Four Soils – Weeds of Affluence

buckhornRecently, a friend of mine decided that he wanted to follow Jesus, but he had a serious roadblock arise in that his only remaining family member, who happened to be the person who raised him since he was a small boy, told him that if he were to decide to follow through with his plans to be baptized, he would disown him as family and he should not call him again.

As you can imagine, this sent my friend into a bit of a tailspin.  This was very difficult for him to hear.  I don’t think he realized how significant of a division that his decision to follow Jesus could cause.

That night, as he was telling me of this situation, we had planned to read the words of Jesus about the four soils.  This story is found in full in Matthew 13:1-23, but in summary, Jesus told a parable of a farmer who sowed seeds, which fell on four different types of soil:

  1. A path that had been walked over, creating hard ground that the seed couldn’t penetrate into.
  2. Rocky soil where the seed couldn’t penetrate and create a root into the ground.
  3. Soil that had many thorns and weeds in it.
  4. Good soil that was ready to receive the seed and grow a large harvest.

In the case of my friend, the story remains to be seen but seems to be going in a good direction.  And we are praying for his family member, that their heart will be softened to accept my friend and the decision that he has made.

Of course, with my friend, we were concerned that the seed had fallen onto soil that had the thorns and weeds, which in this case would be the family relationships.  In other words, would the strain of this relationship cause my friend to not follow Jesus?  We would need to see whether that was the case, or if his heart actually was good soil so that a great harvest, not only of his life but also many others, could be achieved.

At the same time, I have other friends who have been around churches for quite a while, and I have heard some of them profess their faith in Christ, but now they are questioning why, exactly, they need God at all.  They have said that they have been able to figure out solutions to all of their problems on their own based on their own resources and intelligence.

These are also some significant and powerful weeds.  It is pretty ironic, but I think that it is very possible to become so lulled into apathy by the blessing that we have been given, no matter how small or large, that we can forget where that blessing actually comes from.  God is the one who gives us everything that we have.  To believe that you have generated all of your own solutions, blessings, monies, etc., is really to have a misunderstanding of your life, your abilities, and your capabilities.  Of course, every life is different, but there will likely come a time during your life when you will need to decide who is actually delivering that blessing.  You?  Or God?  And at that time, it will become clear that all of this affluence, while it has been an amazing blessing to you, has actually become like the weeds on the story of Jesus, crowding out seed that God has been trying to sow in your life.

So my hope is that we will all learn this now, learn that it is God who gives us what we have and that it will all one day be gone, so now we need to decide how we will use these blessings.  To follow Him and produce the crop that the good soil will produce?  Or to simply enjoy the blessings for ourselves, solely living our lives the way that we would like and turning away from what God is doing in us?  We each need to decide.

Outline to December 25 2016 Talk

It is time for me to begin to put together an outline for my talk in the next 10 days.  Of course, this will be subject to change, but here are some of my ideas about what I want to say:

  • Reading of the story of the birth of Jesus – Luke 2:1-20
  • God has a way of starting amazing new things with a child
    • Of course, we have just read an amazing story with the birth of Jesus, but there are other examples as well.
      • Moses was a baby when he was set out into the river to be taken into the Egyptian palace, only to one day lead the Exodus out of Egypt.
      • As a baby, Samuel was dedicated to the Lord by his mother Hannah and he would go on to anoint the first kings of Israel.  His anointing of David would ultimately produce the family line that Jesus would come from.
      • Just before Jesus was born, John the Baptist was born and he would go on to prepare the people of Israel for the coming of their King.
    • The story of our family
      • Receiving a phone call from Gina while on the airplane waiting on return home from Miami.
      • A very difficult time for Gina and myself gave way to incredible joy with Hannah’s birth shortly afterward.
      • But then, a little while after that, we found that Gina was pregnant again, and yet again, we had another tubal pregnancy.  The doctors tried to be careful in removing the child from the tube so that we would have the opportunity to have more children in the future, but it didn’t work out.  The test showed that the tube had been completely blocked, so that tube was no longer functional.
      • We were foster parents for a while and saw some amazing healing with children born with drug addictions and with major injuries, but after a while, we decided that we wanted to have children permanently because we felt we had love to give, so we pursued international adoption.  This couple from the middle of nowhere America decided to go to China and Ethiopia and bring home two little girls.  They would be our daughters, little sisters to Hannah, and older sisters to their little brother.
      • We still aren’t sure how it happened, but God gave us Evan.  We found out that we were pregnant with him while in the adoption process with Julia.
      • There are so many details that I could tell you about each of the stories of each of these children, but I will simply say that God did a miracle through each of them.
      • Today, we look like a crazy family stumbling around trying to figure out what we are doing here in Italy, but much of that story started with the story of these children.  If God had not shown Himself to us, giving us the faith to do new, amazing things, I don’t think we would be here today.  If God had not taken us to places like China and Ethiopia to see some places that we might call the ends of the earth, I don’t think we would have come to love people across the earth in the small way that we do now.
      • We believe that God began a chapter of His story in our lives through our children.
  • One of my favorite things to do when I am reading a passage of scripture is to try to take a step back and ask a simple question:  “What is God doing here?”.  There are probably many more ways that this could be described, but here are a couple of thoughts:
    • God is demonstrating His amazing love and forgiveness to His people.
      • Yes, of course, when Jesus would eventually die and be resurrected, we were given both a God and Person in whom we could put our faith for the forgiveness of our sins.
      • But if we are going to figure out what God is doing here, we should think about what has been happening between God and His people up to this point.
      • All of the way back in the time of Moses (Deuteronomy 28:62-65), he gives the people a warning that they should follow God and love Him by obeying Him.  And He explains what will happen in the event that they don’t obey him.  Their nation will be destroyed and the people will be scattered across the faith of the earth.
      • God begins this process shortly after the time of King Solomon, around the year 740 BC, by setting in motion the Assyrian empire to conquer the Israelites (1 Chronicles 5:26).
      • And so God carries out an earthly judgment on His people, using other empires on earth to conquer and rule over them.  One empire after the next rules over Israel:
        • Assyrians
        • Babylonians
        • Persians
        • Greeks
        • Romans
      • So this goes on for just over 700 years, and God even cuts off prophetic communication for those last 400 years.  The last thing said is that Elijah will return (Malachi 4:4-6).  And then…nothing.  No word from God.
      • Then suddenly, the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah.  He and Elizabeth are old and barren, without children, but they will have a child whose name will be John, meaning “Yahweh is gracious”.  God is breaking into this drought of judgment and silence.  This child’s purpose will be to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah.
      • And shortly after that, Gabriel appears to Mary, a virgin.  Her son will be named Jesus, meaning “Yahweh is salvation”.
      • God is passing the baton from the old covenant through Zechariah and Elizabeth who will have John to Joseph and Mary who will usher in the new covenant through Jesus.
      • I believe that God is demonstrating amazing love for His people, giving them a new opportunity to follow Him, to love Him, to obey Him.  He could have just continued on in silence.  He could have just continued on in judgment.  But instead, it is as if rain is falling on a dry and scorched earth and something new will grow.
      • God is demonstrating His forgiveness and allowing them to come back to Him.
    • This leads me to the second answer to the question of what God is doing:  God is going to war to establish His true Kingdom on earth.
      • I believe that the main message of Jesus, and the main thing that he was showing to the people was the establishment of the Kingdom of God.
        • Mark 1:13-14:  After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
        • Matthew 4:23:  Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.
        • Luke 4:43:  But he said, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.”
      • When a king wants to create a kingdom, we normally see that he will go to war with those people who are currently in the place that he wants to occupy.
      • For example, when Joshua and the Israelites crossed the Jordan river to begin going into the promised land, what did they do?  At God’s direction, they marched around Jericho until the walls fell, and then they were able to take over that city for the purpose of establishing this new kingdom for God and His people in the land that God promised them.
      • In the same way, through the birth of Jesus, God is establishing His Kingdom by sending His son.
      • This baby is born as both God and man.  He is Immanuel, which means God with us.  Jesus is, and will continue to be, the King of heaven and earth.
      • The weapons of this war are different than the weapons of most wars.  Instead of weapons that bring death, Jesus is bringing grace, love, and healing.  He brings power that gives life.  He is showing them the way to follow God.
      • And so God is breaking into the world that He created, reestablishing Himself, even redefining who are His people, including not just one nation, but all of those who will love and obey God by following His Son Jesus.
  • What does all of this mean for me?  What are the implications of the birth of Jesus?  Here are three that I think apply to me and maybe to some of you as well.
    • First, sometimes I assume that I know what God is doing.
      • I know the program.
      • I believe I know how to please Him, and assume that I am doing all of that very well.
      • But then something surprises me.  Something goes differently than what I expect in a relationship or a circumstance, and I can learn something new that God wants to teach me.  God is working on me and he shows me something new, something I hadn’t thought of before.
      • The Jewish people were surprised when Jesus came.  They weren’t expecting him, really because they weren’t looking for him.
      • They thought that God wanted to continue to bless their kingdom, but in fact, God wanted a Kingdom of people who would love and obey Him.  A Kingdom that would last forever, not just a temporal, man-made kingdom here on earth.
      • God was doing something different than what they were expecting.  They thought they had it figured out.  They were pretty proud.
      • Just as Jesus came into the world, not only lowering himself from the position of God to be a human, but as a baby, I believe we all need to take a posture of humility before God.
      • We need to look to Him because He is God and knows what is right for us, much more than we do.
      • And from this posture of humility, we can be in a much better position to learn more quickly what God is doing in our lives and be ready to follow Him as He desires.
    • The second thing that I learn is the idea of forgiveness.
      • If there is anything that is easy for me to say but difficult for me to do, it is extending forgiveness when I feel that I have been wrong.
      • A man that I know suffers from anxiety consistently.  He is always worried about this fear or that problem.  He says that he sometimes has anxiety or panic attacks.
      • He told me recently of a situation with his family.  He said that someone had really offended him and he felt that he was right in this situation.  He said he was constantly thinking of this person and their disagreement.  He was becoming anxious about it!
      • We discussed that the only way out of this problem was to talk with them and forgive them.  Otherwise, he would continue to be offended and will constantly feel anxiety over this situation!
      • God had been angry with His people for worshiping other gods and doing terrible things as they worshiped this idols.
      • But yet, God decided that He loved His people and wanted to be reunited with them.  And so, He would send His son Jesus.
      • We should all follow God’s example!  Is there anyone that you need to extend forgiveness to?  If you haven’t, do you feel the effects within yourself?  Thinking about the situation and that person a lot?  We all struggle with this, but God led the way for us and showed us first how we can love by extending forgiveness to us.
    • And then finally, we saw that Jesus came to establish the Kingdom
      • Jesus’s plan was to announce and demonstrate the Kingdom.  His final command was that we were to baptize and make disciples.
      • These disciples will be the ones who make up the Kingdom.
      • I have to ask myself, “Am I following Jesus and obeying him in a way that would please him?”
      • “Am I following Jesus in such a way to please God instead of man?”
      • Someone recently asked me…How long to disciple the whole world if we started with one person making a disciple each year, and teaching that other person to do the same?  33 years
      • How long if we started with just the people in this church?  27 years
      • How long if we started with just the Evangelical Christians in Italy?  15 years
      • Jesus came to establish the Kingdom.  As his disciples, we need to be serious about the things that he has called us to do.
  • In this time of celebration and wonderful tradition, my prayer is that we can think carefully about what God was doing when he sent Jesus as a tiny baby and how we can be involved in continuing to carry out the plan that God has been carrying out through history.

History Leading Up to Christmas

bible-verses-about-judgment

Many years before God began His judgement of His people, Moses warned the Israelites that they must follow God or He will judge them.  He told the people:

You who were as numerous as the stars in the sky will be left but few in number, because you did not obey the Lord your God. Just as it pleased the Lord to make you prosper and increase in number, so it will please him to ruin and destroy you. You will be uprooted from the land you are entering to possess.

Then the Lord will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other. There you will worship other gods—gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your ancestors have known. Among those nations you will find no repose, no resting place for the sole of your foot. There the Lord will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart.

Deuteronomy 28:62-65

So, even before they took possession of the land that God had promised them and given them, Moses knew that God wanted them to follow Him only and that disobedience to Him would result in a severe consequence, that they would be destroyed and scattered from one end of the earth to another.

And these warnings continued through many prophets after Moses, but the people would not submit to God and follow Him.  Instead, we see that the people rejected God’s covenant and decrees, followed idols, imitated other godless nations, and even practiced divination and sacrificed their sons and daughters into the fire for these so-called gods.  And of course, all of this angered God greatly!

And so around the year 740 BC, God started to move His judgment upon the northern 10 tribes of Israel as the Assyrian empire began to attack and exile the people:

So the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul king of Assyria (that is, Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria), who took the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh into exile. He took them to Halah, Habor, Hara and the river of Gozan, where they are to this day.

1 Chronicles 5:26

God had not only established the nation of Israel, but had expanded it greatly.  But now, God was lifting His protection and pronouncing judgment on the Israelites and, with the exception of about one 80 year period, they would be under the rule of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and finally, the Roman empire.

The domination and oppression of other empires had lasted for nearly 700 years, so I think we can understand why the Israelites would be looking for a Messiah, a king who would lead them out from underneath these other empires, back to the glory days of David and Solomon, when the Israelites ruled themselves.

But that wasn’t God’s plan.  In fact, he never really intended to set up a political kingdom.  God wanted a people who would follow Him as their King.  And so, with this as the historical backdrop and context, we see Jesus come into the picture as the Messiah and King of kings.

The Names John and Jesus

rose-06What’s in a name?

Shakespeare, speaking through Juliet in the play Romeo and Juliet, suggests that there is nothing in a name.  And maybe, if you are speaking of a rose as Juliet was, you could call that flower by many other names and it would still smell as sweet as if you were calling it simply a “rose”.

But as beautiful and sweet-smelling as a rose is, it is nothing compared to the amazing beauty and fragrance given off by the life that God gives in the life that He offers to us.  As a result, I have to take exception with Shakespeare on this issue.  As it turns out, there is quite a lot in a name.

I mentioned previously that I am working on a talk at our Italian church for Christmas Day 2016 and thinking about Elizabeth giving birth to John the Baptist and Mary giving birth to Jesus.  It is interesting that there are similar accounts in the way that God approaches both Zechariah and Mary through the angel Gabriel, but one of the specific things that I noticed is that it was God who actually names these babies.  Yes, the parents ultimately give the names to the children, but they are taking their direction from the message that has been given to them by God through Gabriel.

For most things in life, men have given objects their names, but I think if God specifically decides that He will give something a name, we had probably better pay attention to that name and its meaning.  So, let’s take a look:

The name John:  Elizabeth knew what her child’s name was to be, but her neighbors and relatives were pretty sure that they knew better than her.  Zechariah knew what he had heard from God though and stepped in to make sure that there would be no doubt.  Everyone was astonished, but the child’s name would be John.

According to Behind the Name, the meaning of the name John is “Yahweh is gracious”.  I think that meaning probably provides a clue to both the historical context of this time as well as God’s intent for the future.  Gabriel had said that John would make ready a people prepared for the Lord, so I think what we are seeing is that, even in the name given to him by God, there is an indication of how the people should understand God’s upcoming actions in the next child to be named by God in Jesus.

The name Jesus:  Like John, God gave Jesus his name through Gabriel’s direction, but this time in instructions to Mary.  Looking again at Behind the Name, we see that the name Jesus in Aramaic is actually a contracted form of the name Joshua, so looking at the meaning of Joshua, we see that the name Jesus means “Yahweh is salvation”.

From the naming of these two children – names given by God Himself – we can see that God has come to the conclusion that He wants to be gracious to His people, and that He will be, as He has always been, the salvation for His people.  God is getting ready to do something amazing through His people, something that even His people weren’t ready for and couldn’t fully understand but would alter the course of all of history.

Elizabeth and Mary

240_f_76609044_iucmrzj1n7r8pgzz25uskmqpbdne1lkzThis year, our Italian church asked me to speak at their Christmas service.  I find it a little interesting given that I have never considered myself to be much of a preacher.  In fact, I have only delivered two sermons in my life, certainly preferring a smaller group teaching situation.  But in any case, I’m now seriously starting to work on what I will say.

As I’ve been re-reading the Christmas story, I have been struck by the context of Jesus entering the world.  Most specifically, I have been thinking about the juxtoposition of Elizabeth and Mary, the mothers of John the Baptist and Jesus.

On the one hand, you see Elizabeth.  She is an older woman, married to Zechariah who is a priest, and they have not been able to have children.  We don’t exactly know what the problem is, but the scripture does say that Elizabeth has been barren and hasn’t carried a child.  So, the likelihood that she would be able to have children now is incredibly low.

On the other hand, you have Mary.  She is a virgin, so for her, not only is it not likely, it is not possible for her to have a child.  Biology just doesn’t allow it.

And so now we see God using both of these women.  He sends the angel Gabriel initially to speak to Zechariach, and subsequently to Mary, who announces that they will both have sons and that they will both be great.

So, I’m thinking that this is the focus of what I want to speak about on Christmas.  God is doing something amazing and something new, and I think that it is possible that Elizabeth and Mary are possibly even symbolic of what God is doing.  Elizabeth is an older woman, married to a priest of Israel, and from her will come one who will announce the coming of the Messiah, the King of both Israel and the whole world.  This seems symbolic to me of Israel’s role:  to point toward the King, both the One who already is and the One who is about to come.  But like Elizabeth, this is the older order of things.  Very soon, it won’t just be about pointing toward the King.  Instead, God will soon be with us as Emmanuel, God with us here on earth.

I think that Mary, in her young age and virginity, not only represents a miracle in the virgin birth, but represents something new that God is doing in sending His son, Jesus.  God seems to be demonstrating that He is moving on from the old things, the old covenant that had been broken many times over, the old priestly order and its sacrifices, and moving on to new things.  Moving on to God being directly amongst His people.  Not just one physical people group, but to a people who will follow and obey, and most of all love Him.