God’s Best Surprise

As we read and reflect on the stories of the Bible and the promises of the Word of God, we’re often surprised at how God works in our lives and in this world. Much about God still is mystery. God is, after all, God. But as we walk by faith and He reveals Himself in beautiful and unexpected ways, life is truly a rich adventure. Of all the surprises, the best surprise is the promise of His powerful, loving presence, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”

Today as we study the story from Daniel, chapter 3, we remember three men whom we probably first met in Sunday school – Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They were part of the exiles taken to Babylon after Jerusalem was defeated in 587 BC. They, along with Daniel, were the cream of the crop, top shelf, young men dripping with potential. The King of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, saw their great ability and used them to rule in his kingdom.

God called them to remain faithful to Him in this foreign land despite living in a culture that did not acknowledge Yahweh as God. King Nebuchadnezzar set up a ninety-foot idol and held an important dedication of it. Everyone who was anyone was present, and when the music played, everyone was to bow down. And everyone did – except Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. How is the element of surprise part of this story?

First, this story is surprising in that God’s people were even in exile. Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, had been defeated soundly by Babylon. This created a theological crisis of faith for those who were in exile. I wonder if you have ever experienced some tragedy or suffering and wondered why God allowed it or if God had abandoned you? Does God still care about me?

How do we understand the expectations created by faith? We put our trust in an all-powerful God of love. So when we experience the reality of suffering in this imperfect world, where is God? The Old Testament people hauled into slavery in Babylon were people of promise. They had the Law – the Torah – God’s commands as their guide for living in harmony with God in this world. They were people of the covenant of circumcision, descendants of Abraham. They were the chosen people of all-powerful Yahweh. God was with them, so how could they ever be defeated?

Yet, Jerusalem was destroyed. More than that, the Temple, the dwelling place of Almighty God was destroyed. And the Temple, remember, was the place for sacrifice for the atonement for sins, for the harmony of being reconciled to God. The majority of the people were killed. It was a terrible defeat. All who survived were hauled off into exile in Babylon. No wonder the psalmist wrote, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept as we remembered.” They were surprised that God allowed them to be defeated by the enemy.

Eventually, though, as they processed this in faith, they had to conclude that it was not God who had failed or abandoned them. Rather, they had failed God. For decades they had disobeyed God’s word. They had broken God’s covenant and were deaf to the voice of the prophets. Still God told them as exiles, I still have plans for you. I want you to settle in, keep trusting me, stay faithful, and seek to bless the nation where you live (Jer. 29). The phrase, “Bloom where you are planted” is good advice for the exiles. It is for me, perhaps for you, even today, our faith raises expectations. We pray to an infinitely powerful God who loves us, and we expect and hope to be spared any struggle or pain in this world. We are surprised when we experience defeat. Terrorism stirs uneasiness and fear all around the globe. We hear reports of ISIS (radical Islamic extremists armed to the hilt) who are committed to killing those who don’t share their beliefs. We see photos of Christians who were put to death for their unwavering confession of faith in Jesus, and we are surprised and wonder why God didn’t protect them.

Yet we believe God is still all-powerful, He loves us, and is the source of our hope. Romans chapter 8 tells us that God sent His Son into the world to die on a cross and He raised Him from the dead to defeat death and the enemy. We live by faith wrestling with mysteries. God sees our times of struggle as well as triumphs. He knows us, and He weeps with us in our pain. He loves us.

We also might be surprised on an individual level when we experience personal suffering, sickness, and loss – even if we are faithful to God. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were faithful to God in that foreign land filled with idol worship. It is easy to be faithful and loyal when we’re sitting in church in the third row from the front to the right of center surrounded by other believers. However, when we are surrounded by people who don’t share our faith in the Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of the world, it isn’t as easy to remain faithful. So when we are faithful, we expect God to protect us from any consequence of being loyal to Him, especially if the persecution comes from unbelievers.

The truth, however, is that scriptural witness doesn’t teach us this. Throughout history, Christian believers have suffered greatly and lost their lives by trusting Christ at the hands of unbelievers. So in this story, when King Nebuchadnezzar sets up this ninety-foot statue and summons all in the crowd to bow down on the threat that if they don’t they will be thrown in the fiery furnace, three individuals stand defiant. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – faithful to God though the masses do otherwise. King Nebuchadnezzar is furious. Maybe you didn’t understand, boys. I’ll give you another chance to get it right or else!

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego say to the King, Well, if you throw us in the fiery furnace, GOD IS ABLE TO SAVE US, AND HE WILL DELIVER US. But, even if He does not (meaning, even if we have to die for our faith and loyalty to God), we won’t serve your gods or worship your image. Their hearts were already promised to Another. Before the time of testing came, they already knew their hearts were devoted to being the Lord’s people.

So with us! Even before we’re tempted to give in to the passion of the moment, we can say, My heart belongs to Jesus. Even if we are seduced to embezzle money and become rich, our hearts belong to Jesus. Even if we’re invited to cave in and go with the crowd, to do what the rest of culture does and think like the rest of the world in terms of purpose, goals, or philosophy, remember: our hearts belong to Jesus. We are already promised to Another.

SURPRISE! Just when Shadrach and Meshach and Abednego needed God most, He revealed His presence and His power in the heat of the fiery furnace. These men were beautiful in their courageous faithfulness. King Nebuchadnezzar had stoked the fire so hot that the soldiers died bringing them to it.

Now we need to know that God does not guarantee that if we are faithful, we will be exempt from danger or death. Even in the current news, we read stories of people who courageously confess their faith yet suffer. But what Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego told the King is true! God is able to supernaturally, miraculously deliver us. He also promises us the courage and strength to be faithful to Him in the heat of the moment and in the face of the challenge.

Just when Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego thought they would die, God rescued them. Nebuchadnezzar, the king said “Weren’t there three men tied up and thrown into the fire? Look! I see four men walking in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods!” (I believe the fourth man was the presence of Jesus Himself in the fiery furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.)

I love this description. They were unharmed. Not a hair on their heads was singed; their robes were not scorched; they didn’t even smell of fire! And the king promoted them.

It’s a beautiful and powerful story. It ends well – God gives them victory. However, God does not always intervene to miraculously deliver. Sometimes faithful people, loyal hearts, suffer greatly.

The most profound truth, the best surprise of all, is that Jesus’ name is Immanuel, God with us. We are not exempt from the difficulties of an imperfect world or the evil hearts of unbelievers who would wish to destroy Jesus and his followers and the message of the gospel. Yet Romans eight tells us, “What can we say about all these things? If God is for us, who could stand against us. We are more than conquerors through Jesus who loves us, and nothing, nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Years ago, the late Rev. Mark Jerstad, campus pastor at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota told the story of his experience as a young pastor in International Falls, Minnesota. In his parish was a single mom who was very poor and struggled in life. She had two small children, five-year-old Jill and baby Johnny. They lived in a trailer. One night a tragic fire broke out and baby Johnny died in the fire.

After the funeral, Pastor Mark offered to take Jill to his house to play with his daughter Rachel while the mom took care of some business. Jill had not spoken a word since the tragic fire. Pastor Mark asked Jill, “Would you like to play a game?” She shook her head no.

“Want to play with Rachel’s dolls?” She shook her head.

“I know,” he said, “Let’s go to the piano. I’ll play the notes, and you sing the words.” Jill nodded.

Pastor Mark began to play and the little girl sang this haunting song,

“Johnny’s in the trailer, and I can’t get him out.

He’s trapped in the fire, and I can’t get him out.

Johnny’s in the trailer, and I can’t get him out.”

Then, like a switch in her heart, Jill turned to Pastor Mark and said, “Pastor Mark, could we sing the song we do in Sunday school: ÔJesus loves me’?”

Pastor Mark, with a broad smile, began to play, “Jesus loves me, this I know.”

Two songs. The first song expresses our human powerlessness in a broken world where we suffer, where we feel guilt and grieve our loss. But the second song is a song of hope. Only in the unconditional love of Jesus can we survive. Only in Jesus’ promise that says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” can we have the courage to live by faith.

That is the best surprise – the very presence of Jesus whose name is Immanuel, God with us.

Surprised by God’s Grace

How would you describe God? I found a humorous little article written by an eight-year-old, Danny, from California who describes God for us. He writes, “One of God’s main jobs is making people. He makes them to take care of things here on earth. He doesn’t make grownups, just babies. I think that’s because they’re smaller and easier to make. That way, He doesn’t have to take up his valuable time teaching them to talk and walk. He can just leave that up to mothers and fathers.

“God’s second most important job is listening to prayers. An awful lot of this goes on. Some people, like preachers and things, pray at other times than just before bedtime. God doesn’t have time to listen to the radio or TV on account of this.

“Jesus is God’s Son. He used to do all the hard work, like walking on water, doing miracles, and trying to teach people about God who really didn’t want learn. They finally got tired of Him preaching to them, and they crucified Him. But He was good and kind like His Father, and He told His Father that they didn’t know what they were doing and to forgive them, and God said, ÔOkay!’ His dad appreciated all his hard work on earth, so He told him He didn’t have to go out on the road anymore. He could stay in heaven. So He did.

“You should always go to Sunday school because it makes God happy, and if there’s anyone you want to make happy, it’s God. Don’t skip Sunday school to do something you think would be more fun, like going to the beach. This is wrong. And besides, the sun doesn’t come out at the beach until noon anyway.

“If you don’t believe in God, besides being an atheist, you will also be very lonely because your parents can’t go everywhere with you Ð like to camp. But God can. It’s good to know that He’s around when you’re scared of the dark, or when you can’t swim very good and you get thrown in really deep water by the big kids. But you shouldn’t just always think of what God can do for you. I figured God put me here and he can take me back anytime he pleases.

“And that’s what I believe about God!”

What words would you use to describe God? A few favorites probably come to mind like mighty, powerful, big, infinite, good, wise. I’d like to add one more to your list today, though Ð Surprising! This has been our theme on Christian Crusaders these past couple weeks: God’s surprising ways.

As we examine the biblical narratives, we find that God is full of surprises. His ways are really not anything like our ways. He operates totally outside of the box. We saw that in last week’s text as we looked at the story of Gideon, God’s surprising draft choice for carrying out His purposes. Today, we find God again behaving in a surprising way in the Adam and Eve story of Genesis 3. It was written and saved for us to describe what happened to God’s perfect world and how it became such a mess.

Genesis chapter 2 sets the stage for us. The world is perfect. God created it. Everything is in perfect harmony: people loving God, loving each other, and all was well. But by the end of chapter 3, it is suddenly a cacophony. Harmony is gone, and it is in total discord.

God had only one rule: “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (2:16, 17). But Adam and Eve were approached by the serpent who said to Eve, You know, God is really just holding out on you. If you eat the fruit on this tree, you will be like God. You can run your own life! We call that EGO (Edging God Out), running your own life. So they gave into temptation and ate from the tree. They moved toward “edging God out.”

We see this scenario played out all the time in people’s lives. They thumb their noses at God, edging Him out. They insist on running their own lives, and then making an absolute mess of them.

In this sense Adam and Eve are still alive amongst us, sometimes within us. Everything changed, didn’t it? They suddenly realized they were naked and were ashamed. Oh, no! What did we do? And to top it off, God took a stroll in the garden in the cool of the day. He comes looking for them and calls out, “Where are you?”

They run and they hide, which is what our nature tells us to do when we’ve done something wrong. When God asked why they are hiding, Adam answered, “I was afraid because I was naked.”

God said, “Did you eat from the tree I told you not to?” Adam said, “The woman YOU put here with me Ð she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Adam blamed her.

And when God asked the woman, Eve, she said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” We call that projection of guilt Ð nobody wants to take responsibility for their actions. Typical. Then comes judgment and the consequences. Life is going to be different now, a lot harder. It’s going to be a broken world.

C.S. Lewis writes about these consequences. Up to the fall, man was empowered by God to control himself. Man doubtlessly expected to retain this control when he ceased to obey God, but he lost his power when he caught cut himself off from God. Now God began to rule man through the laws of nature which brought about pain, senility, and death. This condition was transmitted by heredity to all generations. It was the emergence of the new man as Scripture tells us in Romans, “Through one man’s disobedience, all of us have been impacted.”

Adam and Eve were driven from the garden, away from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Their relationship with God and with each other was now in shambles. It was a mess. A new bondage to sin and death existed that hadn’t been there before.

But in the midst of this tragic story, an amazing thing happens. If you don’t look carefully, you’ll miss it. It is a surprise from God. Notice, God doesn’t write them off. He does not destroy them. Instead verse 21 tells us God cared enough to still provide for them. He provided garments of skins for Adam and Eve. Innocent animals were sacrificed to cover their shame, to care for them. What undeserved favor! We call that grace, God exercising surprising grace. God never let up with it.

We find this surprising grace as we follow the biblical narrative to the very end of Scripture. It’s Cain’s mark of protection, after he killed his brother Abel, that God placed upon him to protect him. It is the rainbow following the great flood. It is the call of Abraham to be a blessing to the nations of the world, even though it was totally messed up and falling apart. It is Israel’s rescue from Egypt and the care for them in the wilderness as they complained and rebelled against God. It is God showing grace as He leads them into the Promised Land and gives them victory. It is the period of the judges as they turn from God and worship the gods of Baal, the fertility gods, yet God rescues them in grace. It is the kings and prophets who call the people back telling them God is ready to show grace and forgive them. Again and again, God shows grace upon grace upon grace in such surprising ways.

Ultimately, God comes in the flesh to make us His own through His Son, Jesus Christ, while we were still sinners, enemies of God, deserving of His punishment. Jesus was given, to lay down His life as a ransom for many, for the forgiveness of sins. He died on a cross and paid the penalty for your sins and mine. The wrath of God toward sin was poured out upon the Son. He made Him to be sin who knew no sin and then poured out His wrath upon Him. Jesus took our punishment to cover our shame. He purchased a pardon for you and for me and every other sinner. God raised Him from death as a stamp of approval upon His sacrifice and promises a restored relationship, a new life for eternity to those who place their trust in Jesus Christ. It’s all free, offered to you and me as a gift. Undeserved favor. Surprise.

Interestingly enough, Scripture talks about God providing us, again, with a new garment. It’s called the robe of righteousness. When we come to Christ, we are people who become clothed in Christ, the righteous holy one of God.

This is what God sees when He looks at us wearing that robe. Scripture says, “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” One of my favorite hymns talks about being clothed in Christ’ righteousness alone, redeemed to stand before his throne. Once again, it’s grace! God’s surprising, unexpected grace offered free of charge to sinners like me.

It’s no wonder that the hymn writer, John Newton, called grace amazing. It’s so outside the realm of natural human thinking. It surprises, amazes, and shocks those who are brought into its presence.

Jesus shocked people in His ministry when He reached out to those who were considered to be undeserving of any sort of attention whatsoever, like the tax collectors and other “sinners” of the society. He shocked them even more when He told a story about why He did this sort of thing. It was about a son who rebelled against his father. And when he showed up home again, broken and homeless, the father shocked the son, the community, and his other son by welcoming him home. He put his best robe on that dirty kid, new sandals, and a ring to show that he belongs with no strings attached. It is a surprise story about grace, God’s surprising grace. And this grace not only surprises, it amazes and delights, doesn’t it?

I came across a wonderful story about a woman named Marion who, when she was a child, got herself into some trouble at home. Listen to Marion’s story. “My dad kept a coin jar on his dresser. Every night, when he got home from work, the first thing he did was head upstairs to change his clothes. You could hear the familiar jangling of coins as they spilled from his pocket and filled the jar.

When I was about nine, I decided his coins should be mine. Over time I pilfered a few nickels here, a handful of pennies there. Before I knew it, I had successfully swindled my dad out of his loose change, and he never seemed to notice.

“Some time later, guilt gripped me. I knew what I had been doing could only be considered stealing, and I had no way to explain away my behavior. So with a pounding heart, I penned an apology to my dad confessing my sin and asking him to forgive me. I tucked it under his coin jar along with a pile of pennies as restitution. I waited anxiously for my dad to confront me.

“Day one went by, and he didn’t say anything. Another day, nothing. And then another and another, and eventually I forgot about the note. Then one day, out of the blue he stepped into my bedroom and said, ÔMarion, I got your note and the pennies.’ My heart raced. My throat felt like a marble was lodged in it. I was expecting punishment but he seemed on the verge of tears. It didn’t make sense. I was the one who had wronged him. He had every right to be mad and punish me, but instead he said Ôthank you’ and then hugged me and left. We never spoke of it again.

“I stood there dumbfounded. Why, when I fully deserved my father’s wrath, did He instead show me mercy? I didn’t deserve it; I hadn’t earned it; I felt like a criminal who had been let off scot-free!

“This was my first powerful lesson on judgment and grace. Since then I’ve never gotten over the way grace feels. It’s like waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it never does. It’s to experience relief and humility in the face of guilt, because you know how bad you can be, but God chooses to love and forgive you anyway. It is truly, God’s riches at Christ’s expense.”

Now, you may be wondering what is the point of knowing all this. Maybe, you’ve messed up along the way yourself. You’ve been trying to run your own life without God’s direction, and you think God has no time for you. He’s written you off. Friend, nothing could be further from the truth.

This story was saved to invite you to come home. Grace is waiting for you.

Billy Graham wrote one time, “We’re living in an age of grace, in which God promises Ôwhosoever will’ may come and receive His Son. But this period of grace will not go on indefinitely. We are, even now, living on borrowed time.” Consider this one beggar telling another where to find free clothing. A warm, secure robe of righteousness is yours for the receiving when you place your trust in Jesus Christ. A robe of salvation is yours.

But there’s another reason as well. It is a reminder to you, saints who follow Jesus, who have tasted of His grace and wear that robe already: This God, whom we worship and then turn around and question, even doubt during hard times, is truly worthy and deserving of your trust and devotion and gratitude.

Thanks be to God for His amazing, surprising grace!

Surprised by God’s Draft Picks

When you scan the biblical story, you can’t help but conclude, life with God is full of surprises Ð God surprises! What oftentimes looks like disorder and foolishness to us is God’s order and wisdom. The book of Isaiah, for instance, tells us, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” (55:8). Jesus calls us to follow Him and trust Him beyond the boundaries of our own wisdom, strength, and character. In today’s story, we see God making some surprising draft picks to carry out His purpose.

Recently the NBA basketball folks held their annual draft. Each of the teams were looking for the biggest, fastest, strongest, and most gifted athletes to make their team a winner in the future. Here in Minnesota, everyone was quite excited about the Timberwolves draft picks: Karl-Anthony Towns and Tyus Jones. With those guys on the team, we figure we will have a real winning season, and we’re excited about the future.

When you think about it, the world typically looks for the best and most qualified when they are doing their drafting. For instance, businesses look for the brightest and best candidates. School districts look for the most talented and gifted teachers. Law firms like to hire from the top of the law school class. Even in the church, we look for the best possible pastor we can find so we can fill the pews.

God, however, often picks the most surprising, unlikely characters to do His bidding. He has a long track record of using the most ordinary, even less-than-adequate people to do some extraordinary things. Perhaps He wants to teach us that the credit always belongs to God in the end. Such is the case when God calls an unlikely leader, Gideon.

The setting for this story is the during the early years of the Israelites getting settled in the Promised Land. It was a frontier-days type of setting. They had a certain behavior pattern that bothered God and continued to take place during those years. Before the Israelites entered the land, God told them they were to worship no other gods but Him. They promised God they would follow His command, yet they did not keep their word. They did not trust God alone to provide for them in this new land they were farming. Instead, they worshiped fertility gods called Baals. God would then allow enemies to enter the land and make life miserable for them. It was kind of a wake-up call. They would cry out for help from God, and He would respond graciously and rescue them.

At the time of Gideon’s call to leadership, the Midianites were the enemies God wanted to drive out of the Promised Land. They were making life an absolute nightmare for the people of Israel. Gideon was God’s answer to their desperate prayers for rescue. Even Gideon is surprised by God’s selection of him.

Gideon was afraid for his life. He was sifting some grain in a wine press to take to his family when suddenly someone near him says, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior!”

Gideon cynically responded, The Lord? Why has He allowed this to happen to us? Where is He now? I keep hearing stories about all the old days when He helped, but He seems to have cast us off to these Midianites! Not exactly a good start for Gideon as far as his faith, wouldn’t you say?

Then the Lord told him, I am sending you to drive out the Midianites from your land!

But Gideon said, You have to be kidding, Lord! I am the weakest, smallest in my family in a weak clan in a small tribe. It is impossible!

The Lord tells him, I commission you, and I will be with you, Gideon. I will be with you.

Gideon finally agreed but asked for a sign to make sure this is the real thing. He brought out some food and laid it on a rock. The Lord touched the rock with His staff, fire consumed it and destroyed the entire meal. Gideon knew then that he had been in the presence of God.

God immediately goes to work with Gideon. First things first, God told him to tear down the idols in his own backyard. These things are in the way of your allegiance to Me. Then tear down the Baal altar in your father’s front yard. Take the wood from the Asherah pole and use it to sacrifice one of his bulls on an altar to me. So Gideon did what the Lord called him to do.

The next morning, when the community found the Baal altar destroyed and the Lord’s altar in place of it, they wanted to destroy Gideon. Fortunately Joash, Gideon’s father, stood up to defend his son and said, Why are you contending for the Baals? If they are so powerful, let them punish Gideon for what he’s done. So the people backed off.

Scripture tells us that afterward the Spirit of the Lord took hold of Gideon, and he blew his trumpet calling the men to arms to fight with him against the Midianites.

Gideon was still struggling with this faith, however, so he asked the Lord for some assurance. He said, “I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.” The Lord did exactly as Gideon asked.

But Gideon came back a second time, and said, Lord, I hate to push it but could we do it again, except this time have the fleece stay dry and the ground wet? The Lord did what he asked, and Gideon knew he was called to fight those Midianites for sure. So he began to prepare the 32,000 men who had come to him for battle.

Then the Lord came to Gideon and said, “You have too many men for me to deliver Midian into their (Israel’s) hands. In order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her, announce now to the people, ÔAnyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.’ ” So Gideon made the announcement and 22,000 men left. It must’ve been a bit frightening for Gideon.

But the Lord said, That is still too many men. Take them down to the river where I’ll see how they drink from it. Divide those who lap the water like dogs from those who kneel down and drink from the stream. Three hundred men lapped like dogs. God said, These are my guys, and He sent the rest home.

Imagine Gideon’s fear. Three hundred against an amazing number of Midianites! But the Lord told him, I know you’re afraid, Gideon. So go down to the Midianite camp tonight with your servant Purah and listen to what they are saying. I’ve got something to show you.

When Gideon arrived, he overheard a conversation at a campfire amongst the men. One of them said, “I had a dream. A round loaf of barley bread came tumbling into the Midianite camp. It struck the tent with such force that the tent overturned and collapsed.”

His friend said, “This can be nothing other than the sword of Gideon son of Joash, the Israelite. God has given the Midianites and the whole camp into his hands.”

Upon hearing this conversation, Gideon ran back to his men and said, “Get up! The Lord has given the Midianite camp into our hands.” He had issued each man a trumpet, a torch, and a jar to cover the lit torch. Then he divided them into three companies and told them, When I and all who are with me blow our trumpets, then from all around the camp blow yours and shout, “For the Lord and for Gideon!” (Notice, not one sword was in their hands.)

So they divided up. When Gideon gave the signal, the soldiers broke their jars, held up their torches, blew their trumpets and shouted, “For the Lord and for Gideon!” The Midianites awakened in the middle of the night and were so panicked, they began to attack one another thinking each other to be the enemy. Thousands upon thousands were slaughtered that day, and the rest were scattered in the wilderness. The Midianites were defeated without Gideon and his soldiers lifting a hand to strike them with their own swords.

Surprise! Surprise! Surprise! Gideon won – or should we say, the Lord won! The people were delivered, and we are reminded that God can work through ordinary people to do His will.

We, as followers of Jesus, shouldn’t be so surprised by this story. After all, we follow the One who was born in a small, common town called Bethlehem, was laid in a manger, raised by a carpenter father and a young mother, who walked the dusty trails of Galilee, and was considered to be somewhat of an oddity by the religious establishment. We follow One who was eventually crucified upon a cross like a criminal. But lo and behold, on the cross, He conquered that which held us captive – sin and death, and the power of the evil one, (the devil). He rescued us!

God uses, in His own economy, the most surprising resources to get His will done, doesn’t He?

What great thing is God ready to accomplish with you today? Perhaps someone in your family or network of friends needs someone to tell them about Christ that they might have faith. Or perhaps your community is in need of a ministry to heal some hurts. You might respond, I’m too old for that, or I’m too young, or I don’t have the talents, skills, or network to get it done. But God is with you! With Him, you can do it!

Maybe you are at a church in a community that sees some hurts and some needs. You say to yourselves, We are too small. We don’t have the amount of talent or income in our congregation to make much of a difference in our community. God tells us in this story, Yes, you can. I am with you. Take the call seriously and ask yourself if something is burdening you that you’d like to do for God. Perhaps it is a hurt that God let you see, a person He wants you to witness to. Have faith that God can do something even with you! You are capable in God’s hands. Then commit yourself to doing it. Gideon had to follow through, didn’t he. When he stepped out in faith and took a risk, God used him to do great, great things.

I am reminded of a story told by Daniel Meyer in his book, Witness Essentials. An elderly woman heard a sermon in which she felt God encouraging her to look for ways to use her particular gifts and situation to minister to the needs of others. She thought about her gifts and realized others had told her that she had a real gift of hospitality. She lived alone in a small apartment near a large university and had her afternoons free.

After pondering the needs around her and the people who tugged at her heartstrings, some students came to mind who were far from home. It was then that an idea, both strange and simple, suddenly arose. She bought a stack of 3″ x 5″ cards and wrote on each of them “Are you homesick? Come to my house at 4:00 p.m. for tea.” She included a phone number and address. Then she posted the cards all around the campus.

After a slow start, a few homesick students began trickling into her house each week for tea. When she died ten years later, eighty honorary pall bearers attended her funeral. Each one of them had been a student who once upon a time found a hot cup of tea, a sense of home, and the gospel of Jesus in the hospitable heart of this faithful servant. Amazing!

God can use the ordinary to do extraordinary things to His glory, and He can use you.

Drop Those Cheetos and Come to Jesus

Americans love their junk food. I have to admit, so do I. Recent studies show that the average American eats 70 pounds of sugar every year. An average of 11% of our diet is saturated fat. Each day we take in 8500 mg of salt. We love our chips, Cheetos, candy, and pop. Products such as these have been deemed “junk food” because while they may taste good and satisfy your hunger temporarily, they have very little, if any, nutritional value. You may eat junk food and think it is giving you an extra energy boost you need to finish out a long afternoon or morning, but it just doesn’t last. If a person were to try to live on junk food, they can become not only overweight and unhealthy, but also irritable, cranky, and rundown.

I remember how too many junk food snacks would affect our son when he was little. He would get out of sorts. His body was craving real nutrition. You see, we were made to have a decent diet of the basic food groups in order that we might be healthy and growing human beings.

My mother knew this. Every day she would go to great lengths to prepare dinner for us as a family. At 5:30 each afternoon, she’d stick her head out the door of our house and yell to us kids, “Come and Eat! It’s supper time.” When we’d approach the table, we’d find a lavish meal – bread, vegetables, meat, and milk. Mother loved us. She wanted us to eat properly.

In our Gospel story for today, we overhear this same summons coming from Jesus as He has a conversation with a crowd who were quite taken with Him. He tells them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall not hunger, he who believes in me shall not thirst.” This is not just a declaration about Himself, but an invitation to come and eat as well.

As we look at the story, we need to remind ourselves what has transpired before this conversation. The day before, Jesus had fed a crowd of 5000 with five loaves of bread and two fishes. The crowds, of course, were absolutely amazed and immediately wanted to make Jesus their king! You can almost hear them talking and scheming amongst themselves, “Can you imagine what this guy can do for us and our country’s economy?” Jesus made a quick exit when he heard this kind of conversation going on. He came to be our king all right, but not that kind of king.

Later in John’s Gospel, as Jesus is standing on trial before Pontius Pilate, Pilate asks Him, If He is a king, why is the crowd screaming for His blood? Jesus says to him, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

When the crowds, whom Jesus fed the day before, pursued Him and eventually found Him across the other side of the sea in the town of Capernaum, Jesus’ response to them was basically this: You folks just aren’t getting it. All you’ve come looking for is more bread for your stomachs. You have your own agenda. You missed the sign. The miracle was meant to be a sign for you about who I am. So I tell you, don’t work so hard for the food that perishes, but for food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. Jesus was pointing to Himself as He talked about the Son of Man.

Then Jesus went on to say, “God the Father has set His seal of authority upon Him.”

“What must we do to do the works God requires?” the crowd asked curiously.

Jesus responded, The work of God is this: to believe in the one He has sent. Jesus had been pointing to Himself saying, trust me and follow me.

Finally, Jesus got around to telling them about real bread, not the bread they had the day before, but real bread that has been given by God from heaven and gives real life to people in this world. And they said, “Sir, give us this bread always!”

Then Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (John 22-36).

This story is about who Jesus is, first of all. The “I am” in that statement – I am the bread of life – is actually God’s name in the Old Testament. I AM. That’s what He told Moses. The crowd still won’t get it, though. Many will turn away from Him and reject Him by the end of this conversation.

What about you? Do you get it? You see, Jesus is pointing out that we are more than just bodies. We are minds and spirit as well, eternal beings, precious and important in God’s sight. We require food to feed our spirits. We hunger for a relationship with the God who made us. We were wired that way – needing Him and needing soul food to restore us and give us life with God.

The good news Jesus is bringing us in this passage is that this God who loves us has provided food for us in Himself. Jesus is the bread of life! Interestingly enough, bread would be considered an essential for life in that day. Jesus is saying, I am really essential for your soul. I am just exactly what you need, what the doctor ordered.

God summons us then, through this passage, to come to Him. Come and eat the bread of life. It’s supper time. God made you. So, of course, He knows what you need to be truly satisfied. He knows your deepest hunger and thirst, and He loves you like a parent loves a child. He has provided the bread of life for you that endures for all eternity: Jesus. So drop the junk food the world has concocted for you to answer all your questions of life. Come to Jesus. Come and eat! It will save your life!

You know, as we go through life, we deal with some very basic questions, and the counsel this world offers can sound quite tempting and sweet. Let me give you a for instance.

Many people are hungry because they have past regrets – things they wish they had or had not said or done. They are tired and depressed as these regrets eat away at them. The junk food of the world counsels you in this way: “Come on, now. You’re really okay. You didn’t do anything worse than anybody else has done. Don’t be so hard on yourself! That’s just old-fashioned moralism or religion from your parents laying a guilt trip on you. Just forget it! There really aren’t any absolutes left these days anyway, so cut yourself some slack. Just let it go.”

This is nothing more than junk food, spiritual Cheetos. And if you buy into it, you will become more spiritually unhealthy, empty inside, and far from God who loves you. So in the name of Jesus Christ, drop those spiritual Cheetos and come to Jesus Christ. Confess your sins and seek forgiveness. Listen to His life-giving promise:

“If we say we have no sin, the truth isn’t in us, but if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:8).

The Bread of Life, Jesus Christ, offers us forgiveness for our wrongdoing, not rationalizations. He went to the cross and paid for our sins so that we could be forgiven and restored in our relationship with the heavenly Father. Come and eat of His forgiveness!

Sometimes people live with a sense of uneasiness or fear about the future – What’s going to happen to me when I die? A lot of people lie awake worrying about that. The world has all kinds of answers to give you peace of mind. Follow the golden rule as well as you possibly can, and God will reward you with a place in His heaven. It makes earthly sense to us, doesn’t it? We get what we deserve. Isn’t that the way it works? But let me ask you this if you’re buying into that mentality: How do you know when you’ve done enough to merit the reward being promised you?

Others might say, Don’t sweat it God loves everyone. He would never leave anyone out of his heaven. Everyone’s going to heaven, so don’t worry about it. We call this universalism.

Here is what Jesus would call this kind of talk: Junk Food Religion. The Bread of Life tells us in our fears,

“Let not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go and prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself that where I am, you may be also” (John 14:1-3).

“I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).

Drop those spiritual Cheetos in the name of Jesus and come to the Bread of Life who rose again from the grave as the firstfruits of the resurrection. Receive the promise of eternal life that He has won for you.

Many people hunger and thirst with a sense of incompleteness. They talk about having an emptiness. Something is missing. The world might counsel us this way: You can fill that void by buying things or attaining things, being entertained, seeking pleasure and adventure. Do that and you will be happy.

That, my dear friends, is nothing more than junk food. It doesn’t satisfy the deepest hunger within Ð our hunger for God. Jesus – the Bread of Life – says to us, “I’ve come that you may have life and have it abundantly.” Jesus knows what makes life work in the here and now.

Ken Mansfield, in his life story, wrote about working with the Beatles. He said after they broke up, things went downhill for him. He finally hit bottom in the 80s. During this time, he fell in love with a lady who loved him, but loved Jesus more. Because he wouldn’t follow Jesus, she broke off the relationship. So Ken decided he had to meet this Jesus who commanded so much of her love. He did this and fell in love with Jesus too.

Ken makes it clear in his book that, as grand as it was to be with the Beatles, the “Fab Four,” they in no way compared to Jesus. He writes of the time before he knew Jesus in this way: “They, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are the authors of the map I needed for my journey. I needed a chart, a journal with clear directions, a log to refer to, a guidebook wherein the commands could speak to my wandering spirit. I needed a book so powerful that it’s very words could burn a living message in the absolute heart of my heart. I needed the irrefutable holy word of God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of the very seas I was lost upon, for the greater part of my journey that began the day I set sail from the rugged shores of northern Idaho, I had none of these. Unfortunately, Billboard Magazine was my Bible; the record charts my God; prestigious positions my purpose. The holy Grail was a Grammy and the best table at the Brown Derby, the Promised Land.” Then he met Jesus, and all that changed.

Let me ask you a personal question: What kind of a diet are you on these days? Christ is calling to us in this passage. The bread is ready; it’s arrived. Come and eat. It’s suppertime. Your heavenly Father loves you. He knows exactly what you need. He’s provided His Son Jesus Christ to pay for your sins and prepare a place for you in His heaven. A new, full life with Him is waiting for you to enjoy. So drop the Cheetos – the spiritual junk food – and come to Jesus.

Comforting Words for Troubled Hearts

We are reminded of it all too frequently. It’s in the news. Tragic shootings in a church killing nine. Car accidents taking the lives of young (and old) people. Natural catastrophes like earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, and fires around the globe. Terrorists threatening our country. Killing all around the world. New diseases being discovered. Obituaries listing people who are our age or younger. Even our entertainment, movies, and TV shows are filled with murders or deaths. We watch our parents, grandparents, friends, relatives, and fellow workers pass away before our very eyes, and we feel startled. What am I talking about? The fact that we are all going to die someday.

You know the old adage: “Life. No one gets out alive.” This is a troubling thought for many people, young and old alike. Recently I had a conversation with a young lady who described how afraid she was as a child after praying,”Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I SHOULD DIE before I wake . . .”

A few years ago Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman were in a movie called “The Bucket List.” It was about two men who had terminal illnesses. They created a list of things they wanted to do before they “kicked the bucket.” It was a very popular movie.

Following the release of the movie, Jack Nicholson made an interesting statement in an interview. He said, “We all want to go on forever, don’t we? We fear the unknown. Everybody goes to that wall, yet nobody knows what’s on the other side.” That is why we fear death. Even a tough guy like Jack Nicholson has a fear of death.

As a pastor who visits people in hospital rooms and homes, I have found this topic – What will happen to me after death? – continues to be troubling to so many. Jesus answers the question in a conversation with His disciples, His closest followers.

Jesus had just told them that He would be taken away from them. Things will get ugly. Jesus was going to die. The disciples will desert Him and deny Him. Jesus will be all alone. This immediately troubled them. Why? The disciples had invested three years in this relationship with Jesus, and they would miss Him. But they also wouldn’t know what they were supposed to do after He has gone. It is more likely, however, that they were afraid their association with Jesus would mean their demise as well.

Jesus knew they were worried, so He said to them, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” Then He added, “You believe in God, believe also in me,” in order to comfort their troubled minds.

To believe in Jesus or have faith in Him means more than simply intellectual assent. It is a relational term, especially as Jesus is using it in this particular case. Suppose there is a fire in the upper section of the house. As people gather in the street below, a child is seen at the window of the room next to the fire. The fire trucks are still a distance away, and too far to help. A large man, who lives in the neighborhood and is well known for his strength and athletic ability, arrives on the scene. He stands below the window and shouts to the child, “Drop into my arms! Jump, don’t be afraid. I’ll catch you.” It is one part of faith for the child to know the man is there; it’s another part of faith to believe the man is strong enough to catch someone.

The essence of faith, the essence of belief Jesus is talking about here lies in the child jumping down into the man’s arms. It is to entrust one’s self to His care; to bet the farm on Him, so to speak; to trust Him with everything. Jesus says, “You believe in God, believe also in me (Trust yourself to My care).”

Jesus goes on to tell them something else that is very important. “In My Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go and prepare a place for you?” What a lovely picture! Jesus isn’t simply drawing heaven for us here. He is also giving us a picture of intimacy with God.

This week I am driving to Montana to visit with my father. I so enjoy pulling up to the old house of my childhood. You see, it’s more than a house, it’s home. It’s a home where I know I am welcome, and I’ve always been loved and cared for. My dad cares so much for me. He loves me, and I will be received into his open arms.

Jesus is drawing a picture for us. There is something beyond this world – His Father’s house. A heavenly home is waiting for us. The promise attached to it is this: Jesus’ departure will secure our future destiny. His death on a cross will prepare everything for us. What He is about to go through – the cross and the grave – is an act of preparing our place with our heavenly Father for eternity.

“I am going to prepare a place for you.” Don’t you love that? It’s personal. We need to always be reminded that we are important and precious individuals in the eyes of our heavenly Father. If you were the only person who existed on this planet, Jesus would go to the cross to pay for your sins.

“I will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” We will be reunited forever with Jesus.

Now the person listening today might ask, How can I know that this is truth? Let me tell you how you can know. Jesus Christ rose from the dead! He lives! He defeated the power of death, and so death can no longer hold Him (or us). He is the firstfruits of the resurrection. Because He lives, I shall live also. The resurrection is God’s affirmation of everything Jesus promises us. The sting of death has been taken away by Jesus.

I love the old story about the little boy who was deathly allergic to bee stings. One day, as he is riding down the highway with his father, a bee flies in the window and begins buzzing around the car. The boy screams and begins whimpering as he huddles in the corner away from the bee. His dad calmly pulled the car to the side of the road and, as the boy continues to whimper, he touches him on the shoulder. “Just look at me.” The boy looked up, sniffling and afraid. There was his father with a smile on his face. In the palm of his father’s hand, opened before him, was the bee sting.

Our Lord Jesus Christ has taken away the sting of death. He points us to His nail pierced hands and says, “Death can’t hurt you anymore.”

This past week we had Vacation Bible School at our church. They were talking about God’s mighty power to carry us through all the challenges of life. The last lesson was on God’s mighty power to love us forever. “Nothing can separate us from the love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 8:38, 39). This passage is our comfort and our confidence as we lay our loved ones to rest or as we look ahead to our own dying. We belong to Jesus when we place our trust in Him. We are in good hands.

People spend so much time puzzling over what heaven is like. We buy books about it. A few years back, a book about a little boy who had a heavenly experience was very popular. Those are nice, but have you noticed that Jesus doesn’t really describe heaven for us? He gives us a nice, intimate picture of a heavenly home where we’ll hang out with the heavenly Father. It’s almost like the Scripture tells us heaven is so much more wonderful than our human words could ever describe.

John’s Revelation talks about a place where there will be no more suffering, no more crying, no more death. Jesus doesn’t really describe it for us but He does tell us we will be with Him. That is enough for me to know for now, because when I study the life of Jesus in the Gospels, I find Him to be the most amazing, delightful, interesting, and enjoyable person who ever lived. I can enjoy hanging out with Him. I’m going to be with Him!

A few years back, a professor at Luther Seminary, Gerhard Frost, wrote some books that I have collected because I think he’s such a wonderful writer of prose and poetry. In one of his stories entitled, “Going to the Father,” he writes, “Yesterday as I walked down the airport ramp to board a plane, a family of four was in front of me. Mother was caring for the younger child and father was holding the other by the hand. The older girl appeared to be about four. Her every step was a bounce. She radiated expectancy and joy. It was obvious that this was THE DAY. The day that had been talked about and planned for. She couldn’t wait. The father looked down at her and asked, “Where are we going?”

“TO GRANDMA’S!” she shouted punctuating her words with a higher bounce than usual. She didn’t say to Bismarck or to Billings, but to Grandma’s.” As far she was concerned, she was going to a person. The place didn’t matter. She was an eloquent witness to the fact that we are home in those who love us, in people more than in places.

Where we going when we die? Everyone has a right to ask. Perhaps, though, it’s the wrong question. Rather we should wonder “to whom” am I going. Again and again during His lifetime on earth our Lord Jesus said, “I go to my Father.” How much more important this is than any speculation on what heaven looks like. We’re going to be with Him! The most important question really is not, What is heaven like? but, Are you ready to go? If you were to die today, are you certain you would go there?

We do so much to prepare for our death, don’t we? We write a will for our loved ones, a living will for the doctors, life insurance, we make arrangements at a funeral home, buy a cemetery plot, write a funeral service, and some even order a stone ahead of time. These are find and good, but are you ready to step into eternity? According to the Word of God, you are ready if you place your trust in Jesus Christ. He says, “I’m the way and the truth and the life.” You come to the Father in heaven by Jesus Christ.

Our family recently laid to rest someone whom we loved so dearly, Homer Larsen. His son, John, told a story at the funeral that touched my heart.

A few hours before Homer passed away, John went into his room and had devotions with him. He read some Scripture and had a prayer with him. Homer was kind of in and out by that time. He wasn’t really responding or saying anything. However, as John was getting ready to leave, Homer spoke up. These are the last words John ever heard him say,

“Jesus is truth. Jesus is truth. Jesus is truth.”

Three times he said, “Jesus is truth.” I wonder what Homer was seeing when he said those words.

These are the last words I want to give you today, the words Homer left with us. Jesus is truth. Trust Him.