Renewing the Mind

With little athletic experience in high school, I naively invested a year in college on the wrestling team. Small colleges like the one I went to needed bodies to fill slots, so you could probably guess, I learned far too much about the wrestling mat than anyone ever should have to ever learn.  But I did learn one important lesson from that experience that has proved helpful over the years.  “Where the head goes, the body is sure to follow.” Success in life is largely determined in the mind.

Now, I’m not talking about formal education. The world is full of highly educated people with no common sense. But it is about wisdom, and the way we think about things. If we think wrong, we do wrong. If we think right, we do right. So, how do we go about the process of right thinking?

The apostle Paul writing to the church at Rome from the city of Corinth (circa 56 AD), gives us in a compact statement, a simple formula for right thinking. In the 12th chapter of the epistle to the Romans, he writes,

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. Romans 12:1-2 NIV84

Verse one of chapter 12, describes the kind of life God wants us to live, one that is lived in appreciation of ALL He has done for us. We are asked to calculate everything God has done for us in Jesus Christ, and out of a heart of gratitude present ourselves to Him as a living and acceptable sacrifice.

And so, Paul speaks of God’s mercy. The word is plural in the Greek text and should be translated “mercies,” because it includes all of the stuff wrapped up in our salvation, forgiveness of sin, reconciliation and peace with God, justification and a right standing before God, security and eternal life, freedom from the power of sin, hope of resurrection, our adoption as sons and daughters of God, the lavishing of divine love and grace on us, the indwelling, leading and intercession of the Holy Spirit, and on and on and on!

Sadly, we do not spend enough time thinking, pondering, meditating on these great and precious endowments God has showered on those who by faith receive them. But right thinking begins with calculating the goodness of God on us in Jesus Christ. It is helpful to take out a few minutes each day simply to list two or three things God has done for us, think about them, and verbally thank God for them. One might list two or three more things God has done for you, over the course of the week.

Now, offering our bodies to God, that is worshiping our Lord from head to toe, requires a radical transformation in the way we think. It begins with calculating the things for which we are most grateful to God, but there is more. Notice verse two of Romans chapter twelve carefully. Paul writes,

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. Romans 12:2 NIV84

There are two things required which are really two sides of the same coin. The first looks at a negative and the second at a positive. Both relate to what goes on between the two ears, that is our minds.

Negatively, we are urged to stop allowing the philosophy of the age in which we live, to shape our thoughts and world view. The Message Bible has it,

Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking.” The Message Bible Paraphrase

Paul knew something of the pressure, the intellectual bullying of the world, which seeks to force Christians into lockstep with an immoral and godless culture. That’s why he sounded this alert to early believers, one which is still relevant today:

Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. Colossians 1:8 NKJV

Dr. Keith Krell, in his book entitled, Transformed: More than Meets the Eye, sums up the philosophy of our age pretty well. He writes,

The world’s philosophy is pretty simple: If you want something, go get it (partners, possessions, and power). People are important primarily because of what they can do for you. If they can’t do anything for you, don’t waste your time on them. Public opinion defines truth … popularity is more important than holiness. Faith and everyday living are unrelated. Live for the moment and don’t concern yourself with consequences. You are the center of your universe; don’t let anyone push you around!

            [Keith Krell, Transformed: More Than Meets the Eye].

We are not called to stick our heads in the sand, or to drop out of the world like the Amish. BUT we are called to think, to recognize what is false and know why it is false, and to recognize the source of what is false. To do that requires us to immerse our minds in the truth, and God’s Word is truth!

“For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow, it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12 NIV84

Moreover, if we are to stop allowing the philosophy of the age to dictate our thinking, there are some things we must avoid, things we may be allowing into the eye gate, and the ear gate, things which we know are not pleasing to God, but things we may be allowing to entertain us. I’m talking about our recreational reading, our choice in music, and what we choose to watch on television or in the theatre, or over the internet. I’m not saying God wants us to shut out the media entirely. I’m saying shut out unnecessary and gratuitous exposure to the filth of the world.

But there is a positive action that must accompany the negative one. We must allow God to transform our minds. The world attempts to force us into external conformity. It doesn’t matter if you don’t agree with the increasingly permissive mores of our culture, as long as you keep your lip buttoned about it, and appear to support those who disagree with you. The world tells us to play word games,  in order to bring us into the appearance of conformity. But God isn’t looking for that kind of thinking. He wants our minds changed from the inside out, so that our thoughts are His thoughts on any and all matters governing life and personal conduct. Expressed another way, He wants us to have the same heart He has. So, the “renewing” Paul speaks of (and this word in the Greek does not mean, to make the minds young again, but rather to make our minds totally different, brand new, like that of our Savior), we must learn to put all things to the test of God’s will.

In short this means, understanding what God’s will is, and then examining what His will is in any given situation. Three key questions must be asked:

  1. Is something morally good, consistent with God’s character as revealed in Scripture?
  2. Is something pleasing to God, something with which we are certain He would say “well done?”
  3. Is there something strangely lacking, something missing that says, “I have no certainty or confidence that God is in this thing or will bless it?

Now, it is not merely that God’s will is characterized by being good, pleasing to God, and complete or perfect. It is that God’s will IS good. God’s will IS pleasing to Himself. God’s will IS perfect, with nothing lacking. Some have said that Paul is referring only to God’s general or moral will as revealed in Scripture. Essentially, that is correct. But I do find this applicable to many if not most of the decisions and choices we make in life. Knowing what is God’s will, is in principle most definitely helpful in navigating decisions about careers, and whom to marry, or even how we handle our finances and so on. It always behooves me to ask three questions before making any major decision.

  • Is it morally good, because God’s will IS good, that is morally good?    
  • Is God going to be pleased if I take this course of action or make this choice, because God’s will, when it is obeyed, is always going to please Him?

If I feel like God is not going to be pleased with an action, even if might be permissible, it isn’t His will. Paul declares,

“Everything is permissible”  but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible” but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good but the good of others. 1 Corinthians 10:23-24 NIV84

I would very much like to own a motorcycle. I know that sounds immature and selfish, but the truth is, I would enjoy it. But, owning and riding a motorcycle at 72 years of age would put a stress on my wife that would cause her to worry needlessly about me. Would God be pleased if I put that kind of stress on her? So, for me, the bike is out!

  • And, is there something missing in the equation that feels unsettling, because God’s will IS perfect, complete and mature?

When I made the decision to marry Lynn 22 years ago, I asked myself that very question. You see I made poor decisions in the past, contrary to God’s will because I failed to ask that question. If nothing is missing and the parts are all there, the heart isn’t troubled or doubting, and we can be sure we are headed in the right direction, according to God’s will.

Maybe you would join me and pray this prayer:

Lord God, in gratitude for all that you have done for me in Christ Jesus, I now joyfully offer up my body and my mind, all that I am for your service. I will saturate my mind with Your Word and ask you to enable me to discern and test what is true and what is false; to approve only that which is good, well pleasing to You, and perfect. Grant me the wisdom to live for you with all my body as well as with my heart, my soul and my mind. In Jesus Name. Amen.

Breakfast with Jesus

It’s Easter Sunday Morning, and we may not necessarily be worshiping together today, all dressed up in our Sunday best, worshiping together in a decorated church building, but we are worshiping together in spirit, worshiping together in our homes, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, the promise of new life, and victory over the grave. One of my favorite resurrection stories is found in John’s Gospel, chapter twenty-one.

Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So, they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”

“No,” they answered.He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

For several years, Lynn and I took vacations on Indian Lake, in New York State’s Adirondack State Park. We rented a small “honeymoon” cottage each year because it had a large window that looked out over the picturesque waters. We would settle in early each evening to sleep and then be reawakened early each morning before daybreak by the sound not of birds or animals, but by the whine of a small outboard motor propelling a fisherman to his favorite fishing spot. When I read the story of the encounter between our risen Lord and the disciples who were fishing on the lake called Galilee [aka. The Sea of Tiberius], I remember those cool dark gray summer mornings.

John, the disciple Jesus loved, gives us details in the telling of that encounter that makes it a compelling argument for the bodily resurrection of Jesus. His voice is heard. His form is eventually clearly seen and recognized by all the disciples. He is cooking fish and bread over coals, something you’d hardly expect a ghost or a phantom or a demonic spirit to do. And, you just get the sense that John is just telling you like it happened.

But there is more here than that. Oh, I know there are some like St. Augustine of old, who find some kind of special meaning in the number of the fish caught on this occasion, but honestly, I don’t put much stock that sort of allegory or numerology. Still, the counting of the fish in the net that miraculously did not break, 153 of them in all, only argues for the historicity and reliability of John’s account. No, but by something more, I mean a very obvious and practical lesson, one which should make our hearts leap whenever we think about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He lives, not that we might exist for eternity, but that we might live for eternity in fellowship with Him.

Think about it! Peter and company did rejoice at the appearing of the Risen Lord in the upper room; first to ten of them [Judas having hanged himself and Thomas having wandered off in a cloud of doubt and grief]. Then Jesus appeared again to the disciples a week following His resurrection, only this time Thomas was present with them. And, Jesus invited Thomas to explore with his hands, the very wounds of His crucifixion. Thomas saw, and perhaps also he touched Jesus, as indeed Mary Magdalene apparently did. What joy filled their hearts to know that their redeemer lives!

But perhaps out of guilt or perhaps out of misunderstanding, Peter and company decide that the Risen Messiah has no need for them, that they are unworthy to follow after Him. So, they go back to their old trade, and resolve to catch fish. But something is wrong, very wrong. The nets are spread out into the water in the dark hours of the night, prime fishing time, but no fish are gathered in. They know the hot spots, they know where the fish are, or at least so they thought.

Then as dawn approaches, a figure on the shore, begins a small charcoal fire. A familiar voice calls out, “Little children [that is what Jesus actually said] haven’t you any fish?… Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” And at that, the run was on! They catch 153 large fish to divide between themselves and their families.

But Jesus already has fish cooking on a small fire and bread. Where did He get those fish and the bread he was baking? No market was open and He had no boat or net. And from the fish cooked on the fire, perhaps also a few fish added later from the net, it seems that Jesus did what He had done before. He fed His disciples. “Come and have breakfast” He said!

You know of course that this story is not primarily about food, don’t you? I imagine, some of us will have a wonderful baked ham or turkey dinner this afternoon with all the fixings, but you know, it isn’t really about the food. It is about the fellowship. It is about the nurturing of relationships between those we hold dear. For well over a decade, I worked professionally with elderly folks, long enough to know that older people who regularly dine with family or friends tend to be healthier than those who eat alone. Why? Because for us, unlike our household pets, dining is for personal interaction and relationship. And, what is compelling to me about this account, is that our Risen Lord desires that kind of intimacy, that kind of fellowship, even with those of us who like the disciples of old, sometimes feel like we’ve flunked the loyalty test.

Think about that will you? Our Risen Lord desires fellowship with those who feel unworthy of it. As Christians, we all blow it sometimes. Big time! If you’ve blown it, I have good news for you. The resurrection of Jesus means that there is a living Savior who wants to share a meal with you. He wants fellowship with you.

I understand that in some Jewish homes at Passover, an empty chair, a cup and a plate is placed at the table for Elijah the prophet, in the event he might happen by. I’m not suggesting we set a chair aside for our Risen Lord at the table today, that is not literally speaking. But, yeah! Jesus our Risen Lord wants a chair next to you and me. He covets intimacy with you and me because He loves and died and rose from the dead to make it possible.

So, how do I go about cultivating a relationship with Jesus, if He is not visibly present with me? First, be sure you are part of the family of God. That requires us to repent of our sins and to receive by faith the salvation Jesus accomplished for us on the cross. Second, we need to carve out time to talk to God [that’s prayer] and for Him to talk to us [that involves hearing Him speak through the Scriptures]. Third, we must intentionally seek Him out. We do not pray wistfully but expectantly. We do not read the Scriptures to be informed, but to engage Him in holy conversation, actively listening for His voice. We pray and we immerse ourselves in Scripture to engage the Risen Christ.

One day, perhaps sooner than you think, the saints of all ages will gather around a table at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. I’m not sure exactly what all will be on the menu, but I expect we might eat some fish, perhaps some lamb and heavenly bread. But remember, Easter and resurrection isn’t really about the food, it’s about the relationship and fellowship with Jesus Christ to which our Risen Lord is inviting you and me.

You might be wondering, how can I respond to Christ’s invitation to a living and vital relationship with Him? It begins by recognizing that Christ died for your sins and mine, enduring what we deserved for our sins on the cross. It means that we turn from our waywardness and embrace the Risen Christ as our Savior and Lord. We do that by faith. The apostle Paul put it this way,…

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. Romans 10:9-10 NIV

WHERE IS GOD, WHEN THE STORM SURGES?

This past week, the number of residents in Florida diagnosed with the Covid 19 Corona Virus increased to nearly five thousand, and with that number to increase exponentially over the next three weeks, Governor DeSantis signed the statewide “stay at home” order. As a nation it is anticipated that millions of Americans will become infected, and others well die of this dread respiratory disease. One wonders, yes, even as a Christian, many of us wonder, where is God, when the storm surges? There is a wonderful account in the Gospel of Mark that just might help us address that question.

Mark chapter 6 verses 45 – 56.

45 Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46 After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.
47 Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. 48 He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, 49 but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, 50 because they all saw him and were terrified.
Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” 51 Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, 52 for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.
53 When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. 54 As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus. 55 They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went—into villages, towns or countryside—they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.

This familiar story of Jesus, is found in three Gospels: Matthew, Mark and John. John’s Gospel alone tells the story of Peter, who on this same occasion stepped out of the boat and walked on the water to meet Jesus. Why it is omitted in Matthew and Mark? Perhaps it was because Mark’s account reflects the story as told by Peter himself. I suppose that Peter was not interested in glorifying himself by mention of his part in the story. But whatever the reason, Mark clearly wants us focus on Christ without distraction and to clearly hear what this event tells us about Christ.

Matthew, John and Mark tell us that this event occurred immediately following the miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand. That is significant, because it is the immediate reason why Jesus sent His disciples off into lake called the Sea of Galilee, and why He stayed behind alone. John’s Gospel tells us that the crowd, realizing the ability of Jesus to feed them and perhaps a nation, wanted to make Him their king and Messiah, and to do so by force. That probably would have fomented a rebellion against Rome and Herod. But establishing His Kingdom by human force was not why Jesus came into the world.

Israel needed to repent of her sinfulness and to experience spiritual regeneration and renewal. That would mean embracing Jesus as more than just as a political figure, a rabbi, or even a prophet, but as the Messiah of God, Son of Man, and Son of God. You will recall that this was the very essence of the discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus in John chapter 3. The spiritual rebirth of God’s people was essential to the establishing of Messiah’s kingdom in the world. Remember the words of Jesus to Nicodemus, “…Jesus declared, I tell you the truth, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again
[John 3:3].”

Before God would establish Messiah’s Kingdom over Israel, Isaiah’s prophecy of the “suffering servant” had to be fulfilled. Specifically, Christ the Messiah would have to be rejected, and die for the sins of the nation before He could be installed as Israel’s king and establish His Kingdom. This was also prophesied by Daniel, and Zechariah, and in the Psalms. Jesus did not want His disciples to be caught up in the excitement of the crowd, which misunderstood His mission, so He sent them off in a boat. Then to be alone in prayer with His Father, He dismissed the crowd.

Jesus according to Matthew, finds a spot on a mountainside to pray. There He spent several hours, from twilight until the wee hours of the morning in fervent prayer. As he prayed that night, winds began to swirl over the lake, growing in intensity because of mountainous terrain surrounding it, which transformed it into a cyclonic bowl. Our text tells us that as dawn approached Jesus could see the little boat, perhaps two miles out in the lake, and His disciples struggling helplessly against the forces of nature. They strained at the oars unable to do more than drift where they did not wish to go. In fact, the place they finally ended up was a bit further west and south of where they were originally headed. It had been a rough night.

But as dawn approaches and conditions deteriorate from bad to worse, we find Jesus walking toward them. And, as He comes close by, they cry out in fear. Are they are being visited by an evil force, some kind of apparition, a demon or ghost? Then Jesus reassures them, responding to their cries. They recognize His voice, and He joins them in the boat. Suddenly, the winds and the waves are still and quieted. Soon they land without further incident in Gennesaret. Crowds who know and recognize Jesus, and they bring the sick to Him, and everyone who calls out to Him or touches the edge of His cloak is healed, everyone.

So what are we to make of this story? What is it saying to us? I have three suggestions. First, … God May Place Us into Circumstances That Make No Sense to Us.

Jesus had a reason for sending His disciples out into the lake on what became a stormy night. We know that! Initially, the disciples probably assumed that like the chicken who crossed the road, it was just to reach the other side, but one thing troubled them, I’m sure. Though our text is silent, they had to have wondered, why wasn’t Jesus going along with them? I’m sure they wondered about that. How would Jesus meet them? It was hardly likely Jesus would swim out to them. Was there another boat, and if so, who would bring Jesus across? But I’m inclined to believe as our text suggests, they really didn’t have a clue what Jesus was up to, or what was in store for them. All they knew was that their master sent them out to cross the lake, and they obeyed.

When my late wife Eileen died, I knew God was calling me back into ministry, but at the time I had no idea where He was sending me or how I would get there. I can remember telling my parents that, and realizing how dumb that must have sounded. Such was the case with Abraham and Sarah of old. God called them to leave Haran, they had no idea where God was leading them. I think of Joseph too, who for perhaps 8 to 10 years was imprisoned in Egypt, and I’m sure he did not know why.

Know this child of God, living in America in the midst of a veritable plague, where God sends us, and what He sends us to endure, may be a mystery to us. The answers are with God alone, and we may not ever know in this life the reasons. But life will go a lot better for us if we understand that God has a purpose and reason, even if we do not get it, and we don’t really have too. We simply need to be obedient to His will and go and do what He asks of us. Listen, mark it down! The disciples got into the boat and faced the storm because God wanted them to. Difficulty is not necessarily a sign that one is out of God’s will. I’m glad the disciples obeyed, because had they not, they would never have experienced one of the most amazing miracles in all of the Bible, and more importantly, they would have never developed the kind of trust in Jesus that would allow them to face persecution and death for His sake. What we are facing may not make sense to us. But that’s OK. We do not have to know the reasons why. Trust in Him and His good character and purpose.

What else are we to make of this story? There is a second suggestion…God May Appear to Have Abandoned Us When in Fact He Has Not.

They got into the boat and sailed off. Jesus was left behind. What did He know of their struggles all night in that awful storm? He was on shore, safe on the mountainside, right? But, that’s where we’re wrong.

To be sure, the prayer of Jesus focused on His fulfillment of God’s purpose, which did not allow Him to become a political leader in Israel, a usurper of Herod. It meant the cross. But the cross was the gateway to a better Kingdom, one which would last forever. That kingdom required messengers and leaders who would follow after and succeed Jesus after His earthly ministry was done. And, Jesus had chosen twelve of them. So, I take it He prayed not just for His own strength to endure the cross and for the establishing of His Kingdom, but for the twelve disciples who would labor in the world in His place. Read John chapter 17 and see how Jesus prayed for the keeping and preserving of His disciples. His body may have been two miles and a storm from the disciples in the boat, but His Spirit and His conscious thought was with them the entire night. Did He pray for their safety and perseverance in the storm? Absolutely. I’m convinced He prayed passionately for them and their safety.

Think about this now. The disciples are at their most extreme point of desperation. They are in danger of giving in to the turbulent water and drowning. But Jesus not only is with them in prayer, but He treads the waves and defies the winds, and walks out to the disciples. And as they cry out, He is not only visible to them, a manifestation of God Himself, but He speaks to them and says, “It is I. Don’t be afraid.” The Greek text can be translated, “I AM, Stop being afraid.” I am of the opinion that the alternative is the correct translation. Jesus passing by, is declaring His deity, His identity as the Son of God.

You see, Jesus passing by the disciples is not the same thing as Jesus bypassing His disciples. It is like YHWH of old passing by Moses and manifesting His glory before Him because Moses wanted to see God [Exodus 33:19, 22]. It is like YHWH of old passing by Elijah on Mount Horeb [1 Kings 19:11]. Elijah was discouraged and needed to be lifted out of his hopeless depression and so God passed by. And so, on the sea that dim stormy morning, Jesus, the Son of God passed by to encourage and lift up the spirits of His disciples, and to assure them of His presence. How can I be so sure?

The Gospel of Matthew tells us that when Jesus entered the boat, “Those who were in the boat worshiped Him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” Matthew 14:33

O.K. so here’s the point. Everything around us may scream “God is not here!” Medical experts are saying, even if we do everything right, many more thousands of Americans will die of the Covid 19 Corona Virus. But, Christian, be sure of this! We can be absolutely sure that even in the midst of the worst of it, Jesus is near!

When we pray it may seem that the heavens are like brass. It seems like no one is there to listen, but Jesus is right beside us. In point of fact, the adversity we face will get worse over the next two weeks, but you can be sure of this, when you feel like you cannot bear anymore, you will find your eyes opened and you will see the Lord.

It took a divorce I didn’t want, and death I didn’t want to get me there, but in my spirit, I saw the Lord. And if you don’t think you are in a boat somewhere right now, you will surely find yourself in the middle of a storm someday. And, you may think Jesus is on the shore isolated on a mountainside miles away, separated by that storm. But, get ready, your eyes will soon see the reality of His presence. He has not abandoned you.

But one third and final suggestion. God Always Hears Those Who Call on Him in Faith.

Why are verses 53 to 56 a vital part of this story? We hear the cry of the disciples out in the lake. It is ironic isn’t it? They probably prayed “Lord, help us!” never realizing that the Lord was the figure that so terrified them. But He helped them, didn’t He? But He also hears the cries on the shore. So, the Messiah of Isaiah 53 who not only bears our sins but our infirmities, He steps out of the boat and responds to the begging, the pleading, the crying of the sick and those who carried them to Jesus. Jew or gentile, male or female, bond or free; those who call on the name of the Lord, knowing who He is and why He came, will be heard by the Lord. In the boat, in the storm, or on the land, He will hear the call of His own.

The Psalmist declares, “Know that the LORD has set apart the godly for Himself, the LORD will hear when I call to Him.” Psalm 4:3

“The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfills the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cry and saves them”
Psalm 145:18-19

A few days ago, I learned my sister was diagnosed with the Corona Virus. And, she reports mention of old family friend who is likely to succumb to the dread disease. But in both cases, they know the Lord. One is on track for healing, and the other for ultimate healing in the resurrection. Why did they get sick while others are spared? Only God knows, but it is enough to know His best purpose for them will be fully accomplished. And, the joy in this is that Jesus is equally near to both of them, they are not alone, and God is giving them comfort. And, when they are anxious, as we ALL are prone to get in the eye of the storm, Jesus hears their call and delivers them from their fears.

Hey! How is it with you in the midst of the storm? Do you know Jesus as your Lord and Savior? Today, Palm Sunday begins “Holy Week,” and we remember how Jesus was nailed to a wooden cross, to die in your place and mine for our sins, and to reconcile us to God, to make our lives brand new, and so that we could live today, tomorrow and forever with Him. Will you call on the name of the Lord, and let Him into the boat of your life. Let Him be your Savior from sin and the Captain of your vessel. Do it today, and you will find peace in the midst of the storm!










The Benefit of Embracing God’s Word

Biblical illiteracy in America is no secret. While statistics vary from survey to survey, polls tell us that only half of our young people can name the four Gospels, and only a third can identify who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. One must ask, why is it that when the Bible is so readily available today, even as a free app on an iPhone, so many have little more than a casual interest in the Bible?

In an article addressing the problem of biblical illiteracy in America, David Gelernter the famous computer scientist and professor at Yale University reminds us that, “Scripture begins with God creating the world, but there is something these verses don’t tell you: The Bible has itself created worlds. Wherever you stand on the spectrum from devout to atheist, you must acknowledge that the Bible has been a creative force without parallel in history.” But even among those who acknowledge the creative force of the Bible, it does not always motivate them to engage the Holy Book.

I am presently teaching an online course in spiritual formation for Rockbridge Seminary, entitled, The Practice of Spiritual Disciplines, to a class of a dozen graduate students, most of whom are already serving as ministry leaders. Several of the spiritual disciplines focus on the Holy Scriptures, such as: lectio divina or the sacred reading of Scripture, Scripture Memorization, personal Bible study, and meditation. It was striking to discover when first teaching the course eight years ago, that some students had never read through the entire Bible, not even once.

Sad to say, many of those being ordained into Christian ministry today may not be able to name the books of the Bible, or to clearly state in their own words the one central message of the Bible, the main idea that holds it all together. Is it because people have not been taught? Is it because they have not observed their parents and mentors spending time in the Scriptures? Is it a spiritual defect of some kind?

May I humbly suggest a simple reason? Perhaps it is because they have never experienced its benefits. The Scriptures might be likened to spiritual milk, bread and meat, a complete spiritual diet if you will. Some is more easily digested, some requires mild chewing, and some requires long term rumination. But just like we have to introduce adult foods gradually to children until they acquire a taste for them, so we must cultivate a habit and practice that brings us to God’s Word on a daily basis. Yes, as the actor Wilford Brimley used to say in the old Quaker Oats commercial, “It’s the right thing to do!”

The Psalmist declares, “The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul”(Psalm 19:7a NIV). The Hebrew reads, “The Torah (writings of Moses) of Yahweh is whole (complete and sound), restoring the soul.” The Hebrew word underlying our text may also be translated reviving. It reminds me of the word “reset” or “restore” on my computer. It is the same Hebrew word used in Psalm 23:3, where we read, “He refreshes my soul.”

Jesus, shortly after the miracles of feeding the five thousand and quieting the storm in the Sea of Galilee, said to His disciples, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63b ESV). Multiplying the bread and fish in His hands, Jesus restored or refreshed a fainting hungry multitude. By walking on the sea, and quieting the storm, Jesus “reset” the weather restoring peace where there had been fear and anxiety. But it is with His words in the Old Testament and New, spoken by the Breath of God, that He refreshes the soul.

There were two very difficult periods in my life when the difference between an emotional breakdown and functioning responsibly with those I loved and those with whom I worked could have been reduced to time spent meditating on God’s Word each morning. Yes, He spoke peace to me! God speaks through His Word and if embraced by a hungry soul, it energizes the spirit and breaks anxiety. Indeed, I have found over the years, that time alone with God in His Word is like a mini-retreat, reviving the soul.

The New Year Is at Hand: Isn’t It Time to Forgive?

On a hot Sunday afternoon one Memorial Day weekend I phoned Mr. Brown’s daughter (that wasn’t his real name of course), to notify her of her father’s death. Mr. Brown, who resided at the retirement center where I worked, had been terminally ill, but his death did not seem imminent. The staff informed me that his daughter had been to see him earlier that morning, and that there had been some kind of argument between them. Indeed, after talking with his daughter, she confirmed that there had been an argument earlier that day.

It seems, his daughter was getting ready to go on a much needed vacation with her husband, and her father was upset and angry about her leaving, even if only for a few weeks. Mr. Brown felt, and demanded that she should cancel her trip and spend more time with him. As we talked, it became painfully clear to both of us that Mr. Brown did not die because he accidently overdosed on his medication. He died because he was angry with his daughter, and he would not forgive her, ever. His daughter could work through the pain of his death, for he was terminally ill with cancer, but the question was, would she survive the pain of her father’s unforgiveness? I had some doubts.

Over the years, I have found that one of the sins most hurtful and destructive to any human relationship is the sin of unforgiveness. The failure to forgive is destructive to marriages, families, churches, friendships, and according to the famous Mayo Clinic it is destructive to one’s health and well being. And, we’ve said nothing of the damage it does to the believer in Jesus, who professes to be a follower of Christ and how it mars our witness to those we would win for Jesus Christ.

I’ll never forget a class I taught to a group of inner- city church leaders in Rochester, NY. We happened to be talking about forgiveness when a woman, the Christian Education director of her church spoke out and said, “I’m having a real problem with all of this. There are people once close to me, who have hurt me deeply, and I don’t think I can find it in myself to forgive them.”

Many Christians tell me that they struggle in this whole area of forgiving others. Some say they try but “can’t forget.” Others say, “I know the Bible tells us to forgive, but if you knew what happened to me, you’d understand why I can’t let it go.” I have known professing Christians who could and would at the drop of a hat list every offense and every wrong ever done to them, and the persons responsible for doing those wrongs.

I submit to you, that perhaps if we’re serious about wanting God to renew and revive our hearts and our homes, yes, and our churches, we should begin by removing the plaque that may be plugging up the vessels of our spiritual hearts, and most especially the plaque of an unforgiving spirit. So, why not resolve with me at the cusp of another New Year, to deal with any unforgiveness we might be harboring against someone, against anyone, in our hearts?

Jesus taught that the failure to forgive impedes our prayers to the Father for the forgiveness of our own sins. Jesus said,…

“This then is how you should pray…
Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors….”

“For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”Matthew 6:9a, 12, 14-15. NIV

As a child my parents had a rule. No dessert until you’ve cleaned up your plate. My brother and I didn’t always like what was served on the dinner table, but to get dessert we’d stuff just about anything into our cheeks. But then we had a dilemma. If you don’t want to swallow what’s in your mouth, because you do not like it, you cannot eat the ice cream you long for.

When we refuse to forgive, when we choose to hold on to grudges, it is simply not possible for us to receive the forgiveness or anything else God would gladly give us if only we made the space for it in our lives. It is simply impossible to receive the forgiveness God freely offers us without relinquishing the hold we have on the hurts others have caused us.

Hey! Are You Lost?

On a cold December day, ten years ago, Keith and Jennifer Lee of Medford, Oregon were driving home on an isolated mountain road, with a freshly cut “Silver Tipped” Christmas tree tied to the top of their Subaru SUV. The Lees were returning from their annual Christmas tree hunt with a rare trophy highly prized by Christmas Tree lovers. Their four children were eagerly waiting for them at home, but became concerned when a one day outing turned into two days and two days into three. It seems the Lees were rounding a curve on the rugged mountain road and somehow found themselves stuck in ditch filled with two feet of snow. Their all-wheel-drive vehicle simply could not get them out! 

This was not the first time the couple had gotten themselves into trouble on such a winter quest. Just a year before that, they had gotten lost on another snowy mountain road while hunting down the perfect Christmas Tree and couldn’t find their way out of the thick mountain forest, and they had no emergency supplies with them. Fortunately search parties found them early on, and they made it home with a fine Christmas tree. But thinking that they had learned their lesson the following year and in an effort to outsmart the mountains, they took along a cell phone with a GPS, some blankets and 24 bottles of water, but they didn’t plan to get stuck in a ditch or to be out of the range of a cell phone tower.

On the third day out in the harsh cold boonies, Keith managed to figure out a way to free his vehicle and the Lees were finally heading home. Once in range of a cell tower, they called 911 and learned that an aggressive round the clock effort by the Oregon state police had been initiated to locate them. Everyone was quite relieved because there was real concern for their survival, if indeed they were lost.

The Bible tells us that all of us are born into a world of sin and darkness. In short we come into the world, spiritually lost. We are lost in sin and in danger of certain judgment, but the good news is summed up in the words of Jesus, who said,

For the Son of man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.

Luke 19:10 NKJV

God the Father loved us so much that He sent His own Son to find us and rescue us from the curse sin brought upon human race.  God’s desire is to save us and to bring us safely and surely to His home, where we might live with Him for all eternity.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.”

 John 3:16-17 NIV

Our Christmas Hope

As a youngster, and to be honest even as I had gotten a little older, I would begin thinking about Christmas Day just as soon as summer ended. I knew that sometime in August of each year, the Sears Christmas Catalog [the “toy catalog”] would be arriving in the mail, and I could pore over its pages. My brother and sister used to fight with me for the privilege of taking the Sears Christmas catalog to bed. We knew that in early September, Mom would ask us to pick three toys that we might like to receive as a Christmas gift. She couldn’t guarantee which one of the three toys we would get, but we could be fairly confident that we would find one of them under the tree on Christmas morning. Only now do I appreciate the long extra hours Mom had to work during the fall to pay for those special gifts. “No, Susan, there ain’t no Santa Claus!”

In retrospect, the old Sears Christmas Catalog was almost more exciting than any of the gifts, because it promised something very special, something good that we associated with Christmas. It represented the expectations, the longings and desires, all the things the Eastman children most looked forward to… There is a word that describes this kind of anticipation. It is the word “hope.”

I think the meaning of the word hope has all but been forgotten today. The world is no longer safe and secure [not anywhere], and the financial markets may be good right now, but the meltdown of ten years ago is not forgotten. Who knows what will happen in Congress over the next few weeks, or what impact will this have next year’s election? The moral values which have guided our nation and western nations for centuries are being trampled underfoot. Godlessness is considered a greater virtue than godliness, today. We are heartsick hearing about the young teenager, who takes his or her own life, because there is nothing to live for.  Worse yet, the church is saying very little about hope,  and of all places that is the one place where one should find hope! 

If I were to ask you, what is it you hope for, and why do you hope for it, what would you say? Or perhaps you would honestly say, I don’t know what I should be hoping for, and if I did would I be able to hope for it.  I would like to talk to you this morning from the nativity narrative in Luke’s Gospel about the nature of hope. It is one of the key lessons of Advent. Next week, we’ll talk about Advent and the lesson of faith. Paul the apostle said,

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.”  1 Corinthians 13:13 NIV.

So, from the Advent narratives let’s learn something about the nature of hope this morning.

The biblical idea of hope is powerfully illustrated for us in Luke’s portrait of an old man named Simeon.  The account begins some 40 days after Mary gave  birth to Jesus. Jewish law regarded mothers of newborn boys as unclean for seven days because of the bleeding associated with giving birth. The law also required a waiting period of 33 days after that to be sure there was no further bleeding. If there is no bleeding during that period of time, the mother was required to bring her son to the Tabernacle or Temple and offer a pair of doves or pigeons as a sacrifice to the Lord. There she would dedicate her child to God. This where our story begins. Joseph and Mary are bringing Jesus to the Temple to present Him to the Lord. There they encounter an old man whose name is Simeon. And this is what Luke tells us:

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God,…                    Luke 2:25-28 NIV.

There is little said of Simeon in the Bible. All of what we know, and all we really must know is summed up by Luke in verses 25-35 of chapter 2. Though we typically picture him as old, Luke never says that. There is some reason to believe however, that he might have been the same Simeon mentioned by ancient rabbis, the son of a famous rabbi named Hillel and the father of the apostle Paul’s mentor, the rabbi called Gamaliel. If so, that is significant because tradition tells us that Simeon was considered something of a misfit by his more Zionistic peers, who dismissed him for his quiet piety and lack of political zeal. He did not believe that a military solution was the key to Israel’s future, but rather a spiritual one, and he wasn’t hoping for a Messiah with a sword, but for a Messiah who would bring peace to His people and salvation to the nations. But all we really need to know about Simeon is summed up by Luke, and Luke reveals in this man the nature of true hope! One phrase seems to capture the hope of Simeon. It is found in verse 25 where we read,

“He was waiting for the consolation [comfort] of Israel.” Luke 2:25b

The comfort of Israel refers to the coming of the Messiah as prophesied in Isaiah 40:1-5.

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received double for all her sins.

A voice of one calling ‘In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’” Isaiah 40:1-5.

Simeon embraced the message of Isaiah and looked for the Messiah who would fulfill all the great prophecies of the Old Testament. Like a child with a Sears Christmas Catalog, he pored over the Scripture, savoring every good thing God had promised His people in the Christ to come. The word translated “waiting” [prosdechomenos from prosdechomai] meant that Simeon was living with expectancy, he was actively looking forward to the comfort of God’s people, he waited but it was watchful waiting…like Christmas is coming, only it was the real Christmas with the real Christ!

What the OT saints did not see, was that the coming of Messiah would be two events [just as we sometimes see two mountain peaks one behind the other, but they appear from a distance to be one, only they are two],  The first advent would bring Christ into the world as the suffering servant to die for the sins of His people, and the second advent yet to come would bring Christ into the world to judge the nations, and establish His rule over the world from the throne of David in Jerusalem. This is something understood in the NT, clearly taught in the Gospels and the epistles. But somehow it seems Simeon did understand enough to know that it was the same Messiah who would both atone for the sins of the people, and rule the nations in peace. And, Simeon was actively looking, waiting on the edge of his seat, yes, hoping to see the one who would fulfill the prophecies in his own lifetime with his very own eyes. Whether Simeon was the son of Hillel, a middle-aged man, or whether he lived to be 200 years of age, as the Eastern Orthodox Church teaches, Simeon thrived on this hope and the expectation of seeing the Christ in his lifetime.

You and I know that Christ came two millennia ago, died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead and ascended bodily into heaven. Two thousand years have passed, and we know for a fact that we live two thousand years closer to His Second Coming than did the apostles. We are living in the latter days though we do not know for sure exactly when Christ will come again. But our hope is that He will come soon. It is near. It is at the door. In the next 50 years? Perhaps. In the next 25 years? Perhaps. In the next ten years? Perhaps. In the next five years? Perhaps. In the next year? Perhaps. Next month? Perhaps. This week? Perhaps. Today? Perhaps. But He will certainly come just as certainly as He ascended into heaven before several eyewitnesses 40 days after His resurrection! And when He comes…the crooked will be made straight! Yes, that is our Christmas Hope!

Maranatha!