Sunday, January 30, 2011

If Only, Even Now, I Believe

“Now a man named Lazarus was sick.” (John 11:1) Not just any man, but a close friend of Jesus. His sisters (Mary and Martha) sent an urgent message to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” (v. 3) “When he heard this, Jesus said, ‘This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.’” (v. 4) It would not end in death, but Lazarus would actually pass through death.

“Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.” (v. 5-6) There was no hurry on Jesus’ part, but a very hard-to-understand delay.

Because the disciples challenged Jesus when he said “Let’s go back to Judea,” I believe they might have tried to understand why Jesus didn't return earlier to heal such a close friend. The disciples reasoned that it wasn’t safe for Jesus because the Jews had tried to stone him there (after healing the blind man). (v. 8) But Jesus wasn’t concerned about his own safety. He was listening to his Father, and his Father said to wait.

Jesus explained to his disciples, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I’m glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” (v. 14-15)

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” (v. 21-22)

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?'" (v. 26)

“Yes, Lord,” she told him. “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” (v. 27)

Martha is often remembered for being worried and upset about many things while her sister Mary chose what was better and sat at Jesus’ feet and listened (Luke 10). My personality, like Martha’s, is prone to worry (see post “All That I Can Do"), and I sometimes catch myself thinking: “Don’t be such a Martha. Be more like Mary.” But, I can see Martha in a different light in this encounter with Jesus, and I deeply respect her for what she communicated to Him in the midst of her deep pain and confusion of why Jesus delayed coming when they needed him.

This is how I would describe Martha’s statement of faith: If only you were here, we wouldn’t be mourning the death of our brother right now. I don’t understand why you didn’t come to heal the one whom you love when he was sick. But even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask. I don’t know what that looks like, but I know that you are his Son, and so I still have hope. My heart has not become hardened with bitterness toward you. I believe that you are the Christ. This understanding could only have come from you, so that even while I am mourning and don’t know why this has happened, you have not changed. You cannot change. I fully believe in you. And I accept whatever you have done and will do.

Martha was not stopped by the “If only.” She went on to confess her belief in the one who acted in a way she could not understand and to place all of her hope and trust in Him.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (v.32) Echoing the words of her sister, it was all that Mary could say as she fell at Jesus’ feet. Then she broke down in uncontrollable tears, and Jesus wept with her. (v.33-35) I find great comfort in Jesus’ tender response to Mary, who was unable to move beyond “If only” at that point. Jesus entered into her pain, and wept alongside her, as she wrestled with grief over her brother’s death and great disappointment in Jesus.

Then Jesus came to the tomb and commanded the stone to be rolled away. He said to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” (v. 40) He looked up to heaven and thanked his Father and then he called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” (v. 43) And Jesus then said to the bystanders who were stunned to see a man, who had been dead for four days, walk out of the tomb, “Take off his grave clothes and let him go.” (v. 44)

Jesus had said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (v. 27)

This question is for also us today: Do I believe this? What does this really mean?

Do I believe that life can come through death?

What is God asking me to trust Him for that I can’t understand: “God, if only you had…”

May we say along with Martha, “If only, even now, I believe.”

Friday, January 21, 2011

Home

As our days in Tianjin come to a close, many memories have come to mind. This wonderful city has been home for us for the past 15 years, and we know this place. We feel comfortable here, even though we will always stand out as white foreigners. There is a familiarity with places and with people, and we feel sad to leave!

I love to look out our kitchen window and recognize our neighbors from the way they walk. And I have loved that our kids have grown up with the kids in the neighborhood. Charly and I used to join in relay races with them around the courtyard, games of tag, hide and seek, badminton, frisbee, soccer, snowball fights, helping our kids learn to ride their bikes and watching them crash into the light posts and trash cans.

After they learned to ride, they liked to ride fast, and I remember the time CJ and Joshua were racing home at breakneck speed on their bikes. Joshua crashed into a parked taxi and knocked out its brake light. I remember the kids running down the stairs to help a neighbor catch her rabbit who had escaped into the bushes. Jordan's squealing laughter sounded exactly like my sister, as she excitedly reached under the bush and pulled it out, squirming, by its ears! I remember the time the kids found a ball of yarn by the trash can and ran with it around and around the courtyard leaving a tangled mess that the gate guard made them go back and untangle.

Selling lemonade one summer caused a big stir, as people thought our family was in a tight financial situation, and we were sending our kids out to make money! We knew it was time for them to stop their little business venture when they came home and said, "Is it ok for us to take money from people if they don't want any lemonade?"

Firecrackers at Chinese New Year. Nothing can adequately describe that. And we will get to experience it for the last time in a couple of weeks...

I remember last summer as we were driving from Tennessee to Boone, North Carolina, the thrill I felt in my heart to be going back to my home as a child. It had been 12 years since I had last been there (at my 10 year high school reunion) and I couldn't wait to see it again. Growing up, I thought Boone was the perfect place to live. I loved the mountains, the weather, the people...

And now, I think Tianjin has been the perfect place for our kids to grow up. We love the people here (both our Chinese and foreign friends), and it is hard to imagine anywhere else having been our home like this place has. When we first arrived, it all felt so strange and different. Now it is home.

We will have a new place to call home when we move to Lanzhou in a few weeks. (We are still looking for that place!) And we will carry with us sweet memories from Tianjin very close to our hearts. We are thankful that God chose this city to plant our family, and for the relationships He has blessed us with here.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A God of Grace

Do we know God to be a giver of grace? Or do we believe Him to be a task master who is never fully pleased with our performance?

Do we feel an underlying pressure to do more or to perform better in an attempt to earn His favor? Or can we enjoy simply being in His presence and believe that He delights in us because of who we are, not because of what we do?

If we know Him to be a God of Grace, we will reflect His grace and extend His grace to others. If we know Him as a hard-to-please God of Performance we will communicate that about Him (whether we mean to or not). I can see a big difference in my life through which God I know! When I realize that I am lacking in grace and communicating performance expectations on others, I need to re-evaluate how I know God and what my relationship with Him is based on. I am striving to be a more consistent giver of grace as I grow in experiencing God's grace in my life.

As our family has been reading through the Gospel of Matthew, I have been struck with how difficult it was for the religious leaders of Jesus' day to let go of their rules. Jesus rebuked them by saying that while they gave the appearance of being righteous, on the inside they were full of hypocrisy and wickedness (Matthew 23:28). Their worship of God was not from their hearts but was "done for men to see." (Matthew 23:5)

The self-righteousness of the religious leaders blinded them to seeing that Jesus was the Son of God, the long-awaited for Messiah! Their rigid adherence to the Law of Moses and to their oral traditions held them in bondage. Their hearts, therefore, were not free to rejoice when Jesus spoke a single word that caused the blind to see, the lame to walk, the demon-possessed to be set free. These miracles of Jesus made them angry, instead of causing them to marvel at the work of God.

This morning I noticed in the Parable of the Vineyard Workers that the landowner arranged the salary of the morning workers ahead of time (one denarius), but told the workers he hired later that he would pay them "whatever was right" (Matthew 20:4).

The landowner intentionally chose to give the least tired workers their money first. Can you imagine their delight at receiving an amount equivalent to working a full day when they had only worked part of it? I believe the landowner savored the joy reflected in their faces. They knew they hadn't earned it. He had given them a gift because He was generous (v. 15). And they were grateful.

But the most physically tired workers had an expectation. If the workers who only put in a fraction of their effort got one denarius, how much more should they receive for laboring an entire day? Maybe these workers even started doing some calculations based on percentages and what they felt they deserved.

But the landowner had already agreed to give them one denarius for the day (v. 2) and that's what he did. "It's not fair!" These workers protested. "We didn't all work the same. We deserve more than they do."

Isn't that the attitude of the religious? We've earned it. We've performed well. We've carefully followed the rules and worked hard. What the landowner gives us at the end of the day isn't a gift at all, because there is no grace involved. We don't want the undeserving to be placed on the same level with us. We are angry when God seems to be unfair.


Jesus told other parables that revealed how deep this prideful attitude was rooted in the hearts of the religious.

The unmerciful servant was forgiven of his enormous debt, but he refused to forgive his own servant of a much smaller debt. (Matthew 18). Because he hadn't truly received the forgiveness extended to him, he still wanted to pay off his own debt and to hold others accountable to theirs.

The guests invited to the wedding banquet refused to come, so the king invited the sinners on the streets. (Matthew 21) As the invitation was extended to those who didn't "deserve" it (who hadn't followed all the religious rules), those who felt they had earned their way were indignant. They were incredibly offended by Jesus, and they set out to kill Him.

The message of salvation that Jesus brought was all about grace. He came because it is impossible for even the most religious to earn a right standing with God.

But many still try. Because they don't know the God of Grace.

Which God do we know?

"But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in our trangressions--it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works so that no one can boast." (Ephesians 2:4-9)

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