Healing Comes in the Running

Hebrews, Suffering No Comments »

“Strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. ‘Make level paths for your feet’ so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.” ~Hebrews 12:12-13

In the big cities that host the large annual marathons in which thousands of runners participate, the front of the race is dominated by world class athletes. They’re young and lean and fast and they just seem to effortlessly cruise to the finish line. At the back of the race, though, it’s a different picture. That’s where all the ordinary runners are.

The ones near the back have a few more years under their belts and a few more pounds hanging over their belts. There’s a lot more stopping to catch a breath and to get a drink. There are also people in wheelchairs and on crutches, people with disabilities. Those people are courageously struggling. They’re determinedly suffering. And those people at the back of the race help each other. Have you noticed that? If somebody back there gets weak from the heat or faint from exhaustion, the other runners pay attention to that and they help out. At the back of the race, it’s much more about compassion than competition.

The great race of the Christian life is a lot more like the back of the pack than the front. And you ought to be able to find that compassion in the Church.

If you are a weary or discouraged Christian, if you’re an out of shape Christian, the preacher in Hebrews encourages you to strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. The runners who are lame, the Christians who are struggling and hurting and suffering still have to get out there on the track and run. You can’t say, “I’m too weak to run” or “My legs are too hurt to participate” or “I’m in too much pain.”

Like Jesus, the preacher says, “Pick up your bed and run!”

In the Christian faith, if you play hurt, you end up healed. If you stay on the sidelines, the injury gets worse. If you keep running, the Word of God, through the people of God, promises complete healing.



The Gain is Worth the Pain

2 Thessalonians, Hebrews, James, Romans, Suffering No Comments »

“Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” ~Hebrews 12:10-11

Our Father is at work during the hard times in our lives, training us to share in his holiness, righteousness, and peace. The preacher in Hebrews is telling us, look, we ought to recognize the pattern here. We experienced this with our own parents and, if we’re parents ourselves, we do the same things. Good parents, including God, exercise discipline because they want their children to grow up to be like them, to share their values and commitments and way of life.

We sent one of our daughters to college in Oklahoma City and we told her, “You can only date boys from Texas.” Why? Because we have standards — standards related to our values and way of life. I check our youngest daughter’s phone from time to time and I see that almost half her playlist is Tom Petty and Aerosmith. And I say to myself, “Ah, we raised her right.”

God’s like that, too. He wants us to grow up to be like him. He wants us to love what he loves, to think what he thinks. He wants us to be holy like he is holy, to treat people the way he treats people, and to be righteous in the ways he is righteous. So he trains us. He conditions us. He uses discipline. And it’s not always pleasant. But it is always for our good.

“We rejoice in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” ~Romans 5:3-5

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking in anything.” ~James 1:2-4

“We boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring. All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the Kingdom of God.” ~2 Thessalonians 1:4-5

We know what God is doing through our struggles. We know it’s for our ultimate, eternal good. This character forming, this kind of relationship building with God, is proof that you belong to him as his child. It’s proof that he cares for you and he’s committed to you.

I know your sufferings are painful and your trials are terrible. And I know your troubles or whatever you’re going through make you feel lonely and desperate and depressed. Physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually — I know it’s real. And the Scriptures do not discount how hard this life is. The Bible doesn’t downplay the costs associated with a life of faith. The Scriptures don’t brush off your feelings. Your feelings are real. Your hard experiences are real. But the preacher in Hebrews wants to open our ears and our hearts to the eternal truth, to the everlasting reality of what’s being accomplished.

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus.

Jesus stayed focused on the joy in front of him: the joy of doing his Father’s will, the joy of fulfilling his Father’s purposes, the joy of participating in God’s salvation. Jesus endured the agony of the cross, he suffered through an excruciating physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual torture and death. And because he persevered, he reigns today at the right hand of the throne of God.

The preacher in Hebrews knows the people in his church are hurting. And they’re tired of hurting. They’re tired of suffering. To encourage them to keep running the race, he reminds them of the truth of Christ Jesus. Whatever you’re suffering, whatever you’re going through, Jesus went through so much worse, so much more, for the sake of your holiness, your righteousness, and your peace.



Our Suffering Has Meaning

Hebrews, Suffering 1 Comment »

All suffering is painful to the body. All suffering is a challenge to the spirit. But the suffering that destroys a soul is the suffering that has no purpose, a suffering that has no point or goal. You can endure a whole lot of pain and distress is you know it’s not meaningless. What good is my pain accomplishing? What benefits are being achieved in my suffering?

“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons and daughters. For what child is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons and daughters. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!” ~Hebrews 12:7-9

When a hospital patient is recovering from surgery and calls the nurse in the middle of the night and says, “This pain is killing me; why is this pain so bad?” the most reassuring truth the nurse can provide is to say, “The pain is a sign that healing is taking place.” This passage in Hebrews 12 is the preacher coming to the bedside of his hurting congregation to reassure them that the pain they feel is not a destructive anguish, but a healing one.

Now, I know discipline is a touchy subject. If it’s not done correctly, a child can grow up believing that authority belongs only to those who hit the hardest and hurt the most. We’ve seen too much of that and a lot of people now feel like it’s wrong to discipline children at all, especially in physical ways.

But at the same time, we’re very aware how dangerous it is for children who’ve never learned any limits, kids who’ve never been told “No” or been given any boundaries. Spoiled children or ignored children are a nuisance to everyone around them. In fact, we point to those kids when we’re disciplining our own kids: “We’re doing this because I don’t want you to grow up like that! We’re disciplining you so you won’t behave like that!”

We all agree that some kind of discipline, as an aspect of genuine love and concern, is vital. We see a kid growing up with no discipline and we think there’s something wrong with the parents. Or maybe the parent doesn’t really love the child enough to undertake the difficult work of discipline.

That’s the point in this part of Hebrews 12. If we are genuinely God’s children, then we should expect that God will treat us like a wise parent does, by bringing us up with appropriate discipline. “The Lord disciplines those he loves (12:6).”

Discipline is not just punishment. It’s not correction only. Discipline is also training, it’s conditioning. Giving your children chores like mowing the lawn or cleaning the bathroom mirrors isn’t punishment, it’s training for a certain kind of life. Making your kids save part of their allowance and count their blessings and use their manners isn’t punishment. But it’s still discipline, it’s conditioning them to live a certain way.

Whatever hardship you’re going through right now has meaning. It’s not random. It’s not arbitrary. And whatever pain you’re suffering, whatever trial you’re in the middle of right now, it doesn’t mean God has abandoned you or God’s mad at you or he’s stopped paying attention to you. Just the opposite! God is treating you as his beloved daughter. God is treating you like his genuine son. You belong to him. He loves you. He’s training you, conditioning you, bringing you up for a certain kind of life that looks like his.

“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his child.”

Whatever is causing our hardship — the devil, God himself, or just a result of living in a broken world — we do know that our Father uses that suffering for his good purposes in our lives. Whatever the cause, he’s ultimately the one who allows it, yes? Well, Hebrews tells us it’s a good idea to see your suffering as God’s instruction, his discipline, his training. The best possible thing you can do in a terrible situation is not ask what’s causing this, why did this happen? The best thing you can ask is, “What is God doing in the middle of this? What does God want to accomplish in me? What’s he trying to teach me? How am I supposed to grow? What part of me needs to be changed through this difficulty? How is this going to make me stronger? How can this struggle make me more like Christ?”

In my position as a congregational preacher, I have the occasional opportunity to visit with people who are going through terrible sufferings. And we’ll talk about the situation and we’ll visit about the problems. And then I’ll ask a couple of those questions. “What is God trying to do here? What’s God saying to you in the middle of this? Your marriage is breaking up, your finances are in ruin, you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. Where is God in all this? What’s he trying to grow in you?”

And I get a blank stare.

It’s never occurred to them to ask those kinds of questions. They’re so focused on what God is not doing, they never imagine he’s actually very involved.

It might come as a shock to you but, precisely because God loves us and treats us like his sons and daughters, he refuses to spoil us or ignore us, he refuses to let us get away with our sin and rebellion, and he refuses to let us wallow in mediocrity or stagnate into some kind of boring weariness. People say when God closes a door, he opens a window. Maybe. I think sometimes God closes a door because he wants us to kick it down! He’s training us. He’s conditioning us. He’s growing us.

In the middle of tough circumstances, a lot of people I talk to feel further away from God, not closer. They’re praying less, they’re not reading their Bibles, they stop coming to church. But the Lord disciplines those he loves. Pray more. Read the Scriptures more. Come to church more. Open your ears and your heart to the training of the Lord. He loves you.



Paying the Price

Discipleship, Faith, Hebrews 1 Comment »

Being a disciple of Jesus is costly.

Sometimes we pay financially. There are jobs Christians will not do. There are deals Christians won’t make, promotions they never get, strategies they can’t use.

Sometimes the cost of following Jesus is social. Sometimes a family will bail on a new Christian convert. You mention the Lord Jesus more than twice at a party and you might not be invited back. There are entertainment and pastimes disciples of Jesus won’t be a part of.

Sometimes it’s an intellectual or emotional price. It’s a whole lot more demanding mentally and emotionally figuring out how to love your enemies than it is trying to get even. Being different from the culture, always swimming upstream, takes a toll. the cross is the heaviest piece of furniture to move, and Christians are called to pick it up and carry it every day.

And Christians pay the price politically. There are appointments Christians will never be considered for. There are powers Christians refuse to use, lords they refuse to serve, and compromises they refuse to make.

Commitment to the faith carries a cost — we know that. But Christians are not always willing to pay that cost. The price can seem too high in some circumstances. Or maybe we just get tired of paying it every single day. Most of the time, though, what chips away at our confidence and erodes our strength is a loss of hope. We keep paying the price and making the sacrifices, but nothing changes. The problems don’t get fixed, the powers against us still seem to be in control, and none of the issues go away.

It’s a struggle.

We grow weary and lose heart. We get tired of serving other people. Tired of trying to keep the church going. Tired of being different and pointed at and whispered about. We get tired of trying not to sin, tired of reading the Bible, tired of praying. Tired of battling our own cravings and addictions. Christians grow weary of walking the walk.

And Christians who are tired and losing hope don’t usually do something dramatic. They don’t become atheists, they don’t join a witches coven, they don’t start suddenly rooting for the Red Sox. They just give up. They just quit.

The sermon in Hebrews is addressed to Christians on the verge of quitting. The preacher in Hebrews is concerned about people who stop coming to church. He’s worried about people who pour their lives into the collection plate but never receive the blessing. He’s concerned about people who have all the scars, but none of the hope.

I want to spend the rest of this week looking at some really encouraging words from Hebrews 12 that speak directly to those who are losing hope in the midst of terrible pains and hardship. Tomorrow, Hebrews 12:5-9, our suffering has meaning. Friday, Hebrews 12:10-11, the gain is worth the pain. And then Saturday, Hebrews 12:12-13, healing comes in the running.

In the meantime: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful people, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” ~Hebrews 12:2-3



Pay Careful Attention

Faith, Hebrews No Comments »

“We must pay more careful attention to what we have heard so that we do not drift away.” ~Hebrews 2:1

We’re struggling against boredom and a waning interest in things associated with church. We’ve lost our fire, we’ve plateaued. Maybe we’re drifting.

I think this can be deceptively subtle for Christians who were born and raised in the Church. I wasn’t born on a church pew, but my parents got me there as fast as they could. A lot of us have been in God’s Church for a long, long time. And I think it’s easy for us to drift. I’ve already done the work. I’ve already been saved. I’ve been doing this my whole life.

It’s really easy to think we can just take the pressure off. We can let other people do the praying and the thinking and the ministry. We can just go along for the ride. We can just go with the flow. We can just drift. Or we can think we already know it all and spend most of our time telling other people what to do and never spend a moment sincerely examining ourselves. We’re drifting.

One of the problems is that we live in a world of all signposts and no destination. The world is changing; everything’s shaking; and the culture says you’ve got to get off the path you’re on and do something different. We’re more and more mobile and less and less stable when it comes to extended families and where we live and where we worship.

And we are consumers. We’re constantly shopping for new material goods and for new experiences. And that can easily add up to drifting, just kind of floating around from one thing to another. We look for better preachers and better churches. We chase after practical books and helpful videos. We fall in with the shallow stuff at Mardell or fall for the power stuff on Fox News. We line up with science or we sell our souls to technology. We sprinkle on some new age and sample some Eastern philosophy. The spiritual reference points keep shifting as we attempt to navigate the chaos of our lives and the uncertainty of this world. And it’s all distractions! If we’re not careful, we’ll wind up making a bad trade like Esau: we’ll trade our salvation connection to Christ for the affirmation and acceptance of the culture. Of the “I want it all” attitude can turn into “I’m overwhelmed and paralyzed in the face of it all!” We can wind up being overcome in a cloud of meaninglessness or powerlessness. Shrouded in the mist. Hemmed in by the fog. Drifting.

It’s hard for us to see the truth. It’s hard to see the present, much less eternity. We can’t see it. But we can hear it.

“In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the majesty in heaven.” ~Hebrews 1:1-3

God has spoken to us by his Son! And God is still speaking to us by his Son! Like a clarion blast sounding through the thick fog, God’s Word pierces the gloom, cuts through the mist, to announce what we can’t yet see but what we can certainly trust. God’s Word assures us that even though we’re being killed all day long, we are more than conquerors through him who loves us. We can’t see it yet. But we can hear it. And the preacher of Hebrews wants us to hear it.

“We must pay more careful attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” ~Hebrews 2:1



God Has Spoken

Hebrews, Incarnation, Jesus, Preaching No Comments »

“In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” ~Hebrews 1:1-2

We live in a confused world. Our culture is bowing down to the relativism of postmodernism. There is no ultimate truth. Whatever works for you is great for you. Discover your own truth. Whatever is working for them or for that part of the world is fine for them. There can’t be just one truth.

Christians are buying into this, too. It’s everywhere. Truth is whatever you need it to be, depending on when it is and where you are and what’s going on. We’re more bewildered and unsure and trapped than we’ve ever been. And the answer to all that chaos and uncertainty is this:

God has spoken!

He has spoken through the exalted Jesus. Jesus is the only one who can purify us from our sins. He is the only way to draw near to God. Only Jesus can give us help in our time of need. He alone can deliver us from death and lead us to ultimate glory. Only Christ Jesus! He who has ears, let him hear!

But we are so tied to the practical. We want pragmatic. We want real and immediate benefits from our Bibles and our faith. If the Bible study doesn’t address “real life” issues, we’re bored. If the devotional time doesn’t have immediate implications, we neglect it. If the sermon doesn’t help me with a problem I’m having right now, we ignore it.

Listen, God is speaking to us! God is revealing himself and speaking to us in Jesus! That’s the most exciting thing that’s ever staggered the human imagination! It’s everything!

In Jesus, God’s only Son, we have the ultimate solution to all the world’s problems. God has acted and spoken once for all in Jesus. And it changes everything. Without Jesus, yes, we should all sleep in on Sundays. But with Jesus, we never miss a gathering of his holy people. Without Jesus, yes, we should despair. But with Jesus, we persevere. We keep going. We keep running. Because God has spoken to us by his Son.

That’s why I preach. That’s the reason I pray all week and I read and I study and I prepare so hard. That’s the reason I climb those four steps every Sunday morning and read the Word of God out loud in the Central worship center and proclaim the words of God to all those ears — I really believe those words can change lives. I really believe the words of God have transformative power. They can change your life. They can change our city. And they can change the whole world. That’s why I preach. I believe it.

God has spoken to us by his Son. Jesus Christ is not just the first word and the final word; he’s also every word in between — and the dictionary that defines all the words! He is the ultimate Word of God. And nowhere does the Word say this is easy or painless. Nowhere does the Word tell us this is going to be socially acceptable or quick. But everywhere the Word tells us this is real and it is true and it is certain.