Wednesday, July 31, 2013
1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.
2 Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story— those he redeemed from the hand of the foe, 3 those he gathered from the lands, from east and west, from north and south.
Throughout the centuries the people of God suffered because of their infidelity. They were sent to other nations, into exile, because they failed to worship the one true God. But when God's people again began to seek his face, the situation changed. God simply wanted them to be in a loving relationship with him, and God was jealous for their love. As they began to re-experience God's goodness and love they had to proclaim it day in and day out. The people of God rejoiced and gave thanks to him for who he was.
This Psalm leads us through a great exercise in prayer. First of all, may we take the time to give thanks to the Lord for who he is -- his very nature is good and filled with holy love that is eternal. We serve an infinite God, whose love and goodness reaches out to humanity who is in need of a redeemer. And when humanity has experienced the redemption of their Savior, they must speak up and share their story. He has saved his people from the very hand of the enemy who has dispersed them to the four corners of the earth.
What struck me with this translation of the Psalm is that there is a simple change in the language. As a younger person I used to sing, "Let the redeemed of the Lord say so." Somehow that's not quite as powerful to me as "Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story." I guess they really do mean the same thing but in the first translation it seems I just would say - "so, I'm redeemed." Instead, this new translation of the phrase makes it much more personal and thought provoking. I'm not just supposed to say "so" -- or "yes" -- I'm supposed to be able to tell my story.
Sadly I meet many people these days who are unable to tell their story. Maybe it's because there are so many who have been raised in church that somehow they haven't sensed or experienced a personal story. They've never really been bad people and they have had the privilege of being raised in an environment in which they have always felt the love of God. There is no story of redemption from the depths of sin. Therefore somehow we feel that we have no story to tell. But could it be that we really do have an incredibly story to share -- for I do believe that all of the redeemed should tell their story! Maybe the story needs to be the one about the blessing of being raised in an environment where there never was a time of wandering off. And the words of thanks and praise for God's goodness and love should be even louder because of the protection from the destructive practices found out in the world. This is a great story and it is one that should be shouted from the rooftops. The world needs to hear that you don't have to suffer because of sin, but that you can live a life in which sin does not destroy your health, your relationships and all that you hold dear. It is possible -- and for this we are grateful. Stand up and be willing to shout your story -- one that can help to draw people to God who has provided us with protection. Yes, we have been redeemed from the hand of the foe for God has fought for us!
But then there are those who have had experiences with the destructive forces of sin in this world. They have been scattered to the north, south, east and west and have lived in need of redemption. As they have turned toward God and he has gathered them back under his loving embrace, they need the chance to tell their story. I have been redeemed! I am loved by God on high.
There used to be a day when we had regular "testimony" time in our services. This served a distinct need in that it allowed for those within a church congregation to "tell their story." In "telling their story" they were also brought into a deeper loving relationship with God, for sometimes it takes expressing that love to help us truly understand our own particular feelings. Sadly, the "testimony" time deteriorated into people talking about all kinds of other things, sharing prayer requests for bunions, or simply recollecting about an experience that happened 20 or 30 years ago. This is not what I'm talking about. The redeemed of Jesus Christ are in a vibrant and healthy relationship with God on a daily basis, experiencing his love and goodness. The result is a daily sense of redemption and gratitude that should exude from our very being, a story which we should be unable to stop from our lips. This is what it means to fall deeply in love with God. May we give thanks to him today and may his story simply flow from our lips.
Lord, thank you for your amazing love! Amen.
Tuesday, July 30, 2013
No longer will they call you Deserted,
or name your land Desolate.
But you will be called Hephzibah,
and your land Beulah;
for the Lord will take delight in you,
and your land will be married.
The prophet could see a day in which the Israelites would be completely restored. What would that restoration be like? Her land would no longer be deserted, nor would it be filled with ruins. Instead, the land would again be filled with God's people -- the people being called "Hephzibah" -- I delight in you. This was the name of King Hezekiah's wife, and the two of them represented a period of faithfulness in loving and serving the Lord. God would again delight in his own people! The land itself would be restored and would be known as "Beulah" -- which means married. The land itself would be consecrated to God -- married to him. This is the picture of restoration for all the people of God.
Today happens to be our 30th wedding anniversary and it's a time when I reminisce about the years that Chuck and I have spent together. Our life journey has been beyond anything we could have ever imagined. God is an adventuresome God! On the day we married we also would never have imagined what our relationship would become. Our love for one another and our partnership in life is more than anything we could have ever imagined. I would say that we embrace the language of "Hephzibah" and we are glad to be living in "Beulah Land."
I find it interesting that throughout the Bible we are continually drawn back into marriage imagery. The Bible opens with a scene of marriage between the original couple, Adam and Eve. Throughout the word we see God loving his people and drawing them into a covenant relationship with him. Sadly humanity continues to commit adultery and the relationships crumble.
In Christ we find a renewed covenant, one into which we have been invited and where we again find Beulah land, for in this new relationship we are invited to become the bride of Christ. Often we see this metaphor as referring to the Church, but it is also an invitation for us as individuals. As the Church, we are to be the faithful bride of Christ. The Church is to behave in such a way that the Bridegroom would delight in her. The Israelites had been unfaithful to the Lord and the prophets were constantly calling them back to fidelity. I think that we would have to challenge ourselves and ask whether the Church is being faithful to her relationship with her Bridegroom today? I'm afraid that too much focus and attention has been paid on the Bride! Could it be that modern culture has done that as well? Look at all the crazy TV shows about "Bridezilla" or "Say Yes to the Dress!" What's wrong with this? What's wrong is the focus which is not on the marriage relationship but on what the bride wants! Too many are not concerned about the marriage that will come after the wedding, but on the party at the wedding being "spectacular." Wow -- how far can that analogy go to the Church? Could it be that the Church has become too focused on being "spectacular" that she has left the Bridegroom standing all alone out in the foyer wondering whether anyone even cares whether he is there or not?
The decay of marriage within the culture may signify something happening at an even deeper level. Could it be that the self-centeredness of humanity doesn't allow us to be in a give and make a commitment such as marriage? And when this happens, then we see moral decay all across the spectrum. But what about this covenant on a personal level, one between Christ and me? As a teenager I remember hearing the song, "Beulah Land." It sounds like an old southern Gospel song, but it was actually written by Squire Parsons in the 1970's (during my teen years).
I'm kind of homesick for a country
to which I've never been before.
No sad goodbyes will there be spoken,
And time won't matter anymore
Beulah Land I'm longing for you,
and someday on thee I'll stand.
There my home shall be eternal.
Beulah Land... sweet Beulah Land
I'm looking now across that river
to where my faith is gonna end in sight.
Theres just a few more days to labor,
Then I'll take, my heavenly flight
Beulah Land I'm longing for you,
and someday on thee I'll stand.
There my home shall be eternal.
Beulah Land, Sweet Beulah land
The truth about Beulah Land is that we can experience her now -- not some time in the future. Christ is inviting us into this marriage relationship with him that is beyond anything that we can experience here on this earth and it is available to us today. This is a relationship in which we are entirely committed to him, through and through. But, it goes even deeper. We can enter into Beulah land in the present and experience the very nature of Christ, his holy love, as it permeates every part of our being as we walk in fidelity to our relationship with him. This is holiness! And then our beloved looks at us and says, "You are my Hephzibah, I take great delight in you."
May we long for Beulah land each and every single day of our walk with him.
Lord, thank you for the blessing of 30 years of marriage, which is simply a shadow of the relationship I can have with you. Amen.
Monday, July 29, 2013
Is. 55:1 ¶ Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Is. 55:6 ¶ Seek the LORD while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
Is. 55:8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
Is. 55:9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
There is nothing in life that satisfies us like the beauty of walking in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Once we have tasted the richness of an experience with him we want to go back to that well over and over again. That's the beauty of thirsting! When we are thirsty spiritually we can go back to the one who provides water that sustains us in a way that we could never imagine -- and when we are spiritually hungry he provides us with just what we need -- at no cost.
But there is a little glitch. We are to be seeking the Lord, day in and day out! This is our work as followers of God -- to seek the Lord. He is available to provide for our hunger and thirst, but we need to call on him while he is near. When we are enjoying the rich depths of our walk with him we must call on him day in and out and it is then that he satisfies our very need.
Yes, he does satisfy our needs but not always in the way that we may have imagined. We may think or believe that God would respond in one particular way or another and there are times that we are shocked and/or surprised by what happens. Why is that? Because we are not God -- and never should we imagine that we are God or that we totally comprehend the mind of God. God is God! His thoughts are not our thoughts -- and the ways in which we do things are not his ways. For us to even begin to imagine that we understand all the thoughts of God would be to live in complete and total arrogance. Instead we have to open our minds to the fullness of God's greatness. Henry, in his commentary states, " And do thou help us, O Spirit of all truth, to have such views of the fulness, freeness, and greatness of the rich mercy in Christ, as may remove from us all narrow views of sovereign grace."
I'm so glad that I can trust in God whose bird's eye view of things is much more comprehensive than my earthbound perspective. But there are several things that we must understand from this Scripture. First of all, it's a good thing to be hungry and thirsty for things spiritual. Unfortunately there are too many people in this world who no longer have that feeling of thirst or hunger. They are satisfying themselves with imitation products which leave them feeling full for a short period of time, but leaving them with no time to be seeking God. The problem with this is that one day they will wake up and discover that they are malnourished and ill, but there may be no opportunity to recover from a lifetime of eating and drinking the wrong stuff. That's why we are encouraged to seek the Lord while he may be found. While our hearts are still tender toward the things of God we must seek him, for in those times he will be found and he will completely and totally satisfy.
Tied into this entire experience is prevenient grace. God reaches out to the thirsty and hungry with his grace. This is a grace which draws us to him -- he actually helps to create the hunger and thirst. And this is where we must ask about our personal response. Do we sense his grace reaching out to us and are we responding to that grace? This also speaks about the need for prayer. It is in prayer that I seek the face of God, but it is also in intercessory prayer that I participate with God in his prevenient grace which is reaching out to the lost. Does my prayer life work together with God in helping to bring about hunger and thirst among those who need him? If there is no movement of the lost toward God these days, if there is no hunger and thirsting, maybe it says more about the lack of prayer among the believers then it does about the spiritual state of those who are lost. We must be people of intercessory prayer who are praying for the hungering and the thirsting of those who so desperately need to know the satisfying food and water that the Lord has for us.
We are called upon to seek the Lord. Other places in Scripture we are admonished to seek the face of God. The common thread here is to seek him -- and to seek him means that I turn my face toward him and in doing so the incarnate God, Jesus Christ, is reflected in me. All my desires, all my affections are turned toward the one whom I am seeking. I want nothing more than to be united with him, growing in his love and grace. It is in this place that no longer am consumed by earthly cares, but by him, the one who loves me and cares for ms.
Our ability to know God is limited by our human capacity and therefore God gently cares for, not overwhelming, us with who he is. He is God and therefore his thoughts and ways will always be higher than ours. We must be cautious of creating narrow and rigid understandings of an infinite God whose ways and thoughts are not ours! Instead, we are called to relax and not be anxious about anything, instead being grateful that we are privileged to have a personal relationship with God who has a panoramic view of all the pieces of our lives and comprehends what is ultimately best for us. May we trust in him enough that we don't have to create our own narrow boundaries of understanding to feel secure, but wholeheartedly lean on the one who wants to provide for our every spiritual need. It is in this place that we are set free to enjoy the "fullness, freeness, and greatness of the rich mercy in Christ."
Lord, thank you that I don't have to understand everything that is happening in life -- because you do and you will care for us. Amen.
Saturday, July 27, 2013
2Pet. 1:4 Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature.
2Pet. 1:5 For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge,
2Pet. 1:6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness,
2Pet. 1:7 and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love.
2Pet. 1:8 For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This section of Scripture is an invitation into the holy life -- the calling for each and every single follower of Jesus Christ. God's desire for all of his children is that they become "participants of the divine nature." This is laid out for us in verse four, but then the following verses take us into an account of how we grow, ever reaching to higher heights of our faith. Barnes says, "We should add one virtue to another, that we may reach the highest possible elevation in holiness.” Each virtue becomes a voice in what will become a mighty chorus of holiness in our own lives. Too often we have thought that once we have experienced entire sanctification that we have finished the journey, but in many ways that is only the beginning. Just as the analogy from marriage, once we step into that marriage relationship we are completely and totally married, but we also know that the relationship between husband and wife will continue to grow and flourish throughout a lifetime together. Therefore as we live the sanctified life we must have ever increasing participation in God and this is accomplished through the practice of these virtues.
Just imagine the single voice of faith. The voice sings out that it believes in God and trusts in God -- but it is a single voice. Next, that faith must become lived out in acts of goodness. Suddenly the solo voice becomes a beautiful duet and the two voices play off of one another as they bring a balance to the spiritual life, but this is not enough. The duet continues as the person grows in grace and takes time to become a student of God. Whether this is study of God through intimacy in a relationship or the study of the incarnate "logos" of God revealed through the written word, it all leads to knowledge and suddenly there is a beautiful trio of sound. This addition of knowledge here is extremely important because of the infiltration of gnosticism in the day of the author. There were those who believed that knowledge as a solo would separate them from the evil physical world. No -- knowledge without faith and goodness is nothing and the foundation must begin with faith.
The chorus of holiness continues to build as we add to our lives the voice of self-control. Self-control becomes the bass voice, one that provides a protective lower barrier to the activities of life which can drag us down and out of our relationship with God. And that is why the next voice must be added, the one of endurance for unless self-control has endurance it will not sustain us when the temptations occur. We are in this for the long haul. We need to be breathing the very air of God for the song to be beautiful and to endure throughout our lifetime.
Now, add to that chorus the voice of godliness. Somehow I imagine this to be a beautiful soprano voice which from time to time sings out clear above the rest in a way that energizes the entire chorus, sparking the song onward into a beautiful tapestry of rich glory. The song becomes more and more glorious -- like when we hear the "Hallelujah Chorus" and somehow we believe that we have experienced heaven on earth! There is something transcendent about that song -- and so the chorus of our lives transcends the things of this earth as we participate in the divine nature. This is holiness and when the world experiences our song they too are drawn to the author of our faith.
But this is not the end for while we have heard the mighty chorus there are two more voices which must be added. Tucked in the midst of it all is the voice of mutual affection. It may not be the most beautiful voice in the entire chorus -- it may actually be the inclusion of a voice which is weaker than the rest, but is strengthened by its inclusion. It is a voice that reaches out to other brothers and sisters who are growing in their faith and loves them deeply. No matter how strong or weak their voice, no matter how on or off key -- they are drawn into the mighty chorus of holiness for the chorus is now so strong that they will blend in and have the joy of experiencing that transcendent love of God.
The final voice is added to the mighty chorus for as we learn to have mutual affection for one another we become consumed with the overarching divine nature -- love. And suddenly the entire chorus is drawn into a holy hush as in unison we sing the amen of God's pure nature -- holy love.
May it be so, Lord Jesus!
Lord, I am overwhelmed by your song today. Amen.
Friday, July 26, 2013
1Pet. 5:7 Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.
1Pet. 5:8 Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.
1Pet. 5:9 Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.
1Pet. 5:10 And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.
1Pet. 5:11 To him be the power forever and ever. Amen. (NRSV)
1 Peter 5:8 Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.10 And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. 11 To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen. (NIV)
Peter knew the consequences of falling asleep. The very night that he was to be in the garden praying with Jesus, he fell asleep and that evening concluded with his denial of Christ. Both of the translations above agree on the use the word "alert." However, there are two different translations here of the original Greek work -- one as "sober" and the other as "discipline." The original word has to do with drinking wine and being sober. But I don't think the message here is necessarily about drinking alcohol. Previously Peter had said that they were not to be anxious. The JFB talks about anxiety that "will intoxicate the soul." Therefore we are to practice spiritual discipline and be sober about what life sends our way.
Can you imagine the use of the analogy of the roaring lion to those who may be facing this type of death in the Roman Colosseum? The adversary is the one who is against you and your life, the devil -- prowling around actively looking for ways to drag you away from your faith. That is why it's important to be alert, sober and disciplined. We have to be vigilant in standing firm because the temptations are universal. All followers of Christ around the world must stand firm. The enemy does not want to just nip at our heels, but wants to devour us -- totally and completely. Peter knows of this devastation in his own life -- the utter and complete denial of Jesus Christ! His anxiety and confrontation with the adversary led to defeat.
But the good news was for Peter and for all of us, the hope for every follower of Christ is restoration in him. There is no promise of a life without suffering. We will suffer but our God -- the one who reaches out to us in his grace will reestablish us. He is the one with all the power -- more powerful than anything that can threaten us in this world!
There are times in life when the future seems terribly uncertain. Probably, for most of us the idea of facing flesh-devouring lions because of our faith is not one of those things we worry about on a regular basis. However, we may face anxiety over things such as an impending move; a medical diagnosis; the death of a loved one; a job change; a marriage; or any of the other curve-balls that life can throw our way. In the midst of it all we are told to "Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you." Why? Because anxiety over the things of life can "intoxicate" us to the point where we our defenses have been lowered and the lion is able to attack!
How are we to fight that anxiety? We are to cast our cares on God and then live a life of sober discipline. We are to be disciplined in the ways in which we deal with the issues of life. Spiritual discipline includes bringing these things before the Lord. In the midst of difficulties we have to make sure we are spending enough time in the very presence of God. This is the place where we learn moment by moment and day by day that we can cast all of our cares on him. It is a very purposeful effort and does not always come naturally. There may be moments in the darkness of life where we simply have to keep calling out to God and continually cast those cares on him. Just as a fisherman has patience for hours in the day to continue casting out their line until there is a tug -- so we must continue to share with him the burdens of our lives; the suffering that we may have to endure.
In the midst of the suffering we discover a God of grace who, through his power and strength, is able to renew us and raise us up, either in this life, or in the life to come!
Lord, please help me to live and move forward in you daily. Amen.
Thursday, July 25, 2013
What Feeds Your Desires?
1 Peter 4:1-2
Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same intention (for whoever has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin), so as to live for the rest of your earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God.
These early Christians were facing horrible persecution and martyrdom. The physical suffering under Nero was almost unimaginable as he treated Christians with complete and total contempt, at times covering them with tar and burning them as lanterns in his gardens.
Jesus had suffered in the flesh and therefore all Christians should be prepared for the same. The author is not saying that by suffering in the flesh you put sin to death, but that those who have put on Christ and have gone on to suffer have done so because they have put sin to death. It is a result of living for Christ, with the mind turned toward him and all desires for him. When this happens "the things of this world grow strangely dim."
I'm writing this today as I sit in an airport during my second delay in less than 24 hrs. At this point I may not make it to my scheduled meeting in time and I find that rather frustrating. The airline is trying to appease us with free soft drinks and granola bars. While this is frustrating it certainly is not persecution, and yet, for some of us we would complain about this "suffering." Maybe that is because in our Western civilization we have come to expect everything to go well and therefore we have changed the definition of suffering. At the same time there are brothers and sisters around the world who ARE suffering on a daily basis for following Christ.
We all have desires in life. The overall desire of many of those early martyred Christians was to see Christ. They lived every day without connection to the things of this world and looked forward to the life which was to come. What fed their desires and motivations on a daily basis was the hope found in resurrection power and of being united with Christ. Therefore they were prepared to suffer in the flesh.
This is not a popular message, not one that all of Christianity is willing to preach. Health and wealth is much more palatable than asking believers if they are willing to suffer for their faith. But if the message we want is health and wealth, then what is it that is feeding our desires? It seems to me that our desire is for things of this world; the things of flesh. If our desire is for Christ and Christ alone, then our desire becomes the will of God. We have to take an honest look at ourselves and ask ourselves what ultimately motivates us. Is it a desire for Christ, or could it be something else? No matter how good that other thing is, it may be keeping us from the relationship that God has intended us to have with him.
Lord, please remove the distractions of life and lead my desire to you. Amen.
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
1Pet. 3:15 but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you;
1Pet. 3:16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.
Peter was writing to believers who were facing horrible persecution under the leadership of Nero. It is hard for us to even imagine what that must have looked like on a daily basis and yet in the midst of it all, he was trying to encourage those who had become followers of Jesus Christ. He begins here by encouraging them to "sanctify Christ as Lord." This language is important as we realize that the Emperor would have required people to engage in Emperor worship and therefore to declare that "Caesar is Lord." These followers of Christ had to have holy hearts, hearts that were sanctified to be able to declare that indeed it was Christ -- the Messiah who was Lord, over and above the leadership of the world. This was the hope that was to live within them -- the knowledge that their Lord was the resurrected Messiah who had come to set all of humanity free and they needed to be prepared to give that defense at any moment. It was a hope that was alive and living within them. How easy it would be to react in a defensive manner, and yet, they are admonished to respond out of gentleness and reverence, even in the face of danger! Why? So that the followers of Christ could have a clear conscience. Notice that Peter doesn't say "if" you are maligned, but instead says, "when" you are maligned. The persecution was coming, it would happen and there would be those who would abuse the followers of Christ. But the Christ-follower needed to remain connected to the holy Christ so that no matter what those around might say, the follower could not be put to shame.
We are not facing the same types of persecution today that the church faced under Nero, but there remain persecutions for Christ-followers both from within and without the church. It's sad to say that there may be those who face persecution from within Christianity itself. Why would that be? Because not all who calls themselves "Christians" are indeed Christ-followers. Our world is filled with people who could claim to be culturally Christian but they live without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. These who like to perceive themselves as outwardly Christian are often the harshest toward true Christ-followers. They create great disturbances within the Church because they do not realize that they perceive the Church as existing for them and not as the bride of Christ. Their focus is on themselves and not on Christ. This is why the point is made, that first and foremost, we are to sanctify Christ as Lord in our hearts. The altar of our heart is where we need to get things right. Christ is Lord and that means that he is above all else! But when that relationship is not in its rightful place, then we get frustrated as things become twisted around and actions emerge from a self-centered heart. In some of these instances I have observed followers of Jesus Christ suffer persecution within the very walls of the church. And yet I have also watched as Saints have been created as they have responded with gentleness and reverence.
There is also persecution which exists from outside the church and is worse in some countries of the world than in others. Amazingly where the church faces the greatest persecution we are also seeing the greatest growth. Why might that be? The people of Peter's day had to "sanctify Christ as Lord" and be prepared day in and day out to make a defense of their faith. Could it be that when we have life a bit easier we are no longer challenged to "sanctify Christ as Lord" and nor are we challenged to defend our faith on a daily basis? If we have never been challenged to defend ourselves, we have no practice in preparing our defense. We become weak and take our walk with Christ for granted.
Life will not always seem fair. Some people will face greater persecution than others. Some people will have less roadblocks than others. Some people will lose their lives for what they believe, while others will be lifted up for what they believe. In our human understanding it seems to make no sense, and yet in God's economy, while it may not be pleasing to him, he promises to never leave us or forsake us. That is why we must begin with the foundational understanding that no matter where we find ourselves in life, we must "sanctify Christ as Lord." We need cleans hands and a pure heart; a pure heart that allows for nothing else but Christ to be Lord of all things. When this is the case, then we can move forward into a world that may or may not be hostile to our beliefs, but at the same time be prepared to share our hope in Jesus with anyone whom we may encounter.
Persecution? We must be prepared for whatever comes our way and this is only possible through Christ who is in us. Jesus is Lord!
Lord, please help me to live and move forward in you daily. Amen.
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
1Pet. 2:1 ¶ Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.
1Pet. 2:2 Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation—
1Pet. 2:3 if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
The connection here is directly to 1Pet. 1:22, "Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth." The one who has been "born again" is to actively participate in their new life. This new section begins by speaking of actions which are to be taken. There are certain behaviors which are unacceptable to the follower of Jesus Christ. We are to rid ourselves of those for they have been our spiritual food and they are leading us to destruction. Instead, we are to long for the good stuff -- the good food. This food is "pure, spiritual milk" that will help us to grow in our faith. This is what we receive when we feed on the word of God. Verse three points us to Psa. 34:8, "O taste and see that the LORD is good; happy are those who take refuge in him." When we "taste" of the Lord we will discover how good he is and we will desire nothing more.
It seems I go through phases in life when I become rather addicted to certain foods or flavors. One of my all-time favorite things to eat is a Reese's peanut butter cup. There is something about the mix of peanut butter and chocolate that I just love. Now, chop that up and add it to ice cream and I'm not sure there is anything better. So, on a hot summer night it seems that the Handel's ice cream shop which is on my way home from work just seems to be screaming my name. What could be better than a frozen custard mixed with Reese's? Once you have "tasted" this frozen delight you will want to go back for more.
The same becomes true in our spiritual walk. Once we begin to taste the presence of the Lord and taste the word of God, we will want to go back for more and more. We will have trouble being satisfied with anything else. The more I spend time in prayer, the more time I want to spend in prayer. There is something about God's presence that becomes so enticing that I don't want to be pulled away by the things of the world. When I do find myself in a place that is completely at odds with God I can literally sense the absence of his presence. There is a vacuum and a cold darkness when the space is not filled with God. Once we begin to be sensitive to these differences we will want to scramble back to be in his presence -- we will crave him, we will long for him. Have you tasted the word today?
Lord, thank you for the sweetness of your word. Amen.
Monday, July 22, 2013
1Pet. 1:22 ¶ Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.
There was an expectation that followers of Jesus Christ would continue to grow in their faith and that they would live in obedience to him. Barnes noted, "The apostles were never afraid of referring to human agency as having an important part in saving the soul." In other words, you didn't just wait around for God to save you, but you became an active participant in the life of faith, and by living in obedience moved on to higher heights of your spiritual life. The result of moving into a deeper relationship through obedience is participating in the very nature of Christ and thereby discovering his love. This is why the law can be summed up in love of God and love of neighbor. Paul said that we were to be imitators of Christ. Christ lived a life of obedience to the Father and if he lived a life of obedience, then we are to live a life of obedience. This life is truly a reflection of Christ himself. The longer we live in obedience and imitation of Christ the harder it will be to tell whether I am imitating Christ, or whether it is Christ being reflected in me. This is the moment of genuineness and from this flows the mutual love for God and for one another. And ultimately this is holiness!
For much of last century of Christendom we have attempted to relate to and to become more like the world. We have made worship services as much like the world as we possibly can so that people will feel comfortable in attending. We struggled through our period of legalism and are now at a place where we want to be out in the world and relate to the world so much that I'm afraid, at times, there's not much difference between us and the world. Maybe it's time to raise the bar again! Not in a legalistic fashion, but in a way that truly helps us to understand that holiness is about becoming like Christ, and that our participation in that process is necessary.
Several things I've read lately are coming to mind. One is that young people are turning away from our casual protestant worship services because they find nothing different or unique in them. Going to church feels like going to a concert of some kind. Young people who have been raised in casual evangelicalism are wanting to go somewhere that they are raising the bar. They don't want an "easy" Christianity but want to be challenged to worship the transcendent God who is not like the world they encounter on a daily basis. Suddenly they are inspired by more mystical and liturgical services and want to participate in seasons of prayer and fasting. Why? Because all of this raises the bar above where they have been living and helps them to see that God is not the same as the world.
Another interesting article I read was regarding drinking alcohol and peer pressure among Christians. Basically this article stated that it's become cool to be okay with Christians drinking so therefore when young Christians get together there is a sense of peer pressure to participate in drinking -- almost as if saying, "I can do this - -it's not a problem for me." This young person who wrote the article said that the pressure has become so great that to simply order a soft drink means that the other Christians look down on you. "What's your problem -- you too weak to handle the stuff?" There should NEVER be peer pressure among Christians TO drink alcohol. But again, we've lowered the bar and are working hard to become as much like the world that we possibly can and therefore we become uncomfortable with the Christian around us who may choose to not drink.
This walk with Jesus Christ is serious stuff and it was never supposed to be about a set of rules -- but it was supposed to be about actively participating in a relationship with Jesus Christ that brings us into ever more conformity with his likeness. Maybe it's time to raise the bar again and realize that we are to be living lives in imitation of Christ. If I want to be like him, why wouldn't I want to practice being like him! That means that every day in all the things we do, on a conscious level we choose whether to be obedient to his likeness or not. It means that we do nothing out of selfish ambition -- but we do all to the glory of God. Raising the bar is a personal thing -- it is not a standard that the Church creates. The standard has already been set -- and the standard is Christ. Live in imitation of Christ and his love will overwhelm you. Let's raise the bar!
Lord, please help me live in faithful imitation of you today. Amen.
Sunday, July 21, 2013
2Chr. 32:7 “Be strong and of good courage. Do not be afraid or dismayed before the king of Assyria and all the horde that is with him; for there is one greater with us than with him.
2Chr. 32:8 With him is an arm of flesh; but with us is the LORD our God, to help us and to fight our battles.” The people were encouraged by the words of King Hezekiah of Judah.
King Hezekiah called the people of Judah back to a faithful relationship with God. They had stopped worshiping the foreign gods and Hezekiah had the places of worship destroyed. Now, as a result of their actions the enemy was approaching and as that day came they prepared for what awaited them. Hezekiah sent his men outside the city walls where they filled up and contaminated all of the springs of water. They knew that even a large army could not survive for long without water! At the same time they established a system for water to be brought into the city so that the inhabitants would not suffer. The walls of Jerusalem were examined and fortified. Finally the King gathered his people together to prepare them for the siege which they knew would lie ahead. Here is a critical moment as he encourages the people and reminds them that it doesn't matter how many troops may surround the city, God is still stronger. They were to be strong and courageous, not in themselves, but in the fact that they were the people of God.
The people of Judah found themselves in this situation -- at odds with the world around them because of their faithfulness to God. When Hezekiah stopped the idol worship around the country, the neighboring leaders saw it as unfaithfulness to their gods. In a sense, the people of Judah may have appeared as being unreligious or unfaithful in their god worship because they refused to worship the foreign gods and God alone! When a follower of Jesus Christ takes a stand and refuses to do the things of the world, they can find themselves in great difficulty. The world may not understand and think that you are being unfaithful to them. The people of Judah learned this and discovered that faithfulness to God has a price tag attached in regard to our relationship with the world.
The people of Judah also discovered that they had to become personally involved in their own fate. They could not just sit around and expect God to do everything for them but there was something that happened when they partnered together with God. They thought through their circumstances and then went to work. They went out and stopped up the wells and they examined their own defenses and made them even stronger but fixing any weak spots in the wall and by adding new towers for look out. What about in our own lives? Do we simply walk into the midst of danger and/or temptation and expect God to take care of us without us using the wisdom that God has provided for us? We are to be wise and use all the resources that God has provided for us. If we are facing enemy attack, maybe we ought to try to figure out how to cut off the resources to that enemy! At the same time we must examine ourselves and see where we might be weak and if so, we must work to become strong! We must build our own watchtowers so that we are not taken by surprise. Much of our strength will come from our personal walk with the Jesus Christ. We must spend time with him both in prayer and in the reading of the word. The word of God can help to fill in the holes where we are weak. But there may be things that we have to do physically to protect ourselves. Maybe we need to move out of a tempting environment. Maybe it's certain friendships that have created a weakness in our lives and we have to move away from them. Whatever is required -- we must take personal action and become engaged in our own defense against the enemy.
Finally, Hezekiah did what so many kings before him had forgotten to do -- he trusted in God. He reminded the people that it didn't matter how large the enemy army might be -- God is larger and greater. Strength and courage come by trusting in God! It was time to put all the days of old behind them. They were being attacked for being followers of God and in the midst of it all they needed to put their trust in God.
How often are we attacked because we are trying to faithfully follow God. There will be those days, weeks, months and maybe even years that we have to drag on and live through the battle. In the midst of it all we must remember that we are not alone but that this battle and every "battle belongs to the Lord." (I Sam. 17:47) Therefore we can take courage and we can be strong "for if God is for us, who can be against us?" (Rom. 8:31) And the fear which the enemy hopes to kindle within us simply dies out because "there is one greater with us than with him." The Lord our God will go with us and help us to fight the battles of this life. Our strength and courage comes from him!
Lord, please help me to examine my walls and may they be fortified by you. Amen.
Saturday, July 20, 2013
James 4:5 Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? (NRSV)
James 4:5 Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? (NIV)
James 4:5 (1) Or that the spirit he caused to dwell in us envies intensely; (2) or that the Spirit he caused to dwell in us longs jealously. (NIV notes)
On first glance I was inspired by this Scripture today for I took it to believe that God has placed his Holy Spirit within us and he deeply desires that this Spirit would be connected to him -- and thus draw us closer to him. However, as I began to read and study more about this verse I discovered that its translation is fraught with discussion. Barnes' Notes say, "Few passages of the New Testament have given expositors more perplexity than this." If you look above there are four different options listed for possible understandings of this one little verse, and what becomes clear is that we don't know exactly what James was referring to because there is no exact quote like this to be found in the Old Testament scriptures. Therefore it may be that he was referring to a general understanding of things in the scriptures, which would have been an Old Testament understanding which would bring us more to the idea that is found in the first NIV note, that the bent toward sinning which exists in us since the fall of humanity envies intensely. This would be almost a complete opposite understanding of what I read into the verse at first glance. Therefore, honestly, there are two possible interpretations here, but there is something significant that we can receive from both, and maybe that is the joy of reading a verse like this and discover the very depth of one little sentence.
1) Let's begin with what we might see as the negative side of things. James has been talking about people who live in sin -- adulterers, murderers and those who quarrel. If we look at this verse from that perspective he may be explaining that the reason all of this exists is because we have a sin nature problem. That is because the sinful nature is living within us and it has a propensity toward intense envy! It wants the neighbors wife, it wants to be more powerful and therefore is willing to take a life, it wants to pick a fight with others and therefore quarrels. James is saying that the Scripture tells us that this nature lives in us because of sin and it will continually be bent toward sinning. This would fit well with verse 6 where he tells us that therefore he gives us all the more grace! You see, because of the bent toward sinning we have been engaging in acts which are not pleasing to God and therefore he has showered us with even more grace! This is the good news of the gospel.
2) The more positive interpretation is that since Pentecost God has made possible the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit within each of us. That Spirit naturally is drawn toward God because the Spirit is from God. God jealously longs to be united with the Spirit he has placed within us and therefore the Christian no longer wants to be a participant in the things of this world. No longer do we want to be a part of murders, quarrels, or committing adultery. The new Spirit is God's very nature and that is contrary to the things of the world and that nature will constantly draw us away from sin and toward God himself.
As you can see, two very different interpretations. Either the spirit within us is the old sinful nature, or the spirit within us is the presence of the Holy Spirit. But do we really have to pick one interpretation? Could it be that with the ambiguity of this verse we are left with the full message of the gospel -- in just a handful of words. Maybe the ambiguity is purposeful for it gives us the story of humanity's fallenness -- a life trapped by the sinful spirit -- while at the same time it gives us the hope and freedom of a life consumed by the Holy Spirit. James was living in the new life of the Spirit, while at the same time he had witnessed life in the old spirit. He was watching a metamorphosis of humanity from living in the old law to living in new life. He had been raised a Jew -- he knew what had been expected -- he knew that people were not victorious over the old nature. But now, through the power of the Spirit, people were set free.
More than one interpretation -- but maybe just one hopeful story of transformation! Where do you find yourself today - in which interpretation?
Lord, may your Spirit dwell in me and draw me ever closer to you. Amen.
Friday, July 19, 2013
James 3:9 With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.
James 3:10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.
James 3:11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?
James 3:12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
James was a practical guy giving advice for those who were walking with Christ. He spoke about the need for living out the Christian life in terms of faith and works, but now he moves on to discuss the role of the tongue. Not only are works indicative of a life of faith, but so are the words that we speak. With our tongues we are to be engaged in praise of the Lord and Father! By the way, this is a curious combination of words, "Lord and Father," because generally in the Bible we read "God and Father." In other words it is a descriptor of God and yet the addition of the word Lord here changes the understanding. By this time Lord referred to Jesus Christ so the use of the two terms here together is significant in terms of the development of the early church's understanding of the Trinity. Therefore you have mention of Jesus and the Father in the early portion of this Scripture and then the verse concludes with the fact that with our tongues we, sadly, "curse those who are made in the likeness of God." So, the opening section of the verse helps us to understand that God is a holy communion of Lord and Father (and Holy Spirit), and that there is something holy and unique about those who are made in the likeness of that relationship. We are the people made in the likeness of God, who too are to participate in that holy communion but there are constant destructive forces that would keep us from that relationship.
What destroys relationships more than the tongue? Look at how many marriages are destroyed by the things that go said and unsaid. Or, how many marriages are destroyed because the people at work tell one another all the bad things about their spouses and somehow they feed into their frustrations and an entire group of marriages are destroyed. The tongue may be the most difficult thing to tame -- the most difficult part of our body to allow to become a reflection of Jesus Christ. But James is telling us that what comes from the mouth reveals the deeper reflection. If the person is reflecting Christ, then how can both blessing and cursing come out of the person. How can there be two sources within the person. This is not just a discourse on the tongue and the things we say, but it is a discerning of the person who calls themselves a follower of Jesus Christ. If Jesus is the source of who we are, how can evil words and cursings come from our tongues? What comes from the tongue will reveal whether you truly are reflecting the image or not.
Lord, please help me that my tongue would be a reflection of you. Amen.
Thursday, July 18, 2013
James 2:18 ¶ But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.
James 2:19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder.
James 2:20 Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren?
James 2:21 Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?
James 2:22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works.
James 2:23 Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God.
James 2:24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
Here is a Scripture passage that somehow seems to be at odds with the Apostle Paul. How in the world could James say in verse 24 that we are "justified by works and not by faith alone" when Paul says we are justified by faith alone (Eph. 2:8-9) and not by works? Somehow there must be some kind of connection which is being made here by James between faith and works that can bring him to this conclusion. If we look closely at verse 22 we will find the answer. James is referring to Abraham and his sacrifice before God. Here comes the connection and the order in which to understand faith and works. Abraham's "faith was active along with his works." Let's take a moment to look at that comment in greater detail. The word that we translate "was active along with" has at it's root the word synergy. This is a word of cooperation and we struggle with how exactly to express this idea. The NIV says, "You see that his faith and his actions were working together." The NRSV above simply says "along with his works." However, I really like the concept contained in the original word "synergy" because I believe it expresses something much stronger than what we quickly read over in the English.
The early Church Fathers were captured by this idea of synergy in the life of the Christian. The foundation of this was faith. Faith had to come first and it comes first for Paul and if we read this section of Scripture carefully it comes first for James as well. However, there is something synergistic that happens in the life of the Christian when this faith is combined with works. There is a synergistic reaction in which faith gives rise to works and works give strength to faith. You really cannot separate the two, but you must first begin with faith. If you try to begin with works, you will fail for works alone do not lead to faith but faith, if it is properly applied, will always lead to works. Why? We have to finish reading verse 22 "and faith was brought to completion by the works." And the root behind the word "completion" is again that teleiooœ word -- that telos concept, or the idea that faith is made perfect by works. But maybe we ought to ask, "made perfect by whose works?" Here is why we must understand the connection between faith and works. As I enter into a relationship with Christ, by faith, Jesus Christ himself becomes the goal (perfection) of my life. My goal is to become more and more like him, to be a reflection of him. Jesus did not enter this world to live a life of faith alone, but displayed his very nature day in and day out by his acts. If we are to be like Christ, we must be reflections of Christ to our world in our actions. Therefore it is impossible to separate Christlikeness from works, for Christlikeness is living out the very works or actions of Christ in our world on a daily basis. Therefore we begin with faith, but faith is made perfection, or brought to completion by our actions. And the synergistic activity is that faith gives rise to Christlikeness and the more that I continue in Christlikeness the more that I grow in my faith. Therefore it is impossible to have faith without works. You cannot have faith in a Christ who is actively engaged in this world and not become actively engaged yourself.
For many years within Christianity we measured our faith by our own personal acts of piety. Somehow we defined holiness as the things that we did not do. We were more holy than the people next door because we didn't smoke, or drink or engage in other activities. Just yesterday I was driving down the highway and someone had a sorority sticker on their car. I'm actually just fascinated by the Greek letters that represent these fraternities or sororities. All of a sudden I had a flashback to my childhood and a conversation with my mother. I was asking what a sorority was. I do remember that I got some sort of an answer, but it was a negative one. Something about that's something that we don't do, and as I was driving down the highway yesterday I was asking myself, why did we believe that? I never had a conversation with my parents about why! And then I had a flood of memories of all the things that we "just didn't do." But too often there was not a conversation regarding the explanation and what was at the root of these things. And somehow it led to the idea that to be God's holy people we are not to engage with the world. That holiness is somehow about personal holiness and nothing more. And then you read James and you begin to wonder what it is that God might truly be requiring of you.
If we move our understanding of holiness away from personal holiness and the shift becomes Christ's holiness, then our behavior becomes something different. James is inviting us into a personal relationship with Christ -- and this is faith. But James is also saying that faith is only the beginning of an entire walk with Jesus that will empower you to do things for him that you would never have imagined. Therefore our actions really do speak louder than our words.
Last night our friends at the Grace Point South Campus in Fort Wayne, IN gathered for a meeting that is revealing what it means to be Christ in their community. Not too long ago there was a shooting across the street from the church. There is a house there that was filled with more than 30 bullet holes. Our pastors could have decided that they would leave and live somewhere safer but instead, they have chosen to work synergistically -- their faith together with works to make a difference. What would happen if a church in a community said "enough is enough" and united their faith with love and went out into the neighborhood to patch up bullet holes, clean up places where criminals hang out, improve lighting and in general said we will help to care for this community! The reaction has been overwhelming as Christians have joined hands to say that they will be a voice and advocates for an entire neighborhood. Last night around 250 Christians from a number of denominations gathered at that little church to say that we will help to bring our faith to perfection by acting in this neighborhood. In the midst of it all the community is seeing Jesus in action. The entire city is seeing Jesus in action.
This brings us to the understanding of the final verse, "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." Why? Because works or actions reveal what is happening in the heart of the individual. And therefore we have to ask ourselves, "what do our actions say about our faith?"
Lord, may my life reveal you to the world around me. Amen.
Wednesday, July 17, 2013
James 1:22 ¶ But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
James 1:23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror;
James 1:24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.
James 1:25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
James, the half-brother of Jesus is writing to the Jewish-Christian community that has dispersed as a result of the persecutions. They are now spread throughout much of the known world and have had opportunity to soak in the law and word of God. Unfortunately, that's most of what they've been doing -- soaking. Maybe this was a temptation from their days of soaking in the Jewish laws, and yet now, as Christians, there is a call to radical engagement with the world. Going to worship and following the religious practices is not enough.
If someone hears the word and yet does not apply what they are hearing to their lives, they have a problem. Here is the situation and the nuances are clever. We have translated the one looking into the mirror as "those" who look in a mirror, or the NIV says "someone" but the Greek word here is definitely masculine and I'd like to suggest it may have been a bit of a joke on how men look in the mirror. I would guess that women of the day spent a lot more time looking into the mirror than men and men, with a quick glance, would look in that mirror and just as quickly forget what they might have seen. Do they really care how their hair or makeup might look? Do they notice that bit of toothpaste still stuck on their cheek? Maybe not -- and so is the person who hears the word of God but just as quickly forgets what it says or does nothing about it.
But now there is a contrast and the question about those who look into the "perfect" law. The teleion law! There's that word again -- that telos word. Who is the "perfect law?" It's Jesus! Therefore those who fix their eyes on Jesus, the ones who are constantly seeking his face and persevere, they are the ones who will not just hear but will act. Why? Because they are becoming a reflection of Jesus Christ himself. Instead of looking into a book and then forgetting what it says, your focus is on the "perfected one" -- and it's not a book of laws, but a live person with whom we are in relationship. When we are engaged in this relationship and Jesus is transforming us into his image, we can't help but be doers of the word as well.
The point of this is that we have a choice in our Christian walk. How many might be like the men who look into the mirror and then immediately forget? Maybe a lot of those who call themselves Christians. These are the ones who love to read the Bible or other Christian material but as soon as they close the books or put it down they forget about what they've read and go on with their lives. They've given their time, they've done their duty by having devotions.
Unfortunately they are looking and reading a written law and not reflecting the living and perfect law. It is important that we read the word of God and that we read other Christian literature, but if it does not point us in the direction of Christ, if it does not encourage us to seek his face, then it means nothing to us. When we focus our study of the law on Christ the perfect law, then we stop gazing to the right or to the left and we seek his face in all that we do. Jesus so infuses who we are that we want to be like him on this earth. The one who is studying the perfect law will be compelled to engage with a hurting and needy world. There is no other option for the perfect law is a living and breathing Jesus Christ whose kingdom is already come and is acutely involved in the world.
We need to ask ourselves "which law are we reading?" If we are simply "doing our time" by going to church, reading a short devotional and maybe saying prayer before we eat, we may not be reading the right law. The right law takes us beyond our habits and culture and draws us into a vibrant and transformative relationship with Jesus, the perfect law. This law will not allow us to simply mull over Christian truths but will compel us to be the hands and feet of Jesus in our needy world.
What are we reading today?
Lord, please help me to be seeking you today and then engaging as your hands and feet in the world. Amen.
Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Heb. 13:20 ¶ Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant,
Heb. 13:21 make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
Wrapped up in this one prayer you find a great early creedal statement. Our God is a God of peace! This is a descriptor of his loving nature, one that results in peace. He is the God of resurrection power, who has won the victory over death. Jesus is the great shepherd, the one who will nurture and care for all of his sheep and has given his blood for those sheep. Jesus is the one who completes us, and it is his good which completes us. It is the goal of Jesus Christ who brings us to the finish line where we find him! And the result is that we can do his will because Christ is the goal, but Christ is also in us and the result is that God is the one who is praised forever.
There are times when we need to be able to describe our faith in a short and concise way. So often we get caught up in the words and we wonder how we can tell others about what we believe. Amazingly in this one short benediction there is so much to know about God, his nature, his love, his son, what has been done for us and what is made possible for us. It is the whole message of the Gospel, including salvation and sanctification in one brief prayer.
And yet, why do we struggle with telling others about our faith? In the early church there were many martyrs, those who were willing to die for their faith. Interestingly the word "martyr" means witness. They were willing to die for what they had personally witnessed and these witnesses were publicly giving testimony to the work of Jesus Christ. None of these people had to memorize a plan of salvation. They didn't have to think about how to put together their testimony. Why? Because they had a testimony! It's as if they were invited to sit in the witness seat at a trial and are asked to describe what they had seen. They told their personal story and it became a living witness to the work of Jesus in the world.
Could it be that we struggle with sharing the gospel because our personal encounters with the Gospel have been few and far between? It's difficult to give testimony about something you haven't experienced. Therefore the struggle with sharing our faith maybe shouldn't be with a church or pastor that hasn't given us a good enough plan, but may be it ought to be a self evaluation. What has Jesus done in my life that I could share with someone else? You see, our personal stories, our personal witness, are the very best. They don't need to be practiced or rehearsed, but they come from the heart.
Obviously the author of Hebrews had experienced peace from God. They had experienced the shepherding of Jesus Christ. They had been on a spiritual journey in which they were made complete in Christ and knew that a confession was nothing without action. A true witness to the gospel not only sees, but is transformed by the experience and therefore the story becomes personal as it is internalized. There remains an acute realization that all that is accomplished in and through the witness is to and for the glory of God.
What would be your prayer of benediction today?
Lord, there remains so much to learn. Please, help me to continue to grow in you today and may I share the faith I have in you as a personal witness to your glory. Amen.
Monday, July 15, 2013
Heb. 12:1 ¶ Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,
Heb. 12:2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
The racing metaphor continues as the disciple of Jesus picks up his/her lap of the race of faith. However, as that lap is run, the disciple realizes that the finish line is not something which exists here on this earth, but instead the goal of the entire race is Jesus Christ. The word "looking" in Greek means to turn from looking at anything else and now look only to Jesus. Why? Because he is the "pioneer" -- but that word means so much more. He is the author of our faith, he is the captain, he is the team leader. Not only is he our coach, but he is the one who built the race course. Who else would know the way to go but the one who created the whole path so stop looking anywhere else and only look at Jesus. But he is more than just the creator of the course, he is also the "perfecter" of our faith. Guess what Greek root we find again? That same one "telos" -- so he is the one who brings the whole race to completion. Jesus is the creator of the course, but the course leads to him. The goal is to become like him and to be united with him. Jesus endured the cross but that was not the goal. He endured the cross so that now he can be seated at the "right hand of the throne of God." And our invitation is to this very place with him.
Life is filled with distractions, both good and bad, that can keep us from looking to Jesus. Even good religious things can keep us from keeping our eyes on Jesus and from the goal. For years I had never heard Jesus brought into the message of holiness. Too often the message of holiness seemed to focus more on me and my behaviors and, I believe, the course laid out before me got most of the attention. I worried about how to make it through the obstacle course of life, wanting to run my lap well, but without looking to Jesus.
Gregory of Nyssa wrote a beautiful commentary on the Song of Solomon (Canticle of Canticles) in which he describes the incredible love which exists between the Lord and his beloved. True holiness is falling deeply in love with Jesus so that nothing else in the world distracts us from him. The metaphor moves from that of an athlete to one of love when we hear it from Nyssen. When we, as the Lord's disciples, allow ourselves to be vulnerable to him, we are wounded by the arrow of his love. Our hearts are suddenly opened by him and the love that he wants to pour into us. Nyssen says, "By a delicious wound she receives his special dart in her heart; and then she herself becomes the arrow in the hand of the Bowman, who with his right hand draws the arrow near to himself, and with his left directs its head towards the heavenly goal." (Nyssen, CC Homily 6) "By being filled with the love of the bowman, her head is now turned heavenward, and the focus of all her attention becomes the bridegroom. No longer is transformation the goal; he is the goal." (Sunberg, Cappadocian Mothers, 153)
For the follower of Jesus Christ whose goal it is to reflect the image there comes a moment of time in the faith journey when we no longer allow our eyes to wander to the things of the world. Instead, we are overcome by holy love; the divine nature found in the Trinity. Running the race, I may have thought that transformation into the image was my goal. Yes, it is a good goal but the longer we keep looking to Jesus and the more that his love is poured into us the goal will no longer be transformation. Overwhelming love for Jesus wipes away all desires but one -- to be with him. The passion of our lives must be Jesus, and he must be the central message of holiness.
Lord, may I look to you today, and every day. Amen.
Sunday, July 14, 2013
Heb. 11:1 ¶ Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Here begins the great faith chapter in the Scripture. Two key words are found here "assurance" and "conviction." The word translated assurance is the Greek word "substance" which really leads us to an understanding of something that is foundational and upon which everything else can be built. Faith is the foundational substance of our lives and it leads to the conviction, the "demonstration" or the "evidence" of things which cannot be seen. Then the chapter takes us into a progression of faith, that of the journey of humanity from creation until the very day and time of the author, and the revelation of God through the faith of all of those participating in the journey. Finally the chapter concludes and the next begins with a continuing invitation to the readers to also enter the race, pick up the baton, and continue the faith journey as those who have gone before cheer us on to completion.
In our rationalistic world we want to be able to prove the things of God, and yet the "proof" is in the evidence of the lives lived in faith. The chapter begins by the very creation of this earth -- believing that it is God who can create out of nothing. Part of living for God is believing in things that we may not be able to completely and totally explain. Unfortunately I think that there are times when even Christians get caught in the trap of trying to explain in very modern and rationalistic ways the things of God. That is not the intent of faith. Why do we have to be concerned with exactly how God created this earth? Is that intrinsic to our faith? The Scripture tells us:
Heb. 11:3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
The very issue of having to try and "prove" how God did this seems almost contrary to what this opening verse, the greatest definition of faith, seems to be saying to us. Our faith in God should not be based on things that we can prove or disprove through human science. Our faith in God is proved through our relationship with God -- a relationship based on things not seen. Faith in God is what continuously pulls us into God's future, one which he has already prepared for us and into which he is drawing all of humanity. And God's future is being continually revealed to us by those who have gone before us "by faith." This is the proof of faith -- that those who have gone before had faith in the things which were not seen. They had faith to understand that they were not citizens of earthly kingdoms but they were looking ahead to the heavenly realms. And they continued to press on and their lives have become the "conviction" or the "evidence" of the things that we cannot see.
We are invited to join our personal faith to the greater community of Faith as we unite with those who have gone before us. In doing so we enter into the history of faith. We must let go of the human desire to touch, feel, see, know and explain all of the things of God and instead be willing to embrace the mystery of a loving God who has invited us through faith into an eternal relationship with him in his kingdom. This is faith.
Lord, please help me life a life of faith today. Amen.
Saturday, July 13, 2013
Hebrews 10:14 For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. (NIV)
Heb. 10:14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. (NRSV)
Christ's sacrifice meant a radical redemption of humanity which would allow for the restoration of the image of God in humankind. This was the perfection, or the completion of humanity -- this restoration. Now, humanity could fulfill the purpose for which they had been created -- they could be a reflection of their holy God. In living out the reflection, their faces turned toward their holy God, humanity would be sanctified daily by the on-going and continuous holy presence of God.
Perfection and sanctification are two words that may, at times throw us for a loop and yet, we find them both in this one single verse of Scripture. Many people hate that word "perfection" because it carries with it so many negative connotations. The idea of being a perfect human being who never makes a mistake and never errs in anything they do can drive us all crazy because we know that we can never reach that level of perfection. And that is certainly not what is meant in this passage. The trouble with most of us English speakers is that we don't always understand the world of the original Greek writers and their usage of a word such as teteleioœken. Whenever we see that word "perfect" in the Bible, we must most certainly imagine that we will find the Greek word with a root in it of "telos," just as this word does. This means to reach the goal, or come to completion. So, in this Scripture we have to see that Christ, by his one sacrifice has brought to completion those who are holy, or who are being sanctified.
Interestingly John Wesley in his "Notes" only comments on the "perfection" part of this verse and not the "sanctification" portion. He states, "That is, has done all that was needful in order to their full reconciliation with God." In other words, this verse is about all that Christ has done to bring about the goal, which is full and complete reconciliation of humanity with God. Let's get back to the "reflecting the image" stuff. A mirror can only reflect that which it is facing. If humanity in the fall turns their back on God, they can no longer be a reflection of the image of God. However, the capacity to reflect the image is not lost, but the image is lost. Now, when Christ makes the final sacrifice he makes it possible for all of humanity to turn around and again face God so that the image is restored. The human is not a "perfect" human in the way we think -- but the human is made perfect because they now reflect the image of God, who is perfect. This was God's original goal for humankind and that goal is now restored through the work of Christ. This is the perfection -- the goal of the restored image is possible for everyone.
This idea of a sanctified Christian is not a new one. For the early church every follower of Jesus Christ was being sanctified. Paul in his letters would refer to the "saints" in the different cities. These were the people of God in whom the image had been restored and now they were God's holy people. These are the sanctified. These are the saints. The perfection is the work of Christ, so that the possibility of restoration exists. Once the person's orientation is again toward God, the person is and will be sanctified because of the reflection of God's holy nature -- love, in their lives.
Perfection and sanctification fit together and cannot be separated. They are also not optional for a follower of Jesus Christ. Yes, Jesus Christ has done the work once and for all which makes possible our perfection. The word "sanctified" in the NRSV is translated "being made holy" in the NIV. Why is that? Because the form of the word really means a continuous active process. Jesus' work of perfection was once and for all -- the act of sanctification is on-going because it is dependent upon our continuous and active role in the process. We must remain, on a daily basis, in a right relationship with God -- facing him. If not, we will no longer be a reflection of him and his holiness. Also, back to the mirror language, the closer a mirror is to the original object, the larger the original object will be in the mirror. For us to be filled up with God, we have to get closer to God. The closer we are to God, the greater his reflection will be in us. We should never ever stop or slow the journey of drawing closer to God - and this is our continuous on-going sanctification. Every follower of Jesus Christ is called to a deeper walk with him -- to be made holy. That is God's intent for all of humanity - perfection and sanctification. Neither are an option.
Lord, may this be a day in which I draw closer to you. Amen.
Friday, July 12, 2013
Heb. 9:23 ¶ Thus it was necessary for the sketches of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves need better sacrifices than these.
Heb. 9:24 For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.
Heb. 9:25 Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own;
Heb. 9:26 for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.
Heb. 9:27 And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment,
Heb. 9:28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
The earthly tabernacle was actually a model of heaven and the sacrifices that were made here on earth, represented those that were to be made to God in heaven. The problem was that the earthly followers of God had failed in their walk as God's holy people. Now, what was needed was a better sacrifice. Jesus never entered the Holy of Holies of the tabernacle in Jerusalem. Instead, when Jesus became a sacrifice for all of humanity he entered, not the model of the holy place, but the actual holy place in heaven. It is in this place that he was the better sacrifice. It was not the model of a sacrifice, but it was the real thing in the most holy of all places -- God's own presence. And once this sacrifice was made, no other sacrifice needs to be made because now the model of heaven on earth is in God's living temple -- his people. And his people are not just static models, but they are real representatives of the temple which exists in heaven. As God's people become reflections of him what becomes visible here on earth is the real temple of God and in this way the new kingdom has already come to this earth. The already of the kingdom is here on earth and therefore when Jesus comes again it's not to bring the kingdom, but to bring about the total completion of the kingdom of God. Sin has already been dealt with once and for all by Christ's sacrifice in the holiest of holies, now he will come to bring about the fulfillment and completion of the kingdom for those who are already in his kingdom and awaiting this final day.
The better sacrifice has provided so much for you and for me. This better sacrifice has reached out beyond the realm of the legalism of the sacrifices made by human hands in the earthly temple. Jesus' sacrifice made in the presence of God is one which never needs to be repeated and which brings the hope of transformation in the life of an individual now.
Sadly, too many of us are living in the old sacrifice and not the better sacrifice. Too often we misunderstand the kingdom of God and we try to explain it in the old legalistic terms. This is especially true when it comes to understanding holiness. The Old Testament outlined the idea of being "set apart" for God and the concept of particular items being made "holy to God." This could be done through the earthly temple. There were articles that had been especially consecrated to be used in service to God and they were not to touch the things of this world for if they did, they would be contaminated and again they would need to be cleansed if they were to be used for the worship of God. The list of rules under the old covenant was extensive. It was impossible for anyone to consistently follow each and every single one and those that tried became angry and rigid and enjoyed pointing out everyone else's faults -- including those they thought they saw in Jesus! There remains a temptation to this day to interpret God's holy intents for his people in these legalistic terms. We embrace the idea that we are a part of a "sketch" or "model" of the kingdom that will someday come and we fail to see the victory which has already been won by the better sacrifice.
What happens when we live into the "better sacrifice?" When we live into the "better sacrifice" the old rigid systems are set aside and we embrace our place in the new kingdom. We are living stones within the new kingdom, stones which are to be a reflection of heaven on earth. Often I speak of the importance of reflecting the image. Just imagine what happens here on this earth when all of those who are facing Christ -- the one who has paid the better sacrifice in the presence of God -- are reflecting him on earth. Then that which was done in heaven is already reflected here on earth. Instead of living in the model of what exists in heaven, what exists in heaven can actually be here on earth, lived out in you and in me. This is all a result of the better sacrifice which invites us into a living relationship with God in the heavenly realms. No longer do we have to live in the legalism of the "model" of the kingdom of God, we are privileged to participate in the kingdom of God.
Therefore I am not waiting around for Jesus to come again and take me out of the things happening in this world. Instead, I am already serving him in his kingdom while I live my life in this world. My work as a holy child of God is to be an ambassador for the God's kingdom in everything that I do. This includes the expansion of the God's kingdom here on earth. We are to be ambassadors who are working to bring heaven to earth and we believe this can be done through the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore we do not live in hopeless anticipation of being taken away from what is happening here, instead we live in hopeful joy of what is already happening here and how we can help work within that kingdom to bring about real change. We must look at the world around us on a daily basis and ask how we are to be engaged as citizens of God's kingdom. And all of this is possible because of a better sacrifice.
I'm wondering whether too much of Christianity may be wandering around a dusty old empty and musty tabernacle, trying to follow a list of rules while failing to engage with the living kingdom of God which has been made possible through the better sacrifice of Christ.
Lord, please help me to be drawn to the living kingdom each and every day. Amen.