Faith; February 11, 2019

John 6:29, 40 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
“For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

It struck me as I read this that we have a very shallow definition of faith. This certainly isn’t talking about mere intellectual assent. Rather, it is talking about something that changes the way we live, our whole philosophy of life. Just yesterday in the sermon the Lord had me insert something that wasn’t in my notes, after I had talked about how faith is signing onto God’s contract with us: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) This passage certainly reinforces that. God doesn’t demand instant perfection, as every Bible character testifies. However He does look for forward motion, so to speak. If we aren’t drawing closer to Him, we are effectively drifting away. Sometimes we even run away! God is incredibly patient with us, and verse 39 is very comforting: “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day.” We aren’t to be paranoid about whether we will “lose our salvation,” but neither are we to take things for granted and just coast. The deeper faith becomes, the more it shapes every part of our lives. That’s why Jesus could say that believing in Him is doing the work of God.

Of course, this applies to me as much as it does to anyone. I can’t say, or even think, that “I’ve done all this so God doesn’t ask anything more of me.” Rather, I need to keep growing, keep pressing in for more of Him. I well remember an analogy Jack Hayford used of rocks in a field. Before we are saved, it’s like there’s a huge boulder in the middle of the field. Salvation removes that boulder, but before long we realize that there are lots of head-sized rocks scattered over the field, and we start working on getting those out. With that done, (and really before it’s finished) we realize that there are almost countless fist-sized rocks to be dealt with. Thankfully, each step down in size is easier to handle, but my arm can get tired of pitching those fist-sized rocks out of my life! It can be a shock to run into another head-sized rock when I thought I had those taken care of, but that’s why humility is essential. I’ve had plenty of “stubbed toes” from that sort of experience! The more rocks are out of the field, the easier it is for God to grow the crop He desires from my life, and that is my goal.

Father, thank You for this reminder. Thank You for all You are doing in this church. Some of it is surprising, but all of it is good. I ask for wisdom and anointing for everything I am to be involved in today. I also ask Your strength and healing for Cathy, who is dealing with a lot of pain today from her Parkinson’s. May we both keep pressing in to You, so that You may do in and through us all that You desire, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Serving God; February 10, 2019

John 5:19, 30 Jesus gave them this answer: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. By myself I can do nothing.

Something really clicked as I read this just now. This is exactly what Jesus later said about us, talking to His disciples in the upper room just before His crucifixion: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) Jesus didn’t place any restrictions on us that He Himself didn’t deal with! He never took Himself away from the Father, and we likewise are to abide in Him. This is a picture of spiritual unity that we have great difficulty wrapping our minds around because of our present sinful imperfection. Anyone who claims to be perfectly in harmony with the Father and the Son right now is, at best, deceiving themselves. (Philippians 3:12-14) At worst, they are charlatans, trying to manipulate those around them. However, imperfect as we are, we still can act as God’s agents when our hearts are in line with Him, and just as Paul said in the passage just referenced, it should be our goal to do that with increasing frequency and fidelity. Our natural human tendency is to be “independent as a hog on ice,” as my mother used to say. Spiritual maturity is learning that we have no more hope of real success on our own than a pig with no traction would have. We are not to resent that but rather rejoice that God has made it possible, through Christ, for us to indeed operate in Him, and so do really worthwhile things.

I am as much in this paradigm as anyone else. Because of my upbringing I have been aware of dependence on God in theory all my life, but I have forgotten it in practice more times than I like to think about. Spiritual and intellectual pride have been huge weaknesses for me. God showed me that rather dramatically back in 1972, and I repented in tears, but I have had countless relapses since then. It was within the past 20 years that God finally got it through to me that He’s smart and I’m not. Up until then I thought it was a difference in degree, but even such thinking is blind pride. I am not to discount or ignore the gifts that God has placed in me, but I have got to remember, at all times and in all circumstances, that those gifts accomplish nothing good apart from submission to God. When I am totally available and submitted to Him, nothing is impossible because it is God working through me. When I am not so available and submitted, all of my limitations come into play, and they are countless. I’ve got to remember that not even Jesus operated apart from the Father.

Father, thank You for this powerful reminder. Thank You for all You did in the conference just passed, and all You are going to do right here today. Help me rest, relax, and rejoice in You, just as You have told me to do, so that Your will may be done in me, in this church, in this city, and in this nation, for Your pleasure and glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Evangelism; February 9, 2019

John 3:14-15 “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

Verse 16 being the most famous verse in the whole Bible, these verses get somewhat overshadowed. They are actually vitally important, particularly for anyone involved in Christian ministry. We tend to get all involved in programs and techniques and “movements,” when Jesus Himself said the key was that He Himself be lifted up. (Interestingly, the Shinkaiyaku Japanese translation ends the quote with verse 15, making verse 16 and following John’s commentary on what Jesus said. Since koine Greek didn’t have punctuation of any sort, much less quotation marks, that’s actually not at all unreasonable, given an objective examination of the text.) We rightly understand that Jesus was talking about His crucifixion, since the pole Moses used would logically have had a crosspiece to hold up the bronze snake. However, that’s far from the end of it. John later records some Greeks asking to see Jesus, and Jesus took that as a sign from the Father that His time was at hand. (John 12:20-23) When people see Jesus, through our words or our lives or however, they are drawn to Him. (Actually, those who are in rebellion may try to run from Him, but that is futile by definition.) Accordingly, the task of every believer is to seek for Jesus to be as evident as possible in their life. We tend strongly to relegate evangelism to “professionals,” when the mandate is given to every believer. (Matthew 28:18-20) We are to be witnesses, that is, lift up Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 1:8) Likewise, “professional Christians” too often lift themselves up, rather than lifting up the Lord they serve. If we want lasting fruit, we must lift up Jesus, above and before and beyond anything or anyone else.

I certainly desire to lift up Jesus, but my level of fruitfulness, or rather lack of it, gives me pause. The comfort there is that nobody is terribly fruitful in Japan! Many Japanese pastors and missionaries have chased techniques, since what they were doing obviously wasn’t working, but that is an exercise in futility. The churches in Japan that seem most “vibrant” and “successful” are in areas with large immigrant populations, and it is those non-Japanese that are providing the vibrance. Thankfully, Japanese young people do get pulled into that, but the energy tends to be with the foreigners. I need to seek the Lord as to how to lift up Christ to the Japanese, and not try to copy some “successful” church elsewhere. Nothing is impossible for God, so I need to let the Holy Spirit work through me freely.

Father, thank You for this reminder. Thank You for the awesome conference that just finished, and for getting us home safely. I pray that everything You said in that conference may bear abundant fruit, not only in me but in every participant, on the stage and off, for the sake of Your kingdom and Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Rejection and Acceptance; February 8, 2019

John 1:10-11 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.

Everyone has a deep and abiding need to be accepted, to belong, but we have that need fulfilled to widely varying degrees. Everyone feels like an outsider sometimes, and some feel like an outsider most of the time. That last situation can be dangerous, because it is part of the makeup of a sociopath. The key word here is “feel,” because the objective facts have relatively little to do with how we react. That’s what makes it so tricky. Obsessing on whether or not we are accepted demonstrates our fundamental self-centeredness. The obvious solution for any Christian is to look at Jesus. We recognize that He took our sins on Himself on the cross, but often we fail to realize that He also took our rejection on Himself throughout His whole life. As John points out here, He had more reason to be accepted and welcomed than anyone else ever has or could have, but He was still rejected by the majority of those around Him. Even His own family thought He was weird! In one sense His isolation was by His choice, but in another sense it wasn’t His choice at all. He chose to be born on earth as a human baby, knowing that He would be accepted by a small minority of those He encountered, but that wasn’t what He would have preferred. His natural choice would have been for everyone who saw Him to recognize who He was and give Him the love and obedience He was due as the Son of God. His 12 disciples came closest to that, but even there, Judas betrayed Him for money and even Peter said he didn’t know Him. There is no level of rejection we could experience that Jesus hasn’t topped it, just as this passage says. Accordingly, just as we accept that He died for our sins, we need to believe that He endured rejection for our acceptance, and rejoice in Him regardless of people’s reactions toward us.

I am something of a case study in this issue. Growing up as a Caucasian in Japan, rejection was built into the situation. Going to school as a Missionary Kid on a US Air Force base, there was a very real level of separation there. Being a geek certainly didn’t improve the situation! Then, going to the US, my life experiences to that point were so different from my peers that I had great difficulty fitting in. However, along the way I have been incredibly blessed, receiving a wife at a young age and having an enduring marriage, making friends of various sorts all along the way. Living in Japan as I do, I still feel very much “other” more than I would like, even though this is very much my home. More than others, perhaps, I need to remember what Jesus chose to endure for me, not taking rejection personally but rejoicing that I am a child of God, as it says in the very next verse. It is nice when I am accepted by the people around me, but it is far more important that I am accepted by my God, through faith in Jesus Christ my Lord.

Father, I didn’t expect this particular lesson at this point. Thank You for knowing what I need, and when. Thank You for all that You are doing in and through this conference, in and through me and everyone else here. As we go home today may we not forget what You have said to us in this time, but rather live it out in bold obedience, indeed seeking first Your kingdom and Your righteousness, for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Seeking Jesus; February 7, 2019

Luke 24:5-6 In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!”

I have heard this passage used many times to encourage people to leave “dead” churches and go to one with more “life,” but often enough that is a thinly veiled excuse for “sheep stealing.” However, it is very true that we often seek Christ, or seek God in general, in the wrong places. Even churches can be hotbeds of “New Age” teaching. If you encounter a church like that, indeed look elsewhere. However, sometimes the churches quoting this passage are those “New Age” ones! The most important point is actually seeking Christ, rather than seeking a particular experience or even a particular tradition and/or theology. It is my observation that theology can become an idol itself, a substitute for a relationship with a living Lord. It’s not at all that theology is unimportant, but rather that theology must be lived to be meaningful. We can get tied to words instead of relationships. Recently Marie Kondo’s philosophy of discarding things that “don’t give you joy” has become quite a fad. Taken casually that’s far too shallow for our spiritual life, but with a bit more thought, it can be very helpful. When we define joy as that which brings us closer to our Lord, then it can help us avoid “seeking the living among the dead.” There are disciplines, such as regular morning devotions, that can at times seem burdensome, but if our focus is on drawing closer to Christ, they are no burdens at all. Different people respond differently to a number of things, which is one reason we have denominations, but our focus must be on Jesus Christ our Lord.

Being at a conference focused on “One New Man; Israel and the Church,” I am being exposed to various unfamiliar traditions. However, there is remarkable – and glorious – agreement that Jesus alone is Lord, and He is worthy of our total devotion. Even in Paul’s day there were people who were trying to retreat into Jewish traditions, prompting him to write the letter to the Galatians. The people who are here from Israel are not in the Galatian camp! I am not to jump on some “bandwagon” just because it seems interesting. Rather, I am to focus on my Lord and recognize that His plans are far greater than any human system. As is being stressed, the unity that He desires isn’t just between Jews and Gentiles, it is among all ethnic, racial, and national groups. That’s a strong Word here in Japan, with deep-seated feelings toward some other Asian nations! I am indeed to seek that which draws me closer to my Lord and His children, whatever label those children might carry.

Father, thank You for all that You are doing on so many levels. It’s certainly more than I can keep track of! Help me hear You clearly and follow You fully, doing what You have for me to do and supporting the rest in prayer, so that in all things Your will may be done on Your schedule for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Restoration; February 6, 2019

Luke 22:61-62 The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the cock crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.

This was a pivotal moment in Peter’s life. Up until this point he had always gotten away with making excuses, but that certainly didn’t cut it here. His pride was demolished in an instant. Unlike Judas, who maintained his desire to be in control to the point of killing himself, Peter just let everything go, and that was what prepared him to be the speaker at Pentecost, the leader who presided over the birth of the Church. Our pride always gets in the way of our being used by God. We can only imagine what was in Jesus’ heart and expression when He looked at Peter, but we can be sure that love was paramount. That said, it wasn’t a weak, permissive love, but one that called Peter to account, to repentance. Thankfully, for Peter and for all believers since, Peter did indeed repent. His failure was so huge that it took a private appearance by Jesus after His resurrection to enable Peter to do anything but weep. (Luke 24:34) (Don Francisco has written a powerful narrative song about that encounter.) Once Peter’s pride was out of the way, he indeed became the Rock that Jesus had nicknamed him at their first encounter. Until this moment, “reliable” was probably not a word most people would have used to describe him. God does whatever is necessary to prepare His servants for service, but it is always in love, even when the process is painful indeed.

I’ve had some moments when God confronted me with my weakness, and they are never comfortable. However, the end result is always comforting, because they remind me that not only am I unworthy, God is always able to use even such a flawed vessel as I am. We all face moments of temptation to deny that we know Jesus, even if not as dramatic as Peter faced. I need to keep my eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:2) and encourage others to do likewise. I am currently dealing with someone who has had a major failure. I am not to excuse, but I am to forgive as I have been forgiven. I certainly need God’s wisdom as to how to go about that, because mine is insufficient. I don’t know what God’s plans are for him, but God has repeatedly given him Jeremiah 29:11 as a personal verse, and it is certainly true. I need to remember that God’s best for him fits in perfectly with His best for me, as my own father pointed out in his letter to the family just before the surgery from which he woke up in heaven. Human failures are exactly that, human, and God is greater than anything we could ever do, good or bad.

Father, thank You for this Word. Thank You for being bigger that my failures! Thank You for using me in Your plans. May I not allow pride of any sort to get in the way, but flow with Your Spirit on Your schedule for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Forgiveness; February 5, 2019

Luke 5:20 When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”

Forgiveness is one of the major themes of the whole Bible. Right after including forgiveness in teaching His disciples to pray, Jesus said what has got to be one of the most severe things recorded as coming from His mouth: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15) On top of that, after He was resurrected He said, “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:23) At the time of this story, the Pharisees and teachers of the law very reasonably thought only God could forgive sins. (verse 21) However, Jesus proceeded to demonstrate the reality of the forgiveness He had proclaimed by healing the man physically as well. We are obviously called to radical forgiveness, but we really struggle with it. We relish in revenge, when even in the Old Testament God proclaimed, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay.” (Deuteronomy 32:35) This is quoted both in Romans 12:19 and Hebrews 10:30. Failing to forgive others is a clear indication we don’t understand how much we ourselves have done, against God and against other people. It also shows we don’t understand the holiness and purity of God, so that anything unholy disqualifies us from even drawing near to Him. When we do understand all of this, in light of what Jesus said right after teaching the Lord’s Prayer, we will fall all over ourselves in our haste to forgive others. All of this is an extremely difficult thing to teach in Japan. Not only is there the simple linguistic difficulty of most people using strictly a character that means “permission,” rather than the homophone that actually means Biblical forgiveness, there is also the factor that revenge has long been highly honored in Japanese culture. One of the best-loved historical tales is of the 47 samurai whose lord was forced to commit suicide in dishonor, and they sacrificed their own families and their own lives to avenge him. The Japanese title for that story is The Storehouse of Faithfulness. That makes the Gospel radical indeed in Japan, but to be honest, I’m not sure people in other countries do that much better at forgiveness.

This is extremely close to home right now. I have recently found out that a man who was my assistant pastor but who left the church abruptly over a year ago has been spreading lies about me in that interval. What complicates things is that he has just come back to attending this church. The response that most Japanese who know about the situation expect is for me to exclude him from our fellowship, but I haven’t done that. Several years ago one of the members of this church said to me, “You keep talking about forgiveness, and the difference between the two characters. People can’t understand it that way. You’ve got to demonstrate radical forgiveness yourself before people will be able to grasp it.” He was quite right, and now the Lord has given me an opportunity to do exactly that. The marvelous thing is, I’m not finding it very difficult! God’s grace is indeed sufficient. (2 Corinthians 12:9) That’s not at all to say that what my former assistant pastor did was OK, or that he doesn’t need to repent. Repentance is between him and God, but it will certainly be manifested in his actions once he follows through. (Matthew 3:8) Meanwhile, my failing to forgive would benefit no one and would certainly harm me. The most radical forgiveness of all was when Jesus went to the cross for all our sins, and I must never forget it.

Father, thank You for this clear Word. I had wondered how to confront this brother, and had been intending to do it privately, but what he has done has been very public, and it needs to be brought out into the open. I pray that I would do and say only and exactly what You want me to, so that Your love may be paramount and the works of the devil be destroyed, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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