To the 12 tribes in the Dispersion, Greetings.

James opens his letter, in verse 1, with this:

“To the 12 tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.”

Then he jumps right into it. We would expect in any other letter like this, as we see in Paul’s letters, something more. Some statements about how he misses them, or longs to be with them, or how thankful he is for them.

But James is quick to get into his content.

HOWEVER, there is a lot here in this opening statement. And we could see it as a theme of the entire book…

“Twelve Tribes” of course refers to the original configuration of Israel. God separated them into 12 tribes, each with its own identity. But at the time of James’ writing, those 12 tribes didn’t exist. At least not in a distinct way.

Commentaries say that this phrase had become a kind of Jewish colloquialism. It was a way referencing their Jewish, cultural identity as God’s chosen people. James chooses it here on purpose.

These people had been violently persecuted, the temple destroyed, and they had been scattered as a result. They no longer lived in culturally protected areas. They were living among the pagan world, among people that did not think like they thought, act like they acted, or worship the same God.

And so James is out to remind them of who they are. To remind them that though they have been separated from home and each other, their identity has not been changed.

You could make the case, that everything that follows in his letter from here is James putting definition on what it looks like to live out of this identity.

Their Identity

They are God’s people. They are the living stones that Peter talks about making up the new temple, the Church. They are disciples of Jesus, the Messiah. They are ambassadors of the Kingdom of God. They are friends of God. As Jesus said, they have been born again – new creations in Christ.

James is telling them that how they live should not betray, or war against, their true identity in Christ.

So he says,

  • Don’t be double minded. That’s not who you are now.
    Bridle your tongue, use it for building up not tearing down. That’s what God does.
    Don’t treat people differently based on distinctions God doesn’t make.
    Serve the poor and the outcast because that’s what Jesus does.

Lessons from Parenting

One of the things that I’m continually learning as a father is to discipline my children without teaching them internalizing their mistakes so much that they think that their sin is all that they are.

I want them to know the difference betwe en discipline and punishment. Punishment is about justice. It’s about paying for your sin. Discipline is about training. It’s about learning not to sin again, because that’s not who you really are. You are a new creation, you have the Spirit of Christ in you. So, I say things like “You’re better than this. God made you for more than this.” Instead of, “Why do you always do this?” or “When are you going to ever get this?”

I think God wants us to get the same thing. It is the essence of what we mean by the process of sanctification. You are becoming what you already are in Christ. You are learning to live out of your true identity, and not your old dead one.

Closing

What do you confess about yourself, to yourself? Who do you think you are? If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that he is risen from the dead, then you have be re-created with a new identity as a holy, loved, welcomed, child of God.

Maybe what we need to do is learn to agree with God about what He says about who we are.

Today, I want to encourage the parents. We are doing a baby dedication for Mother’s Day this Sunday at the church. It has me thinking once again about how parenting is not for sissies. Parenting is a 24-7 contact sport that you have to play without a helmet. In the span of just a few minutes you can go from extreme joy and satisfaction to total devastation and emotional meltdown. IT’S HARD.

So in today’s episode I just want to encourage you a bit. No tips for being a better parent today. Just a little perspective to lift your weary hands.

Formed by His Hand…

Psalm 139:13-16
13For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.a
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
15My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.

We usually see this verse as being for our children. And, of course, it is true about them.

However, it is also true about us. The Psalmist is talking about himself. He himself was formed by God’s hand.

This is profound because it shows us clearly that God creates each person specifically. There’s no factory spitting out people in heaven. And this isn’t just biological processes at work. There is specific intention and design directly by God happening here. And it’s happening both for parent and child.

God sovereignly chose to form a specific child in a specific womb. The days of the parent and the days of the child are formed by God before birth even happens!

We use this verse to (rightly) say that no child is an accident. But this ALSO means that no parent is an accident. God did not give you that child by accident, or as some temporary oversight. He meant it to be you, He chose you, and He chose you for this before you were even born.

No parent is an accident.

But, I’m Blowing It

Welcome to parenting. One of the hardest things to come to grips with as a parent is that you are going to be part of your child’s cross to bear. Your weakness will be a burden on them, no matter what you do.

But the grace of God guarantees that the cross that they bear, no matter how heavy, will produce Godliness in them. Jesus will make it work together for their good.

No, this doesn’t let us off the hook. Despite the grace of God, it’s never easy to watch your kids carry their cross. It’s especially hard when you see that part of their burden is your weakness and your sin. And that is a good and right motivation for dealing with your own junk!

But we can’t lose sight of the gospel of grace! We can’t lose sight of God’s providence in choosing us as parents.

God Is More Invested Than You Are

I’ve been a Father now for almost 17 years. I’m sure I’ve grown in some areas as parent in that time, but it’s hard for me to see. And any change that has happened in me during those years, it doesn’t account for how my children are turning out.

The only thing I’m really sure of at this point is that God is more invested in my children than I am, or ever could be. As much as I love my kids, God loves them more. As faithful as I am to my family, God will always be more faithful.

God has ordered their steps. He formed them in the womb, and He formed their days as well. My parenting skills are no guarantee on their future. The only guarantee I have is God’s will.

Conclusion

So, yeah, we all need to get better as parents. But don’t lose sight of God’s sovereign choice of you, and your child. He knew you would be like this. He knew you would be a mess. He knew you would lose your cool, meltdown in the middle of the kitchen, lose your mind on the road in your minivan. He knew you would be terrible at family devotions. He chose you anyway.

There’s no greater motivation for becoming a better parent than realizing that God chose you for it. He did it because He sees something in you that maybe you don’t see. He sees His Son Jesus at work in you. That’s all your kids really need.

In an attempt to become more authentic, we seem to be under-valuing the gathering of Christians. And if we gather, we don’t want it to seem like we care that much. Like, “we don’t really need this. We don’t really care. We can do the same thing over coffee.”

I’VE BEEN THERE MYSELF.

But, my concern is that we are so worried about authenticity, and not being a bunch of shallow evangelicals, that we are also losing something precious that our children will have to fight to bring back because we took our eye off the ball.

The Festal Gathering

READ Hebrews 12:18-24

What if we tried to make our “natural” worship gatherings match as closely as possible this spiritual reality?

We often think of Christian fruitfulness in terms of our own personal growth only.  But Jesus left us with clear instructions that our purpose is larger than personal growth.  The growth of others is of vital importance to Him.

CH Spurgeon said that every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter.  The question is, why don’t we do more missionary work here in our own spheres of influence?

Let’s explore that together.

Everyone always asks me what pastors do between Sundays.  The answer to that question just might connect with your life more than you think.

One of the most comforting things that we can experience is when someone validates our pain – they seem to understand it, and recognize it as something that is real.

This is empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

This is subtly different from compassion. Compassion is sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.

Empathy is compassion taken to the level of entering into another person’s feelings and experiencing it along with them.

This is closer to what Paul means by “bear one another’s burdens”.

Compassion feels pity and concern, but from a relative distance. It isn’t bad. Compassion is never a bad thing. But empathy allows that compassion to push closer to that person in order to better understand. Empathy makes you feel what they feel, at least as much as anyone can.

Empathy puts you in their shoes.

Mental Illness, and all other forms of Suffering

It’s certainly true of mental illness, that the pain is invisible to others. You can see a broken arm, and easily empathize with how that pain might feel. But with a mental illness that isn’t the case (unless you have experienced it yourself).

So the test of your empathy is much greater. Much of the time you have to simply take the person at their word. You have to believe them, and so often we do not.

Or we imagine that they are just weaker than most people. But do you really think that you are THAT much stronger than everyone else?

As I’ve been thinking about this more, I also think that this is true of all of life’s struggles. We are desperate for empathy. We want someone, anyone, to understand what it’s like to be us.

We want someone to believe us, and really understand. And, yet, we are always disappointed. At least a little. There will always be depths that others cannot understand, no matter how hard they try.

Even with someone that knows you well, and is very empathetic, they will not be able to fully know what it’s like to be you.

The empathy of Jesus

There is one that has not only experienced what you are experiencing, but knows how YOU are experiencing it perfectly.

Jesus not only lived a human life, but He lives in you by His Spirit. When you see him again, you won’t have to tell Him how hard life was. He will already know, and He will know it perfectly.

So the comfort He brings you now, in this life, is not distant. It is compassionate, but not compassionate from a professional distance. His compassion compels Him to empathize with you.

And He will not leave it there. He enters into your pain, and stands in it with you. He stands AS you, in your place. It’s the only way it can be true that He works all things together for our good.

Look For His Comfort

Everyone’s life is hard. We need to be able to admit that, and share that with other people. And we need to be people that are worthy of helping others carry their burdens. We need to become people that enter into other people’s pain, take responsibility for other people.

If you find it difficult to empathize with other people, begin asking Jesus to teach you. He is a master of empathy. He will begin to teach you.

The Role of Grace in our Transformation

In Galatians, Paul teaches us that eternal transformation comes through the grace of God.  We are sanctified the same way we were justified.

It is God’s LOVE for us, expressed through his scandalous GRACE the brings about the change that we need.

At the end of Galatians, Paul puts it another way by telling us to walk in the Spirit and we will produce the fruit of the Spirit.  Walk in the flesh and we will produce the works of the flesh.

But the question we are asking this morning is how does this work exactly?  Here we are, the start of a new year and we want to make some changes.  We want to get healthy, improve our finances, have a stronger devotional life, be better parents, whatever the case may be.

How do we get there from here?

How Transformation Happens:

How is grace applied to our hearts, in a way that brings this transformation?

I’m giving you 5 ways.  Maybe there are more that you can think of, but these are my 5 as comprehensive as I can be.

  1. Discipline
  2. Blessing
  3. Suffering
  4. Conviction
  5. Community
  6. Worship

1- Discipline

Discipline is kind of a dirty word with most people.  No one in this room this morning got excited when I said the word “Discipline”.

Hebrews 12:5-13

Discipline is often very closely connected to suffering, but by discipline here I simply mean “God’s correction through negative consequences.”

Discipline is not the same thing as punishment.  We have to separate the two in our minds. Punishment is payment for a wrong that was done.  Justice demands that a punishment be paid that equals the severity of the offense. The punishment fits the crime.  Punishment is about justice.

But discipline has little to do with justice.  Discipline is instruction. Discipline is for the one being disciplined.  Discipline is corrective. Discipline strengthens the soul, drives foolishness from the heart, and builds godliness.

A person cannot become Godly without discipline.  A lack of discipline from a parent is tantamount to a lack of love, according to Hebrews.  An abundance of discipline is a profound expression of love.

Discipline is training through negative consequences.  “I did this thing, it hurt. Now I want to do it less than I did before.”

In Romans 1 we see that God judges those that have rejected Him by worshipping other gods by CEASING TO DISCIPLINE them.  He lets them have what they want and it destroys them.

Hebrews goes on to say that we are to receive all hardship as discipline.  God is not punishing you! One has been punished in your place. Justice has been satisfied in Christ.  You are not under punishment, but under grace. All hardship is intended as discipline. Yes God will correct you, instruct you, through a slap on the wrist.  This is one of the ways we grow in godliness. But do not mistake his discipline for His punishment.

2- Blessing

Romans 2:1-4

God not only draws us to repentance and transformation through His discipline, but He also draws us with His undeserved goodness to us.

Prodigal Sons
This is wonderfully illustrated in the parable of the Prodigal Sons that Jesus told during His ministry.

In this story, the son takes his inheritance from his father early and leaves home, shaming his father.  He then spends all of his inheritance on wine and women. And he ends up eating with the pigs in a pig sty.

He comes to his senses and returns home hoping to be a servant in his fathers house.  This is discipline. He came to his senses because he was experiencing a spanking from God.

But then when he gets near his home, his father runs out to meet him.  He blesses him with an over the top party and celebration. It’s unwarranted and undeserved.  Both the pig sty and the party are ways that the Father draws us to repentance.

Paul’s warning in Romans 2 is to us to be careful not to miss the point of God’s blessing.  We can make the mistake of taking blessing as a sign of our own goodness instead of a sign of God’s goodness.

3- Suffering

Romans 5:3-5

3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Suffering transforms us into the image of Christ faster than anything I know.  It causes us to depend of God because we have no other choice. It brings us to the end of our own strength and forces us to submit to His strength in our weakness.  It’s the fast track to maturity.

The reason I want to distinguish between suffering and discipline is that I don’t want you to think that all suffering is because of something you are doing that God is correcting.  Quite often God allows us to suffer simply because He is more interested in our eternal transformation than He is with our temporary comfort.

4- Conviction of Sin

John 16:7-11

7 Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.

It is one of the Holy Spirit’s jobs to convict the world of sin.  But what is conviction?

The ancient Greek word that we translate as “convict” means: “to convince someone of the truth; to reprove; to accuse, refute, or cross-examine a witness.”

The Holy Spirit is like an attorney examining a witness.  He points to the evidence and convinces us that we need a Savior.  It is not a general feeling of shame or dirtiness. It is a specific conviction over sin as an offense against God Himself.

The Holy Spirit convinces us of the truth about ourselves, our sin, and the nature and character of God.

Conviction drives us to the feet of Jesus to repent.  It motivates us into the grace of God, not away from it.  And when intimacy with God is restored through repentance, the conviction of the Holy Spirit is replaced by joy in His mercy.

5- Christian Community

You really don’t have to look any further than Galatians 5 to see this dynamic in action.  Look at all the fruit of the Spirit he mentions.

Galatians 5:22-23

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

Most of these only make sense within the context of relationships.  It is in relationships that these things are manifested and challenged.

If these are the fruit of the Spirit, then we actually need each other to even know if we are producing fruit or not.  That’s how important Christian community is. I’d go so far as to say that you cannot produce the fruit of the spirit without being in relationship with other Believers.

James 5:16 tells us to confess our sins to one another so that we may be healed because the prayer we pray for each other is powerful.  We need each other for healing.  We need the listening ear of a friend, and we need the prayer of a friend.

6- Worship

Martin Luther made a keen observation in his commentary on the 10 commandments.  He said that if you keep the first 2 commandments (only worship God, and don’t make idols) then we will keep all the rest.  You have to break the first 2 in order to break any of the others.

In other words, you have to cease worshipping God in order to sin.  Sin is first a foremost an act of rebellion against God. You can’t worship Him and rebel against Him at the same time.  So, worship, is not just us giving God His due, it is also a power instrument that God uses to sanctify us.

Conclusion

In all of the se ways that God changes us, we are not the initiating force.  However, our response to these things are enormously important. We can rebel against God’s discipline, we can take for granted God’s blessings, we can grow bitter in suffering, we can harden our hearts against the Holy Spirit’s conviction over sin, and we can isolate ourselves from Christian community.

Here I am again tackling an enormous and complex topic in about 15 minutes.  I want to talk about this latest school shooting in Florida this past week, and I’m going to do it without talking about gun control (either for or against it).

I mean, really.  We’re Christians.  We have better solutions.

The Latest Story

Here is the link to the news story that I read an excerpt from:  “Death Toll is at 17…” New York Times

We’re Christians

This is going to sound obvious to the point of being ridiculous, but we’re Christians.  We should learn to think like Christians.

But for some reason in these moments, Christians don’t tend to think like Christians.  Instead they think like the world.  They think like politicians, take to social media, and start regurgitating all the old man-made diagnosis and solutions.  And it’s about as helpful as acid reflux.

Debates over mental illness and gun regulation or deregulation, completely miss the root causes of the violence we are seeing.  We use words like “mental illness’ as a junk-drawer that really just means “people that are crazy, unlike me”.

All the while we are ignoring the truth, because the truth is far more frightening than an AR-15.

What Does God Say?

Here’s a crazy idea.  What if we tried to see what God says?  Think He might know?

Eccl. 9:3 – the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.

“The hearts of the children of man are full of evil…”  that’s everybody.  Not just a handful of crazy people with access to expensive rifles.

The monster that was in the killer, is also in you, and is also in me.

What Do the Killers Say?

Most of these mass murderers say before they die why they did it.  Not all of them, but most of them do.  And there is a chilling consistency to it.  What is most obvious, and this recent Miami shooting is no exception, is that this was not a fit of rage.  This was not a guy that just snapped one day, grabbed his musket and started shooting.

It’s calculated, thoughtful, intentional, reasoned, murder.

They are almost always weak, ineffectual, emasculated, young men who have full integrated themselves into an identity of victimhood.  And that broken identity makes way for a kind of wicked quest for what they consider to be righteous justice.  Sometimes they express a chilling kind of false compassion.  They are ridding the world of an infection.  They are defending themselves, and others, against what they consider to be a tyranny.  They want all people, or a specific group of people, gone.  They have lost their reason to exist.

It is simultaneously arrogant and weak.  These are not snarling, raging, dragon-monsters charging thoughtlessly into madness.  They are weak, emasculated, young, beta males.

So, demonic forces love to step through that door and provide a little inspiration, a little push of motivation, some small opportunities to act out your plans as a test to see if it feels as good as you think it will until you have the courage to plan and execute the master plan.

It is remarkably consistent from killer to killer.  And this dynamic of the human soul is all too familiar to most people.  It’s disturbing to realize that you can UNDERSTAND and maybe even RELATE TO someone that did something so horrible.

And so we say, eh.  Mental illness.  Guns.  Education.  Those are the problems.  Anything but the human heart.

Eccl. 9:3 – the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.

What’s the Solution?

So what do we do about this?  When talking about solutions, I think it’s enormously tempting to be overly simplistic.  It’s another way to avoid the mirror.  I refuse to do that here.

But I know where to start.  I know that all the solutions are found in Jesus.  And Jesus always seems to start with me and my personal responsibility.  He says, “Ben, you feel like a victim.  Let me show you how to be a victim.  I was broken and rejected like you can’t fathom, but I was never a victim.”  Jesus defines for me what a man is, and what a man isn’t.  Jesus was perfectly strong and perfectly gentle.

And Jesus takes my heart, full of wickedness and madness, and transforms it to beat differently.  The wickedness is replaced with His righteousness and the madness is replaced with the mind of Christ.

And then Jesus says, “Now take the light that I’ve put in you and pass it on.”  And it’s in the passing on of the Light of Christ that the world is changed – the wickedness flees and the madness is driven out.

So, it’s too much for me try to fix “society”.  That’s an overwhelming task.  But I can work on my relationship with Jesus.  And I can become a maker of disciples by sharing the Light.  We have no idea what a powerful weapon that is in changing the world.  You have no idea how many school shootings your life can prevent.

This is God’s master plan for changing the world, so let’s get back to it and stop wasting our passions on silly things that don’t work.

T. Keller quote:

“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.”

Why Can’t We Make Friends?

My wife and I regularly hear people talk about being lonely and isolated.  It’s pervasive, in and out of the Church.  It’s crazy that there are all these people sitting at home by the phone waiting for someone to call them.  WHILE THEY BROWSE FACEBOOK.

You know what it is?  No one knows how to make friends any more.  We learned this on the playground in kindergarten.  Hey… you wanna be my friend?  Ok.

Not sure why, but maybe it’s a combination of things.

Maybe it’s stranger danger.  (BTW – pedophiles look for the kid that won’t scream, fight back, or stand their ground.  They for the kid that is disengaged, unable to interact socially, and won’t talk to adults.  “Don’t talk to strangers” turns out NOT to be good advice.  Teach your kids to look adults in the eye and engage with them directly, don’t let them hide behind your ankles.  Teach them to make friends.  Studies seem to show that that will actually make them safer.)

Maybe it’s the digital age.   What if you made a rule that you don’t look at your phone when other people are around?  What if you made eye contact with people more than you did with your device?

Maybe it’s cultural.  We used to make neighborhoods with straight streets, and houses with front porches that people used most evenings because Air Conditioning and TV was for rich people.

Now the streets are curved so you only see a few houses at a time, you don’t walk much, and you don’t every see your neighbors because you are inside.  The front porch moved to the back deck, with a tall fence around it.

Maybe it’s our hearts.  Making a friend is costly.  It’s awkward and risky.  You might get rejected.  You might look foolish.  You might have your personal space invaded.  You might not have as much free time.

Known & Loved…

But remember Tim Keller’s thought:  “To be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God.”

This is how Jesus told us to live as His disciples.  He said, “they will know you by your love.”  What will they know about us?  They will know that we have been with Jesus.

Making friends, as it turns out, is not an optional luxury.  It’s right down at the core of why we are still breathing.

Does anyone know you?  When was the last time you made a new friend?  Maybe it’s time for you to cross the play ground and introduce yourself?  Pick up the phone.  Reach out to someone and go meet them for coffee.  Invite them over for dinner.  Say hello, ask questions.  Get to know people.

This is what truly spiritual people do.