Christianity is Not a Detour

What do we do when we come up on detours in our daily commutes? Do we ignore them and get stuck in a position where we have to turn around? Do we follow them? Have you ever been on a detour where you’ve been unquestionably lost? We might have missed a sign while following other cars; a marker may have been misplaced or marked incorrectly; and we unquestioningly ended up in entirely the wrong place. We not only completely avoided the dangerous area of road, but we also managed to accidentally avoid our destination.

A Road, Not a Detour

In John 17:15, Jesus prays for the well-being of His disciples, and He prays that they might have the protection they need to keep them from evil. See, our faith is not a detour around the trials and temptations of this world. Instead, it is a path right through the dangers of our world to lead us to a safe destination in the end. In this same prayer, Jesus prays that His disciples not be “of the world,” in verse 14, even while they live “in the world” (verse 11). Where our faith is the road we travel, the things of this world can serve as detours themselves, distracting us from our chosen path.

In Luke 6:12-13, when Jesus chooses his disciples, He does not conduct interviews, check references, or cite popular opinion polls. No, instead He prays to God for guidance. When we seek out these other things – popular opinion, following others – we are easily detoured. Only by trusting in God and living prayerfully can we hope to keep on the correct path without diversion. Then we can be in the world without being of the world, just as a ship must be in the sea without the sea being in the ship.

Remembering Our Surroundings

Staying on God’s path does not mean disregarding this world He created. In fact, the deeper our connection with God, the deeper our connection with the world around us. Knowing Christ awakens a more powerful concern for those around us. Even though it’s a pain, road construction usually makes our commutes a little better when it is finished. Can we say the same about ourselves? Do we leave this world a better place when we pass by?

Roads always have to be torn up before they can be rebuilt, and we will have disagreements and moments or stress with our fellow workers in Christ. We might feel torn up, or we might tear into another. We can, however, learn from those times and work toward building each other up, reconstructing ourselves into a stronger church. The problem comes when a road is torn up and forgotten. Sometimes we might hurt a brother or sister, tear them down unintentionally even, and be negligent in our responsibility to build them back up.

Bringing Others to God’s Road (And Keeping Ourselves On Too)

Remember Saul of I Samuel 17:11. All he did was complain about Goliath, looking to man for the solution instead of to God. What about Paul and Silas in prison. Instead of dealing with their situation as ones with no hope, they lived the path they followed and brought another along with them in the end. WHen we’re working with others, are we trying to bring them to God’s highway or to our own?

When we come to a crisis in our spiritual path, how do we respond? In Genesis 22, Abraham responds to a crisis presented by God with faith and obedience. We will be tested in this life. We will come to forks in our road. When we hit these rough spots, we should be relying on God’s directions more than man’s. We can scour all over our Bibles and see people who have responded to crisis in faith (Paul, Apollos, Timothy) versus those who were detoured by roadblocks in their paths (Demas, John Mark, Ananias and Sapphira). Who will we be more like?

What road are you on? Have you chosen broader and easier paths, or have you chosen to walk in Jesus footsteps up the narrow way of salvation? Only one will take you to a final destination with God, but, in striving toward that goal, we cannot be derailed by the detours in our lives. If we place our faith and hope in Him, if He is the source of our strength and hope, then we can find our way home, even when they way seems dark.

lesson by Mike Mahoney

Lord God Almighty

There’s a book called America’s Four Gods that points out that, while some 90% of Americans claim a belief in God, we view God in diverse ways. We may view Him as authoritative, critical, distant, or benevolent. We might see God as judgmental being who loves His creation but intercedes and punishes actively based on our choices. In contrast, we might see God’s handiwork in everything but be reluctant to see Him willing to condemn individuals. We may imagine a God who looks upon us judgmentally but don’t believe He intercedes in this life, or we might view God as a cosmic force that set the universe in motion and now is largely uninvolved and unknowable.

How we view God impacts how we view world events, how we approach politics, how we participate in society. The problem lies in trying to make God fit into a neat little box. We limit God by defining Him with human concepts. Our concepts of Him are too small in comparison to what we see in scripture.

Genesis 17:1 records God appearing to Abraham, proclaiming Himself as “God Almighty.” Appearing to Jacob in Genesis 35:11, God again calls Himself El Shaddai – God Almighty. Revelation 1:8, God is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the everlasting, the almighty. These are the terms with which we should view God. He is the almighty God.

Nothing Too Hard

Jeremiah 32:17 records the prophet proclaiming that nothing is too hard for God, and God reinforces the point rhetorically in verse 27. Why is nothing too hard for Him? He is God Almighty. Only one for which nothing is too hard could mold us and shape us from our imperfections and impurities into sinless and spotless souls.

This power is seen in Isaiah 7:10-14 when God prophecies the virgin birth of Emmanuel, God with Us. What is impossible for man is possible for God. Outside the laws of nature, outside biological impossibilities, Mary brings forth Jesus in Matthew 1:18-25 having never been with a man. Luke 1:35 calls this child holy and the Son of God. Only the Almighty could accomplish this.

In Romans 1, Paul calls the gospel God’s power unto salvation, and he echoes this in I Corinthians 1:18. In John 6, after the feeding of the thousands, Jesus makes an object lesson, drawing parallel between the bread and His own body. In verse 63-38, after many turn from Him, Jesus explains this power is not in the body but in His words, those words Peter calls eternal life. I Peter 1:23 says we have been born again through God’s imperishable word. The Almighty saves us through His imperishable word.

Finally, in Acts 2, we see Peter preaching to the people at Pentecost that God has raised up Christ they murdered, and God has exalted Him as king. Ephesians 1:20-23 reiterates this – that God raised Christ, exalted Him, and has given Him all authority. This same Christ humbled Himself, according to Philippians 2, even unto physical death, but now every knee will bow before Him. Only the Almighty could bring Christ back from the dead and exalt His name above all others.

Conclusion

There are two things only deity can do – speak of things to come as if they already happened and give life to the dead. Christ was raised to die no more, and I Corinthians 15:20 tells us He sets a precedent for His people. II Corinthians 4:14 assures us that He who could raise Christ can raise us as well. Our God Almighty can defeat death, can clothe our corruptible and mortal selves with the incorruptible and immortal (I Corinthians 15:54). That is what our God is capable of.

We can define God in numerous ways. We can try to categorize or limit Him in our own ways, but He is Lord God Almighty. For Him, nothing is too hard, and in Him we place our faith, hope, and trust.

lesson by Tim Smelser

Fear Not

Fear has become an addiction among many following the Christian faith. It has become as reflexive as breathing. We’re supposed to fear the scary Socialists who supposedly want to take our right to worship away. We’re supposed to fear the scary Muslims who supposedly want to kill us all. We’re supposed to fear the scary liberals who supposedly want to take all of our money. We’re supposed to fear the scary New World Order that’s supposed to do…something scary. We’re supposed to fear the scary immigrants who are supposedly up to something equally as scary. If it wasn’t for the fact that’s it’s still Halloween while I write this, I might not be brave enough to even face this stuff. (Sugar is great bravado fuel.)

Anyway, my inspiration for this post was this video:

I saw it while reading a Washington Post article called “People of faith just as fed up as nonbelievers,” in which the author begins:

People of faith are just as fed up as nonbelievers are with the fear mongering and demagoguery peddled by Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and their fellow travelers in politics. The faith community shouldn’t cede religion to them. We should take it back. Letting Beck and company position themselves as the true voices of faith in the public square would be a grave disservice to religion and democracy. So we’re standing up to them.

Now I’m not much for political movements or rallies. You might get a Facebook like out of me, but that’s about it. I agree with the premise, however, that Christians need to stop allowing political fear-mongering define their attitudes, actions, and outlooks.

Fear in God’s Word

The video points to God saying, “Al Tirah,” to His people time and again in the Old Testament. He does this over a hundred times. Some examples of God or one of His messengers telling His people not to fear include Genesis 15:1, Genesis 26:24, Genesis 50:19, Exodus 20:20, Deuteronomy 1:21, Deuteronomy 31:6, Joshua 8:1, Judges 6:10, I Samuel 12:20, Isaiah 41:13-14, and Daniel 10:12. The list could go on and on. Almost as consistent as the message to “Be holy as I am holy” is this theme of God’s people trusting in Him and avoiding submission to base fears.

Fast forward to the New Testament, and we see Jesus and His disciples playing a similar tune about fear.

  • In Luke 12:4, Jesus says: “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do.”
  • Luke 12:32: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
  • Paul, in Romans 8:15: “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!'”
  • II Timothy 1:7: “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”
  • Hebrews 13:6: “So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?'”
  • I Peter 3:14: “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled.”
  • I John 4:18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”
  • Revelation 2:10, regarding coming persecutions: “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

Defined By Fear or Faith?

Again, this list could go on. This is not to say we will never experience fear. Even Paul admits to being afraid at times in II Corinthians 7:5. Rather, this is about what defines us. Despite his fears, Paul still lived a Christian life. He still spread the word. He did not let fear define his attitudes, actions, and outlooks. When we succumb to the fear-mongering marketed by cable news networks, by talk radio jocks, by political figures, then we are allowing un-Christlike influences into our hearts and minds. Our minds become centered around secular concerns and we begin behaving like Christ never took us from this world at all.

What are we allowing ourselves to be frightened by anyway? Revocation of our freedom of religion? How could we possibly have it worse than those First Century Christians? If they could persevere under religious persecution, surely we could do no worse if we are truly dedicated to God. Do we fear “big government” taking our money? Since when do Christians care about their treasures on Earth? Money can’t buy salvation. Do we fear those who may kill us? Again, Jesus said not to, for they can’t claim our souls. In the vast majority of cases, what we are taught to fear centers purely around our comforts and conveniences. We fear that being a Christian might one day be hard. That true spiritual living is hard is the point of Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 10:34-39.

Put even more simply, if Christ could face the cross, we can face anything this life throws at us. We don’t have to let fear rule us.

A Personal Addendum

Now I’ve been criticized of being “naive,” “shallow,” “short-sighted,” “stupid,” “ignorant,” “traitorous,” and a bunch of other things that basically amount to, “You contradict my favorite talking head,” because of this view. The argument usually descends to something like this: “Well, your mom had cancer, so you should know better than to discount small things that can lead to greater disasters,” or something like that. First, leave my mom out of this. Second, I HAD CANCER TOO, so, you know, you could go there. It would make more sense. It wouldn’t sway me (because such arguments are complete non sequiturs), but it would still almost be more compelling…if it wasn’t so non-compelling.

Cancer may have threatened my life, but it could not threaten my soul. It may have inexorably separated me from an internal organ, but it could not separate me from Christ. It may have made me physically weak, but it could not touch my strength in the Lord. Cancer may have reinforced my mortality, but it could not steal my immortality. Yes, it was difficult at the time, but my refuge in God was stronger. Likewise, no terrorist, political ideology, financial burden, or outside threat can take our hope in Christ. When we let those things insinuate themselves into our being we cease living as those with a hope in Christ, and we become no better than those who refused to enter the Promised Land because the inhabitants were big and scary.

We might be afraid at times, but we do not have to fear.

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

– Romans 8:37-39

Treasure in Jars of Clay

II Corinthians is an interesting letter by Paul. It does not flow as smoothly as most of his other epistles, and we see a very emotional side of Paul throughout the book, particularly in chapter 2. He continually returns to the concepts of glory, of mercy, and of his own efforts as a minister in Christ. He spends much of the book defending his efforts, his motives, and his authority. In II Corinthians 2:17, he reminds his audience of his sincerity in teaching them.

Paul’s Defense

We can see many discouraging things in Paul’s letter – opposition from the world, our family, and even brethren, those who would seek profit from Christianity, those who would challenge him at every turn. In chapter 4:1, however, Paul asserts he will not lose hope in his ministry from God. He contrasts himself with those who would tamper with, dilute, or peddle God’s word. He sees opposition all around, but he remains sincere.

When we dilute God’s word, we dim the glory of God. As Paul, we should so internalize the glory and joy of God’s word that we feel a personal attachment to it. Think of Paul’s use of “our gospel” and “my gospel,” not claiming ownership but demonstrating the personal attachment he has to that word.

Paul writes about the god of this world, in verse 4, blinding us to God’s word and crowding it out of our lives. The sins of this world, our physical desires and pursuits, can appear less bad than they are on the surface. Sin can look brighter than it really is, and this leads us to being blinded by that false light. Paul reminds us, though, in verse 6, that God’s light can bring us from that blindness.

Paul’s Treasure

Then, in verse 7, Paul refers to a treasure stored in jars of clay. In contrast to those Pharisees of Matthew 23, who Jesus described as being whitewashed tombs filled with death and bones, Paul says we may be clay pots, but the gospel stored within us is priceless treasure. We may be imperfect and fragile as those earthen vessels, but what is contained in our hearts is beyond value.

In verse 8-9 he speaks in generalities about the persecution that comes from carrying that treasure within him, but II Corinthians 6:4-10 and 11:23-33 go into more specific details. Any of us might lose heart at those obstacles, but Paul does not. Instead in II Corinthians 4:11, Paul says he endures so Jesus may be seen in him. Once, the Word became flesh and dwelt among man. Now, others should see Him in us by the way we reflect his glory in our lives.

In verse 13, Paul quotes from Psalm 116:10 about believing and speaking God’s word, about maintaining hope among discouragement and trials. He reassures them of the hope of resurrection, reminding them the more they reflect the treasure of Christ’s gospel, the more souls that will turn to Christ, the more God will be glorified in our earthen vessels.

Do Not Lose Heart

As in chapter 4:1, Paul repeats the refrain, “We do not lose heart,” in verse 16. Here, he puts his trials, his afflictions, his humiliations, and his pain in perspective to the treasure of eternity. Eternal life is his goal, so he does not lose heart. We have a lot to put up with, as did Paul in his life, and we may feel as fragile and ugly as jars of clay at times. We have a treasure, though, beyond value if our faith and hope are in the resurrection of Christ.

lesson by Tim Smelser

Putting a Smile on the Cross

We often use emoticons in our text messages, emails, and status updates to convey a mood for whatever we’re writing. Often, we’ll use a smiley face to lighten the mood, to show happiness in something we’re sharing. Can we then put a smiley face on the cross? Are we drifting toward simply being a feel-good religion, evangelizing a God who will commiserate with us when we do things that fulfill self-interest. Instead of having a Father in Heaven, do we encourage the image of a Grandfather who just wants to spoil His grandkids and see the young people enjoy themselves.

What we have to do is balance the joyful Christian life and the serious commitment required in the face of the cross. In avoiding a feel-good faith, we may go to an extreme of negativity, demonstrating joyless lives. Where is the balance? There must be a sense of sorrow and remorse for our sins that sent Jesus to His death upon a cross. He bears the guilt we should be burdened under, and he takes our sorrow upon Himself so we can have joy.

Finding Joy in the Cross

Matthew 13:8-23 records Jesus explaining his parable about a sower planting seeds. Verses 20-21 explains that struggles, sorrow, and trials can remove God’s word from our hearts, and Jesus says we should receive that word with joy. In verse 44, Jesus goes on to compare God’s kingdom to a treasure, found and obtained in joy. Acts 8:8 describes the joy people had in receiving God’s word, even amidst persecution, and verse 39 shows a new convert departing his conversion rejoicing. Finally, Acts 13:48 shows Gentiles rejoicing that the gospel has been made available to them.

Salvation comes from the cross. Guilt, sorrow, and sin are removed forever. Paul, in Romans 10:17-18, calls God’s kingdom one of righteousness, peace, and joy. Where sorrow and guilt may have initially brought us to the cross for salvation, our lives should be ones of joy after our redemption. Instead of walking away from our rebirth in Christ with bitterness over the difficulties we will face in our service to Christ, we should be like the eunuch who goes away rejoicing.

Romans 5:5-13 reminds us of the peace and comfort found in God, concluding that we should be filled with peace and joy from God. Galatians 5 even enumerates joy as one of the fruits of the spirit. Philippians 3:1 simply calls on us to rejoice in the Lord. Paul repeats this in Philippians 4:4. This is a quality of character we should possess and that others should see in us.

Placing Joy in the Eternal

There are many things in this life that are distressing, sad, and unfulfilling. These are not the things in which we should rejoice. We search for joy in this world. We are looking in the wrong place. Instead, we rejoice in the love, the hope, the salvation, the promises we have in our God. Even if our life circumstances bring no joy, we can always place hope in the eternal promises of our Father.

We should also be taking joy in our brothers and sisters in Christ. Remember Paul’s attitude toward Titus in II Corinthians 7:13, rejoicing in Titus’ presence and in the refreshment he had among the congregation at Corinth. In I Thessalonians 2:20, Paul calls that congregation a glory and a joy, and Philippians 4:1 expresses the joy Paul takes in his brethren. What have we done to bring joy to our brothers and sisters in Christ? Joy is a characteristic we possess, and it is a thing we give to others.

Conclusion

Ultimately, our joy is in the hope of Heaven. Hebrews 12:1-2 reminds us of the endurance Jesus had in the face of the joy set before Him. We have that same hope. We have that same joy. Bringing joy to our Christian lives does not mean sugar-coating the message of God. We are not putting a smiley face on the cross, but we should understand the great things provided us and promised us in God, living joyfully for the hope set before us. Once we fully commit ourselves to walking in Christ’s footsteps, we can take joy in the knowledge of where that path leads if we stay focused on the goal.

lesson by Tim Smelser

An Earnest Hope

Hope is what directs our footsteps toward our heavenly goal. It drives our faith and our service. I Peter 3:15 encourages us to be able to answer for the hope within us, encouraging us that we must be living as if we do indeed have hope, a hope others will see in us. In Titus 2:13 tells us we should be looking forward to a hope of glory. Our hope is an earnest expectation, a desire whose realization we earnestly wait.

A Confident Hope

Addressing those who did not believe in the resurrection, Paul writes in I Corinthians 15:13-19 that Christ’s own resurrections serves as a foundation for the hope we have in our own. This hope is more than a vague notion. It is something exercised in our faith and our service to God, driving that faith and being reinforced by faith in turn. According to Galatians 5:5, this hope is something we should be eagerly awaiting.

Hebrews 12:1 assures us with a great cloud of witnesses that we can reach for our hope, just as Jesus did in his own lifetime. Hebrews 6:1 encourages us to press on toward our completion, and verses 17-19 reminds us that God has promised us, has sworn to us, that our hope is real and attainable. Our hope in Heaven is not something abstract or fantastical. It is a real hope. It is something in which we can place confidence.

Images of Our Hope

In Revelation 21-22, John sees three pictures of Heaven in his vision. Beginning in verses 1-5, John sees a holy land with the gulf of separation between man and God forever removed. It is pictured as a place of joy and life. It is a tabernacle, the dwelling place of God. It is a place where God lives with His created in perfect fellowship.

Then, verses 9-27 picture a new city, an emblem of perfect protection for God’s people. He describes the beauty and majesty of the city, the strength of its walls and gates, the security of its foundations. This is a city no man can siege or overtake. The gates are pictured as pearls, objects of beauty created in pain just as our hope may cause us to face pain ourselves before we can enter those gates.

Finally, Revelation 22:1-5 describes a tree of life surrounding a life-giving river. It is an image of a garden. It provides perfect provision for God’s people. This is a picture that returns to the beginning – to Eden. The curse of sin is gone. There is no darkness, no pain, and no sorrow. It is a place filled with the light of God’s love.

Conclusion

The tabernacle provides perfect fellowship. The city offers perfect protection. The garden provides perfect provision. Our hope is one where God provides for our every need and where we live with Him in eternity for all eternity. In contrast to those of Ephesians 2:12 who have no hope, we can be made near to God in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (verse 13). He invites us to draw near in Him. He offers us a hope that this world could never equal. Will you accept the gift of that hope?

lesson by Tim Smelser