Aug 18

A Story for Finley

A Story for Finley

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you…

1 John 1-3a NRSV

 

You ask me when I first knew he was God? I can tell you the day and the hour. It was in the Spring of that third year. We were in Perea across the Jordan, on our way to Jerusalem. We had begged him not to go. But he just looked at us, and said, “You still don’t understand, do you?” and turned around and walked on. So what could we do? He was the Messiah after all, odd as that seemed on the surface, and we, ragtag bunch that we were, were going to be his government officials. We would show those Jerusalem bigwigs something – maybe.

About the third watch of the night, I heard him get up. He was doing that a lot those days. He told us he was praying, and I thought I would follow him and try to find out what he was praying about. But the next thing I knew, my eyes popped open and the sun was just about to come up over those eastern hills. I looked up and there he was, sitting on the little knoll just above where we had stretched out to sleep. So I got up as quietly as I could and crept up the hill until I could lay behind a bush off to his side and see him in profile and maybe hear whatever he was saying. But he wasn’t saying anything. He was just sitting there.

Then I became aware of a little bird hopping along the ground, going from bush to bush, until finally it was right at his feet. He looked down at it, and a little smile crossed his lips. Then he held out his forefinger to it, and quick as a flash, the little bird hopped up onto it. It looked at him for a moment, and then opened its beak wider than seemed possible and began to sing at the top of its voice. It wasn’t a very melodious song; the little thing didn’t have the greatest voice, but as it sang the smile on Jesus’ face got wider. Finally, the song ended and the two just looked at each other. I was too far away, of course, to actually see the look in the bird’s eyes, but I knew without any doubt at all that it was a look of absolute adoration, the adoration of a creature for its Creator.

Then Jesus slowly lifted his hand with the bird still perched on his outstretched finger, and raising his eyebrows, nodded. I knew what he was saying. He was saying, “Thank you; now go do what I made you for. Go and fly!” Slowly, almost reluctantly, the little bird raised its wings. Then it leapt into the air and soared away, singing as it went.

Without looking at me, Jesus said, “Good morning, John.” He knew I had been there all along! I got to my knees and looked up, and there on his face was the same little smile that had greeted the bird. I fell on my face. “Dear God, this rather ordinary-looking man, who spoke in the country accents of Galilee, with whom I had talked and laughed, from whose dirty, dusty feet I had sometimes untied sandals, whom I had seen tired, frustrated, crying – was God!” Then I felt a hand on my shoulder, and he said quietly, “Get up, my son.” As I rose to my feet I saw that smile again and on either side of it outstretched arms. I threw myself into his embrace, and in that moment felt the arms of Life about me, and more than that, the arms of Love—Eternal Love. Oh yes, I knew.

Aug 12

The Grace of Holiness

The Grace of Holiness

 

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. 15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.                                                     (Col 3:12-15 NIV)

15 “If you love me, you will obey what I command. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor  to be with you forever–17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.             (John 14:15-18 NIV)

 

God has called His people to live holy lives, lives which manifest His character, especially in our relationships with one another. But whenever we try to do that, we seem to fail. So does God call us to something that He knows we can’t do? Oh no. God calls us to something for which He supplies the energy, the motivation, the life, the love. The Comforter has come – and through him Jesus himself has come (John 14:15-21)! Holiness is nothing other than the work of the Holy Spirit as He reveals in us the character of the Living God: the character of love when we are not loved in return; the character of purity in a world which is increasingly deceptive and immoral; the character of self-forgetfulness in a world that says, “Take care of yourself, baby, for you’re all you’ve got. If you don’t protect yourself, you’ve lost everything.” But Jesus says, “Whoever saves his life will lose it. But whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt 10:39).

Called to holiness and empowered in holiness by the Holy Spirit coming upon our lives. God grant it.

Jul 29

The Mockery of our Enemies

The Mockery of our Enemies

 

After thinking it over, I spoke out against these nobles and officials. I told them, “You are hurting your own relatives by charging interest when they borrow money!” Then I called a public meeting to deal with the problem. At the meeting I said to them, “We are doing all we can to redeem our Jewish relatives who have had to sell themselves to pagan foreigners, but you are selling them back into slavery again. How often must we redeem them?” And they had nothing to say in their defense. Then I pressed further, “What you are doing is not right! Should you not walk in the fear of our God in order to avoid being mocked by enemy nations?                                                    Nehemiah 5:7-9 NLT

 

Mocked by enemy nations? What was Nehemiah thinking about? I suggest that his reasoning was something like this: one, we claim to worship a God who is unique in all the world, who is, in fact, the only God; two, the evidence that our claim is correct is that this God does not act like the other gods; three, evidence for claim two is that he does not value people as those gods do, namely, on the basis of their wealth, their political clout, or their social standing, but values all people equally; four, this is demonstrated by his requirement that if we are in the fortunate position of having money to lend we cannot charge interest if we lend to other members of our nation.

But, in fact, to Nehemiah’s horror, that is exactly what was not happening in Judah. The wealthy were gaining more and more control over the land by forcing the poor to mortgage their property to them to guarantee their loans. Evidently the interest rates were ruinous, with the result that the poor were losing their land, land that actually had been a gift from God.  The rich clearly were not conducting their lives in awe and reverence for God and his commandments (i.e. no fear of God).

What was the result? The result was mockery from the enemy neighbors. I suspect it went something like this: “Oh, you hypocrites! You say your God is the only God because he is different from all the rest and expects a different kind of living from his people. Oh, yeah? Well, then why are you living just like us? You don’t really believe in your so-called God. He is just a convenient crutch you use when it’s to your advantage.”

The application to us is pretty obvious, isn’t it? If we claim that Jesus is the only Savior, and buttress our claims with statements that he can give new life and new living to people he saves, then our lives had better give concrete evidence of that new life. To paraphrase Nehemiah, “Shouldn’t we be determined to show the life of Christ in everything we do so that the enemies of the Gospel will have no grounds to mock him or us?”

Jul 22

Fear or Love

Fear or Love

 

Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.                Acts 9:31 NRSV

Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and of spirit, making holiness perfect in the fear of God.                                                 2 Corinthians 7:1 NRSV

 

In an earlier devotion (65) I wrote about a correct understanding of the fear of God. I said there that it is not the fear of punishment (what John is talking about in 1 John 4:18) but rather a way of living. It is to live with a correct understanding of reality and of your place in it. It is to live carefully and responsibly, in the knowledge that your life is a gift, and that you are accountable for what you do with it.  It is really important to recognize that this is not an Old Testament Idea (obey God because you are afraid of him) that is replaced by the New Testament idea (obey God because you love him).

As the scriptures above show, the fear of God and the love of God go together. Many of my former students remind me of something I have frequently said in class: “If the little God who lives under your bed loves you, that is not particularly good news; but if the God who could fry you alive by looking at you loves you, that is good news.” To have stood at the foot of the Cross and realized what is actually taking place there – that the Eternal, Infinite God, Life itself, is dying for us – should definitely not diminish our awe of God and our determination to do nothing that would hurt or displease him. Rather it should move us to a new dimension of that determination. It should determine us, in the words of the Apostle, to “perfect holiness in the fear of God.”

 

Jul 16

Righteousness, or righteousness?

Righteousness, or Righteousness?

…not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ–the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.                        Philippians 3:9 NIV

In 2017 we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, beginning with Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg cathedral. In many ways, that whole movement has centered around the question of righteousness. Is our acceptance by God dependent upon our righteous behavior, or not? Luther, as so many others before and since, was in despair over his inability to find peace with God although he did everything he knew to live according to every standard of righteousness the Church set forth. Then he came to grips with verses like the one quoted above: righteousness is not the result of our efforts, but the result of faith!

What a relief! He could stop struggling to be good enough for God, and simply trust God through Christ for his righteousness. This is good news. When our behavior not only falls short of what others expect of us, but more than that, of what we expect of ourselves, we can rest in the sufficiency of God’s grace. Ahh!

But is our “righteousness” simply a matter of judicial record? Does God simply account us as righteous because of Christ so that our actual behavior is of little or no importance? This is where a good deal of Protestant thinking has gone in recent years. Surely the truth, as is the case in so many instances, is between the two extremes. Does our acceptance by God depend on how righteous we are? No. But are people in whom the Holy Spirit dwells expected to live righteous lives? Yes!

The issue is: how do I live a Christlike (righteous) life? Do I do it through my own effort? That can only produce pride and bitterness. Or is it the result of dependence on (faith in) Jesus? In that case the result is humility and gratitude. The whole issue is the one of relationship. Righteousness is not the goal – intimacy with Jesus is –  and righteous behavior is the happy, and maybe even inevitable, byproduct.

Jul 10

I Will Praise You

I Will Praise You

 

O LORD, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way?

2 How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand?

5 But I trust in your unfailing love. I will rejoice because you have rescued me.

6 I will sing to the LORD because he is good to me.                                             Psalm 13:1-2, 5-6

 

About half of the psalms in the Bible are in the form of a lament. This form has four characteristic features: direct address to God (such as, “O my Lord”); complaint (“why have you forsaken me,”); petition (“come quickly to my aid”) and a vow of praise in the future (“I will praise you in the great congregation.”)

There is a very profound truth in this form, as seen in Psalm 13. That truth is that complaint and faith are not mutually exclusive. Too often, we have been taught that if you have “real faith,” you will always “look on the bright side,” and will never allow circumstances to “get you down.” So, if when you face real difficulties, you become  down and depressed, and feel as though God has turned his back on you, the obvious conclusion is that you have lost your faith in him. Too often the result of this kind of thinking is that we try to deny what we are really feeling and to pretend to something that is not so. That is not faith; it is only pretense!

What these 75 or more psalms do for us is to give us the permission to be real. To be subject to emotional highs and lows, and to be affected negatively by negative circumstances is simply part of the human condition. To be honest about them is not necessarily a sign of a lack of faith. It is simply to tell God what he already knows, believing that he is big enough to accept it!

But if the psalmists are conscious of the reality of what they are going through and their feelings about that, they are equally certain that God is going to respond to their cries and that the day will come when they will be able to tell everyone what a great God he truly is. Nor is there a hint of emotional blackmail here. There is no “if you answer my prayer, then I will give praise to you.” Praise is simply a certainty. Although it is not true in all cases, in many psalms this vow is stated with completed action verbs. We don’t have such a verb form in English, so we must put it in the future tense. But for the psalmist the praise is already given; it is a “done deal.”

This is faith: the confidence that in spite of the reality of feelings of abandonment and rejection by God, of inexplicable and undeserved pain, he who has proved himself faithful in the past is still at work and that praise for his wonderful grace is a foregone conclusion.

Jul 02

Slaves to Sin or to Righteousness

Slaves to Sin or to Righteousness

 

What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.                  Romans 6:15–18 ESV

 

The apostle Paul is unmistakably clear in his treatment of sin in Romans chapter 6. He says in a variety of ways that there is no place for intentional sin in a believer’s life.  One of his arguments is seen in the passage above. Now that we don’t have to worry about fulfilling the law, does grace give us permission to excuse our intentional sinning, saying “I can’t help it.”? Absolutely not. In fact, it is grace that makes life without intentional sin possible.

He says that one of the problems with sin is that it is addictive; give it place and it will gain control of you and draw you back into its coils and chains and make you unable to live the life of Jesus Christ. If you continue in sin, he says, the lordship of your life will belong to the enemy and not to Jesus Christ. You can no more be partially sinful – we’re talking about intentional sin here – than you can be partially pregnant. Who rules your life? It is the master whose command you cannot help but obey. But “God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart the form of the doctrine to which you were delivered and having been set free from sin, you became slaves to righteousness” (Rom 6:18). Notice that he does not say “set free from sin’s condemnation” or “sin’s guilt,” but “from sin.”

But someone says, “Then what about chapter 7? Surely Paul is saying there that he is unable to stop sinning.” While opinions about this differ, it doesn’t make sense to me that Paul would directly contradict himself from one chapter to the next. So if he is not contradicting chapter 6 with what he says in chapter 7, what is he saying? I think he is speaking out of his experience as a Jew before his conversion, addressing a possible response of some persons to chapter 6. They would be saying, “Oh, ok, Paul, you have convinced me. I need to quit sinning and I will just go ahead and do that.” To such an idea Paul is saying, “Oh no, that won’t work. I tried for years to stop sinning, and could not do it.” In other words, he is setting us up for chapter 8. Yes, we must stop sinning (chap. 6); but we can’t do it on our own (chap. 7); we can only do it by letting the Holy Spirit loose in our lives (chap. 8).

Jun 26

A Royal Priesthood

73   A Royal Priesthood

 

Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.’ This is the message you must give to the people of Israel.”                                    Exodus 19:5-6 NLT

But you are not like that [i.e. stumbling over Christ], for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.                                        1Peter 2:9 NLT

 

At the very outset, at the foot of Mt. Sinai, when Yahweh was preparing his people to receive and accept his covenant, he gave them a vision of what he wanted for them, and indeed, for all his people forever, as Peter recognized. That vision involved a status, a character, and a function. First, they would be his “special possession,” a phrase that speaks of the way he views each of us who hear his voice and give our hearts to him. We are dear to him, like an engagement ring to a bride; something to be treasured and protected and delighted in. Don’t ever forget that; you are not his employee, or worse, his tool. In all his world, you are priceless to him, not because you are useful, but because you are.

But besides a precious status, Yahweh envisioned a particular character. That character reflects his character. Who is he? He is the transcendent sovereign of eternity; the holy king. To belong exclusively to him, the holy king, means to share his distinctive character: God’s people act like he acts as his royal emissaries in the world.

But are we only emissaries? No we are much more than that; our function is to be his royal priests. But what does that mean? What is a priest, particularly in the Biblical context? It is to be a mediator, a go-between, someone who brings sinful people to a righteous, but forgiving God, and someone who brings a forgiving, but righteous God to sinful people.  We are to be windows through whom the world can see God as he really is, and through whom the life-giving rays of heaven’s Sun can shine into darkened lives.

For much of its history, Israel only remembered the first of those three. May we, as those who have not stumbled over Christ, not make the same mistake.

Jun 17

The Destiny of the Servant

The Destiny of the Servant

 

My servant will be successful; he will be high and lifted up; he will be greatly exalted…. Therefore I will assign a portion among the mighty, and he will divide the spoil with the strong….      

Isaiah 52:13; 53:12a [author’s translation]

 

The fourth of the so-called “Suffering Servant Songs” begins at Isaiah 52:12 and continues on to 53:12. When we recognize that fact we discover a very interesting phenomenon. We are used to the descriptions of suffering, degradation, loss, and injustice that characterize the Servant in 53:1-11, and as a result easily overlook the surprising statement in 53:12a. But when we recognize that the poem begins in 52:13, and we see how it begins, we are prepared to realize the significance of that closing statement. In fact, the poem begins and ends on a note of triumph. This is the destiny of the Servant. In spite of all the tragedy and loss – no, because of the tragedy and loss, his mission will be totally successful. [The Heb. word has the connotations of wisdom, prudence, effectiveness (prosperity), and success.]  In the end, he will be in the place of the Victor.

How could Jesus leave heaven for a cow-stall? How could he lay aside the robes of divine glory, and wrap himself in a towel? How could he who had been ministered to by angels take the lowest place? He could do it because he knew who he was! He could do it because he knew how the story ends! On the one hand, he lost everything, and he really did. He was not merely masquerading as a limited, fragile, dying human. It was real.  But at the same time, he knew that he was the Lord, the Prince of Glory. He was armored against the temptation to feel sorry for himself because he knew the destiny of his servanthood.

You and I need that same sense of destiny. Why should we scrabble for position and power in this world, as though this is all there is? Why should we work so hard to protect ourselves and our rights, when we know the end of the story? “Blessed are you when all men revile you and persecute you for my name’s sake, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.” Believe it, and take the lowest place, knowing that the destiny of the servant is triumph.

Jun 10

What Cup?

What Cup?

 

 You will be filled with drunkenness and sorrow, a cup of horror and desolation, the cup of your sister Samaria; you shall drink it and drain it out, and gnaw its shards, and tear your breasts; for I have spoken, declares the Lord GOD. Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Because you have forgotten me and cast me behind your back, you yourself must bear the consequences of your lewdness and whoring.”                                                                         Ezekiel 23:33-35 ESV Thus says your Lord, the LORD, your God who pleads the cause of his people: “Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering; the bowl of my wrath you shall drink no more.

Isaiah 51:22 ESV

And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and aknelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”…. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.                                                             Luke 22:41-42, 44 ESV

 

Have you ever wondered about Gethsemane? Agony? Sweating like drops of blood? What was it about what Jesus was facing that would evoke such terror and revulsion? Yes, the humiliation, the beating, the death on the cross, all the things that were facing Jesus in the next twenty-four hours were terrible to contemplate, but what about all those people down through the ages who faced equally terrible deaths with a song on their lips? Why didn’t Jesus “bear up” better?

 

The answer is in the word that is repeated in all three of the passages above, the word “cup.”

It is a word expressing the experience of consequences. This world that our heavenly Father has made is one of cause and effect. It is not possible to live in defiance of the way in which the world is made, whether physical or spiritual, and then escape the consequences of our actions. Oh, yes, we personally may escape them for a time, but there will be consequences, and someone will experience them.

 

Those consequences are pictured by the Hebrew prophets as a cup filled to the brim with the most ghastly brew: all the hatred, all the tragedy, all the loss, all the missed opportunities, all the petty nastiness stemming from our determination to have our own way. And we will drink it; those consequences can no more be escaped than can the loss of fingers when we unthinkingly reach across a running circular saw for something on the other side.

 

Yes, the “cup” must be drained. But suppose someone else – Someone else – were to drink it for us? The “cup” could be taken out of our hands, and put into his. Now all of a sudden the agony of Gethsemane makes sense. Jesus was not agonizing over the circumstances of his own death, terrible as it was. He was agonizing over the hideous thought of having to drink the devil’s brew in our cup, the cup of all humanity: all the hurt, all the grief, all the terror, all the evil of all time, and in the end, for him who is Life alone, the Death of us all. Who in their right mind would willingly do that? Only one who was motivated by a bottomless love, a love for his Father whom he lived to please, and a love for the poor, pitiful creatures whom he had made for love.

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