Staff management

Numbers 17:1-11
I’ve given cars keys to three teenagers. Before I allowed them to use those keys, I gave some form of the same speech. It was something about the responsibility of driving. This is a privilege, not a right.

Is there responsibility involved with those keys? Of course. But there’s also enjoyment. It is a fun privilege and responsibility.

In Matthew 16:19, Jesus said, ” I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Dallas Willard once shared an insight about this. He noted that having the keys to the kingdom was not a way to control access to the kingdom. That’s what many want to do with their keys–think parents and teenagers. No, Willard says, we don’t have the right to control access. We do have the right to enjoy access. He went on to offer a wonderful description of sabbath as the vehicle by which we enjoy access to God’s kingdom.

In my experience, most Christians struggle with sabbath. There’s always something to do. It goes against the grain of common sense to waste a day doing nothing. There are more practical reasons to forego sabbath. When you get them all out in the open, a reality emerges. We don’t mind the rest. We know we need it. We know we can’t connect with God if we’re too busy focusing on other things. So, what it all comes down to is control.

We need to feel in control of our lives and our time. Sure, you can disguise that as dedication or passion, but it’s still control.

In the book of Numbers, the people of God have a complaining problem. They feel Moses and Aaron have over-extended their leadership. So, they mount a rebellion and the initial result isn’t pretty. Thousands of people die. That outcome, though, didn’t tame everyone’s feelings about the two leaders.

God offers another test for their assurance.

Moses was to collect a staff from each of the twelve ancestral houses. Each leader of the house would have his name inscribed on his staff. Aaron’s name was included on the staff of Levi. Moses gathered them all and placed them in the “tent of meeting before the covenant.” God told Moses, “the staff of the man whom I choose shall sprout.”

The next day Aaron’s staff had sprouted buds, blossoms and ripe almonds. God’s choice was clear.

Here’s the reflection point for us today. Each of those twelve men (and their houses) had to give up their staff for this to work. The staff was more than a walking stick, mind you. It was a sign of authority and control over his house. The text doesn’t indicate any friction, but I wonder how leery those men were giving their staff to Moses.

But it’s how God illustrated God’s will and power.

And for us to understand and live into God’s power ourselves, we need to be willing to give up control as well. We can’t experience the reality of God’s kingdom if we’re trying to control it on our terms.

Give up the staff!

Whether it’s sabbath, your prayer life or your giving patterns, stop trying to control God. What you give up is nothing compared to the blessing God will offer you in return. Enjoy the access God has given you to the kingdom that comes through giving up control and living in obedience.

Stay blessed…john

The way to freedom

Nehemiah 9:16-25
If you happen to find yourself in the middle of a reading like Nehemiah 9, you might not recognize what is happening.

For sure, there is an acknowledgment of sin taking place. The priest Ezra is recalling the history of his people. It’s better to say he is remembering the faithfulness of his God. He recounts several acts of power and mercy God shows to his ancestors.

God gave life to all people. God called Abraham to lead his people. When the people of God were in bondage, God freed them. They walked across dry land through the divided sea. As if that wasn’t enough, God led them by day with a pillar of cloud and by night a pillar of fire. And even if that didn’t quite make the point, God made a covenant that ensured their standing before the Lord.

And what was their response to all this?

Ezra says, “They acted presumptuously and stiffened their necks and did not obey” God’s commandments. Even though God was “ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” the people wanted their old life in Egypt. Now, this doesn’t sound like a confession of sin. Ezra and the people are remembering what their ancestors did. But who their ancestors were, they were, too. Generational legacies are hard to ignore.

At this point, they recognized the sin of their ancestors as part of their own. Their sense of sin was more communal than ours tends to be. We’re used to thinking of my sin. That’s not wrong, mind you. It’s incomplete.

Now, here’s the part you might miss if you merely happen upon this passage. Yes, it’s an acknowledgment of sin. But it’s part of a larger gathering of the people. Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and there was a sense of renewal among them. This moment of national repentance was a part of their celebration and restoration.

Do we see repentance that way? Is confessing sin something we look forward to doing? Like Ezra did in Nehemiah 9, are we willing to acknowledge the guilt our ancestors passed to us? I wonder if it’s possible to know what true freedom from sin is unless we learn to do just that.

We should recognize what our sin does to one another. How sin keeps us from living in the image of God. And understand how sin breaks God’s heart.

But we can also rejoice because God forgives!

“In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven,” is a joyful declaration of peace, reconciliation and power. The more we’re willing to acknowledge how sin invades our lives, the more we can repent. And the more we turn to God, the more grace restores us. Thanks be to God!

Stay blessed…john

You would cry too

Psalm 126
Throughout the pandemic, me and my preacher friends have asked a few questions. Some church leaders have joined in, too. There are many sides to the questions. So, for example, if we ask if people are coming back to church after the pandemic, there are various ways to respond. When we realize many may not, the easy route is to blame the pandemic or a pastor’s congregational response to the pandemic.

But more of us realize the pandemic only stoked the simmering reality that was already among us. Chances are, I’ve written about that already. I know I’ve preached about it and talked about it on the podcast. Today, I want to offer another side of the conversation.

As a pastor, I have cried for the church.

I’ve poured my heart out into what I do. Many times, I’ve been quite vulnerable, too. To the best of my ability, I have emphasized the joy and blessing of our shared faith in Jesus Christ. Our sharing as the body of Christ should take on many forms of communal growth and outpouring. In so many ways, it does not. Superficial spiritual pleasantries satisfy so many of us in the church today. We’re not willing to go deeper together in prayer, study and accountability. All the while, the faith we share with our children and the world gets compromised and watered down.

At the same time, our families struggle. Our mental health has suffered. People feel lost, lonely, hopeless or not good enough. Many more battle the stress of being overworked and underpaid. And that’s just scratching the surface of what people deal with everyday. 

Now, to be sure, I’m not suggesting faith is a magic pill. You’ll never hear me tell anyone that Jesus takes all your problems away. I like the line my wife has adopted. Her sermon to people is often “You can have Jesus and a therapist.” And speaking of sermons, it bothers me when preachers try to be quasi-therapists. They sprinkle Jesus on shallow emotional therapy. Our task is to present the gospel of Jesus so that the community of faith learns to be more like him.

There are no quick-fix qualities to faith in Jesus. But there is a strong sense of assurance that comes from God that belongs to the community of faith. That’s why we need each other. That’s why we can’t give up meeting together. And that’s why we need to prioritize our walk with Jesus and our life with each other.

What I have longed for throughout the pandemic is for the church to reimagine its calling. Did Jesus die on the cross to give us a pew to sit quietly in on Sunday mornings? No, there’s abundant life to be had in Jesus’ name. Part of that abundance includes healing and joy, peace and wisdom. We are meant to experience those together. So, when I tell you the church needs prayer partners in prayer groups, that’s why. Our young people need mentors and spiritual counsel. We need to go beyond ceremony into deeper discipleship. 

On thinking of his people returning from exile, the psalmist said, “we were like those who dream.” In other words, he couldn’t believe how God had moved for his people. It was an utter shock to see God’s power at work. That’s what I want for the church today. May God refresh a hunger for righteousness among us!

And my hope is the tears I and others have sowed will reap renewed joy and wonder at the work of God.

Stay blessed…john