Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Are You Looking for an Assistant?

Timothy Keller, a pastor in Manhattan, New York, said that in 1970 a Sunday school teacher changed his life with a simple illustration. The teacher said, “Let’s assume the distance between the earth and the sun (93 million miles) was reduced to the thickness of this sheet of paper. If that is the case, then the distance between the earth and the nearest star (Proxima Centauri, 4.2 light-years) would be a stack of papers 70 feet high. Moreover, the diameter of the Milky Way Galaxy (100,000 light-years) would be a stack of papers 310 miles high.”

Then Keller’s teacher added, “The galaxy is just a speck of dust in the universe, yet Jesus holds the universe together by the word of his power.”  Finally, the teacher asked her students, “Now, is this the kind of person you ask into your life to be your assistant?”

Touché. Ask the average guy on the street, “Who is Jesus?” and you’ll get a half-dozen responses. “He was an enlightened teacher and spiritual guru” the mystic says. “He was the first spirit-child and half-brother of Lucifer,” according to the Mormons. Muslims revere Jesus as prophet, but not God’s Son. Meanwhile, the skeptic argues that what we know about Jesus is mostly myth.

Those are all opinions. And to be quite frank, opinions are like nose holes—everybody’s got them. Since it was written by people who actually walked with Jesus, the Bible is the only credible source on the identity of Christ. Let’s do a brief survey of Scripture shall we?

According to the Bible, Jesus eternally existed before there was a universe (John 1:1); He spoke everything into being—from atoms to angels (Col. 1:16); He currently holds the universe together (Heb. 1:3), He became a man (Phil. 2:5-7); He did many signs and wonders (Acts 2:22); He forgave sin (Mark 2:5); He could read people’s inner thoughts (John 2:25); Flung furniture down the front steps of the temple (Mark 11:15); Fulfilled ancient prophecies (Matt. 5:17); He was killed and resurrected (1 Cor. 15:3-4); He is currently seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven (Heb. 10:12) and one day He is returning to judge the living and the dead (2 Tim. 4:1).    

Let’s set the record straight. Jesus was no pale faced altar boy with His hair parted in the middle, speaking softly avoiding confrontation, who at last gets Himself killed because He has no way out. He works with wood, commands the winds and waves and has scars to prove He's fought against death, hell and the grave and emerged the victor. He is not an effeminate preacher in skinny jeans and He is not your homeboy. Jesus doesn’t exist to be your cosmic Santa Clause or to show you one way to heaven among many options. He is a warrior-king and if you are not with Him you are against Him.

Perhaps the Scottish divine, James Stewart, put it best when he wrote:
            He was the Meekest and lowliest of all the sons of men, yet He spoke of coming on the clouds of heaven with the glory of God. He was so austere that evil spirits and demons cried out in terror at his coming, yet He was so genial and winsome and approachable that the children loved to play with Him, and the little ones nestled in His arms. His presence at the innocent gaiety of a village wedding was like the presence of sunshine.
No one was half so compassionate to sinners, yet no one ever spoke such red-hot, scorching words about sin. A bruised reed he would not break. His whole like was love, yet on one occasion He demanded of the Pharisees how they ever expected to escape the damnation of hell. He was a dreamer of dreams and a seer of visions, yet for sheer start realism He has all of our self-styled realists soundly beaten. He was a servant of all, washing the disciples’ feet, yet masterfully He strode into the temple, and the hucksters and the money changers fell over one another from the mad rush and the fire they saw blazing in his eyes.
He saved others, yet at the last, Himself he did not save. There is nothing in history like the union of contrasts that confronts us in the gospels. The mystery of Jesus is the mystery of divine personality.1

How foolish when we try to treat Jesus like a key-chain accessory that will bring us life enhancement. Christ is either Lord of all or not Lord at all. He is not a doctrine to be mastered, but a Master to be feared and obeyed. Even those who claimed His name and lived independently  of His authority left Jesus befuddled, “And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46). Whose calling the shots in life—you or Jesus?

1. James Stewart, quoted by Ravi Zacharias, Has Christianity Failed You? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 28.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Mountain Moving Prayer

In his book, Partners in Prayer, John Maxwell writes how God came through for farmers of Minnesota in a supernatural way. In the summer of 1876, grasshoppers nearly destroyed the crops in Minnesota. So in the spring of 1877, farmers were worried. They believed that the dreadful plague would once again visit them and again destroy the rich wheat crop, bringing ruin to thousands of people.

The situation was so serious that Governor John S. Pillsbury proclaimed April 26 as a day of prayer and fasting He urged every man, woman and child to ask God to prevent the terrible scourge. On that April day all schools, shops, stores and offices were closed. There was a reverent, quite hush over all the state.

The next day dawned bright and clear. The temperature soared to what it ordinarily was in midsummer, which was very unusual for April. However, due to the unseasonable warmth Minnesotans were devastated as they discovered billions of grasshopper larvae wiggling to life. For three days the unusual heat persisted, and the larvae hatched. It appeared that it wouldn’t be long before they started feeding and destroying the wheat crop.

On the fourth day, however the temperature suddenly dropped, and that a night frost covered the entire state. The result was that it killed every one of those creeping, crawling pests as surely as if poison or fire had been used, May 1, 1877 went down in the history of Minnesota as the day God answered the prayers of the people.

Now that’s what I call an example of “mountain moving” prayer. Jesus said in Mark 11:22-24, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

When Jesus speaks of mountain moving faith He’s using a hyperbole—or an extreme exaggeration—to make a point. In Jewish imagery, a mountain signified something strong and immovable, or a problem that was too gargantuan for a human to move out of the way. God calls us to believe him for things that humanly speaking makes no sense.

We all have mountains of difficulty in our lives. Sometimes they are great tasks laid before us which we don’t have the resources to meet. Sometimes those “mountains” are broken relationships that can’t be fixed or habits of sin that cannot be overcome. Your “mountain” may involve believing God regarding a health issue or a loved one who is far from the Lord.

Whatever the obstacle might be that prevents you from moving forward in life, Jesus is saying that the power of prayer is unleashed when we look at God and not the size of the mountain. If the thing that you’re praying for God to do doesn’t overwhelm you then it won’t require faith and dependency on Him. So the worst thing we could do is insult God with small prayers.

That is why James writes that one of the ways we sabotage our prayers is by having inadequate faith. James 1:5-8 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

If you aren’t totally convinced of God’s ability to do the impossible then you might as well pitch prayer, because if your prayers have clouds of doubt hanging over them then they won’t get past the ceiling. Before getting down on your knees and asking God to move a mountain go to Scripture and remind yourself of all the impossible things that God has done for people. Review God’s faithfulness in your own life so that when you pray you will do so confidently.

Believing God for the impossible often looks like an exercise in foolishness. But in order to see God move a mountain you’ve got to be willing to look foolish. Elijah looked foolish dumping water on a pile of wood before calling down fire from heaven. The Israelite army looked foolish marching around Jericho blowing trumpets. David looked foolish standing up against a ten foot tall giant with nothing but a sling. But the results speak for themselves. Bold prayers honor God and God honors bold prayers.


John Maxwell, Partners in Prayer (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1996), 65

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Green-Eyed Monster

Once there was a monk who lived in a cave in the wilderness. He had a great reputation for holiness. His reputation reached Hell itself, whereupon the devil took three of his key demons with him to tempt the monk out of his sanctity.

When they reached the wilderness, they found the monk sitting at the mouth of the cave with a serene look on his face. The first demon walked up to the monk and planted in his mind the temptation of great power, with visions of kingdoms and their glory. But the face of the monk remained serene. 

The second demon walked up to the monk and planted in his mind the temptation of great wealth, with visions of silver and gold and all that money can buy. But the face of the monk remained serene. 

The third demon walked up to the monk and planted in his mind the temptation of sensuous pleasure, with visions of dancing girls. But the face of the monk remained serene.

Annoyed, the devil barked, “Step aside, and I will show you what has never failed.” The devil strolled up beside the monk, leaned over and whispered, 'Have you heard the news? Your classmate Makarios has just been named bishop of Alexandria." And the face of the monk scowled.

Numbered among the seven deadly sins is envy. Envy is mentioned several times in the Bible and every reference is negative. Envy is what led Cain to kill Abel (Gen. 4:3-5), sold Joseph into slavery (Gen. 37:4) and threw Daniel in the lion’s den (Dan. 6:3-5). It was out of envy that King Saul turned on David, setting off events that would end in the destruction of Saul's family and civil war in his nation (1 Sam. 18:9). Finally, it was out of envy that Jesus was falsely accused by the religious authorities of crimes that sent Him to the cross (Matt. 27:18).

The spirit of envy is one of the classic signs of human sinfulness (Rom. 1:29). The spirit of envy is numbered among the works of the flesh that turns a person from God (Gal. 5:21). Shakespeare called it "the green sickness" while Philip Bailey, the eloquent English poet of yesteryear, vividly described it as “a coal that comes hissing hot from hell.”

And speaking of hell, no one has done a better job of portraying envy than Dante. In his Purgatory, you may recall, the envious sit like blind beggars by a wall. Their eyelids are sewed shut. The symbolism is apt, showing the reader that it is one of the blindest sins--partly because it is unreasonable, partly because the envious person is sewed up in himself. Swollen with poisonous thoughts. In a dark, constricting world of almost unendurable self-imposed anguish.

Scripture offers several reasons to beware of envy. First, envy is not good for you. Proverbs 14:30 puts it bluntly: “A mind at peace gives life to the body but envy rots the bones.” can kill your joy, your hope, your peace, and your capacity to love. It can kill your faith and your relationship with Christ.

The second problem with envy is that it only grows and festers with time. I recently read a story about a man who nursed a grudge for 50 years over a classmate who embarrassed him in high school. After several years of letting the poison of envy get worse, this man finally tracked down his adversary, knocked on his front door and when the man answered he shot him between the eyes.1

Finally, envy can drain or sense of gratitude. Have you ever known anyone who was envious of someone else that was truly content with life? Me neither; that’s because it’s impossible to be happy when you’re always looking at the greener grass across the fence.

If you are struggling with envy then there is only one anecdote, double your efforts to help that person succeed by praying from them. I have found you can’t hate a person you are praying for. The act of praying for them will turn your envy into love and jealousy into contentment. 

Finally consider the advice of Charles Swindoll, “Having some big struggles with envy? Eating your heart out because somebody's a step or two ahead of you in the race and gaining momentum? Relax. You are you--not them! And you are responsible to do the best you can with what you've got for as long as you're able. Remember, the race isn't over. And even when it is, a lot of things you got hot and bothered about during your lifetime won't even show up in eternity. I don't care how many trophies or awards or dollars or degrees may be earned or won on earth, you can't take 'em with you. So it isn't worth the sweat. Death always cures ‘the green sickness.’”2

1. Cameron Smith, “Bizarre S.D. murder caused by resentment over 50-year-old locker room jockstrap prank,” Yahoo! Sports, 18 June 2012 <http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/highschool-prep-rally/bizarre-d-murder-caused-resentment-over-50-old-183136429.html> 

2. Charles R. Swindoll, "Envy, part 2," April 14, 2009, <http://daily.insight.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=13927

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Making All Things New

In November 2008 one of the greatest masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance was restored to its original splendor and returned to its home at the world renowned gallery in Florence. The Madonna del Cardellino was painted by Raphael in 1505 for the wedding of his friend, a wealthy Florence merchant. It portrays Jesus Christ's mother, Mary, with two children who are playing with a bird. The children symbolized John the Baptist and his young cousin Jesus. The gold finch bird that feeds among thorns is interpreted as representing Christ's future suffering.

But something happened to this painting. Forty years after it was created, there was an earthquake in the house in which this painting was kept, and the painting was shattered into 17 different pieces. The wood was all smashed up into bits. So another artist took long iron nails and tried to patch the pieces together. And then he tried to paint over it to conceal the breaks and make it look whole again. But over the years, there were so many layers of paint added and so much dust and grime over this painting that the original colors, the original art, was completely obscured. 

The contemporary restoration project fixed the shattered areas and removed layers of paint and dirt to get the colors back. It was a team effort. It took fifty people ten years of working on this painting, and the result is stunning. The cracks are gone. Centuries of brown film and grime are gone. The dulling veneers and patches have been stripped away, and the finished product glows with all of the deep colors: the reds, and blues, and golds of the original work of art. Given how badly it was damaged, the restoration of Raphael's painting is arguably even more amazing than the painting itself. The original was splendid, but the miracle of restoration compounds the beauty. Knowing the drama of the whole story, you can only gawk at it in wonder.

The spiritual parallels are profound. They speak to a far greater masterpiece of restoration, the one that the Lord wants to do in your life and in mine. Tragically, the beautiful design of who God created us to be has been marred by sin; and layers of grime and dirt have collected. Maybe you've felt them and sensed them in your life. You thought you could paint over the damage, but it didn't work, and the patches, the veneers that you applied just made things worse, and the cracks are showing. Maybe you've experienced earthquakes that have shattered you, but the good news of the gospel is that Jesus has the power to make all things new. 

In fact, you have to look no further than Mary Magdalene to see an example. Here was a beautiful woman whose life had been ravaged by bad choices and Satan. Luke tells us that Jesus cast out seven demons from her (Luke 8:2) and after this she followed Jesus to the bitter end. Mary Magdalene witnessed most of the events surrounding the crucifixion. She was present at the mock trial of Jesus; she heard Pontius Pilate pronounce the death sentence; and she saw Jesus beaten and humiliated by the crowd. She was one of the women who stood near Jesus during the crucifixion to try to comfort Him. However, Mary was also the earliest witness to the resurrection of Jesus, as she was sent by Jesus to tell the others (John 20:11-18). 

God restores broken lives and he reboots busted hope. When Mary was tormented by a host of evil spirits He touched her and made her whole. When her hope was crushed on Friday it was resurrected again on Sunday morning. “Behold,” says Jesus, “I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).