Warmth and Light

As I observe human nature, it’s noticeable how the cold and the dark propel us to the warmth and the light. It’s like an involuntary obedience to an ancient command found in our DNA. The pain of being cold and the fear of being in the dark send us searching for even the smallest portion of warmth and light.

On a cold winter’s night, we do what we can to survive until morning breaks and the glorious sun appears to fill the world with warmth and light.

“In the beginning, … the Spirit of the Lord hovered over the waters. The Earth was dark and empty.”

(My adaptation of the opening lines of Genesis.)

How dark a place it must have been. How empty and cold…until the warmth of His breath brought forth light.

He spoke the words, “Appear, Light!” And light appeared, just as it was commanded.

Centuries later, after generations of cyclical battles between light and dark, the warmth of His breath brought forth The One True Light to this dark, cold world.

He spoke these words to an unwed Jewish teenager, “Light will appear unto you.” After further confirmation, Mary spoke the echo which must have resounded through the atmosphere all those centuries ago, “Let it be as You have said!” And The Light of the world appeared, just as He had been commanded.

How dark the night but how bright the Star!

How cold the stable but how warm was His glorious presence!

The star. The stable. The Savior!

Even now, all things are held together by the power of His mighty command (Hebrews 1:3). Gravity. Phases of the moon. Seasons changing. Seeds growing. Sunrise over a dark horizon. Babies being born. A beating heart. The breath of life. It’s all under Jesus’ command.

Centuries ago, creation obeyed His command and brought forth light. 2000 years ago, an unwed Jewish girl obeyed His command and brought forth The Light of the world.

What about you? Have you obeyed His command? Have you been out in the cold, dark world, hovering with no sense of purpose or direction – formless and empty just as the Earth was before our Creator spoke to it? Have you been doing whatever it takes to survive out there on your own, in the darkness?

Let the pain of being cold and the fear of being in darkness propel you to the warmth of the One True Light.

Obey the command resounding through the atmosphere and even in your DNA right now – “Let it be as You have said. Jesus, I come to You. Jesus, I bow down to You. Jesus, I give up all my pretensions of making myself warm or creating my own light. I can’t do that anymore. It’s not enough to sustain me. It doesn’t last. I end up right back where I started, cold and dark. Jesus, fill me with Your light! Fill me with Your warmth! You are the everlasting, the never ending, the eternal One. You never slumber or sleep. YOUR LIGHT NEVER GOES OUT. Fill me with THAT light, dear God, and I will never be dark or cold again. By the mighty command of Jesus’ power, let it be.”

Today’s article is written by my wonderful wife, Jennifer Stidham. Jennifer is a graduate student at Hardin-Simmons University in the Clinical Counseling and Marriage and Family Therapy program, pursuing her LPC and LMFT certifications. Jennifer is the mother to three beautiful children, and caretaker to a host of cantankerous pets. She is a homeschool teacher, and ministers to our church and our community in many ways.

The Worst and Most Successful Prophet Ever

But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

Jonah 4:10-11 NIV

DEVOTIONAL

The short little book of Jonah is one of the most skillful literary masterpieces of the entire Bible. Every word it seems is a glowing hyperlink to another Biblical text. The more you explore, the more funny and pointed the story of Jonah becomes.

Jonah refuses to go to Nineveh because he doesn’t think they deserve being saved. The funny thing is that God has already given undeserved grace to Israel under the reign of Jeroboam by extending Israel’s borders to the largest they ever were. And he sent that message through none other than Jonah son of Amittai! (2 Kings 14:23-25).

The least godly person in the entire story is the prophet of God: he sleeps when he should be praying, the offers thanksgiving for his “death” inside the great fish, he preaches the shortest and most pitiful sermon in all of history (only 5 words in Hebrew), has the greatest repentance of any missionary ever, and then is angered by the fact that the people are doing exactly what God hoped they would do!

He’s the most upside down prophet that ever lived, and the sad thing is I can see a lot of myself in Jonah. If we’re honest, those of us who claim to follow Christ often wind up being the least Christ-like person in the room because we start acting like Jonah. This short little story deserves much reflection by all who claim to represent Christ in this world.

Prayer

Father, forgive us when we value stuff more than human life. Especially in this heated political climate we tend to value our stuff, our comfort, our ideas, our way more than other humans made in your image. Please forgive us of this sin.

Help us remember that you care for all people, regardless of what they think of you. Lord forgive us for having the spirit of Jonah, where we think of ourselves as better and more deserving of your mercy that those we meet.

Help us see this world as you see it. Help us love our neighbors as ourselves, and please remove the hatred, bigotry, racism, and sectarianism from our hearts.

Lord, have mercy on us for we are sinners.

Through the name and power of our Lord and Savior, Jesus. Amen.

My Father’s House?

Luke is a master when it comes to dropping subtle clues in his writings. From the beginning of his Gospel, Luke wants you to know that Jesus isn’t just an ordinary man. He is human, yes, but he is also God in human form. And Luke shares this with us in many ways throughout the early chapters of his Gospel.

In Chapter 2 we get a story that no other Gospel writer tells. I believe Luke must have gotten this from Mary herself, especially since he relays Mary’s inner thoughts (see 1:3, 2:51). Jesus disappears from the family caravan at Passover. Mary and Joseph cannot find him anywhere, so they return to the city of Jerusalem and find Jesus in the temple courts discussing Scripture with the teachers.

What really stands out to me is the way Jesus responds to the question from his mother.

When his parents saw him, they were overwhelmed. His mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” But he replied, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible (Biblical Studies Press, 2005), Lk 2:48–49.

Did you notice Jesus’ words here? Compare the words of Mary to those of Jesus. Who is the “father” of Jesus? According to Jesus, he was exactly where he was supposed to be…in his Father’s house.

The word play here isn’t accidental. This is just one small example of how Luke fills his Gospel with subtle (and some not so subtle) ways of reminding us of the true identity of Jesus. Next time we’ll look at the words of Elizabeth and what they tell us about Jesus.

(I’ll be dropping some of these every week since I will be reading this Gospel a lot between now and the time I start preaching through it in December. If you’re looking for a reading plan that will drill down on Luke’s Gospel before the end of the year, you can join me. Here’s a reading plan for Luke that my Small Group is going through, and here’s what I’m reading in addition to that.)

Unity in a Divided World

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

Ephesians 4:2-6 NIV

Devotional

Paul writes Ephesians to a church that seems to be divided around ethnic and cultural lines. Gentiles coming into the faith along with Jews makes for difficult church potlucks. Paul reminds us that no matter our background, ethnicity, social status, etc., we are all saved in the same way by the same Savior sent by the same God.

For three chapters Paul reminds his readers that all the barriers that once divided these two diverse groups have been destroyed through Jesus. “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…” (2:14) Paul was adamant about this diverse group of believers being unified in Christ.

Today Christ’s church finds itself divided by politics, polity, worship practice, ethnicity, and a multitude of other issues. If Paul were writing to the church in the U.S. today (or any other nation for that matter), what would he say about our unity? I believe it would sound very much like Ephesians. May we seek a unity within the body of Christ that amazes the world around us and glorifies our Father in heaven.

Prayer

Father, our world is full of proud and boastful people. Our national leaders seem to do nothing but provoke division and slander one another. Lord, help us to remember that you have called us to be different. Your Spirit inside of us should unite us above and beyond whatever could divide us. I pray that your Church will truly be one body, divided only by physical location, but never divided in purpose, mission, and fellowship. May we base our unity as one body in the common Spirit, Lord, Faith, and Baptism we share. And may our unity be a witness of your salvation to the world around us. Through the name and power of our Lord and Savior, Jesus. Amen.

Idolatry and the Church

Late Saturday afternoon I was paralyzed with a thought…a realization…an all consuming alarm going off in my head, and a knot in the pit of my stomach that just wouldn’t let go. This same thought had floated through my mind on and off over the course of the last 6 months, but today it hit me like a ton of bricks. And I can’t ignore it any more.

I’ll be preaching from Exodus Sunday morning from a text most people think they are familiar with. After God performs many signs and wonders against Egypt, after Israel crosses through the sea, and after God provides for them in the wilderness, the people arrive at Mount Sinai. A beautiful and powerful covenant ceremony takes place…a wedding if you will between God and the people of Israel. This is where we receive the 10 Commandments in the Exodus narrative. They begin like this:

20:1  God spoke all these words: 

20:2 “I, the LORD, am your God, who brought you from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. 

20:3 “You shall have no other gods before me. 

20:4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath or that is in the water below.20:5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children to the third and fourth generations of those who reject me,20:6 and showing covenant faithfulness to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. 

Ex 20:1–6 NET

After we read the 10 Commandments, we hear the voice of the nation of Israel speaking to Moses:

“You speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak with us, lest we die.”

Ex 20:19 NET

Did you follow that? The first thing God wants them to do is recognize that He is the one who brought them out of Egypt. They should not worship any other deity, nor try to capture or constrain Him to some sort of created image. That’s what everyone else in their part of the world would do, but this is not what they are called to do. And their response is that they don’t want to hear directly from their Savior. The Creator of heaven and earth is willing to speak directly to them, and they don’t want to hear it.

After God finishes talking to Moses, the very next thing to happen after this wedding scene is sin. Aaron (co-leader of Israel along with Moses and Miriam, the priest who just finished dining in the very presence of God) makes a golden calf idol for the people to worship. But notice what the text tells us:

Then they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” 

32:5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it, and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow will be a feast to the LORD.” 32:6 So they got up early on the next day and offered up burnt offerings and brought peace offerings, and the people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play. 

Ex 32:4–6 NET

Do you hear the Garden of Eden narrative ringing in your ears within this story? The very first directive God gives Adam and Eve is to not eat this fruit. What’s the first thing they do? They eat the fruit.

The first directive God gives Israel is that He is the one who brought them out of Egypt, so don’t worship any other gods or make an image of him. What’s the first thing they do? In their own context, they eat the fruit. God wants his people to be a “kingdom of priests” who are different from the world around them in order to lead the world to God. But Israel chose to be just like the world.

Now fast forward to today. COVID plagued election season in America.

God has called his church to be a “priesthood” so that we might “proclaim the virtues” of Christ and lead the world to him. But just like Israel, the church has chosen to be just like the world. “Christians” are routinely bowing their knees to a golden donkey or elephant while proclaiming that this is the only hope our world has.

The church has bowed to a golden calf instead of humbly leading the world in worship of our Savior, Jesus the Messiah. Instead of pointing to the cross and the empty tomb, we’ve been pointing to our chosen candidate as if they were gods.

We are also good about pointing to ourselves saying “look what we have made!” When it comes to reaching the lost we focus on programs, and music, and skilled speaking, and comfortable buildings, and coffee bars, and awesome children’s wings, and flashy websites, and social media…the list goes on and on and on. And don’t hear me saying that those things are inherently bad. They are not! Very good things can come from all of them. But when we start thinking that the power to reach the lost comes from that list of things instead of the Holy Spirit’s work on the hearts of the lost bathed in the prayers of the saints, we have bowed our knee to the golden calf.

When did we stop trusting God? When did we stop believing in God’s active role in our world? When did we trade our mission of being the hands and feet of Christ for the cheap substitute of producing an entertaining show?

The last word that Jesus has for the disciples in Matthew’s Gospel is to “Go and make disciples.” And we are all too often comfortable with sitting inside of a nice church building and politely whispering “Ya’ll come!” And now that God has allowed our world to be upended, and our worship routines to be disrupted, our instinct has been to immediately return to the “Ya’ll come” comfort we had in February.

But instead of focusing on how we can get people back at the church building post-COVID, maybe we should focus on how we can get out membership out of our buildings and reach the lost in our communities. Perhaps one of the byproducts of us all dealing with this routine altering plague is that God is sick and tired of our routine!

Sisters and Brothers, it’s time that we stop being just like the world around us. Trusting in the trappings of this world in order to save the lost is worshiping the golden calf. We must be the people of God who get outside of the building and shine His light in the darkness of the world that surrounds us. It’s time that we obey our Savior’s voice and “Go and make disciples,” not stay and wait for the lost to show up. It’s time to stop putting our hope in routines and resources of our own making, and begin prayerfully pleading for the courage and wisdom to fulfill our mission to the lost.

Long story short: Stop bowing to the golden calf.

Forgiveness and the Heart of God

Prayer is less about getting God to do something we want, and more about getting ourselves in tune with who God wants us to be.

When Jesus said “When you pray, say…” I believe he meant it. There is something transformational about the commanded words that Jesus gives us within the Lord’s Prayer…but they aren’t given for us to speak in order to transform God. They are given so that by saying, reflecting, and absorbing these words into our hearts we can be transformed to where our very longings resonate with the heart of God.

Simply put, every desire of our heart cries out “Your kingdom come!”

Close to the heart of our God is forgiveness. When Yahweh draws near to Moses on Mount Sinai, he reveals himself as follows:

“The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in loyal love and faithfulness, keeping loyal love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. But he by no means leaves the guilty unpunished, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children and children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”

Exodus 34:6-7 NET

Notice that part of God’s hesed (“loyal love”) is that he forgives iniquity and transgression and sin. This is huge! When God introduces himself and represents his character in words, it includes compassion, grace, loyal love, faithfulness, and forgiveness! What an amazing God!

But God is no push over either. When you choose to be his enemy and reject his covenant, then punishment comes. God is generous, abounding in grace and willing to forgive wrong, but he will not force his forgiveness on those who don’t want it. 

Forgive us our sins, 
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.

Luke 11:4 NIV

God is willing to forgive our sins, and we should realize that our sins are many. God is willing to forgive! And God wants our hearts to be like his. The two lines of this statement are connected. We ask God to forgive because (Greek: gar) we forgive. 

We must have a forgiving heart toward those who have sinned against us in order to receive forgiveness from God. This is the way Jesus teaches us to pray for forgiveness. Our forgiveness depends on our willingness to adopt God’s posture of forgiveness towards others.

So if you still harbor unforgiveness towards others, now is the time to ask God to soften your heart and help you forgive as he does. It’s clear that forgiveness is important to God. Is it important to you?

Prayer: What is it Good For?

Have you ever struggled with how to pray? Have you ever felt like you are supposed to say nice things and be thankful, but you really don’t know how to do that? You’re not alone.

Jesus’ followers asked him to teach them how to pray. It was (and still is) very common in the Jewish world to have memorized prayers for different situations. There was a routine set of prayers that you used every day, and in every situation in which you find yourself. Acts shows us that the early church continued the practice of “the prayers.” (Acts 2:42, 3:1, etc.)

Because of this practice, it’s no wonder that Jesus’ followers wanted their Rabbi to teach them a prayer. Afterall, John had done that for his disciples. (Luke 11:1) And in Luke’s account, due to their request, Jesus gives them a prayer to recite.

 “When you pray, say: 

“ ‘Father, 

hallowed be your name, 

your kingdom come. 

Give us each day our daily bread. 

Forgive us our sins, 

for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. g 

And lead us not into temptation.’ ” 

 Lk 11:2–4 NIV

Notice that it’s Jesus’ expectation that his disciples will pray these exact words. For some reason in my past that rote prayers became akin to vain repetitions, but Jesus doesn’t see it that way at all! He expects his disciples to repeat these words over and over again. “When you pray, say…” The Greek word for “when” is hotan, which means “whenever.” Jesus wanted his disciples to pray this prayer over and over and over again until it became second nature to them.

Why? Because in this prayer we find the heart of Jesus revealed. What he prayed for is of first importance to him and his mission, as it should be for us today when we recite this prayer. In his book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, James K. A. Smith talks about the habitual practices we all encounter every day. Even your morning routine, or work routine, or shopping routine, or school routine program and shape you into a product of the world, not a product of the Kingdom. We need reprogramming, and Spiritual habits like prayer do just that!

“If our loves can be disordered by secular [routines], it’s also true that our loves need to be reordered (recalibrated) by [counterroutines]–embodied, communal practices that are ‘loaded’ with the gospel and indexed to God and his kingdom.”

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K. A. Smith, pgs. 57-58

This is exactly what prayer, and specifically the Lord’s Prayer, is designed to do in our life. Prayer isn’t so much moving God into our will, but being shaped into the mission and will of the Father.

I hope you’ll join us Sunday morning at 9:30 CST as we talk about Prayer: Grasping the Heart of God.

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God?

Sunday in our Bible study we spoke about what it means to fear God, and we noticed that there are a wide range of views on what this means. Some even recounted being taught to be terrified of the Father in the past.

We also referenced a sermon by the great preacher Jonathan Edwards from July 8th, 1741. The Title of that sermon was “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and Edwards could not finish the sermon that day. So many in the congregation were crying out and weeping because they were so terrified of hell based on the words of Edwards that day. I spoke about the abhorrent theology present in the sermon as well. You can read the sermon for yourself, but I want to share a quote from this sermon that illustrates the point.

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: His wrath towards you burns like fire; He looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire; He is of purer eyes that to bear to have you in His sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in His eyes than the more hateful venomous serpent is in ours.”

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry GodJonathan Edwards

Effective as this type of preaching may have been, this is not what the Bible tells us about God! Let’s look at 1 John.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.

1 John 4:18-19 NIV

God doesn’t abhor you. He loves you, and he loved you even when you didn’t love him! This is the very reason that Jesus came into the world; not that God abhored you and couldn’t even look at you, but he so loved you that he sent his only Son! (Jn 3:16)

Notice also John’s admonition that in love there is no fear. Why? Because fear has to do with punishment. And just to be clear, there is no condemnation (punishment) for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). For those who are in Christ Jesus, there is no fear of punishment!

Trying to scare the Hell out of people may make for effective preaching, but it distorts the message of Scripture. God isn’t eager to destroy you. He paid the ultimate price for you! You are loved, you are precious, and as a loving Father he pleads with you to love him as well. And those who have chosen to love him in Christ Jesus have no reason to fear.

And yet, we are told that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” (Prov. 9:10)

So what does it mean to fear God? We’ll talk about that Sunday morning. See you there!

Do Not Be Afraid? – Part 2

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Matthew 10:27–28 NIV

Notice that Jesus does not teach his disciples that fear is wrong, but rather he reorients their thinking. In Matthew 10 Jesus is sending his disciples out into a world that was hostile to his message. Powerful people were already plotting to kill Jesus, and those speaking in his name would likewise be in danger. Within that context, Jesus commissions his followers to not back down from the mission they have been given. They are to proclaim that “the kingdom of heaven has come near,” and they should not abandon their mission just because it was dangerous. 

But notice also that Jesus never promises to keep these disciples safe. He never says that God is safe! He reminds them that the death they would face in their mission might kill their body, but blowing off their mission would face eternal consequences from God!

I confessed on Sunday morning that for years I read this passage as a reassurance that God would never let anything bad happen to me as long as I was doing what he asked me to do. That’s exactly the opposite of what Jesus is saying! Look at the very next verse.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.

Matthew 10:29 NIV

Jesus never tells us the sparrows won’t fall. God will not keep the sparrow from falling, but he will care for that sparrow as it falls.

Our focus should not be on if we will fall, rather we should focus on whose arms we are falling into.

Our mission is dangerous. Our calling is not safe. But we should not fear what will happen to us in this life. We are worth more than many sparrows, and we will not fall outside of our Father’s care. We should, however, fear the consequences of not carrying out our mission. Disowning Jesus means he will disown us. Living as disciples of Jesus means we have nothing to fear.

If there’s anything in this passage that causes you fear, then there are things that need to change in your life. 

Focus on your mission. Focus on your Father. Focus on Jesus, and don’t be afraid.

Centered in the Extremes

Daily Prayer for 7/22/2020 (Reflection on Ecclesiastes 7)

Father of mercies, still our hearts this day. Help us to trust you in the good times and the bad, for you are the maker of them all. All around us it seems the righteous perish and the wicked flourish; help us to trust you through it all. In a world that thrives on the extremes, help us stay centered in you. Bless us with your wisdom, strengthen us with your power, and help us discover the peace than can only be found in relationship with you. Through Jesus, our Lord and Savior, we pray. Amen.