Saturday, August 19, 2017

Unchained

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

-- 2 Corinthians 5:17


The fifth chapter of Mark's Gospel begins with the story of a man who faced some serious problems. Or perhaps a legion of problems is a more accurate description of his plight.

This tormented soul had been exiled from the community to live out his remaining days in a cemetery near Lake Galilee. The man was literally overcome by demons. And so total was his possession that he used supernatural strength to repeatedly break the chains and smash the leg irons that the townspeople had used to confine him.

"No one could control him," we read. "Night and day he was in the graveyard or on the hills, yelling and cutting himself with stones."

And that would have been the end of Chainthe man's bizarre narrative. But then along came Jesus and his disciples from their voyage across the lake. Recognizing that Christ was literally God in the flesh, the demons that possessed the man begged him to postpone their own eternal fate and instead allow them to infest the vast herd of pigs that roamed the hillside. Jesus agreed. And the demons immediately fled from their victim.

Fast-forward now to 21st century America. When a celebrity, sports star or even a neighbor faces the consequences of alcohol, drugs, anger-management issues or some other destructive force, count on someone to observe that they struggled with their share of demons. Sometimes that's a figure of speech. But literal demons really can torment people and do their best to make their victims' lives a living hell.   

The fact is that everyone has their share of demons to one extent or another--even Christ-followers. And even though we've accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior, asked him for forgiveness and then received it, we still can slide back into those bad habits and behaviors that we thought we had left far behind. 

So what's the problem? Doesn't the Bible say that becoming a Christ-follower makes you a new creation?

Indeed it does. But our transformation is a work in progress on God's timetable. Although it can happen immediately, shedding our personal demons often takes place bit by bit and day after day along our faith journey. Also, keep in mind that our journey's pathway is narrow, twisting and full of unexpected hairpin turns. And it's when we take our eyes off the destination and listen to our demons that we wind up in the ditch.

Let's finish by considering the life-lesson of the Apostle Paul--the Christ-follower who wrote much of the New Testament. In his 2,000-year-old lament that sounds uncomfortably familiar to modern ears, Paul complains that he continues to do the very things he despises. Yet at the same time, he fails to do the things he knows he should accomplish.

If this great Apostle to the Gentiles had so many problems with sin and temptation, what hope can we have of breaking free from our own chains? Well...quite a bit! As Christ-followers, we don't have to accept sin's dominance in our lives. It all comes down to our ultimate trust and dependence on a Power much greater than ourselves.

"What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?" asks Paul. "Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!"


Saturday, August 12, 2017

Putting Love Into Action

Show me the wonders of your great love, you who save by your right hand those who take refuge in you from their foes.

-- Psalm 17:7

When asked by one of the Pharisees--a strict religious sect--to name the greatest of God's laws, Jesus astounded his audience by the simplicity and clarity of his response:

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment," Jesus answered. "And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

So in just a few brief sentences, Jesus summarized the core message of Scripture: that God's love, translated into beneficial motivations and actions through our faith in Jesus Christ, is an unstoppable, world-changing force.

This is a difficult concept for many because Love in Actionthey equate "love" with that squishy word associated with weddings, chocolates and Valentine's Day. But Jesus wasn't talking about that fleeting, awkward emotion. Instead, he's calling his followers to walk in step with him by putting their love into sincere, tangible action. And this can come in a wide variety of forms--everything from helping an elderly neighbor get their groceries to revealing God's light to total strangers through a prison ministry. It could also translate into changing a co-worker's life by showing him or her how Jesus has changed your own. The possibilities and potential are endless.

How does God demonstrate his love?

There's the famous Bible story of the Prodigal Son, where the loving father welcomed back his wayward--and totally undeserving--child with open arms. Or what about Jesus' parable of the shepherd, who searched tirelessly for a single missing sheep? When he finally found it, he returned it triumphantly to the rest of the flock. Christ also told his disciples about a man who sold all his possessions to buy a field. But it wasn't just any plot of land. Instead, it was one that held buried treasure. The cost to buy the field was staggering, but the man did whatever it took to gain the precious prize.

Those are a few illustrations of how God loves you and me. In fact, he'll go to any length to bring us into his family. John 3:16--perhaps the most famous passage in the New Testament--tells us that God loves the world so much that he gave his only Son (Jesus) so that those who believe in him will have eternal life. God willingly let Jesus suffer and die to pay for our wrongdoings--past, present and future. We rightfully deserve death because of how we've lived our lives and broken our Creator's laws. But God's love offers us joy and happiness if we're only willing to accept it. It was by living on Earth among everyday people and then dying for our sins that Jesus, who was literally God-in-the-flesh, paid the price to redeem us.

The limits of human vocabulary prevent us from fully describing the meaning and implications of how God loves and cherishes his children. We can only skim the surface of this vast and deep ocean. But maybe it's really not that difficult. After all, it takes just three simple words from the book of 1 John to sum it all up: God is Love. And it's when we live out our faith by putting his love into action that we can make all of the difference in the world.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Mission Possible

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me 
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

-- Luke 4:18-19

Many companies and organizations have a mission statement, which is a written declaration that presents their purpose, work and goals. For example, CSX Corporation strives to "...be the safest, most progressive North American railroad, relentless in the pursuit of customer and employee excellence." Levi Strauss & Co.'s mission statement says, "People love our clothes and trust our company. We will market the most appealing and widely worn casual clothing in the world. We will clothe the world." Meanwhile, The Hershey Company--the manufacturer of delicious treats such as Twizzlers, Hershey's Kisses and Reese's peanut butter cups--gets right down to business with its stark mission statement: "Undisputed Marketplace Leadership."
Mission
A common denominator here is the principle of return on investment, primarily to the organization's customers and stockholders. After all, the companies understand that they would not exist without their benefactors' ongoing confidence and support. Likewise, their backers expect to see positive results in one form or another.  

Jesus once told a story about a master who gave each of his three servants a considerable amount of money ("talents") to invest while he was away on an extended trip. After a while, the master returned to claim what was his. He was very pleased with the first two servants, who had invested what he had given them. Their efforts resulted in doubling the master's money. But it wasn't so with the third servant, who feared his master's stern reputation and the potential for loss. So instead, he played it safe and literally buried the money in a hole in the ground. The master was displeased, to say the least! Instead of commending the servant's regard for safeguarding his resources, he was furious because the servant had wasted the opportunity to invest and multiply his treasure.

That's where Jesus' mission statement for his followers enters the picture. God has given us various resources, skills, opportunities and circumstances for investing in the spiritual lives of others. They could be as close as your spouse, sibling or child. But they might be a co-worker, neighbor or someone who's put in your path at a most unexpected moment.

"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you," Jesus told his apostles, "and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

How are you using the talents God has given you? Are you investing them boldly in the lives of others--or are you simply playing it safe? It's through Jesus that our mission is possible.