Tagged: grace

An Off and On Faith

The recent U.S. election campaign that seemed to run for about 6 years sadly did a great job of illustrating what Christianity looks like to many people.

The campaign focused almost exclusively on the problems the candidates saw in the country, in the world, and most of all, in the other person. Too often the church communicates a similarly negative message. In fact, many Christians combine the two messages and seek to create legislation that mirrors their beliefs about morality.

I have no problem with Christians condemning certain behaviours. I believe God does this also.

I do have a problem with this message drowning out the more important messages of the Christian faith.

The biggest problem those outside of Christ face is not that Christians criticise their sexual ethics. Their biggest problem isn’t that they drink too much alcohol. Their biggest problem isn’t racism. Their biggest problem is that they reject Jesus. That’s the problem that Christians need to speak up about.

Another point many Christians seem to neglect is that the parts of the Bible condemning sexual immorality, lying, theft, gossip, slander, anger, and violence are usually written to Christians, not pagans.

angry-man-pointing

When Christians point the finger at other segments of society, rather than ourselves, we communicate that we don’t face those issues. This is why Christians are so often called hypocrites. Rather than growing our own spiritual maturity, we’ve spent too much time and effort pointing out the flaws of others. Just as a negative election cycle failed to generate much enthusiasm, so negative churches will fail to share the Gospel.

I was excited to find in Ephesians 4:17-5:2 how Paul encourages the church not just to put off sinful behaviour, but also to put on godly attitudes and behaviour. Look at these snapshots:

  • Put off your old self… put on the new self, created to be like God…
  • Put off falsehood… put on speaking truthfully to your neighbour.
  • Put off stealing… put on working to share with others.
  • Put off unwholesome talk… put on building others up.
  • Put off bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice… put on kindness, compassion, forgiveness…

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Christianity is an off and on faith. It inspires us to put off one set of behaviours and attitudes in order to put on another.

As a follower of Jesus, I want to be known for the things I’ve put on. I want to be truthful, generous, encouraging, kind, compassionate and forgiving. I want to hold others to those godly expectations also.

Most of all, I want to walk in the way of love.

Something has gone terribly wrong when the world only hears half the message and the half they hear is terribly off putting.

I’ll give the final word to the apostle Paul. I love how in Romans 8 he takes the negative commandments from the 10 Commandments and reframes them in a positive way. We don’t have to tell people what NOT to do. We can tell them instead to “love their neighbour” and that takes care of everything.

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet, and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Romans 13:8-9

 

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Easter with the Prodigal

You know the story. The parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15 is one of the most well known Biblical stories. It’s a simple story of redemption as a son leaves home but returns after frittering away his inheritance. The story captures our imagination because of the father’s response. The father asks no questions and welcomes the son home with a community banquet. The son receives grace, acceptance, forgiveness, and love when he’s done nothing to deserve it.

prodigal son

I’ve heard it suggested that we should more accurately title this story “The Parable of the Prodigal Father”. You see, the word ‘prodigal’ describes someone who is ‘extravagantly wasteful or lavishly generous’. The word emphasises adjectives like: reckless, extravagant, and lavish. While the son in the story recklessly blew through his inheritance, the father lavished him with grace and forgiveness.

As I read the story this time I noticed that the father in the story always loved the son. Even when the son thought he’d be better off without his father, the father granted him the freedom to pursue his own path. The father allowed himself to be vulnerable, susceptible to the pain of rejection. Although rejected by the son, he never returned insult for insult. His love was constant.

The story ends as the son celebrates his return. He celebrates restored relationships. He celebrates forgiveness. He celebrates safety. He celebrates acceptance. He celebrates a second chance. He celebrates…

The difference was not that the father now loved the son more. The son celebrates because he now appreciates the father’s love. He experienced grace. He felt the embrace of acceptance and value. It will take him time to fully grasp the depth of his father’s love, but he now lives a new life within his father’s embrace.

When I view the resurrection through this lens it reminds me that God always gives us the freedom to reject him. I’m reminded that Jesus death was necessary because I walked away from God. I don’t quite understand that equation, but I do understand that it communicates God’s love and forgiveness for me. As I examine the empty tomb I realise the prodigal grace that he’s “wasting” on me.

Perhaps the resurrection’s greatest revelation is not that God loves me, but that I begin to appreciate what it means to be loved by God.

So I celebrate. I celebrate God’s love. I celebrate God’s power. I celebrate God’s victory. I celebrate the grace and mercy God extends to me. I celebrate the hope I have to join Jesus eternally in his new life. I celebrate being accepted. I celebrate restored relationship and the forgiveness that makes it possible.  I celebrate…

…and I hope you do too. My prayer for you today is that you may experience the wonders of life within the embrace of God.

 

 

What if…God isn’t like that?

God is                                 .

How we fill in that blank impacts our lives far more than we often realise.

In Psalm 7:8-9 David invites God to examine him for sin. He probably has a specific accusation in mind that he’s trying to defend himself against, but most Christians I know would find that invitation terrifying.

Let the Lord judge the peoples.
Vindicate me, Lord, according to my righteousness,
    according to my integrity, O Most High.
Bring to an end the violence of the wicked
    and make the righteous secure—
you, the righteous God
    who probes minds and hearts.

throne of GodToo many Christians travel through life convinced of their UNrighteous rather than confident of our righteousness. We fear that if we invited God to examine us according to our righteousness that he’d see only sin and darkness.

How can David so boldly invite God to proclaim his righteousness and integrity? It’s not because David thought he was living a sinless life. Rather, the worldview described in this psalm flows from a confidence in the righteousness of God, not the psalmist’s own perfection.

David clearly understands that God hates sin, note verses 11b-13:

He passes judgment daily against the person who does evil.

If the wicked do not turn from their evil deeds, God will sharpen His sword;
    He will bend His bow, stringing it in readiness.
Yes, He has prepared His deadly weapons
    with His arrows flaming hot. (VOICE)

He also opens the psalm describing God as a “refuge”: a place of safety. In verse 10 he calls God, “My Shield” and if v11 “a righteous judge”. Knowing God in this way allows David to invite God as witness to his integrity and righteousness. God is just and God is safe.

I don’t know who’s to blame. Is it Catholicism? Is it the Reformed teaching on the Depravity of Humanity? Is it preachers seeking power and moral superiority?

Whatever the source, I know many Christians convinced that they sin minute by minute. Even if they’re in the middle of taking the shirt off their back to give to a homeless drifter they would worry that they were secretly (in their subconscious) doing it to make themselves feel good. They would worry that they were not being good stewards by giving away a shirt. And they would worry that these things were sinning and God would be upset with them for not giving to a person in need with the purest of motives.

We come to define ourselves as sinners and convince ourselves that when God glances in our direction he only sees us through a dark fog of sin. One way I’ve seen people express this is through asking God for forgiveness for “known and unknown sins” each time they pray: even at each meal.

What if God Isn’t Like That?sad girl father 01

What if… God looks at his people and the first thing he notices is our goodness, our love for others, our desire to honour Him, our growth in godliness over the past 18 months, our integrity and our righteousness? (Luke 15)

What if… God recognises our sin and loves us anyway? (Romans 5:8)

What if… The blood of Jesus Christ really does cleanse us from all sin? (1 John 1:7)

What if… Christ has set us free from worrying about every little possible sin? (Gal 5:1)

What if… Trying to be righteous by living the right way actually means we would fall away from God’s grace? (Gal 5:5)

What if… Righteousness is something given to us? (Gal 5:6)

What if… The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love? (Gal 5:6b)

What if… We’re to serve one another humbly in love because the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself”? (Gal 5:13-14)

What if… When God judges us he doesn’t ask us about secret sins and impetuous moments, but whether we’ve loved him, lived for him, and humbly served others?

What if… Being adopted by God means he shows us our goodness rather than pointing out our shortcomings?

What if… His grace covers our humanity?

What if… These ‘what ifs’ are all true?

Would it change the way we answer the opening question?

Would it make us more likely to invite God to examine us?

Would it increase our faith to trust the redemptive power of Jesus sacrifice?

Sin, confession and forgiveness will always be important topics for believers and unbelievers alike. I believe that a healthy picture of God will lead Christians more often to thank him for forgiving our sins than meticulously seeking his forgiveness.

The Power of a Villain Story

We continue the Summer Blog Tour this week with some thoughts from Tyler Jarvis. Tyler recently completed his Master of Divinity degree at Lubbock Christian University. He serves as the youth minister at the Oak Ridge Church of Christ in Willow Park, TX.   As always, please take a moment to check out more of his writing on his blog.

2015 summerblogtour

One of the things I like the most about the Bible is that it doesn’t pull any punches. I mean, there are lots of guys who are generally “good” guys but who do really crappy things. Generally, when you read a story, the main character is presented in the most likable light possible.

Not in the Bible. Or at least, not always.

In the Bible, you hear about guys like David, who was famously described as a man after God’s own heart, but who also impregnated a woman who was married to another guy, and then carried out a plan to kill the woman’s husband so he wouldn’t be caught.

In the Bible, you hear about guys like Samson, who served as a Judge of Israel and was supposed to rescue the Israelites from the Philistines, but he actually just winds up breaking all the vows he made to God, and even when he does kill a few Philistines, it’s too little too late, and he dies without having done what he was called to do.

In the Bible, you hear about guys like Peter who was the rock on which the Church was built, but who was portrayed as incredibly dim-witted all throughout the Gospels. And even after the resurrection, when Peter is supposed to be super awesome all the time, Paul still has to get onto Peter for being a racist.

villains

I think it’s important that these stories are included in the Bible, because the writers understood the importance of a villain story. It’s important to have stories about people who screw things up. It’s important to tell the stories of the guys who weren’t always good at following God.

Because really, that’s our story. I can relate to guy who does good and bad things. I’m familiar with seeking after God’s heart, but also trying to make myself look good. I know what it’s like to know what God has called me too, and to ignore it because there were other, better things to do. I know how it is to want to follow Christ, but to make stupid mistakes.

The Bible includes all these stories to show us that being a follower of God isn’t just something for the elite. David wasn’t bred to be a holy King. He was a shepherd boy who accidentally found himself anointed to be King, and he screwed up along the way. Samson had strength, but lacked the discipline and desire to follow God. Peter was self-absorbed, and only followed Jesus because he thought Jesus was going to lead a violent rebellion against the Romans, but he wound up leading Christ’s Church.

This is important to note, because, like Peter, Samson, and David, we’re not always going to be the good guy.

We are going to do things that are stupid, shameful, and Un-Christlike. At some point in our lives, we are going to do things that hurt the cause of the Kingdom of God. And God can use us anyway.

Because the Christian story isn’t a hero story. It’s not a fairy tale. It’s a real story about real people who seek after God and who screw up. It’s a story about people who are constantly being transformed, but who sometimes resist that transformation. It’s a story about people who don’t always look more like God today than they did yesterday.

And that’s encouraging. Because I take steps back. I have days like David, where if people knew what I’d done, they would probably think I wasn’t a Christian. I have days like Peter, where even though I work as a leader in a Church, I exclude people that I’m supposed to include. I have days like Samson, where God gives me everything I need to follow him, and I do my own thing anyway. And it’s on those days that I need these reminders that God’s not finished with me yet. Even on the days that I’m the villain of the story, God works in and through me.

We should strive to be followers of God. We should strive to be after God’s own heart. We should strive to be perfect as God is perfect. But we should also rest in the comfort that God uses us when we screw up. Some of the greatest heroes of the faith were bigger screw-ups than you and me.

Sometimes, the villains make the best heroes.

07 - Tyler Jarvis picTyler Jarvis is married to his wonderful wife Andrea and they have zero kids. He enjoys playing guitar, rock climbing, and writing about himself in the third person. You can check out his blog at http://www.tylerjarvis.wordpress.com or follow him on Twitter at @Tyler_Jarvis.

Grace: The Power of a Redemption Story!

This week we start off the Summer Blog Tour with a post by Les Ferguson. As usual I encourage you to check out Les’ blog: http://lesfergusonjr.com and his regular contributions for http://www.Wineskins.org.

After the double murder of his wife and disabled son in October 2011, Les stepped down from a full time preaching ministry to focus on holding his family together and building a new life. He has since married his childhood sweetheart, Becki. Together they are raising four boys.

Les eventually re-entered the ministry in 2014 and works with the Lake Harbor Drive Church of Christ in Ridgeland, Mississippi as their Senior Preaching Minister.
2015 summerblogtour

I don’t watch a lot of TV. Consequently, I often miss things that are culturally relevant. I hear about TV shows and have no clue about them at all. People talk about movies and actors and I just kind of nod my head because more often than not, I have no idea who or what they are talking about.

Even when a movie comes along that grabs my attention, I rarely make the time to see it. In fact, I cannot at this moment remember the last movie I saw.

The truth is, I am a nerd and would rather read a good book.

That I can talk about with ease.

dirty jobsSo while my grasp of popular culture is fairly tenuous, I am somewhat aware of a Discovery channel program called Dirty Jobs. Instead of trying to explain something I have never really watched, the following comes directly from the show’s website…

Welcome to Dirty Jobs, the new Discovery Channel series that profiles the unsung American laborers who make their living in the most unthinkable – yet vital – ways.

Our brave host and apprentice Mike Rowe will introduce you to a hardworking group of men and women who overcome fear, danger and sometimes stench and overall ickiness to accomplish their daily tasks.

 Not one to just stand by, each week, Rowe will assume the duties of the jobs he’s profiling, working alongside rattlesnake catchers, fish processors, bee removers, septic-tank technicians and other professionals: average folks tackling extraordinary tasks that simply must get done.

 But you’ll walk away from Dirty Jobs with more than just a glimpse into unfamiliar occupational duties…

 If you’re like us, you’ll also gain a new understanding and appreciation for all the often-unpleasant functions someone is shouldering to make your everyday life easier, safer – and often cleaner.

 

Dirty Jobs.

Nasty jobs.

Disgusting jobs.

.

I know there are plenty of jobs out there I wouldn’t want to do.

Not today.

Not tomorrow.

Not ever.

.

But, I’d like to suggest maybe the nastiest, dirtiest job of all is one done by God…

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The job is grace.

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We typically define grace as unmerited favor.

The definition itself ought to tell us ahead of time that grace is a dirty and rough business. Giving grace means giving people what they need not necessarily what they deserve.

Speaking of movies I have seen, remember Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ? Like the movie tried to convey, the Crucifixion wasn’t a death penalty punishment meant to impart death from a “let’s-try-and-spare-the-punished-any-overt-pain” kind of experience. To the contrary, far from humane, it was intended to inflict massive emotional, mental, and physical suffering—a total annihilation of body, soul, and spirit. For those who had to watch one live and in person, it must have been a spiritual gut-punch.

Hopefully you are managing a visceral grasp on the ugliness Jesus endured, because there was nothing rougher or more difficult than the grace procured by the Cross…

Did I mention it was a dirty job?

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It is always a dirty job.

Grace means getting down into the filth and ugliness of our world.

Worse, grace means there are no rubber gloves and boots to protect you from the showers and splatters of filth that will come.

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That’s what Jesus did.

That’s what we are called to do.

.

I wish I lived in a sterile, clean, antiseptic environment, but I don’t.

Sometimes I whine, complain, and get all twisted up.

Sometimes I act ugly, mean, or spiteful.

Sometimes I am selfish and heartless.

Sometimes I experience/ endure heartache.

.

And because I am fundamentally flawed and broken, I need grace.

I need grace from God.

I need grace from you.

.

Yes, grace is a dirty job.

But it’s grace that takes away our guilt and shame.

It’s grace that says, “I love you.”

It’s grace that says, “I forgive you.”

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It’s grace that takes broken stories and breathes into them the new life of redemption.

It’s grace that takes our pain and humiliation and turns it inside out.

It’s grace that redeems our story and makes it into something different, something useful, and something of service.

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It’s grace that wipes away our tears.

It’s grace that empowers our own acts of forgiveness.

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In the heartache of brokenness, I am thankful for the God who could not be pushed away by my anger and pain.

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I am thankful for the grace of God.

It’s a dirty job, but it is the power of my redemption.

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05 - Les Ferguson picGrace.

It’s a dirty job but it’s my story…

Dancing With God

I’m not a dancer. Around the age of 20 I enjoyed the wonderful experience of performing in several musicals. When the dancing started my primary responsibility was to stand still and let the pretty girls take the spotlight.  Occasionally I got to move too, although mostly that was simply to get me out of the way. But through the hours of rehearsals I learned a few things. moon dance

A dance tells a story. No matter how chaotic the stage appears, the movements were designed with a purpose.

It’s all about movement. Sometimes the movement is toward each other. Other times it’s a movement away.

Everyone one has a role. It might not be difficult, but it’s important. Just ask left shark!

It has a destination. There’s a precise feeling it seeks to produce. An exact point on the stage to conclude. A dramatic pose to capture.

As I prepared this week’s sermon from the book of Exodus I noticed four movements in God’s interaction with us. Sometimes it’s his move, sometimes it’s ours. The goal is always that we end up at the same place.I see these four movements recurring throughout God’s interaction with humanity. I’ll give a couple of illustrations below.

Move 1: God Graciously & Lovingly Moves Toward Us

  1. EXODUS: God hears the cries of the Hebrews in slavery and in response He calls Moses and sends the plagues on Egypt. Nothing about this particular group of slaves made them more worthy of rescue than others. They couldn’t demand God’s rescue. God chose to hear them and rescue them, out of His grace.
  2. PENTECOST: Dies on a cross and rises from the dead, graciously defeating death for us.
  3. US: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8

Move 2: We Respond by Faith Toward God

  1. EXODUS: The Hebrews responded to God’s promise of rescue by following his instructions to paint their doorways with lamb’s blood. Perhaps an even greater demonstration of faith is when they walked between the walls of water. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t be nervous as you imagined the water collapsing on top of you. Although the Hebrews walked through the water, no one could realistically claim that they had saved themselves. They simply responded out of faith toward God.
  2. PENTECOST: After initial skepticism the apostles respond to Jesus’ resurrection with faith. Many Christian apologists point to their willingness to die for their faith as one of the strongest “proofs” of the reality of Christ’s resurrection. Perhaps no greater statement of faith exist than Thomas’ exclamation as his skepticism cracked, “My Lord and my God!”
  3. US: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Ephesians 2:8.

Move 3: We Lovingly Obey God

  1. EXODUS: The specific text for this sermon was Exodus 19-20 and the giving of the 10 Commandments. However, I chose to emphasise the larger setting within which the commands were given than the specific instructions given. I did this because we often label this section of the Pentateuch “law” like it’s a bad thing. This would no doubt puzzle the Israelites who were grateful for the laws God gave them. In fact, Deuteronomy 7:9 refers to God’s law as a “covenant of love”. Israel’s obedience to God was a loving response to a loving God. Remember also that Psalm 119 is basically a love song to their covenant with God.
  2. PENTECOST: The end of Luke’s Gospel Jesus explains to his disciples the implications of his death and resurrection. He then instructs them to remain in Jerusalem. This may not seem like a big deal, but Jerusalem represented a hostile environment for these disciples. The same people who killed Jesus would surely kill them if they felt a need and an ability to get away with it. Home and safety for the apostles was Galilee. Galilee was where their families lived and where they had travelled with Jesus for three years. But Jesus told them to stay in Jerusalem… and they obeyed because they loved and trusted him.
  3. US: “And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.” 2 John 1:6

Move 4: God Moves Into Our Neighbourhood

  1. EXODUS: Chapters 25-30 and 36-39 contain very detailed instructions about the design and construction of the tabernacle. To our modern eyes we might question the relevance of this passage for us. But these chapters are important because Israel is preparing a place for God to dwell. He will not be their distant God ensconced upon a heavenly throne looking down upon them. He will be their God visibly living among them. I love how the book of Exodus concludes, “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. So the cloud of the Lord was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the Israelites during all their travels.” Ex. 40:34, 38.
  2. PENTECOST: As the apostles and other disciples waited in Jerusalem as Jesus had instructed them, God delivered the power he had promised them. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” He empowered them for the mission he had given them. Immediately Peter and the others begin sharing the Good News of Jesus. God was with them.
  3. US: “Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” 2 Corinthians 1:21-22

I know I’ve written a lot here, but I hope you can at least take away this thought: God always makes the first move toward us. We can’t compel Him to move. We can’t move on our own. God graciously initiates. How we respond determines the remaining movements of the dance.

Have you experienced these movements in your life?

I wrote a similar post from a slightly different perspective last year titled “God Initiates”. You can read it HERE.

Don’t Stay That Way (repost)

This article was originally published 26 January 2012. It’s part 2 of the article I shared on Tuesday.

  • Read Revelation 21:1-8 here.
  • You can listen to this sermon here.
  • You can watch the video here.

Whenever I talk about grace, or unconditional love, I always hear a “Yes but…” in the back of my head.  In fact, sometimes it’s so strong it’s almost like I hear someone saying it.

  • Yes, but… someone else will relate to that person better… they’re more her age… they have similar interests…
  • Yes, but… what message will that send other people?
  • Yes, but… how’s that going to impact the church?   We’ve attracted a few people like that recently…
  • Yes, but… what’s to stop them doing it again?
  • Yes, but… we don’t want the church to be corrupted by the world…
  • Yes, but… they still have to accept the consequences for their sins…

I can’t avoid it, the “Yes, but…” is always there.

The sad truth is that although these concerns may be valid, when they’re expressed in the presence of grace, they turn the speaker into the bitter brother at the prodigal son’s celebration. (Luke 15:11-32)  When we witness grace and see only the dangers instead of the joy, that’s bitterness.

Grace involves risk.  When a church allows a teen caught smoking dope to serve on the communion table, is it glossing over sin and telling teens that it’s okay to take drugs? Or does the church demonstrate forgiveness, and grace? Of course, we don’t want anyone thinking it’s okay to use illicit drugs, but we also don’t want them thinking that unconditional love only exists in theory!

When a church says, “Come as your are”, the church echoes the invitation of God. (See my previous post here.) That’s a risky invitation because it exposes the church to a world in a way that may make us uncomfortable at times.  We’ll see and experience things that better fit the fruit of the flesh than the fruit of the spirit, and we have to say, “that’s okay – come anyway”.  That’s grace, that’s acceptance, that’s unconditional love… that’s God.

But there is a 2nd half to this invitation. “Don’t stay that way.”  To accept people captured by sin, by hurt, by anxiety, without offering them relief would be cruelty, not grace or love.  In his book No Perfect People Allowed, John Burke completes the sentence by saying, “But we love you too much to let you stay that way.”  Love is our motivation for encouraging people to make life changes.  Not an inflated sense of self-righteousness.

Christians attempt to get through life without sinning. Not because we want to win a prize for attaining perfection but because we understand that God is holy and values our holiness. We avoid sin not because God has labeled it as such, but because we believe that God’s way is a better way.  We don’t impose our standards upon others because we know best, but we share God’s way of living to share God’s love because we believe it works.

If I was just to hear the instruction, “You need to change” I would probably initially hear criticism.  My defenses would go up.  I might not hear anything else the other person said. For this reason the message to repent must be preceded by acceptance of the person. Repentance is a vital part of the message of Christ.  But Christ’s message contains mercy not criticism.  Change can be good.  Change can bring relief.  Change can be therapeutic.  We need to make every effort to convey this message in a context of grace and acceptance, not criticism.

The video I linked to at the top contains Cardboard Testimonies from the Southwest Church of Christ in Jonesboro, Arkansas.  A quick search on YouTube will bring up lots of these testimonies.  They all tell the story that change in a context of grace is a wonderful thing. Let’s make the message loud and clear in our lives.  Let’s not get caught up in cycle of “yes, but…”.

  • Does giving grace scare you?  What risks do you see?
  • I believe that over time Christians lose sight of who they were without God.  How do you remind yourself that you had an urgent need to receive God’s forgiveness?
  • What thoughts does the phrase “unconditional love” prompt in your mind?

For the “Good Kids”

Rather than celebrate their blessings, I have found that many people raised in Christian homes question the depth of their commitment to Christ because they don’t feel as though they ever went through a transformative conversion experience. The distinction between their old life and their new life in Christ is minimal.

  • Read Galatians 5 here.
  • You can listen to the related sermon here.

In Galatians chapter 5 Paul paints a dramatic contrast between the behaviour of a pagan and the values of a Christian.

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Paul personally experienced a profound transformation when he encountered the risen Jesus. He stopped persecuting Christians and actually submitted his life to the Lordship of Jesus. The transformation continued as he became a teacher in the fledgling Christian movement and was ultimately recognised as an Apostle.

During my two years as a campus minister I met several young adults from Christian families who questioned the reality of their commitment to God. They felt that because they didn’t have a spectacular conversion story that somehow God’s grace wasn’t as real in their lives. Someone caught up in a hedonistic lifestyle that meets Jesus and immediately pursues a life of simplicity and holiness obviously has a greater testimony of the power and love of God than I do, right?

This line of thought presents some serious problems.

The Bible addresses this logic in Romans 5 when Paul asks, “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” Pursuing sin so that we can then experience God’s love and grace is a destructive cycle.

In Luke 15 Jesus tells the story often given the title The Prodigal Son.  Jesus intends for us to learn from this story how much God loves us, and much he longs for sinful people to return to him. As a second point, he longs for his followers to be like the older son who remains faithful to the father.

Those who question their commitment because of an absence of a “conversion experience” in their life may not realise it, but they distort the message of this parable. They see themselves as the older brother in the story. They believe that the only way they can experience God’s love and grace is to demand their inheritance and live a life of wastefulness. Then, and only then, their father will throw them a party.

The father’s words to the older son provide the ultimate rebuttal to this faulty logic. We absolutely need to celebrate when someone turns their life around in a dramatic way. But for those of us who’ve always been “good kids” God has some special words,

Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours.”

rainbow joy jump

Does your expression of God look something like this?

I’ll close with two thoughts:

First, the Christians described in Galatians 5 really did have a sensational turnaround in their lives. The Holy Spirit worked powerfully to help these people overcome the allure of sin.

In our society every Christian makes a dramatic decision. Sometimes the dramatic decision requires stopping a behaviour. For “good kids” it’s a decision to never start a set of behaviours. We all have the opportunity to be the younger son and leave for a land far away from the father. Yet some of us make the choice to never take that road. We all know friends who took that path. We have family members who woke up in a pig sty. We’ve seen people who settled for sharing food scraps with the pigs. But in the face of social expectations we made the sensational decision to trust our future to God. There’s nothing second best about that. I’ll take love and joy over hatred and rage any day of the week.

Second, churches have clearly done something wrong when our young people would rather identify with the prodigal son than the older son. When Christians believe that they need to taste death to experience living. To walk in darkness so they can appreciate light. To fall so that God will pick them up.

How do we communicate the intimacy of love, the euphoria of joy, the wholeness of peace, the virtue of patience, the value of kindness, the heart of goodness, the security of faithfulness, the safety of gentleness and the wisdom of self-control?

How do we share the fruit of the Spirit?

Why is it so difficult to convince Christian young people that “being with the Father all the time, and having everything he has” is the greatest blessing available to humanity?

Tennyson apparently said, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

God says, “It’s best to be loved and to never be lost.”

BONUS TRACK:  If you’ve liked this post you might also enjoy THIS article on ChristianityToday.com.

Comeback from HURT

Is it possible that the insults Jesus received caused him emotional pain? Was Jesus immune to that? Did the Divine insight he often seemed to have allow him to perceive people’s motives and never take offense?

  • Read Mark 3:20-35 here.
  • You can listen to this sermon here.

I received some pretty direct criticism for this sermon not connecting with people. Naturally, that frustrates me. I have no interest in working for hours to talk for 30 minutes for people to think they wasted their time listening to me. I’m not about to tell anybody the sermon was better than they think. The sermon is only as good as they think. If it’s the preachers goal to connect God’s Word with the congregation and they don’t feel connected, then the preacher needs to do something different.

One reason I think the disconnect occurred arose from the application I made from Mark 3:20-25. I attempted to call upon my inner Max Lucado, and it clearly didn’t work. But I’ve heard it said that Max is a better writer than speaker, so maybe my inner Max also works better on paper… or computer screen.

In Mark 3 Jesus’ ministry gear up a notch when he appoints the Twelve in v13-19. He immediately begins to teach them. He gets so caught up in his teaching and the crowds are so big that v20 tells us that “he and his disciples were unable to eat.

Somehow, Jesus’ mother, Mary, hears that he’s not taking care of himself. She takes her other children and goes to Jesus. This seems like a very natural and motherly thing to do. We probably imagine her wrapping up some bread, fish and carrot sticks planning to make sure he eats every bite before he goes back to teaching. But surprisingly we find a very different motivation in v21. The CEV state it this way, “When Jesus’ family heard what he was doing, they thought he was crazy and went to get him under control.

God blessed me with a supportive home environment. We didn’t have a lot of money. There were many things we couldn’t do. But my parents always encouraged me to pursue my dreams. During high school one year I decided I wanted to try ventriloquism. I had very little stage experience. I had never worked with puppets. But Mum looked around in various obscure places and found several books for me to study and work on. I didn’t have a teacher and it was more a whim than a dream, so my ventriloquism venture was short lived. But my Mum’s willingness to support my strange ideas meant a lot.

I took familial support during my upbringing for granted. In fact, I still do. I imagine that Jesus also expected his family, those closest to him to support his new ministry: Even if they didn’t understand it.

Instead Jesus’ family thought he was crazy, nuts, bananas. He’d lost his mind. They were so convinced of his insanity they were willing to take him by force. Jesus, who’d never sinned. Jesus, whom his mother had always trusted. Jesus, who left heaven. Jesus, who took on the form of a human. Jesus, carrying out the will of his Father. Jesus, accused of having lost his mind by those closest to him. Surely, if he has any shred of humanity this leaves Jesus hurt and confused.

At this point in the sermon some people may have experienced discomfort. After all, wouldn’t Jesus just take this in his stride? Didn’t Jesus know to expect opposition? Wouldn’t Jesus understand that their intent was to look out for him, to care for him? Surely he knew their motivations were good? Wasn’t Jesus tougher than that? Do you really think his emotions went up and down like ours?

The Bible doesn’t tell us a great deal about Jesus’ emotional stability. I guess it’s fair to assume that he was usually a pretty stable guy. We know he wept in the face of death (John 11:35). We know he became hot under when God was insulted (John 2:13-17). We know that throughout his ministry he was “moved with compassion” (Mark 6:34; 8:2). But it doesn’t tell us whether he was ever lonely. It doesn’t tell us if the insults he received made him cry, or made him angry, or whether he just felt pity for the people speaking them.

We need to be careful not to turn Jesus into a Stoic devoid of human emotions. The Westminster Confession of Faith (2.1) describes God as

“…infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute…”

I don’t accept this description of God, but that’s a discussion for another time. I do think it’s difficult for us to draw the line between the divinity and humanity of Jesus. In this particular instance I’m very comfortable picturing Jesus emotionally wounded by the statements and attitudes of his family. Their belief in his insanity undermines his ministry almost as much as the Pharisees in the very next verse who argue that he’s demon possessed. I don’t think this makes Jesus a wimp, or even a SNAG. It seems to me that you’d need a remarkably cold heart to be unmoved by your mother and siblings seriously calling you crazy. I don’t believe Jesus ever had a cold heart.

I also believe that Jesus would have discussed and clarified these accusations with his family pretty quickly so as not to allow anger and resentment to fester. Consider his advice in Matthew 5:23-24 to settle disputes before worshiping God. Also in Matthew 18:15 he teaches that if someone sins against you it needs to be sorted out between the two of you directly. Only after direct communication has failed do you involve other people. It’s reasonable to believe Jesus followed his own directions.

Now, I think I lost my inner Max a few paragraphs back, but here’s my observation. There is a way back from hurt and insult. As devastating as it might be to have your siblings and mother lose trust in your dreams and abilities Jesus didn’t turn it into a family feud. Even while hanging on the cross Jesus made sure Mary wouldn’t be left alone (John 19:26-27). He certainly wasn’t vindictive. We also learn in Galatians 1:19 that Jesus’ brother James became a leader in the church after his death.

While it’s human to hurt we need to watch that our hurts don’t define us. Christ was defined by the forgiveness, grace and mercy he extends to all of us who wounded him. We should also aim to have grace greater than our hurts.

  • Do you have difficulty picturing Jesus having emotions?
  • Why do you think the Bible tells us that Jesus wept, but not that he laughed?
  • Does it make a difference to you if Jesus was a “take-it-on-the chin” kind of guy or emotionally sensitive?

Don’t Stay That Way

  • Read Revelation 21:1-8 here.
  • You can listen to this sermon here.
  • You can watch the video here.

Whenever I talk about grace, or unconditional love, I always hear a “Yes but…” in the back of my head.  In fact, sometimes it’s so strong it’s almost like I hear someone saying it.

  • Yes, but… someone else will relate to that person better… they’re more her age… they have similar interests…
  • Yes, but… what message will that send other people?
  • Yes, but… how’s that going to impact the church?   We’ve attracted a few people like that recently…
  • Yes, but… what’s to stop them doing it again?
  • Yes, but… we don’t want the church to be corrupted by the world…
  • Yes, but… they still have to accept the consequences for their sins…

I can’t avoid it, the “Yes, but…” is always there.

The sad truth is that although these concerns may be valid, when they’re expressed in the presence of grace, they turn the speaker into the bitter brother at the prodigal son’s celebration. (Luke 15:11-32)  When we witness grace and see only the dangers instead of the joy, that’s bitterness.

Grace involves risk.  When a church allows a teen caught smoking dope to serve on the communion table, is it glossing over sin and telling teens that it’s okay to take drugs? Or does the church demonstrate forgiveness, and grace? Of course, we don’t want anyone thinking it’s okay to use illicit drugs, but we also don’t want them thinking that unconditional love only exists in theory!

When a church says, “Come as your are”, the church echoes the invitation of God. (See my previous post here.) That’s a risky invitation because it exposes the church to a world in a way that may make us uncomfortable at times.  We’ll see and experience things that better fit the fruit of the flesh than the fruit of the spirit, and we have to say, “that’s okay – come anyway”.  That’s grace, that’s acceptance, that’s unconditional love… that’s God.

But there is a 2nd half to this invitation. “Don’t stay that way.”  To accept people captured by sin, by hurt, by anxiety, without offering them relief would be cruelty, not grace or love.  In his book No Perfect People Allowed, John Burke completes the sentence by saying, “But we love you too much to let you stay that way.”  Love is our motivation for encouraging people to make life changes.  Not an inflated sense of self-righteousness.

Christians attempt to get through life without sinning. Not because we want to win a prize for attaining perfection but because we understand that God is holy and values our holiness. We avoid sin not because God has labeled it as such, but because we believe that God’s way is a better way.  We don’t impose our standards upon others because we know best, but we share God’s way of living to share God’s love because we believe it works.

If I was just to hear the instruction, “You need to change” I would probably initially hear criticism.  My defenses would go up.  I might not hear anything else the other person said. This is a crucial part of the message of Christ.  It’s another way of saying “Repent”.  But Christ’s message contains mercy not criticism.  Change can be good.  Change can bring relief.  Change can be therapeutic.  We need to make every effort to convey this message in a context of grace and acceptance, not criticism.

The video I linked to at the top contains Cardboard Testimonies from the Southwest Church of Christ in Jonesboro, Arkansas.  A quick search on YouTube will bring up lots of these testimonies.  They all tell the story that change in a context of grace is a wonderful thing. Let’s make the message loud and clear in our lives.  Let’s not get caught up in cycle of “yes, but…”.

  • Does giving grace scare you?  What risks do you see?
  • I believe that over time Christians lose sight of who they were without God.  How do you remind yourself that you had an urgent need to receive God’s forgiveness?
  • What thoughts does the phrase “unconditional love” prompt in your mind?