Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Lessons from Levi

Matthew -- also called Levi, and that's what I'll use here today -- was a disciple of Jesus, and wrote the gospel account that comes first in the New Testament.  Many people don't know the details of who he was and how hard it might have been for him to follow Jesus.  Here are a few background details that help bring the picture into better perspective.  Much of this is found in Luke's gospel, chapter 5.

1.  Levi was from Capernaum, a town of a few hundred inhabitants on a narrow plain off the beach on the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee.  He became a tax collector for the Roman occupiers, maybe because it offered a good income, but certainly at the expense of relations with his own people.  (This would be like becoming a narc or a snitch, in a small town known for not liking the sheriff.)  Some of his own people said it was impossible for a tax collector to repent -- so Levi may have been told he was doomed to whatever sorry fate God gave him after his death.  Regardless, Jesus didn't call him because he was righteous.

2.  Peter and Andrew, James and John (two sets of brothers who were called by Jesus) also lived in Capernaum and were fishermen.  How long had they known Levi?  Had they paid taxes onto his table?  Had they resented paying those taxes, and more so, paying them to one of their own people now turned traitor?  When Jesus called Levi into his inner circle of twelve, we don't know if there was friction between Levi and the others, but it must have felt awkward.  Levi could have had many excuses not to follow Jesus, but to his credit, he kept going.  Others Jesus called weren't nearly as dedicated (see Luke 9:57-62 for some examples).

3.  Levi "left everything" to follow Jesus.  Many people with big incomes and lots of personal possessions are focused on keeping what they have, and acquiring more.  But when Jesus called, Levi answered.  He must have been focused on something besides shekels.

I'm sure there are more details from Levi's life that would give us good lessons to consider.  But to summarize these, let's say Jesus doesn't save us because we're already righteous, but because we need saving.  Like Levi, we may not fit the "righteous" profile, and others who come to follow Jesus may not either -- maybe they could use some encouragement from us.  And whatever else you believe, following Jesus will, sooner or later, mean leaving everything else behind.  Are you up for that? 

I will get to meet this disciple of Jesus one day, and I plan to thank him for giving me some valuable lessons in following Jesus.  Will you?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

How to Get Empty, or Full

This weekend I preached from Mark 16:1-8, about the empty tomb, and the state of mind of the first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, women who were so "shocked ...trembling ...bewildered...frightened" that they couldn't tell anyone, at first, what they had seen.  I compared that to how unstoppable all the disciples of Jesus were, after they had seen the risen Lord and were absolutely sure of his resurrection and filled with the Holy Spirit.  The early church was unstoppable because the people were full of their Savior, and empty of anything else.  Then I challenged everyone to ask God to help them surrender whatever was making them feel empty, or not letting them be emptied of their burdens.  But how do you surrender all that?  Here are a few tools.

1.  Confess it to someone else and ask him or her to pray with you.  James 5:16 tells us "Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed."  Sin and doubt only have power over you if you keep them secret.  When a loving brother or sister in Christ is praying with you, and encouraging you in times of weakness, the power of the old habit will be broken.  (Simply asking someone to "pray for me" isn't going to get very far, though, because that's still not admitting that you're not perfect, is it?  You'll probably have to get pretty specific.) 

2.  Ask God for clarity on why this doubt, sin, worry, unforgiveness -- or whatever -- has persisted.  (Your prayer partner may be of help here.)  Sometimes we find a false validation of our existence by holding on to anger at someone who has hurt us in the past.  Sometimes we don't want to let go of control because we don't see how much God has provided for us, so we don't trust him to continue to work out the problems in our lives (you know, those problems you can't resolve anyway...).  Clarity helps us let go.   

3.  Forgive other people, and yourself.  Sometimes I "kick myself around the block" because of something I said or did forty years ago -- and God forgave it, in Christ, long ago!  I can't go back and make it right, and I now have a loving relationship with the other person, so what's the point?  And God has forgiven the other person, so as Paul writes, "Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others" (Col. 3:13). Forgiving is a daily, sometimes a moment-by-moment choice, to release the other person to God, who alone can heal and help them; and it frees us to live in God's love. 

4.  Accept God's forgiveness and peace.  This is a form of surrender too.  It includes all the above, plus a deliberate decision to believe that what God has said and done for us is absolutely true, which means all our ideas to the contrary are false.  It can help to keep a list of scriptures that remind you who you truly are in Christ, such as John 1:12, 2 Cor 5:17-19, Eph. 2:10, Eph. 4:24, Col. 1:22, Col. 3:3, 1 Thess. 1:4, 1 Pet. 2:9-10, 1 John 5:18 etc. 

If you're struggling with doubt, fear or any other sin, try using these tools -- with all your might -- for 30 days and see what difference God's power makes.   And let me know how it goes.  I'll be praying for you!

Full, or Empty?

Yesterday, Easter Sunday, many of us celebrated the resurrection of Jesus.  We saw that the empty tomb proved Jesus had told the truth about himself and that he was, truly, alive forever (Rev. 1:18).  The tomb being empty, that was good!  If Jesus' body had been found there, still dead, it would have been the end of the story.  He would have been, as some claim today, "just a great teacher."  But it was empty, and that gives us the positive assurance of eternal life -- and even more, a great life right now.  Why? 

The story of the women visiting the tomb early on Sunday morning to find the tomb empty and Jesus resurrected, according to the testimony of the angel (Mark 16:1-8) showed them "shocked ...trembling ...bewildered...frightened."  They were "full" of fear, anxiety and doubt.  They were also "empty" of faith, assurance and the power of God.

Sometimes we are just like them.  We feel empty, but Jesus tells us that he is the source of true food (John 6:32-35) and living water (John 4:10-14).  So why, then, do we spend so much time trying to fill ourselves up with other things?  We use food, alcohol, drugs, entertainment, books, video games, sports, power and prestige, sex, porn, or just busyness, to try fill the void that is inside us.  We try to numb the feelings of emptiness and uselessness, so we don't have to admit how empty we feel.

Or we are full of anxiety and pain that we don't want to let go of.  We gain some perverse sort of identity from being angry at someone for an offense from years ago, or from the way our parents treated us.  We are so worried about how life is going to turn out, and trying to control everything so that life will look like we think it should, that we can't let go our fears.  But Jesus tells us not to be afraid -- that was one of his most frequent commands -- and simply to believe (Mark 5:36).  He tells us to come and give all our junk to him, to stop carrying it around and find rest  (Mat. 11:28-30) by trusting him to take care of it all.

So, dear reader, what's it going to be?  Empty or full?  Continue the frustration of attempting solutions on your own, or giving up and letting Jesus provide every thing you need?  Holding on to pain, guilt, anger and blame, or forgiving and letting love from Jesus flow through you?  He's already cleared the way for you.  Your sins no longer hang over your head (or the heads of those you refuse to forgive...) but it's still your choice whether to live in peace or in pain.  Give up, surrender to his grace, and you'll be filled with overflowing joy and peace.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

"It Is Finished!"

The sky was dark and brooding, as if responding to the horror happening below.  Three men had been hanging on their crosses for hours now, but in typical Roman cruelty, they could be there for days, twisting in agony, begging for mercy and gradually slipping away into death.  The middle of the three, Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee, had been beaten so badly by a Roman scourge that he had not even a palm-sized patch of skin without lacerations and bruises over his entire body.  He was sinking fast.  "I am thirsty" he rasped, and a soldier dipped a sponge in sour wine and held it to Jesus' lips. 

Jesus' thirst was physical, because he was fully human and was thirsty from the loss of blood and lack of water; but it was also a reference by Jesus to Psalms 42:1-2 and 63:1, where the writer has a spiritual thirst for God comparable to being physically parched.  Various commentators point out the irony of the Source of Living Water (John 4:14, 7:38-39) being thirsty in death.  The soldier's response was an unwitting fulfillment of the betrayal listed in Psalm 69:21, "they offer me sour wine for my thirst."  

"It is finished" was Jesus' final cry recorded in John 19:30 The Greek verb "tetelestai" he used is in the form that means a completed action creating an ongoing state of being.  It's a similar word to "finished" and "fulfilled" in verse 28.  Here, Jesus didn't say "I am finished" to refer to his own condition, but "it is finished" an emphatic, triumphant statement of victory!  The grand plan of God becoming man -- to be one of us and to fully experience our humanity, then in one bold stroke to absorb all our sin, guilt and shame so there will never be any more barrier between God and us -- that plan had now been accomplished with complete success.  There was, and is, nothing left to do to rescue us and reunite us to our Father.  You are now reconciled to God through Jesus his Son (2 Cor. 5:18-19).  It's a done deal. 

Luke records Jesus saying "Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands" in 23:46.  It was time now, and okay now, for Jesus to breathe one last breath and die.  Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, fully God and fully human, died.  If he hadn't been human, he couldn't have died for you; if he hadn't been God, he couldn't have died for you.   
But the story is not over...