Gethsemane
Recently, we considered both Jesus' promise concerning prayer and how the gospels set suffering and glory side-by-side. This weekend is an appropriate time to reflect on the two ideas together. After all, the events of that first Easter weekend began with Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane -- with prayers for deliverance from suffering (Matthew 26:39, Mark 14:36):

My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.

Considering that Jesus suffered horribly a few short hours later, it would appear that Jesus' request was not granted.* At the same time, the book of Hebrews contains these remarkable words (5:7,8):

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who submit to him.

Here, the writer (like Jesus), sees beyond the suffering, and interprets it -- and the unanswered prayer that went along with it -- in light of Jesus' Resurrection Glory. As difficult as it is for us to see beyond suffering when in its grip, when we submit to him (adopting his attitude and following in his steps) we will surely discover that:

all the promises of God find their "Yes" in him. (2 Cor 1:20)

*we can't avoid the fact that Jesus promised that our prayers are not just to be heard or answered, but to be granted. 
Gaps (again)
The expression "God-of-the-gaps" is a commonly-wielded club in conversations with atheists. But like so many anti-theist "arguments" (scare-quotes only because "God-of-the-gaps" is only an implied​ argument), it cuts both ways. Of course, there are a great many "gaps" in human knowledge. But believers are not the only ones that are inclined to fill those gaps with "their god".* Everyone allows their imagination to fill those gaps, and "one's god" simply is whatever (or Whoever) one prefers to explain the unexplained.

So how do atheists fill the "big gaps"? To what do they attribute the origin of the universe? The origin of life? Or consciousness? Or rationality? Or morality? The most common atheist answer is "chance and necessity". As far as the latter is concerned, "necessity" cannot be simply "immediate necessity": it (necessarily!) implies a "prior necessity", and eventually an "ultimate necessity". Plato and Aristotle understood this implication, and consequently argued for a "necessary being" -- who has been traditionally associated with God, of course. As for the former, there is no evidence that "chance" even exists. It is simply an expression standing in for our ignorance: to say something occurred "by chance" is to signal our inability to fully identify or integrate all the causal factors.

The only "escape" for an atheist is to reserve judgment on all matters that science cannot explain. But no scientifically-minded person (as atheists so often claim to be) actually ​does that. When considering such "gaps", the scientific imagination always inserts "one's god". The atheist is willing to consider anything​ as a sufficient explanation for the "gap" -- as long as that ​something​ is not God. Unfortunately, no known options for "not-God" have the power to cause anything like the science-challenging curiosities listed above (the universe, life, etc.).

*the possessive pronoun applied to "god" is a common trope among atheists.
Suffering... and glory
As we know from the gospels, Jesus recognized that he was destined for arrest and execution --  he explicitly predicted as much to his disciples at least three times  -- but just before the soldiers came to arrest him, we find Jesus praying these words:

“Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son.” (John 17:1 -- see also John 12:23)

The hour had come for his beating. The hour had come for his torture. The hour had come for his ridicule, his humiliation, and his suffocation on that Roman cross. But Jesus could see through that suffering to the glory that awaited him on the other side. This must be (at least part of) what Peter had in mind when he wrote these instructions for us:

“Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same attitude.” (1 Peter 4:1)

And he makes the connection explicit a few verses later:

“rejoice in the degree that you have shared in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice.” (1 Peter 4:13)

In Romans, Paul explains this principle in more detail:

“Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” (Romans 8:17)

Lord, please open our eyes to the glory that awaits us, so that we may be ready and willing to follow Jesus in everything (including suffering).
Promises, Promises
How do we deal with Jesus' most difficult promise? Seven times in the gospels, we see Jesus telling his disciples:

Matthew 21:22 -- And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.
Mark 11:24 -- whatever you pray for, ask in faith that you receive it and it will be yours.
Luke 11:9 - And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. (also here)
John 14:13,14 -- whatever you ask in my name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified
John 15:7,8 -- If you abide in me...ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you - by this my Father is glorified
John 15:16,17 -- go and bear fruit ... so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.
John 16:22 -- Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.

But there is an uncomfortable reality in this promise that can’t be avoided. That is, if we ask and we don’t receive, then it implies that we weren’t asking in faith/in Jesus name/abiding in Jesus (those all being different expressions of the same requirement, after all). “But I tried!” my heart cries out. “I did all I could,” I say to myself. It sometimes feels like Jesus must have been setting me up for heartbreak.

But Jesus knows that our asking, expecting and hoping to have our requests answered is the best means of getting to know him better and to abide in him more! That is, our attempts to ask "in Jesus name" are the best possible remedy for being out of harmony with him. (Keeping in mind that what we think is "in Jesus name" isn't always what he thinks)

This is how it works: Jesus has given us this important rule "in principle," but it is up to us to discover how that rule applies "in practice." To do so, we must give it a try. And when it doesn’t appear to “work”, it simply means that we didn't fulfil the rule's requirement. It isn’t fun when that happens, but we don't give up. After all, Jesus tells us that there is great joy and great reward in discovering exactly how this rule “works”. So we must not give up. Will it mean developing patience? Certainly. Will it mean some heartbreak? Certainly. If we are in harmony with Jesus, our hearts will break at the suffering in the world, even as his does. But will it be worth it in the end? Absolutely.

Jesus knows that there is nothing able to align our hearts with God more -- nothing that brings our hearts into harmony with him more -- than coming to Him again and again with our requests, paying careful attention to the requests that are granted, and adjusting ourselves accordingly.

in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving bring your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:6,7)
Christmas
What could be more awe-inspiring than the Christmas story? Its message is that the Creator of the universe, the Intelligence behind life, thought, matter -- everything! -- decided to participate​ in His creation, experiencing life as a human being, ​coming to dwell among us!  

And as if that degree of condescension weren't enough, His arrival took place in a stable -- among the animals -- and the birth announcement was only made to those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder: a band of shepherds.

Of course, the story of His humiliation doesn't stop there. Having been rejected by His people, he went on to face the most cruel and humiliating punishment on record -- having deserved none of it. As an early writer put it (Phil 2:6-8)

​Christ Jesus ... was in the form of God, [but he] did not take advantage of his equality with God, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

But to what purpose? Among other things, to explain to incorrigible human beings that the path to salvation is through humility and self-sacrifice. It is only when we respond to his call, and follow him along this path, that we can share in its final celebration (v9-11):

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him a name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
Transformation
Some Christians -- we could call them “conservative”, I suppose -- are tempted to proclaim a message of legislation, as if that were Jesus' message. Sure, it might provide great guidance for exactly how to live, but it is no good news (gospel) at all; it is really just legalism in disguise. Other Christians -- we could call them “progressive”, I suppose -- are tempted to proclaim a message of affirmation, as if that were Jesus' message. Sure, it might give us a platform on which to recognize God's love for us, but it is no good news (gospel) either; it is really just license in disguise. And as far as the world is concerned, there is no third option. The world cannot see beyond the space between legislation and affirmation. But God has opened up a new dimension for us -- and provides the good news of transformation.

There is no salvation in affirmation.
There is no salvation in legislation.
There is only salvation in transformation.

In this story, Jesus says that "salvation has come" to Zacchaeus' house on the heels of a radical transformation in his heart. Similarly, Jesus illustrated radical transformation in his encounters with the these three sick people. No wonder, in his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus makes explicit the necessity of a "new birth". (see also 1 Peter 1:3,4)
Prayer (again)
Jesus impressed his disciples with his faithful habit of prayer -- so much so that they asked him for a tutorial. Jesus' answer came in the form of those familiar words (Luke 11:2-4):

When you pray, say:
“‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.’”

Short and sweet. But also so meaningful. While many might tragically imagine that prayer is a means to manipulate God, Jesus' 
"model prayer":

begins with the focus on God Himself.
asks for no more than the day's necessities.
reminds us that our greatest challenges involve sinning and being sinned against. 

And, as many have discovered over the intervening centuries, remembering (or, better yet, praying) this prayer can be a remarkable weapon against temptation. Is it just the psychological effect of the reminder? Or is it God Himself participating in our lives in answer to our prayer?
Thanksgiving
Many have reported the finding that thanksgiving is the single-most significant known correlate to human happiness. In fact, it has been reported that just searching for something to be thankful for can make people happier. Of course, none of this is a surprise to anyone who follows Jesus. In the gospels, Jesus is reported to have given thanks more than a dozen times. As Paul instructs us (1 Thess 5:18):

give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

and provides the example for us (2 Cor 9:15):

Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

But if simply searching for something to be thankful for can make people happier, how much more of a contribution to happiness would it be to know the One who is the source of all good things! Of that source, John writes about Jesus (John 1:18):

No one has ever seen God. God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made God known.

Want the surest recipe for happiness? It involves thanksgiving. But thanksgiving is naturally most fulfilling when there is a relationship with the One to whom the thanksgiving is addressed. How can we know God? He is made know only through his Son, Jesus. As Jesus himself said (John 14:6):

I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.
The Word of Truth
In Acts 16:31, Paul says: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved…” Bible verses rarely come more to the point than that. Of course, “believing in Jesus” must certainly also involve “believing what Jesus says to be true.” So what does Jesus say about being saved?

​I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. (John 11:25)
​I tell you the truth: whoever believes has eternal life. (John 6:47)
​I tell you the truth: whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. (John 5:24)

Never die? Not be judged? Eternal life? Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good, he came ​to bring dead people to life. And Paul had this in mind when he said “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” But this verse has three pieces: 1. believing, 2. the Lord Jesus, and 3. salvation. And since #1 believing comes first, that is where we naturally pause. We think that belief happens “up here” (in our heads), so we end up focusing on ourselves. After that, #3 salvation represents “what’s in it for me,” so that becomes our secondary concern. Finally, we turn our left-over attention to #2 the Lord Jesus. But this is altogether backwards: as if salvation was all about us! Only Jesus has the power to save us! So when we hear “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved”, we need to pay attention to him!

When the Bible talks about believing in someone, it means much more than just believing that he exists or believing facts about him. You can read these words, and while they can point to the True ​Word, only the Holy Spirit can provide an encounter with ​the Word Himself -- the Living Word who was in the beginning, who was with God and who was God. You can encounter truth, and while it can point to the ​Truth, only the Holy Spirit can provide an encounter with ​the Truth Himself -- the Living Truth -- our Lord Jesus.