Thursday, December 16, 2010
Now, obviously, the incarnation isn’t saying that only the material aspect of this world is important. No one has ever relied more on the spiritual side of life than Jesus Christ. But Jesus also made plain that the spiritual and the physical are anything but enemies of one another. He fed the hungry; he gave sight to the blind; he touched the leper. In every instance, the physical not only gave testimony to the spiritual, but was tied up with it. Physical healing served as the evidence of God’s kingdom come. Even at his departure, Jesus left his church with the most physical reminders of his presence: the cold, wet waters of baptism, the warm, delicious taste of the bread, the deep, crimson color of the wine. The physical and spiritual inseparably tied up together.
So, this Christmas, some of us need to be a little more materialistic. That is we need to value the matter we find around us. No, I don’t mean all the gadgets and gizmos we find for sale in the market, but the salespeople we meet, the beggars we pass, the neighbor we greet, the family we welcome home. Each and every one of them a soul, yes, but a soul that enlivens flesh and blood. Matter that matters enough to God for him to become one of us. May they be important to us, as well.
Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? – James 2:15-16.
Thursday, December 9, 2010
All of this has me wondering about other kinds of secrets, namely, our secrets. A recent study by the University of Michigan revealed that many of us lie about how often we go to church. The research revealed not so much that we intentionally deceive pollsters about our church attendance so much as we have a tendency to deceive ourselves. We consider ourselves more faithful than we really are. Our words match our perception of ourselves but not our actual church-skipping selves. My guess is that church attendance isn’t the only area of life in which we inflate our sense of righteousness. Jeremiah explained that our hearts are “deceitful above all things.” To put it another way, every heart carries around its fair share of secrets.
At first, we might take some consolation in the truth that WikiLeaks has no access to the chambers of our hearts. But that does mean our soul’s thoughts belong to us alone? No. Jesus once told the crowds, “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs” (Luke 12:2-3). God certainly knows whether or not the words of our mouth match the conditions of our hearts. At face value, that’s terrifying news, that God knows our deeds (just read through Jesus’ letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 for an example).
The good news? God knows who we are better than we know ourselves, and loves us anyway. God’s coming, his revealing (of both himself and our hearts) isn’t meant to embarrass us (though it might very well do that) but to bring us salvation. His Truth, if received, sets us free from the need to keep secrets even from ourselves. I mean, if God loves me even though I am a sinner – is there any need to pretend that I am something else? If God loves me despite my faults, why the pretense of perfection? The only person we fool in such instances is ourselves. Better to come clean and be free.
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Came across this quote while reading a delightful little book, Letters to Children by C.S. Lewis. The book is, as the title indicates, a collection of various letters Lewis wrote to children.
In one of those notes, he writes to a God-daughter this advice:
Oh - I'd nearly forgotten - I have one other piece of advice. Remember that there are only three kinds of things anyone need ever do. (1) Things we ought to do (2) Things we've got to do (3) Things we like doing. I say this because some people seem to spend so much of their time doing things for none of the three reasons, things like reading books they don't like because other people read them. Things you ought to do are things like doing one's school work or being nice to people. Things one has got to do are things like dressing and undressing, or household shopping. Things one likes doing - but of course I don't know what you like. Perhaps you'll write and tell me one day.
At face value, this strikes me as an ingenious way of looking at one's daily activities - there are things we do out of obedience (to God, to our promises to others, etc); there are things we do out of necessity (like eating, breathing, etc.), and then there are things we do because we enjoy them. Each category has it's own pleasures and obviously they can overlap. I ought to love my kids, and very often I enjoy loving them. I need to eat and very often delight in the process (maybe too often!).
But the categories remind us that we do not always like the things we need or ought to do. I don't like to discipline/correct my children, but I ought to, for their own good. The opposite is also true, I am, in God's good grace, allowed to do some things for the pure enjoyment of them (so long as they do not violate God's will). My guess is that art and music and all manner of fun fall into this category.
Most importantly, the three categories appear to describe those things that are necessary for a well formed/lived life. Each category, in it's own way, contributes to a life well lived. This gets to the heart of Lewis' advice - if something doesn't fit one of these categories - toss it. As we might say, "Life's too short."
I wonder, what things do you do because you ought to (even if you don't like to do them)? What things do you like to do purely for the joy of it? What might you need to stop doing for the simple fact that you need not do it, you are under no obligation to do it, nor do you enjoy doing it? How might your life be different if you gave this activity up?
Thursday, December 2, 2010
It’s only December 2nd, and yet, many of us may already be tired of waiting for Christmas to arrive. For some of us, especially the little ones among us, it’s difficult to wait for the presents to arrive. For others, our struggles with waiting take an entirely different form. We’re trying to wait out Christmas, get it over with, get past it, so we can get back to our routine, get back to normal. Perhaps, Christmas with its gatherings and celebrations paints too stark of a contrast to our own loneliness and grief. We can’t wait to be done with it. But we must, for neither in joy or sorrow can we speed up the clock.
What makes waiting easier? Company. Not any company mind you. There are some people who only increase our pain, but there are others who are able to encourage our faith and deepen our hope and who help us to wait. Mary and Elizabeth were both waiting for a tremendous promise to be fulfilled. These promises were not without their costs. To receive these gifts would alter their lives tremendously. Plans had to change. Friends would be lost. Family would turn their backs on them. Without one another, they would have been all alone. But even God seems to understand that waiting alone is a struggle almost too great to bear.
So God gives us each other - that we may hold one another’s hands, sit by each other’s side, and voice one another’s prayers. After all, prayer, as Henri Nouwen put it, is “coming together around a promise.” Such were the prayers of Elizabeth and Mary. Such can be our prayers as well, so long as we’ll learn to pray for and with one another.
Father, today, we your people confess that it is often difficult to wait on you. But we do wait, trusting that the God who has come shall come again. Until that day, we wait together, believing that this life together is an important part of your plan. Amen.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Read: Revelation 18:1-22:21
Verse that stood out: Behold, I am coming soon! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book - Revelation 22:7
Yesterday we entertained the possibility that the book of Revelation is not intended to answer the question "Are we there yet?" Instead, its main purpose is to help us answer a different question, "What are we here for, until we get there?" John answers that question way back in his introduction to the seven churches of Asia Minor, “Grace and peace.” Yes, that’s right – the purpose of this book is to bring us grace and peace for today. Notice, he doesn’t say, “Grace and peace when Jesus comes back.” No, the implication is that through this revelation of Jesus Christ, grace and peace can be yours today.
How can we have grace and peace today? Well, for one thing, the book of Revelation assures us that God has not and will not give up on the world. New Testament scholar Mitchell Reddish put it this way, “The book of Revelation does not present a picture of a God who has given up on the world and is ready to discard it. The message of Revelation is that God is the creator of the world. This world is God’s ‘baby,’ God’s creation. Rather than discard it, God seeks to save it, to rid it of its beasts and its monstrous evils, to drive out its dragons, to purge it of its impurities.” So if God, in his grace, hasn’t given up on the world (and us in it!), then we can live in peace today no matter our circumstances.
Not only can we have peace, but we can persevere. If God hasn't given up on us then we can keep holding fast to him. No matter our trials, no matter our troubles, we keep living towards Christ's return trusting that "our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us" (Romans 8:18). How do we live towards Christ's return? How do we keep from giving up on God? By extending God's grace to others. By refusing to give up on each other.
We live out the kingdom come's values when we refuse to give on the kid who’s hooked on drugs. After all, there will be no beasts of addiction in God's future kingdom. We live our the kingdom come's values when we refuse to accept poverty or hunger as simply the way things are. After all, when the Lord comes we'll all dine in abundance at the Lord's great banqueting table. We refuse to give up on God when we refuse to give up on our attempts to live in unity here on earth. After all, the holy city is not a segregated city (not racially, not denominationally, not economically!) Think of the Christian you like the least. He or she’s going to be right there next to you singing God’s praises! So to be faithful to God's vision, keep doing your best to live it out here in anticipation of there.
While we can do anything to usher in God's kingdom come, we can certainly be its ambassadors until it does.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Read: Jude; Revelation 1:1-17:18
Verse that stood out: Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near - Revelation 1:3
The year was 1988, I was in the fifth grade, and the hot topic of the day on the playground was whether or not we thought Jesus would be coming back before we died. I don’t even remember who brought it up (I sure didn’t – my church didn’t spend a lot of time on the issue), but I do remember the general consensus – yes, Jesus was coming back before we died. Maybe someone in my class had gotten a hold of one of the hot books that year, 88 Reasons Why the Rapture will be in 1988 by Edgar C. Whisenant, a retired NASA rocket engineer living in Little Rock at the time. Over six million copies were either sold or handed out leading up to that year. I don’t know how many people it convinced, but the filter down affect had many in my class convinced that we wouldn’t make it out of the fifth grade. It had something to do with the Russians.
Needless to say, I was a little concerned. I personally was not ready for Jesus to come back. Don’t get me wrong. I was a believer. I was glad to have Jesus in my heart – I just wasn’t ready to see Him in the clouds. What I was ready for (or at least thought I was) was for a girlfriend. My guess was, there was no kissing in heaven, and I was pretty sure I wanted to try that out before I got there. Fortunately, Jesus didn’t come back in 1988, or 1989, or 1990, or well – it took me a while to get that first kiss. Let’s just say I’m glad we have a patient God.
While I may have eventually gotten that first kiss, there was a casualty of 1988. And I don’t mean Edgar C. Whisenant. Apparently, he was undaunted by Jesus failure to return, made a few adjustments to his calculations and released a new version – you guessed it, 89 Reasons Why the Rapture will Be in 89. I don’t think it sold as well. I sure wasn’t buying. For the casualty of 1988 was my interest in the book of Revelation. From about that time period onward I just didn’t pay any attention to prophesies or predictions. And I didn’t ever open my Bible to the book of Revelation. “Why bother?” I thought. It’s like asking “Are we there yet?” on a long trip only to have your dad yell back at you, “We’ll get there when we get there.”
I’ll be honest with you, that was pretty much my attitude until just a few years ago when thanks to Dr. David Garland, my New Testament professor at Truett challenged me and my classmates to question our basic assumptions about the basic purpose of the book. What if Revelation wasn’t meant to answer the question, “Are we there yet?” Most of us didn’t think that was a question that could be answered in the first place. Jesus, himself had said, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32). So, my professor asked, “What’s Revelation there for? Why’s it in the Bible? Is God just trying to confuse us?” I certainly didn’t think that. I remembered a saying of Elisabeth Elliot’s that went something like, “Don’t you believe the shepherd wants to get the sheep where they need to go even more than the sheep want to get there?” God loves us. He’s not trying to trick us.
Now, Revelation obviously speaks something of the future. It speaks repeatedly of the second coming of Christ, of the coming of a new heaven and a new earth – all future events. But if the purpose isn’t to ask “Are we there yet?,” what’s all that future talk there for? Just maybe, like all of the prophets of the Old Testament, John’s prophecy is meant to be less of a fortune telling and more of a forth telling. Yes the prophets give glimpses of God’s future plans, but they do so that they might give a relevant word for today. John tells us about Christ’s return, not so we can mark it on our calendars, but so that we might live more faithfully today. Maybe the question Revelation seeks to give an answer to is, “What are we here for, till we get there?”
More tomorrow . . .
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 86
Read: James 3:13-5:20; 1 & 2 Peter; 1, 2, & 3 John;
Verse that stood out: How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! - 1 John 3:1
God’s love is so different from most of the pseudo-loves we encounter in this world that the very idea of it leaves many people doubting whether or not they could really be considered God’s children. "No one could love me like that," we think. The apostle John seems prepared for our objections: “You say it isn’t so? That God couldn’t love us to the point of making sinful humans his own children? We’ll frankly, it doesn’t matter what you think. For God calls us his children and that is what we are!” I like his phrasing. Sometimes we can get far too wrapped up in what we think about things. Self-expression seems to be both the blessing and the curse of our generation. All around us people are constantly telling us what they are thinking. We are no longer a world that values expert testimony. We want to know what the common man thinks about things.
Take Facebook for example. This social networking site has exploded in just a couple of years. Why? Pretty simple really. Facebook lets you almost constantly keep your several hundred closest friends updated as to what you are thinking. That primarily takes the form of status updates – short little blurbs about what you are doing or thinking.
Taylor is playing with his kids.
Alyson is reading a book.
Matt is thinking he’ll go to Double Dave's for lunch.
Fascinating stuff isn’t it? For awhile, those status updates started including a lost of top five lists. John’s top five movies. Carey's top five cereals. One time, I even had this one come across my screen: Michael’s top five people he’d like to punch in the face.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong in any of this (OK, maybe there is with that last one). Mostly, these sights are just a way to keep of with friends and have a little fun. But the subtle danger is that we can mistakenly come to believe that what’s most important in this world is what we think about something – that our thoughts somehow define reality. This can be especially true when it comes to what we believe about God. I mean it sounds correct to say, the most important thing in the world is what you think about God. It might sound good, but it’s wrong.
Here’s the thing, we think a lot of different things about God. Some of us think of God as an authoritative judge out to get those who do wrong. Others think of God as a hippie dude in the sky just out to help everyone have a good time. Still others imagine God as an absentee father who God this whole world started but has since checked out. Sometimes one individual may think all these things jumbled up together. Yes, people have lots of different views of God, but that doesn’t really change who God is. We can be wrong about God. Our feelings about God can certainly come and go, but ultimately what we need to know, what matters most is what does God thinks of us.
C. S. Lewis, in his classic address, “The Weight of Glory,” put it this way:
How God thinks of us is not only more important [than how we think of him], but infinitely more important. Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except insofar as it is related to how He thinks of us. It is written that we shall ‘stand before’ Him, shall appear, shall be inspected. The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God. To please God . . . to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness. . . to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son – it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But it is so.Whether or not we fully understand it, whether or not we feel it, it is so. God loves us and has made us his children. God doesn’t pity us. He delights in us. We are a very real ingredient in the divine happiness. It may be too much for us to grasp, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
Monday, November 15, 2010
Read: Hebrews; James 1:1-3:12
Verse that stood out: Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us - Hebrews 12:1
I read somewhere recently about the increasing irrelevance of last names. Once upon a time, one's surname connected a person to his or her family. The mention of someone's surname carried with it not simply that person's identity, but that of their parents, grand-parents, great-great grandparents, as well. This was especially true if your family had lived in the same place for a long time. For good or for ill, your last name meant something.
In today's transient world, last names are still family names, but families are no longer connected. It may be important to me that my name connects me with my parents, but since I know longer live near them, my surname doesn't carry with it any of my parents' reputation. It doesn't give anyone in my current community a "heads up" about where or from whom I've come.
This new world is neither good nor bad (some people are glad to escape their family's reputation!) bad, except for the reality that people are communal people. We want to belong. We want to have people that are our people. It doesn't so much matter if they're related by blood as much as it matters that there is some genuine connection. In a world that's more and more disconnected from familial ties, what identifier will take the place of a surname?
Before the use of surnames, genealogies played the role of identifying us with our people. That's why genealogies show up so often in the Bible. For Israel, who was often in exile, remembering who their people were, was of utmost importance. But who could the church look to as their people? They were a hodge-podge of ethnicity's and people, most without any kind of pedigree. Who could be their people? The book of Hebrews gives them a list, all those who in the past have lived by faith. These were and continue to be the church's people. This rag-tag group of believers were now forever connected to a great cloud of witness. So now, no matter where this life takes them, they are a people of faith.
Sunday, November 14, 2010
Read: Galatians 3:26-6:18; Ephesians; Colossians; 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon
Verse that stood out: Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me - Philippians 3:12
I don't know what happened yesterday. I got up. I actually read the day's reading. Then got going with kids and football games and never made it back to blog. Never even thought about it really. Eighty-two days of doing something. You'd think it would be quite the habit - and then I just forgot. Oh, well. The blogging everyday has been a good discipline, but it's been more difficult than I thought. Weekend posts have definitely been a little weak, anyway. I may have to do an extra post to make up for the missed one later in the week. The readings end on Thursday, so I have a few extra days before the final sermon in this series.
As to today's reading (actually yesterday's), I've always loved Paul's deep sense of purpose in the book of Philippians. All that forgetting what's behind, pressing on towards what's ahead. His words remind me that as Christians, we are to be a forward looking people (not just looking forward to finishing with our reading the Bible through!). We're to have our eyes pointed forward towards God's kingdom come, always on the lookout for the places and ways God's kingdom is breaking into the world and our lives today.
We believe his coming is a sure thing, so we can go ahead and live full out attempting to lay hold of that for which Christ has already laid hold of us. Think of anytime a special family member has been on their way to visit. How much effort we put forth getting things ready for their coming! Their visit is a grace, a gift. We don't deserve their coming, but their furture arrival inspires us to prepare for their future presence. We don't do this so that we can earn their visit, but so that we may honor their coming. When we are especially excited by a future visit, say in the ancipation of a newborn's arrival, our preparations are a kind of reaching forward into the future in an attempt to lay hold of their visit which is to come.
In much the same way we live today in joyful anticipation of Christ's return. Through our lives and our worship we prepare our hearts and this world for his coming. Through our faithfulness we reach into the future to lay hold of that moment when he once and for all, lays hold of us.
Friday, November 12, 2010
Read: 1 Corinthians 15:1-16:24; 2 Corinthians; Galatians 1:1-3:25
Verse that stood out: This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God's people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God - 1 Corinthians 9:12
I've always found Paul's instructions to the Corinthians concerning generosity encouraging. There's a little arm twisting, but not much. Mainly, there is an open invitation to give generously as a way towards joy. You aren't to give until it hurts so much as you are to give until it results in true joy, yours and everyone else's. Paul concludes the section by encouraging that Corinthians that as a result of their gifts, others are praising God. Anyone whose ever been a part of a project that brings much needed resources to a people in need knows what this is like. To see people rejoice over the simplest of gifts, a shoebox filled with toys, a water well, a hot meal, it reminds us that far from being an obligation, giving is a privilege.
Thursday, November 11, 2010
Read: Romans 15:1-1 Corinthians 14:40
Verse that stood out: You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, honor God with your body - 1 Corinthians 6:19-20
According to advertisers and rock stars, the great goal of the modern-Western project is to be one's own man or woman. Never mind that reality confirms that none of us are where we are all on our own. In our culture, a person is deemed valuable, successful if they are self-made, self-aware, self-actualized. Be your own man. Be your own woman. Don't let anyone tell you what to do. You gotta do what makes you happy. To be owned is to be shamed, played, degraded by another.
And yet, right in the middle of the New Testament are these words, "You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, honor God with your body." It doesn’t get more counter cultural than that – you aren’t your own person, you are owned by another, so act like it. The paradox of the gospel is that being owned is the only way to true life. Remember, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables?
There, the story is told of a Jean Valjean, a criminal, who is released from a life of hard labor into the world to fend for himself. A law breaker, he is unable to find work or even lodging. He can do what he wants, but doing what he wants doesn’t get him very far. He is dead in his supposed freedom. He’s taken in by a humble bishop. The bishop feeds Valjean supper and gives him a place to sleep. Life in prison, however, has made Valjean a hardened man. He knows no gratefulness. During the night he sneaks through the house, steals the silver and makes out into the darkness.
Soon, however, Valjean is apprehended by the police who drag him back to the bishop’s house. Before the police can get out much of an explanation for their arrival the Bishop interrupts:
“Ah, there you are,” said he, looking towards Jean Valjean, “I am glad to see you. But! I gave you the candlesticks also, which are silver like the rest, and would bring two hundred francs. Why did you not take them along with your plates?” Hugo writes that “Jean Valjean opened his eyes and looked at the Bishop with an expression which no human tongue could describe.”
Well, there is some back and forth between the police and the bishop, but ultimately, without the Bishop’s cooperation the police have no case – so they let Valjean go. Hugo continues the story:
Jean Valjean felt like a man who is just about to faint. The Bishop approached him, and said, in a low voice: ‘Forget not, never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man.’
Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of this promise, stood confounded. The Bishop had laid much stress upon these words as he uttered them. He continued solemnly: ‘Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying or you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!”
While the story takes a while to unfold, we eventually come to realize that Jean Valjean had indeed been transformed by mercy, and he would therefore, from that day forth live his life in view of another’s mercy. Valjean was no longer his own man. He was owned by another.
As a Christian, we are not our own. We can't just do whatever we want, even if doing so makes us happy. We are not self-made people. We have been saved, rescued, bought by Christ's sacrifice on the cross. Therefore, we must do what God wants us to do. In the context of 1 Corinthians, we can't just do whatever makes us feel good sexually, we must honor God with our bodies. In the context of the rest of the New Testament, every aspect of our lives are included. No longer can we simply think about our own interests, we must spend our lives focused upon the glory of God and the well-being of others.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Read: Acts 28:17-Romans 14:23
Verse that stood out: In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God - Romans 8:26-27
Reading the Bible through in 90 days hasn't been the easiest thing I've ever attempted. Blogging about the journey certainly hasn't. I don't always have something to say. That doesn't mean the Bible doesn't have something to say. Or more specifically, that God doesn't have anything to say through the scriptures. He does. But there is always a distance between "Thus saith the Lord" and my words. Sometimes more than others.
Romans is a spectacular book of the Bible. Its words have shaped some of Christianity's brightest thinkers - Luther, Barth, etc. There is a lot to write on in this book. And yet when you read it in a day, it's difficult to narrow in on anything. I find comfort in Paul admitting that often we don't know what to say, or what to pray for. On the one hand, often the world's struggles leave us at a loss for words. On the other, God's majesty and mercy and sheer otherness leave us searching for any word that could capture God.
Our hopes, our fears, God's greatness, God's love, they each defy description at times. Paul assures us, we don't always have to have a word in order to be faithful. Thank God.
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
Read: Acts 16:38-28:16
Verse that stood out: When his accusers got up to speak, they did not charge him with any of the crimes I had expected. instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive - Acts 25:18-19
This week Alyson asked me to pull some of her old children's books down from the attic for our daughter whose beginning to read with gusto. Among the eight boxes of books that I hoisted down from the attic happened to be one that contained all of my childhood yearbooks. It had been years since I'd looked through them. Slowly I flipped through the pages laughing at the inscriptions made by friends - comments about girls, and grades, and all manner of things that occupied our childhood minds. How such comments seemed to be what life was all about in those days! Now, I can hardly remember anything they reference.
No doubt at the same time as we were signing those yearbooks, significant things were happening in the world around us. History making things like the fall communism or world altering advances like the creation of the Internet. For the most part, such events go unmentioned. We were either unaware or unconcerned. Even those unmentioned historical events are probably not as significant in our personal lives as a myriad of other events that went unreported - the divorce of parents, the death of a friend, a simple conversation that opened up glorious new possibilities.
I'm reminded that the things we often think are most important in life, turn out to be not so monumental. The side stories, the overlooked moments, the unmentioned occasions, these can in turn become the most significant moments of all. As the book of Acts unfolds, the reader witnesses the birth of the church, really the birth of Christianity, a movement that would alter the world as we know it. At the time, however, it was a side story in the culture at large. Just a blip on the radar screen, really, in the lives of most, including the lives of the Roman officials like Felix, Festus, and Agrippa.
These three leaders make appearances in the book of Acts. In each case, they show about as much interest in the early Christians as we do in an evening TV show. They pay attention, briefly, but then they go to bed and forget what it is they just watched. In fact, by the next week, they probably won't remember it all, their memory of the encounter drowned out by a myriad of other more "important" events. While most of the other events that drew their attention have faded from history's collective memory, this side story of a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive? That story continues on.
Monday, November 8, 2010
Read: Acts 6:8-16:37
Verse that stood out: In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor. . . when [Peter] arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them - Acts 9:36, 39
The story of Tabitha is remarkable primarily because she is brought back to life from the dead. The Bible tells us that many believed in the Lord after learning of this great miracle. Apparently, hearing about the gospel from a person who used to be dead but now is alive is a powerful experience.
A close reading of the story, however, reminds us that our lives can have that kind of effect on folks even without the miracles. After all, Tabitha's spectacular come-back-to-life story was preceded by the most ordinary of actions: a woman using her God given talents with a needle and thread to bless those around her. These clothes, these tangible expressions of love, were making a mark in her community long before the extraordinary story of her resuscitation. So much so, that when Tabitha died, the whole community was deeply moved because she had lived so well, "always doing good and helping the poor." They brought the clothes Tabitha had made for them and laid them at the apostles' feet, a memorial to Tabitha's love.
This story reminds me of two things. First, God does sometimes does move in miraculous ways. That's his prerogative. Second, God more often moves in the most ordinary of ways - through the faithful deeds of his people. That's our responsibility. Tabitha made clothes for Jesus. What are you doing for him?
Sunday, November 7, 2010
read John 15:18-Acts 6:7
Verse that stood out: "Go, stand in the temple courts," he said, "and tell the people the full message of this new life" - Acts 5:20
My calling into the ministry was not a spectacular one. No vision from heaven like many of the prophets we've been reading about. Just a nagging sense that if I believed what I read in the pages of the scripture, I couldn't give my life to anything else. I don't even remember any one moment when I decided to be a minister. I do remember this verse resonating with me as a teenager: "Go stand and speak to the people in the temple the whole message of this Life" (from the NASB).
A lot has changed since those days. I have fewer answers for life's troubles. I'm certain about far less than I once was. Many of the doctrines I once held dear I now consider secondary at best. But, I do still believe this story of Jesus, the one we call the Christ, is the whole message of this life. That when we proclaim the story of of his death, the story of his resurrection, the hope of his return, we proclaim the very essence of what life is all about. In some ways, even though I understand less than ever, I find myself believing all the more.
Saturday, November 6, 2010
Read: John 6:1-John 15:17
Verse that stood out: I am the vine; you are the branches. If a person remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing - John 15:5.
One of the most difficult things to do in life is just be. Have you ever noticed that? To wait. To continue on with the slow deliberate prodding that bring success. We want things now and in a hurry. Diet and Exercise take too long to reduce the inches; we want pills or surgeries that give instant results. We don’t want to work and save; we’d rather win the lottery. Just look at the poor careers of coaches and CEO’s. I’ve decided I never want to be either of those professions. A coach is given one, maybe two years to turn around a program that hasn’t seen a win in a decade. A CEO’s success is not measured even in years anymore, but in quarters. We want success and we want it now.
This desire for quick results bleeds over into our spiritual lives. We want things easy and we want them quick. We want the three spiritual laws to happiness. Just implement these three things today and by this afternoon you’ll be a spiritual giant. We think a weekend conference or that new paper back book that can be read in a couple of afternoons will bring about instant Christian maturity. We want the feeling of maturity, without the work to achieve it. Preachers jump on the bandwagon with the 10 keys to success at everything. I’m not trying to be critical, I’m sure much of what they say is good and applicable and helpful, but to me it just gives the wrong impression. Can spiritual maturity really come about in 10 easy steps?
Jesus seems to take a different angle. In several agonizing chapters in the gospel of John, he leaves his disciples with some last instructions on what it means to be a disciple. He promises them the guiding of the Holy Spirit. He talks a good long while about obedience. He talks about his own impending persecution and death and then also about the disciples’ similar fates. Nothing sounds easy, nothing sounds quick. Right in the middle of this last discourse we find these words “If a [person] remains in me and I in him . . . If you remain in me and my words remain in you . . . remain in my love . . . remain in the [Father’s] love.” I like the NASB and the KJV, “Abide in me.” Abide isn't a word we use very much. It means the same as remain, it just sounds slower, more permanent. Maybe because so many of us don’t remain anywhere for very long. Ours is a culture on the go. We want to rush to the promise, “Ask whatever you wish and it will be given you . . . you will bear much fruit . . . your joy may be complete.” We want the result without the stipulation. Abide. Remain. Be still.
Friday, November 5, 2010
Read: Luke 20:20-John 5:47
Verse that stood out: The men who were guarding Jesus began mocking and beating him. They blindfolded him and demanded, “Prophesy! Who hit you?” And they said many other insulting things to him - Luke 22:63-65
Mocking someone else is one of the easiest ways to feel better about oneself. Put another person down and for some odd reason, you feel lifted up. Who knows what our thought process is? "I may be sorry, but I'm not as sorry as you?" is that what we think? What pitiful judges of character we are. We mock the very Son of God. It wasn't just the soldiers, after all, who belittled the Messiah. We do, too, everytime we mock one made in his image.
Thursday, November 4, 2010
Read: Luke 10:1-20:19
Verse that stood out: "You have answered correctly," Jesus replied, "Do this and you will live?" - Luke 10:28
In Luke 10, an expert in the law approaches Jesus. In keeping with his professional training as a lawyer, he approaches asking questions. Good questions. He begins with the question of all questions, in fact, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, as any good teacher might, answers with a question of his own. “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” The young man jumps at the opportunity to showcase his learning and answers with words consistent with Jewish teachings of the day, and surprisingly, words close to Jesus’ own teachings, “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind;’ and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
I’m sure the young man bit his lip to conceal a smile as Jesus confirmed that he had read well. But I wonder if the smile faded when Jesus made clear that reading well wasn’t the key to participating in the Kingdom of God? One must also do what one has read in order to truly live. That is after all what the young man asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus had caught him in his own words.
The sharp, young lawyer quickly picked up on Jesus’ prodding, and asks a second question, “Who is my neighbor?” The question “Who is my neighbor?” is really the question of who they’re not. The young man basically wanted to know “Where does my neighborhood end? Where is that line that separates us from them? What distinguishes those for whom I am responsible from those for whom I am not?” For if someone isn’t my neighbor then they’re pretty much a stranger. And we all know that strangers aren’t that far removed from being enemies. And no one would be expected to love their enemies, would they?
At this point Jesus continues the conversation by telling a story. What initially looks like an answer to the man’s question ends up being an extended opening to another question. Jesus wants to move the conversation from asking, “Who is my neighbor?” or “Where does my neighborhood end?” to the far more important inquiry “Am I a part of God’s neighborhood? Am I a resident of the coming Kingdom of God?” Jesus does this by first exposing the unhelpfulness of “Who is my neighbor?” kinds of questions with the story of a man who became a victim of the notoriously dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Robbed of even his clothes, beaten, and left for dead we find ourselves with a man who has no identity other than his need. Is he a neighbor, someone I know, or a foreigner? It’s hard to tell with all the bruises on his face. Is he a Jew or a Gentile? A respectable man or an outlaw, himself? Without clothes or other cultural markers one can’t be sure. It reminds us that the vast majority of the ways we divide one another up are pretty artificial. Naked and in need we’re all more alike than we care to admit. We’re all potential neighbors, even if we were once (or still remain) so called enemies.
As the story unfolds, Jesus continues to challenge assumptions by warning that just as it’s not always easy to recognize our neighbors, it is equally difficult to pick out those who are the neighbors of God. The two obvious residents of God’s subdivision, a priest and a Levite (perhaps coworkers of the young lawyer) each take turns happening upon the wounded man and each for reasons unknown, pass by on the other side without rendering aid. Did their hearts struggle with the decision to stop or not? Were they just cowards? Jesus doesn’t say and his silence indicates that their motivations for refusing to show compassion were irrelevant . . . whether ill or well intentioned, the outcome was the same.
In contrast to the Priest and the Levite Jesus introduces a Samaritan. For the original listeners, the Samaritan was a clear outsider, a religious heretic, one whose countrymen have already shown themselves hostile to Jesus and his disciples just the chapter before. But this Samaritan acts against type and actually does something good. He does much good. Having compassion on the man, he tends to his wounds, places him on his own donkey, and takes him to an inn where he cares for him all night long and then gives two full days worth of wages to the inn keeper with the promise of more.
Who is a neighbor in God’s kingdom? Remarkably, not the ones with the best theology. Not the ones with the best answers. Not even the ones who’ve read the Bible through in 90 days. No, the one who shared the same zip code as the Almighty according to Jesus was the one who shared in the Lord’s compassion for the wounded man. Even the lawyer could see that. The question remains though, did he go and do likewise? I wonder, will we?
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Read: Luke 2:1-9:62
Verse that stood out: Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him - Luke 5:13
Luke's gospel spends a lot of time on people who lived on the fringes of society, like the man with leprosy in Luke 5. The word leprosy was used for a variety of skin diseases in Jesus day. Any one of them would have exiled this man to life outside of his community. His request to Jesus, "Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean" hints at an isolated life. A life in which few were willing to do much of anything for or with him. The law even required him to shout out "Unclean" anytime he approached another soul.
How remarkable the words of Christ, "I am willing." How significant the Savior's touch. How restorative his command, "Be clean!" Not only did it bring healing to the man's skin, it brought reconciliation, allowing the man to return to community life. He would be unclean no more.
We've all felt isolated, lonely, unclean before. Many of still do. Often we're unable to find someone who is willing to enter into our exiled lives. Christ is willing. His presence can make us clean.
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Read: Mark 9:14-Luke 1:80
Verse that stood out: So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.” Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus - Mark 10:49.
Jesus invites two people to follow him in Mark 10. One followed. One did not. One had riches he could not let go of. The other owned only a cloak and he gladly tossed to the ground. One went off in sorrow. The other followed Jesus with joy. Prior to these encounters with Jesus, all would have preferred the life of the rich young man over that of the blind Bartimaeus. After? Well, at least for one chapter, the last become first, and the first last.
Monday, November 1, 2010
Read: Matthew 26:57-Mark 9:13
Verse that stood out: When [the townspeople] came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid - Mark 5:15
What makes something frightening? Lots of children found my costume frightening last night, even though all I had on was one of those dollar store disguises. You know, the ones with the glasses, big nose, and mustache. I thought I looked pretty tame compared to the vampires and werewolves all around me. But what do I know. I wouldn't think a man sitting calmly and "in his right mind" would be all that frightening either. But according to Mark 9, this man, this normal man struck fear in the hearts of ordinary townsfolk. Why? Well, just that morning he'd been anything but normal. For years, he'd lived in the graveyard up in the hill a menace to himself and all who drew near. He'd been demon possessed. Now . . . now he sat like a man in complete control of himself. He was a man at peace. And he was scaring the living daylights out of his neighbors more now than ever before.
It's not that we like the brokenness and the evil of this world. It's just, we've grown so accustomed to it. We've learned to live in the midst of evil, even if doing so means banishing those who are the most broken to the hills. We've learned to expect sorrow. We've learned to tolerate pain. We've had to in order to survive. In the process we've so organized our lives around the brokenness of this world, that when the power of God shows up we're left terrified, not by evil, but by the good. Remember, the first reaction to the resurrection wasn't joy but fear.
I don't guess it can be any other way for us, so long as we remain in a world where normal is really abnormal. God's breaking in is going to terrify us, just like any kind of surprising interruption does. The real issue isn't whether or not the moves of God scare us (they will!), but rather, what we do after the initial fright passes by? Do we like the townspeople in Mark 9, ask Jesus to leave, preferring the normalcy of evil over the unpredictability of the good? Or, or do we take a leap of faith and ask to frightened all over again?
Sunday, October 31, 2010
Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 70
Read: Matthew 16:1-26:56
Verse that stood out: "Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?" he asked Peter. "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak" Matthew 26:40-41.
In my office hangs this painting from the Chinese artist He Qi. I like it for a number of reasons. One, it reminds me of my fecklessness. I realize that's a weird thing to want to be reminded of, but we're all so good at self deception. My job makes it easy for me to pretend like I'm focused on the things of the kingdom. When it comes down to it, though, most of my day is spent in a self-centered stupor. I struggle to live out the kingdom's mandates in the simplest of tasks. I have trouble staying awake - to the person next to me, to what God is doing in me, to what God might want from me. I'm asleep more often than I care to admit.
But He Qi's work also reminds me of Christ's faithfulness in the middle of my faithlessness. My inattentiveness stands in contrast to his attentiveness. My selfishness stands in contrast to his selflessness. I want to stay awake but can't, my flesh is so weak. He wants to give up the cup that is his, but won't, his love is so strong.
In the painting, Christ's eyes are focused upon the heavens. His thoughts centered not on his own will, but on the will of the Father. When I finally awake, my eyes find his, and are redirected, off of myself, and once more on the task at hand. I join his prayer, "Not my will, Lord, but thine, be done."
Saturday, October 30, 2010
Read: Matthew 5:1-15:39
Verse that stood out: The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
OK, this isn't really blogging, but a full day of family fun means I'm out of time to blog. So here's a sermon from my pre-Southland days from Matthew 13. One of my favorites. I realize it's a little long for a blog post. So no hurt feelings on my part if you don't read it.
Believe it or not, one of my favorite shows on all of television is (and this is hard to admit) the Antique Road Show. For those of you who have never heard of this show, because you are obviously cooler than me, let me explain its basic premise. This show sets up shop in convention centers around the nation and invites people to bring their stuff. People show up in droves bringing with them grandma’s old desk or an old lamp they found in the attic. The premise is simple. Appraisers pick out some of the junk and tell us how it’s not really junk at all, but really priceless treasures. Basically, it’s reality TV, antique shop style. Now, in order to redeem my self-image a little, I would never set foot in an antique store, so why in the world would I enjoy this show? I’m rarely interested in the stuff people show up with, but there is this one part in the show that catches me every time. Inevitably, after the appraiser tells us about the piece, he asks the owner, “So, do you have any idea what its worth?” Sometimes they’re brave enough to tell what they paid for it, most of the time they simply shrug their shoulders and say “I have no idea.” It really doesn’t matter, because all of America is waiting to hear, not what the owner thinks about it, but what the appraiser has to say.
For instance, I was watching one time when this couple brought in a rather plain looking blanket. It was large, pretty worn, with broad navy and pink stripes. The appraiser was ecstatic. He was almost in tears as he explained that this was a Navajo chief’s robe. He described the way it was made, the materials that were used, and all sorts of other information that I don’t remember. What I remember is the question, “How much do you think this blanket is worth?” The old couple, well into their 70’s said they thought it was probably worth a couple of thousand dollars. The appraiser smiled as he told them that their blanket, which they used in the winter as an extra layer on their own bed, was worth between $350,000 to $500,000. Furthermore, it was of such quality and rarity that it was indeed a national treasure. At that point, it was the most valuable piece ever shown on the show.
Now, that is captivating television, whether is makes me a nerd or not. I love a good treasure hunt. The idea that an old couple could be sleeping under an old blanket that they don’t even really like but is worth half a million dollars – you just can’t beat that. From movies about pirates’ buried treasure to antique shopping, we love to discover things, especially things of value. Jesus touched on this desire when teaching the disciples privately one day saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
Treasure stories have been around along time, and Jesus had his disciples sitting on edge, “Don’t you see, it’s right in front of you – the treasure – the finest pearl – the kingdom is here for the taking.” It’s easy in our busy lives to miss this treasure. Can you remember the last time that God’s kingdom aroused in you the type of nervous anxiousness that comes with a great find? When I watch the Road Show, my pulse picks up as I wait to hear what this civil war commemorative vase might be worth, and yet our bumping into the kingdom all day long draws little or no excitement from our souls. In life’s hectic scurrying, we feel rushed to figure it all out, tired of all the meetings, and bored with the same old routine.
Maybe we aren’t seeing the treasure – it is after all a treasure hidden in a field. It’s an old blanket at the foot of the bed, always there, but rarely noticed. The gospels are full of references to the hiddeness of the kingdom. Jesus came declaring that the Kingdom of God is at hand, but then spent so much of his ministry explaining its hidden nature. The kingdom is to be found with those who mourn, those who are poor, those who are meek, those who are persecuted. The first end up last, and the last, first. The kingdom is hidden in prayers for enemies, cups of water for the thirsty, and visits to prisoners. Treasure is forever linked with poverty, life forever connected with death. Like I said, it’s a hidden kingdom.
Even in his ragtag group of followers, Jesus clearly is trying to explain how his kingdom is not where you would expect to find it. Tax collectors and prostitutes have found it easy to follow him as well as fishermen and not a few gentiles. However, those who would seem to be prime candidates for the kingdom don’t make the cut. Most of the religious leaders never even recognize the treasure in front of them. Those who catch glimpses, find it hard to sell all and take possession. A Pharisee once had an evening encounter with Jesus that must have been amazing, but couldn’t bring himself to go public with his find. A rich young man, full of outward signs of righteousness did seem to see in Jesus something of a treasure, but when it came time to sell all he had in order to gain that treasure, he went away sad. Jesus’ kingdom just didn’t fit their ideas of where treasure would be located. Maybe we lack excitement, or joy thereof, because we are looking for the kingdom in all the wrong places. We keep looking for the kingdom in programs and in projects, in big buildings and even bigger budgets, all the while, the kingdom is there, Jesus says, as we come to know him and make him known.
The apostle Paul, who himself had considered all things loss for the sake of knowing Jesus and making him known, put it this way, “I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Knowing Jesus and making him known, that is the treasure we are presented with.
Most of us who’ve been attempting to follow Jesus for a while know that – at least in our heads. Occasionally, as we’ve gone on a mission trip or reached out to a person in need sharing the good news of Jesus, we’ve run across the kingdom occasionally. But what do we do when we find it? Jesus leaves little room for diversity of response. Both the men in our story sell everything they own. These are short parables and hardly give us any details. Did they have to weigh their options, evaluate their gain, before making the decision? It doesn’t appear so. Apparently the treasure and the pearl were so captivating that the response to forsake all for the objects’ sake seemed to follow naturally. The parable of the treasure does hint at a motivation – the NIV says “that in his joy” while the NASB translates it “from joy over it”. Both are accurate and convey the idea that the joy is both inward and outward. It is not only for his own joy, but also for the sheer sake of the treasure, that he becomes possessed. It makes me think once again to the Navajo blanket. The appraiser, recognizing what he had, was beside himself – indeed he gushed, “Imagine the most important thing that exists in a field. This is it. It’s absolutely the Holy Grail of Navajo blankets.” His gushing on and on about this national treasure revealed that his joy was solely for the object – he would receive no financial gain from the blanket. The idea is the same in the parables – yes both men would benefit from their discoveries, but their joy was rooted not in self interest, but in true appreciation of what they had found.
So it is when we discover God’s hidden kingdom. In this world of dog eat dog, we can be overcome by the sheer absurdity, the magnificent beauty of this alternative kingdom where needs are met by the mere asking, where value is placed on the very fact that we bear the image of God regardless of how broken and bruised we now find ourselves. Our discovery ought to prompt us to shout in sheer joy – “We’ve found it.” This happens every time we truly see it. When we see grace offered instead of condemnation, hope instead of despair. We bump into the kingdom in times of true fellowship with other people, a rarity in today’s electronic communities. We think to ourselves, “This is the way it is supposed to be.” The good news that life is more than stuff stirs in us the same anxious feelings of any great find – Can this really be true? Is this the real thing? Is it for the taking? We are almost sure that if we turn our heads for a moment it will be gone – and so it may.
The man in the first story takes no chances and re-hides the treasure. It sounds crazy to us, but the image is a person who has already sold everything. He’s hanging on, he’s cashing in, he’s convinced. This treasure is not just an interesting walk in the field, it can be his, and he has decided to do everything possible to obtain it. The second man also has an immediacy of action. He too departs with all in order to obtain his prize. We look at these stories and shake our heads – surely Jesus is not telling us to sell all we have? We are the young ruler of Matthew 19 who also could not fathom the cost. Our man in the parable cannot fathom the deal – his focus is not on what he has just sold, but rather what he has just gained. I imagine he paid a fair price for the field, I imagine he got quite a deal on the treasure.
When’s the last time you were so enraptured by something that regardless the cost you had to obtain it? For me, I can really only think of one time. It happened ten years ago. I gave up my ability to buy things whenever I wanted, I gave up my right to plan my days activities solely around what I wanted to do, I gave up the ability to do all sorts of things. But ten years ago, I wasn’t thinking at all about what I was giving up, no I was thinking all about, incessantly about, what I was gaining – a beautiful wife, a partner in life. And it is still the same. My single friends have much more flexible lifestyles than I do, they tend to go where they want, when they want, and yet I don’t for a second wish I had what they had, what I have gained far outweighs what I have given up.
That is the crux of the parables – the kingdom is more valuable than anything we could ever give up to obtain it. A missionary who eventually gave his life for the kingdom once wrote, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot loose” (Jim Elliot). It is a crazy idea at first glance. The world’s values are so different than the kingdom’s. The world says that success is measured in the amount of cars you have in the driveway and the number of bedrooms you have under your roof. Worth is determined by how many zeroes are in front of the decimal point and value by how many people know your name. Yet God’s kingdom, this hidden kingdom, says that power comes through service and love, love comes simply from being a part of God’s family.
Who would really trade houses and cars and comfort for the uncertainty, discomfort, and danger of God’s kingdom? Only the person who recognizes that by giving up what the world offers she is gaining the keys to a kingdom that is immeasurably more real, more valuable, more lasting. We ask ourselves so often, “Can’t we give up only part? Do we really have to sell everything?” Our questions betray our lack of trust. It is as if you were reading your Wall Street Journal and you came across a nothing little stock that nevertheless caught your attention. You did a little research only to discover that this company was on the verge of a major breakthrough. You got so excited, not only at the prospect of making a profit, but at the very idea of being a part of history. You truly believed that this was the equivalent of getting in on Coca-cola or Microsoft form the very beginning. You went and against the advice of your stock broker, your family, everyone you sold all you had and bought all the shares that you could. Every one warned you about not having all your eggs in one basket, they told you to diversify your portfolio. “Just sell some of your stuff – Maybe give up only part.” But you would have none of it. Why invest in anything else, this was it – To borrow from our appraiser – this is the Holy Grail of stocks. You only appear the fool until it pays off – then your face is the face on Forbes while everyone else wishes they were you.
So too the kingdom of heaven – To truly grab hold of the kingdom for all its worth, really for what it is worthy of – there can be no other investments. There is no diversifying among kingdoms, no hedging of our bets – it’s one or the other. Will you appear foolish? Of course, but only for a while. We’ve all been there I think – in the field, eyeing the treasure. Our heart races as we anticipate all that it means. Could I really sell all? What if I’m wrong? Then we look again. Is it an old blanket or a national treasure? An unknown stock or the beginning of history? A foolish investment or a path to glory? Maybe you’ve heard the call to the kingdom and are afraid to answer. Could I really travel around the world for the sake of his gospel? Could I really sell all and live a life in stark contrast to my culture? Could I really live in a way that my major investments are in cups of water and prayers for peace instead of stocks and bonds?
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure, a blanket, a stock, a call – and for the sheer joy of it, they went and sold all they had and bought it – That my friends, doesn’t just make for captivating television, that makes for a captivating life.
Friday, October 29, 2010
Read Zechariah 11:1-14:21; Malachi; Matthew 1:1-4:25
Verse that stood out: Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them - Matthew 5:17
Around my church, excitement has been really building for this day, the day our reading moves from the Old Testament into the New Testament. Relief. Joy. A sense of homecoming. All of these and more are probably being experienced today. It's not that most of my church members disliked the OT. They liked it, or at least, respected it. But without a doubt, much of the OT appears bizarre to modern men and women. There are large sections of the prophets or the history books that are so foreign to modern life that they can be difficult to read through, much less find a significant word from the Lord in them. This is mostly our own fault, being so out of practice when it comes to reading these parts of the Bible. Our devotional life tends to focus on only a few of our favorite passages in either Testament.
A fair warning, though. The OT isn't going anywhere even though we're turning our attention to the New. We've just read four chapters of Matthew and already references have been made to Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hosea. The New Testament doesn't replace the Old, but builds upon it. One cannot fully understand the story of Jesus and the church without understanding the story of Israel. Jesus said as plainly as he could, "I've not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them." The hopes of Israel, the desires of the prophets, the demands of the Law, they are met in Jesus Christ.
His words, when we pay attention to them, sound much more like the prophets than they do of the self-help preaching that so dominates modern, western Christianity. In Jesus' teaching we find no "Three steps to a better life" kind of message. His main sermon? Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.
Thursday, October 28, 2010
Read: Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah 1:1-10:12
Verse that stood out: “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of another” Zechariah 7:8.
Sixty-seven days. That’s how long we’ve been reading through the Old Testament. Tomorrow, we’ll begin the New. For those of you who are behind, or who never started on this journey, tomorrow may be a great day to begin anew with the stories of Jesus. “Read the Bible through in 90 Days” is about to become “Read the New Testament through in 21 Days.” I realize the math doesn’t add up. The reading plan is actually only eighty-eight days. I guess that didn’t sound as catchy to the editors of the program. Whatever the number, would you consider picking up your copy of the Scripture for the next three weeks and reading the New Testament? It could change your life.
Before we get there, let’s not rush through the final pages of the Old Testament. For all the strangeness in some of the Old Testament books, I’ve noticed that there is plenty of consistency between the messages of the two testaments. What does God want from us? He wants us to worship him alone and he wants us to love others as he loves us. Jesus says the law can be boiled down to these two commands: Love God, Love Others. The first should lead to the second. Just listen to the words of Zechariah given to a people who have proclaimed their love of God, “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of another” (7:8). If you love God, love others. Sounds like it could have come from one of the gospels or from the book of James, doesn’t it?
Such words challenge me to ponder not simply my participation in worship each Sunday, but also my participation in the world each week. It’s not enough to just worship God on Sunday and attempt to avoid evil the rest of the week. I do need to worship God on Sunday, but that worship must be followed up with doing good throughout the rest of the week. I must administer justice and show compassion just as much as I must avoid thinking evil thoughts and oppressing others. Too often I settle for less. I settle for neutrality. I don’t do evil. But then again, I don’t do much good either. But if God is alive in me, my life should be a proactive force for his ways in this world. Jesus will say as much in a few pages, “You are the light of the world. . . . so let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Read: Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum
Verse that stood out: The LORD is slow to anger and great in power; the LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished - Nahum 1:3
I'm an underliner when it comes to reading through my Bible. That is, I like to mark the verses that stand out to me. If you were to glance through the pages of the prophets in my Bible, you would see plenty underlined. Usually those few verses of promise or hope that sparkle against the dark background of God's judgment found in the rest of the book.
If I'm not careful, I can begin to think of the Bible only in terms of the underlined verses forgetting that the rest of the words in the book have meaning, as well. This is especially true concerning the words of judgment. We may not like such words, but we need judgment. We need to be judged. It is the only way to know the right. It is the only way to be set right.
The late Richard John Neuhaus illustrated this truth in his book Death on a Friday Afternoon:
"Recall when you were a little child and somebody - maybe you - did something very bad. Maybe a lie was told, some money was stolen or the cookie jar lay shattered on the kitchen floor. The bad thing has been found out, and now something must happen, something must be done about it. The fear of punishment is terrible, but not as terrible as the thought that nothing will happen, that bad things don't matter. if bad things don't matter, then good things don't matter, and then nothing matters and the meaning of everything lies shattered like the cookie jar on the kitchen floor."
Judgment reminds us that what we do matters. Judgment reminds us that we matter. Most important of all, judgment paves the way for forgiveness. Before we can ever bask in Christ's words, "Father, forgive them" we must be aware that we need forgiving. We must be judged.
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Read: Hosea 13:7-Amos 9:10
Verse that stood out: But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! Amos 5:24
OK. This is probably cheating on the blog something everyday effort, but I'm posting something I've done before: a guide to the Minor Prophets. Today's reading was in Amos. I could easily have posted something from there, Amos is a powerful book. But Sunday's sermon is from this book and sometimes you have to save the good stuff for later.
Hope this short guide helps as you read through these ancient/modern books. You can click on the image to make it larger.
Monday, October 25, 2010
Read: Daniel 9:1-Hosea 13:6
Verse that stood out: When God raoars, his children will come trembling from the west. They will come trembling like birds from Egypt, like doves from Assyria. "I will settle them in their homes," declares the Lord.
Hosea is a tough book to sort out. The chronology of the book is all messed up. The names of people and countries change about as frequently as the names of streets in San Angelo. The premise is absurd. God commands Hosea, the prophet, to marry a prostitute so he can show the world what it's like to love an unfaithful spouse. This is to serve as a living metaphor of God's love for his people. Add to that, the fact that Hosea loves to mix up his metaphors, and you get a book that's full of imagery and confusion. God gets compared to a hiker, a doctor, a moth, a lion, even dry rot. Israel makes an appearance as a stubborn heifer, as a vein old man, as a half-baked cake, and a foolish, little dove.
For all the confusion, there is one truth that stands out. God loves his people, passionately. Their actions affect God. They cause God to grieve, to become angry, to fret. Like a parent getting ready to discipline a child, God knows Israel needs to be punished for her own good, but he has trouble bringing himself to carry that punishment out (see 11:8-9). He remains faithful to his people even as they are faithless. When their deeds lead to their destruction, he holds out hope for a resurrection and a future season of restoration (see 1:10).
Just like the pleas of a concerned parent or a spurned lover, Hosea doesn't always make complete sense, but it gets its basic message across loud and clear, "I love you; I forgive you; I want you to come home."
Sunday, October 24, 2010
Read: Ezekiel 47:13-Daniel 8:27
Verse that stood out: then Nebuchadnezzar was furious with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and his attitude toward them changed. He ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual - Daniel 3:19
One of my favorite verse in the Bible is Romans 12:18, "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." I like it when people get along. I like to build consensus more than I like to win a debate. I think Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity sounds like an excellent idea as I find most political squabbling in our country beyond the pale. All of this is to say, I often need to be reminded that faith doesn't always bring peace with others, sometimes it brings division. It doesn't always appease, sometimes it angers. It doesn't always keep you out of trouble, sometimes faith is the very thing that gets into it. Yes, seek peace always, but don't be surprised if your good will is met with something different in return.
Saturday, October 23, 2010
Read: Ezekiel 36:1-47:12
Verse that stood out: He asked me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" I said, "O Sovereign LORD, you alone know" Ezekiel 37:3
Every life has them – apparent dead ends. Days when doors shut and no proverbial window opens. When we find ourselves in an apparent dead end and someone asks us what comes next and we scratch our heads and wonder, “Who knows?” If they’re spiritual, they’ll baptize their answer a little “Only God knows.” Ever been there? At that place, where the next step isn’t only difficult to take imagine, it’s impossible to even imagine. After the doctor tells you that there’s nothing more he can do, where do you go from there? Only God knows. After the job falls through and the bank accounts bottom out and the creditors are lining up, what do you do next? Only God knows. After the funeral service is over and the guests have all gone home, what does tomorrow hold? Only God knows. After famines hit and children starve, and mothers ask, “where shall we get our next meal?” Only God knows. After peace talks fall apart and the bombs reign down again, where do we turn for peace and protection? Only God knows. After thousands are murdered at a dictator’s whim, where do we find away forward? Only God knows.
Only God knows can be statement of faith, if we are saying it in the sense that we really do believe that God knows. But it can also be simply a polite way of saying, I don’t know and I’m not sure anyone does, including God. It’s difficult to know which way Ezekiel meant it on that day the Lord took him by the hand in the middle of a valley of dry bones. The Bible doesn’t allow us to know the tone of his voice. As we know, there’s as much in how you say something as in what you say.
“Can these bones live?” God asked.
“O Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
Faith or frustration? Depends on Ezekiel's tone of voice, which the Bible does not supply. Either way, the good news is that Ezekiel's answer is not what's most important. God really does know. He knows even death, itself, is no match for the very breath of God.
Are you facing a dead end today? Can the dry bones of your life get up and live again? You may not think so, but God knows - with his help, they can.
Friday, October 22, 2010
Read: Ezekiel 23:40-35:15
Verse that stood out: My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to listen to your words, but they do not put them into practice. With their mouths they express devotion, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice - Ezekiel 33:31-32
It's difficult to believe that people would actually come and listen to the prophet Ezekiel just for fun. It's not like he's the most seeker-sensitive of prophets. I could see people coming to see him in the way people go to see the freak shows at the fair, but I'd hardly describe him as one who "sings love songs with a beautiful voice." Maybe people liked the sermons in which he declared God's judgment on Israel's enemies. That kind of talk always gets plenty of amens.
Or maybe, they liked the twinge of guilt they felt when he blasted Israel's sins. Paul told us that there is a sorrow that leads to repentance which seems to indicate there is also a sorrow that doesn't. Some sorrows only lead to feeling spiritual without compelling us to actually live spiritually. Such a sorrow lets off just enough guilty steam that we can keep on living in sin without being too bothered by our actions.
Or maybe it was just the nostalgia of it all. A prophet, especially an eccentric guy like Ezekiel, reminded them of home. Of course, back home they never actually did what the prophet said so why should life in exile be any different?
Whatever the reason, the result was the same, they came, they listened, they even delighted in God's word, but they did not obey. The book of James says of such folks, they're like people who walked up to a mirror, got a good look at themselves, and then as soon as they turned around forgot what they looked like. Perhaps they assumed the prophet's words were like the mirrors in the house of glass - mirrors that exaggerate and stretch our appearances and need not be taken seriously. God says, it's their self-image that's distorted.
If we're not careful, we do the same thing as the ancient Israelites. For sixty-one days we've been listening to God's word, now. Have you enjoyed it? Many have told me that they have. A better question, perhaps, have you obeyed? Have you changed? Have you put God's word into practice in your life today?
Thursday, October 21, 2010
Read: Ezekiel 12:21-23:39
Verse that stood out: Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live! - Ezekiel 18:31
The Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor once wrote of the challenges a novelist faces when writing to what she called a hostile audience: “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling figures." What’s true for the novelist is perhaps doubly true for the prophet.
Startling barely begins to describe the vision experienced by the Prophet Ezekiel. He wrote to a people who, puffed up by the messages of false prophets, assumed that everything in their lives was copacetic. They believed that any dangers they faced from foreign powers would be short lived and that life would return to normal quickly. Ezekiel paints them a picture in the most shocking of colors. Far from being faithful, God’s people have been faithless. They’re like a prostitute. No, worse than a prostitute. Instead of getting paid for their unfaithfulness, they’ve paid others for these illicit pleasures. The prophet warns that their unfaithfulness will result only in their shame. In the end, the very ones to whom they’ve run will consume them. These “lovers” will strip them naked, take all their belongings, and leave them for dead.
So graphic are the prophet’s words (some of them border on an NC-17 rating), we often miss the purpose behind the prophet’s speeches. Ezekiel is attempting to get the people’s attention. He’s attempting to make them aware of true danger in their lives. He’s attempting to turn them towards righteousness. Buried deep in his shouting is this plea from the Almighty, “’But if a wicked man turns away from all the sins he has committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die. None of the offenses he has committed will be remembered against him. Because of the righteous things he has done, he will live. Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?’ declares the Sovereign LORD” (18:21-22). The answer, given later in verse thirty-one, is "No, God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked." That’s ultimately what all the strange and startling pictures in the book of Ezekiel are about. A warning, a wake-up call, a wish for God’s people to awaken to their true condition, repent from their sins, and return to their God.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Read: Lamentations 2:1-Ezekiel 12:20
Verse that stood out: Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness - Lamentations 3:22-23.
That the book of Lamentations even makes it into the Bible seems to give credibility to the fact that in God’s loving-kindness, God gives us room to grieve. Just a surface reading of the book lets us know that for God’s children, it’s ok to cry. Mourning the fall of Jerusalem and the death of many loved ones, the poet writes on tear soaked pages, “My eyes overflow with tears” (1:16) . . . “Bitterly [I] weep at night; tears are upon [my] cheeks” (1:2) . . . “My groans are many and my heart is faint.” Grief and pain pour off his pen. The aching is tangible. At one point he wonders of both himself and his fallen city, “Your wound is as deep as the sea. Who can heal you?” (2:13).
But it’s not just tears we find in this book of lament. In Lamentation's five chapters, the poet goes through the broad range of emotions surrounding grief. He gets angry at others producing a scorching diatribe against their sins. He gets angry with God saying “the Lord is like an enemy.” He expresses doubt, wondering out loud if God has abandoned his people forever. The poet is sure that the “Lord has given full vent to his wrath” and his response is to give full vent to his grief.
Amazingly, God takes it.
God doesn’t take it because he is weak, or incompetent, or absent, but God gives us room to grieve because of his loving-kindness. Far from being afraid of grief and mourning, God invites us into the middle of our pain. He knows (because he made us) that our healing can never come from evading our hurts, but that we must face our pain in the presence of the One who can heal. Isolating our pain only makes things worse, but giving voice to our grief and our sorrow connects us to the one who shares our suffering. Emboldened by the loving-kindness of God, we voice the thing which we once dared not speak and discover, “we are not consumed.”
God’s love gives us room to grieve, because it is only in grieving that we discover God’s love is bigger than the pain. In the movie, Fried Green Tomatoes, Jessica Tandy’s character recounts the lesson she learned after having grieved the loss of an older brother, “A heart can be broken, but it keeps beating just the same.” So many people avoid bringing their burdens to God because ultimately they fear their burdens will over take them, that their hearts will stop beating. But it’s only in laying our burdens at the feet of Christ’s love that we keep from being consumed by our burdens. It’s only there, in God’s presence that we discover, our broken hearts can find the strength to continue loving in the midst of our pain.
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Read: Jeremiah 48:1-Lamentations 1:22
Verse that stood out: "See, I am against you, O arrogant one," declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty, "for your day has come, the time for you to be punished" - Jeremiah 50:31
OK, to follow up on yesterday's blog. Most people who believe the Bible is inspired by God believe it is important to read all and even memorize parts of the scripture. Now none of us memorize all the Bible. If we're honest, most of us don't read all the Bible, or at least don't read all of it the same way. Some parts we consider more applicable to our lives than others. I'm going to go out on a limb and say, that's ok. But we should be a little bit suspicious of how we go about deciding what parts we emphasize. Do we only emphasize the parts we like? That certainly doesn't seem to be the best way to go about it. Wisdom tells us that we all need to hear some things about ourselves and about the world that we don't necessarily enjoy hearing. How then do we decide?
One, it's ok to be inspired by a verse and want to commit it to memory. But we should always try to keep those verses in context. Try memorizing a section of verses or, for you favorites, go back and reread the context from time to time. This keeps us from just making the Bible say what we want it to. Try focusing on passages that support the overall themes of the Bible rather than obscure verses that support your own particular view of the world.
Two, Keep things in context by consistently reading through all of the Bible. This is important because it keeps our favorite verses in check with all the other verses of the Bible. And it's important because we never know what part of the Bible the Spirit might use in our life at any given moment. That doesn't mean we have to always read through the Bible straight through like we're doing at Southland right now. There are lots of good reading plans out there that allow you to systematically cover the scriptures in a year, two years, three years by alternately reading a little of the Old Testament and little of the New Testament at the time.
Three, when reading sections of the Bible that don't seem to be that relevant to today's life, attempt to read them from a new perspective. Instead of trying to "bring the Bible forward" try to take yourself "backward." Take the book of Jeremiah for instance. What would it be like to hear his words as a person being carted off to Babylon? As one of the "poor" left in Israel because Babylon didn't think you were worth the effort? As a Babylonian? Sometimes by putting yourself into the text you might discover a new truth that is very relevant to life today.
Finally, remember that the Bible is a big book, not everything in it is meant to be relevant to each and every situation we face. Remember, the Bible wasn't even written with verses in mind. Those were added later to help people find passages easier. The Bible was given to us in books, letters, poems, so that we might immerse ourselves in God's story to the point that it becomes our story. Not just in bits and pieces, but in its grand overarching themes. So that when we face each new day we're able to live it in light of not just one or two of our favorite passages, but in light of the overall history of God's people.
Monday, October 18, 2010
Verse that stood out: "We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the LORD! - Jeremiah 44:16
To be honest, today's reading was a little tough. Mostly bad news for the people of Judah. Either surrender to Babylon or be killed. Not the best options. No wonder the people were tempted to just put their fingers in their ears and ignore the bad news (or throw Jeremiah in a pit. You know, whatever worked at the time!). Ignoring bad news is a fairly common human response. Most of the time, we'd rather just be ignorant. Engine light comes on? Ignore it - it's probably just the light that's malfunctioned anyway. Go to the doctor? No way, he might find something that's wrong. Pray? And be convicted of my sins? No thank you.
Jeremiah is full of bad news. Which has me wondering, how are we any different than the people of Jeremiah's day. Most believers, people who say they believe the Bible, couldn't quote anything from this book with perhaps the exception being the ever popular 29:11. Why do they know that verse? Because it's upbeat. Because it's encouraging. But why just apply that verse to our lives today? Why not the other 1366 verses in this ancient book? Are we saying those have no application to our lives simply because they might contain bad news?
Which leads to perhaps a better question - how do we decide what verses are important for us today and which are not? How do we decide which ones speak to us anew and which ones don't? Which ones are worth memorizing and which are not? I want to know, how do you decide?
Sunday, October 17, 2010
Read: Jeremiah 23:9-33:22
Verse that stood out: Once more fields will be bought in this land of which you say, 'It is a desolate waste' - Jeremiah 32:43
Many Christians know Jeremiah 29:11 by heart, "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'" Far fewer know the context. The city of Jerusalem was under siege by the Babylonians. It was about to fall (despite all the empty promises of false prophets). Jeremiah, having a true word from the Lord had said as much. This great promise of a future found in verse eleven is what Jeremiah assures will happen after seventy years in exile. Far from being a verse to comfort us with the thought of quickly turning fortunes, this is a verse that encourages us to be faithful for the long haul. God's people are to be a people of hope in the midst of tragedy, not because we expect things to change tomorrow, but because we trust that God is ultimately in control.
Jeremiah proves he believes what he preaches by buying a field from a cousin moments before Jerusalem falls. This is perhaps the worst real estate deal in history, certainly in the Bible. Property values are plummeting. Tomorrow they'll be worth even less. But one this purchase was, nonetheless, a bold statement of hope. Jeremiah was saying to all who were watching, "I know things are about to get really, really, bad, but they will be good again. Just you watch. I'm carrying this deed with me to Babylon, sometime, it will be valuable again."
We can learn from Jeremiah. We, too, believe, that no matter how bad things get, nor for how long they stay that way, God has good things in store for those who trust in his name. But what are we doing to put feet to our beliefs? What are we investing in? In the things of Babylon or in the things of God's kingdom? If we truly believe, we'll be buying land in the kingdom come.