How to Foster Harmony

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December 16

Read Mark 9:33-50

“If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”   Mark 9:35

This is in some ways one of the saddest, yet funniest, scenes in Mark’s gospel in my opinion.  The disciples are following Jesus to Jerusalem, where He will die on a cross.  Jesus has been telling them that He did not come to build a Kingdom of worldly power, glory and wealth, but that, instead, He would die on the cross and that anyone who wants to be a part of His Kingdom needs to follow in that same manner of life.

So what were the disciples talking about on the road to the cross?  They were arguing “about who was the greatest.”  Talk about not getting it!

The force of Jesus’ teaching is pretty clear.  If you want worldly power, glory, and greatness, then Jesus isn’t for you.  Jesus shows us the way to true greatness through the cross.  The kind of greatness God wants for us, and even for Himself, is that greatness that comes through serving others.

Paul put it this way to the Philippians.  “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…” (Phil 2:5-7).  It is God’s nature to pour Himself out in love, and our attitude should be the same.  If that isn’t a wonderful lens through which to view the celebration of Christmas, I don’t know what is!

But let’s take this a bit further.  Do you see what happens when we seek glory for ourselves?  Or when we want to be served?  Or when we stand on our rights and what we deserve?  Arguing.  Strife.  Discord.

Service, though, leads to unity, harmony, peace, and healing.  Serving leads to beauty.

As a pastor, I know that many families do not enjoy holiday gatherings because they are marked by arguing, strife, and discord.  Maybe it isn’t your family, but your workplace.  Or your school.  Or your neighborhood.  We’ve all got a group like that.  When we take the attitude of serving – giving instead of getting – we foster unity, harmony, peace, and healing.

Something profound changes when look at our spouse and ask ourselves how we can serve them.  Or when we look at our children and ask what we can do to make them more like Jesus.  Or when we look at our neighborhood and ask how we can make it a better place to live.  Something profound happens when we look at our marriages, our families, our workplaces, our schools, and our neighborhoods as a place to serve in love.

Serve up some beauty in this holy season!  Foster unity, harmony, peace and healing as you give yourself to others.

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You’ve got to slow down to listen

meaningful-advent

December 15

Read Mark 9:2-32

Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”   Mark 9:7

If you’re following along in the story, you’ll know that Peter has just confessed that Jesus is the long awaited Messiah (Mark 8:29), then rebuked Jesus for claiming that the Messiah must die (8:32), and now he is standing on the Mount of Transfiguration saying something silly (9:5).  Personally, I find it encouraging that being a disciple of Jesus doesn’t mean that we always have it all together.  Peter still doesn’t really get what Jesus is trying to tell him, so the Father gets Peter’s attention.  “Listen to him!”

“Listen!”  It doesn’t just mean to hear something, but to pay attention to it, to mark it, to recognize it as important.  So how can we listen to Jesus?

To begin with, to listen to Jesus is to listen as though our life depends upon it.  We listen to what we think matters.  To listen to Jesus is to come to Him in Scripture and prayer to hear what He has to say about anything and everything.  As Christians, we believe that the Bible is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16).  If we want to know what the Lord has to say about most of the big topics of life, we need to pick up our Bibles and listen to what Jesus has to say.  One of the simplest things we can do to help hear Jesus’ voice in the Bible is to say a simple prayer before reading: Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.

But there is another aspect of listening that I think is important: noticing.  To listen to someone, you hear more than words.  You hear inflection, tone and different emphases.  You see expression and body language.  Listening is both paying attention to what is said and how it is said.  Listening and noticing are linked.

What I’m getting at is this: we don’t just listen to Jesus as we set aside time in study and prayer.  We are meant to listen to Jesus all the time, no matter where we are, no matter what we are doing.

That kind of listening requires learning to pay attention to what Jesus is doing in our lives at any given moment.  He is always with us and active in our lives by the Holy Spirit.  Many of us, though, struggle with noticing how Jesus is with us and what He is doing.  Noticing doesn’t just happen.  It is a cultivated attitude.

Noticing happens when we slow down enough to look about and observe what is going on around us.  Noticing means that we leave enough space in our lives to not have to rush from one thing to another.  It is hard to notice things when you’re going ninety miles an hour.  But when we slow down and live in the awareness that Jesus is always with us and always at work in and about us, we will find that He is constantly speaking into our lives.

Slow down.  Notice.  Listen.

Who do you say Jesus is?

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December 14

Read Mark 8:11 – 9:1

“But what about you?” Jesus asked. “Who do you say I am?”  Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” Mark 8:29

Caesarea Philippi provides an interesting backdrop for this scene.  There was a cavern in the hillside there which was believed to be the birthplace of the Greek god, Pan, the god of nature.  There was also a cave in the hillside from which waters came forth that were believed to be the source of the Jordan River.  Further up the hillside, looking down over it all, there was a marble temple dedicated to Caesar, ruler of the Roman Empire, who claimed himself to be a god.

There, in the shadow of Greek and Roman religion, and in the shadow of Jewish history, Jesus asked His disciples the most searching question: Who do you say that I am?

People gave various answers.  Some said John the Baptist come back to life, others pointed to Elijah, still others to the prophets.  They reacted to His authority as they would react to a prophet, a spokesman for God.  I think we would hear different answers today.  Some say a great teacher, others a healing therapist, still others a tolerant lover who accepts us as we are.

The problem with all these answers, both old and new, is that they fall short, they are deficient.  That deficiency also has consequences.

Karl Barth once wrote, “Tell me how it stands with your Christology, and I shall tell you who you are…For here we are standing at the centre” (Dogmatics in Outline, 66).  How we answer Jesus’ question stands at the center of everything.

I would suggest it does so in two ways.

First, the core deficiency in all of these answers, old and new, is that they are not in line with who Jesus is.  Peter got the answer right, “You are the Christ.”  But Jesus still had to explain what that meant.  It didn’t mean a warrior-king who would destroy Rome and make Israel great again.  It meant being the Suffering Servant promised through Isaiah who would go to the Cross to die as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world.  Yes, Jesus is the promised Savior, but He comes to save by laying down His life.

That has consequences.  To accept the gift of salvation Jesus gives, one must first admit, or confess, the need for it.  The problem with all the other answers is that they leave us at the center, they leave us in control, they give us the power over our salvation.  But Jesus and His Cross don’t do that.  They expose us and our need for the salvation that only He can give.

This is part of Barth’s insight.  If we are willing to accept Jesus for who He claims to be, it tells us who we are.  If He is our Lord and Savior, then our lives must conform to His will.

Secondly, though, how we answer the question tells the world who we are.  If He is our Lord and Savior, we will seek to live in loving obedience and He will transform our lives to become like His.  As uncomfortable as it may be, our lives are always serving as a witness to the world.  In many ways, then, we should be answering the question of who Jesus is by the way we live.  If people only had your life to go on, what does your life say about who Jesus is?  Our lives tell who we believe Jesus to be.

So what about you?  Who do you say, and show, that Jesus is?

Finding Food for a Hungry Heart

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December 13

Read Mark 7:24 – 8:10

But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them? Mark 8:4

This is now the second miraculous feeding that Jesus provided in the wilderness.  In Mark 6, Jesus fed five thousand in the wilderness, and here, He fed four thousand.  When we hold the two accounts side by side, some important differences emerge that speak to the growth of Jesus’ disciples and speak to the question of where one can find sustenance in the wilderness.

In the account of the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus challenged the disciples to feed the crowd.  Their response was essentially, “That’s not possible! They didn’t have enough money to buy that much food.”  Jesus patiently asked them to bring what they did have.  Five loaves of bread and two fish then went on, in the hands of Jesus, to feed the entire crowd and even yield leftovers!

Jesus wanted the disciples to learn something incredibly important: to look to Him for direction and provision.  Their first response to Jesus came from looking at themselves and their own resources.  They should have instead simply turned to Jesus to ask what He wanted them to do.  What we see in the feeding of the four thousand, then, is that they learned the lesson!

“But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?”

“How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked.

Where?  Jesus.  How?  Jesus.  They looked to Jesus for direction and provision, and He provided both.

Do you ever feel like the disciples?  Out in the wilderness.  Low on physical, emotional, mental and spiritual resources.  Unsure of what to do.  Wondering how all of this can work out.

Jesus provides a wonderful pattern for Christian living here.  We are to keep our eyes on Him, not our own resources, skills, and abilities.  We are to bring what we do have and let Him handle the rest.  When we offer ourselves to Jesus, as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1), He will give us everything we need to do what He is calling us to do.  Jesus is where we find bread enough to eat.  Like the disciples, though, we need to learn to turn to Jesus for direction and provision.

But might I make another suggestion?  Jesus, in John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand, makes a connection between the feeding in the wilderness and the gift of Holy Communion.  The Eucharist is the food of Jesus in the wilderness of life.  In the Eucharist, we receive grace in the very presence of Jesus in the bread and wine.  It is food we can get nowhere else.  Where can we find bread?  At the Lord’s table.  It is grace offered every time we gather for worship.  Do we turn to that incredible and sufficient provision?  Or do we look elsewhere for what only Jesus can provide?

Bring yourself to Jesus – every day with a surrendered heart and when we gather at the Lord’s table – and find bread enough to satisfy your hungry heart.

How to Hunger for Jesus

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December 12

Read Mark 7:1-23

“What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’” Mark 7:20-23

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were rigorous in keeping themselves “clean.”  They believed that God wanted them to live in a clean state of ritual purity.  It meant keeping the outward piety of eating the right foods prepared in the right way, not touching certain things, and keeping countless other man-made rules. If they could keep themselves “clean,” God would be pleased with them.  Jesus, though, challenged that understanding, and in His challenge, we have both good news and bad news.

Actually, it would be better to say comforting news and challenging news.  The comforting news is that God’s primary concern is not our outward piety. The challenging news is that He wants more – He wants our hearts.

What Jesus wants His followers to understand is that outward behavior has its beginnings in the heart.  Ultimately, what we love directs how we behave.  We can, like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, engage in keeping up appearances of outward piety and in teeth-gritting sin-management.  We can maintain an outward appearance that is not in line with what we really want on the inside.  We do need to overrule the wrong desires of our hearts by not pursuing those false loves, but if we don’t do anything to correct the false loves, it is only a matter of time before we lose control.

What Jesus wants us to understand is that if He can have our hearts, He will get our outward lives as well. The challenge is, how do we stop loving the wrong things and fall more deeply in love with Jesus?

I would suggest two things.

First, you need to starve the wrong appetites.  To stop eating something you love, you need to stop eating it.  That’s the way appetites work.  If you feed them, they grow; if you starve them, they diminish.  Notice I didn’t say disappear – I said diminish.  When we starve appetites for the wrong things, the desire for them will eventually get smaller.  But what appetites are we talking about?

Here’s where we need to go below the surface and get to the root desires.  Like it or not, love and idolatry go hand in hand.  We worship and serve what we love.  The reason we need to get to the root is that if we only manage the outward manifestation of the root desires, the desires will simply manifest themselves in another way.  For example, if we eat to relieve our stress, we can stop eating chocolate only to start eating chips.  We need to starve the appetite from the outward manifestation all the way down to the root.  We need to starve the appetite from the fruit to the idol.

What’s your idol?  Once again, Tim Keller’s categories are helpful. Is it Comfort, wanting to avoid toil and labor, wanting to be entertained?  Is it Control, wanting to make sure that nothing happens to you that isn’t part of your plan or that you can’t take care of?  Is it Acceptance, wanting to feel loved and appreciated and respected?  Is it Power, wanting to exercise dominion over other people and get them to serve you?

Second, we need to feed the right appetites.  To learn to love food that is good for you, you need to start eating it.  To learn to love Jesus, you need to feed upon His life.  How do we do that?  To begin with, we don’t do it by going through the motions.  It has to come from the heart.  We need to open our hearts to Jesus and seek to draw near to Him.  How do we do that?  Through corporate worship, corporate and personal prayer, reading the Bible, and staying in fellowship with other believers.  Through obediently living like Jesus lives: pouring our lives out for others in ministry in the Church and mission to the world.  The more we draw near to Jesus and follow His way of life in His strength, the more we will fall in love with Him.

A heart that feeds on Jesus will produce the fruit of Jesus’ life.  What hungers are you cultivating?

Growing in the Family

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December 2

Read Mark 3:13-35

And Jesus answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” Mark 3:34-35

It is perhaps a bit difficult for us to understand how shocking and revolutionary these words were.  In Jesus’ day, family was everything.  You made decisions based on what was best for your family.  You always sought to bring honor to your family.  Family was everything.

So what is Jesus getting at?

Quite simply, He is redefining family.  The family that is meant to be everything, the family we seek to honor and for whose benefit we make our decisions, is God’s family.  God’s family, the Church, is meant to be the key network of relationships in our lives.  We are family.  As we consider the role of family, I think three things emerge as vitally important.

First, family is where we find our identity.  We are meant to define ourselves by being members of God’s household.  We are meant to find meaning in knowing that we belong to God, that we are His children.  Think about what that means.  No matter what kind of job we have, what kind of car we drive, what we look like, how smart we are, how much good or bad we have done, God claims us as His own.  He claims us!  With the beaming eyes of a proud parent, God says, “You are Mine!”  That’s who we are!

Second, family is where we grow up, where we are shaped into who we are.  We take on the culture of our families.  We learn the family image: the inside language, the customs, and the values of our families.  It is meant to be the same growing up in the Church. We are meant to grow in the family image.  We are meant to be, inside and out, like the head of our family, Jesus.

Third, family is where we serve.  To be a part of a family is to have responsibilities.  In a family, everyone should have something to do.  We all play a part, we all work to build the family up and make sure that everyone is flourishing.  We don’t just serve when we feel like it.  We don’t just serve the ones we like.  In a family, everyone has a part to play and everyone is taken care of.  It is meant to be the same in the family of God.  The Church does not exist solely to serve us.  It is our family, and we take our place in the family and put the needs of the family at the top of our list.

Jesus’ goal for your life is to make you like Himself.  One of the greatest tools in that transformation is His family – the Church.  All who call Jesus Lord and do His will – single, married, widowed, children, adults – are members of His family.  As we share our lives with one another, we will be shaped by the language, customs and values of Jesus’ family, and we will, together, grow into the image of Christ.

I would suggest that one of the reasons we struggle to become like Jesus is that instead of being a part of the family, we try to grow alone.  In this season of Advent, as we seek to be ready for the return of Jesus, we need to stop and consider our need for living in the family.   Are you a part of the family, or are you trying to grow alone?

Rest in the Holidays

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December 1

Read Mark 2:23-3:12

Then Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Mark 2:27

Several years ago, I read an article in a popular magazine making the case that most Americans don’t know how to rest very well.  The author asked readers to list ten things that they liked to do for refreshment.  He then went on to say that most Americans could only name two or three.  I found myself among most Americans.

That got me thinking.  What is rest, Sabbath, all about?

It has been noted that the command to rest is likely the most broken commandment of all Ten.  As one author pointed out, we not only fail to keep the command to Sabbath rest, we often break it deliberately.  What would we think, he notes, if we told someone in our small group that we were going to commit murder or adultery next Tuesday?  And yet we will tell someone in our small group that we can’t keep a Sabbath rest this week because we are so busy that we have already scheduled ourselves to work.

So what is Sabbath rest, why do we need it, and how do we keep it?

In Jesus’ day, the religious leaders built all kinds of rules about what could and couldn’t be done on a Sabbath.  They defined what was and wasn’t work.  How many steps can you take before it was work?  What kind of food can you eat without doing work?  Lots of rules and regulations.  They wanted to be sure that they weren’t disobedient.  But they missed the point.

In their effort to be legalistically obedient, they had decided, for example, that it was wrong to heal someone in need on a Sabbath.  They kept the Sabbath in order to earn God’s favor and congratulate themselves on their accomplishments.

Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

It seems to me that as human beings, we are good at doing that.  We are good at taking something God gives us for our own good, and turning it into something that we can control and manipulate to our own ends.  We get things backwards.

We are not commanded to keep a Sabbath rest so that we can earn God’s favor or congratulate ourselves.  We are commanded to keep a Sabbath rest because God knows what we need, and He knows that we need it so much that He has to make it a commandment in order for us to do it.  So why does God give us the command to rest and how do we do it?  Let me suggest three things.

First, God gives us the Sabbath in order to remind us that we are creatures.  Left to our own devices, we typically try to be God.  We like to live in the illusion that we are in control, that everything depends on us.  Think about it.  How often do we justify not resting because if we don’t work, everything will fall apart.  Now, you might be thinking of legitimate situations where that would take place, but if you are, you are trying to escape the truth that in most situations, we aren’t that critical.  Life and business don’t come to a screeching halt when we aren’t there.  God gives us Sabbath to remind us that He is God and we are creatures.

That means, second, that we are designed to trust and depend upon God.  When we rest, we are taking a step of faith.  We are trusting that God will take care of what we aren’t doing when we rest.  We are trusting that God will meet our needs by supplying what our work produces.  We are trusting that our identity is more than just what we do for a living.  We trust and depend upon God.  Sabbath builds our faith and our identity.

Third, it means that Sabbath is meant to be a time of resting in God.  It isn’t time to distract ourselves – that’s entertainment meant to mask our deep need for God.  It is time to stop and recognize that we are creatures dearly loved by God, and whose identity is not rooted in what we do, but in belonging to God.

So how do we keep Sabbath?  By intentionally “wasting time” with God in a way that forces us to recognize that we need Him for everything in life.  It doesn’t matter what day of the week it is, and we don’t need to make a whole bunch of rules about what counts as Sabbath and what doesn’t.

Sabbath is a gift to us, not a burden.  With that said, it is one of the hardest things for us to do in our culture, and, dare I say it, it is one of the hardest things to do in this holiday season.  And yet it is absolutely critical for our spiritual growth and health, and for our readiness to stand face to face with Jesus.