20. Reaching Potential (2)

Meditations in Meaning & Values  20. Reaching Potential (2)

Jn 1:42    Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter)

In the previous meditation we talked about reaching potential which is all about change for improvement until we apparently achieve the most we are capable of. We observed how people in the world think of success, wealth and fame as the measures of achievement, but that these are poor measures. We looked at the case of Jacob in the Old Testament, a classic example of a schemer who became very ‘successful’ – but still a schemer and how he had a wrestling encounter with God in which God made him weak and made him face the reality of who he was, before he was blessed by God. Weakness and being honest about ourselves are two critical requirements to enable a person to come to the end of themselves so that God is able to work in them to enable them to become the people He has designed them to be, and that is someone much greater than the hollow businessman, politician or rock star or whatever else we see as ‘a success’. Reaching full potential can ONLY come with an encounter with God.

I said previously that there were two men who I felt stood out in this context and the other man, in the New Testament is the apostle Peter. Now Jesus chose Peter and it is obvious that Peter became one of the leading apostles with Jesus over the three years of Jesus’ ministry. Peter was the one who was always opening his mouth and putting his foot in it. The good side of that was that he obviously felt secure in Jesus’ presence and Jesus handled Peter’s brashness with grace.

The classic of Peter’s brashness comes at the Last Supper when Jesus warns Peter about what was soon to happen: Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”  But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” (Mt 26:33-35) This is simply called unknowing self-confidence. Peter does not know himself, but Jesus does.

The story of what followed is well known. Jesus is arrested and taken to the high priest Caiaphas, while Peter followed at a distance and waited in a courtyard of the high priest’s palace. While he was waiting there, in the middle of the night, three times one of the maids there recognized him and challenged him and tree times he denied he knew Jesus. Fear made him a liar and a betrayer. Luke records a poignant part of it: “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.” (Lk 22:61,62) It was like Jesus saw what was going on and gave Peter a knowing look. Peter was devastated and fled in tears, broken.

Now here’s the thing about that episode. Back at the Last Supper, Jesus, knowing what was going to happen and knowing how Peter would be involved, could have spared him that failure; he could have said, “Peter, I have a task for you. After I am taken I want you to come back here and pray for me,” but he didn’t. Peter needed to go through that episode to break him of all his self confidence and to make him realise what he was really like inside, a loud mouthed but weak individual.

Now John allows us an amazing insight into Jesus’ dealing with Peter after his resurrection. We find it in Jn 21 where three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” In comes in slightly different forms and Peter’s replies are, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” (J 21:15), “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” (v.16) and “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” (v.17)  The old Peter would have protested with more words but the new Peter has no fight before Jesus and his final statement is one of utter surrender and abasement: “You know all things,” i.e. you know I let you down, you know what I’m like, you know I’m rubbish. And the work is complete. Three times Jesus recommissions him. This failure is about to become the leader of the new church.

So how do we apply these two stories?  Is your life one characterized by your clever planning and scheming? Are you completely self confident? Or have you come to the point of realizing that in reality, without Jesus you are a spiritual and moral mess? If you haven’t ever come to that reality, even if you’ve been a Christian many years, you’ve still got that ahead of you. ‘Great’ Christians are those who have come to realise that without Jesus they are still weak, hopeless and useless and prone to getting it wrong, and almost certainly they will have come to that realization through a crisis.

‘Wrestling with God’ occurs before you become a Christian and is what the Holy Spirit does with you to bring you to surrender, and it may involve a personal crisis. It happens again, almost invariably, at some later time in our Christian lives when these truths really confront us and we surrender in a new and deeper way, I believe. And then we come to realise that every time our thinking is in conflict with God’s we go through a wrestling process, but so often it is so low key that we hardly realise it, but it will go on and on, until we change.

This is the process for reaching full potential, only when we fully surrender and let Him work in us to bring us to become what He has on His heart for us. Why doesn’t He tell us what it is right now to make it easy? First, we wouldn’t believe Him because it would appear to be too good to be true. Second, because it take a process and a process takes time. It took years to change Abram. It took years to change Joseph. It took years to change Jacob. It took years to change Moses….. and so on. Why is God doing it in you? Because He loves you, because, “the Lord disciplines those he loves,” (Heb 12:6) and the word discipline here means trains, works on to bring good out and to bless. Hallelujah!

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19. Reaching Potential (1)

Meditations in Meaning & Values  19. Reaching Potential (1)

Gen 49:1    Then Jacob called for his sons and said: “Gather around so I can tell you what will happen to you in days to come. “Assemble and listen, sons of Jacob; listen to your father Israel.

In our human experience we talk about reaching potential which is all about change for improvement until we apparently achieve the most we are capable of.. That is what the world says. And then we come to the Bible and we find God constantly changing people and the sceptic says, “He obviously doesn’t like us as we are,” but the believer says, “He loves us so much He has got something better for us than we have at the moment. To reach potential, the world says work harder, try harder, train harder, but in the spiritual sphere, in God’s kingdom it works very differently.

To understand why it works so differently imagine a young ambitious man. He studies hard and gets two degrees. He gets a great job and takes every opportunity for improvement taking in-house and out-sourced courses. He works all hours of day and night and quickly climbs the latter of success. By his mid-forties he is at the top of the pile, a celebrity success, and everyone applauds him for his achievements, well almost everyone. But consider the rest of his life. He is self-centred and proud. He gets snappy and angry with less than perfect underlings. He drinks too much and by his shape obviously has too many business lunches and if he only knew it was lining up for a heart attack – but he is successful. His wife rarely sees him and when they go on exotic holidays it is like going away with a stranger. He is a stranger to his three kids; we could say a lot more about them but this is about him. He is a success, remember, in the eyes of the world, so much so that he is being talked about as being the next Government appointee for a major public organisation. The only trouble is that Jesus parable of the man building ever bigger barns (Lk 12) is about to come true and his life is about to hang in the balance – but he is a success!

So success can be measured by a variety of different standards, not all of them good. There are two men, one in the Old Testament and one in the New who have always stood out to me. The first is Jacob in the Old Testament. His very name means twister, or grabber, or cheat, and those descriptions sum up what his early life was like. He was a schemer, a plotter, a guy who was always looking to get the good for himself. But he overstepped the mark and ended up having to leave home before his twin brother killed him (Gen 27,28). He took off for a distant land where an uncle lived. On the way he had a dream and saw a ladder and angels ascending to heaven and descending from heaven, and then the Lord promising him all the land of what we now call Canaan.

Jacob’s response is typical: When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”  Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel,  though the city used to be called Luz. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.”. (Gen 28:16-21)  First he recognised that he had had a divine encounter. Second, he made a conditional vow. If God looks after me, he can be my God.”

In the years that follow Jacob, living with his scheming uncle, prospers and ends up with four wives and incredibly rich. He determines to return home. On the way home intriguingly he sees angels (Gen 32:1) and then sends messenger ahead to him to say he is coming. In response the messengers return and say that his brother is coming to meet him – accompanied by 400 men!  Esau has obviously also prospered or is very influential locally for this number of men to come with him, but why is he coming? Is it to wreak revenge on Jacob? Jacob is fearful and divides his group into two to at least save half of them (Gen 32:7,8).  He then prays a remarkable prayer that acknowledges his plight and seeks God’s help (Gen 32:9-12).  He then separates out gifts for Esau  from each of his herds – goats, camels, cows and donkeys, with big gaps between them. He aims to impress and appease Esau. He is still scheming. He sends his family to a place of safety and is left alone.

It is then that we find the most strange incident in Jacob’s life occurring. A man comes and wrestles with him throughout the night but is not able to get Jacob to surrender. We find the following: “When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”  But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel,  because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”  (Gen 32:25-30) The man, Jacob comes to realise is God. When Jacob won’t surrender to him God puts his hip out of joint, but still Jacob won’t let go – until God blesses him. God changes his name from twister (Jacob) to father of many (Israel) and then blesses him, but not before He has got Jacob to acknowledge his name, and acknowledge what he is like.  The end product of this – Jacob in old age – is an old man relying upon God, honouring his inheritance and prophesying over all his twelve sons. He is now a man of God. He is a mighty patriarch even honoured by the powerful pharaoh of Egypt.

What were the ingredients that changed this man from a scheming twister to a man of God? He met with God, wrestled with God, was made to face his character and live in weakness with a limp for the rest of his life. Every Christian wrestles with the Holy Spirit as an unbeliever until they come to a point of surrender and can then receive God’s salvation – but we have to acknowledge what we are like and what is our need before that cane happen.  The life that follows is one where weakness (acknowledging our incapability but God’s capability) opens the way for blessing. We’ll say some more in the next meditation when we consider ‘the other man’.

11. Greatness

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 11 :  Greatness

Eccles 2:9   I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me.

Ambition is a funny thing isn’t it. It’s the desire to get on, achieve things, climb the promotional ladder, and achieve greatness. Some of us have so little self-esteem we never think about climbing such ladders – those are for other people. Is that right? Can’t our Lord Jesus take us and do things through us? Remember it’s not our greatness but his. Do you remember what God said to Paul: My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9). That suggests that God can take our feelings of weakness and move through them to achieve His will. There’s just one little thing the Lord looks for in you, despite your weakness – servant-heartedness!  Do you remember what Jesus said to his disciples: Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (Jn 13:14,15) and also,whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,” (Mt 20:26). Greatness in God’s kingdom comes through serving which is why Jesus said of himself, The greatest among you will be your servant.” (Mt 23:11). It doesn’t have to be great acts of service: if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.” (Mt 10:42). Just providing basic hospitality was sufficient in Jesus’ eyes. Yes, in God’s kingdom, greatness is measured by servant-heartedness, and we can all have that if we want it.

Solomon became great by affluence and power. He has just listed off all of his achievements that we considered yesterday and then he adds, I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces..” (v.7,8). If you went into his palace you would see it. He had slaves by the dozen serving him. Outside the city in the countryside he had farm managers looking after his herds of cattle and flocks of sheep. His ‘business’ was flourishing. In his palace there was silver and gold in abundance and furniture and articles of great value and beauty, the things he had amassed in the course of trading. When the Queen of Sheba came to see it all we are told: When the queen of Sheba saw all the wisdom of Solomon and the palace he had built, the food on his table, the seating of his officials, the attending servants in their robes, his cupbearers, and the burnt offerings he made at the temple of the LORD, she was overwhelmed.” (1 Kings 10:4,5). As a Queen from the rich country of Egypt she had plenty but when she saw the opulence of Solomon’s life she was overwhelmed.  We have various well known names in the modern world, men or woman associated with immense riches, some whom have so much they hardly know what to do with it. Solomon was their equivalent. This was greatness measured on the affluence scale and he was at the top of it!

After our verse today Solomon said, In all this my wisdom stayed with me.” In other words, all the wisdom that God had given him stayed with him in his affluence. His riches didn’t take him away from the Lord. It wasn’t actually the riches which jaded him – that came later. At that time he still had a living vibrant relationship with the Lord, and that meant that he enjoyed his riches, he enjoyed his affluence. The one thing Solomon’s story tells us is that God is not against riches. In fact He provided the means for Solomon to get it. When, in the dream, He spoke to Solomon we find: So God said to him,Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for–both riches and honor–so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings.” (1 Kings 3:11-13). It was God who gave him riches and honour. However with the riches comes responsibility, to hold onto the truth and never let it go – this is from God, you need the Lord! Jesus warned, You cannot serve both God and Money.” (Mt 6:24). You can have money but as soon as you start worshipping it you have lost the plot.

So here we have seen two sorts of greatness and they are both good if they are both in relationship with the Lord. There is the greatness that comes from serving the Lord and it doesn’t take money to do this, just an open heart. There is also the greatness of achieving success in the world, and God is not against that, but with it comes a danger, that we drift away from the Lord. It was Solomon’s wrong usage of some of his wealth – to win foreign wives – that brought his downfall. Beware the dangers if you have left the bottom rungs of the ladder. Riches are never the issue. The issue is the reality of your relationship with the Lord, whether you have little or much.