Okay, I know that juggling multi-colored balls has nothing to do with following Jesus…
…or does it?
The Bible is full of injunctions of various types, and when we read the apostle Paul’s letters we’re bound to see him adamantly exhorting us to live moral lives. But we have to remember a couple of crucial things.
First, Paul always couches even his most adamant exhortations within the context of God’s grace. Even this great challenge — to offer our whole selves as sacrifices to God — is to be done “because of all [God] has done for you.” If we truly understand the gracious agency of God, we will also understand why we can trust God with our whole selves.
Second, following Jesus is not something we either “do” or “don’t do” in some binary way. We learn to follow Jesus. It starts with this most fundamental practice of offering ourselves to God. That is a skill that we develop over time. It doesn’t really come naturally. It takes practice, repetition, and time. But it is possible. And, according to John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, Paul, John, and the witness of the whole New Testament…it’s both necessary and eternally rewarding.
- Is there something about yourself that you know needs to “pass away” in order for the life of Christ to be more fully realized in you?
- What are some of the obstacles that make “offering yourself” difficult?
- How might you overcome those obstacles?
- You’re not in this alone — who in your life can come alongside you in this process, both to encourage you and hold you accountable?
John 3:1-16, Jesus Teaches Nicodemus
This is really the question, isn’t it? At least, it’s the first thing out of Nicodemus’s mouth when Jesus tells him that “no one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born again.” And it’s fair enough — most of us would ask the same, I’ll bet.
And it also points to Nicodemus’s world view that in order to see the Kingdom of God, there must be some way for him to do it. Some thing for him to accomplish. Some sacred rule or ritual that would qualify him for it. This is why Jesus’ image of birth is so important. For who among us accomplished anything that gave us the right to be born in the first place? To be born once is a gift of grace. And thus to be born again of the Spirit is also a gift of God’s grace.
We call this “justifying” grace insofar as being “justified” means to be “set right” before God. It’s by God’s prevenient grace that we are led to God in the first place. It is by God’s justifying grace on the Christ’s cross that we are set right in relationship to God, even while we are yet sinners.
- The image of birth is one of grace, but it does not come easily. In what ways might being “born again” of God’s Spirit be difficult, painful, or arduous?
- Being “born again” is surely an image for the first time one comes to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. But there are times when even our faith in Jesus can feel dormant, even comatose. What might we need in those times to enliven our faith?
- Despite all of our studies and theology, the Spirit of God remains unpredictable and out of our control. How does Jesus’ image of the “wind” in verse 8 make you feel?
- Consider the word “whoever” in verse 16. In what ways does this openness comfort you? Do you think it ever challenges those who hear this famous summary of the gospel message? How so?
Many blessings in the journey,
Last week, we heard about “pilers,” that is, people who tend to pile up their homes or offices with the clutter of everyday life. And while we’d like God to bless our mess, what we really need is transformation.
In so many places worldwide, people’s lives are “piled” with messes that they cannot transform. They come in the form of poverty, injustice, disease, corporate and cultural challenges, and many more. And of course the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is active in the world. Moreover, God is calling us to engage people’s “messiness” by sharing their burdens with them.
In this way, we hope to move ever closer to the vision John had in the book of Revelation: a great multitude from every nation praising God for the freedom God has given us in Christ Jesus.
- When you consider the needs of your local community, what needs stand out the most?
- When you consider the needs of the wider world, what needs stand out the most?
- Have you ever “shared someone’s burden” with them? What was your experience?
- Have you ever had someone else share in your burden with you? What was that like?
- Regardless of the way we serve others, it requires a degree of self-sacrifice. What might you have to give up, or give away, from your normal routine in order to answer God’s call to share in others’ burdens?
Many blessings to you in gracious service!
John 5:1-15, The Healing at the Pool
Picture it — a kitchen, garage, or office piled with clutter. And above it all hangs a well-intentioned sign reading “Bless This Mess!” It’s a fun way of acknowledging the reality of our messy lives, to be sure. It might be that when we ask God to bless our mess, we’re really wanting God to excuse or ignore our mess, or maybe somehow wave his divine wand and fix it.
Well, Paul proclaims in Romans 3:23-24, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And “all” means ALL. No one’s righteousness exalts them to heaven. But the good news is that “all” means ALL when it comes to God’s justifying grace, too. So God does offer a grace that can and will transform our messes. Having done it in Christ, however, he also expects participation from us.
- Think about the phrase: “Bless This Mess.” Are there any messes in your life that you’d rather have God just “bless” than really transform?
- Jesus asked the man at the pool: “Do you want to get well?” What if Jesus asked you the same thing? How would you answer?
- The man’s healing was 100% God’s grace. What did the man have to do to participate in that grace? What can we do today to participate in God’s grace to us?
- Later (chapter 5 verse 14) why does Jesus still urge the man to “stop sinning” after his physical healing?
The life we are living is a gift. Even though life has its “ups and downs,” even the chance we have to experience life had to have been initiated as a gift long before we could have understood it or contributed to it.
And there is a narrative arc that extends from before you were born until this moment, and what links that narrative together is Grace.
The grace of God is manifest to us in three ways, the first of which is known as “Prevenient Grace.” It refers to the ways God was at work in our lives before we could have had an awareness of him. We might see that grace as we look back in reflection, but at the moment we couldn’t have recognized it.
In the story of Zacchaeus, the tax collector was eager to get a glimpse of Jesus. But what led him to that state of mind? How did he feel when he realized that Jesus already knew who he was and had plans for him before they even met?
- Can you link 3-5 events in your life story together to see how they led you to where you are today?
- Life can be really tough; can you see the work of God’s grace in your story even in the most difficult chapters?
- If your story is one of God’s grace, what can you infer about the lives of others you know? What about strangers? Enemies?
- If God has been at work throughout your life, what does that mean about your present? Your future?
Stories are meant to be shared — if you’d like to share some of your story, you’re welcome to in the comments!
Galatians 5:16-23 (The Message)
Position changes condition.
There are essentially two ways to live our lives: either toward God or away from God. They don’t coexist. They can’t.
Of course, the natural human condition is oriented away from God. It’s more than just bad deeds. It’s a condition. It’s a “posture problem.” The distance between God and ourselves represents the “if only” of the human experience. As the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, we share their posture problem, which Michelangelo represented so masterfully in the Sistine Chapel (see the image above.)
The chasm between us and God won’t stay empty for long, of course. Through history, we fill our needs with substitutes — idols. And the result is a mess. Because as Paul writes, we cannot sustain opposing ways of living.
- In what ways have you discovered yourself in a natural posture away from God?
- Have you ever tried to find substitutes (idols) for God? What were they? What has been the result?
- In what ways could you change your posture so that unlike Adam in this painting, you were actually leaning toward God?
- Changing your position can change your condition — but only when we’re willing to get real with our messes. What kinds of messes do you need to put out into Gods’s light?
I want to invite you to give yourself permission to “do nothing” for 5-10 minutes today to read this passage, consider these questions, and listen for what God may be saying to you today.
It’s always easy to compare ourselves to others, isn’t it?
Sometimes we put ourselves up on a pedestal, seeing ourselves as better than others. Honestly–who hasn’t at least once blamed other drivers for being “the problem,” when the reality is we’re also right there contributing to the heavy traffic!
Other times, we may see others as up on that pedestal, which can lead us to try to “keep up with the Joneses.”
Both of these comparisons lead us away from the truth — everyone suffers from “soul sickness.”
From Pastor Aaron: “Sin is an illness that affects every human being. It is the sickness of our souls that results in individual moral failures and behavior but can also extend to social scales where collective sin results in systems of oppression and abuse. By looking at the story of the Pharisee and Tax Collector today, we saw evidence of both in two very different responses to God.
In essence, we revolt against the way of God and choose our way. But through the grace of God and the work of Jesus in our lives we can be healed of the brokenness that sin has created. This is what Paul calls full restoration, that our souls can be made well. However, we have to participate in our own healing.”
- Have you ever compared yourself to others, either as superior to them, or inferior?
- We like to “look good” to other people, but why are we often tempted to put only our “best selves” before God, as this Pharisee did?
- Have you ever felt similarly to the tax collector? What led you to that place?
- If you’ve heard the gospel before, you might not be surprised that the tax collector was the one justified by God. But think of someone today whom you would be shocked to hear was given God’s mercy.
- If Jesus were telling this story today, who might he use as his two characters?
Give yourself permission to do nothing for a few moments today. In the open space, what might the Holy Spirit be bringing to your heart through this parable?
Romans 7:4-25 (The Message)
While we are each created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27) there is an undeniable chasm between God’s image within humanity and our experience of ourselves and the world. It is the distance between the life we want and the life we have. The distance between the life God wants for us and the life we resort to.
And ironically, though we each bear God’s image, we often don’t see it, because we have made a mess of the beauty in ourselves and others. We might even try to hide it…but we’re not doing a very good job.
- Try to make a list of things in people’s lives that make them “messy” (like, say, an addiction, or a divorce, etc.)
- What are some of the “messy” things in your own life?
- Most of us end up trying to hide our messiness (sins) from God. Why?
- If God is represented by the Father in the story of the Lost Son (see “The Father’s Heart“) then what do you think God would do if you were honest about your own messiness with him?
- How would churches be different if people were more comfortable bringing their messy lives in?
Give yourselves permission to sit still with this week’s scriptures, and with these questions, to see how the Holy Spirit speaks to you.
(Pastor Harlan Shoop guided us through the Parable of the Bridesmaids on Sunday, Sept. 3. Here are some of his reflections! –MM)
Wow, there is a lot going on in this passage! Matthew 24 and 25 are all Jesus words about the future of the Kingdom of God.
Matthew places this story in the middle of Jesus “parables”or “stories” on what the Kingdom of God will be like. The groom is expected by the bridesmaids to come sometime soon. Jesus teaches that at some point there will be a culmination of history. This could be for us individually at our death or some apocalyptic event like nuclear war with North Korea or a major earthquake. History is moving us to some place. It is clear that the time and place of these events are a mystery but that he is the Lord of history. In the meantime- believers are to be prepared. It seems according to this story that there comes a time when it will no longer be possible to make a choice about entering the Kingdom.
- What stands out to you as you read the text?
- What questions do you have as you read this section?
- What does the oil represent?
- Why don’t the five wise bridesmaids share their oil?
- Notice that the Groom comes at midnight, is there any significance to his coming at night and the importance of light in darkness?
- If Jesus were telling this today, like in a coffee shop or park, and you happened to be there…what do you think Jesus would be saying to you?
- In what ways can we prepare for His coming?
Luke 15:25-32, The Parable of the Lost Son…Part II.
Last week Jesus’ story was some real good news — the Father comes running to us even when we’re covered in pig slop and smell of body odor (metaphorically. Or maybe for real, come to think of it.)
But it doesn’t end there.
Some people have never run away. Some have stuck around. Sometimes out of love for the Father, but sometimes from a mere sense of duty, or even reward. That kind of service doesn’t beget joy…it begets entitlement. And disappointed entitlement = bitterness.
The elder brother in this story faces a choice: to let his bitterness consume him like the party guests are consuming their feast? Or to accept the abundant life the father has given to both him and his brother, and enter in.
For meditation and discussion:
- Have you ever “done your duty” without love, or joy? What was it like?
- In your journey of faith, have you ever switched which character you identify? What caused the switch?
- If the elder brother was sitting with you now, what would you say to him? Try actually saying it and let your imagination create a dialogue between you and him.
- Do you have any built up bitterness growing within you?
The truth is that bitterness that takes root can consume us, and the first thing we lose is the joy of being a part of the Kingdom of God in this life. But it needn’t hold us back.
Give yourself permission to bring to God whatever may be holding you back from him — God knows about it already — because his doors are wide open for you.