Friday, May 30, 2014

On the Water


It has been a few weeks since I posted a, it was high time to get back in the saddle, or in this case perhaps, back in the boat with Jesus. :-) 

There are two major bodies of water in the land where Jesus walked. One is the Sea of Galilee, a beautiful lake 13 miles long and 7 miles wide filled with fish and surrounded by lush foliage.  The other body of water is the Dead Sea, 50 miles long and 11 miles wide, the shoreline of which is 1300 feet below sea level.  Seven million tons of water evaporate from the Dead Sea every day. The saline or salt content of the water of the Dead Sea ranges from 26-35%, making it 10 times saltier than the oceans of the world. There is no seaweed or plants of any kind in or around the water. There are no fish or any kind of swimming, squirming creatures living in or near the water. Both the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea are fed by the Jordan River. There is really only one difference between these two bodies of water, really only one thing that causes the Sea of Galilee to be beautiful and alive while the Dead Sea is barren and lifeless. The Sea of Galilee has an outlet; the Dead Sea does not! Water flows through the Sea of Galilee. Water flows into the Dead Sea but not out!  Spiritual input but no spiritual output = stagnation. If you and I have Spiritual input but no spiritual output, we will become stagnant and lifeless. (From Johnny Creasong’s Sermon: You Are Free to Serve the Lord)

Jesus certainly understood this all too well, as it is why He would say things like, “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve.” (Matthew 20:28)  There is a tremendous spiritual parallel in the story I share today, which involves the first body of water, the Sea of Galilee.  Throughout His ministry, Jesus would always come to assist those whom He loved.  He assisted His disciples…He assisted Jews, Samaritans, Gentiles, young and old, rich and poor.  He certainly set a good example for us. John shares about a unique situation here in the passage where the faith of the disciples is tested…and one of them in particular…but lessons abound for all of them!

When we read Matthew 14:22-33, we come to understand that the crowd wants to make Jesus king, so this presents something of a problem.  This is why John says that Jesus is in such a hurry to dismiss the crowd and send the disciples back across the sea in a boat to the land of Gennesaret. The disciples are not completely aware of the situation nor do they understand Jesus’ plan, so if they had stayed, they probably would have fallen into the crowd’s plans.  Out on the sea in the boat, a storm arises.  We have to understand that the storm comes because the disciples are in the will of God, and not out of it…as Jonah was – Jesus understands this. Something that I like to say is that -- what is challenging for us humans to understand from our human perspective is that the disciples are safer in the storm in the will of God, than on the land with the crowd and out of God’s will.  It teaches us that we must not judge security on the basis of circumstances alone.

Meanwhile, back in the boat, the disciples seem to feel deserted by Jesus when the storm comes.  What is interesting is that Jesus actually waits for the boat to be far from land.  This way any human element is gone and the opportunity for faith-building is at the maximum.  Jesus walks out to the disciples on the water.  Why?  He wants to show them that the very thing that they fear…the sea…is only a sidewalk for Him to come to them!  Another interesting question that has to be asked -- why do the disciples not recognize Him?  They simply are not looking for Him.  If the disciples were waiting by faith, they would know Him immediately…a good lesson to learn.  Instead, they all jump to the conclusion – it is a ghost!  Fear and faith are not able to live in the same heart, for fear always blinds people’s eyes to the presence of the Lord.  Yet, in the presence of Jesus, fear can be dismissed – only He is able to calm them.

Peter, the most outspoken of the disciples, also is willing to step up to the plate with his faith.  He asks to come out to Jesus on the water…and Jesus tells him to come.  The other eleven disciples sit in the boat and watch.  It requires genuine faith to leave the boat and step out onto the water.  After taking a few steps, Peter begins to sink.  Why?  The wind comes up and his faith wavers, because he takes his eyes off of Jesus and looks at his circumstances.  Peter needs to be single-minded and focused, but he becomes double-minded…showing that faith and fear cannot occupy the heart at the same time.  We must give Peter credit for knowing that he is sinking and crying out to the Lord for help before he is in over his head.  Before we criticize Peter for sinking in the water, he needs to be honored for his wondrous demonstration of faith!  He dares to be bold and courageous – signs of a growing, healthy faith. Peter grows through his trial to have even greater faith.  His experience turns out to be a blessing for the others, as well as himself. This miracle magnifies Jesus’ kingship.  Peter and the others know that He is the ruler over all nature.  All people and things, including the wind and the waves, must obey Him.  Perhaps the most important understanding we can gain from this story is that, Jesus ends up in the boat with the disciples.  When surrounded by adversity, safety and salvation are experienced in the church with Jesus in its midst. When the disciples see the power of Jesus in this situation, all they can do is fall down and worship Him as the Son of God!

Perhaps harkening to another story where Jesus is with His disciples in a boat on the sea, a young man applied for a job as a farmhand. When the farmer asked for his qualifications, he said, "I can sleep when the wind blows."  This puzzled the farmer. But he liked the young man, and hired him.  A few days later, the farmer and his wife were awakened in the night by a violent storm. They quickly began to check things out to see if all was secure. They found that the shutters of the farmhouse had been securely fastened. A good supply of logs had been set next to the fireplace. The young man slept soundly. The farmer and his wife then inspected their property. They found that the farm tools had been placed in the storage shed, safe from the elements.  The tractor had been moved into the garage. The barn was properly locked. Even the animals were calm. All was well. The farmer then understood the meaning of the young man's words, "I can sleep when the wind blows." Because the farmhand did his work loyally and faithfully when the skies were clear, he was prepared for the storm.

As one of our favorite songs by Scott Krippayne reminds us -- sometimes Jesus is going to calm the storms in your life…other times, He is going to calm the storm in you, thought the circumstances of life continue to rage. What we can learn is that it is not so much whether we are successful in life that makes the difference, but whether we are faithful!  We may not always be successful, rather like Peter, we can learn a lot from failure.  Circumstances can test us, but how we deal with them can make a huge difference for us.  Like the young man, we need to be ready for the storm.  It is very easy to be comfortable and content to just stay in the boat, as did the other eleven disciples – we have got to be willing to be challenged…to do something different from our regularly scheduled programming, and so, we are here.  Many never really get out on the water to see how the Lord can mightily use them.  But with faith, nothing ventured, nothing gained!  When we choose to live by faith…when we truly exercise trust in the Lord…single-minded and focused -- then Satan and fear have much less opportunity to get a foothold in our lives.  We need to think outside of ourselves – we need to be willing to consider and actually find ways to get out of the boat -- and consider how the Lord can use us and help us to grow…and be a blessing to other people, so that they also can grow!  When we do, then our lives become rich and full, and we find purpose for our Christian walk. 

Yet, as I now read this, I believe a message that is just as important is -- are we living as if Jesus is in our midst?  Is he present in our lives?  The Lord comes to us in the storms of life.  He may not always come at the times that we think He should…He knows when we need Him the most – He has our best faith interests at heart. But more importantly, are we allowing Him to dwell with and is us?  We do not need to be so far from Him that He seems like an apparition to us.  We need Him to be present with us.  He wants to be close to you…in the boat with you. Welcome Him.

Blessings, Don

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Prayer's Focus


Last week was national day of prayer (week), and I spent some time not only pondering about prayer, but actually doing more of it.  I believe that this is an area of our lives that can always bear some improving.  It is with this thought in mind that I offer the following thoughts.  

A faithful, healthy prayer life is the challenge of James (5:13-18), the brother of Jesus. He tells his readers at the end of his letter that there are a number of times and places when we need to pray. He says that when we are suffering, we need to pray (v. 13). He is writing to some people who are facing significant persecution for their faith…and that they have the ability to endure hardship patiently if they call upon the Lord. The Psalmist, Asaph recognizes this as he says concerning the Lord – “call upon me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor me” (Psalms 50:12).

When people are ill, they need to pray, as restoration can come through a prayer of faith (vv. 14-15). James says that those who are sick should call upon the elders and have them come pray. In this context, they pour oil upon the one who is ill, associating it with the healing. Many scholars believe that this was medicinal…and so, there may be some defined purpose in using it. As to whether this was the only purpose and time for it being used, it is hard to say. What we can come to understand is an important recognition -- the Lord is the Great Healer, and not man. There are some who might call attention to the act of healing, when in actuality, it is the fact of healing that matters.  If it does or does not take place is in the hands of the Lord. The prayer offered in faith can affect this, which is amazing in and of itself. The Lord can raise up the one who is ill as the result of such a prayer. Also, sinners can be forgiven through the prayer of faith. The assumption is that man may become sick as the result of sin. This can be the case, as guilt and other negative emotions can wear people down physically, mentally, emotionally in such a way that they are more susceptible to becoming ill. Everyone can and does sin…and yet, our sins can be and are forgiven if we pray and ask for forgiveness. The Apostle John tells us this in his letter (1 John 1:9).

James provides an example of someone who was faithful in prayer. Elijah is an example of perseverance in prayer. He was no superman, but was like us in every way. He was very serious about his relationship with Lord, as James says -- he, literally, “prayed with prayer.” He was intent., as he prayed and it did not rain for three and a half years, as a lesson to the Israelites, but he prayed again at the end of this time and the Lord provided rain (1 Kings 17,18). Even Jesus references this event in Luke 4:25. Elijah had a great faith in an even greater God.

James climaxes his message by explaining the loving-kind and prayerful relationship that Christians should have with one another and with God. Christians should confess their sins…to one they can be in prayer for one another. This involves trust. We should not have to be concerned about revealing ourselves, but need to pray concerning building relationships that are based upon love and trust. Who is it that is able to accomplish this? It is “the righteous person.” And who is this? The person whose sins are confessed and forgiven, the one seeks to the will of God with all of their heart. What we understand is that prayer is supposed to get results. God is not just sitting back in some cosmic rocking chair watching matters unfold in our world. He is near…and He can and does respond to our pleas to Him. Prayer’s ultimate result is to reveal a right relationship with God through the Son.

A minister tells the story of another minister who believed he received protection as a result of prayer. This man had developed the discipline of beginning every day with an hour of prayer. One particular day, however, he felt a strong leading to pray longer, so he continued for a second hour. After two hours he still felt the need to keep on praying, so he persevered for a third hour asking for God's protection and blessing on his day; as well as for other things. He then felt released from the need to pray longer so he stopped. That evening as he was mowing his lawn, he felt something repeatedly brush up against his leg. He looked down and saw a coiled rattlesnake trying to strike him, but it just couldn't hit him. Instead, it kept brushing either side of his leg. Why had the man felt the need to pray longer that morning? What was he doing? Some would say, God doesn't need three hours of prayer to protect one from a rattlesnake. I would agree. He didn't "need" seven days of marching around Jericho to tear it down either, but He chose to do it that way. He didn't "need" to spit in a person's eye to heal them, but He did once. Why He requires things to be done certain ways, we don't always know, but we do know that for us, obedience is the key. Intercessory Prayer by Dutch Sheets, pp.80,81.

What is at the heart of this message? It is concerning the heart -- it is about your heart! As Matthew West shares in his popular song, we cannot simply go through the motions and expect to cultivate a close relationship with God. If our heart is not focused in a heavenly direction concerning any number of aspects of spiritual life and living, not to mention worship assembly time, then the Lord is not going to be able to effectively work in our lives. Our prayers have the ability to accomplish much, if we are seeking His will for our lives. Care enough to spend some time every day with the Lord in prayer…and care enough to share in prayer together for others. I conclude with a billboard message that I have seen – “the family that prays together stays together.”  

Blessings, Don