Not one size fits all
Revelation 3: The people I love, I call to account – prod and correct and guide so that they’ll live at their best.
The message of the Lord to each of the last three churches is far from uniform. Two of these churches are in trouble. The third is doing quite well. One of the two that is failing on the surface looks quite healthy. It’s a church that’s operating an aggressive program with lots of meetings and activities – a full calendar. The other church that’s failing believes in moderation. They feel they’re successful and have earned a respite. Sorry to say, that attitude has caused them to take a bit of a break from God too. The result is a stern warning from Jesus. The third church, though, has been through some tough times. Many have fallen away leaving a small, but dedicated group that’s been tested in painful ways. Through it all they kept the Word of the Lord with “passionate patience.” In other words, their love for the Lord has done nothing but increase even as they’ve patiently worked through some of the hardest days of their lives. The Lord’s pleased with them and promises to open doors for them and to vindicate them and to keep them safe. As I read about these three churches my takeaway today isn’t that it’s a bad thing for a church to have an aggressive program or for church and people to take a breather once in a while. I don’t come away thinking that to be small and poor is to be more spiritual. Frankly, I’ve been around a few groups that were small and poor and proud of it. What does come to mind is that there are challenges to be found in just about every situation. A busy, successful church needs to be careful not to mistake what it does for Jesus for a vital, living relationship with him. A church that has had some success needs to be careful to keep its priorities straight. To personalize this farther, I need to remember that it’s the same for individuals. The satisfied, fulfilled Christian life isn’t defined by past success or current business for the Lord. It’s all about living in a daily, connected relationship with him.
Take Away: My spiritual life isn’t defined by what I’ve done or am doing for the Lord. Rather, it’s all about my living in a current, abiding relationship with him.
Walking in the light
1John 1: If we walk in the light…
John the Apostle is a man who enjoyed a close relationship with Jesus. At the Last Supper he’s the one who leans against the Lord to ask about the betrayer. His unofficial title in history is “John the Beloved.” The short letters he wrote focus on God’s love being active in us. He says that as a person who walked with Jesus, knowing him intimately, he wants to tell us how we too can experience an intimate relationship with the Lord. The key, he says, is our “walking in the light.” Immediately he defines that for us. To walk in the light is to walk with God. Obviously, there’s a way of living that nurtures a close, abiding relationship with the Lord. That way of life has wonderful benefits for me. For one thing as I walk in the light I find myself in the company of God’s people. For another, it’s in that relationship that the blood of Jesus is applied to my life, making me clean of all my sin. As I live in the light, I join the multitudes that have been made clean by the work of Christ. John is remembered as “the beloved” and as I walk with the Lord I join countless others who can be rightly called “beloved.” What a wonderful prospect!
Take Away: It’s such an amazing blessing to be one of the “beloved.”
What God wanted all along
Hebrews 8: God put the old plan on the shelf.
Prior to Christ, the old plan was the only plan. It included laws written on stone, rules and regulations. It was characterized by failure, repentance, and trying harder. It actually never had a chance of setting people right with God and had more to do with letting people who wanted to “do it themselves” find out just how dissatisfying that kind of religion is. All along, the Lord had a superior way in mind. That better way started, not with rules and regulations, but with the Lord taking charge of salvation. His plan all along was to change people’s hearts so that their religion would be less religion and more relationship. There were plenty of hints that this was coming. The revered prophets of old were much more relationship oriented than they were rules oriented. Jeremiah, who’s quoted in this passage, longed for a day when God’s Law would be written inside a person rather than written on stone tablets. Their greatest king, David, was remembered, not as a man of rules but, instead, as a man after God’s heart. The rules had their place, but now they’ve been replaced by grace through Jesus Christ. Now, the old way is a museum exhibit. The new way is life, itself.
Take Away: Through Christ’s death we have abundant life – something rule keeping could never accomplish.
It’s all about Jesus
Hebrews 3: Take a good hard look at Jesus. He’s the centerpiece of everything we believe.
I have but a vague idea of what church was like for the original readers of this letter. Even if I can’t hear what’s being said I can walk into nearly any Christian worship event today and recognize elements I identify as “Christian.” Could I do the same if I found myself back in 50 A.D.? It’s a good question but I don’t have a good answer. How much of what we do is at the core of Christianity? Is preaching or singing or receiving the offering at the core? The writer of Hebrews reminds me today that Christianity is all about Christ. That must be the same whether I’m doing “high” or “low” church. In fact, if I make Christianity about church I’ve already missed the boat. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-church, in fact, I’m all for it. However, for Christianity to be Christian it has to be absolutely focused on Jesus Christ. Even beyond that, it’s a living, right-now, kind of focus. I’m not looking at some old, dusty story or some tried and true belief system. I’m looking to a person who’s alive and well and with whom I have an up-to-date relationship. Only in such a relationship can I be a real Christian.
Take Away: If we’re not careful, we make Christianity about behavior or beliefs or church…that’s all mistaken. Christianity is about Christ.
My close, personal Friend
2Corinthians 3: God is a living, personal presence, not a piece of chiseled stone.
Paul’s ancestors placed the weight of their hope in God on the Law given through Moses. And not just his ancestors, Paul, himself, starts off here. Then, out in the wilderness on the road to Damascus he has a personal, transforming encounter with the Lord that forever changes his life. Never again will he base his relationship with God on what was written on stone tablets hundreds of years earlier. Now, his relationship with the Lord is just that: a relationship. He doesn’t have to check a rulebook to know how things are between him and God. Rather, he enjoys a personal, intimate relationship with his Creator. This “face to face” level of faith is what the Apostle wants for his friends at Corinth and it’s what the Lord wants to have with you and me. Listen, don’t ever settle for a book of rules when you can personally know God. That’s the offer he makes to us in Christ, who not only came to die for us, but also came to live with and in us in the Person of the Holy Spirit. For Christians, the Bible isn’t a book of rules to be followed. Rather, it’s a map that leads us to God and then helps us live in his personal presence.
Take Away: Don’t settle for rules when the reality of God in your heart is abundantly available in Christ.
Luke 13: That’s when you’ll find yourselves out in the cold, strangers to grace.
I find this phrase, “strangers to grace” a chilling one. Jesus says that a lot of people think that because they hang out in the right places and associate themselves with the right people that they have it made. When the curtain of history falls they think they’ll be just fine and they’ll have a place at the table. The trouble is that their level of “knowing” falls far short of the requirement. To know Jesus is vastly superior to knowing about Jesus. His disciples live in a personal relationship with him. They don’t just hang out in the vicinity but, instead, enjoy a spiritual intimacy with our Lord. I can’t think of anything worse than depending on “proximity religion” when a personal, cherished, living relationship is available. It’s only at that level, as I live as a friend of the Lord, that I enjoy being a “friend of grace.”
Take Away: I want to be well acquainted with God’s grace in my life.
The cry of God’s people
Ezekiel 11: I’ll give you a new heart. I’ll put a new spirit in you.
Judah’s problem isn’t poor leadership or powerful enemies. They aren’t ignorant of God’s desires for them and they aren’t the unwitting victims of circumstance. They are where they are because they’ve rebelled against God. Through their history, time and time again, they’ve followed a cycle of failure, judgment, repentance, and restoration — only to have it all start again. Now many of them have been exiled from the land God gave them. Back in Jerusalem sin reigns and soon the result of that sin will be the total destruction of their beloved city. The Lord says he’s going to break the cycle by changing their hearts. The result will be a people who love God and love his ways. Many Christians can identify with the cycle of failure we see when we journey with these ancient Israelites. We too have been trapped in a cycle of failure, judgment, repentance, and restoration. As we read the promise of a “new heart” our spirits respond with longing for that kind of relationship with God. These words stir us and challenge us to let God have his way in our lives even if that means we need a spiritual “heart transplant.” The result is a healthy spiritual life: “You’ll be my people! I’ll be your God!”
Take Away: Only the Lord can do what must be done in us and he’ll only do it as we allow him to and cooperate with him in that work.
Jeremiah 2: But my people forget me. Day after day after day they never give me a thought.
Jeremiah says people think about the things that are important to them. Women don’t forget that they own beautiful jewelry. Guys don’t forget that the NFL playoffs are on. Political junkies don’t overlook the New Hampshire primaries. Jeremiah says that God’s charge against his people is that they’ve forgotten him. They live their days without giving God much thought, taking him for granted while focusing on things that really do matter to them. It isn’t so much that they’ve made a decision that God doesn’t matter. They’ve just concentrated on other things and neglected the spiritual. Now, they can go for days without giving the Lord any thought at all. I imagine that all that can change in an instant. When trouble comes they can get all “spiritual” in a hurry. God doesn’t like being treated that way. He created us to live in constant fellowship with himself. Apparently, he takes it personally when I can spend a day immersed in other things without giving him a thought. With that in mind, I must discipline my mind to keep God on my mind. Lord, let it never be said of me that I can wander through my day without giving you a thought.
Take Away: I must discipline my mind to keep the Lord on my mind.
Being reconnected to God
Isaiah 49: I form you and use you to reconnect the people with me.
The man of God looks to the coming of the Messiah and his words are filled with hope. The Promised One’s coming will impact lives as nothing else could. The broken relationship that exists between the Creator and the Creation will be repaired as God comes to us in the Messiah. The greatest need of humanity is that this broken relationship be repaired. Everything that’s messed up about us is messed up because we’ve become disconnected from the Source of Life. The solution isn’t that we try harder, or figure out how to fix things, or somehow appease the Lord. While being forgiven of our sins and receiving the promise of heaven is a part of God’s intention for us, it’s only a part. We’re created to live in fellowship with God and that fellowship is broken. We broke it and in so doing, broke ourselves. Only he can provide a solution to this problem. When I receive this “Re-connecter” into my heart, cooperate with him day by day, and let him do his work in my life his mission is being completed in me.
Take Away: We’re created to live in fellowship with the Lord.
Soaring like eagles
Isaiah 40: Those who wait upon God get fresh strength. They spread their wings and soar like eagles.
Isaiah says that when everything else gives way that “God lasts.” He doesn’t lose interest and he doesn’t grow weary. Everything else can, and will, fail, either intentionally or unintentionally but God never fails. Beyond that, God’s people draw strength from him. We’re still human and because of that we face the frailties of humanity. Still, as we trust in the Lord and lean on him we find strength where it matters the most. The strength to soar like an eagle isn’t strength to win races or ball games. It isn’t strength to never fail in the events of life. It’s spiritual strength to live in a victorious relationship with our Creator even in the face of our humanity. When Isaiah talks about people who run and don’t get tired he’s talking about the race of life. The body wears out and begins to fall apart. Physically, we spend 25 years or so gaining strength and then 50 years giving back, little by little, what we’ve gained. Spiritually though, as we “wait upon God” we finish the race with all the vigor we had at the beginning of it because he renews us day by day. It’s a bit of a paradox, but very often the people we know who on the outside seem to have the least strength are the very ones who “soar like eagles” in spirit.
Take Away: The people of the Lord draw strength from him.