Simple, but hard

The message of Christ is simple – but hard to accept for many.

For Christians, the message is wonderful: God loved us so much that Christ died to restore a broken relationship between us and him.  Jesus died so that we might be with him forever.

But a group of us were talking about this during the week and we realized that the simplicity of the message was too much to swallow for many.

People understand working to achieve a goal and being rewarded for getting there.  But many reject the idea of receiving the free gift of an eternal relationship with God simply by an act of faith.

Indeed, these skeptics raise a whole variety of objections to this gift.

Most people are familiar with this debate.  They range from denying the existence of God to declaring that there are many different ways to God.

One friend told me that he considered the crucifixion a cruel task for God the Father to impose on Jesus.  He refused to see this as an act of overwhelming love that the Lord took to bring believing people into his family – people who were otherwise bound for eternal death.

Of course, Jesus knew this would happen.  In Matthew 7:14, he said: “Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

He predicted that there would be persecution for those who spread the message of the love of God through Christ.

Even the miracles of Jesus and the early believers failed to convince everyone – although, they were convincing proof of God and his power for many new believers.

I confess I now find it hard to understand why the message of God’s love and mercy is resisted by so many.

But I also realize that believing in Jesus requires a radical change in thinking for any follower.

Principally, it means admitting there is someone greater than yourself.  It means this person – God – is worth serving and loving above yourself and anyone else.

That is hard enough for even Christians to acknowledge.  It is impossible for many non-Christians.

For that reason, it takes a supernatural act to convince people to put their faith in Christ.

Thankfully, Jesus knew that would be the case.

He ensured that the Holy Spirit would move in the hearts of people, drawing them to God.  The Spirit reveals the wonders of Jesus to people so they give themselves up to God.

God is not prepared to let anything – any arguments, any objections – to stand in the way of his love for us.

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Getting to know you

There’s a catchy tune from my youth called “Getting to Know You”.

I think the title is a line we Christians should apply to other believers in our own communities.

It’s surprising how little people in different churches in the same area know about each other.  It believe it really hampers the witness of the Christian church in our world.

I have been thinking about this because of two different events in my life in the last couple of weeks.

The most recent event a few days ago was a joint service of six churches from different denominations getting together to pray for our city – and each other.

I learned quite a bit about the activities of the other churches in our community.  And I was encouraged by what I heard about their outreach to their neighbourhoods.

I loved the prayers for our church’s activities and theirs.

The other event a couple of weeks earlier was a conference about churches working together in the city to show the love of Christ to people in their cities and to share the message of Jesus.

One of the more striking messages was a talk by Stephen Sutton, a young Baptist minister in Teeside, England.

His talk began with a video featuring ordinary people from different denominations declaring “We are the church of Teeside”.  In other words, they were saying they consider themselves members of one church in the city even though they belong to different denominations.

Sutton said he realized how much more effective Christians from different churches could be if they worked together in the offices or factory floors where they are employed and in neighbourhood activities.

He used the graphic picture of a map with pins in locations where Christians from different denominations were living and working.

What if there were several believers from different churches employed at your company offices?  What impact might they have if they prayed and worked together to share Christ and his love with other employees?

Sutton’s idea has germinated and led to a significant movement of inter-church cooperation in Teeside.  And it’s having a real impact on people’s lives.

Of course, this idea isn’t new.  It goes back to the New Testament.

The early Christians called themselves “The church at Ephesus” or “Corinth”.  The believers may have met in different locations but they considered themselves one church in a particular city.

I realize that the church has expanded greatly since then.  And denominations have sprung up as Christians battled over their differences.

But Jesus prayed that his followers might be one as he and the Father are one (John 17:21).

Jesus declared that oneness with God and oneness with each other is important  “so that the world may believe you sent me”.

Christ’s impact on a city grows as we get to know each other, support each other, pray for each other, and work together.

God and imagination

God can use our imaginations for good.

God has given his followers dreams and visions for thousands of years.

It was a vision – a mental image – that changed the way the apostle Peter viewed non-Jews.  Indeed, that vision led the early Christians to take the message of Christ beyond the Jews to everyone – no matter what tribe or nation they belonged to (Acts 10).

God also plants powerful desires in believers to do something greater than themselves to advance the kingdom of God.

Many people have been inspired to make personal sacrifices in order to fulfill a dream that the Lord has sown in their hearts.  Their imaginations have been stirred.

But what about everyday living?  Can we surrender our imaginations to be used by God?

Kerry Kirkwood says “Yes”.

Indeed, he makes a strong case for stoking our imaginations with godly thoughts and pictures.

In his book The Power of Right Thinking, Kirkwood says that “we remember more of what we see than what we hear”.

Mental images carry an emotional and spiritual punch.

“Jesus being crucified is a picture that will never leave my memory,” Kirkwood says. That image spurs his prayer life.

Mental pictures can be used for evil purposes.  Jesus pointed out in Matthew 5:28 that “everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart”.

But the opposite happens when godly thoughts and pictures permeate our thinking.

The apostle Paul calls us in Philippians 4:8 to think about whatever is pure, noble, right and praiseworthy.

For example, Jesus presents a graphic illustration in Matthew 25 about the final judgement when the Lord divides those who will spend eternity with him from those  who will not.

He gives a picture of the righteous – those who gave him a cup of water when he was thirsty, food when he was hungry, clothing when he was naked, care when he was sick.  The righteous are surprised – they don’t recall giving Jesus food and drink and clothing.

Then, Jesus finishes with the punch line: “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters you were doing it to me.”

That is a power-packed image that has motivated Christians throughout the ages.

Kirkwood urges us to use our imaginations in seeking God’s will in our own lives.

He notes that Paul says in Ephesians 1:18 that he is praying that “the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of his calling”.

He suggests we can ask the Holy Spirit to give us a picture of what we are going to be doing for the Lord.

“Allowing the Holy Spirit to give you a graphic look at what he has in store for you will help keep you focused on the glory to come,” Kirkwood writes.

Like David in Psalm 25, I must pray: “Show me the right path, O Lord – point out the road for me to follow.  Lead me by your truth and teach me, for you are the God who saves me.”

 

 

Be bold

Last weekend, I was challenged to be bold in sharing my faith.

Not obnoxious – but bold.

The man who challenged me and others was Kevin Palau, president of the Luis Palau evangelistic association, who was a key speaker at a conference I attended.

You might think it’s easy for him to evangelize because that’s his job.  He must have the spiritual gift of evangelism.

It turns out he doesn’t.  His father, Luis, does – and he is known around the world for his mass evangelism campaigns.

But Kevin Palau freely acknowledges that evangelism does not come easily to him.

So, he told us a recent story about how he ventured out to invite his neighbour to attend an Alpha course.  Alpha is a widely-used and effective series designed to help people understand who Jesus is and what Christianity is all about.

He knew his neighbour was a strong atheist who had rejected Christianity even though he was married to a believer.

The neighbour’s wife told him her husband would say no, but he still plunged ahead.

He prayed for God’s help and then approached the neighbour with trepidation.

When he issued the invitation, his neighbour said: “Yes. We’d love to come!”

Perhaps you – like me – identify with Kevin Palau.  We feel awkward in talking about our faith with people who don’t believe in Christ.

But God can use us in spite of our shyness and fears.

Palau reminded us of the story in Acts 4:23-31 where the young church in Jerusalem was praying after the apostles Peter and John were freed from jail for preaching the good news of Jesus Christ.

Instead of praying for protection from their enemies, the new believers prayed for boldness in talking about Jesus despite threats from the local authorities.

God responded by sending them out and bringing many more into his family.

Clearly, the secret is calling on God to help us.

The apostle Paul was not shy about asking for prayer that he would speak the message of Christ boldly.

In his letter to the Ephesians, he appeals to them to “pray for me also, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel”. (Ephesians 6:19)

I like the way Paul phrased his appeal for prayer.  He asked that the Ephesians pray that he (Paul) be given the words to speak.

It’s good to be prepared.  But I realize I should never be so prepared that I cannot speak spontaneously the words God drops in my mind.

If Paul needed God’s help to share the gospel, I need it many times more.

May the Lord give me boldness in talking about Jesus.

The gift of peace

In this angry world, can we find peace?

Yes, in Jesus.

As Christ’s death neared, he said these great words to his disciples in John 14:27:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

What is this peace?  And how can we obtain it?

It is not a false bravado.  It recognizes that we – or our loved ones – may be under severe attack, danger or temptation.

Jesus knew what was coming in his own life on earth.  In fact, he was soon to sweat drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane as he pleaded with the Father to be spared crucifixion.

But he overcame the trials he faced through faith and trust in the Father and his plans for him and the people who believed in him.

The struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane led to a serene assurance that he was taking the right path, a history-making path.  He was at peace with crucifixion and death because he knew that it would bring billions of people into the family of God.

So, in my mind, the peace of Christ is trust that God is in control and is working things out according to his plans.  And God’s plans are for the ultimate good of his children (Romans 8:28).

Admittedly, that’s a hard thing to grasp when we’re facing great stress or heartbreak.

Often, I believe there is an element of surrender involved, a time when we admit we are no longer in control of the situation we are in.  Then, we release control to God.

Catherine Marshall, author of Adventures in Prayer, calls this the “prayer of relinquishment”.  She says she was bed-ridden with a serious illness for a long time until she tearfully surrendered her illness to God, saying that whatever he wanted for her was best.

The Lord began healing her immediately and she had a marvellous vision of Christ in her sickroom.

But we can have God’s peace even when things remain hard in our lives.

In Philippians 4:4-7, the apostle Paul says we are to rejoice in Christ; to take everything to God in prayer; and to offer thanks. Essentially, that means focusing our minds on the Lord and his love for us, giving our problems to him, and being thankful.

The result?  Paul declares: “The peace of God which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

That is the peace I want.

God and stress

I don’t know anyone who really likes stress.

At the same time, we all know that some stress is inevitable.

So, how do we cope with it?

My immediate reaction to frustrations and bad news is to get worked up inside.  Sometimes, I chew over the problem repeatedly in my mind – and maybe even feel depressed if it is serious enough.

But Christ and the apostles have some good counsel for worriers like me.

In his great sermon on the mount, Jesus says: “Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries.  Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:34)

Basically, Christ is telling me not to beat myself up about what “might” happen.  God can sort out problems in ways that I can’t imagine.

And I know from experience that disappointments can turn out to be blessings in the long run.

Another big lesson is learning how to view our troubles.  Do they have an upside?

The apostle James tells us that “when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy” (James 1:2).  He says that troubles will help us grow spiritually and develop endurance.

For Christians, that is an important point.  God wants us to grow more like Christ – and dealing with trouble in a Christ-like way is vital in this process.

The apostle Paul offers another way of mitigating stress in our lives. He underlines praying and praising God and being thankful in all circumstances – good and bad (Philippians 4:6).

That seems like an impossible demand: How can I praise God and thank him when things look bleak?

Well, Paul and Silas did it when they were thrown into jail in Philippi – they sang hymns and praised the Lord (Acts 16).  At that time, God moved miraculously – the jail was shaken in an earthquake, the doors broke open and the jailer and his family were converted to Christ.

That doesn’t always happen as dramatically, of course, but Paul lived what he preached.  And he promises that we will sense the peace of God in our lives as we praise and thank God (Philippians 4:7).

I know that I have benefited from that advice.  There are a lot of things to be thankful for in my life.  And when I thank God, I feel a greater calm and hope.

Perhaps the greatest reason to find peace in the midst of trouble is God himself.  Do I believe he can be trusted to work things out for my good?  Do I believe he cares for me?

If I don’t, then why?  It may be I have a wrong understanding of God and what is good for me.

The apostle Peter tells me to “cast all your anxiety on him (God) because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

God has already shown he cares for me in so many ways.  His greatest gift is Jesus dying for me.

He has never stopped caring for me – and never will.

Jesus, our joy

Family troubles? Feeling sick? Depressed by the news?  Job worries?

It’s easy to feel upset, irritable, and downhearted at any time.

But the apostle Paul urges us to “rejoice in the Lord always”. (Philippians 4:4)

What does that mean?  And is it possible?

Paul says much the same thing several times in his letters to believers.  And he lived it in practice.  So, it must be humanly possible.

Joy in Jesus is not the momentary pleasure you get from watching your favourite team win a football game.

Darlene Zschech, author of Worship Changes Everything, says that “the biblical writers knew joy was something much deeper than a response to circumstances”.

“The saw it as a gift from God when we choose to see blessings and favour, no matter what is going on around us.”

In other words, we choose to fix our eyes on Jesus and the joy he brings us from our relationship with him.

That requires effort on our part.  We have to wilfully turn our thoughts to Christ and away from our circumstances.

From experience, I know that can be hard.

Zschech, a well-known Christian song-writer, had to put her beliefs to the test when she fought a year-long battle against cancer.

She says she felt anxiety “begin in my toes and travel through my body until it got to my heart, and I felt I could die unless someone rescued me”.  But she worshiped God and he was “magnified above the pain”.

“This is the beauty of worship,” she writes. “When we come as we are, exalting Jesus Christ above all, experiencing his power and presence, his grace again is experienced fresh in that moment.”

This means offering our bodies as living sacrifices to God and asking God to transform our way of thinking. (Romans 12:1-2)

“Our attitudes are transformed as we decide to let go and let the Holy Spirit do his work in us.  This means replacing negative thoughts mindsets, arresting our attitudes that we know will not be of benefit.”

In Colossians 3, Paul says to “set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honour at God’s right hand”.

“Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth,” he adds.  “For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God.”

The older I get, the more I realize that the things I considered absolutely essential for a happy life in this world will soon disappear.  Then, I will be with God forever.

Yet Jesus is with me already.

It’s time to get to know him ever more deeply.

And to enjoy him more and more.

As I do so, Paul tells me I will find peace – and joy.

A simple cry

A simple cry from the heart is all that’s needed to enter the family of God.

A thief, dying on the cross, called out to Jesus who was hanging on a cross beside his: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom!”

And Christ replied: “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43)

I say a “cry from the heart” because just before his appeal to Jesus, the thief rebuked a third man on a cross beside them for calling out in sarcasm to save himself and the thieves if he was really the Messiah.

The repentant thief told the other man: “Do you not even fear God?”  And he said the thieves were dying for doing wrong but Jesus had done nothing wrong.

The repentant thief had a basic faith that Jesus was who he said he was.  And he also knew he was a sinner and had no hope to be with God apart from Christ.

That brief exchange on the cross tells me that a kernel of faith is the one essential element for becoming a child of God.

I can produce a universe of good deeds and still fail to enter the kingdom of God – if I lack that seed of faith.

And yet so many people in our western world still believe that God will welcome them into his arms if their supposed good deeds outweigh what they consider to be errors and sins.

As well, many evangelical Christians seem to believe that you have to have a complete doctrinal understanding of salvation before you can put your faith in Christ.

The apostle Paul had a stunning, supernatural confrontation with Jesus on the road to persecuting Christians in Damascus – a confrontation that transformed him.  While he was a well-informed Jew, he did not yet know the full story of salvation when he surrendered his life to Christ.

In their book Preparing for the Glory, Jon and Carol Arnott tell the story of Ian McCormack whose near-death experience drove him to God.

McCormack, a New Zealander who lived for surfing, was stung by five jellyfish while surfing and miraculously was able to get an ambulance to the hospital.  As he was dying in the ambulance, he had a vision of his mother praying for him and saying: “If you call out to God from your heart, he will hear you, and he will forgive you.”

The only prayer he knew was the Lord’s prayer in which he asked God to forgive him and forgive others.  And he gave himself to Jesus.

He died in the hospital and came back to life in the hospital morgue after choosing Jesus.  The doctor in the morgue was absolutely terrified.

McCormack became a committed believer.

As the psalmist David says in Psalm 103, God “knows how weak we are”.  We can’t be good enough to justify entering heaven on our own.

We need to rely entirely on Jesus and his sacrifice for us.

All it takes is a simple cry from the heart.

Mystery of the Magi

For me, the mysterious Bible story of the magi visiting and worshiping the infant Jesus in Bethlehem speaks of  God’s power and his desire to connect with people everywhere.

Who were these people?  Where were they from?  What motivated them to come?

In Matthew chapter 2, we are told that “magi” arrived in Jerusalem asking: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?  We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

The word “magi” was often used in the ancient world to describe wise men.  And, in the book of Daniel, it refers to people like astrologers.  Scholars speculate that they may have come from Persia or some Arabian country, but no one knows exactly where.

If they were astrologers, it would help explain why they followed a star to Judea.

But how did they know that a certain star would lead them to the baby they called “the king of the Jews”?

And why did that mean so much to them that they travelled a very long distance to visit an infant with gifts?

No one today knows for sure.

But the story encourages me.  It encourages me because I know God will ensure that the good news of Jesus will spread everywhere – even in the darkest and most distant places.

I hear and read stories of Muslims having visions of Jesus in the Middle and Far East.  They come to Christ even though their countries are virtually closed to Christians.

In fact, a Christian worker in a Canadian university told our church some years ago that a Muslim student from a Middle Eastern country sat down next to a Christian student in a Canadian university and told him of a dream he had about Christ.  It was the beginning of his journey to faith in Jesus.

Missionaries have told stories of myths in cultures they visited which speak about a god  like Jesus who was expected to come to them.

God’s imprint is everywhere though we may not know it.

I love the story of the prophet Elijah who complained that he was the only one left in Israel who followed God.  But God told him he had preserved 7,000 others who had not worshiped Baal. (1 Kings 19)

Elijah did not have the full picture of what was going on.  But God did.

God wants a relationship with us.  So he will do anything he can to make sure we have a chance to meet him.

With God, nothing is impossible.

Strength in weakness

I love the apostle Paul’s great words in 2 Corinthians 12: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

For me, this is part of the fascination in following Christ.

To others, we Christians live in an upside-down world.  Who else would rejoice in being weak?

The great passage in 2 Corinthians 12 tells of Paul’s amazing experience of being “caught up to the third heaven” – a vision where he sees things in paradise that stun him and fill him with ecstasy.

But, in case Paul might get too big for his britches, God does not respond to the apostle’s plea to be healed of an affliction that had been used by Satan to torment him.

Paul, who had been used by God to heal many, naturally asks why he wasn’t healed, too.

God’s answer is profound: “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.”

And Paul declares: “So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me.”

This is typical of God.

We admire and applaud power and accomplishment.  We expect the powerful, the famous, and the stars to lead us in the direction we should take in entertainment, politics, business and life.

But God sees things differently.

He is looking for people who are willing to turn their lives over to him.  People who believe in him and trust him, even in the really tough years.

So, he chooses a shepherd boy  – David – to be king of Israel.  And the shepherd boy becomes the greatest king in the nation’s history.

David is called a “a man after God’s own heart” because he worships God and seeks his guidance throughout his life.  David was human and had his character flaws, but God was always at the centre of his life.

Jesus describes the kind of person God honours in a conversation with his disciples in Matthew 20.  When some of the disciples ask him for privileged positions in his coming kingdom, Jesus says:

“Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave.  For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Perhaps the greatest sign of hidden strength in weakness is the birth of Jesus himself.

A helpless baby in a stable.

Yet, at the same time, God himself.