Archive for Hope

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One of the first disciplines I developed in pastoral ministry was record keeping. I use a special book to record every wedding and funeral that I officiate. It has blanks that ask for specific items of information as well as extra lines for me to write any additional thoughts. For some reason I have recorded the age and cause of death for each person whose funeral I’ve conducted. As I prepared this particular sermon I spent some time looking through those pages. I’ve conducted funerals for people of all ages who have died from various causes including disease, accidents, combat and murder. This review made two immediate impressions on me. First, death is no respecter of persons. It does not discriminate according to age, race, gender, status or wealth. Death knows no prejudice. Second, we will all experience death. Our resources may prolong our lives but they will not prevent our deaths.

Among the great philosophical questions of life is, what happens when I die? The answers are varied. Some believe that death is the complete annihilation of life. There is nothing on the other side of death. Another view is that at the time of death we are reincarnated into another living being. Similarly is yet another position that believes that when we die our lives are absorbed into creation, giving energy to the wind, the waves, the trees and so forth. Gaining recent popularity is another view that the world is filled with disembodied spirits who have died but gone no where in particular. They continue to dwell in the material world and can be contacted through mediums.

But what is the Christian view? Where do followers of Christ find hope in the face of our greatest fear?

The biblical answer to death is resurrection. If you take the time to read the eleventh chapter of the the Gospel of John you’ll find the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Just prior to that miracle, Jesus engaged Lazarus’ sister Martha in an important conversation.

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.” “Yes,” Martha said, “he will rise when everyone else rises, at the last day.” Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life.e Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this, Martha?” “Yes, Lord,” she told him. “I have always believed you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who has come into the world from God” (John 11:21-27, NLT).

Following that conversation Jesus proceeded to raise Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus’ resurrection would serve as an illustration of resurrection for those who would witness it an for us as well. Like Martha, we believe that at the last day when Christ returns we will experience resurrection. But what happens in between? Like Jesus, Lazarus was in the tomb for a few days prior to his resurrection. What was going on during that time? What happens to us between death and resurrection?

The Bible does not offer a specific passage that outlines the answer to that question in one sitting. Like much of our theology, its pieced together from various Bible verses like a puzzle. As a Christian, I understand death as the separation of body and soul. I further believe the soul goes immediately into the presence of God at the time of death. Passages like 2 Corinthians 5:8, Philippians 1:23, Luke 23:43-26, Acts 7:56-59, and 2 Corinthians 12:1-7 provide some indication that at death we are immediately ushered into God’s presence. Beyond those core convictions, what happens between death and resurrection remains somewhat mysterious. The good news for Christians is that we don’t have to fully understand death to be free from the fear of death. We can still make every day count and live it to the fullest as we pursue God’s purposes and plans for our lives.

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Jesus’ audience did not anticipate the twist in the plot. They had no way of predicting the kind of reception the prodigal would receive from his father. Jesus’ portrayal of the prodigal’s father was significantly different than their understanding of Jewish fatherhood. The prodigal’s father had been looking for him, and when he saw him he ran–something no Jewish father would have done. When he caught up with him he embraced him and kissed him.

As the prodigal began his rehearsed speech the father began to give instructions to his servants. He told them to bring four important things.

The first item the prodigal was handed was a robe. The robe would have been more than a fresh change of clothes. According to Numbers 15:37-40, the robes that they wore were adorned with tassels that would remind the wearer to “remember to obey all the commands of the Lord instead of following their own desires.” When he was given the robe, the prodigal got his faith back.

The second item the father instructed to be given was the ring. The signet ring was used to imprint was seals on financial documents. When the prodigal received the ring he was given his fortune back.

The prodigal was then given shoes. In first century culture, only family members wore shoes. Servants went barefoot. When he was provided shoes the prodigal got his family back.

The final item the father had the servants produce was the fatted calf. In Jewish culture, when one person offended another person the offended party would say, “let’s have fatted calf.” Having fatted calf was an act of reconciliation where the offended party pledged to never speak of the offense again or allow anyone to take up his offense. It was a gesture of grace and forgiveness. When the fatted calf was brought out, the prodigal got his father back.

The father didn’t use words to express forgiveness. He demonstrated forgiveness. He behaved in a forgiving way. Jesus told this story to communicate what our heavenly father is like. He’s not a father like we’ve ever known. He loves, he looks, and he runs to us when we take the first step home. You may feel like you’re in the far country. You may even feel as though your life is so far removed from God that you can’t come home. Nothing is farther from the truth. The father is waiting and watching.

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The story of the prodigal son is familiar (Luke 15:11-32). There was a man with two sons. They lived with their father, working on the family farm. One day the younger son approached the father and asked for his portion of the inheritance. We know an inheritance as something that is transferred upon the death of the benefactor. In so many words, the son was saying, “I wish you were dead.” The father agreed and divided the portion to his son. The son gathered his belongings and left, never looking over his shoulder. He went to a distant land and wasted all of the money on wild living. I think its interesting that the father let him go. He could have rightfully said no. Or he could have said, you can go if you will but I will not under write your venture. But he didn’t. He divided the estate and allowed him to leave.

We talk a lot about the prodigal’s behavior, but we cannot ignore what was in his heart. I believe his heart arrived in the distant land long before his body did. Proverbs 4:23 says, “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.” Jesus said, “A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evils things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart” (Luke 6:45, NLT). Be careful what you allow to dwell in your heart, because sooner or later you will act on it.

While in the distant land, the son ran into two simultaneous tragedies. He ran out of money and ran into a famine. When the money was gone, he began to starve. He found a job working for a farmer who sent this young Jewish man into the field to feed the pigs. And no one gave him anything. The thing about sin is that it will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay and cost you more than you want to pay.

At his lowest point the prodigal “came to his senses.” Look at what he did: “When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’ So he returned home to his father” (Luke 15:17-20, NLT).

Here are three things he did that we can do when we come to the end of ourselves.
1. He accepted responsibility for his life. He owned his stuff. He didn’t make excuses nor blame others for his choices.
2. He acted with humility. He was willing to return at a lesser role. He didn’t make demands, set conditions or have expectations.
3. He took the first step. He returned home to his father, with no assurance that his father would receive him.

Tomorrow I’ll finish this series with the surprising plot twist that would have shocked the audience. In the meantime, remember that you’re never too far to come home and its never too late to come to your senses.

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The boss of a big company needed to call one of his employees about an urgent problem with one of the main computers. He dialed the employee’s home telephone number and was greeted with a child’s voice, “Hello?” It was a quiet little voice. Feeling put out at the inconvenience of having to talk to a youngster, the boss asked, “Is your Daddy home?” “Yes,” said the small voice. “May I talk with him?” the man asked. To the surprise of the boss, he replied, “No.” Wanting to talk with an adult, the boss asked, “Is your Mommy there?” “Yes,” came the answer. “May I talk with her?” Again, the little voice said, “No.” Knowing that it was not likely that a young child would be left home alone, the boss decided he would just leave a message with the person who should be there watching over the child. “Is there anyone there besides you?” the boss asked the child. “Yes,” said the child, “a policeman.” Wondering what a cop would be doing at his employee’s home, the boss asked, “May I speak with the policeman?” “No, he is busy,” said the child. “Busy doing what?” asked the boss. “Talking to Daddy and Mommy and the Fireman,” came the answer. Growing concerned and even worried as he heard what sounded like a helicopter through the ear piece on the phone, the boss asked, “What is that noise?” “A hello-copper,” answered the tiny voice. “What is going on there?” asked the boss, now alarmed. In an awed voice, the child answered, “They just landed the hello-copper” Alarmed, concerned and more than just a little frustrated, the boss asked, “Why are they there?” Still whispering, the young voice replied (along with a muffled giggle), “They are looking for me.”

Is it possible to sin to such a degree that God will not forgive? Is it possible to go so far beyond the reach of God that we can never return to Him? Is it possible for us to stray and wander to the point that God quits looking for us? Can we come to the point where God gives up on us? Even though you attend church and even though you seldom miss, you may secretly wonder deep down whether or not you have done something that has caused God to give up on you. If not, chances are high you live with someone or work with someone or know someone who feels that way.

For the last two weeks I’ve been posting about hope and how to find hope when we come to the end of our rope and when we come to the end of our strength. This week I want to share about how we can find hope when we come to the end of ourselves, and there’s no better passage for us to study together than the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15.

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“Immediately after this, Jesus insisted that his disciples get back into the boat and cross to the other side of the lake, while he sent the people home. After sending them home, he went up into the hills by himself to pray. Night fell while he was there alone. Meanwhile, the disciples were in trouble far away from land, for a strong wind had risen, and they were fighting heavy waves. About three o’clock in the morning” (Matthew 14:22-26, NLT).

You will recognize this as the familiar text where Jesus walked on water and Peter had the opportunity to walk to him on the surface of the sea. Before I get to that I want to share a few observations about the problem the disciples faced. The text describes the dilemma as four fold. First, the storm rose suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere. Second, the disciples were far away from the security of the shore. Third, the wind was strong, making it hard for the disciples to maintain their balance. Finally, it was the middle of the night. The darkness would have impaired their vision. Parallel accounts allude to the fact that the disciples had expended all of their strength as they rowed in futility. Those four things are fairly obvious.

Perhaps the most important aspect, though, is the fact that Jesus sent them into the storm. Jesus was on the mountain top in prayer while the disciples struggled on the sea below. Sometimes we find ourselves in problems because we do stupid things. Our poor decisions, bad judgment, and undisciplined indiscretions create messes of our own design, and while those messes are unfortunate, if we’re honest we can at least say, “It’s my own dumb fault.”

But what happens when we find ourselves reeling from the sudden storms due to the fact that we are doing exactly what we are supposed to be doing? That’s where the disciples found themselves: struggling in the middle of doing the Lord’s will.

What can we do when we’re at the end of our strength? Tomorrow I’ll finish the story and share some insights that will hopefully be helpful, regardless of the cause of your storm.

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What do we learn from Mark 5 that will help us when we’re at the end of our rope?

1. The end of your rope is where God begins.
Like the woman in this week’s lesson, we will try to do everything we can to solve our problems and resolve our issues. We use our networks, spend our resources, and use our common sense as our first response, turning to God as our last resort. When I was very young in ministry our church faced a tremendous financial problem. During one particular staff meeting, I said something like, “Maybe we should pray about this.” Our beloved pastor quipped, “Has it come to that?” We all had to stop and laugh at his comment, because we realized we were forgetting the very essence of ministry: faith! Sometimes we have to get to the end of our rope so we can see the glory of God at work.

2. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “Our problem is not that we are too weak; our problem is that we are too strong.”
Paul learned this lesson as he described his infamous “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). Three times he prayed for God to remove it, and three times God said no. Paul discovered that God’s power is perfected in weakness, so he decided he would rather experience God’s power with the thorn than live his life thorn free without God’s power. God is strangely attracted to weakness.

3. God often expects us to take the first step.
I believe Jesus knew the woman was present and that he knew her condition. But instead of turning to her and taking the first step, he waited for her to act. Sometimes we are guilty of affirming that God’s omniscience and omnipotence is enough. We live under the assumption that if God knows our needs and can act upon them powerfully that He will if He wills it. But we’re not human tokens on God’s cosmic game board. He loves us and desires that we behave relationally. We don’t have to live passively. We can express humble faith and take the risk to reach out to the hem of his garment.

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Have you ever felt as though you were at the end of your rope? Maybe that’s how you feel today about your life. If you’ve never felt that sense of desperation, hold on, because the likelihood of you living your entire life not having experienced it is really, really small.

On Sunday I shared a simple story from the gospel of Mark that may prove to be a timely word of encouragement for those who feel at the end of their rope.

A large crowd followed and pressed around (Jesus). And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering” (Mark 5:25-29, NLT).

The story is very direct about the woman’s health problem. For over a decade she had battled some form of uterine disorder. She had seen every doctor imaginable and had spent everything she had. As time passed, she grew worse and worse. Beyond the obvious problem lies an equally difficult challenge. Because of the nature of her health needs she was ceremonially unclean. She couldn’t enter the Temple grounds. Like any leper she was forbidden to touch anyone or be touched by anyone, rendering her a societal outcast.

So what did she do? The first thing she did was express simple faith. She had heard about Jesus which allowed faith to germinate and sprout (Romans 10:17). Her faith wasn’t perfect, but imperfect faith is ok as long as the object of one’s faith is perfect. Once that faith began to rise she acted in humility. Luke’s account says that she touched “the hem of Jesus’ garment.” Assuming Jesus wore some form of robe, reaching the hem would have required her to either kneel or even lie prostrate on the ground to reach through the crowd to touch it. Jesus responded to her imperfect faith and genuine humility and granted her request. She was healed and she knew it.

She may have thought she could slip away unnoticed, but Jesus realized that someone had touched him and sensed that his healing power had gone out. In my opinion, Jesus knew exactly what had happened and who had touched him. But he demanded the woman give him the praise and glory for what he had done. On cue she stepped forward and for the second time knelt. Only this time it was in worship.

Tomorrow I’ll share three observations from this simple story that I trust will be helpful to you if you’re at the end of your rope in search of hope.

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This weekend I’m beginning a new, four week series on hope, based on four familiar narratives from the gospels. Here are the titles and texts I’ll cover:

HOPE: At the End of My Rope (Mark 5:25-34)
HOPE: At the End of My Strength (Matthew 14:22-32)
HOPE: At the End of Myself (Luke 15:11-32)
HOPE: At the End of My Life (John 11:1-43)

If you’re not a part of the First Baptist Family, check this site out each week for reflections from my weekly sermons.

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Apr
28

Hope That Sings 2

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Yesterday I posted some thoughts on how I handled 1 Corinthians 15:50-58 and how I viewed this concluding section as Paul’s song of hope which was the result of the implications of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In short, Paul didn’t just want his readers to know something…he wanted them to feel somthing as well!

Today I want to finish up this thread with a glance at the final two verses. Not only does everyone sing now, everyone sings now with gratitude. In verse 57, Paul writes, “But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:57, NLT) This hope that we celebrate comes as a gift to us. We didn’t earn it, and we certainly didn’t deserve it. It’s 100% grace. So we sing our songs of hope, but with a tinge of humble gratitude recognizing that all we have in Christ presently and in the future is all of God’s grace.

Everyone sings now with humble gratitude. But there’s one more thought that Paul leaves us with in verse 58. “So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.” (1 Corinthians 15:58, NLT)

In other words, our song of joyful hope is sung with the conviction that our lives are not vain or empty. We are not wasting our breath or our time. Our lives lived in the Lord are not wasted or useless. It all matters and everything counts. Today we sing of a victory to come. Someday we’ll sing of a victory complete. In the moments in between we live and sing with conviction because our final hope belongs to us now.

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Apr
27

Hope that Sings!

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Do you ever burst out in spontaneous singing? I’m not talking about the obligatory chorus that comes at holiday celebrations or birthday parties. I’m talking about being so filled with joyful hope that you are overpowered by song and it spews out. For the last three weeks I’ve been sharing some of the insights I’ve learned from Paul’s discourse on the implications of the resurrection of Jesus from 1 Corinthians 15. I’ve learned that the resurrection provides hope in three dimensions: it is our hope for transformation, living, and even dying. In the first 49 verses, Paul has provided lengthy explanations concerning these truths, but beginning in verse 50 he moves from “theology” to “doxology!” I don’t want to take away from the depth of what Paul says at the conclusion of the chapter. However it feels like the lyrical content of one caught up in joyful worship! Check it out…

What I am saying, dear brothers and sisters, is that our physical bodies cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever. But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies. Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die,j this Scripture will be fulfilled: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. 57But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless. (1 Corinthians 15:50-58, NLT)

Look at the characteristics of the Hope that Sings:

1. Everyone sings (15:50-53). It’s an inclusive celebration. Whether we are dead or alive at the time Christ’s return does not matter, for everyone will experience this transformation and receive a glorified body suited and fitted for eternity. Jesus has been raised, and his resurrection guarantees our resurrection. We will experience and enjoy what Jesus experienced and enjoys!

2. Everyone sings now (15:54-56). It’s a present tense celebration. Why? Because death is defeated now, not later. Paul rhetorically asked, “Where is death?” The answer? Death is no where. In our life experience we usually don’t sing songs of celebration until the final seconds tick off the clock or the final gun sounds. The Christian faith is the faith that sings before the victory is realized. In faith, it is as appropriate to sing the songs of victory in the first quarter as in the final quarter!

Tomorrow I’ll add the final two aspects of Hope that Sings! My prayer for you today is that God fills your heart with such joy and hope that you’ll spontaneously lift your voice in praise to God!

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