Good People Don’t Go to Heaven

How good is “good enough?”

How good do you have to be to get into Heaven?  What’s the bare minimum we have to do to sneak into the pearly gates?  Because we believe in a good God, its easy for us to believe in the Good Person Theory – that all you have to do to make it in the afterlife is BE a good person.  But as we’ve come to discover, there are some serious problems with that theory.  There isn’t a standard or rubric God has given us to know how good you have to be or how we can calculate how good we are.  Our internal barometer of good and bad isn’t reliable and changes from culture-to-culture and from time-to-time.  And the only standard we DO have is to be perfect as Christ is perfect, which is too high a bar for any human being.  But Andy Stanley shared something interesting in his book about this topic.  He said, “Good people don’t go to heaven.  Forgiven people do.”

How do we get into The Good Place? (image from NBC’s show)

What does it mean to be a forgiven people?

To showcase this standard of forgiveness and to give us some understanding of the forgiveness of God, we’re going to read a passage from Matthew’s account of the gospel.  Right before our passage, Matthew recounts Jesus telling the disciples about resolving conflict with one another. He talks about how important it is to heal those relationships and Jesus gives a step-by-step guideline for how to do that – confront one another personally, bring a friend to help resolve the conflict, bring the matter before the church.  Jesus says we must do what we can to bring healing to our relationships.  But this gets Peter thinking.  And that’s always trouble.  He asks Jesus, “Seriously, though.  How often do I need to forgive someone?  I mean, isn’t there a limit when we just write the guy off?”  And that’s where we pick up Matthew’s account of what happened between the disciples and Jesus next.

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

“The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’

“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” – Matthew 18:21-35

To this day, I still collect Star Wars Trading Cards! A lifelong hobby

Forgiveness is powerful.

Think about a time when you’ve been forgiven when you didn’t deserve it, when a simple, “I’m sorry” was able to mend a relationship.  More than anything, you probably remember the feeling of gratitude you had when it happened.  Because forgiveness is powerful.  It can change your life.  When I was young, we used to go to Shi’s Fish Market every week right after Japanese school.  My parents would go to shop for Japanese groceries and to talk to friends, but I was in it for the Star Wars cards behind the counter.  I would spend my chore money every week filling up on those treasured pieces of cardboard and then would borrow money from my mom to get extra packs, $1.00 here and there.  As I got older, my allowance grew bigger but so did the cost of everything else.  By then I was collecting comic books, going out with friends to the football game, playing arcade games at the bowling alley, and over and over again I’d “borrow” from my parents.  By the time I graduated from high school, I had amassed a debt of about $700 dollars.  $700 dollars.  My first summer job at Disneyland would mean I was basically working for free to pay back my mom.  Which meant the big end of summer trip my friends had planned was something I wasn’t going to be able to join.  I was pretty bummed, but I didn’t see any way out.  I had after all, promised my mom to pay her back and I hadn’t for way too long. Then one day, my mom calls me over to her desk and asks me when she’s going to see the money I owe her.  I tell her I’m working on it but only have about half so far.  She looks up at me and says, “That’s okay.  You keep it.  Consider it a graduation gift from me and dad.”  I was SO grateful!  By every measure, my mom deserved to get that money.  She had every reason to ask for me to repay it.  And there was no way I could argue.  But she forgave my debt anyway.  As a kid, $700 seemed like a vast fortune of money, especially for me.  But that debt was gone in an instant.  I’m still grateful to her for that tremendous gift. 

From that 1986 Graduation Trip with some buddies from school – L to R: Gene, Murali, Richard, and Lance

Naturally, when I read this parable from Jesus, it struck a chord with me

How similar Jesus’ message was for the disciples as was my mother’s act of forgiveness for me.  Peter starts off by asking how many times are we to forgive someone?  Seven times?  He must be thinking, “Seven? That’s pretty generous.”  You can imagine Peter was pretty surprised at Jesus’ answer, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times,” Not seven times but seventy-seven times!  In fact, some translations say “seventy TIMES seven times.”  (For you math whizzes, that’s 490 times – way more than 77).  And then Jesus tells them the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant where God is like a king who forgives his servant’s debt of 10,000 talents. But instead of being grateful, instead of being merciful and forgiving like the king was to him, the servant goes out and squeezes someone else who owes him a pittance in comparison and ends up throwing the other guy in jail.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, it gets worse when you consider what a “talent” is worth.  The king had forgiven the servant the equivalent of $9 BILLION dollars today.  Imagine that.  Nine BILLION dollars.  Forgiven.  Just like that. The king knows, as God knows, the servant could NEVER pay back that money and in an act of kindness forgives him his debt, as God forgives us our sins.  But instead of remembering the mercy and forgiveness the king just showed him, the servant instead goes out and immediately pesters a fellow servant for what amounts to $40,000.  Compare that.  Nine BILLION.  $40,000.  And that’s why God is so angered at the servant.  Was the man owed that money?  Sure.  But given the debt he had just been forgiven, the king was angered the servant couldn’t show the same mercy to a fellow human being.  That’s what it looks like to God when we can’t forgive those around us.  We look like this unmerciful servant who quickly forgets how much we have been forgiven and we fail to forgive those who need it. 

We don’t “deserve” to go to Heaven.

That would be saying somehow we can earn it.  But as this parable points out, we have done more to separate ourselves from God than we can ever make up.  Like the $9 billion dollars the king forgave the servant, it is really because of God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness we are able to repair that broken relationship.  Without it, we would be lost.  We tend to think as long as we aren’t doing anything TOO bad, it’s not a big deal, but we nickel and dime our sins and rack up an unpayable debt sooner than we realize.  And we know when we are doing something wrong because we sit there and justify our actions to anyone who will listen.  With my mom, that debt hung over me like a weight.  I knew I had not done right by her.  Whenever the issue of money was brought up, even if it wasn’t about the debt I owed, there was this pang of guilt I felt each and every time.  It felt uncomfortable and made me anxious.  I needed her forgiveness to make it right.  And that’s what happens to us when we turn toward God and ask for forgiveness.  God repairs that broken relationship and makes it right so that we can be close to him again.  And God calls on us to do the same thing with others.  We need to forgive those around us.  Whether it’s something small and insignificant or large and difficult, God calls on us to be a forgiving people in the way he has been forgiving toward us.  The challenge for us this week is to forgive someone who does something against us.  To really let it go.  Maybe it’s something small like when your kids forget to put their clothes in the hamper.  Maybe it’s something you’ve complained about over and over again like leaving the toilet seat down in the bathroom.  Or maybe it’s something big.  An argument you had with a sister or brother.  A fight you had with a close friend that left you not talking to each other.  This week I want to challenge you to let go of the small stuff and forgive all of these minor transgressions like socks and toilets.  And I want you to pray about forgiving the big stuff.  Because when we fail to forgive, we harbor bitterness, and bitterness grows like a disease.  And the longer it grows the harder it is to let go of, and none of us need that in our lives.  When we wonder if we have the strength to do that, to forgive as God has forgiven us, remember this story Jesus told us about the unmerciful servant and be reminded of the grace and goodness of a God who has already forgiven you.  Because remember, “Good people don’t go to Heaven, forgiven people do.”  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

God’s Bell Curve

The world came to an end on December 21st, 2012.

Or at least it was supposed to.  Once again, we avoided a long-prophesied disaster!  How do we do it?  There are tons of doomsday prophecies out there, but this one got some serious attention.  They even made a movie about it.  According to the legend, December 21st, 2012 coincided with the end of the Mayan calendar which was going to trigger a massive apocalypse.  Many different theories emerged about how that was going to happen.  Some believed the gravitational effects of an alignment between the Sun and a massive super black hole would rip the earth apart.  Some believed the Earth’s magnetic poles would suddenly be reversed, releasing energy equal to 100 billion atomic bombs.  And some believed the mysterious planet Nibiru would come crashing into our planet.[1]  Needless to say, none of those things happened.  But “end of the world” hypotheses are a dime a dozen.  Everyone from Pat Robertson to Pope Innocent III back in 1284 has predicted the Earth’s demise. Sir Isaac Newton, yes the gravity guy, predicted the end of the Earth would happen in the year 2060 and he based his prediction on Biblical Scripture.[2]  The end of the world has special significance for Christians because it’s linked to the return of Christ.  Some believe prior to Jesus’ return, God’s chosen people will be taken up to Heaven in an event called the Rapture where literally people will simply disappear.  There was even a service that would take care of your pets in case you were taken.  It was called Eternal Earthbound Pets USA and they were a group of loving atheists who, for the small fee of $135 dollars to cover travel costs, would take care of your pet in case of rapture.[3]  You know, in case God didn’t take pets. You could rest easy knowing your pet would be well taken care of by a loving atheist.[4]  Whether you believe in end-of-the-world prophecies or not, they do make us think about two things: Where will you go and how do you know?[5]  Where will you go when you die and how do you know you’re going there? 

From the Chattanooga Times Free Press

We don’t often like to think about death.

Maybe it’s because we are afraid.  Maybe it’s because we don’t really know the answer. But it’s two of the most important questions we could ask because the answer affects how we live our life, both this one and the one after.  Now, it could also be we don’t think about it much because we are pretty confident about where we are headed.  According to an ABC News poll done in 2005, about 89% of people believe in Heaven and 85% of people believe they are going there.[6]  Why are they so sure?  It is tied to the belief that good people go to Heaven and most people think they are good.  And to be honest, it’s a premise that makes sense.  I mean if you live a good life and you do good things then you’ve earned a spot, right?  We tend to believe that rule applies to just about everyone, whether or not they are Christian.  We figure good is good no matter what your religion and God would recognize that, but there are some real problems with that assumption. 

First of all, how good is good enough?

That’s the question Andy Stanley asks in his book of the same title.  How good is good enough?  What level do we need to achieve to make it into Heaven?  Believe it or not God doesn’t tell us.  You would think for something as important as this, God would have told somebody or written it down somewhere, but nowhere does God tell us what qualifies as “good enough.”  In our heads we have sort of a cosmic balance sheet going on with a running total of good things we’ve done and bad things we’ve done and we feel that as long as we’re in the plus column, we’ll be okay.  But is that true?  I mean, what’s the percentage?  Do you have to be 51% good, you know just barely tip the scales in your favor?  Or is it higher, because on most tests 51% would be a failing grade. Is it 70%?  If you’re good 70% of the time do you pass? And if we’re all bad anyway, does God grade on a curve?  I mean maybe 70% is too hard for most of us to achieve. “Okay, everyone above this percentage, you all get in.  Sorry 59%.  The cut off was 60%.”  When you take a test at the DMV you know they’re not letting you behind the wheel with a score lower than 70% and considering how bad some drivers are on the road, maybe they should raise that score.  Seems 70% is too lax.  But at least you know.  Surely God is more fair than the DMV.  But he doesn’t tell us anywhere how “good” we have to be.

Some would argue God gives us an internal barometer of right and wrong.

That we can use that to determine how good we are.  But how reliable is that barometer?  Some things are pretty obvious. Everyone knows it’s wrong to cheat, steal, lie, and kill.  We would argue people sort of instinctually know that across all cultural boundaries.  But do they?  Are there times when we lie to save someone’s feelings?  We don’t seem to have any problem killing animals for food, but in some cultures they eat animals we would never think of eating like dogs.  Is it okay to kill them or raise them for food?  Our perceptions of right and wrong don’t just differ culturally, but also across time. We’ve labeled everything from being a woman, to being dark-skinned, to being left-handed as bad, evil, or wrong at some point. In the 2000 years Christianity has been around it was only in the last 50 interracial marriage became widely acceptable, and still there are hold outs who haven’t come around.  When I was living in Georgia, my friend Jon mentioned he didn’t go to church anymore and it was the “anymore” that caught my attention.  I asked him about it and he looked at me, pointed to a mixed race couple sitting a few tables away from us and said, “If they walked into your church and asked you to marry them, what would you say?”  I told him, “I’d say that was fine.  Why wouldn’t I?”  But I already suspected the answer.  He told me a friend of his who was black wanted to marry a woman who was white.  When they went to her pastor to ask him to perform the ceremony, he told her he wouldn’t do it because it was “an abomination in God’s eyes.”  Jon said, “And after that, I wouldn’t step foot in a church.”  What we believe is right and wrong isn’t even consistent within cultures let alone between cultures or across time.  So how reliable is our internal barometer?

Hard to believe there was a time when Cassie and I could not legally be married because of race

You might say, “Well, at least we can rely on the Bible to tell us what God considers good.”

But let’s look at what God says about us and about his standard of being good.  In this letter, Paul addresses a perception among the Jewish Christians that they are somehow a step up or more advantaged than the Gentiles because of their heritage and Paul brings them back down to Earth.  He tells them because they ARE Jewish not only do they not have a step up, but they have a greater responsibility toward the law than the Gentiles do.  He tells them that just because by birth they are part of God’s chosen people does not make them any different than the Gentiles who have accepted Christ as their savior because both are equally unrighteous.  And that’s where we pick up in our reading today. 

What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. 10 As it is written:

“There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”
13 “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
14     “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.”
18     “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
(Romans 3:9-18)

The Word of God for the people of God and the people said, “Thanks be to God.”

There is no one righteous.  Not even one.

Not Jewish or Roman or Greek. Not Mother Theresa.  Not Billy Graham.  Not the Pope.  Paul is trying to impress upon us we are flawed.  None of us can escape the fact we are sinners.  At one time or another each of us has done something that would disappoint God and that something drives a wedge between us and God.  You might think, “Yeah, but I’ve never done anything THAT bad.  Sure I might not be perfect, but it’s not like I’m a killer or anything.”  But that is God’s standard.  Perfection.  Jesus tells us that himself in the Sermon on the Mount.  He tells the crowds, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48).”  That’s why no one can live up to the standard that good people go to Heaven because the standard is just too tough

Quote from Andy Stanley, pastor and author

So how do we know?

How do we know how good is good enough?  If we can’t tell from God’s word, if we can’t use our own internal compass or barometer, and if we can’t even use the Bible, then how do we know how good is good enough?  And that’s what God is challenging us to think about today.  Despite all the predictions, the world isn’t likely to end any time soon, but we should still keep in mind those two eternal questions – where do you go and how do you know?  As we talked about today, the assumption good people go to heaven is riddled with difficulty.  So what can we believe in then?  Here’s something Andy Stanley wrote, “Good people don’t go to Heaven. Forgiven people do.”  We’ll talk more about that next week.  But for today, let us come to the realization no matter how “good” we are, we are not perfect. We all need forgiveness. Thankfully we worship a forgiving God who gives us hope in Christ for something more than this life.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.




[4] Unfortunately, they didn’t get enough business and had to close up shop.   

[5] I’m pretty sure I heard Andy Stanley share this phrase either in his sermon or his book How Good Is Good Enough?



One little spark…

Of inspiration, is at the heart of all creation.  Right at the start of everything that’s new, one little spark lights up for you.

Dreamfinder begins our Journey Into Imagination at EPCOT with that little song.

Written by the Sherman Brothers who wrote so many Disney classics, this one celebrates the power of imagination and introduces us to the character of Figment – a “figment” of our imagination.  But those words could very well be describing God and the creation of the universe. Think about what kind of imagination had to go into making all of this stuff!  What level of brilliance would you have to have to create the thousands of different types of living beings on this planet? From blue whales to the common housefly, God created it all as well as all of the variations we see within each species.  It’s fascinating to think about how God put it all together, but to have the genius to envision the millions of species and variations within species is even more remarkable.  And not even just living things.  No two snowflakes are exactly alike.  Who thinks of all the different ways you can make a snowflake?  A couple of years ago, I was at a conference listening to pastor Erwin McManus talking about faith, and he told us about a guy who asked him, “Why is it that we grow up believing in lots of imaginary beings but as we grow up we stop believing in them, but we still hold on to God?”  And Erwin’s response is what got me thinking about all of this.  He asked the guy a question in return, “How do you know it wasn’t God who created imagination?”

Listening to Erwin McManus speaking at the eChurch Summit

That would make sense wouldn’t it?  God created imagination.

The power to be able to envision things we can’t see or touch is a gift from God.  And maybe the gift of imagination is the means by which we are able to know God at all.  God is so far beyond human comprehension even his own name is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”[1] When Moses asked God to tell him his name, God said “I AM WHO I AM.”  I don’t think God was being evasive or cagey.  We just can’t simplfy God to a single word like “Bob.”  Instead for us to truly know God we have to experience God.  It’s why John wrote in his first letter to the church, “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”  It’s through these other means like love and faith that we come to know the creator of the universe.  Our imagination helps us to bridge the gap between what is seen and what is unseen. 

But as we grow older, we tend to drive out imagination in favor of reality.

Or what we call reality.  We start to become “realists” instead of “optimists.”  But let’s be honest.  Often times the word “realist” is code for “pessimist.”  It’s not just about seeing the world for what it is, but being limited by it. We tend to let go of what could be and instead turn inward.  As Andy Stanley once said, We begin to replace the “wow” with “how.” Meaning we become so fixated on the “how” that we shove the “wow” right out of the church.[2]  But that’s not the people God created us to be.  He gave us imagination so we could bring to life a world of possibilities that exceeded our reality.  As Robert Kennedy once said, “Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not?”[3]   At this point in Jesus’ life, the Pharisees began to feel threatened by this upstart.  Jesus now has a group of dedicated disciples and he has been teaching in the synagogues and miraculously healing people.  Obviously there is something different about this man that draws attention to him and the Pharisees don’t like it.  They won’t admit it, but Jesus is drawing power and authority away from them and they are desperate to get it back.  So they keep picking on him every chance they get.  They keep trying to find ways to discredit him and his teachings.  And even though it goes against everything God commands of them, they plot to get rid of him – which is code for murder.  That’s where we pick up today.  The Pharisees already accused Jesus of breaking the law by picking grain on the Sabbath and now they are at it again.  We will be reading this morning from Luke 6:6-11.

6 On another Sabbath he went into the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was shriveled. 7 The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. 8 But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Get up and stand in front of everyone.” So he got up and stood there.

9 Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?”

10 He looked around at them all, and then said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was completely restored. 11 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus.

“What they might do to Jesus…”

Sounds pretty ominous.  This is of course more code for “plotting to kill Jesus.”  They justify it by saying they are doing it in the name of God, but isn’t that always the way with men who want power and influence?  Say it’s in the name of God, back it up with some Scripture you’ve taken out of context and people will believe you, even when it flies completely against everything God teaches us.  Because of their own human lust for power and control, they refuse to open their minds to the possibility Jesus is truly the Christ – the one the prophets had long said would come.  They can’t imagine the possibility that this man could be the Messiah because that would mean they would need to bend their minds to a new reality – a reality where Christ was made real.  So even though they see this man do miracles right in front of them, even though they are witnesses to things that no man could possibly do, they haven’t even thought that this man could be the one who was promised.  In John 11, we read about how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.  Now, if you had actually seen this miracle occur, if you knew it was real and there were tons of witnesses, you would hope that would be enough to open up someone’s mind, but it doesn’t.  People become so fixated on their own reality, they often miss the miracles right in front of them. The Pharisees call a meeting of all the Jewish leaders and they say, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”  And Caiaphas, the high priest, says, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”  He even prophesied “that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one (John 11:47-52).”. So although they were doing it for their own selfish reasons, they ended up helping Jesus fulfill the prophecies that would do exactly that.

How amazing would it have been to know you were walking with God!

These people missed out on the opportunity of a thousand lifetimes because they had lost the “wow” and had been focused on the “how.”  Miracles were being performed right in front of them and they couldn’t see it!  Instead they were laser-focused on the ramifications of allowing this man to continue teaching and saw it as a threat instead of a blessing.  But before we become too judgmental about the Pharisees and the Jewish leaders, can we really say we are all that different?  Do we really keep our eyes wide open for the ways in which God works in our own lives?  True, we may not have seen someone rise from the dead, but do we also sometimes miss the “wow” for the “how?”  When I was in college, I worked two summers up in the dorms.  The pay wasn’t great, but they covered room and board and it beat having to move back home every year.  At night, all of us working on campus would hang out and I remember this guy who said he didn’t believe in love.  Having experienced love many times myself – or at least what I thought was love – I was shocked he would say that.  I said, “You’re telling me you don’t think love exists?”  And he said, “Nope.  It’s just a chemical reaction within your body that stimulates different hormones to make you think you’re feeling something we call ‘love’ but that’s all it really is.  It’s just a chemical reaction.”  So I asked him why this chemical reaction only happened between certain people and not just everyone we met and he told me that it was based on certain physical and mental stimuli hard-wired into our brains as we grew up.  Is there some truth to what he said?  Sure.  Love does create chemical reactions within our bodies that causes us to react in different ways.  Are we influenced by our environment and how we grew up?  Sure, our choices are always affected by our experiences.  But does that mean love doesn’t exist?  Talk about taking the “wow” out of life.

“Isn’t it too bad Walt Disney didn’t live to see this?” “He did see it. That’s why it’s here.”

But to some degree we all do that.

We all take the “wow” out of life.  We forget that we live in a world where God came to earth for the salvation of all humanity.  We forget 51 weeks out of the year that Jesus was resurrected after being hung on a cross, stabbed in the side of his body, and placed inside a stone tomb that it took many men to seal.  If we constantly lived in the mindset that we walked with a God who could do these amazing things, maybe we would be more open to the possibilities that are right in front of us.  Maybe we would be more open to the work of the Holy Spirit within us.  And maybe we could truly be the children of God we were always meant to be.  I love going to a Disney theme park because they make you feel like you’re walking into a different world – a world that COULD exist.  A world of possibilities.  It’s a reminder that we are only limited by what we dare to achieve and that we are meant to create a better world.  Fifty years ago, Walt Disney World opened its gates for the first time to the public.  And on opening day one person commented, “Isn’t it too bad Walt Disney didn’t live to see this?” To which another replied, “He did see it.  That’s why it’s here.”[4]  Embrace the gift of imagination that God has given you and see where it can take you.  Live a life that embraces the possibilities!  After all, we live in a world where Jesus lived, died, and rose again.  Anything is possible.

[1] A quote by Winston Churchill describing

[2] From a talk I attended at a conference where Andy was speaking.

[3] Actually RFK was paraphrasing a quote by George Bernard Shaw in a speech at the University of Kansas.

[4] Craig Groeschel, It: How Churches and Leaders Can Get It and Keep It, (Zondervan, 2008) p. 48

The Downfall of John Kreese

“Sweep the leg” – as iconic of the ’80s as you can get

“Sweep the leg.”

That scene from The Karate Kid is as iconic of the ‘80s as Darth Vader’s “I am your father” or The Terminator‘s “I’ll be back.”  Three simple words that would unravel John Kreese’s life.  When Kreese orders Johnny to do this, he’s given up any pretense at being an honorable man.  He instantly loses the respect of his prize student and he stands revealed as the villain we all know he is – a man so consumed with winning he would do anything to achieve it.  When Johnny hesitates, Kreese sneers at him, “You have a problem with that?” And Johnny, speechless, simply responds, “No, sensei.”  Reinforcing his order, Kreese follows up with, “No mercy,” and sends Johnny back onto the mat.  Maybe before this moment you could write off Kreese’s mantra as bravado, as something to pump up his students.  But there’s no mistaking it now.  These aren’t just words.  It’s what he lives his life by.  To him, you win or you’re a loser.  There’s nothing in-between.  Even for something as inconsequential as the All-Valley Karate Championship.  Because for Kreese, it’s all about pride.  In his arrogance, he never imagined young Daniel LaRusso would have been able to make it this far in the tournament, let alone be up two points to none against his prize student in the title match.  His whole sense of self-esteem is built on the backs of his students and to see them fail (and to him anything less than the title is failure) is unbearable.  And when he does lose, his entire world crumbles around him.  He loses his composure, his sense of self, his sanity, his students, and his dojo.  All because of pride. 

C.S. Lewis on pride from Mere Christianity

Pride is the anti-God.

C.S. Lewis, the guy who wrote The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, is also famous for being a great Christian theologian and he describes pride as “…the essential vice, the utmost evil… Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”[1] But is that always true?  I’m certainly proud of Emma.  When I listen to her playing piano, when she comes home with a good grade, when I find out she did something selfless and nice for another classmate, I can’t help but be proud.  Is that bad?  Can you be a proud parent and not be a tool of the devil?  Turns out you can.  If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone would you find the Gospel of Luke, chapter 18 beginning with verse 9.  Luke 18:9. According to psychologists, there are two types of pride – hubristic and authentic.[2] As you can imagine, hubristic pride is the type of pride often looked down upon.  It’s the kind that got John Kreese into trouble. Whereas authentic pride is the kind parents feel for their children or friends might feel for each other or that you might feel for something you accomplished. 

Felt pretty proud that day of both of us!

I have to admit I was pretty darn proud of myself when I completed the Disneyland 5K. 

Being both flat-footed and overweight, I wasn’t sure if I would make it ahead of the pick-up cart.  The pick-up cart is a little tram-like vehicle that goes behind the runners, and if you fall too far off the pace, you’ll get “picked up” and won’t get to complete the race.  I walked/ran (but mostly walked) slightly out of fear of seeing the pick-up cart behind me, but not only did I finish, I never saw the cart at all.  I felt a swell of pride!  Not because I beat anyone.  God knows my time was nothing to write home about.  But because I set a goal for myself I wasn’t sure I could complete.  And that’s the main difference between the two types of pride – hubristic pride is competitive by nature.  It requires you to “beat” someone.  It means that others have to be “less than” for you to feel accomplished.  C.S. Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity, put it this way, “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not.  They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others.  If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about.  It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest.”[3]  Hubristic pride is always felt at the cost of someone else.  That’s the lesson we see in the Bible as well. 

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

If you thought humblebragging was a 21st century thing, the Pharisees thought of it first.

This guy comes up to the temple and belittles the tax collector in front of God.  He probably doesn’t know him from Adam (or Eve for that matter).  But he feels the need to elevate himself by making the other guy look bad.  You can almost sense the insincerity of this Pharisee as he gives “thanks” to God.  We all know in reality he’s just trying to make himself look good. He’d be better off just bragging about himself.  According to a study done by Harvard, humblebragging is the most despised form of bragging because it is so insincere.[4]  People would prefer you just come out and tell us how wonderful you are than try to disguise your bragging as false humility or a complaint.  But nobody is fooling God.  Jesus tells us in this parable, it is the tax collector who receives forgiveness in God’s eyes. Like most of us, God sees through this humblebragging easily and isn’t impressed.

The problem with hubristic pride is it constantly needs to be affirmed.

The braggart isn’t bragging because he is so self-confident.  He is bragging because he is looking for affirmation that he is worthy.  His “self-confidence” rests only on the belief that other people are not as good as he is.  That’s why John Kreese feels so threatened by Mr. Miyagi and his student, because to lose to a Japanese handyman and his incompetent student would crush his sense of self-worth.  The foundation for his sense of self rests on being better than other people. The thing is, if that is the basis of your self-worth, you are doomed.  Around the corner there is always someone who is faster than you, stronger than you, a better marksman than you.  There is always someone better.  That’s the nature of being at the top.  Eventually, you aren’t any more.  Someone once wrote, “greatness is indeed on loan temporarily from the Gods (or God, but that’s not what was written).”[5] But sometimes, when pride is at its worst and we become so desperate to maintain our belief in ourselves, we will do unconscionable things to keep ourselves there.  Cheat, lie, steal, even harm others all in the name of pride. 

Instead, God wants us to be confident in ourselves without needing others to confirm it.

A person with self-esteem tends to have authentic pride.  They are people who are confident enough in themselves and don’t need to be constantly affirmed by the outside world that they are worthy.  They already know they are.  Genuine self-esteem is linked to “successful social relationships and mental health,” whereas people who feel the need to constantly promote themselves or bring attention to their achievements are linked to “aggression and other antisocial behaviors.”[6]

To some degree, we are all probably a little bit guilty of hubris.

The danger is in letting that become how you define yourself.  If you’re sense of self-worth is only based on how others see you, if you feel the need to compare yourself to the Joneses, if you care so much about being “the best” that you lose your moral compass, you are in real danger of letting the evil in this world overwhelm you.  Jesus once said, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul (Matthew 16:26)?”  This is how evil works in the world today, by making you feel unworthy unless you have more than everyone else, unless you’re more powerful than the next guy, when we are already loved by God who values the person you already are.  In The Karate Kid, Daniel asks Mr. Miyagi what kind of belt he has, and Mr. Miyagi answers, “Canvas.  J.C. Penny, $3.99.  In Okinawa, belt means no need rope to hold up pants!” After laughing for a bit, Mr. Miyagi says, “Daniel, karate here (points to head), karate here (points to heart), karate never here (points to belt).  Understand?” Mr. Miyagi is telling Daniel what God is trying to tell us, to know your own self-worth and not let it be defined by the outside world.  God loves you for who you are and simply wants you to be the best version of you that you can be.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1] C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity pg 51 (Kindle version)


[3] Op.Cit., Lewis, p.52




Fear is the Mind-Killer

The Bene Gesserit “Litany Against Fear” from the book Dune.

A powerful reminder that fear, as powerful as it can be, isn’t real.  Fear can be conquered.  Fear is simply a label we put on a feeling we have when our body is warning us about a possible threat.  And that’s the key word – “possible.”  We can be fearful of things that pose no threat or danger to us at all.  But if our minds perceive it as a threat or even a potential threat, we CAN react with fear.  We can take a nugget of information and turn it into a snowball of fear that spurs us to do hurtful, irrational, illogical, and sometimes downright stupid things.  When I was six years old, my mom told me that laundry detergent could kill you.  Technically, she’s right.  If I swallowed a box of laundry detergent, and didn’t get help, it could kill me.  But there are 20 steps in-between she failed to mention; the result of which had me holding my breath and RUNNING down the detergent aisle every time we went to the grocery store.  I’d stand there at the other end, wondering how in the world my mom could so casually walk down this aisle of death!  With my little sister Karen no less!  I’d be pleading with my mom from the other end to hurry up and get out of there and heaven forbid she should actually BUY a box of death.  I’d be holding my breath any time I was near the shopping cart!

Not quite the complete Litany Against Fear but the closest

Fear is like laundry detergent. 

Its purpose isn’t to hurt us, but to help us.  Like the cute little guy in the movie Inside Out, Fear is meant to be our body’s warning system.  It puts us on high alert to potential danger so we can respond quickly if something turns out to be an actual threat.  But if we let fear drive us, if we let fear consume us, it can itself become a threat to us and those around us.  It can change us and alter the way we look at the world.  The internment of the Japanese during World War II is a prime example of fear running amok.  Despite absolutely no evidence of any actual threat by any person of Japanese ancestry, our government decided to lock up every person (including my parents and grandparents) of Japanese heritage.  They forced these innocents to move to remote locations in conditions worse than most prisons without any compensation for their loss.  And although we were at war against the Germans and the Italians, people with ethnic ties to those countries were not typically rounded up.  It was fear that drove that decision, despite the evidence against it.  The same thing happened after 9/11 with the Muslim community.  Hate crimes against people who looked Arabic (whether they were Muslim or not) skyrocketed.  Abuse, violence, and even death all in the name of retribution for 9/11 against American citizens whose only crime was LOOKING Arabic.  Similar things have happened in the LGBT community, the Mexican community, and pretty much any group you can think of who have been labeled as “different.”  In the “Litany Against Fear,” they describe fear as the “mind-killer” and the “little-death that brings total obliteration.”  And that rings true on so many levels.  Fear erodes at our being.  Fear turns us into the worst versions of ourselves.  That person who normally would be kind-hearted and caring, can turn into a rabid hate-monger.  It’s the “little-death” because it happens without us consciously being aware of it.  It’s a “mind-killer” because it erodes logical thought.  We don’t suddenly say, “Today I’m going to be a hate-monger.”  Fear gnaws away at our character and we develop prejudices and negative attitudes that don’t align with the truth at all.  Instead we develop our own “truth” and convince ourselves that our actions are not prejudiced or hateful but are done for our “protection” or the protection of those around us.  But when you peel away the layers of it all, it comes down to fear. 

The voices inside your head – from the Pixar film Inside Out

Fear can be overcome.

It does not have to dictate our actions and it does not have to erode away at our character.  If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, would you please go to Paul’s second letter to Timothy.  We’ll be reading from 2 Timothy 1:7-12. In this letter to Timothy, Paul is trying to encourage him to boldly proclaim Jesus to the world.  I don’t know if Timothy actually has a fear about doing this, but since Paul is in jail at the time, maybe he was trying to bolster Timothy’s spirits?  Most of us would feel scared or downhearted if our mentor who we believed in was captured and put in jail.  So Paul is trying to encourage Timothy to carry on in his absence.  After a few pleasantries, this is how Paul begins his letter. 

For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11 And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. 12 That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.

We are not a timid people!

At least we weren’t designed that way.  God created us to be bold.  He created us to be strong, so that we could endure when life was tough.  That we would have the strength to hold on to our faith and our beliefs even when the world turned against us.  He wanted us to move beyond our fear of the unknown, beyond our fear of the unexpected, beyond our fear of rejection and boldly show the world the love of Christ in tangible, real ways.  Not just the people who make us feel comfortable.  Jesus said it himself in Luke chapter 6, 32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked....”

But how often do we do that?

How often are we willing to step outside our comfort zone to do what’s right?  Too often our fears overcome us and make us timid.  We don’t do give as generously as we know we should or even could.  We don’t speak up when we someone gets bullied or when people are gossiping about them behind their back.  We don’t intervene when we see something wrong happening right in front of us and we allow our fear to convince us that it’s too dangerous to get involved or “not our business.”  But that is how evil works – through our fear.  It erodes our character, diminishes who we are supposed to be, and convinces us that the cowardly, cruel, and mean things to do are the right ones.  God did not create us to be a “careful” people.  He taught us to be wary of those things that might cloud our judgment or separate us from God, but God did not create us to be “careful.”  We are supposed to be a bold people.  The true test of a person is not how he or she behaves when things are good, but when things are at their worst.  Do they hold onto their beliefs?  Or do they give in to fear?  When we give in to fear, like we did after 9/11 and during World War II, we give in to the evil that is in the world.  If we stand strong in our faith we honor the Spirit God gave to us and we create a better world. 

There are ways to fight our fears![1]

According to Dr. Theo Tsaousides, we first have to respect and understand fear.  Knowing that our reactions are sometimes based on fear and not on reality can help us make better choices when fear enters into our lives.  And we need to understand where our fear comes from.  Some things we fear are instinctive like giant bears and poisonous snakes.  Sometimes fear comes from our own past experiences.  If you nearly drown in water, you’re probably far more likely to be afraid of swimming than someone who has never gone through that experience.  And sometimes we can stir ourselves up by the stereotypes, assumptions, and prejudices that lie beneath the surface of our minds.  We start projecting what MIGHT happen and the fear of the possible drives us into making poor decisions.  We need to be aware of what Dr. Theo calls “forecasting.”  Just because something is possible, doesn’t mean it’s likely to happen, and we have to learn to differentiate between the likely and the unlikely.[2]  Fear can be conquered, but if we don’t acknowledge our fear, if we don’t work toward overcoming it, we are likely to keep heading down a destructive path.  And that is true not just for our lives, but our community, our society, and our country as well.  We cannot let fear rule us.  And we can be certain that God did not create us that way.

Today, I can walk boldly down the detergent aisle.

I even buy the stuff on my own.  That seems to be such a childish thing because it is.  But so is being afraid of people because of the color of their skin.  Or because they are gay.  Or because they eat different foods than you do.  Fear isn’t always rational.  And for us to be the people God created us to be, we have to recognize our fear and grow beyond it.  We cannot allow for fear to dominate our way of thinking.  Fear can be a great tool to warn us, to heighten our senses, but it can also be a “mind-killer” and the “little-death that brings total obliteration.”  There is nothing wrong with being afraid.  The most brave, courageous people in the world are afraid at times like all the rest of us.  The difference is they recognize the fear and don’t let it overwhelm them.  Stand up to fear.  Use it as the tool it was meant to be, but don’t let it use you. 


[2] Dr. Theo actually has “Seven Ways Fearless People Conquer Fear” but we only cover the first few. Definitely encourage you to read the rest.  Very insightful article.

The Easy Way Out

Or How I Gave The Next Generation A Chance

We are wired to take the easy way out.

Sad but true.  It’s a side effect of our autonomic system that protects us from harm.  Think flight or fight responses.  We are wired to favor efficiency over conscious thought.[1]  And while that might help us when a baseball is being thrown at our head, it is ironically those same systems which hold onto stereotypes, make assumptions, and are resistant to change.  That’s why we feel good when we eat comfort food or wear our favorite shirt or watch The Princess Bride for the 1000th time.  The familiar is easy on our brain.  It brings us comfort.  We don’t have to think so hard.  But if we’re not careful, it may also close us off to new opportunities and new experiences that could be even better!  Take for example my own love of Star Trek.  I grew up with Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the crew and I loved their adventures.  But when they announced they were making a NEW show with NEW characters, I vowed not to watch. How dare they?  Of course it could never be as good as the original.  I didn’t watch the entire first season, despite the praise of the press, the critics, and even fellow Star Trek fans (traitors!).  But eventually, I decided to give it a chance.  And you know what?  It was GREAT!  I LOVED it!  How stupid I felt for not at least giving it a shot.  I missed out on a whole year of amazing episodes (thank God for reruns).  But our minds favor comfort and unless we are conscious of it, we could be missing out on a lot of what the world has to offer. 

Too much “comfort” can lull us into complacency

Comfort is your enemy.”[2]

When we think of evil in the world today, we often come up with the most horrible images we can think of.  Images that rattle our very belief in the world around us.  The Holocaust.  The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Serial killers like Charles Manson.  Humanity in its ultimate depravity.  But those are the extremes.  Those may be the most vibrant and visual instances of evil in the world, but they are also (thankfully) very rare.  Instead, we need to remember there is evil is around us every single day and if we aren’t careful we could be willful participants in spreading it, and comfort is one of the ways evil works in and through us.  It might seem weird to think of comfort as an agent of evil, but have you ever been so snug under the sheets you just didn’t want to get up? That nice warm feeling of being in just the right spot all cuddled up with the fluff of a comforter around you?  It feels so safe and so happy that you don’t want anything to change.  And that’s how the devil sucks you in.  He comes to us in our comfort and says, “You don’t want things to change, do you? It’s all nice and cozy exactly how it is.  We should make sure it stays that way.”  You get lulled into believing that’s true, that it would be the worst thing in the world to change things up, to do something a bit differently.  And you end up in the same rut you’ve always been in. 

Getting out of our comfort zone opens up doors of opportunity

Even when the alternative is BETTER, we often are blinded by our comfort.

That’s what happens to the young man in our passage today.  If you have a Bible or a Bible app would you go to Matthew 19 beginning with verse 16.  Matthew 19:16. Leading up to this passage, Jesus has been healing and teaching throughout the region.  The Pharisees confront him on the topic of divorce and Jesus has to correct the disciples who are shooing away the children from approaching him.  Then this rich young man comes up to him and asks him the key to eternal life. 

16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

18 “Which ones?” he inquired.

Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’[c] and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’[d]

20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The problem for the rich, young man isn’t money.

It’s comfort.  When Jesus says it’s hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven, it’s not because being rich is evil or bad.  It’s because having wealth makes you comfortable and it’s hard for us to leave a life of comfort.  We’re wired to stick with what works.  By all accounts, if we can accept his word as truth, the young man is a pretty good guy by our standards.  He keeps all the commandments.  He honors his parents.  He loves his neighbor.  Pretty good guy.  But then Jesus challenges him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”  And the guy walks away sad, because it would mean giving up the life he is used to living.  Familiarity breeds comfort and comfort is the enemy of progress. 

People dared to leave their comfort zone…and life got better for all of us

Why change what works?

That’s the reason people are so fond of the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  But if that were the case, we’d still be using horses for transportation.  We’d all be fluent in Morse code.  Our houses would be near the river so we could do our laundry every day.  Most of us would agree life is better now than it was fifty years ago and better still from fifty years before that.  Not only do we have modern conveniences like cars and telephones and washing machines, but Black people are no longer 3/5ths of a person, women are allowed to vote, and children are protected from unfair labor practices.  Progress not only makes our lives better but our world better, too.  To be sure, some things done in the name of “progress” seem to be a step backward (New Coke comes to mind) and we’re far from perfect, but overall, the world becomes a better place when we step out of our comfort zone and embrace what is possible. 

This tendency toward comfort is dangerous for the church, too.

It’s one of the reasons why churches are shrinking and closing.  We are unwilling to embrace those ideas that take us out of our comfort zone.  But as the world changes, we need to change with it.  While the mission and the message stay the same, the way we transmit and deliver it should adapt to the world we live in.  Imagine if we were literally delivering the message of God by Pony Express while the world is transmitting in 5G. That’s the danger of staying in our comfort zone.  But it happens all the time.  One of my friends who used to pastor a small and once thriving church found this out pretty quickly.  By all measures, he is a person who has a passion for trying new and innovative ideas to bring people to Christ, but one of his parishioners literally told him he wasn’t interested in growing the church.  He liked it the way it was and any new people would mess it up.  And this guy isn’t alone.  Most pastors have stories like this in their pocket.  One time while talking about growing the church, one guy came up to me and said, “I hope it doesn’t grow too big.”  And he wasn’t a bad guy.  Quite the opposite.  A devoted Christian, always thinking of others, willing to give of his time, talent, and gifts.  What he was saying in his own way was that he was comfortable with the way things were and didn’t want to lose that feeling.  But I hope we trust enough in God to know the difference between our discomfort and our disobedience and that we would choose the first over the second

Psychologically and biologically there are many ways to explain this phenomenon.

But the important thing to know is that we can overcome it.  By intention and discernment we can put aside our tendency toward comfort to do what is best – for ourselves, our community, and for the Kingdom of God.  Intention – to do something with purpose by keeping our minds open to new opportunities; and discernment – to carefully examine our feelings when we resist.  Otherwise we may miss out on opportunities that can make our lives so much better – like watching Star Trek: The Next Generation.  God has in store for you amazing opportunities if only we have the bravery to step forward in faith and embrace it.  “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7).”  Dare to live a life of discomfort; to boldly go where no one has gone before! In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 



The Devil Made Me Do It

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.

The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’

The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. 10 For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you
    to guard you carefully;
11 they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’

12 Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’

13 When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time. – Luke 4:1-13

All dressed up for Halloween with my sister Karen (that’s me as C3PO)

What do you think the devil looks like?

During Halloween, when I was growing up, I’d see other kids dress up like the devil for Halloween with the red mask and plastic body suit and it would freak me out!  I knew it wasn’t real, but you have to wonder what kind of kid picks the master of all evil as his icon of choice.  Probably someone you want to avoid at all costs. Of course, if the devil showed up in person, I don’t think that’s what he would look like.  Too obvious.  I like the way Aaron described the devil in the film Broadcast News.  He says it this way: “What do you think the devil’s going to look like if he’s around?  Come on, no one is going to be taken in by a guy with a long, red pointy tail… He will be attractive. He’ll be nice and helpful.  He’ll get a job where he’ll influence a great, God-fearing nation.  He’ll never do an evil thing, he’ll never deliberately hurt a living thing.  He’ll just bit by little bit lower our standards where they’re important.  Just a tiny little bit.  Just coax along.  Flash over substance.  Just a tiny little bit…and he’ll get all the great women.”

Would it surprise you to know the devil is never described in the Bible?

At least not in a physical sense.  But I think that’s on purpose.  Because the devil doesn’t have to take just one form.  He could take MANY different forms.  Like a chocolate chip cookie.  Maybe that’s the devil in disguise, trying to torture me.  But in all seriousness, who would be taken in by a guy with red skin, horns and a tail?  Wouldn’t it make more sense if the devil took a form we would find appealing?  Personally I like the Elizabeth Hurley version, but there’s Al Pacino, Robert DeNero, even Viggo Mortensen.  

And does the devil even exist?

Some believe the devil is a physical being.  Some believe the devil is a spiritual being.  And some believe the devil is the personification of evil in the world.  There are a ton of references in the Bible to evil but surprisingly very few specifically about Satan or the devil or any of the other names we’ve come to associate with him.  And none of them actually tell us these different incarnations of evil are all the same.  But again, maybe that doesn’t matter.  No matter what you form you believe the devil takes, we can all agree evil exists and we must resist it whenever it pops up.  When Jesus was tempted in the desert by the devil, he was challenged in many ways – and none of them by what we would probably think of as “evil.”  The devil didn’t torture Jesus.  He didn’t attack him.  He simply tempted him with rational arguments and promises of an easier life.  That is the real trick of the devil – not to come at us with attacks but to tempt us in our weakest areas. 

Sometimes I think it’s better if we don’t believe in the devil.

At least not as some sort of physical being like we read about in this passage.  Not that he does or doesn’t exist.  Not that he might be a physical or spiritual being.  But for us to fight evil in the world around us, we are better off not believing there is one being orchestrating all of it.  Because when we believe in the devil as a being we can fight, it relieves us from any personal responsibility for the horrors we either allow to happen or don’t do anything to prevent.  It is so easy for us to say “the devil made me do it” when (let’s face it) you did it.  Or I did it.  Or someone else did it.  The devil didn’t make you do it.  In fact the devil doesn’t hold any power over any of us.  The only way the devil succeeds in his schemes is because we give him the power to do so – either by our actions or inactions.  We can justify it any way we want, but it amounts to the same thing.  We stood by and allowed to be used to advance the cause of evil.

Humanity loves to avoid responsibility.

Just turn on the news any day of the week and you can watch the circus of blame as people keep pointing fingers at one another.  Whether the issue is healthcare, homelessness, or racism, everyone is blaming someone, but no one is getting anything done.  It’s like that poem about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody.  There was an important job to be done (insert your favorite cause here) and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it.  Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it.  Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody’s job.  Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it.  It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done. 

Every time there’s a mass shooting, I think of this story.

“Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.”  There were more mass shootings in America last year than ever before – 50% more than last year which was the highest on record until then.[1]  A study done in 2019 shows in general more Americans are in favor of stricter gun laws and that number has grown since 2017 from 52% to about 60%.[2]  There are some gun laws that almost everybody thinks should happen – banning gun sales to those with mental illness, banning gun sales to people on no-fly lists, and mandatory background checks at gun shows and private sales.[3]   These show a popularity of over 84%!  There is even wide support for banning high capacity magazines and assault style weapons (67%).[4]  Yet we can’t even pass those laws most Americans, both conservative and progressives can agree on because one group of people – the NRA – is able to influence the vast majority of Congress with money and threaten them with losing power.  And even though it’s exactly what the people want, the people they are supposed to represent, so many in Congress hide behind excuses to do the right thing because they are afraid of not being reelected.  The words of Jesus echo loudly in my ears, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? (Matthew 16:26)” 

Is that the devil’s fault? 

Did the devil make them vote against their conscience?  Or is evil as simple as good men doing nothing?  John Stuart Mill said it in 1867, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”[5]  We have to be better.  We have to do better.  For evil to thrive in the world doesn’t have to be the machinations of some evil being manipulating the world from behind.  For evil to thrive is simply good men looking on and doing nothing.  We all get caught in situations where it would be easier, simpler, less problematic, less hassle, and less headache for us to do nothing.  We’ve all been there when we would rather call in sick, skip church, relax and watch a football game.  Challenge yourself the next time you are tempted to sit idly by when you could or should do something, to do it.  When you think about the injustice in the world, just remember, we can do something about it.  The devil only has power over us when we allow it.  The devil’s greatest power is in the willfulness of humankind sitting idly by when we could be doing something to stop the evil in the world. 

[1] and



[4] Ibid


All You Need Is Love

Have you ever traveled to a country where you didn’t know the language?

It can be tough.  When Cassie and I got married a little after 9/11, it wasn’t considered safe to travel internationally so we couldn’t go on the trip we originally planned.  When our fifth anniversary rolled around, we decided to celebrate by taking that trip we had hoped to go on after our wedding.  So we headed to Europe.  It was amazing!  Cassie indulged my dream of going to Disneyland Paris.  We went to the Cathedral of Joan of Ark and traveled through some of the French countryside.  Then we headed to Switzerland and visited the Girl Scouts World Centre, Our Chalet.  We also went to Venice, Rome, and Florence which were all spectacular.  France and Switzerland were fairly comfortable for both of us.  We both had taken French in high school and felt pretty good about it.  But Italy was a different story.  I figured it would be easy enough since I knew rudimentary French, but I was wrong.  I thought I at least knew Italian food – spaghetti, lasagna, linguini.  But I didn’t know squat.  I remember ordering this fried fish plate at this one restaurant near the Colosseum.  It was one of those cute little places that come alive only in the evening with the smell of seafood and pasta and the clinking of plates and glasses.  We settled in but for the life of me I couldn’t make heads or tails of the menu.  The waiter, God bless his soul, tried his best and pointed at something and said “fried fish.”  Good enough for me.  I at least knew what THAT was.  Or so I thought.  I was thinking fish and chips but instead this WHOLE FISH came out, head and all!  Cassie looks over at me and says, “Oh, yeah.  That’s how they serve it here.”  And I said, “You couldn’t tell me that BEFORE I ordered it?”  Thankfully, most of the people there put up with this ignorant American tourist and helped me out.  But it can feel lonely, scary, and unsettling when you can’t communicate with one another.  We take it for granted sometimes the language we speak, but have to remember not everyone is as comfortable as we are in our own skin. 

Love can be expressed in many different ways

But “language” isn’t restricted to just French, Italian, or Japanese.

Language can make up a wide variety of different ways we communicate.  Every circle we belong to has its own language.  The places we work at, our close circle of friends, even the church has a language all of its own and if you don’t know it, you can be as lost as if you were in Italy.  When Cassie and I first started coming to church together, I didn’t know much about church culture or church life.  I knew what prayer looked like.  I knew kids went to Sunday School.  And I knew there was a sermon.  But everything else was foreign and strange.  The songs we sang weren’t anything like what I listened to on the radio.  They would kneel and stand at strange times in the worship service and everyone seemed to know exactly when those times were except for me.  I felt really uncomfortable because it was obvious how out of place I was.  In worship they used words like “witness” and “passing the peace” and “doxology” and I had no idea what those things were or why we were doing them.  But I realized exactly HOW lost I was the first time I tried to find Eve’s Sunday School class.  I had volunteered to go get her while Cassie was talking to some friends of ours, but quickly realized I didn’t know where to go so I asked for directions.  This really nice man told me, “You just go down the hall to the Sanctuary, when you get to the Narthex turn left, go up the stairs, through Fellowship Hall and it’s right by the Chapel.”  I thanked him and went on my way, but in my head, I’m thinking, “Where’s the ‘narthex?’  And isn’t the chapel and the sanctuary the same thing?”  I felt embarrassed asking what all these words meant because it seemed like any doofus should have known, and I didn’t want to seem stupid.  I FELT stupid because I… didn’t… know… the language.  So even without meaning to, even with a good heart, we can sometimes alienate people, make them feel dumb, and label them as an outcast when we don’t speak in a language they can understand. 

Communication is the key to good relationships.

But good communication requires truly listening to the needs of the other.  It requires us to speak one another in a way the other person can relate to.  And not in a condescending or patriarchal way, but with love and grace.  To do otherwise is to say we care more about ourselves than them.  We would rather do things our way than take the time to listen and learn.  We have to learn to speak in the love languages of other people.  In the following passage, the Bible tells us about the day of Pentecost, and if you’re unsure of what Pentecost is, it’s the day the Holy Spirit came into the world.  When Christ promised we would have a counselor to be with us after he had gone, this is what he meant.  It’s not long after Jesus went back to Heaven and the disciples were all gathered together in Jerusalem when our passage begins.  Hear now the Word of God.

1When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

 5Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 8Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? 9Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs-we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” – Acts 2:1-11

From Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: Kirk and McCoy listening to translated Klingon at their trial

I’ve always wanted a universal translator.

If you are a Star Trek fan, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  By the 23rd century, humanity has the technology to instantly translate nearly any foreign language into a language the user can understand.  But God invented it first and it happened right here in Jerusalem.  It was important for people to hear the Good News of Christ in their own language, to make sure they fully understood about who Christ was.  God wanted to make sure nothing got lost in translation.  So often the nuances, slang, parts of speech we take for granted can become misinterpreted by people who don’t speak our language that God made sure everyone would hear this news in a way they understood.  Plus, there’s the side benefit of it being a miracle to help convince them it was the truth.  If we want to understand and to be understood, we need to speak in a way that people can hear us. 

The Five Love Languages by Dr. Gary Chapman

Sometimes “speaking” takes more than words.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite passages in the Bible from John’s first letter to the church where he writes, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:18)” Sometimes words are exactly what is needed, but there are other times when what we do speaks louder than any words could hope to convey. For each person, it’s different.  Each of us has ways that reach us more effectively and if we want to communicate in the best, most effective way to show God’s love, we need to learn not our own love language, but that of others.  Dr. Gary Chapman identified five key love languages that we all respond to in varying degrees.  When someone tells you they love you or they like what you’re wearing or they’re proud of you, does that give you the warm fuzzies?  Maybe “words of affirmation” is your primary love language.  If you feel most loved when someone takes the time to simply be with you, to spend time doing things together, you might be responding to “quality time.”  If you get all tingly inside when someone holds your hand or touches you on the shoulder or gives you a kiss “physical touch” might be your love language.  When someone takes the time to surprise with that perfect present they obviously spent time thinking about you might be someone who appreciates “receiving gifts.”  And if you’re a person who sees someone’s love for you by what they do – in even the simple things like cooking a meal or taking out the trash – you respond to “acts of service.”  Those are the five love languages Dr. Chapman identified – Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Physical Touch, Receiving Gifts, and Acts of Service.  We respond to each in various ways and to be sure you might have more than one love language, but these five capture the essence of what we respond to.  For me, I’m bilingual.  I feel most loved by physical touch and words of affirmation.  I found out the hard way that Cassie’s love language was acts of service.  I just wished her love language didn’t always involve physical labor. 

And that’s the hard part. 

Not the physical labor but learning to speak someone else’s love language.  Most of the time, we respond to different things and we have to learn their love language if we want to really make them feel understood and appreciated.  And learning how to speak someone else’s love language is almost as difficult (and for some of us more so) than learning to speak French or Spanish or Japanese.  But it is worth it!  Even the effort will make them feel better about themselves, about you, and about the world.  And it doesn’t matter if you don’t get it.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand why it’s important for her to have quality time together.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand why he likes words of affirmation.  What matters is that you are willing to give of yourself sacrificially for the other person.  Because that is what Jesus taught us, that we need to love one another sacrificially.  That we need to put the love of others at least on par or greater than the love we have for ourselves.  Because when we do that, when we love each other enough to put the needs of others before our own, when we exhibit sacrificial love, we create a better world.  Christ’s final commandment was so simple and yet so hard to do – “Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love another.  By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  After all, all you need is love. 

The God Test

I’m still not quite convinced Paul isn’t dead.

I’ve been a Beatles fan since I was a kid.  I discovered my mom’s albums quite by accident while leafing through my parents’ collection when I was about nine years old.  She had both the red and blue albums and I must have listened to each of them a hundred times.  It helped that some of my closest friends were also Beatlemaniacs.  As we got older we went to Beatles conventions, saw a Beatles cover band, and even collected some of the Apple label Beatles albums.  Then one day, I read about this strange conspiracy theory that Paul was really dead.  According to the theory, he had been replaced with a guy named “Billy Shears,” the name mentioned in the song “With A Little Help From My Friends.”  In fact, all of the clues about Paul’s death came straight from Beatles songs, lyrics, and album covers, most specifically Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  There were a lot of clues in that one.  You could almost here John whispering in a creepy voice “I buried Paul.”  And when you played the song “Revolution 9” backwards, John could be heard saying, “Turn me on dead man, turn me on dead man.”  It was FASCINATING!  Paul McCartney was REALLY dead! 

Oh to be James Corden…

But of course he wasn’t.

He’s still alive and well, appearing on television and making new music.  His Carpool Karaoke with James Corden was fantastic!  And he even just released his 18th solo album this past Christmas season – McCartney III – which made it to number one on the Billboard top rock albums charts.  If the guy we think is Paul McCartney isn’t really Paul McCartney, he’s done one heck of a job channeling his talent.  After all, this is the guy who wrote “Hey Jude.”  So how in the world were so many people convinced it was all a cover up?  Why would they believe there was this massive conspiracy that one of the most popular artists the world has ever known would be dead and no one would know except through cryptic messages left on album covers and backward tracking?  I don’t know.  Maybe Marjorie Taylor Greene would however.  She seems to have cornered the market on outrageous, outlandish, and downright false conspiracies.  She believed the shootings at Sandy Hook were a “false flag” operation.  She believed there is no real evidence for the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.  She believed there is a cabal of powerful Democrats and Hollywood celebrities who practice satanism and pedophilia.  And my favorite, she believed the California wildfires were started by a Jewish space laser.  By the way, that’s only a few of the many outlandish conspiracy theories she has peddled. 

People believe in all kinds of false ideas and conspiracies. Chart from an ipsos/NPR poll

But Marjorie Taylor Greene is just the extreme version of what exists in our daily lives.

Many of us hold onto beliefs that are just plain wrong.  But we believe them.  Without any factual evidence.  We just “believe” they are true.  For proof we only have to go back as far as a few weeks ago when thousands of Americans stormed the Capitol building with the belief that the election was stolen from then President Trump.  It wasn’t.  There was plenty of evidence it was a free and fair election.  And absolutely none that it was stolen from him.  But people believed that pack of lies so whole-heartedly they defamed our nation’s symbol of freedom and democracy.  The long list of things we have believed to be true that absolutely were not is too long to list on a Sunday morning.  Whether it’s about race, religion, or politics, there is a conspiracy theory about everything.  So how can we protect ourselves from getting caught up in falsehoods and misinformation?  How can we make sure we do not become part of the mindless mob and do or say something we will only regret later? 

We can take a lesson from the Apostle Paul.

If you think conspiracies are limited to the present day, you need to know they were happening as far back as there were people.  Remember when Joseph’s brothers conspired to sell their brother into slavery?  Or when Delilah betrayed Samson so the Philistines could enslave him and use them for their entertainment?  Or the most famous conspiracy in the Bible, when Judas betrayed Jesus for a mere 30 pieces of silver.  But these were ACTUAL conspiracies.  What we need to guard against is believing in false ones. Paul knew that people were susceptible to being fooled by those who had agendas of their own.  He knew that we needed to be prepared to weed out truth from fiction as we hear in this passage. 

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

It sounds like Paul was writing to us.

Today.  Here and now.  His words could not be more true.  “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.  They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”  If that doesn’t describe Fox News, I don’t know what does.  The same is true for those on the far left of the political spectrum also.  They spout beliefs that are completely or at least partially untrue.  They emphasize what they want to believe in and deemphasize those things that go against their beliefs.  So if we are going to do as Paul instructed and keep our head in all situations, we have to do a better job of sussing out the truth from fiction. 

John Wesley used a method that today we call the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

He believed that if we turned to Scripture and used our powers of reasoning, the experiences we have encountered in life, and our traditions which provide us a sense of grounding in history, then we could better understand the truth of what God is asking from us.  We call this the Wesleyan Quadrilateral because it emphasizes a four-fold understanding of God’s will.  My Methodism professor in seminary thought it might be better imagined as a three-footed stool where Scripture is the seat upon which everything rests, but it is informed by our reason, our experience, and our tradition.  For us and for Wesley, Scripture was always the basis of our understanding of God’s will, but as you can imagine (much like our Constitution), things we encounter today can’t always be found in the Bible.  We have to discern from our knowledge of God what God wants for us in those situations we find ourselves that aren’t always covered.  Like back then they didn’t have guns, but they had weapons and Jesus told his disciples to put theirs away “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword (Matthew 26:52).”  John didn’t have a Facebook account, but he knew you couldn’t just believe everything you heard because he wrote in one of his letters, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”  John’s advice is solid.  Test it out in the world.  Don’t just rely on your gut or your instinct to see if it’s true because we know those can be highly unreliable.  Instead test your theory out and see if it matches up to reality.  Just on the face of it, what’s more plausible – that California wildfires are being caused by a warming planet combined with carelessness on the part of companies like PG&E or that there are seriously Jewish space lasers firing at the planet and starting them all?  Some of these things are not that hard to figure out, but we need to stop and be mindful of the things we believe in.  We need to be open to other points of view.  And most importantly, we need to ask ourselves, are my beliefs in line with the kind of person God is calling me to be?

As Children of God and followers of Christ, we are rooted in Scripture.

But our understanding of Scripture has changed over the centuries as we have better understood what God expects from us.  No longer are we so narrow-minded as to think that women cannot be teachers of God’s Word.  No longer are we so blinded by racial disparity to think that a person is less than another based on the color of their skin.  No longer do we think God brings forth the storms to punish the LGBTQ community.  Because we have grown beyond that.  Or at least most of us have.  Sadly, there are still, even now, people who cling to these outdated and wrong ways of thinking.  That is why we have to heed the words of Paul (not the dead one, the other dead one) to be wary of those who will not listen to sound doctrine.  That is why we need to take an approach like John Wesley and examine our beliefs to discern God’s will for our lives.  Because as human beings, we are prone to fall off the wagon from time to time.  We have to get up, learn from our mistakes, and do better every time we rise again.  We believe we are the Children of God.  Let’s act like it. 

The Blind Spot

Did you know you have a blind spot?

I don’t mean the area of your car you can’t see in your mirrors.  I mean a literal blind spot right in front of your face.  Apparently, everyone has one in each eye.  It’s the spot where the retina and the optical nerve are joined together.  Normally, you don’t notice because your other eye fills in the information to your brain so you think you’re seeing everything, but literally there is a blind spot right in front of your face.  They have this simple experiment online so that you can see this for yourself.[1]  There are two dots on the screen, a red dot and a green dot.  If you cover your right eye and focus on the green dot and move your face toward the screen, there’s a certain distance where the red dot simply vanishes!  Move just a centimeter closer or farther away and it reappears.  Go to that one particular spot and the dot disappears.  Because your mind can’t “fill in” the information for you, it appears white like the color surrounding it.  Even though you KNOW it’s red, it fills it in with white.  Your mind makes the best guess possible given the information it has.  Even when reality is staring us in the face, there are times when we can’t see reality for what it is but instead what we perceive it to be. 

We all have blind spots.  And not just in front of our eyes, but in our hearts and minds as well. 

If we can have literal blind spots, is it so hard to believe we can have intellectual and emotional blind spots as well?  Most of us have had a friend or family member who was dating someone they shouldn’t have.  We could see it.  Everyone around them could see it.  But no matter what was said or done, they were blind to it.  When we develop a belief about how we perceive reality, it’s tough to let that go, even if the evidence is staring you in the face.  We will defend our way of life even beyond reason anut d faith is one of those hardcore beliefs it’s hard for us to shake.  At some level, we realize how daunting it is to convince people to abandon their faith in favor of another.  With Hinduism and Buddhism, both began long before the birth of Christ and their vision of faith is radically different than our own.  People of Islamic faith are a little bit closer.  We at least share some of the same fundamental roots of our faith, but still there are some foundational differences where we can see why it would be hard for someone to suddenly believe Jesus was Lord and Savior.  But Judaism?  What happened there? 

Sally’s friend Marie KNOWS her boyfriend is never leaving his wife, but keeps denying it at the same time.

Why didn’t the Jews believe in Christ?

Of all the religions we’ve studied over the past month, Christianity and Judaism have the most in common.  In fact, we believe in the same God, we have the same ancestors, and up through the Old Testament, we even have the same Scripture.  So why did the people of Israel not believe Jesus was the Son of God?  First, we have to dispel that notion because obviously many of them did.  There would be no Christianity if the Hebrew people didn’t believe in him.  In fact, Hamilton estimates that 1/3rd of all Jewish people during that time came to faith in Christ.  33%!  When you think how big of a blind spot we develop when it comes to our faith, it’s a miracle in itself so many people believed Christ was the promised savior.

Put yourself in the shoes of an average, everyday Jewish person at the time of Christ. 

You are not a free people.  You have been conquered by the Roman Empire.  And if it wasn’t the Romans, it would have been somebody else.  Over the course of the history of your people, you have been conquered time and time again.  Your kings have often failed you.  But the one hope you cling to is God’s promise that one day…ONE DAY…your people would lead a Golden Age of the world.  The prophets speak about a savior who would come and raise the banner of Israel high!  He would lead them to become the powerhouse of the world!  One day the people of Israel would defeat every enemy and all the people of the world would recognize that only Israel followed the one true God.  In your head, you’ve grown up with the image of a savior who was this charismatic, brilliant, military leader, so when this young carpenter comes to your temple in Nazareth, reads the words of the great prophet Isaiah, and proclaims that the Scriptures are fulfilled in him, you’re probably thinking, you’ve got to be kidding?  Isn’t this Mary and Joseph’s son?  Who does he think he is?  He doesn’t seem to be some brilliant, charismatic military leader.  He’s just a carpenter’s son.  Even if you had kept up with the goings on of Jesus, even if you had heard about some of the miracles, you probably would have dismissed them as being made up or fictitious unless you were there.  Even the feeding of the 5,000.  It’s not as if people saw this mountain of bread and fish fall from the skies.  If you were in the crowd, you probably would have just seen these baskets being passed around and with twelve full baskets left over assumed they just had more than you thought.  Only a very few saw the water turn into wine.  Only those present saw Lazarus was actually dead and rose again.  Sure, Jesus was a great teacher, but the savior?  He couldn’t even save himself!   We often talk about the radical nature of Jesus’ ministry, but this is how radical it was.  It defied nearly everything they believed in.  Their understanding of good works, their understanding of the law, their understanding of God, and most importantly their understanding of their savior.  Nearly everything Jesus taught was different from what they believed.   

As if that wasn’t enough, his disciples began accepting Gentiles into the faith.

If Israel was God’s chosen people, then what does it mean when you let in a group of people who don’t follow the law, who aren’t circumcised, and who don’t study the Torah?  The passage we’re about to read takes place after the Roman centurion Cornelius sends for Peter to come visit him.  Cornelius is a man who despite being a Gentile was a devout follower of God.  He obeyed God’s commandments and lived a life that honored God.  So God sent an angel to Cornelius’ house to share with him how his actions have proven his faith and he tells Cornelius to send for Peter the Apostle.  So he does.  He sends two servants to ask Peter to come to his house.  Before Cornelius’ messengers arrive at the place Peter is staying, Peter receives a vision from God making it clear that only God has the right to judge what is pure and impure.  So when the messengers arrive, Peter who normally would refuse to be in the company of Gentiles agrees to go with them.  When he gets there, it’s obvious why God sent him and he begins to tell Cornelius about the truth of Jesus.  This is where we pick up in our reading.

44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.

Then Peter said, 47 “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.

The Word of God for the people of God and the people said, “Thanks be to God.”  Please be seated.

For us, when we hear this message, it seems obvious that God is reaching out to the Gentiles.

But this was a huge revelation for Peter and the other disciples.  This was groundbreaking.  It meant that Jesus had come not just for the Israelites, but for the entire world.  That God’s message of salvation was meant for everyone.  Even among the Jews who were followers of Christ, this was astonishing because it went against everything they had believed for so long.  So not only did Jesus not herald a Golden Age for Israel the way they imagined it.  Not only did Jesus not raise the banner of Israel as they expected.  But now God was telling them that this message of salvation was meant for everyone?  As Hamilton pointed out, this likely alienated most of the Jewish community.  If there was a chance of some of them being brought to Christ, this would have shoved them the other way.  So when we wonder why it is that the early Jewish people didn’t all believe Jesus was the Savior, these are some of the reasons.  Jesus upended their entire concept of salvation.  Jesus came for a spiritual conquest not a military one.  Jesus defeated his enemies not with a sword but with his love.  And Jesus promised salvation in Heaven, not on Earth.   

Fun facts: people still believe we never landed on the moon! Why?

We all have blind spots.

They just take different forms.  Even today there are some bizarre ones that stand out.  At last count there were still 420 people who belonged to the Flat Earth Society, including the famous rock musician Thomas Dolby.[2] As late as 1994, there were about 6% of Americans who believed that the Apollo moon landings never happened.[3]  That would be approximately 19.7 million people today.  19.7 million people who believe we never landed on the moon.  And there are actually people who believe that the Holocaust never happened.  You and I live in a world where these things are a reality.  We can prove the Earth is round.  We can prove we landed on the moon.  And we even have first-hand accounts of the horrors of the Holocaust.  How people can live in such a state of denial is unfathomable.  So to think there are people who didn’t and still don’t accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior isn’t a stretch of the imagination.  But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to share God’s love with them.  The only way for us to show the reality of Christ in the world is to be Christ-like ourselves.  We have covered a wide variety of different religious beliefs over the past month together and they are all very different.  All roads do not lead to the same God.  Some roads don’t lead to God at all.  But most people are trying to find answers to life’s deepest questions – Why is there suffering?  What’s the meaning of existence?  Who am I and do I matter?  We must be prepared to answer these questions for ourselves.  I want to challenge you to go deeper into your own faith and find these answers for yourself.  Come to one of our Bible studies.  Pick up one of the books we offer.  Pray daily and ask for answers.  But actively engage in your faith.  We become the best witnesses for Christ when we know what and why we believe.  As Peter writes, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have (1 Peter 3:15).”