Trust the power of the cross

If you come to a room with piles of junk that need to be discarded and much cleaning needs to be done, you probably wonder, “where do I start?” We ask that same question as we look around us at problems in the world. Things can seem like such a mess. All kinds of clean-up work is needed. Where do we begin?

The New Testament congregation in Corinth was a messed-up place in need of cleaning. People in the congregation were fighting with each other and even taking one another to court. There was sexual immorality among them that Paul said was “of a kind that does not occur even among pagans” (I Corinthians 5:1). Sometimes their worship services were so full of chaos and disunity that Paul said, “your meetings do more harm than good” (I Cor. 11:17). Where to start in cleaning up such a mess?

In his letter to the congregation in Corinth Paul addresses the issues going on. He appeals to them that “there may be no divisions among you” (I Cor. 1:10). He calls them to “Flee from sexual immorality” (I Cor. 6:18). He urges them to conduct their worship services in an orderly manner. But most of all Paul writes to them about Jesus and the cross and the resurrection.

“For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Cor. 2:2). Paul was convinced that the best way to clean up the mess in Corinth was to teach them about what Jesus did at the cross for them. Helping them to know the sacrificial love of Christ was the best hope for helping them unite together in love. He believed if their hearts were truly gripped by the good news that Jesus died for them, they would turn from sexual immorality.

The proclamation of the cross and resurrection of Jesus is the most effective way to bring cleansing to messed-up lives. It is tempting to think we’ll clean them up with the verbal equivalent of a power washer, blasting away at them for how wrong we believe they are. We may think arguing and reasoning and piling on guilt will cause them to clean themselves up. Nobody can clean themselves up in their own power. It is Jesus alone who can do the cleaning that is needed.

“Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified” (I Cor. 1:22-23). Preaching Christ crucified may seem like a simplistic answer when the problems are so complex and some people are so deep into sin and so far from the Lord. The good news of Jesus is the power of God. The message of Christ is of first importance. Jesus died for our sins. He rose to life again and conquered sin and death. That is the truth people most need to hear. That is the truth with the greatest potential for changing lives and changing the world.

What do we do about all the problems around us? We start with telling people again and again about Jesus’ amazing sacrificial love.

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Jesus understands

When you’re used to being surrounded by people with the same skin color as you, it’s a unique experience to be in a large crowd and nobody around you is the same color as you. I am thankful I have had that experience.

The first time I went to India it wasn’t hard for the people meeting me at the airport to know who they were looking for. I stood out in a sea of dark Indian faces.

When I visited Jesse Long and Ben Jore in Tanzania we went to a remote village in the bush. They didn’t have electricity or running water and it was probably the first time they were visited by any white people. The lightness of our skin color was a pretty unique thing for them to see.

It is good for everybody to have the experience, at least once in their life, of being surrounded by people who don’t look like them. It can be a little uncomfortable. We may say we want to stand out, but the reality is, we often try to blend in. Most of us don’t like to have people stare at us and wonder why we look different.

I had the feeling in that village in Tanzania that some of the people were looking at me and wondering what had happened and where had all my color gone. We all do that kind of thing. We wonder, and sometimes make terribly wrong assumptions, about those who are different from us.

Having the experience of being in the minority can help us, when we’re part of the majority, to sympathize with those who are not like the rest. Walking in their shoes, even if only for a short period of time, can help us to understand it is not so easy to be different from the majority around you.

Sometimes people who are healthy will spend a day in a wheelchair or disabled in some other way to see what it is like to get around and experience how people treat the disabled. They find out they are treated differently and looked at differently. They don’t volunteer to do it for a second day.

Finding out the nature of somebody else’s struggles is often hard and painful. Jesus, however, out of love for us, chose to experience what our struggle is like.

“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity.” He shared in our trials and challenges. He is able “to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 2:14, 18, 4:15). He understands this life can be hard. He graciously walked the path we walk. “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Isaiah 53:3). Choosing to become familiar with rejection, pain and suffering – that’s grace.

Even if we look like the people around us, we still have times when we wonder if anybody understands our hurts. We give thanks that Jesus does. We can cry out to Him and always find a sympathizing ear. He chose to become One who sympathizes so that He could be the One who sacrificed His life to save us from our sins. By faith in Jesus we go from being outsiders to being welcomed in as beloved children of God.

The surprising ones Jesus loves

In a movie or TV show, usually within the first few minutes, you can guess which handsome guy and which beautiful girl will eventually get together and fall in love. It’s different in the Gospels. They tell a love story that doesn’t follow the expected script.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were sure they were God’s favorites. If God wanted to be with anybody, He would certainly want to be with them. They were proud of how well they did at following the rules. They faithfully went to the temple and kept all the religious rituals. They expected the way the story was going to go was God would reward them more than anyone else because of how good and righteous they were.

Then Jesus came along. He knew the Old Testament better than the religious leaders. His wisdom was like none they had ever seen. He lived a life of integrity and they were unable to find any fault in Him, even though they tried hard to find some. But the people He enjoyed hanging out with and having meals with were sinners and tax collectors. Jesus didn’t follow the script the way the religious leaders thought it was supposed to go. They expected when the Messiah came He would choose them as the ones He wanted to be with. What was Jesus doing, wanting to be with those undeserving sinners?

Jesus chose a despised tax collector, Matthew, to be one of His 12 closest followers. Matthew had a dinner at his house and invited Jesus. And Jesus came. That wasn’t in the script. “When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and “sinners”?’” (Matthew 9:11).

Zacchaeus was another tax collector who had cheated a lot of people out of their money. But in a plot twist no one saw coming, Jesus went to his home. “All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a “sinner”.’” While He was there Jesus made the incredible declaration: “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:7, 9).

Jesus treated as wanted, valued and loved a woman from the wrong ethnic group, who had had five husbands and was now living with a man she wasn’t married to. And He used her to bring her town to faith in Him. “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39).

Those who end up in a relationship with God aren’t necessarily those who are outwardly impressive and have the greatest accomplishments. That’s how the world would write the story. Those who God chooses to be His own are those who confess their sin and trust in what Jesus has done. It’s a crazy and unexpected love story. It’s a story of God’s love for the undeserving. It’s a story of how much God loves us.

Church is a family not an event

Church is not an event we go to but a family we belong to. Church should not be seen as simply a place you go to when you want to receive some religious goods and services. That kind of view of church leads to an emphasis on the quality of the production but not on the quality of the relationships.

God created us in such a way that we need to be connected to others. We need to be part of a family. Many biological families are broken and full of conflict. But even in healthy biological families, there is a need for something more. People need to be in a family where Christ is the Head and the unity is not based on similar DNA. They need to be in the family of God where unity is based on faith in what Jesus has done.

“God sets the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:6). To the many lonely in the world the church extends a welcome and an invitation to be part of the family of God. This is to be a family different than any other, with a different kind of love and a different depth of commitment to one another.

When church is viewed as an event the emphasis is on the production, the presentation and “the show.” When church is seen as family the emphasis is on the people: How are they doing? Are they being built up? Are they being encouraged? When church is an event, if the product being offered doesn’t suit your tastes, you go shopping somewhere else. When church is family there is hopefully more patience and understanding.

“… be patient with everyone” (I Thessalonians 5:14). A family is a place where patience is sometimes tested and always needed. In a biological family you need to have patience with the little ones who are just learning to walk and talk. Patience is needed with the family member who is ill or disabled, or up in years and facing physical and mental challenges. It’s similar in God’s family. Some members might be just starting to walk with God. We need people to be patient with us as we stumble and fall at times. Some need patience as they wrestle with an illness of the soul. We are all disabled in some way. We all have patience-testing limitations.

When I’ve gone through trials and challenges in my life, I didn’t need an event to go to as much as I needed a church family to come alongside me and rejoice as I rejoice and mourn as I mourn (Romans 12:15). Sometimes I get tired of going to events. But I always need and I always give thanks that I get to be a part of the family of God.

Encouragement from surprising places

Sometimes God gives encouragement in surprising ways. Teachers can come from unexpected places.

The University of Oregon drama department might not be a place you would expect you could go to and find strength and encouragement in your faith in the Lord. But it happened to me.

It was a little over 20 years ago when I was living in Eugene. The U of O drama department put on a production of the play “Shadowlands.” The play tells the story of the Christian writer C. S. Lewis and his relationship with the woman who became his wife, Joy Davidman. When he was 57 Lewis married Davidman. Only four years after their marriage Joy died of cancer. The play tells the story of Lewis and Davidman falling in love, her battle with cancer, and Lewis’ battle with grief after her death. It is honest about his pain and sorrow, and also tells of how God helped him in dealing with his pain.

My sister, mother and brother had died the year before I saw the play. I could relate to Lewis’ struggle with sorrow. Some of his questions about why and about God’s purposes were questions I was wrestling with also. The play didn’t attempt to give simplistic answers to difficult questions. I was encouraged by the reminder that it is okay to hurt and mourn. I was encouraged too by the story of a man who God comforted.

God comforted me as I watched the play. After the play, as I was heading to my car, I found myself crying and thanking God for giving me the encouragement I needed that night. The U of O drama department maybe was just trying to put on a good play and didn’t have the goal of strengthening the faith of someone like me. But God used them in a powerful way.

During this new year comfort and encouragement may come to you from surprising places. God may use people you’re not expecting to teach you from His Word and point you to Jesus.

Jesus came from a surprising place. When Nathanael, who became a disciple of Christ, first heard what town Jesus came from he said, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46). He didn’t think the Messiah would come out of a place like Nazareth. God’s Holy Spirit continues to take up residence in and do significant work in surprising places. God has used people who maybe seemed kind of gruff to encourage me. He has used ones with little formal education, who never stood in front of a classroom, to teach me a lot about walking with Jesus. It’s good for us to be open to being surprised by the ways God might encourage us and the ones God might use to teach us in the new year.

Overcoming Christmas fears

The Christmas story usually isn’t thought of as a scary story. And yet in the Gospels, a phrase that is repeated over and over is: “Do not be afraid.” It was one of the first things an angel told Zechariah, Mary, Joseph and the shepherds. They got scared when all of a sudden an angel appeared. You’d probably be scared too if a big strong creature who was clearly not of this world came out of nowhere and started talking to you.

People getting scared when God comes near has been going on since Adam and Eve. After they sinned, when they heard God coming they tried to hide from Him out of fear. The sinful, fallen human race has been fearful ever since. Our guilty conscience gets scared in the presence of holiness. It is right for a person to be fearful in the presence of God if their sin has not been dealt with. It is dangerous foolishness to be unforgiven but not fearful before the holy, almighty God.

“Do not be afraid” is a good news declaration that God has come to put an end to the problem that produces all the fear. After telling Joseph to not be afraid the angel let him know the reason why. “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Jesus went to the cross and paid the penalty in full for all of our sins. He satisfied the demands of the law. Because of the cross, the fear of judgment hangs over our head no more. We have been set free from the fear of facing what we deserve.

Jesus has come to change our attitude toward the news that God is here. By faith in Christ, God is no longer the Judge who scares us. Instead we can now know Him as the loving Father who cares for us. When we are trusting in Jesus we are not fearful about God coming near. The good news that Jesus is Immanuel – “God with us” – brings peace. The Lord of lords loves us and is with us. We don’t face the challenges of life alone. The One who has conquered sin and death is willing to go through life with us.

The world is constantly trying to scare us and make us prisoners of fear. Many people are slaves to anxiety and worry. The world tells us to be afraid of who and what is coming. We don’t need to fear what might come because we know Who has come. The Son of God has come to set us free from the prison of fear. “Do not be afraid.” The Prince of Peace has come.

A humble leader

His mother taught him not to brag about himself. President George H.W. Bush took his mother’s lesson to heart. After his recent passing, friends and people who worked for him talked about his humility, his gentleness and his kindness.

After the Berlin Wall came down aides wanted Bush to go to Berlin and celebrate winning the Cold War. Some thought it would be good to go and let the Soviets know, “We beat you.” Most politicians would have relished the opportunity to declare victory and show superiority. Bush said no. He wasn’t interested in showing off and soaking up applause from crowds.

After the Gulf War victory a parade was held in New York City. Bush was encouraged to go but he said the moment belonged to the troops. He wanted them to get the applause and praise. Other times in his administration Bush used the pronoun “I” when talking about mistakes that were made. He used the pronoun “we” when talking about accomplishments. He shared praise but not blame.

During a press conference while president, Bush called the reporter Susan Page “Ann.” His mistake was pointed out to him later and the next day Page received a handwritten note from the president, apologizing for calling her by the wrong name and asking for her forgiveness. What a contrast from politicians who call reporters names like “stupid” and “loser” and other names that are not fit to repeat.

Bush may have occasionally forgotten a reporter’s name or called them by the wrong name, but people who worked at the White House told about how he took the time and made the effort to learn the names of the people who worked there, including the cleaning staff and those providing security. No matter their job, they were people of significance who have a name.

We often don’t look for humility when it comes to choosing leaders, but we should. The truly great leaders in history – Abraham Lincoln for example – showed remarkable humility that had been learned through trials and failures. Lincoln’s humility was demonstrated by his ability to laugh at himself. Bush did that as well. Dana Carvey got a lot of laughs on Saturday Night Live for his impressions of Bush. Instead of attacking him, President Bush invited Carvey to the White House and they became friends.medium_2018-12-02-ca885d986b

Humility is a fundamental Christian virtue. If God has done a work in a life, than some growth in humility should be evident. “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. … God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. … Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 3:13, 4:6, 10).

In his 1988 campaign for president, Bush said he hoped for “a kinder and gentler nation.” Some mocked that expression then and recently it was mocked again. But I still hope and pray for more kindness and gentleness, especially among those who call themselves followers of Jesus. He gave the greatest example of kindness and gentleness when He hung on the cross and gave His life for us. “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12). We strive to be kinder and gentler because we have received such gracious kindness and gentleness from Jesus.