Trust Me

Reading: John 14:1-31

The final hours with someone you love are never enough. So much to say. So little time. You start cramming together everything you can think of in rapid succession, piling thought upon thought until your time is gone. That’s the feeling we get when we read this final conversation Jesus had with his disciples on the night before the cross.

This was all complicated by the fact that he had continued to insist on giving everyone mental whiplash. For some time now, he’d been driving them all crazy with talk about his coming arrest, and suffering, and death. He told them about his resurrection too, but they always seemed to stop listening before he got to that part. On this night, he had suddenly risen from the table to wash everyone’s feet, and suggested that they should all start doing the same for each other from now on. He followed that up with an announcement that one of them would betray him, and another will deny him before the night was over. About that time, Judas suddenly got up in the middle of everything and left the room. No one really understood why. Everyone was on edge.

Then he took the bread and broke it, saying something about this representing his body. What’s he saying? After that, he took the cup and explained that this represented his own blood that was to be poured out for them. Oh no, not that again!  Some might have connected this to something he had said before. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:53) No one at the table even wanted to guess what he was talking about.

It was becoming increasingly clear, however, that Jesus would not be with them much longer. Each man there, against his will, was being drawn to the realization that Jesus was saying goodbye. Finally, he said it clearly. “Yet a little while I am with you. . . . Where I am going, you cannot come.” (John 13:33) It had to feel like a kick in the gut. What about that kingdom you promised?  What will we do now? His next words would be, probably, the most strategically important words he ever spoke to his disciples.

Receive my peace.

Don’t miss the fact that, at the time when everyone’s heart was the most troubled, Jesus instructed them to be at peace. “Let not your hearts be troubled. (v.1)

Someone must have thought, “Excuse me, you’ve just told us that everything we’ve believed in and hoped for these last three years is about to suddenly disintegrate. As of this moment, we have no sure future. Even our own lives are in doubt. But you sit there and tell us not to be afraid, as if that choice is really ours to make.”

But the truth is, Jesus was calling upon his disciples to do exactly that. The essential lesson here is that, even in the most extreme circumstances, it is possible to choose a peaceful mindset. It is vital for us to choose a peaceful mindset.  After all, it’s his peace. He can give it to anyone he wants, and he’s promised to give it to us. But we must deliberately choose to accept it.  .

It’s a question of choosing what we will allow to be the central reality of our lives. Will we allow those things that rattle our emotions and produce fear to dominate our thinking? After Jesus told these shaken men not to give into their fears, he added, “Believe in God. Believe also in me.” (v.1)  

Simply put, fear cannot coexist with belief in God. If God were not with us, or if he was somehow unavailable or unreliable, peace would be impossible in this restless world. But he’s here. He’s available. And he has never failed yet, at anything. Believe it! You can stake, not only your life, but your eternal soul on this truth.

Don’t misunderstand. We’re not talking about deliberately closing our eyes to unpleasant realities. We are realists, and real world stuff happens, Not only the good, but also the bad, and the ugly. Nevertheless, we are aware of a higher reality. Jesus is very near to his people. And because he with us, anxiety has no rightful place within us. Really. Jesus announces his peace to his people, every time he stands among them. (John 14:27-28) This peace defies the odds. It sees realities the natural eye cannot see. It considers assets that the world never considers. It’s the Lord’s own peace. The world has no clue. And he’s given it to us. If we’ll believe it. And take it.

Paul reminded the Philippian Church that, because the Lord’s presence was among them, anxiety must be replaced by prayer and thanksgiving. When we do this, we aren’t shouting nervously into the heavens. We’re turning to face the friend standing right there with us. He already sees. He already knows what he plans to do about it. His peace, (shalom) protects our hearts in a way the world cannot understand. (Philippians 4:5-7) So, speaking as an adopted Texan, Shalom, Y’all!

Trust my plan.

You may have heard someone say, “Plan your work and work your plan.” I want to say that God has been doing that since the beginning. He created the heavens and the earth according to a perfect plan. He created you and me, in his image, according to plan. When Adam and Eve rebelled, he wasn’t surprised. He had a plan. It was a plan to both crush the rebellion, and redeem the rebels with one supreme thrust. It was accomplished by Jesus. It was unfolded in six stages. We’re still waiting for the final stage, in fact. So, he’s still working his plan.

First, he came to earth, becoming flesh to be one of us. We sometimes call him Immanuel, “God with us.”

Then, he lived among us. He went about doing good. He demonstrated his power over demons, disease, and storm-tossed seas. Most of all, he taught us about life in his Kingdom. The king sat down in the dirt with us, to teach us his laws. Among those who sat with him were his disciples. They were still sitting with him on that final night while Jesus was telling them not to be afraid to experience the rest of the plan. The disciples were terrified. Jesus repeatedly spoke peace to them that night, because everything really was under control. He was working his plan.

On the next day, he died, according to plan. It wasn’t the result of bad luck or poor planning. It was purposeful. This had all been foretold by the prophets He deliberately sacrificed his life as a payment for our sins. (Mark 10:45) Then he was buried. Evil men rejoiced, thinking they had finally seen the last of him. Satan nervously watched the tomb for three days. He had to know that God was planning something.

Then after three days, He rose from the grave. He came forth as victor, over death and hell. He was, and is the mighty conqueror. The champion.  The plan was working to perfection. For the next forty days, he continued to meet with his disciples, clearly explaining the plan

After that, he ascended back to the Father. As many as five hundred men and women stood, transfixed, staring at a cloud that covered the place where Jesus had been. Angels were sent to bring everyone’s attention back to earth. They still had work to do. That’s the plan. (I Corinthians 15:3-8; Acts 1:9-11)

Two thousand years later, we’re still here. Now we’re part of God’s master plan. Now we have work to do. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19) And as we go about our Kingdom work, we sometimes wonder why this plan has taken so long to complete. We’re still waiting for the final act. . .

He’s coming again! Jesus said it to his disciples on that final night, before all hell broke loose against him, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am, you may be also. (John 14:3)

On that final night together, when the disciples just knew their world was crumbling around them, Jesus was assuring them that he was simply working his plan. Don’t be afraid. Believe God. Believe me. Trust the plan.

Now it’s our turn. It’s funny how we can read about the disciples on that night and want to scold them for their lack of understanding, their lack of faith, and their fear. We can clearly see the plan and we wonder why they can’t.

Then we become annoyed when something interrupts our plans. The delays. The disappointments. The tragedies. The fear. It shouldn’t be hard to understand what the disciples were feeling. In fact, we’ve been there ourselves, many times. Some of you are there right now.

For starters, stop a moment to recognize the difference between your plan and God’s plan. Know that God is still working his plan for you. He’ll never stop until it’s completed. Believe it.

Shalom.

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A Time to Wash Feet

Read: John 13:1-17

The time for public ministry was finally done. The last sick person to be healed had been healed. He would cast out no more demons. He would tell no more parables. He would have no more disputes with the chief priests and Pharisees. When Jesus entered the room on that final night with his disciples, he shut the door on the world. Almost. For a little while. He really needed this quiet place to breathe. To connect, to reflect, and anticipate—before the whole world explodes in the morning.

This night, his thoughts centered upon the ones he would be leaving behind. John remembered, “He loved them to the end.” (v.1) This simple phrase reveals, not only the duration of his love, but also the extent of his love. He couldn’t possibly have loved them more, or longer. But then, who can ever find the end, or the limits of infinite love? He loves them still—as he loves us, and always will love us. To the end.

He really wanted to explain to them about the coming days. He was going to leave them. But he’ll return one day. In the meantime, he’ll send them a helper. A comforter. A counselor. A guide. And while he’s gone, he’ll be preparing a place for us all to be with him forever. This would be a lot of information for them to grasp during one short dinnertime conversation. But even now, they weren’t quite ready to receive it. There was a more fundamental problem that needed to be addressed. They were still acting like a lot of quarreling siblings.

All this talk about the kingdom was giving everyone ideas. And that was probably giving Jesus a headache. There was an ongoing dispute among them about who would be the greatest when the kingdom finally comes. One mother even had the nerve to drag both her boys forward (by the collar? . . .  or the ear?) to secure Jesus’ promise that they would receive special places of honor beside him when he finally sits on his throne. The scene would have been comical—if it hadn’t been so frustrating. Jesus must have thought something like, “O great! On top of all the growing grief from the lawyers and the priests and the Pharisees, all we need is a pushy mother! Isn’t anyone even listening around here? I’m not going to a coronation. I’m going to a cross.” The boys were all still quarreling as they climbed the steps to the room where they were to eat the Passover meal together. Their last Passover supper. S o much to still teach them. So little time.

When they entered the room, still sniping back and forth under their breath, everything was prepared for the meal, except for one thing. There was no servant assigned to wash feet. This was a real problem in a society where everyone had been walking dusty roads all day, wearing sandals. Common courtesy demanded that someone must be available to wash the feet of the guests when they arrived. This was usually the assigned task for the lowest household servant. But no one was available. Now what? Someone needed to begin washing feet. But who? Can you imagine the conversation at that point?

“Don’t look at me! You do it!”

“Why me? Do you think you’re too good for this job?”

“Who made you the boss over everybody? No way I’m doing that!””

This was the same kind of quarrel children have had in every household, probably since households began. And these were the men Jesus was depending on to continue his ministry in the days ahead. Previously, he had set them all down to explain the role of servanthood in the kingdom. He had used children as an example of what we are to become, and the rulers of this world to illustrate what we must not become. (Matthew 18:1-4; 20:20-28; Luke 22:24-27) He had to do something to get their attention. They needed an immediate attitude adjustment.

Sometime after everyone found their place and began to eat, dirty feet and all, Jesus suddenly arose from the table and began to remove his outer garments. He had the immediate attention of everyone in the room.  In his mind, he might have been remembering the time in heaven when he stood to remove his divine glory, preparing to put on human flesh.  (Mark 10:45; John 1:14; Philippians 2:5-8). Now, he was removing earthly garments. Then he removed heavenly garments. Now, he was wrapping himself with a towel to wash feet. Then, he had clothed himself with flesh, which was to be broken and sacrificed for the sins of men and women everywhere. Now, he was preparing to do a job no one else would do. Then, he had come to do a job no one else could do.

John describes the action as if he is watching the entire scene replay in slow motion. After removing his formal outer garments, Jesus picked up a towel to tie around his waist., Then he picked up a pitcher of water and emptied it into a basin—and carried it to the first disciple. Incredibly, the creator, the master over all heaven and earth knelt before the first disciple to do the job someone should have been willing to do as soon as they entered the room. He washed the man’s feet. He washed the feet of each man, including Peter’s, despite his protest, and including the feet of Judas, knowing all the time that Judas was planning to sell him for silver later that same night. I tend to think Jesus must have taken extra time with Judas’ feet, looking him straight in the eye the entire time. His eyes, however, would not have been filled with reproach. They would have been filled, even then, with love.

After every foot was washed, he stood and removed the towel, replacing his outer garments. Then he resumed his place at the table, calmly meeting every eye that was fixed on him. He paused just long enough to be sure he had everyone’s attention before asking, “Do you understand what I’ve done to you?” (v. 12) The master teacher was always assessing whether his pupils were getting his intended meaning.

The obvious answer, of course, would have been that he had just washed everyone’s feet. But the intended question behind the question was, why did he do that? As the master, he would have been expected to assign the task to one of the twelve, if no one else was available. Judas, for example, might have been a logical choice. It would seem to have been poetic justice, like saying, “I know what you’re planning to do anyway, so before you leave, you can just take the time to wash all our feet.”

But that would have been vengeful and spiteful. While this may be perfectly understandable within the world’s value system, it was totally inconsistent with the essential norms of the culture he had come to instill within his church. Jesus was teaching his disciples how the Kingdom of God must operate. This required the introduction and implementation of a completely new culture. I call it the Kingdom Culture. For example, in this case, Kingdom people must always be careful to be redemptive in their words and actions. Never vindictive.

Furthermore, the cultural rules of this kingdom demand a completely different set of criteria for determining rank and position. These aren’t awarded on the basis of birth, or strength or cunning. In fact, none of the factors that typically distinguish individuals in normal human society apply here. Later, Paul would write that within this kingdom, we don’t recognize differences in national origin, economic status, or gender. (Galatians 3:28)

Within this kingdom, within this culture, position is recognized based on service. Simply put, whoever serves the most—whoever serves the best—becomes the greatest. This turns the value system of the world, and all its organizational flow charts completely upside down!  Success in this kingdom means we must be busy making other people successful. Even if it means washing their feet.

This means that today, people using the world’s methods to climb the ladder of success within the Kingdom are probably climbing in the wrong direction The way up really is down around here. This principle is so important that even Jesus didn’t violate it. On this night, he showed his greatness by kneeling to wash feet. He was already on record saying, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)

Beyond that, Jesus did this simply as an expression of love. Love isn’t really love until it’s demonstrated in meaningful ways. Like when he did the job no one wanted to do, because someone had to do it. Or when he took a deep breath and taught the same lesson one more time to this group of slow learners.

John never forgot this lesson. I’m sure this scene was somewhere in his mind when he later wrote, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.  (I John 4:7)

So, in conclusion, I need to ask you a simple question. What do you think would happen if everyone in your church began to look around to find people who needed their love (needed their help help) and helped them, beginning with those already within the church, and extending throughout their community?

The Great Divider

Read:  John 11:45-12:19

I’m thinking that no one ever divided men and women quite like Jesus. It wasn’t so much that he deliberately drove people away. In fact, he’s best known for his open armed appeal to every broken person. He said, “Come unto me, all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) But his demands were uncompromising. (They still are, by the way.) When he said, “Come unto me,” he absolutely meant for people to come to him, and no other. He wasn’t willing to negotiate, or try to meet them half way. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) Many who began to follow him were later offended by something he said and walked away. (eg. John 6:60, 66) Jesus never ran after them to apologize for anything. He continued to insist that they had to come to him.

Everything he did was an occasion for controversy. This was especially true after he raised Lazarus from the dead. John tells us that many believed in him after that. (11:45; 12:11)) But others went straight to the Pharisees to report everything they had seen. (11:46) The Pharisees then called the chief priests and the entire council to discuss their common problem. They couldn’t deny that Jesus continued to perform many mighty works. Lazarus was only the most recent, and the most powerful, example. Their problem was that if Jesus continued to do this, everyone would begin to believe him. Rome would, interpret this as one more insurrection among the people. They would send troops to crush the rebellion. Their nation would be lost, and with it, their own position would be gone. They could not take that risk. For them, there was no alternative. Jesus must die! (11:47-53, 57)

So, with the Passover approaching, Jerusalem was a boiling kettle of controversy. Many wondered if Jesus would even dare to attend the feast at all. The chief priests had spread the word that anyone who saw him should report him, so he could be arrested. (11:55-57) But this year’s Passover was very much on Jesus’ “to do” list. It was the whole reason he came to earth in the first place. (12:27-28)

These are the circumstances under which Jesus arrived at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus for the last time. The Passover was just six days away. That meant his death was only six days away. And he knew it.

If you knew with certainty you only had six days to live, how would you spend your time? You would fill your daily agenda with only the highest priority items. Don’t miss the fact that people were on Jesus’ priority list. Beginning with these close friends.

I smile as I watch this scene unfold. Martha immediately runs into the kitchen to prepare dinner. Someone might object, Hey, “Martha! Didn’t you learn anything from the last time you tried this? “ (Luke 10:38-42)

But Martha was a servant. She couldn’t possibly sit still when there was work to be done. Someone needs to fix dinner for this bunch! Her problem wasn’t that she felt compelled to serve. The Lord knows we need servants. Her problem had been that she allowed herself to become overwhelmed in the task of serving. This usually happens when we lose our perspective and continue to serve without taking the necessary time to renew our strength. (Isaiah 40:30-31)

Lazarus immediately took his place with Jesus. For starters, he needed to say thank you—again. Beyond that, I can imagine he had a lot to talk about, and ask about regarding everything he had seen and heard during those four days he had been experiencing the world to come.

But where was Mary? She wasn’t at the table. She was looking for something. Soon, she brought a vial of expensive perfume to the table. The average worker of that day would need an entire year to earn enough to purchase the contents of that bottle. We’ll never know how she originally obtained it; but she quickly brought it to Jesus and emptied it all on his feet.  The fragrance of her gift poured out filled the entire house. It probably lingered for days to come.

One of the things about this story that interests me is how everyone instinctively took their natural place—and no one was wrong. The servant immediately began to serve. The one who had received the miracle lingered to give thanks. And the one most known for her sensitivity and reflection felt compelled to reach back even farther than normal and bring her most prized offering as an expression of worship.

That’s how the family of God should work. Each one contributes what they have. And it all blended together into a beautiful evening that is still remembered two thousand years later.

Of course, Judas had to speak up. His complaint that the gift had been wasted said more about his greed than his concern for the poor. (12:4-6) So, even in this intimate gathering of closest friends, the dividing continues. The great battle between the Kingdom of Light and the Kingdom of Darkness is about to begin.

Timing is everything now, and on the next day, it was time for Jesus to make his final entrance into Jerusalem. Answering everyone’s speculation about whether he would appear at all, Jesus chose to ride down the center of Main Street on a donkey. From the thousands of worshippers gathered for the feast, many began to join the welcoming party for the Son of David. It was clear that most of this crowd expected him to issue a call to arms any time now against Rome. So, Jesus rode, largely alone, into the heart of the city.

From the beginning, Jesus had boldly declared, “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” But this had never been a call to arms. Rather, it was a call to repentance. (Mark 1:14-15) The kingdom was not of earth, but of heaven. The servitude he came to end was not to Rome, but to Satan. Among the shouting multitude that surrounded him that day, almost no one understood that.

Luke tells us that as Jesus approached the city, he wept.  (Luke 19:41-44) He wept as he had earlier at the tomb of Lazarus, and for many of the same reasons. So many people. Each one caught up in their own set of expectations, their own agendas. None of them seemed to have a clue about the true nature of the kingdom that was indeed at hand. It broke his heart.

Almost everyone there that day would have immediately lined up to declare their willingness—their eagerness to follow Jesus wherever he went. But none of them had any idea about where he was going. If they had known, they would have quickly lost their enthusiasm for the journey. In fact, before the week was done, most of these same people would be standing in a different place, shouting a completely different message. Rather than “Hosanna!” they would be shouting “Crucify him!”

Within a few short days, Jesus’ path will take him to a place called Gethsemene. From there, he will go to another place called Golgotha. And then, to a grave. No one there that day could begin to understand where he was going, or what he was doing, or why.

Nearby, the Pharisees continued to huddle in the dark corners, waiting for any opportunity to arrest him, and kill him. But that exact hour had not quite come. Not yet.

Yet everything was rapidly falling into place, fulfilling everything the prophets had said about him. The climactic scene in this greatest drama of all time is about to begin. The actors are taking their places. The battle lines are being drawn.

On which side would you stand?

Lord, If You Had Been Here . . .

Read:  John 11:1-44

When Jesus finally arrived in Bethany, he was at least five days too late. Anyway, that was the consensus opinion of everyone who had gathered at the home of Mary and Martha. Jesus had been a frequent visitor to this home. There was a special bond between him and these two sisters, and their brother. So, when Lazarus became sick, Jesus was probably the first person they sent for. “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” (v. 3) They were confident that he would drop everything immediately and run all the way there.

But Jesus decided to stay where he was two full days longer. Lazarus was already dead before he even started. (v.14) As he approached the village, someone, no doubt, had gone to inform the sisters. Martha jumped up immediately and ran to meet him on the road, just outside the city limits. But Mary stayed behind. Did she not get the message? This was the same Mary who had always loved to sit at the Master’s feet, listening to every word. (Luke 10:38-42) Did Mary feel that Jesus had betrayed her? Was her disappointment so intense that she refused to leave the house? Did she expect him to come to her to apologize?

Others also met him as he approached, wasting no time informing him that Lazarus had already been dead four days. Martha spilled out her heartbreak as soon as she saw him. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” To her credit, she added hopefully, “But even now, I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” (v. 21-22) Martha is showing a greater depth here than most people have given her credit for.

After a brief discussion, she returned to the house to bring her sister. When Mary arrived, she poured out her own pain at Jesus’ feet. Once again, he was confronted by the same implied accusation. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (v. 32) Then the people who had followed Mary from the house began to whisper among themselves, wondering why this man who had healed so many others couldn’t manage to show up in time to heal his friend. (v. 37)

The accumulated effect of all this pain and disappointment was enough to drive Jesus to tears. (v. 35) Their words continued to accuse him. “If you had been here . . .” They just couldn’t understand. I’m guessing that each of us, at one time or another have taken our own place within that accusing chorus. “Lord, where were you when I needed you?  Why did you let this thing happen?”

Jesus still weeps to this day beside each of us. He doesn’t weep out of frustrated weakness. He weeps because he shares the pain of our own weakness. (Hebrews 4:15-16) He comes to us with compassion. Literally, this word means to suffer alongside someone else. In a way we can’t fully understand, Jesus lifts part of the pain upon himself. He feels it. He carries it. We don’t carry the full load alone. (Isaiah 53:4)

But, as important as compassion is, Jesus comes into our broken places with more than just that. He comes with a plan. As soon as he received the word about Lazarus’ illness, he related the entire experience to a higher purpose. A kingdom purpose. He told his disciples, “This illness does not lead to death (ultimately). It is for the glory of God.” (v.4) He did not tell them, however, that the entire family would have to walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, before coming out the other side into resurrection sunlight.

None of us want to walk through that valley. The sisters’ request for Jesus to come (quickly) to them was really a request for a healing so they could avoid that valley. I can’t blame them for that. I’ve been there myself. But Jesus had a different purpose—this time.

I believe it was out of a sense of compassion for them that he deliberately delayed his arrival until after Lazarus had died. It would have been too difficult for everyone if he had arrived and did nothing. He had a purpose, but that required a sense of proper timing. In this case, Lazarus had to die first. No one would have been able to watch him just standing there, apparently doing nothing. So, he waited in Galilee.

When the time came, he told his disciples, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” (v. 14-15) That must have sounded strange at the time. First, why would Jesus be glad he wasn’t there when his friend needed him most? Second, how can this deliberately unanswered prayer possibly help increase anyone’s faith? And finally, why must they go to him after it’s already too late?

But think about it. If Jesus had gone immediately to Bethany as soon as he received the request, Lazarus could have easily been healed; but we would never have read his story. His name would have been lost among the nameless crowds being healed every day. He would never have become a demonstration of the resurrection hope of every believer. This was the only time on record when Jesus called out someone who had been lying in a tomb for days. Today, as we reflect upon his story, we can take comfort in the hope that one day he will call each of us to come forth from our graves, and meet him in the air.

Lazarus had a story like no one else of his day. His story became so well known, that many people from the surrounding region began going to see him and to hear him share his experience. As a result, many more people came to believe in the Lord. (12:9-11)

Suppose we could have talked to Lazarus before any of this ever happened. If we had known what Jesus knew all along, we might have said, “Lazarus, your life can go one of two ways. You can live your life in relative comfort, or you can have a powerful testimony that will inspire millions of people for as long as the world stands. Which will you choose?” I’m confident that Lazarus would have chosen to walk through this dark valley so he could come out the other side with a story to tell. He would have chosen to live his life with a kingdom purpose.

Each of us must face the same question. Will we continue to simply try to avoid pain and increase our pleasure, or will we trust the Lord to accomplish his purpose through us? Are we willing to invest our lives for a higher purpose? A kingdom purpose?

Know this. Jesus has been on a mission since the beginning of time, and his plans include each of us. He views everything from that eternal perspective. If we could share his perspective, we could share his peace. His confidence. Even his joy in the most unlikely places. But we don’t have his perspective, so we weep when the hurt begins to overwhelm us. And he weeps with us still. Through our tears, we cry, “Lord, if you had been here” and he cries, “If you could only see what I see. If you knew what I know. If you could only trust me. . .”  In the final analysis, that’s what this story is about. It’s a story about trusting Jesus through our tears.

We can trust because he shares our grief. We can trust because we believe he has a higher purpose that even includes those dark times we all experience. We believe and we declare that all things work together for good for everyone who loves God and are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28) And we earnestly pray, “Let your kingdom come, let your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10)

And we trust because, as we see in this story, Jesus has the final word. Don’t miss that fact. Sickness is not the final word for you. Not even death. It wasn’t for Lazarus. It won’t be for you. Someone has said, “If you are a believer, your worst day can never be your last day.”

Listen to the final word, as spoken by the Lord himself. “I Am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” (v. 25) Listen as he stands before the tomb. “Lazarus come forth.” (v. 43) Know that one day, he’ll shout this command before every believer’s tomb. And listen as the apostle Paul applies this truth to every one of us. “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. . . Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? . . . No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:11, 35, 37)

Ever since our infant granddaughter had been diagnosed with a terminal disease six months earlier, our family had been walking through the Valley of Death. Of course, we prayed. Our whole church prayed. But shortly after her first birthday, the angels came to lift Serena into the arms of our Savior. That was a Wednesday evening. I managed to get through the next few days, numbly moving through the funeral preparation, and the funeral itself, and the burial. By the following Tuesday, I was ready to go back to teach my class. Mostly just putting one foot in front of the other. But as I put my hand on the knob of my office door that morning, something within my spirit rose up forcefully. I felt like I was speaking directly to all hell.

“So,” I began. “You’ve done everything you can do. You have nothing left. You’re out of bullets. Well, I just want you to know that we’re still standing! We’re still believing God! And get this, Satan. WE WILL WIN THIS THING!” It was my personal declaration of war against the Kingdom of Darkness. We’re still at war. We’re still standing. And we will win.

That’s the final word.

I Am

Read:  John 8:30-59

The amazing thing about the conversation in today’s reading is that it begins with Jesus speaking to people who had just begun to believe in him, and ends with those same people preparing to stone him. (cf. vss. 30, 59) It’s enough to make me wonder what some people really mean when they say, “I believe.”

Jesus had been having an ongoing argument with certain Jews for the last four chapters. (5-8) The Pharisees continued to complain that Jesus should not be healing people on the Sabbath. Many objected to his claim to be the Son of God, the bread of life, and the source of living water. They continued to demand evidence in support of every assertion he made..

Some people described him as a prophet or even the messiah. Some wanted to make him king, whether he wanted to be or not. But others could only see the hometown boy, whose family they all knew. Nothing special. Some at least acknowledged him as a good man; but others complained that he was a deceiver. A few wondered how he could have acquired such learning without a formal education. But the officers sent to arrest him were stopped by the power of his words and were unable to fulfill their assignment. Some even said he was demon possessed.

Through it all, Jesus never lost his composure, and he never backed away from his claims. “My Father is working until now, and I work” (5:17) “You search the scriptures . . . it is they that bear witness about me.” (5:39) “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me.” (5:46) “I am the bread of life.” (6:35) “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.” (7:37) “I am the light of the world.” (8:12) “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know . . . “(8:28)

At that point, John tells us that many of these people began to believe in him.  (5:30) But what does that really mean in this case? It appears they were beginning to be attracted to at least parts of Jesus’ message. Today, it would be the same thing as hitting “like” on someone’s Facebook post, before scrolling down to the next post  Maybe they liked the promise of never ending fountains of water, or bread that lasts forever. They might have sensed the need for the light he promised to bring, not considering what that same light might expose in their own hidden corners.

Whatever, this could not have been the deep-down life changing surrender Jesus looks for in anyone who would be his disciple. And let’s be clear, that’s exactly what he wants for all of us—to become his disciples. Nothing less. Disciples are not only faithful church attenders, they are learners. They are copiers.  Unashamed imitators. They are followers. A disciple’s whole ambition is to become like his/ her teacher. (Luke 6:40) Disciples don’t pick and choose among the master’s teachings. They accept all of it—in totality.  Their life purpose is to live according to the principles they’ve learned. That’s why we can see an immediate red flag after the first thing Jesus said to his new “converts.”

“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (v. 31-32) To which they immediately replied, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” (v.33)

In the first place, they weren’t willing to face the reality of their own history, or their current situation. Had they forgotten about Egypt? And exactly what did they think all those Roman soldiers were doing everywhere they look around town? And what about Pilate? Or Herod? Who did they think they were kidding?

But that wasn’t even their biggest problem. Like most of us, these people were completely unaware of their slavery to their own sin.  So, Jesus told them, “Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” (v.3) That’s the worst kind of slavery. It’s the slavery of our minds and our emotions. It’s the slavery that saps our will to resist. We are bound by invisible chains that we are unable, or unwilling, to acknowledge, let alone break.

Psychologists tell us that everything we do is based on a simple principle. We want to avoid pain, and increase pleasure. The problem is, many things may be pleasurable in the beginning, but destructive in the end. It’s like a poison pill with a sugar coating. We become addicted to the “sugar high,” completely unaware of the accumulating destruction within. On the other hand, most of the beneficial disciplines in life aren’t pleasurable at all in the beginning. I’m thinking about things like doing your homework when you’re young, or paying your taxes when you’re older. All of this is complicated by fear, of course. We may be afraid of the very thought of losing some (guilty) pleasure. Or we may be afraid of the consequences of being caught, so we compound our problems with a lie. These are the things addictions are made of. It could be anything. Theologians call this the “sin nature.” It means we all sin more quickly and more easily than we do good. That’s why Paul could confidently assert, “All have sinned . . . “ (Romans 3:23)

Years later, Paul described this condition. “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . . For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. . . . but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. . . . Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:15-24)

“Who will deliver me?”  Paul asked the question these people should have been asking. Instead, they continued to throw up defenses and deny their own guilt. Rather than asking who will deliver them, they continued in effect to ask Jesus who he thought he was to accuse them in the first place. In their minds, they didn’t really need deliverance. This single fact disqualified them from truly becoming Jesus’ disciples. They were not abiding in his words. (cf. v. 31) They were not willing to receive his correction.

Before long, they were reduced to name calling. “Are we not right in saying you are a Samaritan (feel free to substitute any racial slur here) and have a demon?” (v.48) Remember these are the same people who had earlier made a profession of faith. But they were not true disciples. By this point, they weren’t even believers. As Jesus continued to assert his claims, they continued to be ever more resistant.

The decisive moment came when Jesus asserted that he had the power of eternal life. “If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” (v. 51) Their reaction was immediate and intense. In their minds, all these extravagant claims only confirmed their earlier suspicion that Jesus must have a demon. After all, they reasoned, if Abraham and all the prophets had died, why should Jesus think he was better than them? “Who do you make yourself out to be?” they wanted to know. (v. 53)

Without realizing it, they had just asked Jesus the most life changing question anyone could possibly ask. In reality, it’s the first question any potential disciple should ask.  I believe it’s the very question he had been drawing them toward all this time. He had been deliberately provoking them with increasingly disturbing claims. Finally, when they couldn’t stand it any longer. They had to know. “Who are you?” I can imagine that Jesus might have let those words hang in the air for just a few seconds, for maximum effect.

In reality, he had been answering this question all along.  We can read them in the “I AM” statements John has sprinkled throughout these pages. For example, he had already declared, “I Am the bread of life.” (6:35) He also said, “I Am the light of the world.” (8:12) Later, he’ll add statements like “I Am the door” (10:7) and “I Am the good shepherd.” (10:11) Other similar statements will follow. Look for them as you continue to read this gospel.

We may understand these statements on two levels. First, they are a collection of descriptions of what Jesus has come to be for all of us. He is our source of life, and light. He is our way of entrance into the Kingdom of God. He continues to lead and feed and protect his people, as a shepherd does for his sheep. In short, everything we really need may be found in him. Without him, we’re wandering around lost, in the dark. Hungry. Thirsty. We would be like the people who were talking to Jesus that day. Except, of course, they wouldn’t admit it.

But there’s a deeper meaning Jesus is intending here. He has deliberately chosen to use an emphatic form for these statements that would have caused his hearers to stop and think. They would have asked themselves, “What did he just say?” He said, “I AM.” And they would have remembered the sacred name God revealed to Moses. “I AM who I AM. . . . Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:14) In this way he was hinting, Hey, do you remember the one who spoke to Moses at the burning bush? That was me!

But the people seem to have been missing the meaning of most of what Jesus had been trying to tell them. So, he had to be more direct. After they made the point that Abraham had died, as did the prophets, Jesus, in effect, says, speaking of Abraham, “Your father, Abraham, rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” (8:57)

Ready . . . aim . . .

They all stepped immediately into the line of fire. “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” (8:57) Jesus’ reply was immediate. He had been waiting for this moment. I think he must have smiled as he said simply, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” (8:58) His meaning was unmistakable. This was more than a claim to be more than two thousand years old. His use of the present tense verb implies that he has existed, and continues to exist without interruption throughout that entire period. Beyond that, he chose to use the verb form that identifies him with the one Moses had met at the burning bush, just before the Exodus. He was openly declaring himself to be the eternal “I Am.”

In that moment, the people should have fallen before him to worship him as Lord and God. Instead, they began to pick up stones. They could not—they would not believe what he had just told them. But because it was not yet his time to die, he quickly hid himself and walked out of the Temple.

Hating Sin/ Loving Sinners

Read: John 8:1-11

The day before had been one of those days most of us would like to forget. It had been a feast day. A time of celebration. But the mood of the crowd was restless, and Jesus was the major topic of conversation. Public opinion was divided between those who wanted to stone him, and those who wanted to make him king. The chief priests and Pharisees even sent officers to arrest him; but they were stopped by the sheer power of his words. It wasn’t his time.

Where do you go at the end of an “impossible” day? What do you do? How do you unwind? John tells us that at the end of the day, everyone returned to his own home. Except Jesus. (John 7:53-8:1) In the first place, Jesus had no “home” on earth to go to. (Luke 9:58) But he could, and did, go away to a quiet place to meet with his father.

We all need quiet times in quiet places. These are our times to meet with the Father and rearrange our priorities. Here, we may realign our purposes with the purposes of heaven. We take the time to get God’s perspective on the day before, and the days to come. Jesus needed that time. We need that time. So, with his strength renewed, and his purpose reaffirmed, he was prepared to face the new day.

John tells us that Jesus walked straight to the Temple, the place of all yesterday’s strife. (v.2) He was ready. The people came. And Jesus sat down to teach anyone who would listen. It didn’t take long for the first challenge of the day to be literally thrown down at his feet.

He couldn’t have been teaching very long before the morning quiet was broken by angry voices. A mob was literally dragging some unfortunate person right up to the place he was sitting. Judging from her terrified screams, it was a woman. She had apparently been drug straight from her bed, through the city streets, and dumped. Her hair was uncombed and she was wrapped only with the bedsheet she desperately clutched about herself. Not daring to look up, she knelt before him. By now, the only sounds she made were the half-choked sobs of desperation. She was both humiliated and hopeless.

The men who had brought her there were, for the most part, scribes and Pharisees. Today, we would have considered them the “good church people.” Jesus looked up to lock eyes with the leaders.

With unconcealed sarcasm, they addressed him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery.” (v. 4) As if he needed to be reminded, they quoted from the Law of Moses, which called for the death penalty, by stoning in such cases. Then they asked for Jesus’ judgement. “What do you say?” The trap was set. According to their plan, anything Jesus said now could be turned against him. If he approved of the stoning, he would destroy his reputation for mercy and compassion toward sinners. If, however, he pardoned her, he would be found in direct violation of the Law, destroying his credibility as a teacher. Now they had him! They thought.

The wise person, however, will never feel rushed into a premature judgment by any crowd. We must never allow our agenda to be hijacked by others with impure motives. As the angry voices continued to press, ever more loudly and insistently for his decision, Jesus knelt to write something on the ground. You might say he was just doodling in the dirt.

No one knows today what he wrote. Some suggest he was listing the sins of the men who were standing there. That may be. I like to think he was simply applying the principle James later articulated. Jesus was always quick to hear. He was now being deliberately slow to speak. (James 1:19) In this way, I believe he was setting a good example for us. There’s no good reason for rushing to judgment. Learn to slow down the process. Be still. Listen to the voice of the Spirit. Doodle in the dirt if you must. It’s in these quiet moments that the Holy Spirit can drop a word of wisdom into our hearts.

When Jesus stood up, he looked them all in the eye, one by one.  “Whoever has no sin may throw the first stone,” he said. With that, he immediately knelt back down to resume his writing. In this way, he was allowing room for the Holy Spirit to do the necessary convicting work within the hearts of each man there.  He didn’t even need to look up. He heard the first stone drop. Then another. Then stones began to fall more rapidly, until there were no more. Neither were there any men left standing around. Silence.

When he finally stood to face the woman, he looked at her and asked, “Where are your accusers?” The woman answered that they had all gone away. Now it was just the two of them, standing face to face. The sinner . . . and the Savior. Could she have understood that the man standing before her was the only human on earth who had the right to judge her? The man who knew no sin?

In that moment, her worst moment, this woman represents every one of us. Caught up in our sin, without excuse. Ashamed. Afraid. We’ve all been there. She must have held her breath, waiting for him to speak. When he did, his words brought healing to her soul.  “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on sin no more.” She must have gasped as she took a moment to fully comprehend all that he had said to her.

We need to take a few moments to grasp the importance of those same words for ourselves. Maybe you’ve heard people say that we must hate the sin; but love the sinner. Most of us struggle, however, with the fulfillment of that principle. The problem, for the most part, comes down to our inability to separate the sinner from the sin.

Good church people, for example often feel a responsibility to hold up the proper standard of righteousness. We don’t want to be guilty of tolerating sin. And we don’t. And we shouldn’t. But in our zeal to be intolerant of sin, we fail to love the people who commit the sin. In our hearts, we’re ready to drag these people away to be dropped before Jesus for severe and immediate judgment. We feel justified in doing so. Any sign of compassion toward such sinners might be taken for a sign that we’re becoming soft on sin, and we can’t have that, for heaven’s sake.

Our first problem is that we always seem to forget or ignore some sins, while we launch an all-out crusade against others. The woman taken in adultery, for example was an easily identifiable target, while others, like those who carry hatred within their hearts, may even be welcomed into church leadership. But Jesus warns us that they are the next closest thing to murderers. (Matthew 5:21-22)

But I’d have to say our biggest problem is the angry face we present to the world. I’m sure that the only thing some people know, or think they know, about God is what they read on our faces, and hear in our voices. Judging by that standard, what image of God have we presented to the world? Do they look at us and see a reflection of the true God, or a distorted caricature? The God of the angry scowl? Would you want to come before a God who looked like us and talked like us?

During my college days, I took a class in Homiletics (preaching). One of the things we had to do was prepare sermons, preach them, and endure the critique from the class and the professor. It could be brutal. One aspiring preacher decided that someone should preach against sin. So, he did. With great gusto. He passionately proclaimed the evils of sin, and the judgment to come. He left no doubt that all sinners will one day be condemned to the Lake of fire, and he seemed to be quite glad that they were going there. He took his seat and waited for the response. After some discussion of the technical merits of his scripture analysis, sermon construction and delivery, the professor concluded with the most important point that had to be made that day. I’ve never forgotten it. He simply said, “This is the kind of sermon that should be preached with tears.”

We must never forget that these are precious people of infinite worth. Jesus came to die for each one. From the cross, he prayed for the very men who had crucified him. (Luke 23:34) Can we do less? Their lives may, in fact, end in tragedy. This realization should cause us to weep. But It is never appropriate to meet men and women, created in the image of God, with anger.

On the other hand, we must be honest about sin. Jesus was. He never ever excused people’s sin. The last thing he said to this woman was “Go, and sin no more.” (v.11) Those who insist that we must prove our love for them by excusing their sin are sadly mistaken. It is our love for men and women that causes us to call them away from those things that would destroy them, or others.

This story is a beautiful illustration of the truth stated in John 3:17. Jesus did not come with the purpose of condemning us; but to save us. The truth is, however, that he can’t save us if he leaves us where we are. He has better things in mind for us. It is his intense love for us that compels him to embrace us up front, and then call us to follow him, away from where we’ve been, into the better place he’s prepared for us.

The text doesn’t tell us what the woman did after that. She could have chosen to continue to cling to her sin, trying to justify herself. Or, she may have chosen to become a follower of the Savior.

But we are left with a choice of our own. We must be honest about where we are. What we are doing. And why. When we look up into the eyes of the Savior, we can see his compassion. We are called to confess our sin and forsake it, as we embrace his love, and follow him to a better place.

What will you choose?

Why Are You Here?

Read:  John 6:25-69

Who can predict the ever-changing mood of a crowd?  You may as well try to predict the weather, or the daily ups and downs of the stock market.

Ask John, the baptizer, for example. At the height of his popularity, it looked like everyone from the entire region followed him to the banks of the Jordan River to hear him preach, and to be baptized. It was the thing to do. (Matthew 3:5-6) If you could have asked each person in the crowd why they came, you would have heard a wide range of answers. Some were just curious. They were crowd followers. Most probably realized that Israel hadn’t seen a prophet like this since Malachi, and that was four hundred years ago! And the message, “The kingdom of heaven of heaven is at hand!” stirred everyone. (Matthew 3:1-2) Many, I’m sure, really believed this message, and their repentance was sincere. But many were just moved by the moment. You just never can be too sure about a crowd.

Then Jesus arrived, and suddenly, everyone began turning to him. John fully understood that.  To his credit, he never lost sight of his purpose, which was to prepare the way for the Messiah. When Messiah finally arrived, he presented him to the people. He even baptized him. Then he quickly, and graciously began to step back, allowing Jesus to receive everyone’s full attention. (John 3:25-30) Now everyone was following Jesus.

And Jesus’ popularity continued to increase. At first, his message was strikingly like John’s. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:17) But there was more. People were being healed of every disease. He was even casting out demons. John never did that!  People were coming now, not only from Jerusalem and Judea, but also Galilee and beyond the Jordan, as far away as Syria. (Matthew 3:23-25) His fame and popularity were definitely trending up, with no end in sight.

One day, Jesus looked up to see, perhaps, the largest crowd yet gathering from every direction.  John numbers this multitude as five thousand men. (John 6:10) If we consider the women and children accompanying the men, the number could easily have approached ten, or fifteen thousand or more. Jesus took a seat on the mountainside with is disciples, just to watch them as they drew near. Every time he watched people coming toward him, he was moved with compassion, whether they were one or two, like Nicodemus, or the Samaritan woman at the well, or a multitude. This time was no exception. (cf. Matthew 14:14 ff.) He was first moved, of course, by their lost condition. They were” like sheep without a shepherd.” (eg. Matthew 9:36) But his compassion also extended to their physical needs. For example, he was aware that they would all need to eat dinner soon. John is careful to tell us that Jesus already knew what he would do, but he engaged his disciples in the discussion, primarily, I believe, to train them to be sensitive to the needs of the whole person standing before them. (John 6:5-6) Before the day was done, they had been fed, both physically and spiritually. As the crowd returned to their homes, many began to think about the possibilities.

If we could have asked the people in that crowd on that day why they came, we would have received a variety of answers. Just like the crowd who had followed John, many were just there to see the show. (John 6:2) Many came because they needed to be healed. Many wanted to hear his exciting message. Some truly believed. Anyway, they believed the parts they could understand. That’s the thing. Jesus continued to say things that were difficult to understand. Like when he told Nicodemus he needed to be born again. Or when he told the woman at the well the she needed the living water he could provide. It was like his words were calculated to make people stop and think. You had to think a lot if you wanted to follow Jesus.

Many in the crowd that day had other expectations. They figured, if Jesus is announcing that the kingdom of heaven is near, it’s time to finally drive the Romans from their land once and for all. They had their own ideas about what this kingdom should look like. They envisioned a kingdom like every other kingdom on earth, with a flesh and blood king, sitting on a physical throne, commanding physical armies. Imagine the possibilities of  man like Jesus . . .

But suppose he wasn’t willing to go along with their plan. He had his own agenda, his own sense of timing. He had this habit of slipping away and hiding himself when everyone was looking for him. Someone suggested they should just take him, by force if necessary.  The problem was, they couldn’t find him. Jesus had already left the scene. (John 6:15)

From a quiet place, further up on the mountain, Jesus was fully engaged with his personal dialogue with the Father. The disciples were getting into boats to cross the sea. It was time for everyone to go home. Tomorrow was another day. Everyone was already busy preparing their own plans for what that day would bring.

Sometime that night, the disciples were stopped in the middle of the sea by a great storm. Then they saw Jesus, walking through the storm, on top of the waves. After welcoming him into their boat, they immediately arrived on the other side.

So, the morning light revealed Jesus and the twelve on one side of the sea, and what was left of yesterday’s crowd on the other. They wasted no time getting into boats of their own, crossing the sea to find Jesus. After all, it was past time for breakfast! When they found him, they had to ask, “How did you get here?” Jesus didn’t bother to answer their question. They probably wouldn’t have believed him if he had told them. Instead, he immediately questioned their reason for being there.

Why are you here? Once again, the question must be asked of those who gathered that morning. Jesus suggested that their motives had fallen to a new low. Now, they weren’t even interested in seeing the miracles. Instead, they were simply hungry, and Jesus had fed everyone the day before, so they thought maybe . . .

Without waiting for them to respond, Jesus warns them not to work for the wrong things. The bread and the fish they had eaten the day before didn’t last. They were hungry again. Jesus wanted to give them bread that will sustain them forever. It would be like the springs of living water that never run dry. Again, and again, Jesus has been talking about spiritual truths, but the material world continued to dominate everyone’s thinking.

Some of them began to understand that Jesus was wanting them to do something radically different with their lives. But they still weren’t sure what that could be. They asked, “What must we do?” (John 6:28) Many were probably expecting Jesus to command them to take up swords and follow him in his crusade to drive out the Roman invaders. Finally!

But Jesus answered, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:29) He was referring to himself. In other words, “Believe in me!”

“What’s that? Believe? Is that all? Jesus, you don’t understand. We’re men of action here. We can’t waste time with wishful thinking. Give us something to do!” But Jesus was inflexible on this point. “Believe.”

“Ok, Jesus, but we’re going to need some evidence here before we’re willing to just accept what you’re saying to us. What sign can you show us? For example, Moses fed the people with manna for forty years in the wilderness. Something like that would be nice.”

Jesus must have wanted to shout, “Will you people please stop thinking about your stomachs? I’m trying to feed your souls here!” But he didn’t. Instead, he patiently began again to describe the realities of the spirit. This time he presented himself as the “Bread of life.” (John 6:35) In the lengthy conversation that followed, Jesus continued to perplex his hearers with impossible statements like “Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” (John 6:52-55, 60)

 That’ when many of the people who had been following him decided it was time to go. (v.66)  He just wasn’t ready to assume the role they had in mind for him. They couldn’t even understand what he was talking about half the time. They probably thought, “If we leave now, we might even make it home for dinner.” The crowds never were quite as large after that. Many of the people who walked away that day were probably among the crowd gathered at Pilate’s judgment hall, crying “Crucify him!”

Jesus watched them as they walked across the open space and disappeared over the next hill. His heart followed each one. He loved them all. He knew that before too many days, he would die for them all. If they could only believe . . .  Then suddenly, he turned to face the twelve. “Do you want to go away as well?” he asked. (v.67) Behind that question was another more fundamental question. “Why are you here?” And another, “Do you really believe in me?”

Peter’s answer was immediate. “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Peter had no “Plan B.” He wasn’t holding out for one more sign, one more miracle. He wasn’t saying “Prove it!” He was humbly saying, “Teach us.” He still didn’t understand everything; but he understood enough. He recognized that Jesus’ words were living words. His words contain life, and they produce life, wherever they are received. These are the words that created the world in the beginning. “Let there be . . . and there was . . . “ (Gen. 1:3; John 1:3) More than anything else, Peter knew that he needed Jesus to continue to speak these words into the dead dark places of his own heart.  He went on to say, “We have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy one of God.” (v. 68-69)

The crowds continue to wrestle with these questions to this day. Do I believe? What should I do with the parts I don’t understand? Why am I here? What do I want? What do I expect?

 Peter, and many others since then, have made their decision. They stand together and declare with one voice, “We believe!”

In the end, the questions comes to you.

Why are you here?

Would you believe?

A Drink of Living Water

Read: John 4:1-29

The woman had a reputation. Maybe she had just been looking for love in all the wrong places. Or maybe . . . ?  After each failed marriage, her chances of meeting and marrying the right man reduced significantly. After five such failures, she had given up on all her little girl dreams. Finally, she just settled for the next man who would have her, without benefit of formal marriage. She was reduced to just trying to get by from one day to the next. In her own eyes, her sense of self-worth was next to zero. In the eyes of the good women of the community—it was absolute zero. Or lower.

She carefully avoided every occasion that might require her to spend any significant time in the presence of such women. So, she avoided the community well in the early mornings and evenings when they all gathered for small talk, town gossip, and oh yes, water. Her self-appointed time to be at the well was high noon. The heat of the day. That way, she would have the well all to herself.

Jesus felt he had spent enough time in Judea. Already, his followers were beginning to outnumber those of John.  It was time to go back to Galilee. Samaria lay between the two. John simply said that “he had to pass through Samaria.” (v. 4) This wasn’t just about geographical necessity, however. The animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans was so great, in fact, that most good Jews routinely took the long way around, avoiding Samaria altogether. But Jesus couldn’t do that. Remember that Jesus was being led by the Holy Spirit throughout his entire ministry on earth. (cf. Mark 1:9-12) I believe that same Spirit, who had earlier driven him into the wilderness to confront Satan, was driving him into Samaria to meet one heartbroken woman in a lonely place.

As was the case with Nicodemus in the last chapter, this was a divine appointment with a person in desperate need. The teacher of the law needed assurance that he would be granted admittance into the Kingdom of God. The woman seemed to go through men like she used up buckets of water. Always thirsty—again. Always needing to come back for more. The water never lasted long. Neither did the men.

By the time she arrived at the well, she was  surprised to see someone-anyone already there. And the surprises were only beginning. Here was a man, which ordinarily wouldn’t have been a problem for her; but he was a Jew. And she knew how Jews could be, especially toward Samaritans. Furthermore, she was what the good people of the community call a “fallen woman.” Funny, how such labels can haunt our subconscious. Before the man said anything, she felt her own shame asserting itself, as if she were already condemned before the trial had even begun. She was at an emotional disadvantage from the start. Maybe he would just do the proper thing and move to one side, trying to ignore her, while she completed her task and got away. But he didn’t.

He fixed her with a penetrating gaze, and asked, “Please, would you give me a drink?” With that simple request, Jesus broke through every imagined wall that separated them, including the gender wall, the racial wall, the religious wall, and of course, that great wall that separated the “good people” of a society from the “bad” ones. And since Jesus had poked the first hole in all those walls that separated them, the woman responded with an astonished question. “How can you, a Jewish man, ask me, a woman from Samaria, for a drink?”

The question came like a dam burst, pouring out her pain, collected over a lifetime of rejection, insult, and injury. But it wasn’t her pain alone. It is the pain shared by the entire human race, since our first sin in the Garden of Eden. It is the pain of separation.

First, we have been separated from a holy God. Our own sin erected that first great wall. After that, our shame, and the resulting pain from that first offense has driven us to build more walls. We build the walls for self-protection. But it’s lonely inside our walls, and our pain increases. On the other side of our walls, others feel the pain of our rejection, so they respond in anger toward us. Brick upon brick, insult upon insult, pain upon pain, we all build our walls, tall and thick. And inside, we all suffer.

So, the first thing Jesus did when he met the woman at the well was to begin tearing down the wall. As shocking as that was, there were more surprises to come. 

The first part of the conversation was about the living water that Jesus had to offer. The common water this woman came to draw always left her thirsting for more. Jesus described a completely different kind of water, “a spring of water, welling up into eternal life.” (John 4:14 ESV) Later in this gospel, we will learn that Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit. (John 7:37-39) Yes, this same Holy Spirit who produces the new birth within us, sustains that life by his own continuing presence.

In the last chapter, Nicodemus misunderstood about the new birth Jesus told him about. In this chapter, the woman misunderstood the nature of the water Jesus gives. Both people continued to limit their thinking to this material world, (i.e.) natural birth, or natural water.  In these chapters, Jesus is introducing us to the world of the spirit. This is perhaps the greatest wall God wants us to get beyond, the wall separating our physical world from the world of the spirit.  When he created us, he gave us the necessary equipment to live in two worlds. Our bodies make us ready to participate in the physical world. Our spirits make us capable of walking and talking with God. If that sounds strange, it’s because our sin has surrounded us with walls of separation, cutting us off from all possibility of fellowship with God. Jesus came to destroy every wall of separation, shining light into our dark places, and bringing life to all our dead places.

The woman was interested. “Sir, give me this water,” she exclaimed. But first, Jesus had to break through one last wall she had built around herself. This was her wall of self-protection, built to cover her own sin. We all build some version of this wall. We do it because we’ve been hurt too often by too many judgmental people, mostly church people. To protect ourselves, we may try to deny that we have any sin at all. We may try to argue that what we did wasn’t really wrong, or that it’s no worse than what other people do. We may have good reasons for what we did. We can defend ourselves in a hundred ways. We resist the breaking down of the wall, because we fear the abuse that will come if anyone gains access to the hidden secrets that lie buried within us. We are terrified, in fact, by that prospect. So, rather than removing the wall, we insist on adding a few more bricks.

Jesus knows how to remove every defense we erect. He usually does this by bringing us face to face with ourselves. When we finally see the truth about what we’ve done—what we’ve become—he invites us to honestly confess who we are. This is the essential first step for any of us to be healed—from the inside out.  Later, in his first epistle, John will write about this in more detail. (I John 1:5-10) In this woman’s case, Jesus simply asked her to bring her husband. When she answered that she had no husband, Jesus revealed that he already knew her whole life story. “You have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband.“  She must have been terrified, standing there, completely exposed. Defenseless. She must have cringed for a moment, eyes closed, expecting divine wrath to fall. When she opened her eyes, Jesus was still standing before her; but he wasn’t scowling. In fact, I believe he was smiling. This woman was about to learn the whole reason Jesus had to be there that day. Not to condemn her; but to save her. (John 3:17; 4:4)

After she had recovered emotionally, she asked a question about a long-standing controversy between their people. Exactly where is the proper place to worship? In this Mountain, (Mt. Gerazim) as the Samaritans believed, or in Jerusalem, as the Jews insisted? If we could somehow move this conversation into the present time, we would find many doctrinal arguments, still debated among those who call themselves Christian. Which church is correct? Or most correct? Or, are any churches disqualified because of certain beliefs or practices? We like to debate about the proper way to baptize. What music is appropriate? Which translations of scripture are acceptable? Or not acceptable?  The list is long, and the arguments soon become monotonous. In reality, these are just more walls we like to erect between church denominations. Jesus’ answer cut through all our arguments. God is Spirit. So, worship must be an expression from our spirit, not simply a performance of the flesh. (John 4:23-24) Jesus continues to push the conversation beyond the limits of our flesh, into the realm of the Spirit.

Perhaps because she didn’t feel qualified to pursue an argument, the woman seems ready to drop the discussion for now and simply wait for Messiah to come and explain it all. (v.25) And there it is! Jesus has just broken through every wall between himself and the woman. I believe he must have smiled, and his eyes must have twinkled as he revealed himself. “I who speak to you am he.” (v.26) As soon as she heard those words, she believed. She dropped everything and ran back into the town, sharing her newfound faith with all who would listen.

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The Night Visitor

Read:  John 3:1-21

The streets were mostly deserted.  By this hour, the good people of the city were at home with their families.  Doors closed. Children tucked safely into their beds. Mothers and fathers were sharing one last quiet conversation by lamplight, before retiring themselves.

From where we stand, only two shadowy figures can be seen. One is approaching, stealthily, from down the street. He stops at every intersection, looking intently in every direction for anyone else who might be there. He hurries across the open space and quickly retreats into the shadows. The other man is seated in the shadows as he watches the first man approach.

As if by divine appointment, Nicodemus walks directly to the spot where Jesus is sitting. He opens the conversation respectfully, even reverently.  “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God . . .”  So, begins one of the most famous conversations in the New Testament.

Before we examine this conversation, we need to ask, “Who is Nicodemus? John tells us, first, that he was a Pharisee.  As such, he was among the religious conservatives of his time.  He was serious about keeping every detail of the law, including the “traditions,” which may be understood as a long list of sub-points to the law. These were written so that no one would ever be in doubt about what they should or should not do in any possible circumstance.

Furthermore, Nicodemus was a ruler among his people. In fact, he was a member of the Sanhedrin, which was the Jewish Supreme Court of that day. So, Nicodemus not only knew the Law, but he regularly participated in the judgment of his people according to the Law. In short, he was a man of great learning and stature. And that was his problem. Somewhere along the way, Nicodemus had begun to suspect that he might not really know what he was talking about after all.

But to his credit, in addition to his learning and authority, Nicodemus was also an honest man. First, he was honest enough to admit to himself that he might not have the answer to the most important question anyone could ask. How can he be sure that all his good works will ultimately be good enough in the eyes of God? Could it be possible that the judge of his people might himself be condemned in the Judgment? A frightening thought.

Nicodemus was also honest enough to admit that Jesus had clearly been sent by God as a teacher. Otherwise, how could he perform all these miraculous signs. This was more honesty than his colleagues on the Sanhedrin were capable of. (Mark 11:27-28) They saw Jesus as a threat to their own authority, and their minds had been made up from the beginning to resist him—to the end.

Finally, Nicodemus was a careful man. He had to be. He understood the danger of his position. Essentially, he was an honest man, surrounded by powerful, dishonest men. He couldn’t afford to say or do anything foolish. But he had to know the truth. So, he gathered his private questions and went out to find Jesus—at night–unobserved.

Jesus had watched him approach.  He knew his whole life story as he watched, and he understood the pain that pushed him to this encounter at this time, in this place. His heart was deeply stirred with compassion. He allowed Nicodemus to open the conversation. With some hesitation, like a tentative opening move in a game of chess, Nicodemus began. But Jesus stopped him after one sentence.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3 ESV) There it was! The whole issue was clearly exposed. It was as if Jesus was saying, “We aren’t here to discuss finer points of doctrine, or the proper interpretation and application of the Law. We aren’t even here to argue about the validity of some of your traditions. You’re asking if all this effort will be enough in the final analysis. You want to know if, at the end of your life, you’ll be welcomed into the eternal kingdom of God.” (As a Pharisee, Nicodemus did believe in the resurrection. The nagging question was—then what?)

Jesus’ answer was both blunt and devastating. This conversation was only two sentences in length at this point, and already Jesus had answered all Nicodemus’ questions with an emphatic “NO! It’s NOT enough!” Nicodemus had to have been shocked by Jesus’ interjection, as well as completely bewildered and distressed by his answer. Almost breathlessly, he managed to respond. “How can a man be born when he is old?” (v. 4)

Jesus tried to explain that he was talking about a different kind of birth. It was the birth John had written about in the opening verses of this gospel. “But to all who did receive him . . . he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13 ESV) He emphatically insisted that this birth was produced by the Spirit of God. This birth isn’t discernable with the natural eye. Rather, it’s like the wind, which we can’t see coming; but we can clearly see, and feel, its effects.

Nicodemus was still confused. “How can these things be?” (v.9) The teacher of the Law was still struggling to wrap his mind around spiritual reality. Jesus pointed this out to him. “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (v.10)

The question must have hit Nicodemus hard. He had nothing more to say that night. Jesus, however, continued to explain how he (Jesus) would have to be lifted up (on the cross) like Moses had lifted up the brass serpent in the wilderness. (Numbers 21:4-9) There, the people who had sinned, were bitten by poisonous snakes. Many were dying. In desperation, they came to Moses and repented. God told Moses to hang a brass serpent on a pole in the middle of the camp. Whoever came to look at the serpent would be healed. This command required both faith and obedience.  God never bothered to explain how this act of looking at a brass serpent could result in healing. He just told them to do it. Those who believed God’s word, and obeyed his command, were healed. Those who argued, “How can this be possible?” all died. Simple as that. Nicodemus knew the story well. He had just never thought to apply the story to himself.

We can’t be sure about where Jesus’ words end and John’s commentary begins in these verses. (The red letters continue through verse 21 in my Bible, but that’s just the publisher’s opinion.) In any case, when Nicodemus walked back home that night, he was probably more disturbed than he was before he came. Please understand that Jesus didn’t come, primarily, to calm our anxieties. He came to bring us the truth, and that is often disturbing at first. Throughout the night, and into the next morning, Nicodemus must have continued to hear these words, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. . . You must be born again. . .. whoever believes in him may have eternal life  . . . Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God   . . .he cannot see the kingdom of God . . . he cannot see . . .”

Jesus watched him walk away, back into the night. He didn’t try to stop him, because he understood that Nicodemus needed space, and time to think. We all do. The spiritual birthing process is like the physical birthing process in this respect. As the wise old family doctors of past generations would say, the baby will come when he is ready, not before. Nicodemus wasn’t ready—yet. But his story wasn’t finished.

Before we move on, let’s take a minute to summarize what Nicodemus heard Jesus say. First, entrance into the kingdom of God cannot be earned by keeping laws, however many you may invent for yourself. Since this is a spiritual kingdom, we can only gain entrance by means of a spiritual birth. This is a birth accomplished by the Spirit of God.

Second, somehow, this transaction will be made possible by Jesus himself being ”lifted up,” much like Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. This imagery probably wasn’t entirely clear that night; but it would be later..

Finally, Jesus was clearly calling on Nicodemus to believe in him. This word, in its various forms, occurs seven times within seven verses of our reading. The belief Jesus is calling for was a heartfelt trust that anchored itself in his person and words and work. It is a trust that stubbornly holds on, even when we don’t fully understand.

This was a lot to think about. So, Nicodemus took his time. He couldn’t stop thinking about those words. Later, the chief priests and the Pharisees (Sanhedrin) decided that Jesus had to be silenced permanently. They sent officers to arrest him; but the officers were stopped by the power of his words. They could only come back and report, “No one ever spoke like this man.” Undeterred, these rulers of Israel proceeded to rebuke the officers, and curse the people. That was the moment Nicodemus finally broke his silence. Almost timidly, he did manage to ask about the propriety of condemning a man without a trial. Now it was his turn to be rebuked and insulted. But everyone went home that night with no further action. (John 7:32, 45-53)

When the day finally came for the Lamb of God to be lifted up on the cross, Nicodemus was, no doubt, standing somewhere among the crowd. Suddenly, he could clearly see what Jesus was talking about all those nights before.  Jesus’ words had continued to haunt him; but also, to germinate within him. They were finally beginning to bear fruit. The irony is that this man who had fearfully approached Jesus on that earlier night was now prepared to declare himself as a follower of Jesus in broad daylight—at the foot of the cross! And he wasn’t alone.

Another member of the Council, named Joseph, was also standing nearby. (Mark 15:42-43; John 19:38-42) John describes him as a secret disciple—for fear of the Jews. But the secret for both men was finally out. It makes me wonder how long these two men had served together on the Council, listening to all the anger and plots against Jesus, keeping their thoughts to themselves without ever suspecting the other of being a believer. I can imagine the moment when Joseph arrived with permission from Pilate to take the body for burial, and Nicodemus showed up carrying seventy-five pounds of spices. Did they stop and stare at each other in stunned silence?  Did they ask simultaneously, “What are you doing here?” One man had a tomb available. The other man had brought the necessary material for burial. It was as if some unseen planner had arranged this.  Whatever their relationship had been up to that moment, from then on—they were brothers. Together, they buried the Lord.

As I think about the story of Nicodemus, I see a man on a journey of faith. He begins with an uneasy feeling that he might not be ready to face God in the judgment, despite all the rules he has kept all his life. He goes to Jesus, looking for answers, and is shocked by the answer he receives. He takes his time to process everything he has learned. Finally, in a moment of clarity, he is ready to openly declare himself as a believer, a follower of Jesus. And, to his amazement, he discovers that he is not alone.

The truth is, we are all somewhere on this same journey, from fear to faith. From darkness to light. Just as Jesus saw Nicodemus coming, he also sees you. Furthermore, he knows exactly what you need to move from where you are, to where you need to be. And he’s patient with the process. Today, he’s simply calling you to recognize where you are, and to trust him to help you take the next step toward his kingdom.

Do you believe that?

Introducing Jesus to the World . . .

Read:  John 1:6-8, 19-34

 

The man they called “The Baptizer” stood waist deep in the Jordan River, doing what he seemed to always be doing in those days, preaching—and baptizing. There always seemed to be a line of people, waiting expectantly on the bank, and a larger congregation beyond that. The question is, why was anyone there at all?

Every church growth specialist I’ve ever read would have immediately told John he was doing everything wrong, beginning with the personal image he presented to people. He just didn’t look like a spiritual leader. (Matthew 3:4) Beyond that, this was the wrong location. Everyone knows you must take your message to the large population centers where the people are. Make it easy for them to find you, and get to you. And his message needed help. It was too negative for most people’s taste. “Repent!” (Matthew 3:2) Who wants to come all this way into this deserted place to listen to that every day? Upon at least one occasion, he interrupted his own sermon to shout insults at a group of people who had just arrived. (Matthew 3:7-10) He just wasn’t seeker friendly, to say the least.

But for some reason, the people continued to come from all parts of Judea and Jerusalem, lining up to confess their sins and be baptized. First one . . . then another . . . and another.                             As John looked up to receive the next person, he saw a collection of priests and Levites standing together on the bank, but not stepping into the water. And they were pointing at him. “Who are you?” they demanded to know.

John quickly assured everyone there that he was not the Messiah. Neither did he accept the other titles the people were trying to put on him. The Jews were expecting Elijah to come to prepare the way before the Lord.  (Malachi 4:5) They also expected another prophet.   (Deuteronomy 18:15) There was considerable debate at the time about who that prophet would be. John refused to accept either of these labels.  It’s like he was saying, “Don’t put me in a box so you can put me on a shelf and forget about me.”

That’s how we use labels, you know. We can say, Oh, he (or she) is  ____________. We can fill the blank with anything from black or white, male or female, young or old, republican or democrat, deaf or hearing, Baptist or Catholic or Pentecostal. Then we assume we already know everything they have to say, so we don’t have to listen carefully. We can label, box, shelve and ignore, in that order, all within fifteen minutes or less. John simply refused to accept that treatment. Instead, he brought their attention to what he was doing. He was saying, in effect, “Don’t reduce my mission to a True-False question on a theology quiz. Pay attention to what I’m saying. Watch what I’m doing. And, by the way, YOU need to repent too!”  (John 1:23; Isaiah 40:3-5) John was very clear about what he was doing—and why. (cf. John 1:26, 31, 34) He was there to introduce Jesus to the world. As quickly as he could, he turned the conversation from who are you? to who is Jesus?

John’s bottom line ultimately came down to this, Jesus is the Son of God (v.34) Now be careful!  This statement was in no way intended to contradict the author’s statement that “the Word (Jesus) was God” from the beginning.  (v.1)

 (By the way, don’t be confused by the two men, both named John we’re talking about here. John the baptizer is the subject of today’s story. The author of this gospel, also named John, was a disciple, brother of James, both of whom we meet for the first time in the fourth chapter of Matthew)

The primary intended meaning of the phrase, “son of” for these people was that the son shared the same nature as the father. Even today, we say, “like father—like son” to express the same idea. Later, Jesus told his disciples “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) (Of course, these verses are full of statements that would be best understood as a reference to the trinity, but we still need to save all that for a later time.) Certainly, the Jews didn’t miss his point when Jesus said that God was his Father, making himself equal with God. (John 5: 17-18) They were ready to stone him for blasphemy, which it would have been—if it wasn’t true!

If you remember, the last time we talked about about receiving Jesus. We could have summarized everything by saying that when we receive Jesus, in truth, we receive God into our lives. Everything God is—Jesus is, and that is what has come to live within us. In short, he is our Immanuel, “God with us.” (Matthew 1:23)

The entire gospel message comes down to this. The Son of God emptied himself and became flesh so he could become the Lamb of God. (v. 29, cf. Philippians 2:5-8) That simply means he became the sacrifice for our sin. In one sense, every sacrifice ever offered under the Old Covenant looked forward to the ultimate sacrifice, The Lamb of God, who was to come.

More specifically, however, I believe this was a reference to the Passover Lamb, who was offered each year.  The whole design of this gospel moves toward that end, beginning with John’s presentation of Jesus in chapter one as the Lamb of God,  In chapter two, Jesus made the first of a series of refences to his “hour,” of which he was keenly aware from the beginning. (2:4; 7:6, 30; 12:27; 13:1; 17:1) I believe it’s significant that these last two statements, which refer to his hour as finally having come, were spoken on the night Jesus was arrested—the night before the Passover.

Let me be clear. On the very next day, as the lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple, the Lamb of God would be hanging on the cross. As he released his spirit to the Father, he declared “It is finished!”  (John 19:30) And the curtain in the Temple was torn completely in half. This was the one perfect, all sufficient sacrifice all Israel had been waiting for.  (Hebrews 10:1-4, 10, 12) It was, in fact, the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, and it is more than enough to wash away your sin and mine—even to this day.

Finally, John presents Jesus as the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit (v.32-33) This is important.  Remember that Jesus was in the beginning with God. (1:1) But for our sakes, he emptied himself and became flesh. (Philippians 2:5-8; John 1:14) Theologians like to say he emptied himself of the independent exercise of his divine powers. So, when he said he could do nothing without the Father, he really meant it. (John 4:19)

We must, therefore, ask, by what power did Jesus perform the miracles he did? Consider this. At his baptism, the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus, and remained upon him. (Luke 3:21-22; John 1:32-33) From that time, he acted under the guidance and in the power of the Holy Spirit. (Luke 4:1, 14, 16-21) Later, Jesus would promise to send this same Spirit to dwell within, and flow out from every believer.  (John 7:37-39; 14:16-17; Acts i:8; 2:32-33) That’s how the church has survived, and thrived, to this day!

So today, we stand together, and we look up, and we pray. Thank you, Jesus, Son of God, for coming down to dwell among us, becoming one of us, and the Word of God to us. Thank you, Jesus, Lamb of God, for becoming the perfect and all sufficient sacrifice for our sin. Pour out your Spirit upon us, according to your promise. Come, Holy Spirit!