Road to Easter: PRETTY PONIES AND UNICORNS

pony-friends-my-little-horse-1-10-s-307x512

This generation, with all its social media, may ironically go down as the most isolated ever.

I’ll not bother citing stats to prove my thesis. I’ll just look across the supper table at my teenagers. They’re good kids, but often lost in their own little worlds of texting and gaming.

While these activities may provide interaction with people miles away, they tend to keep you from the folks right beside you.

Those people nearby are often the ones who love you most – family and friends. Yet the priority of family meals is a source of continual struggle in the Gipson home, even with the built-in sermon machine (me) siting at the head of the table! Demands that devices be shut down are met with a generous helping of eye rolling along with the mashed potatoes.

Here in the paper, we see evidence of isolation – the “curmudgeon commenters.” Their goal is to dish out as much condescension and accusation as possible in order to prove their point. The intrinsic value of the human being on the other end of the internet is rarely considered because they’re never seen.

Our hatefulness is camouflaged by the screen names we hide behind. It’s much easier to wound when anonymity masks the pain on your victim’s face.

One thing I love about Jesus is He truly loved being with people. Who else could stand camping out with 12 guys for three continual years of ministry?

That was Jesus’ modus operandi – relationships. He didn’t just preach at people. He spent time with them, went to their parties, loved them recklessly.

In Luke, He actually invited Himself to dinner with the town villain, Zacchaeus. By simply walking in his door, Jesus became ceremonially unclean in the eyes of the Pharisees.

In spite of this man cheating his own people to help the Romans (and line his own pocket), Jesus shared not just His words but friendship. By the end of supper, Zacchaeus pledged to give back to his victims far beyond what Levitical law demanded.

By the way, that repentant heart is the best sign you’ve truly met Jesus.

Some religious types like me could learn a lot from Jesus’ methods. He could’ve just pointed up in that Sycamore tree, and told Zach he was going to hell and should repent. No one would have argued with Him. Yet here’s the Son of God “slumming it” with the riffraff!

Men I know seem more guarded about friendships than women. I doubt most guys refer to each other as “BFFs – Best Friends Forever” like women do. Most BFF graphics on Google are pink with ponies or unicorns nearby. Women seem to make everything a “social occasion”, even going to the bathroom in little groups.

I can’t remember the last time a guy talked to me in the men’s room.and that’s just fine. It’s not really a place I seek out casual conversation.

I think this is the main misconception about Christianity – it was never meant to be about rules, but about a relationship with God. We argue we’re good enough to get to heaven, how we’ve painted inside the lines, checked all the boxes. But how did Jesus respond to that crowd of self-righteous people? “Depart from me, I never knew you”.

That’s why I find religion so morbidly cold. It only offers you rules to reach God. Jesus offers something entirely different – Himself, reaching out to you. What did Jesus ask for in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before His crucifixion? For friends to “stay and keep watch with me”. In His hour of greatest trial, Jesus wanted friend nearby.

As you think about the sacrifice of Christ this season, stop wondering which Easter service He wants you to attend (and if you need directions to my church, just let me know!). Instead, ask

“Do I really know Jesus? Or more importantly, does He truly know me? Am I only doing the religious minimum to check Him off my “to do list”, or would I do whatever He asks?

Today, Jesus is asking you to be His “BFF”, so to speak. But He won’t offer you any unicorns or pink ponies – don’t mistake His love for weakness. Instead, He’ll reach out with the imprint of a nail in His hand. That’s all the proof you’ll need that this Man would give anything to be your friend.

 

IT’S OK, I’VE GOT YOU

When it comes to one particular subject, I’ll admit I’m a total hypocrite. I’ve done sermons on the subject, but I really have no business preaching on it.

I worry…a lot.

I know, I’m a pastor. I’m supposed to trust God completely. Jesus promised me a “peace that passes understanding” – in other words, a peace so outrageous and unreasonable it doesn’t really make sense. And I have experienced that…at times.

Yes, I know all the Bible verses, most by heart. I believe God loves us and wants the best for us. And I have no doubt He can come through for you in anything you face.  It’s just when I need Him to come through for me that I have a problem trusting.

For instance – the other Sunday we had FRIEND DAY at church. That’s a day everyone is supposed to invite a friend to come with them, and you have an exciting day with lots of people experiencing your church for the first time.  Only problem was, it was coming at the tail end of Spring Break for the public schools. Not only that, but they also had the Monday off after Sunday. So as we got to the week before, I realized I already had lots of key families out of town.

As I came to the day before our event, I discovered even more families than I expected would be out. In fact, about 30% of our congregation would be gone. Not the best plan for a high attendance Sunday.  In fact, an almost certain disaster.

So I did what any reasonable, Godly pastor would do…actually no, I didn’t. I panicked.

We all keep asking God to take us out of tough situations.  That’s natural. Some people have even developed theologies where they claim God will keep them from pain, if they only have enough faith. Sorry, that’s wishful thinking.  The hard truth is God is often the very one leading us into those scary, nerve-racking places.  Why in the world would a loving God do this?

So that with every rescue He performs, we would finally learn to trust Him and stop worrying.

Jesus talked about this specifically in Matthew 6:28. He pointed out how beautiful the lilies are, and how God takes care of the birds. He asks an obvious question – don’t we realize how much more precious to God we are? If He takes care of them, do we really think He has allowed these challenges in our lives in order to destroy us?

So why don’t I get that? Why don’t I trust that God will take care of me? Usually it’s a matter of focus.

When we stare at our problems, the problems look bigger. When we concentrate on God, the problems pale in comparison.  Hmmm…maybe that’s why the Psalmist said, “Oh MAGNIFY the Lord with me”.  It’s when we focus our attention on God that we see how really big He is, and how small our problems are compared to His infinite resources.

Not only do I not focus on Him, but I ignore His track record in my life. With all the things I’ve been through – car accidents, lost jobs, moves, living in dangerous inner-city neighborhoods, starting churches – He’s hoping at some point I notice one common denominator with all I’ve experienced. That common factor is that not once has my family gone hungry. Not once did He fail to come through on something truly important. And frankly, you’d think that by now I would have noticed that!

It’s probably a good thing I can’t see God when I talk to Him.  I wonder how many times, when I’m panicked and frantic, He is actually rolling His eyes? How often must He be thinking, “Not this again!  You still don’t trust me? Seriously?”

At the end of that passage, He made me a firm promise. Jesus said that, instead of worrying, I should simply do this: “seek first HIS kingdom”…what He wants from me…bringing about His will on this earth…and then all the things I’m worried about for myself will simply “be added unto me”.  He says, “Put me first, and I’ll take care of the rest”.

So I don’t have to be perfect.  Thank God, I don’t have to be smart. I just have to prioritize the things He said are important, and everything will fall into place.  Done deal. To a doubter like me, a world-class cynic, that sounds too good to be true.  But amazingly, it actually is just that – true. And from my own experience, I know it is!

Seriously, what’s the worst thing that can happen to us? Death, right? But the whole point of Easter is that He’s even got our “worst case scenario” all wrapped up. The greatest calamity that could possibly befall us has already fallen under His feet.

So when I focus on that, every day no matter how challenging can be covered with a warm blanket of peace.  Everything that’s looks like a tragedy in this life is suddenly a triumph in the next. He’s my Father, He loves me, and no matter how hard the storm rages, He is not letting go of my hand. Not a chance.

Oh, by the way, our Friend Day at church? I feel kinda silly, actually. Our attendance didn’t tank, even with so many of our regular families on vacation. In fact, we did quite well…

We had our highest attendance…ever.  Made no sense at all. Totally nuts.  People coming from nowhere. Yeah, I feel really stupid. But this kind of stupid’s not such a bad feeling after all.

One day, I’ll face my own worst case scenario. I’m going to die, just like you will. My hope is that by that time, I will have learned the lessons God has taught me about worry. I don’t think I’ll go out grasping for life, struggling to hold onto this world.

I hope I will finally know how to listen to my Father, when He says to me, “Let go. It’s OK…I’ve got you!”

That is when I’ll fall into His arms.  And I have no worries whatsoever that He is more than able to catch me…

Road to Easter: KINGDOM COME

jesus-washing-the-feet-calvin-carterIt’s fascinating what becomes important when you know you’re about to die…

My wife’s friend developed an aggressive form of cancer. She was relatively young, a wife and mother, active in church. They had gone out to eat together, talking about their kids – normal stuff.

Now she was bed-ridden, unable to care for herself, cherishing every precious minute left with loved ones. Her 5 year old daughter would grow up with few memories of her, and her husband would eventually remarry. Now every conversation was in bold type. Each encounter was a keepsake. Every moment mattered.

When Jesus came to the Last Supper before the cross (John 13:1-17, Luke 22:24-27), His disciples came in arguing about who’d be the most important in the coming “Messiah Administration”. When they walked into Jerusalem, crowds had sung “Hosanna”.  Big things were coming. Cabinet positions, heads of state – they thought these were just around the bend.

With all the posturing, no one bothered to wash anyone’s feet. That may sound random, but it was important in Jesus’ day. With respect to DaVinci, seating arrangements were nothing like his painting depicts. They would’ve been seated on the floor, reclining on pillows, feet in close proximity to others. And since travel was on foot or by animal, dirt was not the only “organic materials” on their sandals.

Traditionally the lowliest servant in the household would wash the feet. Since this was a private party, a disciple needed to do the job. As Jesus waited them, He realized the Father had provided another “teachable moment” for them.

The rabbi stood up. Notice He didn’t merely dab a couple of toes gingerly. No, Jesus, Son of God, took off his outer garment. He wrapped a towel around his waist, got a basin of water and knelt down to do the dirty work.

The lesson’s clear – if you want to be great in Jesus’ “Kingdom Come”, you must serve others and not yourself. Stop vying for the top and move to the bottom. You stop trying to save your life and spend it on others. In fact, you must be willing to do what others believe is beneath them.

All that flies in the face of this present world’s system. “If you want respect, you’d better demand it”. “Moving up the ladder? Be ready to step on folks on the way up”.

Even pastors can miss the point.  Some “important” ones are convinced others should serve them instead. They walk around with an entourage rivaling P. Diddy’s, with a special seat at banquets and a reserved parking spot. A few are bullies with a handshake and a hug, like Lotso Bear from Toy Story. Their smiles blind you to the inferno of ambition burning behind their eyes.

Unfortunately, that kind of leader often succeeds in building a kingdom. Power draws people like flies, and the pack is all too willing to stare at the backside of the Alpha Dog who fights his way to the front. The servant leader rarely sees the kind of success that will impress.

I’ve found this true here in the land of the Bentley and Tommy Bahama shirt as well. Wealth and power are intoxicants, and their “substance abusers” abound here. Nothing wrong with those unless you believe they bring you value as a person. Sadly, some folks with the greatest personal assets seem utterly bankrupt as human beings. If you spend your life chasing the world’s success, it’s no shock your eternal “portfolio” goes unattended.

The real shocker may come when they hand out the crowns in heaven. A lot of religious bigwigs will expect to hear their names called for awards, only to be shut out by some “nobody” who worked in their church nursery. Some pearly white smiles will go crestfallen when their “good works” go up in a puff of smoke. And some elite power brokers will find themselves at the back of the line, sweeping up after the celebration ends.

That is the day the real rewards will be handed out, and we will all lift up on our shoulders the humble, the hard workers, the tireless givers of this life. And on that day, the Bible says Jesus, the greatest servant of all, will look at them and say, “Well done, thou good and faithful SERVANT…” (Matt. 25:23)

Hmmm…I guess this life was about serving after all.

YOU’VE BEEN SERVED Click to watch Dave’s sermon on the same subject

ROAD TO EASTER: LEGION

ImageDo you believe in evil? I mean, in a personal, intelligent force working against us?

The evil manifested in your garden-variety exorcism film seems pretty exciting to many. But that’s something we don’t often see these days. And frankly, that’s bothered me. Why don’t we see demon-possessed people like Jesus faced anymore (as in Luke 8:26-39)?

“What is your name?” Jesus asked. “Legion, for we are many.” Are those stories merely the superstitious products of a primitive culture lacking any better explanation?

Then again…

I have met evil in person. I’ve prayed for some pretty sick, twisted people over the years. I’ve sat with some who’ve violently massacred loved ones. I’ve counseled those who’ve done unspeakable things to the innocent. You’d have to be crazy to do those things, right? But these people looked me straight in the eye, and spoke with a lucent possession of their faculties. I often wondered if, behind their eyes, I might catch evil staring back at me.

I’ve also seen evil working in people’s lives. Bitterness and unforgiveness growing like cancer in their souls. Substance and sexual abuse, pornography and addictions leaving people limping through life, the byproduct of their own sins or someone else’s against them. Victims crippled in childhood – some becoming abusers themselves. So the planted seed grows to full maturity.

It seems Satan has tailor-made these designer demons for our “enlightened age”.

“Legion” was not the demon’s name. It was their way of bragging about their numbers and strength. That’s how evil works – it manipulates to gain and hold power…(funny, sounded like I was talking about Washington DC for a moment).

In Jesus’ day, people believed not only in God but some in many “gods”. So a demon showed its strength by demonstrating its control over the victim. Outrageous behavior and supernatural manifestations intimidated the first century citizen. It was Satan boasting he was the most powerful of the “gods”. And it worked pretty well, until confronted by a certain rabbi from Nazareth.

Today, the deception is different. Satan’s “lie de jour” is unbelief. “There is no God, and demons are the stuff of cheap Hollywood exploitation films” is the reigning deception he uses in our day. Satan knows that any flamboyant manifestations of spinning heads and spitting pea soup would spoil that grand illusion. We would then be faced with the existence of a supernatural world living between the layers of our limited logic. So Evil dare not rear its head, or else we’d have to believe there was a great Good fighting against that evil as well.

Better to keep his work stealthy, subtle, undetected. So he camouflages his demons in the guise of social ills. It is merely a coincidence that we are so often struck at our weakest point. We believe the self-destructive voices in our head are our own, never realizing we are being mimicked by the Great

Impersonator himself. Instead of casting him out, we take an extra tranquilizer to sleep at night. As long as the demons look common enough to fly under the radar, the deception is a success.

As we approach Easter, we are faced with the most miraculous claim of Jesus – victory over death itself. But in our arrogant insistence that there is nothing beyond what we can explain and understand, some are squeamish to embrace a full-fledged, over-the-top resurrection.  Maybe we’d be smarter to believe it was some mythic tableau, symbolizing the rejuvenation of the Spring season. Sure, that’s much easier, isn’t it?

Therein lies our trap: we are too smart for our own good. Anyone that overconfident is pretty easy to deceive, as long as the deception plays to their arrogance. It’s like a 21st century version of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Instead of telling the king he’s naked, we persuade him smart people don’t believe clothes exist. So surely it’s a paranoid fantasy to think we’re being watched, studied and stalked like prey.

Yes, Evil knows us well. He remains content to brew beneath the surface. He beacons fathers to destroy their families with sexual liaisons. He lies in wait for the innocent child and seduces the predator who would abuse them. And He rips through our culture with a thousand selfish  indifferences toward our fellow man, building frustrations one upon the others.

We don’t believe, yet the demons are still here. And they are legion.