Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Never Alone


(Note--I'm experimenting with a slightly new format. You can find music to enjoy and the audio version of this lesson at bottom of the page)

Introduction

            Let me just state the obvious—life can be really hard sometimes. If you’ve ever been overwhelmed at school or lost your job, you know life is hard. If the money never stretches far enough to make ends meet, you know life is hard. If you’ve endured the heartache of a broken relationship, you know life is hard. If you’ve lost a cherished loved one, you know life is hard. If you’re hated simply because of the color of your skin, you know life is hard. If you’re battling an illness—physical, mental, or emotional—you know life is hard. If you’re hated because of your faith in Jesus Christ, you know life is hard. I’m guessing if you haven’t yet felt that life is hard, you’ll eventually get there. However, do you want to know what is particularly hard, going through any of these things believing you are alone? That can make the hardship seem unbearable.

            I have a confession to make, I have been struggling under the weight of an illness for almost a year now that has grown progressively worse. Not many people have been aware of my condition except my family and some close friends. I thank God for my friends and family because during the really bad times when I’ve been hospitalized, they have been there to care for me and pray for me. In that respect, I was Never Alone. But a person’s faith can get stretch when life gets hard enough and it doesn’t appear that God is doing anything to mitigate the hardship. I know my faith has been stretched over the last year as I have prayed for healing that has been elusive to this point. I have found myself on more than one occasion wondering if God is even listening. However, whenever my wife makes a special meal for me that I might be able to tolerate or a friend calls to let me know they are thinking of me and praying for me, I know God is listening. It’s one of the ways He says, you are Never Alone. However, when friends and family are not near, His Spirit reminds me of His promise that He will never leave me or forsake me and that He will be with me and near me always as His Spirit resides within me.

Subject Texts

Matthew 28:20

20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.


Hebrews 13:5

5Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”

Context

            For those of you who have been reading my lessons for any length of time, you know that I don’t teach on multiple texts at the same time. However, these two texts are so closely related that I just couldn’t help myself. The texts demonstrate that God has been and will continue to be faithfully present with His people in all circumstances and for all time.

            The text from Matthew is found at the very end of his Gospel as Jesus commissions the disciples, and by extension all of us, to go out and make disciples. Jesus knew what awaited them as He commissioned them to go out and proclaim an unpopular message to a hostile world. Jesus knew there would be a time for each of them when the crucible of hardship would cause them to feel isolated. Jesus wanted them to know that in those moments when life gets really hard, they are Never Alone.

            The text from Hebrews speaks to primarily Jewish Christians who were undergoing severe persecution and were contemplating whether or not they made a mistake abandoning the Jewish system of animal sacrifice in exchange for Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice on the cross. The writer of Hebrews is reminding his readers that no matter what they are experiencing. God’s faithfulness to His promises remain unchanged and one of those promises is that even in the midst of their pain and suffering, the are Never Alone.

Text Analysis

Matthew 28:20

20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

            I have often said that becoming a follower of Jesus is easy—or at least it was for me. I recognize that there are many of you that had to scratch and claw your way to belief but it really wasn’t that way for me. However, being a follower of Jesus is never easy. I have never met anyone who has said that being faithfully obedient to everything Jesus taught has been easy. But you know what, I think it is supposed to be hard. I think Jesus knows we will fail, sometimes often, because failure, even more than success, brings us to the point of intimate connection with Jesus. It forces us to seek Jesus more deeply. Paul said that it was in his weakness; in his failures, that Christ’s strength would reveal itself.

            Jesus knows what He is asking when He asks us to follow Him. He knows that it will be hard to follow Him in our relationships. He knows that it will be hard to follow Him at work and at school. He knows it will be hard to follow Him in midst of people who hate us. He knows that it will be hard to follow Him when the money runs out or especially when the money never runs out. He knows that it will be hard to follow Him when we are grieving a loss. He knows that it will be hard to follow Him when we are sick and tired. Jesus knows that being faithful can be very lonely. He knows because He experienced that loneliness on the cross when not only His closest followers abandoned Him but even the Father turned His back on the Son when the Son took our sin upon Himself. On the cross, Jesus experienced that intense loneliness so we would never have to. Knowing how hard life can get, Jesus wanted His disciples and all of us to know that He will always be with us spiritually so that we are Never Alone.

            “Matthew closes his Gospel with Jesus’ promise to be spiritually present with his followers until the end of this age, that is, until his return, when he will once again be present bodily. John describes how Jesus had explained this provision in much more detail as the ministry of the Holy Spirit (John 13-17). Acts 2 will describe the decisive moment of the fulfillment of this promise at Pentecost. Matthew chooses to leave his readers here. The disciples represent everyone in the church to which he writes and, derivatively, everyone who professes to follow Christ in any age. The Lord is now risen! He calls his people to become disciple makers, and he promises to be with them irrespective of their success or failures…In Jesus, God remains with us for now and eternity! What more do we need to persevere in Christian living? We must go out and obey his commission. But the final word of the Gospel remains Christ-centered. Even when we fail, he remains faithful.”[1]

Hebrews 13:5

5Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”

            As I explained earlier, the Jewish Christians we enduring intense persecution for their faith in Christ. We tend to think that Christian persecution always involves physical brutality. And while that’s true in many, even most, cases, some types of persecution are more discreet and insidious. For example, Jews who became Christians were often isolated economically. If they had businesses, no one would buy from them. If they relied on other businesses to provide for their needs, no one would sell to them. Currency, in whatever form, has always been a necessary part of any functioning society.

            This might surprise you but Jesus talked more about finances than He did about heaven or hell. George Barna of The Barna Research Groups found that there is essentially no difference between believers and unbelievers in how they spend their money. Specifically, believers and unbelievers alike amass money to build wealth for their personal comfort and benefit. The giving patterns of believers and unbelievers are eerily similar. Christians have always gotten themselves twisted around what is and what is not biblical with respect to finances. At root of the matter isn’t money in and of itself, it is a matter of faith and trust in God’s provision.

Paul told Timothy that it isn’t money that is evil but the love of money that is evil. Believers tend to love money for the same reasons as unbelievers—because of the perceived security it offers. With enough money, we never have to worry about having a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, or food on our tables. Don’t get me wrong, having money, even lots of money, isn’t in and of itself wrong. What God is more interested in is how open you are to giving it away. However, this isn’t really a matter of financial parity. God doesn’t care if everyone has the same amount of money. God wants to know if your faith is in Him or in your money to provide for you. Let me know if this sounds familiar: “Wow that person looks like they really need help but I need every penny I have to provide for my own family.” There’s certainly nothing wrong with providing for your own family but don’t you think God knows that? What if, when you come across someone in need God is presenting you with an opportunity to demonstrate that you trust Him more than you trust your money.

            The text from Hebrews is another verse were the Law of Double Reference applies. The readers of the Epistle would have recognized this right away as coming from Deuteronomy 31:6 where Moses is encouraging the people to not be afraid as they prepare to cross the Jordan River to take possession of the Promised Land. God provided for their deliverance out of bondage, He provided for them as they wandered forty years in the desert, and He would provide what they needed when the time came to drive the Canaanites out of the land promised to them. God has always provided for His creation; He has never abandoned His creation. God has been faithful from the very start to care for His people. They never had to wonder if God was present to guide them, protect them, and provide for them. They were Never Alone. The writer of Hebrews’ use of the words from their distant past (+/- 1,500 years) reminds his readers that God remains unchanged with the passage of time. His promise to Israel that He would never leave them or forsake them applied to them and it applies to us as well.

            “The love of money was a theme regularly addressed in contemporary moral teaching. Jesus warned against the danger of making money or possessions the centre of one’s affections (Matt. 6:24; not Luke 16:14, where the Pharisees are called ‘lovers of money’), linking this attitude with a lack of trust in God’s care and provision for his children (Matt. 6:25-34). The love of money and trust in God are mutually exclusive.

            “The issue has special relevance for the listeners of Hebrews. In ‘earlier days’ when they had been subjected to public abuse and arrest, and some had been imprisoned, they remained steadfast in their faith even though this meant losing some of their possessions. The prospect of renewed suffering may have encouraged some members of the congregation to seek greater material security. But love for Christian brothers and sisters and for the foreigner or stranger stands in contrast to the love of money since the latter is ‘an ugly expression of deep-rooted selfishness’ (1 Tim. 6:10).

            “The call to contentment is based on the solemn and sure promise of God’s unfailing presence and care. God himself speaks directly to them in the Scripture:

            ‘Never will I leave you;
                        never will I forsake you.’

“This declaration that he will never abandon his people nor leave them desolate is equivalent to the covenant promise of the Old Testament, ‘I will be with you’…This covenant promise turns up at key points in Israel’s salvation history and is reiterated in a variety of ways throughout the Old Testament to assure the Lord’s people of his presence and protection.

            “The assurance of God’s unfailing presence is intended to strengthen the listeners so that they will trust in the Lord’s help, be generous rather than greedy, and be faithful in their lives with one another. But the divine promise is wide-ranging and can address all of the listeners’ needs…In fact, the Lord’s constant presence in the midst of his people is ultimately the greatest blessing to them…The singular you in the address represents the whole people, but the promise is at the same time for each one of them. The affirmation of total commitment to his people corporately and individually is all the more powerful because it comes from the God who is ‘a consuming fire’ (Heb. 12:29). It is ‘a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God (10:31),’ but it is also, paradoxically, the safest of all places to be.”[2]

Application

            I want to issue a warning to all of you who believe you’re in the clear when you see someone straining under the hardship of their particular struggle and simply tell yourself that God will take care of them because God is always present. You are treading on dangerously unbiblical territory even if there is some truth floating around in that idea. Do you want to know what I have heard people cry out to me when they’ve been told that they should look only to Jesus? What they tell me is that they do trust Jesus but what they really need at that moment is Jesus with skin on. Does that sound strange to you? Well what they are saying is that the need more than the spiritual presence of Jesus at that moment during their struggle. Nothing vanquishes loneliness in the crucible of hardship like Jesus with skin on.

            I want to challenge you this week to be Jesus with skin on for someone who is laboring under the weight of their pain and suffering. For some of you who are struggling with your own pain and suffering, what I’m asking you to do may be an additional burden that is too heavy for you carry right now. In that case, I pray that God sends someone into your life to be Jesus with skin on. The point is, take the opportunity, if you are able, to be present with someone struggling—go visit, make a phone call, write a note of encouragement. Do something for someone that will let them know that they don’t have to struggle by themselves and then let them know, if they don’t already, that through Jesus Christ, they are Never Alone.

            This week I read a story of Judge Lou Olivera and retired Green Beret Joe Serna that is a perfect example of what it means to be Jesus with skin for someone whose dread of loneliness and isolation had the power to break his mind.

“Gulf War veteran Lou Olivera, a district court judge who presides over the Veterans Treatment Court in Cumberland County, North Carolina, sentenced retired Green Beret Joe Serna to spend the night in jail for a probation violation earlier [that] month.

"He did his duty," Serna tells PEOPLE [Digital Magazine]. "He sentenced me. It was his job to hold me accountable. But what he did next," Serna continues, "it sounds like I'm making it up – and I'm not."

Judge Olivera persuaded another veteran, the jailer, to allow him to "stay in the foxhole" overnight with Serna.

"He is a judge, but that night, he was my battle buddy," Serna says. "He knew what I was going through. As a warrior, he connected."

A Decades-Long Connection

The warrior connection has played an important role in Serna's life for decades. As a young soldier going through the grueling Special Forces selection process, Serna and a buddy devoured the book Five Years to Freedom by legendary Green Beret Nick Rowe – a POW in Vietnam who escaped captivity and later was assassinated – and ripped the book in half so that the pals could read it simultaneously.

"It inspired me," Serna says. "The Vietnam guys are my idols."

Like many of his idols, Serna went into combat repeatedly. Each deployment brought honor – and a measure of pain.

"I lost so many friends," Serna tells PEOPLE. "I was medevaced [medically evacuated] after some guy dropped a grenade on me. In the process, I lost a bunch of guys right next to me."

In one horrific incident, Serna and his fellow soldiers were trapped overnight inside a vehicle submerged in water. Everyone but Serna died.

"I lost my whole crew," Serna says. "They were in the water with me. That tore me up. I couldn't escape that truck. I stayed there until somebody saved me."

Later, Serna was wounded and required surgery. Afterwards, when he was medically retired, he paid attention only to some of his ailments.

"Physically, I was taking care of myself," Serna says. "I didn't think about the mental."

Still, mental ailments made themselves known.

"I was having issues, and would feed that with alcohol," Serna says. "I thought I was going down the right path. I didn't know I was going the wrong way."

Serna's path eventually brought him to the Veterans Treatment Court, a relatively new branch of the court system in various jurisdictions, including Cumberland County, North Carolina.

The special courts aim to help struggling veterans get back on track.

The court officials are mostly veterans who understand the dynamics of military service, says Judge Olivera. "We jell as a team," he says.

Olivera saw the team's positive impact on Serna, who was on probation for several alcohol-related offenses.

"When Joe first came to my court, he was so tight," Olivera says. "His shoulders were so tense. Over time, you could see his shoulders relax."

But, Olivera says: "Everybody is human. People make mistakes."

When Serna violated his probation over a urinalysis test, Olivera knew he had to hold the veteran accountable.

Olivera also knew that being locked up and unable to escape a windowless steel box could trigger painful memories of the night Serna was trapped inside a small space with fallen companions.

"Joe was a good soldier and he's a good man," Olivera says. "I wanted him to know I had his back. I didn't want him to do this alone."

Without telling Serna what he planned to do, Olivera personally drove Serna to neighboring Robeson County. There, Olivera consulted jail administrator George Kenworthy – another veteran – and told him he wanted to spend the night in lockup with Serna.

"He looked at me like I was crazy," Olivera says. "He gave me the stinkeye, and said, 'I don't know what you're thinking, son. I can't lock up a judge.' "

"I never heard of such a thing," Kenworthy tells PEOPLE.

The two men went outside to talk. Olivera explained Serna's story.

"Give me 10 minutes," Kenworthy told the judge. "I'll get y'all a cell."

Locked Inside

Unaware of what was transpiring outside, Serna settled in for his stretch in jail. He began to think about the night he was trapped with his fallen men inside the submerged vehicle.

"In the truck, I didn't know I would get out of there," Serna says. "I only had one option that night, and it wasn't a good option. In the cell, I reflected on that."

As his mind went into dark places, Serna heard his cell door rattle. He looked up and, to his shock, saw the smiling face of Judge Olivera.

"I said, 'Judge, what are you doing?' He said, 'We're in the foxhole together.' "

Olivera stepped inside. Kenworthy brought in mats so that the judge could sleep on the floor, as per his request.

"They closed the door and locked it," Serna says. "I said, 'This is serious.' He had the ability to get out, but they locked the door."

Serna asked his new cellmate: "Judge, are you afraid?"

"No," Olivera replied. "Are you?"

"No," Serna told him.

"I was at peace," Serna says. "When he came in, I knew everything was going to be okay."

The two spent the night talking about their service, their families and their lives.

The next day, the veterans left lockup together. Olivera drove his cellmate home, and stopped off to buy donuts for the Serna family.

Time to Reflect

The jail sentence is over, but now all three men say the experience enriched them.

"I'm a judge and I've seen evil," Olivera says, "but I see the humanity in people. Joe is a good man. Helping him helped me. I wanted him to know he isn't alone."[3]




[1] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew—The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), 433-434.
[2] Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews—The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010), 511-512.
[3] Keating, Susan. “North Carolina Judge Sentences Fellow Veteran to Jail—Then Goes Behind Bars With Him: ‘We’re in the Foxhole Together’”, PEOPLE, 4/27/17, Accessed 9/24/16, http://www.people.com/article/north-carolina-judge-joins-veteran-jail.






(Audio version; Music: "Street Called Mercy" and "Oceans" by: Hillsong United)