The Unexpected

Posted by on March 10, 2002 under Bulletin Articles

The winter was mild. February’s final weekend had seventy degree temperatures. Then March’s first weekend slaughtered expectations! Saturday’s predicted “dusting” of snow became significant accumulations that buried roads. Saturday’s early mid-thirty degree temperatures plunged to eleven degrees by Sunday’s sunrise. The coldest air of our winter brought many things to a quick halt.

Friday my yard had early spring flowers. In the back, giant buttercup blooms gaudily demanded attention. In the front, smaller buttercup blooms stood as strong sentinels of an early spring. I almost could hear them defiantly declare, “Cool days may come, but they cannot hurt us! They may bend our stems, but our radiant blooms will shine!”

Then the unexpected rapidly roared through. Tolerable temperatures became intolerable. As mid-thirties quickly fell to mid-twenties, my giant butter cups in the back bowed to the ground. Snow covered them completely–they disappeared! The smaller, front butter cups stood defiantly erect as the snow fell. The snow stopped. The temperature continued to plummet. They, too, bowed. They were visible, but defiance became weakness as they fell on top of the snow. The unexpected humbled them.

When favorable conditions are in control, our faith does “marvelous things.” Defiantly, it says, “Difficult days occasionally may come. But when they do, they will be temporary. I will endure spiritually! I will survive spiritually! I will triumph spiritually regardless!”

Then the unexpected comes in unimaginable forms and ways: a catastrophic illness; the failing health of someone we love; the loss of a “secure” job; radical, necessary changes in lifestyle; a permanently weakened body; the death of someone who was not supposed to die. Maybe we are quickly “on the ground” hidden from view. Maybe we defiantly stand erect until overwhelmed. Regardless, the unexpected humbles us. Doubts, questions, and confusion flood our minds. The line separating humility and despair blurs.

When favorable situations exist, often our faith draws its substance from our strength. When the unexpected happens, strength depending on “self” is never enough to sustain faith. A strong, defiant faith nourished by favorable conditions wilts fast under the control of the unexpected.

Our Lord wants us to accept our weakness. He knows it is there even when we are confident in our strength. Why does He want us to be aware of our weakness? Struggling disciples depend on His strength instead of their strength. “My grace is sufficient for you; for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). The strength Christ wants in us is the strength of dependence. That is faith.


Posted by on March 3, 2002 under Sermons

Sometimes you experience a period when everything depresses you. In this period it seems one reason for depression is followed by another reason for depression. While we see good things in our experiences, we also see bad things in our experiences. The good things seem few and the bad things seem to be many. The good experiences seem small and the bad experiences seem enormous. Our worst feeling: we begin to fear bad experiences actually will destroy good experiences.

This feeling did not begin with us. People in every age felt this way. In every age God’s people are powerfully tempted to feel this way.

  1. Often, I am thankful Peter figured prominently in the gospels and Acts.
    1. The beginning day before Jesus’ crucifixion and continuing through the first 40 days after Jesus’ resurrection was a horrible period for Peter.
      1. The night of his betrayal, Jesus told his disciples that they would all desert him (Mark 14:27-31).
        1. Peter said if all the others fell away, he would not.
        2. Jesus told Peter he would deny Jesus three times before the rooster crowed twice the next morning.
        3. Peter continued to insist, “Even if I must die, I will not desert you!”
        4. In spite of all his feeling and all his words, when things did not go as Peter expected, he ran (Matthew 25:56).
      2. Even worse, he denied he knew Jesus (Mark 14:66-72).
        1. The third time he denied Jesus, he cursed and swore that he did not know Jesus.
        2. Then the rooster crowed the second time.
        3. When the rooster crowed, Peter realized what he had done, and he cried.
      3. Evidence suggests to me that even after Jesus’ resurrection, Peter was shaken and confused. At some point in the 40 day period after his resurrection, Jesus spent time with some of his disciples on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
        John 21:15-17 So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My lambs.” He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Shepherd My sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep.
      4. I personally conclude that Peter felt a growing sense of awkwardness in Jesus’ presence on the shores of the lake where it all started.
        1. There they were eating fish and bread as the day dawned.
        2. Jesus prepared the meal and served them the meal–that had to be awkward and painful.
        3. Peter and the others had been out fishing from their boats with their nets that night just as they did when Jesus asked them to follow him.
        4. They even caught fish by Jesus’ instructions just as when they first followed him (Luke 5:1-11).
        5. Nobody asked, “Who are you?” All of them knew it was Jesus.
      5. After everyone ate, Jesus began a conversation with Peter.
        1. He asked Peter a question that intensified Peter’s awkward feelings: “Do you love me more than these?”
        2. There is a lot happening in this situation that is not obvious in an English translation.
          1. First, we are not sure what the “more than these” refers to, and no explanation was given.
            1. More than the other disciples there?
            2. More than the occupation of fishing?
          2. Second, Jesus began a word play using the word love.
      6. We have and use just one word for love.
        1. They had four different words for love they could use.
        2. The word Jesus used was, “Peter, are you committed to my highest good, my best interests?”
          1. Peter answered by using another word for love, “Lord, I have a brother’s fondness for you.”
          2. The first time Jesus said, “Tend my lambs.”
        3. Jesus asked the same question using the same word for love the second time.
          1. Peter answered (the same answer) using his same word for love.
          2. This time Jesus said, “Shepherd my sheep.”
        4. Jesus asked Peter the same question a third time, but this time Jesus used Peter’s word for love–“do you have a brother’s fondness for me?”
        5. Now Peter really felt the awkwardness of the moment–he was grieved that Jesus asked about his love three times.
          1. In his grief, Peter replied, “Lord, You know everything; You know I have a brother’s fondness for you.”
          2. After his running and denials, he knew the Lord knew everything!
          3. Jesus said, “Tend My sheep.”
        6. I find this conversation of enormous encouragement: in spite of running, in spite of the denials, Jesus had a purpose for Peter.

    2. Shortly after that Jesus asked Peter to take a walk with him.
      John 21:19b-21 And when He had spoken this, He said to him, “Follow Me!” Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; the one who also had leaned back on His bosom at the supper and said, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?” So Peter seeing him said to Jesus, “Lord, and what about this man?”
      1. For Peter, the awkwardness of the situation grew and grew.
      2. Jesus just asked him three times if he loved Jesus.
      3. As if that were not embarrassing enough, Jesus asked Peter to take a walk with him–Peter was going to spend some one-on-one time with Jesus.
      4. As Jesus and Peter began to walk, Peter looked back and saw the disciple who leaned an Jesus’ chest at the last supper and asked about the identity of the betrayer.
        1. Evidently that disciple was trailing along behind them.
        2. Peter really wanted out of Jesus’ spot light, really wanted to shift the focus to someone else.
        3. So Peter tried to shift the focus away from himself by asking, “What about him?”
      5. None of us want to be in the spot light of Jesus’ MRI vision (he knows hearts), and we often think we can get Jesus’ attention on someone else so he has no time to think about “me.”
        1. Jesus answered Peter’s question with a question: “What is it to you?” or “What do the plans I have for him have to do with my plans for you?”
        2. I am confident Jesus would give each of us the same response.

  2. Jesus’ relationship with each of us is personal and basically concerns each of us as an individual.
    1. Together we are the church, but the church is composed of individuals.
      1. In the past the manner that we emphasized the importance of the church created a misconception.
      2. It seems that there are some who have formed this expectation for the judgment.
        1. The Lord says, “Everyone here who attended the West-Ark Church of Christ hold up your hand.”
          1. “Good!”
          2. “You people go on in heaven.”
        2. So, as a group, members of the West-Ark Church of Christ walk into heaven.
      3. In my understanding, the New Testament does not suggest that will happen.
        1. One of us says, “Lord, I was a member of the West-Ark Church of Christ.”
        2. The Lord says, “I want to talk to you about you, not about the West-Ark Church of Christ.”
        3. The same person says, “But, Lord, you just extended a welcome to a member of the West-Ark Church of Christ!”
          1. “I saw you!”
          2. “I went to church with that person every Sunday!”
        4. The Lord says, “My relationship with that person was with him (her).”
          1. “My relationship with you is with you.”

  3. I surely need your help.
    1. Every time we assemble, every time I share with you, there are several groups of people present. Let me mention four groups.
      1. Group one is composed of Christians who are crushed by their burden of guilt feelings.
        1. They are plagued with “I am not good enough for God to tolerate” feelings.
        2. The primary issue at work in their lives is this: they place little faith in God’s promises.
      2. Group two is composed of Christians who just do not care.
        1. They are convinced if God is merciful to others, He must be merciful to them.
        2. The primary issue at work in their lives is this: they abuse God’s grace.
      3. Group three is composed of Christians who struggle.
        1. They know how they should devote themselves to God, but they are weak.
        2. The primary issue at work in their lives is this: temptation.
      4. Group four is composed of Christians who just do not know.
        1. They are confused because they literally do not understand.
        2. The primary issue at work in their lives is this: they know almost nothing about God, or Jesus, or scripture.
      5. These are not all the groups present; just four of them.

    2. The problem: one lesson cannot possibly meet the spiritual needs of all four of those groups.
      1. In fact, when I address the spiritual understandings needed by those burdened with guilt, those who abuse grace may feel justified.
      2. Or, when I address the spiritual understandings needed by those who abuse grace, those who know little are totally confused.
      3. Or, when I address the spiritual understandings of those who know little, the first three groups are bored.

    3. One of the continuing struggles in my work as a teacher arises from a truth I must always remember.
      1. I must always remember that we are a family.
        1. We have spiritual babies of all stages of infancy.
        2. We have spiritual teenagers.
        3. We have spiritual young adults and spiritual middle ages adults.
        4. We have the spiritually mature and wise.
      2. We all need a different spiritual diet.
        1. If all we eat is spiritual fast food, we all will be spiritually sick. Spiritual french fries are not the key to eternal survival!
        2. If we feed babies adult diets or adults baby food, both will get sick.
        3. We must not restrict spiritual education to Sunday sermons.
        4. We must not restrict spiritual education to close minded conclusions.
          1. We must be open to all scripture teaches.
          2. That is a very difficult openness to seek with honesty and sincerity.

We live in such a complicated time with such complex challenges. We desperately need to increase our faith and dependence on God. God can nourish us all. We must be a people who exist by faith in God, not a people who exist by religious reactions.

The Journey

Posted by on under Bulletin Articles

Recently a brief commentary by a national television network focused on Christian faith. It asked, “How did September 11, 2001 affect faith in God?” Included was a statement from a member of a Christian rock group. Before September 11, he toured America using songs to urge people to trust our good God by placing full confidence in Him. The events of September 11 resurrected an ancient question in his thinking: “How could a good God allow us to suffer such incredible evil?”

In recent years our American culture’s growing emptiness motivated many to renew their search for God. That is good. Many began that search with seriously distorted views of God. That is bad. Why? Seriously distorted views of God produce flawed expectations. Failed expectations attack faith. Consider some insights.

Insight # 1: In many somewheres on earth, horrible evils of great magnitude occur daily. The AIDS epidemic in some African nations daily results in unbelievable acts. Atrocities in nations torn by warring factions produce acts of horrible violence we never experience. The realities surrounding starvation in some nations exceed our comprehension. Injustices within some South American nations add layers of intolerable misery on top of intolerable misery. Americans may not be accustomed to acts of great evil, but much of the world is. For many people, faith in God must exist as great acts of evil occur.

Insight # 2: Too many American Christians are prey to a spiritual predator. Too many hold a uniquely American definition of salvation. Our definition produces a uniquely American view of God. While we pay verbal tribute to eternal aspects of salvation, our salvation expectations focus on “life now.” Salvation expectations commonly include these: no “untimely” physical death in my family; no catastrophic illness in my family; no poverty; steady lifestyle improvement; constant upgrades in my opportunities; and achieving my basic “this life” goals. We resent public appeals to a “health and wealth” gospel, but often we cling to a “health and wealth” gospel privately.

Insight # 3: Too many American Christians believe they have the divine right to a physically desirable “good life.” Physical life is not a journey through this physical world to a home in God’s world. Physical life is the destination. Since “we only live once” we must make physical life enjoyable. A sobering statement: “Child, remember that during your life you received your good things …” (Luke 16:25).

Perhaps great acts of evil terrify us because we distort God and redefine salvation.