"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." John 1:14

Monday, April 29, 2013

Joy Beyond Me

I have a fantasy of hosting a broad jumping contest. I would invite everyone in the world. Details, including the prize, would be revealed the day of the event. There would be announcements on TV, on the Internet and in print. Word of mouth would spread the news. I would invite the world to meet me at the south rim of the Grand Canyon on such and such a date for "the event of a lifetime."

That morning, as the sun chases the morning mist from the deep recesses of the canyon, thousands of people will line up at the rim. A helicopter will record the jump. The instructions are simple:  "JUMP! THOSE WHO REACH THE OTHER SIDE WIN THE ULTIMATE PRIZE--LIFE! ALL OTHERS WILL DIE!"

The crowd looks bewildered. There is no way to make the jump and survive. No one can leap to even the closest rock formation, much less the other side of the canyon. It is hopeless. The farther you jump, the farther you fall. The few extra feet that some can jump is utterly meaningless. The chasm is too great. There is no way to reach the other side.

The Apostle Paul spoke of a similar predicament in his letter to the Philippian church. He has just warned the church to watch out for those who would try to achieve a relationship with God by self righteousness through the keeping of the law. He now goes on to say that if anyone could, he could:

If anyone thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. Philippians 3: 4b-6

Through his encounter with the risen Christ, Paul was brought face to face with the vast chasm between the sinfulness of even the most righteous man and the holiness of God. The once important status he enjoyed by birthright, study and self righteousness evaporated in the searing light of Christ's presence. So what if he can jump a few feet farther than most other people--the chasm is too great!

People who struggle with addictions, immorality, or dishonesty know they need a bridge, a way to relationship with God. Their utter lack of self-sufficiency drives them to their knees to pray: "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" People who feel good about themselves are in far more danger, really, of going to the grave unaware of their need. They broad jump into eternity unaware that the opposite rim of the chasm is too far to reach by human effort. The mentality of "I am a good person and good people go to heaven" is one of the saddest deceptions in the world, especially when dressed up in the garb of "religion" (man's effort to reach God by personal righteousness).

The book of Romans includes indictment and hope in the following statements: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. The wages of sin are death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:23; 6:23). Jesus is the bridge, in fact he said he is the only bridge. Either he is a lunatic, a liar or Lord (C.S. Lewis). The decision you make about what you believe about Jesus does not change him, but it changes you. And it changes your eternity.

When we cease striving to reach the other side by our own attempts, we can live in joy. It is not all up to us any more than it is all about us. It's all about Jesus, the one true bridge. Living with the knowledge that he has made the way, let your joy be a magnet that draws others with you on the way home to intimacy with God.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Safeguard Your Joy

So much of my life I spent waiting for joy. I thought that when I achieved that next degree, accomplished that milestone, moved to the right place, met the right woman, found the perfect church or landed the ideal job that I would find joy. In reality, while those things have all been blessings, other problems still remain. No matter what circumstances change for the better, I still live in a fallen world of broken people. My own broken nature accompanies me wherever I go, whatever I do....

In our pursuit of joy, we sometimes lose sight of reality. We are not in heaven yet. One of our confusions about joy is that we think it means a lack of suffering, a lack of problems, or a lack of conflict. So it may sound odd to us that Paul so easily ties an admonition for joy to a conflictual situation:

Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh--though I myself have reasons for such confidence. Philippians 3:1-4a

There are layers of principles to observe here. Paul first reminds them that the joy of the Lord is theirs, even though some problems persist. Secondly, he exhorts them to guard the source and foundation of their joy--truth of the gospel. Thirdly, he openly expresses godly anger at those who distort the gospel (here by their insistence on fulfillment of a particular old covenant law about circumcision). Lastly he reminds them of their true qualifications before God: they worship by the Spirit of God, they glory in Jesus Christ, and they put no confidence in the flesh (though if anyone could have such confidence in the flesh, he could).

Please, take my advice, as one who wasted far too much time waiting for joy. Claim your joy now! Cling to the gospel of salvation by union with Jesus Christ. Guard the truth for yourselves and for future generations of believers (if the Lord tarries). Get indignant about those who would distort the gospel that Jesus bought at so great a price, the truth he came to declare. Experience the full joy of relationship with God, through Jesus and empowered by the Spirit. Forget yourself, putting no confidence in the flesh (human effort to reach God by our own goodness). This joy is a circular dance. Embrace it, own it, guard it, worship in it, and rejoice in it!


Monday, April 15, 2013

Messengers of Joy

Throughout history, there have been people who have stood out for their vision and self-sacrifice on behalf of future generations.  Small towns and great cities sometimes honor such people with parades and speeches. Even Jesus said there is no greater love than to lay down one's life on behalf of others. We call people who do such things "heroes," and rightly so.

In his thank you letter to the Philippians, Paul highlights two such men. He has just commended Timothy, saying "I have no one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare." Timothy's concern for them was extraordinary in that he had no personal relationship with them, yet was highly motivated on their behalf. Next, Paul speaks of Epaphroditus, a messenger they had sent with financial support for Paul and, who will now return to them with this letter:

But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not only him, but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety. Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor men like him, because he almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for the help you could not give. (Philippians 2:25-30)

Paul called him brother because they were both adopted into God's family by faith in Christ. He was a fellow worker who did whatever was needed for the ministry of the gospel. He was a fellow soldier in that he put his life on the line, not only  for the Philippians but for the message of Christ everywhere. As the messenger of the church in Philippi, he brought not only financial support but, also joy. It is this same (now deeper) joy that Epaphroditus will bring back to them. Everyone can stop worrying about him, and Paul exhorts them to receive Epaphroditus with joy and honor. As a soldier of Christ, he laid it all down for Christ on their behalf. He deserves a hero's welcome.

We cannot honor too highly those who lay down their lives for the message of joy in the Lord. Some go to other countries to do so and, others do so in their own communities. Take joy in their examples. They are not sitting by passively while the nation sinks into depravity. They are poking holes in the darkness with the sword of God's Word.

There is another inevitable homecoming. Each of us who follow Jesus will enter a gate. Beyond the gate, a throng of joyous people will welcome us. Above the crowd, there is One, even more radiant than the rest. He is eager to greet us and say "Well done good and faithful servant! Come, enter into your reward!"

Nothing else matters. Lay it all down for the joy of the Lord. Be salt and light; be messengers of joy. As we go out on his behalf, he is with us, even to the end of time.

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:2-3)


Friday, April 5, 2013

Being Confident

People come to me every day to find confidence. Some have lost it along the way due to apparent failures, lapses in courage, or circumstances beyond their control. Others seem to have never known it.

Confidence means many things. The secular therapist will ask an insecure client to list his accomplishments or to recount the compliments she receives from others. The idea is to remind them of the strengths and abilities they do possess. Lacking self confidence, they are focusing on the half empty part of themselves versus the full half. This critical focus, in turn, undermines their self confidence as they forget their assets.

Paul speaks of another kind of confidence in his brief statement in Philippians 2:

"And I am confident in the Lord that I will come soon." (vs. 24)

His release is beyond his control, and he chooses to believe "in the Lord" that he will be released soon. Lightner states that the phrase translated in the NIV "in the Lord" can also be interpreted as "Lord willing." It makes little difference, I think, because if the Lord wills it and it is in his hands, it will come to pass. Indeed, Paul's release must have occurred, since we know he was imprisoned again in Rome, where he wrote his last letter, 2 Timothy. This is in no way a contradiction of his earlier dilemna about whether he shouild live or die. In that schema he was weighing the hypotheticals, ending with a similar statement of confidence that he will remain on earth for a while in order to be of service to the kingdom of God.

So what kind of confidence is Paul referring to? It is not in his own ability to argue his case. So how can he state that he is confident about it? I believe Paul was so in tune with the Holy Spirit and God's will for his life (to further the Kingdom) that he had little (or no) doubt that he had more to do. Having seen God overcome circumstance after circumstance (in around and through suffering at times) for his mission, Paul was as certain of God's ongoing providence as he was that the sun would rise day after day.

What if our confidence truly rested in the Faithful One? We cannot be confident that things will always go the way we think they should. Nor can we expect that things will be easy or comfortable. But if we want what God wants and trust his means and methods (even when they make no sense to us) we can be sure that He will be glorified, come what may. He will open doors, part seas, prop us up and propel us forward as we lean into him. Of that we can be confident.