Things Jesus Never Said: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves (Or, What Jellybeans, Thanksgiving, & Refugees Have In Mind)

I had been planning a sermon for months about what it looked like to welcome in the unwelcomable (I made that word up) and what it looked like to care for those who were unloved. And then Paris happened last Friday, and suddenly, everyone was talking about refugees and hospitality and security and …

Let’s back up for a moment to November 1620. Does anyone know what is significant about that date?

It’s the date of the first Thanksgiving that almost wasn’t worthy of any thanks-giving at all. 102 brave men, women, and children landed on the shores of what is now Massachusetts, unloading from the Mayflower – a ship meant to transport cargo, not people. These refugees seeking a new start, having fled religious persecution, arrived and immediately … started dying. They weren’t ready for the climate, or the lack of food (from their perspective). But thanks to some brave, foolish, naive, kindhearted Americans who were Native to the region, most of us are here today.

Suddenly, Thanksgiving – which generally involves overeating, throwing a football around, watching football, overeating some more – has a different shine to it.

In America, we tend to have a “Protestant work ethic,” where we are encouraged to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.” Or, as the subject of today’s sermon – “God Only Helps Those Who Helps Themselves.”

If you Google that phrase (which I did, of course), you’ll find that it has its origins in Greek theater and people actually think it’s in the Bible. 

Like “when praises go up, blessings come down”

0r “God will never give you more than you can bear”

or “this too shall pass”

or “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

Let me stress that: it doesn’t say anywhere in the Bible that God helps those who help themselves.

I really dislike this phrase. It deludes us into two kinds of thinking. Some people hear that phrase – falsely attributing it to God – and think that if they just work hard enough, that everything they want or need will magically appear. (The corollary is that if they don’t work hard enough, then God won’t actually be there for them.) This makes God’s grace, mercy, and compassion equivalent or at least reliant on our efforts. Um, no. God’s grace doesn’t work that way.

But the grace is sometimes apparent because of our doing…

There are verses in the Bible that make it clear that God responds to the cries of those who cry out to him like this gem from Psalms: “The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles.” Or Philippians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

There is clearly a reminder that God answers the cries of those who call to him. But we could see that those are still people who are helping themselves — they are asking God for help!

The second thing that “God helps those who help themselves” propagates is a sense that the people of God don’t need to help people who don’t work hard.

That if a person seems to lazy to work, then they don’t deserve help.

That if a person has made terrible life decisions, then they don’t deserve help.

That if they would just do what they should do, then they wouldn’t need help.


But in our Scripture today from Luke 17:11-19, Jesus doesn’t make working hard, praising God, or getting your life straight prerequisites to receiving help.

Traveling on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled on the border between Samaria and Galilee. He traveled between the customary and social line of safety and security (Galilee) and danger and lawlessness (Samaria). And then he encountered the last situation in the world that most people would want to experience: a group of lepers close enough to see, hear, and even touch.

Leprosy is understood to be a condition beginning in the skin, making it thick, glossy, scaly and discolored. As it advances, the pain that the sufferer experiences turns to numbness, sores develop around the eyes and ears, and bunches up around the face. The disease attacks the larynx, causing the person’s voice to become hoarse and grating. Extremities often weaken and break off.

Lepers were ostracized – they were considered “unclean” and unable to interact in pleasant society because they were sick, but it spread to be considered that their uncleanness was sin, too. They could only hang out with other lepers because all of them were on the outside looking in; they couldn’t get closer than six feet from another person (or 150 feet if the wind was blowing, because of the smell of their body’s decay).

Now, the way Jesus encounters them is strange – it says that he met ten lepers but that they stood at a distance and called out, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” Remember, with all of that throat distortion, they couldn’t have been that far away from Jesus – who as a good Jew shouldn’t have been that close to him.

These lepers have obviously heard of Jesus but it’s not clear whether or not they’re being facetious, or if they think he can really cure them. But Jesus tells them to go see the priests – their ticket back into normal society, into safety, community,… and the grace of God.

Now, Jesus healed ten leprous men. Ten men with families, the guilt carried of believing their sin had caused their leprosy, with a sense that they were untouchable, unlovable, unredeemable, unworthy of human contact.

These men go to the priest, and they see that they are healed. They can do whatever they want now! (Seriously, what would you do if they announced that after years of living on the outside, that you were back in?)

ONE of them – a mere tithe of the original ten – when he was healed, came back shouting about how awesome God was. Remember, Jesus was traveling the line between Jews and Samaritans, believers and heathens, socially acceptable and absolutely volatile.

And the one leper who came back and threw himself at Jesus’ feet … was the outsider times two, the non-believer, the enemy. The one who no one would have predicted would be the one who got it.

The leper who came back, who was grateful, who didn’t even know how to help himself, who was forgiven of his sins physically and spiritually – showed faith in what he did versus what he was expected to know.

In the Epistle of James 2:14-17 it states, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

The leper ‘got’ the deed of thankfulness before he knew the kind of faith he needed. His gratefulness for the mercy, grace, and love he received was his display of faith. He didn’t have the clothes or food to supply, so he gave his thanks – even as James tells those of us with food, or clothes, or money that those are our signs of faith.

And somehow, Jesus knew his heart before the former leper knew his heart himself.

That makes me wonder: what if this Thanksgiving, we turned our hearts to gratefulness? What if we don’t feel like we have the faith for big steps like forgiveness, or generosity, or bold evangelism? What if we merely started with gratefulness?

What if, while ninety percent of the world is going back to what they’ve known before and always expected, if we were part of the ten percent that stopped and gave thanks?

I don’t believe the former leper’s story ended here. I think he kept praising God – and kept telling his story. I think he shared the good news with those he met and loved those others considered unlovable. I think his ‘ten percent’ tithe began with gratefulness.

But wow, gratefulness is hard.

This week, I sat down with the boys to watch A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (airing at November 24 on ABC at 8 p.m.) Peppermint Patty puts Charlie in a bad spot when she bludgeons her way into his Thanksgiving plans. Even though he’s headed to his grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving dinner at 4:30 p.m., he reluctantly agrees to welcoming in Patty… and several other friends she invited. But Charlie doesn’t cook.

Thankfully, he has Snoopy and Linus to help him prepare the food. They assemble a lunch with buttered toast, stovetop popcorn, and jellybeans, setting the table outside in the yard.

But when Patty shows up, she blasts Charlie, telling him that he hasn’t made her a Thanksgiving dinner, because it’s not what she expected or wanted. Thankfully (pun intended), everything gets resolved. Cooler heads like Marcie and Linus bring everyone together. Finally, everyone is thankful for what they have – whether they’re welcoming in those without a place or celebrating with food that doesn’t even taste great.

As Linus says, reminding Charlie of the prayer the first refugees prayed, “We thank God for our homes and our food and our safety in a new land. We thank God for the opportunity to create a new world for freedom and justice.”

Maybe that’s your Thanksgiving dinner prayer this year. Maybe you start a renewed life in Christ by practicing thankfulness, and remembering that we were once strangers without a place or a purpose, until God’s grace brought us home.

Maybe you’re called to share what you’ve got – whether it’s jellybeans or an extra plate of turkey for an elderly neighbor, or it’s buying coats for kids or increasing your tithe, or visiting a family member who has been isolated lately or playing catch with a neighborhood kid over Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s changing your attitude about immigration or Muslims, or your finances or your spouse’s views on politics, or patience or compassion.

In that first Thanksgiving, a group of people were seeking a safe place to raise their children and worship as they chose; they were saved by the graciousness of the people who were already there.

In the thanksgiving of the leper, a group of people were seeking a safe place to return to their families; they were saved by the graciousness of the Savior of the world who has welcomed us in from the wilderness of sin and isolation as well.

In this Thanksgiving? We are a group of people seeking a place to worship, and to raise our families; what will happen remains to be written, doesn’t it?

May we thank God for the opportunity in front of us – to create a new land of freedom and justice. Amen.

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Letter To My Younger Self (A Mustard Seed Musing)

For my English class, I instructed students to write a letter to their younger selves to see what advice they could give, and what they might learn from the reflection. To be fair, I thought I should write one myself. I am publishing it here for your entertainment. What would you say to your younger selves?

Dear Seventeen-Year-Old Jacob,

I hope that this finds you well. I imagine it will be quite surprising because in 1994, time travel hasn’t been achieved yet. I want you to know that I’m writing this to you now because you are finishing up high school and preparing to leave home to go to college. And I know you are scared.

Looking back at your life so far, I know that there have been situations that bothered you. I remember the peer pressure and the bullying; I remember how you worked hard but you feared the repercussions of other people’s ridicule. I remember how you resented the conservative rules and upbringing that your … our … parents put on you. I remember how you thought there must be something wrong with you because you did not know who you would marry and Mom and Dad were high school sweethearts. I remember how you dreaded leaving home but Mom and Dad said you could go to a local school but you could not live at home.

I am writing to you today because I want to tell you that it will all be okay.

When you get to college, you are going to form relationships, some good and some bad. You will know who is who before long so I will spare you the details. Much like high school, do not put too much value on the people others say are important. Some of the “cool” kids are not that cool, and some of the kids no one else wants to talk to are absolutely amazing, creative, intelligent, compassionate people who will be your friends for life. Do your best to love them all equally.

You will be homesick but how you handle it will change your college experience. Instead of worrying about yourself all of the time, try to find ways to give back to other people. Get involved and better the life of someone else, whether it is in the dorm or through an organization. You will need reminding but don’t worry, Mom will do that over fall break.

This will surprise you, but I will tell you now that you will be fine going to all of the parties. You will know when to leave, just be smart about who you leave with. Do not put too much pressure on what your relationships look like – you do not need to find a wife right away! When you date someone and she’s not who you marry, let that go, too.

In college, and when you get a job, work hard. Do your best and be responsible. Respect your work and respect your teachers, and your bosses. Show up on time and dress the part. It might be nice to sleep in when you stayed out too late the night before, but you will miss opportunities when you do not take it seriously. Speaking of which, get some sleep before the SATs – they are kind of a big deal. Your mom is going to try to help you be prepared for them; even though you will want to, do not blow her off.

When it comes to getting a job, push aside any doubts you have about what you are ‘too good’ for. You will learn plenty from people you never expected to, in situations that you never thought you would be in. Looking back, I can tell you that I found plenty of the jobs I worked tedious but I learned to appreciate the good jobs because of the bad ones.

I could have written this to you at any age, but I know there are some rough patches coming with Mom and Dad. There is a fine line between standing up for yourself and acting out disrespectfully. I am still trying to figure out the balance! Without predetermining what will happen, let me say this: they love and support you no matter what. When they take you where you are going, stop yourself from taking out your frustration, sadness, or irritation on them. [It is generally a good idea to not take out your frustrations on the people who care about you, but I digress.] How I have responded to Mom and Dad is one of the few things I would go back and change if I could. But here is one of those big life lessons I fully believe in – you cannot change what you have done or said after the fact, but you can make the future different for yourself and the people around you.

By now, your head is spinning so one last thing before I go: go for it. When you know she’s the one, buy the ring and ask her. When you know you are supposed to speak up, speak up – and learn when to shut your mouth. When you have the chance to share about Jesus, do it. When you can help someone, be all in. When you trust God and your gut, you will be alright.


Your Thirty-Eight-Year-Old Self

P.S. Call your mom whenever you can. She will miss you, and Dad will want to talk with you, too – no matter how old you get.





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Things Jesus Never Said: Faith Fixes Everything (Hebrews 11:1-16)

We all have faith in something. Even people who say they don’t believe in anything have faith that their understanding, their intellect, their concept of “not god” is correct, true, powerful, and is going to get them where they need to go.

But we’re here today to talk about the mystical non-saying of Jesus: “Faith fixes everything.”

Someone’s heart just skipped a beat. But, but, but, I’ve gotta have faith, right? Even George Michael knew that.

Well, Jesus did say that we should have faith but he never said that it would resolve everything in our lives.

We’re told that having faith brings salvation, that having faith is better than not having it. But having faith doesn’t necessarily mean that everything will come up roses.

“Faith fixes everything” is the kind of rote saying that comes out of well-meaning Christians’ mouths when someone they know is going through a dark moment. Instead of just being with that person in the midst of their struggle, we sometimes say stupid things that don’t make sense or we twist things that are actually true into something they’re not meant to be.

In the case of “faith fixes everything,” we take this good thing – faith – and we make it the cure all for all of our troubles. When we say faith fixes everything, we make God into that waiter in the restaurant who sits over there, but who comes to fulfill our requests and get us what we want. When we say that faith fixes everything, we make faith about us rather than about God.

Faith isn’t quantifiable, and it doesn’t automatically do anything for us, while it changes things in us. Things like our attitude, our awareness, our compassion, our hope.

So what is this faith thing? To unwrap this gift of God, let’s consider one of the most famous passages in the Bible that is specifically about faith – Hebrews 11.

The author of the book writes that faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance in what we don’t see. Wow. Faith is confidence and assurance even when we don’t see it.

Faith, says Hebrews 11, helps us understand that God formed everything out of nothing. That’s a fair representation of the first few chapters of Genesis – in one verse! [Sidebar: Isn’t that the first of many roadblocks people have to overcome to believe in God? That is – the belief in a Creator. As Tobymac sings in “Undeniable”: “Which is harder to believe that You don’t exist Or that You orchestrated all of this, living in the world that is so confusing.” It seems like we all do have faith in something…]

But that’s when it gets tricky in Hebrews, when the wheels start to fall off of the bus of the whole faith=groovy argument. Because, just after the world was created in Genesis, we get the story of Abel.

Hebrews 11:4 says that Abel’s sacrifice or offering to God was better than Cain’s because Abel was faithful and that by faith, Abel still speaks. That Abel’s offering was commended by God. But get this – Abel is still dead, still murdered by his brother who was less faithful who was not too keen on the whole ‘God thing.’ So Abel is more faithful but he’s ultimately … dead.

Faithful, still dead. Still murdered.


Okay, but there’s Enoch, right? He’s faithful so God takes him straight to heaven. Whew! Someone’s faith directly results in them having a bettered situation.

But… then we get Noah. He built an ark it says “in holy fear” (11:7) and became “heir of righteousness” by keeping the faith. He still had an alcohol problem, still was ridiculed by one of his sons, still… died.

Okay, so far, one positive example of faith equalling ‘the good life,’ and two with varying degrees of not exactly proving to carry the “faith fixes everything” banner.

So, there’s Abraham, who was faithful, did everything that God expected of him – even being willing to sacrifice his own son on the altar. Abraham picked up and went, leaving his father and familial rights behind. He lived as a stranger, and waited and waited and… waited to have a son, even though God kept promising that he would be the father of many nations. He worshipped God, he prayed to God, he believed in God – and he still fought in wars with other nations, still lied to protect himself, and still couldn’t figure out how to save towns that he thought he should. [For the record, Abraham is still dead.]

Consider the people who aren’t listed here but could’ve been:

-King David, stood up for God in the battle with Goliath, and represented the entire nation of God, but watched his entire family (sans Solomon) fall apart. One of his sons even lead a rebellion against him. Faithful – troubled life.

-Mary, the mother of God who was willingly used to be the Son of God’s mother. She was, yes, honored with being Jesus’ mother, but her opportunity allowed her to … watch her son hang on the cross. Faithful – emotionally crushing situations.

-Peter, famously rejected Jesus and then claimed him. He was declared the rock on which Jesus would build his church. Some believe he was crucified upside down because he said he wasn’t worthy of being killed in the same manner as Jesus. Faithful – martyred.

Hebrews 11:37-38 says that these people were “put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.” Fun times, right?

Hebrews 11 says that all of those people lived by faith – and then they died (except for Enoch). Even in those days, not dying was obviously a big deal! In the days that the New Testament was written, the believers were holding onto hope that Jesus would return during their lifetimes – they wanted to see Jesus’ return from front row seats. Hebrews recognizes that the desire of believers has always leaned toward not dying. We want our lives to be easier, but what if we’re faithful and they’re not?

Hebrews says that these faithful people did not receive the things they were promised, but that they recognized the payoff was still “not yet.” Hebrews says that they recognized that the payoff was still hoped for and believed that it would be.

Faith is believing in what we cannot see, but it doesn’t predicate an easy life or even a happy one. Faith means that we can hope even in the midst of suffering and hardship. It’s not just Hebrews though – it’s Jesus.


In John 16:31-33, Jesus says to his disciples that “a time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

To his disciples, to the people who had shown the most faith and were most willing to sacrifice everything, Jesus said: Look, there will be trouble but this isn’t the end.

Friends, there will be trouble. There will be cancer, divorce, sickness, job loss, death, and shame. But Jesus said that if we had faith, we could overcome anything – that if we had faith that we would recognize that God was with us at all times and in all things.

You can depict faith however you want – a journey, a house, a story. But whatever language you use, consider this: faith promises that something better awaits. 

Faith promises that God will overcome evil with good.

Faith promises that the bad days won’t outweigh the beautiful ones when we can see the past from our glorious future.

Faith promises that when we follow God, that God is always with us.

Faith promises that while everything might not be “fixed,” God will give us a way through it by changing our attitudes and boosting our courage.

In the end, faith won’t fix everything, but faith in the right thing will make all the difference.

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What If All The Kids Had Coats 2.0

IMG_0457A year ago, I wrote a blog post about the kids who were streaming through our church in Prince George/Petersburg, Virginia. We had thirty to forty kids from a low income area who lacked the necessary coats to stay warm when the temperatures dropped. The response was … awe-inspiring.

In the end, we put brand new coats on ninety-four children and gently used coats on several more. We received donations of coats, toys, and turkeys that we put to use because people wanted us to help these kids and their families, and they wanted to make sure their donations when somewhere they could be used.

So, here we are again a year later. The kids continue to change but we’ve already received requests to aid families where parents have been laid off, or worse, passed away. We’ve heard from people up and down the I-95 corridor between Richmond and Petersburg who need some help this year. We’ve discovered that there are families at several local schools that need our help. The need is great – and I’m hoping and praying that a few of you will be inspired to help again.

If you’re willing to donate coats, toys, turkeys or funds, leave me a message below or reach out on Facebook.

If you know someone in the Tri-Cities area who needs some help with coats, toys, or a hot Christmas meal, leave me a message or reach out on Facebook.

We can’t predict who will help or who will receive help – but maybe you and I will be used by God to create another set of Christmas miracles for someone this year!


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Things Jesus Never Said: Grow Up! (Luke 18:15-17)

Paula Poundstone has joked that “adults are always asking little kids what they want to be when they grow up because they’re looking for ideas.” It leads itself into the debate over what it means to be adult and what it means to be a child.

Is childhood about fragile, unaware innocence and adulthood about brooding, cynical evaluation? Is childhood about clueless obliviousness and adulthood about intelligent self-awareness? Or is childhood and adulthood a thinner separation? There must be a reason that Jesus famously said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18:15-17).

I must admit that some of my favorite memories are when I threw off the expectations others had for me, and ignored social constructs, and played like a proud idiot with my kids. We go on walks regularly – and each trip is an adventure. Sticks are swords and wands; mushrooms are alien life forms. Hills are for conquering – and rolling down, grass stains be darned! But they’re also for snow sledding and snowball battling, even if you’re the only adult taking part.

Honestly, I don’t know how well I’m growing up.

But when I read more about Jesus, it sounds to me like Jesus never said: grow up! [Sure, this flies in the face of I Corinthians 13:11, where Paul wrote, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” But this is not the first time Jesus and Paul didn’t say it exactly the same way…] But we have such a fascination with growing up. We ask kids all of the time.

I recently read that a teacher asked her class what each wanted to become when they grew up. A chorus of responses came from all over the room.
“A football player,” said Jim.
“A doctor,” said Alfred.
“An astronaut,” said Suzy.
“The president,” said little Al. (Everyone laughed).
“A fireman,” said Fred.
“A teacher,” said Lisa.
“A race car driver.” said Mario.
Everyone that is, except Tommy.
The teacher noticed he was sitting there quiet and still. So she said to him, “Tommy, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Possible.” Tommy replied.
“Possible?” asked the teacher.
“Yes,” Tommy said. “My mom is always telling me I’m impossible. So when I get to be big, I want to be possible.”

Ah, yes, to “grow up,” get big, eat off of the adult menu.

So many of us, as adults hearing this, would tell kids not to hurry and grow up. We would tell them to hold onto innocence, and enthusiasm, and passion. We would tell them nostalgically that we once played in the dirt, stayed out after dark, and looked at the stars. But now we know better, right? We pay the bills, scrub off the germs, and worry about safety. We have grown up.

And then there’s Jesus’ injunction: “For the kingdom of God belongs children…. Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

The world says grow up, and Jesus says, stay childlike?

Maybe there’s a difference between growing up and being mature.

Maybe growing up involves worrying about bills, finding more ways to stay busy, struggling with the way things are, and wrestling with the problems we see in the world.

Maybe being childlike in terms that Jesus meant means maturely handling your responsibilities, balancing work and play, praying optimistically about how the world should be, and seeing solutions and opportunities in the world.

Maybe, Jesus was saying that “size matters not” but that attitude does.

Maybe, Jesus was saying that while life will beat the joy, peace, and hope out of us, childlike Christians are constantly re-inusing themselves with the attributes that mirror the heart of God.

Maybe Jesus was saying that would be full of wonder, and grace, and joy – meeting friends who are new (not strangers), seeing mistakes and failures as a time for new opportunities, and facing each day as a wonderful adventure.

Maybe Jesus was saying that the kingdom of God was full of adventures to be had, journeys to be taken, and companions to befriend.

Maybe Jesus was saying that the kingdom of God was an open field not a closed circle.

Maybe Jesus was saying that what we “get” from the kingdom of God, or understand about it, requires a childlike approach. Maybe some of that responsibility for the kingdom of God is on us.

Hear the response of Jesus to children again: Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.

We have to be childlike if we want to enter.

But we also have to make sure that everything is done within our power to ‘not hinder’ children from it. While I hope that you all will embrace your inner kid by checking out these fun balloons and engaging in our ‘game day’ after church, I hope that we will take up the responsibilities that the ‘other’ part of this verse lays out.

I hope you will take up the responsibility of raising our children – all of them – with the knowledge and love of God. 

Proverbs 22:6 states “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it. Are we raising our children the way that they should be raised? Are we teaching them about Jesus at church and at home? Are we surrounding them with the people who will continue to nurture and care for them? Are we creating a culture where they continue to experience the love of Jesus in the people who surround them?

In 2 Timothy 3:14-17, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” II Timothy assumes that the people who have been raised in the church – our children – will continue in what they’ve been taught because they’ve been taught correctly.

Do we know the Bible? Are we exploring it in the best way possible? Are we sharing the Scripture with our biological children, our church family, our children in our neighborhoods and communities? Too often, I hear that we are watching everything around us fall apart because ‘young people today’ don’t know the right values. Are we maintaining them ourselves? Are we sharing them? Are we working toward the kingdom of God because we recognize, with childlike hope and joy, how wonderful it would be if everyone understood it and everyone was ‘in’ that kingdom?

In Acts 2:17-19, Peter quotes the prophet Joel, “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”

If we can’t see the value in doing what we’re called to do simply because it’s right, Peter quotes Joel pointing out that the future of the kingdom of God really is our children. If we want the world to be a better place, if we want our children to be actively involved in what God is doing, we need to empower and mentor them.

We need to remind our children that God has promised to work in them, and with them, and through them to continue to redeem our world.

And as the children of God, that means that God still continues to work with us, even if we have forgotten how powerful that can be.

Today, I hope that you – children – recognize that God loves you, and calls you to be the best you can be, to recognize that God believes in your best. I hope you know that God forgives you when you sin and cries with you when you cry. I hope that you know that God will never ever give up on you, that God will never turn away from holding you.

Today, I hope that you – adults – recognize that God loves you, and calls you to be the best you can be. I hope that you recognize that God has given you these children – and those around you – to care for and nurture, to teach, to comfort, and to protect. I hope that you know that this is the great responsibility of our lives – to share the love of God we have experienced with others.

The kingdom of God is a wide open field, there for the exploring, the running, the tumbling, and the playing. It’s there for the joy of it.

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Things Jesus Never Said: God Only Has One Plan For Your Life (Jeremiah 29:11-14)

Do you stay on the path or do you wander all around it?

That’s a simple question but the answers are complicated. It can apply to your practical application when taking a walk – do you go where everyone else has or do you wander around? And it can apply to the way you see God – do you have only one set of steps ordered before you, or are there many alternative routes to get you to where God wants you to go?

I remember rapidly approaching high school graduation with a sense of dread. I had good grades, had a college lined up, and my family was proud of me. Seriously, what was my problem?

I was …. not sure who I was going to marry. At seventeen.

My parents, high school sweethearts, married after my dad’s freshman year in college. But they had known they were going to get married since high school.

I looked around, and I … didn’t see any prospects. I thought there must be something wrong with me.

Thankfully, after several (cough) missteps in the world of dating, I met my wife and we were married after she graduated from college. I was the ripe old age of twenty-five, crisis averted.

Unfortunately, many of people are misguided – I’ll admit I was about dating – into thinking that God had one plan worked out them, and if they stray off the path by even a whisker, it’s all over.

Some people believe that God has a plan laid out, a map of down to the minute scientific exactitude, that must be followed or something terrible is going to happen.

There are a few problems with that way of thinking, right?

We become so caught up in what we think has to be exactly what God wants that we:

  • fail to consider whether it actually makes sense that God would want that thing for us,
  • become paralyzed by what we think God wants rather than actually seeking the kind of life God wants from us,
  • put God into a linear, one way of things working, static box that our fluid, all-powerful, compassionate God would never fit in.

Donald Miller wrote about it this way:

Imagine visiting a friend’s house for dinner for the first time. You sit down at the table and the father, who sits at the head of the table, tells each of the kids, and the wife for that matter, what and when to eat. Then he tells them what to wear to bed, when they will be getting up, where they will be going to college and who they will be married to. Later, you tell your friend you thought their dad might be a bit controlling. You secretly believe their family to be dysfunctional. But your friend is offended. They think it’s perfectly normal to want to please their father in everything they do. And they are right, it is appropriate to want to please ones father. The only problem is, their father is NUTS! God, on the other hand, isn’t nuts.

Now, I’m not, nor have I ever been, a football player. But I know what it’s like to draw up a game plan, and I know that’s quite a bit different than drawing up a map (or a blueprint) of what my life will look like.

Work with me here, but let’s consider what it looks like for a wide receiver to prepare for one play in a football game. Consider this:

Every passing play in football breaks down in a route tree. A football route tree has as many as nine possible routes that a wide receiver could run in, eight possible ways that the situation could break. There’s even a ‘hot route’ based on what signals the quarterback might call. [Check out the picture of the route tree.]


The thing is that the quarterback and the wide receiver work to get on the same page with the intent of ending up with a first down or even a touchdown. But these plays, and there can be hundreds of them, are spread out over four quarters per game, in hundreds of games over the lifetime of a team. There are defensive variables, substitutions, weather conditions, and more that impact how the routes are run. But there’s never just one way to do it.

Often, when we turn to the Bible, we think of people who were used by God in miraculous, amazing, one-of-a-kind ways. Mary the virgin becomes Mary the mother of God. David becomes THE King.

But how many of the people who we admire from the Bible actually respond the right way the first time? How many of them take their first “route” to get there?

Moses has a whole stack of excuses for why he can’t possibly be God’s spokesman to Pharaoh, and he’s facing a burning bush.

Jonah goes to Nineveh after a shipwreck and a whale ride and still has a hard time getting it right.

Peter becomes the man who Jesus’ church will be built upon after he denies Jesus three times!

If these people we choose as role models actually had more route trees than an NFL wide receiver, why do we spend so much time waiting to see the correct door open? Why are we so tentative in our decision making?

I think it’s easier to believe there’s one way to go than to recognize that God has put us in charge – granted us free will – to make our own decisions. I have interacted with students, and couples, and even longstanding church folk who would rather have me make the decision for them than wrestle with it on their own. They’ll ask me to assign their paper topic rather than choose one, ask me to determine whether they should be married or not, and ask me how they should vote, spend money, or choose right from wrong.

It’s easier to have someone else determine that for us than to actually have to get involved. To get dirty.

If it has more to do with God’s exact plan and less to do with our free will, then doesn’t it let us off the hook? If we’re going to embrace a God who gives us free will, doesn’t the opposite happen – don’t we have to take more responsibility?

If we’re going to find out which way not what way God has laid out for us, if we’re going to find God’s best way for us, then we have some work to do.

We need to pray. I believe that God wants to hear from us and talk to us about our families, our money, our careers, our doubts, our fears, and our joy. When we spend time in prayer, it makes us more compassionate to others, and we begin to better understand (note: I didn’t say everything was always crystal clear!) what it is that God sees in us and wants our participation in.

I certainly don’t believe that just because you pray that everything will work out the way you want it to, but I know that when I pray, I am more peaceful, more compassionate, more loving. I know that when I pray, it’s easier to remember that God is with me. If I want to know God’s will, I need to be with God!

We need to read the Bible. There’s a lot of good advice in there. We need to know what the Bible says about theology, situations, community, and God’s nature. When we are “read up on” those things, we can respond to our own experiences with the background of the Bible. Too often, we read the Bible only when we have to, in Sunday School or when the pastor tags us to read during worship. We don’t know what the Bible has to say, but we’ll let the talking heads on television tell us! We have to read it so we know it for ourselves.

We need to listen to those people who are listening to God. I don’t know about all of you, but I’m not ready to give the keys of my car to every one of my friends. But… we all have a tendency to turn the keys of our lives over to other people and let them tell us what we should do. We share stories about our jobs, our spouses, our children, and our beliefs and we don’t necessarily stop to consider whether the people we’re sharing with actually believe in the same things we do. There’s peer pressure that’s good and there’s peer pressure that’s bad.

The white fluorescent dance pants I had in the eighth grade that went with my Hawaiian shirt were the results of bad peer pressure. I wasn’t listening to people that loved me and cared about me (and listened to God) and I ended up looking… ridiculous. Too often, when we’re not surrounded by the right people, we look ridiculous.

We’ve got to practice the right way. I know that all of us would like to know – or at least say we’d like to know – what God wants from us when it comes to getting married, moving to another state, accepting a new job, etc. All of those are ‘big’ things, right?  But do we practice what God wants for our lives in the little stuff?

Do we find a way to bite our tongue when we want to snap at someone? Do we stop to do the little things like hold the door or help the proverbial old lady across the street? Are we making time in our day to not be busy and to actually hear the person who is spilling their guts in front of us? Do we make time for God-sized moments to show up in our human lives?

Last week’s sermon in our Things Jesus Never Said series, “Everything Happens For A Reason,” works with today’s message because sometimes, we fail to see that our mistakes were God’s moment to shine. When we’re at our lowest, we’re most prepared to set forward and be the kinds of people God wants us to be, knows we can be, hopes we will become. When we hit rock bottom, we are most likely to stop and listen to God.

This week, after our Bible study, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Sometimes you’re the father, or the servant, or the older brother. But today, I want you to think of yourself as the prodigal son.

Many of us haven’t reaped our half of the inheritance and headed for the hills. Most of us have never slept outside in the pig sty, eating the pigs’ food. Most of us don’t recognize today how humiliating that would be because to most people of the day, you would now be less valuable than a pig.

Thinking about that this week, I thought of some of the jobs I’ve done. I’ve cleaned out ash trays and hand washed strangers dishes; I’ve worked with water and sewer shoveling, raking, and… moving stuff. I’ve worked in retail and fast food, where no one is happy and everyone takes their frustration out on someone else. But I’ve never been as down and out as the prodigal son. I’ve never been so low that the only way up was better. I’ve never been so racked by the frustrations of the world that I was ready to give up.

But the beauty of the Prodigal Son is that no matter what decisions you’ve made, the Father is always receptive, always willing to welcome you home. The prodigal has a place, and the Father has a plan. No father wants his kids to go through what the prodigal did, but sometimes, we take our own road home.

Whether you came in here today sure of yourself or unsure of everything, know this: God’s love for you will find a way through many routes, past many obstacles, past your own mistakes, to find you. That’s God’s plan, his one and only plan through his one and only Son. No matter what, God’s plan is to bring you home.

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Things Jesus Never Said: Everything Happens For A Reason (Romans 8:18-30)

Some of you have been through the grinder over the last few months. Maybe it’s emotional, or scientific, physical or completely relational. But at some point in your struggle, someone has said something like:

God is doing something big in your life. 

God doesn’t make mistakes.

God only gives his biggest tests to his best soldiers.

God does everything for a reason.

God must have something really amazing he’s going to do with your …

If you’ve been in this situation, you may have wanted to throw up, punch someone, or run screaming from the room.

These responses are an often human desire to make sense of what is going on, to give credit or blame to something so that suffering might make sense.

Paul writes about the state of the world in Romans 8 in a way that we might if we spent a half-hour watching the news. Wherever we look, we can see people struggling with pain, sickness, and even death. Paul writes, two thousand years ago, that:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. And, in verse 28, And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Yes, I believe that there is a great Creator God of the universe who sent his son to die on the cross for our sins. And I believe that God isn’t me. [Everyone say, ‘Hallelujah!’]

But while I believe that God is over all, in all, and omnipotent, I do not believe that God causes bad things to happen.

God didn’t make Eve eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

God didn’t cause the man after his own heart, David, to make a series of bad decisions.

God didn’t put the soldiers up to nailing Jesus to the cross.

God doesn’t make us lust, steal, hate, murder, lie.

God doesn’t make us eat too many nachos, smoke too many cigarettes, or spend too much time lying on the couch.

God doesn’t make someone else get behind the wheel while they’re intoxicated or show up for work angry at the world.

But when Christians hear something like “we know in all things that God works for the good of those who love him,” we change it around to suit our needs. [Side note: How many problems in society today would be avoided if we would stop ‘prooftexting,’ that is taking the words of the Bible and adopting them for our own ends, and stick to what it actually said in context? Does it mean something that sounds like Jesus? No? Then we probably took it out of context. End rant.]

So, we take Romans 8:28 and we make it mean that “God causes everything to happen.”

We have a problem, so we want to affix blame. We want to be able to say X causes Y, that cause always comes before effect, that there must be a reason.

The deficit is looming so it’s the current president’s fault – never mind that we switch back and forth between parties and the deficit has been decades in the making.

Someone uses their murderous free will in a community so it’s mental illness or guns or drugs that need to be regulated – never mind that we are not prone to peacefully interacting with each other and that social norms are taught from parents to children.

Someone we know is sick or hurting so it’s God’s will – never mind that things are not as they should be, and haven’t been since Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden.

What if the real problem behind these things is me? My attitude, my actions, my beliefs.

Romans 8:28 really says that God will work good in all things – even the most unpleasant, terrible, despicable, troubling things will somehow be used by God for good. God is going to make the best of every bad situation. That doesn’t mean cancer, war, addiction, or job loss are good— of course, they’re not! But it says that we can know God works good because he’s done it before.

That means that in a natural tragedy like an earthquake or tsunami, the result of the fallen world we live in post-Eden, God will find a way to save lives and bring people together.

That means that even when person X robs person Y, the result of free will that God gave us so we could choose God over not being with God, that God will find a way to minister to both the robbed and the robber.

God is going to find a way because God loves us that much.

Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery but God used that opportunity to elevate Joseph to the Pharaoh’s righthand man to save his family.

Paul was arrested for preaching the good news of Jesus and stuck in an earthquake, but God used the opportunity to have Paul save the jailer and his family.

The truth is that this has always been true: God loves us that much. But if we’re to believe it, we need to stop saying things to people that aren’t true. We need to be more loving and more aware.

We need to stop being angry at God when things don’t work out the way we want them to. Because God isn’t done yet.

We need to stop ignoring that “sin” is actually a thing – hey, Jesus said it was! – taking responsibility for our pour decision making and irresponsible mindsets.

We need to stop expecting some miracle to happen when sometimes God has put the means in front of us to overcome the obstacle. We should pray for miracles, but we need to look for the way God wants us to act. We need to recognize the gifts and graces God has given us to do the work of the kingdom of God.

Later on in Romans, in 8:37-39, Paul writes, “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I don’t know what you’re going through. I don’t know what you will go through. [Remember, I’m not God!] But I know that when you’re going through it, God will be there. When you’re in the midst of it, and it feels like the lights have all gone out and you are in the midst of your own private hell, that you are not alone.

I read that conflict or trouble is like salt. Most of us – we’re in the South! – use salt in our meals. Salt is the combination of sodium and chloride, which by themselves are deadly. But put them together and it’s why Grandma’s green beans are better than anyone else’s, and why movie popcorn is my deadly addiction. We can’t make it without some salt in our bodies.

I know God didn’t make me not wear shin guards on the day we were scrimmaging on the soccer field in seminary. I know he didn’t make a ball land in the box, make me slide for it, or make a defender kick through and snap my tibia. But God did use that opportunity to bring me closer to other people in seminary, and he did use it to make me more aware of how grateful I should be.

I know that God didn’t make the people who are unable to have children that way, but I know he’s used their love to expand ministries, adopt children, and welcome in forgotten children.

I know God didn’t cause the kind of racial unrest we’ve seen across our nation, or the violence that has happened in school settings and elsewhere, but I know he’s used it to bring people to his church, toward each other, and together in places where divisions stood before.

I know God doesn’t cause evil, but I know he refuses to let evil win.

Consider Romans 8:37-39 again. “We are more than conquerors.” If there’s nothing to conquer, how could we be conquerors? If there wasn’t something to overcome, how could we know how much we could do or grow? It’s the thought behind this old saying: “without a test, there can be no testimony.”

God can take things that are bad and put them in the crucible of His wisdom and love. He works all things together for good, and He gives us the glorious, wonderful promise that He will do so.

Paul put it in terms we could understand thanks to the witness, example, and teaching of  Jesus, but sometimes, I go back to the words spoken to Joshua. Sometimes, it’s just easier for me to relate to “some dude” than it is to what Jesus said. Sometimes, it need it to be gritty, and dirty, and a bit like a guy who hasn’t shaved in a few weeks.

Here’s Joshua, just a young guy with no real experience or training, and suddenly, he’s pushed to the front of the line. Moses has been outed as the leader of the Israelites, and the Israelites are standing on the abyss heading into a hostile land that God has promised. God has literally put the kingdom of God before them and they are so scared they still think a life of slavery would be better.

And Joshua is standing there, all alone, with people staring at him and knives with his name on them being sharpened, and Moses tells him (in Deuteronomy 31):

Be strong and courageous… The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”

I hope you will remember that this week as you go into situations where the knives are sharp and the crowd is hostile, where your body betrays you and you receive criticism you don’t deserve.

Bad stuff happens – and God didn’t cause it.

But God has promised to never leave us or forsake us – and to transform everything intended for evil into something good.

Maybe you are the means of transformation for someone today. Are you ready? Are you praying? Are you clothed in the power of God?

Be strong and courageous, my friends. Go boldly and don’t look back.

I am appreciative of Larry Osborne’s 10 Dumb Things Smart Christians Think for his thought process on this week’s thing Jesus never said!

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