Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Matthew 4:1
The church in America is in the wilderness. That’s not such a bad place to be. It’s a difficult place, often a painful place, but it’s a place God often leads his people when He has some difficult lessons to teach them or preparations to be made. And the American church certainly has some difficult lessons to learn. Moses learned in the wilderness, as did Elijah. The people of Israel learned in the wilderness. And Jesus went there as well, where he experienced some critical “perspective builders” in the form of temptations. The American church, while in the wilderness, is experiencing temptations as well. That story would go something like this…
Tempted to Manipulate Numbers
The devil said to them, “If you are the Church of God, tell these people to become members.” As bread represents a basic necessity for our body, believers (i.e., members) represent a basic necessity for the Church. It is, in fact, one of the first descriptors most church leaders use in describing their own church. It is one way we measure our effectiveness in mission. We measure every evangelistic outreach this way. In our rush to “success”, the temptation here is to move as many bodies as possible from the “prospect” category to the “member” category as quickly as possible.
The temptation is to use emotional pleas, scare tactics, or other forms of manipulation toward an all-important “decision”. And what the church is left with, especially over the long term, is a membership full of non-committed non-believers. At that point, none of the promises God gives us about His church are any good anymore. This temptation of getting people to check the correct box on our …
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints,because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Colossians 1:3-5
Why Authenticity Matters
There is a lot of talk these days about authenticity. According to most “experts”, authenticity is among the very highest values in our culture’s two youngest adult generations. That reality has brought authenticity to center stage in most churches’ efforts to more effectively reach those two generations. All of us, after all, are deeply troubled by the mass exodus by our adult children’s generation from the church. But, while everyone seems to understand how important authenticity is (especially for the church), I wonder how much consensus there is among church leaders about what authenticity even looks like in the church corporately? When it comes to being authentic (as a church), what does the “win” look like? More specifically, are there metrics? Are there particular, measurable characteristics or attitudes in a church that translate into actual authenticity? I believe there are. And, while there are probably many places we could find such descriptions in scripture, the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossians is particularly compelling.
Why the Letter to the Colossians is Helpful
Paul wrote his letter to the church in Colossae having never met them. He did not start this particular community of believers and, to our knowledge, did not know them as of the writing of his letter. So, his introductory remarks wherein he found them to be particularly authentically Christ-centered, were grounded strictly on characteristics that were observable and measurable by others. In other words, he was not biased by any personal relationships within that church. For …
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.
Breakfast with Jesus
I know that John 21 includes more story than just Peter’s, but I believe the entire chapter is all about Peter. I believe the miraculous catch in the first half of that chapter is still about Peter. It is important backstory to the moment when he finally got to be reconciled to Christ after his dismal denial a week earlier. In what surely must have been a state of depression, he had to sit idly by and watch each of the other disciples be utterly transformed before him by the various resurrection experiences. Each time, he probably muttered to himself, “well isn’t that just great for John…or Thomas…or Mary…but when do I get my opportunity to make it right with Jesus?”
The miraculous catch in John 21 was that opportunity. Peter leaped from the boat and ran/swam to Jesus as fast as he could! Jesus was waiting for him. And Jesus could not have prepared a more perfectly customized restoration process for Peter. Breakfast on the beach together…eye-to-eye conversation for the first time since that ugly night outside the high priest’s courtyard…three affirmations and exhortations from Jesus…one for each of Peter’s denials. No doubt, the Peter we see in Acts 4 would NOT have appeared but for this critical restoration in John 21.
Our Calling to Do Likewise
Just a matter of minutes before that Peter’s infamous denials, we see Jesus modeling behaviors for us and saying things like:
“For I have given you an example, that you should also do
Now, regarding the one who started all this—the person in question who caused all this pain—I want you to know that I am not the one injured in this as much as, with a few exceptions, all of you.So I don’t want to come down too hard. What the majority of you agreed to as punishment is punishment enough. Now is the time to forgive this man and help him back on his feet. If all you do is pour on the guilt, you could very well drown him in it. My counsel now is to pour on the love. The focus of my letter wasn’t on punishing the offender but on getting you to take responsibility for the health of the church. 2 Corinthians 2:5-9 (The Message)
Moments that Test our Motives
Years ago, I was in a race with several hundred other people. It was a triathlon. It started on a beach in Corpus Christi, Texas. After a half-mile swim in a very choppy ocean, we all ran to a transition area. There we quickly put on cycling shoes and rode off on a 25-mile bike ride, about half of which was directly into a stiff and steady 20-mph headwind. By the time I got off the bike, my legs were jelly and my body was exhausted.
I sat down in the transition area, thinking about the 10K run still ahead of me. Genuinely torn about what I would do, I could quit now and just lie back and relax or I could strap my running shoes on and stand up and “will” my legs to work again. It was the very kind of moment most endurance races bring: the moment of decision, whether or not to finish what I started. How we respond to those moments …
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside… 1 Corinthians 5:9-13
Imagine my joining a CrossFit class and telling the trainer, “I just do not do squats of any kind. Sorry. It’s not that I cannot do them, because I can. I just don’t believe they will help me at all.” That trainer is likely to respond with something like, “Well then you don’t really want to do CrossFit, because squats (of every kind) are pretty foundational to everything we do here.” And then he/she would encourage me to leave and try a different program somewhere else; one that I really can believe in. I might ask him/her to please explain WHY squats are so foundational to CrossFit, and maybe that trainer would have a great answer, or maybe not. That’s not really the point. The point is, squats are a foundational part of CrossFit. So, if I am able to do them but just don’t really believe they’re helpful, then I really don’t believe CrossFit is helpful. If I don’t want the accountability CrossFit offers, then I don’t really want CrossFit. It’s simple that way.
Christianity works that same way. It is a revolution founded by Jesus, who …
By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. I Corinthians 3:10
But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. I Corinthians 12:18
Building a church, i.e., a body of believers, is like the man who set out to build a house. He had seen some beautiful houses made of brick, and determined that his house would also be made of bricks. He began searching for the strongest and most beautiful bricks, because he wanted his house to be both strong and beautiful. He took great care in his search for bricks. He read books on how to find lots and lots of great bricks. He spent long hours perfecting his strategic plan for collecting more and more bricks. He became an expert at finding and collecting bricks. He wrote books and taught seminars on the subject. His brick collection was one of the largest the world had ever seen—piles and piles of bricks covering acres and acres of land. Nobody knew more than he knew about how to collect bricks. The entire world recognized him as a wildly successful expert when it came to finding and collecting bricks.
He never built the house.
Another man set out to build a house. He too would build with bricks. When he had found his first two bricks, he began to examine them closely to determine how they might fit together. They were not particularly beautiful bricks nor were they all that strong, but he knew he could use them. When he had determined how they would best fit together, he used mortar to join them …
Then Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, because we have sworn both of us in the name of the Lord, saying, ‘The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my offspring and your offspring, forever.’” And he rose and departed, and Jonathan went into the city. 1 Samuel 20:42
Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul.And I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more.Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 2 Samuel 12:7-9
These are confusing and chaotic times, aren’t they? In the midst of all the “culture wars” and PR posturing on social media and political battles over moral issues that, frankly, will never be resolved in the political arena, we in the church are haunted by a single question: what does love look like? In the face of ISIS and others persecuting Christians around the world, the church must figure out what does love look like? On politically entangled issues of immigration, the church must answer what does love look like? In response to legalized same-sex marriage and increasing pressure against the church for teaching what it believes on this issue, the church must know what does love look like? And those pundits on either side of …
And David said, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” And Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you!” 1 Samuel 17:37
I have known the story of David and Goliath most of my life. It is possibly one of the most familiar stories in all of scripture. We use it every time we need to illustrate an unlikely hero overcoming impossible odds to defeat a seemingly unstoppable foe. So, as I am studying 1 Samuel 17 this week, thinking about the “foes” whom Christ followers face in our current culture, I am asking myself, “Today, who/what is the church’s Goliath?” The list of possibilities is long. I think I have the winner, but first, here are some things that are NOT our Goliath:
Different worldviews from ours are NOT our Goliath. Whether it is the Muslim world, or atheists, or people who vote differently from you in national elections, our Biblical worldview does not mean our struggle is with these groups. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood…Eph. 6:12;
A culture that is increasingly hostile to Christianity is NOT our Goliath. It is a fact: from a global perspective, persecution of Christians is at an all-time high. And, though we in the U.S. would be hard-pressed to call our difficulties “persecution” at this point, we have certainly seen the needle moving in that direction as anti-Christian sentiment seems to grow stronger with each news cycle. Nevertheless, we really must stop acting so shocked and surprised by this. “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first… you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out
And Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him, “Blessed be you to the Lord. I have performed the commandment of the Lord.”And Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of the oxen that I hear?… Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. 1 Samuel 15:13-14, 24
Am I the only leader who struggles from time to time with disappointing people? No. I didn’t think so. My guess is, it is a relatively universal struggle. We tell ourselves that, in order to be a Godly influence in people’s lives, in order to be able to say the hard things to people, we need their approval. And we tell ourselves that, as shepherds, that is what love looks like. There are some seeds of truth in that thinking. But the rest of that truth is, for leaders of God’s people, approval ratings (i.e., how much everyone likes you) are insidiously addictive and massively overrated. That was the lesson for Saul (Israel’s first king) and it is likewise the lesson for all of us as Christian leaders today.
As I read 1 Samuel, God clearly did not want a human king for His people, Israel. But when they insisted on one, God relented and gave them one. And Saul was His choice…and was the people’s choice as well. He had the look. He had the demographics. He had the attitude. In short, he was (to use today’s parlance)…presidential. But he was also unbelievably insecure, on so many levels.
So, when he and his rag-tag group of soldiers walked up to the school-yard bullies (the Philistines) and punched them …
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. Luke 15:11-12
There are three main characters in Jesus’ story of the prodigal in Luke 15: the father, the younger son and the older son. Each of them represent a different perspective on common human behavior, and I suspect each of us can relate best to each of them at different times of our lives. Sometimes we are the one betrayed (like the father), sometimes we are the rebellious one (the younger son) and sometimes we are the one crying out for justice (the older son). But in every case, Jesus told the story to demonstrate one simple truth: the way back to a right relationship. And that, it seems to me, can be the most confusing path of all. I am so glad for what Jesus’ story shows us about how to return to a right relationship, once we have determined to do so.
Seasons of Rebellion. We all have some connection to the prodigal himself, because we have all made decisions which we knew (even at the time we made them) were disobedient to God. We knew His desire for us and we simply went in a different direction. It was (and is) rebellion, plain and simple. Sometimes it is a short season followed by an immediate “what was I thinking?” head-slap. But sometimes it is a prolonged season when we withhold from His Lordship some particular slice of our life which we just are not willing to submit to Him. Either way, it is rebellion. And the way back from any rebellion is, quite simply, confession. You will not find a more perfect confession in …