February 23, 2011

Lessons Jesus Taught

This article was originally presented as a morning devotional on November 5, 2010, at the North American Division meetings held in Silver Spring, Maryland. Elements of the oral presentation style have been retained.
I love the stories of the Bible, and I’ve discovered that it is easier for me to relate to stories because I remember them so much better than just plain facts. The reality of Scripture is that it is a living work. It’s about how you live life between the weekends.
In my personal devotional time recently, I was reading through the Gospels and came to John 6. I noticed that Jesus traveled extensively, but it wasn’t nearly as easy as the travel that you and I engage in today.
As Jesus traveled from place to place, He was surrounded by people who came to see Him because they wanted to hear how this kingdom concept that He was talking about related to daily life.
Scripture tells us in John 6 that Jesus fed many people, but sadly, most seemed more interested in the physical food that Jesus provided, rather than in the spiritual nourishment He offered. Being aware of this problem, Jesus said to them, “You are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill” (John 6:26). 
Looking for Food

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Above the Arctic Circle: The town of Inuvik, population 3,500, in the Northwest Territories of Canada

I remember pastoring in one city where there were many Adventist churches. Some members thought that people were circulating from church to church based upon when potlucks were served. Interestingly, that concern brought more unity to those churches than just about anything else, because they got together and decided they were all going to have potluck on the same Sabbath so that people would attend church for the right reasons.

Jesus was aware of such conundrums, and addressed it by telling the people, “ ‘It is not Moses that has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘from now on give us this bread’ ” (John 6:32).
A Need for Spiritual Nourishment
Let’s consider three important statements of Jesus, as recorded in John 6. First, Jesus stated, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).
The first statement that Jesus makes is an “I am” statement. Jesus tells me in this that when I am hungry, He is the place where I will truly be filled, if that’s what I’m looking for.
Recently, I stayed in a hotel not far from a Panera Bread establishment, which is my favorite place to eat breakfast. I enjoy watching individuals come into Panera and was especially intrigued by a man sitting in the corner—his moleskin notebook open, and his Bible open beside it, reading as he was having an orange juice and a muffin.
I look at the people who are part of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the community surrounding Adventist churches and wonder: Are the people who are part of our charge really being fed? Are they getting full? Jesus says: “He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).
Jesus Is Inclusive
Continuing His important discourse, Jesus turns to His second point: “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me” (John 6:37, 38, KJV).
Jesus says to me in this passage that He is inclusive; that you can come as you are; that Christ has room at the cross and in His church among His people for those who are still trying to figure out what it means to live the life that they really hope God can help them live.
The church is in an interesting position, because it finds itself at the intersection of the highway of life and the highway to the kingdom. Intersections, I am told, are where most of the accident claims take place—because people are changing direction and philosophy.
Living Near Danger
My family and I once had the opportunity to live near an intersection that was the third-most-dangerous intersection in the region. I tried to think of creative ways to miss that intersection in my travels. Part of the reason it was so dangerous was that traffic got bogged down there, and where traffic gets bogged down, people become impatient and do crazy things.

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No Services: A warning sign at the beginning of the Dempster Highway

From where we lived, we could hear sirens frequently throughout the day coming from the firehouse only a block away from the intersection. As you may know, when you have an accident, it can sometimes affect your insurability. I have a son who totaled three cars in one year, so I speak from experience.

The intriguing thing to me about this third-most-dangerous intersection in the region was that many insurance agents were not interested in people after they had had an incident at that intersection. But one enterprising insurance agent decided to establish his agency on that very corner. Whenever he heard the sound of squealing tires, the crash of vehicles colliding, the sound of sirens approaching, he rushed out with a stack of business cards, and after checking on the condition of the people involved in the incident told them, “You may need some help with insurance in the future. Here’s my card. Call me.”
I thought to myself, God is a little bit like that man. Now, I think that insurance agent was doing this for a reason other than the reason that God does what He does. But what was intriguing to me is the reality that Jesus says, “He who comes to me I will in no wise cast out.”

The Church at the Crossroads
The church is at the intersection of the highway of life and the highway to the kingdom. Jesus puts the church there because people who are damaged, people who struggle, people who have had a hard time, belong where Jesus is, because Jesus is the only way that it’s going to get better.
Many of us find the church as kind of a retreat from the problems of the world. We go there as if the church was a very large sleeping bag where we crawl in, get sleepy, and try to stay warm and comfy until Jesus comes. But the reality is that the church is supposed to be a different place. It’s supposed to be a place where the weak, the wounded, and the weary can rub shoulders with other people and find healing and acceptance, new direction and inspiration. I would rather have people who are having struggles in life in the church where they belong, hearing what Jesus has for them, than having them outside, wondering what in the world they are going to do.
Facing Separation
Not only is Jesus the Bread of Life, inclusive and welcoming, He is also committed to a continuing relationship with His people, one that goes beyond the cemetery—a relationship so strong that one day soon we will never be separated from Him again.

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The Alaska Highway stretches 1,390 miles (2,237 kilometers) from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Delta Junction, Alaska, via Whitehorse, Yukon.

“This is the will of him that sent me,” Jesus told His followers. “That everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40). The resurrection statements of Scripture speak to us in response to the separation that has become so frequent in life.

A number of years ago we drove to the farthest place in the British Columbia Conference where there are people who worship on Sabbath. This place is above the Arctic Circle in a community known as Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. When I spoke with them on the phone, I asked, “Would you like us to fly or drive in?” They said, “Please drive. We’d like you to see just exactly how far we are from where you are.” And so we humored them. It took seven days, driving 12 hours a day, as we visited with people in various communities on the way up.
We took the Alaska Highway to a place called Dawson City in the Yukon. That’s the gateway to the Dempster Highway, which is about 12 hours of gravel, followed by 20 kilometers’ worth of shale. Shale is an interesting substance, because that is how you test tires to see just exactly how good they are—and unless they are eight-ply, I was told, you should figure on bringing several spares. We didn’t. We had one.
After leaving Dawson City, one can start to feel the separation from civilization. Most of us who are accustomed to cell phones—to being there whenever the kids call, for family you want to stay in touch with, for people who have questions that we flatter ourselves that if we don’t answer them something will go wrong—when you hit the Dempster Highway, you’re talking about 12 hours where there are no radio towers, no cell phone coverage.
As I traveled up that road, beyond the touch of normal communications, I thought about separation. I asked myself, What would happen if I had two flat tires here? What if somebody in our traveling party got sick and needed help? What would we do? We didn’t have a satellite phone, which is what people who regularly travel that highway have.
Then my thoughts turned to a time when we will move beyond the technology of cell phones, when we move beyond being surrounded by the things of this life to being in the presence of Jesus, where nothing will separate us from Him and from those we love.
Overcoming Separation
The church is about overcoming that separation. When we speak about reaching up to God, we’re talking about reaching to a God who won’t brush us off; a God who is interested in feeding us when we’re hungry; a God who will not cast us out; a God who is interested in our feelings of aloneness and who has provided the perfect antidote.

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No Traffic: The lonely Dempster Highway winds through the mountains of Yukon, Canada.

A few years ago we were holding a series of evangelistic meetings at Walter Murray Collegiate School in Saskatoon. The school had a little auditorium where we were holding the series. As host pastor, I spent a lot of time with the evangelist in the back room of the auditorium, getting things lined up for the program. One of the things that I discovered during the month that I went into that room every day was that the walls were covered with a lot of graffiti left behind by students over the years. Among the writing on the wall was this poignant scrap: “Susie loved Jimmy, from August 10, 1986, to November 27, 1986.”

We smile because it represents the reality of relationships—youth moving on to newer and bigger things. But I wondered what it was that made that relationship stop. I wondered why it went only as long as it did. But then as I looked beyond the record of graffiti to the records found in the books of heaven, I realized that there is no such statement as “Jesus loved Mark from 1951 through 1965” or whenever. The statement of Scripture is that Jesus ever lives for you and for me.
What an opportunity we have to tell people about that God who is the ever-present, inclusive Bread of Life. What an opportunity it is for me to raise my head off the pillow every morning and think about the cross, the ultimate symbol of how much Jesus loves His church and this world, and to pray, “Jesus, help me to figure out how to be more like You. I know how to be like Mark Johnson, but teach me how to be like Jesus every day. In those committees, in those appointments, in those dialogues that don’t always work well—How can I be more like Jesus?”
Mark Johnson is president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Canada. This article was published February 24, 2011.