Saturday, October 14, 2017

Reaching Out [part three] ...

 “Who” is your savior?  We sometimes throw around that term very casually in our day.  We attribute the idea of being a savior to things far outside the realm of spiritual salvation.  The mayor of San Juan for instance could become known as “the savior of Puerto Rico” for her dogged persistence to bring the plight of our American brothers and sisters on that island to our attention.  She calls us to remember the destruction that continues to cause so many, so much misery, and motivates us to want to do something about it.  In that sense, perhaps it is fair, to call her the savior of her people.  Her actions are selfless.  And the work she does will lessen the suffering of many, most of whom she does not know.  Far less likely to be known as “the savior of Puerto Rico” will be our president Donald Trump, no matter what he does, or says.  He is simply not on the ground there.  Nor is he obsessed with the island’s recovery.  He is distracted, and perhaps his job requires it.  But our assessment of Donald, is not ever to be as favorable as our assessment of Carmen, because she is there, she is in the midst of it, and she sends us the messages of it every day, even when the rest of our country might have grown tired of hearing it.
But when power has been restored, when the water is clean, when gas is abundant, when medicines and food have been fully restocked … will the people of Puerto Rico truly be saved?  Or will they have simply returned to the point in which it is possible to have a lifestyle like the rest of America?  There are many homeless in Florida who do not sleep in comfortable beds, in air-conditioned rooms, benefiting from regular meals or good health care.  One could argue they could have all these things if they held down a job.  But lacking skills, and once having lost it all, it is hard to get back into a system that requires you have all these things first, in order to maintain them.  Are the homeless of Florida in need of a savior like the mayor of San Juan?  And even if she took up their cause, and restored them all to the lifestyle the rest of us take for granted, will the formerly homeless be considered saved?  I guess you must ask, saved from what?  Saved from a severe way of life, saved from the physical suffering natural destructions bring, or bad cyclical patterns that self-destruction brings.  But there is so much more we need to be saved from.
When we look inside of ourselves, at the elements or weaknesses of our character that cause us misery, we look for a different kind of savior.  In this sense, love can provide great motivation.  The love of a spouse, or the supporting love of family, might provide the strong willed of us, a reason to change a behavior that causes their circle of pain.  The alcoholic becomes the recovering alcoholic.  The drug addict becomes the recovering drug addict.  The criminal becomes the former criminal.  Love can prove to be a powerful means of motivation.  For the strong willed, a solid motivation to change, provides the catalyst to simply go cold-turkey and change errant behavior.  For the weak willed of us, the desire is there, but the ability is far from available.  In either case, what remains missing, is the change in desire that spawned and fostered the errant behavior in the first place.  Circumstances then only make regression easier, or harder.  But put into a circumstance where the previous bad behavior is easy to do again, and even the most ardent recovering criminal, or addict, is likely to fall back into the old patterns that give them a momentary spike in adrenaline, followed by a lifetime of regret.  In this case, love can motivate, but it cannot recreate who we are.  We need a bigger savior for that.
Our need demands a God-based salvation.  Our deformity of will, and perversion of thinking, demands a recreation that only our Creator will ever understand.  We will not find true salvation looking at our human counterparts.  Nor will we find it, even in the better angels of our family’s love.  Our need requires something greater, something divine, or regress we will until the core of who we are is cemented in the failures we are unable to detach from.  To rip the sin from the core of our hearts and minds and hands, we require the divine recreation that a divine redemptive love has to offer.  It is here, where all the false gods are segregated from the only real One.  For only Jesus offers to redeem us from the state in which we find ourselves.  No work on our part.  All the work on His part.  We do not need to accomplish some set of tasks first, or ever.  Our behavior changes only after He changes how we think, and how we love.  It is then we find the actions of our hands in harmony with the will of our God.  Not before, and never by our own strength.  Allah, Buddha, Ganesh, Odin, pick any other supposed deity and what you find are the demands of action first, followed only then by favor selectively pronounced.  With Jesus, favor is offered how we are, reformation conducted within us by Him from where we are, until what Jesus envisioned for us, is who we become.  There are no competing offers of this anywhere else, none that would work anyway, for our need demands true divinity to fix who we are.
The message of the gospel, encompasses this one fact alone.  The message of the gospel, given in the commission by Jesus to His followers contained only one thing.  It is Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Messiah, “who” will be our savior.  None else.  Matthew dives back into this central theme in chapter ten of his gospel picking up again in verse 32 saying … “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. [verse 33] But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.”  To confess, to submit your own thinking to Jesus, to submit your own will to His, to understand how little you do, and how great He does on your behalf.  To understand your place, next to the place of your savior.  That is confession of Jesus Christ in the world in which you live, in any age, across any culture.  It is eternally relevant, for it is the singular way in which your life will ever be any different, or any better, than it is today.  There is no other way.  You will do nothing to save you.  The mayor of San Juan will do nothing to save you.  The pope will not.  Your parents or preacher will not, nor will your spouse.  All of your human community may work to lift you up.  But only Jesus can truly save you.
And likewise, in physics, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  If you choose to cut yourself off from the source of your salvation, you will end the possibility of your salvation.  When we exalt self, even within the Christian religion, by making statements such as we are in partnership with our God to save us.  Or that we must do some things first.  Or that we must obey in order to be saved.  We deny the power of Jesus Christ to save us.  Instead we exalt the power of self and our own actions to accomplish our salvation.  We choose not to relinquish control to the Savior, instead holding on to some portion of it ourselves.  Our obedience can never truly come, until our minds are brought into harmony with the will of God.  True obedience is not found only in our hands, it must be found in our hearts, minds, and motives as well.  We cannot obey until we love differently than we do today.  Those changes are not something we can will for ourselves.  They can only be wrought by the hand of our Creator, as we submit ourselves to Him for re-creation.  When we cut ourselves off from that, we wither in the conditions of sin we have long embraced.
In principle this should be an easy thing to digest and do.  But it is not.  It is at war with our “common sense”.  It is at war with our natural instincts.  And it is at war with Satan and his entire philosophy of life which he has drilled into us over a long period of time.  Man does not need a god.  But when connected to true salvation, as if by magic, the fury of your opposition will be revealed.  It is the sword that was predicted.  Matthew continues in verse 34 saying … “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. [verse 35] For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. [verse 36] And a man's foes shall be they of his own household.”  The family whose love you may have counted on all this time, was based on who you used to be, not upon who you are becoming when connected to Jesus.  Your changed thinking is not what your wife or husband signed up for.  Your changed priorities, and desire to sacrifice what you own for the sake of another, is not what your kids are used to, or were counting on for their own financial security. 
The true changes in you that bring you into harmony with God, as wrought by the hand of Jesus alone without your interference, make you a different creation.  And not necessarily one, your family will appreciate.  They actually prefer the old you.  And where there was no strife before, now there may be much of it.  Like Adam of old, you are faced with a dilemma of love and trust.  Matthew continues in verse 37 saying … “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. [verse 38] And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. [verse 39] He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.”  Much to unpack here.  As Adam faced a choice between his love of Eve, and his trust in God, so you will face the same dilemma with family members who do not share your love and submission to Jesus Christ.  But do not fall as Adam fell, not trusting in the power of Jesus to save those who do not yet believe. 
Then there is the notion of taking up your cross.  Your beliefs in the salvation Jesus provides will have real results in who you are.  Results the world around you will not be happy with.  It is not just family that may be unappreciative it may be the world, with the force of the nation’s laws, attempting to suppress your beliefs, your speech, and your actions.  Violating the laws of the nation, in order to remain in harmony with God becomes taking up your cross.  The Roman empire put the cross upon Jesus, because they falsely believed Him a threat to themselves.  The nation in which you live, may have similar thoughts about you.  Jesus did not resist that cross.  Nor should you.  The response is not to be war, believers on one side and non-believers on the other.  The response is to be willingness to bear that cross, even to the point of death in this world.  For certainly death in this world is life in the next one.  All the while that cross was on Jesus, His only thoughts were of love for those who placed it there.  That is what harmony with God looks like.  That is what true obedience looks like.  A change of heart, and how we love.  This is what submission to the will of the Father can do within you as well.
Matthew concludes stating this is not all bad news, picking up in verse 40 … “He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me. [verse 41] He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward; and he that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward. [verse 42] And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward.”  The love of God burns to demonstrate itself to us.  The rewards of salvation are not only self-evident, they are reflected in the lives of those we touch.  It is as if His love were a virus that spreads quickly, does no damage, but lifts all it touches upwards.  The savior of Puerto Rico may begin a good work, but the Savior of mankind takes it to a whole other level.  While Carmen tries to turn the air-conditioning back on, Jesus frees you from who you were while you are still in the heat, hungry, thirsty, or whatever shape you find yourself in from mansion to hovel.  Jesus is concerned with insuring your life is one worth living in the here and now.  Air-conditioning does not decide this.  It may help, but it is nothing next to the love of Jesus reflected through you.
The rewards granted even to those who do something nice to one who is connected to Jesus Christ, are a demonstration of the love of God.  Even for one who calls them self His enemy, love is shown in gratitude for something nice they do for a follower of His.  Imagine a love that deep, that is demonstrated to self-described enemies, that reaches out to them.  That offers itself in gratitude to those who do not believe, just because they have done something nice for someone who does.  Following this truism, the lives of Carmen, and of Donald, may experience the gratitude of God just because something they did helped a follower of Jesus, even if their own belief system does not include Jesus for themselves.  And based on the wide number of followers they may have helped, I am not certain if they will be able to withstand the shower of love from God that is headed their way.  For the follower of Jesus, the ability to help another is its own reward.
And so concluded the first gospel commission, the first community outreach, and you and I are equally commissioned by this same chapter in the gospel of Matthew.  The singular doctrine is still relevant, it is still good news, it still works, and it is completely wrapped up in “who” our Savior truly is, and what He longs to do within us …
 

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Reaching Out [part two] ...

Ideology matters; perhaps never more than today.  What you believe will drive what you are willing to sacrifice for it.  And more dangerously, what you believe may strongly influence how much you are willing to make others suffer because they do not share your beliefs.  Belief underlies it all.  And our enemy is quick to introduce fear into that equation.  Combine fear and belief, and it is easy to believe others intend to persecute you for your own beliefs.  When you believe you might be persecuted, you form a defense against this persecution.  And a good offense is always a good defense, so belief and fear combine to drive violence into our world.  Whether threats are real or perceived becomes irrelevant.  The violence that ensues is measurable.  Perhaps this is why whenever our Lord introduced the supernatural of His Kingdom to mankind he always opens the greeting with “Fear Not”.
Where your willingness to inflict violence over your beliefs, becomes more important to you than traditional bonds of friendship and family … belief transcends reasonable boundaries and becomes fanaticism.  A fanatic puts his beliefs so high in importance, that even friendship and family must take a back seat.  Friendships of many years can be dissolved in an instant over a slight change in shared beliefs.  Churches split over them.  Cain kills Able over them.  Differences in our exact interpretation of beliefs cause us to cast aside friendships, a spirit of community, and even the blood bonds of family.  And in the mind of the fanatic, all of these must be sacrificed for the sake of what is more important.  Fanatics point to the words of Jesus on this matter, stating those who love parents or children more than they love Him are not worthy of Him.  But Jesus did not offer the example of committing violence against non-believers.  Rather Jesus offered us an example of redemptive love for ALL those who do not yet believe.  Yet the fanatic ignores anything in the narrative of scripture that countermands his beliefs and violent intentions, and passionately embraces any tittle of scripture that might support them, and so builds his ‘doctrinal epoch of cause’ to inflict violence where he sees fit.
The fundamentalist is a brand that has emerged in the last 50 years.  The fundamentalist is a unique and partial picture of the fanatic.  They wish a “return” to basic doctrines and are extremely passionate about these ideas.  However, their reactions range from pity & condemnation for those who do not share their beliefs; to outright violence against the unbeliever in order to prompt him to see the error of his ways.  If the unbeliever dies in the process, that is left to the will of God.  Islamic extremists tend to fall in the fundamentalist category.  But so do many Christians who are willing to kill over their beliefs, whether to defend themselves, or to “defend the faith”.  What separates the fundamentalist from the full-on-fanatic is the boundary of family-relationships.  When the fundamentalist is willing to discard, or remove, a family member over a dispute about beliefs – they have entered the domain of the fanatic.
You can see ranges of this in your own life, if we begin by talking about politics first.  Most solid friendships can endure a difference over presidential candidates and how they are doing.  Good friends just come to a place where they agree to disagree.  Or perhaps learn to enjoy a good round of debates where no one leaves angry.  Families usually do better at this still … but only because ‘they have to’.  The bonds of blood are way too important to lose over some idiot presidential candidate.  So each family member agrees to “forgive” the one who is “mis-informed” and they either don’t talk about it at all (so as not to get angry), or they reach a maturity level that allows them open discourse without taking it personally.  It is rare where a family is willing to break apart over a disagreement in politics.  Frankly, politics is just not that worth it.
But where it comes to your salvation (in a spiritual context); people do the stupidest things, in the worst ways imaginable – and then claim what they do is the direct will of God, as if God spoke to them and dictated the series of events and actions they must go do.  But God does not.  God does not whisper in the inquisitor’s ear; that in order to change this infidel’s thinking about religion, you need to continue torturing him/her in more and more severe ways.  If there is a voice in that ear, it is NOT the voice of the Lord.  Nor does God whisper in the voice of the ear of a self-described Muslim Martyr; that murdering the innocent will somehow send a “bigger” statement to infidels about how wrong they are.  Neither act accomplishes anything, but the degradation of the perpetrator.  And to ascribe these acts to the will of God is to blaspheme the name of God; yet the crime continues on every day in assorted variations until blasphemy is common place.
Even where minds are so made up; even where opinions rarely change they only harden; the commission of the gospel lives on.  The message of the arrival of the kingdom of God, and the entry through Jesus Christ lives on, remains relevant, and is still good news.  To live a better life in the here-and-now is still an awesome concept no matter how badly I have screwed up doctrines, or how fanatically I am wrong about so so many things.  That good news dwarfs the condemnation of my fundamentalism, and has the potential to restore the relationships with family and friends my craziness has broken apart.  My entire life could be so exponentially better through Jesus Christ, and His gift is so easy to accept.  Even though our internet jungle of ever hardening circles of judgement remain, the gospel is bigger, better, and more powerful than that. 
Jesus knew the weird beliefs systems we would face.  Jesus knew how beliefs devolve into fanaticism.  Jesus knew even His own religion would fall victim to this horror.  But the gospel had to go out still.  Matthew continues the counsel of Christ resuming in chapter ten of his gospel picking up in verse 16 saying … “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”  No matter what the level of violence raised against the follower of Christ, violence in return, is not the response.  This text is very specific that the gospel is not spread on the point of sword.  Inflicting violence does nothing to change hearts, only love does that.  Responding to threats is not couched in excellent defensive postures and weapons of self-defense, it is couched only in love for the enemy who means us harm.  Wisdom is a better method of avoiding problems, than violence.  Being harmless makes us less of a threat than a posture of strength.  Let the Lord be our strength instead.
Matthew continues in verse 17 saying … “But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; [verse 18] And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles.”  Jesus predicts the fury of organized religion against the pure message of saving grace.  He does not assure us deliverance against these heinous crimes, rather that we will surely endure them for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of the redemption of the man carrying the whip.  His own religion, that is, the religion Jesus setup with Moses in the desert will be the first to unleash the satanic fury of fanaticism against the simple saving message of Jesus as the Messiah.  But religious persecution is not the only brand His followers would suffer.  Religion would unite with the power of the State to continue and expand persecution of the followers of Jesus.  In the years to come, the corruption within the legacy Jewish religion would find its way into the Roman Catholic halls and extend the reach of persecution against groups like the Waldensians, and other smaller segments of people who believed in the saving message of Jesus Christ, not the absolute control of the organized church.  “Who” saves you has always been the ultimate question, whether singularly Jesus Christ, or some version of people claiming to be His sole church.
Jesus then provides His followers with the ultimate defense attorney for the upcoming “trials” in which they will be accused falsely, picking up in verse 19 saying … “But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. [verse 20] For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you.”  We are nothing better than a conduit for the Spirit of God.  And to be that, we must get out of the way.  Preparation, is NOT required.  In fact, it should be purposely avoided.  That takes trust.  That takes confidence that we will not be making a fool of ourselves when the time comes.  But the fool in us will remain silent, while the Spirit that enters us will speak with a clarity, and emotional pull, that ONLY the Spirit of God can accomplish.  It is the well prepared of us, that provides no outlet for His Spirit.  We are too busy talking ourselves to let Him get a word in edgewise.  And while we speak our own well prepared words, it is evident we are truly fools.  For Satan can out debate us any day of the week, but against His Spirit, Satan is moot, and irrelevant.
The core of this counsel relies on a faith in Jesus Christ to save us.  To save us from ourselves.  To save us from situations well beyond our control.  And in the process, to reach out to others, and point them to the salvation of Jesus Christ.  The goal is not to be saved in a vacuum, but to spread out the witness of salvation, of what it means to be saved, in a community that is so desperate to see those effects in themselves.  And we do it so poorly.  So perhaps it is time now, to be still, to remain unprepared, and let our words become His words.  And there is no audience who we would wish to reach more intensely than the members of our own families.  Sadly, they will not always be willing to hear.  And worse we may discover fanaticism in our own ranks against the concept of Jesus Christ and his gift of salvation.
Matthew continues in verse 21 saying … “And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death. [verse 22] And ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved.”  Family will rise against family from the inside.  The blood bonds that should bind us in tolerance and love, prove brittle in the face of salvation and the name of Jesus Christ.  Our own families prefer agnosticism, they prefer methods of self-salvation, they prefer a nebulous god who can be reached through a variety of methods certainly not only through the Jesus Christ our silly scriptures describe.  Sad to think, that one sect of purported Christians, would turn in another, over doctrinal disputes of the how the remainder of scripture (outside of Jesus) is interpreted.  But that is our history, and will remain our future.  Power carries great allure, and once intoxicated with it, fanaticism is easy to achieve, even if at the death of a family member.  Keep in mind, the true followers of Jesus Christ are the victims our Lord describes … not the perpetrators.  If “Christians” turn anyone over to be killed, they blaspheme the name they carry.  Also keep in mind, our Lord does not promise us deliverance against the deaths our own families and the state and the corrupted churches would visit upon us.  Not everyone will get away, or find escape.  Some will die, perhaps many.  But to endure until the end is to keep our faith grounded in Jesus for our salvation, if not in this world, then in the far more important next one.
Matthew continues in verse 23 saying … “But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come.”  Our response to persecution is to flee, not to confront it violently.  But the second half of this verse always stirs up controversy in its interpretation.  On the surface, it looks as though once the gospel is spread to all the cities of Israel (in the time of Christ), that the Son of Man will return in His second coming.  But it does not say that.  It says that He will “be come”.  Keeping in the mind the timing of this commission, and the quickly spreading fame of Jesus Christ at the time.  What may have been meant, is that the Son of Man will complete His mission for our salvation, and “be come” back to the throne of His Father.  It is natural for us to read this from our own perspective, and want so bad for the words “be come” to mean “returned to take us home”.  But the facts on the ground obviously dispute that, and we know Jesus is not a liar.  Therefore our understanding must be off, and another meaning must have been intended.
Matthew continues in verse 24 saying … “The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord. [verse 25] It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master, and the servant as his lord. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of his household?”  Look at the history of reformation within the church, any church.  When Jesus entered the house and religion of Israel, they called our God, Satan.  When Luther stood up in the Catholic church, his reputation was the first thing to suffer.  When the youth of our own churches rise, to embrace the homeless, or meet their peers where they are with the things they may be used to.  We, the organized body, the elders, the established and traditional members of the church, ALWAYS shun what is new, or what is different, of what looks “unholy” to us.  Just as the Pharisees of old did to Jesus.  Just as the Catholic leadership did to Luther.  Just as you and I do to our youth, fearing they bring the world into the church.  Odd that the results of the Spirit of God are always condemned as the workings of Satan, by those who profess to follow Jesus, but seem to have no real idea who Jesus is.
But conspiracy is no match for the Holy Spirit.  Matthew continues in verse 26 saying … “Fear them not therefore: for there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known. [verse 27] What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in light: and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops.”  The quiet conspiracies to put Jesus to death are now revealed as part of our scriptures for all to see.  The quiet betrayal of Judas revealed to everyone.  The denials of Peter reprinted in the light of day.  The hypocrisies of the Catholic church over the centuries, obsessed more with the power of popes, than the saving power of Jesus Christ.  And in our day, the quiet conspiracies that take place in government halls, or church board meetings, where the interests of power or financial gains are the number one priority; they will again be revealed for all to see, in the failures that are sure to accompany them.  Jesus is not interested in maintaining our earthly wealth, and even less in granting us power.  Jesus is interested in developing our sense of humble service, and our hearts to be willing to part with everything we own, for the sake of another’s benefit.  The former only distracts from the latter, and so it will be revealed for the folly it is.
Matthew continues in verse 28 saying … “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. [verse 29] Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. [verse 30] But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. [verse 31] Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.”  The message of the gospel is at war with the natural inclinations of the human heart.  Our embrace of sin made this so, and continues to make this so.  It is the power of Jesus, that can override what we would naturally want, and what we would naturally do.  That is the power of salvation.  What our opposition is prepared to do, the level of fundamentalism they will claim as justification for what violence they wish to inflict, is not a matter for us to fear.  The tragedy that fanaticism is willing to impose is not a matter for us to fear.  For our Lord sees all.  He knows us so intimately that He knows how many hairs sit upon our heads (even when that number is in constant decline 😊).  Our salvation rests in His hands not our own.  It is that message that Satan wishes to cover up.  He does not want the name of Jesus Christ spread he wants it silenced.  Killing a messenger does not accomplish that.  But altering a follower’s philosophy to be one of self does do the trick.
Satan has no need to silence a follower of Jesus who has no personal testimony to share.  Satan has no need to torture a “Christian” who is already very busy attempting to drive the sin from themselves, and from their desires.  They are already torturing themselves with their own failure.  And one day, they will reach of point of repeated failures until they give up, and advise others to do the same.  Satan could care less about the body, it is the permanence of the soul he is after.  Directing us away from Jesus Christ gives him a chance at getting that ultimate prize.  This is how the soul is destroyed.  It is not the ultimate fires that will do the work of destruction.  The destruction will happen long before, at the tips of our own fingers as we refuse to give Jesus our salvation, and hold on to it instead ourselves.  It was always the introduction of self into Christianity that Satan has long sought.  Do some amount of good deeds.  Give away some amount of money.  In effect, buy your salvation by the strength of your own hands and intentions.  He sold the lie to Cain, and continues to sell it to us.  And too many, who do not know Jesus personally yet, are avid consumers of this lie, to the destruction of their own souls.  That is worth fearing.
But even then Jesus says we need not fear, for our salvation is based in Jesus Christ, and not ourselves.  And the counsel for outreach was not concluded yet …
 

Friday, September 22, 2017

Reaching Out [part one] ...

The deck is stacked against you.  When you are armed with nothing but love, and your enemy is armed with hate and violence of every kind that is difficult to even imagine, the deck is stacked against you.  Your life is in jeopardy from your enemy.  His life is not from you.  It seems ludicrous.  It seems ridiculous.  How could anyone win a war with these kinds of constraints?  Wouldn’t death just overwhelm life until all life disappeared?  But then love has always been more powerful than hate.  In the face of love, hate disappears.  The hole inside of us, cut in the image of God, is designed to know the bliss of love.  Nothing else can ever fit that shape.  Love throws water on the fire of hate, until the fire is gone.  Hate needs hate in return, in order for it to thrive.  Resistance is what hate must find fuel within.  I hit you, you hit me back, now we have the makings of a fight, perhaps to the death.  But I hit you, and you refuse to counter.  You walk away looking at me in pity, wishing something more for me than my slavery to anger and pain.  This is something hate has a hard time understanding.  Love does not destroy, it lifts up.
But for the hardened enemy of our Lord, great love must be shown, to break through the barriers hate has erected.  Jesus knew this.  Jesus let His own life go, to demonstrate how far He was willing to go to show us His love for us.  So far in fact, He would die in our place.  So far, He would die at our hands.  So far, He would forgive us for His murder, driven by our endless choice to sin and turn from love.  That kind of God-example of love, breaks the power of hate and death.  It puts an end to the cycle of it.  It is that level of love that our enemy fears.  He does not fear our feeble attempts to fight back.  He fears our divinely strengthened attempts to love in spite of his antics.  That kind of love is transformative.  It does not just transform its object, it transforms its bearer.  It is that divine love that resets evil, drives it away, heals what evil has broken, restores what used to be dead back to life.  It was not the ability of Jesus to wage traditional war that made Him so powerful.  It was His divine ability to show love in a world that wanted only the resistance of hate.
Hearts melt in the face of the love of Jesus.  Lives are transformed.  Even when the deck is stacked against the servant of the Most High, the outcome has already been determined.  Our earthly lives are but stepping stones to our eternal life, the gift of love itself.  So then, fear cannot be used against us.  Eternity has already been granted us.  We can use our earthly lives in the service of Jesus, without worrying what the outcome is in this life; only that He assures us a perfection culminating in the next one.  Whatever has not had time to be perfected here, will be completed there.  But living begins now, no matter what the conditions say against it.  Life begins now, because our Lord becomes the central part of who we are.  And all the while we are pleased to join His service.
Matthew records for us a momentous event.  Jesus has reached a point in His ministry, when it is time to increase the laborers for the harvest.  The first evangelism is commissioned.  The first community outreach is offered.  The first message is sent to the lost sheep of Israel, no matter the level of the resistance, His own church would put up against it.  For it is not the church elders who determine or dissuade the saving power of Jesus Christ on the life willing to submit.  They have no control.  So they can war against it all they like, the power of Jesus to save, will be undeterred.  Even when lives are lost.  Lives are also found.  Matthew picks up the story in chapter ten of his gospel, beginning in verse 1 saying … “And when he had called unto him his twelve disciples, he gave them power against unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of sickness and all manner of disease.”
The first thing Jesus does, is arm His followers with His power of love, over the enemy.  The disciples needed to be able to push the supernatural away from the sufferers, before they were able to hear clearly the message of love intended for them.  Then, they were given by Jesus, the ability to channel His power to heal all manner of sicknesses or diseases.  They were to reset the deformity from which we suffer in our bodies, again to make clear the message of love Jesus came to offer.  All of this was to be done in the name of Jesus.  Not just some random religion.  Not just some eastern philosophy, or enlightenment, but in the name of Jesus alone.  This was a new gospel.  New because in part, the original religion Jesus had established with Moses at Mt. Sinai had rejected its author.  The Messiah had arrived and the Pharisees called Him the devil.  So since tradition would not accept the reality of Jesus Christ, reality had to evolve to become the new religion of Jesus Christ.  A reset of church elder thinking (in their day and in ours).
Matthew continues picking up in verse 2 identifying those who were first called saying … “Now the names of the twelve apostles are these; The first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; [verse 3] Philip, and Bartholomew; Thomas, and Matthew the publican; James the son of Alphaeus, and Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus; [verse 4] Simon the Canaanite, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him.”  This may not have been the exact order in which they were called.  This may not have been the exact order of prominence in the church after Jesus had long since ascended.  It was just a list.  And the most interesting name in it was that of Judas.  Judas is NOT excluded from the commission, or the power of Jesus, or the gifts Jesus had to offer.  Judas was included in everything.  The love of God was no less for the one who would betray Him, than for the one who would deny Him.  The fate of Judas would result from the choice of Judas, not the denial of God who knew in advance the crimes of Judas.
Then came the target audience they were to seek out picking up in verse 5 saying … “These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: [verse 6] But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  The covenant with Abraham was not to be abandoned because his descendants made bad choices.  God honors his promises, even when we don’t.  There would be time for the Samaritans and the Gentiles (us) to hear the gospel, and come to the message later.  But the first offer would be extended to the house of Israel, the first to be honored with the good news of the Messiah would be to those who were supposed to understand it best.  God still loved a people who were attempting to love Him in return.  Even though their love was filled with error, God does not abandon them, but reaches out to them while He was even here among them, to bring them close to Him.
The message begins in verse 7 saying … “And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand. [verse 8] Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give.”  The Kingdom of Heaven is here.  Not at the end of all life, but in the here and now.  The entrance is through the door of Jesus Christ.  As we submit to Jesus, Heaven begins to dwell within us.  How we think changes.  What we value changes.  And how we love changes.  This is where mankind begins to see what the kingdom of heaven is really like.  That is a current message.  A relevant one in any age to any people.  It affects lives in the immediate, in the day to day, in the here and now.  Real change for the better right away.  Evidence of it included healing the sick, cleansing lepers.  Changing the problems of this world until the problems are no more.  His command includes asking His disciples to “raise the dead”.  Not a lot of this going on today, we could ask ourselves why.  But the barrier man thinks is so permanent is not so permanent to a God who gives us life, and can give it again.
He asked them to cast out devils, have no fear of them.  For they cannot stand against the power of Jesus.  They do just fine against an organized religion, that values its traditions more than it values love.  But against Jesus, no contest.  And Jesus tells them to hold nothing back from those in need.  Freely give, as these gifts were given to you freely.  You did NOTHING to earn them.  You have them in spite of your imperfections.  You are not 100% right on your doctrines, and you may not be for some time yet.  But the ONLY doctrine that really matters is the message of the Kingdom of Heaven brought to us by Jesus Christ, that has arrived today, back then.  It is that message that needs to be promoted.  Not what you can and cannot do, but through whom you will find harmony with God.
Then there is a matter of trust.  Matthew continues in verse 9 saying … “Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses, [verse 10] Nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves: for the workman is worthy of his meat.”  You do not need to prepare for this assignment.  Just go.  With what you are wearing, in the condition you are in.  You do not need money.  You do not need reservations, or arrangements, or an itinerary.  You just need motivation.  The “work” of spreading this message is worth what it takes to sustain you.  You are in God’s hands.  You will be in the care of others.  Generosity in the hearts of listeners will likely be in the instrument through which God sustains you.  But even if it has to be ravens carrying you bread, you do not need to worry about bringing money, or earning it, or where you will sleep.  You are in the care of God.  It takes trust to do this.  It takes commitment.
Blessings are for real.  Matthew explains this picking up in verse 11 saying … “And into whatsoever city or town ye shall enter, inquire who in it is worthy; and there abide till ye go thence. [verse 12] And when ye come into an house, salute it. [verse 13] And if the house be worthy, let your peace come upon it: but if it be not worthy, let your peace return to you.”  Anyone who provides lodging for someone carrying the message of Jesus will be blessed to do so.  Even if it is only while the messenger is in the house.  But if the host, is willing to embrace the gospel, the blessing lasts forever.  This is not about exclusion.  It is about inclusion, and what it means to embrace the gospel of peace, from the author of love.
But cause and effect remains in place as Matthew continues in verse 14 saying … “And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet. [verse 15] Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city.”  This is very strong language that Jesus uses to make a point.  Sodom and Gomorrha were destroyed for their wickedness in the days of Abraham and Lot.  Every Jew knew this story and understood how bad these cities must have been to warrant special destruction for their evil.  The tradition of this in the scripture is used to illustrate how important the message of Jesus Christ is to the people of this time.  It is no small matter.  It is everything.  To reject Jesus, is not to have some small doctrinal dispute about interpretation, it is to throw away the only means there is for salvation of any kind.
To choose to cut yourself off from the salvation Jesus Christ alone can bring, is to cement your character to the weakness of sin, the pain and death it causes, and the downward cycle from which there is no escape other than through Jesus.  Sodom was not presented with the Messiah.  Sodom was not presented with healings, with sermons from the mouth of God.  Sodom had only the witness of Lot, the contrast of one who did follow God, with the citizenry who did not.  Evil ran unchecked in Sodom as it will in us without the saving power of Jesus Christ and our submission to Him.  It was not a threat against the people of His day.  It was an illustration of how important their choice would be to them.
And the counsel for the laborers had only just begun …
 

Friday, September 8, 2017

Undoing Deformity ...

Sometimes life is cruel.  Tragedy happens.  And it leaves scars on us.  It takes what is normally formed and makes it abnormal.  The marks are visible.  The marks interfere with our normal functions, they are painful to incur, and painful to get over.  But over time we adapt to our new reality and keep moving forward, attempting to have as much life as we are able to have, given our new constraints.  Others look at this as courage, and comparatively it is.  But in truth, it is also a desire for life, showing itself without ever considering letting go.  When the marks of life and the tragedy it can bring are external, the struggle against them is obvious.  But when they occur inside of us, it is a different thing.  Disease is as cruel a master as any.  It strikes where it may not be seen, but does damage as painful to incur, and painful to get over as what might be seen on the outside.  And disease need not work alone.  Sometimes it comes in packs, or flocks, working on separate areas and functions of the body along different paths and trajectories.  In total, what looks normal on the outside, can be suffering from a whole host of problems on the inside.  To keep going in this state is private courage, or perhaps just the thirst for life once again on display, if only for the one who suffers in silence.
Then finally, there is the tragedy from which we all suffer, the tragedy within our characters.  6,000 years of bad genetics, 6,000 years of worsening environments, and our characters are not immune from the conditions that continue to degenerate.  We begin to assume what was once abnormal is now normal.  We begin to desensitize ourselves to violence, until the levels of violence we tolerate in our media, and in our watching habits would have stunned ourselves if done only 20 years ago.  Movies from decades ago seem tame, seem mild, when compared against the movies that come out today.  The same is true of our Television shows.  This phenomenon also infects our relationships, and our social thinking.  Divorce was once considered serious, tragic, and something done in only extreme cases where there was no other out.  Today, and as time moves forward, divorce is normal, natural, and done whenever two people encounter a problem they do not wish to fix.  Divorce has become so commonplace, the need for marriage and monogamy itself is questioned more and more.  What was abnormal becomes normal, until whatever lines there were, are blurred against the selfishness that lies within us all, until there are no lines.
When tragedy impacts our physiques, we see it, others see it.  But when tragedy impacts our insides, or the core of who we are, few will ever know it did, and fewer still the lasting impacts it leaves.  We choose to look in our mirrors and see ourselves as normal.  We choose to see who we are as normal, as being a good person, at least as being as good as anyone else we know.  But in truth, we are ALL deformed.  Against the ideals and vision our God has for us, we are as diseased as anyone could get, both in body, and in soul.  For some of us, the imperfections of the body are fewer.  But for all of us, the imperfections of the character are stunning.  And the imperfections of our thinking greater still.  It is as if we are all alcoholics who refuse to see the damage of our conditions.  How do we recognize good, when our idea of good today is a self-destructive thing?  How do we recognize perfect, when we are so far from perfect, we have likely never encountered it before?  Our vision must be restored, so that we can begin to see.
Matthew wrote his gospel, after he had begun to understand these things.  Matthew wanted his fellow Jews to know that there was hope and a way to reset who they were, and so in his gospel he records stories designed to perk their interest and ours.  This is not just some random set of miraculous events, it is a recollection of specific stories designed to illustrate to us … hope.  In this instance he picks up in chapter nine of his gospel beginning in verse 27 saying … “And when Jesus departed thence, two blind men followed him, crying, and saying, Thou Son of David, have mercy on us.”  Jesus had just left the home of a dead girl He brought back to life.  What could ever be harder than that?  And what better illustration of what He longs to do for each of us.  Hearing it, hearing the conversations that take place, hearing the praising of God that results; the blind men now know, He MUST be able to help them too.  They cry unto Him, using a name that represents their belief that Jesus is not just a prophet, but the promised Messiah.  Son of David, who was to be the long-promised hope of Israel.  What was normal before Christ, is no longer normal after Christ.  Will He help them?
Matthew continues in verse 28 saying … “And when he was come into the house, the blind men came to him: and Jesus saith unto them, Believe ye that I am able to do this? They said unto him, Yea, Lord.”  Jesus waits until He has come back into the house, likely Peter’s home again.  He then questions the men to see if they flatter Him, or if they really believe the words they used.  They answer yes, we believe.  Ideas about living with our pain are being shattered.  Ideas about knowing we do not see clearly are being obliterated.  We know we are blind.  We know we must learn to see differently.  And we know only Jesus will be able to restore our vision to what it should be, instead of how we use it, or refuse to use it.  In this case, the blind men may not have just had something as simple as cataracts, but perhaps something as deformed as missing organs, or badly damaged or scarred organs.  But this does not matter, to their faith, or their need.  They are blind.  They wish to see.  We are blind too.  Do we wish to see, and do we believe?
Matthew continues in verse 29 saying … “Then touched he their eyes, saying, According to your faith be it unto you. [verse 30] And their eyes were opened; and Jesus straitly charged them, saying, See that no man know it. [verse 31] But they, when they were departed, spread abroad his fame in all that country.”  Their deformity was undone.  Their blindness was obliterated.  The normality of their lives was reset from living with tragedy to living without it.  They could see.  Jesus asks them to keep this quiet.  Jesus is not looking for additional attention to the fact that He is the Messiah just yet.  He likely wants more time to teach the people, to reach them on a spiritual level.  The more He is revealed to be the Messiah, the quicker His enemies will want to kill Him.  But the blind men could not help themselves.  They spread His fame, both as healer and as Messiah, throughout the entire country.  And His enemies heard of it, and took note.
Today there are men and women aligned with the enemy of Jesus, who do not wish to have their normality reset to what it should be.  They are comfortable in their deformity, until the point where they worship it.  They would rather kill Jesus, than see Him offer hope to those who are like themselves.  They are happy when others remain as they do, and terrified and sad when others find a way to really see, what they themselves refuse to see.  These enemies of Jesus take an active stance against Him.  They work to see His followers lose hope and accept the conditions of who they are, losing hope that Jesus could ever really fix them.  They compare themselves and their own evil deeds with the past of those who seek Jesus to find a different way.  The pasts often share much in common.  But the future of those bound in Jesus look much different.  It is this future they do not wish you to see.  Misery loves company.  The enemies of Christ wish for you to be their company, now, and forever.
But once we begin to see differently, once we begin to value others how Jesus values them, what we say begins to change.  We stop playing church, and begin having a personal testimony of what Jesus has done for us.  What He has done for you and for me.  Each of us having something unique to say, while at the same time, having such a common theme.  Our words begin to soften.  Our tones begin to reflect a sensitivity to the heart of another, instead of apathy towards it.  The gruff, guttural language, that once infected our every other word, dissipates until it is gone entirely.  Instead we begin to speak in simple language, nothing flowery, but easy to understand.  And no longer peppered with swear words, and curses that added nothing to what we were trying to get across.  Our tongues are reset from something we never imagined was a problem, but was always heard in the ears of our listeners.  We never knew how badly we spoke.  We never knew how mute we really were.  How little others understood what we felt.  How little others understood the Jesus inside of us trying to get out, trying to reach them.  We were effectively mute for His kingdom, even when we spoke incessantly.
Matthew continues in verse 32 saying … “As they went out, behold, they brought to him a dumb man possessed with a devil.”  How many of us, allow the devil to influence what we say, or feel?  How often do harsh words escape our mouth because we lose patience, or hang on to the past, to the pains someone else has caused us?  This poor man had allowed that influence to occur so often, a demon actually took up residence within the man until he could no longer speak.  The man would have no tongue to call out for God, or worship Him aloud ever again.  A new normal for that man.  A deformity of constraint he would have to contend with forever.  But not while Jesus lives.  Not in his day, or in ours.
Matthew continues in verse 33 saying … “And when the devil was cast out, the dumb spake: and the multitudes marvelled, saying, It was never so seen in Israel. [verse 34] But the Pharisees said, He casteth out devils through the prince of the devils.”  Notice that it was the friends of this man who brought him to Jesus.  Notice the man was unable to ask for healing.  Jesus knew the situation.  Jesus knew what was needed, and what the man desired in his heart.  Even when we are unable to speak what needs to be said, our Lord is capable of resetting our new normal to something better.  The demon is forced to leave, and man is able to speak again.  The witnesses praise God.  The witnesses take note, that it has never been so in Israel since the birth of Jacob until this day.  It is the introduction of Jesus that has made these things so.  It is the introduction of Jesus that turns the impossible into the common place.  What we see becomes different after our eyes are opened.  What we say becomes different when our selfishness is removed and His glory is revealed across our tongues.  But for those who refuse to see, they cast doubt on the source of His power.  It is all the religious leadership has left, but to accuse the changes from the power of submission to Jesus, to something His enemy might do.  But they are wrong.
Then Matthew concludes this snippet revealing a power that should stun us all.  He concludes beginning in verse 35 saying … “And Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people. [verse 36] But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd. [verse 37] Then saith he unto his disciples, The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few; [verse 38] Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest.” 
Jesus went about teaching in the synagogues.  Jesus remained keenly interested in the souls, in the characters of His people.  He was here, not to just reset the physical marks of life, but the invisible marks within us as well.  As evidence of this, he healed “every” sickness and “every” disease among the people.  Not just some.  Not just the easy ones.  Not just the ones where the organs were present and not functioning, but the ones where limbs were missing and had to be regenerated.  Every means every.  It is not a metaphor but a recitation of fact.  There is nothing about our abnormality that cannot be reset by the Creator who made us in the first place.  God made man on the sixth day, in a single day.  He can remake us in the time span we permit Him to do so.  If you doubt it, submit to Jesus, and watch what happens.
But the need is great.  Your need.  My need.  Our corporate need, the need of the world.  And today, as in the days of Jesus, the workers are few.  Too many modern workers have been corrupted by the introduction of self into the center of our religion.  Instead of trusting Jesus to save us from ourselves, we claim to have to do some of the work ourselves.  Then we teach others to do so too.  We ask them to drive sins out of their lives BEFORE they come to Jesus.  This is impossible.  For them, or for us, it is impossible to be rid of sin, without Jesus doing ALL the work of it.  We must see differently.  Only Jesus can open our eyes.  We must speak differently.  Only Jesus can give us something different to say, a new experience with Him we are eager to share.  On our own, our recitation of history, or how Jesus did something marvelous for someone else, is just not enough.  It is not personal enough.  For us to share a testimony of our own, we must have a testimony of our own, and only submission to Jesus will ever give us one of those.
If we are to be effective in the harvest we must have learned to ever point to the Lord of the harvest.  We must take no credit for ourselves.  We must not even be seeking credit.  We must be pointing all credit back to the Lord of the Harvest.  Fame is not our goal, anonymity is.  Spiritual leadership is not our goal, spiritual service is.  It is not power we seek, but power we avoid at all costs.  For only His power matters, and only He has it.  We may be fortunate enough to be a vessel to reflect His power, but it will never originate within us.  A prosperity gospel is not what our Lord ever offered.  What He offered was a gospel that did not concern itself with prosperity, whether we are blessed or not.  The burdens of wealth are not something that make it easier for us to be effective conduit of Jesus, they make it harder.  For us to actively seek them, is for us to ask for a more difficult burden in His service.  Jesus promises to meet the needs we have for today, and that is enough.  Learning to trust at that level, is learning to become more and more effective in His service.
Will you be a laborer in His cause?  Or are you still looking to be ministered to?  Do you have a testimony to share?  Or are you still reciting the ones of your parents or spouse or children?  Let us shed what is abnormal and embrace what Jesus calls exceptional, let us shed the meager lives we lead, and embrace lives of “life” He would provide.  Nothing is impossible, when it is Jesus who sets the new reality …