Good teacher, what must I do?

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In Matthew 19, we hear the story of the rich young ruler who asked Jesus what he must do to receive eternal life.  It’s an interesting an exchange, and one which we still see replayed over and over today.  First, we want to know what we can do to earn it. (Teacher, what good thing shall I do?)  In this world of ‘every kid gets a trophy’, there is no good that’s good enough.  After Jesus points this out, he tells our rich ruler friend to keep the commandments. How does he respond? “Which ones” (verse 18). The negotiation phase. This is a telltale sign. The writing is on the wall. If you want to go buy a new camel, test out your negotiation skills. If you’re asking the Messiah how to gain eternal life, perhaps just take what he says and go with it!  But not our friend here. He wants a list of dos and don’ts. (Sound familiar, anybody?) Jesus goes down the list, and our friend seems to be ticking off every one.  He might just have it made! Jesus has got one more thing for our friend, though. For all of us. He’s going to perform a heart check now. He tells our fine friend, the one with all the worldly wealth, to walk away from all that, to lay it down and give it away.  Well, now hold on there Jesus! You’re going just a tad too far there, don’t you think?  The rich young ruler did. He was willing to trade away eternity and a life with Jesus for worldly wealth. For stuff.  Stuff that isn’t going to last beyond this life and sure isn’t capable and of taking him on to the next one.

The story of our rich young ruler friend is a good overview of how many of us approach a relationship with God. First, like our friend the young ruler, we think if we are “good enough” by our own standards, we should have access to God. Then we want to just show up and be given a list of rules to follow. Just go through some motions.  Here again it’s clear–our good works and checking off lists whole going through the motions don’t cut it. That’s not what Jesus wants from you and me.

We are still trying to bargain with Jesus. Not just the financial end of things, either. And not always those things that might be first and foremost on your throne. Sometimes they are even more subtle things. Often they are things that seem perhaps not that big a deal on the surface (for example, dressing provocatively) but the underlying issue isn’t if God still loves you if you’re showing a lot of cleavage (He does). The issue is when we start locking heads with Jesus over control, pushing the limits of how our choice of dressing honors or dishonors God, pushing for what we want under the banner of “there aren’t any rules!” See, for the most part, when Jesus established the New Covenant, most of the rules of the old covenant were set aside. So we get into this little game with ourselves called “Do I have to“.  We’ve all played it at some point.

Do I have to:

tithe/give money to the church;

go to a church every Sunday;

stop cursing;

stop dressing a certain way (or start dressing a certain way);

stop going to clubs;

stop having sex if I’m not married;

stop watching R rated movies;

read my Bible every single day;

pray every morning;

serve others; 
I could go on and on and on.  The thing is, if we are looking at things from the perspective of, “do I have to”, there’s already a problem.  Remember that heart check Jesus had for our rich friend? Well, the “do I have to” is usually a good indicator it’s time for us to go to Jesus for a heart check.

Let’s just look at the money issue as our example off that list. It’s a good one for a lot of reasons.  Money is stability to us, isn’t it? So we naturally want to hold on to it. Our first reaction isn’t to give it away. Neither was it the reaction for our friend the rich young ruler. Our reaction is we earned it, we need it, and if we give it away, what happens if we get in a pinch? There are so many good nuggets in there. First and foremost, is trust. Trust God with His money. But I want to get back to the heart check. When we are setting up our relationship with Jesus as a list of what we have to do, we actually just killed the relationship and turned it back into religion.  Jesus wants your heart. I think I’ve said that in almost every post. He didn’t come to redeem us, giving his life in the process, so we could just check off the boxes of what we should do to get that golden ticket to heaven.  Giving of your money is not supposed to be a duty in the new covenant. It’s an act of worship.  It’s a way to honor God.  Just with everything else we try to filter through the “do I have to”, if we have truly met with the unrestrained grace of God, our reaction should be “it is my honor to…”.

If your heart still filters through a sense of obligation, I urge you to seek for God in this.  Ask the Spirit to show you your motivations and re-frame them if they need to be!

Our Great God! How could we respond to all that you have done for us but to give you all of ourselves? How could we not come before you with our hearts open, giving you freely of all that we have? We know that all we have to give you that is not already yours, is our hearts. I lay my heart before you, Jesus.

 

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No Greater Love Than This….

dreamstime_m_61060211Today is February 14th. Valentine’s Day. The day we celebrate love for that special person in our lives. And if the marketers are successful, we’ve spent lots of money to prove it.

But what IS love, really?  And what did Jesus (and the Bible) say about loving others?

In Matthew 22, we see the Pharisees and Sadducees trying to trip Jesus up. One Pharisee asked him what of all the commandments was the greatest. Not because he was curious about Jesus’ take on it, but because he was hoping to catch him in a trap of words. As we know, He answered that the first and greatest commandment is to love God with all our hearts, souls and minds. But he added, “And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. (Matthew 22:39).  I think that pretty tidily answers any questions about what Jesus says about loving others, don’t you?  And let’s note here, he does not qualify “others”.  He doesn’t say “others who look like you”, or “others who vote like you do” or “others who agree with you about things” or (hold on to your knickers, folks) “others who sin in a way you find acceptable”, or even “others who believe the same things about Me that you do”.  Nope, he said “others”.

So before I get any deeper in this, let me just be blunt here. JESUS SAYS LOVE EVERYBODY. That does not mean you endorse everything about them or what they do. Got it? Good.  Jesus says that is how we are set apart to be known as his disciples, by our love for one another. (See John 13).

How can we do this? Because God first loved us. (1 John 4:19).  The love of God abiding IN us isn’t supposed to stay there and stagnate. It moves you to action. Loving others is an action.

Let’s just pause here and talk about social media. I love it as much as anybody.  But it can be a minefield. I know I’ve stepped on some mines and I will admit to having set one or two. It will not take you very long to go find a site where people are fighting, bickering, or just being downright ugly in the name of Jesus (or religion). May I suggest this flies in the face of being known by our love? We may think we are tearing others down anonymously, but don’t think for one moment that God doesn’t have access to Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and everything else. It’s ugliness and it turns off non-believers. They have every right when they see it to call us hypocrites. Jesus told us to go and make disciples of all nations. He never told us to go win arguments.

Rewind back to love as an action.  I would hazard a guess that most folks are at least vaguely familiar with 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 and the “Love” statements. But for those who aren’t, here is what the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth:

” Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant  or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;[it does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  (English Standard Version).

Paul, by the way, is not sending the Corinthian church a Valentine’s Day card. Here is telling the church, who was getting a little bit worked up about seeking and striving for spiritual gifts, that while the gifts of the Spirit are great, there is one thing that they must have or the gifts are meaningless–love.

So look at Paul’s words. Paul isn’t saying that love is being nice to somebody who is nice to you. Or that love is when you get the fluttery feeling in your stomach. (That might just be bad sushi, anyway.) Love is action. Love is work. Whether this is love between spouses, parents/children, friends, or people you’ve never met, loving others is more than a feeling. It’s doing things you don’t want to do. It’s sacrificial.  It’s thinking of others more highly than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). It’s carrying each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:20).  It’s laying down your life for that of your brother. Jesus was our great example in that. But when you relinquish your need to be “right”, or have it “your way” and yield to another, that’s a way of laying down your life, too.  That’s the kind of love Paul is talking about.

The last verse in 1 Corinthians 13  says “love bears all things, love believes all things, love hopes all things, love endures all things.” Believes, hopes and endures are pretty self-explanatory. But I want to point out “bears”. The Greek word used here is stego (and that doesn’t have the right accents to write that correctly, so you can go verify it here) and it means “to cover” as in a roof, or thatch covering, or to cover with silence, or cover against something threatening.  Just think about that in the context of your relationships. Are you “covering” those you love and God has entrusted to you? I don’t mean just your close, immediate family. I mean something  you heard in a prayer request….are you “covering that with silence”? Would you want yours to be covered in silence?  I’ve got gossip and idle talk in my sights here. If you see somebody who needs bearing up, are you turning a blind eye and hoping somebody else will do it? Or are you getting your hands dirty and doing the bearing?

See, Hallmark and Hershey want you to think love is that squishy nice feeling that’s all nice and sweet and reciprocal.  The love Jesus says is second only to loving God? It’s dirty and messy and often comes with no rewards from the person your loving. But your Father in Heaven sees it. And when you love like that it changes you in a way no Hallmark card ever will.

Abba Father, thank you for your steadfast love for us.  Soften our hearts, Holy Spirit, to let love flow through us for everyone around us. Real, active love. Let us love like Jesus calls us to love, in whose mighty, matchless name I pray.

 

Follow Me

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Last week we looked at the difference between cultural Christianity and actually being a follower of Jesus.  So for the next few posts let’s look at a few key points in a little more detail.  Today I want to talk about what Jesus meant when he said “Follow Me”.

On several occasions throughout his ministry, Jesus told his disciples to follow him. I’m sure most of you are familiar with Jesus’ words to Simon (Peter) and his brother Andrew in Matthew 4:19 when he found them fishing on the Sea of Galilee. He said “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” We all remember that line.  But do you recall what Simon and Andrew did? The Bible says “Immediately the left their nets and followed Him.” (Matthew 4:20, English Standard Version).  And how about Matthew, who Jesus found at his tax collector’s booth. He simply says “Follow me.”  Matthew’s response? He got up and followed Jesus. No hesitation.  (Matthew 9:9). Another disciple asked if he could go bury his deceased parent, but Jesus told him too let the (spiritually) dead deal with burying the dead, and follow him right then.

But what about us? Do we drop everything and follow Jesus?  Certainly some people do. But I think for the vast majority, when we repent and receive the gift of salvation and ask Christ to be our Savior, we ride a spiritual high for a bit. We enter a honeymoon phase. It may last very short time or a little bit longer. But what happens when that wears off and you’re back to feeling the normal grind of the daily routine. You don’t feel super spiritual. You may not feel much of anything at all. (Feelings are all well and good, by the way, but the basis of your faith should not be on your feelings. Ever. The basis of your faith should be on the indisputable truths of our unchanging God. Feelings are fleeting and sometimes misleading. The heart can be wicked and deceitful, after all.) So now what?  Now is when we get serious about following Jesus. Without hesitation.

There’s another example of going all-in to follow the calling of the Lord. And this guy meant business. In 1 Kings 19:19-21 we learn about the prophet Elijah who is seeking out Elisha in order to anoint him to eventually take his place as the go-to prophet.  Elisha is in the field, plowing with his team of oxen when Elijah throws his cloak on him. Elisha knew that was the sign of something big.  He killed the oxen and burned the plows. He just removed anything to go back to. He was jumping full on into his calling and removed the safety net of a back up plan.

Does this mean Jesus wants us to sell everything we own so we can follow him? Well, unless you’re planning to go on a long-term overseas mission, probably not a wise idea.  But what he does want is for you to kill the oxen and burn the plows of your past and jump into your future in him. Don’t leave anything to go back to that will keep you from living in the fullness he has for you.  I get it, that’s not always easy. You may have to leave behind friends who influence in bad ways. These kinds of things are not cookie cutter, so it’s for you and the Lord to work out in prayer. I also highly recommend a mentor and/or a pastor or elder you can talk to for guidance. But know that God doesn’t ask us to give things up just to be a jerk. That’s not who he is. Personally, I had to walk away from the only friends I had that weren’t 2000 miles away. I was scared to death to have no friends. But God looks for obedience, and he rewards that with giving us better things in exchange for what we gave up. I know that was true for me.

In Matthew 10:38 (ESV), Jesus said “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.  And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” So what He is saying here is not that you are not supposed to love your mother and father, etc. He’s saying be careful not to love them MORE than you love him. And that goes for spouses, boyfriends/girlfriends, children, money, cars, fame…you name it. He wants your WHOLE HEART.  The greatest commandment starts with loving God above all things.  He continues to say “And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”  (Mathew 10:39). Does that have you scratching your head?  No worries.  It’s simply this: when we hang on with a white knuckle grip to our old self, wanting do everything like we always have, and basically retaining the lordship over our own lives, we haven’t gained anything. And he says we aren’t worthy of Him. (Now, I’m not going to suggest you need to have a lot of expertise in Biblical interpretation, or do hermeneutical hopscotch to figure that one out. And I’ll let you decide how you wish to interpret that. But in my limited training in hermeneutics, it means “we aren’t worthy”.) But, when we let go and surrender ourselves completely and let Jesus be Lord, following His ways, we may have lost our old life for his sake, but hallelujah, we will find a brand new one in him. And it’s SO MUCH BETTER.

This surrendering, by the way, is a daily thing. Sometimes more than that. It’s an intentional handing over the control and saying “not my way, but Yours”.  On paper that might sound easy, but the flesh we still carry around makes it a challenge. Get in your car in rush hour. Or the slowest checkout line at the grocery store when you’re in a hurry. Or on a three hour flight with the person behind you kicking your seatback every two minutes. Jesus’ way says patience and grace. Your flesh says something entirely different. Luckily, we are given the fruit of the Holy Spirit (see Galatians 5:22) to help combat the flesh. But it’s not an automatic response at first. We have to develop these good habits of yielding to the Spirit and not the flesh. Just like building a muscle by working it out.

We also have the great gift of the power to transform to be more and more like Christ through the renewing of our minds. Paul tells us in Romans 12:2 that we are not to behave like the rest of the world, but be “transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  Part of following Christ means we strive to become more and more like him.  So how, exactly, can we renew our minds?  READ THE BIBLE!!
“Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth.” (John 17:17, New Living Translation).

Following Jesus means things are going to change. You’re going to change. And that’s a good thing. We all came to Jesus because we needed a Savior. If we were completely fine on our own, then there would be no reason to change.  But we come to him broken, or with a yearning in our soul for something we’ve tried to fill with any number of things the world promised us would satisfy that desire, but never did. If we agree that we all ended up at the cross because we need Jesus, then can we agree there is no shame in admitting that it’s time to stop trying to live this life by our own rules and plans?  What have you got to lose by jumping in the deep end of the pool and going all in, and completely selling out for Jesus?

Sweet, sweet Jesus! I am eternally grateful to have heard your voice, the voice of my shepherd, calling me to follow you. I am grateful that as a shepherd gently tends to his flock, so you tend to each sheep in your flock. You guide with a sure, steady hand. You keep your flock safely in your arms. You are Lord of all of my life. Remind me, nudge me when I start to take over. Thank you, above all, for your steadfast love. I pray all who call you Savior will also call you Lord.  

 

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