Living in Grace


For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

This is easily one of my most favourite passages of Scripture. It is my creed, my life motto, my defining theme. I’m saved by grace through faith in Jesus. Full stop. That’s who I am. I need no one or no thing else. Jesus is my all in all.

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Photo by Sabine van Straaten on Unsplash

I say that this morning, but before mid-day arrives, I will be living as if I am saved by works, diligently scurrying hither and yon, like a disorientated mouse, seeking to gather up seeds of accomplishment for myself to affirm my identity and feed my sense of self-worth. What a waste of life and energy! Worse yet, that life and energy is spent on feeding a false hope. We can never be saved by our works. Our works can never be good enough to overcome the damage caused by sin.

That would require a perfect sacrifice and that price has already been paid in full. The first phrase of this passage is in the past perfect tense. I have already been saved by grace through faith. Therefore, my works are not a contribution in any way to my salvation. My works flow out of my salvation and they are for my neighbours. I don’t need my good works. Jesus has done it all already. God doesn’t need my good works. He owns everything already. But my neighbour does need my good works and my loving sacrificial service. My neighbour needs to know God’s love.

The receptacle that receives grace is rest. We rest in the grace, love and forgiveness of Jesus. All we do is receive. And then we let Jesus live His life in and through us. Whatever happens is whatever happens. We rest in Jesus’ love and leave the results totally up to Him.

The hardest part of grace for me is to believe that I can actually trust it, that I can take my hands off of the steering wheel of my life and the results will not only be good, they will be far, far better than I could have ever dreamed. This is where I get stuck.

But God even has grace for me when I get stuck. When I finally give up and turn to Him, He doesn’t shame me or condemn me. He simply says, “Ok, let’s go!” and He leads me forward in the perfect plan that He has prepared for me.

Living in grace is far, far easier than trying to do life on our own, and the results which God brings in and through our lives are far better than anything we could accomplish.

Dear Jesus, thank You for paying the full cost of saving me. Help me to overcome my internal resistance and live in the freedom and the grace You freely give to me. Help me to rest in Your love. Amen.

Communication


I have been thinking a lot about communication recently and I realize that I am lousy at it, which is ironic given that I am paid to communicate publicly. I am really challenged in this area. What happens with me is that I have a thought in my head, then I say something which I think communicates my thought to another person, and then I assume that they have the same thought in their head that I have in my mind. I continually assume that I have communicated when I really have not.

It is those assumptions I have that trip me up all the time. And behind those assumptions are some nasty bits of soul darkness like pride, the desire to be right and putting myself above others, which is me trying to be God just like our first parents did. (There is nothing new under the sun.)

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Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

Good communication begins with a posture of humility and the assumption that I have something to learn in this exchange. This is what fosters curiosity and interest in us for the other person. When we show that we are interested we are showing that we care.The thought we have planted in our mind may have been put there by God, but we cannot assume that we have that thought in its best and final form. Sharing that thought with someone else with the assumption that my idea can be improved and I may not be communicating it properly, not only shows honor towards the other person, it allows that idea to enter the space in between two of God’s creative creations and that idea can then be refined and improved. And when two or more people become involved in a communication process anchored in humility, thoughtfulness and respect, the communication becomes very effective and creative, resulting in better solutions than either individual could have generated on their own.

Of course, not all communication is for creative purposes. Sometimes the purpose of a conversation is simply to communicate information. Sometimes one needs to confront someone else. The same principles apply. Humility, a willingness to learn and a desire to understand all help us to become better at communicating.

And our desire to communicate well is always motivated by the sweet, loving communication that God gives to us. In Psalm 85, we read:

I will listen to what God the Lord says; He promises peace to His people, His faithful servants—but let them not turn to folly. Surely His salvation is near those who fear Him, that His glory may dwell in our land. Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other. Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven. The Lord will indeed give what is good, and our land will yield its harvest. Righteousness goes before him and prepares the way for his steps. (Psalm 85:8-11)

What beautiful words of love! We don’t need to be anxious or afraid, we don’t need to impose our will on others, we don’t need to make things work out the way that we think that they should. God has everything in His hands, He promises peace to His people and He will not let them end up in a hopeless place. We don’t have to be concerned about ourselves or our own personal agenda anymore. We are free to listen and love knowing that God is going to bring His very good things forward through the many circumstances in our lives.

We give thanks to God for the opportunities that He gives us to communicate with each other! We can look forward with joyful anticipation to the good things that He will bring us in the future!

Giving Our Lives for a Far Greater Cause


Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. (Romans 12:1)

The thought of being a sacrifice does not sound very appealing. To sacrifice something means “an act of slaughtering an animal or person or surrendering a possession as an offering to a deity” and a sacrifice is “an animal, person or object offered in the act of sacrifice.”[1] Who wants to be a sacrifice, even a living one?

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Photo by Tom Parsons on Unsplash

Most of the time, when the word “sacrifice” is being used, it refers to a religious system where sacrifices are needed to get the deity’s attention, favour or help. None of these things are true in the Christian faith. The Bible tells us that, though we need God’s attention, favour and help, it was He that made the first move. God the Son, came down to humanity and embraced our frailty and brokenness by wrapping Himself in human flesh and becoming one of us. Then, Jesus acted contrary to the way that all other religions in the world are set up: He sacrificed Himself to make all things right between us and God. No more sacrifices are needed.

Jesus has done it all. He took away all our guilt and shame, He more than paid the full cost of forgiveness for all people everywhere, He won eternal life for us, He brought us into God’s family as beloved daughters and sons, He gave us the gift of new life with Him and He forged a bond with us that He will never break.

In light of all that Jesus has done for us and the way that our lives have already changed because of Jesus, the word “sacrifice” takes on an entirely new meaning. We don’t need anything else anymore. We already have Jesus. But our unbelieving friends, neighbours and family members do not. Jesus gives us the opportunity to give our lives for a far greater cause than living for ourselves in the here and now. With Jesus, we can be “living sacrifices” as we spend our lives loving those around us with the love that He has first given to us. And something counter-intuitive happens when we do that: as we lose our lives in service to others, we unexpectedly find that we gain a life that we would have never dreamed of having, a life that is rich with meaning and purpose and full of joy and blessing. And we become better people in the process.

Dear Jesus, help me to stop making sacrifices to try to earn Your attention or love. Instead, help me to receive and rest in the unconditional love and infinite that You already have for me. Transform me from the inside out and help me to spend my life loving others with Your love. Amen.

 

[1] Source “Sacrifice,” English Oxford Living Dictionaries (available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/sacrifice).

I Am Convinced


Several years ago, when I was interning to become a pastor, a family in one of the congregations that I served lost a 14-year-old son in an automobile accident. This passage was read at his funeral:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

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Photo by Rhodi Alers de Lopez on Unsplash

Being completely convinced is not a small feat. There are only a handful of things for which we can say, “I am convinced.” We need evidence to make such strong statement. This makes Paul’s words in Romans 8 even more remarkable because he is not talking about an historical fact or a repeatable scientific result. Paul is talking about love. We have learned not to trust love because personal history has shown us that love is fickle. It comes and goes with the mood and the circumstances of the lover. But not in this case.

 

Paul is talking about the love that God has for us. God’s love for us is always infinite and unconditional. God’s love for us will never fail us because God will never leave us nor forsake us. God’s love for us is what moved God the Son to wrap Himself in human flesh and become one of us to save us from sin, death and everlasting condemnation. God’s love for us is what moves the Holy Spirit to flip all the switches in our soul from “God Hater” to “God Lover,” from “No Faith” to “Faith,” from “Condemned” to “Saved,” and from “Spiritually Dead” to “Fully Alive.”

The evidence that convinced Paul is of two kinds. Part of what convinced him was subjective evidence, his personal experience of life with Jesus. Jesus carried Paul through controversies, beatings, and imprisonment, and through it all, God used Paul’s gifts, experience and knowledge to convince others that God loves them and they also followed Jesus. But Paul also knew that there was ample objective evidence—information that was open and available to all—that was convincing. For example, Paul knew how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament promises of a Saviour from God. Paul also knew that Jesus’ tomb was empty and that Jesus had appeared to many witnesses after He rose from the dead.

The resurrection of Jesus is the proof of God’s faithful love for us. It is because Jesus rose from the dead that Paul can say that nothing, not even death, will separate us from Jesus and His great love for us. Convinced of God’s love, we get to experience the joy of being carried by that love through thick and thin, until the day that Jesus carries us home and faith turns to sight. Then we will know that God’s love never fails.

Dear Jesus, please convince me of the strength and the truth of Your love. Help me to trust in You and Your love in good times and bad. Give me opportunities to share what has convinced me with others in the hope that they might also be convinced. Thank you for Your love! Amen.

God’s Ultimate Judgment


“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” (Romans 2:1)

The most well-known Bible verse these days is probably “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Mt. 7:1). What people want to avoid is feeling condemned, but there is something else in play here.

The reason that we should not judge others is because whenever we condemn someone else, we also condemn ourselves because we do the same things. This is not only true in a general sense (“we are all sinners”) but also specifically, for we tend to see and loathe in others the sins that tend to be a problem for us.

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But the solution is not to cast off all discernment and let everyone do whatever they want and not say anything because we are all sinners. That notion is ludicrous and will lead to much harm and regret. Just because I got caught in a trap does not mean that I should not warn people when they play near the same trap.

No, the solution is to peel back the layers of our onion-like soul before God and be totally transparent before him. He already knows our sin. When we confess our sins to God, we are not telling him something that he doesn’t already know. Confession is agreeing with God.

We agree with God that we are sinners through and through. But we can’t stop there because God does not stop there. For God the Father sent his Son, Jesus, to be our Saviour. And Jesus willingly went to the cross where he took all the judgment for all sin upon himself and paid the full consequence of that sin. Jesus was condemned. We were set free. As people who cling to the coattails of Jesus, God’s ultimate judgment of us is that we are his forgiven, beloved, beautiful children.

Let us rest in the gracious judgment of God. Let’s make this our core identity. Then when we tell someone that they are doing something wrong, our motivation will be love for them. If our love for others is so great that we are willing to suffer personally so they can have a better life with God, that is the kind of love that the Holy Spirit can use to change the trajectory of someone else’s life forever.

Dear Jesus, thank you for your love and forgiveness for me. Help me to be both wise and loving in my relationships with others. Help me to love other people like you love them. Amen.

Jesus Will Carry Us


[Jesus said,] “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Mt. 23:37)

A few years ago, the shocks went out on our family van. If you have ever had this happen to a vehicle you were driving, you know what it is like. There is no “give” left in the suspension and the vehicle bottoms out when it goes over minor bumps. Bad shocks become a bigger problem when you try to pull a trailer. The vehicle is unable to function normally and if you don’t fix the problem, more serious damage to your vehicle can result.

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Photo by Prince Abid on Unsplash

There is also a shock absorber in the human heart which serves to lift us up even when we go over bumps in life. Because of our broken human nature, we usually try to be our own personal shock absorber. However, this doesn’t work very well and that becomes obvious when we get shook up by a bump that we hit. Then we get anxious or afraid (with men, fear often shows itself as anger) because we know that our present suspension is failing us, and serious damage could soon result.

The solution? It would be easy to say, “Give up trying to hold up our own lives and let Jesus do it for us.” While that is true, a change at a deeper heart level is needed. We need to give up our understanding of what the good life looks like and embrace God’s definition of the good life. Jesus was referring to us when He said, “I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of” (John 10:10 MSG). God’s definition of the good life is life with Jesus, trusting in Him for all things in every moment of our lives. We were created to let Jesus carry us through life, so we need to give up trying to hold up our own lives.

How do we know that Jesus will carry us? Years ago, I heard a preacher on the radio describe a young boy’s experience during a prairie fire in the 1930’s. The fire came so close to the family farmhouse that the young boy could feel the heat through the glass of his bedroom window. The boy’s Dad and the hired man fought against the blaze with shovels and wet burlap bags. Thankfully there was a road between the fire and the farmyard and the fire did not cross the road.

The next morning, the young boy went for a walk to survey the damage. Seeing a charred lump in the middle of the road, he kicked it and six little yellow chicks scurried out from underneath the blackened mass. Seeing the fire, a mother hen gathered her chicks under her wings. They were saved, but she was consumed.

This is what Jesus has done for us. He allowed the punishment for our sin to be poured out on Him instead of us. He was consumed, but we were saved.

Resting in Jesus’ love for us, we do not need to be anxious or afraid about anything. Nothing, not even death will separate us from Jesus and His great love for us. With our trust in Jesus instead of ourselves, we live with a lightness of heart and a joyful spirit that is both rare and attractive in this broken and hurting world. Our attitude can give us opportunities to share with others the Good News that Jesus will carry us.

Dear Jesus, please help me to place my life in your hands and trust in You for all things all the time, especially when I hit a bump in life. Amen.

Jesus Helps Us to Judge by True Standards


A few weeks ago, I was heading home after the Sunday worship service here at WGLC, and since I park on the east side of our building, I drove through parking lot of the mechanic shop next door and I was going to turn right from there on to 88th Avenue. The traffic was very busy at that time, so I checked both ways for pedestrians, and then I looked to my left and waited, and waited and waited. Finally, there was a break in the traffic and I let my foot off the brake and began to accelerate. My eyes scanned back to the right so I could make my turn and that is when I saw the skateboarder who was about to pass in front of me. Fortunately, this skateboarder was very capable. He saw me begin to move and abruptly stopped, and danger was averted.

When I reflected on what almost happened, I realized that I believed an assumption that was not true. The view to the right is obstructed on that driveway, and I had assumed that no pedestrian could cover the distance on the sidewalk that I could see in the time that I had been waiting. I had never even considered the possibility of a skateboarder being on the sidewalk. A skateboarder could cover that distance in the fraction of the time someone walking would take. Because of my assumption, I was blind to how things really were and I did something that almost resulted in tragedy. That tragedy was averted, but my assumptions needed to change or, in time, the same thing would happen again, and next time the outcome might not be as fortunate.

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Photo by Raquel Martínez on Unsplash

Being willing to change our assumptions and beliefs is daunting because it is very hard work, and there are a couple of reasons why that is so. First, it often means uncovering things that we didn’t even know we believed, and those things do not tend to get uncovered unless there is some kind of pain or conflict in our life that draws our attention to it. Second, changing our assumptions and beliefs is hard because it means letting go of something that we have held on to for a long time, and that does not feel safe to us. But if we don’t do the hard work of examining our assumptions and beliefs and changing those that need to be changed, we will continually misjudge the situations we face, make bad decisions and, sometimes, that will result in disastrous consequences.

God wants something more for us than the life that we are now living. God wants us to see things how they really are so that we can make good decisions that not only help us to thrive at life, but also help others to thrive at life too.

Today we are going to be looking another story from the life of Jesus. But before we do that, we need pause for a moment and reflect on the word “judge” because it is a word that shows up in the reading that we are going to be looking at.

Decades ago, if you asked people which is the most recognizable verse from the Bible, the answer likely would have been John 3:16:  For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Today, the verse that people are most likely to recognize as coming from the Bible is Matthew 7:1, where Jesus says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” No one likes to be judged, but people use this verse to say, “I can do whatever I want and you have no right to say anything about it.” But is that what Jesus really meant when He said this? Because in the passage we are going to look at in a few moments, in John 7, Jesus says something different about judging. He says, “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.” (John 7:24) So in John 7 Jesus is telling us to judge and in Matthew 7 He is telling us not to judge. How are we supposed to understand what Jesus is telling us?

The first thing that we need to clarify is that there is both a broad and a narrow definition for the word “judge.” In the broad sense, all of us judge all the time. As we go through the day, on a moment-by-moment basis, all of us are assessing the situations we face and then we make decisions about how to respond to those situations based on our assessment. That’s what judging means in the broad sense.

But judging is also used in a narrow sense, such as when a judge finds someone guilty of a crime and sentences them to time in jail. Judging in the narrow sense has a connotation of condemnation.

So let’s turn to Matthew, chapter 7, verses 1 to 5. Here Jesus says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Mt. 7:1-5) Jesus is speaking about judging in the narrow sense, in the sense of condemning someone. When Jesus says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” what He is effectively saying is this: Do not put yourself above someone else and pretend that you know all that there is to know about them or that you know what their eternal destiny will be. When you do that, you are putting yourself in the place of God. God is the only One who knows all that there is to know about a person. God is the only One who will decide what a person’s eternal destiny will be. Let Me help you deal with the issues in your own life first, and then together we can help that other person deal with the issues in their life. But don’t put yourself above other people and don’t pretend that you are God.”

Now we turn to John 7:1-27 and we see in this passage that Jesus is in conflict with a group of Jews called the Pharisees. The Pharisees are often mentioned in the Bible as being opposed to Jesus, but there were many good things about them. They were upright, moral people. They believed many of the same things that Christians back then and today believe. The Pharisees believed that all of the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, was from God and was important to know and to follow. They believed that God will raise people from the dead on the Last Day, and they also believed in angels and other spirits.

But where the Pharisees and Jesus came into conflict was over the issue of how God saves people. The Pharisees believed and taught that only people who kept all of God’s commandments, not only those commandments that were written down in the Old Testament, but also of the laws that were passed down in the oral tradition, only if you kept all of the laws from God would be saved by Him. Jesus believed and taught something that was quite different. Jesus believed and taught that salvation was a gift from God, given through faith to everyone who believes in Jesus.

Even though many of the Pharisees opposed Jesus and some of them wanted to kill Him, Jesus still loved the Pharisees and He still reached out to them. Jesus knew that this was more than a difference of opinion about a theological issue. Jesus knew that because the Pharisees were focused on external obedience, they were blind to the more important issues that were prominent in people’s lives beneath the surface. Therefore, they were continually misjudging situations and making bad decisions. Jesus’ words to the Pharisees are words of love as He refers to judging in the sense of making decisions in everyday life and says, “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly” (John 7:24).

The event that started this conflict was when Jesus healed a man at the Pool of Bethesda. John records that event in chapter 5 of his biography of Jesus. The Pharisees considered healing to be work, so for them the most important thing in that situation, when Jesus encountered this man who had been ill for 38 years, would be for Jesus to keep the law and not heal the man on that day, which was the Sabbath, the Jewish holy day. Jesus was sent to seek and to save that which is lost (see Luke 19:10) and that included this sick man. For Jesus, the most important thing in that moment was to love this man into the family of God, and that is exactly what Jesus did by healing him.

Jesus knows that every human heart is broken in some way, Jesus knows that all our human natures are twisted and for us to try to keep God’s laws perfectly in an impossible task. It only crushes us when we try. Our external obedience is not what Jesus looks at, Jesus looks at the human heart. Because of the great darkness that He sees inside of each and every one of us, Jesus, the Son of God, became fully human so that He could take all of that darkness away from us and give us His light, His forgiveness, His place in God’s family, and His love. And this is only the first step in God’s two-part gift, because a day is coming when Jesus will come back to this world and make the salvation that He has already given us fully complete. Now we live in a broken and hurting world and our bodies age, break down and eventually die. Then we will live in a renewed and restored earth that is reconnected with heaven and we will have bodies that will never grow old, never get sick and never die. We are going back to the garden and this time we will have free and open access to the tree of life that stands at the centre of the garden.

Jesus loves you and accepts you unconditionally. You are a beloved, forgiven child of God. You have eternal life with Jesus and the Holy Spirit dwells within you. Your body is His temple. All of this is a totally free gift from God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Dear friends, I encourage you to fully open the gift of life that Jesus has given to you and live it to the fullest. What do I mean by that? There is a temptation to think that because Jesus has forgiven us, it is okay for us to keep judging things, that is, to keep using our old assumptions and beliefs to make decisions, just as we were doing before. But if we keep doing that we will always be misjudging situations, we will always be making bad decisions and we will never be able to live the rich, full, abundant life that Jesus wants to give us.

Imagine for a moment, that you are in a conflict with someone else. I am asking you to think of a conflict because it is when we are in conflict that our true beliefs and assumptions rise to the surface. When you are in a conflict, what is the most important thing for you? If you are like me, when I get in a conflict the most important thing that rises up within me is for me to be right. When I let that be the most important thing in my life in that moment, I will sacrifice everything else in order to make that happen. Now here is another question: When I do that, when I allow me being right to be the most important thing in the middle of a conflict, who am I being most like, Jesus or the Pharisees?

I am being like a Pharisee.

Jesus is calling us to suppress and shed our old Pharisee ways and embrace loving other people closer to Jesus at the most important thing in our lives. It doesn’t mean that we won’t have conflicts, but it will change our conflicts into opportunities to love other people closer to Jesus. We still speak truth, but we speak it with a different motivation because we want the person with whom we are in conflict to grow closer to Jesus, and we do it in a different way because we love them, and we speak the truth with love.

This is why Jesus called all people in the Christian Church to love one another. It is not easy to love someone when you know some of their faults and foibles, or when you have been hurt by something they said or did to you, or by something they said about you to others. But God uses that hard work of loving our sisters and brothers in Christ to help us examine our inner beliefs and assumptions and change them. It is through the hard work of loving our fellow sinners in the Church that we grow to become more loving people. And prepares us for the even greater task Jesus has for us of loving the world. We are part of the Body of Christ in the world, and it is through us that Jesus will share His saving love with the world. When loving other people closer to Jesus is the most important thing to us deep down in our heart, then we will make much better decisions. Jesus helps us to judge by true standards. Amen.

(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church at Langley BC on May 6, 2018. It is based on John 7:1-27.)