The God Who Sees Me
By: Sarah Norman
The story of Hagar in the Bible is one that is often misread and misinterpreted. She is often portrayed as the villain, put in the story to thwart God's plan for the covenant child coming through Sarah. But with a closer look at Hagar, we see that God can take the plans of man and use them for his purpose. We see that God is not a far off deity just watching to see what will unfold, but he is active in our lives, and cares about what happens to every person created in his image.
Hagar was a slave, taken from her homeland, perhaps sold by captors, her family or maybe she sold herself because she had no other means to provide. She was taken into a family with customs not her own, into a land different than her own. She was taken into the family who made a covenant with God. I can only imagine how strange it would seem to watch people worship one God, talk to one God and follow one God after a lifetime of seeing the worship of many different gods and a lifetime of trying to earn the favor of the gods with nothing in return.
In looking at it with 21st century eyes, I would have to think her life would have improved. She was living with God's people. Shouldn't they love her? Shouldn't they protect her? Shouldn't they treat her as the image bearer God made her? It's easy for me to judge as I have the whole Bible to learn from, as I can see the story throughout scripture of how God loves and takes care of the marginalized and oppressed. But Abraham and Sarah were not perfect and they were a product of their time.
It was the custom in that time if Sarah could not produce an heir, to give her handmaid to her husband that she might produce an heir for the family. In that culture, Sarah's value was based solely on her ability to produce children. Again, looking at this with 21st century eyes, what Sarah did was awful. She saw Hagar as nothing more than a vessel to carry a child and eventually be thrown away. But she herself was probably afraid the same thing would happen to her if she could not produce a male heir.
How often have I chosen to not believe in God's promises? It's easy to judge Sarah, but I often don't immediately obey when God wants me to do something. I often don't trust in God when things get hard and, much like Sarah, I try to make things happen on my own. God made a promise to Abraham that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars. Years went by and Sarah still had not conceived. Years. I would have gotten anxious too. So Sarah took matters into her own hands and gave Hagar to Abraham to produce a child.
Once Hagar conceived, scripture says she looked on Sarah with contempt. Sarah forced her to get pregnant. I think contempt is the natural outcome of forcing a person into a pregnancy they never asked for. And to make matters worse, Sarah began mistreating her. Sarah's fix did not make the situation better, but rather made it much worse. That's how it goes when we try to take over for God. We make everything much worse. Instead of listening to God, trusting in what God told Sarah would happen, she involved an innocent woman, hurt her, used her body and then kicked her out because it didn't solve her problem.
Hagar ran into the wilderness. She was pregnant, single, desperate and trying to figure out how she could survive alone. The angel of the Lord found her by a well. It's here we see God's heart for the broken, the cast out, the marginalized in society. The angel of the Lord saw Hagar, heard her cry out, and paid attention to her pain. He didn't minimize what she went through. He didn't tell her to get over it and do her job. He didn't tell her that it would be ok, because it wouldn't. Instead, he gave her, a slave woman, a promise. He promised that she would have a son and her descendants would become a nation. Ishmael is the first child given a name prior to birth and that name means “God hears.” God took time to listen to this lowly slave woman. He took time to listen to the woman who had been cast out of his covenant family. He listened to her and he instilled value into her.
And then Hagar names God. She calls him El Roi, the God who sees me. God, the almighty, omniscient God we serve, who has his hand on the whole world, had a conversation with this slave woman, saw this slave woman and loved her. It's easy to understand that God is the God of this world, sovereign over everything. We learn He's Got the Whole World in His Hands at a young age. But to think that not only is God over the whole world, seeing everything that goes on, he sees me. He sees you. He looked through the whole world, and went to visit a lowly, pregnant slave woman who'd run away from her mistress. He saw her pain and he had compassion on her. His promise made to her gave her the strength to go back and endure whatever would happen with Abraham and Sarah. God loved Hagar and he loved her child she was carrying.
When we live through a year like 2020 and now 2021, it's easy to think that God is far off. It can be tempting to think that God has forgotten about us, that he doesn't care what's happening. But then I read stories like Hagar's. I see that God “draws near to the broken hearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18). The God who visited Hagar in her desperate and alone state, the God who saw Hagar in her loneliness, in her pain, is the same God who draws near to you and near to me when we feel like we can't go on another day. He's the same God who sees your desperateness as you pray for your wayward child. He's the same God who sees the hurt of your broken relationships. He's the same God who wipes your tears away as you say goodbye to a loved one. He meets you in the broken places and carries you through them. Out of everyone in this world, He sees you.
Fast forward a few thousand years and we come to a different well, but a significant one all the same. Jesus, in his infinite sovereign wisdom, decides to journey through Samaria on his way to Galilee. His disciples thought he was crazy. Why would he go through this place of insignificant, outcast people. But Jesus never does anything by chance. He had a reason for walking through Samaria because he knew exactly who needed him in that moment. Jesus stopped at a well for a drink of water and met a lonely, broken and hurting woman. Here we see the longest recorded conversation in the Bible, and that conversation was with a Samaritan woman, the lowest of the low according to Jewish customs. But Jesus saw an image bearer who needed him. In this conversation, he offered her living water, saying those who drink living water will never go thirsty again. This woman had no clue when she went to the well that she would meet Jesus, but when she left, she became the first evangelist, she told everyone she saw that she had met the Messiah.
Jesus didn't judge the Samaritan woman. He saw her. He looked into her broken soul and healed her. He offered her a life that only he could give. So often in this world we seek healing through other means. We numb out with screens, we eat our comfort foods, we turn to substances, we let our anger take over thinking it'll make us feel better. When we do those things, we miss what Jesus is calling us to. He's calling us to himself, into relationship with him. He says “Come to me, all who are weary and I will give you rest”. (Matthew 11:28) Those aren't empty words. And he's not talking about rest that the world tries to give. When we draw near to Jesus, our souls find a rest that nothing in this world can fix.
So as the world keeps spinning out of control, seek Jesus, talk to Jesus, follow after Jesus. He is the God who sees you and the God who hears you. He cares about what you are going through. He is the only means of finding rest for your weary soul.
Our Texture, God's Glory
By Caroline Bess
Justin’s been given a big gift. I think that after listening to most of his messages. They help me gain perspective and focus before beginning another week. I always think they’re wonderful reminders. Application to my life is easy. I thought especially so after this week’s message.
He talked about categories and labels. Earthly ones. Things we believe and value because we’ve been programmed to our whole lives. Categories that brought my life to an abrupt halt a few years ago.
I’m sure I won’t do his sermon justice, but I’ll try to summarize some of the things I took note of as he was speaking. Some things I loved. Some things I feel so deeply.
The world can enslave us with its categories. We can’t find meaning in the categories our world tries to put us in, but we often try to find our worth through the labels we wear. It can take a daily, even hourly, reminder for us to remember we are all one through Jesus.
And my favorite quote from today: “The world wants to take away our texture.”
In our family, the labels and categories can be helpful. They provide services and answers to questions. They can bring understanding, and hopefully, acceptance.
Because of a label, I’ve also learned to embrace differences. In my classroom. At home. I now find beauty in what I once saw as obstacles. My mind goes to children so quickly, because of my own kids and my job. We push so many labels - athletic, smart, social, popular. We often send the message that life is supposed to be so easy-just fall into one of these categories- when in fact we as adults know how hard things can actually be. What happens when we don’t fall into a category so easily...or when we don’t into one we once did? As Justin said, “There’s a unique gift in all of our categories”.
None of our labels define us. We are so much more than the categories we fall into. Asher is so much more than the word autism will ever describe.
“The Lord is our banner” - That gives us so much freedom. There’s only one category we need to fall into. We only need to wave His banner, promote His brand. We only need to love Jesus and display this love. Don’t let the world take away your texture. It’s what makes you, you.
God Is My Banner
By Sarah Norman
What defines you? This was the question posed at church this week. Our world is constantly asking this question. Who are you? What side are you on? How do you identify? The answers to these questions give us our identity, put us in a tribe, help us find belonging. But most often, they just leave us asking more questions.
The God You Can Know
Written by Sarah Norman
I grew up in a house where God was known. God was talked about. God was read about. God was apart of my life long before I had any desire for Him, long before I knew he wanted me to know Him. For the longest time, God felt very far off. I knew Him by his rules. I knew of Him by the things I did wrong. It wasn't until I was much older that I realized God didn't just want me to know His rules, He wanted me to know Him.
Moses went through most of his life only hearing about God. At some point, he learned he was not really Egyptian, but Hebrew and he knew the Hebrew people worshiped a God that was very different than the many gods he grew up knowing about. He knew God's name, but he didn't know God. With the knowledge he was Hebrew, he also knew he was different. He didn't fit in with the Egyptians he lived with, but he also didn't fit in with the Hebrew people. When he tried doing either, he failed. Eventually Moses fled to Midian to escape his temper and his sin. He was alone, trying to figure out who he was, what his purpose was. Much like people today, Moses was lost and needed guidance. Moses was working a menial job, seemingly without purpose. I've felt like that. Day after day, doing the same thing, changing the 10th diaper for the day, washing the same clothes that I washed just a few days ago, wiping down the same table sticky with syrup that I wiped down just yesterday. Life can seem devoid of purpose when all your looking at is your present circumstances, your eyes on yourself, your eyes on today, this life, this world.
Moses was minding his business, tending his sheep one day. Then God stepped in. He looked up, took his eyes off his sheep, off his life that seemed pointless, off his menial tasks and saw a bush, burning with fire that did not consume it. God called out to Moses and told him to come no closer until he took off his sandals, for he was standing on Holy Ground. He was in the presence of God. How often have I been in the presence of God and not realized it? How often have I been in a Holy moment, or what could have been a Holy moment had I just took my eyes off my bleak circumstances and looked up, looked towards the God who sees me, looked towards the God who wants to know me and the God who wants me to know him? To the mom who slept just a few hours and is up for the 3rd time in a night nursing her little one, that is a Holy moment. To the dad who is for the 10th time that day trying to explain to his son what it means to be obedient, what it means to love God, and wondering if it will ever sink in, that is a Holy moment. To the nurse holding the hand of her 5th dying patient this week, that is a Holy moment. To the teacher who's student just had a light bulb go off and realized they could read, that is a Holy moment. To the friend who's been sharing God's love with their neighbor for years and just learned the neighbor has trusted in Jesus, that is a Holy moment.
We will not all be Moses. We will not all lead a nation out of oppression, into the promised land. But we all have tasks set before us by God. We all have a purpose that God wants us to carry out here on this earth to further His kingdom. That purpose starts with knowing God. That purpose starts with taking time to get to know the God who wants us to know Him. 1 John 4:19 tells us “We love because he first loved us.” God went first. God has shown us his love, by sending his son to die for us, to save us from our sins. We are able to know and love him, because he first loved us.
God does not ask much from us. At first, it seems like it, but he really doesn't. He asks us to try. That's it. He wants our effort and he will meet us in that effort. We can't know him without trying. He asks us to take our eyes off ourselves, to take our eyes off this world, off our menial day to day tasks and look up to Him. He wants to show us His kingdom perspective on the work he has given us to do. Whether that work is teaching little ones, putting in I.V.s, driving a truck, working at a factory, or whatever else God may have us doing on this earth, God wants us to see that it is kingdom work. We may not be Moses leading an Exodus, but as we get to know the God who wants us to know Him, we can live out our kingdom purpose here on earth.
The Bible gives us eye witness accounts of what happened the night before and day that Jesus died. Every year I read the four versions and write to reflect on all that happened that day:
Thursday Night 6 PM - Friday Morning 6 AM
Jesus celebrated Passover with His disciples, but it was no ordinary Passover. He told them that the holiday would no longer be about their nation’s history, but it would be about Him. Jesus had made many bold and brazen claims, but this might have been His most extreme. Yet as that night and the weekend would unfold, perhaps He was telling the truth…
Judas had abruptly left the gathering. Maybe Jesus had taken things too far for even a rebel like Judas? Whispers throughout the room suggested that Judas had been considering turning Jesus over to the Religious Leaders, for heresy. They would have no trouble building a case against Jesus now.
Jesus was visibly anxious. The mood had changed rather quickly. He led His disciples in a psalm, to bring levity and peace. He then led them to His private sanctuary, a secret garden where He would often pray. They had never been here before. They had never been invited. Jesus asked them to pray with Him. This was odd? Why did Jesus need their prayers?
He prayed in great distress and agony. When He emerged from prayer, He looked as if He had been fighting someone, rather than praying. The disciples heard Him pray, over and over again, “Not my will, but Yours be done.” They didn’t hear much else. They had dozed off. They couldn’t figure out what was going on? They had never seen Jesus like this.
Suddenly, a mob with swords, clubs, and torches appeared. Judas had brought an entourage with Him, to seize Jesus. They came as if they were expecting to find a legion of warriors preparing for a rebellion. Yet, Jesus held no weapon, put up no fight, and surrendered with almost no resistance.
Things were all happening so fast. But the disciples had seen enough. Jesus wasn’t the same man they had followed for all those years. He was shaken, weak, confused, and seemed as if He had lost all the power and glory He once had. There was no doubt that He had possessed it, but it was as if He had just laid it down, given it up, and was letting it go. They couldn’t explain it? The Messiah would never just willingly surrender.
Most of the disciples fled, fearing that if Jesus was indeed a fraud, they too would be taken in and no doubt punished for their foolish association with Him. Peter, however, wasn’t letting go of hopes that Jesus was just biding His time. Perhaps, this was a part of His plan all along?
The High Priest, and his council, had met with Judas. They had devised a plan to do away with Jesus, once and for all. A kangaroo court was assembled late into the night. Accusations were made, lies were told, and Jesus said nothing. They mocked His claim to be the Messiah, as they lorded their authority over Him. Jesus warned them, however, that they had yet to see His true power on display.
They spit on Him. They slapped Him, They even beat him with clubs. He took every insult and bruise. Peter watched from the courtyard, and began to doubt that Jesus had one last miracle to pull off. Upon being recognized, Peter quickly began shuffling his way through the crowd, trying to flee. He denied any connection to Jesus. Why would anyone stand beside a would-be Messiah who could be beaten?
Good Friday 6 AM - 9 AM
The Religious Leaders waited for morning to come. They were so proud of themselves. Their scheme had worked. All they had to do now was convince Pilate that Jesus was a threat to Rome, and He would be gone for good. Pilate couldn’t risk upsetting Rome. He couldn’t risk losing his own throne.
But Jesus seemed so inoffensive to Pilate. He appeared so toothless. What threat did He pose? What harm could He do? He had no support, no angry mob on His side. He appeared as weak in spirit as He seemed in His bruised flesh.
Upon pressing Jesus for answers, Pilate gets nowhere. Alas, Pilate is insulted that someone would remain so calm when knowing that their life was on the line. Pilate was indignant, “Will you not speak to me? Do you not know who I am? What I can do to You?”.
Finally He had Jesus’ attention. Jesus smirked and spoke clearly, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above…” Pilate was visibly shook. He was terrified because Jesus wasn’t afraid of him, Rome, or death. Jesus acted as if everything was going just as He intended it to go.
Pilate’s ego is now on the line. He can’t be intimidated by someone as delusional and insane as Jesus. He orders Jesus to be flogged. This not only stroked his own ego, but he was hoping it would satisfy the Jews want for blood. He presents Jesus to the Jews, crowned with thorns, robed in purple, and covered in blood. Yet still, the insatiable crowd demands more and cries, "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!".
Pilate concedes, allowing an actual criminal to be freed, while sentencing the innocent Jesus to die on Calvary, by way of Roman crucifixion. Beaten to near-death and bathed in unjust shame, Jesus is led to Calvary…
Good Friday 9 AM - Noon:
"They crucified Him."
The hands that healed lepers, embraced outcasts, and washed His own disciples' feet, were pierced by nails into a rugged cross. The feet that walked on water, proving He had dominion over all of creation, were hammered as well. Jesus kept silent though, reserving His energy and breath until He was lifted up.
The religious elite mocked Him, having always doubted His claim that He could reconcile people to God, apart from their twisted dogma. They felt justified now, their hate and vitriol had overcome His love and grace. He could "save" others, but look at Him now...
John and Mary stood by and wept. Everyone else had ran away. Why were they there? Maybe Jesus still had one more miracle up His sleeve. Maybe not.
Two other criminals were crucified as well, one to His left and another to His right. They joined in on the harassing. Sin had led them all of their life. It wasn't about to let go now.
Alas, He spoke. Words that foreshadowed something huge. Words with power untold. "Father forgive them for they know not what they do…" He prayed. Who could He be referring to? Everyone seemed to know good and well what they were doing. Eerily so, actually.
One of the criminals, no doubt taken aback by Jesus' words, made an outlandish request. With death and the reality of eternity overwhelming him, he realized he had lived an unfulfilled, wasted life. Starring into his future bliss and the sure cessation of his life. He didn't want to be forgotten forever. Nobody does. Jesus seemed to care even while suffering unjustly. The grace He displayed was seemingly irresistible. So, the thief audaciously, yet simply, asked Jesus to "remember" him, trusting Jesus to be more than just a man. Jesus, knowing His heart, promised him much, much more.
It was now noon, but instead of the sun reaching its highest point, the whole earth was swallowed by darkness. Judgement loomed. But over whom? Would God punish those who had crucified His Son? Would Christ save Himself and call for His Father's wrath to be poured upon those on Calvary's hill, in Jerusalem, or even in all the world? Regardless there was no doubt that what was about to transpire was too much for humans to witness…
Good Friday Noon - 6 PM:
The hour had come. The Father watched what humanity had come to. They had despised and rejected His own Son. There was no hope, it seemed. Sin had ruined the creation He most loved. His holy nature couldn't tolerate it's poison and destructive lust. A price had to be paid.
Enter Jesus' plea: He had His Father at beck and call, knowing He could "ask for anything and it would be given unto [Him]." Already losing vitality, with blood shedding profusely because of the scourging, the piercing nails and the crown of thorns, and with a heart on the brink of cardiac arrest, Jesus made one last request to His Father.
The request was for the unthinkable. Jesus volunteered to take the punishment for all sins. So that humans could be forgiven by and reconciled unto their Creator, He would be forsaken in their place. Jesus presented Himself as the perfect sacrifice, spotless and sinless: The Lamb of God, who came to take away the sins of the world. He took the wrath due to those who would believe and even those who wouldn't believe. He could meet God's righteous standard, that men had been trying and failing to meet for centuries.
For this reason had He been born. For this purpose had He entered our world. All that had preceded was but preparation for this moment. The sun forbid to shine and the earth ceased to turn, as the Father punished Jesus in our place. Jesus drank every last drop of God's wrath. When the cup was empty, He cried out with a loud voice, "It is finished!" The veil in the temple, that separated man from God's presence, was rent in two. This signified that the debt of sin was paid in full. In Christ all would have access to God by faith in His finished work.
About 3 PM, Jesus had endured the unrestrained wrath of God. As the last drop of blood dripped to the ground, He bowed His head and gave up His life. But His arms were still stretched out wide, as if to suggest His true ministry had only just begun. The debt had been paid. The wrath of God was satisfied.
They came to break His legs to speed up the process of death, which could take more than a day at times. However, the solders found no need for that. He looked marred beyond that of a normal crucified victim. They had seen 1000s in their service of Rome and none were as mangled and deformed as Jesus was. The wrath of God had left Him unrecognizable and indistinguishable as a human anymore.
One thing was certain by the blood stained hillside, just like a Passover lamb, He had been slaughtered, but on a more brutal scale. Jesus had bled to death. The Lamb of God had taken away the sins of the world. The love of God would forever be magnified and proven by this day.
One of the soldiers bowed his head in disbelief at what all had happened this day. He could only whisper, "Truly this was the Son of God."
Later that evening, before His body could be thrown in the valley to be burnt, two men who had admired Jesus from a distance decided it was time to go public, and boldly asked for the body of Jesus. One of them, Joseph of Arimathea, gave up his seat on the council and then gave up his own tomb so Jesus could have a proper burial. The bleeding had stopped, the darkness had lifted, now Jesus could rest.
Everyone else went about their evenings wondering if things would ever be the same. As the sun set, one thing was certain, this day would never be forgotten...
Who Needs Church?
It was a Wednesday night in August of 2008. With an untucked polo, wrinkled slacks, and messy hair, an almost-18 year old kid took to the pulpit at a small, country church. Little did he know that that was the first of somewhere around 1000 (!?!) sermons that he would deliver over the next 10 years.
I know that he could have never predicted that, because that kid was me. And Lord knows, I never expected to have preached 100 sermons by now, much less 1000. I had a plan: go to college, get a physics degree, make some money, and sometime in my 30’s maybe I’d ease into ministry. Well, as I’m about to finish this, I’m sitting in a hospital for a church member’s surgery, and as of today, I’m still two years from 30. So much for easing in, huh?
Just shy of my 18th birthday, my pastor asked me to fill in for him at our Wednesday Evening service. Earlier in 2008, I had made it known to my church that I felt that God was calling me into ministry. I really didn’t know what that meant. I just knew that God wasn’t going to leave me alone until I gave Him an answer. After I told Him, “Yes”, He still wouldn’t leave me alone, and I decided I would tell my church to see if that would help. Pastor Larry was and still is a man that cuts to the chase. He always preached and taught me that if God is willing something, now is the time to move. He approached me about my calling, and helped me sort thru the conviction and sense of purpose which God had laid on my heart. I wasn’t sure about where it would take me, but Pastor Larry insisted on starting at a pulpit near me.
I don’t remember my nerves or emotions that day, but I was pretty convinced that there had never been a better prepared sermon and a more apt message for God’s people. Whew, was I off base a little bit.
I preached from Hebrews 9, about how Jesus is enough. I remember saying some things that I’m not even sure if I knew what I meant. But I made it thru the service alive and not totally humiliated.
One thing led to another, and here I am, at age 28, a pastor of a local church. I have never reused my notes from that night, but some mental notes were impressed on me that night that speak louder and louder as time passes.
I’m sure the folks in my home church wondered if I’d ever make it as a preacher. I seriously doubt that any of them left that service too inspired. Earlier this year, I ran into someone that had been visiting our church back then and he confessed to having placed zero confidence in my future as a pastor. Gee, glad he didn’t tell me that back then.
But honestly, with each passing year, I have less and less confidence in my ability to preach well and accomplish great things. Because as I preached way back then, Jesus is more than enough. I’d be silly to think that I’ve got anything world-changing to add to what has already left a sizable impact on the universe, a trillion times over.
When I think back to that night, I can see the 30 or so people who were assembled in their normal spots. I don’t remember most of what I said. I can guarantee you that the folks in attendance don’t remember anything that I said. But… but I can absolutely remember that there I stood before a local body of believers, who gave me… ME!?… their attention because they supposed that God might have something to say.
As I’ve grown up, and as I’ve pastored, it’s become extraordinary clear to me: I need the local Church. I need my brothers and sisters in Christ, who God has called into community at one of His local gatherings. Without them, I’m left unaccountable, without support, and vulnerable to heresies on either side of the theological spectrum. My memory of that first sermon has never cemented my calling to preach, as much as it does my calling to the Church. I used to think that Christianity was just about me and my Jesus, but thankfully that’s not the case.
All for One
Growing up Baptist, and studying Reformed Theology in College, the notion of the “priesthood of all believers” is something I’m well versed in. The idea is based on how a New Testament spin on the most important job of Ancient Judaism. In the Old Testament only a very selective group of people got to encounter and experience God. God had called Israel to be His own nation, out of all the nations of the world. But even more exclusive, He had called a single tribe of Israel to enter into His presence, and share in His presence on behalf of the whole nation. The tribe of Levi was given privileged access to God, and were tasked with leading the rest of the nation in worship, and building a platform on which the rest could catch a glimpse of God. Yet true fellowship with God was even further walled off. Out of Levi, God anointed an elite group of men as priests. The priesthood would feature the best and the brightest, the most holy and devout of Levi, and these men would be granted entrance to the Holy place of the House of Worship. Out of all the priests, one would be enlisted as High Priest, and this man would be charged to step into the Holy of Holies, where he would mediate to God on behalf of the whole nation, even the world at times.
If you want to know more about that riveting routine and gymnastics of encountering God, go read Leviticus. But know this, unless you’re a Jew, who’s also a Levite, who’s also a priest, you really can’t enjoy the bliss promised in that text.
Thankfully, the Redemption story and God’s Revelation didn’t end with Leviticus. According to the Gospel of John and the letter to the Hebrews, we can rejoice to know that this system has come to an end. Jesus is our High Priest, and He has torn down the separation between God and people. Sin is forgiven. Our debt is paid. The Holy Spirit has left holy places, and is looking instead for humble people, who have surrendered to Jesus. If you have done that, He lives in you. You have the access to God that Leviticus and the Old Covenant only teases. No one and nothing can gate that from you. “Nothing in our hands we bring, simply to the Cross we cling”, and we can enter into the presence of God, and He into us.
This is the essence of the Priesthood of All Believers. This is what Peter meant when he wrote to both Jew and Gentile in 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
Martin Luther raised this banner of truth high during the Reformation, and Evangelicals rest on this reminder that in Christ, we have a personal relationship with God. Come to think of it, this notion colored most of what I had to say in my first sermon a decade ago. I’d love to say that I was able to articulate it as clearly back then, but I’m sure I didn’t. We have direct access to God thru Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1). His death pardoned our sin. His resurrection empowers us with new life. In Christ, we can come directly before the throne of God (Hebrews 4:16). But when we come to Christ, we join a bevy of others who have also come to Jesus. While “He walks with us, and talks with us, and tells us that we are His own, each and every day, He longs for us to be together, and He especially makes Himself known when we are (Matthew 18:20).
Jesus called His followers together on one famous occasion and asked them what people were saying about Him (Matthew 16:13-20). Don’t try that at work, because most of the time, the only person thinking about us and talking about us, is us. But that wasn’t the case with Jesus. Everyone had an opinion about Jesus, and many believed He was the long awaited Messiah. Peter confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The Price is Right jingle started playing from Heaven’s windows, and Jesus told Peter to come on down and spin the wheel!
Jesus turned Peter back towards the others however, and told him that this wasn’t just about one confession and one believer. It was much, much bigger than that. Jesus said that day, on the dusty hillside of Caesarea, that He had set out to build a gathering, a household: The Church. Jesus said that even Hell wouldn’t be able to stop this movement.
Sometimes I suppose that Hell doesn’t have to try to stop it, when we Christians have convinced ourselves that we don’t need it.
Jesus talked about His Father’s House, where there was room for all of us (John 14:2). We often imagine that Heaven is divided into subdivisions, but according to Jesus there's just one big house. Jesus didn’t preach of a kingdom where every priest has their own living quarters, on their own private resort. He taught of a family that would come together on earth, and stay together in Heaven. As the local bodies began to form on earth, and more and more popped up throughout the Roman Empire, the New Testament paints a picture of Eternity.
The priesthood of all believers by no means counters the New Testament trajectory of the local Church. We may not need anyone but Jesus to be saved, but if we have been saved, we know that Jesus calls us into His Church. If we have believed in a version of Jesus that has not directed us into His Father’s House here on earth, we probably shouldn’t trust that version to lead us into the Kingdom to come.
The New Testament chronicles the literal construction of the local Church, but it also details the spiritual formation and structuring as well. Ephesians refers to the Church as having sprouted from the bedrock of Christ, and from the foundation of the NT Apostles, and even the OT Prophets (Ephesians 2:20). Beyond the Apostles who built and kickstarted the movement, the Bible tells us that God is still raising up leaders in this movement. Ephesians 4:1-16 tells us that God is still giving gifts to men and women, to the priesthood of believers, so that they can contribute to the ever-expanding Body of Christ. We are called to yearn for these gifts (1 Corinthians 12:31). As we walk with God personally, as priests with unfettered access to Him, we should seek after gifts and opportunities that can benefit the Body of Christ (1 Peter 4:7-11).
God grants the gift of prophesy, or preaching, not to see or hear new things, but to understand, proclaim, and apply His revealed Word to the local bodies scattered abroad. He gives the gift of teaching so that the theological and practical truths of Scripture can be learned. He uses evangelists to reach outsiders, for the purpose of bringing them into a church community. He gives the passion of shepherding to his church leaders so that His flock will be tended to and cared for always.
These gifts aren’t mutually exclusive, but they do speak to the blessing and power that God has poured out on the leadership of His local Churches. As a priest, we all have access to God, and as a church member, we can experience Him in awesome ways. As a priest, you can step into His presence anytime. As a church member you can be further enlightened, filled, and engaged for His glory. As you seek Him and serve others, you too can be equipped with His gifts so that you can reach the world, one friend (or enemy) at a time.
Ten years ago, I thought it was all about me. I thought that I didn’t need anyone else. I preached about Jesus, but I knew so little about Him and His passion. I’ve learned that Jesus is all about the world, gatherings of people, from north to south, east to west, small or big. What keeps me going each and every week isn’t my sermons or the responses to them, but it’s simply being together with God’s people. When I’m with God’s people, I get a glimpse of what God is really like and experience His full presence. Jesus loves seeing his houses full because it’s a preview of when we all will gather in His Father’s House. As a preacher I am nothing without Jesus and His Church. I love pouring out my life for others, because it’s then that I see how awesome the Church is. I don’t take joy in being a pastor because of what is poured out into me, but I find my joy and purpose in reaching out to all of you. As a Christian I am just one piece of a much larger puzzle. It’s only when I come together with the other puzzle pieces that I begin to see the picture taking shape:
The Kingdom of God.
Excuse Me, But I Must...
I’m very excited for tomorrow. That’s Friday, September 29th, 2017, in case you may be reading this late.
I mentioned last time that I’m a 90s kid. I’m sure you’ve all seen those posts before on social media: “Only 90s kids will understand these 10 things.” Odds are only 90s kids would even click such a link. So there probably wouldn't be any danger of someone stumbling onto the page and not understanding why a bottle of Surge, something about Nickelodeon, and some video game character would be a big deal.
I once clicked on a link about the 80s and for a minute I was jealous of my older sister and cousin, if only for the free pizza coupons they got at school every week and getting to live thru Michael Jackson’s glory days.
However, the 90s were objectively better. There’s just no other way around it. And this Friday, one of the best things about the 90s is coming back.
The Super Nintendo.
Maybe you had one. Maybe your kids had one. Maybe you don't know what I’m talking about.
I promise every blog post won’t be about video games. I’m just getting it out of my system early on.
Speaking of system…
I’m talking about THE Super Nintendo Entertainment System.
Whew, what a piece of art. Everything about it was so great. From the purple buttons on the box to the games it played, I can’t gush enough about my love for this thing.
Yeah Mario was great back in the 80s, but on Super NES he had a DINOSAUR to ride on.
Back in 1994, my sisters got a Super NES for Christmas. I was only 4, but I caught on quick. By my birthday the following August, the Super NES was mine. The rest is history.
And now, 20 plus years later, history is repeating itself, and a miniature Super NES is coming out, preloaded with 20 or so of its best games.
When Nintendo announced back in July that this was coming soon, something inside of me immediately said, “I need this.”
Now you're talking to someone who still has his original Super NES on his desk at home (alongside the Japanese version), plugged into a small monitor so that I can play it at any given time. Lindsey won't let me set up a giant CRT in our living room for the optimum experience, but I’m still praying things may change there.
But the convenience of having a mini version with digital copies of some of my favorite games, is too awesome to pass up. It’s got must buy written all over it.
About a month ago, the Super NES Classic went up for preorder, and when I got the notification on my phone, the must in my mind, went to my heart, and I feverishly attended to my phone until I was able to secure one thru Target. This was after 30 minutes of several other retailer’s websites freezing up and crashing, only to show that the system was sold out upon checkout.
Turns out mine isn't going to ship until next week. Oh, the agony.
Apparently, a lot of other people felt the same must that I did.
Perhaps you can relate to this notion of must. There’s external pressure at times that provoke us to must. More often, there are internal pressures that have an even greater influence on us.
I’ve had this thought on my mind in regard to my faith for the last few weeks. A passage from Acts 5 caught my attention and I couldn't get away from it. I had been studying and preparing to preach on this idea at church, and then at a preaching conference last week one of the speakers spoke from that very text… on this very thought.
I guess God was upping the dosage of must for me. I knew that I had to dive deeper into this idea.
Acts 5:27-31 takes us midstream of a narrative featuring the apostles and the Jewish authorities. The same council that killed Jesus was seeking to kill the movement He had left behind.
You’d think His followers would have taken it easy after the Resurrection. Hang out by the Sea of Galilee, hope Jesus shows up for breakfast every Thursday, maybe have a campfire on weekends and share their favorite Jesus memories.
They could even reminisce and act out some of His parables, like the one about the two sets of footprints in the sand.
(Sorry forgot chapter and verse on that one)
But no, Jesus told them they should hang out in Jerusalem until He sent them a gift.
Boy, they weren't expecting the gift that they received. The Spirit of God descended upon the Upper Room, not to fill the room, but to fill their hearts.
From that day on, they couldn't stop telling people about Jesus.
What was different? It became personal. Of course, they had known Jesus in the flesh for years, but He was gone, into heaven. And I don't think I have to explain how quickly we can forget or get distracted. We’re all kind of like we were in high school when the teacher walked out of the room for 5 minutes and returned to see someone jumping out of the window.
That happened in my class a couple of times. I may or may not have been one of the jumpers.
But the Holy Spirit showed up and all of the sudden the disciples felt different.
They had the power that had just raised Jesus from the dead within them, after all.
Can you imagine what was running through their heads? Jesus had used His power to turn water into wine, walk on water, and even make a man’s ear grow back. They suddenly had this power at their disposal.
Yet, what followed wasn't a hedonistic spree at all. They realized what the Spirit meant to them above all else. They were reconciled to God, and would always be in His presence. In spite of their sin, guilt, and shame, the presence they had felt surrounded by for three years, they now felt fulfilled and filled by.
The wellspring that Jesus talked about so often was now gushing up within them, a geyser of eternal life.
They had to tell everyone about this guy who had changed their lives. The same Jesus they had denied and forsook. They watched him take the fall for the entire group. They hid in the distance as He was nailed on a cross and placed on a hillside before a bloodthirsty mob.
He died and was buried, and they gave up. They had wasted three years of their lives on a man whose legitimacy as Messiah and a prophet was invalidated upon His death. What kind of Son of God, Messiah, Savior, or whatever you wanna call Him, could die such a death?
After the reports of His resurrection began to circulate, they laughed and told some of the eyewitnesses that they would never believe such a fairy tale (Luke 24:11).
Yet then they became eyewitnesses. They couldn't believe or understand it. But they had seen and heard Him with their own eyes (Acts 4:20). On top of that, they hadn't just witnessed the resurrection, but now they had experienced it.
They knew what they had to do.
The same authorities that tried to shut down Jesus were sure they could stop these men with similar threats. But after being arrested, beaten, arrested again, imprisoned, and miraculously let go, they still couldn't stop spreading the Good News.
People needed to know about Jesus. People had to hear. There was a must within them as potent and as present as the Spirit of God.
“But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.” - Acts 5:29
I know we juggle a lot of musts in life: family, jobs, hobbies. We are pulled in 100 directions, and we barely have time for ourselves most days. We are always doing what other people want us to do. Sometimes we think we owe ourselves an out, or two, heck, probably a few more.
I don’t know what determines your musts. But I do know that something does. Somebody does.
We all live by this unwritten rule it seems: If I don’t, life won’t.
The line is drawn on the axis of what we care about and what we can’t live without.
If we care, we must. If we can’t live without, we must.
I think it’s only appropriate in light of the early believers’ legacy, in light of those that have gone before us, and most importantly, knowing who Jesus is and how glorious He is.
That we deal with a question that might at first warrant an eye-roll from most, but deep down we all know needs to be dealt with:
Where does Jesus and His Kingdom rank on our list of musts?
Now listen, I’m a pastor and I know there’s nothing that rubs some of you the wrong way then being told that you must do something for God.
We love choice. We love volunteering. The fastest way to turn someone off of being involved is telling them that they should be involved.
And that’s a shame, honestly.
I mean, come on. We don't tell our spouses or bosses that we'd rather opt in or out of our commitment as much or as often as we'd like to. We continue through the good or the bad because we must, right?
Must isn't legalism. It’s conviction. It’s a sense of ought that comes from our deepest heart of hearts.
And when it comes to our relationship with God, this proves especially true. It can't be fabricated or forced. It’s the natural overflow of our hearts once we behold all that God has done for us thru Christ, after we’ve responded to His call over us.
Faith is a gift from God. This must is too. We are brought to salvation by God’s grace. We are embedded in its power and joy by His grace.
There is an inner compulsion within all of you - within all of us - that directs us toward our Creator - that calls us to our Savior.
God can use many things to get our attention concerning this.
Maybe He’ll use this blog. Heck, that’d be more than I could ever have imagined Him doing with my ministry 10 years ago when I first developed a sense of calling.
I didn't wanna do this. I didn't know how or where to start. I just knew that I had a must that I couldn't ignore.
To this day I have a lot of other musts. They seem and feel more important on most days.
But I’ve learned as much as I think this world requires of me. My soul demands more.
I know that there are eternal consequences for acting as if there is anything more important than the cries of my soul.
I don’t know what God is calling you to do. I’d never try to figure that out or impose.
But I do know that all of us wrestle with a lot of musts on any given day.
It’s my prayer that we sort out what is most needful.
Every day when I open the Bible I know that God is speaking to me. His word reminds me of the must inside of me.
I know that your job is important. I know that school is important. I know that you family is a big deal.
But as much as our lives would be in shambles if we took a day off from those things.
If we ignore the most important must, we run the risk of missing out on something incredible.
If we seek Him first, we have an opportunity to leverage all of the things we love and have in our lives for eternal good. We can see them become a part of our faith journey, and realize the true purpose of the genuinely good, God-given gifts in our life.
But whatever you do, don't miss the most important must of them all.
Abide in Christ, He’ll abide in you.
Oh, would you look at the time? I’ve got to run to Walmart for the midnight launch of the Super NES classic. I hope they don't sell out.
If you see one be sure to pick one up. Remember, it's a must buy.
Smell the Milk
Oh hey, I didn't expect you to talk back to me.
If you’ve found your way here it's because you know me, or you know someone who knows me. You may know a lot about me. Maybe you’d like to know more. This blog will be a way for me to relate my passion for preaching and teaching about the Christian Faith, with some other things I’m passionate about.
I grew up in the Nineties. When I think of the Nineties, the first thing that comes to my mind is a dinosaur. That might tell you a lot about how my mind works. Does this blog have anything to do with dinosaurs? I really wish so, but no.
Sometimes I refer to the Nineties as the Nintendo Nineties. Actually I've never done that before. It just sounded too good not to write. I played a lot of video games growing up. One of the series I played and still enjoy the most is The Legend of Zelda. In one of the games there is a bar. Don't worry, it’s not that kind of bar. It’s a milk bar. It's kind of like an exclusive night club. You've got to wear a cow mask to get in. Doesn't that sound awesome? Once you are a member of this exclusive club, you get to enjoy some music, talk to other world-wearied patrons, and of course, buy some milk. Stocking up on milk is a good way to restore your health in the middle of a quest. This particular Zelda game also features a time limit for each play session. In the game the clock shows that you have three days to complete your missions.
Not three literal days. Whew, that would’ve caused me to miss a lot of school as a kid. You only have a short amount of time to get things done in the game before it resets. So like milk itself, each play session has an understood expiration date.
Did I mention that I love Fairlife milk? Specifically chocolate milk. I like to thin it down a little with fat free milk before drinking. The regular chocolate is *just too thick*.
Maybe you’ve never considered if you have anything in common with the carton of milk in your fridge. But friends, I’ve got good news for you!
You and your milk carton have one big thing in common: An Expiration Date.
If you're reading this, odds are you haven't reached your expiration date yet. Hopefully the milk in your fridge hasn't either. Be sure to smell it before you drink it!
(Dinosaurs met their expiration date a long time ago, so there's that)
In all seriousness, we might not think about it a lot, but as sure as we had a beginning, we have an end somewhere in our future.
This past Sunday we studied Daniel 5 in our worship service. It's the story of a king who knows he's in trouble, but chooses to revel in his privilege while he still can. King Belshazzer was the king of the ancient empire, Babylon. It ruled the Middle East for decades, but its time was coming to an end. The Medes and Persians had teamed up to take Babylon down. As the old saying goes, the writing was on the wall.
And in this case, it literally was.
While Belshazzer was drinking himself to death with his buddies, the armies of the Medes and Persians had besieged the capital city, and an invasion was imminent. During the party, just before everyone passed out drunk, amidst their carousing, a hand appeared floating through the room.
Now, I''ve never gotten drunk, or high or anything like that (shocking I know). Heck, if a bottle of prescription drugs has a "may cause dizziness” warning on the side I’m too terrified to take it. I may not have the best mind, but I really don't want to be *out of it*. So maybe seeing things was a normal side effect of Babylonian binge drinking. Who knows. But they clearly weren't prepared for what happened that night. This hand spooked everyone into silence. The story goes that a single finger wrote on the wall of the banquet hall a few words that no one could understand. They were drunk, of course.
Interpreted into English, the inscription read: Number, Number, Weighed, Divided
Even if they could have deciphered what was written, the bigger question was, what did this mean?
Well, Daniel was summoned. He hadn't been on the scene or in the administration for a while. Perhaps Nebuchadnezzar had given him a nice loft overlooking the Hanging Gardens to retire in.
He showed up and delivered a sermon that he had preached to Belshazzer’s grandpa a few decades earlier: “God gave you your power. You've abused it. You’ve mocked Him. You’ve ignored reality. Now you're going to lose everything.”
The “Number, Number" part suggests a beginning and an end.
Tombstones have two sets of numbers on them: a birth date and a date of death. Belshazzer was shown his expiration date. It was that very night.
I could make a joke about seeing your own obituary column in the newspaper, but that’d be mean. Also, I don't read the newspaper. I just check Warlick’s website once a week.
The writing was on the wall. Everyone knew it. Belshazzer wanted to impress his buddies one last time, but they knew things weren't gonna last. Usually when we think we can distract people from knowing what’s broken and wrong in our lives, they already know. They’ve probably already told someone else about it. Hopefully not! But you know how people can be.
In between the date of birth and death on a tombstone is a dash. This dash is the same for everyone, no matter the numbers. The dash, however, is the most important part. It contains our life. That dash is where we lived, how we lived, and who we were throughout our life. This dash is going to be weighed one day, when its followed by our expiration date.
Belshazzer’s dash was weighed, and it was found unfulfilled. He hadn't lived up to his potential in life. He had squandered his God-given opportunity to leverage his life for a greater purpose and to work towards an eternal kingdom. Instead, he put all of his stock in himself, and in the kingdom that was already surrounded by its enemies.
What would it profit a person to gain the whole world at the expense of their one connection with their creator and the world beyond this one? Read Daniel 5. That’s exactly what we can look forward to if that describes us.
Belshazzer’s kingdom was divided and given to someone else. He spent that last night of his life drunk on himself, and died in the midst of his own foolishness.
Meanwhile, Daniel had outlasted Judah, Babylon, and would even go on to thrive as a key figure in the Kingdom of Persia. He purposed in his heart early in life that he was going to live for his Heavenly Father (Daniel 1:8). He could've quit, sold out, and given up a dozen times. He didn't lose faith in times of distress. When Judah was conquered and he was taken captive, he determined to be the best slave he could be. And he didn't dismiss his faith when he found success, after gaining favor with King Nebuchadnezzar. He remained faithful no matter what, because he had perspective. He knew that before his dash began, "Heaven ruled" (4:26). He knew this Kingdom would be around long after him too. The "Ancient of Days" (7:9) held the future in His hands.
Every day I look myself in the mirror and ask, “Who are you living for?”. Every day is a gift, and if we don't live in light of the coming Kingdom of Jesus Christ, we are just as foolish as King Belshazzer.
Take Daniel’s advice. Honor “the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways.” (Daniel 5:23)
Jesus loves you,