Sunday, January 19, 2014

starting over – the basics

Don’t worry, then, for …
… people in the world chase after all these things. 
But: you have a heavenly Father, and He already knows that you need stuff! 
So instead of chasing after them:
seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness,
…and all these things will be given to you.  
So don’t worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself.
Matthew 6.31-34 (paraphrased)

Jesus finished the Sermon On the Mount (SOM) by offering his followers a simple promise and warning: if you obey his words, you’ll be strong, if you don’t, the struggles of life will surely destroy you (Matthew 7.24-27). 

Now that we have studied the SOM, now what? 
Now – we accept Jesus’ promise (on faith), and we test it and see if he was telling the truth. 

This last year we’ve studied the SOM, which is really little more than “hearing,” but in order to receive Jesus’ promised benefit (super strength to endure the storms of life) we need to put these teachings into practice, or we’ll be just like the fool who is laughed at.  

To put these things into practice, we need to go back to the basics – to start over.  “Starting over” is boring.  It’s like having to learn long division all over again.  But it’s the right thing to do, and even the fact that it’s boring will help us.  Most of us are – or have been recently – through some struggles.  Getting back to something that’s simple and repetitive is surely not a flashy thing, but it is VERY effective! 

Vince Lombardi was a famous old football coach in the early days of the NFL, and had an amazing record.  He is famous for once telling his team of great, professional players: “Gentlemen, this is a football.”  Coach Lombardi was not alone.  The greatest coach of all time was John Wooden, who coached UCLA basketball to a crazy number of national championships.  He began each season’s practice by teaching his players how to put on their socks – in great-slow-detail.  These are some of the best players on earth, and they’re learning how to put on their socks. 

The same things are true of getting yourself in physical shape.  Pushups, running, lifting weights … none of these things are fun or interesting.  But they do make people stronger! 

So if you’re up for it, let’s go back to the beginning.  It’ll be boring and repetitive, but if you do this with me, you’ll find that you’re a much stronger person at the end of this year than you are today. This is my promise to you – but also it’s God’s promise through His son, Jesus. 


Here’s what you should do for this year:

Step 1:  Commit

The first step is commitment.  You will either follow through, or it’ll be like most “New Year Resolutions,” which are forgotten by March.  But all commitments start the same way: with effort.  You will either:
  • Commit and succeed, or…
  • Commit and fall, and get back up and keep getting back up, or…
  • Commit, fall and stay down or…
  • Never commit

Whichever is your record for this year, the only pathway to success starts with one stepping-stone:

I’ve been doing this for years, and I tend to be the fool who fails a lot.  So I don’t even expect to “commit and succeed” anymore.  In fact, I don’t even commit to the goal.  I just commit to never quitting.  No matter how hard I fall, or how often, I will never stay down.  Never 

And that’s what the grace of God is about.  So long as we never quit, God allows us to repent. 

So … commit – and never quit.  Even if you don’t “succeed” in your personal goals, you will have learned to be more patient and resilient than you now imagine possible. 

Step 2:  SOM re-do

Start over at the beginning of the SOM.  Right after you read this, go to your bible and 
  • read over Matthew 5-7.  And then, as you read it ...  
  • make some notes about which parts are especially difficult for you, and which ones seem to not be a problem for you.  Now ...  
  • work out a plan for yourself to make the changes you need to make. 

Be deliberate! 
This isn’t a “church program,” or a “spiritual discipline,” this is personal.  It’s between you and God and His Son, Jesus our Lord.  This is you going out of your way to agree to actually OBEY the SOM, down to the very last detail, and making a conscious effort to change. 

Spend this year on the SOM again, but this time instead of spending a week on each section, spend whatever time you need to on the parts that are hard for you, and skim over the other bits.  Be conscious with your third column.  Pray often, each night consider your progress for the day, and make every effort to become the living embodiment of this sermon. 

The blog articles from last year (2013) are still there, and you can skim them again if you want.  But this year renew your effort to TRY to focus and make real behavioral changes.  Real changes … that make God smile as He watches you develop strength (by His grace).

Helpful Tip #1: Partner

Most people do poorly when they try something like this by themselves.  Most people need a partner.  So … see if you can find someone who will do this with you.  I’ve found that the best student in class is usually the teacher.  It’s one of the reasons I teach – because that’s how I’m forced to learn.  So if possible, find someone who’s lost – or find someone who’s a struggling or “wimpy” Christian … and ask that person to join you, with you sort of guiding them.  If he or she will be diligent, you won’t want to disappoint them, and it makes it better for you both.  Accountability can help your third column commitment immensely.

Helpful Tip #2: Remember the goal(s)

Obeying the SOM with diligence and precision has its reward: you will become strong.  That’s what Jesus promised.  He did not say this will “save” you.  We are saved by grace, and grace alone.  So think of this as a series of “spiritual exercises” designed to help you get stronger. 

Now remember Jesus’ command to not worry?  Well, if you think about it for a minute, you’ll realize that it’s easier not to worry when you’re strong.  If you’re weak, poor, fat, fragile, lazy, tired … that’s when worry becomes overwhelming.  But strong, rich, capable, smart people worry much less. 

Or, to put it differently … the stronger you work to become, the more able you’ll be to obey.  And the more you can obey, the stronger you’ll become.  It’s a wonderful life of growth and blessing. 

It’s not “fun,” but it is profitable.  When it’s boring, we’re growing patience.  When it hurts, we’re growing strength.  When it seems like it’ll never end, we’re developing endurance.  And all of this is in service to our God! 

We may never be like Joshua or David or Elijah … but we can all be much stronger than we are today. 

Helpful Tip #3: Remember the purpose

We aren't getting stronger just to be stronger.  This isn't a contest or a way for us to brag about how great we are.  It’s not about having an easier life, or success (in worldly terms).  Rather, it’s about being God’s own child and servant. 

We grow stronger to love God more and serve Him better
- and -
We grow stronger to better love our neighbor

Every day you “do your exercises,” you are becoming better at serving God and loving your neighbor as yourself.  The wiser you become, the more you can help the foolish.  The stronger you become, the more you can help the weak.  The more endurance you have, the better to help others endure. 

It takes great strength – great power – to love enough to forgive and turn the other cheek!   It takes great might to “go the extra mile.”  We will never be as powerful as Jesus, who went the extra mile by carrying his own cross, or as strong as he had to be to silently refuse to defend himself and hang on the cross for our sins.  We cannot ever become that strong.  But we can become stronger than we are now.  And we can all be strong enough (with God’s help) to take up our own cross daily and follow Jesus. 

 “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must:
1.      Deny himself, and
2.     Take up his cross daily and
3.     Follow me
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but
…whoever loses his life for my sake, he is the one who will save it.”

“For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself?”  
Luke 9:23-25

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