God is in the business of leading those who look to Him. Sometimes we sing the hymn, “He Leadeth Me” which testifies to what a blessed thing this is. The words of Psalm 23 also reflect it: He makes us lie down in green pastures, He leads us beside the still waters; He restores the soul. And later it says the He leads into paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
All of this is wonderful, but what about when He leads us into times of struggle? What about the times when life doesn’t make sense?
Joel Gregory once said this: “I’ve never belonged to the school that seems able to peer over the divine shoulder and thus discover the will of God. The actual term ‘finding the will of God’ does not even appear in the New Testament… Paul seemed to see the will of God in life’s rearview mirror rather than its periscope.”
Sometimes things can be better-understood retroactively. I thought of this while I was looking at Deuteronomy 8:2, which gives us these words: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.” Think of this in relation to the times of struggle that you have been through. What happened? What was it like? How long did it last? (Hopefully it wasn’t 40 years like it was for the Israelites, living as refugees out in the desert.)
For some people it comes as a time of displacement. For some it’s the aftermath of a divorce or a significant breakup. For some it’s the loss of a job and a time of unemployment. For some it’s a loss of a loved one – which means learning how to pick up and continue on alone. Whatever it is, it stands to be revealing – and that’s just the point. The Bible says it reveals the condition of the heart.
It’s too easy for someone to think that they know their own heart. Is that really true? None of us can read other people’s minds, but with so many emotional layers and all the complexity, how much do we really understand about ourselves?
I can think of a time in my life, back when I was in my late 20s. I was going through some awful things; it was the worst time of my life. And goodness, what a jerk I was. I hope the people who had to work with me back then have forgiven me. Occasionally I think back on it and it’s just embarrassing. If you had talked to me just a few years before then, when things were well, I might have told you that I had a good sense of where my heart was: I was striving to follow Jesus, acting out of good character. I couldn’t have seen it coming.
Warren Wiersbe put it this way: “The devil tempts us to bring out the worst in us, but God tests us to bring out the best in us. When God allows a difficult circumstance to test us, we will either trust Him and become more mature, or we will tempt Him and become more miserable. The difference? Believing the promises of God and relying on the Lord to care for us and bring us through for His glory and our good.”
I would add that even when it brings out the ugly truth, that works for our own good as well if we learn from the experience. The true condition of our heart is revealed. The reality that was once hidden is now out in the open and it can be disarmed. It’s just like Jesus said: If you know the truth the truth shall make you free (John 8:32).
God’s leading then, points us in a better path. We let the sins of the past be nailed to the cross of Jesus. Since we’re always looking forward, never backward, we move on with a better sense of what our excesses are and how to hold them in check. We’re more acutely aware of the dangers that can come out of our heart.
It’s kind of like when the devil tempted Jesus (as recorded in Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13). The temptations were based on questioning His identity, since the devil said, “If you’re *really* the Son of God…” The first temptation was to turn stones into bread. Jesus answered it by quoting Deuteronomy 8:4 – “Man shall not live by bread alone.”
Our hearts are prone to dangerous things in times of struggle. It’s good for us to be anchored in our identity as followers of Christ. It’s good when we fix our minds on His word. It’s good to live by what proceeds from the hand of God. It’s good to trust in His leading, even when we’re going through a rough patch – because just like with the Israelites of old and their Promised Land, we know it leads to a good place.
God bless you.
Pastor Andrew McHenry
Several years ago, back in the 1990s, I was challenged by a friend to read Philip Yancey’s best-seller The Jesus I Never Knew. That book is older now but it’s still worth reading. Yancey’s chapter on the Ascension struck me for how it illustrates the challenge of this part of our faith. He wrote…
“Living two millennia after the disciples, I look back and marvel at how little difference the church has made in such a world. Why did Jesus leave us alone to fight the battles? How can it be good that he went away?”
“…the Ascension represents my greatest struggle of faith – not whether it happened, but why. It challenges me more than the problem of pain, more than the difficulty of harmonizing science and the Bible, more than belief in the Resurrection and other miracles. It seems odd to admit such a notion – I have never read a book or article conceived to answer doubts about the Ascension – yet for me what has happened since Jesus’ departure strikes at the core of my faith. Would it not have been better if the Ascension had never happened? If Jesus had stayed on earth, he could answer our questions, solve our doubts, mediate our disputes of doctrine and policy.”
That line of thought has stuck with me, and it came to mind when I looking over John 12:34-36 a few weeks ago. In the New Testament era there were religious people who believed the coming Messiah would never leave – something like a savior with no Ascension. The text goes as follows…
The crowd answered [Jesus], “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”
For background, this took place on Palm Sunday. Jesus was in conversation with His disciples after some Gentile interest has emerged. They came to Philip, Philip went to Andrew, and Andrew presumably didn’t know what to do so they both went to Jesus. And Jesus said it meant that the hour had come. (This is in John 12:20-23.) Jesus referred to His cross with an agricultural image: It’s like a grain of seed, that must fall to the ground and die to eventually bear fruit. So Jesus says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor” (12:25-26).
Jesus then prayed for God’s glory and there came a theophany: The voice of God was heard out loud. Jesus interpreted it, emphasizing that it came for the sake of the crowd (12:27-30). Then He explained what it meant: Satan will be expelled, divine judgment will happen, and the cross will become the means of drawing people near (12:31-33). With that I think of the crosses that are lifted high on the steeples of so many churches in America. It’s a beautiful thing, partly because it maintains the witness to God’s redemptive love.
But it’s also a troubling thing. The cross was an enormously violent form of execution. And the talk of it certainly confused the crowd that was listening to Jesus. They had no room in their belief system for anything like it. The Messiah will come, they thought, but then He’s supposed to stay for good. There’s no death, and certainly nothing like the Ascension.
But this is why we need to pay attention to Jesus’ response (in verses 35-36). He uses an image of a traveler at dusk, going through a sequence of observation, exhortation, warning, and exhortation that concludes on a note of hope.
Observation: The light is among you for a little while longer. In other words, Jesus will not always around like this. And in a way the same is true with each one of us. We learn to cherish the people who are around because they won’t always be here. We cherish the light that they shine.
Exhortation: Walk in the light. There are special opportunities that come with each moment of history. We don’t want to miss the moment. One pastor I know said this: “God shows up in the worst of times.” God is giving opportunities now that won’t always be there. We don’t want to walk away from them.
Warning: He says to walk in the light lest darkness overtake you. I’m remembering a time back before we could use our cell phones as flashlights. I was in my office in a country church, and the power went out. I literally couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. To get to the parsonage across the street, I had to use my intuition and sense of touch for where the sidewalk was. It was a relief to get a flashlight! Darkness overtook me.
But Jesus speaks here of spiritual darkness. We can think of this in relation to what all is out there – on TV, in politics, in the world, in the media, in realm of “religious” ideas, and all the crazy things that people are doing. Dan Haseltine, a popular Christian musician, said this a few weeks ago: "I think America has reach its obnoxious belligerent suburban drunk junior in high schooler phase. If it keeps this up it won’t get invited to prom." The darkness can overtake you. Jesus speaks of it as something that pursues us, like the end of day approaching for a traveler on the road. If you’re being preyed on, that affects how you think about things.
But fear should not dominate. The good news is that light contrasts with darkness because light is more powerful than darkness. A single candle and give light to a darkened room. Darkness has no parallel power. So this leads to His final word…
Exhortation: Jesus says that while you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of the light. Belief here is not just an act of cognition. It means having faith, having a sense of trust. The light is illuminating the traveler’s path; don’t doubt it! And Jesus also thinks of it as a kind of family relation. He speaks of becoming children of the light. You’re in God’s family when you put your faith and trust in Jesus. This is why Jesus said that we’re like His mothers and His brothers and His sisters when we walk in faith (Mark 3:35).
This is good news that we certainly carry with us. We’re part of God’s family. Christ has ascended, but He certainly isn’t gone. And we have a mission before us. Philip Yancey articulates it well: “Would it be too much to say that, ever since the Ascension, Jesus has sought other bodies in which to begin again the life he lived on earth? The church serves as an extension of the Incarnation, God’s primary way of establishing presence in the world.”
May the Lord help us in this calling.
In Galatians 2:1-10 the apostle Paul was writing to establish credibility with a church that he had founded. Our understanding of the situation is limited; reading his letters is often like listening to one side of a phone conversation. But it’s quite obvious that he felt his standing was under attack by established church leaders, and he wanted to respond. So he recalled his visit with Peter, James, and John. After 14 years in Christian ministry he went to see them, and they extended the right hand of fellowship to him. They offered their blessing to his ministry. The one qualifier was this: They wanted him to remember the poor. To the extent that Paul was ever catechized by church leadership, this was what was impressed upon him. And he was eager to do it. He didn’t need to have his arm twisted.
Other places in the New Testament give evidence to how this was carried out. In several of his letters he made reference to the collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem. The most detailed writing on it is in II Corinthians 8-9. He also made mention of it in his letter to the church at Rome (which was written to a group of Christians he had never met – in Romans 15:25-28).
This might seem unwise. A ministry leader who is repeatedly bringing up money can turn people off. But Acts 11:27-30 demonstrates that it was not just Paul. A prophet named Agabus had a vision: Famine was coming, and it would be big and bad. Church leaders responded by being proactive and administering a relief collection, and Paul and Barnabus were put in charge of it. How was this to be done? I Corinthians 16:1-4 was given in answer to some kind of question about the procedure for it. Paul’s gave the following stipulations:
I say this to a large degree because we know that what comes around goes around. Things will change over the years. Paradise and Magalia are on the rebound. I see signs of it all over. And the time will come when things will be well for us and the disasters will be happening in other places. Then we will have the opportunity to be generous towards needs of others. As we have experienced blessing, so we’ll be prepared for God to use us to be a blessing.
Grace and peace to each of you,
Pastor Andrew McHenry
"Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, 'Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.' Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, 'Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’' Pilate answered, 'What I have written I have written.' " - John 19:19-22
This scripture says that Pilate set up a sign for Jesus. It leads me to think about the signs that surround us in this world. They are seemingly everywhere: traffic signs, designed to keep us from getting into accidents; billboards, designed to attract our interest and ultimately to get us to spend money. There are business signs with a similar intent. And there are church signs as well. Sometimes they’ll show the name of church, sometimes they’ll show the times for worship and Sunday school, and sometimes they’ll carry some kind of Christian message designed to make you think.
We once had two signs on our church property in Paradise. There was a smaller sign with our denominational logo on it from the NACCC (with the Pilgrim ship and the three C’s featured). It had the full name of our church: Craig Memorial Congregational Church, along with our worship and Sunday school times. And then there was the larger sign over by Todd house which had the shorter version of our name: Craig Congregational Church. It was useful for putting out Christian messages for the community to see, and for publicizing church events.
There’s another kind of sign that we may not think about as much: an epitaph. Recently I finished reading the book Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. It’s a popular collection of poetic epitaphs written in musings over the semi-fictitious life of a rural, small-town community in Illinois. The collection takes you through both a variety of scandals and a variety of takes on life: from despair to joy, from yearning to shame, from thoughtfulness to anger and rage.
This leads to a question: What kind of epitaph would you like you like on your tombstone? And, who would you give the power to write it to? Several years ago I read one that really stuck with me. It was in a little collection of thoughts written by the famous Congregational minister and author Charles M. Sheldon. It said this: “This was a soul who had many faults, but he was always trying to correct them.”
In the case of Jesus the power of writing His epitaph was given to the Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate, and he put a sign on to the cross of Jesus. In previous chapters of John’s gospel his motives were revealed: He was influenced both by his appetites and by his scorn of others, and by the danger he was in. History records that a man named Sejanus, the high-ranking Roman official responsible for Pilate’s appointment, suffered a great downfall in the year A.D. 31. He had at one time been the acting Caesar of the Roman Empire. But there came a time when he fell out of favor with the Emperor and he was executed. It reminds me a bit of what happened in North Korea almost six years ago: Kim Jong Un suddenly arrested and executed his older uncle, Jang Song-thaek. And then some of his family members were killed. Well, it was that way with the execution of Sejanus in 31 A.D. – and Pontius Pilate may have been in some peril since he was associated with Sejanus and he didn’t want to appear disloyal to Caesar. So to some degree he was operating out of fear when he made his choices.
And yet he also had a scornful disposition towards the Jews he was governing. He taunted them. That’s why we have this inscription being brought out with Jesus being presented as a mock-king – labelled derisively as the king of the Jews. He and his soldiers had some fun at Jesus’ expense, and with some intended derogation towards the Jewish people.
This gives us something to think about: What kinds of “signs” do we put up in relationship to other people? To some degree, each of us is in stewardship with the memory and the legacy and the reputation of other people. So how do we use this power? How am I defining other people? Am I prone to mis-characterize them? Am I prone to be derisive towards others? Am I being properly sensitive to other people groups? What I say is of consequence, even if I don’t think it’s important.
These are some items for probing, and yet we can also ask this question: How much was Pilate in charge here? God can use even stubborn and resistant people to accomplish His will; and when He does it’s often in ironic ways. And so with Pontius Pilate: In many ways his own vanity and insensitivity were just instruments for God’s proclamation: Jesus is really the king. The truth was proclaimed. And it came from the voice of Rome itself. Expect the unexpected, my friends, because God’s in the business of doing these kinds of things.
And lots of people were taking note from the sign. It was placed near the city. It was written in multiple languages. And by this it was rooted in the general spread of the gospel. This is why John’s Palm Sunday narrative shows a turning point when Greeks made inquiry about Jesus (John 12:20). Jesus then said that His hour had come. There were previous times where it was clear His hour had not come (e.g. John 2:4, 7:6, 30). But now it was evident that the shape of the future church was taking future form. The Jewish boundaries that seemed a permanent feature of the faith were starting to get challenged.
Think of what this means for us today. Christianity has always been an international religion. God is not a respecter of persons; He doesn’t care what your ethnic history is. Sure, we can celebrate the Scots, or African-Americans, or the Chinese, or whatever. But Christ is savior of the world. He lived and died for us all. And today things are changing. It used to be that America was a missionary-sending nation. It used to be that American churches sponsored and sent missionaries to all parts of the world. That’s still true to some degree, but the global center of the faith is shifting. The places in the world where the gospel is spreading are places like Africa and South America. And the United States is becoming a mission field.
God has His ways of getting the message out and to the people. In the book of Acts it was on Pentecost Sunday, where everyone understood the words of God in their own language. And here it was with an inscription made by a temporary and malevolent political figure. Sometimes you just have to see the irony in what God is doing.
Jesus said when the Gentile interest came that the hour had come for the Son of Man to be glorified – pointing the way to the cross. This was not the enthroning moment of Palm Sunday. This was not a great triumphant parade. Instead, it was brutal agony, Christ being lifted up on the cross. And yet there was multiplied irony in Pilate’s repeated presentations of Jesus to the crowd: Behold the Man! (John 19:5) Behold the King! (19:14) It was probably impossible for Pilate to see the truth in his own words. But rest assured: he was declaring the ultimate truth for all time. Jesus is the Son of Man! He is the new man, the new Adam! Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords! He who has ears to hear, let him hear what God is doing!
This shifts the sense of resolves. I talked about sensitivity towards other people; that’s not really the heart of the matter. Here’s a better set of resolves: I resolve to be intentional about looking for signs God is sending my way. I resolve to not close my mind to the irony. If something repulses me, that doesn’t mean it’s not from God. Maybe I can sense something that God is saying and doing. After all, this is how the salvation message was originally proclaimed.
How we respond to the things God is doing is all-important. We can keep this in mind as we ponder the reaction of the chief priests. They responded with a political act, lobbying Pontius Pilate. In the news there are lots of different political pushes from religious groups. Some of them are good; but some are over things that just don’t matter: symbolic things, things that have little to do with the real issues of human suffering. People will get worked up into a frenzy over these things. Well, this is what happened with these priests. They were dealing with the execution of the Messiah, but they were lobbying for a tweak on the sign. This is a perfect example of missing the point – of straining a gnat but swallowing a camel (to use Jesus’ words from Matthew 23:24) – of tending to a detail instead of the heart of the matter.
In my experience it’s very hard to get people in positions of power to admit they’re wrong. Sometime they see it as a compromise of their strength. Here Pilate refused to change the sign. He said, “What I wrote I wrote.” But to use a line from the book of Daniel, the writing was on the wall. The proclamation was in place. Behold the son of Man! Behold the king! Jesus, the King of the Jews! Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Jesus, who was persecuted with the most cruel kind of violence; Jesus, who was glorified in being lifted up on the cross. Jesus, whose cross today is the most visible symbol of the Christian faith. Often, in parts of America, it’s the tallest thing in any given town – other than the grain elevators and the radio towers. And I guess there’s some irony in that too: we might call it a “sign of the times”.
Luke 4:1-13 records that Jesus was tempted by the devil for forty days. In the Bible this is a common time-period for change; thus it serves as the basis for the Christian season of Lent.
Lent is the forty-day season that Christians traditionally use to prepare for Easter. It’s a good time to think of the possibilities of transformation. It’s a good time to give up bad habits. It’s a good time to experiment with something new – especially when it’s something that’s spiritually good for you, and/or good for others. Sometimes these things can become new habits when they’re tried experimentally over a forty-day sequence – and I say that from experience.
Our basis for this is Jesus Himself. Jesus experienced a time like this. The Bible tells us that He was full of Holy Spirit. Full of this inspiration, He had just emerged from His baptism (recorded back in Luke 3:21-22). He was departing the area around the Jordan River. He entered this time of great vulnerability, perhaps because He was on a spiritual high from His baptism, or perhaps because He was hungry. This kind of deprivation can bring out the best in people, but it also can bring a person to new awareness of weaknesses. It’s like the candy bar commercial that says, “You’re not yourself when you’re hungry.” That’s one way of looking at it. Or maybe, more accurately, we’re too much of ourselves – our worst selves – when we’re in a deprived condition.
That may not have been true for Jesus, but it’s probably how the devil was thinking. The evil one tends to attack in situations of vulnerability – and attack he did, each time speaking directly to Jesus. It’s interesting that he started out with Jesus’ identity: “If you are the son of God…” (in 4:3a). Think of this in relation to what God declared to Jesus at His baptism: “You are my beloved son…” (in 3:22). The evil one is trying to disestablish what God has said beforehand. This is why it’s so important for us to understand who we are as God defines us. Who are you? Who has God said that you are? What has the world tried to tell you that you should be? The world and the devil will answer these questions very differently than the Bible does. So Christians do well to remember that our identity is based on what God has said about us, and not somebody else.
It’s interesting also that the first temptation includes a call to action: Jesus is challenged to change a stone to into bread (in 4:3b) – and this in an hour of intense hunger. Here we learn something else about vulnerability: Evil will try to appeal to our basic, neglected appetites: These can be physical temptations, sexual temptations, emotional temptations, etc. We are at risk because all of us are prone to justify our actions by appealing to our natural humanity; we were just letting nature take its course.
Let me speak to this from experience: for me it would be loneliness. Loneliness is something that’s biologically wired in us. God did not design us to be alone. Humans are social creatures by our very design. If someone is feeling lonely, that means you’re feeling uncomfortable for a good reason. You feel desperate in the need to reach out, and you can step over others in the process. I’ll tell you: Some of my worst mistakes were made when I was lonely. That’s not a good excuse. But it helps to understand what lurks behind the problem.
God has legitimate means of meeting our needs. Christian fellowship is one antidote. And another is exactly what Jesus is did: getting the scriptures enmeshed in your brain. Jesus refused each of the devil’s temptations by reciting scripture: The first time it was Deuteronomy 8:3: “Man shall not live by bread alone” (quoted in Luke 4:4). There comes a time when we put aside our physical needs to focus on our spiritual needs. Jesus had answered the first temptation by pointing to this fact.
With this the devil decided to try a different angle: Instead of focusing on identity, he now made Jesus an offer: All the kingdoms of world could be His if He wanted them. This is interesting because it directly states that these powers are under the devil’s control: “…it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will” (4:6). Jesus does not question this assumption. There’s a legitimate place for governing authorities in the Bible, but the fact that someone’s holding an office is not evidence of a divine favor. So we must be careful of temptation to covet worldly power, or to worship it. The Satanic offer of authority and glory came with a call to worship for a reason: Idolatry is a danger that goes hand-in-hand with a craving for power.
Note also that both of these temptations have a call to action. In one sense they’re normal things. Make bread. Engage in worship. We do these things all the time – and they’re harmless when they’re not corrupted. But if they are corrupted, they’ll become a temptation for people who can’t sit still – people who always have to be doing something. Note here that Jesus’ response is to not do the prescribed action – nor take any action at all. At this stage of history Jesus is taking 40 days to focus on the scripture. Sometimes being a “man of action” isn’t a good thing; sometimes it’s better to pause and reflect on scripture just like Jesus did. This could be the underlying truth behind Psalm 46:10a: “Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations! I will be exalted in the earth!” God will be glorified! All the world’s busy-ness might well be a form of succumbing to the devil!
Inaction with pause and a reflection on scriptures is what worked for Jesus. There would come a time for works in His ministry: feeding the hungry, exorcising demons, healing the sick, teaching the masses, etc. But here He simply refused the temptation by reciting scripture – this time Deuteronomy 6:13: “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve” (in Luke 4:8). Jesus did not come into the world to worship either the devil or any earthly power.
So with that possibility dispatched, the evil one transported Jesus to the pinnacle of the Jerusalem temple and returned to his previous methods. He was done making offers. This time he would return to the question of Jesus’ identity. There must be some special kind of vulnerability in this area. The fact that Satan worked on this two-thirds of the time with Jesus would seem to confirm it. I’m reminded of a quote from the German Lutheran pastor/mystical writer Jacob Boehme: "All the heights of pride in which man strives about meanings is an image of self-interest... all self-interest on the Day of Judgement will be given to darkness, as well as all those useless arguments by which they seek not love but only the image of self-interest that exalts itself in their interpretations. By these interpretations the princes are led to cause wars, and by these ideas they attack and storm lands and people. These belong to the separation of the wrong from the right in the Judgement. Then all meanings and images will cease and all the children of God will walk in the love of Christ and He will [dwell] in us."
Then as now, so much self-interest is wrapped up in how we see ourselves – in questions of identity. And this time the consequence was dire; again there was a call to action. The action was to jump.
This is troubling. Jesus says He’s hearing a voice from the devil. The voice is telling Him to make a suicide jump. It’s not a sin to be tempted; all of us are tempted in some way or another. And this temptation has particularly evil origins. It’s not uncommon: even Jesus experienced it.
And the devil reinforced it with scripture. He cited Psalm 91:11-12, which says,“’He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ … ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” And he’s taking this to mean that Jesus has to do something foolish in order to establish His identity.
My friends, just because something is said to be “biblical” doesn’t mean that it’s from God. There are godly ways of using scripture, and there are Satanic ways of using scripture. A key thing to remember here is that Jesus didn’t get drawn in to a debate about it. Instead He focused on the scripture God had put before Him for this forty-day period. He quoted Deuteronomy 6:16: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (in Luke 4:12).
What does this mean? It means we use our brains. We trust God, but we don’t put him to the test. We apply this to our physical lives, but it can also apply to other things. A person’s trust in God is not going to be gauged by a game of chicken. No one should do the fiscal equivalent of throwing yourself off a bridge. We approach things in faith, with a heart-and-head involved. God gave us our brains; He intends for us to use them. And this includes how we think about things like risk.
Jesus made that point, and the devil ceased tempting Him and departed. But the evil one wasn’t gone for good. He awaited “an opportune time”. And I would suggest that he does that same thing with each of us, which is why we hear this warning in I Peter 5:8 – “The devil prowls around like a roaming lion looking for someone to devour.”
So the caution of this verse sets our course for the Christian season of Lent. The devil waits like a prowling lion – in a predatory stance. We stand guard. Like Jesus, we mull the scriptures – we internalize them; we cite them when necessary. We recognize our areas of vulnerability. Things that happen to other people could happen to us as well. We won’t jump into action prematurely. We trust in God. We use both our heads and our hearts. And we derive our identity from what God has said – not from worldly demands, not from voices that tell us otherwise.
As Presidents’ Day was approaching I did some reading on the history of Presidential approval ratings. It was interesting to see the various highs and lows that have happened within my lifetime. The highest approval rating was given to George W. Bush in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks: It was up at 90% in that part of 2001. And the lowest mark of 24% came in January of 1974 for President Richard Nixon in the midst of the Watergate scandal. Those are the extremes, but more generally the approval rating has hovered around 40 to 60%. There are always some people who will strongly disapprove of the President no matter who it is.
This came to mind as I was thinking of the political situation in Jesus’ time. In ancient Jerusalem there was a strong sense of disapproval for the ruling Roman regime. It wasn’t always commonly spoken of, for fear of reprisal, but nonetheless it wasn’t hard to discern. Israel had a strong heritage of its own independent, Davidic kingships. It was remembered and celebrated as a historic monarchy under the blessing of God. The Romans, by contrast, were a Gentile power-group. They were very abusive; they imposed oppressive levels of taxation, and they didn’t show much respect for the customs of the people. At best they were abrasively tolerant of Israelite faith; at worst they were downright hostile and even violent. And the practice of crucifixion fell into this category. It was done as an open display of violence before the populace with the goal of scaring people into submission.
All of this led to a deep yearning among Jesus’ contemporaries for the restoration of God’s kingdom. There was a passionate hope for some kind of supernatural action from God. The question posed to Jesus in Acts 1:6, right before His ascension, reflects this desire: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” It all goes back to a deep-set frustration with the Roman reign over Jerusalem, and a yearning for God’s corrective action to come.
In this context, Jesus taught a lot about the kingdom of God. He emphasized its immanence; we should be expecting God to act. So He said, “The kingdom of God is at hand” (in Mark 1:15). Yet this kingdom does not conform to worldly hopes or expectations – and so Jesus said “My kingdom is not of this world” (in John 18:36). When people were putting too much focus on their surroundings and events, Jesus encouraged them to look within: “The kingdom is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21). And yet there is also sense of promise of a kingdom that’s still yet to come, which Jesus illustrated with parables about a coming harvest (Matthew 13:24-30) and an arriving bridegroom (25:1-13).
One verse in particular got my attention: Luke 12:32 is where Jesus said, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” This verse is important for several reasons…
Good things are coming, my friends. Press on!
God bless you,
Pastor Andrew McHenry
Epiphany fell on a Sunday this year. January 6th is the holiday where we celebrate the coming of the wise men to visit Jesus as a child. In worship that day I pondered over Matthew 2:12 which says, “And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.”
This raised questions for me that go back to details the text doesn’t provide: Did all the wise men have the same dream simultaneously? Or did one of them have it and then the group collectively took it as a warning? What was the conversation like that led to this? What was their normal group decision-making process? How was it altered by whatever the dream was?
Of course there’s no way of knowing any of this for sure, but it made me think of the common-sense wisdom that says, “Sleep on it.” It’s to our benefit when we can get a good night’s rest before making a major decision. Sleep helps us to process the facts, and then we wake up with a clearer sense of what needs to happen. Dreams are a part of our sleep cycle. Our subconscious minds generate images that reflect our emotional and spiritual state. If you can start to understand what the images represent as you’re dreaming, and then if you can then remember what you were feeling, you’ll come away with a deeper self-understanding of your spiritual/emotional wellness.
It can seem scary to throw God into the mix of this. Certainly it would be a mistake to view every dream as a sign from God. (Most of us have had some pretty strange dreams.) But God can communicate His will in any number of ways. Think of how the divine hand can intermingle with our subconscious minds as we dream. We can come away from the process with a better sense of direction. I think of the words of Proverbs 3:6: “In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight.”
All of this correlates with the broader scientific fact that a lack of rest can make for bad decision-making, while good rest can make for better decision-making. If you do a google search on sleep and decision-making you’ll find all kinds of scientific and health articles that speak to this.
These things came to mind when I was thinking about how to help the church in the decision-making process that we face. Many of our members have scattered, but new possibilities abound. There’s much to hope for, but there’s also a certain danger: Churches and other organizations can become deeply divided over questions of money and priorities. So on the last Sunday of January I chose to preach on Philippians 1:27-28 – “…let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.”
I relate all of this to Paul’s call for “striving” or for a collective struggle. Unity is a struggle because it’s not natural. Entropy is natural. Quarreling and disagreement and backbiting are natural. But unity is something that we all have to struggle for together, with each of us playing a part.
This doesn’t mean that we’ll always agree. Disagreement, in fact, is a genuine part of God’s process since He’s made all of us differently. We begin with our varying perspectives, and then the Holy Spirit leads us as we pray and converse so that it all coalesces into a unified perspective that reflects the singular will of God.
That’s probably how it was for the wise men. Tradition says there were three of them, and I remember an expression I heard from a Baptist layman: “If you have three Baptists in one room, you’ll have four opinions.” Yet somehow they came to a consensus. They knew what they needed to do, and it wasn’t the default path of complying with the authorities. (Legal authority loses its credibility when it’s on the side of evil and oppression, as Herod clearly was.) So they took a path that was seemingly more risky; it was called “another way” in Matthew 2:12. Yet it turned out to be God’s way for them, which is always the best way to go.
And so it is for us: The Christian path isn’t always easy. The decisions we make are not geared towards our own comforts or ease. Our call is to take up the cross and follow Jesus. And we all know that the cross is followed by the resurrection. This is the witness of our faith which we struggle together for. And the fearless sense of collective direction that emerges is a sign of this salvation that comes from God alone.
God bless you,
Pastor Andrew McHenry
I want to focus on the text of Luke 1:26-28, which says, “26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!’”
Think of the expression of favor that is given to Mary here. There are times of life where things don’t go in your favor. I think of the board game Monopoly. You land on the spot for “luxury tax” and you have to pay $75. You are assessed for street repairs and you have to pay $40 for each house and $115 for each hotel. Or you land on Boardwalk and someone else has built a hotel on it and you have to fork over $2,000.
But of course it can go the other way. You land on Chance and there’s a bank error in your favor and you collect $200. Or someone wins second prize in a beauty contest and they collect $10 (and usually everyone looks at this player and wonders how that could’ve happened). Or you advance to go and you collect $200 more. And on it goes.
Life has this element of chance. Ecclesiastes 9:11 says that time and chance happen to all of us. There are other times where you feel less-favored and there are times when you feel more-favored.
And yet life is not just merely just a matter of luck. Just as we view the cross of Jesus through the lens of the resurrection, so life can make more sense when it’s viewed through the lens of God’s providence.
But we have to be careful with this. I found a resonant quote from the Lutheran theologian Martin Marty several years ago. He said this: “I find the most offensive kind of prayer when 250 Marines get killed... and four survive, and their families go on television and say, 'We really prayed, so they were spared.' That's an unbiblical game. It's magic; it's superstition. I like the matter-of-factness of Jesus when asked about the man born blind, and Jesus says, 'Did he sin or his parents? you ask. He was just born blind.' Things just happen. It rains on the just and the unjust alike."
If life is like Monopoly in that sense, this part of the annunciation narrative invites us to reconsider what divine favor looks like. Think of it in light of Mary’s larger experiences and the details of the text.
Or on the other hand, maybe she was at peace because this promise became the lens through which she viewed her life experience. If you see your life through the lens of God’s promises, your heart will be less troubled. The circumstances won’t disturb you so much because you’ll know that God is bigger than they are. This was why Paul was able to say in Philippians 4: Be anxious for nothing. Let your requests be made known to God. The peace that passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Our worries fade when we trust God and hold to the promises that somehow He will make these troubled times work out for His kingdom good in the end.
And the key thing to remember is this: Favor from God is often attached to experiences of hardship. God spoke to Paul in one of his experiences of distress (in II Corinthians 12:9. We don’t know exactly what it was, but we know that God said this): “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (my emphasis).
That’s the key. And there’s a corollary: the significance of this favor doesn’t end with us. (This is why it’s troubling for us sometimes. When we want/expect better things for ourselves than what we’re experiencing – and we don’t see them through the lens of this kind of favor – that’s when we can end up being disappointed.) But things don’t have to be this way because it’s not all about us. The significance of God’s favor is His larger will and glory – not always our personal well-being.
Plus, the main thing that could be reassuring for Mary was the fact that she was not alone. The angelic voice assured her: God is present. And we can take that to heart today as well. We probably won’t hear it from an angel in the way that Mary did, but it’s true nonetheless.
In fact, I believe that angels are all around us. Normally we can’t see them, but they are present. And God uses them for things that most often we aren’t even aware of.
I mentioned in my sermon last Sunday my phone conversation with Bob Curtis. And I mentioned that as we recounted our experiences of the fire, Bob said, “These are times when people will complain. But there’s no reason to complain. God can fix anything.”
I like that disposition. It’s all about putting on the right kind of lenses. Perhaps the way to start by asking this question: How might God use these experiences for my own benefit? An honest pondering of that question can lead to an alternative to complaining that Bob was talking about.
This is not to imply that some kind of lament totally out of order. There is a book of Lamentations in the Bible – and it’s in there for a reason. But it’s only one book out of many, and it’s not a very long book. It needs to be taken in context.
Lamenting has its place, but keep in mind that context. We’re not alone. God is with us. Christ is present. There are angels in our midst. The church continues; the gates of hell will not prevail against us. And God’s favor abounds. In some unseen/unknown way, God is working in our favor.
Occasionally I meet people who are scared of flying. It’s a sentiment that’s hard for me to relate to; I first flew overseas with my family when I was four. But for many people it’s a very real feeling. John Madden, for example, traveled all around the country in an RV with a hired driver for his NFL broadcasts. The reason: he didn’t like to fly.
I can see how scary it is because the whole thing is counter-intuitive. You’re getting into a small metal tube with people you don’t know. You’re moving at extremely high speeds, going to altitudes of tens of thousands of feet. These are clearly things that the human body was not designed to do.
But there are assurances that make us go through with it. An online exchange provides a flight arrangement with a respected airline. These airlines have hired and trained pilots. They’ve also put together a reliable schedule, in cooperation with a host of flight controllers and an international network of airports. So, this past summer Hillary and I booked tickets for a family vacation in Michigan. We flew from Sacramento to Chicago-O’Hare, and then to Traverse City. The airlines got us there on time with our luggage, and brought us back as well. Our confidence in our flight plans paid off.
I thought of this while I was studying Hebrews 3:14, which says to “hold our first confidence firm to the end.” This suggests that some in the writer’s congregation were facing the temptation to abandon ship, and that would be bad news. If, after traveling from Sacramento to Chicago, I decided I couldn’t trust my flight plan anymore, then I wouldn’t complete my journey. But all the while the tickets that I held would give me promise of the full trip. It would be in my best interest to hang on to them and stick it through the journey.
And if this is true with airplanes and pilots, it is even more true with the promises that God has given us in Jesus Christ. Our expectation is grounded in the hope of where He is taking us. The Israelites of the Old Testament made the mistake of abandoning ship in the desert, and they perished accordingly (Hebrews 3:15-19). So we’re told to be careful; if it could happen to them, it could happen to us just as well.
What caused their downfall? Warren Wiersbe put it well: “The heart of every problem is a problem in the heart.” So the author of Hebrews gives a prescription for some appropriate “heart medicine”…
Keep in mind that all of this is built in the larger bonds of Christian community. We are “partakers” in Christ, or “partners” (3:14a). The preacher uses the Greek word metochos to indicate that we are sharing in a larger bond. Think of the similar English word metropolis, which refers to several cities under the umbrella of a greater metropolitan area. With us, each one of us shares in Christ, under His headship – with all the promises entailed for the journey that we are on. So hold on to your tickets and keep your confidence! It’s a good flight plan. The turbulence may be rough at times, but we’re assured of a safe landing in the end.
God bless you,
Pastor Andrew McHenry
Most Christians celebrate at least two holidays: Christmas and Easter. Christmas, of course, commemorates the birth of Jesus, and Easter remembers His resurrection. Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox (which is March 20th). So it always falls somewhere between March 22nd and April 25th. Next year it will be on April 21st.
But there are other lesser-known holidays that should not be forgotten. All Saints’ Day is one of them. It always falls on November 1st, right after Halloween. Halloween has sometimes been labelled as the devil’s holiday (and there are some odd customs associated with it), but its origin lies in the fact that it is the day before All Saints Day. All Hallows’ Eve is similar Christmas Eve in that sense. In the Bible the saints of God are considered “hallowed” – i.e. they are consecrated for God’s eternal purposes. This is different from the idea of having a religious group of canonized individuals, which was a much later development. All baptized believers in Christ are “saints” in the broader sense. And All Saints’ Day is a celebration of these saints who have gone before us. We look back and remember their lives and contributions. We light a candle in their memory, and we learn from their faith as we ponder our own Christian legacy.
Ascension Day is another significant lesser-known Christian holiday. It’s on the 40th day of Eastertide (always on a Thursday). On Ascension Day we remember Jesus’ ascension into heaven (in Acts 1:6-11). Next year it will be on May 30th.
And then ten days later we have Pentecost, on June 9th of 2019. I noticed that many of our church members wear red on Pentecost. This is seasonally appropriate, since that’s when we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit on the disciples gathered in Jerusalem (in Acts 2:1-13). Red represents the fire of the Holy Spirit.
Those dates will come in the spring and early summer. Before them, we will be observing Ash Wednesday on March 6th of 2019. Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, which was created originally for new confirmands being baptized on Easter Sunday. Mindful of the significance of 40 days as a standard period for spiritual movements/transformations in the Bible (e.g. Matthew 4:1-11, Jonah 3:4, etc.), Lent is a 40-day period of spiritual preparation before Easter. Eventually its observance was expanded to include everyone in the church besides the confirmands.
A common practice in the Old Testament was to wear sackcloth (i.e. burlap) and use ashes when practicing repentance (e.g. II Samuel 3:31, Job 42:6, Jonah 3:5-9, Matthew 11:21). Ashes also remind us of our mortality – since we are made from dust and we shall return to the dust (Genesis 3:19, Ecclesiastes 3:20). This points us to our need for God.
It took me awhile to figure out how Lent is structured. It consists of 40 days, but it excludes the Sundays. Each Sunday during Lent is considered like a mini-Easter. Perhaps for some it’s a bit of a reprieve from the Lenten disciplines. So, excluding Sundays, Lent is the 40-day season prior to Easter. And since Ash Wednesday is dated by its relation to Easter, its dates can range from February 4th to March 10th. Next year it will be on March 6th.
May God richly bless each one of you in observing these holy-days.
Pastor Andrew McHenry
I am a husband, a Congregational pastor, and a native Kansan currently living in Thermalito, California. In the past I have also been a prison chaplain and a youth pastor. Interests include reading, railroads, prog rock, KU, and the KC Royals. Opinions are my own and are not necessarily those of organizations I have been with.