Sunday, July 16, 2017

What is the One Reality that Affirms Your Worthiness No Matter What?

That Saturday, it all started out so normal.   I slept in, like only a teenager can.  I sauntered down the stairs from my attic room to the kitchen, but nobody was there.   I looked in my sisters’ rooms. No one there either.   Now, I was beginning to get a little nervous.   I went down the stairs to the family room.   But every seat was empty.  

I feared the worst.   I feared that I had been left behind.  Do you know what I’m talking about?  Did you ever read the left behind novels by Tim LaHaye or saw the movie based on them?    Maybe you grew up in a church where everybody knew what those two terrifying words, left behind, meant.   Or you could be one of those folks who have no idea what those words mean at all.  

But lots of Christians believe that before God heals everything, seven years will come when everything gets really bad.   And what is the first sign of these years of tribulation?   It’s the rapture, where all the Christians get sort of beamed up to heaven, like in this picture.

   Or as the novels put it, Christians just disappear, only leaving their clothes behind.   That image by the way spawned all sorts of pics like this one.   

And that Saturday morning, as I wandered through my mysteriously empty house, that’s what I feared.   Somehow, Jesus had not found me worthy of rapture.   I had been left behind to face all the bad stuff that was about to happen.   What was it I wondered that caused me to miss the cut.  What lustful thought, what unkind deed, what disrespectful word had led to this?   But as full despair was about to hit, I was delivered.  I heard the garage door opening, the voices of my family filtering up the stairs.   I realized.  Jesus hadn’t left me behind.   No, my family had, to go on an errand.  

Now you may never have felt “left behind” anxiety.  I certainly hope not.   But have you ever worried about your worthiness in some way?   Have you ever feared that you weren’t good enough, if not for God then for one of the countless arbitrary standards that the world sets up for worthiness?   You didn’t make enough.  You weren’t thin enough or big enough.   You didn’t have the right stuff or the right relationships or the right job.   The list could go on and on.   Life can besiege you with doubts, doubts about yourself, doubts about your worthiness, your value, your future.    And the words you’re about to hear can do the same.  Yet, in these same words lies the way to freedom.   How can you know, no matter what the world might tell you otherwise, that you are worthy?   How can you live in that sort of confident self-assurance?  In these words, God shows you the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

The world around you, around us, will give you all sorts of standards for worthiness.   If you look like this, then you’re worthy.   If you live here, you’re worthy.   If you earn this much money, then you’re worthy.   Yet all these standards are lies.  They only lead you into a very dark place.  But how do you stand against them?   How do you truly know your worth?   You live in the light, the light that again and again John talks about here.   

But when you look at the words we just read, they can make you nervous, especially that first sentence.   “Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments.”

If we obey his commandments?   That’s the standard?   Then how can anyone be sure that they know God, that they are worthy?    Who obeys all of God’s commandments?  

But if you get caught by those questions, you are missing what God in John’s words is trying to tell you.   Do you know what command God delivers to people more than any other?  God tells them.   Do not fear.    In fact, often when a messenger from God appears, those are the first words the angel says.   Fear not.

So, if these words instill fear, then you are missing the point God is trying to make.   When it comes to God the knowing always comes first.   It’s the knowing that leads to the obeying.   And if the God you think you know instills in you fear, then you don’t really know God.   And however powerful that fear, it will never lead you to obedience. 

As I was coming to worship last week, I listened to a story on the radio about a Christian fundamentalist sect in England.    This group of folks had separated themselves from everyone outside their sect so they could be pure from any ungodliness.     And God help you, if they suspected as a member of the sect that you weren’t godly enough.   The leaders came and interrogated you, and then locked you up until you ‘fessed up to wherever you had fallen short.   But then the whole thing fell apart.   How?   The supreme leader, a man in his 70s, got caught in bed with the much younger wife of one of the leaders.   And 8,000 members of that sect left overnight.   They discovered what the writer Phillip Yancey put so well.  Legalism fails miserably at the one thing it is supposed to do; encourage obedience.

Fear doesn’t ever lead you to obey, at least not for any length of time.   But when you come to know God, really know God, it doesn’t fill you with fear.  It fills you with love.  And in that love, you obey. 

When I was growing up, reading the King James Bible, it always puzzled me.  When somebody had physical relations with their spouse, the strangest word appeared, like here in Genesis 4.   “Now Adam knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Seth.”   But the translators of the King James had the word right.   The verb to know is the word that the Hebrews used for sexual intimacy, but only for intimacy in a marriage.  For sex anywhere else, they used a different word.

Why?  The Hebrews knew that when you come together with that level of commitment, that degree of love, it brings you to a depth of knowledge that nothing else can.   What do I mean?

Years ago, I remember talking to a close friend, who, over the years, had had many relationships.   But when she first came together physically with her husband, she cried.   And when he, concerned about this reaction, asked why.   She said.   “I’m crying because for the first time in my life, I know I am with someone who will not leave me, who will not walk away.”    In her husband’s act of love, my friend knew.  She knew her worth.  She knew her value in a way she had not before.

And like the Hebrews, the Greeks also used know in this same way.   So, when John talks about knowing God, he is talking about that level of loving intimacy, that level of loving commitment.   And when you know God loves you like that, it doesn’t bring you fear.  It frees you from it.   It frees you to love, to love like never before.    It takes you from darkness into light.

Now, how can you know God like that?   How can you know God with that level of intimacy?  It happens as you walk in this light that God brings.  And this light is bigger than just loving others.   Loving others just indicates that’s where you are living, in the light.  But walking in the light is far more than that.        

So what is this light that enables you to love others?   It’s the light of the gospel.  It’s knowing God’s love for you in Jesus.   That’s the light.  And the more you let that light shine into your life, the more God frees you from the darkness.   In that light, God will beam you up so to speak.  He will rapture you, but not in a way that takes you from the world.  He will deliver you in a way that enables you to see the world, to see yourself like never before.  As the Bible puts it, he will rescue you from darkness, and transfer you into the kingdom of his beloved Son, into light.

How does this rapture happen?  It happens as you see everything in your life through the reality of what God in Jesus did for you, as you see it through the gospel.    What does that look like?
Well, let’s take the example, John gives here, of loving your sister or brother.   That’s a nice idea, but how does it happen?  It happens when you see your brother or sister through the gospel. 

Last week, I went away to spend some time with my family.  Each year, we all live in the same house together on a beach in North Carolina.    And for the most part, we had a great time together as a family, but that doesn’t mean problems didn’t happen.   For example, in the kitchen that we all shared, we had a shelf in the refrigerator mainly for our son, Patrick’s food.  But on the last day, as we were preparing to leave, I went up to that shared kitchen to get my son some breakfast.  But I found nothing there.  I asked a member of the family what had happened, and she said that she had thrown it all away.   She didn’t apologize for that.  She just said the refrigerator needed to be clear, and so she had done it, throwing out our breakfast stuff, the sandwiches we had prepared for the road, everything.  As I was rummaging through the garbage can to retrieve a few things so my son could have breakfast, let me tell you.  I was not a happy camper.   And I carried my anger and resentment all the way home.   But then, last Sunday, I preached on this passage.   And I realized.   No way could I hold my grudge.   Why?  

Because, if you are seeing anyone through the gospel, you can’t.  It’s impossible.  What if God had held a grudge against you or me?  God certainly could have.   Where would we be?  But what did God do instead.  God loved you.  In Jesus, God loved you so much that though he was powerful, he lost all power so you might be free.  He who was invulnerable, became vulnerable for you.  He who lived in the glorious light, entered into infinite darkness for you.  And why?  He loved you.   And when you realize that it puts all your grievances in a whole different light.   The resentment fades, the anger, the hate.   After all, you know you had done worse to God than throw out some milk and fruit, but God didn’t turn away from you.  No, he reached out to love you, to love you more than you can ever even grasp. 

And this same light works for everything in your life.  Let’s say it’s not someone else you’re hating.  It’s yourself.   Maybe you hate yourself for some failing in your life, some place you let others down or yourself.    But whatever the failing, if you hate yourself because of it, you’re not believing the gospel.   You are saying to yourself.   This failure shows that I am not worthy, that I am a failure.   But your actions aren’t the proof of your worthiness.   Jesus is the proof of your worthiness.  And Jesus values you so much that he gave up everything for you.   Now, once you realize that, that failure may still hurt, but it will stop defining your life.   Healing will start to happen.   Why?   It’s because you are walking in the light.   You are seeing the only reality that determines your worth, God’s infinite, inexpressible love for you.

And the more you walk in the light of that love, of that grace, the more the love and grace of that God will penetrate you, like a beam of light shining into your darkness.   And in that light, you will know your sins are forgiven on account of his name.  You will know that in Jesus, you have conquered the evil one.  You will know the Father, because you now grasp that you are his beloved child.   And in that knowledge, you will grow strong, as God’s word lives in you.  And you will know that in that love, there is nothing that you cannot overcome.  

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The One Fact That, Once You Know it, Enables You to Handle Anything

I don’t know if anybody else looks.   I hope so.  I sure like checking it out.  After all, some clever stuff gets put up there.    How many of y’all pay attention to the messages on our church sign?     Bart, the guy in our church, who does this for us, even comes up with messages pretty relevant to current events, like this one that he had up recently.  That’s pretty clever, huh.

But I am certainly glad that Bart didn’t put up this message last week

    Or did he?   If he did, I’d rather just not know.    And sometimes these church sign messages can get a little personal like this one 

    When it comes to the Baptists, those folks don’t play.   No, they’ll pray some holy retribution down on you for sure.   And then there’s the well intentioned church sign that ends up getting across, well, a very different message than the one intended, like this one:

     This one seems to have the same problem or who knows?  Maybe the person who puts up the signs, really, really dislikes the preacher’s sermons. 

And just to show you that we Presbyterians aren’t exempt from these sorts of mistakes, I saw this one recently too 

    But again, maybe this sign person does really find the preacher’s sermon a good sleep aid.  I don’t know.
Ok so why am I showing you all these signs?   Being on vacation last week, did I not have time to put together a good sermon, so I am showing you church signs instead?    No, beyond being a bit fun to check out those signs, my wife told me about one recently that stirred up all sorts of conversation on twitter.   It was this sign.  

Again, I’m fairly certain that the person who put up this sign didn’t mean facts don’t matter.  He or she was probably simply saying that faith can overcome adverse circumstances.  Faith can enable you to triumph over painful realities in your life, something like that.   But that sign also points to a mistake that people often make when it comes to a relationship with God, that your faith can’t also be a fact.  What do I mean?

I mean. faith isn’t simply an experience you have, it’s a fact you can know.  If I ask someone, “Are you a Christian?”    And that person responds.  “Well, I am trying to be.”   Then I know.  That person doesn’t get that yet.      

You see.  So often, folks get trapped in doubts about their faith.  They find themselves caught up in scary uncertainties about their relationship with God.   When something bad happens to them, they fear that maybe they lost God’s love or at least God’s favor.    But you can know that you know God.  You can know it not just as a belief.  You can know it as a fact.  Your relationship with God can be as real as the gravity that keeps your feet on the ground.    How can you know God like that?   In these words you’re about to hear, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

John has been saying throughout this letter one key truth.   John has been telling us that not only can you know God.   You can know that you know God.     You can know it with the same certainty that you know the sun rises.  You can feel it as solidly as you feel the ground under your feet.   How does that happen?  It happens when you realize that before the gospel, the good news of God’s love, is a fact in here, it’s already a fact out there.   

You see.   People often focus on only one of those.   Some see Christianity as something out there.  And others see Christianity as something in here.  But Christianity has to be both.   It has to be real out there.   And it has it be real in here.

What do I mean?  I remember the first time I visited Scotland.   I was sitting in a pub in Edinburgh, and struck up a conversation with the man beside me.  He even bought me a pint, which he could easily afford as I found out later he owned the hostel I was staying in.   Then he asked me with a sharp look in his eye.   Where are ye?   And I said, Scotland.  Bloody right you are!  Not Scotland like so many of you Americans say.   Then he went off.   He said. “What is it with you Americans.  You come over.  You’ve got a Scottish name, and you buy yourself a kilt, and then you call yourself a Scot.   You’re not a Scot!  You left here two hundred years ago!  We’re the Scots.  We live here, not you.”   Now he said it in a tone that wasn’t terribly serious, but he had a point.  Look, I love my kilt.   I love my Scottish heritage.   But am I a Scot?  I’m certainly not in the way he was, a man born and raised there, who made his living there, raised his family there.  

I am a Scot so to speak on the outside.   But he was a Scot inside and out.  And when it comes to Christianity, you can’t just be one on the outside.        

Have you heard about the rise of the nones?   Recently, the number of people who say they have no religious affiliation has risen dramatically.  Researchers call them the nones, as in none of the above.   Now a decent number of these folks may have made serious decisions to walk away from faith.    But lots of them have simply decided to finally get honest.   For years, a huge percentage of people called themselves Christians if someone asked.    But in reality, they were Christians in the same way I was Scot.  They may have visited there.  They may even have some of the external trappings.   But their Christianity only went skin deep.

These folks don’t just show up in the polls though.   They also can show up in the pews.  Years ago, I remember talking to someone about how they came to faith, how God became real to them.   I could tell that the whole question made this guy really uncomfortable.   But he did answer it kind of.  He said that he grew up Episcopalian, and really liked the liturgy.   But that the Presbyterian liturgy he enjoyed too.   And that was as deep as he could go.  Now maybe behind that answer lay a deep experience of faith.  But I suspect that coming to worship was just a thing he did, something that even as he regularly did it, only went skin deep.   

But Christianity has to be more than simply an identity.  It has to be a living thing, something that grows as you grow, that has its moments where it is strong or weak or simply in between.    It can’t just exist on the outside.  It also has to live on the inside.  

But on the other hand, it can’t only be about the inside either.   Christianity even as it becomes real within you, also has to be real outside of you.  

Sometimes, people say that well Christianity is true for me, but I can’t say it’s true for everybody.   Now if I come back and ask why not?  They can reply. “Well, isn’t that arrogant?” 
But here’s the problem.  

What if we were both hanging out looking over a cliff, and staring down to the bottom hundreds of feet below.   Then you said to me, “You know, I don’t really believe in this gravity stuff.  I think I’m going to just jump off this cliff, and see if I soar like a bird.”   Now what if I said to you.  “Well, okay, sure.   Gravity is true for me, but I can’t say that it’s true for you. You do whatever you believe is best.”     Would that not be crazy?  It certainly wouldn’t be nice.  If I was your friend, I’d say.  “Forget what you believe, you take a leap off this cliff, you’re not going to fly.  You’re going to die.  Don’t even think about it.”

Here’s the truth about gravity.   You can believe in gravity or not.  But whatever you believe, gravity will still be in force.   Your belief or disbelief cannot change that at all.

And Christianity has that same reality.  You can believe in it or not, but that won’t change the reality of its power in your life.  

A quote from the filmmaker, Cecil B. Demille, puts it well.   “You can’t break the ten commandments.  You can only break yourself against them.”    And for the gospel that statement is even more deeply true.   You can choose to let your life flow with the reality of God’s love and grace.   But if you chose not to, then that decision will have a power in your life, as real as you deciding to ignore gravity.    It is real like that.

And when you know that, when you know that Christianity is that real out there, and that real in here, it opens the door to an assurance in your faith that nothing can shift.   It’s why John can say in verse three these dramatic words.   We can know that we know him.  

You see.  If you just think that your relationship with God depends on how things are going on the inside, then of course you’ll have doubts.    Heck, in no love relationship will you be feeling the love all the time.  Any couple that has been married for any length of time can tell you that.   But your relationship with God isn’t just a subjective reality.   It’s an objective one too.   The objective reality of your relationship with God doesn’t change just because you go through some time when you’re not really feeling the love.    No, the reality of God’s love for you, that’s as real as the gravity that keeps your feet on the ground. 

A few days ago, I was listening to one of my favorite songs, one written by the singer-songwriter, Victoria Williams.    The main chorus goes like this. 
Jesus walked on the water
He turned the water into wine
He went down to the drunkards
To tell them everything is fine
You R loved
You R loved
You R really loved

Again and again, Victoria Williams sings that line, You R loved, with such utter conviction.  Why can she do it.   She knows it isn’t just something she feels.  It’s something that simply is.  And when you know that truth, when you really know it, it can’t help but become real inside.  

And too many people around us don’t know that.  They don’t know that they are loved like that.   They don’t know how real that love is, that it is as real as the gravity that keep their feet on the ground.  That’s why God put us here in this church, to do all that we can to get that reality across.   No power in the universe can change people like that love.   And Jesus has given us the opportunity to join him in seeing that power poured out into our world.  It’s why we reach those kids in our Learning Centers or in all our various ministries.   In everything we do, we are telling folks.   You R loved.  You R loved.   And too many still aren’t getting the beautiful reality of that truth.   And it’s why we have to do more, to be more, so that through us, Jesus’ love gets poured out into the world.

The reality of that love is what the love shown at the Lord's table proclaims.   Jesus’ love for you is as real and concrete as the bread and the cup of that table.   And it is that reality, that God has called us to share with a world in such need of that awesomely good news.  So know it, taste it and see it, the goodness and love of the Lord, a love that as you realize how real it is, will not only become real out here, it will become more and more real in here.    And don’t leave the reality there.  Bring it with you.  Go forth and in everything you do and say, proclaim this incredible reality. You R loved.  You R loved.  You R really, really loved.   

Sunday, June 25, 2017

What Is the One Truth that Frees You from Guilt's Destructive Power?

If anyone ever asks me to do some psychological experiment, I am not going there.  Those researchers do all sorts of things to twist you up, like they did with the jelly beans.
It all started when the researchers gave each person this long description of the experiment written in really small print.   So, most folks didn’t read it all the way through.   Then they started the experiment.   They gave you a choice of two types of jellybeans, ones that tasted like fruit, and ones that tasted like vomit.   And what do you think people chose?  The fruit flavored ones of course.   But then the researchers came in and said.  “Okay, as you know from reading all that small print, the participant after you are going to have to eat the jelly beans you didn’t.”  Ouch.  These poor folks thought they had inflicted nasty tasting jelly beans on some poor stranger.    Now another group of folks didn’t get told this.  They said the participants after them could eat whatever jelly beans they liked.
Then the next part of the experiment began.  Every participant got five dollars.  Now they could keep as much of the money as they wanted, or they could also choose to give some to a partner.   And guess who the partner was?   Yes, it was the person who had supposedly had to eat the nasty flavored jellybeans.   Now guess which group gave away the most money to their partner.  Not only did the folks who thought they’d forced vomit flavor jellybeans on their partner give more, they gave three times more!
Now what was the point of all the jellybean trickery?  The researchers wanted to prove.  Guilt can motivate good.   When you’ve felt you’ve done something bad to someone, you try to find a way to fix it.  Why?  You want to relieve your guilt.   And that’s a good thing. 
But here’s the problem, what works with little things like jelly beans, doesn’t generally work well in life.   In fact, guilt messes up your life in all sorts of ways.  It sucks up your time.  According to research people experience about five hours each week feeling guilty.  And all that guilt hijacks your life.   When you’re feeling guilty, your ability to concentrate, produce and create all go down.  And guilt literally weighs you down.  People who feel guilty think they weigh more than they actually do.   
And it doesn’t stop there.  Guilt makes you beat yourself up, and deprive yourself of things that give you joy.  Why?  You think.  Why should I feel joy when I’ve been so bad?    It even limits your relationships.  Why?   Well, when you feel guilty, you can avoid talking to the person you think you’ve hurt.    When my wife and I got married, we had to limit our invite list.  And I felt guilty for a whole year afterwards about a guy and his wife that we couldn’t invite.   I intentionally avoided any contact with him.  Then I finally got the guts to reach out and tell him how bad I felt.   Guess what I found out?   He wasn’t bothered by the non-invite at all.   That’s the other problem, our guilt alarms often go off when they shouldn’t.  You feel guilty for hurting someone, when you actually haven’t hurt them at all.
Guilt in small doses might do you some good.  But overall, guilt takes away the very life God wants you to live.   It drains away your energy.  It deprives you of joy.   It fills you with anxiety.  But how do you get free of it?   In the words you’re about to hear, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.       
Guilt can weigh you down.  It can take away the very life God created you to live.   And in these words, God shows you the path to freedom.   How do you become free from guilt?  You realize the grace of God doesn’t just give you forgiveness, it gives you righteousness too.   It makes you right as nothing else can.    
Too often, when folks think about what Jesus did, they think that all that Jesus did was bring you forgiveness.   But in Jesus, God did more than that.   God brought you innocence.  
That’s why John talks about Jesus here as your advocate.   Last week, I talked about one dimension of this word, how advocate often meant champion.   Why?  It’s because in certain cultures, if you got brought up on charges, you could win your innocence by having a champion fight on your behalf.   And if your champion won, then you won.   And John is saying here that in Jesus, God became your champion.   So when Jesus won, you won.    That means, that when it comes to whatever wrong or guilt in your life, your champion has the last word.   His victory has now become your victory.    
But the word carries more than just that image.   John also wants you to picture a courtroom, in which you are the one brought up on charges.   Why?
John knows what goes on inside people when they mess up.   Sure they carry regret over the harm their failings caused others or themselves.  But that regret often becomes toxic. Within you, a sort of prosecuting voice can rise up to declare your guilt, to tell you what an awful person you are.   Now this voice doesn’t do anything that leads you to change or become better.   No, this voice just makes you feel miserable, and believe that your misery is your just due.   And many folks even mistake this voice for the voice of God.   In fact, that’s what the voice hopes you’ll do. 
But this prosecutor isn’t God.  It’s actually God’s enemy, out to destroy those created in God’s image, in other words, us.   In fact, Satan means just that.  Satan literally means the prosecutor.    
So in this image, when that prosecuting voice shows up in your life, who else shows up?  Jesus, your advocate shows up.   Now in ancient times, an advocate just didn’t mean some lawyer who you paid to get you off.  No, an advocate meant an honored and respected member of the community who spoke on your behalf.   And not only that, this advocate could also be your judge.  
So what does Jesus the righteous, this advocate/judge, say?   Jesus says to the prosecutor.   You can’t bring this person back into court.   Whatever mistakes this person has made, I have already covered them.   In me, in my righteousness, they have been made right now and forever.  They are innocent, and not because of mercy but because of justice.  

That’s what enables God to not only forgive you but to make you righteous, justice.  It’s because God is faithful and just.   When God in Jesus died on that cross, God made it all right for you forever.    Your forgiveness, your righteousness, your innocence, it doesn’t come as a matter of mercy.  It comes as a matter of justice.   God has paid the penalty.  Jesus’ righteousness has now become your righteousness. You are now free and clear.


And Jesus the righteous doesn’t only free you from what you have done wrong.  Jesus the righteous frees you from obsessing about what you feel you haven’t done right.  


Often what you need to find freedom from are what you have made your righteousness.  What do I mean?   Throughout life folks find all sorts of things to show they are good and right.   And almost always this is good stuff.   They strive to be a good parent, a good provider, a good son or daughter.   They work to be successful or to please others.   The list could go on.   But these good things become ultimate things.  They become their righteousness, what makes them right.   So when they have a bad day as a parent, when their success at work has a setback, they feel terrible.  They feel so wrong.   Guilt overwhelms them.     


A while ago, I was speaking to a woman, who was struggling to care for her elderly mother.  Her mother hated how limited her life had become, how dependent she was on others.   And in anger, she lashed out at her daughter.   She complained about how poorly her daughter cared for her.   Now, this daughter was going above and beyond for her mom.   But her mother’s angry words wounded her.   They stirred up guilt, which then became resentment, which then made her feel even more guilty.   But what was going on was that for this woman, her desire to be a “good daughter” in her mother’s eyes had become her righteousness.    All her life she had sought her mother’s approval, an approval that had never come.   Somewhere inside, she thought that if I do a little bit more, I’ll get there.  I’ll get her approval.  Then I’ll know, I’ll really know that I am good and right. 


But as we talked she realized that what she yearned for, not only could her mother not provide, no mother could.   She was making “being a good daughter” her righteousness, what made her right and that would never work.   Why?   It’s because Jesus was already her righteousness.   In Jesus, she had already been made right.   She didn’t need to anxiously strive for mother’s approval.   In God’s eyes, by God’s grace, she already had all the approval, all the validation she needed.   So when her mother tried to lay on the guilt trip.   Or when that prosecuting voice rose up inside her, telling her that she was failing as a daughter, she simply needed to remember, that wasn’t her righteousness.   Jesus was her righteousness.   And in Jesus, even in the places where she was wrong, she had been made right.  She had been made right, now and forever.


And when you know that, not only does it free you from guilt, it frees you to obey.  Why?    It’s because once you know what God’s love has given for you, it fills you with love, with peace, with a sense of security that frees you to love others in ways you could not before.   Guilt generates fear, fear of consequences, fear of rejection, fear of failure; and the list goes on.   Fear only generates more fear.


But when you know God, you know love.   And the more you know that love, the greater your love becomes.  And that is what obeying God is, loving God and loving others.


Every now and then, a funeral home calls me to do a service for some member of the community.   In most cases, these folks don’t have much connection to faith.  I do the best I can to give consolation and to connect the family to God’s love for them.   But this past week, I had a funeral that wasn’t that at all.   This woman, Juanita, had been deeply connected for years to First Methodist in Fort Lauderdale.   She had taught Sunday School there, and she and her husband, had raised their six children in that church.   Not only that, her family went back generations as dedicated Methodists, all the way back to John Wesley, himself, the founder of Methodism.


And as her family talked, they mentioned how for years, decades even, she made these gifts for seniors in nursing homes to bring them at Christmas.   When her children were young, they would go with her on these gift-giving journeys.   And she would say to them, it’s important these folks know that they are not forgotten when the holidays come; that someone is remembering them. 


Now I thought to myself.  “Well, that’s nice.”   But then they kept talking, about how she began making the gifts early in the year, January, February.   That seemed a bit peculiar.  So I asked how many did she make?  And they matter of factly said, “hundreds and hundreds.”   Now what led her to do this, to give again and again to people she didn’t even know.  It became clear in talking to her family.   She knew how God loved her.   And that love just generated more love, love that led her to give as God had given to her.  


When you know the love, really know the love, the guilt goes away.  God’s love takes it away.  And the more the guilt goes, the more room it gives for the love, to love as God has loved you.   Are you feeling guilt today?   Let it go.   Let the love in.   For even where you are wrong, Jesus the Righteous has made you right, inside and out.   And guilt has lost its place forever.                   


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Here Is The One Truth You Have To See, and The One Truth You Need to be Free, and They're not the Same

It left me stunned.   I could hardly believe the whole thing had actually happened.  But it had.  Five people had all confessed to a terrible crime.    Some had even written letters seeking forgiveness from the family for the heinous act.   But all of them, all of them, had not done the crime at all.  In fact, only one had even known the victim to begin with. 

It all happened in the small city of Beatrice, Nebraska over thirty years ago. Somebody attacked an older woman, Helen Wilson in her apartment, and then suffocated her.   The police found the intruder’s blood and other body fluids throughout her home.   But for years, they never found the person who did the crime.    But then, a local farmer turned deputy remembered two peculiar folks who had lived in the town at the time, Ada Taylor and Joseph Wright.  He became convinced they had done the crime.  So since both had moved away from Beatrice, the Sheriff and two others flew across the country to arrest them, to Alabama for Joseph, and to North Carolina, for Ada.  

They did long interviews with Ada, and in those interviews, even though she got the details wrong, Ada became convinced.  She had done the deed, and Joe Wright had done it with her.   But the authorities had a problem.   Ada and Joe’s blood didn’t match the blood type in the apartment.  Then Ada thought that maybe her friend, Tom, might have been there.   When they brought Tom in, he too became convinced he had helped do the deed, but his blood didn’t match either.   Then Tom thought that maybe his friend, Debra, who was the victim’s grandniece, had been there too.  Debra then became convinced she had been there, but her blood didn’t match either.   So, she had a dream that her husband’s friend, James Dean, had been there.   So, they brought James in, and he too became convinced of his guilt, but guess what?  He didn’t have the right blood either.   So he thought maybe his friend, Kathy had been there, and lo and behold, Kathy had the right blood type.   Crime solved.

All of them but Joseph Wright pled guilty, and served years, even decades, in prison.  But then, when DNA testing became possible, Joe Wright got his DNA tested.   And that test cleared him completely.   He then convinced another of the six, Tom to get his DNA tested.   That test cleared him too.   That led the state of Nebraska to put together a task force to look into this further.  That’s when they found the match.  The blood belonged to none of the six.  It belonged to a juvenile delinquent named Bruce Smith, whose grandmother, had lived in the same apartment building.

As the assistant attorney general put it, not only were these six folks innocent beyond a reasonable doubt.   They were innocent beyond all doubt.   It became the largest DNA exoneration involving false confessions in the history of the United States.   Yet for years, beyond Joe Wright, they all believed that they had done it, that they had done this horrible thing. 

Why am I telling you this story?   It’s because these five weren’t entirely wrong.   In their false guilt, they saw something true about themselves that many folks don’t see but very much need to.   In fact in that painful truth, God tells you, lies the way to liberation, to the transformation that God yearns to bring.   How can seeing that truth free you when it literally imprisoned them?   In these words, God shows the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

Even in the falseness of their guilt, these folks in Nebraska saw something painfully true, something every human being needs to see.    That truth, even as it may cause you pain, will liberate you.   But it will only liberate you when you see not only that truth, but the whole truth, the whole truth that will 
set you free.  

What is this painful truth that these folks in Nebraska saw?   They saw the acorn inside them. 
Over a century ago, the great London preacher, C.H. Spurgeon, first came up with this image.     Imagine a single acorn, Spurgeon would ask.   Do you realize what lies inside this acorn?  Now folks might say, well, an oak tree.   But is it really just one oak tree?  No. Spurgeon would say.  This one oak tree can produce thousands of acorns, and each of those acorns can produce trees with thousands of acorns of their own.     In just one acorn, he would say, you have the potential not just for one true, but for millions, for enough oak trees to cover an entire continent. 

And, so it is with the evil in every human heart.   Every human being has such an acorn inside them.  Now for most folks fortunately their acorn falls on hard ground.   They grow up in loving families, in safe neighborhoods.   They find decent jobs, get good friends, live in decent circumstances, and so their acorn of evil never grows into even one tree much less thousands.    But for others, their acorn falls into all too fertile ground.  They get born into chaos and trauma, in neighborhoods where crime is a way of life.   They get so-called friends that lead them down wrong paths.  Their acorn of evil grows and blossoms in awful ways.

Yet often, people, especially, good people, don’t see their acorn for what it is.   They refuse to see that the potential for great evil lies inside them, because it lies inside everyone.   But these poor wrongly accused folks in Nebraska got that.   Deep inside they realized.  Inside them lay the potential for awful things, even that horrible crime.    And in that, they were right.

It’s why John says here, “If we say that we have no sin, then we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”   But hold on a second, didn’t that truth, so to speak, get them imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit?   No, it didn’t.   

They suffered unjust imprisonment because too many good folks who had power and authority couldn’t see their acorn.    All of these folks accused didn’t fit in.  They fell in love with the wrong type of folks.  They lived on the wrong side of town.  They came from messed up families.   So, the good people thought.   Well, they must have done it.   After all, they’re not like us.  So even when those accused got all the details wrong, when none of them fit the evidence, these good people became so convinced they had done the crime, they even got them to believe it.   And the whole time what were these good people in authority thinking?   We are the good guys.  We couldn’t have this wrong.  It couldn’t be that our self-righteous certainties are leading us to commit a terrible injustice, to steal decades of life from innocent people.   No, not us, we have no sin.  

Here’s a painful truth.  In the world, it’s usually not the folks who know they’re in the wrong that do the worst things.   It’s the folks who have convinced themselves that they’re in the right, that they are the righteous, who do the greatest evil.    That man who shot Steve Scalise and so many others this week, thought he was in the right.   So do the folks from ISIS.   Heck, so did the good and righteous folks who killed Jesus.   The philosopher Pascal had it right.   Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.

And in your own life, do you know when you are most susceptible to do and say the worst things to the people you love?   It’s in those times when you have convinced yourself that they are so in the wrong, and you are so in the right.  It’s stunning what self-righteousness can justify.  
That’s why John makes it so clear that until you face up to your acorn, so to speak, you are deceiving yourself.   The truth cannot be in you.  

But if that is the only part of the truth that you see, then freedom will never come either.  Instead that part of the truth will deceive you in a different way.   It will lead you to believe that the wrongness inside you defines you, that it and it alone determines who you are. 

These folks falsely accused became convinced of their guilt because they thought just that.  They had to believe their brokenness alone defined them.   They could not see past it.   So, when someone came along and said you did this.   It only confirmed a belief that they had, one that was not the whole truth.     The partial truth will never give you life.   It will lead you instead into a death that will destroy your soul.   Only the whole truth frees you.  Only the whole truth brings you life.

So, if you ever hear a voice inside you that condemns you, that says you are broken beyond repair, it can never be the voice of Jesus.   It can only be the voice of the one that the Bible calls the accuser.   It is the voice of evil, which loves to take one part of the truth, and deceives you into thinking it is the whole truth.  

So, what is that whole truth?   Your acorn doesn’t define you. Your champion does that.   That’s how John can be so confident here.  After all, John says that God will not only forgive us our sins.  God will cleanse us from all unrighteousness.    Do you see what John is saying?  John is saying when you acknowledge the wrongness inside of you, your acorn so to speak, then God not only forgives that wrongness, he takes it away from you, like it was never there. 

How can God do that?  John tells you that too.   God can do it because you have a champion.  When John talks about an advocate that’s what he means.   Too often, people get an image here that Jesus is their defense attorney trying to get mercy from the stern divine father.    But advocate here doesn’t mean that at all.   It means that in Jesus you have a champion.

In certain ancient cultures, if you found yourself in trouble with the law, a champion could represent you.  He would fight for you and if he won, then you won.  His victory became your victory.   His righteousness became your righteousness.  And your trouble with the law went away forever.  

In Jesus, that’s what God did.  God became your champion, the champion who fought through death and beyond to set you free.      When John says that Jesus is your champion with the Father, Jesus is not opposing the Father.  No John is saying exactly what he means.   Jesus, the righteous one, stands with the Father to together bring you victory, to bring you the very righteousness you need. 
That means, even as you face the brokenness inside you, you have an even greater truth.  Your brokenness doesn’t have the last word.   Your champion does.   And your champion has overcome your brokenness.   Even now, his righteousness is making whole those broken places, until that brokenness is no more.           

So, Jesus will show you when your self-righteousness is blinding you.  He will show you when you are lying to yourself.    Jesus will call you to live into the victory he has won for you, to grow in the goodness and love that he has planted in you.   And above all, Jesus will remind you of who you are.

You are the one whom God so loved that God gave up everything to bring you home.  You are the one who God valued so ultimately that in Jesus, God himself became your champion.   You are the one who will never be defined by your brokenness.  No, you are the one defined by the love of the God who died to make you whole. 

And when you know that, you can face up to your acorn without fear.  You can see even the most broken and flawed with compassion.  After all, you know you carry the same seed within.  But that doesn’t scare you.  You know.  Your brokenness will never have the last word.  Why?  Your champion has that.   And His victory has become yours.  

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The One Thing You Need for Intimate Communion with God and That So Many Miss

When they told me, I honestly thought I had misunderstood.   They couldn’t be telling me that.   But they were.     They were telling me that.

At my old church in New York, I used to lead a course on how to share your faith.  One year, I only had two folks in the group, John and Doris. Both of them were leaders in the church.   Everything was going according to plan until the next to last session.   I was talking about how to explain the gospel to people who were curious to know more.   But as I explained it, Doris and John had these really puzzled faces.  

I asked them.  Is this making sense?   They nodded.   Then I asked.  Then why are you looking so puzzled?   Then John said it.   I don’t think I’ve done that.   And Doris nodded and agreed.   I still didn’t get it.   What haven’t you done?   They both pointed to the explanation of the gospel and said, that.    Doris and John had served for years in the church.   John had been on the search committee that first brought me to the church.   But they were saying to me that even so, they had never actually become Christians.

Now they thought they had been Christians until that night.   As I talked with them further, I asked.  How did you think you became a Christian?   They said.  We thought it meant trying to follow the ten commandments, to live by the teachings of Jesus.   They never realized. None of that would ever make you a Christian.   And so that night, Doris and John, after years of service in the church, finally became Christians.

How is it possible for people to worship years and years in a Christian church, to even become leaders there, and yet never become Christians?   It’s far more possible than you might think.   Why?  Because lots of folks, both in the pews on Sunday morning, and those who haven’t darkened a church door in years have the same wrong idea about what it means to become a Christian.   So what does it mean?   What has to happen for the intimate communion with God that the Gospel promises?  In these words, God shows you the way.   So let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

How can you think you’re a Christian, be absolutely convinced that you are, and still not be one?   You could even be serving actively, even become an elected leader, and still not get it.   How is that possible?   Here God tells you.   It happens because you don’t realize that the human problem isn’t ultimately with the things that people do.  It has to do with what people have or rather what has them.   Only when you realize that will you open the door to the intimate communion with God that God yearns to give.     

Do you see how John opens up this section we just read?  He says.  “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”   If you think about what most folks believe about sin, doesn’t that sentence sound a little weird?   You see.  Most folks think that sinning has to do with what you do.  If you lie or steal, if you cheat on your spouse, basically all the ten commandments stuff.
I mean.  You can’t have sin can you?  You can have a cold.   You can have a disease.   But can you have sin?   In these words from John, God is saying not only can you have sin, but everyone does.    Everyone has sin.

And you can think about that in the same way you think of a cold or any illness.   A few days ago, my son developed croup.   Now my wife and I found that out, when he began coughing one night, and it woke him up.   But that’s not when the croup happened.   He had already developed croup before that.  He already had the virus.   It’s only then that what he actually had became evident to us.   Before, the croup appeared as an outward condition, it was already working within.   In fact, that’s what scary about certain diseases.   You can think you are perfectly healthy, when inside you, unbeknownst to you a cancer is growing or an artery is clogging.  
In the Bible, God tells you again and again, sin works that same way.  You may not even know that you have it.  Why?  It’s because sin isn’t something you do.  It’s something you have.   You may see the symptoms of it in your outward behavior or not.   But even if you do, that’s not where it begins.   It’s not what it actually is. 

And then God goes further.  God talks about sin not as something you have but rather something that has you, that has taken over your life.   

When the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the church in Rome, he made a stunning statement.  Paul compared devoutly religious Jews, striving to do everything right to Gentiles, doing, well, pretty much everything wrong, and do you know what Paul said?   He said that both the same problem.  Both are under the power of sin.  How can someone who is doing everything right be just as bad as someone who is doing everything wrong?  It’s because sin isn’t ultimately about what you do.   It’s about something that has you.

Think about it, even with a bad cold, isn’t it that way?  You don’t really have a cold as much as a cold has you.  It gives you pain you don’t want.   It drains your energy.   It hijacks your life.   
In the same way, at a much deeper level, this power that the Bible calls sin does the same thing.  It takes over your life, but unlike a sickness, it can actually deceive you into thinking you’ve got nothing wrong at all.

So, what is this power that captures every human being on the planet?   What does the power of sin actually do in you?   It captures you with the delusion that you not God are at the center of the universe.              

And if you think to yourself, I don’t think that.   Let me ask you some questions.  Do you get irritated when you hit a lot of red lights?   Why?  Is it because you assume that all the lights should be green when you drive.  When you hit a traffic jam, does it irritate you?  Do you think?  How can this traffic be so jammed when I need to get somewhere?   Now, you may catch yourself and think well somebody could have had a bad accident, and that’s a lot worse than my inconvenience.   But let’s be honest, that’s not your first thought.

How many times do fantasies rise up in your mind where you are the hero, where it’s all about you.   Do you ever have fantasies where you imagine someone else being the hero, where it’s all about them, where they win the lottery but not you?  
When you hit a health crisis, do you pray more and more fervently than before, probably more fervently than you’ve prayed for anyone else?   Why is that?  Because, it’s about you isn’t it?   Heck, when my son got sick, yes, I felt bad for him.   But part of me thought.  Sheesh how inconvenient this is for me.  Heck, when you are on a flight, and a baby starts crying, what’s your first thought?  Is it, oh that poor baby or is it, boy this flight is not going to be fun for me. 
Remember, what I mentioned a few weeks ago.   Have you ever worried what people are saying about you behind your back?    Do you realize how self-obsessed that is?  Not only are you focused on you, but you are assuming that everyone else is too.    

And the power of sin so captures you that most of the time, you don’t even realize how self-obsessed you are, and how it limits your life, and your relationship with God.  You see.   When sin captures you, you think about God the same way you think about everything.  You think in terms of what God can do for you, your joy, your fulfillment, your happiness, your well-being.    And when things don’t seem to be going good, you can get upset at God, because isn’t the whole thing about you anyway?

That’s why religion doesn’t work.   You see, Doris and John were doing lots of wonderful things, kind-hearted, generous things.   That actually made their sin problem worse.  How is that? 


The great 20th century church historian, John Gerstner, once said thisThe main thing between you and God is not so much your sins; it's your damnable good works.  What did Gerstner mean?   Doris and John were doing good things, but underneath it all, it was driven by this anxiety.   They thought.  If I do these good things, if I live as Jesus would want me to, then God will be happy.   That will win God’s favor.    But at the heart of this motivation lay the same focus, themselves.  As much as they were doing things for others, they were still trying to save themselves.  


But when you are doing the good works, doing the whole self-salvation thing, it can be so difficult to see that.   That’s why, often the folks doing the worst things got the message of the gospel before the religious folks did.   Those folks already realized that they had a problem, but the religious folks not so much.    


So how do you break free of this power in your life, this power that captures everyone, from the best to the worst?  You realize that you can’t.   You realize that without God doing something radical to rescue you, you will never be free.


That’s the radical message of the gospel.   It’s not the good that get salvation.   It’s the humble.  It’s those who face up to their need.  In fact, all you need is need.   As the second step of Alcoholic’s Anonymous puts it, salvation comes to those who realize that only a power greater than themselves can restore them to sanity.


And how does this power greater than ourselves do it?  How did God rescue you?  How did God rescue me?  


Before we get to the rescue, we have to see what this obsession with self, this sin power has done.  It has brought untold suffering.   It has destroyed God’s creation.  It has wounded others in countless ways.   It has damaged every relationship you have.   And all this damage came through us.  Even as sin captured us, we became a willing hostage.   We liked thinking that the world revolved around us, that God was there for me.  


So what did God do to rescue you?   God took the damage from our self-obsession on God’s very self.   In Jesus, God entered human existence, and from there did two things.  First, God freed you from this enemy that had captured you.  And as God did it by absorbing all the damage that this power did in you, and through you and through me in the world.    When everything had gone so horribly wrong, in one incredible act of infinite love that came at infinite cost, the crucifixion, God made everything right.   And that frees you and nothing else.


Do you notice what is unusual about what John says about confessing sins?  John says.  If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.    John doesn’t say, he who is faithful and forgiving.  He doesn’t say.  He who is faithful and merciful.   No John says, he who is faithful and just.    You see.  John knows.   When God in Jesus died on that cross, God made everything right.    Your forgiveness comes not as a matter of mercy.  It comes as a matter of justice.   God paid the price.   You are now free and clear.        


And when you know, really know this, it starts to free you from yourself.  That’s why that night, the gospel came as a huge relief to John and Doris.   It took the pressure off.   They still did the same things yes, but now out of a radically different motivation, one that liberated them rather than captured them.    


When you get the gospel, sure, you strive to live as Jesus desires you to.  But you don’t do it out of insecurity or anxiety or fear.  No, you do it because you know what God has done for you.    You love God not for what God can give you.   After all, now  you know God has given you everything that ultimately matters.  No, you love God for God, for how utterly beautiful God is in every way.    And as you grow less and less worried about yourself, you become more and more centered on the wonder of this God, who is living love, and on the people around you, whom this God loves.   And you realize.  You’re not thinking less of yourself.   No, you’re just thinking of yourself less.  And it is wonderful.