Wednesday, November 13, 2019

NOW WE SHINE DIMLY


Matthew 5:14a
“You are the light of the world.”

                As I walked into the office this morning, the full moon hung in the western sky. It was large and distinct, but its light was obscured by a gray haze. I have been out at night when there was a full moon and it has been so bright that it cast shadows on the lawn. This morning the moon was clearly visible, but its light was dimmed by the wispy clouds of a fall sky.

                In many ways, we are to be like the moon. The moon does not have any light of its own. Its light is a reflection of the light of the sun. In a similar way, we do not have any light of our own. We are instead to reflect the light of Christ into our world. Jesus is the source of our reflected light.

                When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." (John 8:12)

                Jesus came into this world to shine the light of God into our lives. That light has the power to transform us. It frees us from the dominion of spiritual darkness. It opens our eyes to the reality of who we are and who God is. Not everyone likes what they see, so they retreat into the darkness. But those who embrace the light of Christ are transformed by it.

                When we put our faith in Christ, we become a kind of spiritual moon to His sun. Jesus gives us His light so we can shine in our world. “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

                Most often, we are like the moon this morning. The light of Christ within us is obscured by the gray haze of sin in our lives. Although our heart’s desire is to shine the light of Christ into our immediate world, our sin clouds the picture. There are times when the haze clears and we shine brightly. There are times when the dark clouds of sin completely obscure the light of Christ. But most of the time we live somewhere in between.

                Although I do not believe that the haze of sin will even be completely eliminated from our lives until we stand complete before God in heaven, I do know that we can decrease its intensity. As we become aware of our sin and deal with it before God, our light shines brighter. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

                God continues to shine His light into our hearts, which in turn brightens our entire being. But we are still imperfect vessels containing His light.

    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 the glory of God 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. (2 Corinthians 4:6-7)

                The good news is that the longer that we walk with Christ, and the more we yield to the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit, the more our lives will shine for God in our world. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18)

                This morning the moon was large and full and shining, even though there was a haze in the air. God wants us to be His full moons reflecting the light of Christ in our world, even if, for now, we shine dimly.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

LIVING IN THE WORLD, NOT FOR THE WORLD


John 17:15
My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.

1 Timothy 6:17
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.

                What does it mean for us to live in the world, not for the world? When God created the world, it was perfect in His sight. He placed humanity into this perfect world and invited them to fully enjoy all that He created. The physical world was God’s gift to humanity; a tangible expression of God’s love. When sin came into the world, the tangible world became corrupted. The relationship between God and humanity was damaged, and consequently the relationship between humanity and God’s tangible gift was damaged.

                As Paul tells us in Romans 1, humanity substituted created things for the Creator and therefore put themselves at odds with God. The created world took a place in people’s lives that it was not intended to have. Not only was God excluded from the picture, the very things that God created for humanity’s enjoyment were corrupted.

                Jesus came into the world to restore a right relationship with God and with the world that God created. Through Jesus death on the cross and His resurrection He has redeemed not only humanity, but creation itself. When a person puts their faith in Jesus, they are recreated. (2 Corinthians 5:17) As redeemed people, we now relate to God and His world differently. The gift of life on earth is restored to us, as well as the promise of life eternal with Christ for all of eternity.

                There is a struggle that we face as believers. Are we to completely deny this world and live only for eternity, or are we too fully embrace this life on earth as well as our hope in eternity? For me the latter is the correct answer. We are to live fully in this world without living for this world. Everything that we have and enjoy is a gift from God. If we constantly acknowledge that and give thanks to God for it, we can fully engage in this world. Knowing that God wants us to make the most of our journey through life, we can celebrate its joys and endure its hardships. As Paul says in Romans 8:28, And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

                God does not want us to live our lives with the attitude that we have too endure life until we get to heaven. He wants us to embrace the journey through life, which will make our experience in heaven that much richer. If our focus is only on getting to heaven, we will miss all of the blessings that God intends for us now.

                I once knew a family whose idea of a vacation was to see how many miles they could drive in a week. They would stop only briefly along the way to possibly take a picture, then it was back in the car to get moving. Most of us would say, what a waste. What is the point of a journey if you don’t experience what is along the way? Yet, we can live our entire lives that way, if we are not careful. We can be in such a hurry to get to heaven that we miss the journey. The journey is important, otherwise why did God make us take it. If the only goal in life is making it to heaven, why doesn’t God just take us home as soon as we become believers? I know I am pressing the point, but it is possible for us to be so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good.

                God has placed us on this earth for a reason. It was part of His original plan that we would delight in all that He created. We who are believers in Christ should enjoy this life more than anyone else. How we live this life matters to us and to God. It matters for now and for eternity. How tragic would it be if when we stand before God, He shows us all the gifts that He wanted to give to us, but that we missed because we were in a hurry to get to heaven.  

                There is truth in the phrase, stop and smell the roses. God created a beautiful, amazing world for us to enjoy. Each part of this amazing world points us to Him. Let’s not miss the gifts He offers to us every day.

Psalm 19:1-4
The heavens declare the glory of God;
  the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.


Tuesday, October 29, 2019

IN PLACE, OUT OF PLACE


Genesis 21:33
Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called upon the name of the Lord, the Eternal God.

                In our monthly, men’s breakfast, we are watching a video series by Ray Vander Laan titled “Walking with God in the Desert.” The segment we watched this month focused on how God provides for desert people through different kinds of trees. One of those trees is the tamarisk tree.

                The tamarisk tree is very slow growing. It requires quite a bit of attention at the beginning to get it started. It is most often planted near places where people live. As one Bedouin man explained, we plant a tamarisk for our grand-children. Because it grows so slowly, the benefits of it will not be realized until generations after it is planted. So why plant one?

                The tamarisk tree has an extremely unique feature that makes it an ideal desert tree. It has a very high salt content in its leaves. Because of this high salt content, it captures the moisture from the air. During the heat of the day, this moisture slowly evaporates, making the shade of the tamarisk tree considerably cooler than other trees. Bedouin people love to plant these trees near to their dwellings for this reason.

                In Genesis 21, we are told that after Abraham had received God’s promise that he would inherit all of the land of Palestine, as an act of confidence in God’s promise, he planted a tamarisk tree. He knew that he would never benefit from that tree, but he was trusting God that one day his grand-children and great grand-children would.

                Vander Laan used this story to ask an important question. What are we doing today that will benefit generations to come? In what ways can we plant a spiritual tamarisk tree that will provide shade for those who come after us? In our “live for the moment” world, this is a question we should all be asking. As a follower of Christ, what am I doing today that benefit generations to come?

                But not everything about the tamarisk tree is positive. In North Dakota, the tamarisk tree is known as the salt cedar. It is an invasive species that can destroy a pasture. In the arid desert, the tamarisk tree is sparse and grows very slowly. In a fertile, well-watered land it can grow rapidly and spread. The problem with this is that because of the salt content in the tree it changes the soil around the tree, making it extremely alkali. Soon the soil can not longer sustain other forms of vegetation. It becomes a great place for salt cedar, but a bad place for everything else.

                In a spiritual sense, we can see that this is exactly what Satan has done in our world. He has taken things that God intended for our good and transplanted them into places where they should not be. What God intended for good becomes something that produces harm. Planted in the wrong place, these things act as invasive species, taking over the place and pushing out the good things that should be there. There is no better example than what has happened with human sexuality.

                God intended for human sexuality to be planted in the environment of marriage; the loving, monogamous relationship between a man and a woman. Satan has ripped human sexuality from this positive environment and transplanted it into various other environments. The outcome has been broken, devalued people. Today, human sexuality has become an invasive species that seems to dominate our society, while pushing out God’s original design.

                Before we start casting stones, we need to realize that it is possible for each of us to plant a spiritual tamarisk tree in the wrong place. We can create a legacy that will have reverberating negative effects for generations to come.

                God warned us about this. In the Ten Commandments, God made it clear that if we plant our tamarisk tree in the wrong place it will have long lasting consequences. “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” Exodus 20:4-6

                As we make our way through life, we will have many opportunities to plant a tamarisk tree. If we are intentional, we can leave a positive legacy that will benefit generations to come. If we are unintentional, we may leave a negative legacy that will also affect generations to come.

Ephesians 5:15-16
Be very careful, then, how you live--not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.

   

   


Tuesday, October 22, 2019

WIND


John 3:8
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."

                The wind is howling outside of my office window. It began howling early last evening and continued throughout the night. It is a cold wind that cuts through a person. Tiny flakes of snow dance in the wind as it whips the trees and scatters their leaves.

                Wind is a powerful force, yet it is insubstantial. A person can not capture the wind or measure its volume. Yet the wind can transform a landscape. It sculpts the sand dunes of western Michigan and the farm fields of North Dakota. The wind has the power to tear limbs from trees or the roof off of a house. The wind can be harnessed to generate power, but it cannot be contained or controlled. The wind blows where it wants to blow and there is nothing we can do about it.

                The Bible has two words for wind. In Hebrew the word for wind is ruah. In Greek the word for wind is pueuma. The Bible uses these same two words to mean spirit. The Hebrews equated the wind with the breath of God. God was the one in control of the wind and therefore it represented the activity of God in the world.

                When Jesus was meeting at night with Nicodemus, as recorded in John 3, Jesus used a play on words when he equated the activity of the wind with the activity of the Holy Spirit. His play on words gives us some insight into the activity of the Holy Spirit in our world.

                Just as we cannot control the activity of the wind, so we cannot control the activity of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, being God, is totally independent of human influence. The Spirit indwells every believer, but the believer does not control the Spirit. The Spirit is the moving force within the believer’s life; changing and transforming the landscape of his or her life.

                The Holy Spirit is the prime mover in the salvation and sanctification of the believer. Jesus told Nicodemus, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” (John 3:5-6) It is the Holy Spirit who is the agent of the new birth that Jesus told Nicodemus about.

                The “wind” of the Holy Spirit is still blowing through our world today. He is shaking up Christ’s church, with the purpose of purifying it and empowering it. He is awakening people all over the world to their need for a Savior, who is Jesus Christ. He is empowering believers to be salt and light in their communities. He continues to blow away the fog of unbelief and replace it with a spiritual clarity that allows those who place their faith Jesus to understand the deep truths of God.  

John 14:15-17,25-27
"If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever-- the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.

"All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.


Friday, October 18, 2019

CHRISTMAS LIGHTS IN THE WINDOW


                As autumn has descended upon North Dakota, my walk to the office in the morning is more and more in the dark. I enjoy these crisp mornings as I follow my accustomed route through the neighborhoods of our little town. I was made aware recently that my daily journey is far from unnoticed. Several people have mentioned seeing me stroll past their house. Although it seems natural to me, they seem to think that I walk at a fast pace. I guess I have been walking with purpose.

                As the mornings grow darker, I have begun to observe some things that I had never noticed during the summer months. One thing is the number of homes where the glow of a TV is evident through the un-curtained windows. I don’t peek into the window to discern what is being watched, but the glow of the TV is obvious to anyone who is passing by.  

                The other day I caught a glimpse of something that took me by surprise. It was a totally different kind of light coming from the window. It wasn’t a TV on a far wall, but prominently displayed in the front for all the see. It was a lighted Christmas tree, adorned with tiny white lights. It is not unusual to see a Christmas tree in a front window in late November and December. It is odd to see one so prominently displayed in early October.  I don’t know the story behind this sight, but it has made me think.

                The focus of October, for better or for worse, is Halloween. Throughout our town there are multiple displays of pumpkins and round bales of hay decorated for this holiday. Our local café is decked out with spider webs and other symbols of the season. If my memory serves me correctly, there will be a parade of school children all dressed in their Halloween costumes in the near future. In the midst of all of this Halloween frivolity, a lighted Christmas tree stands in stark contrast.

                In Matthew 5, Jesus tells us that, as His disciples, we should be lights in our community, standing out from the rest. “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

                If I may take the liberty to paraphrase Jesus’ words, we are to be lighted Christmas trees in a Halloween world. Our lives should display the light of Christ in a world that too often prefers the darkness. Our light is to be openly displayed, not shrouded by curtains so that only a faint glow is visible.  The light of our faith should be prominent for all to see. We are not called to be a spotlight, blinding those around us. We are called to be a warm light that invites others into its glow.

                In a very short time, there will be many lighted Christmas trees in front windows. But I am impressed by the one that is there now. It reminds me that even though our world can be a dark place, the light of Christ can still penetrate the darkness at any season of the year, offering hope and love to all who will embrace it. So, I want to encourage you to put your ‘lighted Christmas tree” in the front window of your life.

“In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
   


Tuesday, October 15, 2019

PUTTING FEET TO OUR FAITH

John 5:6
When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, "Do you want to get well?"

                This morning in our men’s Bible Study we looked at the story of the invalid at the pool of a Bethesda, as found in John 5. As the story goes, this man had been an invalid for 38 years. It is implied that he spent most of that time at the pool of Bethesda. The reason that he was there was that it was believed that from time to time the angel of the Lord would come down and stir the waters. The first person to get into the water after the stirring would be healed. So this man spend his life trying to be the first into the pool, without success.

                Into this man’s story walked Jesus. For some reason, Jesus singled this man out from all of those who were there. Having compassion on this man, Jesus approached him with an odd question, “Do you want to get well?” On the surface, this seems like an insensitive thing to ask this man, but Jesus was probing for something deeper within the man. The man’s initial response was one of self-defense. He quickly explained why he was still in that place after so many years. He had no one to help him get into the water. Someone else always got there first.

                Then Jesus did something that the man never expected. Instead of chiding him for his lack of effort, Jesus simply told him to “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” This must have been said with such a commanding and compelling voice that the man did exactly what Jesus told him to do. When he did, he was instantly healed. This man’s reality was changed in an instant, an instant of faith.

                Most of us have things in our lives that we have struggled with for many years. As much as we want to be rid of these “afflictions” they persist. We feel trapped, just like the man at the pool. Over time we resign ourselves to this as the norm, that this is our reality and there is nothing we can do about it. For most of us, this is not a physical affliction but an emotional or spiritual one. It may be a poor self-image, or a deep-seated bitterness, or a critical spirit, or a negative habit. We have tried to break free from its bonds, but our efforts fall short and we find ourselves right back where we started.

                Into this situation, Jesus steps. He probes the depths of our soul with His penetrating question, “Do you want to get well?” He is really forcing us to consider the results of being free from whatever it is that binds us. At first blush, to be free sounds wonderful, but on further examination we realize that it means some significant changes in our life.

                The man at the pool had been an invalid for 38 years; probably the majority of his life. He had been totally dependent upon others to care for him. To be healed meant that he would have to take full responsibility for his life from now on. His entire world would be changed. Did he really want to embrace this new reality?

                The same question is posed to us. To be set free from our affliction means that we will have to change the patterns of our life. We will have to embrace a new reality, with new responsibilities. Do we really want to get well?

                Our first response when we hear Jesus’ question is to defend ourselves, just like the man at the pool. We begin to think of all of the reasons why we are the way we are. Maybe we blame our family for not setting the right example. Maybe we blame society for its negative influence in our lives. Maybe we blame God for allowing this thing to enter our life. Our first response is usually an excuse for why we cannot change.

                Jesus never argues with us. He never challenges our excuses directly. Instead, Jesus challenges us to trust Him and act in faith. Jesus didn’t address the man’s excuses, He simply told him that it was time to get up and walk. If the man had continued to give excuses for why that was not possible, he would have probably remained an invalid. But he did not. Instead, he took Jesus at His word and discovered that his faith had healed him.

                When we lay our excuses aside and act in faith, based on what Jesus has told us, we too can be healed. When we take Jesus at His word and trust Him enough to act in faith, amazing things can happen in our lives. He can and will free us from the things that bind us, if we will do what He commands us to do. He can replace bitterness with thanksgiving. He can replace a critical spirit with a spirit of compassion. He can replace a poor self-image with the amazing reality that we are loved by God. He can free us from a negative habit that controls our life with a positive habit that transforms our life.

                Jesus has the power to free us from whatever binds us, but He will not do this unilaterally. Instead, He invites us to participate in our healing by putting feet to our faith. The measure of our faith is the extent to which we are willing to pick up our mat and walk. We can make excuses and remain trapped by the pool, or we can act in faith and walk out into a new life.

Ephesians 4:20-24
You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

    

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

EMBRACING OUR TRUE IDENTITY


1 Peter 2:9
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

                I have a small pitcher that usually sits in a prominent place, in a china cabinet, in our home. It has a faded picture of Falmouth, England on one side. The glaze is cracked from age. On the bottom of the pitcher is a small piece of tape. On the tape is written “For David” in shaky handwriting. If I took this pitcher to an antique dealer, he would tell me that it is of little value, but it is of great value to me. The reason for its value is because it belonged to my grandmother. It had belonged to her grandmother before her, and she had brought it with her from England to America. Finally, she lovingly passed it on to me. Its value is not wrapped up in what it is, but in whose it was.

                Many of us struggle with our sense of self-worth. We live in a society that has done everything it can to artificially boost the self-image of people. Yet many people see it for what it really is; a façade. When they look in the mirror, they still question their value. There is a hollow place in their soul that all of the pats on the back and participation ribbons can never fill.

                I understand what it means to have a poor self-image. I struggled with my self-image for many years. What changed that for me was understanding that my value is not wrapped up in my looks or my abilities, but is found in my relationship with Christ. For me, it was one thing to know that intellectually and a completely different thing to embrace it fully.

                Peter wrote to a group of people who were struggling with their identity. Because of the circumstances of their lives they were discouraged. Peter took their eyes off of their circumstances by reminding them of their true identity in Christ. Peter’s ancient words can be a great encouragement to us as we struggle with our sense of worth.

                In Christ, we have been chosen by God. Do you remember what it was like in school to not be chosen, or to be the last one chosen. When I was in high school, we put on a musical every year. Every year I would try out for a speaking part in the musical. Every year I would make the call backs. And every year I would not be chosen for one of the speaking parts. I had to settle for being in the chorus.

                For many years, I felt like I was spiritually trying out for some place in God’s kingdom. But I never felt good enough or worthy, so I just tried harder. One day, I realized that I can stop trying to impress God. Through placing my faith in Jesus, I was already chosen. Something I could never earn on my own was given to me freely. God had chosen me for His team. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

                In Christ, we have significance. No one wants to be insignificant. We spend a great deal of our lives trying to prove our significance to others. The harder we try, the more illusive it becomes.

                Peter reminds us that, in Christ, our lives are of great significance. As a royal priesthood, we are bridge builders between God and people, between heaven and earth. We have been given a significant role to play in our world. We are Christ’s ambassadors, representing Christ and inviting others to join us. (2 Corinthians 5:20)

                In Christ, we are unique in our world. It is ironic that in our attempts to be unique from a worldly perspective we conform to be just like everyone else. This is most obvious in the world of fashion. An attempt is made to create something new and fresh, something unique. But soon, what started out as unique becomes commonplace. It can even become generic in a short amount of time.

                Peter tells us that we are a part of a holy nation. The term holy means to be set apart for special use. As followers of Christ, we have been set apart from the world to be truly unique. The exciting thing about this for me is that God does not make us cookie cutter versions of one another as the world does. He instead makes each of us unique in our own right. We are knit together through our faith in Christ, but we are each a unique masterpiece of God. (2 Corinthians 5:17, Ephesians 2:10)

                In Christ, we belong to someone special. Every human being has an innate desire to belong. We try to fulfill that longing in a multitude of ways. We join a sports team or a musical group. We join service clubs or social action committees. We are always looking for a place to fit in and to be accepted. Often in our efforts to be accepted, we will compromise our values to conform to the group.

                Peter reminds us that in Christ we belong to God. He has claimed us as His own. We have become His possession, a part of His family. He has placed His seal upon our lives, claiming us as His very own. We are no longer outsiders looking in. No matter what our circumstances or situation in life, our value is secure because we belong to the King of Kings. (1 John 3:1)

                When I was in high school, during my senior year, I finally earned my varsity letter. That was a huge deal for me. As soon as I was informed of this reality, I ordered a varsity jacket (which I still have). As soon as that jacket arrived, I wore it as much as possible. I wore it because it said that I belonged.

                Peter tells us that when we fully embrace our identity in Christ, we should eagerly display it for all to see. This is not an obligation or a duty. It is a privilege. It is something to be celebrated. The more that we embrace who we are in Christ, the more our lives will become a celebration of His love and grace.

1 Peter 2:10
Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.