Ok, so that’s how it works …

Since we’re coming off our snow-day Sunday, you’ll find message material already posted, several posts back. Or, just go right here.

But, I owe you something from last week. At the points when I squeezed out the message post there was a tree sitting on my house. That was kinda stressful, especially since we were preparing to leave town for the break.

Quite a few of you offered help, and we do so appreciate the offers! But, the major takeaway from the ordeal is about how God uses unexpected things that go THUMP.

Certainly, that tree didn’t fit into our plans. In fact, I could have made the argument that a big red pine that takes on too much snow and lowers itself on to my roof—without appreciation for the way I was trying to serve or the family I was trying to visit—isn’t from God at all.

But, I know better. God uses things that go THUMP, especially unexpected things that seem to be in the way of what we think He’s doing. Here’s how it worked, for us:

Right after the THUMP, we called Don Hadden. He’s our insurance agent, but also our friend. Don popped over and made some connections, since this situation outsized us by a good bit. A bit later, our neighbor, Leon, who plows for us, appeared and assessed the situation. Leon knows a lot about trees. Then Tony, Don’s friend, turned up and promised to return with machinery in the morning. Next, we heard that Jim Blomberg was on the way. Jim made a plan to patch the roof, told of us his new ministry, and we prayed together.

The next day Leon appeared again, this time with his son and a just-shot deer on the back of his four-wheeler. (He talked about the tree, but I think he wanted to show me the deer.) Then Tony and his dad arrived with their mini-excavator and other impressive machines. Jim Blomberg returned, this time with Kevin Blomberg.

In a few hours, the tree was gone, the section of roof that had allowed tree branches to enter the upstairs closet had been patched, and we were on our way to the southern part of the state for Thanksgiving.

Now, what just happened here? An unexpected THUMP did alter what we thought we were to be doing. But, hey, the Lord knew we’d be snowed out Sunday. And without an urgent need to prepare for the service (though I didn’t know that!) He created opportunity for—what was it?—eight visits by five different friends and neighbors. And not all of them know the Lord either!

This all makes a great gospel case study in what to think and do when things go THUMP. Listed out, here’s what I’ve seen, once again:

  1. I’m about as finite, weak and in need of God’s grace as I could be. The tree from the sky reminded me of that, again.
  2. God has everything in hand. If ” … Christ died for our sins …” (1 Cor 15.3), and He did, then things that go THUMP are well within His control and command.
  3. Faith in my Redeemer is both a gift of God (Eph 2.8-10) and a spiritual skill to be exercised. My right response to the Gospel will result in the discovery of both gospel truths (God loves both me and my neighbors) and gospel behaviors (I should pause to see what God is doing, each time my plans are interrupted.)

How about you? What’s going THUMP in your life? How do you, now, plan to respond next time you experience the unexpected?

Have a great weekend. If you’re around here, hope to see you this Sunday, at Woodland.

 

Lighting the candle for you!

It’s on! Not the snow storm that shut us out at Woodland yesterday, but Advent, our celebration of Jesus’ coming.

This past Sunday, amidst the sadness and disappointment of not seeing most of you, some of us snow-shoed and all-wheel-drove ourselves to church to represent you all. It wasn’t the BIG celebration we’re looking forward to this coming Sunday, but it was REAL. We lit the first Advent candle, sang Christmas carols, and prayed together, giving thanks for our Woodland church family, and for JESUS.

So, hang in there through the week, everybody. We missed you! But, we have this coming Sunday to look forward to. And we’ll pick up where we left off …

See you this Sunday, at Woodland!

A Good Thump at Thanksgiving

You never know what a day will hold. Certainly I didn’t this morning when I was digging out from our first good Northwoods storm, and THUMP!

Plans change, you know. And we have yet to see how that big red pine sitting on our roof will change the weekend. It’s a great story, in progress, and I’ll have to tell you how it works out.

But, for the moment, we want to think—a little more briefly than usual—about where we’re headed this Sunday at Woodland. It’s the first Sunday of Advent. My favorite time of year! This year we’ll be considering the astounding idea of GOD WITH US. We’re building toward Matthew 1.22-23 which we’ll read on Christmas Eve. In those verses we read: All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). 

But why is GOD WITH US such a big deal?

God with God (John 1.1-5; 17.20-24). We’ll start with the backstory. Take a look at these two, short sets of verses. Notice how God’s plan of redemption isn’t so much about us as it is about the Son revealing the Father’s glory. Because of Jesus, we get to share in the glory and the fellowship of the Godhead.

Us Without God (Genesis 3.8-24). That background shows us what we lost through our first parents in the garden. Genesis 3.8-24 has to be the saddest passage in all of Scripture. It begins with recognition of the crime of disobeying God. And, it continues with the consequences. Adam and Eve lost God’s presence … experienced life with shame … lost marital bliss … and fell into disharmony with nature.

Even yet, God provided for them. There’s  the hint of hope, even in God’s listing of the consequences of sin: Humankind won’t be overcome by nature (:15) … won’t fail to reproduce (:16) … won’t fail to eat (:19). And then, God clothed them, and, finally sent them from the garden, so they wouldn’t eat from the Tree of Life and live forever in deformity, in their sins.

Genesis 3 is a passage describing God’s severe mercy. And, it’s where we have to stop in this first week of Advent. It reminds us that GOD WITH US won’t seem a big deal until we ponder the majesty of GOD WITH GOD  and the horror of US WITHOUT GOD. 

And the the beauty of Christmas isn’t beautiful until we know we’re saved from life without God. That’s the thought that needs to carry us deeper into this, the most beautiful of all seasons.

Here’s a few questions for discussion: 

  1. Why do you think it’s significant to start our Advent series on GOD WITH US in John 1.1-5 and 17.20-24? That’s where we see the Persons of the Godhead living before time in perfect satisfaction with one another. God with God.
  2. Genesis 3.8-24 is a really sad story. But, why is it important to include this story of loss and failure in our build up to Matthew 1.22-23?
  3. Have you ever thought of Genesis 3.8-24 as a story of God’s provision? How is this passage one of hope, and not despair?

Now, have a blessed Thanksgiving. See you this Sunday, at Woodland!

 

 

God’s Wisdom in Creation: Psalm 104

Tomorrow begins gun season in the Northwoods. And—for those of you checking in from outside the neighborhood—this is a really big deal!

It’s such a big deal that I like to join in. Like many Northwoodsmen, I have a deer stand. And, during the season, I sit above the forest floor and wait. That I have no license, no purchased tags, and no special equipment is not a problem, because I also have no gun—That’s what makes me legal!

Psalm 104 explains why a man in a tree stand without a gun in gun season is not wasting his time. There’s a lot of nature out there. And, there’s a proper way to respond to nature. It’s not by worshipping the creation (Rm 1.25); it’s by seeing God’s wisdom in creation, and then praising our covenant God of creation.

Wisdom in Creation (:1-23). The first 23 verses of Psalm 104 mirror the Genesis account of Genesis 1-2.3. Day 1, in Genesis … :1-2a, in Psalm 104. Day 2, in Genesis … :2b-4, in Psalm 104. Day 3, in Genesis … :5-9, in Psalm 104. Day 4, in Genesis … :19-23, in Psalm 104. Day 5, in Genesis … :25-26, in Psalm 104. But, Day 6???

God created by His word, separating the elements of creation in Days 1-3, but then filling His creation in Days 4-6. But, the psalmist won’t be predictable or boring. Instead, at the first substantial mention of mankind (:23), the psalmist gives us a twist.

The twist comes right where we’d expect him to suddenly start talking about the wonders of mankind, Day 6. Instead, in verse 24, we get a spontaneous shout of exaltation: O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. 

Provision for the LORD’S Creatures (:24-32). What does mankind as the chief of all land creatures do in relation to God? These all look to you, to give them their food in due season … When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things … When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust … When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground. 

As it turns out, humankind isn’t dependent on the earth for its existence. Humankind (along with the rest of creation) is dependent on God for its existence! And harmony with creation doesn’t mean that we get in rhythm with the earth. Harmony with creation means that we get in rhythm with the Creator of the earth.

This is the point of the final section of Psalm 104.

Harmony with the LORD of Creation (:33-35). I will sing praise to my God as long as I live … I will sing praise to my God while I have being … May my mediation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the LORD. 

Notice here that the psalmist, who began by urging  himself to praise God (:1a), now concludes his commentary on creation by doing just that. Notice also the little twist about sinners in verse 35: Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more!

Far from a “downer” at the end of a beautiful psalm, I take this a yearning for a Redeemer who will, one day, complete the work of redemption. The Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 1.20-25 … :30-31 sees Jesus as doing just that. Where there are sinners at odds with God in His work of creation, there is now Jesus, who is the very wisdom of God:

And because of [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (:30-31).

In the end, wisdom is seeking harmony with the Creator through the redeemer, Jesus!

My response to creation should be praise to the LORD of creation—for His wisdom, His provision, and the harmony He brings about in Christ. 

Here’s a few questions to answer in your own tree stand this gun season: 

  1. In contrast to some of the environmentalist language we often hear, what does Psalm 104 teach about our place in nature?
  2. How does our treatment of creation change once we trust in Christ?
  3. What keeps Psalm 104 from being a stale recounting of the Genesis account that people already know? Why is it relevant and helpful to us?
  4. The psalmist, beginning in verse 1, has to push himself to praise God. Why is this hard for us too?

Faithfulness and Reward: Luke 19.11-27

In Luke 19.11-27, we come to one of the hinges in Luke’s gospel. We arrive at the end of that great, long section some Bible teachers call “Luke’s Travelogue” (chapters 9-19).

Jesus will next enter Jerusalem, but His disciples don’t yet know what to expect. And, it turns out, we struggle with some of the same false expectations they do.

Faithfulness required, in light of kingdom delay (:11). Verse 11 provides both the setting and purpose of the passage. Jesus’ disciples think that at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (perhaps only days away) God’s kingdom will appear in fulness, and right away. Unheeded and misunderstood have been Jesus’ many warnings to the contrary. (See 9.44-45 and 18.31-34). Little do they understand that Jesus would die first—to finish the work of redemption, to be raised, to receive the Father’s kingdom, to reign at the Father’s side, and to send the Spirit. Eventually, they’ll get it. (See Acts 3.20-21). But, until the coming of the Spirit, they’ll need to exercise faithfulness. How does Jesus respond? Well, He tells a story, a parable …

Faithfulness and Reward: The Parable of the Ten Minas (:12-27). In this parable a nobleman goes to a far country to receive a kingdom (:12). This strikes us as odd, but Herod the Great had gone to Rome in 40 B.C. to receive Palestine from Mark Antony, and Herod Archelaus received the same kingdom from Augustus in 4 B.C. Did these vassal-kings reign while yet in Rome? Yes, they did. Did they begin to rule until they got back? No, they didn’t. That’s just how they did things, in those days. But even more importantly, Ephesians 1.19-23 tells us that Jesus received His kingship at His resurrection, but would await His rule, until His return. That’s the part of God’s plan Jesus’ disciples were missing at Jesus’ entry into the city at the telling of this parable.

Against all this cultural and theological background, Jesus continues with the parable. Preparing for his departure, the nobleman gives his subjects responsibility: ten servants receive one mina (the equivalent to four months work for a day-laborer) and tells them to “engage in business until I come”. In other words, make a profit, work, grow, increase, expand.

Meanwhile, some subjects of the new nobleman-king reject him in his absence (:14). Sound familiar? The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone (Ps 118.22).

The new king returns, and the servants line up for a time of evaluation and reward. Servant #1 has multiplied his mina times 10! Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities. Notice how responsibility becomes cities, and increased responsibility in the kingdom (See 1 Cor 6.2-3a). Servant #2 has multiplied his mina times 5. Nothing wrong with that.

Then comes Servant #3 … Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow (:21).

Now, is this an accurate estimation of the king? Or has Servant #3 completely disregarded the king during his absence? The king plays along with the ruse: I will condemn you with your own words (:22b). The king points out that if this unfaithful servant had truly believed what he said, he’d have worked harder. It’s apparent that Servant #3 doesn’t really know the king, and has thought little of him during his absence. Probably, he didn’t even expect him to come back. He’s UNFAITHFUL, and told to surrender his mina and give it to the servant who has multiplied his responsibility most faithfully.

At this juncture, the crowd standing in the wings calls foul. Doesn’t Servant #1 already have 10 cities?! This prompts the king, speaking for Jesus in the imaginative landscape of the parable, to give the master principle of the teaching: I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away (:26).

This is not an economic calculation. This is relational calculation. Those who want more of Jesus will always get more of Jesus! (With more responsibility in the kingdom). Those who don’t want Jesus won’t get Jesus. And, because Jesus plus nothing equals everything, they won’t even get to keep what they thought they had.

In the final scene of the parable, the reigning (now ruling) king executes justice on those who opposed him. And, my reading of the parable sees the unfaithful Servant #3 included in those cast out. (See also 12.46).

Even if the disciples missed it, we (from our vantage point after the cross) can see through the thin veneer of the parable what we’re being taught about Jesus: He reigns now, will rule soon, and requires faithfulness from us, His servants.

JESUS reigns and will reward faithfulness at His return. 

Important for us to note is that Jesus values faithfulness because He is faithfulness. Faithful to go to the cross. Faithful to return in His time. Faithful to judge the unrighteous as He has said He would, even.

As Jen Wilken has written, God is faithful to do what he says he will do. As far as it is possible with us, we should be the same. We should reciprocate his faithfulness to us with faithfulness toward him. We should reflect his faithfulness to us with faithfulness toward others. Jesus Christ is the perfect expression of God’s faithfulness toward humankind, as well as the perfect expression of human faithfulness toward God and others. His example shows us the way of faithfulness (In His Image, 106).

Here’s a few questions to guide our thinking and discussion of The Parable of the Ten Minas

  1. What important lessons do we learn from each of the three major figures in the parable—the nobleman king, the faithful servants, and the unfaithful servant (and the rebellious subjects)?
  2. What do you find sobering about this parable?
  3. And, what do you find encouraging about Luke 19.11-27?
  4. How does this passage change your understanding of what you’ll be doing in the kingdom, provided that you know Jesus and are looking forward to His return?

Restored by Jesus: Luke 19.1-10

We’re nearing a holiday, here in the Northwoods. While most of the country calls it Thanksgiving, it’s known around here as “gun season”. In the next month, a good number of us will take aim and fire. Will we hit the mark? We’ll see, won’t we?

Luke 19.1-10 is an account about a man who never misses. Only, this man, the Lord Jesus Himself, aims to bring about new life for others, even as He prepares to give up His own life.

Jesus seeks Zaccheus (:1-7)

When Jesus enters Jerusalem, we’re told He’s “passing through” (:1). Whether He intends to stay or not is for Him alone to know. Since His overall mission, that includes death and resurrection, mystifies His disciples (8.34), His seeking of the sinner Zaccheus will likewise confuse His disciples.

In verses 2-4 we meet Zaccheus, along the road Jesus is walking. Yes, he’s short, ” … a wee little man.” But we need to check ourselves from thinking that we fully understand this account, just because we can sing the children’s song. Like a great epic (think C.S. Lewis’ Narnia), there’s a surface level to this story that children can grasp, but there’s also a deep level that puzzles even thoughtful adults.

Luke describes Zaccheus further. We’re told he’s a “chief tax collector.” In other words, he’s rich. We’re told that he was … seeking to see who Jesus was. This means he wants more of Jesus. And, as we know, we’re told that Zaccheus is short. This is why he runs ahead to climb the low, sprawling sycamore tree. He’s putting himself in the right place to encounter Jesus.

You know the story. When Jesus comes under the tree, Jesus has got His man. Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today (:5). Appropriately so, this is the high point of the children’s song, where all the children, quoting Jesus, shout, “You come down!”

Notice, Jesus is in full control here. With all the people around who need the Savior, Jesus chooses his own host and calls out Zaccheus, who hurries and receives Jesus joyfully (:6).

Jesus seeks and restores the lost (:8-10).

Next, there’s a time gap, between verses 7 and 8. Zaccheus hosts Jesus. They recline together at table. Probably, Jesus talks about Himself, the Son of Man, and the Kingdom of God. Somewhere in there, Zaccheus is saved.

When we come to verse 8, Zaccheus springs to his feet with resolve. Behold, LORD, the half of my goods I give to the poor. Contrast Zaccheus here with the Rich Ruler of 18.18-30. That man passed on Jesus, because he valued his wealth more than the Savior. Zaccheus, now that he has Jesus, has everything he needs. And now that he has Jesus, his attitude toward everything else becomes an expression of his new identity as a disciple.

And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold, he goes on (:8b). Where does he get his numbers? Well, in the Old Testament (Ex 22), thieves were to restore 4 times what they’d stolen. Zaccheus becomes a model of redemption. Even as he is redeemed, he’ll now make restitution for what he’s taken. Jesus declares Zaccheus “saved”: Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham (:9).

Notice that Jesus doesn’t declare Zaccheus a good law-keeper. And Jesus is not interested in the restoration of Zaccheus’ stuff. Jesus is interested in the restoration of Zaccheus. Then, Jesus connects Zaccheus’ restoration to His own mission: For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost (:10). Sure, Zaccheus climbed the tree, received Jesus joyfully, and responded rightly in repentance. But, Zaccheus isn’t the hero of the story.

Jesus is the hero of the story! And, when Jesus seeks a man, woman or child, He doesn’t just have a license to hunt. (Jesus’ seeking isn’t the kind of seeking we do when we don’t know what we’re looking for.) Jesus always gets his man, his woman, or His child. Jesus never misses.

As we’ll come to know more fully at the revelation of the apostles in the New Testament, Jesus’ mission to Jerusalem is all about securing the salvation of all those who will believe and respond to His call.

Jesus seeks lost people who will be restored to the Father.

But, how does this work today, when Jesus doesn’t just walk under the tree you’re climbing? How does Jesus seek and call us, today?

This is where we remember that we live between Jesus’ two comings. And, while we press toward His second coming, we declare that Jesus did make it to Jerusalem. And there He did everything He promised—He died for us, and arose to new life. (Look to 1 Corinthians 15.3-5 for a summary.)

Declaring what Jesus did in the gospel is the “gospel call”. This good news is what we share over the fence with a neighbor, in the break room at work, at the bedside of a child, or on a walk with a friend. The Apostle Paul, in Romans 10.14-16 reminds us that the preached word is necessary for salvation: How will they call on hi in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!” 

And yet, many respond to this gospel like the Rich Ruler, and now like Zaccheus. What’s the difference today, in this time when we relate to Jesus through His Spirit.

These are deep things, and I don’t propose to solve them here, but there’s another kind of calling. Some have called it “effective” or “effectual” calling. Consider the following verses:

John 6.44—No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up at the last day. 

Acts 2.39—For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our Got calls to himself. 

Acts 16.14—One who heard us was a woman named Lydia … The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. 

1 Corinthians 1.2—To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ …

1 Peter 5.10—And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.

2 Peter 1.3—His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence. 

Now, that not the gospel call that many reject. These verses talk about the “effective” call that is the work of the Spirit of God and goes in tandem with the preached word.

Jesus gets His man, woman, or child every time. Do you understand this completely? Neither do I. But, even as I seek to be faithful to declare the gospel of the finished work of Jesus, I ask the Lord to call men, women, and children to Himself.

And, you know, He does.

“Zaccheus. You come down. For, I’m going to your house today!”

 

Here’s some thoughts to consider as you read Luke 19.1-10 with others.

  1. Probably, we all think we’ve “got” this story, because of the song. But, what new and profound things have you learned from your most recent reading of the Zaccheus story?
  2. How does Zaccheus put himself in the right place to encounter Jesus? How can you do the same? How can you encourage others you care about to put themselves in the place to be changed by God through His word?
  3. There’s a lot of sides to this account. Among them is the way that redeemed people respond to wealth. Consider 1 Timothy 6.17-18, and consider how Zaccheus modeled the right way to apply this passage that Paul would write some years later.
  4. What do you think about the way we’ve discussed the “gospel call” of Romans 10.14-16 and the “effective call,” described by the other verses listed? Which of these is our responsibility? Why is it necessary that God opens the mind of sinners to understand His gospel? How does this change the way you feel about all that takes place when the gospel is preached?

 

 

Knowing God’s Goodness: Luke 18.18-30

Today, we get to read about a tragedy. Strictly speaking (in, the classical Greek drama sense), a tragedy involves a fall from glory, because of a fatal flaw.

When Jesus is approached by the Ruler in Luke 18.18-30, the man (Matthew’s gospel says he’s young) is about to crash and burn. Only, the Ruler doesn’t know it.

Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? The Ruler asks (:18, ESV). Right away, we note some problems: the Ruler thinks that salvation results from something he will DO. The Ruler assumes that salvation is his entitlement. The Ruler presumes that he knows what GOOD is.

Jesus’ answer deflects the question: Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone (:19). Jesus isn’t denying His own goodness. He just wants the Ruler to think about what He is saying. And, Jesus wants the Ruler to think about knowing God’s goodness. Knowing God’s goodness will recognize that God Himself is the final standard of good, and that all God is and does is worthy of approval. (See Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, 197-199, for a good summary here.) More, doing good will be the desire for everyone who knows God.

Jesus continues: You know the commandments … And then Jesus lists commandments 7,6,8,9 and 5, from the 10 Commandments of Exodus 20. Why? These are commandments dealing with human relations. If the Ruler understands God’s goodness, he will especially want to keep these!

All these I have kept from my youth! the Ruler declares with enthusiasm (:21).

One thing you still lack, Jesus responds, Sell all that yo have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me (:22). In other words, give up every claim you have to righteousness. Let me be enough for you, and you will know God’s goodness. Then, I will teach you to obey the commandments from the heart. Then, I will teach you to love people.

At this, …  the Ruler becomes sad, for he was extremely rich (:23). Jesus has found the Ruler’s fatal flaw. Jesus has found something the Ruler wants more than God’s goodness. Jesus has learned that He is not enough for the Ruler. Jesus has learned that the Ruler doesn’t really love people after all, but only himself …

At this point, I must ask myself, What is it the I wouldn’t give up for Jesus? Tough one, isn’t it? Maybe, it’s a thing, a person, a lifestyle, an experience, an entitlement, a possibility.

Is Jesus enough for me, so that I know the goodness of God?

The account could end here, but Jesus, as He so often does, turns to the disciples and won’t let the thing drop, until they’ve learned. How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! (:24). He then gives a visual picture of a camel trying to go through the eye of a needle. It’s not a hard image, but a slapstick one. The biggest thing can’t go through the smallest thing. Doesn’t work materially, and it won’t work spiritually. The disciples are perplexed, probably because they assume the wealthy were blessed by God; and, if not them, who will be blessed?

What is impossible with man is possible with God, Jesus concludes (:27). And, once again, the account could end here. In fact, I have to believe there was an awkward silence at this point. Then, dear old Peter asks what everyone else is thinking.

See, we have left our homes and followed you (:28).

This is one of those amazing places where Jesus takes my life situation and His plan for the ages, and then He draws them all together in one statement:

Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life (:30).

Some things to notice here:

  • Jesus is not talking about leaving things, but people. “House” here doesn’t mean four walls and a chimney, it means “household”—wife, brothers, parents, and children. And, for His immediate followers, as well as us, following Jesus COULD mean you lose your people. Maybe, they don’t think you’re cool anymore. Or, they turn on you and kick you out.
  • Second, Jesus’ promise of blessing follows the NOW, but NOT YET scheme of the Kingdom. It includes eternal life, that we associate with Jesus’ second coming and the resurrection. But, His blessing also includes knowing God’s goodness IN THIS LIFE, … in this time. 

I believe this is an oblique (not straightforward) reference to the church. Jesus has always been about gathering up people for Himself. He’d told Peter, Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be catching men (5.10). He’d told His disciples, My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God an do it (8.21). And, we’ll see early believers in Acts 5 who do just what the Ruler won’t. They’ll sell their possessions and distribute their goods among poor, but joyous, followers of Jesus.

When Jesus is enough for you, God puts you together with others in the church, so that you have a new family. That’s the goodness of God that we see today in places like Woodland when, together, we recognize that Jesus is enough.

  • Jesus promises to MULTIPLY what we’ve given up for Him in this life. That’s the many times more language. The rest of the New Testament talks about how this works. And, I think it works this way: when I understand that God’s goodness is found in Jesus, my attitudes toward everything else that ISN’T Jesus is transformed.

BEFORE I trust in Jesus, my bank account (to use the example of this passage) could be my fatal flaw. But, when Jesus is enough, my money becomes a means for caring for my new family in Jesus. BEFORE  I trust in Jesus, my set of friends could be my fatal flaw. But, when Jesus is enough, I find out I have family everywhere.

In In His Image Jen Wilken writes: “Possessing the good and perfect gift of Christ, we can count all generosity as affordable loss. God gives good things to us generously, risking no loss in doing so. We, too, should give good things to others generously, recognizing that we, too, risk no loss in doing so. We can be generous with our possessions, our talents, and our time on behalf of others because we see these good gifts as a means to bring glory to their Giver instead of to us” (51).

We know God’s goodness, when Jesus is enough. 

 

Here’s some questions to consider with others:

  1. What are some “fatal flaws” that keep people from following Jesus and knowing God’s goodness?
  2. If you’re following Jesus, what fatal flaw did God touch in your life to get you there? (What desires of your heart did you have to repent of?)
  3. How have you seen God restore “in this time” what you gave up to follow Him?
  4. How has God transformed (or, how is He transforming) the desires of your heart as you learn that Jesus is enough.
  5. Is Jesus always enough for you? How do you feel about this statement?

 

Persist in Prayer! Luke 18.1-8

Have you ever felt powerless?

Maybe, you put a charge on a credit card that you later couldn’t repay. Or, you told a friend something you wished you hadn’t. Or, you were with a hurting person, and you just didn’t know what to do.

Terrible feeling, isn’t it? Made you weary, didn’t it?

The Parable of the Persistent Widow in Luke 18 is a story for those who are weary in their powerlessness. Jesus tells this parable as part of a larger conversation with the Pharisees that begins in 17.20. Then, He pulls back (apparently) to explain His teaching to His disciples.

The wider conversation involves the coming of the Kingdom of God and when it will come. Naturally, the Pharisees (and, probably, everybody else) thought that Messiah would ride in, kick out the Romans and be ruler of the whole earth. They weren’t far from wrong. But, they didn’t factor in the cross!

Jesus responds by teaching that the Kingdom is present with the King, who is “in their midst” (7.21). And, Jesus teaches that the fulness of the Kingdom will only come after Messiah has suffered (7.24-25), after which time evil will be destroyed (7.27-30).

The Pharisees’ problem (and ours, sometimes) is that they didn’t recognize Jesus’ two comings. Till Messiah returns God’s people will suffer and wait expectantly for His coming … “the days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it” (7.22).

In the parable itself, we have an unrighteous judge who neither fears God nor “respects” man (ESV). The word can mean “be ashamed”. In the shame-based eastern culture of the parable, the judge makes no effort to help others save face. He almost certainly takes bribes, and he doesn’t care.

The Widow is the other character. In the man-dominated world of the middle eastern court system, the fact that she must represent herself indicates that she has no man in her life. She is certainly too poor to pay a bribe. Perhaps, there’s a dispute over her late husband’s estate. A state of injustice exists.

She does have one advantage: she can abuse the judge! Because nobody takes her seriously, she can stand on the perimeter of the court and hurl insults at the judge. A man would be kicked out. Nobody cares about the widow.

The judge finally gives in, because he fears the widow will “beat me down”. The term is one taken from boxing. It means, literally, “to beat black and blue”. “Oi weh!” we imagine the judge exclaiming. “Enough already! Bring her here. What does she want?”

In Jesus’ commentary from verses 6-8, two lessons and a question come from this parable. In the character of the judge we learn that unlike the unrighteous judge, God will bring justice to His people. The logic is taken from a rabbinic rhetorical teaching method, the Hebrew name for which we would translate as “from the light to heavy”. It’s a “if this … then how much more?” kind of argument. So, if even an unrighteous judge—who doesn’t care about God or people—will reward perseverance with justice, how much more will the one, true God give justice to His people He has chosen?

The second lesson comes from the Widow. Through her character we learn that the LORD will be patient with believer’s persistence in prayer while they endure injustice, until Jesus comes again in power to vindicate them.

“Will not God give justice to his elect?” Yes, He will. “Will he delay long over them?” No, He won’t, but ” … he will give justice to them speedily” (verse 8a).

But, will God’s people persist in prayer till Jesus comes back? “Will he find faith on earth” (verse 8b). That’s the question.

Like the Pharisees, we sometimes mistake this time between Jesus’ two comings for the fulness of the kingdom. We experience powerlessness, and we say “Why does God not change my situation now?!”

In so complaining, we forget that Jesus hasn’t come back yet. And, why? Second Peter 3.8-9 helps.

But, do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance (ESV).

God is yet gathering “the elect” to Himself. But, until Jesus comes again, we persist in prayer. What keeps us from growing weary is knowing that God is not like the unrighteous judge. In fact, since the time of the telling of this parable, Jesus has taken up residence with the Father, again. Romans 8 describes how He intercedes for us:

Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than than, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 

That’s really Good News! Not only are we, unlike the Widow, not unrepresented in court. But, Jesus Himself represents us before God! Knowing this keeps us from losing heart.

Those who “get” Jesus persist in prayer knowing God hears (now) and will deliver them, finally and completely, very soon. 

 

Find somebody to discuss this parable with. Talk through these questions:

What is the hardest part for you to take in about this parable? 

 

Where do you struggle in your times of prayer with God? 

 

What about the work of Jesus is most important for you in not growing weary? 

 

What methods for prayer have you found helpful? Prayer journals? A certain kind of list-making or note-taking? What would you recommend to others to help them organize their times of prayer with the Lord and help them be persistent? 

This Sunday at Woodland, I’ll read Question 38 from The New City CatechismThis is the series of doctrinal questions we’re teaching our Truth Seekers at Woodland. We call them “Terrific Truths”.

This question goes “What is prayer”? And, it’s answered: Prayer is pouring out our hearts to God in praise, petition, confession of sin, and thanksgiving. 

I like to take matters to God in this order: confession (I can’t do this, God!) … petition (Please, help me, Lord!) … praise (You’re doing something wonderful in my life here, God) … and thanksgiving (I’m giving you all the credit for what you’ve done, Lord).

What is the advantage in having a scheme like the one above that we regularly prayer through? How might this “Traffic Truth” help you persist in prayer? 

 

Safe Passage: Luke 17.20-37; 1 Thess 5.2-11

Tough week in the news, don’t you think?

Political instability, an invasion in Turkey and Syria, unrest in Hong Kong. The financial markets don’t like this much, either.

Who’s going to fix this? Who will make all wrongs right? What’s going to happen in the end? How will we find safe passage through turmoil? And, with increasing bias in the media, how do we even find out what’s true?

These are paralyzing questions for those who don’t believe the gospel, because politics seem like the last, best option to those without Christ. They’re pressing questions for those of us who do believe in the perfect life, death and resurrection of Jesus, because we’re always tempted to forget Jesus and join in the hysterics.

Luke 17.20-37 is puzzling to read and hard to teach. Jesus is traveling to the cross and identifying true followers as He goes. And, in chapters 17-18 in particular, He’s preparing these true followers for the time between His two comings. Among the other characteristics they’ll demonstrate, these true followers will press toward the fulness of the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom has come in Jesus (:20-21). When is the Kingdom coming? Jesus’ opponents wanted to know. In other words, When will we finally see God’s reign and rule? When will all wrongs be made right?

Jesus answers in two parts. First, He tells them that His Kingdom does (present tense) not come with a lot of fanfare. In fact, you could miss it. (Kinda like the nine former-lepers missed Jesus in the passage just before this one, 19.11-19). Second, ” … the Kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (:21). In other words, I’m right here! You’re looking at the very presence of the Kingdom, because the Kingdom of God is always present with the King.

This “NOWness” of the Kingdom is a big deal! And, at different places in His gospel, Luke describes just what takes place, because Jesus is on the scene: the power of Satan is broken (10.18); evil is dealt a fatal blow (11.20); the New Covenant is cut (22.19); the Spirit (soon) will come (24.49). And, throughout, forgiveness of sins is offered, based on Jesus’ gospel cross-work.

All this is true, because Jesus is on the scene. But, for the unbelieving Pharisees, Jesus is curt and cryptic. After this, though, He turns to His disciples in the remainder of the passage. And, for those who believe, He gives more …

The fulness of the Kingdom will come in Jesus (:22-37). Not everything in God’s plan of redemption was accomplished at Christ’s first coming. There’s also a NOT YET part of the Kingdom. These works of God, tied up in Jesus’ second coming, include the complete removal of sin, Jesus’ obvious reign and rule, the restoration of all things, and resurrection from the dead for everybody. And, they include the execution of God’s justice, judgment, and the separation of the righteous and the unrighteous.

In other words, all wrongs will be made right. But, what of Jesus’ followers? In contrast to Luke’s strong emphasis on the “NOWness” of Jesus’ reign and rule that we read about in his gospel, the remainder of this passage provides color and detail about what will happen when Jesus returns. Four questions structure the passage:

  1. When will the fulness of the Kingdom come? (:22-25) Jesus’ basic answer is that He can return at any point after He goes to the cross. (Christ’s return in their own lifetime has been the hope of every generation of believers ever since.) In the meantime, believers (that’s us!) shouldn’t get confused. We’re not to get worked up over blood moons and cryptic readings from ancient Jewish calendars. We’re not to follow rumors from those who think they’ve found Jesus in remote places (See Matt 24.23a … 26). When Jesus comes, His return will be as obvious as lighting: For as the lighting flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day (:24).
  2. How will the Kingdom come in fulness (:26-30). Jesus’ answer is that the Kingdom will come in fulness suddenly, when people are thinking about other things. He then gives two historical examples of how this will be. The first involved Noah (Gen 9). People were having a great time while Noah built his ark, in obedience to God. And, when God’s judgment came, God provided safe passage on the ark through His own judgment. The second example is Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19). Once again, people were doing their thing, until God judged these cities, and provided safe passage for Lot. (His wife chose not to follow and became part of the landscape). In the same way, Jesus’ return will catch the upright off guard.
  3. What should you do when the fulness of the Kingdom comes? (:31-36). Jesus answer: don’t prepare … It’s too late for that. Don’t try to rescue your stuff. Don’t try to find some solution apart from Jesus. As Darrell Bock says in his commentary, “If one is not already prepared for the day, there will be no time to prepare. There will be time only to flee.” Two will be in one bed. Two will be milling grain. In both case, one will be taken and the other left. The real answer to Jesus’ question, of course, is each of us should EMBRACE JESUS NOW! Jesus has been saying this all along. In 9.24 He has said, For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? And then in our passage, Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it (:33). The first half of verse 33 describes material things. We’ll lose them, if we try to hang onto them. The second half describes spiritual salvation. If we turn from our sin and trust Jesus, we will be saved.
  4. What will result with the coming of the Kingdom in fulness (:37)? The disciples want to know where this will take place. Jesus seems to believe they’ve asked the wrong question. It’s not that you can leave and avoid God’s judgment. It’s that God’s judgment will be obvious when He comes, like lightning, like a cloud of vultures.

True followers of Jesus cling to Jesus by faith and will find safe passage into the fulness of the Kingdom at His coming. 

In case you’re wondering, this is probably not the first passage I’d share with someone who doesn’t already know Jesus. My conviction is that people seldom do what we tell them to do, and scaring people only produces short-term change. Rather, I want people to see my deep concern for them and (even more!) my love for Jesus—as well as my excited anticipation of His coming.

That’s been the attitude of followers of Jesus since the days of the early church. Glance through the related passage of 1 Thessalonians 5.2-11 and you’ll see that those who trust Jesus 1) aren’t destined for wrath, but have safe passage (5.9), 2) should “encourage one another” with expectation of Jesus’ return, and 3) should look for Jesus (:3), like a woman in labor expects to meet a person at the end of her ordeal.

At Jesus’ coming, wrongs will be made right, injustices will be wiped away, and we’ll be with Jesus.

Now, how does that make you feel?

Here’s a few questions to discuss with others:

  1. This is a difficult passage, for lots of reasons. What about this is new to you? What is unclear? How does reading about God’s judgment make you feel?
  2. How is God’s just, righteous character revealed in this passage?
  3. How does knowing that Jesus will right all wrongs help you when you read or watch scary news from our troubled world?
  4. What should you do to prepare for Jesus?
  5. What wonderful, grand and beautiful aspects of the NOT YET coming of God’s Kingdom are you looking forward to?
  6. How should you, together with others, increasingly pray for our world?

Humility and Repentance: Luke 18.9-14

What do you think of when you think of a self-made person?

Maybe you think of somebody who lives “off the grid,” Amish style. Or, you might think of somebody who doesn’t depend on Madison or Washington; or somebody who doesn’t punch a clock, because their money works for them; or somebody who is prosperous enough to share with others.

All of this self-dependence is a good thing, if you can get it. But, there’s also a kind of self-dependence that won’t work—especially with God. In fact, it will leave you isolated, from God and from everybody else.

Luke 18 records several parables about coming to God. The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (:9-14) talks about the heart attitude we must have when coming to God. As it turns out, all this has much to do with how we feel about other people.

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector (:10). Temple worship in the Old Testament included two daily sacrifices. And, while individuals could pray alone at many other times, the picture here is of public worship.

The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector (:11). Don’t be too crazy hard on this Pharisee. Pharisees were the teachers of Israel. Their job was to model worship and reverence toward God’s Word. This guy got the modeling part right, but it’s his attitude Jesus condemns. Notice how he’s shouldered his way into what was probably the inner court. Now, he stands “by himself,” alone. And, he preaches at the Tax Collector, probably wondering why the most-hated of sinners was in the outer court at all, and not against the eastern wall with the other ceremonially unclean worshippers.

I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get (:12). This is all about comparing himself to others. The Law required fasting once each year on the Day of Atonement. Our Pharisee fasts twice each week. The Law, at that time, required gifts of ten-percent on commodities like oil, grain and wine, but our guy gives ten-percent on everything that enters his mouth—and wants others to know about it. His assumption is that he’s righteous because of what he does. And, what he does is more than what others do and is certainly enough to please God, he thinks.

Notice how the parable leaves him standing by himself. He won’t be accepted by God, and he’s isolated from other people.

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner! (:13) Perish the thought! But, imagine that Nazi Germany ruled America. And then, there’s an American Nazi who comes to collect your taxes. How do you feel about that guy? That’s how people felt about this tax collector! But, he comes to the Temple. He stands in the outer court. He won’t lift his eyes to God or others. He beasts his chest in remorse, a common practice among women at a funeral, but only seen among men at the account of Jesus’ death on the cross.

But, the Tax Collector falls on God’s mercy.

I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other … (:14a). The parable began with two going up. Now, it ends with one man going down. And, this one man is “justified” before God. That’s a special word. It’s related to the Hebrew word “to cover” or “to atone for”. God accepted the Tax Collector, not because he turned up at the Temple to sacrifice, but because he threw himself on God’s mercy in humility.

And, don’t miss the detail at the end. The Tax Collector went “to his house”. That’s where his people are. He came alone, stood alone, but received acceptance by God, and then went down to be with others.

Jesus ends this short parable with two lessons: For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted (:14b). First lesson: those who lift themselves up (think they’re good enough the way they are and are willing to be judged on what they do), these won’t be accepted by God. And, they’ll remain alone.

Have you ever known church people like that? If that’s been your experience, or if you don’t join much with others in church and you think churches are filled with people like that, I (for one) get what you’re thinking. We at Woodland get that too. In fact, many of us used to be like that. But, this parable shows us that it shouldn’t be that way. It’s not the Gospel, and it doesn’t have to be that way!

Lesson two: those who humble themselves will be lifted up and accepted by God. And, they’ll join others accepted by God.

Here’s the Good News! Since the telling of this parable, Jesus took our offense against God on Himself. He sacrificed His own life, and God accepted this sacrifice. And, when we’re willing to be judged on what Jesus has done, we can come to God. Later, in the New Testament the Book of Romans, we learn what this means for everybody: … for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (3.23-24).

Those who “get” Jesus know they come to God only in humility to be lifted up in Christ. 

A couple of action steps remain for us. In Christ, we get to come to God in humility. If you come to a place like Woodland Community Church, you need to know that you are among sinners. We’re Tax Collectors, not Pharisees. In fact, some of us are recovering from addictions. Some have been in jail. My goodness, some of us even struggle with pride. We like to say that, apart from the work of Jesus, there’s no difference between us and everybody else. And, if you’re ever in the Northwoods and join us, you won’t be judged. God has judged us with Christ, and Jesus’ righteousness is enough for all!

Second action step: we get to come to God with other people. At Woodland, and any other church that “gets” who Jesus is, you don’t have to stand far off. Instead, because of Jesus, you get to stand right in the midst of God’s people.

Now, that’s a good word. So, don’t try to be self-made with God this week. Instead, come to God in humility. And, come into the midst of God’s people, to be lifted up with others in Christ.

Here’s a few questions to consider with others:

  1. Finally, after a couple of difficult parables these last weeks, we have one that at least seems straight-forward. How would we describe the heart-attitude that is contrasted between the Pharisee and Tax Collector?
  2. What are the social implications we see in these two figures? Whom are the two figures separated from? And, whom are they, finally, united with?
  3. What does the commendable response in humility of the Tax Collector show us about true repentance? What does godly repentance looks like? You might want to consider these verses: Lk 3.3; 3.8; 2 Cor 7.9-10; 2 Tim 2.25.
  4. What role does our repentance play in our salvation? How is it different from faith, but also similar to faith?
  5. How do both faith and repentance relate to the  finished work of Jesus?
  6. What has been your experience with Christians in the past? How does this teaching from Jesus about what it looks like to truly follow Him (by faith, and in humility and repentance) encourage you to forgive others and go deeper into Christian community?
  7. How ought we all to respond to this teaching when we are in the midst of God’s people at Woodland (or, some other church)? What does it mean for the way we feel about God, others, and ourselves?