sheepish faith

Social media has become a place to forge your identity and have your own soapbox to shout from. Opinions on sports, culture, religion, society, Beyonce, dogs, technology, music, and belly button lint, they all litter my Facebook and Twitter timelines. I’ve learned to develop a filter for most of the content I see. But being a person deeply interested in religion, and especially Christianity, my eyes readily focus on those statuses and tweets pertaining to religious thoughts. For many of my friends (myself included), posting Christian quotes, thoughts, and Bible verses is part of the daily social media output. Twitter makes everyone a theologian in 140 characters or less.

And then there are the ones that aren’t so friendly or supportive of religion (or faith, if you prefer that term). Some people like to quote statistics or history or philosophy, and make the claim that belief in the supernatural is just plain silly and archaic.

Recently, I was perusing through the profiles of some old college friends (stalking is such a harsh word) and stumbled upon a guy I hadn’t talked to since my freshman year at UT. Every one of his statuses bashed Christianity and the implausibility of God. And then I saw his “Religious Views” section on his profile: “People are sheep.”

At first read, I was offended and judging him in all sorts of ways (in a Christ-like manner, of course). I mean, the guy was calling those who hold onto faith as mindless, dumb animals! Blindly following the crowd, mindlessly believing anything. As someone deeply rooted in faith and Jesus, this didn’t rub me the right way.

But the more I thought about it, the more it dawned on me the truth of this statement; we are sheep! Even the Bible testifies to this fact in that “all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned — every one– to his own way.” (Isaiah 53:6)

So my old friend is right, we are sheep! But it isn’t just those of us who are “religious” because even the irreligious and the atheists have been proven to be such. We’re self-absorbed and silly and prone to wander. We blindly set off on our own, breaking from the fold, and search for our own patches of green grass, our own streams of cool water, and whatever paths suit our fancy. We are willing to follow and be led astray by any wind of thought and any person of influence. I’m not an expert on sheep or daily pasture life, but it seems that when sheep wander too far, they usually encounter some kind of trouble, be it wolf, pit, or thief.

The tremendous irony of it all is that in the search of freedom and independence and greener pastures, the sheep is met with loneliness and death.

But all is not bleak, because we’re told there is a Shepherd to guide the sheep: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” (Psalm 23:1-3) How fitting that David the shepherd would write this psalm, understanding his own sheep-ways and need for guidance and leading and comfort. But not only does this Shepherd keep watch over His sheep, He also loves His sheep so much as to go after them when they stray away or are lost (Matthew 18:12-14). In the dry wilderness and in the lush pastures, the Shepherd protects and saves His sheep.

When we get to the Gospels, Jesus identifies Himself as this Shepherd when He says,  “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,  just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep… My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:14-15, 27-28) The Shepherd knows His sheep, and they (we) know Him as well because He is their (our) Shepherd. Our guide, the One we run to, who protects us, who lays His life down for us. And because we are His, despite our wanderings or our sheep-ish ways, we who are His will always be in His hand, in the protection of His rod, under His love. And if we are His sheep, He is the one we follow, giving up our need for independence and trusting in His goodness and provision.

But even more striking, this same Shepherd is also identified as a Lamb throughout Scripture. An innocent, perfect, spotless lamb that was sacrificed in the stead of guilty, spotted, imperfect sheep. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). The Lamb that was slain, but is risen and reigns!

I am indeed a sheep. But I’m a sheep who follows his Shepherd. A Shepherd that is Himself the Lamb of God.

Who are you following?

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” –  Jesus (John 10:27-28)

“For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness.”  (Psalm 95:7-8)

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unsolved mysteries

There are many puzzles and questions that have perplexed men through the course of time. I’ve thought not-very long and concluded there are three great mysteries:

– The creation and expansion of the universe

– The role and place of dinosaurs in Earth’s history

– Women

That list is not in any specific order, but I think we can all agree that last one is by far the most intricate and vexing of them all. Not one thing specifically, but the whole species of “women” has been a puzzle to men since creation; they’ve always been shrouded in mystery. Even in the story of the creation of man and woman, we’re faced with some sketchy business and missing pieces to the story: there is great detail and imagery in God gathering some dust, forming man’s shape and image, and breathing life into his nostrils.

Then God knocks Adam unconscious and he wakes up with a woman and a missing rib. End of story.

I’m telling you, something’s fishy…

Men, maybe it’s just one of those mysteries that we’ll never figure out this side of eternity (or the other side for that matter). I know I certainly don’t. I’ve had more than one occasion where that extra X chromosome has really thrown me off.

In the 5th Grade, I peaked in my bookworm phase and I had approximately 1,276 Accelerated Reading points that year (that’s not an exaggeration, but really, who keeps a record of their points?………..). We had an AR store where once during a 6-week period, we could go and “buy” items with our points. They had the coolest things at the time there, like mini-stereos, Beanie Babies, candy, etc. I actually bought books with my points. But once, feeling like a millionaire with money to flaunt on women, I invited a girl that I crushed on to come with me to the AR store. I swept my arm around the room and with great smugness told her to get whatever things she wanted. “Baby, just throw it in the bag. You can have whatever you liiiiike.” Fabolous and TI, eat your heart out.

She got a couple things. And then picked a different boy to date.

There was once a girl I really liked, and we were “talking” and all that other nonsense teenagers say when they’re dating. One day I sent her a poem I wrote for her; I was proud of it and thought she deserved my cheesy rhyming romanticism, and so with trepidation I emailed it to her. When a week had gone by and I didn’t hear back about it, I asked her if she ever got it. This is literally how the conversation went:

Me: “Hey! So, umm… did you get that thing I sent you?”

Girl: “Oh yeah, in that email? Yeah… I was wondering what that was…”

Me: “That was a poem I wrote for you!”

Girl: “Oh, is that what that was?….. *silence*…. A poem…….. *more silence*…… That’s cool. So what are you up to?”

I knew it wouldn’t last.

Maybe we’re not supposed to understand women. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s what makes love and romance and pursuit such beautiful things we long for and celebrate. Getting to know the beautiful mysteries and delicate intricacies and wonderful history of that girl is the best part, isn’t it? Maybe you can never fully understand her because the moment you did, you would take her for granted and lose the intrigue. Because the moment you had her figured out, you would move onto something else to discover. And after all, who doesn’t love a good mystery?

Sometimes, in the midst of trying to figure out what it really is that women want, you run across a gem of a girl. Sometimes you find a pearl of great price. Treasure it. Treasure and love it and don’t forget the worth of that pearl, lest you lose it for someone else to find and appreciate. Because you will. And when you begin to take that pearl for granted, remind yourself that you were poor before you found her. Don’t throw your pearls before the swine. Don’t throw her away.

Valentine’s Day has just ended and I’ve heard many people express their differing opinions on the holiday: the person who is angry at commercialized chocolate love, the whiny single person, the sickeningly sweet love bird with her 200 quotes on love. Just go take a look at your Facebook timeline. I don’t think it’s that bad of a thing, why complain about celebrating a day to celebrate love?

But it reminds us that we don’t love just for the sake of it. We love because God loved us so deeply and pursued us so relentlessly that He sent Jesus to woo His bride to Himself. Jesus, who completely knows His messy bride and still loves her, and will continue to love her for eternity. That’s what Valentine’s Day and every lasting and non-lasting romantic relationship point to.

So look, I get it. They make our heads hurt, our hearts race, and our wallets light. But if your girl is that pearl, you keep at it. You pursue her and woo her and get to know her. And when you think you understand her, get to know her more, because you will never fully understand her. Boys, be men.

And women? Be gentle.

 “There are three things that are too amazing for me,
four that I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a young woman.” – Agur, Proverbs 30:18-19

Adventus

Advent gives us the opportunity to reflect on the good news of great joy we celebrate on Christmas.

Adventus (from which we get Advent) means “coming.” It’s the eager anticipation for the arrival of something – or Someone. We often read the Christmas story as Jesus showing up after the Old Testament to kick off the New Testament. But the Christmas story doesn’t begin in the New Testament with the Gospels, or even with the prophets who spoke of a coming Savior.

The Christmas story begins in Genesis.

In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve rebelled and sinned against God because of the serpent’s deception. They didn’t trust the goodness of God and disobeyed Him, creating a breach between mankind and the Lord. Instead of striking them dead on the spot, God curses the serpent and makes this promise to the enemy:

“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and her offspring;
He will crush your head,
    and you will strike His heel.” 

– Genesis 3:15, NIV

Because of this promise, Adam and Eve knew a Child was coming. This Child, wounded by the enemy, would seem to be defeated. But this promised offspring would crush the old serpent’s head and restore what had been lost in the Garden. Where Adam had failed his earthly bride by a tree, One would come who would save His eternal bride on a tree. Where Adam had disobeyed God, One would come who would obey God perfectly.

 And so they waited, and looked forward to this Child who would come.

As mankind grew and spread across the earth, God came to a man named Abraham and called him to step out in faith. God called Abraham to leave his country, his people group, and his family, to go to an unknown land. God promised Abraham:

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 

– Genesis 12:2-3, ESV

The problem was that Abraham was old. As in 75 years oldAnd yet, God gave him a son in his impossibly old age as a sign that our circumstances are never greater than our God. The promise was that in Abraham, all the families of the earth would be blessed. The offspring promised to our first parents would be that blessing.

And then God did something that seems like too much: God asked Abraham to offer his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. Abraham gathered his sacrificing gear together and trekked with his son to the mountain. When Isaac observed that everything was there except the animal to be sacrificed, Abraham displayed his trust in the promise and faithfulness of God:

“Abraham said, ‘God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.’ So they went both of them together. “

– Genesis 22:8, ESV

God did provide an animal, a ram, to take the place of Isaac on the altar. But a day was coming when God would indeed provide for Himself a Lamb as a sacrifice. Where a ram was offered as Isaac’s substitute, a Lamb would be offered as another substitute. Where Abraham’s son was not sacrificed, a Son would be sacrificed as a display of the Father’s love.

 And so they waited, and looked forward to this Lamb who would come.

Within several generations, God’s people found themselves in slavery in a foreign land. God raised up Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage, and to wander in the wilderness for 40 years on their way to the promised land. And yet, even though God had shown himself in great power and through mighty acts and faithful displays of love, they still ran after other gods. Their hearts weren’t changed; Israel was still under the bondage of sin, shame, and death. Moses was a great leader, but he couldn’t cause his people to love and obey God wholeheartedly because it is never man who changes hearts. Only God does that, and He made a promise through Moses:

“The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”

– Deuteronomy 30:6, ESV

In hope, they waited for this promised Deliverer who would deliver His people from the oppressive enemy and the shackles of sin, shame, and death. The One who would circumcise their hearts so that they could truly love the Lord and obey Him. Where Moses delivered them from physical slavery, One was coming who would deliver them from spiritual slavery. Where Moses introduced the Law, One was coming who would fulfill the Law completely. Where Moses wasn’t able to fully lead his people into the promised land because of his disobedience, there was One coming who, through obedience, would be able to bring His people into the great promise.

 And so they waited, and looked forward to this Savior who would come.

In the promised land, the Lord raised another leader. David was the shepherd-boy-turned-warrior who famously felled the giant Goliath with a sling and stone. Described as “a man after God’s own heart,” he seemed like a great deliverer and God anointed him king over Israel. But as great of a king as he was, David was still a man beset with sin, and his household was wrought with brokenness. He wasn’t the promised One, but there was a promise made to him:

“When your [David] days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish His kingdom.  He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of His kingdom forever.”

– 2 Samuel 7:12-13, ESV

So David and Israel knew that the promised offspring was coming, a King who would have an everlasting kingdom. Isaiah would prophecy:

“Of the greatness of His government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this.”

– Isaiah 9:7, ESV

Where David was unfaithful to his bride, One was coming who would be perfectly faithful and protect His Bride. Where David would die and his kingdom become divided, One was coming who would be raised from the dead and have a Kingdom that would never end. 

And so they waited, and looked forward to this King who would come.

This is what the world was waiting for: a Child, a Lamb, a Savior, a King. The ancient, promised Messiah they longed to see.

And then between the last pages of the Old Testament and the first page of our New Testament, God was silent for 400 years. It seemed as if maybe God had abandoned them. Maybe He had given up on His rebellious people.

Into this silence broke a baby’s cry one Bethlehem night. Into this longing, a longing that began back in Genesis, God himself stepped into creation as the promised Messiah, the promised Immanuel: God with us.

This promised Messiah, Jesus, lived a perfect life, died a sinner’s death, and was raised back to life. This Jesus, who reconciled us to God, promised that He would one day return.

Advent means arrival. In light of His first coming, we eagerly wait for and anticipate His second coming, when He will restore all things. Come, Lord Jesus!

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Join us daily in our new digital Advent devotional at  austinstone.org/advent

footsteps in the dark

Several years ago, I was laying in bed, trying to fall asleep. It was late, almost morning, when I heard it.

Well, I think I heard it. What sounded like a footstep in my room. My door was barely closed, and with my back turned to the noise, I imagined all sorts of scenarios as to what caused the noise. Or what was possibly standing over my bed, behind me.

I was probably reading a little too much Stephen King at the time, but I wrote this the next day. It’s Halloween, so I figured I’d share it.

Happy Halloween Reformation Day!

who is it i hear

inside my closed door?

soft fall of a step

on carpeted floor.

ever so closer,

what does It search for?

gladly i know not,

but know in my core,

the It in my room

has been here before.

tonight it has come

at quarter past four

and stands by my bed,

a creature of lore,

some hairy monster

or hunchbacked igor.

my back turned, i feel

cold eyes as they bore,

willing me to turn,

but still i ignore

and with bated breath

silently implore:

“go away! i wish

you’d come back no more!”

is the It still there?

 

               could you

               would you

               open the door

               a little bit more?

 

Words of Affirmation

I have an approval idol.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve craved the approval and validation of people to find a sense of worth, and I’m not alone in this. Many of us are enslaved by the desire to please and be praised, obsessed with what people think of us, afraid of rejection. We tend to embellish stories and paint ourselves in the most positive light. We spend an inordinate amount of time finding the right picture, the right filter, and the right caption to display on social media.

Pop-psychology and contemporary culture tell us that the answer is to just not care about what people think. “Be who you are, it doesn’t matter what people think. Believe in yourself, believe that you’re a great, beautiful person. Think positively.” Sadly, this passes off as Christian advice too.

But it doesn’t work. If I write a song, I don’t say, “I know that’s great, I don’t care what anybody says or thinks. I don’t have to ask anybody, I know it’s amazing.” Saying those words to myself doesn’t make it true, nor does it guarantee that I’ll believe it. I don’t know if it’s a good song until someone else, someone from “the outside” as Tim Keller says, validates me. I can say all day that all that matters is how I feel about myself, but until someone from the outside tells me I’m great, that I’m acceptable, I won’t believe it.

We need words, we need validation. The problem is that we try to find that validation from people. We try so hard for people to tell us that we’re valuable and worth it. Family, friends, significant others, coworkers, Instagram followers, strangers.

The Bible tells us that God the Father said over Jesus, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” If we are in Christ, the Father loves us as He loves His Son because Jesus died for us and drew us into the family of God. The work of Jesus on the cross transfers the life and righteousness of Jesus onto us so that the Father now says over us that we are His beloved children and well pleased. Romans 8:16-17 tells us that the Holy Spirit then bears witness within us that we are indeed children of God.

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

Romans 8:16-17

If you are a Christian, you have the approval of God because of Jesus! You don’t deal with your desire to please people by being satisfied with yourself or blocking it out. You put to death the idol through prayer, through reading the Word of God, and through Christian community, hearing the Creator of the cosmos as He says, “You are my beloved child in whom I’m well pleased.” Those are words that will validate you. Those are words that will heal our deepest insecurities and satisfy every longing in our heart.

Until we hear that word from outside that tells us who we are, we’ll be trying so hard to create an identity by getting people to tell us how great we are.

The Day After Good Friday

They shifted around listlessly. Through the walls they could hear the soft sobbing and occasional wail of the women in the next room. The men would look at each other briefly before ashamedly diverting their eyes.

How could they be so wrong? Everything had seemed so right.

Peter dabbed at the corner of his eye, but even he did not have any words for the moment. He sat and ruefully ruminated on the events of the the last day. In that amount of time, he had witnessed his hope, his confidence, and his future literally die.

Thomas’ voice cut the silence. “What do we do now?”

Peter broke out of his trance and stood up. “I’m going fishing,” he said as he gathered his cloak. “You guys can sit here, but I’m going crazy staring at these walls.”

“You can’t leave!” exclaimed John, “Everyone knows we were with Him. You’ll be ridiculed by everyone who sees you! The High Priest may even be looking for us!”

“John is right,” James chimed in,  “We should lay low and stay here until the dust settles. Let everyone forget about last night, forget about us. Some new scandal or news is bound to crop up soon enough. In the meantime, we can think about what to do next.”

“Next?” retorted a bewildered Peter. “What do you mean next? The man we followed and devoted our lives to the last three years is lying in a grave. Jesus is dead. We move on, that’s what we do next! Maybe there’s a Messiah yet out there.”

I’m not altogether sure this is what happened the day after Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, but this is the scene that plays in my mind. A band of disheartened, broken disciples sitting around, asking themselves, what happened? How did things go wrong so fast?

Just earlier in the week, Jesus had ridden into the city heralded as a King and now He lay wrapped in strips of cloth and returning to dust. Just two days earlier, they were confident they were following the Christ, the One who was to rescue Israel and establish His throne over the earth. Now He was just another teacher, a prophet maybe, and a failed Messiah. Messiah’s don’t die before they accomplish their purpose.

We who live in the future know the outcome of the story, what happens soon enough: the glorious resurrection of Jesus and His ascension! The fulfillment of numerous prophecies, the theological implications of the death of the Son of God, and the realization of where His Kingdom was. We have 2000 years of theology and study and speculation. The original disciples did not.

The feeling of defeat is something that is familiar. We know what it means to be broken, to be disappointed, and have our dreams and hopes crushed. We set our expectations high, and down and down they tumble from their lofty place. Things don’t always turn out as we thought they would.

A lost job. Failed relationship. Disease. The death of a loved one. Natural disaster.

And hopelessly, we cry out, Why? What do I do now?

What do you do when hope has hidden herself from you and despair blankets your heart? When depression and disappointment become your late night companions? Sorrow certainly may come with the night, but sometimes joy doesn’t show up with the morning. Or the morning after.

For the disciples, “Friday night” must have been a night of shock and tears and bewilderment. But “Saturday” would have been when the reality of the death of Jesus and the heaviness of defeat sunk in. “Saturday” was when they had to face each other and figure out how to pick up the pieces of their lives.

In the darkest nights of our lives, we can press on, knowing that though we don’t know what the morning brings, God on high does. When we’re bitter and lonely, heartbroken and upset, we trust in the sovereignty and goodness of our faithful Father. And we can trust this: our sorrow is not in vain. We know that for those who love Him, God works all things, seemingly hopeless things included, for our joy and good, and His glory.

All thing. All things.

Like the murder of His innocent Son.

Our suffering, our sorrow, our valleys of the shadow of darkness of death are not without purpose in the hands of a sovereign God. It’s a lesson in patience and trust. And patience and trust are hard.

We may not know what the future brings…. but we know that the story of Good Friday does not end with Saturday.

Easter is coming.

Refugees and Neighbors

There is much so brokenness in the world. The events of last weekend hammered that home in a heartbreaking way.

One of the results of the terrorist activity in Paris is bringing a spotlight to the Syrian refugee crisis that has been going on since 2011. A small percentage of these fleeing refugees have made it to the United States, but there is a growing fear that ISIS may be sending some of their own with these refugees. There is a fear that by welcoming these refugees, we’re putting ourselves at risk for tragedy similar to Paris.

Many United States governors, mine included, have made statements saying that Syrian refugees are not welcome within their states. Citing the safety of American citizens, they’re calling for President Obama to make a similar move in halting the flow of Syrian refugees to our shores.

I understand the desire for safety and security. And the evil acts of violence against innocent civilians by ISIS terrorists should rightly be decried and stopped. But what then ensues is a shunning of the evacuees of oppression. We are closing our doors on the victims of the terrorism propagated by ISIS, leaving them to fend for themselves.

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

engraved on the Statue of Liberty

Christians have risen on both sides of the issue, some with bleeding hearts, some with cold indifference. But how should we react? As people of the cross, people who now view everything in light of the cross, how should we respond?

I think we respond by welcoming the refugees with open arms. By feeding them, clothing them, befriending them, housing them, and helping situate them here.

Why? Because that’s a physical description of what has happened to us spiritually.

Jesus was once asked asked by a lawyer about how to inherit eternal life. The man knew the Law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” But who, asked the lawyer, was his neighbor? Jesus told a parable, the one we know as the parable of the Good Samaritan. He spoke of a Samaritan, an enemy of the Jewish people, who had compassion on a beaten and bloody Jewish man in need. The Samaritan put himself at physical risk and took on the financial burden of caring for the man he found on the road. And at the end of telling this story, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these proved to be a neighbor to the man who had fell among robbers?” The lawyer answered, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Christian, you and I were on the side of that road. Ever since Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden, we have been spiritual wanderers and exiles with no home. The Bible even describes us as enemies of God, alienated and unlovable. And then, at the right time, the Father sent the Son to reconcile us to Himself and show us perfect love and mercy. We who had no hope, no home, were welcomed by God into His household and given a hope imperishable. We who had no family have become part of the family of God because of Jesus.

 Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ…So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”

Ephesians 2:12-13, 19

This is our story. This is our motivation. This is the gospel. We didn’t deserve mercy, and yet God lavishly showed us mercy. Those fleeing oppressive areas may not deserve mercy, but we show it because we have been undeserving recipients ourselves. We welcome the refugee because we were spiritual refugees that God welcomed in. This reality supersedes our fear of the unknown.

Safety is important, and we should vet and screen the refugees who seek asylum in the United States. But closing our doors on those who would need our help, who need safety, isn’t part of the Christian narrative. The love of Christ compels us to sacrificially love and care for those who are in need. It allows us to give freely to those who would take from us. It gives us the grace to take risks, at the cost of our own safety, to show mercy.

It seems simple enough. But the lawyer had asked Jesus who was his neighbor. Jesus turned the question onto the lawyer and asked him who acted like a neighbor. The lawyer was trying to reduce “neighbor” into a narrow definition, but Jesus says it’s not about who they are, it’s about how you act and respond and show compassion!

I had an opportunity to visit Turkey last year and meet several Syrian refugees who had fled next door, and I was reminded of this truth: our God is described as a father to the orphan and defender of the widow, close to the brokenhearted and embracing the exile. If this is our Father, how much should we seek to be like Him!

Christ came and had compassion, even to the point of it costing His life. As a rescued and redeemed people, we have the opportunity to show compassion and love to those in need. We have the privilege of being neighbors. Let the gospel compel us to live this out.

Jesus is Better

 

There’s a song that’s been a constant refrain in my head the past year. If I could have an anthem, this would be it.

Jesus is better.

Lately, other things have been clamoring to assure me that they’re of utmost value or importance. There have been highs and lows, joys and sorrows, times when I had enough and times when the dinosaur piggy bank my sister gave me had more in it than my bank account. Ministry success, ministry failure, relationships, rejection, uncertainty of the future, fear. How easy it is to dwell on these things and find identity in them.

But Jesus our King is constant! Jesus our King has defeated the tyrannical rule of sin in our lives! My life isn’t defined by fear or breakups or even success! My life is hidden in Christ, and He gives me His righteousness. He defines me. There is no other king, no other lord, no other we turn to.

And then we get to the bridge, which reminds me that more than the worst sorrow or the greatest victory, more than the best comfort or riches, Jesus is better. But sometimes it’s hard to believe, so like the man in Mark 9, we cry out, “Lord I believe! Help my unbelief.”

In all my sorrows, Jesus is better; make my heart believe

In every victory, Jesus is better; make my heart believe

Than any comfort, Jesus is better; make my heart believe

More than all riches, Jesus is better; make my heart believe

Let your heart take satisfaction in that today. Our song eternal: Jesus is better.

For more music from the Austin Stone, or for resources, visit http://www.austinstoneworship.com/.

 

Picture courtesy of verge network.org.

The Heart of the Matter

It’s so easy to look at people being knuckleheads in the Bible and think, “those ignorant people! How could they not get it? I would never do that!”

My Bible reading plan has me read passages from different sections of the Bible, which is really helpful especially when you hit Numbers. Assuming you make it past the laws in Leviticus. And then you hit the genealogies in the Chronicles, and you’re tempted to just give up. Reading from different sections has been helpful because it reminds me that the Bible is one grand story of redemption, and that God uses different genres, literary styles, and authors to accomplish this.

This morning, among other sections, I read from Jeremiah 9 and Matthew 23. In Jeremiah, the prophet mourns over his people because “they are all adulterers” (v 2), deceitful, oppressive, and evil, and it’s because of this: they have “stubbornly followed their own hearts and have gone after the Baals.” (v 14) They’re in open, outward, outright rebellion against God by worshiping false gods! And the Lord calls them to repentance.

In Matthew 23, Jesus famously has a rebuke-fest with the scribes and Pharisees, the super religious. They do everything right. These guys even tithed of their mint and dill and cumin! When is the last time you tithed out of your spices? And yet Jesus calls them hypocrites and “white-washed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead peoples’ bones and all uncleanness.” (v 27) They appeared holy and pious, but remained wicked, greedy, and self-indulgent inside.

Israel had turned to other gods to try to find pleasure and salvation. The scribes and Pharisees had turned to law-keeping to find pleasure and salvation. So here we have God calling two groups to repentance: those who do evil, and those who do good. Those who break all the rules and those who are pretty good at keeping all the rules. And interestingly, both passages show that the reason they are both far from God is because what’s on the inside hasn’t been dealt with. They have uncircumcised hearts. (Jer 9:26)

David recognized this need when he pleads to God in Psalm 51, “Create in me a clean heart, o God!” This “man after God’s own heart” knew of the wicked bent of his own heart; he was repenting of sleeping with Bathsheba and having her husband murdered.

The antidote to being bad is not just being good. The Pharisees knew that God was displeased with their ancestors for following other gods, so they thought they could win his favor by being really really good and keeping all of God’s laws. But they, like their ancestors, didn’t really want God. Idolatrous Israel and the hypocritical pharisees were not that different. They both have unchanged hearts.

The gospel confronts the notions that you can find fulfillment by following your own passions and that you can find fulfillment by trying really hard to mold your behavior and outer appearance. By reminding myself, my heart of the gospel every day, I remember that all the pleasures of the world are to be found in God and his love in Christ, so I don’t have to seek it elsewhere. By reminding myself, my heart of the gospel every day, I remember that Christ didn’t die for me because I was beautiful, but to make me beautiful, and so all the good works and behavioral modifications I could ever muster up don’t change that fact.

This frees me to be honest about who we really are, and to be honest about who Christ is. This truth changes our heart, when we’re faced with the overwhelming love and grace of God in Christ.