questioning our identity, or acting foolishly on it

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Matthew 3:16-4:4

The moment Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, the skies opened up and he saw God’s Spirit—it looked like a dove—descending and landing on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.”

Next Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test. The Devil was ready to give it. Jesus prepared for the Test by fasting forty days and forty nights. That left him, of course, in a state of extreme hunger, which the Devil took advantage of in the first test: “Since you are God’s Son, speak the word that will turn these stones into loaves of bread.”

Jesus answered by quoting Deuteronomy: “It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.”

Matthew 3:16-4:4; MSG

Jesus’s baptism and temptation amount to him fulfilling what Israel failed to do, and more than that, we might say confirming his calling to be the Savior of the world. This was done for us, and in a certain sense none of it can be repeated. Just the same, we can learn important aspects of it for our lives, not the least of which is the importance of standing on Scripture when we’re actually tempted in some way to deviate from God’s will and grace to us in Jesus.

It’s interesting, the difference in the NIV and in most other English translations (not all) from Eugene Peterson’s rendering in The Message. Usually it is written and read as if the devil is tempting Jesus to question his Sonship, and hence him being the Messiah. But from Peterson and a few other English translations we might gather that what the tempter was trying to do was have Jesus act presumptively upon that Sonship. Either way, if the devil can get Jesus to depart from trust/faith and obedience, the devil wins. Jesus would have been sidetracked and diverted from his Sonship, his Messiahship.

Of course we know what Jesus does: He refutes the devil each time by quoting Scripture. Jesus stands firm on and in his Father’s will.

We can take for ourselves a couple of subcategory thoughts. We will be challenged about our identity, so that we might question it. Are we really God’s children by faith in Christ? Am I really loved by God in Jesus? Is God really my Father? When we question our identity in Christ, we’re in danger of acting as if that’s not so, even when it is. And we can either miss out on more than a lot, or we can cave in to that which a child of God should not be victim to.

The entire human race are created children of God. God has made the way for each person in and through Christ, by his life in his incarnation, his teachings and life lived, his death for our sins and resurrection for new life, new creation, and his ascension with the outpouring of the Spirit with the promise of his return when salvation will finally be made complete. But each of us has to put our faith in God through Christ. Trusting in God, that God can and will carry us through in Jesus. That God includes us in his special family in Jesus.

The other temptation is to act presumptively on our identity in Christ. We are God’s children, therefore we can throw caution to the wind. What can be lacking here is the proper reverential awe for God and realization that who we are is meant to be a representation of God to the world, of course that revealed in Jesus and given to us by the Spirit. As far as I can tell, this is less of a temptation for me, so that it’s hard for me to wrap my head around. It may be akin to some things we see going on in the world in the name of Christ which don’t have the scent of Christ on them at all, but instead, the stench of the anti-Christ. We have to be careful lest in our pride and arrogance, we act in ways that are evil in God’s eyes.

We are God’s dearly loved children in Christ. I want to remember that, and keep reminding myself of that again and again, so that I continue to cry out to God for all the help I need. And never to act pridefully on that help, as if somehow I’m something special apart from God. All is a gift, the greatest gift of all being Christ and what he did for us so that we might be included in God’s forever completely loved family. In and through Jesus.

the only way to fulfill God’s law

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Galatians 5:18

At this odd date in history, the thought could easily be mistranslated into if you are led by the same spirit that animates others in a common cause, then you can flout the law. Of course that is not even remotely related to what Paul is saying here. In Christ the law is fulfilled. It was never fulfilled by human understanding and effort, anyhow. There was a large prescribed way that became cumbersome because of all the add-ons by the religious leaders. But still, God intended the Law to be an important backdrop both for the life of Israel, and most importantly as a preparation for the fulfillment to come in Jesus. Of course the way that took place, Jesus’s actual fulfillment of the law and the prophets was unexpected, counterintuitive and contrary to those expectations. They began to see how this idea of embracing the cross, even dying on it was actually a fulfillment of the law. That is rather hidden in the First/Old Testament narrative, but you can see it after the fulfillment.

Being led by the Spirit as itself a fulfillment of the law (Romans 8:4 and context) is another way of saying that one is not under or subject to (NRSV) the law.  This is really about the law of Moses as it’s called, what was given by God through Moses at Mount Sinai. It was directives, really orders for their lives individually and as community. But it ended up being an important means of showing them their sin, and need for a Savior, indeed for the shedding of the blood of animals for forgiveness to be later fulfilled in Christ’s death on the cross.

Paul’s emphasis on being led by the Spirit, walking in the Spirit is contrary to our normal impulses. We want to do it ourselves, and in so doing, we automatically think of our efforts as fulfilling God’s law, what we understand God to be telling us as to what’s right and wrong. When we do that, we’re not living in the new life and the new freedom that new life brings us in Christ. We are either led by the Spirit, or we fall back into a practice that contradicts who we are as children of God. We are no longer in the flesh, according to Romans 8, so we need to live accordingly. Our desire and effort should be to walk in the Spirit, to be led by the Spirit. Out of that, the Spirit will bear the Spirit’s fruit in our lives:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Galatians 5:22-23

To be led by the Spirit doesn’t mean we’re above the law so that we can flout it. It is more related to Augustine’s words: “Love and do what you please.” What he meant is the love that comes from the Spirit through Christ.

But back to the main point: Being led by God’s Spirit means, as a friend said this morning to “have the grace of God allow us to walk in the Spirit’s guidance.” Paul’s letter to the Galatians here is all about living in God’s grace rather than under God’s law. And that’s done by the Holy Spirit. May God help us, help me to more fully enter into this reality and experience in and through Jesus.

beyond fear

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

1 John 4:16b-18

I remember years, now decades ago when I think the Dean of Men where I went to school opened his Bible as we sat in his office, turning to this passage. And with an emphasis on perfect love casting out fear, and spoke some on that. I can remember his tone of voice, and etched concern on his face, even if I can’t remember much if anything at all of what he precisely said. But I returned in my thoughts to that from time to time.

And now, relatively late in life, I do so again. Yes, I’ve believed this is truth, that it applies to me, but I often still struggle in regard to it. I think I understand much of the answer in my mind, but I’m afraid it hasn’t made much inroad into my heart. But even with that, I still have made sure progress in holding on longer what I believe in my head, so that I’ve experienced more of God’s breakthroughs of peace amidst the storm.

One way of approaching this which might be helpful is to seek to land and stand on truth. If we believe that the God who is love has made that love known through the sacrificial death of Christ, then we need to stand by faith on that truth, whatever emotions to the contrary we might be experiencing, including crippling fear. Our judgment has been taken care of through Christ, who took that judgment on himself at the cross.

The faith which is involved is not only about grasping and holding on to something: God’s word to us in Christ. But it’s also about letting go of what has bound and crippled, or at least to some extent has hampered us over the years.

Come what may, whatever we face, we need to stand firmly in this one place, that of God’s love for us in Christ. When we do so, we’re standing in the one true perfect love. And by and by we’ll begin to know something of the experience of that, something in itself that never depends on our own feelings, but where God wants us to learn to live. Away from any feeling of panic or dread. In the reality of God’s love, the God who is love. In and through Jesus.

Jesus teaches his disciples (and us, hopefully disciples, too) on prayer

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

He said to them, “When you pray, say:

“‘Father,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.’”

Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Luke 11:1-13

If you want Jesus’s teaching on prayer in a nutshell, you probably can’t find a better passage then here (see also the great passage in the Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 6:5-15).

Jesus tells us the general pattern we should use in praying. While we can see from Scripture, including Jesus’s own life, that all kinds of prayers are acceptable, we do well to evaluate our prayer life in comparison to the “Our Father” prayer Jesus taught us. And to even pray the words of that prayer together, as well as to God, ourselves. So much in that prayer that can become individual prayers. Like in confession of sin, letting God know our needs, etc., not to mention what is basic, God as our Father whose name is to revered, and whose kingdom we long for.

Then Jesus tells us that we’re to pray in expectation, knowing our Father will answer. We come as God’s children in Jesus, believing that God always has our best interest at heart. And committing our cares, our loves ones, ourselves, and the world to him. In and through Jesus.

 

God’s loving discipline

 

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.

Hebrews 12:4-13

I want to quote part of this passage again:

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

Wouldn’t we like a pass from all pain? And really, when one thinks about it, from all correction. We may know better, but we always justify ourselves in what we’re doing, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it.

That’s when God as our loving Father through Jesus steps in to discipline us, all of his children. The unpleasant time that brings is well worth it, if we submit to our Father and his discipline, and try to learn well what God wants to teach us.

We need to have the heart and a mind that’s sensitive to God. Most of the time that will be obvious, though some of the time we may have little to no clue, and need to pray to God for discernment.

We would like to see the lesson come and go, but it’s in God’s hands. We need to submit to the Father of our spirits and live. That means accept what we’re going through, and continue on with the strength God gives us. Being trained in God’s loving discipline. In and through Jesus.

the prayer that God always affirms

This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.

1 John 5:14-15

Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.

John 14:12-14

Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.

John 16:23b-24

It’s amazing, the promise in God’s word that should encourage us in our prayer life in Jesus. The challenge is to seek to pray according to God’s will. We find that will in Scripture. Our expectations though have to take in the full scope of God’s revealed will to us found there, and none of us can completely understand that, even if we know Scripture well. But even if we don’t know much, we can start praying with the faith of a little child. As God’s children, God’s Spirit will help us. God’s answer will come, but in God’s own good time and way.

This is a great encouragement to me, and something I want to think of more as I pray, whatever I’m praying about. As we seek to be a blessing to others. In and through Jesus.

 

 

accepting hardship as God’s loving discipline

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”[a]

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. “Make level paths for your feet,”[b] so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.

Hebrews 12:4-13

God’s written word is quite often much different from our faith understanding, or what we’ve been taught, or at least what we’ve accepted as true. This passage is an example of that. We’re to accept hardship as God’s loving discipline, and as an indication that we’re God’s children. We have to accept the fact that we’re in need of such discipline. With the encouragement that there’s a good outcome, if we allow ourselves to be trained by that discipline. In and through Jesus.

the good wake up call of Psalm 73

This is what the wicked are like—
    always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.

Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
    and have washed my hands in innocence.
All day long I have been afflicted,
    and every morning brings new punishments.

If I had spoken out like that,
    I would have betrayed your children.
When I tried to understand all this,
    it troubled me deeply
till I entered the sanctuary of God;
    then I understood their final destiny.

Psalm 73:12-17

If anyone really knows me, they will know that I can struggle with depression or toward despair, either one. Sometimes life can seem overwhelming to me, probably too often. Just as recently as yesterday that was the case. But then I thought about our grandchildren and our daughter. My wife and my responsibility to all of them. And what triggered that was probably the psalm quoted in part above, Psalm 73.

The psalmist sees what makes no sense to his faith. Those who have no faith are prospering, and he who is a person of faith is experiencing difficulty, or seems somehow to have come up short. He questions God. One can well say he is struggling in his faith. But he realizes that more than just his own faith is at stake here. There’s the faith of others, specifically God’s children, those who are influenced by him, surely including those who were under his care.

We have to do well. It’s not only our own faith, but the faith of others which is at stake. It’s not like we can believe for them. But they need to see faith, our faith in the midst of difficulty. That we trust God to see us through.

So the fact that we might struggle is not bad in itself. But what we do in that struggle is key. We are to be a model to others, not that they may see us and our faith, but more that they might see God and God’s faithfulness and salvation in their own lives.

In all of this we walk by faith, not by sight, as was true of the psalmist here. But read on in this psalm (the link above), and you’ll find that much more is awaiting that God would reveal to us by his Spirit. That this step of faith we take will be confirmed by God.

And so we must awaken to the faith God has for us in the midst of the trial of our faith. Because it is for the benefit of others. Realizing we need to bless to them can end up blessing us. Just as we are indeed blessed to be a blessing. In and through Jesus.

bracing grace

We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God;with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. As a fair exchange—I speak as to my children—open wide your hearts also.

2 Corinthians 6 (see the entire book)

When God’s grace is normally spoken of, it seems like it’s primarily about forgiveness and the new life we receive in Christ. And that’s certainly true and foundational to our faith. But grace is multifaceted in scripture. Grace includes as well the wherewithal, the ability to get up after one has been knocked down, maybe nearly knocked out.

I’ve certainly experienced that myself, probably a good many times. It’s when you think and feel that all is lost, or you’ve crossed a line of no return, and usually tied to some fear. However you might be impacted, God’s grace to us in Christ will eventually help us get back on our feet again and stand firm, even while remembering the occasion along with the reasons for bringing us down. And for the most part, even to forget such times.

God’s grace to God’s children helps us live responsibly and like God’s children. And as such, more and more in the maturity of Christ. Something I’ve noticed, something certainly needed. In and through Jesus.

 

“we shall overcome”: Martin Luther King Jr. Day

We Shall Overcome” was a beautiful anthem of the American Civil Rights Movement. It was sung by the African-Americans of that time, and those who stood with them in their cause for justice in equal rights in the United States. It was more than a push back against the Jim Crow laws of the south (not to mention the segregation in the north), but a stand in saying, “We will accept, and take no more of this.” Rosa Parks was a key person in getting the movement started, and there was no more prominent leader in it, in fact he is considered the leader of that movement, today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The song expresses a stand rooted in God’s image within all humanity. That we are made for relationship and love, and an understanding that we are in this life together. And that we all have our part in it, both in relationships, and in vocation. And it’s a song of commitment to overcome injustice together, but not in a violent way, but with a commitment to nonviolence. Martin Luther King Jr. was impacted both by the life and example of Mahatma Gandhi, and preeminently by Jesus himself who taught his followers to love their enemies and turn the other cheek. King over and over again preached and spoke in these terms, and with the words of Jesus. And he and many others put those words into practice again and again.

We do need to stand up for what is right, particularly when it affects others. And we who in the United States live to this day in a privileged condition, especially compared with our African-American sisters and brothers need to be sensitive to how we might play in that ourselves without realizing it, as well as develop sensitivity to how society itself is bent in this direction. How we are all, each and everyone impacted by prejudice in prejudging others through some stereotypes, instead of really getting to know them, and becoming aware of their difficulties and plight.

And we need to remember what was done to them: They were stolen from their nations in Africa, and forced to be slaves with no possibility of freedom, at least not under the normal circumstances. And to this day are discriminated against in the criminal justice system, and before that, all of this lending itself to the fallout which would occur with any of us. And a deep wounding which can only be healed through much time, leaving its scars behind.

As in all things, and as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew and preached, the one hope for all humankind and against all evil is found in the gospel of Christ. Through that good news we are reconciled to God and to each other. Sin is dealt with, and all the injustice with it through the atoning sacrificial death of Christ on the cross, the resurrection bringing the new life of love into the here and now, to break all the chains of injustice, and bring in nothing less than the freedom of God’s children.

We are all in this together. Today I celebrate and remember the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and of all those who stood with him in love against the hate of that time. And remember that though some most significant changes came through that movement, we have not yet arrived to the place where we fully love and accept each other, and have the best interest of the others in our hearts. We’re not there yet.

Laws of the land can help and actually are crucial against corrupt systems, but what is especially needed is the change of hearts through the gospel, and an acclimation toward justice which we find in scripture fulfilled in the gospel, as well as in other places where this ethic is taught on earth through God’s image within all humankind. But there is no place where it is so thoroughly taught with the hope of being fully realized as in the gospel of Christ, to begin in the church.

This is an essential part of the heart of our calling as witnesses of Christ and the good news in him. Something we wish to carry on in the love and compassion of Christ, in and through him.