Which Way Should I Go?

Romans 12:1-2 is a passage most often discussed with an emphasis on being a living sacrifice. But what does that look like? The fact that we are living means that there is a day to day aspect to this sacrifice. I want to bring to your attention the little four letter word that comes up far more often in the daily lives of believers: will. How often do we ask "What is God's will for my life?" or "What does He want me to do in this situation?" Far too often we think of God's will for our lives as some kind of decision-making assistant or crisis removal service.

So where can we look for examples of people truly following God's will? We should look to the Bible. From the beginning to the end we find accounts of God's interaction with humanity and creation.

The Book of Acts is a record of the acts of the Holy Spirit at work with the beginning of the church and the passionate followers of Christ including Paul and Timothy. In Acts 15 we read that there are false teachers already distorting the gospel and telling the non-Jews that they must first live like Jews in order to be followers of Christ. This includes the painful obedience of circumcision. So the church leaders get together and produce a letter to tell the believers this is not necessary to follow Jesus. Paul and Timothy are taking this news to believers, yet Paul chooses to have Timothy circumcised. Why? Let's read on.

Acts 16:6-7 is even more perplexing, for it tells us that God forbids them to share the gospel in Asia and then even specific cities. Why would God tell them to not share the gospel there?

The end result of this advancement onward is Paul and Timothy arriving in Philippi. This city is a big deal in the region as well as a Roman colony. What happens here is confusing. They share the gospel and in the process a demon-possessed girl is heckling them for days. Paul finally casts the demon out but instead of receiving praise they are beaten and thrown in prison. At this point surely Paul and Timothy could be thinking that they should have spent more time in one of the places the Holy Spirit led them away from. Timothy could be upset that he left to follow Paul, was even circumcised, just to end up in jail.

Then God shows up. He shakes the ground and all the prison gates are opened. God even removed all their shackles. The jailer wakes up and realizes he will be executed for letting the prisoners free so he goes to kill himself. Paul and Timothy alert him to see that no prisoner has left. This is obviously an even more miraculous thing than the gates and shackles being opened, because what prisoner is going to stay put in a chance like that?

The jailer takes Paul and Timothy to his house and not only does he accept Christ, but so does his whole family.

Our lives will most definitely not match this story exactly, but what I want to point out is that so very little of it makes sense to our minds. There is only one good explanation: Paul and Timothy had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit was leading them day by day along a path that only God can see.

Now back to you and me. If you are going to buy a big price item or even just to out to eat at a restaurant, you seek out three types of data. You look up people's reviews and you read what the company says themselves. Finally, you go and experience it for yourself. This is exactly how we are to know God and know His will for our lives. Read His Word, seek healthy Christian community, and seek His face.

God's will for your life is summed up in the greatest commandments: love God and love Others. Seek The Lord wildly and live actively on mission with Him. Don't live for God, live with God. He desires to know you and be known intimately.

The Color of Gratitude

If you wouldn’t mind actually, can you pray for my friend Leland? Last week Leland was fly fishing. As he drew back his fishing rod the wind suddenly caught the fishing line and his fish hook whipped towards him and sunk straight into the centre of his pupil. And as if that wasn’t bad enough the fish hook was barbed. A barbed fish hook sunk bulls-eye into a human eye . . . let’s just say I don’t need to see you cringing to know you’re cringing. Leland is currently out of the hospital but now that the high from the pain killers and well-wishes from family and friends have worn off, he’s dealing with the stark reality that he might not regain sight in his right eye. If the eye doesn’t heal properly he may never be allowed to drive again. At the end of a recent email updating us on how he was doing, Leland wrote: “Hope this message finds you grateful for who you are and what you have.” Grateful.

I’m coming to believe gratitude is a true life-changer. My gratitude began to really take off when I moved to Saudi Arabia two years ago to work as a teacher. For starters, I’m from Canada where there is a lot of green. Now I live in Saudi Arabia where there is a lot of … not green. When you live in the middle of the desert, beige isn’t just the new green, it’s the new everything. You can’t imagine how grateful I now am to come from a country where green things grow. When I lived in Canada green was a given, now it’s a gift.

My gratitude for my Canadian citizenship and education grew when I saw the many expatriate workers who come from other countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, India or Nepal to earn more money in Saudi Arabia. And yet they still earn so much less than I do. When I lived in Canada my job and salary was a given, now it’s a gift.

And I have to say, it feels different when I read about another bomb killing fifty-three people in Iraq now that I am living in a country that borders that chaos rather than living in a country across the Atlantic Ocean. Let me be clear: I’m not suffering at all because of what is happening in Iraq (or Syria). But there is something to be said about proximity; to a smaller degree you more easily understand “that could be me” the closer you are to the violence. And that small degree will change you. When I lived in Canada peace was a given, now it’s a gift.

Can I be honest with you? I don’t really enjoy living in Saudi Arabia, but there is one undeniable benefit that has taken place within me as a result of living here: my gratitude has skyrocketed through the roof compared to what it was before.

I’m fascinated with colors because the way we see colors is a complete paradox. A quick explanation: white light contains all the colors of the color spectrum (which, incidentally, makes Jesus’ statement “I am the light of the world” pretty darn cool!) When light comes in contact with an object, all of the colors within the light are absorbed by the object—all of the colors expect one. The color that isn’t absorbed reflects off the object and shoots into our eye and that’s the color we see. So in truth, that “red apple” you ate for lunch today wasn’t red at all, in fact, it was every color except red. Basically, you ate an anti-red apple. Do you see the paradox of how we see color? The colors we see aren’t the colors an object is holding onto, but the colors an object is letting go of and reflecting out into the world.

All of this color science makes me think of gratitude. I’m going to venture a guess and say one of the reasons we aren’t more grateful than we should be is because we, consciously or subconsciously, believe we are in control (or worse, the source) of the gifts God has given us.

And so in our self-deception we mistakenly label something as a “given” of life when it is actually an amazing gift we receive each day that, for all we know, might not be around tomorrow. As Leland has recently discovered, our eyesight is a gift, not a given. And sometimes it takes a barbed fish hook to sink through the middle of our pupil for us to see the truth: that we aren’t in control of the many gifts God gives us.

The irony of those things we often call “givens” is that we so easily forget they are exactly that: given. When I say thank you to God, or someone else, in essence I am saying, “This thing didn’t come from me. It came from someone else and it’s now being given to me.” Gratitude is a reminder that we don’t control the gifts God has given us. We are stewards, not owners.

I don’t think God wants us to beat ourselves up because we aren’t as grateful as we should be. I don’t believe he wants us to paw the ground with our feet in bashful silence for being wealthier than ninety-eight percent of the world’s population (and if you are able to read this, you most likely are). And I don’t imagine God wants us to feel guilty because we don’t live within a war-torn country. I think he wants us to be grateful, and then act on that gratitude. We won’t all respond in the same way, but he has taught us and will teach us how to color this world with the beauty and supremacy of his love.

I have a feeling that coloring begins with gratitude, and gratitude begins with restored sight. Jesus has a habit of first blinding people (with mud or barbed fish hooks) before their vision is restored. The restoration isn’t always a physical vision, but a vision that sees the truth about our relationship with the gifts of God and the God of gifts: that we control neither. Because the colors we see aren’t the colors an object is holding onto, but the colors an object is letting go of and reflecting out into the world. May the same be true for how we respond to all the gifts God has given us.

God, You're Late

“Don’t let sin dim out God’s beauty, let God’s beauty dim out sin.”

~John Martyn

My heart was pierced with conviction when I heard Pastor John M. utter these words last week. I could not help but reflect on the many times I’ve carved out a space for sin to dwell comfortably. My ears were burning and my eyes watered. I wanted him to stop preaching to me because I knew I was responsible for the truth God had already been speaking to my heart. Nevertheless,  he continued, “If there are areas in your life where you place conditions on God’s rule, it’s probably an idol.”

Ouch, I thought, I knew that prayer all too well. For me it sounded like this:

Lord, you can do whatever you want with my life, just please bring me a husband.

This unfulfilled longing has led me to build barriers between myself and God, leading to sin, leading to idolatry. Just a few weeks ago I spoke with a group of women here at Blueprint about my journey to a life where desire and contentment coexist . Here’s a snippet of the inner monologue I shared with them:

I hate being late for things. Most who know me would likely laugh at that statement because strangely enough, I have always struggled to be on time. It is literally an effort I have to invite others into in order to accomplish. Of all the things to be late for, the worst was undoubtedly my very own life. Two years ago I was turning 27 and that was my self- induced deadline for life as I thought it should be to begin. I was raised by married people. My parents have been married for 30 years and both sets of grandparents have persevered one another’s quirks and irks well beyond 55 years.  I had never considered singleness as a part of my life after my deadline of 27.

Why 27? By 27, my mother had moved up the corporate escalator enough to have an article in the local newspaper featuring her professional and personal triumphs: “27- year old Burton has taken the company's marketing to the next level while juggling the demands of being a full- time wife and mother.”

The article is guarded by a plastic cover in a book of memoirs exuding my grandparents' pride in my mom. And I of course always wanted to make them all just as proud with my own accomplishments and by starting my own family.

Two years later, I’m realizing how incredibly angry I have been with the Lord. I decided, I can serve you and others, but we do not need to communicate. In my heart, I’ve been waving my fist at God, “You’re late!"

Perhaps truly succumbing to God’s beauty would subside the anger and disappointment that only pushed me farther away from the God I love. Can you imagine what David must of known and believed about God to say in Psalm 27:4, “One thing that I have asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon his the beauty of the Lord and inquire in his temple”?

Just one thing David, really? David actually asked the Lord for many things. He went to God with all of his desires, but there was only one thing that captured his heart enough for him to ‘pursue’ it, God’s beauty. As hard as it may be to live day by day with a longing unfulfilled, I am convinced that there is no greater thing than to rest in all that I have been given in Christ Jesus.

According to Ephesians 1 I am wealthy beyond measure. In Christ, I have: redemption through his blood, forgiveness of sin, adoption into His family, knowledge of the mystery of his will, his grace lavished on me with wisdom, His Holy Spirit, and most significantly a promise of eternity with this beautiful God. His beauty is worth seeking!

I know others may not share my exact discontentment but as sure as blood pumps through your veins there is guarantee of a longing unfulfilled. In those moments, run only to God, for his beauty is the only thing that dims the illusional bright lights of sin and idolatry. The hymnist said it best,

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,

Look full in His wonderful face,

And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,

In the light of His glory and grace.

Fair-Weather Friend

Blueprint family member Melody Gardner shares how the Circles series has affected her. As I sat Sunday after Sunday listening to the story of Gideon, I confess I would think, “I relate to that point, but not most of what is being preached.” It was not until the last sermon in the series that the veil over my eyes fell and I saw myself clearly—I am an Israelite at heart!

When I think about my relationship with the Lord today, I don’t see where I am blatantly, intentionally sinning against Him. But when I take a closer look, I must conclude that I don’t treat Him very well. I am a fair-weather friend at best.

While I know that spending quality time with God is of the utmost importance, the reason I forsake some of those times is I think our relationship has to do mostly with me; that I am somehow ok if I skip this time, but that is where I err. Yes, spending time with Jesus will help me know what is true, which hopefully shapes the way I think about God and see my life. But if I was to lose my Bible today and not gain access to another one for the rest of my life, I think I would know enough about the Lord to live a life pleasing to Him; one lived by faith.

Spending time with God can’t be solely for the reason above. We can't know everything, but we can know enough to get by under our own standards. So why do we spend time with the God of the universe? Because He deserves our devotion! When you think about your salvation story, if you are honest you will conclude that you were not looking for God. You either grew up in a family that introduced you to Him or you encountered someone along the way who told you about Him. None of use initially sought after God; God sought after us!

What then does the Bible say for us to do once He has found us and we are His?

"But from there you will seek the Lord your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul." - Deuteronomy 4:29

"If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land." - 2 Chronicles 7:14

“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon." - Isaiah 55:6-7 

"I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me." - Proverbs 8:17

"Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually!" - 1 Chronicles 16:11

"And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him." - Hebrews 11:6

"And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you." - Psalm 9:10

"Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded." - James 4:8

The only reason we seek the Lord is because He first sought us. The only reason we can love God is because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). The only response anyone could have after sitting through four powerful sermons on “the condition of the heart of the believer” is repentance. After sermon four I hugged my friend beside me and cried and confessed that I treat God like crap! He deserves my complete devotion and I give Him my scraps at best. What hope do I have that this pattern will change?—Jesus! Jesus is my hope and He is your hope.

Let’s hope in Christ, the author and perfecter of faith. Consider what Jesus endured for those of us who reject Him and let His loving, selfless actions give us hope and strength to finish strong (Hebrews 12:1-3).

"What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!" - Romans 7:24-25

Amen.

How To Make An Unlikely Hero

As we're making our way through the book of Judges during our Circles series, one of the heroes we come across is Gideon. Well, he's sort-of a hero. Gideon wasn’t perfect, by any means. One of the last things the Bible tells us about him was that while he refused the Israelites’ offer to make him king and told them God alone was their king, he then made a golden ephod– which was perhaps not meant to be an idol, but became one that the Israelites, including Gideon’s family, worshipped. That always left a sour taste in mouth about ol’ Gideon. But that’s not the last time we read about him in Scripture. He shows up, hundreds of years and pages later, in Hebrews 11, where the writer commends him for his faith. So if God’s not holding that against him (and he knows Gideon way better than I do), I think I should let it go, too– still keeping in mind how one turn away from God can taint a legacy of faithfulness.

But, as I said, Gideon doesn’t strike me as a happy-go-lucky guy. His heroics and faithfulness were not results of his character or qualifications; they were the results of God choosing an ornery character and qualifying a cowardly skeptic. God didn’t use Gideon because he was a hero. God made Gideon a hero. In Judges 6-8, we see how.

1. God expected more of Gideon than he expected of himself. When God called him to be a deliverer, Gideon– like Moses before him– made excuses. I imagine his tone as whiny and his shoulders drooping as he tells God, “I’m the weakest of the weak. You don’t want me.” Thankfully, God doesn’t fall for our excuses. He made Gideon to take a stand on the battlefield, not to hide in a winepress. So He came to Gideon where he was and told him how He was going to use him: not to protect just his family’s harvest, but to protect and avenge the entire nation of Israel.

I’m so glad God hasn’t accepted my excuses– that He’s called me, on several occasions, to be so much more than I thought I could be. He does it for all of us. Whether our excuses make Him laugh or smile or bring tears to His eyes, He loves us enough to use us in spite of what we perceive our limitations to be. We’re the only ones who believe our excuses.

2.  God injected Gideon with confidence. I love how the Angel of the Lord greets Gideon as “Mighty Warrior,” when the best name I would’ve probably come up with for him would be “Cowardly Farmer.” From the beginning, God sees Gideon as the person he’s going to become with God’s help, not the person he is on his own– and He wants Gideon to see that man, too. Despite Gideon’s excuses, questions, and requests for signs, God keeps feeding his confidence. He tells Gideon He is with him, that Gideon is strong, that he will beat the oppressive Midianites, and not to be afraid. God even humors Gideon’s whole fleece-test-thing to reassure him.

But before He sends Gideon off to stand against the Midianites, He gives Gideon a test of his own: take down his family’s idols. Whaddayaknow, Gideon does it! He displayed a bit of cowardice by doing it at night when no one would see, but he did it successfully. He tore down the altar of Baal and the Asherah pole, then built a different altar out of those ruins and offered a sacrifice to the true God. When the Baal worshippers found out, they wanted to kill him, but Gideon’s dad, to whom the altar belonged, was like, “Pshaw! If Baal’s a real god, let him stick up for himself.” And obviously, that didn’t happen. Gideon got the job done, and survived!

Even after Gideon’s army was assembled and they were preparing for battle, God was still all about giving His chosen leader the confidence he needed. He sent Gideon to the edge of the enemy camp to listen to the conversations of the Midianite soldiers. Guess what? The very conversation Gideon overheard was one where two enemy soldiers believed God was going to give him– Gideon– victory over the whole camp.

Have you ever looked back to think about how God has reassured you and given you confidence for the things you were about to accomplish or the trials you were about to face? He knows our fears, weaknesses, and insecurities. He doesn’t accept our excuses, but he is sensitive to what we need. He can make unlikely heroes out of any of us.

 

Adapted from a post previously published on LauraCoulterwrites.com. Used with permission.

Breaking Free

The Cycle The moment I turned the keys in the ignition of my first car, I felt free. It was a blue ‘97 Ford Contour, a hand-me-down from my mom. I was 16, a junior in high school, and my license had been burning a hole in my billfold for several months. I adjusted the mirrors, the seat, and the volume (Mom never let the music be loud enough to actually hear the words). I put it in drive. This was the freedom that I’d been anticipating for years. I could go where I wanted, when I wanted (to a certain extent, of course), and I didn’t have to depend on my parents to take me there.

But I wasn’t really free. When you get a license, a vehicle, and gas money, you are free from staying put, but you now have to abide by the rules of the road: signs, traffic lights, etc.

That’s the pattern of human freedom. Whenever you become free from something, you become enslaved to something else.

When I graduated from high school, I thought I’d be free— free from the drama, the monotonous schedule, the busy work. Then I went to college. And there was more independence, but also more responsibility. When I graduated from college, I really thought this time I’d finally be free— free from homework and having people tell me what to read; finally free to do what I wanted with my life.

Wrong again. You have to work to gain experience, money, and time to build up to what you actually want to do with your life. And even then, there will always be something or someone that determines how you live. There's no escaping the cycle.

Breaking Free

Freedom is tricky. What we perceive as freedom in this life is really just moving from one enslavement— one master— to another. Some are better than others, that’s for sure. But the only way we can experience true freedom is in Christ. John 8:31-36 says:

“So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ’If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ They answered him, ’We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?’

Jesus answered them, ’Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.’ 

Like the disciples, sometimes we don't realize we're enslaved to something-- our sin, our culture, our idols. Yet Jesus says if we sin-- which we all do-- we are slaves to sin. BUT He can set us from from sin and our slavery to it.

Romans 6:20-23 goes on to say that if we are freed from sin, we become slaves of God. So how is being a slave being free indeed?

There is no one more free than a slave of God. Freedom, at its core, is the opportunity to be who you want to be. There is a longing in every person's soul, whether or not they ever realize or acknowledge it, to be who they were created to be. When we become slaves of God, He pours out into us, by His Son and through His Spirit, the ability to be who we were created to be and to live forever as that person, in His presence. We were all created to be genuine worshippers of the Most High God.

True freedom is realized when my desire for who I want to be becomes the desire to be who I was created to be. That is when the freedom on the horizon becomes a reality instead of a mirage. After all the fake outs, we know that one day we will finally be free.

Passion: God Risen For Us

Hope. It echoed through the morning air as the women reached Peter and John and the rest, stammering with breathless excitement. "I have seen the Lord!"

"He's alive! Jesus is alive!"

The darkness, sorrow, fear, heartbreak, confusion, and doubt were suddenly shattered. Hope. A few bolted for the tomb, terrified and desperate for what they might find or not find. They found the stone rolled away, the tomb empty. And they believed.

Later, most of the disciples were together when their eyes beheld a sight none of them would ever forget. They saw Him with their own eyes. They saw, and other followers here and there saw, and over time great gatherings of people saw. Him. Their hope. Their risen victory.

The scars on His skin. The smile on His face. They could reach out and touch Him. The death they thought had destroyed their world was not a lingering reality. It was past. It did not last. It was finished. The reality that endured was standing in front of them. Life. The life that destroyed their world and made it new.

Jesus was alive. Jesus is alive. When we stake our lives on Him, our enduring reality is true life. Death cannot hold us because it could not hold Him.

Every morning, not just once a year, we are reminded of this reality. The rising sun. Fog ascending from the creek or the pond or the lake. The bustle of life-- whether birds chirping or cars starting. Every day, life begins anew. The night does not have the last word. There is victory.

There is hope.

There is Jesus.

Passion: God Slain By Us

Join us this week as we look toward the cross and the empty tomb– Jesus’ death and resurrection. Our posts this week will follow some of the events leading up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday, as well as explore what these events and their implications mean to us. It all points to Jesus. He knew it was coming. He felt the unmatched anxiety as the time drew near, asking His Father for the cup to pass from Him, sweating drops of blood. He was betrayed by a close friend, arrested in darkness, abandoned by his followers, put on trial with false witnesses, brought before officials, questioned, mocked, stripped, spat upon, jeered at, beaten almost to the point of death. Through His wrists they drove the nails, through His feet. Thorns pressed into his scalp. Open wounds and bruises seared and ached over every part of His body. The cross was raised upright, and there He hung. With searingly painful breaths and the utmost humiliation, there He died. Creator. King, Savior. Taking on the rejection of man and the wrath of God.

When we look to the cross, we cannot look with pity or anger or even shame. We look and think, "That is my cross. That is where I should be hanging. That is my place. And He is there." He was there. Once for all. Once and for all.

As the O.C. Supertones used to sing, "My sin yelled, 'Crucify' louder than the mob that day."

“He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” - 1 Peter 2:24

We look to the cross and see our guilt, but when we cling to the cross, it's blasted away by forgiveness, redemption, grace, mercy, and love. Jesus-- God with us-- died for us. That is the best new the world has ever heard. And it changes everything.

Passion: God With Us (Part IV)

Join us this week as we look toward the cross and the empty tomb– Jesus’ death and resurrection. Our posts this week will follow some of the events leading up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday, as well as explore what these events and their implications mean to us. It all points to Jesus. In the midst of a week of loud praises, table tossing, healings, boisterous discussions, and the upcoming tumultuous events of Jesus' arrest, trial, flogging, and execution, we get a glimpse of some quiet moments Jesus has with his disciples in an upper room of a Jerusalem home.

John 13 tells the story of the Last Supper, Jesus' final Passover meal with his closest followers and friends. During this Jewish ritual meal that symbolized deliverance, redemption, and sacrifice, the true Passover Lamb-- Jesus-- prepared for the deliverance and redemption He would usher in with His own sacrifice. A day seeped in tradition was turned upside-down when Jesus gave the disciples one of the greatest shocks of their time together: He wrapped a towel around His waist, took the water basin in hand, and began washing the grime-covered feet of His followers.

It was the job of the lowest servants-- scrubbing stinking, dirty feet in a day before ankle socks or tennis shoes or concrete sidewalks. And OUR GOD did it. The king of the universe knelt before fishermen and tax collectors and gently washed their feet while they squirmed in humiliation.

What did this mean?

Jesus said, "A servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them." He was giving them an example for how they were to serve others (with His help of course) once He was no longer physically with them to show them every move.

This was probably a hard pill for the disciples to swallow, as they had just been arguing about who was the greatest among them. If Jesus-- clearly the greatest-- served in the lowliest position, they must do the same.

But that was not all Jesus said in these precious moments. When Peter objected to Jesus washing his feet, Jesus told him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” This statement and its context speaks to our response to a Servant-God. A God who is with us.

You see, the key to following Jesus’ example of service in this passage is accepting His act of service in the first place. He served us all in His death on the cross. This is how we are washed, cleansed, served, and allowed to be part of God’s kingdom. If we do not accept Jesus’ humanity, divinity. death, and resurrection, we are not His own.

The disciples likely didn't understand this yet, but they would. And all except Judas would go on to accept that sacrifice and let it wash over them and change their lives.

We face the same decision: do we accept Jesus' servitude and His authority, His sacrifice and His victory? Do we accept Jesus as God with us?

Passion: God With Us (Part III)

Join us this week as we look toward the cross and the empty tomb– Jesus’ death and resurrection. Our posts this week will follow some of the events leading up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday, as well as explore what these events and their implications mean to us. It all points to Jesus. In the Gospel of Matthew, we read a long series of discourses Jesus gives after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:23-25:46). In this concentration of red letters, we find Jesus telling parables, teaching lessons, answering the questions of skeptics, speaking about the end times, and even identifying the greatest commandments. He also spends a lot of words on those pesky Pharisees, part of the group that continues to try to undermine his authority and ultimately succeeds in getting him arrested and executed.

The Pharisees and their counterparts were the religious leaders of the day, but they didn't seem to lead as much as oppress and intimidate with their superiority. They went to extremes to follow God's law... and the manmade laws that had been tacked onto God's law over time. They followed the rules to the letter, but Jesus told them they missed the meaning entirely. To this day, to label someone a "Pharisee" is to call them a hypocrite, arrogant, and self-righteous.

Jesus said, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness."

My favorite band just released a new album, and one of the new songs is called "Difference Maker." But this song isn't as plainly inspirational as it may sound at face value. Its writers have said that it is sarcasm, a sorrowful satire that shows how arrogant and foolish it is to think that we are able to be difference makers, leaders, perfect Christians on our own. The chorus goes, "'Cause I am the difference maker/ Oh, I am the only one that speaks to Him/ And I am the friendliest of friends of God."

The Pharisees were on the same track. They worked to create their righteousness, their lives, their religions, their positions before God, with their own two hands. They didn't use the law as something to point to God. In their arrogance, they used the law to point to themselves.

They didn't want Jesus around-- they were good with doing everything on their own. Jesus wasn't puffing them up or patting them on the back; He was asking them to change everything about how they thought and lived. He was preaching faith, not works. He was claiming the authority of God, not accepting their authority. He was showing them what it was for God to be with people. Jesus was God with us, but they wanted God for themselves. They wanted to be gods themselves.

Some say the Pharisees get too hard a time. Perhaps. But Jesus scolded them more than anyone else. And we know there were some who followed Jesus, so these generalizations aren't without exception. But I think the reason we down the Pharisees so much is that we see the same "difference maker" complex in ourselves. We have a tendency toward hypocrisy and arrogance, toward working for our righteousness apart from God's grace. A question we must ask is, "Do we really want Jesus to be God with us? Or do we want Jesus to be a God removed from us, a god we can shape in our image instead of being shaped in His?"

Jesus is God with us, but like the Pharisees, we choose whether or not we accept who He is in our lives.

[youtube id="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2LtB9KLf98"]

Passion: God With Us (Part II)

Join us this week as we look toward the cross and the empty tomb– Jesus’ death and resurrection. Our posts this week will follow some of the events leading up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday, as well as explore what these events and their implications mean to us. It all points to Jesus.  When we read many of the things Jesus said in the days before His death and resurrection, we see right morals and hard truths that we can easily apply to our own lives, but as Pastor John O. said in his sermon on Sunday, the Gospels we find these words in were written so we could know who Jesus is. The lessons Jesus teaches along the way are important, but they don't stand alone. They stand on the foundation of who Jesus is and what He came to do. We know that Jesus' sights were set on Jerusalem and what would take place there in just a few days. Even as He taught these people along the way, He was focused on the sacrifice He would make for them and the victory He would achieve for them.

One of the conversations Jesus has with His disciples (Mark 11:20-25) during this time is about Jesus cursing a fruitless fig tree one day, and then coming back the next day and finding the tree withered. Jesus' response to His disciples' amazement at this transformation is a call for faith.

Jesus tells the disciples that if they have real faith, they will be able to move mountains (not just move them, but pick them up and throw them into the sea). Then He tells them that if they have faith in prayer, they will receive what they ask for. And as they are praying, they should be forgiving anyone who has wronged them.

Justin Taylor and Andreas Köstenberger write, "Jesus is reminding them that failing to forgive looms as a bigger obstacle to answered prayer than a mountain. The disciples will soon face great challenges to their faith and their ability to forgive."

Jesus is not just setting His disciples up to be good guys. He's setting them up to remember that He will be with them even when He's no longer physically with them. Their faith can't waver when Jesus is no longer on earth with them. Their trust in God and their readiness to forgive will all be important aspects of their post-crucifixion/resurrection/ascension lives. They would face persecution, fear, humiliation, abandonment, rejection, spiritual warfare, and even death. Jesus wanted them to be able to look back to that withered fig tree and remember the audacious faith Jesus said they could have. With Jesus, they saw Him do the impossible. But even after His sandals were no longer kicking up dust as they walked together through Israel, they could still see Him do the impossible. He would still be with them. And that was what they would have to believe. That's what they did believe.

And we believe that God is with us, too. So let's pray those audacious prayers made possible by the God who was with us on the cross and at the Sunday sunrise, and is with us today.

Passion: God With Us

Join us this week as we look toward the cross and the empty tomb-- Jesus' death and resurrection. Our posts this week will follow some of the events leading up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday, as well as explore what these events and their implications mean to us. It all points to Jesus.  While Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21; Mark 11; Luke 19; John 12) is exciting, it's also eerie. We rejoice when we think about people praising Jesus-- making Him a one man parade, waving palm leaves, laying their coats out on the ground before Him, shouting "Hosanna!" and expressing their joy that their rescuer was there, in front of them. Yet, merely days later, many of these same people were likely among a crowd with a much different response to Jesus. Instead of "Hosanna!," they would be shouting, "Crucify!" These people thought they knew who Jesus was, but they really had no idea.

Matthew 21 tells us that after Jesus entered Jerusalem, He went to the temple and started tossing the tables of the money changers and those buying and selling animals to be sacrificed. Not only was this taking place on temple grounds when it should have been done outside, but the fact that Jesus says they turned what should have been a house of prayer into a den of thieves implies that the fees for these goods and services were far higher than they should've been-- they were trying to make a profit.

Then, blind and lame people came into the temple (where they likely were not permitted) and Jesus healed them. Meanwhile, children were praising Him aloud. As was their standard response, the chief priests and scribes were upset by the praises and miracles taking place in the temple. They didn't realize that the one inciting these disturbances was the one for whose worship the temple existed.

The people in Jerusalem- during this particular Passover time had God literally, tangibly, physically with them. Some rejected Him outright and saw Him as a troublemaker, someone who was usurping their power in this false religion they'd created in the name of God. Some saw Him as Messiah and Savior, but they didn't understand what He was going to save them from or how He would do it. They thought He was with them to save them from Rome, from oppression and earthly struggle. Instead, He was with them to save them from their own sin and false religion. He was with them to serve, not overthrow. He was with them to fulfill, not add. He was with them to conquer sin and death, not to conquer their political enemies. He was with them (at this time) to die for them, not to rule over them on earth. He was with them to exalt the lowly, not pamper the mighty. He was with them to show them who He was, not to be who they expected Him to be.

Jesus being God with us means so much, but it doesn't always mean what we think it does. Jesus didn't just come to be with the people living in 30-something A.D. in these ways. When He came, it was to be with us, too. We can't let our own expectations and desires shape Jesus into a Savior we've created. We let Jesus shape our expectations and desires into ones for a Savior we need, into the Savior He is. A makeshift Savior isn't God with us. Jesus is God with us.

Rest From War

Sometimes the Old Testament really gets me down. When I finished the entire book of Deuteronomy the other day, I was bone weary of war. Then I turn to Joshua, and what do you know? More combat. There’s only so much carnage this former flower child can take. Long ago I made peace with Israel’s bloody history and God’s redemptive plan in it. What I don’t understand about God’s incomprehensible actions, both in the Old Testament and in my own life, is diluted in the ocean of what I do know about God’s character. Getting to this peace was no easy task, but I’ve learned to accept the darker mysteries, knowing that he is—above all—love.

But that doesn’t mean I enjoy reading the relentless march of battle stories laid out in Deuteronomy and Joshua. The more I read, the more I get impatient for the twelve tribes to get the fighting over with already and settle in the Promise Land. I become like a kid in the back of an un-air-conditioned car, kicking at her father’s seat, whining, “Are we there yet?” I am over it. And then I open to Joshua 12. Verse one starts out like this:

Here begins a catalog of the conquered.

Joshua stops to take stock. And I find I don’t mind reading about war from the victor’s perspective once peace is secured. That’s the beauty of war stories; that they’re told when war is over. What could be better than the rout of formidable foes like these?

I’ll tell you what: The rest on the other side.

In chapter 21, when all the cataloging is finally complete, Joshua says, “So He gave them rest from war on every side.” (Verse 44, the Voice) This verse never fails to hearten me when I read it. Even though I know the book of Judges will show ample evidence that this rest was, at best, a temporary detente. An unfinished, uneasy truce with an obstinate enemy. They won, yes, but only to fight another day.

The word for rest in Joshua 21 is the ancient word Sabbath. And, like the day of week, it didn’t last forever. That Sabbath was a hint of a better rest that was yet to come.

I love it when the Old Testament transports me straight to the Gospel.

The Gospel catalog of the conquered begins with death itself. All because Jesus Christ, the Eternal Ancient of Days, became a newborn babe, grew to a sinless man, died a sinner’s death, and rose to life on the third day. Even though we did nothing to secure this victory, those of us who trust in him actually have verses at our disposal with which to taunt this vanquished enemy:

Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?"

(1 Corinthians 15:55)

But death was only the beginning. Our list of defeated enemies is way more impressive than those pesky Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. Jesus conquered everything associated with death, too. He has victory over all of it, the warring tribe of enemies inside of us called…

Sin

Fear

Insecurity

Anxiety

Shame

Guilt

Falsehood

Doubt

Utter defeat means I don’t have to strive against these soul adversaries anymore. The Gospel-rest from war is a wildly transcendent version of what the Old Testament only hinted at. When Jesus said, “It is finished” on the cross, he proclaimed this better Sabbath. “It is finished” meant his work was done and war was over.

Enemy routed, prize won. Now we get to rest.

There still remains a place of rest, a true Sabbath, for the people of God because those who enter into salvation’s rest lay down their labors in the same way that God entered into a Sabbath rest from His. (Hebrews 4:9-10, The Voice)

Prayer: Regimen or Relationship?

Two thoughts come to mind when you write about prayer.  The first is, "Who am I to talk about prayer?" I prayed for Baylor to win last week and watched them get blown out.  Apparently, my prayers don’t work well.  The second is, "Great, I get to be the hypocrite that makes everyone feel guilty because they don’t pray enough." Most of us feel both of those things on the inside, don’t we? I don’t pray enough and when someone tells me that I should pray more, or when I hear stories of the prayer regimens of great saints of old who spent 8 hours in concentrated prayer, 4 times a day, I feel guilty.  And for a while, that guilt helps me embrace a new routine and regimen (as if that’s my problem).  But you know as well as I do that guilt has a shelf life and as soon as it leaves, my newfound discipline goes right along with it.  Then failing at my regimen or routine leads me to shame because I don’t pray enough-- to the point where I cringe when I know someone’s going to talk about prayer.  It causes us to lose heart and become even less prayerful than we were before.

What’s worse is that you and I don’t live in a vacuum.  Our shallow, short-lived, guilt-motivated theology of prayer is not just something that affects us, but is often seen and embraced among those with whom we have influence.  If you’re not a praying person, I guarantee that the people that follow you aren’t praying people (unless you’re such a tyrant that they are constantly praying for deliverance-- either way you understand what I’m saying.

Fortunately, we’re not the only ones to struggle with prayer like this. Luke 18, the parable of the persistent widow was written for people like you and me.  But before guilt jumps on your back, look at the first verse.  This is a story meant to encourage more prayer while discouraging the things (like guilt, shame, and inefficiency) that would discourage us from prayer.  Verse 1 reads, "And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart."  This text is written for us… for you and I who don’t pray enough and feel like our prayers don’t work.  Historically, I’ve hated this passage because I thought it prescribed a regimen and routine, but it’s not written for that.  The encouragement to pray more doesn’t come from embracing a regimen, but embracing a relationship.

"In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God or respected man."  Basically, it starts by describing a self centered, powerful, individualistic judge filled with apathy.  It goes on to introduce us to another character,  a widow-- someone with no family, no one to help her, no family, no place to go for help; someone in desperate need of a powerful person with compassion for her; and she’s forced to go to a stranger. What’s being highlighted in this story is the relationship between the judge and the widow.  Based on the character descriptions that are present we see that these people couldn’t be further apart.  However, she has a regimen of persistence that overcomes the apathy of the judge.  Apathy, even the most hardened, has a limit.

That is a great lesson. However, this story is not about a regimen.  It’s a contrast of the relationships between both characters.  God is not the judge in this story and you are not the widow.  God is not apathetic to our needs. God is the  God of the first three verses of the Bible.  Hovering over a formless, void, chaotic world and creating beauty out of chaos (which He does throughout the rest of Scripture).  There is not an ounce of apathy in Him.  Moreover, His concern for our problems predates our awareness of our problems.  Look at verses 6 and 7: "Hear what the unrighteous judge says.  And will not God give justice to His elect, who cry to him day and night?  Will he delay long over them?"  His elect—people chosen by God before He spoke the beauty out of the chaos in the world.  Chosen, brought near, once orphans and widows with no hope but made family though what Jesus has done for us.  And moreover, He’s promised that no one can snatch us out of the Father’s hand.  While the judge and widow couldn’t be farther apart, God and His elect couldn’t be closer together.

It was the widow’s idea to make the judge aware of the problem. She had to work over time to convince him it was a good idea to act on her behalf, while God initiates relationship with us and invites us to approach Him.  The widow could only access the judge at certain times of the day, but we have the freedom to cry out to God at all times of the day (even right now as you read this on your cell phone). The judge was perturbed by her insistent pleadings, but God is pleased with ours.

This story is meant to help us to see that if we believe we are truly His children, then why wouldn’t we pray?  Why wouldn’t He be the first option?  Prayer that flows out of our identity takes place when we embrace a relationship, not a regimen.  Regimens and strategies leave us guilt-ridden when we fail, but a relationship reminds us of God’s grace towards us when we fail to perform as we should.  As long as we try to improve our prayer life by adopting a new regimen, we’re destined for failure.  True progress in prayer only comes as we embrace the relationship of a loving Father with His kids.

To that end, the goal is really not to prescribe another regimen.  One helpful way that I’ve tried to put this truth into practice is by making a habit of being persistent and patient in my prayers.  Start praying for things that may take God 20 years to accomplish.  That way we’re constantly reminded of the fact that we’re in a long-term relationship with Jesus.

I spent some time on sabbatical at a church that has gathered every Sunday night for the past 20 years, praying that God would make Himself real to their surrounding neighbors.  There was a funeral of an older woman who this church cared for over 20 years.  The funeral was filled with people who weren’t Christians from the neighborhood surrounding the church—people who haven’t stepped foot in a church for over 20 years.  They recognized and praised the church for their care while being surprised that this this was the first time in 20 years they saw her biological family.  As they heard about God’s love for us in Jesus, it was made tangible to them during that funeral.  God answered the countless prayers for of this church.  This answer to prayer was 20 years in the making.  Somehow, when God answered it, it seemed like it was all worth it.  Deep down inside, I left from that time longing for an experience like that.  Seeing the grace of God on that day has been one of the greatest motivators to begin a journey of persistent and patient prayer.

Right now is as good a time as any to take a break from whatever has a monopoly on your time, reflect on the fact that God is inviting you to speak to Him, and pray.

Identity: Loved

The Beloved Disciple In the Gospel he wrote about the life of Jesus, the apostle John never mentions himself by name, but refers to himself often as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”  (John 13:2319:26-2720:2).

For years, when I read these verses and others like them, I assumed John talked about himself in this way because he was somehow favored by Jesus. But a few years ago, I realized that it is possible that John called himself “the disciple whom Jesus loved” not because Jesus showed favoritism towards him, but because John himself couldn’t get over the simple fact that Jesus loved him.

It didn’t matter that he was John of Galilee, the fisherman, the son of Zebedee, the brother of James, a Jew, the youngest disciple and the one to live the longest, the one to receive the revelation of the future. All these things were important parts of who he was, yes, but John knew that when it came down to it, the only thing that truly matter was that Jesus loved him. No title or piece of his identity could compare to that. None of the rest of it mattered if that one fact wasn’t true. But it was true, and John’s life was defined by this fact, so what better way to describe himself?

John wrote, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (1 John 3:16). He just couldn’t get over the fact that Jesus loved someone like him enough to die for him. That fact motivated the rest of John’s life. Nothing else about John mattered, except that he was loved by Jesus. He found his entire identity in Christ. And he longed for others to do the same.

As we study 1 John, we see the emphasis John places on relationships-- with God and with one another. These relationships are centered around love, namely the incredible love God has for us. His love pours into our lives and that love overflows as we live with one another. A love like that changes who we are. It gives us identity and responsibility.

When I think about the fact that the Creator of the universe and every living thing; the holy, righteous, sovereign, omnipotent, omniscient God who exists outside of time yet still works in it; the One who caused a worldwide flood, split the Red Sea, brought down kingdoms, cities, and armies, enabled the weak to lead the strong, and raised people from the dead— when I really think about the fact that he loved me enough to send his only son to die in my place and now calls me his child and lives in me— I can’t get over it. And I’m guessing John couldn’t either. He couldn’t get over the fact that Jesus loved a poor, dirty, fish-smelling guy like him. And his life proved it.

Identity Transformation

But this identity, cause, passion, and purpose didn't snap into place for John immediately. We read in Matthew 20:20-28 and Mark 10:35-45 that John and his brother wanted to sit on Jesus’ right and left in his kingdom. Jesus knew that in their hearts, the root of this request was pride. They wanted the places of honor, respect, and power. It wasn’t about being close to Jesus because He loved them. It was about making themselves look good.

But Jesus reminded them that following him would require great sacrifice. If they were just in it to get good seats, it wasn’t worth it. He knew they would suffer greatly for his name (which they both did— James was killed for his faith and John was exiled). Then, he told them that his kingdom doesn’t work like a human kingdom: the first will be last and the last will be first. These are the ones God views as great— not the ones pushing and shoving for the seat next to him, but those bowing at his feet.

It took time for John to really grasp this, but eventually he did. As a result, we have some of the most Christ-magnifying, service-focused words ever written. By the time John had the vision that became the subject of the book of Revelation, he definitely got it. Out of fear and awe, John fell at Christ’s feet (Revelation 1:17). When he saw Christ in his glory, John wasn’t asking to take a seat beside him, he was face-first on the ground. He realized where he belonged. Christ took a prideful, self-serving man and turned him into a humble servant in awe of His love.

We could speculate when this transformation happened in John. Was it when Jesus washed John’s own grimy, calloused feet— the job of a lowest servant?

Was it watching his friend, teacher, and Lord be beaten, ridiculed, and tortured, without a word of opposition?

Was it huddling near the cross, looking up at his bleeding, suffocating Savior, as Jesus entrusted John with the care of his own mother?

Was it running to Jesus’ tomb to find it empty, then seeing him alive and tracing Jesus’ wounds with his fingers?

Was it following Jesus’ command to go, tell, and make disciples; watching people come to trust a Lord they’d never met; seeing his friends give their lives for Christ?

I’d say it was a process; a journey. John may not have fully grasped these words when Jesus first spoke them, but years later when he recorded them, he had lived their truth:

a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them”-- John 13:16-17

Truly, if we follow Christ, we will be like Christ. John is proof that God can take a heart for self and turn it into a heart for Him. He transforms our identity.

 

Adapted from posts previously published on LauraCoulterwrites.com. Used with permission.

Life Verses: Romans 8

We just concluded a sermon series at Blueprint entitled “Life Verses.” Each week, one of our pastors walked  us through a set of verses that has been influential in his life. But God’s Word isn’t just for pastors! It has the ability to powerfully affect and transform each of us. Today, we're featuring the Life Verses of Laura Coulter, one of our interns.  I get excited about the book of Romans, especially chapter 8. It's gotten me through quite a few hard times in my life. It reminds me who I am and where I stand in Christ, no matter what I feel at the time or the external circumstances weighing me down.

Paul wrote this letter to the Roman church from Corinth, planning to go through Rome on his way to Spain. Since Paul had never been to Rome before, he wanted to establish a strong relationship with the Roman believers and unite them around a well-clarified and powerful gospel in a way that would ease tensions between believers of different backgrounds, as well as encourage them to avoid false teaching and immoral living. That’s why the book of Romans is such a great explanation of the gospel and Christian life. It’s no coincidence that we often use verses in Romans for evangelism. It’s a well of gospel truth: clear, deep, and pure.

By the time he gets to Romans 5, Paul’s dealt with sin, death, the law, and justification by faith. In the next four chapters he ties it all together. Through  faith in Christ, because of what He’s done for us, we are more than conquerors (Romans 8:37)— righteousness wins over sin, life wins over death, and the Spirit wins over the flesh. To me, Romans 8 is a victory cry, beginning with, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” and ending with, “[nothing] shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).  That just reaches into my heart and injects joy!

But Romans 8 isn’t just spiritual candy. It’s deep, nourishing, tough, make-your-head-want-to-explode spiritual truth. Paul talks about:

  • -life in the Spirit instead of death in the condemnation of sin ( verses 1-4)
  • -the mindset of the Spirit versus the mindset of the flesh (verses 5-11)
  • -the fact that the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead now dwells in us (verse 11)
  • -how the Spirit testifies that we are God’s adopted children, and we are able to call him Father (verses 14-17)
  • -how our suffering for Christ now will lead to a much greater glory later (verses 17-18)
  • -how believers groan with creation in anticipation of resurrection and regeneration (verses 18-25)
  • -the Spirit of God interceding for us when we don’t know what or how to pray (verses 26-27)
  • -the ultimate good God has in store for those who love him— to be conformed to the image of Christ (verses 28-30)
  • -how we are more than conquerors in him, because nothing can stand against us and nothing can separate us from his love when we are in Christ (31-39)

 

If you have never shouted "Amen" in your life, that has to at least make you want to! And that’s why I love Romans 8— it’s the beauty of the gospel wrapped up in a way that makes me paralyzed in wonder at God’s love, thinking: I don’t deserve this.

I don’t deserve the Spirit of God living in me, leading me, interceding for me, and reminding me that I belong to Him. I don’t deserve to be adopted into God’s family, to be a coheir with Christ, who died for me. I don’t deserve glory and resurrection. I don’t deserve the ultimate good. I don’t deserve to be made anything like Christ. I don’t deserve to conquer anything. And I certainly don’t deserve a love that will never, ever let me go. Yet God loves me with that love. And He gives me all these things, not because I deserve them, but because He loved me enough to reach down into my world and bring me up into His by the blood of His Son.

I love Romans 8 because through it God says, “Daughter, you belong to me and I will never let you go.”

What does a truth like that do to me? Ultimately, the response to this wonder isn't paralysis, but action. God's active, invasive, ridiculous love motivates me to live with confidence in Christ, sharing His love with others however I can, empowered by His incredible, creative, intimate Spirit.

 

Adapted from a post previously published on LauraCoulterwrites.com. Used with permission.