HOW DO WE MOVE BEYOND THE ORDINARY

“We instinctively tend to limit for whom we exert ourselves. We do it for people like us, and for people whom we like. Jesus will have none of that. By depicting a Samaritan helping a Jew, Jesus could not have found a more forceful way to say that anyone in need – regardless of race, politics, class, and religion – is your neighbor. Not everyone is your brother or sister in faith, but everyone is your neighbor, and you must love your neighbor.” ― Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just.

As believers, we want to make a difference for Christ in the world. We want our life and legacy to count for something with eternal significance. We want to stand before God one day, knowing we have fulfilled the purposes He had for us. But there’s always this nagging sense inside that says the world’s problems are too big, and we’re too small, so we will never live a life that’s beyond the ordinary.

If we are serious about living a life that goes beyond the ordinary, then the best place to start is with your love. It’s no coincidence that Jesus told His disciples that the world would recognize their relationship to Him by how they loved one another. In other words, love is a visible and often tangible symbol of our spiritual relationship with God. The problem is that ordinary love falls well short of God’s extraordinary love.

Ordinary love is willing to love its neighbor, but only to a certain degree. We’ll do specific chores for our neighbors, and we may even go out of our way for a really good neighbor. But the idea of loving my neighbor as much as I love myself seems a little far-fetched. Ordinary love stays in the comfort zone, while extraordinary love does not. Ordinary love loves those who love us back. If you love and treat me right, I’ll love you back. But that’s not the kind of love believers are called to exhibit.

When Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” there must have been a collective gasp from the crowd. No one, religious teacher or rabbi, had ever uttered those words. The religious leaders must have quickly dismissed the idea because no one can do what Jesus is asking. It is hard to argue with that.  Loving your enemies isn’t something that comes naturally, but what Jesus was asking them and us to do is impossible without God. But with God living in you, you can live above the ordinary and love your enemies.

The kind of love that goes beyond the ordinary is a choice you have to make. It’s not determined by the actions, attitudes, looks, or abilities of the one you are called to love. You can love your enemies because you’ve experienced the love of God.

The real question here isn’t who are we to love, but how do we love? Jesus gives us an example. He says perfect love is the kind that prays for those who persecute you. This kind of love is willing to ask God to bless the lives of the people who seek to harm us. This love acts like God’s love by repaying evil with good. When the world sees this kind of love manifested in the church, we will see real change in people’s lives.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How important is love to human beings? Why do you think it is so important?
  2. Are we a “display window” for the supernatural love of Christ? How do your actions reveal the depth of your love for people?
  3. In what specific ways can you practice loving others well this week?

GOD WILL NEVER LEAVE NOR FORSAKE YOU

“I will never leave you nor forsake you.” – Hebrews 13:5 (ESV).

It is a common part of the human experience to sometimes feel abandoned or forsaken by others. Sometimes, a person who is close to us chooses to walk away. Other times, the natural changes of life result in shifts in our relationships. Occasionally, we even feel abandoned when a loved one has died. But God never leaves. One of the most comforting promises in the Bible is that God will never leave or forsake us. The Message translation of Hebrews 13:5 states: “…I’ll never let you down, never walk off and leave you…” 

How beautiful is that promise? This is a personal promise from Jesus. The Bible tells us in 2 Corinthians 1:20,  “For all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding “Yes!” And through Christ, our “Amen” (which means “Yes”) ascends to God for his glory.” This promise has the power to encourage you and strengthen your faith. It can get you through the bumps and detours in life.

After the resurrection, Jesus returned to His Father in heaven. But He did not leave those who had followed Him for several years on earth without hope. He assured them in Matthew 28:20, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” They might have felt God’s presence had left them after the ascension. They had been by Jesus’ side for a few years, stared into His eyes as He taught, and sat beside Him at meals. Now, He was no longer physically present. Jesus had told them of a coming Helper — One who would remind them of all Jesus’ teachings. John 14:25-26 says, “I am telling you these things now while I am still with you. But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you.”

Jesus did not leave His disciples alone in the world; He never leaves us alone. His very Spirit, who knows the heart of God and intercedes for our lives, is within us. If you feel God has abandoned you or stepped away, think about the disciples after Jesus left the earth. We are not left alone but kept safe in God’s presence and guided by His Spirit.

So, whatever you face, you can be assured that God is with you. He is not going to walk away.  He is with you and will “uphold” you (Isaiah 41:10 ESV). He is going to “sustain” you (Psalm 55:22 ESV).  Scripture promises us that God will never leave us or forsake us. or in other words, He will not abandon us, leave us in straits.

While Jesus was on the cross dying for our sins, He cried out with a loud voice: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). Jesus experienced being forsaken so that we would never have to.

Discussion Questions:

  1. When in your life have you felt and experienced the presence of God the most? How did God reveal His presence to you?
  2. Do you believe that God will never leave or forsake you? Do you have difficulty saying: “He is here with me?” Why?

UGLY AS SIN

“Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” – Habakkuk 1:13 (NIV).

You have heard the expression, “Ugly as sin.” If we knew how ugly sin is to God, we would run from it as hard as we could. The idea of sin should pierce our hearts like a horror movie. And it often does, but not all the time. Sin glitters.  Sin is delicious.  Sin is enticing, intoxicating, and pleasurable to the senses.  It promises everything we could want. Sometimes a little sin can be seen as fun. It is a big deal to have too much to drink, a little bit of untruthfulness, or a little bit of greed or bitterness. Just a little.

But the reality is that sin destroys lives. It creates obstacles.  It causes dysfunctional relationships.  It may look pleasant in the short term, but it is often a slippery slope without a soft bottom. Sin is ugly.  One of the keys to being victorious in our struggle with sin is to see it from God’s perspective. From our perspective, we may see sin as either a regrettable occurrence, a nagging problem, or even just a simple nuisance. But how does God see our sin?

Sin is ugly to God.  God tells us most clearly how ugly it is to Him when He says He cannot even look at it (Habakkuk. 1:13).  God does not overlook, indulge, or tolerate it. Acts 17:30 says, “God overlooked people’s ignorance about these things in earlier times, but now he commands everyone everywhere to repent of their sins and turn to him.”

Isaiah 1:18 has good news for all believers. “Come now, let’s settle this,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, I will make them as white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, I will make them as white as wool.”   

Psalm 94:14 says, “The LORD will not reject his people; he will not abandon his special possession.” The answer to sin is Jesus. Jesus was rejected in our place. We are worthy of being eternally and finally rejected for our sins, and yet Jesus was rejected in our place.  Jesus is our victory.  Jesus is the answer to our struggle with sin.

Sin is so unsightly to God that He offered His most precious gift: So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins” (Romans. 8:3).

Discussion Questions:

  1. Sin is pernicious, insidious, and clever. Sin is many things we don’t even think are sinful. Agree or disagree and why?
  2. What can we do to see sin as it is?   

MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU ABANDONED ME?

And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – Matthew 27:46 (ESV).

“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Those terrifying words occur in two  Gospels — Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34 — as Jesus is hanging on the cross near death. It says, “About the ninth hours Jesus called out with a loud voice.” That alone is amazing. How did he have any strength to do it with a loud voice: “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”or “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”

So, why did He say it? The answer to the why was that He was forsaken. Habakkuk declared of God, “But you are pure and cannot stand the sight of evil….” (Habakkuk 1:13). God turned His back when Jesus was on the cross because He could not look upon sin, even perhaps especially His own Son. Just as Jesus said, God the Father had forsaken Him. He is bearing our sin and our judgment. The judgment was poured on Him rather than us.  Jesus chose to be separated from the Father so we might be reunited with God through Him. Jesus was forsaken by God so that we might be forgiven. Nothing can change that. Not your circumstances. Not your suffering. And not your sin.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” is somewhat of a rhetorical question in that Jesus was not looking for an answer.  Jesus isn’t curious, wondering how this is going to turn out. He knew how it would turn out. Jesus knew what He was doing, what would happen to Him, and why He was doing it. His Father had sent Him for this very purpose. And He came knowing all of this lay ahead.  John 18:4 says, “Jesus fully realized all that was going to happen to him, so he stepped forward to meet them. “Who are you looking for?” he asked.” He gave Himself up. He knew it was coming. He knew everything.

These words reveal the extent of God’s love for you and me. God continues to demonstrate His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. “This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins” (1 John 4:10).

Not the nails but His wondrous love for each of us kept Jesus on the cross. Revelation 1:5, “and from Jesus Christ. He is the faithful witness to these things, the first to rise from the dead, and the ruler of all the kings of the world. All glory to him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by shedding his blood for us” (Ephesians 5:2).

God’s love is a powerful force, more comprehensive than any chasm between enemies, waiting longer than you would ever run from it, going deeper than you would ever fall from it, lifting you higher than you could ever go without it. And the good news is that this love is for all people.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How is Jesus’ death an act of love?
  2. What is the best way to respond to God’s love?
  3. What does this third word teach us about Jesus?

NOTES OF REFLECTION ON WORSHIP

Six days later Jesus took Peter and the two brothers, James and John, and led them up a high mountain to be alone. As the men watched, Jesus’ appearance was transformed so that his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appeared and began talking with Jesus. Peter exclaimed, “Lord, it’s wonderful for us to be here! If you want, I’ll make three shelters as memorials —one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But even as he spoke, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy. Listen to him.” The disciples were terrified and fell face down on the ground. Then Jesus came over and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” And when they looked up, Moses and Elijah were gone, and they saw only Jesus.” Matthew 18:1-8.

There are many different definitions of what true worship is. Some believe that worship is the worship song that moves you on Sundays. Others believe worship is the amount of money you contribute to various ministries. Still, others see volunteering on Sundays as an act of worship. All those and others are acts or expressions of worship, but maybe John Piper has the best definition: “True worship is valuing or treasuring of God above all things.”

Why do we worship Jesus and not another, or for that matter, nothing at all? It’s a crucial question that people have pondered for centuries. The answer to that question was revealed on a mountaintop 2,000 years ago, and it’s still being revealed today. Matthew 17:1-9 tells the tale of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. The transfiguration of Jesus Christ was a unique display of His divine character and a glimpse of the glory that Jesus had before He came to earth in human form. Jesus is worthy of worship. He is worth all the praise you can give Him.

He is transcendent.  He is beyond us and greater than us in every way imaginable. We may think God might be like us… but better.  Maybe we believe an encounter with Jesus would be cool, like meeting Michael Jordan, Taylor Swift, or President Biden. But that is not the case. We will be shaken to the core when we see God in all his glory.  He is glorious in power and light and majesty and holiness. His brilliance and majesty are so beyond us that we won’t know what to do when confronted with Him, and we will fall apart. We will worship Him.

 The apostle Paul says that someday, everyone will worship Jesus. Philippians 2:10 says, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”

True worship acknowledges God and all His power and glory in everything we do.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does the transfiguration mean?
  2. How would you have reacted if Jesus had chosen you to witness His transfiguration?

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A LIVING SACRIFICE

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” – Romans 12:1- 2.

In the first 11 chapters of Romans, Paul is telling the Christian community in Rome—and us as believers on the Emerald Coast how we should live.

But hearing the words living sacrifice seems a little weird in 2024. A living sacrifice must have sounded a little odd to those listening to Paul’s words in Biblical times as well.  They were used to bringing a live animal to the priest, who would kill the animal as the sacrifice, atoning for their sin. Paul is saying that we no longer have to bring a sacrifice; we become one. Offering ourselves as living sacrifices is to choose daily to lay down our desires and to live our lives honoring and obeying Him.  It is trusting in the perfect plans He has for us. In other words, we offer all the parts of our bodies- eyes, ears, lips, hands, feet, heart, mind, in service to Him.

God has given us resources, the Holy Spirit, and His word to achieve our goals. The Holy Spirit lives within to convict and guide us.  The more you know of Him, the greater His voice rings out.

To be a living sacrifice is to desire to belong entirely to Him.  He knows our human weakness will interfere with our best intentions, and we will fail. That’s when we trust in His grace, mercy, and forgiveness and begin anew.

“For my own part, I have never ceased to rejoice that God has appointed me to such an office. People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. Is that a sacrifice which brings its own blest reward in healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and a bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter? Away with the word sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger, now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice.” – David Livingstone.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How would you explain what it means to be a living sacrifice? 
  2. Do you have any specific examples of how it would look for you to live your unique life as a living sacrifice?

I WAS EXPECTING A SMOOTHER RIDE

“Life is one bumpy road, full of potholes and sharp curves and more than a few dead ends.  Having faith doesn’t mean the road miraculously changes into a smooth one.  And faith isn’t like some road crew that comes along and fills in all the potholes or eases the curves or puts up barricades to keep you out of the dead ends.  Faith just means you bump along, get stuck in a pothole once in a while, take a curve too fast, or find yourself backing up after reaching a dead end.  With faith, you just know, deep in your heart and soul, that faith will get you to the end of the bumpy road and lead you safely back Home.” Delia Parr, Day by Day.

At one time, the sound barrier seemed like an unreachable goal. When a pilot came close to the speed of sound, the airplane began to shake so violently that it was feared it would disintegrate. Then, on October 14, 1947, Chuck Yeager stepped into an X-1 and made history.  Although it was a rough ride up to the sound barrier, after it was broken he found a smooth and quiet ride on the other side. As Christians, we are looking for a smooth and quiet ride but rarely find it.

Jesus says, “Follow me.” It sounds pretty simple. We can do that. But then we find it is a bumpy ride. Peter is an example of that. Jesus told Peter that he was the rock upon which the church would be built. But he denied he knew Jesus three times. Peter, like the rest of us, was probably not prepared for the bumps and curves and the speed of following Jesus. Jesus made it clear. Following Him will take the disciples places they never would have gone on their own. Following Jesus is going to be a wild and scary ride at times. Following Jesus is going to mean they have to give up the things they want and do the hard things that scare them or hurt them or just plain make them uncomfortable. Following Jesus can be anything but a smooth ride.

To follow Jesus, we have to leave our comfort zone. Jesus will take us out to find sick people who need someone to visit and care for them. Jesus is going to bring us to the place where children are neglected, abused, ignored, or not given a chance to grow up to be the people God wants them to be. Jesus is going to take us to places where people are adamant that they don’t need Jesus or annoying church people. We are going to meet people who are not grateful. We will meet people who mock us and yell at us or dismiss us as do-gooders. We are going to fail sometimes and be told to try again.

He will take you to uncomfortable, bumpy places if we are willing to follow. It is not smooth. It is not going to be fun all the time. Indeed, sometimes keeping up with Jesus will scare us and make us do things we would never do if it were up to us.

Andy Stanley said,” Following Jesus will make your life better and will make you better at life.” We believe following Jesus is the best life possible. He forgives our past, brings us joy, and becomes our hope for the future even with some bumps in the road.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is your Christian journey bumpier than you thought it would be? Why?
  2. What can you do to enjoy the ride better?

SELFLESS LOVE

“Standing near the cross were Jesus’ mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary (the wife of Clopas), and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother standing there beside the disciple he loved, he said to her, “Dear woman, here is your son.” – John 19:25-26.

You don’t have to look very far to see that our society is very self-centered, very “me-centered.” You also don’t have to look very far to see that we, as believers, struggle with being selfless as well. What does it mean to be selfless anyway? Does it mean to think of yourself less or does it mean something completely different? Well, according to Webster’s dictionary, to be selfless means having no concern for self: unselfish. So, it is not thinking about yourself less but completely removing yourself from the equation to care for others.

One particularly striking aspect of God’s love is selflessness. This particular characteristic of God is truly astounding. This selflessness will take you by surprise because it is not something that we, as humans, are used to. We don’t see it very often. We are always suspicious toward people because we know that the bottom line is ‘What’s in it for me?’ But it is not so with God. He honestly and simply just cares about you, with no strings attached.

If you were in the process of dying from crucifixion, you would be likely thinking about yourself and only about yourself. Yet, even as Jesus faced a grueling, agonizing death, He was still thinking about others. First, He asked God to forgive His persecutors. Then, Jesus turns His attention to His mother.  Jesus bears the weight of the entire world’s sins on His shoulders, and yet He takes one last opportunity to ensure His Mother is taken care of before He leaves this earth.

Jesus speaks these words to Mary, “Dear woman, here is your son,” referring to John, one of His disciples. Jesus was communicating, “Don’t worry about the future. I took care of you while I was alive. John is going to take care of you after I am gone.” Just as Jesus is leaving to prepare an eternal, heavenly home for His Mother, He also provides an earthly home for her before He dies.

In His greatest agony, He still loved His family selflessly. We should learn from what Jesus did on the cross for His Mother. We must take every opportunity to love those dearest to us while with them. We must selflessly love with the time we have been given. Family is a gift we must never take for granted.

God is love. We never need to question His motives in what He does or does not do. Everything He does is done out of His amazing love for sinful people. The more we learn to trust Him and not buck against Him, the more we will see how He is shaping us into the type of person we are intended to be.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What can we learn from “woman, here is your son?  What does this teach us about Jesus?
  2. How does this relate to love for and responsibility for our family? 

DEAR WOMAN, HERE IS YOUR SON

Standing near the cross were Jesus’ mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary (the wife of Clopas), and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother standing there beside the disciple he loved, he said to her, “Dear woman, here is your son.” And he said to this disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from then on this disciple took her into his home.” – John 19:25-27.

When you look at the final words of Jesus from the cross, you encounter some of the participants who were at Golgotha on that fateful day. They are a part of the story of understanding Jesus’ final words.   

In John 19:25-27, John says that three women were with Jesus at the cross. John tells us that they were Jesus’ mother, Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. As we read through this list, we immediately focus on Jesus’ mother, Mary. You have to wonder what Mary must have felt in those hours that Jesus hung on the cross. It had to be a mother’s worst nightmare. It must have been a ghastly, horrible thing for her to see. She had brought Him into the world and reared Him from childhood.  And now, as His bleeding form hung helplessly on the cross, all she could do was watch as His life slip away.

Compassion and love move Jesus to speak his third final word from the cross.  Jesus expresses his compassion and love for Mary with the words we see spoken to her and to the disciple He loved (John). He says to Mary, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to John, “Here is your mother.” Understanding Jesus’ compassion for His mother and the reasoning for these words will allow us to see the compassion and love Jesus has for us.

Jesus’ words are something like a will expressed from the cross. He wants to ensure Mary is cared for and protected after His death. His pain from the cross was not too much to care about the needs of others, especially Mary, at this moment. His love for His mother and making sure she was cared for was more important than His own pain.

The Bible does not tell us but you can imagine that Mary walked away from Calvary in the grip of the strong, loving arm of John, You can imagine that she was no longer afraid. God does the same thing for each of us through Jesus Christ. Jesus tells us, “Give me your life, for if you give me your life, I will take care of you. No matter what battle you may have to fight, you cannot lose. Though bleeding, you will not be broken. Though weary, you will not be weak. Trials will not defeat you.

The same compassion for Mary that moved Jesus to action is apparent when we see how this type of care and compassion applies to how we are called to relate to each other today. These words let us know that family and church are places of community, friendship, and love where we are there for one another.

It’s all about love.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What do you think Mary is feeling while she is waiting at the cross for Jesus to die?
  2. What does this third word teach us about Jesus?

JESUS THE MASTER COMMUNICATOR

“…The large crowd listened to him with great delight.” – Mark 12:37.

When we read about Jesus in the New Testament, we tend to view Him through the lens of Savior and Lord, the long-awaited Messiah. And rightly so. But how often do we view Him as the master communicator? The Bible uses many words to describe God’s communication skills. He answers, asks, assures, calls, commands, directs, explains, instructs, mentions, orders, promises, responds, reveals, etc.

Jesus is the master of communication. He also was the greatest evangelist of all time. He modeled how to engage people with the message of the gospel. His style is assertive, honest, humble, transparent, and direct to the heart of all. The Bible says of Jesus, “…The large crowd listened to him with great delight” (Mark 12:37).

Jesus carefully and sensitively crafted His communication to accommodate the nature and life situation of the people with whom He talked. Jesus knew people. John says, “But Jesus didn’t trust them, because he knew all about people. No one needed to tell him about human nature, for he knew what was in each person’s heart.” (John 2:24-25). Jesus knew people’s life situation, their internal and external factors, and the forces that shaped them. He used this knowledge of people to communicate effectively.

The Gospels give us several instances of large crowds who followed Jesus into remote areas to hear Him. We read of Zaccheus climbing a tree and a paralyzed man going through the roof because of the crowds of people attracted to Jesus. That is because He spoke about the things in life that mattered – about God and how to know Him. Jesus did not just talk to crowds, however. In many cases, He had personal, one-on-one conversations that engaged the other person(s).

We can learn much from Jesus on how we communicate with others. A starting point for Christians who want to communicate more effectively is to consider how our conversations reflect the love of Christ. When others hear us communicating or conversing, are they seeing and hearing Jesus?

Paul says in Colossians 4:5-6 “Live wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone.”

It is our job, as Christians, especially Christian leaders, to set an example in how we communicate. This takes practice… it usually does not come naturally to us. The first place we should look to learn how to communicate more effectively is by looking at Jesus and emulating His approach.

Discussion Questions:

  1. We should follow Jesus’ examples of how he spoke to others, and how he interacted and communicated with others while He was here on earth. How do we do that?
  2. How Christ-like is your communication? Are you able to patiently lead others to answers? Do you feel the need to speak up, or are you able to stay silent sometimes?