What do you mean it’s an elephant?

There’s an old story of three blind men who are led to different parts of an elephant. One feels the tail and thinks it’s a paint brush. One feels the leg and thinks it’s a tree. One feels the ear and thinks it is a large leaf. By the information that each person had they made their best judgement. But when they got together and compared information they realized that none of them had the full picture. Then they worked together to find the head which clearly revealed that there was an elephant in the room.

This Sunday, we will begin a journey through the First Testament in our Bibles, exploring 14 different passages. There are common themes in these texts, and all of them are themes included in John’s Gospel (which we will spend the winter and spring studying). To put it another way, we are surveying the First Testament with an eye toward passages that inform our reading of John’s Gospel. Some of these texts will be familiar, others not so much. Some are confusing, some may seem irrelevant to our lives today, and some have been the point of much controversy, both inside and outside the Church.

One of the things I’ve noticed about some of these First Testament stories is that we learn them as children, such as VBS or Sunday School, and then never really consider them in depth as adults. When we think of the story of Moses and the burning bush (which isn’t actually burning…), our mind goes to the flannel graph images and summaries of our childhood Bible class teachers.

I am so thankful for the teachers that taught me to love the Bible! They taught very difficult, adult Bible stories in a way that my childhood brain could comprehend and appreciate. But when they taught me to love the Bible, they taught me to always study the Bible as well. And what I’ve discovered, especially with this portion of the Bible, is that we rarely spend the time studying these texts that we should. And when we do actually study them, or hear them taught at an adult level, there’s a certain shock involved. We remember the faithfulness of people like Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Miriam. We forget that they were also drunkards, liars, murderers, and extremely jealous. The stories are far more complex than our childhood memories convey. And when we only focus on the children’s story version of the text, we can miss the point of the story altogether.

The issue is not with the texts themselves, but how we read the texts. All of us come to Scripture with existing biases. I read Scripture through the eyes of a white, middle class, married father of three, recently moved to southwest Missouri from West Texas. That is my perspective. Someone who is middle eastern, impoverished, single, living in Europe will see things differently than I do simply because of their background and surroundings. They view the world differently than I do, and that’s a good thing! Just read the story of the prodigal son(s) with someone from an impoverished country. Most of us read that story not realizing that a famine plays an important role in the story, and in the repentance of the son. People who have suffered from famine pick up on that right away.

Proverbs reminds us that there is wisdom in having “many advisors.” If I am looking at something alone, I only see things from my point of view. But if I talk about it with others with different views, I can begin to see more of the picture.

Some have suggested that addressing controversial texts does no good. “It means what it says and says what it means, and that settles it!” But it doesn’t settle things, does it? The greatest clarity of Scripture I have ever found has come when discussing the text with people who have differing views. Though I may not agree with everything they see, I always walk away with a greater understanding of their view, my view, and most importantly the Word of God. Just this week, a new detail stood out to me in Genesis because I was talking to someone about the text. I’ve been on a mission to re-read Genesis 50 times. I’ve spent considerable time with this book, and I noticed something I had never considered before simply because I was willing to sit down and discuss the text with someone. Basically, I missed the point of the text and only discovered this by talking about it.

I have no doubt that God will do powerful things for us over the next 14 weeks, and through us as we study his word together. I also believe that all of us will discover things that we haven’t seen in these texts before. My prayer is we listen to the voices of “many advisors,” reexamine our view in light of others, but most importantly, we consider what the Scripture actually says, and grow in the grace and wisdom of the Lord. And when we do this cooperatively in community, maybe then we will better identify the elephant in the room.

See you Sunday!

Why does God allow bad things to happen?

Why does God allow bad things to happen?

That’s a question that gets asked frequently and if I’m honest, I struggle with an appropriate answer to that question.

Why did my friend die tragically even though he followed Jesus?

Why is my friend barely hanging on to life even though he’s a pastor leading people to Jesus?

Why did that child die even though we know Jesus loves her?

I truly wish I had the ability to understand the universe as God does, to know how everything works out, ultimately for good.

But I don’t. I can’t always see it.

What I do know, through the storm, when sorrow like sea billows roll, is this:

I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:
Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”
The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the LORD.

Lamentations 3:19-26 NIV

We sing songs around that part of Lamentations…probably the best known section of the lament because of that. But the lamenter continues:

For no one is cast off
by the Lord forever.
Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
so great is his unfailing love.
For he does not willingly bring affliction
or grief to anyone.

Lamentations 3:31-33 NIV

Did you notice that last part? He does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone. God isn’t diabolical and just eager to bring destruction on people. He doesn’t willingly bring these troubles to anyone.

I still don’t understand why we suffer, but I know that it’s not something God’s wants. He doesn’t willingly want us to suffer these afflictions and grief. And I do believe that his unfailing love brings compassion. Yes there is grief, yes there is suffering, but not every day is that way. Not every light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train. Sometimes it’s his compassion made new every morning.

Trust in the Lord. Hope in the Lord. Rest in the Lord. His mercies are new every morning, and he does not willingly bring affliction and grief.

May the Lord grant us all peace today.

These Old Boots

These old boots are my favorite pair, though they are not my most comfortable boots. They are my favorite, even though I don’t wear them daily. They are my favorite, even when they make my feet hurt. Why, you might ask?

Though I can’t remember what year I bought them, I know I’ve had them at least 20 years. I graduated from high school wearing these boots. They are part of my memories and decision-making that influenced the course of my life. I wore them while driving my first and favorite car (1967 Ford Mustang). I wore them in college as I dated my fiance, performed recitals and concerts, traveled to Germany for mission work, and stood at the altar marrying my wife.

I’ve worn these boots as a band director, receiving awards, performing some of the best music with some of the most wonderful people. I’ve worn these boots playing in bands with friends of all kinds. They’ve been part of music festivals, church services, jam sessions, and our beloved Corona-concerts.

They have been part of every ministry I’ve ever worked in. They’ve been on my feet for every wedding I’ve ever officiated, and every funeral I’ve ever preached. These old boots have been torn up, patched up, and polished so many times I’ve lost count. Yet they still serve me well every time I put them on my feet.

I guess these are my favorite boots for what they help me remember. You see, these are my favorite boots, because God has led me through so much while I was wearing them. They aren’t special, they aren’t magical, they aren’t particularly valuable. But they remind me of my journey through life with God.

To remember is one of the major calls of Deuteronomy. Moses wants the people to remember what God has done for them. His hope is if the people remember their God’s provision and blessing, they will seek to bless Him with their faithfulness.

“…do not be afraid…remember well what the LORD your God did…”

Deuteronomy 7:18 NIV

“Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.”

Deuteronomy 8:2 NIV

“But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.”

Deuteronomy 8:18 NIV

“Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.”

Deuteronomy 24:18 NIV

Moses makes the point that we should not merely bounce through life day after day like a pinball, nor keep a checklist of rules. Instead, we remember. We should remember what God has done in the past, and expect his faithfulness and provision in the future. But we must remember to walk daily with him.

We must do this now more than ever. With the ever-increasing craziness of this world, it’s easy to get distracted and forget why we are here. We must remember. This is why every Sunday we stop to remember.

“This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

Luke 22:19 NIV

Remembering once a week isn’t enough, though. If we spend an hour a week remembering Christ and his sacrifice, there are 167 other hours each week that we forget.

There are so many ways to remember what God through Jesus has done for us. These old boots are simply old boots. But they help me remember.

So what helps you remember?

Unless You Repent…

“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Luke 13:2-5 NIV

DEVOTIONAL

Some followers of Jesus in Luke 13 seem to conclude that bad things happen only to bad people. Jesus is quick to remind them that judging others will not improve their situation. Casting blame and searching for reasons for every bad thing that happens simply doesn’t help. We stand before God, not compared to others, but based on our own heart.

Twice in these few verses, we are given the same statement: “But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” My experience has been Christians often encourage others (and theirselves) to feel sorry about what they’ve done…show remorse for past actions. But that’s not what Jesus is saying here; the statement is not simply about feeling guilty about what has already been done. Jesus wants us to deal with our past and make changes moving forward.

Christ is calling us to not compare our situations with others…that creates a false standard… nor do we ignore the sins of the past and move on. Instead, we must face our wrongs and make changes in the present, so that our future is in accordance with God’s will.

Don’t ignore the past, but don’t get trapped in it either. We must not turn a blind eye to the ugly side of our past and allow those wrongs to continue. Instead, we compare our lives to Christ, make amends to God and others we have harmed by our sin, and then change our actions and systems to promote righteousness and justice moving forward.

This is exactly what David models for us in Psalm 51. After David committed murder to cover up his sexual wickedness toward Bathsheba, Nathan the prophet points out David’s sin. David’s repentance is captured in the words of Psalm 51. Read it slowly and notice how David addresses the past sins, makes amends to God in the present by seeking forgiveness, and then looks ahead at future actions he will do to change the course of his life.

And now the hard part. Take an honest look at your life. Is there anything in your past you haven’t dealt with? Are there any sins that still linger in the present? Have you asked God for forgiveness and direction going forward? Have you changed your actions so this sin doesn’t continue to plague you in the future? Good intentions are well and good, “but unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

PRAYER

Lord, convict us. Show us our sins and guide us to deal with the past before looking to the future. Help us remove everything from our lives that is sinful, remove our judgmental spirit, and help us reflect Christ, and Christ alone. Forgive us, Lord, for passing judgment on others, assuming their guilt, and presuming our innocence. May our repentance, our faith, and our fellowship show the world your greatness and love. Through the name and power of our Lord and Savior, Jesus. Amen.

Paul: The Offensive Apostle?

Paul was offensive. But probably not in the way you think.

We’re looking at the Ephesian letter each Sunday morning during our sermon time, and Wednesday nights we’re diving a little deeper into questions from those sermons, as well as trying to get our minds wrapped around Paul’s way of thinking. We spent our last two class sessions talking about “the powers” that Paul writes about in this letter (Eph. 1:19-21, 2:1-2, 3:10-11, 6:12, etc.)

Without reteaching those classes here, let me summarize by saying that Paul, his audience, and those who wrote the Bible as a whole recognized that there are many powers at play in this world that are either good, or evil. And when we get tangled up in serving those powers rather than serving Christ, it’s a huge problem. Though you and I probably aren’t tempted to wander into a pagan temple, we do dedicate a lot of time and resources to serving our own comfort, entertainment, hobbies, etc. Paul would refer to these things, as well as other spiritual and cosmic forces, as “the powers.” And sadly, sometimes we do serve the powers over and above serving Christ.

One of those powers is culture. For Paul’s original audience, your home would be structured in a certain way because the powers that be have mandated it. Let’s look at a couple of examples from names you will recognize that will teach us how a household should be structured in Paul’s time.

“Seeing then that the state is made up of households, before speaking of the state we must speak of the management of the household. The parts of household management correspond tot he persons who compose the household, and a complete household consists of slaves and freemen. Now we should begin by examining everything in its fewest possible elements; and teh first and fewest possible parts of a family are master and slave, husband and wife, father and children.”

Aristotle, Politics, 1:3

Aristotle makes it clear that the “state” must be run a certain way to survive and function properly, and the key relationships within the home are “master and slave, husband and wife, father and children.” Paul addresses these exact relationships in Ephesians 6, but I want us to understand what “the powers” of the day believe concerning the household. Let’s turn once again to Aristotle for clarity.

“Of houshold management we have seen that there are three parts: one is the rule of a master over slaves, which has been discussed already, another of a father, and the third of a husband. A husband and father, we saw, rules over wife and children, both free, but the rule differs; the rule over his children being royal, and the ruler over his wife is based on natural constitution. For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the elder and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature.”

Aristotle, Politics, 1:12

The Jewish historian Josephus takes a slightly different view than Aristotle.

“The woman…is in all things inferior to the man. Let her accordingly be obedient, not for her humiliation, but that she may be directed; for God has given authority to the man.”

Josephus, Against Apion, 2:24

Now that we know the views held by “the powers” of Paul’s day, let’s hear the Holy Spirit’s wisdom on how a household should be viewed, as relayed to us by the Apostle.

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

Paul, Ephesians 5:21 NIV

As I said before, Paul was offensive, but not in the way you think. The idea that everyone in the household would submit to the other because of Christ is scandalous! This flies in the face of the structure of the Empire. According to “the powers” of the day, everything is for the man’s benefit. Wives, children, and slaves all serve at the pleasure of the man of the house and only exist to bring him comfort. Nobody structures their relationships this way! But for Paul, it’s crucial to understanding and living out the Gospel in our lives.

Authoritarian hierarchy is the way of the powers. But that’s not God’s way. That’s not Paul’s understanding of the world. All household codes were written to the male explaining how they should rule/control those in their household. But Paul takes a different approach. Paul will speak directly to women, children, and slaves, instantly elevating their status! And notice how Paul speaks: first to the wife, then to the husband. First to the children, then to the father. First to the slave, and then to the master.

Do you see how upside down Paul’s approach to the household is when compared to the household dictated by “the powers?” Paul’s words are shocking and scandalous in an empire that is sustained by keeping power through the structure of the home. When the house operates like the Empire, you support and perpetuate the Empire.

But that’s not the way of Christ. That’s not the way of God’s Kingdom. That’s not the leading of the Holy Spirit. Paul tells his readers that every relationship with every man, woman, and child, regardless of class, or status, is filtered through the understanding that we all submit to one another because of Christ. This is the Christian household. This is life in the Spirit.

Join us Sunday at 8:30am or 10:00am at Countryside Christian Church as we worship together, eat the Lord’s Supper together, and unpack these relationships further. You can also join our 10:00 service online.

In the meantime, consider what it means to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

Tov Meod No More

Eden was a handcrafted dwelling place for both God and humans. In this perfect space, both the Creator and the created could exist together. Since God created everything tov meod (Hebrew for very good), this would include his creation of, and decision to place the tree of life and tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden. 

I have heard it taught humans should be ignorant of evil, that we should avoid knowledge of it. This seems contrary to God’s design, because he specifically put these trees in the Garden in proximity to humans. To take it a step further, Eve and Adam did have at least some knowledge of good and evil before eating from the tree. What I mean is they understood anything in the Garden was good to eat and enjoy, except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

So where did they get this basic knowledge of good and evil? From God! God never says they should have no knowlege of evil (afterall he told them what evil would be in this case). And there was nothing evil or sinful about the tree itself, after all, God deemed it tov meod. What God did, however, was govern the use and access to these trees. They are not evil, but interacting with them can only be done on God’s terms.

It seems to me that this illustration in the Garden teaches us that we should not seek to determine good and evil for ourselves. It seems God had a plan for the trees and the humans, but the desire of the humans to bypass God is the ultimate sin. Rather than submit to God’s wisdom and knowledge, functioning in their created role, they chose to usurp God by attempting to become like him. The saddest part is the humans were already like God, created in his image. Had they walked with God and obeyed him, perhaps those trees could have been used for their proper purpose. Unfortunately, we will never know this side of eternity.

It strikes me as spiritually significant that God has created tools that are useful for his purposes, and has placed these tools within our reach. But these tools can be catastrophic to us if we misuse them. Life is full of objects that can be simultaneously tov, but harmful.

Let’s use an oversimplified example. God created humans with speech abilities. God created this “tool” for humans because he wanted us to speak. But if misused, our speech can cause catastrophic damage to others and ourselves.

Scripture repeatedly calls us to gain wisdom! But wisdom by itself isn’t enough. Simply having wisdom can have catastrophic results (just look at the story of Solomon!) What is important is where we find our wisdom, and how we apply it. Sex is a beautiful gift from God, but when it occurs beyond God’s intended purpose, it no longer functions in a good way.

We must rely upon God’s wisdom and trust his leading in navigating life. If we rely on our own abilities, or lean on our own knowledge and reasoning, we too will fall victim to the sin of the Garden.

Identity Crisis

Old habits die hard.

Benjamin Franklin – London Chronicle, Dec. 1758

Franklin was right, you know? For some reason, no matter the effort put forth, our habits tend to creep back into the reality of our lives. Though we try to put them to death, they often resurrect themselves in new and ugly ways.

This is not a new phenomenon. A quick look at Genesis shows that we still struggle with the same sinful habits as our predecessors. We still want to be God rather than submit to him. We lie, we cheat, we steal, we mistreat others, we constantly fall into idolatry…the list goes on and on. And if we’re not careful, our “old habits” can become our identity. That, however, is a topic for another time.

One of the “old habits” that seemed to plague the early church was their identity, specifically how they viewed themselves and one another. For a very long time, membership in the family of God looked a certain way. But after Jesus and the Holy Spirit do their work, we find our identity in a different way. Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. So how do we identify a member of the family of God? That will take a little unpacking.

This was easy for God’s people when their identity was marked by Torah observance, particularly the identity laws of the Torah. These were laws governing how you dressed, how you wear your hair, and the types of food you eat. Another one of these clearly identifying characteristics would be male circumcision. This act was started with Abraham, and passed down through Moses. Circumcision wasn’t expected of Gentiles, except when they wanted to join the Israelite community in the Passover celebration. To participate in Passover, one must identify themselves as part of the family of God through the circumcision of all males in the household.

This “old habit” of identifying others by way of these laws caused some problems for the earliest followers of Christ. Even after the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, they continued to identify members of God’s family through these identity laws in addition to their shared faith in Jesus.

Fast forward to the coming of the Sprit at Pentecost. Though many were baptized, this group was made up of Jews from the family of Abraham that were in town for the Pentecost feast. Even though they were from very diverse areas, those hearing the Gospel and being baptized were Jews, or converts to Judaism. In short, these new followers of Jesus were identified by their faith, and they were all circumcised. It was still easy to identify these new believers.

The Holy Spirit makes it clear that he wants to include Gentiles in God’s family as well, so Peter baptizes an entire family Gentiles. We see the Holy Spirit moving to include Samaritans and an Ethiopian eunuch. It becomes very clear through the working of the Holy Spirit that everyone is welcome in the family of God!

The problem stems from how to identify these new believers in Jesus who were not already part of the family of God. What must they do to be included? Is faith in Jesus enough to get you into the family, or must they be circumcised and follow these identity laws of the Torah as well?

Acts 15 shows this identity struggle come to a head. Some Pharisees believed that in order for the Gentiles to be part of God’s family, they must also follow the identity laws of the Torah. In their mind, they weren’t part of the family of God through faith in Jesus alone. Paul and Peter, however, saw things differently. Just take a look at Peter’s speech before the gathering.

The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

Acts 15:6-11 NIV

For Peter, it is clear that keeping these identity laws and finding our identity in them is not what saves. Jew and Gentile alike are saved only by the grace of Jesus. This was their new identity!

Paul elaborates on this further when dealing with a similar issue in the Galatian churches. What identifies one as a member of God’s family?

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

Galatians 3:26-27 NIV

For Paul and the rest of the New Testament authors, it is our faith in Jesus Christ, carried out through baptism, and marked with the transformation and empowerment of the Holy Spirit that identifies us as members of the family of God. Our identity as children of God is found through our faith and baptism in Christ, and the indwelling, empowerment, and transformation of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

We no longer wear our old identity when we become a new creation clothed in Christ and filled with his Spirit.

This is what our faith enacted through baptism does for us. This is what happens when the Holy Spirit enters into our lives. We gain a new identity in Christ as children of God. We become part of God’s family!

Don’t look for your identity anywhere other than your relationship with Christ. Don’t worry about how the world identifies you. Focus rather on how God identifies you. Are you one of his children? Have you clothed yourself with Christ through baptism? Are you living a Spirit-filled life? If not, then you really need to work on your identity.

Christ Includes Everyone

The Spirit leads where He wants, and it doesn’t always match our plans.

In Acts 6 we read about the Hellenistic Jewish widows being slighted in the distribution of food. The suggestion agreed upon by all was to appoint 7 Hellenists to carry out that ministry, men who were full of the Spirit and wisdom. Within the list of 7 we encounter Stephen and Philip in other portions of Luke’s story. Today we look at Philip’s missionary career, likely something he had never planned to do.

After the first century “meals on wheels” problem became known, the Twelve continued with their ministry of preaching and prayer. This was their calling. The Seven were called to distribute food. And yet, it’s only a few verses later that Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, is moved to preach about Jesus. The Spirit leads where He wants, and it doesn’t always match our plans. Stephen’s willingness to follow the Spirit leads to his death, and great persecution against the Church. But God used that persecution in order to spread the Gospel to other areas!

We next encounter Philip not distributing food, but preaching! The Spirit leads where He wants, and it doesn’t always match our plans. The persecution drove him into Samaria, and there, like Stephen and Jesus before him, began to perform signs such as casting out demons and healing the paralyzed and lame. Many men and women were baptized because Philip followed the leading of the Spirit to go wherever he was called. And wherever he went, he preached the Gospel of Jesus.

Next, we find the Spirit leading Philip to a road headed southwest out of Jerusalem. There Philip is told to talk to a man riding in a chariot. All we really know about this man is that he was an Ethiopian (likely a black-skinned man from what the Old Testament refers to as the region of Cush), he was the treasurer for the queen, and he was a eunuch.

There’s a lot to unpack here as we consider the theme of the disciples being “witnesses…to the ends of the earth.” This treasurer was likely a “God fearer,” similar to Cornelius. He had been to Jerusalem, but as a eunuch he would not have been allowed to enter the Temple. We could chase this rabbit a long way down the rabbit hole, but suffice it to say this was God’s way of telling Israel not to adopt the practice of castration in their communities. More on this in a moment.

For the treasurer to travel all the way to Jerusalem shows just how deep his faith is. I wonder how he felt being prohibited from entering the Temple upon arrival? Did he know he would be kept from joining the assembly before his journey, and traveled anyway? Or was this a surprise to him? For Luke, these details were not needed, and we are left to wonder.

What we do know is the treasurer had a copy (or partial copy) of the Isaiah scroll. Specifically, he was reading from the Greek translation of Isaiah 53:7-8.

This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:
“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”

Acts 8:32-33 NIV

Now we don’t know every detail about what Philip told this Ethiopian treasurer. We know that he started with Isaiah 53 and began to preach the Gospel of Jesus, and his message must have included baptism. But I would guess that Philip also had this Ethiopian foreigner, this eunuch, read Isaiah 56.

Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.”
And let no eunuch complain,
“I am only a dry tree.”
For this is what the Lord says:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—
to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.
And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord
to minister to him,
to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it
and who hold fast to my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations.” The Sovereign Lord declares—
he who gathers the exiles of Israel:
“I will gather still others to them
besides those already gathered.”

Isaiah 56:3-8 NIV

This is the same passage Jesus referenced when he overturned the tables in the Temple. This very practice of excluding “differents” is what so offended Jesus that he pronounced condemnation and destruction upon the Temple. The words of God recorded in Isaiah 56 remind us of God’s plan all along. It was never about God blessing one people group, but rather bringing blessing and salvation to all nations by working through one nation. God is not in the exclusion business. He wants everyone to be saved! The Spirit leads where He wants, and it doesn’t always match our plans.

Whereas the Temple authorities would have prohibited the Ethiopian eunuch from joining their assembly, Philip lays no such barrier.

As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”

Acts 8:36 NIV

What can stand in the way of my being baptized? Absolutely nothing! All are welcome in Christ’s Kingdom! He died for all people! And his table is open for all!

So what are you waiting for? What’s keeping you on the outside? Most people I’ve met think that they will be excluded, or not welcomed because of their past. They believe that even though they want to follow Christ and join his family, they won’t be accepted. But that’s not how our God operates! Our Savior doesn’t just save good people (and none of us are good), he saves messed up people like you and me!

Jesus died to save those who struggle with sexual sins, idolatry, homosexuality, theft, greed, drunkenness, foul language, and every other imaginable sin. As a matter of fact, that list describes the makeup of the early church! The difference is they were washed and made clean through Christ. They didn’t stay in their sins because someone welcomed them and taught them about Christ. You’ll never look into the eyes of someone Christ didn’t die for. You’ll never find someone God doesn’t want to save. So why would we ever turn someone away?

If you haven’t joined a church family, why not? Become a member of a community of Christ today! Get plugged in and get about the business of welcoming others into the family!

And if you haven’t accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior, and you haven’t committed your life to him, then the words of this Ethiopian eunuch apply to you. What can stand in the way of you being baptized? Absolutely nothing!

Join God’s family today!

God Has Left The Building

God works through a variety of people in a variety of places, including outside of the church building.

In his second volume (Acts), Luke tells us that his first volume (Gospel of Luke) recorded “…all that Jesus began to do and to teach.” The story of Acts, then, tells us all that Jesus continued to do and to teach by means of the Holy Spirit through his Church.

One of the first things we notice is what happened to Jesus in volume one happens to his Body in volume two. Jesus lives by the Spirit, and now Jesus sends his Spirit to his followers. Jesus preaches the Kingdom of God, and now his followers proclaim Jesus as King. Jesus healed the sick and lame, and now his followers do the same. Essentially, Luke is using these examples to call his readers to be like Jesus in their context.

One of the clearest examples of being like Jesus is the trial and martyrdom of Stephen. Just like Jesus, Stephen is a man full of the Spirit, full of grace and power, and performs great wonders and signs. And just like Jesus, Stephen faced opposition that sought to put him to death based on false charges and testimony. And just like Jesus, he refused to back down from his mission.

If you’ve never read Stephen’s sermon to the Sanhedrin, take a few minutes and read Acts 7. It’s a wonderful summary of how God’s presence and action has never been restricted to any one building, land, or people. Stephen reminds us that God has worked in many places and in many ways through many people.

We are reminded that God called Abraham out of the land of the Chaldeans to Harran, then to the promised land. He worked in and through Egypt during the famine under Joseph. He worked with and through Moses while in Egpyt, and in Midian. He dwelt on Sinai while Israel rebelled in idolatry at the base of the mountain. God dwelt in the Tabernacle throughout the wilderness, and even when Israel finally settled in the promised land. He then dwelt in the temple of Solomon.

What Stephen so skillfully does is point out from the Scriptures that God’s power and actions are not tied to one building. It never has been, and never will be. God works through a variety of people in a variety of places, including outside of the church building.

Finally, he gives us one last reminder from God’s own mouth that his presence and action isn’t limited to “houses made by human hands.” Stephen does all of this through Scripture, reminding the Sanhedrin that Moses predicted a prophet would come that would be like him. That “Righteous One” is the very Jesus they had condemned to death. He then calls this assembly out on their sinful resistance of the Holy Spirit and rejection of Jesus.

And they killed him.

It’s always a tragedy when people ignore the word of God, but even more so when it leads to violence. Stephen’s defense is nothing but quoted Scripture of how God has worked in the past, and a claim that he works the same way today. He points out the inconsistency of the Sanhedrin by denying the Holy Spirit’s working in the world, and how their ancestors ignored the Word of God as well.

The rejection of Stephen’s testimony was a rejection of God’s work in the world, just as it was when they rejected Jesus. God works through a variety of people in a variety of places, including outside of the church building. And that was a message that the Sannhedrin refused to hear.

Stephen’s death shouldn’t be looked at as just a tragedy (and indeed it was a tragedy.) When evil men intended to silence this movement of Jesus’ disciples through violence, God used their actions to bring salvation “to the ends of the earth,” just like he did through Jesus. In short, God chose to work through a variety of people in a variety of places, and this event put things into motion outside of the church building (Temple).

You see, the intense persecution that broke out because of Stephen’s Spirit-fueled sermon caused Christians to flee Jerusalem. And while we might think this is a bad thing, God again used it powerfully to take the Gospel into a variety of places!

Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.

Luke 8:4 NIV

Jesus had already told his disciples that they were to be witnesses in Jerusalem (which they were doing quite well), but also in Judea, Samaria, and everywhere else in the world (which they were not doing). This persecution that no one would want is the very thing God uses to spread the saving message of Jesus to non-Jews outside of Jersualem.

Essentially, we Gentiles are followers of Jesus today because this tiny Jesus movement faced persecution in the years following the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, but continued to talk about Jesus wherever they went. God worked through a variety of people in a variety of places, including outside of the church building, and you and I are here as a result.

The seat of power in Jerusalem that ignored the workings of God were completely destroyed. Because the religious authorities in Jerusalem rejected the prophets of God, Jesus the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit amidst God’s people, the religious establishment was completely destroyed. But God’s mission and God’s people were not! They continued with the mission set before them, and we are here today as a testimony of their faithfulness!

We often forget that God’s mission all along was to create a people for himself that would lead all people to Him. When God called Abraham, he promised that this plan was to bless all nations. We forget that God wanted Israel to be a kingdom of priests to proclaim his goodness and glory before all nations in hopes of reaching them. We forget that the law called Israel to be a people who looked after the foreigner because God loved them too! We forget that through the Isaiah God ordained his Temple as a house of prayer for all nations, and through Jeremiah proclaimed that all nations would be present in his assemblies. We forget that the Great Commission of the New Testament was a command to carry out the Great Commission of the Old Testament.

God works through a variety of people in a variety of places, including outside of the church building.

If we’re honest, we would have to admit that we have largely lost the fire and the mission that Israel and the early church were called to. North American churches have enjoyed such a comfortable existence for so long that we have forgotten our mission. We really like things the way they are, and we’re quick to complain any time we are inconvenienced in the slightest with regard to our religious freedom. At the same time we’re painfully slow in spreading the Gospel of Jesus to the lost around us. This seems to be the opposite of what God has called his people to do!

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m thankful for our freedoms, and I deeply love our churches. I’m also keenly aware that our freedom has led to complacency and atrophy in the American Church, while intense persecution and violent oppression has simultaneously led to an explosion of faith and church growth in areas like China, Iran, and India.

I’m thankful for our freedom. I’m thankful for the peace we enjoy. But we must never equate our freedom of religion with the fulfillment of the mission God has set before us. God works through a variety of people in a variety of places, including outside of the church building. Therefore, we must be willing to get outside of our comfort zones and get about the mission God has called us to!

God has blessed us with the freedom to assemble, yet we often don’t.

God has blessed us with freedom of speech, yet we rarely use it to tell others about Jesus.

God has blessed us with peace, yet we forget that we are in the midst of a spiritual war.

In many ways, our freedoms have killed our mission.

Stephen’s sermon is true. God works through a variety of people in a variety of places, including outside of the church building. And every time God’s people get complacent and lose the mission God has set before them, his Spirit moves through his faithful people to work in a new way.

If we are not on fire for the mission of sharing the Gospel of Jesus with the lost, God’s mission will be carried out without us. God’s Spirit will move his faithful people outside of the walls and structures to carry out the mission regardless of the cost. And instead of wringing their hands at every inconvenience and setback, God’s faithful people will view these things as new opportunities to do God’s will in their community. God works through a variety of people in a variety of places, including outside of the church building. Are we willing to join Him in his work?

Acts 7-8 remind us that in a world that values complacency and comfort, we are called to be like Jesus. It will always seem easier to keep things the way they are and to ignore the leading of the Spirit. It will always seem easier to just assemble with our own people and ignore the lost around us. It will seem easier to define our own version of faithfulness and redefine the mission God has set before us. But when has God ever called us to do the easy thing?

The Open Table

The presence of Jesus is amplified and recognized when we most fully live like him in the world.

As Luke draws volume 1 of his Gospel to a close (Acts being volume 2), his focus shifts slightly from what Jesus does in the world (vol. 1) to what his disciples do in the world as his representatives (vol. 2). There are, however, a few stories between that overlap. Jesus has risen from the dead and appears to the disciples intermittently while his disciples learn to continue ministering without the constant physical presence of their Messiah. My favorite of these stories is the road to Emmaus.

As I work through this text in preparation for preaching it this Sunday, I’m struck by two major points. The first being that the disciples have lost all hope because of the crucifixion. They watched as their friend and Messiah was arrested, beaten, and executed, and now they are at a loss for what to do. The story is clear that these two disciples were leaving the rest of the group in Jerusalem, presumably to return to their pre-discipleship life. Listen to their words of despair and confusion. After asking this stranger (Jesus) about his knowledge of the previous week’s events, Jesus responds:

“What things?” he asked. “About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”

Luke 24:19-24 NIV (emphasis added)

Their confusion and hopelessness is clear. “We had hoped…” indicates that to them this is no longer a reality, and “…they did not see Jesus” leads us to the confusion and disbelief. Yes, the women saw it and told about it, yes, the men went there, but there was no Jesus.

The grief and dismay that surrounded this event is effecting these disciples deeply. They had been told repeatedly that Jesus would be crucified, but would rise again (Luke 9:21-27, 9:43-45, 18:31-34). This news, however, was so shocking and contrary to their own notions about Jesus’ ministry that they simply didn’t make sense. And now, at this moment on the road to Emmaus, the teaching they had received was absent from their minds and hearts.

The solution? Jesus points them back to Scripture!

“Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

Luke 24:26-27 NIV

In the midst of grief, dismay, and hopelessness, Jesus points the disciples back to Scripture (read the Old Testament). This is of enormous significance. He could have simply revealed who he was to them and restored their faith through the physical sight of himself. Yet Jesus doesn’t operate this way. Instead, he points these disciples back to the timeless texts of their Bibles (Old Testament). These texts established their faith as children, and Jesus uses them to clarify what God was doing in the world through Jesus.

The second thing that stands out to me is how they recognize Jesus. Now that their hope and faith is restored through a message from Scripture, Jesus is going to continue down the road and leave the disciples. Instead, the disciples invite this man (who is still a stranger to them at this point) to stay and eat with them.

Table fellowship is a huge theme in Luke’s Gospel! Over and over again we read of Jesus eating with those marginalized by society. Most of his criticism from the religious establishment came as a direct result of who Jesus ate with. What we often miss is that eating with someone was a sign of acceptance of that person. When you eat with someone you now share a bond, a commitment to one another. This is why it’s all the more shocking that Judas betrayed Jesus on the same night that they dined together in the upper room.

On the way to Emmaus, the disciples renewed faith leads them to act like Jesus. Notice that they welcome the stranger and open their table to him. And it is at that moment, when they imitate Jesus through the open table that they recognize their Lord.

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight.

Luke 24:30-31 NIV

When the disciples were hopeless and their faith almost gone, Jesus points them back to the Scriptures. And when the disciples act like Jesus in welcoming this stranger to their table, their eyes are opened, and they recognize the presence of their Lord.

Opening the Scriptures and gathering around the table with our Lord was vital to the faith of these disciples. It was in these events that the disciples encountered the risen Jesus. Why would it be any different for you and me?

So…what are you doing this Sunday?