by Max Lucado, from Hope
Martha sat in a damp world, cloudy, tearful. And Jesus sat in it with her.
I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in Me, even though they die like everyone else, will live again. — John 11:25 NLT
Hear those words in a Superman tone, if you like. Clark Kent descending from nowhere, ripping shirt and popping buttons to reveal the S beneath. “I AM the Resurrection and the Life!!!” Do you see a Savior with Terminator tenderness bypassing the tears of Martha and Mary and, in doing so, telling them and all grievers to buck up and trust?
I don’t. I don’t because of what Jesus does next.
He sits on the pew between Mary and Martha, puts an arm around each, and sobs. Among the three, a tsunami of sorrow is stirred; a monsoon of tears is released. Tears that reduce to streaks the watercolor conceptions of a cavalier Christ. Jesus weeps.
He weeps with them. He weeps for them. He weeps with you. He weeps for you.
He weeps so we will know: Mourning is not disbelieving. Flooded eyes don’t represent a faithless heart. A person can enter a cemetery Jesus-certain of life after death and still have a Twin Tower crater in the heart. Christ did. He wept, and He knew He was ten minutes from seeing a living Lazarus!
And His tears give you permission to shed your own. Grief does not mean you don’t trust; it simply means you can’t stand the thought of another day without the Jacob or Lazarus of your life. If Jesus gave the love, He understands the tears. So grieve, but don’t grieve like those who don’t know the rest of this story.
When I was a kid, my grandfather would take me downtown to get something to drink. We would go over to the tire store and sit and “chew fat” as my grandfather put it with his friends. After I was much older, I enjoyed going back to visit and we would still go visit my grandfather’s friends. One of the men was a quiet man who had lost his wife a few years ago. Grandad told me his friend no longer went to church because it reminded him of his wife’s death. Having lost my own father at a very young age, I understood how he felt.
I asked this man why he didn’t want to go back to Church. He said it reminded him of his wife’s death and figured that God had just given up on him. He said he had done some things he was not proud of and just figured that God had moved on. I was sad for him. I told him God doesn’t give up on anyone…ever. God sacrificed his own son Jesus for each and every one of us. By Jesus’ sacrifice, we have all been redeemed and God never gives up on us…ever. God wants every…single…person… back! I was pleased when my grandfather called a month later to tell me his friend started going to church with him. The man stayed active until he went home to the Lord. Hallelujah! Loss is always difficult but it should not be a reason to pull away from God. I pray that if you are lost or struggling, know that God wants you back.
The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, “Hagar…”
— Genesis 16:7-8
Although Hagar was not aware of it, God cared about her also as she ran from her wonders. As her sandaled feet moved swiftly over the rough, rocky terrain that emptied into an endless desert, I imagine she must have felt lonely, confused, terrified, and angry.
I expect she mentally replayed the scene with Sarah over and over again. Maybe she even had an imaginary confrontation: Just who do you think you are? Your name might mean “princess,” but you’re nothing but a bitter, barren old woman. As for sleeping with your husband, do you think I enjoyed that for even one moment? I was just doing my duty. Now I’m carrying his child, which is more than you could ever say. And you’d better not follow me or I’ll run and run and keep on running until I’m so far away you will never find me. And the old man will never have his baby.
One reason I think Hagar may have had an imaginary confrontation with Sarah is that I often rehearse imaginary conversations with my wounders, honing my words like knives on flint until they are not only sharp, but seem brilliant to me. Of course, as my words get sharper and sharper, I find myself feeling angrier and more justified in self-pity or in plotting revenge. Although I would never speak the words out loud, they shred my inner peace because they keep my focus on “them,” and what they did to me.
Instead of having an imaginary conversation with myself, I would be better served by pouring out my heart to God in prayer. Yet I have discovered that while I may have an endless supply of angry words for a one-sided conversation in my mind, I find myself at a deplorable loss for words in prayer. When that happens and I struggle for words, I often turn to David’s prayers in the Psalms and use them as my own. For example,
Give ear to my words, O Lord, consider my sighing.
Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for to You I pray.
In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before You and wait in expectation…
The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; You hate all who do wrong.
You destroy those who tell lies…
Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies —
Make straight Your way before me.
Not a word from their mouth can be trusted…
Let their intrigues be their downfall…
But let all who take refuge in You be glad; let them ever sing for joy.
Spread Your protection over them, that those who love Your name may rejoice in You.
For surely, O Lord, You bless the righteous; You surround them with your favor as with a shield. — Psalm 5
David’s honesty in his prayers resonates with my heart. Often he begins his prayer complaining, crying out, expressing anger toward his enemies, but invariably he ends his prayer with praise of God. You can almost pinpoint the place where his focus changes from “them” to “Him.”
I know by experience what David knew. Prayer can help heal your hurt. It can take the sting away. One reason is that it can help put your wounding in perspective. When I focus on God and who He is, my wonders don’t seem so intimidating and my hurt somehow becomes smaller.
So may I encourage you? Put the brakes on any runaway mental conversations you may be having with those who have wounded you. If you don’t, and those sharp words careen recklessly across the highway of your healing journey, your wounded heart and life are going to end up as something like splattered roadkill. At the very least, you will delay, and perhaps even deny, the healing God wants to give you.
And while the damage may not be readily apparent to anyone else, you will miss out on the blessing and purpose God has for you.
Maybe you are not having any imaginary conversations — no one-sided, mental confrontations with your wonders. Instead, maybe you are having actual conversations… but with others, not with the ones who hurt you. Perhaps you have gravitated to people who have also been wounded. As you repeatedly open your wounds to sympathetic ears, you begin to feel not only supported and encouraged, but also justified in your hardness of heart. It’s as though your deterioration into a bitter, angry person is not only something you can blame on the wounder, but also a means of revenge. You want others to know how bad that person has been by showing them how miserable you are. It reminds me of an old saying:
Bitterness is like drinking poison hoping the other person gets sick.
Who have you invited to “drink the poison” with you? How long is the guest list for your pity party? Are you gathering an audience to listen to your angry complaints, witness your heated tears, and stir up the same outrage you feel for the offender? Unfortunately, pity parties never result in authentic benefit or blessing; they just enlarge, deepen, and intensify the wound by repeatedly exposing it. At the very least, these kinds of discussions with others will keep you focused on your hurts instead of focused on your Healer.
Hagar’s focus was definitely not on her Healer. She was running. And she was running on “the road to Shur.” (Genesis 16:17) That was the road to Egypt. Hagar was going back. Back home to her mother. Back home to the familiar pagans of Egypt. Back home to where she used to belong. She reminds me of the apostle Peter, who went back to his prior life of fishing after his dismal failure as a disciple when he denied his Lord. (John 21:3)
When we fail at trying to do the right thing, or live the right way, or say the right words, or be the right person, or fit into the right fellowship, we often just want to give up and say, “I can’t do this. I’m going back to the life I used to know.” The familiarity of a former way of life, or old friends, or previous habits can seem to be comfortable at a time when we’re rejected or wounded by God’s people.
The “world” of Egypt seems safer than the “church” of Abraham’s tent. But going back only increases our misery, doesn’t it? We can’t go back. Not really. Because we can remember what it was like to be in God’s presence and to be part of His family with a greater purpose to life than just living for ourselves. Yet we find ourselves in a Catch-22.
We don’t really want to go back to our former way of life, but we don’t feel we fit in with God’s people either. Which is why God Himself needs to show up.
It was at this miserable moment on the road to Shur as Hagar was not only running away, but running back, that God showed up and taught her a profound life lesson:
Even if you run from the wounders, you can’t outrun God.
As she ran, her heart must have been beating out of her chest. Her breath must have come in shallow gasps, either from the physical exertion or the panic she surely experienced when
the angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert. — Genesis 16:7
God did show up! Hagar wasn’t alone after all. He was there. Right there. Because God cares. He came to her as “the angel of the Lord,” a mysterious description of Him as He appears suddenly, unexpectedly, and seemingly out of nowhere from time to time in the Old Testament. God is described as the Angel of the Lord when He wrestled with Jacob by the Jabbok River, leaving him both blessed and limping. (Genesis 32:22-32)
He was described in a similar fashion when He confronted Joshua outside of Jericho, told him to take off his shoes because he was on holy ground, and then told him how to overcome the enemy fortress. (Joshua 5:13-6:5) He appeared to Gideon in this way, appointing him as the deliverer of His people when he was hiding from the Midianites in the winepress. (Judges 6:11-12) Again and again this intriguing figure appears throughout the history of Israel. Scholars agree that the Angel of the Lord is a “theophany,” or an appearance of the pre-incarnate Son of God. Astoundingly, He is Jesus before Bethlehem! Who can fathom the magnificent grace of God in that the very first time we encounter the visible Son of God is right here, at the spring beside the road to Shur, revealing Himself…
to a woman not a man;
to a servant, not a warrior;
to an Egyptian, not a descendant of Abraham;
to a sinner, not a saint;
to a slave, not a king;
to an outsider, not an insider.
What an undeserved, compassionate intervention of the Creator in the life of one wounded woman. He intentionally sought and found her — while she was running!
Why? Why did God go after Hagar? Why didn’t He just let her run away, die in the desert, have a timely miscarriage, or return to Egypt where she would never have been heard from again? Having Hagar out of the picture would have solved a lot of problems in Abraham’s household. So why didn’t God simply dismiss her as Abraham had done?
The incredibly wonderful, amazing answer is because God loved Hagar! God felt her pain even though it was provoked by her own arrogance. He cared so much about the wounds inflicted on a pregnant Egyptian servant that He left His throne in heaven and ran after her, pursuing her right into the desert. While God chose Abraham as the one through whom He would uniquely bless the world, Hagar represented the world that He wanted to bless.
God loved Hagar as much as He loved Abraham!
This is a truth to wrap your heart and mind around, especially in a world that sometimes thinks God cares more about…
Jews than Muslims,
whites than blacks,
the churched than the unchurched,
insiders than outsiders,
men than women,
than poor people,
adults than children,
that He cares more about us than them.
God cares about each of us and all of us — period! And because He really does love you — He really does care about you — you and I can run, but we can’t outrun Him.
Wherever you are, whoever you are, David’s God — the God of Hagar — is right there. If you can still the racing beat of your heart, quiet your frantic thoughts, silence those imaginary conversations, listen carefully with the ears of your spirit, then you will begin to hear His voice. I think I can hear Him now, calling you by name…
Excerpted with permission from Wounded by God’s People by Anne Graham Lotz, copyright Zondervan.
Pastor Gary will be preaching on the theme of Encountering Jesus the entire month of February. Each week will focus on an aspect of Jesus’ life and his encounters with people not so much different from us. Please be sure to attend each week to hear the full series. For this week’s scripture study, read John 3: 1-17
Christmas Eve Service for 2016 will be this Saturday at 6:30 p.m.
This coming Sunday is often referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Associated with this Sunday is the 23rd Psalm often called the “Good Shepherd Psalm.” So what’s with all the shepherd themes?
Consider that during Jesus’ time a shepherd was a person of importance. The shepherd was responsible for caring for large numbers of sheep. Sheep were an important staple of the time and often helped to define the wealth of the owner. On a number of occasions Jesus used the example of sheep and the shepherd to teach his disciples and others about God’s love through Jesus for each of us. The shepherd is so caring of his flock that he would lay down his life for a single sheep.
John, Chapter 21 describes one encounter between Jesus and the disciples. The disciples had been fishing without success when Jesus appeared on the shore and asked them if they had caught any fish. They told him “no” and he told them to cast their nets again and the Bible says they filled the net with fish. Here, another symbolic illustration that without Jesus, we will not be successful in reaching others, casting our faith and sharing the glory of the gospel.
Later, Jesus shared a meal with the disciples and this is where Jesus asks Peter the question over and over as follows:
“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”” (John 21:15-19 ESV).
I’m sure that Peter was a bit frustrated and confused. What was Jesus asking him to do? As was the case many times, Jesus had to provide an explanation to his disciples. So, you may ask, what this has to do with you on this Good Shepherd Sunday?
If we love Jesus we will feed his sheep. In this case, we will care for his people. The care could literally be feeding and shelter but more importantly feeding others the good news of salvation and sharing the love of God. That is what Jesus was telling Peter and the other disciples and that is what he shares with us through the Spirit every single day. If you love Jesus, tend to his sheep.
May the peace and love of Jesus Christ be with you as you travel through this week.
We Are All Sent Out To Proclaim the Gospel!
Easter Sunday has passed. It is always a joy to look out to find the sanctuary overflowing with God’s people present to celebrate the joy of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I stayed at church for a while after everyone had left. In the silence I found in the sanctuary, I thought about how different it was than just an hour before with the sounds of children, adults talking to one another, the music and the joy of welcoming confirmation students into the membership of the church. I prayed every person would return next Sunday.
I thought about what everyone was most likely doing at the time after church. I am sure there were meals, family gatherings, meeting for lunch elsewhere and a general appreciation for family and friends. I suspect there was a lot of good will, joy and love shown the rest of that day. The question is what happens when the excitement of the day wears off? Family goes home, Monday starts a new work week and school is back in session? Do we maintain that high level of spiritual awareness of Eastertide or do we tend to let the issues of the world drag us back into the daily a daily grind where God is set back on the shelf until the next opportunity for church?
I saw a cartoon the other day that has the pastor speaking to a couple on the steps of the church after the service. The man tells the pastor that he (pastor) is in a rut because every time he comes to church the pastor is talking about the resurrection and birth of Jesus: In other words, the man only attends church on Christmas Eve and Easter. Although it is a bit amusing, it is also sad. How sad it is that some only experience God’s grace and congregant worship twice a year or maybe a few more if there is a wedding or a funeral. I just think about all the joy and excitement they miss out the rest of the year. C&E Christians as they are referred to in the trade (Christmas & Easter) as that is when they practice their faith. Some tell me they do not need the church to practice their faith, some say they do not need others to have a relationship with God. Although I kind of doubt that I feel sorry for them because they are missing out on the renewal of God’s message of hope, miss out on learning more about God’s kingdom and most of all, the missing out of the experience of the Holy Spirit moving among believers during a worship service. I am especially concerned for children who miss the chance of growing up in the church. Sometimes if feels like church membership is kind of like joining the Eagles’ Club. You join so you can have a wedding reception there or an anniversary celebration when needed but the rest of the time you don’t have any obligation.
The success of any church is the full participation of the members and friends of the church. Without the help of everyone, both financial as well as through time and talent, the church will ultimately die. I have been involved in a number of churches who found it necessary to close because of dwindling membership and finances. Ironically, the final service always had a full house. The people attending would wonder out loud what happened to “their” church, despite the fact they had stopped attending and helping the church years ago. There were those who expressed relief that the church stayed open until their parents died so the funeral could be held in their “home” church.
When I hear these comments, I always want to cry. What a waste of Jesus’ ministry in that community. I think about how hard a community will fight to keep their school open because it is the center of the community and there is a fear the town will die after the school closes. What about the church which is also a center of the community? Why do they not fight as hard to keep it open?
Some stay away because of some slight or some perceived issue that probably took place years ago. Some stay away because they have stayed away too long. Some stay away because they have lost their way and don’t know how to return. This past week, I decided that I needed to work with a trainer at a gym again because my routine at home wasn’t working as well as when I was twenty years younger. Returning to a gym where there were new faces, a new environment and kind of intimidating is uncomfortable. The pain and discomfort I feel now about two weeks into the routine is even more painful. It would be easy to quit, nobody would really notice except me and perhaps my family but they won’t say anything. I know it is worth the pain and discomfort because I want to live to see my future grandkids and live many years to come to serve God.
I think that this experience is much like getting into the habit of going to church and getting involved either the first time or getting back. The pain and discomfort will certainly be worth it when the time comes to meet Jesus and stand before God and say I did the best I could.
Do the best you can. Get yourself to a church this Sunday.
Pastor Gary Smith