The bottom line
1Thessalonians 5: If he said it, he’ll do it.
When Paul first preached the gospel at Thessalonica he made it quite clear to them that not only is Jesus coming back, but that they can be ready for that sure event. Both of these things are absolutely true, facts that can be taken to the bank. He also told them in no uncertain terms that the date of the Lord’s return is quite uncertain. No secret codes reveal the date. We’re sure he’s coming but we’re in the dark as to when. What’s left? In the words of Jesus, we must “be ready.” Paul reminds them of that as he closes this short letter. As I live my life in the Lord, trusting in him and cooperating with him, he makes me “holy and whole” and keeps me “fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ.” The bottom line in any discussion concerning the Second Coming is that, while we don’t know when it will happen, we can be (and must be) ready for it. So I pay attention to the things that matter: prayer, cooperation with God, showing compassion, staying away from “anything tainted with evil.” I don’t know “when” but I’m reminded in this passage that I do know “how” to get ready and stay ready for Jesus to come back.
Take Away: The most important thing in life is being ready for the sure return of Jesus Christ.
Paying attention to the big deal of life
Ephesians 5: Observe how Christ loved us.
So what does a thoughtful, genuine Christian life look like? What examples are good ones for me to study and then apply to my life? Paul says the place to start is by looking upward. As a child of God I study his behavior, doing all I can to make true the proverb, “like Father like son.” If I want to see those attributes “with skin on them” I look to Jesus. Whatever I see in Jesus, I attempt to copy into my life. And what do I see? I see extravagant love. Out of love my Lord gives of himself without reservation. He doesn’t use God for his own purposes. Rather, he reflects the loving compassion of the Father in all he does. The Apostle says that I get chances to live like that. Opportunities to love selflessly come my way and I need to make the most of those opportunities. Some folks miss that boat and rather than filling their lives with Christ-like love they let other things dominate their lives. I understand the problem. Everyday a thousand voices cry out to me. Like carnival front men they invite me to try their game. If I’m not careful, I wander off into their diversion. Today, I’m reminded that love is the thing. When all is said and done in my life, the big deal will be love. Have I loved God with all my heart and soul and mind? Have I loved my neighbor as myself? This passage reminds me to “make the most out of every chance I get.”
Take Away: Love is the thing.
Wandering in the wilderness
Ephesians 2: You’re no longer wandering exiles.
We know the story of how under the leadership of Moses the children of Israel refuse to enter the Promised Land and end up wandering in the wilderness for 40 long years. In this passage, Paul describes the Gentiles as also wandering out in the wilderness, separated from God. Now, thanks to Jesus, the way into the Promised Land, the “kingdom of faith,” has been provided. Everyone is invited, both Jews and Gentiles, to make the crossing into that place of peace, at home with God. The reason, of course, that the children of Israel even make that long detour in the first place is that they didn’t trust God. Having rejected him, they turned away to the misery of the desert. For the Gentiles, the situation’s a bit different. Because of Jesus they’re experiencing their first opportunity to come to God and they’re taking full advantage of it, coming in by the thousands and tens of thousands. For those who respond, the wandering days are ended and the days of spiritual abundance have begun. On a personal level I’ve seen more than one respond to what Jesus has done. They’re rewarded with new, everlasting life for their decision. Sad to say, I’ve seen a few who have opted for the wilderness instead. Decisions have been made, priorities have been set, and they’ve followed the road out into the desert. Happily, God is the God of Second Chances. At some point, I hope and pray that they’ll find themselves once again at the point of decision. I sincerely pray that at that time their wandering days will end.
Take Away: Jesus provides us all the way to God.
Enjoy the moment but realize it may not be permanent
Acts 13: Take Barnabas and Saul and commission them for the work I have called them to do.
When Paul’s converted the Lord says “I have picked him as my personal representative to Gentiles and kings, and Jews.” From the beginning it’s clear that the Lord intends for this man to minister beyond the current reach of the Church. Now, years later we find Paul, along with his friend and mentor Barnabas working among the Gentile believers in Antioch. It’s reasonable to assume that Paul thinks he’s fulfilling that calling, living distant from Jerusalem, ministering across cultural lines. Then there’s an unexpected stirring in his heart. The Lord is moving him in a new, and somewhat unexpected, direction. Soon the church leaders receive word from the Holy Spirit on this matter. Paul and Barnabas are to be set apart to take the gospel into new territory. The move a few years earlier to Antioch may have felt as though it was the ultimate response to God’s call but now Paul sees that it was but a step in the direction the Lord had for him. The rest of his life will be lived “out there” proclaiming the gospel in new places, doing just what the Lord said years earlier in Damascus. To some extent we’re always on a journey. Even when we stay in the same place the circumstances around us change. However, at times the Lord tells us that what we took for a permanent assignment was merely a stepping stone to the next thing. Just because the Lord puts me in a place for a time or blesses me in a particular way as I do things in some specific manner doesn’t mean that I’m to institutionalize it and refuse to budge from there. I must not confuse a step for a permanent assignment.
Take Away: Don’t get too settled. The Lord may just be preparing you for the next step in your journey.
When the Lord says to wait….
Acts 1: Judas must now be replaced.
The story of the resurrection doesn’t conclude the story of Jesus. This is no “and they lived happily ever after” kind of story. Now we learn about the response to the Gospel and how it, empowered by the Spirit of Jesus, begins its spread across the face of the earth. That journey, though, gets off to a rather poor start. Jesus told his followers to wait in the Upper Room for “power from on high.” Peter, though, (bless his heart) thinks that while they’re waiting they can conduct some business. He has some scripture to quote and some logic to apply as he suggests that they make good use of this waiting period to select a replacement for the fallen and now dead Judas. Criteria are laid out and people are nominated. Then, using an ancient method, they select a good man, Matthias. Since hindsight is 20/20 we know that this isn’t the Lord’s intention. Matthias, good man that he is, isn’t intended to be the replacement disciple. The criteria, as Biblical as they are, aren’t going to be applied. The man God has selected is, right now, a Pharisee of the Pharisees. He’ll soon be the greatest enemy of Christ on the face of the earth. The lesson to be learned here is simple: when the Lord says to wait, just wait.
Take Away: The best of disciples must guard against running ahead of the Lord.
Peter, stop arguing!
John 13: Why can’t I follow now?
It’s Thursday night before Jesus is arrested. He and his disciples are in the Upper Room and Jesus is in the role of servant, washing their feet. He comes to Peter, but Peter resists, declaring “You’re not going to wash my feet – ever!” Jesus, though, persists telling Peter that if he won’t allow this that he’ll have no part in what Jesus has come to do. Peter decides to give in, but if that’s how it is, he has a better idea. He wants Jesus to wash his hands and head as well. Once again, our Lord holds steady, explaining that it’s foot washing that Peter needs and it’s foot washing that he’s going to get. Then, the meal ended, Jesus tenderly commands his disciples to love one another. This, he says, will be their primary, distinguishing characteristic. As Jesus is stating these words, Peter’s focus is on what Jesus said earlier. He ignores the teaching concerning mutual love and wants to know where Jesus is going. The Lord patiently responds, telling Peter that someday he’ll follow but not right now. Peter is having none of that. “Why later? Why not now?” he demands. Then he adds, “I’ll lay down my life for you.” At this point, Jesus has had enough of Peter’s approach. Even as he declares his allegiance to the Lord his responses are always that he knows better than Jesus. At this point Jesus tells him that big time failure is coming to him, and soon. I don’t know whether to smile at Peter’s “Lord, I love you but I know better than you” approach or if I should wince and remember the times I’ve blundered ahead of the Lord thinking I knew what to do without asking him. How often do my actions betray the truth that I think I know better than God?
Take Away: A part of following Jesus is admitting that he’s smarter than we are.
The power of the cross
John 8: When he put it in these terms, many people decided to believe.
The debate concerns the relationship of Jesus to his Father. His enemies listen for any misstatement, any slip of the tongue of our Lord, that they might pounce and score some debate points. Jesus tells them that they need to open their minds and stop thinking in such a small, earthly scale. Meanwhile, others are listening, considering and trying to decide for themselves about Jesus. Finally, Jesus says to his enemies, “When you raise me up, then you’ll know who I am.” The “raise me up” phrase is crystal clear to his listeners. Jesus is talking about crucifixion. In this culture, to be “raised up” is a very bad thing. Even as his enemies prepare for more debate and the crowd tries to digest what Jesus is saying, he continues. When he is “raised up,” as bad as that is, his Father won’t abandon him. Even to crucifixion Jesus will take joy in pleasing his Father. At this point, many in the crowd are convinced. If Jesus is willing to obey his Father even to a cross, and if he believes that even at such a terrible moment the Father will be faithful to him, they will believe in him. Such confidence and such a level of commitment is compelling. Once in a while I happen upon some profane, blasphemous use of the cross. The enemies of Christ are still among us and they think that the cross is silly or proof of weakness and defeat. For many, though, it’s convincing and compelling. In this passage, even before Jesus actually goes to the cross, it’s the cross that convinces them to follow. Never question the power of the cross.
Take Away: The cross convinces us of Christ and his ability to transform our lives.
Is your testimony brighter than your life?
Matthew 21: He answered, “Sure, glad to.” But he never went.
Jesus tells us the story of two sons. Both are given the same directions from their father. The first son turns his father down. Then, thinking better of it, does what his father asked. The second son immediately says he’ll obey but then never gets around to it. The key question is “Which of the two sons did what the father asked?” Everyone knows the answer. I fear that people raised in church are in danger of being “easy yes” folks. The very fact that they know what it’s all about, that they know the answers to all the Sunday School questions, and can slip into “church mode” without a thought places them, above others, in danger of playing the role of the second son. For others, there has to be a conscious admission that their first response to God was the wrong one. They have to make a radical change in their lives. However, for “insiders” the seeming “yes” on the surface of their lives blurs spiritual reality for them. I, for one, don’t want to live my life merely giving lip service to God. I want to be committed to him and living in obedience to him at every level. I’d rather that my life shine brighter than my testimony than have things the other way around.
Take Away: Living the Christian life requires more than mere lip service.
A lesson from the bakery
Matthew 16: Keep a sharp eye out for Pharisee-Sadducee yeast.
I wonder what Jesus is talking about when he tells his disciples to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. There’s a clue just a few lines earlier. These people want Jesus to prove himself to them, probably by performing some miracle. Jesus dismisses them by saying that they’re going to get proof alright, the powerful proof of life out of death when, as Jonah returned from the deep, he, himself, will return from the grave. At that point Jesus turns his back on them and walks away. Later he warns his disciples to beware of their “yeast.” Those who bake bread know about yeast. A little is worked into the dough so it will rise, becoming soft and tasty. Jesus says that there’s “yeast” that can work its way into every part of our lives, bringing not good results, but bad. It’s the insistence on God doing things our way, having to prove himself to us before we’ll believe. In the encounters of the Pharisees and Sadducees with Jesus there’s always a tug of war concerning who’s in charge and what Jesus has to do to satisfy them. Jesus warns his disciples to not fall into that trap. Before we know it this approach will work its way into our lives. When God doesn’t do things our way and in our time, we’ll begin to doubt him and his goodness. Later in this same passage, Peter first declares that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Later on though, we see the yeast of the Pharisees when he argues against Jesus proceeding God’s way, thinking he knows better. If Peter, in basically the same conversation can go from a great statement of faith to one of “my way is better” I’d better take warning. This yeast can work its way into my life before I even know it.
Take Away: The idea that I always know just what God should do and how he should do it can sneak into my thinking and take root there.