More than Amazing

Luke 11:14 “Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed.”

The crowd in front of Jesus was not able to ignore what he had done for the demon-possessed man. Luke tells us that they were “amazed.” This is not bad in itself. These people should have been amazed. No one else could give commands to spirits the way that Jesus did. No one else could do many of the things Jesus did: Give orders to the elements of nature, instantly heal diseases, make baked bread and dead fish grow. You know the stories. Who wouldn’t be filled with wonder?

David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear on TV. Criss Angel appeared to levitate between buildings. David Blaine turned a cup of coffee into a cup of money. Their work is amazing. We are entertained. But you know that it is all done with camera angles, distraction, wires. They’re called magic “tricks” for a reason. These guys might perform for patients in a hospital. You don’t find them attempting to cure them.

Amazement was an appropriate reaction to Jesus’ power over the demon. But it was also an inadequate one. When Jesus turned water into wine, that story concludes with the words, “He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.” Faith is the missing element in this account. The crowd is pleased, awed, impressed. But they aren’t really changed.

That’s still a problem, isn’t it? Relief from demons is not the thing people come to Jesus for so much today. Relief from family problems, relief from financial problems, some time to escape from the grind and feel uplifted and be “spiritual” at worship—this is the help people seek today. These are all fine so far as it goes. Again, the crowd is pleased, even entertained. But are they changed? Do they go away with faith, with a stronger trust and attachment to Jesus? Are they ready to follow him wherever he leads? Are we?

Jesus didn’t come to solve our dilemmas, end our boredom, or fill our leisure time in a wholesome way. He came to win our loyalty, make us his family, transform our hearts and lives. He came to forgive our sins, relieve our guilt, and secure us for eternity. Anything less than full faith in him is an inadequate reaction on our part.

Defeating Demons

Luke 11:14 “Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed.”

Christian author C.S. Lewis wrote his book The Screwtape Letters to give his readers insight into the subtle nature of temptation. A senior demon by the name of Screwtape has climbed up the ranks of demons through experience and success in getting humans to fall from grace. He now writes a series of letters to his “nephew” Wormwood to coach him in the finer details of the art of temptation.

In the forward to the book, Lewis makes the observation that there are two kinds of people that please the demons very much: the materialist and the magician. By the materialist he means the kind of people who are too modern and scientific to believe in the existence of spirits like angels or demons. This allows the demons to do their work more or less undetected and unopposed. Then they are like spies free to work their espionage in a country that does not believe in the existence of spies.

By the magician Lewis doesn’t really mean entertainers who use sleight of hand to create illusions for an audience. He means the kind of people who have an unhealthy interest in the occult. They want to tap into the black powers of the spirit world. They imagine that if they do, they will be able to control them for their own purposes. Many victims have been driven to insanity and worse when they discover you can’t control a force more powerful than you. Inevitably, that force is going to control you.

In so many episodes in the gospels, Jesus demonstrates that he, for one, does have power over the dark spirits. Not everyone appreciates, or cares what this means. It is more than a statement about his power. It is also a statement about the source of his power. It confirms Jesus’ divinity. It is the kind of power that properly belongs to the very Son of God.

The gospels mention more than a half dozen encounters between Jesus and demons. He never lost one of those battles. Compared to the kind of exorcisms portrayed in the movies, it wasn’t even a long or complicated process. Jesus gave the command and the demons left. This case from Luke 11 seems to be no exception.

There is good news for us in the apparently effortless way in which Jesus drove the demons away, even in our day. Whether or not we ever encounter someone possessed in person, we have no question about Jesus’ defeat of the devil’s dark forces. The one who delivered people from the grip of demons so many years ago still has power to release us from their temptations, as his grace has released us from the consequences of the sins they work so hard to convince us to try. He is the Lord we still trust to deliver us, body and soul.

Holy Marriage

I Thessalonians 4:3-7 “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: …that each of you should learn to acquire a wife in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God, and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.”

            You may notice the words above are different than the ones printed in your own Bible. They are the words of the footnote in the NIV text. Without boring you with all the details of the Greek, there is an idiom here that can be interpreted a couple of ways. Literally Paul’s words say, “Each of you should learn to possess a vessel.” When not used literally, the term vessel can be used in Greek as a word to refer to your body, or it can be used as a term to refer to a wife. The context seems to point in the direction of marriage.

            Paul is not condemning physical attraction or sexual desire between husband and wife. This isn’t some Victorian ethic he is promoting. But like our sexuality itself, marriage isn’t something we should approach with an attitude mostly concerned with, “What’s in it for me?” especially if what’s in it for me is mostly a matter of satisfying passionate lust. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that that is not a good foundation on which to build a marriage that will last. You may even know some marriages that seemed to be the result of little more than physical attraction and desire in the beginning, and they didn’t make it too far down the road before everything came apart. I know that I do.

            So what is holy and honorable in pursuing a potential mate? Are we exploring our compatibility? Two people don’t have to be carbon copies of each other. In fact, that may be counterproductive. But do we share enough in values and interests to work together for a lifetime? Do our differences fill in for each other? Can we tolerate each other’s weaknesses and appreciate our different strengths? Do we both come to the relationship with a willingness to work, an understanding that I am here to serve another person with my life? Do we understand that marriage is a responsibility, because beyond ourselves it serves our family, our community, our church? Does the person I am considering marrying agree that the best way we can know we are meant for each other is by saying “I do” in front of God’s altar?

Would our marriage fit this description from a wise old Christian: “Two people who up until this point have been walking the path through life to heaven alone have now joined hands to walk that path together?” We sometimes refer to it as “Holy Matrimony.” Putting the relationship together with these kinds of questions and concerns in mind would be one way to approach it honorably, as God’s holy people.

            Paul urges us to do this in a way that accommodates and respects our larger family of faith. “…and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.”

            Dating and marriage are not a competitive sport, like you see on a TV show such as The Bachelor. As Christians we are part of a community. We don’t interfere in the relationships of other people, before or after they are married. And in our own dating and courting, we behave ourselves in a way that does not give offense to others. As God’s holy people, everything we do is giving a witness, whether good or bad.

            The thing to remember is that we are God’s holy people. He cleansed us of our sins and rescued us from death first. He held us dear and wanted us as his very own for time without end. He did so that we might not be like the rest of the world. We fulfill a higher calling. We live a noticeably new and nobler life. In Jesus God has proclaimed us holy. Now he wants us to go and form holy marriages from holy relationships. It’s a spiritual goal worth pursuing.

Holy Sex

1 Thessalonians 4:3 “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality.”

Paul lists a number of things involved in sexual holiness, but he starts with avoiding sexual immorality. It is no secret to you that the world in which we live doesn’t have very high standards or expectations on this topic. Don’t get pregnant if you are not ready to be a parent. Don’t get a disease or share a disease. Don’t force yourself on someone else. Otherwise it is pretty wide open. It may not be bad advice, so far as it goes. But to say that this falls short of holiness would be a gross understatement.

            The problem is that the world doesn’t share God’s understanding of the purpose for our sexuality. Some view it as little more than a way to feel good and have fun. It is an urge to satisfy. Many see it as a way to express affection for another human. That’s better, but still lacking. At the core of the world’s problem is the view that it is primarily something I use and control for my pleasure.

At the Women’s March a number of participants held up signs referring to their private areas and expressing sole ownership and decision-making power about their use. Setting aside some of the crude language, if the point is that no man should be able to force his wishes on them, we can agree. If such declarations of independence discount any plans and purposes the Lord may have for their bodies, we are obligated to disagree. But the problem doesn’t start there.

            For thousands of years, worldly men have stalked and used women for their own pleasure. Their intentions have been entirely self-centered. They treat women more like a thing than a person made in God’s image and a coheir of the gracious gift of life. The brag about their conquests. They fail to acknowledge that God has a divine purpose and plan for human sexuality, and that this falls within narrow boundaries.

            God has clearly tied new human life to our sexuality. It may not be his only purpose. It may not always result in offspring. But any attempt to pretend the connection doesn’t exist is missing something that even basic biology ought to make clear.

            God created this kind of contact to cement and solidify a life-long relationship between a man and a woman. It is, by far, not the only thing that strengthens the relationship, but it is an important piece of the puzzle. That relationship would make for a stable home in which to raise children. That relationship would make for a stable society. That relationship should be a classroom in which both men and women learn things like patience, sacrifice, loyalty, and service. God has a purpose, a vested interest here. His holy people, and that means every believer, avoid sexual behavior that is predatory, self-serving, destabilizing to marriage and family, or reinforces shallow rather than life-long relationships. To say it plainly, God’s holy people avoid sexual sin by limiting sexual relations to the person of the opposite sex to whom they are married.

            This, as you know, is difficult, even for Christians. If it were easy, Paul wouldn’t have to put it in writing. Such self-control doesn’t some naturally to us. An old professor of mine once remarked, “Nobody I know has a spiritual track record free of sexual stumbling.” It makes me wince to say it, but he is right. Even if we have controlled our outward behavior, have we always shared God’s holy purpose?

            For our guilt we need to remember that God not only wants us to be holy. He has made us holy in his Son. Paul says it beautifully to the Ephesians, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” Jesus is the gentleman who respects and cares for his bride, the church. He gave himself up for our sin. He washes us and cleanses us in his baptism. His grace makes us holy, and it invites us to apply ourselves to holiness in the way we use his gift of sexuality.

Be Holy

1 Thessalonians 4:1-3a “Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. It is God’s will that you should be sanctified…”

            If I were to ask you about your goals for life, my guess is that your answers would revolve around several general topics: education, family or relationships, career, finances, lifestyle, volunteerism, and retirement. Which ones you emphasize depend to a large degree on your age and place in life.

            If I were to ask you about your spiritual goals, my guess is that you would have to think about your answer a little longer. Many Christians don’t think about their life of faith as something they proactively plan and manage. You go to church. You try to behave yourself–sort of. Maybe you get involved in some program or class. Maybe you don’t. You believe God is important. You just aren’t sure what to do about it.

            Let’s approach your life of faith from a different direction. What do you suppose God wants? What are his goals for you? Here, perhaps, the answers are a little easier. God wants me to have faith. That’s where everything starts. Maintaining that faith means time in his word and prayer. I suppose he wants me to go to church, and probably get involved in some kind of Bible study, too.

            God wants me to serve. “Love,” we know, is the one-word summary of everything God wants in his commandments. This is not romantic love, though it may have many family applications. It is love like Jesus had. It offers assistance, it forgives, it treats others with dignity, it sacrifices.

            In this letter to the Christians who lived in Thessalonica, Paul brings up another desire God has for your life. It is a central part of Christian life. Almost two hundred years ago, an entire movement in American Christianity was built around it. But it doesn’t get so much attention anymore. The plan is holiness. God wants you and me to be holy.

            That is something more than living life free from sin. Holiness goes to the root of how we understand our identity as Christians and our whole relationship with God. When God makes something holy, he sees it as completely consecrated and dedicated to himself. It now exists for his special purpose. It is not like everyone and everything else. He wants us to be different.

            This isn’t limited to people who have chosen full time church work. This applies to every Christian, and to all we do in every area of life. In another letter, his letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds them, “You are not your own. You were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.” Later in that same letter he says, “Whether you eat, or drink, or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God.” Nothing we do is too small, or too personal, to be holy to God. Our entire existence becomes a tool for him to use to carry out his plans and purposes.

            God made us holy when he called us to faith and made us members of his family. He paid a purchase price for us when Jesus died as our substitute on the cross. This paid for the guilt of all our sins and took them all away. In one sense, this set us free. It made us free from punishment, free from trying to pay for sin ourselves, free from spending eternity in hell. It set us free from the power and control of the devil, and free from our own corrupt will and desires that live inside of us.

            At the same time, it made us holy. It made us belong to God, but not in the sense that we are prisoners who have been captured and forced into slave labor. We have been miraculously transformed, lovingly elevated, changed into new and better creatures fit to work with God as his partners.

            “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified.” In other words, he made you and redeemed you to be holy to him, set aside for his purpose. That’s a goal we can embrace.

Productive Faith

Luke 8:15 “But the seed on the good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.”

God’s word is a seed with the power to give me a new and noble heart. God once promised his people through the prophet Ezekiel, “I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Through his contemporary Jeremiah he said, “Is not my word like a fire, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”

But the process through which the Lord goes to work transplanting a good and noble heart into our chests involves the gentle message of his grace. On my concrete driveway there is a crack into which the grass keeps creeping. The grass is relatively soft and pliable. I can tear it with my hands. But it has the power to keep extending and widening that crack in the concrete.

In the gospel our Lord professes a love for us that far exceeds any other love we have known. He sacrificed his Son to save us. He forgives us all day every day. No matter how repulsive we might have made ourselves with our sin, his only desire is to have us back for himself, and there is no price he would not pay, he did not pay, to make it happen.

This soft and gentle message creeps into our hearts, breaks up the stony unbelief, and replaces it with a beating heart of faith. This is the heart that holds onto the word for dear life, because it is life. This is the heart that overflows with acts of Christian love, and words of Christian witness, because “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” This is the heart that is fruitful in the faithful, but God’s word is still the seed whose power makes it happen.            

So plant a seed. Hear God’s word and plant it in your own heart. Share God’s word and plant it someone else. Then let the seed do what seeds do, and watch it grow.

Beware the Faith Chokers

Luke 8:14 “The seed that fell among the thorns stand for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches, and pleasures, and they do not mature.”

Nobody I know makes it their goal in life to live in poverty. But historically God’s people have not handled prosperity very well. It tends to corrupt more than it blesses. That is Jesus’ picture here.

The problem is that “prosperity” too easily transforms into “worldliness.” If we could accept that the material world in which we live is all headed for the ash heap–there is no saving anything here, only applying a few band aids and fixes to keep it going a little longer; if we could be content with what we have been given and stop obsessing about having more; if we could see things mostly as tools to serve people and share the gospel with them; if we could trust God’s promise to take care of every need; if we cared more about a real heaven to come than an artificial one we try to build on earth; then prosperity would present no particular temptation. 

Then we would worry less about who gets elected, how my retirement funds are doing, where the unemployment rate stands today, whether the polar ice cap is melting, whether they are coming to take away my guns, which news is fake and which news is real, and whether I am getting my fair share.

Then we would go and live our faith. We would go to work and do our job faithfully. We would love our neighbor, no matter how he looks or thinks. We would be good stewards of the things God has given us to manage. We would speak up for those who need someone to speak up for them. We would raise our families to know that Jesus is the best thing there is, and we would tell our friends. We would dig deep so that people all over the world could know it, too. We wouldn’t worry. We wouldn’t obsess. We wouldn’t hoard. We would believe, and then we would go and live, because we have Jesus and all that his forgiving grace promises.

But as powerful as God’s word is, faith can be “choked by life’s worries, riches, and pleasures.” If we will not let these things go, we will not mature. All our scurrying around trying to build a little utopia right here on earth makes us of little use to God or man. Don’t let worldly distractions strangle our faith all the way to death.

No Root

Luke 8:13 “Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.”

You heard Jesus right. These are people who believe for a while (we are people who have believed for a while) but in a time of testing they fall away. Matthew’s gospel defines this testing a little further as trouble or persecution that comes because of God’s word. This is suffering because of what we believe. Others oppose our Christian faith.

This kind of testing is a universal Christian experience. In some places it is severe. Almost 10 years ago 275 Christian girls were kidnapped from their school in northern Nigeria by Boko Haram, a Muslim terrorist group. The terrorists oppose educating girls because it prevents them from adopting Islamic teaching. All the girls were pressured to convert. Many were forced to marry. Scores were martyred, and over 100 converted to Islam.

For you and me, the testing has been more subtle. But the pressure is unrelenting. It is so much a part of the atmosphere in which we live that at times we may not even notice it. While I was canvassing a neighborhood, a woman asked me what we believed. I wanted to talk about our need for repentance and Jesus’ redeeming work on the cross. She wanted to talk about same-sex marriage and paths to heaven outside of Christianity. She had grown up a Christian. But the spirit of the age in which we live had its way with her heart. She gave up not only a few isolated Christian doctrines. She gave up on Christianity altogether. Though she was polite, she made it clear there was something wrong with me for not “moving on” and letting go of what the Bible teaches.   

Jesus never said that following him would be easy. He said, “Take up your cross.” It is easy to be a Christian when you are living in the joy of knowing God loves and forgives you, surrounded by people who share that faith and support it. That is God’s good seed at work in us. And we don’t have to lose that joy or surrender our faith when it comes under fire.

But we need roots in God’s word to go down deep, because Jesus did not come to bring peace but a sword. He warns that in this world we will have much trouble, and that we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God. God’s word is a powerful seed, but we know it will be opposed by others.

Hard Ground

Luke 8:5, 11-12 “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up… The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.”

During archaeological excavations of Herod the Great’s palace on Masada in the mid-1960’s, a cache of Judean date palm seeds was discovered. The Judean date palm tree became extinct 800 years ago. For forty years this cache of seeds was stored at an Israeli university. In 2005 three of the seeds were planted, and one of them has grown into a tree that has been nicknamed “Methuselah.” The hope is that this tree can be crossbred with its nearest contemporary relative to produce fruit. After 2000 years this dry, hard, apparently lifeless piece of plant material has produced new life.

Seeds are little miracles of creation. Something that looks so simple, just a little ball of ordinary material to the naked eye, possesses the power to transform itself into a living thing thousands of times its size, complex in shape, and beauty, and function.

Seeds make a fitting picture for the word of God in Jesus’ parable. Something that looks ordinary and small–just some words, a simple message–has the power transform itself into a new heart, a changed man, a life that never ends.

But sometimes the seed does not get a chance to produce the new life God seeks. The first time the devil appears in the Bible, the first words out of his mouth are, “Did God really say…?” Since that time attacking God’s word has been central to his business. It’s no surprise, then, when Jesus explains the first part of his parable this way: “Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.”

Note that Jesus does not say the devil prevented these people from ever hearing the word of God. That is part of his business, too. He has many different strategies to keep God’s word out of human ears: oppressive governments that criminalize Christian mission work; lazy parents who won’t take their children to church; cultural forces that turn Sunday morning more and more into “me” time–you know, time to sleep in, golf, fish, or watch TV; jobs and sports that invade Sunday mornings and every other spare moment of time. The word of God terrifies Satan because of its power. He feels safest when he can keep a person from hearing or reading it altogether.

But when that fails, plan B is to attack God’s word inside the human heart. That’s where Jesus picks things up in his parable. The devil has ways of hardening the heart and snatching the word away before it can do any “damage.” He makes the word sound unreasonable. I mean, miracles and magic are fine for fairy tales. Prince Charming can kiss the princess and bring her back to life. But the dead leaving their graves and rejoining the living? Maybe in a horror flick. Grown-ups don’t put stock in that kind of thing, do they?

Or, he pits the word against our personal experience. “Honor your father and mother.” Yeah right. Maybe in some 1950’s Leave-It-to-Beaver family. Dad was a workaholic, and mom was an alcoholic, and neither cared about anyone but themselves. “He will command his angels concerning you to keep you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” So where were they when the car accident left me with chronic back pain, or robbed me of 80 percent use of my right hand?

By stirring up false human reasoning, flattering shallow human goodness, appealing to selfish ideas about “fairness,” the devil hardens human hearts and snatches God’s word away. He goes over the heart like a steam roller, making it hard to the idea that I am a sinner who needs God’s grace; or that there is such a thing as God; or that God is loving, forgiving, good, and kind. In this way the greatest gift ever given, Jesus’ selfless sacrifice on the cross, sits like seed on a concrete slab. It might be heard, but it won’t be considered or believed. Satan has effectively snatched the seed away.            

Thank God that his Spirit has ploughed and worked our hearts so that his word could find its way in, and his grace now stirs new life within our souls.