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

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Thanksgiving Preview

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. -- 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

My daughter has requested, apparently, that I pray and say a few words during her Thanksgiving celebration day after tomorrow.   This is the preview; it's pretty simple and obvious.

If we look around at the world today, from Iran and the Middle East to China and other foreign affair disasters-in-waiting, from the impending collapse of the financial markets to the unemployment rate and health insurance or to the gangrenous stench in popular culture as personified by people from Miley Cyrus to Lance Armstrong, Oprah Winfrey to Obama, we have to wonder how we can be thankful for these circumstances.

As you already know, though, we are not called to give thanks for, but to give thanks in all circumstances.  Not everything that has happened to us this year is good.  Not everything that will happen next year will be welcomed.  Yet despite the trials we face, we may rejoice for God is working constantly and ceaselessly on our behalf.  Jesus says in John 16:33, In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world

While we are troubled, while we face the unknown and the sometimes dreadful, we ought to pray at all times.  Prayer, as someone said, it the acknowledgement that we do not have all the answers.  In turning to the Lord in prayer we admit our dependence upon Him and thank Him for being with us and in us. 

But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy, and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you.  For you bless the righteous, O Lord; you cover him with favor as with a shield. (Psalm 5:11-12)

I am sure those Pilgrims who enjoyed the plenty of that first harvest would understand.  They had faced grave difficulties.  Many had suffered and died, and more trials lay ahead.  Not doubt the future seemed uncertain, perhaps even dark.  Yet as strangers in this strange land, the Lord prepared a table for them.  They could rejoice and give thanks that He had seen them through this far. 

When we gather at our tables, let us be thankful, not only for the bounty and the blessings but for the One who provides.  And if the feast be scant with few to share, give thanks and fill thy plate with joy knowing that the God on the mountain is still God in the valley. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Mercy Doesn't Count

After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill. And his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him.  And she said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!” – 1 Kings 17:17-18

This widow to whom Elijah had been sent lived in Zarephath, in the country of Sidon.  She may have been a righteous gentile believer in the God of Israel, but she was certainly not of the nation of Israel.  This is emphasized when the Lord Jesus uses her as an example alongside Naaman the Syrian leper as an example of an outsider who was chosen and blessed:  But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.  (Luke 4:25-26)

In the better known part of the widow’s story, she is down to her last cup of meal and her last bit of oil when the prophet arrives at her home.  She had gone out to gather sticks for a fire to prepare the last of her bread for herself and her son.  Then they were going to die.  Whether she meant they were resigned to dying of starvation or, perhaps, by more active means is not made clear.  In any case, Elijah asked her to feed him first, and her response of faith had resulted in supernatural provision for her household.

When her son fell ill and died, the widow’s grief caused her to regret her kindness in providing a place for Elijah.  Since she was an outsider, she may have felt inferior and unworthy of the goodness of God.  It reminds us of the children of Israel, freed from Egyptian bondage, complaining – so frequently – to Moses that God had brought them out into the desert to kill them.  I am no better.  I have done the same thing.  I suppose it must be the natural rebel in so many of us that wants to strike out against the one we perceive to be in authority.  When we face what appears to be an insurmountable obstacle, when we think ourselves beaten and humiliated, we ask why we ever tried to do better or have better.  We should have been content to accept the lower quality life of a reject and a slave.  Now our failures are exposed to ourselves and to the world. 

The widow had tried to do the right thing by trusting this word of God’s man.  She had acted against her natural inclinations.  All that had transpired in the interval between first seeing the prophet’s face and now, looking down at the cold, ashen face of her dead son, was compressed into a meaningless lump.  All that mattered was that her boy was gone and God’s representative remained. 

Her sins had not been forgiven and covered.  The Lord had exacted His retribution. 

The truth was, though, that the Lord had sent Elijah not to punish but to deliver.  His presence had already extended both her life and that of her son.  He had saved them from a lingering death by starvation.  Apart from that, had they survived by some other means, there is no reason to think that the son might not have fallen ill under other circumstances.  He lived only because Elijah was present.

Then he stretched himself upon the child three times and cried to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child's life come into him again.”  And the Lord listened to the voice of Elijah. And the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.  And Elijah took the child and brought him down from the upper chamber into the house and delivered him to his mother. And Elijah said, “See, your son lives.”  And the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”   (1 Kings 17:21-24)

We should never think that God’s mercy is overextended.  Lamentations 3:22-23 reminds us that even in the worst of situations, The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. 

God has brought me out of some dark pits.  Much of it was my own fault.  I would get sick and tired of pulling the same stupid lamb out of one hole after another.  Mercy, though, does not keep a tally.  While the Lord does not encourage us to jump off cliffs, He never seems to tire of pulling us out when we are in over our heads, no matter how stupid we were in getting ourselves there.  

 I do wonder sometimes, though, if a person can get tired of being pulled out. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Into the Deep

And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch. -- Luke 5:4

I watched a first half-hour or so of the Tom Hank’s movie Cast Away, again, the other night.  The island on which the character, Chuck Noland, finds himself stranded is surrounded by a reef, over which the surf surges powerfully.  His first attempt to escape and reach a ship passing in the distance  is thwarted by the surf.  Despite his best efforts to overcome the waves' power, he is thrown back.  No matter how hard or frantically he paddled, he could not climb the mountain of water that stood in his way.  After years on the island, having adapted to his situation and developed a new set of skills, he finds a section of a Port-a-Potty washed up.  With this, he constructs a sail on a raft.  Aided by the wind, Noland is finally able to escape the shallow lagoon and reach deep water.

As I have noted before, the exposition of those first verses of Luke 5 was a life-changing experience for me.  The fishermen of Galilee cast their nets at night and scooped up the fish feeding in the shallows near the shore.  There was no point in throwing their nets into deep water – to which the fish retreated as the sun warmed the waters of the lake.  No catch in those conditions would be worth the effort.  Jesus changes the equation.

The conscious, natural mind of man is like shallow water.  A lot gets caught or trapped there.  Some of it is useful and beneficial, but it ends up being a very limited and isolated existence.  If we cannot venture out into deep water, into that part of ourselves that is open to and connected with the infinite, we can’t have much hope.  Our existence will be routine, perhaps even drudgery and imprisonment.  No amount of education or intellectual effort is going to paddle us over the breaker and set us free.  But we can, through Christ, make use of the wind of the Spirit.  He can enable us to go beyond the barriers that have confined us.

Now, of course, deep water or an open ocean can be a pretty scary place.  When there is nothing on the horizon, how do we know where to go?  Some of the well-intentioned souls who risked leaving their island find themselves adrift and lost.  In all that shifting, chaotic water, we need God's word as a compass and His truth as rudder to steer us straight.  Again, we look to Jesus who is always the Way, the Truth, and our Guiding Light. 

We are in Him, but just the same, Jesus said, He abides in us – as within so without.  The Father is accessible to us at every moment, in every situation.  Do not be afraid of the deep. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Sit Down, Shut Up, Hold On

Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.  Stand therefore … -- Ephesians 6:13-14

Now therefore stand still and see this great thing that the LORD will do before your eyes.  1 Samuel  12:16

You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the LORD on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem. Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed. Tomorrow go out against them, and the LORD will be with you.  -- 2 Chronicles 20:17

Be still, and know that I am God.  I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! --Psalms 46:10

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? --Matthew 6:25

[D]o not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  -- Philippians 4:6

And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. -- Mark 13:11

Then he said to me, This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts. -- Zechariah 4:6

For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength. … -- Isaiah 30:15

And the word of the Lord came unto the prophet, saying, Son of man, stand back.  I got this.

Fear and dread and anxiety are on the increase internationally, and, for a lot of us, quite personally.  I see people who should not need it taking anti-anxiety medications.  People can't sleep for worry.  They bury their heads in the smartphone, and keep themselves distracted with trivialities.  

You might want to mark these and similar passages in your Bible to share with your friends.  The shock is coming.  Some of us have already felt the tremors.  For the rest, it may be a while, or it may not.  These are Good Words to read in the light and remember in the dark. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Father and Sons

But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.  Galatians 1:15-17 (Emphasis added)

The passage above is quoted from my usual translation, the English Standard Version.  A margin note on the phrase “to reveal his Son to me” says that the actual Greek preposition is “in”.  This is what the KJV and most other translations say.  Young’s Literal Translation reads “to reveal His Son in me, that I might proclaim him good news among the nations, immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood”.  Wuest’s Expanded Translation says “to give me an inward revelation of His Son that I might proclaim Him.” 

This reminds us of Colossians 1:27-28, “…this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.  Him we proclaim …”.

I talked about the persona a while back.  What I normally think of as “me” is the mask.  I become, through the processes, interactions, and relationships of this world, so identified and attached to the temporal self that I cannot believe there is anything else to “me”.  Yet there is a part that is permanent or eternal.

Paul, like the Mission Impossible team, was given an assignment.  I’m not sure he had much choice as far as accepting it, and it far exceeded the limits of even his great intellect and ability.  He was chosen to convey to all generations this truth that had been hidden, hinted at, obscured, and occulted:  the mystery of Christ in us.  We can argue about the appropriateness of the prepositional choice in Galatians 1:16, but there is no question about what the same, careful, highly educated writer says in Colossians. 

It seems that during his sojourn in the desert, Paul received the full impact of what the Incarnation, the Cross, and the Resurrection meant.  Forgiveness is not the end; it is the means.  Clearing the deck of sin is necessary in order that we might have Christ revealed – not only to us – but in us, and it is Him abiding in us that we proclaim.  The Babe in the manager, the Teacher, the Good Shepherd, the Lamb Slain, all of this is genuine, true and essential.  Jesus is Lord, and, like Thomas -- my favorite disciple, in His presence we can't help but fall to our knees and cry, “My Lord and My God.” 

Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, made a way for us where there was no way.  We could never jump higher than our heads, never even begin to reach up to God, no matter how tall our tower of bricks and slime.  But in Him, God descended the ladder, came down to where we could know Him, face to face, and where He could know us. 

The Bible calls Jesus our elder Brother, and us those adopted as His younger siblings.  The older shows the younger how to be a son. 

So Jesus said to them, Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. (John 5:19)

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Soon Return

Behold, I come quickly: blessed is he that keepeth the sayings of the prophecy of this book.  -- Revelation 22:7 (KJV)

In the King James Version of the Bible, six times in the Book of Revelation, Jesus repeats these words:  I come quickly.  John is writing about those things that “must soon take place”.  Because of this, it is rather natural to take a futurist view of Revelation and conclude that it is about things that will happen at the “end of time”.  Whatever a person’s interpretation, we can surely agree that a repeated phrase such as “I come quickly” is important to understanding the message of Revelation. 

I prefer to bypass the eschatological fortifications erected around Revelation and look at this as an epistle written by the Apostle John to the churches of Asia Minor.  How would those early Christians have understood this letter with all of its expansive and graphic symbolism? 

For one thing, they might have understood this repeated promise of the Lord to come to them as not necessarily a full-fledged invasion.  I believe that Jesus will return to earth in the final destruction of the dichotomy between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world.  I don’t know when or how that happens and, as has become clear over the last thirty or forty years (if there were doubts before), neither does anyone else.

The churches to which John addressed his letter did not need an end-of-the-world answer.  They needed help dealing with a loss of faith, persecution, cultic leaders, hopelessness and confusion.  It sounds a lot like what I need.  The answer they received enabled them to stand and form the foundation of the Church as it has grown and developed through the ages.  For them, He came quickly.  So, too, for us, the Lord is coming to set things right.  Not in some far distance future, but today.  Jesus will show up when He is most needed and put our lives and our situations back on course. 

When I was a small child, we built a large hay barn.  We dug the trench for the footing by hand.  I say “we”, though I was not old enough to run a pick or spade.  Instead I was given a little coal shovel and tasked with keeping the footing clear of all the clay and rocks that got knocked back into it.  The barn’s still standing.  If it ever falls over, it won’t be because the foundation gave out.  One difficulty that we encountered is that we could only work on the trenching between the morning and evening milking.  It seemed to me that it went on for weeks, but it was probably done over the course of three or four days.  We had lines stretched and stakes driven to keep the foundation straight and square.  But, we could not keep the dairy cows completely away from the site, especially at night.  A couple of times all the squaring and checking had to be redone because some cow had stumbled over it. 

We run into trouble and into dead ends.  We get loaded down with mistakes and failures and regrets.  As Kipling notes so cleverly in “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”, we are surrounded by those who promise the wonders of social progress, yet the consequences of those ideas and advanced programs are like dumb, stumbling beasts that know not what lines they are tearing down. 

In building the barn, one morning, we had all the footing dug, the forms set and perfected, and we spent all day pouring concrete into those forms.  When it cured and the forms were removed, it was the end of the potential damage a cow might do.  The barn rose from that solid, square, level base, a solid, square construction. 

The Lord has a plan and is moving it toward completion.  There are times when things are a little more vulnerable, a little less impervious to the awkward, unthinking actions of the brutes and the ignorant.  We may suffer in those trying times – these trying times.  But the Lord has His square and His level out, and He is on His way to put it all back in order.  And the Church will rise.