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.       

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Two Things That Enable You to Overcome the Darkness Within

Do they have a secret network or something?  Is it built into the genetic code?  Could that be it?   Whatever it is, every kid seems to know all the techniques for delaying bed time.     In our house, there’s the whole drink of water excuse.   And of course, my son, Patrick has the one that is tried and true.  He needs to go potty.  But every night, something stands in the way of that last potty run.   It’s the darkness.   As much as he wants to go, he won’t go there until the lights are on, and on as brightly as possible.   That’s why he has to have the night light on too.  When it comes to the darkness, Patrick wants no part.  

Now people may deny it, but when it comes to darkness, Patrick isn’t the only one.   In fact, the older you get, the greater the fear becomes.   It just changes.   Before it might have been about the physical darkness, a dark room, a dark hallway, a dark alley.  And while that fear may still be there, now the fear has grown bigger.   It’s the darkness of the unknown.  What does the future hold for yourself, for your kids; your family?  The world can be a scarily uncertain place.   But beyond that, now you can fear the darkness not only out there, but in here.    Every human being has stuff in themselves, they’d rather not see, much less show to anyone else.   Who here would want to see a highlight reel of your darkest thoughts over the past week?   And those dark places, as much as you and I want to avoid facing them, they sabotage our lives.    They hold us back.  They limit us.   They wound us, and they wound others.  But how do you get free?  How do you find freedom from that darkness?  In these words, God shows the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.  

Darkness can grip people’s lives; dark thoughts that bring resentment or fear, that lead you to lash out or to close yourself off; dark desires that can sabotage your health, your relationships, your life; dark places that lead you to doubt yourself, to fall into despair.   How do you break free of that darkness?  How do you bring the light in?   Here God tells you.   Freedom comes only when you face the darkness rather than deny it.  Only when you face not only the darkness in you, but the darkness God faced for you will the light come.  Only then will the light conquer the darkness.

You see.  That’s why John tells you that if you say that you have no sin, then that’s a sign of just how 
in the dark you are.     It’s not facing the darkness that will destroy you.   It’s denying it. 

Years ago, I saw a joke t-shirt that went something like this.   I don’t have a problem with alcohol.  I drink, I get drunk, and I fall down, no problem.   But I gotta admit.  I didn’t find it all that funny.   It came too close to describing people I actually knew.

Last year, distributors sent over 700 million oxycontin and percoset pills to just one state, West Virginia.     That’s 443 pills for every man, woman and child in that state.   So now, you’ll see in West Virginia parents pass out from a drug overdose at their kids’ baseball games.  Or maybe they’ll do it at the wheel of their car, like Tiger Woods did this past week here in Florida.   

But the drugs only point to the deeper problem, why people take them in the first place.   They take them often not for some real physical pain but because they don’t want to face the pain inside them.    So the drugs deaden the pain.   They help them avoid facing that darkness.   But, it never works.    No, the darkness just takes over more and more of their lives.

But you don’t have to abuse drugs to find a way to deny the darkness.  You can eat too much.  You can indulge in way too much TV or the escape of your phone.   You can fill your life with so much distraction and activity that you never have to face your darkness.   Heck, you can even use your religion to deny it.  But whatever it is, it will never work.   Denial never does.

That’s why you won’t find in the Bible people who lived morally exemplary lives.  No, you’ll find people, who yes, often showed great faith, but at the same time, failed in stunning ways.   But when they did, they faced their darkness.   They didn’t deny it.    And when they faced it, they found the way to freedom.  

That’s how you can tell someone has found the light.   When they discover a fault or failing within that they never realized before, it doesn’t crush them, it liberates them.   Sure, seeing a painful truth about yourself doesn’t feel good.   As the preacher, Bill Coffin put it, “To paraphrase Jesus “The truth may make you free, but first it makes you miserable.”   But that misery only leads you to be grasped by the greater truth, the truth that no failing will ever have the final word.  God’s love has that. 

On the other hand, someone may have been coming to church their entire lives, but when they face a moral failing, a painful truth about themselves, it does crush them.   They can’t get past it.  Or they expend enormous energy to deny it is even there.  You see.  They may have sung about the light, but they still find themselves in the darkness.    Inside they still believe that they have to be worthy of that light, rather than simply willing to receive it. 

But to experience the freedom means not only facing your darkness.  It means facing Jesus’ too.   That’s why John says that it’s the blood of Jesus that cleanses from all sin.    When you see the darkness Jesus faced for you, it gives you the strength to resist your own dark places.    And even when you fail, Jesus’ darkness gives you the assurance that your failure will never have that final word.

How does the darkness Jesus faced give you strength to resist?

Well, As I shared a few weeks ago, I had a car accident, one I could easily have prevented if I had been less distracted.    And since 11-year-old mini coopers aren’t worth a lot, now we are looking at getting a new car, a few years before we planned.   Yet my family has been great.  My wife has been understanding.   My son has been sympathetic.   My in-laws have loaned us their car until we get a replacement.   And since my phone was part of the distraction that caused the accident, I have committed to put it away while I drive.  And that has not been easy.   It will begin to ring or a text will come.   I’ll be tempted to pull it out at a long red light just to check something.   But you know what keeps me faithful.   I remember how my carelessness cost my family, how gracious they have been.   And it moves me to put the phone away. 

Do you see how that works with Jesus?  When you see what it cost Jesus to rescue you from your darkness, to bring you home, it gives you the strength to resist.    You think.  Jesus gave up everything for me.  How can I go there to that dark place?  How can I look for satisfaction in something so empty, when I know Jesus emptied himself to fill me?   How can I judge that person or hold that resentment after Jesus has forgiven so much?   When you see how Jesus faced the darkness for you, it gives you the strength to resist your own darkness. 

And when you do fail, that same blood saves you again.   After all, what kept Jesus on that cross?   He could have walked away.  He could have ended the agony.   Why did he endure it? The Bible says that for the sake of the joy that was set before him, Jesus endured the cross and disregarded its shame.    And what was the joy that was set before Jesus?  You were that joy.  You are that joy.  So, do you think after Jesus endured that, that your darkness will drive him away?   Do you think there is anything in the universe that will turn away his love from you?   That’s the power of the cross. That’s the power of God's sacrificial love.    That’s the power of the blood, of the God who bled for you.   As the song we’re about to sing says it so well.
Would you be free from the burden of sin?
There’s pow’r in the blood, pow’r in the blood;
Would you o’er evil a victory win?
There’s wonderful pow’r in the blood.

So, come and share in the power of this blood, the power of the One who bled and died for you, whose love no darkness will ever overcome.