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Riverside, California
Studying scripture and preaching the Word to draw us into deeper understanding and more faithful discipleship.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Jesus is...the true vine

How many of you have sent your kids off to college?  Do you remember that day where you unloaded all their things, maybe went to lunch, and spent a little time together before you got back on the road?  I dont know that its universal, but for a lot of parents, theres this pressure to make sure you reiterate all the most important lessons youve ever taught your child over the years.  Youve spent years trying to teach them and raise them in the proper way.  You want them to be a good human being with kindness and compassion for others.  You want them to be intelligent, studious and successful and do well in school, especially if youre footing the bill.  You want them to have fun and enjoy life, though hopefully not too much as theyre on their own for the first time.  And youre scared to death that everything youve ever taught them will fly out of their brain the moment you walk out the door.  You wont be there to caution them.  You wont be there to help them out in a jam. You wont be there to teach them and mold them.  Of course theres cell phones and internet but we all know its not the same. Its no where near the same as when theyre living in your house, supposedly following your rules.  So as you spend your last meal together before you go, you run through all the wisdom you have in your head.  You give tips and pointers for every possible scenario, at least all those you can cram into an hour of time.  You talk about eating well, getting good rest, going to class, being a good student, making friends, being a friend to those who are loners, being kind, being honest, helping someone who is having trouble, working hard. When in doubt, dont do it.  Just remember where you came from and who you are. Be who you are.  Remember that and youll be fine.  As many topics as you might cover, it always feels like youre missing something.  But you do you best to remind them of all the most important things theyll need to know to be successful out on their own. 
          Now, if we look at our scripture for today, in essence, Jesus is giving his last minute pep talk to the disciples.  I dont mean to trivialize it, but Jesus is talking to his disciples just hours before the crucifixion and he wants them to remember all that they have learned together.  They have already shared in the foot washing at the Passover meal and he has been reminding them of various lessons and emphasizing the things he wants them to know.  His death is imminent and his need to share what really matters is growing stronger.  Jesus and the 12 disciples have been together for 3 years. They have worked together, laughed together. Im sure they've vented and even cried together.  They have built a strong repor of trust and Jesus knows he wont be there with them forever.  He anticipates the resurrection, but even still his days are numbered and he wants them to have all they needto be ready for the next thing. 
          So he tells them he is the vine, he is the source of who they have become and if they want to be strong, if they want to stay steadfast in Gods ways and the things Jesus has taught them, then they need to stay close to his teaching. They need to remain close to all that he has taught them.  If they do that, then they will be fruitful.  If they do that God will be glorified.  They just need to stay true to what Jesus has taught them.  Simple enoughremain in me and I will remain in you. 
          Now this teaching isnt universal, its not a message to the masses, its a message to his disciples, to those who have chosen to follow him and be in ministry with him.  So when we look at what it means to us today we cant apply it universally, its not a message for the anonymous bystanders, its a message for those of us who have chosen to follow Jesus and be in ministry with him.  But for us, for disciplesthose who choose to follow Christ, the same truth remainsfor us to stay close to Jesus and be fruitful, for us to glorify God, we have to stay connected to his teachings.  We have to do what he has taught us.  We have to live the lessons of faith that we gather on Sunday mornings and in our small groups. 
          Now thats easy to say, but tough to do.  Jesus says, remain in mestay close and steadfasthe doesnt say, come back occasionally, but STAY with me.  To become like Christ, to be fruitful and to really glorify God, its not a once in a while, as needed, kind of thing.  Its a round-the-clock all the time commitment. 
          We have to choose to do the things Christ has taught us:
     to love our neighbor as ourself
     to pray for those who persecute us
     to include the marginalized and the outcast
     to give selflessly
     to be generous
     to be compassionate
     to extend grace
     to be humble
     to be faithful to Gods teaching
     to follow the 10 commandments
          And we have to do them over and over again.  That means biting our tongue when we are angry, it means caring for the homeless man we pass on the street. It means offering help to strangers, even when it may inconvenience us. It means being forgiving even when weve been hurt by a friend or family member.  It means all kinds of things in our daily life where we choose to embody the love of Christ in who we are and what we do. 
          And, to really live this lesson, theres one more thingwe have to allow that which doesnt bear the fruit of the Spiritthe fruits of love, joy peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.to be pruned.  If it isnt making us more like Christ, if it isnt glorifying God, then it needs to be pruned.  Following Christ and living his teachings isnt just about what we add inits also very much about what we cut out.  We have to submit to pruning that which is
     mean spirited
     hard hearted
          If we really want to be like Christ, those things have got to go.  Now, itd be nice if we could just make a cut and be done. But more often than not, our bad habits run deep and we have to cut them often, and repeatedly.  We have to continuously give ourselves over to Jesus as we learn to be more like him.  We have to practice his actions until they become natural and engrained in us.  And when we notice the ugly stuffthe fruitless habits that dont give God glory starting to take root in us, we start pruning all over again. 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Jesus is....the Good Shepherd

 When I was in high school, I had an English teacher who was pretty fierce.  Her nickname, which she bore gladly, was “Evil Woman.”  She wasn’t really evil, we happen to still be close today. But she was a strict teacher and she didn’t cut any corners for her students.  In writing, she would regularly tell us, “Show don’t tell.”  She wanted us to use descriptions to convey our point, not just statements of fact.  People believe stories. They are compelled by illustrations.  Words are just words until they come alive. 
So when someone asks the question, “What is Jesus like?” We could tell them…he is kind, he is loving, he is inclusive, he is generous, he is humble, he is devoted.  Or we could show them…he is the bread of life.  He is the light of the world. He is the good shepherd.  The titles help us remember, but the stories show us who Jesus was. 
This story of the good shepherd shows us quite a lot about the nature of Jesus.  This story tells us Jesus is the shepherd and the gate. He is the one who tends the flock, and the one who lets them into a safe place for rest and protection.  Jesus is the protector, the caregiver, and the provider.  He comes to us to protect us from harm, to shield us from danger, and to care for us in all of our needs.  And where others would cut and run, he’d risk anything fighting for us because our lives matter even more than his.  That’s the nature of Jesus. 
So the bigger question becomes—why does he do it?  Verse 10 tells us, “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Jesus watches over us and cares for us not so he can profit and gain but so we can—so that we might have life and have it abundantly. The purpose of his existence, the value of his sacrifice is not for his sake, but for ours. 
He doesn’t want us to simply live, he wants us to flourish. He doesn’t want us just getting by—he wants us to be successful and fruitful.  We’re on board with that, right? So how do we get from here to there? How do we get from the mess that life offers to the abundance Jesus died for? 
We seek after him. He is the good shepherd—that means we have to follow him.  We have to heed his voice and follow his instructions. We have to go with him.  You see the shepherd can’t protect us if we refused to be near him.  We have to choose to follow the shepherd and let him lead in our lives. 
The benefit is when we are near, he cares for us, he comforts us.  A lot of people wonder how they are going to get through a particular trial or struggle. And the cliché answer is to draw close to Jesus.  But, the truth is, if we understand the nature of Jesus as good shepherd, we’d know that it’s not just a cliché, but that drawing near to him would give us peace and assurance. His voice is reassuring. He takes away our fears.  He holds us close to protect us.  I don’t mean to sound overly simplistic or like I’m throwing platitudes at you.  But I’ve experienced the peace and comfort of Christ and it’s worth having.  I’ve had a lot of moments where I was scared to death and the thing that has always helped me is prayer.  Now, I can’t explain why or how prayer works, I only know that it does.  And I know that in the scariest moment of my life, when I was rushed into an OR because Ruth was at risk when I was pregnant and they performed an emergency c-section, I needed prayer. I was petrified.  It was one of the worst experiences of my life. And I was so scared.  Rick was out of the room and the doctors were there doing 100 things to me to get me ready for surgery and I didn’t understand it all and I couldn’t control any of it, and I was scared.  I was given the meds and put on oxygen so I couldn’t talk even when Rick was allowed in.  Fear just took over.  When she came she was purple and the NICU team was already there to work on her.  There was just more fear.  It was awful and I couldn’t name it in the midst of the chaos, but afterward I knew, if that ever happens again, just pray with me.  Just say the Lord’s prayer and pray with me.  Sing the old hymns and pray with me.  There is comfort there. There is something familiar that draws me into the presence and power of God in a way that nothing else can. 
Now, there are other ways to draw close to Jesus.  Different ways will work better for different people.   We can go to him—in worship, in study to get familiar with his voice, in spending time with others who are near to him, in being in nature,  in giving to others, through music—through any of the means of grace.  And in him we can find solace and refuge from the stress and struggle of life. 
Now there are others who aren’t so invested in our welfare. Actually, they’d much rather profit from our struggles than help us through them.  They’re out to steal our joy, our strength, and our peace.  Those are the bandits. Now, they may not have a name, but they’re out there.  Bandits may be people, or they may be situations. They may be stressors, or temptations, or distractions.  They take our attention and draw us away from the shepherd. 
Remember, the bandits, whoever they may be in each of our lives, only seek to steal, kill, and destroy.  Their goal is not to build us up.  They want what’s ours. And the easiest way to get us to let it go is to convince us we don’t deserve it in the first place.  The bandits in life will denigrate us so we wouldn’t even dare believe, let alone trust, that someone like Jesus really cares about us and would do anything for us.  The bandits tell us we’re useless and worthless. They tell us we’re lazy, stupid, hopeless, and ignorant. They call us failures before we even try. They tell us we are unworthy, undeserving, and unimportant.  And most of us buy it.  Not all the words at once. We don’t have to believe it all. We just have to believe one or two for the bandits to gain power.  And unfortunately, we believe them.  We aren’t good enough, smart enough, thin enough, successful enough—we just plain don’t measure up—or so says the bandit. 
But the shepherd says something very different. He says we’re precious, important, and valuable.  We like those words, but after we’ve bought into all the other stuff, they just wash right over us. But the good shepherd tells us to stop and listen—he has a truth for us and the truth is we are so important, so incredibly valuable that there isn’t anything he wouldn’t try and do to help us and protect us.  He tells us over and over and over again:
You are worthy.
You are important.
You are beloved.
You are enough.
And as we seek after him, we have to let the other words go. We have to let Jesus’ truth speak into our lives.  We have to stop confusing his voice with other voices and their lies with his truth. We have to claim his truth for ourselves:
I am worthy.
I am important. 
I am beloved.
I am smart enough.
I am successful.
I am enough.
Remember the shepherd came and does what he does SO THAT you might have life and have it abundantly.  The question is will you choose to follow him and claim his truth for yourself?