Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Faith in Jesus That Challenges Us to Be Better

A couple years ago, a young man named Jefferson Bethke posted a video on YouTube and later followed it up with a book, “Jesus [is greater than] Religion: Why He Is So Much Better Than Trying Harder, Doing More, and Being Good Enough.” He was wrong on all counts.

The urge to simply have faith and then do nothing is very alluring and seductive. The urge to make excuses for our inability to serve God as Jesus calls us to do is very strong, and it’s a very old message indeed. But it’s a call to half-serve God, and it’s a repudiation of the message God called and anointed Jesus to preach to all humanity.

If you are not actively seeking to walk as Jesus walked, you are not a follower of Jesus. You may be an admirer of Jesus, or a flatterer of Jesus, but not a follower. Jesus calls us to a life of struggle and service, not a life of shallow words and false phrases. He challenges us to be better than we are, not remain as we were before we met him.

"Come just as you are" to Jesus. But expect to change and be changed by his words, life and example. He was meant to be followed, not just admired - he urged us to obey God, not to simply shower him with flattery.

The words, life, teachings and death of our Master, Jesus, challenge us to do, to act, to follow, to serve, to be better, to do more, to try harder, to be humble, yet be Righteous, to serve God not money, to lose ourselves and gain eternity.

Picking up a cross, going the extra mile, expanding our 'talents' to serve others, and being the Good Samaritan cannot mean a life of leisure and ease. It's a call to action. If we say we love Jesus, but don't hear what he says, we've built our lives on shifting sands, not the Rock of his Words.

The Gospel of Jesus isn't to only have belief in him, but to serve God, to follow Jesus, to love others just as we love ourselves. His Gospel calls us to serve and act, not sit and contemplate, nor to simply admire Jesus or even to worship him.

Let there be no mistake: We are equipped from birth by God to begin the works Jesus calls us to accomplish. We have the ability to serve others, the ability to recognize Truth, and the ability to know right from wrong. When we repent of our sins, and commit to stop sinning and serve God, then our Heavenly Father will equip us further with wisdom, with hope, with courage and with the strength to endure anything.

If we fail to grasp the simple, clear and profound message of Jesus, we will have fallen prey to the error of the past 19 centuries - the easy and wide path that leads to a failed and worthless faith, rather than a fulfilling one that fills the world with love, hope and light.

Anyone calling us to a faith of easy belief, of faith without Works, of emotion without action, of a hope of Heavenly rewards without our hands engaged in helping others, is calling us to "another Gospel" that is false, and "another Christ" who is a false illusion.

The clear, challenging religion of Jesus that he first preached is far superior and far more profound and Godly than all the superstitions, mythologies, complexities and unimaginable nonsense men have attached to it ever since. It's time to return to Following Jesus and serving Jesus' God in spirit and in truth.

A faith that fails to challenge us to bold, radical service isn't worth having. A free gift is worthless if it's never open and used as it was designed. Jesus offers us such a faith, such a gift, if we would only open it and act upon it.

Let us, then, act.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Doer Who Works Is Blessed by Doing

Guest Sermon by Rev. Andrew Murray

"But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing." (James 1:22, 25)

God created us not to contemplate but to act. He created us in His own image, and in Him there is no Thought without simultaneous Action.

True action is born of contemplation. True contemplation, as a means to an end, always begets action. In nothing is the power of sin more clearly seen than this, that even in the believer there is such a gap between intellect and conduct. It is possible to delight in hearing, to be diligent in increasing our knowledge of God’s word, to admire and approve the truth, even to be willing to do it, and yet to fail entirely in the actual performance. Hence the warning of James, not to delude ourselves with being hearers and not doers. Hence his pronouncing the doer who works blessed in his doing.

Blessed in doing. - The words are a summary of the teaching of our Lord Jesus at the close of the Sermon the Mount: ‘He who does the will of My Father shall enter the kingdom of heaven.’ 

‘Everyone who hears My words, and does them, shall be like a wise man.’ To the woman who spoke of the blessedness of her who was his mother: ‘Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.’ To the disciples in the last night: ‘If you know these things, happy are you if ye do them.’ It is one of the greatest dangers in religion that we rest content with the pleasure and approval which a beautiful representation of a truth calls forth, without the immediate performance of what it demands. It is only when conviction has been translated into conduct that we have proof that the truth is mastering us.

A doer that works shall be blessed in doing. - The doer is blessed. The doing is the victory that overcomes every obstacle it brings out and confirms the very image of God, the Great Worker; it removes every barrier to the enjoyment of all the blessing God has prepared. We are ever inclined to seek our blessedness in what God gives, in privilege and enjoyment. Christ placed it in what we do, because it is only in doing that we really prove and know and possess the life God has bestowed.

When one said, ‘Blessed is he that shall eat bread in the kingdom of God,’ our Lord answered with the parable of the supper, ‘Blessed is he that forsakes all to come to the supper.’ The doer is blessed. As surely as it is only in doing that the painter or musician, the man of science or commerce, the discoverer or the conqueror find their blessedness, so, and much more, is it only in keeping the commandments and in doing the will of God that the believer enters fully into the truth and blessedness of deliverance from sin and fellowship with God.

Doing is the very essence of blessedness, the highest manifestation, and therefore the fullest enjoyment of the life of God.

A doer who works shall be blessed in doing. - This was the blessedness of Abraham, of whom we read (James 2:22): "You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was make perfect by his works" He had no works without faith; there was faith working with them and in them all. And he had no faith without works: through them his faith was exercised and strengthened and perfected. As his faith, so his blessedness was perfected in doing. It is in doing that the doer who works is blessed. The true insight into this, as a Divine revelation of the true nature of good works, in perfect harmony with all our experience in the world, will make us take every command, and every truth, and every opportunity to abound in good works as an integral part of the blessedness of the salvation Christ has brought us. Joy and work, work and joy, will become synonymous: we shall no longer be hearers but doers.

Let us put this truth into immediate practice. Let us live for others, to love and serve them. Let not the fact of our being unused to labors of love, or the sense of ignorance and unfitness, keep us back. Only begin. If you think you are not able to labor for souls, begin with the bodies. Only begin, and go on, and abound. Believe the word, It is more blessed to give than to receive. Pray for and depend on the promised grace. Give yourself to a ministry of love; in the very nature of things, in the example of Christ, in the promise of God you have the assurance: If you know these things, happy are you if you do them. Blessed is the doer!

Adapted from "Working for God!" by Rev. Andrew Murray, 1901 (chapter 27)

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Repent from Sin and Follow God

Jesus began his ministry saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt. 4:17) And, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.” (Mark 1:15)

Jesus says of his ministry, “Repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in [my] name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:47) And when Jesus sent out his disciples, it is said of them that, “They went out and preached that people should repent.” (Mark 6:12)

So it would seem that repentance is something we need to understand and take very seriously if we call Jesus our Master.

To repent means that we decisively act to turn away from our old ways and embrace a new path. Jesus teaches that this path, this “Good News,” is the way of God, and the way of Righteousness.

“If any man will come after me,” says Jesus, “let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” (Matt 16:24)

The Gospel writers used the Greek word “metanoeĆ³,” for “repent,” which means to “change one’s mind,” and (in a deeper sense) to “turn around.” This is consistent with Jesus’ call for us to change our minds – literally, to think differently about our lives – and to turn it around, to turn our face to God and to obey His will for our lives, using the life of Jesus himself as a template.

Repentance it is not merely feeling bad for past sinful acts (though it is that) it is a commitment to act righteously, and in accordance with God’s will after repenting. Only those who practice righteous actions are righteous.

Righteousness is an act, not a thing that can be claimed without effort (1 John 3:7.)

Jesus calls us to repent, to change entirely, to dedicate our lives to serving other human beings and God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength (Mark 12:30.) He assures us that we can do the will of God (Matt. 7:21) and that it is our duty to do it, and that we will be judged by God according to our acts (Matt. 16:27.)

Jesus did not come to praise the righteous among us, but to save those who were sinning, and to call them back to Godliness. (Luke 5:30.) Repenting is the starting-point of our journey towards God with Jesus as our guide, our template and our mentor.

And then, we must continually rely not only on the God-given gifts which we already possess, but also seek God's face daily in prayer to strengthen us and help keep us from sinning.

No one who claims to have Jesus as their Master will knowingly and recklessly keep sinning. (1 John 3:6)  And if we fail to agree to stop sinning by repenting of our past sins, God cannot forgive us and we cannot fully follow God.

The Hebrew Scriptures instruct us that God takes no pleasure in our sins and wishes us to turn to Him, and save ourselves.  “In repentance and rest we will be saved; in staying calm and trusting will be our strength,” says the Prophet Isaiah (30:5) and again, “Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong.” (1:16)

“Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall,” warns Ezekiel, speaking for God. “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!” (18:30-31)

Let us, therefore, commit ourselves to conforming our walk of faith to that of Jesus, the servant of God and our guide in all things.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

"I am the Door": Metaphor and Symbol in the Gospels

The Prophet Jesus, our Master, nearly always speaks to us from the pages of the Scriptures in parables, symbolically. But this is the most forgotten and ignored Truth of his ministry, and causes much misinterpretation.

The Book of Mark tells us, “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.” Mark 4:33-34

In the Book of John, we read of Jesus being called a door.

“So Jesus again said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” John 10:7-12

But was Jesus REALLY a wooden door? Did he REALLY lead around a small flock of animals? Of course not. If one is a Literalist, these sayings make no sense. But if one understands that we are the sheep, and he’s the shepherd, and that we, through him (like walking towards, and then through, a door) may have more abundant, productive lives, the parable opens to us and becomes clear.

When Jesus spoke of himself and his teachings as Living Water, the Samaritan woman at the well asked, "Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” Obviously, he was speaking in metaphor, but the woman, like many people today, could not look past the imagery towards the greater Truth.

Jesus is compared to a Narrow Gate. But again, he had no stones or hinges, but instead offered the difficult (but holy) way to serve and know God, as contrasted to the Wide Gate, in which we delude ourselves by thinking we need not obey him nor serve others by our Good Works.

Nicodemus asks Jesus what he meant by being “Born again.” Surely, one can't crawl into his mother’s womb to be once again born! Jesus explains that he was speaking symbolically.

Luckily, most people today understand this. Most see the Jesus really wasn't a door, made of wood and hinges, or a bucket of water, sloshing around ancient Judea.

But what most don’t understand that ALL of the Gospel accounts should be taken as Parabolic and Symbolic, and their extreme literalism obscures and sometimes warps the vital teachings Jesus left to us.

When Jesus says one must eat of his flesh and drink of his blood, they, like the ancient Jews who heard this literally, ask, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" and they invent man-made doctrines that turn ordinary food, as if by magic, into flesh and blood.

When the Jews heard Jesus say, "My Father is working until now, and I am working." (John 5:18) they immediately accused him of “making himself equal with God.” But Jesus had repeatedly said that he could do nothing on his own without God, that he was God’s Prophet, that God was working through him, that he was God’s Son because he heard and obeyed God and said often that he was sent by God. And yet, most who have read the Gospels have believed instead the experts in Jewish Law sent to accuse him falsely (on this and other occasions) rather than believing God’s Anointed One.

Jesus is clearly speaking as the metaphorical shepherd in John 10:14-15, saying “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.” Clearly, again, he is not a literal shepherd of animals, but the meaning is clear: he is laying down his life for his followers – those who obey him.

Clarifying this, he says also (using the symbolism of friendship) “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:13-14.) There, neatly laid out, without obfuscation or confusion, is why Jesus died. It is a call to obey our Prophet and Master’s example in word and deed.

But other men have crafted many clever ways which purport to show that Jesus died in order to allow us to get into heaven simply by believing his death was magical, when in fact, his life and death calls us to repent from sinning, obey God’s commandments, and forgive and serve Others. That, not mere belief, will allow God to reward us with eternal life.

“Scripture” bears witness to what is true, but if we willfully misread scripture, ignoring our God-given Reason in order to interpret and understand it, pretending the words are something other than what they are, we obscure its meaning, and lose the precious teachings the Master Jesus gave to us during his ministry.

Selected Scripture:

“Then the disciples came and said to him, "Why do you speak to them in parables?" (Matt. 13:10)

“This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” (John 10:6)

“The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" (John 6:52)

“Nicodemus said to him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" (John 3:4)

“The woman said to him, "Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:11-14)

“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.” (John 10:14-15)

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:13-14)