Life WITH God

PositionsA

This is fifth of five sermons I’m delivering based on the insights I’ve gained from reading Sky Jethani’s book WITH, Reimaging The Way You Relate to God.

Life WITH God
Part 5
Does God Really Want to Be with Me? – Life WITH God
Inspired by (and with credit to) the book WITH by Skye Jethani
Based on Matthew 1:18-25 and Selected Texts
Delivered on December 1 & 2, 2012 – 1st Weekend in Advent
by David J. Claassen

It’s all a matter of perspective! The way we look at something — the view we take, the way we approach it — can make a lot of difference, and so it is with our relationship with God. We’re concluding a five-part series about Life WITH God. This series has been inspired by, and owes a debt of gratitude to, the book by Sky Jethani titled With: Reimaging the Way You Relate to God. Jethani suggests that there are five ways to relate to God, four of them being less than the best and the fifth being the best. In the past four messages we explored the less-than-ideal ways to relate to God: life UNDER God, life OVER God, life FROM God, and life FOR God. In this message we’ll conclude with the very best way to relate to God: life WITH God.

Four Imperfect Perspectives
This message is being delivered on the first weekend in Advent, that special time of the year in which we anticipate and prepare for celebrating the amazing event of God’s coming into this world with the birth of His Son, Jesus. Jethani succinctly summarizes what Jesus’ coming into the world did and did not accomplish: “When God desired to restore His broken relationship with people, He sent His Son to dwell with us. His plan to restore His creation was not to send a list of rules and rituals to follow (LIFE UNDER GOD), nor was it the implementation of useful principles (LIFE OVER GOD). He did not send a genie to grant us our desires (LIFE FROM GOD), nor did He give us a task to accomplish (LIFE FOR GOD). Instead God Himself came to be with us – to walk with us once again as He had done in Eden in the beginning.” (eBook location: 1402)

The Message of Christmas: Immanuel – God WITH Us
Jesus has many names given to Him in the Bible besides the name Jesus. One of those other names is Immanuel, which means “God with us.” That’s what God wants more than anything else concerning us: that we be with Him and that we allow Him to be with us.

PositionsFThe Gospel writer Matthew gave us the account of a young woman named Mary who was chosen by God to miraculously give birth to God’s incarnation of Himself. Matthew told how Mary became miraculously pregnant: miraculous because it was without the benefit of a male participant. It was a virgin conception. Matthew went on to record that Mary’s fiance, Joseph, found that hard to believe; who can blame him? An angel — a messenger from God — came to Joseph in a dream and said that it was all right: the pregnancy was of God. Matthew then added an editorial comment, referring to a prophecy in ancient holy Scripture: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord has said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ – which means ‘God with us.’” (Matthew 1:22-23)

God wants to be with us! As Sky Jethani wrote, “relationship is at the core of the cosmos.” (eBook loc. 1402)

Jesus was born as one of us: God with us. His principal purpose in being born among us as one of us was to grow up and die for us on a cross, to take care of our sin and to bring us back into a relationship with God. We needed — and still need — His coming to be our savior, because we were alienated from our relationship with God and Jesus came to provide the way for us to be reconciled with God again: “But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation –” (Colossians 1:22). We celebrate Communion on the first weekend in Advent as a reminder that He came to be with us so that He could die for our sins, so that we might be with Him now and forever! Christmas gives us a wonderful name for Jesus: Immanuel, God with us!

WITH God throughout the Scriptures
The amazing news that God is with us is a message that expresses the desire of God’s heart throughout Scripture. Throughout the Bible it’s clear that the principal way that we’re meant to relate to God isn’t life UNDER God, life OVER God, life FROM God, or life FOR God; the main way should be life WITH God! Let’s take a quick tour through the Bible to see that truth revealed.

Adam and Eve apparently “walked” with God in the Garden of Eden on a regular (daily?) basis, because when they sinned they didn’t show up for their usual time with God: “Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” (Genesis 3:8)

In the Old Testament, the very first of the Ten Commandments states, “I am the Lord your God, . . . You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:1-2) God wants His people to have an exclusive relationship with Him!

The psalmist declared, “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.” (Psalm 73:23)

The prophets talked about life with God. God had Jeremiah say on His behalf, “I have loved you with an everlasting love. I have drawn you with loving-kindness.” (Jeremiah 31:3)

Jesus has us picture our relationship with Him as being in a yoke together: “Take my yoke upon you . . . .” (Matthew 11:29) Jesus invites us into His yoke with Him!

At the time of His ascension — His leaving planet Earth after His resurrection to return to heaven — Jesus promised (in the very last words in Matthew’s Gospel), “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

When our time to die comes, we have the promise of Jesus that He’ll be with us and will take us to be with Him: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:3)

Then eavesdrop on Jesus’ prayer to His Heavenly Father about us: “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, . . .” (John 17:24)

At the end of the Bible, toward the end of Revelation — the last book — we read the apostle John’s report of the vision of heaven that he saw: “And I heard a loud voice form the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.’” (Revelation 21:3)

Throughout the Bible the heart of God is revealed as yearning to be with us and to have us be with Him! As Jethani wrote, “relationship is at the core of the cosmos.”

Desiring Life WITH God
We should desire most of all a life with God! That means that we shouldn’t want to be close to God and right with Him so that we get the blessings of God; we should want Him for Himself most of all. That means that we shouldn’t want God primarily so that we can get through life better, though we need Him for that. It means that we shouldn’t want God primarily so that we can go to heaven and escape hell. Jethani quoted John Piper, who made this bold but true statement: “People who would be happy in heaven if Christ were not there, will not be there. The gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God.” Piper went on to state, “If we don’t want God above all things, we have not been converted by the gospel.” (With, eBook loc. 1514)

We need the blessings of God, now and forever. However, we should desire the blessing of God Himself more than the blessings He gives. The blessings, or “presents,” of God are good and necessary, but we should want the presence of God more than the presents of God!

I, for one, don’t always desire God as much as I desire what God can give! Even my prayer — “Lord, I want you most of all” — may not always be truthful. I may have to back up and pray, “Lord, I want to want you most of all.”

The best way to want to be with God more than anything else in the world is, by the gracious help of God Himself, to seek to have a greater grasp of how awesome He is. Jethani wrote, “Those with an incomplete or tainted vision of God either want to use Him or dismiss Him. But when a full, clear, and rapturous vision of God is presented, we will not settle for anything less than being with Him.” (With, eBook loc.1448)

Just think about God and how amazing He is! God, infinitely great and wonderfully glorious! A star becoming a super nova creates a blinding light that’s just a dark smudge against the brightness of His glory. He holds the vastness of the cosmos, 14 billion light years big, in the palm of His hand. He knows everything about everything, from a subatomic particle to the largest galaxy. Distances mean nothing to Him, because He’s all places present. Time doesn’t limit Him because He was and is and is to come.

This Creator and Sustainer of the vast cosmos has given us humans the ability to know about Him and to respond to Him. He seeks nothing less than to embrace us in a relationship with Him that’s supremely personal. To this end He came to us, who inhabit this speck of dust and drop of water we call planet Earth!

God in human flesh! Immanuel, God with us. God – a baby! God – eating, sleeping, talking, walking, dying! Yes, God-in-the-flesh dying for us, then living again!

What is the invitation from this God with us? To embrace Him as we do nothing else. His delight is in sharing Himself with us; His delight is in our delighting in Him!

Earth’s greatest treasure is His presence. Heaven’s greatest attraction is being present with Him!

How awesome is our God! When we begin to understand how awesome He is, we begin to want to be WITH Him most of all!

Practicing Being WITH God
How can we experience the reality of God’s being with us and our being with God? It begins with a change in our thinking, a change in our perception of daily life. It takes practice. As Brother Lawrence famously taught many years ago, we must simply “practice the presence of God.”

When the apostle Paul said to “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), he meant to always think about the fact that God is with you and you’re with Him! There’s nothing, absolutely nothing, as wonderful as living from the perspective, or position, of life WITH God!

Advertisements

Life FOR God

This is the fourth of five sermons I’m delivering based on the insights I’ve gained from reading Sky Jethani’s book WITH, Reimaging The Way You Relate to God.

Life WITH God
Part 4
What Does God Expect of Me? – Life FOR God
Inspired by (and with credit to) the book WITH by Skye Jethani
Based on Luke 15:11-32 and Selected Texts
Delivered on November 24 & 25, 2012
by David J. Claassen

Do you want to have the right relationship with God? I’m sure you do; otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this! That’s why in this five-part sermon series we’re looking at some of the positions we can take in relation to God. As I’ve indicated before, I want to give credit to author Skye Jethani and the wonderful insights he offers in his book With: Reimaging the Way You Relate to God. Using five prepositions, he describes five positions we can take in relation to God. We can experience life UNDER God, life OVER God, life FROM God, life FOR God, or the best way: life WITH God. Probably of the first four ways, a serious follower of Jesus can be most tempted to focus on life FOR God.

Jethani’s basic premise is that we can get so caught up trying to do things for Christ that we let that overshadow what’s most important of all: life with Christ. One of Jesus’ stories that illustrates that is The Prodigal Son.

The Older Brother’s Story

In the last message we looked at Jesus’ story of The Prodigal Son, focusing on the prodigal son himself. Now we’ll focus on the older son. He came into the story when the younger son returned home after having asked for his share of their father’s inheritance and having lost it all in a string of poor choices. The father was throwing a party for his younger son, who had returned to him, and the older son wasn’t happy.

This is the way Jesus told that part of the story: “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:28-31)

The older son had been keeping score, and he was quick to bring up the fact that he had sacrificed and worked his fingers to the bone for his father. He wasn’t at all happy that his father was giving so much attention to his younger brother, who had made a mess of things. Comparing the two sons in Jesus’ story, Sky Jethani writes, “The greedy young son illustrates the core characteristics of LIFE FROM GOD, while the loyal older son exemplifies LIFE FOR GOD.” (Loc. 1317)

The older son lived for his father, but he didn’t have much of a relationship with him. He did all the right things: he was a hard worker, he stayed out of trouble, and he didn’t embarrass his father. That was the focus of his relationship with his father.

It’s clear by the context of Jesus’ telling the story that the main character in the story — the focus of the story — was the older son. The gospel writer Luke introduced the story about the lost son and two previous shorter stories about lost sheep and a lost coin by telling us about the criticism Jesus was getting from the religious leaders of His day: “Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”’ (Luke 15:1) Because the religious leaders were judging Jesus for hanging around with “sinners,” He told these three stories, including the lost son story (or the prodigal son story, as we call it). It’s obvious that the character of the older son in the story was based on those religious leaders! Like the older son, they had no compassion for the sinful and the “down-and-outers” who were coming to God.

The religious leaders seemed to be doing all the right religious things, but their lack of compassion exposed the fact that they didn’t really have a loving relationship with God. If they did, it would prompt them to be compassionate toward God’s people.

Life FOR God

We can easily fall into the trap of defining ourselves by what we think we can do for God. We can get so caught up in trying to do things for God that we aren’t experiencing much of life with Him. The mission becomes more important than the Master. Jethan states, “Making God’s mission into an idol is a common and serious fault of the LIFE FOR GOD posture.” (Loc. 1232) He writes later, “Rather than finding our value in God as His beloved children, instead we try to find our value in the mission we are chasing.” (Loc. 1250)

Phil Vischer is best known for being the creator of Veggie Tales, which are stories based on talking vegetables including Larry the Cucumber. Veggie Tales became a huge success. Vischer had visions of building a Christian version of Walt Disney Studios with his Big Ideas company. Then things went terribly wrong with the huge investment that he put into his biggest production, Jonah, and he went bankrupt. Deeply humbled, he was open to what God wanted to teach him. Jethani quotes Vischer: “The more I dove into Scripture, the more I realized I had been deluded. I had grown up drinking a dangerous cocktail – a mix of the gospel, the Protestant work ethic, and the American dream . . . . The Savior I was following seemed, in hindsight, equal parts Jesus, Ben Franklin, and Henry Ford. My eternal value was rooted in what I could accomplish.” (Loc. 1275)

The fact is that our first calling isn’t to do things for God; our first calling is to be with Him. However, we’re continually tempted to confuse our priories. We can get so caught up with serving the Lord in His church that we actually have little time for the Lord Himself. One of my greatest concerns for people who are active in our church is that they can be so active in the church that they don’t have time to attend worship, be part of a small group or a Bible study, read their Bibles, or have a private time of focused prayer with the Lord on a daily basis. Even we pastors can get so caught up in pastoring that we neglect our own relationships with the Lord.

A Wrong Attitude toward God

One result of focusing more on doing for God instead of being with God is that it actually can negatively affect our attitude toward Him. The older son in Jesus’ story was harsh toward his father, feeling hurt that his father had never given him a party.

We can complain to God that He isn’t treating us very well, isn’t seeming to take our prayer requests very seriously, or is allowing bad things to happen to us in spite of all we try to do for Him. We act as if God owes us something. God doesn’t owe us anything! We could work 24 hours a day, seven days a week for Him, to our very limits, and we still wouldn’t have earned the right to be His children and to be blessed by Him. It’s all given to us because of His grace and mercy.

We need to get over the idea that God owes us anything. I’ve always tried to remember something that Jesus taught one day. He was talking about how, when a servant comes in from working hard in the field, he still has to get a meal ready for his master. Jesus said, “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” (Luke 19:17-10) God owes us nothing, so we might as well stop trying to make Him beholden to us. That makes the Christian faith a duty, or even drudgery. Our work for Him becomes a delight when we delight most of all in Him! Focusing on doing for God can ruin our relationship with Him.

A Wrong Attitude toward Other People

The attitude that the older brother in Jesus’ story had toward his younger brother — judgmental and even hateful — is a further outcome of a life focused on doing for God instead of a life with God. When we’re trying so hard to serve the Lord we can start judging other people for not doing as much as we’re doing. In exasperation we mumble, “Why can’t others do more?” or “They’re just a bunch of pew sitters,” or some other phrase that sounds a lot like the older brother in Jesus’ story.

Sometimes we Christians complain that we’re getting burned out serving the Lord, but what’s really burning us is the fact that other people aren’t pulling what we think should be their fair share of the load. Our being judgmental is burning us up and causing us to be burned out. If we’d just focus on our own personal call from the Lord and not worry so much about whether someone else is carrying his part of the load, we’d be a lot happier.

Is there ever a place for church leaders to assess what’s being done and what portion of the church family is committed to serving the Lord? Yes, there is — but I know when I’ve crossed the line from a proper responsibility as a church leader assessing the health of our church to being negative, judgmental, and critical of others in a way that’s not pleasing to the Lord. Jesus portrayed the older brother in a far-from-flattering light. I don’t want to be like him!

Serving WITH Christ

In Jesus’ story, “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:31-32) The father said to his older son, “My son, you are always with me, . . .” The father was focusing on what was important to him: the fact that his older son was always with him. The Lord wants us to focus on being with Him!

In his letter to the Christians at Ephesus, Paul shared his prayer for them. It wasn’t a prayer that they might do a lot of work for the Lord; it was a prayer that focused on their having a good relationship with the Lord: “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:17-19)

Our value isn’t measured by what we can achieve for Christ; our value lies in having a good relationship with Him. Then we can carry out what we here at Mayfair-Plymouth identify as the fifth and final level in our journey with Christ. After Meeting Christ, Following Christ, Learning from Christ, and Becoming Like Christ, we can be Serving with Christ. When we first focus on life with Christ, we can work for Him with delight!

Life FROM God

This is the third of five sermons I’m delivering based on the insights I’ve gained from reading Sky Jethani’s book WITH, Reimaging The Way You Relate to God.

Life WITH God
Part 3
Can I Count on God Blessing Me? Life FROM God
Based on Luke 15:11-32 & selected texts
Inspired by (and with credit to) the book WITH by Skye Jethani
delivered on November 17 & 18, 2012
by David J. Claassen

When I retrieve my newspaper each morning it usually has one or more inserts of advertisements with the Sunday edition being packed with them. Magazines sometimes have more ads than articles. The internet is covered with advertisements too. Then there’s the radio and TV, both of which are loaded with ads.

All of us may go by many names but one name we all have in common is the name of consumer. Skye Jethani, in his book With: Reimaging the Way You Relate to God, points out that after the attack on Pearl Harbor, which ushered us into WWII, people were told to cut back on their consumption, so we could better fight the war. After the attack on the World Trade Center we were told to increase our consumption, to keep the economy going. Jethani points out, as many others have, that the role of consumption and of us all being consumers has grown greatly in the last century or so. Before this time people bought and sold the things they needed and there were no advertisements tempting you to buy what you didn’t need. That’s all different now. We are always being targeted as consumers.

Life FROM God
In his book, With, Jethani describes five positions we can take in relationship with God. We can experience life under God, life above God, life from God, life for God, and life with God. We’re doing a series of messages on these five positions we can take in a relationship with God. In this message we’re looking at life from God.

Jethani writes, “Most of us hold in common a consumer worldview. Therefore we believe in a God who exists to satisfy our consumer desires.” (eBook loc. 892) We find it very easy to focus on what we can get from God.

Of course all that we need comes from God, we depend on Him, ultimately, for everything! The Bible says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights…” (James 1:17) Jesus said, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:24) Asking God for things is good. It’s just that we can overemphasize this aspect of our relationship with God.

This is what happens by the proponents of what has often been called the “health and wealth” gospel. Such speakers and writers say that God want us healthy and that He doesn’t want anyone poor. We’re to simply believe, really believe, and illnesses will be healed and financial blessings will come. Healing and financial blessings do come from the Lord, but in His infinite wisdom and love He does not always see fit to give us these as we sometimes want. Jesus had virtually no possessions, and if anyone should have been financially blessed you’d think it would have been God’s Son. The disciples, too, were not well off and none of them, we have good reason to believe, were rewarded with a retirement of relaxation. Most, if not all of them, faced the forced “retirement” of martyrdom. So much for always expecting God to bless with health and wealth. Sometimes He does, sometimes He doesn’t.

The apostle Paul was used of God to provide physical healing to people. We read that “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.” (Acts 19:12) But then Paul himself had a health issue. He wrote, “There was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” (2 Corinthians 12:9) Yes, God can do our bidding, but, in His infinite love and wisdom, He sometimes doesn’t.

Jethani says we can see God primarily as a divine butler or a cosmic therapist. I’ve often said we can see God as a divine vending machine; just deposit your prayer, selecting the right request to make, and “kajing” you hope to get what you put in for. Jethani states that “This is the essence of the LIFE FROM GOD posture – God exists to supply what we desire.” (Loc. 896) Jethani also writes, “God’s value is determined by his usefulness.” When you think about it, that’s true. When things are going well people tend to forget about God, to overlook Him, neglecting a relationship with Him. As it turns out, we often want God’s blessings more than we want the blessing of God Himself. We want the gift more than the giver. Such was the case of some lepers Jesus healed.

Consumer Lepers, Accept for One
Jesus was traveling toward Jerusalem when ten lepers cried out from a distance for Him to heal them. Jesus told them to go show themselves to the priest. They got the message. You went to the priest to get a clean bill of health, a pronouncement of being ceremonially clean, which allowed you to enter into normal religious and social activities again. They knew what Jesus was doing. He wanted them to express the faith that they would be healed by heading off to the priests before they were healed. Sure enough, the text says that “as they went, they were cleansed.” (Luke 17:14) The the text states that “One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, ‘Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him,’Rise and go; your faith has made you well.’”

Nine of the lepers had simply used Jesus to get what they wanted. They experienced life FROM God, getting their blessing from God. The tenth, however, a Samaritan, turned around, even before getting his pronouncement of cleansing from the priest, came back to Jesus, fell at Jesus’ feet profoundly thankful. The nine got their healing from Jesus but the tenth not only got a healing but, kneeling gratefully at the feet of Jesus, he got the beginning of a relationship with Jesus.

The Biggest Blessing from God Is God!
I remember going to my grandpa and grandma’s house out on their farm for Christmas. Actually, being of German descent, we called them Opa and Oma. What I remember most about Christmas at my grandparents home was getting my present from them. Often, it was as toy gun. One time it was as double holster with two pistols. Back in those days there was a lot of pretend bad guys and so I needed a new set of guns about every year. My grandparents have been gone a long time now. I wish I could spend Christmas with them again. But you know what? I wouldn’t look forward to getting a set of toy pistols, or any present. The best present would be able to see them again.

We expect kids to be more enamored and captivated by the gift then the giver: that’s kids for you. But as we grow and mature that’s supposed to change. We even try to help kids along with growing in this direction by reminding them, after they receive the gift, “What do you say?” Usually the child gives a momentary jerk of the head to the gift-giver, says a quick thanks and get back to focusing on the present. As we mature we should be more interested in focusing on the gift-giver than the gift. Talk about getting a gift, Jesus told a story about an adult son who gets a gift from his father. The story is known as the parable of the prodigal son.

The Prodigal Son
In Jesus’ story the youngest of two sons decides he can’t wait until his father dies to get his part of the inheritance but asks for his cut while the father is still living. The father consents and the son takes off with his early inheritance. He spends it all in very foolish ways and ends up with nothing, having to scratch together some change by working on a pig farm, a real low point for a Jew. Jesus tells the story: “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his Father.” (Luke 15:17-20)

Note the motivation for the son going back to his father. It wasn’t exactly a pure motive. He simply realized that life would be a lot better back with dear ol’ dad then staying on the pig farm. He wouldn’t expect to be close to his dad, not the way he’d treated him, but maybe he could at least be more of a servant and have a roof over his head and three square meals a day. With such less than a stellar motive, he heads home. We can treat God like that, wanting to reach out to Him for what we want to have from Him.

As Jesus tells the story the father was more than anxious to see his prodigal son return. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20) I love how the great artist Rembrandt painted this scene. The son is kneeling before the father with dirty and worn clothes and one of his well worn sandals slipping off the foot. The father has his hands lovingly on the shoulders of his son, welcoming him home.

Then the father starts giving orders to his servants about preparing a party. Jesus has him declare, “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.” (v.24)

People often come to God in a crisis. Most of us turn to God when things are going wrong. And you know what? The Lord welcomes us, even with our less than ideal motives, thinking more about the gift of God’s help rather than the gift of God Himself. Most of the people Jesus helped and healed came to Him because they believed He could help them with their problem, and He did. But He always wants more than to see us helped. He want to have us in a relationship with Him.

Life FROM God, where we get good things from God is good, it’s just not the best we can have, not by a long ways! He wants us to have Him Himself most of all! So, as our title asks, “Can we count on God blessing us?” Yes, but not always in the way we count on; we need to leave that up to His infinitely wise and loving will. But He always wants to give us His best blessing of all and that’s the blessing of Himself! Life FROM God is good but life WITH God is best of all!

Life OVER God

This is the second of five sermons I’m delivering based on the insights I’ve gained from reading Sky Jethani’s book WITH, Reimaging The Way You Relate to God.

Life WITH God
Part 2
Will God’s Principles Work for Me? Life OVER God
Based on John 5:39-47 and Selected Texts
Inspired by (and with credit to) the book With by Skye Jethani
Delivered on November 10 & 11, 2012

I want to tell you a very short story. Jesus told very short stories; they’re called parables. Here’s a modern-day parable that I’ve written for this sermon. I’ve titled it The Father’s Notebooks.

_______________________________
A Story

Jason’s heart pounded as his aunt explained over the phone what had happened. She had e-mailed him a week earlier that she had found two notebooks that had belonged to his late father, and she said that she’d send them to Jason. His mother had died when he was a teenager, and now his father had recently passed away. In the e-mail his aunt had told him that one notebook contained detailed information about how his father was going to restore the 1948 Hudson car that he had been keeping in his garage all during Jason’s growing-up years. Now, after his dad’s passing, the car was in Jason’s garage and he was planning to carry out the restoration. His father’s notes would be invaluable.

The other notebook, his aunt had written, was a journal that his dad had kept, unbeknownst to Jason. She wrote that she had only flipped through its pages and then closed it when she realized that it was very personal. It was a journal that his father had kept since Jason was born, and it was filled with entries addressed to Jason about his father’s feelings concerning life in general, his reflections on his growing son, and his hopes and dreams for him.

Now his aunt had just informed him that one of the journals had been destroyed by her large St. Bernard dog; he had chewed it to shreds. Then there was silence on her end of the phone. She had an annoying habit — Jason had been aware of it all of his growing-up years — of telling you only part of a story or giving you just a bit of information, then waiting for you to ask her to tell you more. Not surprisingly, she was doing that now: waiting for him to ask her for more details.

“So which of the two journals do you still have?” Jason asked, holding his breath and hoping she’d tell him what he so badly wanted to hear.

“The journal about how to fix up the car was the one Brutus ate. Your dad’s journal written about you and for you is safe. I sent it to you by registered mail this morning.”

Jason breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was relief that he could never in a thousand years have put into words.

___________________________________

Is the Bible God’s notebook, packed with spiritual principles by which you and I are supposed to live? Or is the Bible God’s personal journal to you and me? It’s actually both, but In our faith do we focus primarily on the divine principles or on the Divine Person?

Author Skye Jethani calls a faith primarily focused on following God’s principles life OVER God. Jethani uses five words to help us understand the ways we can relate to God: UNDER, OVER, FROM, FOR, and WITH. Again, I want to credit Skye Jethani for the basic premise of this message and for this entire series of five messages, ideas found in his book With: Reimaging the Way You Relate to God.

God, the Divine Watchmaker

Jethani points out that a popular world view sees God as a divine watchmaker. Many people believe that one way or another, God created everything that there is. However, they also believe that He got it going and that now it pretty well runs on its own. It’s sort of like a watchmaker who makes a watch, winds it, and that’s the end of his involvement with what he created.

Many people who don’t see themselves as strongly religious believe that God has principles for living and that it’s best to live by those laws. They believe in an inherent right and wrong and think that people ought to live accordingly. Moral laws are seen to be like natural laws such as gravity. Life goes best if you respect those life principles, such as loving your neighbor, etc. Many people would agree that God wants us to abide by those laws, but little thought or effort is put into connecting with the One who made the laws. They see God as a distant, disconnected deity. This is “life OVER God,” as Jethani puts it. They see the value of God’s principles, but they don’t seek to know God personally.

However, it’s not just other people who can live “life OVER God,” as Jethani explains it. His point is that we, too — those of us who are Christians, who claim to be followers of Jesus — can be living OVER God instead of WITH God.

Life OVER God

I’ve often referred to the Bible as God’s instruction manual for life. Though there’s an element of truth to that, it’s not the best description of God’s Word. It’s more than a set of instructions — a list of dos and don’ts — for living.

It’s more like God’s journal in which He’s had written what He’s done, what He’s doing, and what He’s going to do as He involves Himself in human history and in our lives. It’s a journal in which God reveals His heart, where He communicates passionately about His love for us and His desire for us to be His and to be with Him now and forever. It’s a father’s journal to His children: to us!

Jethani writes that “When the Bible is primarily seen as a depository of divine principles for life, it fundamentally changes the way we engage God and His Word. Rather than a vehicle for knowing God and fostering our communion with Him, we search the Scriptures for applicable principles that we may employ to control our world and life.” (eBook loc. 730) We can actually practice Christian principles when it comes to family, friends, finances, and fun without Christ’s being a part of the mix. It can mean that we really have a self-centered faith, looking for ways for our lives to work better, rather than a Christ-centered faith. We have a faith of principles for our own benefit instead of personalizing our faith with God.

Again, Jethani writes, “The life OVER God posture’s emphasis on working principles may be appealing because it is far more predictable and manageable than an actual relationship with God. Relationships, whether human or divine, are messy, time-consuming, and often uncontrollable. But principles are comprehensible and clinical.” (eBook, loc. 771)

We can seek to live by God’s principles without getting close to Him, and there’s something in our fallen nature that seems to like that. We’re smart enough and have enough faith in God to know that we have to take Him seriously, and we think that the biggest part of that is living by His principles. However, that’s wrong! God wants more than our obedience: He wants us!

We keep sliding into the posture of being obedient to God without wanting to get close to Him. Parents will bring their children to church in order to get a solid moral grounding, so that they can grow up to be good people. Married couples may be looking for ideas and ways to help out their marriages. Pastors may go to church conferences so they can learn principles on how to build a great church. Struggling people can go to church to learn coping skills for getting through another tough week. All the while we’re afraid to get close to God! We miss most of what God has for us: a close and personal relationship with Him.

Moving Beyond the Principles of God to the Person of God

One time Jesus was talking with His religious critics, who were fellow Jews. We sometimes marvel that they didn’t realize who Jesus was when they were supposed to know the Holy Scriptures so well, but many of them didn’t see Jesus for who He was, and they missed being in a relationship with Him forever. This is what Jesus said was their problem — and it can be ours, too, when we emphasize the principles of Christ instead of the person of Christ: “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40) Note what bothered Jesus most about those religious people who knew the Scriptures so well and tried to live by biblical principles: “. . . yet you refuse to come to me . . . .”

We too can study God’s Word and learn its history and its principles but miss the One whom it’s all about. We can miss the very personal message that the desire of the Lord’s heart is to have a relationship with us, and for us to be with Him.

Once some parents brought their children to Jesus so that they could meet Jesus and He could hold them and bless them. Jesus’ disciples thought that Jesus didn’t have time for children, but Jesus reprimanded them. The Biblical text states, “But Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, . . .’” (Luke 18:16) We love the way artists portray that scene, with children on Jesus’ lap and settled at His feet, enjoying Jesus’ attention. Those children weren’t interested in learning any principles from Jesus; they just enjoyed being with Him!

The principles of God’s Word are important, but a relationship with Him is the most important thing. Following His principles can and should be a result of our following Him and being with Him!

Jethani writes that “We may reduce the Bible from God’s revelation of Himself to merely a revelation of divine principles of life.” (eBook loc. 736) The Heavenly Father’s holy book — His Holy Bible — is more than a notebook of His historical activities and His instructions and principles. It’s a journal to us, His children, that reveals the heart of the Heavenly Father! He doesn’t want us to live from a position of life OVER Him, where we simply stand on the principles of His Word for our personal benefit but resist coming to Him personally. He wants us to live from a position of life WITH Him!

Life UNDER God

This is the first of five sermons I’m delivering based on the insights I’ve gained from reading Sky Jethani’s book WITH, Reimaging The Way You Relate to God.

Jethani’s book has really impacted my life and ministry so I thought I’d share the series with you. Again, I give credit to Skye Jethani for the concepts in this series and recommend his book.

Life WITH God
Part 1
Does God Like Me? Life UNDER God
Based on Matthew 11:28-30
Inspired by (and with credit to) the book With by Skye Jethani
Delivered on November 3 & 4, 2012

I prayerfully consider what books to buy and read, for three reasons. First, reading a book will require 20 or more hours of my lifetime. Second, it will undoubtedly have an influence and effect on my life, and I want that to be a positive, God-glorifying effect. Third, because a book will have an effect my life it will have an effect on what I preach, and it will hopefully have an effect on you as you listen to (or read) the message.

A book that has greatly affected my life and walk with God in the last few months has been With, Reimaging the Way You Relate to God, by Skye Jethani. Jethani is the editor of Leadership Journal, a publication of Christianity Today. I read most of the book while I was on my summer study leave at a monastery in Iowa. It was during the heat wave of the summer. As I read the book, sweated, walked and prayed, sweated, read some more of the book, sweated, and walked and prayed, I was being greatly affected by the book’s message.

One marvelous privilege of being your pastor and spiritual leader is that I get to invite you to follow me on my spiritual journey. Ever since I read the book With, Reimaging the Way You Relate to God, I’ve looked forward to sharing what I’ve rediscovered about how to walk with God.

Let me be clear: this sermon series is based on God’s Word, the Bible, and the truth contained therein. However, Jethani’s book brings clarity to a key aspect of God’s Word and His Truth. Therefore, at the outset of this series I express my indebtedness to Jethani and his book in helping me to better understand what life with God is supposed to be like.

If you, like me, have sought to be a follower of Jesus for some time, I believe that you too will gain a fresh grasp on how to follow Jesus in the best possible way. Those of you who are new to the faith, or maybe still exploring and seeking, will find that by grasping the truth of what we’re going to look at, and implementing it, you’ll advance past “GO” in the game of life in Christ and be way ahead in this game of all games.

Our Posture and Position with God

We’re going to affirm that there are wrong ways and a right way to look at our relationship with God. Skye Jethani used five words to help us understand what the Bible reveals about life with God. The five words are what we call prepositions. Here you have to remember a basic lesson from your elementary years in school about what prepositions are: they indicate a relationship or position between two words, ideas, or things. The five words, or prepositions, that we’re going to focus on regarding the way we relate to God are UNDER, OVER, FROM, FOR, and WITH. Prepositions relate one thing in a sentence to something else in a sentence. A preposition specifies a relationship, and Skye Jethani suggests that these five prepositions are positions we can have in relation to God. We’re going to look at life UNDER God, OVER God, FROM God, FOR God, and WITH God.

Again, the first four ways of relating to God are far from the best ways to relate to Him, yet many people use them all the time. We’re going to look at each of these four far-from-ideal ways of relating to God — one way in each message — and conclude with the fifth message focusing on the right way to relate Him: to be WITH God. However, I can’t wait until the last message to give you the proper way to relate to God, so we’ll end each message with a resounding affirmation that of all the positions the best way to relate to God is to be WITH God. Let’s begin by looking at Life UNDER God.

Appeasing the Gods

Our daughter Julie and her family live on a mountainside south of Mexico City, within twenty miles of the volcano Popocatepetl, often called Popo for short. In ancient times the Aztec Indians would make sacrifices near Popo to the volcano gods to appease them. They believed that they were under the control and influence of the gods, so they sought to influence and control the gods by various sacrifices.

Small shrines made in the shape of Popo have been found with crudely-carved human heads on top. The Aztecs would stoke a small fire under these shrines so that they would smoke like Popo. It was their effort to appease the gods and make the gods like them. That sounds silly, but much the same thing was done by people in Jesus’ day.

Life under God’s Yoke

The scribes and Pharisees had studied the Torah — the Law of God, the first five books of our Bible — in great detail. They decided that it contained 613 laws; 248 were positive and 365 were negative. Then they came up with rules and regulations that would keep people from breaking those 613 laws. Those rules and regulations became known as the “tradition of the elders” and were considered to be as much the laws of God as the laws themselves. This, of course, was a real burden for anyone to bear. It was like a yoke that beasts of burden wore when pulling a heavy load. It was how they kept God happy and pleased with them. Of course they never knew when they had done enough to keep on the good side of God and to keep His blessings coming.

That’s life UNDER God, living under His control and trying to keep Him happy. It’s not just the Aztec Indians around Popo or the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ time who did that. We fall into the trap of living UNDER God today. What’s a common response that we make when things go wrong? We often ask, presumably addressing the question to God Himself, “What did I do to deserve this?” When things go wrong we can easily believe that we’re being punished by God because He’s mad at us. When things are going reasonably well, we think that God must be pleased with us because He’s blessing us.

However. that doesn’t always seem to add up. For example, parents might really try their best to raise their children in the ways of the Lord, but one or more of the children rebel. The parents may have claimed the verse that states, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6) However, one needs to remember that that verse is found in the Bible in the book of Proverbs. It’s a proverb, which means that it’s a summary of something that more often than not is true. It’s a proverb, not a promise. Raising a child right doesn’t guarantee that they’ll turn out right.

I’ve seen a number of cases where soon after a person turns his life over to Christ he’s hit with a serious health issue. Sometimes the illness leads to much suffering and even death.

A young person takes a vow before the Lord to remain sexually pure until marriage, and does that, but their mate, because of a previous lifestyle contrary to the Lord’s will, gives a sexually transmitted disease to the innocent mate.

Just because we seek to serve the Lord and please Him, it doesn’t guarantee that life will turn out the way we’d like. We can try to live by the rules of God or perform rituals for God – rituals such as worship, Communion, Bible reading, and prayer – in order to manipulate God into doing our bidding. Trying to appease and control God by following rules and rituals is similar to trying to control a radio-controlled toy with the two joysticks on the transmitter unit. We think that we can get joy by controlling the joysticks of rules and rituals. The reality is that God doesn’t play by such rules!

The result in some cases is deep and profound disappointment and disillusionment with God. Well-known pastor Matt Chandler, according to Skye Jethani, gives that as a major reason for youth being “de-churched.” Youth see the promises being made by Sunday school teachers, pastors, and parents that if you abide by God’s standards life will be good. Sometimes it’s not good, and the youth don’t know what they should believe — so they stop believing.

Even if we don’t stop believing, if we live with this performance-based relationship with God we’re always going to wonder whether we’re doing enough to please Him. When things go bad, we often doubt that we’re doing enough. Such a faith results in fear that we’re not pleasing God — or appeasing Him — enough. Then there’s no place for God’s grace in our relationship with Him — and His grace is what it’s all about.

Getting Out from Under Life with God

Let’s go back to the religious leaders of Jesus’ day who carried, and asked others to carry, the heavy burden, or yoke, of trying to please God. Jesus said — and this is amazing — “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Jesus was saying that instead of focusing on burdensome rules and rituals — a heavy yoke indeed — we should take upon ourselves the burden of being with Him, in His yoke with Him, because He’s gentle and humble. We’ll find it restful, because His yoke is easy and light! Jesus invites us to be with Him in His yoke: WITH Him! Jesus’ call to us is always and foremost a call to be with Him! It’s a relationship, a closeness, an intimacy.

Does that mean that rules (seeking to do what’s right and good and godly) and rituals (such as worshiping, reading the Bible, and praying) aren’t important? Not at all. They’re very important, but we shouldn’t do them so that God will accept us; we should do them because we’ve responded to His love, grace, and mercy. We do them because He does accept us! We seek to please Him because He has already extended to us His love, grace, and forgiveness! Our response of living for Him isn’t a duty; it’s a delight!

When we follow Jesus we aren’t guaranteed that everything that happens to us will be good. However, we’re always guaranteed the joy that comes from being with Jesus, no matter what’s happening!

We aren’t called to live under the burden of trying to appease God and manipulate Him so that we can get good things. God is the good thing! Give up the burden of trying to live UNDER God, and accept the blessing of living WITH God!