Galatians 3: Anyone who tries to live by his own effort, independent of God, is doomed to failure.
It’s astounding to read the writings of this once exemplary Pharisee as he takes on the failure of rule keeping. Paul was, at one time, a Pharisee’s Pharisee. He was cheered for his dedication to a thousand-and-one rules; zealous for that way of life to the point that he hunted down and imprisoned any who threatened it. Now, years later, he’s making a lawyerly case against that approach, urging his friends at Galatia back from the brink of yielding to a “Jesus-and” approach to God. When a past Pharisee says rule keeping dooms a person to spiritual failure I’m wise to listen. Paul says the key to spiritual life isn’t trying harder, rather it’s trusting God more. He says this secret has always been out there, hidden in plain view. After all father Abraham is counted as righteous, not because he’s so good at always doing just what God wants (in fact, he’s notoriously bad at it) but rather because he trusts God. Rather than creating a human powered way to God the rules prove to me once and for all that that approach will never work. I’m left in a hopeless condition unless a superior way is made available to me. And that’s exactly what happens. Jesus, the Son of God, accepts my failure as his own. What rule keeping can’t do, he does. The door to righteousness is opened wide. To surrender to a “Jesus and” approach is to take a step backward to a failed system. My hope is firmly fixed on “Jesus only.”
Take Away: There’s no other way to God than through faith in Jesus.
The heart of the matter
1Corinthians 15: It’s resurrection, resurrection, always resurrection.
Even a casual journey through this book of the Bible convinces us that the church at Corinth is a troubled church. Paul has received word of all that’s happening there and in this letter he takes on the most outrageous problems and promises to deal with other issues in person. Apparently, he’s saved his biggest concern for last. Some in the church are beginning to doubt the Resurrection. He warns his readers stay away from such talk and launches into a reasoned defense of this core doctrine of Christianity. At the heart of it is simply this: if there’s no resurrection, Jesus isn’t resurrected and if Jesus isn’t resurrected we’re still in our sins. Resurrection is, for believers, vitally important. Our hope of salvation is in it and our hope for eternity rests on it. All the other problems at Corinth are minor in comparison to their wavering on this key point of faith. The Apostle says he wouldn’t be out on the front lines taking the hits if he didn’t believe in the resurrection. The resurrection defeats sin in our lives today and, in the end, it defeats our final enemy, Death. I’m thankful for this reminder today. Life tends to wrap us up in an ever tightening grip. Even “being a Christian” gets loaded down with non-central stuff like committee meetings and various activities that are fine but not central. A reminder like this refocuses our priorities, taking us back to that which really matters.
Take Away: Christianity without the Resurrection is something other than Christianity.
You aren’t down for the count
Romans 11: Are they down for the count…the answer is a clear-cut no.
The people of Israel, Paul says, have, in general, messed up royally. They had an inside track to God but rejected him. Because of their disobedience and unbelief they’ve been cut off and are no longer connected to the “root” of God’s love and faithfulness. The Lord, who specializes in taking bad situations and turning them into good ones, has used their rejection as a way to open the door for all peoples of the world to come in. When an “outsider” believes in Jesus that person is grafted into the “vine” of God’s grace. In this the outsider becomes an insider. Now, what of those people of Israel who became dead to God because of their unbelief? Is it too late for them? Is their permanent loss a sad necessity that the way to God be opened for the non-Jews? Paul answers, “No way!” He serves a God of Second Chances and even now the Lord’s working out a restoration for those who’ve been cut off. In his plan it’s never been “Jews verses Gentiles.” The Lord’s working right now to bring salvation to all, grafting in all who will come, making them part of his family. Isn’t this good news! The Gentiles have never known God, but now a way has been made for them to connect to him. The people of Israel have a long history with God but blew it. Still, God works to bring them back home. Maybe you were raised in church and knew the Lord as Savior at one time but now all that’s past tense in your life. I have Good News for you. As it was for the people of Israel who messed up royally there remains hope. Right now the Lord invites you to return and be reattached to the vine of his mercy, love, and grace. Even if everyone else has given up on you, God hasn’t.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
Romans 10: Grand prossessions of people telling all the good things of God!
Paul quotes the prophet Isaiah all through this passage. In his day, Isaiah extolled the value of messengers who went from place to place proclaiming the message of hope to their generation. That, he says, is a beautiful thing. Paul is sorry that the people of Israel of his day aren’t the “message-proclaimers.” They’ve had every opportunity to play that role but instead insist on doing things their own way. They’re the losers in that. Now, I read this scenario and think about my own generation. Like the messengers of Isaiah’s day, the Church has Good News. We should be happily “telling all the good things of God.” All too often though, like the people of Israel of Paul’s day, we’ve retreated to our church buildings and busied ourselves with committees and programs, hanging our shingle outside inviting those want to know more to come on in. Beyond that, we’ve divided up into different camps, drawing lines and building walls. We’d rather argue over finer points of the Bible than go next door to offer a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name. Isaiah reminds us that it’s a beautiful thing when God’s people take the Good News to those who need it so desperately. Paul, though, reminds us that it’s possible for those with the Good News to fumble and fail. Does this kind of thinking alarm us? It should.
Take Away: Who do I know who needs the Good News?
Grace extended to both insiders and outsiders
Romans 3: Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself.
The Jews, Paul says, have a special relationship with God. They’re the writers of Scripture, introducing God to the world. That’s a place of great honor, but it’s no guarantee of salvation. Not only that, but these custodians of God’s Word have, themselves, failed to live according to it. Meanwhile, the outsiders have gone their own way. Ignorant of God’s commands, uninterested in his ways, they too have failed. The result is “that we’re sinners, every one of us, in the same sinking boat with everybody else.” So now what? Those with the inside path to God haven’t followed it and those on the outside haven’t found it. Hope for salvation has to come from, not within, but from outside of humanity. Enter Jesus. Through him the remedy for failure and sin is offered. The Jews need him because they’ve rejected what they knew God wanted. The outsiders need him because they’ve never started down God’s path in the first place. The generous provision of God is his making a way to life for all people, Jews and non-Jews alike. The hope of salvation, then, is in this wonderful expression of God’s grace to a lost human race.
Take Away: For those who know the law but haven’t kept it and for those who never kept it because they never knew it, that is, for all of us, our only hope is God’s grace.
Acts 23: That night the Master appeared to Paul: “It’s going to be all right.”
Paul, the former pursuer and persecutor of Christians is now himself, a Christian who is pursued and persecuted. When similar pressure broke out in other places the believers have secreted him out of town and out of danger. Now, though, he’s held prisoner by the Romans. When forty or more men take an oath to kill Paul the Romans take action similar what has been done before; they move him out of town. Paul, at the center of this whole storm, is surprisingly calm and filled with hope. Why? It’s because he’s heard from the Lord that “It’s going to be all right.” His confinement has just begun and things will get worse. How many times will he return in spirit to that night at the Roman garrison in Jerusalem when the Master, himself, came to encourage him? This visitation of the Lord will become his anchor as the storm of adversity crashes down on him. We not only need some midnight visits from the Lord as we deal with the issues of life, but we also need to cherish them; to remember them and draw strength from them. Then, as the storm’s fury is unleashed on us we can draw from those midnight visitations and be strengthened to perseverance and peace.
Take Away: We not only need some midnight visits from the Lord as we deal with the issues of life, but we also need to cherish them as well.
What do we do now?
Acts 2: Get out of this sick and stupid culture!
It’s the Day of Pentecost. Those in the Upper Room have received the Promise of the Father. The power of the Holy Spirit flows out of them and they proclaim the Good News of Jesus with authority they’ve never had before and in languages they’ve never spoken before. Thousands come running to see what’s happening and Peter preaches his Pentecost sermon. Good people hear this message and are alarmed that the Messiah has come, been executed, and has risen from the grave. Is it too late for them? Has the long awaited Messiah come and they missed the boat? Pleading, they ask, “So now what do we do?” Peter’s answer is this: “Change your life…turn to God…be baptized…receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” A corrupt, Christ-denying culture has brought them to the brink of disaster. Their only hope, Peter says with Spirit-filled confidence, is to “get out of this sick and stupid culture.” This message of both warning and hope is still the one people need to hear today. Our culture of self and materialism is destroying our souls. We’re on the brink of eternal disaster. Our hope is in the resurrected Savior of the world. The message of God to this generation is the same as the one Peter gave to his so long ago: “Repent, turn to God, be baptized, receive the Holy Spirit.”
Take Away: There’s a way through to God and that Way is named Jesus
John 7: If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.
One of the big events in Jewish life in this day is the feast of the Tabernacles. Everyone moves outdoors for the event, camping out, and there are special worship activities at the Temple each day. Jesus is here, teaching at the Temple and many believe he’s the Messiah. On this last day, as the priest pours water mixed with wine on the altar Jesus shouts out: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.” Jesus offers to all who will come what’s being symbolized at the altar. What an offer it is. To the weary one who has been worn down by their journey in life he offers himself as the Living Water. To the bruised one who has tried other things that promised satisfaction only to be disappointed and scarred by their effort Jesus calls out “Come to me.” To those hurting, confused, and broken Jesus offers healing, understanding, and wholeness. To you and me Jesus extends the invitation to come and be satisfied.
Take Away: The only one who can really satisfy our lives invites us to come and receive what only he can give us.
Power packed words
Mark 5: Don’t listen to them; just trust me.
Jesus arrives in the seaside village by boat and is greeted by a large, enthusiastic crowd. One of those seeking our Lord’s attention is a respected member of the community, Jairus. His daughter is very sick and he asks Jesus to come and heal her. Jesus agrees, but along the way a woman “steals” a miracle, touching the fringe of Jesus’ clothes. This delays Jesus and, while everyone else is enjoying the miracle the woman experienced, Jairus receives the bad news that it’s too late and his daughter has died. It’s now that Jesus tells Jairus to ignore their words and trust him. The Lord goes to his home and in a private audience raises the twelve year old back to life. The words of the Lord to Jairus speak to my heart today. How often the voices of circumstance or experience sadly report that there’s nothing that will help and I might as well throw in the towel and cope as best I can. In the midst of discouragement Jesus says, “Don’t listen. Don’t give up and don’t doubt. Instead, look at me. Focus; remember who I am and what I can do. Remember that I love you and I wouldn’t let you get into this situation if I didn’t have the authority to see you through it. Trust me.” These brief words to Jairus are packed with power and hope.
Take Away: Remember who Jesus is; look to him even in the impossible moments of life.
When it feels like the end of the world
Matthew 24: This is no sign of the end.
The “end times” information given in Matthew 24 is hard to understand. Some of it has to do with the generation Jesus is addressing in this moment. Jesus says, “I’m not just saying this for some future generation, but for all of you.” Some of the stuff in this chapter has already happened. Still, we know that there’s been no trumpet blast and we haven’t seen the “one taken-one left” event take place. Part of the mix is that some events that feel as though they must be part of the end of the world are just common history. Jesus says reports of war, famine, and earthquakes aren’t signs of the “big event.” Of course, for those in the middle of a bombing, or facing starvation, or experiencing a major earthquake it may very likely be “the end.” However, when we hear of such things (and hopefully respond with Christ-like compassion to them) we’re not to panic, thinking “this is it.” Instead, God’s people are to trust him to be with us when we experience the painful side of life. We’re to stay true to the Lord even when we face opposition, and take advantage of the opportunity offered by unwelcome events to share the Good News with those who are desperate for some good news. I know it’s easy for me to sit in a comfortable chair and write this stuff and not so easy when the world feels like it’s coming apart. Still, if our faith is what we say it is and if it does for us what we say it does, it has to hold up even in the middle of the chaos the world sometimes throws our way.
Take Away: Not every horrible event is a sign that it’s the end of the world, but even in horrible events we can respond with compassion and hope as a people of God.