Category: John (page 1 of 20)

The Light of Life

We’ve posted the video from last month’s 4 Amarillo Thanksgiving worship service on our church website here. If you were a member of the combined choir, there are some really good shots throughout of you singing — some up close! You might especially check out the 5:30 mark where we sing “When We All Get to Heaven,” highlighted by all four worship ministers singing a middle verse as a quartet. Kevin Schaffer leads the choir and congregation in the closing song, “By Our Love,” at the 49:00 mark. And my 21-minute sermon — yes, 21- total minutes! — is at the 28:00 mark. What a wonderful, wonderful night. I praise God for the unique fellowship and undeniable witness of our four churches and for the distinct honor to serve right in the middle of it.

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You know, light isn’t really what we see; light is the very element by which we see everything else. You walk into a dark room and flip the switch, you don’t really see the light as much as you see the coffee table leg that’ll kill your toes and the edge of the wall that’ll take out your kneecap. The light allows you to see reality, to see what’s really happening.

In Jesus Christ, our light, we see clearly what God is up to in the world. We see God at work forgiving and healing, repairing broken lives, bringing people back from the dead, feeding the hungry, defending the accused. We see God restoring and reconciling, calming the sea, driving out the demons, turning empty jars into overflowing containers of eternal joy. God is the only One who can fix things and he’s come here in Jesus Christ to do just that. He’s moved here.

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” ~John 1:14

There’s a reason we put candles in the windows and hang lights on our houses and string lights around the trees at Christmas. May the brightness of those lights remind us that the light has dawned — and it is a great light. May the glow of those lights point to the forgiveness, the righteousness, and the holiness that is ours in Christ Jesus. And may the beauty of the lights open our eyes to the matchless wonder of God’s great love for us.

Peace,

Allan

The Heart of Christmas

“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” ~Isaiah 9:2

This is a very well-known Christmas text, a famous Christmas text that speaks to the coming of the Christ. And it describes the condition the Christ is coming into as darkness. People are walking in darkness. People are living in the land of darkness. We read this a lot at Christmas, but we don’t ever read the verses right before it. The end of the previous chapter actually tells us why the world is so plunged in darkness:

“When people tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God?… If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn… They will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.” ~Isaiah 8:19-22

People are looking toward the earth for help. Men and women are looking toward themselves for wisdom and salvation.

Yes, we’re living in darkness; yes, things are really messed up; but we can fix it ourselves! There’s poverty and hunger, greed and lust; but if we’ll just all look out for each other and learn how to give more, we can change it! There’s broken lives, broken hearts, and broken relationships; there’s twisted bodies and warped minds and institutional vileness and moral evil all around us; but if we just vote for the right people, if we just pass the right laws, if we just use the right technology, if we just invest in the right companies, we can overcome it!

Listen, the message from the Hallmark holiday movies and the holiday music and the Coke commercials and emails and billboards is that we have it within us. The love and goodwill that exists in each of us is enough to create a world of unity and peace. In other words, we have the light inside us. And if we just work together, we can eradicate the darkness of the world. If we’ll all come together, we can overcome poverty and injustice, violence and evil. With what’s inside us, we can build a world of love and joy and peace.

Really? Can we?

We can’t save ourselves. Have you noticed?

We’ve been trying for centuries. We are completely unable to save ourselves. In fact, believing that we can save ourselves — that education or politics or hard work or some system or ideology  can save us — has only led to more darkness!

See, the Christmas message gives us a very realistic way of looking at life. At it’s core, Christmas is very unsentimental. It’s not mushy or fantasy. Christmas is not, “Cheer up! If we all pull together, we can make the world a better place!” Christmas is not optimistic thinking like, “We can fix the whole world if we try really hard.” And Christmas is not pessimistic doom, either, like, “Things are awful and they’re getting worse and nothing’s ever going to change.”

The heart of Christmas is this: Things really are terrible and we cannot heal or save ourselves. Things really are this dark. Everywhere. But, there is great hope.

On those living in deep darkness, a light has dawned.

It’s not, “A great light has sprung up from the world” or “The light has come from the people.” It’s ON the people, a light has dawned. ON the world, a light has come. The light has come from outside us. The hope has come to us from outside the world. Christ Jesus is that salvation light. That light is the Holy Son of God.

“In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not conquered it… The true light that gives life to all people was coming into the world.” ~John 1:4-9

The true light was coming. The eternal light that gives life to all people has come. The one light that shines in the darkness and overcomes the darkness — the light from above, the light from outside us has come!

And we celebrate that light at Christmas. But that’s not really the right word. We stare at it dumbstruck. We’re lost in wonder at it. We fall down on our knees in awe of it. God himself comes to us in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ to provide for us what we simply do not possess, to do for us what we could never do ourselves. He brings to us from outside of us holiness and righteousness and peace.

Peace,

Allan

What If It Happened Here?

“My Kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my Kingdom is from another place.” ~Jesus

The headline on the front page of today’s Amarillo Globe-News asks the question in bold print: “What if it happened here?” with the subheading: “Local churches eye security measures in wake of massacre.”

The paper quotes a couple of local pastors who are considering changes to their church’s security plans in light of last Sunday’s horrible shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. One of the pastors is hiring an armed Amarillo Police Department officer to be present during their worship services, claiming it will put the members of his church “at ease to see a uniformed officer” and that he wants his people to “feel safe and secure.” This pastor is also considering hosting an active shooter seminar for his congregation. Another pastor expresses the need for an active shooter seminar at his church “as soon as possible.” All of the pastors in the story have some type of armed security personnel in and around their buildings during services. We do, too, here at Central.

The headline asks a question the story never answers: What if it happened here? Maybe the reporter never asked the question and the headline writer was having a rough night. It’s a good question. What happens in your church building if — God forbid — an active shooter begins opening fire? What happens at Central?

If the Church of Jesus is established by God to serve as a light to the world, as an alternative community in contrast to the values and priorities of society, as a scandalous counter to the ways and means of our culture, then we would all keep our guns in our holsters. If God’s Church is established to witness to the “other” way, to proclaim and live out the teachings of Jesus, the true interpreter of God’s Law, then the shooter would not be shot — at least not by a Christian.

Which serves as the more powerful witness to the world: a Christian blowing away a non-Christian in the middle of a worship assembly inside a church building in the name of self defense or Christians praying for and forgiving the one who is shooting them, refusing to kill him, asking God to, instead, have mercy on him, in the name of Jesus? I know the world will laud the Christian who kills in the name of self defense. That same world will lament the misguided Christian sap who refused to meet violence with violence in the name of Jesus.

What if it happened here?

Nearly two years ago The Christian Chronicle published a front page story about church shootings, quoting a dozen ministers from a dozen different congregations in several states who believe and, apparently, teach that carrying a gun and being prepared to use it against another human being is a good thing to do.

Those preachers were asked the question, “What if it happened here?” A minister in Florida said, “walking in with the intent to harm our congregation would be like walking in to harm someone at an NRA rally or gun show.” A minister of another church told the Chronicle that lots of people in his congregation are packing and “someone would be sorry to try anything here.” Some of the preachers interviewed even attempted to say that shooting a criminal inside the church building is the “Christian” thing to do. One preacher from Houston said, “There is a world of difference in being ready to die for your faith than to die at the hands of a crazy man simply because he’s crazy. I believe God would permit me to protect myself and my family in cases such as that.”

A minister in Kentucky went so far as to claim that Christians are required to shoot when he said, “We believe theologically we have an obligation to protect and defend our church membership, especially children, against a stranger or angry member who was to come in and begin shooting.”

A preacher in Alabama who admits to bringing his own Ruger .380 to the church building on Sundays invoked the name of Jesus in justifying the use of deadly force by a Christian: “I do not believe that Jesus — or even the old law — taught members to cower in the face of danger. It was Jesus who told his apostles to take a sword in Luke 22.”

OK. Stop right there.

Two things.

One, you cannot use the name of our Lord to justify the killing of anyone under any circumstances. Ever. Yes, Jesus moves to protect those under attack, not by killing the attacker but by stepping in front of the bullet. And he would forgive the attacker and pray for him while he was dying. I’m always surprised to hear Christians say, “Jesus would not allow himself to be a victim.” Actually, our Lord willingly left his home in glory, put all of his trust in the One who judges justly, and purposefully submitted to being the worst kind of victim. He blessed those who attacked him, he loved those who hated him, he forgave those who killed him, and never lifted a finger against any of them in self defense. I’ve heard other Christians acknowledge that truth about our Lord and then add, “Well, Jesus wouldn’t shoot anybody, but I would.” That actually makes you, by definition, not a Christian.

Two, Jesus’ words in Luke 22 do not authorize the use of gun violence in any way. Jesus is telling his disciples that things have changed. The first time they went out, they were all welcomed with goodwill and hospitality. But now, when they are scattered, they are going to face opposition. They’re going to be ridiculed, rejected, and maybe even killed. Now, Jesus says, you’re on your own out there. Don’t count on other people to help you. You’re going to need a purse, a bag, a sword, whatever. He’s speaking figuratively. He doesn’t discount in this moment every word out of his mouth for the past three-plus years against violence. He’s not saying the opposite now of his every teaching against violence. He’s speaking symbolically. How do we know? Because when the disciples reply, “Look, Lord, we’ve got two swords right here,” Jesus rebukes them. “Enough, already! Stop!”

Yes, Jesus says, you’re going to face intense opposition to me and my message, your very lives are going to be endangered. But you don’t respond with self-defense and violence. Enough! You’re missing the point! Jesus will have nothing to do with swords, even for defense. How do we know? Because later in this same chapter, in the very next scene when Jesus is being arrested, one of the disciples asks him, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” And Jesus says emphatically, “No!”

One of the Christ-followers uses his sword to cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave. And Jesus sharply rebukes him. “No more of this! Stop!” And he heals the injured attacker. He ministers to and heals the one who came to harm him. In Luke 22, literal armed resistance as self-defense is exposed as a foolish misunderstanding of Jesus’ message.

Of all the ministers quoted in the Christian Chronicle article, only one expressed a theological and scriptural objection to the use of gun violence by Christians in self-defense. Tyler Jarvis, the student and family minister for the Oak Ridge Church of Christ in Willow Park, Texas, said, “I think that the church should trust in the protection and mercy of God, even if it means not being able to defend against an attacker or intruder. The church ought to be able to extend love and forgiveness to those who wish them harm, even if it costs them their lives in the process.”

There are many reasons Christians in the U.S. believe it’s OK to kill people in self-defense. Culture plays a role, society has something to do with it, fear informs our understandings, and there appears to be a general unwillingness to carefully think things through and reflect. Gun violence is normalized as if there’s no choice. We accept the culture’s position and then approve it for God’s Church. There’s no theological challenge, just an out-of-context proof text.

Since when is showing unconditional mercy and love and grace and forgiveness in the face of danger and death labeled as cowardly and weak? Since when is praying for our enemies and refusing to repay evil for evil and sacrificing self preservation for the sake of the sinner viewed as unrealistic? Our Lord was not cowardly in the Garden of Gethsemane that night. And he wasn’t weak when he willingly submitted to the cruelty of the cross. Neither are Christians who reject the use of violence to get their way. They are courageous and brave, faithful and true.

Christians, leave your guns at home this Sunday. Practice prayer. Practice forgiveness and mercy. Practice discipleship and obedience to The Way. Pray to God that nobody with violent intent ever attacks your church family in the sanctuary. But also pray to God for the courage and strength, should it ever happen, to respond in ways that will honor our Lord, the Prince of Peace.

Peace,

Allan

God’s Love Wins

“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But completed love drives out fear. ” ~1 John 3:16-17

Confidence because we know that God is love. Blessed assurance about that coming day of glory. No fear because completed love drives out fear. Confidence that God’s love takes care of every single thing I might be worried about.

Everything we know about God and all the things we don’t yet know about God begin and end with his love. There’s nothing we can say about God or his character or his plans for his people without first considering his great love. Love is who God is and love is what God does. And God’s love is unrelenting. It never quits. It never slows down. It never gives up. And it never loses.

That kind of love drives out all fear.

“God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” ~John 3:16

When the holy Creator of Heaven and Earth loves like that — selflessly, sacrificially — there’s nothing to be afraid of. His love gives us confidence because wherever there are problems or issues, wherever things go wrong, wherever things don’t work out, God fixes it with his eternal love.

Where there is rebellion, God doesn’t reject, he accepts. Where there are broken vows, God doesn’t bring justice, he delivers mercy and grace. Where there is conflict, God doesn’t fight, he defends and protects. Where there is sin, God doesn’t condemn, he saves.

“God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” ~John 3:17

God is solving every problem, he’s restoring everything that’s broken, with his love.

And he wants you to know it. And experience it. He wants you to believe it and trust it.

Have you messed things up so badly and so much that you question whether or not God’s tired of loving you? Have you suffered so much pain that maybe you question whether or not you really love God? Or can trust that he really is love?

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” ~Romans 8:35-39

God’s love is undefeated, untied, and un-scored upon. God’s love conquers all. It triumphs in the end. His love is more important and more eternal than faith and hope. It stands above all the other Christian virtues. And it’s our number one tool in the toolbox for winning the world for Christ and his Kingdom. God’s love wins.

Peace,

Allan

Love Changes Everything

You’ve heard it said that past behavior is the best indicator of future behavior. You want to know how a guy is going to act in the future, you just look at how he’s acted in the past. That notion goes largely unchallenged. We accept it, we don’t question it. Why? Because of our own experiences.

Maybe you’ve dated a person who does something you just can’t tolerate — some behavior, some character trait, a bad habit — and you break up. Sometimes that person will promise to change: “Take me back! I’ll change!” After a period of time — six months, maybe six minutes — you take that person back. But before you can blink that person is back to doing the exact same stuff as before.

Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. Your brother-in-law is never going to pay back the money he borrowed, that department store is not going to have the advertised item, and the Cowboys are going to rip your guts out in December. How do you know? Past behavior is the best indicator. You know what’s going to happen.

Or do you?

This seeming certainty of the formula seems to change when the love of God in Christ Jesus is involved.

Look at the woman in the well in John 4. She’s the town sleaze. She’s had five husbands, she’s shacking up with a sixth guy, and nobody will talk to her. We know her future, right? She’s going to run right through this guy number six and guy number seven and number eight, maybe a dozen of them, and she’s going to keep drawing water in the heat of the sun until the day she dies all alone in her guilt and shame.

But then Jesus goes out of his way to love her. He doesn’t just feel love for her, he shows it to her. He does something. He rearranges his travel schedule to get to her. He sits down and honors her with his time and full attention and conversation. He teaches her right there at the well and the town sleaze becomes a Gospel preacher! Her whole village believes in Jesus, the Savior of the World!

What about the woman caught in adultery in John 8? She’s about to be killed. And that might be the best thing for her. That’s what the Law says. If she’s not stoned to death, she’ll keep cheating, she’ll keep lying, she’ll keep hiding, she’ll keep sinning. We know this. Past behavior is the best indicator, right? But Jesus stands up for her against the authorities. He shows her his love by defending her, by believing in her. And she leaves her life of sin. She’s given the gift of new life by the love of God in Christ.

Zacchaeus is going to keep cheating people on their taxes, he’s going to continue lining his own pockets, and padding his profits and looking out for number one. But Jesus pulls him out of a tree, he eats dinner with him at his house, and he looks him in the eye and calls him a son of Abraham. And now Zacchaeus is giving half of everything he owns to the poor! He’s going back through his books and making things right, blessing others, realizing deep inside that it’s better to give than to receive.

The demon-possessed guy in the Gerasenes in Mark 5. His community has banished him to live in the cemetery. He’s not in his right mind. He’s got no name, no family, no clothes, no peace. The devil and his demons have successfully stolen from this man everything it means to be made in the image of God. What’s going to change? They’ve tried everything with this guy. He’s going to keep being scary and keep suffering and he’s going to die in his chains.

But Jesus gets in a boat and braves a terrible storm in the middle of the night to get to this guy. Our Lord goes to him and shows him his love and his power to change everything. He lets this man know that he matters to God. And that divine love of God drives those demons to the bottom of the sea and the next thing you know this guy is clothed, he’s in his right mind, he’s got a family, and he’s got a purpose. He’s preaching in the Decapolis, proclaiming the Good News all over the Ten Cities. And all the people are astonished.

Peter is a God-cursing, Christ-denying, lying scoundrel until Jesus shows him unconditional love and gives him unlimited forgiveness and changes him into a cornerstone of his eternal Church. John is a violent, volatile hothead — “Call fire down from heaven! Blow ’em all up! But the love of Jesus immerses him and changes him. And John winds up writing the most beautiful words we have in the Bible on love.

Past behavior is not the best indicator of future behavior. The love of God in Christ means the life you’ve lived to this point today is not the only life that’s possible for you. Or for your neighbor. Or your enemy.

Your church is filled with courageous people who used to be all kinds of unholy until the love of God in Christ changed everything. Our lives have been eternally changed by the love of God, so we have faith that the love of God can change all lives. Showing that love of God to others in faith is the whole point. Galatians 5 says the only thing that matters is faith expressing itself in love. Seeing the potential for God’s love to change everybody around you, to change our city, to change the whole world — that’s the invigorating challenge.

As John would say, we love because he first loved us.

Peace,

Allan

I Am the Good Shepherd

shepherd3Almost two centuries before Jesus was born, Judas Maccabeus put together a Jewish militia and fought the Syrians who had taken control of Jerusalem and had desecrated the temple. Antiochus IV Epiphanes had established Zeus worship inside the Lord’s temple, including the daily sacrifice of pigs. The Maccabean revolution was a bloody three-year struggle that resulted in Jewish oversight of Jerusalem and the rededication of the temple to the Lord. You can research the origins of Hanukkah or the Feast of Dedication to get the full story. But on the 25th day of Kislev, in the year 165 BC, the temple was rededicated and Ezekiel 34, the passage about Israel’s shepherds was read aloud.

The eight day celebration was not just about rejoicing in God’s great deliverance. It was also a time to reflect on the events that led up to those awful years in Israel’s history. It was a time to ask questions about failed leadership, hard questions about Israel’s bad kings or, as they’re called in Scripture, false shepherds. How did the leadership of God’s people lose its way so badly? Where were the shepherds? And how must we shepherd our people today?

Since that day in 165 BC, Ezekiel 34 has always been a part of the worship liturgy for the Feast of Dedication. In John 10, we’re told explicitly that Jesus attended these worship assemblies.

“Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonade.” ~John 10:22-23

imyselfYou can bet Jesus heard the readings just like everybody else. And, yeah, Jesus knew about lousy leadership and sorry sheep. So did a lot of God’s people listening to the readings. The man who pays three-fourths of his wages every month to his neighbor who’s paralyzing him with outrageous interest rates. The lady who’s not allowed to come all the way in because she’s divorced. The couple who gets told “You don’t dress right or talk right or act right and why don’t y’all find another temple to worship in!” Ask the woman at the well if she felt like people were staring at her. Ask the lady at Simon’s house if Simon acted like a jerk when she showed up at his dinner party with his well-connected friends. Ask the man in the Gerasenes who was driven away by his own brothers and sisters and chained to a tombstone. Ask the crippled man at the healing pools who always got pushed out of the way by people who were also crippled — just not as crippled as he was. And they all hear the Scriptures being read at Hanukkah. They hear it ever year. God says, “I myself will be their shepherd.”

And the people say, “When?”

“I Am the Good Shepherd! The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep!” ~John 10:11

Right in the middle of the questions and doubts and hopes and anticipation that someday God himself will personally shepherd his flock, Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd! It’s me! I’m here!”

imyselfbig“I Am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I Am the Good Shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me — just as the Father knows me and I know the Father — and I lay down my life for the sheep.” ~John 10:11-16

See, in Ezekiel 34, God says I’m going to personally do what the bad shepherds have failed to do. I’m going to do what my people obviously can’t do. God promises to personally intervene. God says you don’t strengthen the weak or heal the sick or bandage up the injured. You have not brought in the strays or searched for the lost. But I will! I will bandage up the injured and strengthen the weak! I will search for the lost and bring back the strays! God’s solution to the long history of lousy leaders and sorry sheep is not a new model, not a new system. He replaces the bad shepherds with the Good Shepherd. God comes to us in Jesus. Christ Jesus comes here to, in his own words, seek and save the lost. He comes here to comfort the weary and heavy burdened, to heal the sick and bring Good News to the poor. Jesus is our Shepherd, fixing things, restoring things.

Jesus knows how to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. To those who rely on their own righteousness, those of us fat sheep who’ve been doing this church thing for decades and think we have all the answers, Jesus rips away all the excuses and he forces us to see our desperate need for him and the Gospel. He says, “I Am the only way, I Am the only truth, and I Am the only life! No one comes to the Father except through me!”

To those who are burdened and marginalized, Jesus pulls them to God. He shows that God does not delight in their death, but he begs them to come to him for eternal life. He makes it clear that there is a place in God’s flock for all weak and sinful sheep. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

The Lord Jesus Christ is our Shepherd. He is bold and courageous and single-minded in his mission to seek and save the lost, to restore the lost sheep of Israel. And he’s so committed to it — he’s so committed to us, his sheep! — that he lays down his life for us. He dies for us. He stands in the gate — he is the gate! — between us and the ravenous wolves and murderous robbers who would destroy us. He’s unwilling to sacrifice even one of us to the enemy. He would die first.

And he did.

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bobbywilson6Another walk off win. A two-out, two-run, game-winning double in the bottom of the ninth. The 45th come-from-behind win for the Texas Rangers this year. And the magic number is down to six.

Peace,

Allan

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