1 John 2:1-6 and Christmas Gifts and Holy Living

71cc576fe952ab951258150e0766797dChristmas is in a few short days, and as Christians we try to remember that the best Christmas gift was Jesus himself. We have signs and bumper stickers saying Keep Christ in Christmas and Jesus is the Reason for the Season. It is all true. As a sign I saw yesterday proclaimed, Mary wrapped the first Christmas present. Jesus’ person is the best Christmas gift, and a holy life for us is the second best gift. Look at what John wrote:

My little children, I’m writing these things to you so that you don’t sin. But if you do sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one. He is God’s way of dealing with our sins, not only ours but the sins of the whole world. This is how we know that we know him: if we keep his commandments. The one who claims, “I know him,” while not keeping his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in this person. But the love of God is truly perfected in whoever keeps his word. This is how we know we are in him. The one who claims to remain in him ought to live in the same way as he lived.

Jesus is our advocate before the Father if we fall into sin. Gift #1. We do not have to fall into sin. Gift #2.

When we try, with God’s grace and love, to keep his commandments, we are enabled to do so. In fact, John goes so far as to say that God’s love becomes perfected in us when we try to keep the commandments. If we fall short and still sin, we can thank God for Gift #1. But what we cannot do is cease trying to live a holy life. Christ is our redemption so that we can live a holy life. When we cease trying to live how God would have us live, how Jesus lived, then the truth is not in this person, according to John.

As we get closer to Christmas, thank God for Jesus Christ, Christmas Gift #1. And ask him to help you with holy living, Christmas Gift #2.

Romans 10:9-13 and How to be Saved

Spas_vsederzhitel_sinayI’m not sure when it started in certain streams of Christianity, but there are whole swaths of people who believe that if you pray a “sinner’s prayer” you are saved. Praying is good, but there is an inherent problem with this idea. There are lots of people who pray the prayer, feel that they have received forgiveness of their sins, rise up justified, and have absolutely no transformation of their lives. They act exactly how they did before praying the sinner’s prayer, only now thinking they are forgiven and saved.

If you look at this passage in Romans, it can offer an antidote to this problem:

If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11 The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13 For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

On the surface, this looks like it affirms the idea that if one prays a sinner’s prayer one will be saved, except for one crucial fact. Here the confession is that Jesus is Lord. Sinner’s prayers focus on Jesus as Savior. As a result, we have a lot of Christians who happily have Jesus as Savior and have a hard time following Jesus as Lord. Paul is explicit here–Accept Jesus as Lord and you will get him as Savior as well.

If Jesus is Lord in our lives, it means we obey him. Lord is a political term. It means “the one in charge.” If Jesus is Lord in our lives, we will obey his commandments, follow his leading in our lives, and truly seek to do his will on earth as it is in heaven. By confessing this reality in our lives, we can live in an appropriate relationship with Christ, one in which he has saved us to live for him.

If Christians would focus more on Jesus as Lord, they would live a saved life. When Christians focus on Jesus as Savior, we end up getting a lot of people who gladly receive forgiveness of their sins and reluctantly (if at all) follow Christ’s commandments. There is a word for people like that: hypocrites.

Acts 12:1-5 and Why Prayer Doesn’t Seem to Work Sometimes

Unknown_St_James_the_Great_the_Apostle_300I know people who are afraid to pray because they don’t want to be let down if their prayers are not answered. I also know people who are hurt and disillusioned with God because they prayed earnestly and their prayers were not answered. Sometimes prayer does not seem to work. Look at this passage from Acts:

About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.) When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover. While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him.

The rest of the story is that God sent an angel to free Peter, and Peter escaped, hid, and had a fruitful ministry for years until he was crucified in Rome. This seems like a story about how prayer works, but what about James? Isn’t it entirely probable that the church prayed fervently for James as well? Yet James was killed and Peter was spared.

I do not have an answer for this. James was just as much beloved by the church as Peter was. James was one of Jesus’ inner circle of three just like Peter was (along with James’ brother John). James was an Apostle just as Peter was. Yet James was killed and Peter was spared.

What I do know is that the church prayed for Peter after James was martyred. This means that the death of James, the unanswered prayers for his deliverance, did not stop the church from praying for Peter.

We do not understand why prayers are answered or not answered because we are the ones asking for intervention. It is up to God to decide if, when, and how to do it. This is where faith comes in to the picture. Faith is strengthened when it is tried. Perhaps the best illustration of this kind of faith and prayer is the when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego all are about to be thrown into the fiery furnace. Here is how that situation played out:

13 Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought in; so they brought those men before the king. 14 Nebuchadnezzar said to them, ‘Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods and you do not worship the golden statue that I have set up? 15 Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble to fall down and worship the statue that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire, and who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?’ 16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defence to you in this matter. 17 If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up’ (Daniel 3:13-18).

They had enough faith in God that, whether or not God answered their prayers for deliverance, they would still believe.

Prayers are our outpouring of our selves to God. Sometimes we see them answered in miraculous ways, and sometimes they seem ineffective and unanswered. The question we all have of ourselves is whether or not we will continue to pray even if our prayers in the past were unanswered.

Luke 4:42-44 and The Priorities of Jesus

jesus_prayingReading through the Gospels, if you pay close attention, reveals the priorities of Jesus to those who would have eyes to see and ears to hear. Many times the stories of the miraculous healings or the feeding of great numbers of people or even walking on water get much attention. Yet Jesus himself states what his priorities are:

42 At daybreak he departed and went into a deserted place. And the crowds were looking for him; and when they reached him, they wanted to prevent him from leaving them. 43 But he said to them, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.’44 So he continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is constantly trying to slip away in order to be alone and pray. For the Son of God to want to spend so much time in prayer, we would do wise to pay attention. Being a Christian is about becoming more and more Christ-like in our lives. This will not happen if we do not give a priority to prayer in our own lives. Prayer is the key to our life in Christ, as that is how we stay the most connected with him. Worship is good, but it can truly only happen with other Christians, as it is a corporate event. It is for the fellowship to do together. The Lord’s Supper is supremely important, but again, it is only within the context of worship.

The other priority here is that Jesus came to teach and preach. The miracles merely confirm the message. This means that learning from Jesus is also a priority. Thus, reading the Bible is very important, as well. But there is a danger here. If the focus is on reading the Bible as the main priority, it is entirely possible to know a lot about Jesus and not know Jesus. Learning from Jesus through study of Scripture must be accompanied with daily time in prayer.

Christianity is a relationship first, and a belief system second. We can have all the right beliefs and not have the relationship. Likewise, we can think we have a vibrant relationship and yet have all the wrong beliefs. This means that we are not in relationship with Jesus at all. Prayer and studying Scripture go hand in hand to help us become more like Christ. These are Jesus’ priorities. They should be ours as well.

Mark 9:20-24 and Honesty Before God

July-22-Unbelief-960x700Let’s face it, sometimes it is difficult to believe that God can and will act in certain situations in our lives. Sometimes it feels as if either God helps other people before us, or perhaps God is not in the helping business any more for situations like ours. Then this feeling gets reinforced when it seems as if no one in the Church can help us, either.

This was the situation when a man brought his possessed son to the disciples while Jesus was up on Mount Tabor with Peter, James, and John. The disciples at the foot of the mountain could not cast out the demon, and the father became desperate. After all, there were stories circulating of these very same men traveling around casting out demons. Why not now? Why not his son?

Then Jesus comes down from the mountain:

20 And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it threw the boy into convulsions, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus asked the father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. 22 It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.’ 23 Jesus said to him, ‘If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.’ 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’

There it is! The most honest prayer before God there can be. I believe; help my unbelief! The man believed enough in Jesus and his movement to bring his son to them, but now he was doubting whether or not his son would ever be healed. He did not get angry. He did not overly compensate with bravado. He did not fake a faith that is unshakable. Rather, he was honest and said he was struggling.

God already knows how we feel. It goes much better for us when we are honest before God.

Daniel 2:16-19 and The Power of Prayer in Community

The image in the Nebuchadnezzar's dream

The image in the Nebuchadnezzar’s dream

There is a bias within many congregations and denominations in the West that the Church is an optional add-on to a personal faith in Jesus Christ. This bias leads people to think of corporate worship, covenant groups, and prayer groups as something that may be nice, but ultimately are not necessary because “I confessed Jesus as my Savior, so now I am ok.”

This idea does not line up with the biblical picture of how God works in the world. Jesus himself founded a Church, not a bunch of individual believers that may or may not gather together. Paul regularly reminds Christians that we are all a part of the Body of Christ together, and no one can exist by himself or herself. Peter illustrates that together we are the Temple of the Holy Spirit.

Since the New Testament is the next chapter, as it were, of God’s working in the world, picking up where the Old Testament stopped, it should come as no surprise that they are in agreement on a great many things. After all, they are talking about the same God who makes covenants with humanity.

So here, in Daniel, we see the necessity for community among people of faith. Nebuchadnezzar issued a challenge to the sages of his kingdom to interpret a dream he had, but did not tell them the dream. Very wisely, he understood that if the dream was from a god, and the interpretation was from a god, then he would not need to tell what the dream was in order to get the interpretation. The reward for an interpretation would be beyond measure, but failure to produce one would mean death. Here is Daniel’s response:

16 Daniel went and asked the king to give him some time so he could explain the dream’s meaning to him. 17 Then Daniel went to his house and explained the situation to his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah 18 so that they would ask the God of heaven for help about this mystery, in hopes that Daniel and his friends wouldn’t die with the rest of Babylon’s sages. 19 Then, in a vision by night, the mystery was revealed to Daniel!

Daniel went to his friends and had them pray for him and for the situation! And through this group praying together, God answered. God has chosen to work through community in this world. Even Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them” (Matthew 18:20), not one by himself or herself.

Personal faith is necessary for a relationship with Christ. This is absolutely true, but active engagement in a community of faith is also absolutely necessary for a real and vibrant relationship with Christ. If you do not have a community of Christians around you, you need to join one. After all, as Paul said in Ephesians 1:22-23

22 God put everything under Christ’s feet and made him head of everything in the church, 23 which is his body. His body, the church, is the fullness of Christ, who fills everything in every way.

Jeremiah 25:2-7 and When People Refuse to Listen to God

VLUU L200  / Samsung L200There are many times I have conversations with other pastors and most, if not all, have had the experience at least once in their ministry were the people God placed in their care simply would not listen. No matter what they tried to do or say, the people would have none of it. Sometimes this is discouraging, especially after working for some time to try and encourage the people to move in the direction the pastor is convinced God is calling the congregation to go.

Then I read this passage in Jeremiah:

The prophet Jeremiah addressed all the people of Judah and all those living in Jerusalem. From the thirteenth year of Judah’s King Josiah, Amon’s son, to this very day—twenty-three years—the Lord’s word has come to me. I have delivered it to you repeatedly, although you wouldn’t listen. In fact, the Lord has tirelessly sent you all his servants, the prophets, but you wouldn’t listen or pay attention. They said, “Each one of you, turn from your evil ways and deeds and live in the fertile land that the Lord gave you and your ancestors for all time. Don’t follow or worship other gods and don’t anger me by what you make with your hands. Then I won’t bring disaster upon you.” But you wouldn’t listen to me, making me angry by what you do and bringing disaster upon yourselves, declares the Lord.

For 23 years Jeremiah proclaimed the unequivocal word of God to the people of Judah, God’s chosen people, and for 23 years straight they rejected the message. This has to be one ministry that is even more frustrating than any of the pastors with whom I have talked. Imagine being in the same position, the same ministry, for over two decades and having nothing but rejection to show for it!

Yet there was some good that came of Jeremiah’s ministry. There was a remnant that was saved by the Lord. He prophesied about the coming of Jesus Christ. We have the record of his ministry as a warning and inspiration for ourselves. Jeremiah did much good on the cosmic scale, even if he only saw year after year of rejection.

Sometimes our greatest work for God is not known until much time has passed.