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Showing posts with label Suffering. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Suffering. Show all posts

Monday, December 10, 2018

Suffering Prayer

I highly recommend Richard Foster's book, Prayer, as a resource as you study prayer.  Foster's book has been a valuable resource to me as I've developed this series on prayer and in my own efforts to deepen my prayer life.

There is a shallow, imposter Christianity--one popular with many, many people--that says believing in Jesus will keep you safe from suffering (or at least, will help you suffer less than those who don’t believe).  And many of us, if we are honest, spend most of our time praying that God will protect us from or take away our suffering.  And yet, again and again, the Bible talks about suffering as inevitable and even an essential ingredient in a Christian’s spiritual development.  Jesus promised we would suffer because we follow him as Lord and Savior.  In fact, he said, “If you want to follow me, you must deny yourself everyday and take up your cross and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)  The cross itself, is a torture device that was designed specifically to cause excruciating, long lasting pain.  And Christians are only faithful when we choose to pick one up everyday as we follow our Lord.  So, far from ending our suffering or even helping us to avoid it, the Christian faith seems to guarantee we will suffer if we choose to follow Christ--the suffering servant of God.  Now, to be sure, the suffering we endure is nothing compared to the joy of know the love of God through Jesus Christ or the glory of eternal life.  However, we will suffer in this life.

Suffering takes us out of the shallow waters of pop-Christianity into the deep waters of real intimacy with God.  To know true suffering, is to know something of what Christ knew as he hung on the cross; it gives us empathy with the Son of God who suffered for our sins. We understand in our very own aching bones:  this is the price of our rebellion. We know the pain only in part, but Christ bore the full hell of sin--the weight of every person's sin, the whole world's, completely.  So today, we will consider suffering as Scripture often does:  as a deep form of prayer, suffering prayer.

2 Corinthians 4:6-10
6 For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.
7 We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.
8 We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. 9 We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. 10 Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.

God’s Word is Unchanging
I am so thankful for the Bible! Were it not for the unchanging Word of God, we would be lost in the shifting sands of the world's pop-philosophies.  The world today says, “Suffering is bad.”  That’s just an unchallenged idea in America these days.  Perhaps our “avoid suffering at all cost” mentality is the root cause of many of our problems:  
  • kids that have no self-discipline because their parents sheltered them from all suffering,
  • a sense of entitlement--like everything should just be given to us
  • and obesity is an epidemic in our society because exercise is a form of self-imposed suffering that few want to endure.  Better to just indulge ourselves as much as possible.

Most people take the easy road, one that bypasses short term suffering but leads to greater suffering down the road.  We do not have the will to be healthy because it requires suffering and the world has told us the lie that suffering is bad and must be avoided at all costs.  But the Word of God tells a deeper Truth:  suffering can be a virtue--when endured rightly by those who place all their faith in Jesus Christ.  Who do you believe?  The world or the Word of God?

Suffering Prayer
Prayer is so much more than we might have thought.  Most of us are familiar with prayer as:  something a preacher does in worship on Sundays, or a blessing before a meal, or asking God to help us or our loved one’s with a problem.  However, the colorful spectrum of prayer is much wider just than these few hues. Prayer comes in many forms.  One important type of prayer is called “suffering prayer”.  Suffering prayer is prayer that asks God to use our difficulties in a redeeming way.  

We all face trials in life.  Some are only minor irritations--a traffic jam or aching muscles or a cashier at the grocery store who was not very polite.  Other suffering comes from deep tragedies—our home burns down or our our parents neglect us or we lose someone we love.  Whatever the trials may be, you can turn them into a suffering prayer.  When you suffer, pray that God would use your troubles for redemptive purposes.  You can pray as Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” (Matthew 26:39).  Jesus didn’t want to suffer, but he was willing to accomplish God’s greater good--the salvation of the world.  You too can ask God to turn your suffering into a blessing--for you and for others.  You could pray something like this:  “Lord, my feet are hurting today.  May their aching remind me of those in the world who don’t have good shoes to wear.  Take my suffering and turn it into a blessing for someone who’s in need.”  Or as you encounter a rude sales clerk this busy Christmas season, pray to yourself, “Jesus, I don’t know why they’re being so rude, but people were rude to you too.  Help me to be patient and a humble servant like you.  And please show your love to this clerk, for I don’t know what they are enduring.”

Another way to use suffering prayer is to voluntarily suffer on behalf of others in order to help set them free.  There is a way to listen as others share their troubles and prayerfully feel the pain with them.  I have at times been moved to tears by hearing someone’s pain.  I felt something of of what they felt.  Others have sometime done this for me as too.  When this happens, the load becomes lighter; two people can carry a sorrow better than one.  It is a fulfillment of Galatians 6:2, “Share one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.”  Now, it is also important to say you must let go of that burden after a short time.  No one should carry other people’s burdens for too long.  It could become too much and crush you.  As a pastor, I am always hearing of other people’s troubles.  Someone is always fighting with demons or falling ill or going to the hospital or grieving a loved one who dies.  I take each one seriously, but I cannot carry all of their pain, all the time.  So I try to carry it for a little while and then give it to Jesus, who is the only one who can carry all of it, all the time.

Fasting can be a very meaningful spiritual exercise that, unfortunately, is practiced too little in the Church in America.  Fasting is voluntarily denying yourself food for a time in order to seek spiritual nourishment.  Fasting could also be giving up other things besides food--like watching TV or using social media.  Fasting is a form of self-inflicted suffering.  Done rightly, fasting is not a way to go on a diet or lose weight; it is a deep form of suffering prayer.  Fasting has been a valuable tool for spiritual growth in the Christian Church for 2,000 years.  Many people in the Bible fasted in order to draw closer to God.  Jesus, himself, practiced fasting.  He fasted for 40 days and nights in the wilderness just before he began his earthly ministry.  Jesus also taught that some demons can only be overcome through prayer and fasting (Mark 9:29 KJV).

It’s very common to tell someone struggling with a problem you will pray for them.  “I’m having surgery this Friday.”  “Oh!  I’ll pray for you.”  It encourages them and our prayers are a blessing.  But consider this, how would they feel if you offered to fast for them?  Perhaps they say, “I have a interview for a new job tomorrow and I’m worried about it.”  And you say, “Friend, I’m gonna pray for you and I’m going to fast for you too.”  Maybe you could skip breakfast or lunch as a fast on their behalf.  Ask God to use your suffering as a prayer for them.

Suffering prayer keeps us humble and reminds us that we are very FRA-JI-LEE (fragile).  It is wonderful news that everyone who believes in Jesus Christ is adopted into the royal family of God.  We are kings and queens--a royal priesthood in God’s Kingdom.  The divine light of Christ shines in our hearts, but 2 Corinthians 4:6 says we carry that divine light in fragile clay jars.  We are tremendously blessed, but don’t be too proud of yourself because we are easily broken.  Pride not only leads us away from God, it numbs us to the glorious presence of God all around us. 

Suffering Prayer draws us away from our prideful delusions of grandeur back into the reality of God’s glory and love.  Through suffering, 2 Corinthians 4:10 says, “...our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.” How might you use suffering prayer to go deeper in your prayer life?  Perhaps Christ is calling you to a more faithful and deeper  prayer life through the use of suffering prayer.

A Prayer on Suffering by Bernadette Soubirous
Bernadette Soubirous [Sue – B – Roo] was a sickly child born in 1844 to a impoverished family in France.  Her family was so poor they lived in the one-room basement of a friend that was formerly used as a jail cell.  Bernadette contracted cholera as a toddler and suffered from severe asthma for the rest of her life.  Her poor health stunted her growth.  She only grew to 4’7” tall.  Bernadette joined the Sisters of Charity working as an assistant in the infirmary until she died at the age of 35.  Her life-long suffering kept her in constant communion with God.  She is remembered and honored for her deep humility and spirit of sacrifice.  I would like to conclude with her Prayer on Suffering (adapted):

Heavenly Father, we suffer. All our cries of anguish rise to You, our Comforter. In Your adorable heart, we grieve. To Your heart, we confide our sighs, our anguish, our grief to Your grief.  Jesus, sanctify our sufferings by this holy union. Grant that by increasing our love for You, our grief may become lighter and easier to bear.  Amen.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

When You Need Help, God is With You

            Over the next few weeks, I will share a series of blogs based on lessons from the book of Daniel, which tells the story of Daniel and his Judean companions who were living in exile in Babylon.  (This will also be the theme of my church's vacation Bible school later this month.  If you have kids or grandkids and live near Dalton, GA, we'd love to have you bring them to our VBS.  They will have a great time and learn a lot.  Plus, we'll feed them dinner and it's all free!)
            Daniel was a bright young Judean noble who lived around 600 B.C.  Judea was the southern kingdom of Israel.  The northern kingdom fell about a century before Daniel lived because it was very wicked.  The southern kingdom was guilty of their own share of sin too.  For centuries, God had warned them through prophets that they were not living the way God told them to live in the Old Testament law.  They, lied, cheated, were sexually immoral, and they worshipped idols.  God warned them again and again to stop these things and follow God's laws for holy living, but they did not. 
            Finally, time to repent ran out and they had to face the consequences of their continued and grievous sin and rebellion against God.  The army of the great Babylonian empire, which was the most powerful in all the world at the time, came sweeping in to conquer Judea.  The Babylonians captured and destroyed the Judeans' capital, Jerusalem, and burned the Jewish temple to the ground.  All the people who were not killed or executed in the battle were taken away into exile in Babylon.  They were forced to change their names, speak a different language, and follow foreign customs.  The best and brightest among the Judeans, like a young man named Daniel, were forced to serve the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar.  However, God did not forget His people.  It grieved Him to see the Jews suffering--even though it was their own sin that caused it--and God continued to be with His people and help them through their troubles.
            If you ever feel like your community doesn't reflect your values, your hopes and dreams, the story of Daniel is perfect for you.  If you are a conservative who mourns how society's values are slipping away until they no longer reflect your values, Daniel is for you.  If you are a progressive who feels society has not yet grown and changed and matured into the values you hold dear, the story of Daniel is for you.  Daniel is the story of a people forced to live as aliens among a foreign people, who had to learn to navigate the tricky world of getting along with a people who were not like them without compromising their own core beliefs.  I think Daniel is such a relevant story for 21st century America.
            It is important to say at this point (and for us always to remember) the suffering Daniel and his countrymen experience was not because of God; it was because of sin.  God did not cause them to suffer; they suffered because they behaved badly.  The same is true when we suffer.  God doesn't cause our pain; we suffer because of sin.   Sometimes we suffer because of our own sin.  Maybe we made a mistake or deliberately did something we knew we shouldn't and as a result, we experience the bad results of our bad choices.  We all can probably think of times in our life when this was the case.  As an example: maybe we were driving too fast, not paying careful attention, and we had an accident.  Then our car was totaled and we were injured.  Our actions led directly to our suffering.
            However, our personal suffering is not always caused by our own bad behavior.  We might not have done anything wrong at all, yet we still suffer.  To take the example I just mentioned:  maybe we were driving safely; maybe we were paying close attention, but someone else wasn't and they ran into us.  It was not our sin, but theirs that totaled our car and injured us.  Sometimes the suffering we face in this life is because of other peoples' sin, but it is always because of sin and not God.  The sins of humanity have led to a broken world.  Even nature is not as it should be.  Yes it is beautiful and good in many ways, but it is also corrupted and full of suffering and death.  The darkness we see is the result of the accumulated sin of all humanity--mine, yours, everyones.  However, it is not because of God.
            This is an important concept to know, because it means we can turn to God for help.  God does not want us to suffer.  God didn't cause the suffering.  He warns us and pleads with us to behave right so we won't suffer.  And He watches sadly when we ignore Him and thus feel the painful consequences of our misbehavior.  And He is always willing to help when we repent and turn to Him for help.  Psalm 46:1 says, "God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble."
            Let me share a wonderful and intriguing story of a time God helped Daniel and his friends while they were in captivity in Babylon. 

Daniel 2:1-19 1One night during the second year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar had such disturbing dreams that he couldn’t sleep. He called in his magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and astrologers, and he demanded that they tell him what he had dreamed. As they stood before the king, he said, “I have had a dream that deeply troubles me, and I must know what it means.”

Then the astrologers answered the king in Aramaic,[c] “Long live the king! Tell us the dream, and we will tell you what it means.”

But the king said to the astrologers, “I am serious about this. If you don’t tell me what my dream was and what it means, you will be torn limb from limb, and your houses will be turned into heaps of rubble! But if you tell me what I dreamed and what the dream means, I will give you many wonderful gifts and honors. Just tell me the dream and what it means!”

They said again, “Please, Your Majesty. Tell us the dream, and we will tell you what it means.”

The king replied, “I know what you are doing! You’re stalling for time because you know I am serious when I say, ‘If you don’t tell me the dream, you are doomed.’ So you have conspired to tell me lies, hoping I will change my mind. But tell me the dream, and then I’ll know that you can tell me what it means.” 

10 The astrologers replied to the king, “No one on earth can tell the king his dream! And no king, however great and powerful, has ever asked such a thing of any magician, enchanter, or astrologer! 11 The king’s demand is impossible. No one except the gods can tell you your dream, and they do not live here among people.”

12 The king was furious when he heard this, and he ordered that all the wise men of Babylon be executed. 13 And because of the king’s decree, men were sent to find and kill Daniel and his friends.

14 When Arioch, the commander of the king’s guard, came to kill them, Daniel handled the situation with wisdom and discretion. 15 He asked Arioch, “Why has the king issued such a harsh decree?” So Arioch told him all that had happened. 16 Daniel went at once to see the king and requested more time to tell the king what the dream meant.

17 Then Daniel went home and told his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah what had happened. 18 He urged them to ask the God of heaven to show them his mercy by telling them the secret, so they would not be executed along with the other wise men of Babylon. 19 That night the secret was revealed to Daniel in a vision. Then Daniel praised the God of heaven.

Everyone Needs Help
            Everyone needs help from time to time.  There's no shame in asking for help.  Just make sure you ask the right person for help--someone who can actually help you.  Did you note that everyone in the story from Daniel needs help.  Even the mighty King, Nebuchadnezzar, needed help because he had a terrible nightmare.  Everyone has nightmares and you can usually just wake up, realize it was just a dream, and go back to sleep in peace.  But King Neb had a dream he felt was different.  It was like the very voice of God was speaking to him and he had to know why.  He could not sleep in peace until he did.  Unfortunately, King Neb turned to the wrong people for help.  We can't blame him.  He was not a follower of the One, True God--the God of the Judeans he conquered.  Neb and the Babylonians believed there were many gods.  Their spiritual beliefs were all mixed up.  So when Nebuchadnezzar needed help, he turned to his magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and astrologers for help.  And they couldn't really help, which meant...  
           Nebuchadnezzar's royal advisors were in big trouble too!  The desperately needed help because their lives were on the line!  The king asked the impossible.  If he'd just asked them to interpret the dream, they could have come up with some creative and plausible explanation. (That's what astrologists do.  They make a vague statement about your life based on irrelevant information and when you read it you think, "Oh, that sounds just like me.  It's probably true!)  Maybe that's why wise old king Neb decided not to tell them his dream.  He figured, if they really did have some special insight, they'd be able to tell him what he dreamed and what it meant.  Does your boss or teacher or parents or kids (or anyone) ever make absolutely unreasonable demands of you?  Something that's just seems impossible?  You have to respond or else face the consequences. You need help--supernatural help.  King Neb's advisors needed supernatural help.  Exasperated, they told the king, "No one but the gods can do what you're asking and the gods don't live here among the people.”
            Actually, yes He does.  That is the beauty and wonder of the Good News of God's story in the Bible.  God knew we desperately needed His help.  And so He came and lived among us as a human being in the man, Jesus.  He was born of a virgin named Mary.  He lived as one of us.  He experienced all that we experience.  He suffered torture at the hands of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.  Jesus was crucified on a cross and died and was buried.  On the third day after his death, he rose from the dead.  He ascended to heaven and now his Holy Spirit lives inside any person who puts their whole trust in Jesus Christ.  So yes, God does live among the people.  He hasn't forgotten us and He can and will help us if we ask Him.
            That was good news for Daniel, because he was one Nebuchadnezzar's royal advisors.  He was to be killed with all the rest if he couldn't tell the king what he dreamed and what it meant.  So Daniel also needed help.  Fortunately, Daniel knew the One True and Living God, the God of the Holy Bible, the God who created the whole universe, who controls world events, who sets up kingdoms and also tears them down, who gives wisdom to those who ask, and reveals hidden secrets like dreams and their meanings.  So Daniel asked God for help.
            Kings and kingdoms come in all forms. At the moment, they seem all powerful and everlasting, but they come and go. Only God and His Kingdom last forever. Our problems can also seem immense and overwhelming and unstoppable, but they come and they go.  God is bigger than any problem you are facing or ever will face.  And God was bigger than even the life threatening problem Daniel and his friends faced at the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar.  When you have a problem, pray and ask God for help.  He can and will help you.

So What Was the Dream?
            The full story of how God revealed Nebuchadnezzar's dream and it's meaning through Daniel is found in Daniel 2:29-46.  I'll summarize it.  King Neb dreamed about a giant statue made of many different types of material.  The statue and each section represented the empires that would rule the world in the future.  The statue had a golden head that represented Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian empire.  It seemed inconceivable that his empire would ever end, but it would end and be replaced by another, the Persian Empire represented by the statue's silver breast and arms.  Then would come the  Greek Empire, represented by the statue's brass belly and thighs.  Next would be the Roman Empire, represented by the statue's iron legs.  These great kingdoms would be succeeded by divided kingdoms, represented by the feet of the statue made from a weak mixture of clay and iron. 
            All of these kingdom were thought to be so great and powerful.  The people who lived in them never imagined they would not last forever, yet today, we can barely remember their names or where they were or who ruled them.  They came and went and were mostly forgotten, accept in dusty history books that few people read. 
            There was one more part of the dream and it's the important part that we need to know and remember most.  In the dream, there was a Rock (and not Dwayne Johnson).  This Rock represented Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God.  Daniel 2:34-35 says:  "34 As you watched, a rock was cut from a mountain, but not by human hands. It struck the feet of iron and clay, smashing them to bits. 35 The whole statue was crushed into small pieces of iron, clay, bronze, silver, and gold. Then the wind blew them away without a trace, like chaff on a threshing floor. But the rock that knocked the statue down became a great mountain that covered the whole earth."
            The Rock was not made by human hands.  The Rock is Jesus and his Church (The Kingdom of God).  Remember, Jesus was not made by human hands.  He was born of the Virgin Mary and conceived through the Holy Spirit of God.  He is the Son of God.  You see: not made by human hands.  And Jesus alluded to this himself when he told the parable of the wise man who built his house upon the rock (Luke 6:48).  If you build your life upon Jesus (The Rock), when the storms come, you will stand firm.  But if you build your house upon sand--the things in this world that seem so big and important but which really aren't in the eternal scheme of things--then you will be washed away when the storms of life rage.
            And have you heard what Jesus said to his disciple Simon (Matthew 16:18)?  Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was and Simon answered Jesus was the Son of the living God.  Jesus replied, “Simon, from now on I will call your “Peter" (which means rock) and on this kind of faith I will build my Church and not even the gates of Hell will be able to stand against it!”  The Church, the Kingdom of God, is built on the rock of faith in Jesus.  And it has been growing ever since, becoming a mountain; today more people adhere to Christianity than any other world religion.  And the concepts of love and forgiveness and grace have already become infused into so much of what people believe today (even those who do not claim to be Christians).
            The Bible also says Jesus is the cornerstone of a new Temple, a new and different kind of Kingdom (Matthew 21:42).  The religious leaders and political leaders of his day rejected Jesus, but he became a stumbling block that tripped them up and brought their kingdoms down and crushed them to oblivion—not by the might of any kingdom’s army, but by the love and grace and forgiveness of Almighty God.
            And in King Nebuchadnezzar's dream, the Rock smashes into the feet of the statue and it all comes crumbling down and is crushed to dust that the wind blows away.  Can you here the band Kansas singing the old song, "Dust in the wind!  All we are is dust in the wind!"  And the interpretation of the rock in Nebuchadnezzar's dream is this:  All the great empires of this world eventually fall and are blown away like dust in the wind, but God's Kingdom, founded on faith in Jesus Christ (The Rock) and not made by human hands, is eternal.

So What Does It Mean for Me?
            God wants to help you with your problems, but he wants to do more than give you a temporary fix.  The various problems of this life--both big and small--will come and go.  Jesus came to help us fix the core problem that's at the root of it all--sin.  Sin is doing things our way instead of God's way.  It is rebelling against the One who made us and gave us life and purpose.  Sin is the ultimate idolatry--always looking to things or people or kingdoms or even ourselves to provide what only God can provide.  Sin always disappoints and leads to trouble.
            Remember, the suffering we face in this life is not because of God; it is caused by sin--whether it is our own personal sin or the sins of others.  Jesus came to conquer sin and offer grace and forgiveness.  Jesus came to enable us to turn away from sin and come back to God--the source of abundant, hope-filled, satisfying, joyful, eternal life.
            Will you truly turn to the Lord and ask for help?  Because, when we need help, God is with us.  Ask Him for help with all your problems.  More importantly, ask Him to help you with the core problem--your sin.  How do you do it?  It's simple.  Do as Daniel and his friends did.  Ask the God of Heaven to show you mercy.  Close your eyes and talk to God in a prayer.  Say:

"God of Heaven, thank you for sending Jesus to pay the price for my sin.  Please forgive my sin and save me.  Help me to follow Jesus as my Lord from now on.  Help me to obey You and so avoid as much as possible the troubles caused by the sin in this world until the day I come Home to be with you in Heaven where there is no more sin or suffering or death.  Amen."

            If this is your earnest desire and prayer, God will save you through Jesus Christ.  He will forgive your sin.  You will begin to experience a release from much of the suffering caused by sin in this life.  And you will have eternal life with God in the next life where there will be no more sin and the suffering sin brings.  You are a Christian--one who follows Christ as Lord and Savior.  You may still face troubles in this world (because this world is not your true home), but do not fear because Jesus has already over come this world.  The problems and kingdoms of this world will soon fade away like dust in the wind.  However, the Rock of Jesus and his Kingdom will stand forever.  Rejoice that you are now part of His eternal Kingdom!


Thursday, February 2, 2017

Genesis, Part 3 - Joseph

            Last week we talked about Father Abraham.  Abraham had Isaac, Isaac had Jacob, Jacob had twelve sons—including his favorite Joseph. All these men are known as the Patriarchs, because they are the fathers of our faith.  One thing Genesis shows us is how God’s plans play out over many generations. Genesis tells the fascinating stories of individuals, but the grand story sweeps through the generations right down to us today.
            God said in Isaiah 55:9 – “For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.”  Our thinking is so small, but God has a grand plan. You are part of it, but never forget you are not the whole of it.  Perhaps the Patriarchs could imagine how their lives might affect their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren; but Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could not even begin to imagine that 4,000 years later, you and I would be sitting in a sanctuary—with central heat and air conditioning, electric chandeliers, and visual illustrations of their story on our televisions.
            You are part of God’s story—your life, your family, your struggles, and your hopes and dreams. But always remember, your story has more significance than just what you can see and imagine. It will reverberate through the generations to come, possibly for thousands of years. You can only see a small part of what God is doing—and that only if you are very perceptive. So, you must trust God with it all—especially that part you cannot see or understand.
            Today we will pick up the story of Jacob’s son Joseph. Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son.  He was born into a dysfunctional family.  His father had two wives, concubines, and twelve sons.  If that were not already a recipe for disaster, add to it Jacob's favoritism for one wives over the others and on son over the others.  Furthermore, Joseph was a punk little daddy's boy who, in arrogance, liked to taunt his brothers with his status as the "golden boy."
             Joseph had a big-headed dream.  In the dream (which he promptly told his family with selfish-pride), he said, “The sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed low before me.”  The sun and moon represented Joseph’s father and mother; the 11 stars his 11 brothers.  Even Joseph’s father was offended by Joseph’s arrogance in telling the dream.  "Will even your mother and I bow down before you?"  When I was a kid, my mom used to refer to this episode any time I got to conceded or sassy.  She would say, "So, you think the sun moon and stars bow down to you."
            Joseph dream came from God and would eventually come true, but in his youthful arrogance, Joseph didn’t realize the trials that would lead up to the fulfillment of that dream. He would endure decades of hardship and humiliation before anyone would bow down before him. Joseph would need to learn humility, leadership, integrity, and endure the cost of remaining true to God before he was ready to be used as God’s instrument for God’s glory, not his own.
            One day, Joseph's brothers saw him coming and the seized him, beat him, and threw him in a pit.  Rather than kill him, they decided to sell him into slavery and lie to his father and say a wild beast killed him.  So, Joseph was taken to Egypt where he became a slave in Potiphar's house.  But God was with Joseph and he prospered in Potiphar's house so that Potiphar put him in charge of everything.  But Potiphar's wife often sexually harassed Joseph.  And when he wouldn't play along, she accused him of trying to rape her--even though he was completely innocent.  Potiphar had Joseph thrown into prison so he became even lower than a slave.  Yet God was still with Joseph.
            All together, Joseph spent 22 years as a slave or in prison in Egypt before one day Pharaoh had a troubling dream than no one could interpret.  Word came to Joseph about the dream and he was able to interpret the dream for Pharaoh, saying Egypt would experience 7 years of bounty followed by 7 years of famine.  This pleased Pharaoh to the point he made Joseph his second in command and put him in charge of the famine relief efforts.  They stored away surplus food  during the 7 good years and lived off the stores during the 7 years of famine.  Additionally, they were able to sell food to some of the peoples and tribes surrounding Egypt.
            The famine even drove Joseph’s brothers to Egypt to buy food and his dream was finally fulfilled.  Joseph’s brothers bowed low before him, though they don’t recognize him.  Joseph finally reveals his identity in Genesis chapter 45. 

Slides - Genesis 45:3-8
“I am Joseph!” he said to his brothers. “Is my father still alive?” But his brothers were speechless! They were stunned to realize that Joseph was standing there in front of them. “Please, come closer,” he said to them. So they came closer. And he said again, “I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into slavery in Egypt.But don’t be upset, and don’t be angry with yourselves for selling me to this place. It was God who sent me here ahead of you to preserve your lives. This famine that has ravaged the land for two years will last five more years, and there will be neither plowing nor harvesting. God has sent me ahead of you to keep you and your families alive and to preserve many survivors. So it was God who sent me here, not you! And he is the one who made me an adviser to Pharaoh—the manager of his entire palace and the governor of all Egypt.

It was God
            Joseph says something incredible to his brothers. He declares them innocent saying, “Don’t be upset, and don’t be angry with yourselves for selling me to this place. It was God who sent me here, not you!” (45:5, 8)  Consider the faith it takes to make such a statement.  Such faith sees that God is in charge of everything.  This great faith believes that God can even take the evil plots of other people and turning them into good.  Furthermore, it is a great faith that recognizes God has the right to subject us to suffering for the sake of His plans.
           You are His creation. He has all rights to you. Why do we ever think God must always treat us well?  You are an instrument in His mighty hand. Your purpose is to serve Him. Why should the God of the universe need to justify Himself to you if He chooses to use you as the hammer that pounds in a nail to His master plan?  Or suppose He decided you should be the nail that is hammered?  How can you rightfully object?
            Consider Jesus. Jesus was nailed to a cross and died a cruel, agonizing, and humiliating death for the salvation of the world.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed—“Father, if there is any other way to accomplish Your plan, please remove this cup of suffering from me. But not my will but Yours be done.”  Ultimately, Jesus was willing to die, because he trusted God and knew his crucifixion would wash the sins of the world clean forever and and reconcile us to God. 
            Jesus is the only one who didn't deserve to be crucified, yet he was willing for the sake of our salvation.  We do not deserve good, but we usually get it anyway.  Why should we complain if we receive trouble instead of a life of ease?
            In faith, Joseph saw God made a way to preserve his whole family. Furthermore, all of Egypt was spared from the ravages of the famine.  And how many lives of people from neighboring tribes were spared?  Were all these lives--and ultimately God's plan which came through Jacob's decedents--worth the suffering Joseph endured?  You decide.  But also consider how sending Joseph to Egypt as a slave refined his character and ultimately save Jacob and his 12 sons and all their wives and children and servants and livestock.

Do You Have Faith in God?
            Do you have the faith to trust God to accomplish His master plan for you—even if it is hard?  Do you trust God to use suffering to humble you and refine your character?  Joseph was a good boy with great potential. But he was also full of pride and arrogance. He could also be cruel—flaunting his status as “the favorite” in his brothers’ faces on purpose even though he must have known they were already wounded by their father's favoritism.  So God used those 22 years of slavery and prison in Egypt to humble and refine Joseph’s character.  Does your suffering make you bitter and resentful or does your faith enable you to see God is making you a better person?
            Do you have the faith to forgive those who have wronged you?  Do you trust God enough to relinquish your claim to vengeance?  Do you trust God to punish those who have done wrong (even to you or the people you love) according to His great wisdom and mercy? Do you trust Him to be fair—to forgive those who need mercy and to punish those who need justice? (Isn’t it ironic that we want mercy for ourselves, but punishment for others?)
            Do you have the faith to reconcile with those whom you have forgiven?  Forgiveness is one thing. It is wiping away the debt someone owes you.  Reconciliation is another thing. It is rebuilding a new relationship with someone after the debt is forgiven.  Joseph did more than forgive his brothers. He reconciled with them. He loved them again—caring for them, protecting them.  Jesus does more than just forgive us. He reconciles with us. Rev. 3:20—“ “Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends.”  Do you have the faith to reconcile with those who have hurt you?  (Not everyone can be reconciled; and some it may not even be possible or healthy to reconcile with.  But if it is, are you willing?)

            I suppose not many of us think we would do such a despicable thing as sell our brother or sister into slavery.  (Although there might be some…)  But listen to the Word of God in Psalm 14:2-3 – “The Lord looks down from heaven on the entire human race; he looks to see if anyone is truly wise, if anyone seeks God.  But no, all have turned away; all have become corrupt.  No one does good, not a single one!”
            Brothers and sisters, we have all sinned.  We have all turned our backs on our brother Jesus.  We have all betrayed him, by what we have done or left undone.  Sometimes, by our very attitudes, we have nailed him to the cross.  We crucify him whenever we prefer the comforts of this world over the calling of God.  We crucify him whenever we are ashamed of what someone might think of us if they find out we are one of those “church people.”  We crucify him whenever we give in to the temptations of the flesh—whether it is sexual sin, or gossip, or cheating, or lying, or eating too much, or indulging our ego.  In those occasions and more, we are little better than Joseph’s brothers (according to God’s holy standards).  So do not think yourself innocent or better than any other sinner in this world.
            There may be a few here who feel as though they have done worse.  Perhaps you feel about as low and vulnerable as Joseph’s brothers as they bowed before him.  Perhaps you feel as though God is standing over you poised to execute His terrible judgment at any moment.
            That is why the message of Christ is called the Good News. It is Good News to everyone who realizes their sin and repents because God does not give us what we deserve.  Instead of punishment, He gives us pardon.  Instead of banishment, He gives us a new relationship.  Instead of death, He gives us eternal life.  Instead of sorrow, He gives us joy.  And in faith, even the suffering we face is a blessing because we know God is working out His master plan for us and for the whole world.
            So I woul like to invite you to listen to God and respond to Him.  Perhaps you can respond by trusting God through Jesus Christ instead of depending so much on yourself, others, or the things of this world.  Perhaps you can respond by forgiving someone or forgiving yourself.  Or maybe, God is calling you to reconcile with someone.  Whoever has ears to hear, listen to the Word of the Lord.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Lessons from the Fire

Isaiah 43:1b-3a

            We had a fire last Sunday at Pleasant Grove UMC.  Our church van was parked under the breezeway between our gym and the promise building and it caught on fire (or was set on fire--it's still under investigation).  The van was destroyed and the promise building sustained smoke and water damage and there is no power to the building.  It was a sad loss, but I am very thankful no one was hurt.  It could have been much worse.  I'm very thankful to God who watched over us and I'm thankful to everyone who has helped us work through the aftermath of our fire.
            It's been a hectic week, but I’ve still had time to think about what God would have me say this Sunday—the first Sunday after the fire.  There are some lessons we can glean from the experience I want to share, but before we get to that, hear the Word of God to us this morning from Isaiah 43:1b-3a.

Isaiah 43:1b-3a
“Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you.
    I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you go through deep waters,
    I will be with you.
When you go through rivers of difficulty,
    you will not drown.
When you walk through the fire of oppression,
    you will not be burned up;
    the flames will not consume you.
For I am the Lord, your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

The Meaning of the Passage
            These words of Isaiah were given to God's people in Judah, foretelling their future.  They were to face a terrible tragedy.  Their kingdom, their capital city, and the Temple were to be destroyed.  All the people of Judah would be sent away from their homeland into captivity.  Yet God promised to be with them through it all and to bring them back.
            However, this prophecy looks even farther into the future.  It also speaks about our time.  It tells us that God will be with people who follow Jesus faithfully.  Though we face persecutions, trials, and tribulations because of our faith in Jesus, God says, “I am with you.  Don’t be afraid.  I have called you, by name.  I will sustain you through whatever troubles you face for the sake of my Son, Jesus—whether it be a fire, social upheavals, friends that turn their backs on you because of your beliefs, persecutions, suffering, sickness, even death.  None of these can really harm you, because I—the Lord, Your God—am with you.”
            Let me share three lessons we can learn from the fire.

First of all, the fire teaches us the Church is not the building.  It is the people.
            I am as guilty as anyone of saying, “I’m going to the church.”   We all do it.  We talk about the “church” as if it were a building.  But the church is not a building.  The church is the people. 
            Whenever the New Testament talks about the church, it uses the word to refer to the followers of Jesus, not the building.  For instance:
  • Acts 8:3 – “But Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church…”  See, it wasn’t a building he was trying to destroy; it was believers who were spread all over the place.
  • Acts 12:5 – “…while Peter was in prison, the church prayed very earnestly for him.”  You see, a building can’t pray for someone.  Only people can.  The church was the people.
  • 1 Corinthians 3:9 says, “You are God’s building.”
  • 1 Peter 2:5 says, “And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple.”

            So, fire may destroy our van or our building, but it cannot destroy the church, because the church is the people.  We are God’s people—we who believe and follow Christ.  And God says in Isaiah 43:2, “When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you.”
            I think seeing our beautiful van scorched and ruined, and seeing the Promise Building damaged and temporarily out of service—though painful—can be a helpful reminder that the church is not a building or a van.  The church is the people—you and me.  And if for some terrible reason these buildings were completely gone, we would still be the church.  I think of our ancestors who started this church over 150 years ago.  They had no building.  That is why the church is called Pleasant Grove, because all they had was the shade of a pleasant grove of trees under which to worship.  The church is not a building; it's the people.

The second lesson we learn is about spiritual warfare.
            This fire is a vivid reminder that we are in the midst of a spiritual war. Ephesians 6:12 reminds us, “…we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.”
            The fire was very suspicious.  The van had not been driven in two weeks.  Vans don’t just burst into flame all by themselves.  Was it arson or was it just a freak accident?  Investigators don’t have a definitive answer yet.  However, I can tell you—regardless of whether or not a person set the van on fire—it was a spiritual attack by Satan.  
            Satan comes to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10), but I am not afraid of the Devil.  For my God is mightier than the Devil.  My God is the “Holy One of Israel.  My Savior.”  And He has already defeated the Devil!  And yet, this attack reminds us how critical it is to, as Ephesians 6:13 says, “…put on every piece of God's armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil.”
            Friends, don’t be blind.  There is a spiritual war going on all around you.  You can’t see it and Satan doesn’t want you to see it.  He would rather you be consumed by all the distractions of this world—entertainment, football games, food, travel, selfish gain.  You are an easy target when you are distracted.  Let this fire be a stark reminder of the stakes of this spiritual war.  Wake up!  Be vigilant!
            Ephesians 6:14-18 says,“Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God's righteousness. For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”  And Verse 18 (so critical) says, “Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere.”
            Prayer is so critical!  It is the most powerful weapon in spiritual warfare.  Prayer helps us be vigilant so we aren't caught off guard by the Enemy.  Prayer puts us in the right frame of mind for the spiritual fight.  Prayer shows us the battle plan so we know what to do and when.  Prayer calls upon all of heaven's support so we don't get overwhelmed by the dark forces all around us.

The third lesson is what all this tells us about the future.
            I think our Youth Minister, Amy Harris, said it best.  Here’s what she told me.  She said she was with her kids last Sunday watching them load our burned up church van on a flatbed truck to haul it away.  She said, “God must be about to do something really big.”
            Church, I believe God is about to do something really big at Pleasant Grove.  A different kind of fire was started last Sunday.  I’m not talking about the one that burned up the van and damaged our building.  No sir.  I’m talking about a revival fire God is kindling in our hearts.  It’s a purifying fire that compels us to turn away from our sins and truly get our hearts right with God.  It consumes all that is unworthy in us until we are wholly committed to our Savior’s Church.  This fire is a burning desire to put Jesus Christ first and foremost in our lives.  It’s a fiery passion to serve Him by loving each other and our community like we never have before.  It’s an eternal fire the Devil and his minions can never put out.
            God is about to do something big at Pleasant Grove.  It’s a fire that can spread throughout our community.  Can you imagine it?  Can you imagine—not just our church—but all churches in our community on fire for God?  Can you imagine Christians who are so committed to Jesus that stand out so much from the crowd that everyone gives glory to our God—even those who don’t yet believe?  Can you imagine people becoming Christians because of your testimony?  Can you imagine marriages being saved, people being freed from addictions, finding true joy and peace and salvation?  
            I can see it; and I see the Devil trembling in fear at the thought  of it.  I believe it is why our Enemy is trying to disrupt and discourage us, but I won’t let him!  Will you?  Join with me in praying that God would fight our Enemy!  Join hands with me!  Let us be united together in our determination to follow Jesus with our whole hearts and discover what He is about to do!

Good Friday Leads to Easter
            I am reminded of another time when a terrible tragedy preceded God doing something really big.  In fact, it was the biggest tragedy ever and the biggest thing God ever did.  On a day we have come to call "Good Friday," humanity nailed the Son of God, Jesus Christ, to the cross. It was the darkest day in human history.  Three days later, Jesus rose from the dead to defeat the Devil forever and free all humanity from the power of sin!  It was the biggest event in all human history.
            If God can take an act as evil as the crucifixion and turn it into something good, I know He can take our fire and turn it into something good.  As Romans 8:28 says, "All things work together for those who love the Lord."  Church, I believe the fire only shows that God is up to something big at Pleasant Grove.  Get ready!  It's time to get on board with God!  Don't get left behind!