaves. We may need rest, we may be few, we may be busy, and none of that matters. Look! The field is ripe for harvest! Pray that the Lord of the Harvest will send workers into His field! I pray that when He sends us, we will go into the field, harvest the grain, and introduce those harassed and helpless sheep to the Good Shepherd who leads this church.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Revive Us Again

You, Lord, showed favor to your land;
you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
You forgave the iniquity of your people
and covered all their sins.
You set aside all your wrath
and turned from your fierce anger.

Restore us again, God our Savior,
and put away your displeasure toward us.
Will you be angry with us forever?
Will you prolong your anger through all generations?
Will you not revive us again,
that your people may rejoice in you?
Show us your unfailing love, Lord,
and grant us your salvation.

I will listen to what God the Lord says;
he promises peace to his people, his faithful servants—
but let them not turn to folly.
Surely his salvation is near those who fear him,
that his glory may dwell in our land.

Love and faithfulness meet together;
righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Faithfulness springs forth from the earth,
and righteousness looks down from heaven.
The Lord will indeed give what is good,
and our land will yield its harvest.
Righteousness goes before him
and prepares the way for his steps.

— Psalm 85

The English sonnet is a rigorous poetic form. Every English sonnet contains three four-line stanzas called “quatrains” and a two-line stanza called a “couplet” for 14 lines. Every line contains 10 syllables. The rhyme scheme of the quatrains is “ABAB”, and the rhyme scheme of the couplet is, of course, “CC”.

Because it’s such a rigorous form, the language can become a bit stilted. The sonnet becomes even more stilted if it aims too much to a commercial intent. All this considered, I still wrote a sonnet for our church:

If you are looking for love and respect
Where people welcome you just as you are,
Then join in our prayer to God to protect
This gentle oasis, this crowning star

In the Kingdom of Christ attracting all
Who are weak and weary, lonely and blue.
If you think God’s not there or does not care,
Guyton Christian Church wants to welcome you.

If you want to live with Jesus as Lord,
If you cry for the Holy Spirit’s power,
Join brothers and sisters of one accord
And visit us once, just for an hour.

The table of Christ is where we would share
God’s love. Please join us. We welcome you there.

Some day I’ll write a better one for Guyton Christian Church. But my point here is just to explain my particular affection for the Psalms. They’re all hymns, and many are prayers. Just as rhyme and rhythm are poetic devices in English, ancient Hebrew has other poetic devices that don’t translate into English. However, most modern translations evolved from the King James Version, which was written in Shakespeare’s lifetime and heavily influenced by his poetry. The result is something new and beautiful, and something that shows the fingerprint of God.

Today’s psalm, #85, is a prayer an a hymn. As with many such psalms, it acknowledges God’s favor to God’s people Israel, the people’s sin and God’s resulting anger, and a celebration of a love so strong that it lets God forgive us and turn from wrath. Before the resettling of Israel, the Christian church put itself in Israel’s place in all of scripture. Today, Israel is again a land and a people, so we’ve lost that personal sense of scripture. But we lose nothing of what the psalm says about the loving, merciful nature of God. We are right to call ourselves children of God, just as Israel did. And, importantly, we are right to admit that we are just as fickle and sinful as were the children of Israel, and indeed all nations throughout history.

Psalm 85 comes up on the lectionary for this week, and it is particularly significant to me. It teaches us about God. It tells us something about prayer. And the ideas expressed are in and of themselves very creative and poetic.

The first four verses are a stanza. They refer to a time when God brought Israel out of exile and restored the land. “You forgave the iniquity of your people and covered all their sins,” verse two says. The original Hebrew then includes the word “selah”. We don’t know what that means, but it’s probably something like “amen”. I can imagine the thought of God forgiving and hiding the sins of the people would make them want to shout, “Amen!”

The next four verses seem to be another stanza. In them, the people are asking God to repeat that act of forgiveness. “Restore us again, God our Savior, and put away your displeasure toward us.” Verse 6 says, “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?”

This is common throughout the Hebrew Bible, and especially in the psalms. It goes something like, “O God, we cannot rejoice in our affliction. If you restore us, if you forgive us, we will survive to sing your praises.” It’s a plea that God seems to answer again and again.

Verse 8 makes a deal with God. “I will listen to what God the LORD says; He promises peace to his people, his faithful servants – but let them not turn to folly.” In other words, I’ll read God’s promises and instructions. I’ll take the peace that God promises, but I understand that obedience is part of the deal. Peace comes to doers of the word, and not to hearers only.

Verse 9 describes what I like to call “proximity blessings.” “Surely his salvation is near those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.” In other words, if his salvation is near those who fear him, then it is also near to everyone else in the land.

Paul taught that a Christian spouse should stay with a non-Christian spouse if possible so that the spouse and the children could also be sanctified –in other words, so that they would receive that proximity blessing. People who come into the church without believing are still receiving the blessing of God, because God’s hand of blessing is on the whole church. That’s a good thing, because when one of us falls, the rest of us are there to pick them up.

The last four verses are so poetic! “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteous and peace kiss each other.” What a beautiful picture! It is also meaningful. The next verse explains: “Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven.”

That’s a very Christian view of our relationship with God. Think about it. What comes from us? What springs from the earth? Faithfulness! Belief in God, or, more likely, loyalty to God. And what comes from God, or down from heaven? Righteousness! Think about the Genesis verse that Paul quotes in Romans: “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Abraham was not righteous, and neither are we, so righteousness has to come from God. He credits us as if we were righteous, and he teaches us to be righteous. Our part can only be faith.

People think the message changed from “old” to “new” testament. It did not. The entire Bible makes clear that we are not righteous. The entire Bible makes clear that only God can make us righteous. And the entire Bible makes clear that God will credit us with righteousness if we provide faithfulness.

Psalm 85 is a prayer for revival! “Restore us again, God our Savior, and put away your displeasure toward us.” “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?”

I think you know what our part is here: Faithfulness. Believe in God, and be loyal to God. I often pray for revival at Guyton Christian Church, and that this community will receive a proximity blessing.

I have to confess something. I personally have found revival at Guyton Christian Church. In so many ways, you have restored my faith. I have received a proximity blessing, and because you are faithful, I am blessed to be a part of this church.

But we want more, don’t we? Don’t we want God to forgive our sins and give us reasons to rejoice? Don’t we want the entire land, all of Guyton and Effingham County, to see the glory of God?

My fervent prayer is that God will revive us again, individually and as a church. I pray that we will receive God’s righteousness through our faithfulness, and that the entire community will see the glory of God.

I hope that you will all join me in a prayer for revival at Guyton Christian Church. Please, let us pray:

“Restore us again, God our Savior. Revive us again, so your people may rejoice in you. Show us your unfailing love, and grand us your salvation. In Jesus Name we pray, Amen.”


Power Made Perfect

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 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 12:2-10 NIV

As Christians, we all want to demonstrate the power of Christ. We want that power in our lives, and we want to share that power with the world. We think of that power as the power to heal, to raise the dead, to feed thousands. It is a power that blesses people and a power that demonstrates strength. That’s the kind of power I want in my life. I want a faith so strong that it can move mountains.

If we focus on the power of Christ, then we practice one form of Christianity, and we show ourselves to be one kind of person. But the story of Jesus is more about weakness than strength. Consider that story: Jesus starts life with people questioning his legitimacy. He is born in the lowly manger and to an oppressed people. The angels did not appear over the manger, but in the field, inviting the lowest of the low – the shepherds – to visit the newborn king.

That’s a powerful symbol for us, but it is the picture of glory disguised as something mundane or common. We celebrate the picture of a king heralded by angels, but the actual picture is the child of commoners born among animals and visited by shepherds. It is a blessing disguised as a curse.

And the story continues along that path. Jesus and the family runs to Egypt, then returns to settle in Nazareth because their hometown is still too dangerous. He’s raised a handiman and draws his disciples from fishermen, tax collectors and zealots. He preaches by the lake, outside of town, appearing in synagogues and the Temple just long enough to stir up trouble. He dies in a shameful execution and is buried in a borrowed tomb. His last possessions are gambled away at the cross. Even after he has risen from the dead and is being taken to heaven, he’s down to just a handful of disciples.

The story is nothing like the stories of Abraham, Moses, Joshua or David. Heroes of the Bible are almost all wealthy, well-borne, inordinately blessed and extremely powerful. Without Jesus, we might be so impressed by the riches and power of the patriarchs that we forget their huge mistakes and sad endings. Abraham died without a country; Moses died looking at the prize without getting a share; Joshua faded to obscurity and David was punished for his abuses of power.

For most of the Bible, the power of weakness is hidden in the glitz of wealth and strength. It would be easy to miss the blind faith of Abram, the stuttering shyness of Moses, or the innocence of a shepherd boy musician. We might think that the power is the important part.

In Jesus, God went straight to the point: It is not about us! It is about God, and the power of God is so great that it shines through even in ordinary lives and common clay pots. The entire Bible says that humans are weak and life is short, but God is great. In the New Testament, God hammers the message with a story of unrelenting misfortune, opposition and failure. If we aren’t impressed by the short, impoverished, ordinary lives of the early church leaders, then we might miss the point of our faith.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul also makes the point directly. He has been taken into heaven and shown inexpressible things about the glory of God. Paul has seen heaven, a vision so great he can’t put it into words. And that was not at the end, as when Moses saw the Promised Land just before death, or when Stephen saw the heavens open up just before he was stoned. Paul writes this letter some 14 years after the vision.

It’s bad enough to carry something like that, a truth so great that no one will believe you. But God tops it off by letting Satan torment Paul with a thorn in the side. We don’t know what the thorn is. We know that Paul pleaded three times for Jesus to take it away. Jesus does not just say you can live with it, or I can overcome it, but that it is part of the message. He could have just said, “My grace is sufficient for you,” and we would have to accept it. But he goes a step further: “for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, for that reason, Paul is not just able to endure suffering, but he says he boasts gladly about weakness. “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.”

We should consider this list for a minute. First, there’s the thorn in Paul’s side, a physical ailment. We may have a few of those in here. Paul says he prayed three times for Jesus to remove it, so there is no harm done in praying for a miracle. But if we don’t receive the miracle of healing, we need the faith to rejoice in our hardships, to accept our physical ailments – and if we don’t let our physical ailments diminish our faith, that in itself is a miracle.

The rest of the list is not about who we are or what we do, but about those things that happen to us. We don’t ordinarily consider insults and persecutions to be that thorn in the side, but Paul includes them here on the list of weaknesses in which the power of Christ is made perfect. Likewise hardships – those unexpected circumstances that come our way — and difficulties – those tasks that just seem to be more difficult than they should be.

So the power if Christ is made perfect in physical suffering. It is also made perfect when we aren’t accepted, when we face insults and persecutions. It is made perfect when life is difficult, when we face hardships.

In his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 1:22-25), Paul said this is all foolishness to the Gentiles and a stumbling block to the Jews. “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, buy we preach Christ crucified.” It doesn’t sound like the best selling point, does it? God loved his son, yet the son was crucified. God is powerful, yet our lives might not display miraculous signs. God is wise, but our best explanations will fall short of impressing or convincing anyone. It just doesn’t sound like a very appealing religion.

But Paul also wrote that “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” Christ, Paul says, is in and of himself “the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

For those of us who believe in Jesus, there really is no power that can shake that faith and no human wisdom that will convince us to turn away. If we succeed, we thank God for the blessing. If we fail, we thank God for seeing us through it. With Job we say “Thought he slay me, yet will I trust him.”

As a practical matter, this Christian faith, this power perfected in weakness, means that we don’t give up when things look down, because we know that God can do anything. We don’t lose heart when we’re sick, or injured, or opposed, because we know that God uses these things to display God’s strength. We don’t even lose heart when the task at hand takes more strength and more resources than we can muster, because we know that the power of God is actually made stronger in our weakness.

I have reached points in my life where things were out of control and try though I might, I just could not find a way out. I couldn’t think my way out of the problem, and I didn’t get any magic signs or miracles to pull me through. All I had to rest on was the knowledge that God works things for good in the lives of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. I knew that I didn’t know, that God would work it out and probably in some way I never imagined. There’s power in strength, in wealth, in knowledge, but then there’s that other power, a power that doesn’t depend on me. That is the power of God. Paul says that Jesus IS the power of God, and that the power of Christ is made perfect in our weakness.

If we can believe this – if we can remember all the times that God pulled us through despite our weaknesses and against all odds that the world threw against us – then that power really will be perfected! We have the power of God, because Christ IS that power, and we have given our lives to him. If we remember all the times in the past that God has come through for us, and if we trust that God is still faithful, then we really can delight in our weakness and rejoice in our hardships. We fight against those thorns in our sides and we pray that God will take them away, but if we can’t fight it and God doesn’t relieve it, then you can bet that God is doing something big and exciting in our lives. We can say with Paul, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Teacher, Don’t You Care?


That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.

 He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

Mark 4:35-41

Jesus had been in that boat all day. At the beginning of Mark chapter 4, we learn that Jesus was in the boat because the crowds were so large that He couldn’t stand on the shore. Now it’s evening, and Jesus says, “Let us go over to the other side.” The storyteller includes a odd detail, that they disciples, “took him along, just as he was, in the boat.”

Just as He was? How was that? That was in the boat, tired from teaching all day. They didn’t change boats, or disembark, but they just set out in the same boat where Jesus had been teaching all day. “There were also other boats with him.” There were more than 12 disciples in Jesus’ party, and they all wouldn’t fit in one boat. So they simply set out for the other side of the lake, and Jesus fell asleep.

Now, all the boats face not just a storm, but a furious squall. Waves break over the boat. It is nearly swamped. Jesus sleeps right through it, probably feeling pretty good being rocked in the stern by the storm. I don’t know about you, but if I wake up and it’s storming, the rain puts me right back to sleep.

The disciples see the storm, and they see Jesus sleeping, so they wake him up, and jump to conclusions. “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” Who said Jesus didn’t care? That was their conclusion because he was sleeping despite all the trouble.

You may have heard the old saying, “If you aren’t upset, you obviously don’t know what’s going on.” Here, the disciples presume that Jesus knows but doesn’t care. They presume that without intervention, they will drown. I can’t imagine what they wanted Jesus to do. They didn’t expect him to calm the storm, because when that happened, they were terrified.

Does this ring a bell in your life? The storm’s raging, the waves break over the side of the boat, it looks like all is lost, and where’s Jesus? Fast asleep in the stern! Right away we jump to the conclusion that we’re doomed, and that Jesus doesn’t care.

Maybe it’s an illness, and you pray for healing, but it just gets worse. Maybe it’s a troubled child who gets even deeper in trouble after you start praying. Maybe it’s debt, and just when you think it can’t get any worse, another bill comes in. And where’s God while all this is going on? Apparently, fast asleep somewhere. God either doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, or both.

But let’s consider what our faith is. Our faith says that God knows everything. Look at Matthew 10:29-31 – “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” Jesus says. “Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside of your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

“The very hairs of your head are all numbered.” That says God knows, and God knows in great detail. “So don’t be afraid …” That says God cares and has good in store. “…you are worth more than many sparrows.” That tells us that God has affection for us that even goes beyond God’s care for the rest of creation.

If all of this were obvious, Jesus wouldn’t have to say it. If we could see it, we wouldn’t need faith, would we? And yet we despair in times of trouble and wonder if God even cares.

I happen to notice that everyone here is breathing, alert and relatively upright. That tells me that you survived all the trouble you’ve been through. There might have been times when you didn’t expect to survive. But you did. Sometimes we say we “dodged the bullet”. But that implies that the intent is to harm and good fortune helped us avoid the harm. I think things work the other way around.

The book of Ecclesiastes (9:11) puts it this way:

I have seen something else under the sun: 

The race is not to the swift
  or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
   or wealth to the brilliant
   or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.

Time and chance – circumstance – dumb luck. We don’t always get what we deserve; otherwise, the race would be to the swift and food would come to the wise. Time and chance – not God directly – keeps things from always going as they should, or as we think they should. This is what caused Jeremiah (12:1-2) to question God:

You are always righteous, Lord,
when I bring a case before you.
Yet I would speak with you about your justice:
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why do all the faithless live at ease?
You have planted them,
and they have taken root;
they grow and bear fruit.
You are always on their lips
but far from their hearts.

If life was fair, the wicked would not prosper. If God was just, the wicked would not prosper. And if God was clear and obvious, we might even all agree on what wicked is.

So God lets things happen by chance, by dumb luck, in this fallen world. If God cares – and God does – then that means God has given us the resources to overcome hard times. God lets things happen that we don’t agree with. We think an all-powerful and all-loving God would do things differently.

But that isn’t necessarily true. Jesus said the branches that bear fruit would be pruned to bear more fruit. No one wants to go through pruning, but God might know that trouble will make us stronger and more fruitful.

“Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” That’s a loaded question. What if Jesus knew that they would not drown? He doesn’t have to care about something that won’t happen. In that case, all he has to deal with is the disciples’ lack of faith.

We go through storms, and we know it. There’s no denying we’re in a storm when the storm is raging. But we are wrong if we say, “God, don’t you care if we drown?” We think the storms were all sent by God and that we survived them by dumb luck, or by our own cleverness. I think the opposite, that the storms were the result of dumb luck, or our own mistakes, and that we survived by the grace of God.

So Jesus calms the storm. There are plenty of disciples and lots of other boats; lots of witnesses to the fact that even the wind and waves obey Jesus. “Who is this?” they asked. This tells them, and it tells us, that faith or no faith, Jesus is no ordinary man. “Why are you so afraid?” Jesus asks. “Do you still have no faith?” Their fear was the result of not knowing what would happen, and of expecting the worst, even though their Lord and Savior as in the very same boat.

Aren’t we like that? Don’t we usually expect the worst to come from the storms we go through? But – on the other hand – however – in contrast – haven’t we survived all of those storms that we thought would drown us? Didn’t God come through one way or another every time? And if God watched over us on all those other occasions, what makes us think God won’t do it for this storm and the next storm, too?”

Jesus says don’t be afraid. Don’t worry. When we are afraid, we need to look back on what God has already done in our lives. We need to look into the scripture at what God has done in history. We need to talk to our Christian brothers and sisters in church to learn what God has done in their lives, too.

Growing faith is about learning from these experiences. The teacher tells us that God cares, and our life circumstances demonstrate that God cares. God cares. God might not move the way we want him to, he might not condemn or reward people like we think he should, but everything in our doctrine and in our lives shows us that God really does know and God really does care. In this case, faith just calls us to look at the good things God has done and start relying on God to do more good things in our lives. We can trust God, and a Savior so strong even the winds and waves obey him.

So have faith. Fear not. See the good things God has done, and tell others about them. Eventually, we will know the truth, that God is working all things for good among those of us who believe.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Scattered & Sown

He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”

 With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.

Mark 4:36-34

My first house had a down-hill slope from the front yard. One side of the driveway was lush and green. The other side was hard soil and deep shade, and I could not get anything to grow there. I plowed, fertilized, seeded and sodded that land over and over, and nothing seemed to work. It was just destined to be a bald spot.

Eventually, we sold the house and moved on. The next time I saw that yard, it had the lushest green grass all over that spot! I just had to find out what was that magic secret that turned that hard-clay hill into such a nice lawn.

So I asked the new owners, “What did you do to get grass to grow over there?”

“We didn’t do anything,” they said. “Truth is, we really liked not mowing half the yard, so we dumped gravel on it and started parking there. Now, we can’t get rid of the grass.”

Everything I know about plants did nothing to make grass grow on that yard. The new owners were good with that; they just threw gravel on it to hide what little dirt there was. But that gravel, that little roughness that would hold the dirt and keep the seeds from washing away, was exactly what was needed.

I don’t recommend gravel to make grass grow, but if you’ve ever had to fight grass growing through the sidewalk or up through the pavement, you can see how that happens. Sometimes, a plant needs that last thing we’d guess it needs. It’s one of life’s little mysteries, and that’s just the point: The Good Lord moves in mysterious ways!

How many times do we give up on someone, and the next thing you know they’re thanking you for your words and prayers? I guess pastors run across that more than other people, not because we’re any better at it, but because we try so many times with so many people.

I have a friend who was hardly a friend when we first met. He was one of those boomerang kids who moved in with Mom, then he brought his girlfriend in, and finally he started dealing drugs out of the house. My advice to his mother was kick him out NOW! She brought him in for counseling, and this man scared me to death!

Eventually, she did kick him out. I called the cops on him when he threatened the church. All that was enough to get him in rehab. He was doing pretty good when his mother died in the hospital, and I thought surely that would trip him up. But when he saw how the church rallied to honor his mother, he got even closer to God. Today, he’s a manager at a rehab facility near Atlanta, walking with the Lord and married to a girl who used to be his drug buddy. They’ve been sober more than 10 years, and he still calls me to thank me for helping him find the Lord.

When I look back, I didn’t do a thing. In fact, I sort of threw gravel on the situation. I told his mother to kick him out and told the cops to lock him up. At best, I scattered a few seeds in his life, and I never expected them to grow.

That’s what the kingdom of Heaven is like, Jesus said. A man scatters seed, and that’s all he does. If it grows, it grows all by itself, and the man doesn’t even know how. At harvest, the man gathers the produce and gets too much credit.

Jesus doesn’t explain the parable here. We read that he explained it to his disciples, but we don’t get the explanation. We probably don’t need it, because the symbolism is the same as the parable he does explain earlier in Mark’s gospel.

It’s in the beginning of the same chapter, Mark Chapter 4: “Listen!” Jesus said. “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rockey places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they whithered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.” Then, Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” (Mark 4:3-9)

I love this parable, and I think it connects well to the next. Here, Jesus explains that the seed is the word. The various conditions are people, and the outside stuff is just that, outside stuff. The birds are the devil snatching away the seed. The rocky ground is shallow soil where seeds sprout quickly, then die off. The thorns are riches and the cares of this world, growing up to choke off the plant. It’s interesting that soil that’s good for the plant is also good for the weed. We have to keep the weeds out of our lives to grow in the faith.

So what does today’s parable add? I presume that the seed here is like the seed there, the word of God that we share by scattering it. Where do we plant? In both these parables, the sower isn’t very careful at all about where the seed goes. He has lots of seed, and it’s just seed. The sower throws seed willy nilly, on the road, in the weeds, on rocky ground, and sometimes on good ground. The parable today adds something to the parable: The sower does not know where the good soil is. If it grows at all, it’s an act of God, and so is the harvest. The sower thought this was a good spot, and it didn’t work. He thought that was wasted seed, and it brought forth a bumper crop!

I always called my friend a Bad Seed, and as far as I could see, he was rocky soil. But God had a need for that man in the kingdom, and that tiny bit of seed grew tall and increased a hundred fold. Yeah, I threw seed, but it was mixed with a lot of gravel, and I thought that was wasted seed. Boy, was I wrong.

The lesson here for me is that there is no wasted seed. It might get eaten by birds, and it might get choked by weeds, but without me knowing it, it might hit paydirt.

Here’s my question: Have you given up on someone? Have you thrown seed on the ground over and over again, only to watch it wash away or get eaten by birds? Don’t give up! Even if you threw gravel; even if you called the cops; don’t give up. Throw some more seed over there; God has plenty.

I know you’ve heard the old joke where God says to Jesus, “You catch ‘em, Son! I’ll clean ‘em!” Our job is even simpler than that. Jesus said He’d teach us to catch people, but sometimes it’s our job to chum the water.

Paul made the same point in 1 Corinthians 3:6-9 – “I planted seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.”

We have one purpose, to win souls for Jesus. You’re all sowers, and water-bearers, and spotters for the harvest, but we have one Lord and one job – to tend to this field. So don’t give up. Keep sowing the Word, even when you think the ground is too rocky and the weeds are too thick. Because you never know when a seed might get stuck in the gravel, find the dirt, and bring forth the harvest.

Diamonds in Dixie Cups

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

2 Corinthians 4:5-12

Earthen vessels. Jars of Clay. Mason Jars. Dixie Cups. Plastic bags. The definition of cheap, temporary, fragile containers changes over time. Jars of clay and earthen vessels are fragile; they were once common and cheap. Mason Jars were once disposable and common; now they’re collectors’ items. It is probably about right to say, “We carry diamonds in Dixie cups.”

This verse has so many layers of meaning. The God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness” has made the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ shine out of the darkness of the human heart. There are diamonds in the Dixie cup, and there’s a priceless treasure hidden in the most ordinary looking people. But Paul is not saying that something precious is hidden in something common. Paul is saying that something precious is displayed against something common so that its beauty is so much more obvious.

There are people of other faith traditions who think it is absolute blasphemy to say that God had a Son, or that God lived as a human being. Humans, they say, are just too weak, too dirty, to contain the glory of God. But Paul says that’s precisely the point.

In his letter to the church in Philippi (Philippians 1:5-11), Paul quoted what seems to have been a popular hymn in the early church. “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!
Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place
And gave him a name that is above every name,
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
In heaven and on earth and under the earth,
And every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
To the glory of God the Father.

The hymn says Jesus had the very nature of God but put on the nature of a servant. God accomplished more than one thing by doing that. For one, God came and talked to his creation face-to-face. Two, by taking on flesh, God revealed Himself to be humble – that is, to be willing to stoop to our level to be with us. Three, Jesus is exalted for this sacrifice, and in that way is the picture of God for all time, a picture not of the angry Father, but of the self-sacrificing Son. God might not make sense to a lot of people, but Jesus is easier to understand.

And now it falls on us to continue the ministry of Jesus. We do not have the very nature of God, as Jesus did. Still, Jesus set the example that we are to follow. “Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.” Jesus had the nature of God but humbled himself. We get a little taste of the power of God through the Holy Spirit, and if we aren’t careful, we can get puffed up over it. God has blessed a lot of people with the power to preach, but some of them have used that power to line their own pockets. Paul had that gift, and the power to heal as well, but he talks about the thorn in his side that God gave him to keep him humble.

In our scripture today, Paul points out why God works through ordinary, humble people. “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God, and not from us.” He then goes on to show how he and his companions have been humbled, and how their weakness and imperfection is on display. “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our bodies the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”
Were were made in the image of God, but that image has been smudged by life in this fallen world. As people, we seem to be common, a dime a dozen, taking on chips, cracks and stains until these vessels finally give up.

We’re carrying diamonds in Dixie cups, the Holy Spirit in ordinary human bodies. But that means that we are more than Dixie cups, and more precious to God than ordinary clay jars. Later in this letter (2 Corinthians 5:16), Paul says, “from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old is gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.”

Paul calls this body a shell, a tent, a garment, and a body of death. It is temporary, but diamonds are forever. I’m sure you’ve all had the experience of trying to make that Dixie cup last, so you could use it over and over. That cup starts getting soggy before long. If you work at it, if you keep it dry and don’t bend the paper, you can make it last for a while, but eventually, it falls apart. It isn’t made to last.

These bodies we live in – these jars of clay, mason jars, Dixie cups – aren’t made to last. But the Gospel says that we are more than these Dixie cups. To God, we are pearls of great price, a diamonds in a Dixie cup. God wants us to take care of these bodies, but they aren’t designed to last forever.

So what does this mean to us as a church? Do we regard each other from a worldly point of view? Is anyone too old, too young, too heavy, too thin, too masculine, too feminine, too loud, too quiet? That’s what we see from a worldly point of view. But in Christ, we are a new creation. What matters is what we are becoming. You can’t be too old, to young, too heavy, too thin, too masculine, too feminine, too loud or too quiet to love others, or to serve the church, or to witness to what Christ has done in our lives. In fact, the love we have for each other, and our service to the church, is that much more impressive because it cuts through our physical limitations. Our bodies and our world work against us doing good and loving each other, so if we live like Jesus, it has to be the power of God, and not our own power.

Without Jesus, we can’t do anything. Without Jesus, we’re just empty vessels. But thanks to God, we carry diamonds in dixie cups, and what we seem to be is not what matters. What matters is God’s love for us and how we share it with each other.

When the LORD sent Samuel to find a new King for Israel, He saw David’s older brother and said, “surely the LORD’s anointed stands before me.” God said, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:6-7) God is looking at our hearts, those diamonds in these dixie cups. I hope we can learn to look past outward appearances and treasure what is in the heart.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Children of God

Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

Romans 8:12-17 NIV

On this Memorial Day weekend, it would be natural to quote a different scripture: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” That’s John 15:13. It’s an appropriate scripture, but today, I want to consider what all those men and women were fighting for. What motivates us to put our lives at risk for a country?

Today’s scripture would be considered radical in many countries. There are very religious societies that consider calling Jesus the Son of God blasphemy deserving of death. Today’s scripture goes a step further. In this passage, WE are encouraged to see OURSELVES as sons and daughters of God. Some societies would forbid such a thought on religious grounds. Others just don’t want ordinary people to elevate themselves like that.

Say what you will about our society, but let’s confess that we are free to make both of these radical statements: That Jesus is the Son of God and we are children of God. We are free, in this country, to call God, “Abba! Father!” These are not required beliefs, but they are not forbidden. Indeed, they are common, and they are concepts worth fighting for.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” That’s what the Founding Fathers believed, and that’s worth fighting for. If we are sons and daughters of God, then we are inherently important and equal. The Declaration of Independence goes on to say that the only proper role of Government is to secure those rights.

The United States is not officially a Christian nation, but our founding principles absolutely borrow from Christian values. We are a living, growing nation, and when we change, we change in support of those values. At first, all White Men were considered equal; then all men; then both men and women. It does not matter what race or gender, what religion or nationality, what language we speak or what culture we practice. Somewhere deep inside we accept that everyone is equal in the eyes of God and should therefore be equal under the Law. When Peter was sent to the Gentiles, he said, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears Him and does what is right.” (Acts 11:34-35) As God does not show favoritism, our Government’s goal is to practice equality as well. That is worth fighting for.

We read about King David, called “A man after God’s own heart,” overly blessed and surely favored by God. But God didn’t let David get away with having Uriah killed in battle and sleeping with Uriah’s wife. Because of that sin, David was to be at war the rest of his life, and he was not allowed to build the Temple. Everyone is equal under the law. (2 Samuel 10) That is worth fighting for.

We are allowed to believe and teach things that some people consider wrong, unholy, or even blasphemous. We teach that everyone is welcome to take communion. We teach that we have no creed but Jesus, the Christ. We teach that our leader is Jesus Himself, and no one else.

Having said this, we remember and believe that all people are equal under the law. That means that they, too, can preach and things that we don’t believe in, that we consider blasphemous and unholy. We can’t force anyone to believe like we do. That would be illegal, and it would also go against the teachings of Jesus. Jesus praised Samaritans and Roman Centurians, whose religion was not Jewish and not Christian. Paul reasoned with Greeks and Jews alike, without condemnation. There were people in Jesus’ day driving out demons in his name, even though they were not his Disciples. The apostles complained, an Jesus said leave them alone. “Those who are not against us are for us,” He said.

Here’s what Paul said about people who don’t believe and practice exactly like we do: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”

There are a lot of people we disagree with, but if we convince them they are wrong, then we are responsible for the result – and we better not be wrong. It’s better to demonstrate our own faith, to show our loyalty to Christ by obeying the teachings of Jesus, than to insist on our own version of doctrine and orthodoxy.

In America, we have the right to disagree. We have the right to walk away from a debate, and to stop the debate in our own homes, in our own churches, or at our own places of business. We have the right to stand up for our rights in the public square – which means that others can stand up for themselves as well. These are principles worth fighting for.

We have every right to call ourselves Children of God. A lot of people have died to defend that right, and the rights of all others to express their own opinions and to worship according to their own consciences. So we are free to accept the teachings of Paul in today’s scripture, and I heartily endorse these teachings.

Let’s hear them again:

Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

“For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”

I pray that we will receive this teaching. We are children of God. We have received not a spirit of slavery, but the Spirit of adoption. We boldly cry to God, “Abba! Father!” Paul told Timothy that God didn’t give us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and discipline. God has given us the freedom to come boldly to God’s throne. We live by the spirit, not by the flesh, and our brothers and sisters in the military have sacrificed to protect both the spirit and the flesh. I do honor those who have given so much to secure our freedom. But in that Spirit of boldness that God gives us, let’s express our gratitude by living in freedom, not as slaves, but as children of God.

In the name of our Father, and His Son, and the Holy Spirit …





Breath of Life

The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

— Ezekiel 37:1-14

A lot of people think Ezekiel is talking about the end times, and that may very well be. He talks in detail about the Temple even though it has been destroyed and the people have been taken captive. He talks about Israel possessing the land when that honor belongs to whichever army is winning at the moment. In Ezekiel’s time, Israel was the battlegroundfor Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Egyptians and Persians. Jerusalem fell in 586 BC, about halfway through Ezekiel’s ministry. He writes about the restoration of Israel and Jerusalem while he is still exiled into Babylon. In that way, he teaches that God is sovereign and with God’s people even when they are not in Jerusalem or running the Temple.

Ezekiel’s vision of the Dry Bones is a story of resurrection, not just of Israel, but of all God’s people. The dead are not just dead – they are skeletons, dried bones, beyond repair and redemption. So when God asks if the bones can be brought to life, Ezekiel says, “LORD, only you know.” The story is a setup for God doing the impossible with people.

The interesting thing about scripture is this word “wind” or “breath”. In the Hebrew, he word for both is “Ruach”, so that translators just have to pick one based on the context. In the Greek, it’s “Pneuma”, and translators have the same problem. It’s no accident, and I think God invites us to try both out in this passage.

Ezekiel preaches his heart out to the bones, and it does a little good. They come together, regain their moisture, take on flesh and start looking like people. But they are still not alive. So God tells Ezekiel, “Prophesy to the breath… ‘Come from the four winds, o breath, and breathe into these slain, that the may live.” Or, is he preaching to the Spirit? Jesus said the Spirit will come when we ask for it. Jesus said the spirit was like the wind, coming and going in a mystery, and on the day of Pentecost, the disciples heard the sound of a rushing wind before the Holy Spirit came into the room.

On the day of Pentecost, the disciples were maybe a few dozen in a room. Before the day was out, they had won 3,000 converts. Peter said it was a fulfillment of the prophet Joel: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.” That’s all inclusive; all ages, all genders, all peoples, slave and free. And if Peter was in the last days, what days are we in now?

Sometimes preachers think they’re talking to dry bones, pouring their hearts out and nothing happens. Sometimes our prayers don’t seem to go past the ceiling. But sometimes the bones rattle and come together, take on flesh and start looking almost alive. The last step is for God to pour out his Spirit. That is what we pray for.
Have you ever heard your sons and daughters prophesy? I have. They have a great understanding of scripture, and some great ideas about how to spread the gospel. I’ll try to encourage them to share that with you.

I’ve heard the visions of your young men, and the dreams of your old men. I don’t know which side of that divide I fall, young man or old man, but it doesn’t matter. Young and old alike, men and women, EVERYBODY has a dream, a vision, a prophesy when God pours out the Spirit on all flesh.

I suppose I’m wearing the mantle of Ezekiel at the moment. The bones have come a long way, coming together and taking on flesh. The discouragement that swept over Israel after so much was is starting to fade. The smoke is clearing from the field of battle. The only ingredient we need to become a vast army for the Kingdom of God is the wind, the breath, the Spirit. We have the words of life, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who says that God will generously give the Holy Spirit to all who ask for it. Well, I’m asking. I invite you to be asking, too. Let’s pray:

Gracious God, we have spent too much time in the valley of the dry bones. We have been tossed about by conflict and confusion. But you are not the author of confusion. You have been rebuilding us, putting flesh on the bone, and now we cry to you to breathe on us with that life-giving Spirit. Make us an army for your Kingdom, winning souls for Jesus Christ by sharing the Good News of salvation, forgiveness and love. Fill us with your Spirit, Lord, as on the day of Pentecost so long ago.

In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Turn On the Power!

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

Acts 1:1-11 NIV

Next Sunday is Pentecost, a celebration of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the church. Our scripture this week is about setting the stage. We see in this passage how unprepared the disciples were and how Jesus was preparing them for an event that would be almost as earth-shaking as the resurrection itself.

It starts by securing faith in the physical resurrection. Jesus “gave them many convincing proofs that he was alive.” Appearing, teaching, even eating, and for 40 days. Moses was 40 days on Mount Sinai receiving the Law. Jesus was 40 days in the wilderness after his baptism. And now the post-resurrection Jesus spends 40 days with the disciples.

“Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Without the Holy Spirit, the disciples were still looking for some political or financial benefit to everything they had been through. They still didn’t understand that Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world, as He said to Pilot (John 18:36). Today, we’re still looking for Jesus to restore the kingdom to Israel.

Jesus wanted the disciples to keep their eyes on the ball, which was spiritual, not political. “It is not for you to know,” He said, “… but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This sentence is an outline of the whole book of Acts.

Some people want to call it “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” That doesn’t work for me. It tells about the Actions of the Apostles in establishing the early church. Their work is done, but the Acts of the Holy Spirit continue to this day.

As an aside, let’s consider what they did after Jesus ascended into heaven but before the Holy Spirit came down. They decided to name a replacement for Judas, rolled the dice and picked Matthias – and that’s the first and last we hear about Matthias. Did you ever think maybe Paul was supposed to be the replacement? It doesn’t matter, but I think it’s important to remember that the Bible reports things that happened even if they weren’t supposed to happen like that.

Let’s not forget the meaning of the word “Acts” It is about things done, and it doesn’t sugar-coat the story. What are the Acts of the Apostles? Peter goes to the Gentiles, against every religious principal he has been taught, but Paul tells us later that Peter still had not gotten over his tendency to look down on them. (Galatians 2:12-13) The early church fought over which widows deserve church charity, and who would do the visitation. (Acts 6:1) Paul and Barnabas split up over John Mark. (Acts 16:37-39) Paul gave a sermon so long that a young man fell asleep and fell out the window. (Acts 20:9-10) There’s a lesson for all of us there. Yours is, “Don’t fall asleep during the sermon.” Mine is,” Try to stop talking before they start nodding off.”

I do notice the mistakes and wrong turns that people make in the Bible, and here in the book of Acts. It matters to me because I know that if God can use them, God can use us, too. I also know that if you try, you will make mistakes, but God will find a way to bless those mistakes. Peter didn’t like Gentiles, but he did go to the Gentiles. They fought over widows and shut-ins, but they did take care of widows. Paul and Barnabas split up over John Mark, but they covered twice as much ground that way, and Paul did take Mark back into his good graces. (2 Timothy 4:11) Yes, Paul did preach too long, but at least he was preaching!

The ending of our passage today should give us a lot to think about. First, Jesus was taken out of their sight. And for us, it is not important what Jesus looked like, how tall He was, what his complexion was like. These are things we will never know and don’t need to know. But the disciples kept looking, trying to get one last glimpse, when the angels said, “Why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus who has been taken from you into heaven will come back in the same way … “

Jesus is coming back, but that doesn’t mean we should spend our time looking into the sky, trying to figure out the times and seasons. Our job is to act! Until we receive the Holy Spirit, we are to prepare, pray, and gather together, just like they did in the Book. Then, when we receive the Holy Spirit, we are to get on with the business of building the church. We are to go and make disciples, go and care for widows and shut-ins, go and preach.

Jesus told many parables about the Landowner leaving town and coming back. Good things happened when He caught the tenants working and taking care of His business. God is the landowner, and we are the tenants. It isn’t enough to adore the landowner, to say good things about the landowner, to watch for the landowner coming home. The task is to take care of the Landowner’s business!

You know how I love bouncing around in Bible translations. The Message translation is not my favorite – but Eugene Peterson, who wrote The Message, is first a pastor, then a Bible scholar. His introduction to the book of acts is a good summary of what I’m trying to say:

“Because the story of Jesus is so impressive … there is a danger that we will be impressed, but only impressed. As the spectacular dimensions of this story slowly (or suddenly) dawn upon us, we could easily become enthusiastic spectators, and then let it go at that. … The story of Jesus doesn’t end with Jesus. It continues in the lives of those who believe in him.”

The key word is “Acts,” which is doing the work of God. There is not a lot in the book about worshipping Jesus, but there is a lot about working in the power of the Holy Spirit. Next Sunday is Pentecost, celebrating the descent of the Holy Spirit. We will know that Spirit is in us, that the power is turned on, when we see ourselves doing taking care of the Landowner’s business, daring to do things that we know we can’t do except by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, pray for that Spirit to turn on the power in our lives. Amen.

Abiding in Christ

For most of my adult life, I was not a practicing Christian. I have made no secret of that. From my early teens into my thirties, I was a cult chaser, a new-ager, a rebel against the faith of my fathers. When I became a father, I returned to Christianity – but I still wasn’t very active in the faith. It was 25 years ago when the news of the day finally drove me to read the Bible, cover to cover. My life was never the same. This is that Bible – a simple King James Version, $10 brand new.

Now, I know that the King James is not the favorite translation of many people in this church. The language is dusty, the translation sketchy, and the motivation of the translators was to justify the Anglican Church status quo. But it does contain the unvarnished Gospel, and that is what changed my life.

So I beg your indulgence as I use this Bible for today’s message. My scripture is John 15:1-5. I invite you to read along in your favorite translation:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.

Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.

Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.

I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.

Your New International Version reads a bit differently. I’m not talking about the ye’s and the –eth’s. Today, I want to focus on the word “abide.” In the NIV and other translations, it’s “remain”. NIV is a great translation, the one I usually use. But “remain” implies an effort, something I hold onto, as when we remain steadfast. “Abide”, on the other hand, sounds like resting, remaining still. It’s a subtle difference, and it might be all in my head, but “remain” or “stay” sounds like something I do, whereas “abide” feels like somewhere I am, or something God lets me do.

The faith is confusing is you take scripture in bits and pieces. Paul says it’s faith, not works, that save us, while James says that faith without works is dead. It sounds like a conflict, but it isn’t. I think that Paul would agree that true faith is active and alive, motivating us to do God’s will. I also think James would agree that we are saved not by works, but by faith in Christ. I think we need both perspectives to understand what Jesus was about.

We all know about the many times Jesus told His disciples what to do. He instructed them, and us, to take action in order to demonstrate our love for one another. But here, we see where Paul got his doctrine of faith not works. Here, the apostle John remembers that Jesus said we should simply abide in Him.

The branches do not try to bear fruit, and nobody asks for pruning. We don’t do the work of bearing fruit. Rather, it is the natural result of being well connected to the vine. Paul obviously knew these sayings of Jesus because he talked about our being grafted into the vine.

Abiding in Christ means staying connected, resting in Him, and letting Jesus do His work in our lives. Jesus said the work of God was to believe in Christ, and here, He says that we will bear fruit by simply abiding in Him.

This was the Gospel that saved my soul. I was a workaholic, all about performance, always trying to get better, to do more, and never satisfied with myself. I thought I could never be good enough to enter heaven. I kept looking for that narrow road. But when I finally read the Bible for myself, I found that narrow road. It is Jesus, plain and simple. It is abiding in Him, plain and simple. It is loving Jesus, learning Jesus, and being satisfied with Jesus. The Gospel is simple. Jesus is the Gospel. He called himself the gate to the sheepfold. He said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” I had been fighting to find another way, when all along, Jesus was saying, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Can it be more obvious than that? Jesus Christ, the One we call Savior and Lord, the Son of God, says, “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” (Matthew 7:14) But He also says it is an easy yoke and a light burden. Few find the narrow way not because it is difficult, but because it is narrow.

I stuggled to have faith, and I could not force it on myself. I let go and let God, abiding in Christ, and my faith began to grow. I worked to please God and found no peace; I settled into God’s arms and found acceptance and joy. I discovered that Jesus told the truth, and that Paul understood it. The key to bearing fruit is remaining attached to the vine. The key to the Christian life is abiding in Christ.

Obvious, we in the West are hooked on performance. We set high standards for ourselves and hold others to high standards as well. Sometimes, intentionally or not, we preach that salvation comes through effort, through good works, or even through the hard work of holding specific doctrines and beliefs. When we do, we are wrong. It is not about performance; it is about love. It is not about generating activity; it is about bearing fruit, and that only comes from abiding in Christ.

I appreciate that some people reject Christianity outright. I believe that it is usually because of those who are miserable in the faith, holding others up to standards that they themselves can’t live up to, either. Jesus knew that we can’t save one another by judging one another. In fact, we can’t save one another at all. All we can do is abide in Christ, and share the joy of that experience with others.

So to those who are working so hard to please God, I say give up. God’s will is that you fall in love with God’s son, because Jesus reminds us that God is love; God wants our love; and God wants to share God’s love with us as we share that love with one another.

You think it can’t be that simple? It really is that simple. If you don’t believe it, read the book for yourself, and remember that the cornerstone is not Moses, or Paul, or Abraham. The cornerstone is Jesus. It won’t make sense until and unless you abide in Jesus.

May you simply abide in Christ.