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

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Bearing a Torch

Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. -- Matthew 5:15

Why do we turn on the lights?  Do we light a candle because the candle can’t be self-actualized unless it burns?  A lamp does not burn for itself, but for the one who lights it.  As the Gospel of John opens with its description of Jesus, the Apostle says, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men (John 1:4).”  The light in us is the light of Christ.  God wants to light the world.  We are it.

I am sure some people really are called to stand on a street corner with a bullhorn, hold up “John 3:16” banners at football games, hand out tracts in the mall, and knock on doors.  I’m not.  I have an acquaintance, a lady who does face-painting.  She goes down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, sets up on the street, and paints people’s faces. When someone asks her how much she charges, she replies, “I just want a chance to tell you that Jesus loves you, and, since I’ve done that, the painting is free.”  In a way, I kind of like that. 

Nevertheless, I hate to be “guilted” into anything.  It’s too close to gelded.  Thus that “do unto others” thing precludes me from using guilt to get my way.  I figure most people feel bad enough at least part of the time or in flashes about their lives.  I don’t have the heart to add to it.

My plan comes in part from George MacDonald who said in one of his sermons that “to let our light shine is to be just, honourable, true, courteous, more careful over the claim of our neighbour than our own, as knowing ourselves in danger of overlooking it, and not bound to insist on every claim of our own.”  Live right.  Treat other people well.  Try not to express my irritability. 

I suspect most of us get plenty of opportunities to “witness” for Christ.  People pay more attention than we are apt to think.  We aren’t invisible.  We aren’t on mute.  The Lord knows I’m not.  As my wife says, my voice “carries”, especially when I get agitated. 

We have to remember, too, that it is not our light.  When we read about Gideon, back in Judges 7, we learn that he had his three hundred men put torches into clay jars.  They surrounded the camp of the Midianites, and, all at once, broke the jars so that the torches suddenly blazed out.  Paul says that … we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us … so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh (2 Corinthians 4:7-11).

The light I am supposed to give is not a function of my ability, my own brilliance, or my intellect.  Sometimes it is in my brokenness that the light shines brightest.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Turn Out

She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.  I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” – Ruth 1:20-21

Naomi is usually said to mean pleasant or one who is pleasing, one in whom we delight.  Mara means bitter.  Is there anything more unpleasant than a bitter person?  When bitterness takes root it flowers into poisonous fruit which has the potential to “defile many” (Hebrews 12:15). 

We can understand Naomi’s position.  Her husband had taken her and her two sons into the land of Moab, abandoning their rightful inheritance near the town of Bethlehem because of famine.  Bethlehem means, ironically enough, “the house of bread”, but there was no bread so they left.  Naomi’s two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, after the death of her husband, Elimelech, married women of Moab.  Chilion’s wife was named Orpah, and we do not hear much about her.  She’s seems to have been a good enough person, sensible, pragmatic, and realistic.  She offered to follow her mother-in-law back to Judah but was dissuaded by Naomi’s quite reasonable arguments.

Ruth, on the other hand, has a book of the Bible named for her.  One of her descendants was King David, and when we read the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew, there, too, is the name of Ruth.  She is there because she refused to abandon her mother-in-law.  There was no Social Security, no homes for the aged, no pensions in those days.  An old woman without husband or children might have wished herself to soon depart this hard world.  Naomi could have expected difficulty in surviving apart from the kindness of a few relatives.  She would be a beggar, and a hopeless one.  Her hope for the future had been tied to children.  Hers were gone.  She would have no grandchildren or great-grandchildren.  Her line had failed.

But Ruth, whose name means friendly or loyal friend, goes out into the fields to glean, and her selflessness awakens the gracious nature of Naomi’s prosperous kinsman Boaz who sees to it that Ruth is able to provide for her mother-in-law abundantly.  Ruth’s attitude and love also inspire Naomi.  In seeking to find a way to repay and provide for her daughter-in-law, Naomi stops thinking about herself.

I don’t know about anyone else, but when I get bitter it is because I have become self-absorbed.  I have been treated unfairly, suffered injustice, loss, and defeat.  I always think of Tom Chaney’s line in True Grit after Mattie shoots him, “Everything happens to me. Now I'm shot by a child.”  I feel like that sometimes.  I have all the bad luck. 

It’s not true.  In fact, if there were such a thing as luck, I would have to say I have had extraordinarily good luck.  Naomi, too, had the good fortunate to have one of her sons marry a woman of superlative character and virtue.   Yet while Naomi focused on her own woes, wallowing in self-pity, the full force of this fact was lost on her.  As we were saying yesterday, Naomi comes to herself when she forgets herself and focuses on Ruth’s future.

This is the kingdom way.  If we put our energy and thought and effort into making other people happy, we will be happy.  Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor (Proverbs 22:9).   When we forgive, we find that we have been forgiven.  When we love, we may be surprised to find that we are loved.  When we liberate, we are set free.  When we make peace, we have peace.  And so it goes. 

If I find myself in bondage, in bitterness, joyless, miserable and hopeless, there’s a good chance that I have been too intent on getting my own way and pleasing myself.  The only way that can be fixed is if I am willing to turn away from my fleshly desires and work on making good things happen for those around me. 

There is, of course, one caveat.  You really can’t make anybody else happy.  There are people such that no matter how much you do or how hard you try to please them, they are never going to be pleased.  It’s never going to be good enough; it’s never going to be right or meet their standards or be what they want.  I’ve done it to the letter and had them tell me, “You know that’s not what I meant.”  There’s a tendency to give a two word response, but how they handle it is not my problem.  I just need to keep doing the right thing regardless of the response of others.    

Monday, December 29, 2014

Wounded for Life

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, … let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith … -- Hebrews 10:19-22

This isn’t what I really want to talk about.  I want to talk about joy and how we take the wrong things too seriously.  I wonder if there is such a thing as being seriously joyous or joyously serious.  But I’m not ready to do that, and this may be the way to it anyway because joy must have the right environment.  Just as a plant needs light to live, joy needs confidence and assurance.  We can only experience joy in anything when we lose ourselves in it.  I can’t lose myself if I’m worried about my performance and measuring up.  I can’t lose myself if I constantly checking to see if I am good enough, if I have to go back and see if I meticulously followed all the right steps and used the correct protocol. 

When Jesus died upon the Cross, we are told:  And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split (Matthew 27:51).  That same passage tells us that tombs were opened up by the quake and … many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many (vv. 52-53). 

The veil in the temple between the Holy Place and the Most Host Place was symbolic.  God could not dwell among men.  We usually think about this in terms of God’s holiness and our sinfulness as if God would be offended.  We would appear so filthy and horrible that He would just be sickened and disgusted, that He would have to kill us because He is just too pure to look upon us apart from the blood of Christ.  I think, though, that God’s locking Himself away, so to speak, under the Old Covenant, was a mercy to us.  Remember that Adam hid himself in the Garden.  The fallen are repulsed by the Divine.  We are the ones who cannot stand it, who cannot stand in or stand to be in His presence.  So God dials it back, veils it. 

Now we have Christ to mediate for us, to be the conduit, to make the fullness of God accessible to us because He is fully man as well.  When it talks about flesh here, as one commentary says, it’s not talking about the Lord’s body which is the temple, but about His frail human flesh, His human nature.  It is through the fully man part of Jesus that we are now able to enter into to the fully God part – God and man united, brought together in Jesus of Nazareth. 

Christians talk about grace, but we still have this bias toward performance.  It may no longer be about washings and kosher food and not doing work on Saturday, but we emphasize church attendance and service and giving.  People who do all that are better Christians -- people who go on the mission field, people who pray two hours every day, people who read their Bibles through every year, and so on.   These are a better class of Christians.  Sure, jokers like me will go to heaven but I’ll be in steerage.  We’re not first-class Christians.  It’s the first-class Christians that are advancing the kingdom and all.  I’m not much better than a stowaway or a hitchhiker, kind of a parasite. 

I’m not criticizing the first-class Christians because I don’t think they see themselves that way – the genuine ones.  It’s that I’m striving on my own to be a first-class Christian, and I know I’m not making it.   The reason is because I’m not seeing the way that has been opened by and in Jesus Christ.  I’m not in the Presence, and I’m not going to enter in by performance or by striving.  I will perform – or better – I will be fruitful once I’m in. 

You can a limb off a fruit tree and take it over to another fruit tree and graft it.  But in order to do that, you have to make a cut in the second tree -- the new, living tree -- so that limb can connect.  Once you do that, it is going to be a productive branch.  You can take the same limb and tie it on a fence post or even tie it onto a tree, and it’s not going to do anything except die.  I guess you could even tie fruit on the dead stick so it looks good, but all you are going to wind up with is decay and stench. 

A Roman soldier shoved a spear into the side of our Lord the same way a gardener would make a cut on a living tree for a graft.  Through that rent in His flesh, I may be grafted in as a son of God.  We are in.  Life, eternal life, the life of God is flowing into us.  How can we, then, not be fruitful?

Friday, December 26, 2014

Finding Significance

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.  -- 1 Corinthians 15:58

Many years ago, I happened to become acquainted a man who worked for a large church as a counseling pastor.  He introduced me to the work of Bill Gothard and Robert McGee.  I wasn’t going to him for counseling, but he told me, nonetheless, that I had a spirit of rebellion – making me sort of in league with the devil.  I was not terribly surprised, nor offended.  

Gothard essentially traces all our problems to a lack of submission to authority.  I happened to be at dinner one evening with the counselor and a couple of college kids.  One of the boys was an athlete who was attending a Bible college.  His father wanted him to accept a football scholarship to attend a secular school.  The counselor told him that he ought to do what his father said even if it conflicted with what he felt was his calling to ministry.

Now, in that case, I could, to some extent, accept at least the logic of what the counselor was saying, but the counselor insisted that even if a person’s parents were drug-addicted, devil-worshipping heathens, the person was still under their authority.  Obviously, the person had been placed in that family situation by a sovereign God, so this fulfilled God’s purpose.  Somehow.  I called BS – politely, and that’s when I was informed that I was a rebel who did not understand that all authority is of the Lord (Romans 13:1).    The counselor gave me a big red notebook with a syllabus from Gothard’s Institute for Basic Life Principles.  I studied it, but I never got much out of it.  Probably because I’m a rebel.

This same counselor also gave me a copy of Robert McGee’s very popular Search for Significance.   McGee’s thesis is that we fail to understand our true worth in the sight of God.  Self-esteem was a big thing at the time – the late ‘80s.  This was self-esteem from a Christian perspective.  I was more comfortable with McGee than with Gothard, and there are probably people who have been helped by insights from both.  I would have to go back and read McGee’s book, which I’m sure I still have stuffed somewhere, to see if there was really anything worthwhile in it.  It’s been a long time since I looked at it, but my impression is that, while he was on the right track, it was too saccharine, diluted and secularized – for me but what do I know?  It’s a book that has “helped millions of people”. 

To get back to today’s verse, Paul is not writing to a pastors’ conference or the deacon board or a leadership conference.  His words are intended for all believers, for you and me out here in the world with family commitments, responsibilities, duties, debts, and obligations.  Performance matters.  We have to get jobs done.  People depend on us.  What does it mean for us to be “abounding in the work of the Lord”? 

Let’s go back to the Gospel of John, chapter 6 for a minute:   Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”  Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (vv. 28-29)

The crowd was playing up to Jesus because He had multiplied the loaves and fish.  He burst their bubble by saying it’s not a matter of simply doing this or that but of comprehending and believing who Jesus is.  Believing in “him whom he has sent” means more than just acquiescence to a creed.  If we understand who Jesus is, it completely alters our understanding of reality itself and of what is of importance and value.  The world gets turned upside down. 

Faith in Christ may indeed change what we do.  If we are living immorally, we may stop doing evil and start doing well.  Even more to the point for those of us who were not prostitutes, drug dealers, MSNBC hosts, and community organizers, we change how and why we do whatever it is that we do.  Our perspective is changed so that we see a different meaning in our works, a different destiny for our lives.  Even when our efforts seem to bear no fruit in this life, those efforts are not in vain.  They will produce positive results in eternity.  The kingdom is built by our “abounding in the work of the Lord”.   

As I have said before, there are times when I want to say death and the end can’t come soon enough.  Life, with enough failure, loss, pain, and heartache, can beat any of us down.  We may become discouraged and hopeless and think that what we do or don’t do can’t possibly matter.  We push and push on that boulder, and, right at the top, it rolls over us like we were Wile E. Coyote and bounds merrily back to the bottom.  There’s nothing to do except get up and try it again.  As ridiculous and pointless as it may seem at that moment, if nothing else, the mountain is being worn down. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A House of Rest

Then King David rose to his feet and said: Hear me, my brothers and my people. I had it in my heart to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the LORD and for the footstool of our God, and I made preparations for building. -- 1 Chronicles 28:2

David was a man after God's own heart, yet he was not allowed to build the temple for the Lord.  It fell to the son, the man of peace, Solomon, to give the ark a place to rest. 

Much like the ineffable, sometimes enigmatic God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, David could rain wrath upon his enemies.  At one point, he was going to wipe out the entire household of Nabal because the man had refused to requite the assistance of David's followers.  He was merciful, but it could seem a severe mercy.  He was just, and, despite his own stumbling, he had little patience for the unjust and the unrighteous.  David was a man after the heart of God the Father.  The Father alone cannot give us peace and rest. 

We take nothing from the infinite power, mercy, love, and grace of our Father.  Yet through earthly leaders, God could not give His people rest.  The humble yet mighty prophet Moses who spoke with God face to face could not do it.  The great warrior and conqueror Joshua could not.  The good shepherd and giant-killer, David, could not.  Not even the wisest man of his day, Solomon, could bring God's people to Him.  They could typify and foreshadow what was to come, but that was all.

The Father needed the Son to be the House of Rest.  In taking on flesh, the Son of God became the Son of man, and, though they destroyed that temple, in three days, He raised it back up.  In the risen Savior, at last the presence of God could rest and remain with man.  And not only can He be with us, we can rest in Him. 

That's the Christmas Story.

So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his (Hebrews 4:9-10).