Tears and Prayers.

I think it's safe to say; we all want to be closer to God in one way or another. We wish God would reach down and touch us, pat us on the back and say "well done my friend, I'm proud of you, you've been doing great!" We want God to have our backs, we want God to make our lives easier and stress free, we want God to give us direction. We want to feel His presence. We want Him to be visible to us. We want Him to be on our side! We want Him to carry us through our difficult times.

But, it doesn't always work out that way, does it? I think it's also safe to say; there are also times we don't desire that closeness! We want to run away. There are also times when a "close" and Personal God seems to be a terrifying thought! How about when we know we've been doing wrong, making bad choices or we feel God is calling us to do something difficult? These are times we don't want God getting into our space, because we don't want to be rebuked, we don't want him to tell us to change our direction and we don't want Him to tell us to step out of our comfort zones and enter into something new!

The person who asked this question, stated, "I know God is always there for me, but sometimes I feel like He must be far away". Our emotions can be very deceptive; I know mine can! We know things, but we feel things too! We often end up watching others, comparing ourselves with them, and wondering why God seems closer to others, yet we feel He's so far away from us. This is where we need to discern between what we know about God's Love, with what we may be telling ourselves. This is where we need to be able to separate what the world is telling us, with what the radical Truth of The Gospel really is!

I want to look at a brief story Jesus told. These verses reveal the revolutionary Truth about the Kingdom of God. These words help us decipher between what God thinks of us and how we view ourselves. These 6 verses give us insight into how Jesus calls us, or expects us, to draw near to Him!

Reading Luke 18; verses 9 -14:
Jesus told this story to some people who thought they were very good and looked down on everyone else: “A Pharisee and a tax collector both went to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee stood alone and prayed, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people who steal, cheat, or take part in adultery, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I give one-tenth of everything I get!’

“The tax collector, standing at a distance, would not even look up to heaven. But he beat on his chest because he was so sad. He said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you, when this man went home, he was right with God, but the Pharisee was not. All who make themselves great will be made humble, but all who make themselves humble will be made great.”

I want us to ask ourselves these 2 questions:
Which of these 2 men, (within their own minds), believed they were closer to God?
And now, in the mind of Jesus, which of these 2 men was "right" before God?

Within their own minds, I believe, they both thought the Pharisee was closer and they both thought the tax collector was unworthy. Yet, Jesus makes a startling comment: "I tell you, when this man (the tax collector) went home, he was right with God, but the Pharisee was not."

Imagine. This Pharisee proudly wanders into the Temple, his chest pumped out, his head held high and he prays an arrogant prayer for all to hear. This arrogance stems from the fact that he thinks that he and God are close, he thinks he's doing everything right, because he's tithing and fasting like a good Pharisee does. That arrogance rises even more when he looks around and compares himself with a bunch of thieves, cheaters, adulterers and the disgraced tax collector humiliating himself in the same Temple. This man's superiority is visible, and he knows it!

The trouble with this Pharisee is; he's fooling himself, by thinking God is thinking the same way about him! He thinks God views him as righteous, and everyone else needs to imitate him, follow him and admire him.

The tax collector meanwhile is completely opposite! He feels totally unworthy before God, and I'm sure he felt unworthy before this arrogant Pharisee as well! He's done plenty of wrong things in his life, and he knows it! There's no doubt, this man had hurt a lot of people in the process! He's been labeled as a terrible person, he's been cast aside, he's been dubbed a disgrace and a menace to society. He feels guilty, he's dreadfully sorry for all he's done! So this man humbly walks into the Temple, beats himself, and cries out, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner!"

Much to the utter surprise of His listeners; Jesus has, once again, reversed what they were all thinking! He proclaimed that in His Kingdom, out of these 2, the one who's deemed worthy before God is the disgraced sinner, the one who's deemed worthy thinks he's unworthy, the one who's deemed worthy is this tax collector; this man who thinks he's so far away from God, this man who thinks that God would never ever give him the "time of day", this man who was judged and condemned by almost everybody in 1st century Israel, is the very one God considers "right" or "worthy" of His Kingdom!

So, why does Jesus accept this sinful man? Why does God draw closer to the one who thinks he's completely unworthy? Because, of his humility, because he came to God humbly! He knew his place before God, he knew how wrong he'd been and how he was in desperate need of God's forgiveness, love and grace! This tax collector, knew that the only way he could approach God, was in prayer, with tears and begging for His mercy!

Reggie is a friend of mine who is getting released from prison next month; his adult life has been riddled with countless rotations in and out of jails and prisons, periods of homelessness and frequent struggles with addiction! He, just like the tax collector, is an object of relentless judgment. Everywhere he goes, people let him know how "unworthy" he is. Everywhere he goes, people love to proclaim how they're glad they're not like him; a so-called felon, gang-banger, alcoholic or crackhead. Sadly, Reggie often hears this same message from many in the Church! He's heard these judgments so often, he's come to believe it himself! He heard it so often, he cannot help, but think, Jesus views him this way too!

Yet, I have witnessed and can testify, Reggie's prayers and tears reveal a similarity to those of the tax collector. Time and time again, he's come to me, weeping about how he's not worthy, how he believes he's done too many wrongs to be forgiven by God, how he truly believes he's totally unworthy of receiving eternal life. He thinks God cannot stand him and that God has abandoned him! Yet, every night he weeps and begs for God's mercy. Every night, his desire is that God would hold him tightly in his arms! Every night, when he comes to God in true humility, just like the tax collector, Reggie becomes another fortunate victim of God's love, mercy and forgiveness!

When I speak with Reggie, I remind him how much God loves him, how God has forgiven him and how God continue to forgive him! I tell him that his humility, his tears and his prayers are seen and heard by God; that God is close and he is not forgotten! I tell him, "you may not feel it", but this is exactly where God desires us all to be! He wants us all to humble ourselves before His throne.

We only fool ourselves, if we think we can approach God through displays of arrogance or superiority. Jesus plainly stated, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." As this passage reveals, God will draw nearer to us, God will hold us in His arms, God will welcome us into His Kingdom, when we approach Him with true humility.

Let me finish by reading the end of this passage again; "I tell you, when this man went home, he was right with God, but the Pharisee was not. All who make themselves great will be made humble, but all who make themselves humble will be made great.” 

*A brief summary of why I wrote this: There's a ministry on the West-side of Chicago called Mission:USA; every Tuesday night they have a Church service called The BRIDGE. Their services are open to everybody, but especially those who find it hard to gel in their local congregations! Or to put into cruder terms; a lot of these men and women are ex-offenders, homeless and low-income folk who have felt ostracized and rejected by many churches, so their mission is to be a bridge between prison, the streets and the Church. The Bridge helps these wonderful men and women find churches that will welcome them with open arms.....  
And isn't this exactly what the Gospel and the "Kingdom of God" is all about? 

Every Tuesday night, The Bridge has a host team from a Church, who greet the guests and provide a meal. The guests anonymously submit questions about their "walk of faith", and staff from The Bridge pick out a relevant question.Meanwhile, they have invited 3 pastors from 3 different churches to come and give a 10 minute sermon each about this specific question or topic. In my humble opinion, this is a great concept and ministry, who's staff is very loving, compassionate and supportive to the "least of these".

This was a sermon preached on 2/11/14, in response to this question; 
“Feeling Closer to God”
I know God is always there for me, but sometimes I feel like He must be far away, and that He can't stand to see the way I live. I want to be closer to God, and to feel closer to Him as well. but where do I start?

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