God’s Presence Brings True Joy

by Erin Bird

Well, it’s here – the last gasp before the school year begins. Teachers reported back to the classroom this past Monday here in the Waverly-Shell Rock district and students show up tomorrow. Surrounding districts are starting around this same time as well. If you are a Jesus-follower, would you just take a moment to pray for the students, teachers, staff, and administrators of your local school system?

Also, Wartburg students are starting to show up. Many fall athletes are already on campus, freshmen and transfer students show up next week with returning students not far behind. Their classes begin on Wednesday, Sept 4. Would you join me in praying for the students, staff, and faculty? Also, pray God would give Riverwood the joy of loving on and investing in some Wartburg students this year.

Continuing Our Series

Last week, I began a new blog series based on a prayer found in the book Gospel by J.D. Greear. If you need a refresher, here is the prayer:

“Heavenly Father, in Christ, I know there is nothing I can do that would make You love me more, and nothing I have done that makes You love me less. Help me realize Your presence and approval are all I need for everlasting joy. Just as you have been to me, so I will be to others. And Heavenly Father, as I pray, help me measure Your compassion by the cross and Your power by the resurrection.”

Last week, we looked at the first phrase, which means this week I want to take a few moments to look at that second sentence: “Your presence and approval are all I need for everlasting joy.”

Finding Joy, Fading Joy

If you have ever been infatuated with a boyfriend or girlfriend, you know the joy you found just by being with that special person. You didn’t have to have big plans to go do something in order to have fun. Simply hanging out, eating food, and even watching stupid movies was enough to make you happy.

But even if you marry that special person, more times than not, the feeling fades. There’s a house that needs cleaned, bills that need paid, and careers that need attention. No longer is the simple presence of the other person enough. The joy you felt during the early days of dating has faded.

This leads many people to search for joy in other places. Some look for it in a hobby, others in a sports team, some through vacations, some through their career, and unfortunately some look for joy in the arms of another person.

This sad story parallels what happens in many spiritual lives. Some people, when they believe the gospel, find such joy just being in God’s presence. If you follow Jesus, perhaps that was your experience. Do you remember it? Singing to Jesus, talking to Him in prayer, even reading the Scripture were such effortless tasks because it was more about God’s presence than anything else.

But then life happened. You got asked to do nursery duty at church, or recruited to serve at the Food Bank, or your co-worker dumped their emotional burdens on you, or the kids got sick, or the bill collectors kept calling, or you got extremely tired of that one song being played over and over on the radio, and eventually the joy you felt in God’s presence waned.

For many people, when their joy in Jesus fades, they turn to other things: Netflix, shopping, dating relationships, work, substances… anything that might give them some spark of happiness. But as we all know, the joy of these “idols” wanes even more.

So what is Jesus-follower to do?

Keep Going with the Gospel

The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Jesus-followers in Colassae, writes “As you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him.” (Colossians 2:6)

Now, if you follow Jesus, re-read that verse, and as you do, ask yourself: How did you receive Jesus? The answer is “Through the Gospel!” So next ask: how are you to “walk in him” (i.e. follow Jesus)? Again, the answer is “Through the Gospel!”

In other words, as you keep peering into the Gospel, studying it, contemplating it, treasuring it, and thanking God for it, you realize the significant sacrifice Jesus made for you through the cross shows how much He loves you. And when you realize just how much He loves you, you find you WANT to be in His presence, for it alone gives you everlasting joy.

Getting Off the Approval Treadmill

But J.D.’s prayer doesn’t just say that God’s presence is all we need for everlasting joy. It says that God’s presence and approval are what we need.

You know, it’s funny: us humans spend so much time chasing joy in anything but God, yet we feel shackled by some sort of internal religiosity. We screw up – we drink too much, or blurt out Jesus’ name in vain, or think really evil thoughts against someone, or spread some unfounded gossip or watch some videos we know we shouldn’t view – so we try to make it up with God by going to church, or posting a Bible verse on social media, or spending some time reading the Bible, or even donating some money to the poor widow down the street. It makes us feel a little better about ourselves (which means God must be feeling a little better about us as well, right?). But then we screw up again, and the cycle continues.

It’s like we are caught on an approval treadmill – trying to get closer to God by earning His approval, but due to our sinful screw ups, we don’t seem to be making any progress.

If this is you, listen up: There is nothing you can do to earn more of God’s approval. God’s approval of you isn’t based on anything you do, rather it is based upon what Jesus has done. This is the scandal of grace.

Our spiritual enemy tries to whisper to us that God isn’t happy with us, and that we have to somehow re-earn His trust and affection. “If I am going to please God, I have to do more religious things,” we think to ourselves. But the doctrine of atonement corrects this lie by teaching us that when God looks at those who believe in Jesus, He doesn’t see their sin, He sees the righteousness of Christ. This is what the Apostle Paul expressed in Philippians 3:8-9:

“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”

Paul knew his religious efforts to please God fell completely short of simply knowing Jesus. Instead, he needed to accept Christ’s death on the cross for him, and allow the righteousness of Jesus be counted as his righteousness. Because of what Christ did, Paul knew he had God’s approval, and so therefore he could experience full joy.

So if you are a Jesus-follower, may you this week pray to God, thanking Him that His presence and approval is all you need for everlasting joy!

True Rest

by Erin Bird

I don’t really want to start this post off with a “downer,” but school starts in just two weeks. Now I realize that some of you parents might be celebrating this fact 😁, but for some of you, this news means summer is about over. 😢 It means the end of vacations, camping trips, pool visits, Dairy Queen runs, and other fun outdoor activities. Knowing this, the temptation will be to crowd as much into your calendar as you can before the school schedule of “fall” kicks in.

But let me encourage you in a different direction: Rather than try to squeeze in every activity that remains on your summer bucket list, why not use the time to rest and prepare for the routine schedule of school and the fall?

Finding Rest

Have you ever come back from a vacation and thought, “I need another vacation?” So often, our vacations involve seeing as many sites and/or people as we can while traveling hours upon hours in the car. This results in arriving home exhausted, far from refreshed.

Why not flip the script these last two weeks, and rather than try to squeeze in just one more big activity, why not do something that will help you truly rest and be refreshed?

Now, this doesn’t mean you have to lock yourself in your house. But as you plan how to spend your time with the summer days left, ask yourself – will this activity help me/us to rest and be refreshed for the schedule change ahead?

If the answer is a genuine “yes,” go and enjoy guilt free! But if the activity has the potential to exhaust you and/or your kids (if you are a parent), perhaps you should consider an alternative plan. This will help you (and your family) be rested and ready for the changes ahead.

Finding TRUE Rest

Let me take this idea a little further: While a camping trip to a peaceful spot out in nature might be exactly what you and/or your family needs, how can you use that time to connect with God? For true rest, real rest, is found in Him. However, too often we look for rest in other places.

For the ancient Israelites, as they left Egypt and wandered in the wilderness, true rest was thought to be found in the Promised Land. “Once we get to that magical place flowing with milk and honey, we’ll finally be able to rest!” For them, true rest was found in a place.

A few centuries later, for the ancient Jews, rest in God wasn’t just found in a place, it was found in a day. Because God “rested” on the 7th day of creation, the Jews were commanded to do the same on what was known as the “Sabbath.” So for centuries, from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, the Jewish people did nothing: no cooking, no cleaning, no farming… no work of any kind. For them, true rest was found in a day.

But in Hebrews chapters 34, the author helps us see that true rest isn’t found in a specific day, nor a specific place. Rather it’s found in a specific person.

Starting in Hebrews 3, the author expounds of Psalm 95, where God says that those who would not believe and trust Him would “never enter my rest.” For those of us on this side of the historical cross, we know that God calls us to believe that Jesus died on the cross and trust it was sufficient for the forgiveness of our sin.

True rest isn’t found in a specific day, nor a specific place. Rather it’s found in a specific person: Jesus.

And like any ancient Jew who refused to belie and trust God could not enter God’s rest, those who refuse to believe in Jesus and trust in His death and resurrection cannot enter into God’s spiritual rest. But if you place your faith fully upon Christ, you enter His perfect and eternal rest.

So true rest isn’t found in a place, or in a specific day, or even a specific activity. True rest is found in Christ.

So as you finish this summer, may you prepare for the fall schedule by resting in Jesus. Rest in Him through prayer, through song, through nature, through the Scripture, through sleep, through a walk, through good food, through a good book, through some quality family time, or through whatever God’s Spirit leads you to do or not do.

Loving Jesus (More than the Benefits)

by Erin Bird

This week on the blog, I want to take you to the story found in Mark 1:21-28. (We will be studying the book of Mark in 2020 at Riverwood, so consider this a sneak peak.) If you would, please take a moment to read those 8 verses. (Go ahead, I’ll wait.)

(No, really, go read it. It will take you like 37 seconds. If you are too lazy to open your Bible, just click this link. Even if you can recite this passage word-for-word from memory, go read it again.)

Ok, thanks for taking a moment to do that. Now that you know the gist of the story, let me ask you a question:

Why does Jesus tell the demon to be silent?

I mean, think about it. Jesus is teaching a gathered crowd of Jews on the Sabbath at the synagogue in Capernum, explaining the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) like they’ve never heard anyone else teach it. All of a sudden some guy possessed with a demon yells out, “I know who you are – the Holy One of God!

And Jesus tells the demon to basically shut up, and kicks it out of the guy.

Why? I mean, the demon was telling the truth (which is amazing since Satan is known as the Father of Lies). Everyone else at that moment was in awe of His teaching, so they would have been very open to the idea that Jesus was the Messiah. What a prime opportunity to invite everyone to begin to follow Him. This moment could have kicked off Jesus’ ministry in a big way!

So why silence the demon from exposing the truth?

Genuine Love & Devotion

Back in the 1980s, there was a popular Eddie Murphy film called Coming to America. In the movie, Murphy plays a pampered African prince who comes to the States in search of a wife. But he knows that if women find out he is a prince, they’ll “love” him because of his status and wealth. So he sheds his title for a time so he can find an intelligent woman who will truly love him for him.

I think this is a part of what Jesus is doing when he exorcises the demon out of the man. He didn’t want the people to follow Him just because they’re wowed by His teaching. He didn’t want them to follow Him simply because He could perform miracles. He didn’t want them to follow Him because He could feed them. In other words, He didn’t want them to believe in Him because of the benefits. He wanted them to want Him!

You and I really aren’t that different than the Jews that were gathered that Sabbath day in the synagogue in Capernum. We, too, might be wowed by something about Jesus, but if we are honest with ourselves, we follow Him for what we get (or could potentially get) from Him. For instance, many of us, when faced with a difficult circumstance, will pray for money, or a job, or a spouse, or healing, and when we get it, we’ll praise God. But what we really wanted was the money, the job, the spouse, or the health. We didn’t really want Him.

“Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

But as I said in my sermon two weeks ago, we should not simply chase the answer to our prayers, we should chase the One who can answer our prayers. That’s why Jesus said in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

So let me ask you, do you want Jesus? Or just the benefits of following Jesus? Are your prayers all about what you are hoping to get from Him? Or are your prayers filled with adoration for Him?

Yes, Jesus can heal you. Yes, He can make you employed. Yes, He can repair your marriage. Yes, He can do all these things. But what you truly need isn’t the job or the spouse or the newer car. What you need before everything else is Jesus.

So let us together treasure Jesus, the One who gave us everything when He gave His life on a cross for the forgiveness and remission of our sins.

I Am Zacchaeus

by Erin Bird

Today, I want to start a new series here on the blog from Luke 19:1-10. You possibly know this section of Scripture as the story of Zacchaeus, made famous by the children’s song. If you aren’t familiar with the story or need a refresher, I encourage you to take a moment to read it. (Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you.)

Here’s what we’ll do during this short series: Next week, we’ll look at the reaction of the crowds to Zacchaeus, then in two weeks, we’ll end the series by looking at Jesus’ view of Zacchaeus.

But this week, I want to look at Zacchaeus himself. He was a fascinating man that I think you and I can learn from.

Get to know Zacchaeus

Here is what we know about Zacchaeus from Luke 19:

1. He lived in Jericho.

Jericho was a city just north of the Dead Sea near the Jordan River (map). This location would have been a couple days walk south of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus spent the majority of his life and ministry. Which means, Jesus didn’t spend much time around Jericho. Word had been spreading around Israel about the miracle-worker from Nazareth, so to have Jesus arrive in Jericho would have been like the arrival of a celebrity. The whole city would have turned out trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus.

2. He was a wealthy tax collector.

Tax collectors were some of the most despised individuals in Israel, because they were Jewish men who were working for the Roman government. But not only were tax collectors “sellouts” who obtained required taxes for the Roman Empire, they often took more than necessary, keeping the extra for themselves. In other words, they were thieves. That’s how Zacchaeus had become so wealthy.

3. He was short.

An average Jewish man in Jesus’ day would have been about 5 foot 5 inches, meaning Zacchaeus must have been significantly under this mark. So Zacchaeus was most likely five foot tall at most. While we don’t know his exact height, we do know he was short enough that when Jesus was walking down the streets of Jericho, Zacchaeus couldn’t see over those in front of him. Which is why he opted to take desperate measures, as we see next…

4. He was desperate for Jesus.

In verse 4, we see Zacchaeus climb a sycamore tree. The Israeli variety of sycamore is a bit different than the North American variety. The sycamore Zacchaeus climbed was probably shorter than if he’d climbed one in Iowa. Also, the branches were probably low enough for him to grab. The branches then probably created a “nest” where he could sit or stand (instead of just one trunk going skyward with branches coming off the trunk).

But here are two reasons why climbing a tree reveals Zacchaeus’ desperation:

#1. Jewish men in the first century did nothing publicly that would bring make them look undignified. They didn’t run. They didn’t pursue recreational activities. And the most certainly didn’t climb trees. By climbing a tree, Zacchaeus (who is already hated by the majority of the city, which we’ll talk about more next week) is drawing even more attention to himself, furthering to ruin his horrible reputation even further.

#2. Jewish men wore robes/tunics with nothing underneath. We don’t know how high Zacchaeus climbed, but it’s possible he risked people (or at least curious kids) seeing his privates, even FURTHER ruining his reputation within the community.

And yet, while the crowd emotionally looked down upon this desperate htree-climbing tax collector, Jesus stops, calls him down, and invites himself over to hang out with Zacchaeus, a sign of tremendous respect.

Why did Jesus honor this traitorous thief? Because he saw Zacchaeus’ desperation, and knew Zacchaeus no longer wanted the riches of this world, but wanted the spiritual riches found in Christ.

I Want to Be Like Zacchaeus

I am like Zacchaeus. No, I am not a wealthy, thieving, Jewish short man from Jericho. I have never worked for the IRS. I have never betrayed my fellow countrymen by working for a foreign government. I have never extorted someone for money. And while my taller friends have made fun of my almost-5-foot-9-inch frame, I have never had to climb a tree to see a parade.

Despite these differences, I am like Zacchaeus. My worldly pursuits have never fully satisfied. Like Zacchaeus, I need the spiritual riches of Christ.

But while I am like Zacchaeus in some regards, I want to be like him in a different regard. I, too, want to be desperate. I want to live with a desperate desire to know and follow Jesus.

Now I will admit: I don’t want to look weird in the eyes of our culture. But I want to want Jesus more than I want respect and admiration of my fellow man. Which means if my spiritual desperation makes me look foolish in the eyes of others, then so be it.

But that’s not all. I want you to be desperate for Jesus, too. I want you to realize Jesus is worth everything: worth running for, worth climbing trees for, worth being embarrassed for. You and I might live in a culture that thinks we are wasting our time gathering to worship Jesus on Sundays, or looks weird taking a moment in prayer to thank God for our food while at a restaurant, or views us as odd for choosing to say “no” to certain activities our culture deems as perfectly acceptable. Your reputation might take a hit if you reveal a Christ-centered desperation.

But when you live with a desperate heart that longs for Jesus like a deer pants for water, He rewards you with his full presence, changing your heart and perspective on life.

So I am Zacchaeus, or at least I want to be. And I hope you will be a Zacchaeus as well.

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