Spring, … “around the edges”

Karen said it, said it to Amanda, who brought word back to me: “In the Northwoods, spring comes, but you have to look for it around the edges.”

Poetic, we thought, so poetic we had to pause and think about what it means. When much of the country has been in flip-flops for weeks now, we burn our woodpiles in single-digit nights and wait for the sap to thaw; so we can make our syrup, of course.

But, spring comes. What had only to be believed before can now be seen. Living things warm with the life within. Snow recedes from trunks of trees. Drips of sap tremble at the tips of the taps, and then drop—perhaps once each minute—into waiting buckets. Groves of pines now reveal their harvest of needles, dropped in a former season. The life, always there to be believed, grows to be seen.

Psalm 27 contains a favorite refrain of mine: I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living (:13, ESV)

“The land of the living.” That’s where God lives. And, the psalmist (take a look at earlier verses) had to believe that despite “evildoers” and “adversaries” God’s goodness was there, and he, the psalmist, would one day live in God’s land.

That’s a comfort, in all of life. While our lives slip from us, God’s goodness, always there, always to be believed, grows to be seen.

Where do you see God’s goodness? If you’re with us in the Northwoods, let our spring that thaws its way in from “around the edges” remind you of God’s goodness: Wait for the LORD; be strong, let your hearts take courage; wait for the LORD! (:14).

So, believe what you see, around the edges. And have a good week …



Time’s (Almost) Up! Matthew 21.1-17

This week at Woodland we’re taking a break from our study of Ephesians to prepare for the great, high holiday of Resurrection Sunday! … Easter, we typically call it. And this Palm Sunday, leading up to Easter, we consider Matthew 21.1-17.

Probably because Amanda, the kids and I have been watching reruns of the The Great British Baking Show (where amateur bakers, working under the press of time and scrutiny of experts, are tested to their limit), I’m impressed with the sense of urgency we find in our passage.

In chapters 19-23, Matthew records Jesus’ humble entry into Jerusalem to show the servant-like manner in which Jesus entered Jerusalem to be rejected as King. And, for all those present, you can almost hear the prophetic timekeeper shouting, “Time’s almost up!”

Time’s almost up, to receive your King (:1-11). From Matthew’s careful account, we see what kind of king Jesus is. He makes preparation for His entry and shows (verse 2) that He knows everything. He knows there will be a donkey and her colt in the village ahead. And, He knows its owners will allow the use of the animals. He has absolute authority (verse 3) and shows this by instructing His disciples to commandeer the animals’ use. And, the king has power as Creator. This is the subtle point made by Matthew (and we have to fill in the gaps here with Mark and Luke) when Jesus chooses to sit astride the unbroken colt, rather than the trained donkey mare.

Most pointedly, the King enters in humility, because he’d come to die. Some, apparently, got the message: Baruk haba beshem Adonai! (“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”). Others recognized Jesus as a prophet from Nazareth (verse 11). True, but not the whole truth.

Now is the time to embrace Jesus! This is the message they were to understand.

Time’s almost up, to pledge loyalty to your King (:12-13). After entering the city (Mark shows this to be the next day), Jesus entered the Temple, and we see the rightful fury of the King! Jesus takes over the Temple, so that it might be clear that the way to God is open. In doing so, He restores economic justice, as the poor were apparently being defrauded as they purchased pigeons for sacrifice (Lev 5). Fulfilling Zechariah 14, Isaiah 56 and Jeremiah 7, Jesus drives the money changers from the Court of the Gentiles. Mark 11 adds the full quote from Isaiah 56, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations …” Jesus will soon open the way for all nations to come to God.

Jesus restores the Temple to its purpose as a place where the presence of God could be enjoyed. All of this prefigures the fulfillment of the sacrificial system in Himself. “I tell you something greater than the Temple is here” Jesus has said (Matt 12.6). If the King’s subjects won’t come to God rightly in the King’s Temple, they won’t recognize who Jesus is and pledge their loyalty to the King at all.

Now is the time to embrace Jesus!

Time’s almost up, to recognize your King (:14-17). The message of the Temple cleansing isn’t lost on everyone. Jesus draws three responses from those in the Temple, so that the condition of peoples’ hearts may be demonstrated.

The blind and lame respond. Ironically, Leviticus 21.17 excludes those deformed in body from joining in the worship of Israel, “For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long.” This is a picture of how we only come to God in wholeness. Jesus will soon fulfill the requirements of the sacrificial system: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (5.17).

And, oh how the children respond! They respond and recognize the King. The priests and scribes respond, and don’t like the shouts of the children’s one bit, “Do you hear what these are saying?” they ask Jesus (:16).

Jesus reminds them from Psalm 8 that children must shout!: “Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise … (:16b).

Now is the time to embrace Jesus!

As Matthew recounts, the Nation rejected its King. But then, the King offered Himself for all peoples on the cross. And then, the Father raised Him from the dead and gathered Him back to Himself where He makes preparation to come again.

And that’s where we are today. Take a look at Revelation 19.11-16. “Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war.”

Do you recognize that rider? He’s one and the same as the rider on the donkey. Only, He doesn’t come to die; He comes to reign. “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2.9-11).

There’s two groups of people who enter into the Easter Season this year. There’s those who play at welcoming Jesus. Maybe, some believe right things about Jesus (“the prophet from Nazareth”), but they aren’t depending on Him. These need to consider that Jesus really died … and really arose from the grave … and really went back to the Father, where He prepares to really return! And, time’s almost up to embrace Jesus. 

There’s also others who have trusted in Jesus, but could (for sheer busyness and distraction) miss the opportunity to consider Jesus in the next week. For us, the need to keep on depending on Jesus is just as vital as our need to depend on Him was in the first place.

Palm Sunday is a wake-up for us each year, isn’t it? This year, let’s read those familiar passages in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John with new vision. And then, let’s respond with urgency, dependence and thanksgiving.

And, let’s embrace Jesus, our King!


A few questions for you to consider with others:

Where do you see the urgency in Matthew 21.1-17? 

How is our urgency both different from  and the same as those whom Jesus first visited at his first coming, as the King of the Nation of Israel? 

How do you feel about the Easter season? What frame of mind does the season usually find you in? Are you typically flat-footed spiritually coming into these weeks? Or, are you typically ready? 

What typically helps you prepare your own heart to contemplate Jesus and His work at the cross? 

How can we help each other prepare? 



Walk Together, in the Light: Ephesians 5.7-14

Some years ago, I visited a friend in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California. He led a retreat center, way up in the mountains. For community service, he participated in the volunteer search-and-rescue service.

The first night of our visit my friend was on call, and—sure enough—he got called into action. A thirteen-year-old girl had strayed from her group while hiking and had slid over a rocky cliff before catching herself on a little ledge about two feet deep, but overlooking a 200 foot drop-off. There she stood, in the dark.

After locating her, a feat in itself, my friend and the search-and-rescue team went into action. My part of the maneuver was to sit in my friend’s van, listen to the radio and watch while the team, with headlamps, climbed up above the stranded girl, so that my friend could rappel down and rescue her. He told me later that when he finally reached her he said, “Sweetie, you’ve got another chance at life.”

That’s a cool story and a great picture of today’s passage from Ephesians 5.7-14. In the first part of the letter we’ve learned that God has called out a people to be His Church. These are those all over the world who have trusted Jesus, including local expressions of this group at places like Woodland in the Northwoods. Now, how do we live together as God’s “called out ones”? That’s the question being answered in the second half of the book.

Today, we learn that we’re to walk together, in the light. And, this passage is about what happens when a believer who has taken off the “old self” goes back to his or her former lifestyle. What do we do? We go over the cliff, and we go get him!

First, we’re to walk together in the light (:7-10). Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light …

Paul is talking about those from verse 5, those who practice sexual immorality, impurity and covetousness (worshipping the creation, rather than the Creator). Don’t bind yourself to such people, he says. Don’t marry them … date them … enter into business covenants with them .. don’t have “joint share” (:11) with them. Why? Because you’re in the light now.

Instead, do walk as God’s children pleasing the Lord. … try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord (:10). The word “discern” means “to put to the test, expecting a positive result”. It’s like a baker who proofs yeast to see if it bubbles and goes active. If so, good; let’s bake! Likewise, we’re to watch our lives, expecting to see attitudes and behavior that please God!

And, what does please God? The “fruit of light”; or, the “light that produces fruit”. This is none other than attitudes and behavior coming from the “new person” (4.24) that is created after the likeness of God. Even as God is good and righteous and true, so should be our attitudes and actions.

Ah, but what happens when somebody goes over the cliff into moral darkness?

Then, we restore each other to walk in the light (:11-13). Take no part in the works of darkness, but instead expose them. 

Don’t participate in evil deeds. Do expose evil deeds in one another’s lives. Important here is to realize that Paul isn’t telling us to nag non-believers over their behavior: “You really shouldn’t smoke so much … you really ought not to swear like that … you really …”. No, non-believers don’t need to clean up their behavior, they need Christ! Until they do, don’t go down into the deeds of darkness with them (:12).

What we are to do, however, is to speak into the lives of believers where you expect the light and you’re not finding it. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light (:13-14a). “Darkness tries to conceal what should be exposed,” one commentator has said. And, sin only really looks good in the dark.

Walking together in the light sometimes means going over that cliff for somebody else and saying, “This isn’t who you are in Christ! Come back …! And, like my friend who lit the darkness to bring the young girl home, we reveal what’s been hidden in the lives of another, show them the ugliness of their sin, and bring them home.

Then, we live together in the light of Christ (:14b). Awake, O sleeper/ And arise from the dead/ And Christ will shine on you. 

The innerly resurrected person needs to be matched by a resurrected lifestyle. And then, Christ will fill our lives. Interesting to me is the thought that we can’t really escape sin by dwelling on it. Sure, it seems like moping around in repentance and sorrow for our sin is the thing to do. (Remember the old game where you try not to think of a purple elephant? Can’t do it, can you? Not without thinking of the purple elephant first.)

The passage ends triumphantly, because not living in the deeds of darkness isn’t about going around thinking about not living in darkness. Instead, it’s about fixing our minds and hearts on the goodness and righteousness and truth of Christ. And, then, … Christ will shine on you.

To walk in the light, bring each other to the light of Christ!

Here’s a few questions to help us think together about walking in the light:

Why is the darkness and light imagery in this passage so basic and powerful?

Why is it really important not to bind ourselves to non-believers who live in the darkness?

What are some disciplines and practices you know that help you “proof” or discern what is pleasing to God in your life?

When was a time when you needed somebody to come restore you from deeds of darkness? 

How is it that sinful practices die when exposed to the light of Christ? What does the goodness, righteousness and truth of Christ reveal that sin is really like? 

Why do you think the passage ends like it does? Why is living in the light ultimately not about darkness, but light? 

Why do we need to walk together? 


Walk Together, in Love: Ephesians 5.1-6

It’s a busy weekend in the Northwoods, especially for us at Woodland where our women are off on retreat—sleigh rides, glow-in-the dark snowshoeing, lots of chatting. This is good, for our wives and mothers, and for us dads connecting with kids!

But, before I get back to my own kids, here’s the briefest of thoughts on tomorrow’s message.

Ephesians 5.1-6 continues Paul’s practical description of our church life together in Christ. In response to our calling as God’s people, we’re to walk together, in love.

We’re to walk in love, building up (:1-2). This involves imitating God, knowing we’re dearly loved, satisfied children of the Father. And, verse 2 tells us whom we’re to look at, especially when we don’t know what to do. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (:5a, ESV).

Christ, our example, demonstrated agape-love. This is the main word used in the New Testament to describe God’s love for us. It’s sacrificial love that seeks the highest good in the beloved. In walking together, we’re to look at Jesus and seek the wellbeing of others.

In contrast, we’re not to walk in evil, tearing down (:3-6). While the word isn’t actually used in the New Testament, the description of “sexual immorality … impurity … and covetousness” describes eros, another Greek word for love that involves the consuming of the beloved. This is the false, devouring “love” Ephesian believers would have recognized in their city brothels and pagan temples. It’s what we’d recognize as pornographic “love” that doesn’t consider the well-being of the recipient.

This possessive consuming of one another is “not to be even named among you …” It’s not that sin can’t be called out, it’s that it should be universally absent.

Conversation that tears down should, likewise be absent (:4). Instead, there should be thanksgiving for one another in the family of God. This thanksgiving looks like giving thanks that we’re in a family with wives (true), but also mothers and, yes, sisters in Christ. (Think: 1 Timothy. 1.2).

Failing to put old, erotic lifestyles in the “rag bag,” as we said last week, indicates we’ve created idols that result in God’s judgement (:5-6). Let no one deceive you with empty word, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. 

It isn’t that Christians love perfectly, it is that we’re not to be characterized those who are under God’s wrath now (Rm 1.18), or who will experience God’s wrath at Christ’s return (Rm 2.5). God’s Kingdom is received by faith, and it looks like a people walking together in self-sacrificial love for one another.

And, whom do we look to all along? You got it!

To walk in love, look at Jesus!


Here’s a few questions to consider as we walk together:

Verse 6 indicates that we might be deceived with empty words as we seek to walk in love. What are some of the false messages regarding sexual sin, in particular, that we could hear in the church? 

Why is it so important that the force of the passage is really in verses 1-2, where we’re given the example of Christ? Why couldn’t Paul just tear into the problem in verse 3 where he gives examples of consuming “love”?

For us as men and as women, what should love for those of the opposite gender look like in the church? Consider, again, 1 Timothy 5.1-2. What relational categories does the Bible recognize? 


Walk Together, in Holiness: Ephesians 4.17-32

Tuesday evenings, our small group meets. In addition to eating together and praying together as we learn to trust Christ in the business of life, we’re also hearing each other’s stories—stories about how we each trusted Christ.

These stories fascinate! Invariably, they describe the people we were before meeting Jesus, and then the people we became, by God’s grace. There was a clean break!

But, there’s also a lag. Sometimes—and we talk about this freely—the way we are today still looks a bit like the people we once were. This only shows our need to grow in holiness. And, we’re growing together.

In Ephesians 4.17-32, Paul recognizes that the believers at Ephesus have a story. For them—as with us—there was a clean break, but there’s a lag too.

Walk together in holiness, like the people you are in Christ! he tells them.

The passage starts by describing whom the Ephesians used to be. Leave who you were, in your former futility (:17-19), Paul tells the Ephesians. … you must no longer walk as the Gentile do,  in the futility of their minds (:17, ESV).

Those who don’t know Christ are (literally) “empty” in their reasoning; they’re “darkened in their understanding,” indicating their moral bankruptcy; they’re “alienated from the life of God,” showing how they’re relationally cut off from God. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity (:19).

There’s a reverse sequin in this description. The demise of the ungodly ends with corrupt reasoning, because it begins with a lifestyle that knows no boundaries. C.S. Lewis has said that “Every legitimate pleasure is a means to a higher end”. So, for example, truly delicious food is also nutritious and serves the purpose of building up the body. These pleasure Paul describes have no end other than that the unregenerate person just “stinking” wants to live that way.

Did you once live that way? We all did. But, God has called some of us out by His grace! And, we responded in faith!

Now, Paul says, live who you are, in your present holiness (:20-32). Verse 20 is my favorite and, arguably, the key verse: But that is not the way you learned Christ!

Typically, we learn about things, learn a lesson, learn the facts. But, here we learn a person, because the truth is in Jesus! Those who leave the people they used to be now have a personal relationship with Jesus by faith. That’s the difference!

Verses 20-24 describe the new position of those who have “learned Christ.” There’s a master illustration, involving clothes. We’re to “put off” (like old clothing) the habits and lifestyle that characterized us before we knew Christ and “put on” (like new clothing) the things of Christ.

Like oily shirts and socks and underwear that has been stuffed into a rag bag in the garage, those aspects of our old lifestyles have been put away forever. This is a decisive action. And, we’re not to make our way out to the garage to get dressed ever again. We’ve been clothed in Christ, once and for all.

Verses 25-32 list out some practices of those who have “learned Christ”. They include (with one exception) a negative command, a positive command, and a principle giving the reason for the command.

Falsehood and truth (:25). … let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor,  for we are members of one another. We’re to represent ourselves accurately—this includes FaceBook, elsewhere in social media, and in personal, “real space” talk with one another.

Righteous anger and the proper response to it (:26-27). Interesting here is that we’ll get angry. But, hanging onto that anger creates fertile ground for the Evil One. We need to keep short accounts with one another.

Income and work (:28). Likely, this command goes back to the ancient cultural practice of poorer laborers dipping in a bit to the profits of more affluent patrons. That practice is not to be associated with Christ! Don’t ride the time clock. Rather, do honorable work with the intent of sharing your profit.

Speech (:29-30). Build people up. Don’t use words to compete, to promote yourself, to put other people down. This grieves the Holy Spirit.

Disposition and attitudes (:31-32). … bitterness (attitude) … wrath and anger (disposition) … clamor and slander (speech). All of these must be responded to with kindness and graciousness, modeled on Christ an His work.

So, we’ve made a clean break. Now, we get to walk together, like the new people we are in Christ!

And, as we do, consider some questions to help us see the truths of Ephesians 4.17-32 more clearly:

Where do the habits of your heart most reflect whom you used to be? 

Where do you need to make a clean break with past places and friends?

Where do the desires of your heart fall short of who you are as one of God’s called people?