Perhaps it may turn out a sang,
Perhaps turn out a sermon.

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Friday, August 30, 2013

Know or Blow

Who has ascended to heaven and come down?  Who has gathered the wind in his fists?  Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment?  Who has established all the ends of the earth?  What is his name, and what is his son's name?  Surely you know! -- Proverbs 30:4

I hear strong echoes of Job.  It seems like a good week for humility, for questioning what all of our vast knowledge and technology does for us.  Hubris was the name of a book I saw a few years back.  I didn’t read it, but it was an indictment of George Bush’s war in Iraq.  Some of what was said may have had some merit.  We have to be wary, though, of analyses that are little more than projections of the speaker or writer.  I tend to do it myself.  If I don’t like someone or consider them an enemy, it is easy to attribute to them the worst possible motives and make that the basis for even correct actions and decisions.    

This week marked the end of a long, drawn-out, and very expensive struggle for some people I know.  The conflict began from just such a dishonest assessment of another’s motives and character, plus a good dose of greed.  I don’t think the resolution was entirely satisfactory to either side, but it wasn’t grossly unfair to the ones I believe were in the right. 

I talked with them immediately after all the agreements were signed.  We talked about God’s justice, but, as I pointed out, that really means we recognize God’s sovereignty.  Faith, contrary to what many seem to teach, is not about getting “our” way.  I know people who will stand in the driveway and rebuke the winds whenever there is a storm.  They haven’t blown away yet; neither have I.  I’d like to think that if I did get hit with a tornado, and survived, after I was through crying about all the stuff I had lost and that had gotten torn up, all my memories and work that had blown away, I could still trust in the God who remembers everything and loses nothing.  To me, that is faith. 

Instead of chiding people who suffer for the weakness of their faith, we should be humbled before those who have great faith in the midst of great suffering. 

If I were running the world, it would be run differently.  That is without question.  The question is whether my way would be better.  The answer is, No.  

This may seem to be the end of freedom, of free will.  As Rick said yesterday, it’s the beginning of freedom.  When Nicodemus came and questioned Jesus in the darkness, the Light of the World replied, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  I can’t grasp the wind in my fist, can’t control it, can’t tell it where to blow, but being born of the Spirit sets us as free as the wind itself.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Bad News and Good News

In the fourth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is preached to those who are already in terror on account of their sins, or the Gospel to those who live securely in their sins. – Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, Thesis VIII

For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. -- Romans 2:13

God reveals Himself to man in many ways, beginning with consciousness of truth and beauty.  Divine providence in the lives of the patriarchs is another stream of revelation, as is the deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage.  Then there is the Law in which God explicitly identifies Himself as the One and Only God and manifests His Nature by codifying the ethical and moral relationships of those who would be His people.  The revelation of the law is amplified and expanded in the history of Israel and in the prophets.  Ultimately, there is the Incarnation. 

Jesus said expressly that He came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it, and He did, perfectly and completely, all the way to His redeeming death in submission and obedience.    Paul spends a lot of time on the law in his Epistle to the Galatians, but also in Romans chapter 7.  After saying that we have died to the law through the body of Christ, he gives us a little insight into the true purpose it served and still serves:   

What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, You shall not covet.  But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law, sin lies dead.   I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died.  The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. … Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.  (Romans 7:7-13)

In other words, the law is a standard that reveals how far from God we are.  We are examined by the law and our inadequacy and unrighteous is unmistakably marked like a big red F on a test paper.  Not all of us need that as a specific and explicit experience, such as hearing someone preach “hell fire and brimstone”.  We may, like the 12-Steppers, have, instead, a rock-bottom experience, physically, mentally, emotionally and/or spiritually.  Perhaps we will, like the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, succeed and achieve only to be flattened by the utter emptiness of all our celebrated accomplishments and repulsed by our pleasures. 

No one who is “secure”, as Walther says, in his sin is ever going to be born from above.  We may not all use the same words, it may not happen in a single moment, but all who are in Christ know exactly how Paul felt when he cried out, “Wretched man that I am!    

When Jesus gave us the Sermon on the Mount, He was targeting those “good” people among us who think that God is concerned only with external obedience.  They could have, as Paul did in the passage quoted above, extrapolated from the Tenth Commandment and concluded that simply not stealing and not actually committing adultery were insufficient when it came to obedience. 

Some people have speculated – and that’s all it is – that the rich young man (Mark 10, Luke 18) who asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life might have been Saul of Tarsus.  While that may not have been the case, he had the same problem.  The only commandments Jesus named to the young man were those that dealt with the horizontal and external:  You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’  The man thought he had it made, until the Lord called him to abandon himself completely to God by divesting himself of the possessions in which he had placed his trust in this life. 

Coveting kills.  That’s the bad news.  Saul dies in the end.  The message of the evangelist, the good (news) angel, is, there is resurrection.  Paul is alive and well.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

What Do You Give the God Who Has Everything?

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  -- Romans 12:1

I had a good Christian friend, now gone on to his reward, who used to get upset about the idea of giving one’s sin to Jesus.  This is despite the fact that Scripture tells us the Lord bore all of our sins on the Cross.  His thought process was one that I have heard other people espouse in one form or another.  He would say, "Don't give your sins to Jesus!  God hates sin.  He judged sin in the crucified Christ.  Why would you think you could give Him your sin?  Give it up!"  I think my friend was correct in terms of the conclusion, given the premise, but the premise is false.  When we place our sins upon Christ, we are not saying that we can sin and Jesus can suffer the consequences like Dorian Gray’s portrait. 

Under the Law of Moses (look anywhere in Leviticus, especially with regard to Yom Kippur and the scapegoat), sin and guilt were symbolically placed upon a sacrificial animal most often by the laying on of hands.  The scapegoat, bearing the sins of God’s people, was led far into the wilderness from which it would never return.  In my twisted mind, I can imagine a herd of scapegoats wandering around some forgotten valley.  It might make a good science fiction story.  It would be a version of hell because that is where the sins of humanity went when Jesus was buried with all of our iniquities.  Those who refuse to accept this walk around under the burden and control of their sins and sin nature, even though Jesus said, Tel Telesti, it is finished.

But let’s say that we have gone to the altar, confessed our faults and failures, accepted Christ’s sacrifice and the forgiveness offered to us in Him.  If after that, we sin, what are we to do?  We confess again, according to 1 John 1:9 and find that God is still faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 

I get tired of that.  I don’t want to sin at all, despite being a desperately wicked person.  I have noticed this about myself that the problem is less behavior than it is attitude and thinking most of the time.  I very rarely physically attack someone, but I may boil with rage about them.  I don’t pursue pretty women, but my appreciation of their beauty does occasionally exceed allowable limits.  So I can either walk around with my head down all the time lest my eye be held by immodest cleavage – which I have done, or I can decide that I am just a weak-willed, lecherous man and not worry too much about it. 

There might, though, be a third option.  What if I took my weakness and offered it to the Lord as a sacrifice?  Most often a sacrifice was not taken away like the scapegoat but slaughtered and part or all of it burned on the bronze altar as a “sweet smelling savor” unto the Lord.  Whether it is something we would like to do and should not, or something we have to do but would rather not, we can put it on the altar and offer it up to God.  That is the correct premise.  That is the power that Christ Jesus offers us by His own obedience. 

Take fasting as an example.  Fasting is not a hunger-strike against God.  When we fast, we offer the emptiness, the craving and the somewhat mild suffering we voluntarily endure as a sacrifice.  We ask the Lord to accept what we are doing as a gift of love to Him.  What do you get for the God who has everything? 

In the same way, we can take our impulses and urges, trials and temptations, our sickness, weariness, regret, failure, anything, and give it to the Lord.  We consciously and intentionally offer whatever it is to Him as an expression of our recognition of His worthiness, i.e., as worship.  

 Maybe you have to work through lunch and your fast is involuntary.  Your stomach is growling and you are getting light-headed because all you had for breakfast was three fried eggs and six pieces of bacon – you’re trying to cut back a little, and now this.  Instead of focusing on your pain, say, Lord, I’m going to offer the suffering that I am going through here to You.  I’m doing this for You.   When we are tired and have to keep going, when we are mistreated, when things, whatever they are, fall apart, we can offer it to the Lord. 

When we are tempted, instead of giving in, we say, Lord, I’m going to do the right thing and not the wrong thing for You.  Please accept this as an offering of gratitude and love for all You have given me.  I lay this dead aspect of my life on the fire of judgment, and I’m going to let it burn. 

I think that is the correct way of giving our sins to Jesus as an act of self-sacrifice and acceptable worship.  When we miss the mark and do fail and fall, we get up and go back to the altar and put the whole thing on there to be consumed, to go up before the Lord in smoke.  There is no sense trying to hide anything from God.   

Suffer for the Lord, and rejoice in the Lord; live for the Lord, and die for the Lord. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

War Machine

Blessed be the LORD, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle -- Psalms 144:1

Thought, memory, knowledge, and wisdom are not limited to the brain.  The brain is certainly a processing center for learning, but it is not the only or even in many cases the primary data storage center.  A wide receiver running a route and a quarterback throwing to him are not relying all that much on brain power to complete a pass on third and long.  Harvard and MIT are usually not playing for the NCAA championship.  The same is true on the side of the defenders, the pass rusher and the cornerback.  A lot is happening that has nothing to do with what we usually mean when we talk about thought.  Yet all of the actions are learned and the result of hours of practice and training as well as game experience.

Muscle memory is a term that has become popular in a lot of areas over the last couple of decades.  It has replaced, to some extent, the older term of hand-eye coordination.  Rhythm, timing, grace, all these are functions of knowledge that reside in the body.  No one can think fast enough to hit a 95-mph fastball.  No one can think fast enough to tap dance, or dance in general.  You can watch someone like me try to dance and realize that it is a long way from the brain to the foot. 

I remember well my first quail hunts as I tried to think through all the pointers I had been given after the covey flushed.  Most of the time I never even got off a shot, and, when I did, it just gave the bird a little tail wind.  It wasn’t until I could stop thinking that I started hitting.  The same thing is true of skeet shooting or shooting a basketball, driving nails or driving a car.  Your brain knows quite well right from the start what needs to be done to ride a bicycle.  It’s your body that is not going along with the program.

Sometimes we can be disparaging of religious rituals, spiritual disciplines, kneeling in prayer, raising hands in worship, and other external forms.  Christianity, though, is more than mental assent.  Faith is more than thinking something is probably right.  Ritual, ceremony, and forms put knowledge into the body as well as the soul and spirit.  The body is passing away, to be sure, but it will be resurrected, saved and glorified.  We were talking about Elisha yesterday.  It might be well to remember that a dead man thrown into Elisha’s grave touched the prophet’s bones and was brought back to life (2 Kings 13:20-21). 

A body that is disciplined in righteousness helps us to live righteously in all areas and enables us to war more effectively against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 

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Monday, August 26, 2013

Sight Unseen

Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?”  Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.  Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father's who sent me. – John 14:22-24

Everybody wants things set right.  It hasn’t happened because our concepts of right have some variation.  The question the disciple Judas asked is really a very reasonable one.  Lord, You’ve been talking about the kingdom being at hand, about going away and coming back, and we have accepted that You are the Anointed One and all that, how is this supposed to happen if we are the only ones who see You?  How is it we will see You and the rest of the world won’t?  Am I missing something here?

We could get rid of all the unbelievers, by force if necessary.  That’s the solution of Islam and the various government religions – fascism, socialism, communism, et al.  Or, all believers could be whisked away to a secret and secure enclave, a place of physical separation from the world.  That seems to be the preferred solution for much of Christianity throughout history.  But Jesus has a different answer, an answer that turns our usual way of thinking on its head:  love God.  If you love God, you will follow His word, living and acting according to it.  Be in the world of necessity, accepting, as much as possible, the quirks and foibles and failures of the people around you while you work on making yourself a temple in whom the Lord can abide.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.  When our hearts are pure and separated to God, the Lord will manifest Himself to us. 

Back in 2 Kings, chapter 6, we read that the prophet Elisha was so in tune with God that he knew when the Syrian king was laying ambushes and warned the king of Israel against these things.  The king of Syrian thought he had a spy in his court in the pay of Israel.  When he was told that it was instead the work of the prophet, he sent an army to capture Elisha.  A more thoughtful man might have reasoned that if the prophet knew about all of his troop movements it might be a little tough to catch him by surprise.  Whether Elisha was surprised or not, the Bible does not say, but it does tell us that he wasn’t too worried when the Syrian forces showed up.

When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?”  He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”  Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (2 Kings 6:15-17)

The vast army of the Lord was there.  Elisha saw these angelic agents and communicated with the Lord all the time.  The servant was walking around in the midst of all this great and glorious host, and all he saw was the water bucket, the bread pan, and the dung heap.  By God’s grace, this man caught a glimpse of the reality in which he moved all the time but to which he was blinded by the mundane and material. 

The Syrians are out there – this might be especially true for us today as we learn that America warships are headed for the Middle East to possibly intervene in the current civil war in Syria.  The threats to us may appear overwhelming and are certainly undeniable.  Notice that Elisha did not say that there was no enemy army surrounding them.  The circumstances we face from disease to family conflicts, from financial concerns to stress on the job, whatever it may be -- those threats are real.  But even more real is Christ Jesus who stands between us and the evil circumstances, awaiting only our purity of heart, our obedient love to open our eyes to His glorious presence.