Thursday, September 2, 2010

Intimacy With God

"Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him.”
-The Apostle Paul (Formerly Saul of Tarsus)

When was the last time you were desperate for something? How far have you gone to get something you really wanted? Last Sunday we sang a song which contained the words “And I, I’m desperate for You; and I, I’m lost without You” (Marie Barnett; Breathe; 1995 Mercy / Vineyard Publishing). One day a young man came to Jesus. He was quite wealthy by worldly standards. Yet in spite of his wealth, he was dissatisfied. He wanted more. He found Jesus and asked Him what he could do to obtain eternal life. Scripture records Jesus loved him, so much so that He invited the young man to follow Him in His journey. The only prerequisite was to sell everything he had and give it to the poor. The young man went away sad for he had many possessions. Could it be that he missed the point completely? Is it possible he saw ‘eternal life’ as one more accomplishment, one more trophy to add to his apparently substantial collection? Did he not realize Who Jesus was, and what He was saying to him?

Our relationship with God isn’t a ‘free pass’ into heaven or a ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card. It is a holy, sacred commitment to follow with all our hearts the One who has pursued us with all of His. Christian singer/songwriter Jon Foreman asks “We were meant to live for something more…have we lost ourselves?” (Jonathan Foreman, Tim Foreman; Meant To Live; 2002 Meadowgreen Music Company; Sugar Pete Songs) The ‘something more’ Jon speaks of is exactly what this week’s Living Worship is about. It is the neglected, risky, difficult information about what our relationship with God looks like.

I consider myself an evangelical. This means I take seriously Christ’s directive found in Matthew 28 to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything He has commanded.” I grew up in evangelical churches. The message I continually heard growing up was ‘believe in Jesus – be saved – avoid hell – go to heaven.’ Period. There was lots of talk about having a relationship with Christ, but little, if any, discussion about what that relationship should look like. It was easy! Talk to the pastor, get baptized, and attend church and Sunday school. It wasn’t until much later I understood what Jesus actually said: “I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.” Umm…this sounds to me like Jesus meant our relationship with the Father to go beyond the ‘get-saved-and-go-to-church’ routine. Let’s look at it another way. What kind of marriage would a couple have, if the only reason they wed was for the self-gratification of sexual intimacy? (All one has to do is take a close look at our society to answer that one.) The marriage would most likely fail over time. All successful marriages have one thing in common: the great personal sacrifice that accompanies unconditional love. In fact, those who have long-lasting, healthy, vibrant, marriages understand how to experience the joy of the sacrifice. This, my friend, is the “something more” we were “meant to live for”.

Decades ago I heard a message on being “God-Inside-Minded”. This was a novel concept to me at the time. It seemed the speaker was stating it was possible to walk through my day in constant fellowship with the Father. This completely redefined my understanding – and expectations – of my relationship with God. I began, for the first time in my life, to really study men and women in the Bible who seemed to walk closely with the Father; not their actions and accomplishments, mind you, but how they thought and lived. I discovered something. They seemed to know God...enough to talk back to Him and even argue with Him, to wrestle with Him and even prepare a meal for Him. At least a couple of individuals, it seems, were so close to God that God simply ‘took them’. They went from this world to the next without even tasting death! This almost makes me ashamed to sing, “I am a friend of God, He calls me friend.” (Israel Houghton, Michael Gungor; Friend of God; (Integrity's Praise! Music; Vertical Worship Songs) Since then I have been on a quest to know God. Honestly, there have been some distractions. I’ve had to come to grips with many aspects of my character that are less than admirable. I have failed, sinned, fallen short and fallen down. But I have never given up. I, like the Apostle Paul,“…want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…” Paul goes on to write, “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” You see, the ‘prize’ Paul speaks of is knowing God; not knowing about Him, but knowing Him, and, believe me, there’s a huge difference! Knowing about Him involves little risk. The same is true of earthly relationships. It’s easy to get to know a lot about somebody. It’s a different thing completely to get to know them. And yet that is our message to the world! The whole point of discipleship is to know God!

Do you remember when you were in your early teens and suddenly one day you saw her (or him!)? Your heart started to beat a little faster, and you soon found you couldn’t think about anything or anyone else? The great romance had begun! You wanted to know everything about them…where they lived, what they liked to do, who their family was. You were consumed! Finally the day came when, joy of joys, you actually began to talk to, and get to know the person. In reality, the relationship couldn’t begin until that moment. And of course, there couldn’t be any real romance until the relationship began and you know what the other person’s feelings were! I think the progression holds true for any relationship. We gain knowledge of the person’s existence, learn something about them, then get to know them. Just knowing about them isn’t enough to create and maintain relationship! True relationship takes time and effort – sometimes a lot of effort.

Earthly romance is merely a dim reflection of the Great Romance (to coin Ted Dekker’s term). I love the story of how Jesus called Nathanael. Philip told Nathanael about Jesus, who was from Nazareth. Nathanael wasn’t impressed. That is, until he met Jesus, and it became evident to him that Jesus knew him (what was Nathanael doing under that fig tree, anyway, I wonder?). Then he believed. You can read the account for yourself in John 1. If you read the Gospels like a storybook you will soon see that, with Jesus, it was all about relationship! Jesus loved being with these men. There was something about them that drew Jesus to them. The relationships weren’t perfect. Peter denied Him. James and John competed for first and second place. Judas betrayed Him. When He was finally arrested they all scattered. But Jesus loved them unconditionally. He suffered through their inconsistencies and drew their attention to the Father. He loved them unconditionally. Jesus experienced the joy of sacrifice with His disciples. Funny isn’t it? That sounds like what we’re supposed to do with each other…without resentment and without complaining.

You might be thinking, “What does intimacy with God have to do with loving each other?”Everything! John writes, “We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hateshis brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.” The Greek word for love in this passage in 1 John 4 is, of course, agape; love with no conditions attached. And this is where the ‘neglected, difficult, risky information’ I spoke of earlier comes into play. If we are going to experience intimacy with God, then we are going to have to learn how to love each other. No ‘ifs, ands, or buts’. “Pastor Mark”, you might say, “Surely you can’t mean I am supposed to love everyone.” Yep. That’s exactly what I mean. If you’re wondering just how on earth you’re supposed to do that, let me assure you that you can’t; at least not through your own human strength of will. It’s just not natural for us to love without getting something back in return. Such is the condition of our fallen human nature. But that’s the beauty of what Jesus did by suffering and dying for us on the cross, atoning for our sin once and for all. That’s why Paul wanted to “know Christ in the power of His resurrection.” I can’t say enough about this, really. We are broken in our thinking, contaminated by our fallen condition. We are so accustomed to ‘reciprocal love’ (we love someone because of what we get from them or how they make us feel), we can hardly grasp what ‘unconditional love’ looks like – much less how to give it! But the fact remains: we will not be able to engage in intimate relationship with the Father until we learn how to love each other unconditionally. This is particularly challenging
when it comes to Christian fellowship. So much evil has gone on in the ‘name of Jesus’ and His
‘cause’. Wars have been fought, lives have been devastated, and it still goes on today in churches all over America…even in Bismarck/Mandan, ND. All because, somewhere along the way, we never got beyond the ‘believe in Jesus – be saved – avoid hell – go to heaven’ message. It’s time we realize, dear brothers and sisters, there is a lost and dying world all around us who Jesus said would “know we are His disciples by the (unconditional) love we have for one another.”

“Love is a verb!” my oldest daughter, Rebekah, informed me one day when she was a Senior in High School. She’s right. Our actions define who we are – not the other way around. How, then, do we love God? We pursue Him. We spend time with Him, in His word, in prayer. It’s not an intellectual exercise. It involves all our heart, soul, mind and strength. At some point in the process we encounter Him, His person, His power, His infiniteness, and we are changed forever. We learn to love Him, and He teaches and empowers us to love one another. But make no mistake: we must take that first step beyond the ‘altar call’, beyond ‘baptism’, beyond ‘Sunday school’ and most certainly beyond the ‘worship service’. We must be willing to go to that solitary, quite place, where it’s just ‘me and the Lord,’ where we come to grips with Who He is, which forces us to grapple with who we are. All those who have truly come to know Him share this experience. When we begin to experience intimacy with the Father, we soon realize how much ofourselves we must surrender. This is a good thing, though many times painful: the things we must surrender are the things that ultimately hinder our relationship with Him. This is true, as well, of relationship with one another. As we learn how to surrender to the Father, we learn how to give ourselves to each other. We finally begin to love unconditionally and experience the joy of suffering. It’s really only then that the journey, the Great Romance, has truly begun!

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