John 1:35-42 – Your Simons…

John 1:35-42 – Your Simons…

 The following day John was again standing with two of his disciples. As Jesus walked by, John looked at him and declared, ‘Look! There is the Lamb of God!’ When John’s two disciples heard this, they followed Jesus. Jesus looked around and saw them following. ‘What do you want?’ he asked them. They replied, ‘Rabbi’ (which means ‘Teacher’), ‘where are you staying?’Come and see,’ he said. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon when they went with him to the place where he was staying, and they remained with him the rest of the day. Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of these men who heard what John said and then followed Jesus. Andrew went to find his brother, Simon, and told him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which means ‘Christ’). Then Andrew brought Simon to meet Jesus. Looking intently at Simon, Jesus said, ‘Your name is Simon, son of John—but you will be called Cephas’ (which means “Peter”).” – John 1:35-42NLT

Every year at our high school lock-in, we head out, while it’s still dark, for Table Mountain. As the sky is just starting to lighten, we head up the east face of the mountain, winding our way above the tree line in the crisp morning air. About halfway up, we stop to watch the sun rise over the Greater Denver Area. The lakes and ponds are like glass, the city is silhouetted against the orange streak of sunrise, there are wisps of mist settled in the dips and valleys of the rolling landscape. You begin to hear the sound of car horns and trains moving through the dawn, overlaid by the nearby twitter of birds. Its beautiful…and its profound.

Standing there, watching God’s beauty in creation and the sound of Denver coming to life, we talk about how we are called to that city and the people in it. Called by God to be about His work in our community, that the world will know Jesus.

What a daunting thought. As of 2019, there were over 7.7 billion people in the world (World Population Review). As of 2010, only 31% of the world was Christian, at best (Chappell, 2015). If you narrow that just to look at the Greater Denver Area, there are 3.15 million people (Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, 2019). Of that population, approximately 60% claim to be a part of the Christian faith, though the amount of people who also say that are active in their faith is significantly lower (Pew Research Forum, 2014). And here we are, this little band of believers on a hillside, overlooking a living city, full of people who don’t know Jesus…charged with bringing His truth to the world every day.

That task is immense…impossible…right?

As I read through John 1:35-42, I’m struck by a little piece of this passage, represented by verse 41NLT, “Andrew went to find his brother, Simon, and told him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which means ‘Christ’).” Simon…whom Jesus would rename “Peter” in Matthew 16:18 and charge to lead the disciples as they shared the love of Jesus with their world.

What a pivotal moment. What a critical decision by Andrew. He told Just. One. Person. Yet this one man would lead a movement that would go from a hated, persecuted, brutalized, and murdered little sect of Judaism in a despised corner of the Roman Empire… to a recognized faith in the Roman Empire by the early 300sAD.

I want to reiterate that. Andrew told one man about Jesus…and how many came to a saving relationship with Jesus because of that one conversation?

What I’m saying is God has called us, His Church, to reach the world. But you, individual Christian, are called to bring Him to the hand-full of people who move within the sphere of your everyday life. They may be coworkers or bank tellers or coffee baristas or janitors or disc golfers or CrossFitters or homeless people or preschoolers. They may look like the greatest or the least, but they are all those for whom Christ died, and among them you have significant, little relationships that God may want to use to help one man or woman to know their Jesus… just as they are fully known.

So yes…pray for the world, but live for Christ with your everyday Simons…knowing that if God could turn five loaves and two fish into a meal for 15,000, He can use one person’s salvation to bring salvation for millions.

  1. What is most intimidating for you when you consider sharing your faith with people you know?
  2. Why is it so difficult for you to talk about your faith with others?
  3. How do you feel when you consider that God has called you to love the people in your life enough to tell them about Jesus?
  4. Challenge for the week: Make a list of all the people you have a relationship with who are not believers. As you look at the list, think about who do you have a particularly good relationship with or could have a particularly good relationship with. When you found one or two people, begin to actively pray for God to guide you in guiding them to Christ.
Matthew 26:26-30 – Blood of life…

Matthew 26:26-30 – Blood of life…

“Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’ And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” – Matthew 26:26-30ESV

In the United States, it seems like Christians are kind of in love with the idea the United States was a Christian paradise at one time. We were once this place where it was safe and okay to live out our lives in obedience to Christ without criticism from the world around us. But is that really true, or is that a rationale we have to deal with how sidelined Christian values are becoming in our culture?

Certainly Christianity was less controversial in our country at one time. It was expected people were part of a church community as a social norm and subscribed at least publicly to Christian ethics. But does that necessarily translate to it being “easy” to be Christian “back then”? Does that mean the lifestyle of one who follows Christ was ever anything but controversial? I’m not sure it does. Even in 1940s and 1950s America, a man who didn’t curse, didn’t smoke, didn’t “chase skirts”, and maybe even didn’t drink was a shocking anomaly. Go back even farther to the British Empire, and while the gentry and nobility were expected to attend church on Sunday, it wasn’t “fashionable” to be fervently religious.

In fact, a life modeled after Christ is perhaps designed intentionally to be the very opposite of “comfortable” at any time in our world. After all, the one we follow tended to shock people. Even the most religious of the day. Even those who thought they had a finger on what it meant to follow Him: the disciples.

In Matthew 26, we tend to gloss over some of what was really going on in this scene. Jesus establishes the practice of communion, offering a cup of wine as his blood and a loaf of bread as His body. This practice, where we believe, in some way we can’t understand, that Jesus physically comes to us in wine-that-is-also-blood and bread-that-is-also-flesh, is central to our faith. We focus on this as a comfortable, familiar piece of our life in Christ.

Yet this communion was anything but comfortable for the disciples…because Jesus said, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood.” 

This single phrase would have been shocking… disturbing… especially from the one they followed as the Son of God. And it’s not because of them merely finding it tasteless to drink blood. It’s because God expressly forbade the drinking of blood in Leviticus 17:14. The very idea of drinking blood was anathema.

And Jesus never explains Himself. Never explains away the controversy to make the disciples more comfortable with it. As far as we can tell, He proceeds with this First Communion. And the disciples go with Him, stepping boldly into the breech without any recorded objections to what He offered them.

That, perhaps, is the unifying truth about Christianity we can point to at every instance in history. Not that it was easier once or less controversial. I don’t know if that’s ever been true. Rather, what we can say with confidence is Jesus has always called us to a life of controversy. To be Christian is to, in some way, defy the rules society tries to bind around us. Christians answering the call of Christ have fought to free slaves in defiance of the entire British government, shared Christ and His forgiveness with Japanese war criminals, sheltered Jews against the Nazis authorities, gave voice to the unborn when the law does not, and a million other acts of defiance for the sake of Christ and His work here.

Yet we don’t pursue controversy for the sake of “making a scene”. Rather… it is a side effect of holding out in our trembling hands the life of Christ we have been given. We bring Life to our world when we serve Christ because we point people to the God who inspires us.

Just as Jesus did. For as Leviticus 17:14 states, “the life of every creature is its blood”, and whose blood is offered in Matthew 26 and in every communion ever since? The blood of Christ, the Son of God.

In offering this controversial cup… Christ offered us His blood. The life of Jesus Messiah, Son of God…Creator.

  1. How is Christianity controversial in our society? Try to avoid politics and stick to what about Christianity itself people disagree with.
  2. What values of Christianity do you agree with, but struggle to openly follow in our culture?
  3. If being Christian is, and always has been, controversial, why is it often portrayed as the “boring, normal path”?
  4. Challenge for the Week: Pick one of the values of Christianity you subscribe to that other people find controversial. In a non-political, non-argumentative way, find one way to live into that value in an open way this week. Then do it!
Matthew 16:13-18 – He cares what you think

Matthew 16:13-18 – He cares what you think

“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.'”
– Matthew 16:13-18ESV

Here in Colorado, we’re pretty proud of our sports nation. Each season brings fans rolling out their color-combos depending on which major sports team is currently duking it out in the stadiums. Did you know we have a national AND major league lacross team? Yep! The Mammoth and the Outlaws! We can even get pretty passionate about our minor-league sports.

But there’s another competition that is sacred to many Coloradans: the Rocky Mountain Showdown. This is the rival game between the two major state schools in Colorado: the Colorado State University Rams and the University of Colorado Buffalo. Hailing from different championships, they meet for one rabid game a year, often at Mile High Stadium, home of the Denver Broncos.

At once such showdown, I attended with a large group of friends. As we were passing through the gates, each one of us had shoved into our hands some sort of paper advertising. I didn’t want it, but there was not a chance of beating my way back upstream to hand the paper back. So, at the next trashcan I saw, I quickly shoved it in (comeon, they didn’t have paper recycling at the stadium at the time). Almost immediately, I heard someone shout from behind, “Hey you! In the cowboy hat! Al Gore hates you!” Considering I was currently wearing the aforementioned hat, it was clear where the words were directed. For those wondering, this was shortly after Al Gore had released his controversial film An Inconvenient Truth on global warming.

I was devastated.

In this case, by devastated I mean laughing out loud. I can’t imagine caring less about what a complete stranger, wholly unconnected with me or my life, thinks of me. I still tell that story with laughter today.

And that’s just the thing. What a total stranger thinks of me meant nothing. But if someone I love were to hate me…well that would be something else. That would be something devastating…life defining…impossible to get over. To look a dear friend, loved family member in the eye…and to be told they hate me… That is no laughing matter.

So when Matthew records in chapter 16, verses 12-18 that Jesus is interested in what the disciples think of Him, we should sit up and pay attention. Remember, this is the same Jesus who, “was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:2-5ESV). All creation was made through Jesus. His words spiraled out the galaxies, ignited stars, covered the earth with land and water, sprouted flowers, spawned the creatures of the deep and the birds of the air, and scattered life across the earth. And in His arms was gathered the frame of man, into which He breathed His own life. The same life He would sacrifice on the cross, stained with our sin.

You see, this Creator God also calls us “child” throughout the Bible. This Creator God names us inheritors of all He has made. This Creator God granted us His authority to work on earth in His name.

And this God cares what we think of Him..the beings He wove from dirt.

In fact… letting us know Him for Who He really is…that’s everything to Him. To that end He has dedicated His every act in our world, from the very beginning.

“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” – 1 John 3:1NIV

  1. Think of the people you love the most. What would it be like to discover they actually hated you?
  2. How does it impact your perspective to think about this all-powerful Jesus caring what you think of Him?
  3. Knowing how much Jesus cares about what we think about Him, how do you think it impacts Him to see people lose faith in Him or not believe in Him?
  4. Challenge for the Week: We have a lot of ideas about who Jesus is, and not all of them are actually based in the Bible! Commit to reading through the entire book of John over the month of February and March. Make note of all the things you can know about Jesus from this Gospel account.
Matthew 26:36-42 – Jesus gets you

Matthew 26:36-42 – Jesus gets you

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’ He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.’ Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.’ Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. ‘Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?’ he asked Peter. ‘Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ He went away a second time and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.'”
– Matthew 26:36-42NIV

One of the things that perplexed me as a child was that Jesus went through the big deal of living a life on earth, going through all the betrayal and pain of the cross, rising from the dead…just to save us. Not that I thought saving us wasn’t a big deal, but why did God do it that way? He’s the All-Powerful One, right? Couldn’t he just wave His God-hand and obliterate our sin, then make sure someone told us we were forgiven? It would still have been a free gift to which we could respond in faith. He’d still get to bring us healing and the opportunity to be with Him always. Win-win, right?

As an adult…I get it. It’s not for any profound theologically-discerned reason based on an understanding of God’s adherence to justice because of His wholly-just nature. This reason is certainly true…but there’s a reason that hits right into my heart far more than a highly rational explanation like that.

Jesus’ life proves He gets me.

Jesus’ suffering proves He knows me.

You see…as an adult, I have come to understand Jesus’ words in the depths of my soul:

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death”
(Matthew 26:38NIV)

Have you ever cried until your were screaming? Have you ever felt like the world was spiraling into an inescapable dark hole beneath your feet? Have you ever looked at your future and saw…nothing? Have you ever faced a moment where you knew the next moment would determine whether you’d ever be able to truly live again? Have you ever roamed the darkness of night in silent desperation and found no hope or comfort at all?

The worst night of my life was the first night in the hospital after my husband unexpectedly collapsed at work and nearly died in the ER. We didn’t know what was wrong with him, yet. We didn’t know if we had a future together. We didn’t know what the next day would be like. We just knew other people’s blood was keeping him alive. We would find out three days later he had leukemia…that we were in a fight for his life.

He was asleep in his hospital bed. I couldn’t hold him…I couldn’t sleep. Everyone I knew was asleep. I was alone.

And that’s why Jesus took the path to the cross.

Because when I read His words in Gethsemane on the eve of His death…I know He understands what it’s like to be me. My God knows me. He has lived through what I am living through. So when the author of Hebrews wrote in Hebrews 4:15, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses”… I know it’s true. I know Jesus’ heart is with me on this road we’re walking.

And if it’s true for us…it’s true for you.

  • “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” Describe a time when that was true for you.
  • How did you endure through that experience?
  • How does it impact you to realize Jesus has felt the same as you?
  • Challenge for the week: We all know someone whose soul is in the same situation as Jesus described. Do something small to let them know they are not forgotten.
2 Corinthians 5:16-20 – Ambassador

2 Corinthians 5:16-20 – Ambassador

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” – 2 Corinthians 5:16-20ESV

For most of my life, I’ve been intrigued by this idea that we are ambassadors for God to our world. It started in high school, when I was studying up to lead a Bible study for the middle school students at my church, and found the connection between the concept of being a disciple and being an ambassador. It was a connection point for me that really clarified my purpose here as a follower of Christ. I suppose, in a way, it’s sort of been a vision around which I’ve desired to live my life. Whether I’ve done so successfully or not is a book for another day, but suffice it to say…I think there is huge significance in this idea we are ambassadors of Christ.

You see…ambassador implies a role in the kingdom…a critical purpose. Though we are citizens, we are not merely citizens. Under a good monarchy, a citizen’s job is merely to work the land, give money for the good of the kingdom, follow the laws, and perhaps help stand against invasion in extreme circumstances. If this were merely our role in the Kingdom of God, our job here on earth would be merely to persist as believers until we die, attending church and Bible studies regularly, tithing to the church’s work, being “good Christians”, and perhaps taking a quiet stand against cultural values which violate our faith.

Yet, we are not merely citizens. We are ambassadors. Ambassadors do not just live off the fat of the land. They know the desires and mind of the king intimately and thoroughly. They have the best interests of the kingdom at heart…and they are sent into the stronghold of the enemy. As soon as they cross the border into the enemy kingdom, their every action no longer represents them personally, it represents the kingdom, and in particular, the king who has sent them. When they speak, it is their king’s words. When they act, it is their king’s will. They go into the enemy kingdom, not for their own interests, but the interests of the king and kingdom from which they come. If they are rejected by the enemy kingdom, that is a rejection of their king. If the ambassador is abused and killed, it is viewed as an attack on the king, himself. In a good kingdom, the ambassador goes to the enemy to pursue peace between the nations, utilizing resources that don’t belong to the ambassador but are a gift from the king.

This is our life in Christ, here on this earth.

We, knowing the heart and mind of God for the salvation of all people, step into enemy territory for all the days given us. And people know Christ through knowing us. If we are merciful, if we are loving, if we are honest…people believe Christ is these things. If we are judgmental and cruel and self-righteous…people believe Christ is these things. We come extending God’s reconciliation with mankind, and at times we are rejected, abused…even killed for the words and actions the King has commissioned us to share. We do all this with the gifts and blessings God has given us, in the way He has equipped us to do so. And when we die to this world…it is not a death to existence, but a triumphant return to the King and Kingdom to which we have always belonged but have long been away from.

And someday…the True King will finally and totally bring peace. The King will bring His kingdom here. And we will be with Him, to see His work fulfilled at last.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, your life was not bought with the blood of God to be merely a citizen, though that is what you are by God’s power. You are called to be more! You are gifted to be more! You are crafted to speak the words of the King to a world at war. To bring the Peace of God to our shattered world. Now, more than ever, be courageous in small and huge ways. Breathe life into a dying world through the love and grace of Jesus. Dare to bring a picture of what His kingdom is like, today, to the sphere in which you live.

You are an ambassador. And your King is good.

  • How do you feel seeing yourself as an ambassador, not just a citizen, of God’s kingdom?
  • What is one thing in your life that is holding you back from living into your role as ambassador?
  • Where is one area in your life you are feeling the tug to be an ambassador in a more intentional way?
  • Challenge for the week: Find one moment to be an ambassador in a small way. Do it and share with a Christian mentor how it went, “good” or “bad”. Make sure you learn something and then try it again.
1 John 3:1 – What a Father

1 John 3:1 – What a Father

“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” – 1 John 3:1NIV

Father…

What images, thoughts, or feelings instantly come to mind when you read that single, powerful name?

For some of you, it may be a trustworthy, super-hero like figure whose strong hands held you when you cried and taught you to play football.

For some of you, it may be a mysterious, empty title…a looming, dark figure with no face whose presence was made loud by its absence from birthdays, holidays, and the victories of life.

For some of you, this is a dangerous name…a name filled with booming, angry voices, pain, and fear.

For some, this is a bitter title, symbolic of empty promises and unfulfilled longing. A figure, while present, who made you feel like nothing more than an uninteresting footnote in his life.

Depending on which father you had, the concept of being the “child of God”, a son or daughter of our Heavenly Father…may be difficult to understand. Even if you had the best of fathers, he wasn’t perfect, and for many of you, the idea of a father hasn’t been much of a positive experience in your life.

Yet John writes “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God” (1 John 3:1A ESV [emphasis mine]).

To understand what he means, I think we need to head over to Jesus’ “Parable of the Prodigal Son” in Luke 15. Jesus is trying to help people understand just how incredible the love of God is for His people. So He tells the story of a man with two sons. One son is faithful and good and continues to help his wealthy father work the land. The other son essentially tells his father “you are dead to me” by taking his inheritance money from his father and running off to live the high life on the money. Naturally, the money runs out, and he finds himself starving to death, feeding pigs in the countryside just to survive. And suddenly he comes to a realization in Luke 15:17-19ESV, “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.'”

Already we’re getting a taste of what kind of man the father is. You see, there are a few problems first century hearers would have expected this young man to face on returning home. One is he was merely a second son. You only need one son to inherit the family estate, so there is no pressure on the father to accept the boy back, despite what he had done. Second, the son had insulted his father’s honor by demanding the inheritance before his father’s death, leaving the family work, and running off to spend the money on “frivolous” things (we can safely infer gambling, prostitution, and the like). It would have been expected the father would, at the very least, disown the son, and there would have been no surprise if the father had the son killed on sight to preserve his honor.

With all this, the son is still willing to go home and ask his father for work. That implies something the son knows about his father’s character: he is kind, he is merciful, he is loving, he is forgiving… The sons knows what his actions deserve, yet he still does not doubt his father will allow him back safely. Yet even then, the son underestimates his father. Not only does the father not demand the punishment due for his son’s behavior, instead “his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him… the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate” (Luke 15:20, 22-24ESV).

Not only does the father not demand the life of the son for the evil he has done…the father welcomes him with open arms, running to him to end the separation that much sooner. The father celebrates the son’s return, not even bringing up what happened in the past but living only in the joy of reunion. Despite everything, the son is cared for, loved, cherished, and welcomed…without restraint.

And that is the kind of Father our Heavenly Father is. When John writes we have been “showered” with love by God calling Himself our Father and we His children, that is the kind of loving relationship we can expect with God.

Not a distant, faceless, empty absence in the joys and sorrows of our lives.

Not an angry, judgmental, hurtful shadow looming from the darkness to “get us” when we mess up.

Not a disinterested, blessing-dispenser who’ll snatch us up when we die but otherwise has washed his hands of the intimate details of our lives.

This God…this Father cares about every detail because He cares about you. This God wants you back, despite how bad a mess you’ve made of your life. This God is walking with you into the challenges, celebrating the joys and victories, and looking forward to when you can look Him straight in the eyes as He says, “Well done.”

What great love, indeed.

  • How do you feel and think about your experience with earthly fatherhood?
  • Do you see yourself sometimes viewing God through the lens of how you have experienced fatherhood? How?
  • How would it change the way you view your life to see God as a “good Father”, not matter your personal experience with fatherhood?
  • Challenge for the Week: Spend some time reading passages where God calls Himself “Father” or us “Children”. Make a list of all the good things it means to be a “child of God”. Put the list where you can see it as you prepare for your day.
Ephesians 2:10-21 – Uniting the Divided

Ephesians 2:10-21 – Uniting the Divided

“For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. You were called ‘uncircumcised heathens’ by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts. In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ. For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death. He brought this Good News of peace to you Gentiles who were far away from him, and peace to the Jews who were near. Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us. So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family. Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord.”
– Ephesians 2:10-21NLT

When I started working at a church, I found that in some ways…it really isolated me from the everyday people of my community who may never step foot inside a church. I felt convicted I needed to know these people and their world if I was going to dare to claim I loved them and cared about them. What this led to was a practice of spending at least half a workday every week doing my work in a coffee shop near my church. Over the years, this has led to some amazing conversations and relationships with people I would never have met otherwise.

In this practice, I’ve also heard a lot of varied political perspectives. Coffee shops during the workday are an amazing hotbed of political discussion. Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to hear the heated opinions of an active Communist. In the past I’ve listened to disenfranchised Democrats and Republicans hash out what is wrong with the American political system.

In our American society, politics are one of the deepest divides we face right now. It seems like we can’t even have healthy, useful conversations about our political views because people become so emotional and hostile over their political values. Inevitably, it seems like political debates devolve into criticisms of the other side’s intelligence and morality.

In Ephesians 2:10-21, the Apostle Paul writes something incredibly controversial in his political environment. He wrote in verse 14NLT, “For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people…”

Stop. Right. There.

Jews looked down on Gentiles because they were “outsiders”, not observing the laws and rites of the Jewish faith. At best, Gentiles observed a “corrupt” version of Judaism not centered on the Temple in Jerusalem. At worst, the term “Gentiles” composed any other person in the world who did not worship Yahweh, including Roman and Greek peoples with their multiple gods and sometimes questionable worship practices, such as temple prostitution. In return, Gentiles despised the Jews for their self-righteousness and absolute refusal to bend to popular culture, which included observing the worship of Caesar as a god. The divides could not be deeper. Jews would often refuse to even enter a Gentile’s house or share food with them.

What you can draw from this is Jesus uniting these two groups as “one people” was scandalous for everybody. Yet that didn’t even slow Him up. On the one hand, one of His own disciples was “Simon the Zealot” (Luke 6:15). Zealots were essentially “Jewish terrorists”, seeking to forcibly remove Roman rule from Israel. They frequently worked to assassinate Roman leaders and inspired revolts against Roman rule. Yet on the other hand, in Luke 7:1-10, Jesus encounters a Roman centurion asking for healing for one of his servants. After meeting this man, Jesus says to the Jewish audience around Him, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Luke 7:9b).

Christians…we are loved by an incredible God. “Once [we] were far away from God, but now [we] have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13NLT). Note the language here: we did not somehow bring ourselves close to God. Jesus, through His death, laid bloody hands on us and drew us into relationship with the God of the universe. He gave us a Family based on shared blood with the Creator.

That family is not just for those who are already in it.

Look at that sexuality or gender questioning neighbor: Christ is drawing them.

Look at that Islamic coworker bowing toward Mecca: Christ is drawing them.

Look at that radical feminist broadcaster: Christ is drawing them.

Look at that sky-high driver you’re trapped behind: Christ is drawing them.

What if He is drawing them through you? What if He intends them to be adopted as your brother or sister by working through you?

As Reverend Matt Popovits of Our Savior New York stated, “People should reject you because of Christ, not reject Christ because of you. There is a difference.”

  1. Who are the people you have the most difficulty making peace with?
  2. Why are these people such a challenge for you?
  3. How do you feel when you read Jesus may want to draw them into His family through you?
  4. Challenge for the Week: Whenever you find yourself thinking negatively about someone, think of them in terms of someone Christ died for that He wants to bring into His family…your family. When you have the opportunity to bring peace in His name in our divided society…do it.
Matthew 28:19-20 – Fearful & Free

Matthew 28:19-20 – Fearful & Free

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:19-20ESV

Most kids, it seems to me, love puppets and clowns. They’re funny, they’re outgoing, and they inspire the imagination. I was not like most kids. By three years old, I had decided both these things were scary and untrustworthy. My mom would take me to the fair, and she couldn’t get me to go anywhere near the clown shows. Even the Christian clowns made me uncomfortable.

I remember one fair, when I was very young, we were walking past a tent where they were doing a kids’ event, and they were appealing to families walking by to come into the tent. It was a clown show, and I could see the kids gathering around the clowns doing the presentation. Amidst the rising fear, I reached for my mom’s hand. As she held my hand, the fear was still there…but I also felt safe. I knew my mom was there, that she wouldn’t leave me…that I would be okay because she loved me.

In Matthew 28, the disciples are coming to the end of three-and-a-half incredible years at the feet and side of Jesus. Not only had they seen Him heal the sick, cast out demons, stand up against the Pharisees, raise the dead, and feed thousands with a poor boy’s meal…He had enabled them to do the same in His name. What is more, they had watched Him die a brutal, agonizing death…only to rise from the dead and walk with them and teach them even more. Now…He is about to ascend into heaven, and He has just given them an incredible responsibility:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20aESV).

In other words, Jesus is telling them, “Make faithful believers of the whole world.” May it be noted the leaders of the most powerful nation on earth – namely Rome –  just decided Jesus was a threat and had Him executed with no evidence of a crime. The religious leaders of the Jews, the very leaders ALL the disciple’s friends and family are part of, conspired for Jesus’ murder to take place. And the world outside Rome is no safer for lone people with no apparent protection. Add to that, Jesus is leaving. While He had sent the disciples on missions before, it was always with the plan of them returning to His side to learn and grow again at His feet. To their eyes, this time He will not be there to physically turn to. They will not be able to have the same deep, heart-to-heart and mind-to-mind conversations.

Can you imagine how daunting this task would seem? How afraid they might have been?

But, like my mom taking my hand when I was afraid, Jesus acknowledges their fears with these final parting words, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20bESV). He isn’t leaving them alone to this task, with no support and no help. He will be with them through it all, speaking the truth to their hearts, speaking the truth through their mouths and hands. And to be honest…they faced a brutal road. Every disciple, except for John, would be murdered serving this mission, and John himself would die in exile on a prison island. Yet they did not die alone. In death they leapt into the arms of Jesus because He was never away from their sides.

The same stands true for you, believer. In every moment of fear, every breath of terror and uncertainty, every sense of inevitable, crushing defeat… Jesus has never left your side. As He promised the disciples, He is with you always, even to the end of all we know. The fear may persist, but you are not abandoned.

You are never alone.

  • On a piece of paper, list all the fears you are facing right now, great or small.
  • When you think about all these fears, how do you feel? Whatever feelings or thoughts came to mind, note them under your list.
  • How might Jesus’ constant presence in the midst of these fears and feelings impact how you deal with fear?
  • Challenge for the week: Jesus has promised to be with us in fear. Memorize Proverbs 3:5-6 and speak it to yourself whenever your fear begins to rise.

Ezekiel 37:1-14 – You’re Not a Waste

“The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. And he said to me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.’

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.’ So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.

Then he said to me, ‘Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.'” – Ezekiel 37:1-14ESV

Do a quick Google search and you’ll find out some interesting things about this blue ball we live on. For example, the deepest point on earth is the Mariana Trench, which is about 35,462 feet deep. Do the math. That’s almost 7 miles below the surface of the ocean. The creatures living out their lives there look like something out of a horror film. It’s hard to believe they share this planet with us.

Another interesting fact: according to a November 15, 2017, article in Forbes entitled “The Number Of Earth-Like Planets In The Universe Is Staggering – Here’s The Math”, there are potentially 19,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the universe with the potential for at least one planet similar to Earth. That’s 21 zeros after the 19. I’m not even sure how to say a number that big. Yet, so far as we can tell, Earth is the only example among all these with the opulent existence of life. And not just mere micro-organisms, but beautiful, complex, astonishing life.

Now that I’ve got fixed firmly in your mind how incredible creation is, take a look at Ezekiel 37:4-8:

“Then [God] said to me, ‘Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.’ So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them…”

Did you pick up on the enormity of what just happened here? Ezekiel was an ordinary man living in 6th century BC Babylon among his fellow Jewish exiles after Babylon conquered Israel and Judah. He would only live about fifty years, prophesying the coming redemption of Israel that he would never see. Yet the same God who thought up the weird creatures in the Mariana Trench, the same God who thought it would be fun to make however-many kajillion (or however you say that number) stars and planets, but only inhabit one with life…chose to use this simple man to raise the dead. He could have easily done it Himself, but He chose to include Ezekiel in the display of His absolute authority over all life.

What does that remind you of? It reminds me of a mission trip I once went on with a group of high schoolers where we had to re-roof an 8/12 pitch house with cedar shingles underneath two layers of tar shingles. You have to have safety lines on everyone just to stay safe on the roof. It was almost one-hundred degrees and humid in the middle of summer in central Michigan. It would have been far faster and far easier for the experienced adults to rip right through that roof and get it done. But what was important to us wasn’t just re-roofing a house for someone…it was equipping the youth with new skills and confidence to do hard things. It took us a lot more brutal days under the sun, but because of that attitude, by the end of the trip, the kids were laying shingles with hardly any help from the adults, using nail guns and cutting shingles to fit like they’d been doing it all their lives.

You see…God is our Father, not just our Lord. We are His children. He says it over-and-over again throughout the Bible. There are countless times in the Bible when He could have easily done things Himself…and didn’t. Instead, He worked with and through ordinary people to achieve the extraordinary and transformed human history and human lives for the good by doing so.

And He is still doing the same thing today…through US. Through YOU.

You are not a waste. You are not a failure. Not now that God has come to live in your heart. The same God Who defeated Egypt through the power of the son of a slave, the same God Who defeated a giant through the arm of a shepherd, the same God Who defeated a conquering army through two women not trained for battle…choses to work through you every single day of your life. He choses YOU.

  1. Do you ever feel like God doesn’t really have a use for you? Why?
  2. How do you feel knowing the God of Creation works through you?
  3. How might it impact the way you view your life if you view yourself as just as important to God as the heroes of the Bible?
  4. Challenge for the Week: Read Ezekiel 27:1-14 every day and pray for God to give you eyes to see the ways He wants to work through you this week.

1 Samuel 1:1-20 – Two Important Things

There was a certain man of Ramathaim-zophim of the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Elkanah the son of Jeroham, son of Elihu, son of Tohu, son of Zuph, an Ephrathite. He had two wives. The name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other, Peninnah. And Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.

Now this man used to go up year by year from his city to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord. On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. And her rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year. As often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, ‘Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?’

After they had eaten and drunk in Shiloh, Hannah rose. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. And she vowed a vow and said, ‘O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.’

As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli took her to be a drunken woman. And Eli said to her, ‘How long will you go on being drunk? Put your wine away from you.’ But Hannah answered, ‘No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.’ Then Eli answered, ‘Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.’ And she said, ‘Let your servant find favor in your eyes.’ Then the woman went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad.

They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. And Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the Lordremembered her. And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked for him from the Lord.'” – 1 Samuel 1:1-20ESV

In youth ministry, you hear a lot of stories. I’ve heard enough that one thing I confidently tell other adults is, “People think kids have it easy. The reality is a lot of kids have nightmares behind their eyes. They just don’t have the benefit of experience to help them deal with it.” The stories that really break your heart are about what happens when they’re at home: emotional abuse, gaslighting, sexual abuse, physical abuse, marriages tearing apart while the kids can only watch, denial of affection and approval, passing back and forth between divorced parents so frequently they never really feel “at home” anywhere… the list goes on. The worst is the kids who don’t tell me what’s going on, thinking I can’t see behind the withdrawn attitudes or the showboating or the combativeness to know there’s more going on. It’s worse because I know they’re broken open and bleeding inside, in desperate need of help they’ll never accept. They don’t dare trust again.

With these years as a youth leader, I’ve also had many conversations with afraid, angry, crying parents who don’t know how to help their hurting kids. They don’t like the way things are…but they don’t know what to change and aren’t even sure anything can work. The unfortunate reality is usually, by the time I know their kids, it is often almost too late. They’re teenagers, a few years from graduation and the freedom to do whatever they chose. The road they are set upon was paved long before I knew them. Because the reality is, the best two things you can give your kids starts before they’re even born:

  1. Your living faith in Jesus
  2. Your loving marriage

In 1 Samuel 1:1-20, the prophet Samuel is born. He will ultimately be the prophet who serves God during the years of King Saul, the first king of Israel. He will be the prophet who identifies and anoints David to become king after Saul. This is the same King David God calls a “man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14ESV). But Saul’s beginnings are much more humble: the first son of a woman unable to have children, bullied by her husband’s far more fruitful second wife. This is a woman who would have been told her womb was “dead”.

But there were two things Hannah did have:

  1. She turned to the Lord for comfort in suffering, demonstrating her trusting relationship with Him. “She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly.” – 1 Samuel 1:10ESV
  2. A husband who loved her deeply, despite the fact she had “no value” as a woman in his culture because she could not give him sons. “But to Hannah [Elkanah, her husband,] gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb.” – 1 Samuel 1:5ESV

If you continue to read through 1 Samuel, you will find these two things proved fertile ground for Samuel to grow into an incredible man of God:

  • “Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and also with man.” – 1 Samuel 2:26ESV
  • God calls Samuel “a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind. And I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed forever.” – 1 Samuel 2:35ESV
  • “Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life.” – 1 Samuel 7:15ESV (Meaning he was the spiritual leader of all Israel, holding it accountable to God’s leadership.)
  • God chose Samuel to name the first King of Israel. “Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on his head and kissed him and said, ‘Has not the Lord anointed you to be prince over his people Israel? And you shall reign over the people of the Lord and you will save them from the hand of their surrounding enemies.'”  – 1 Samuel 10:1ESV
  • God chose Samuel to stand before King of Israel himself and hold him accountable for evil, “And Samuel said to Saul, “I will not return with you. For you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.” – 1 Samuel 15:26ESV

This is not to say being faithful to Christ and devoted to your marriage is the “silver bullet” of raising children. Sin is in the world, and Satan is active to mislead us. However, when your children see the love of God in your life and see deep, abiding, forgiving love between their parents… they have modeled for them a life infused with meaning and purpose. They have a strong foundation from which to step into a world filled with opportunity and danger. They have a powerful reminder of the enduring ability of God to make an incredible impact through two people who love one another and Him.

Through your marriage, kids have a picture of the love of God for His people…including them. A love “that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:19ESV).

  1. If you are married, how do you think you’re doing together? What might be some ways you could “grow together” as models of Christ’s love?
  2. If your marriage is broken, that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. What couples has God placed in your life who could help you mentor your children?
  3. If you are unmarried, reflect on the marriage habits you learned from your parents. Where may God be trying to grow you and prepare you as a partner to someone someday?
  4. Challenge for the Week: Whether you are married or not, bring your marriage or possible future marriage before God, praying for His strength and guidance and love to guide it.