Wednesday, September 26, 2012

God Is Always Previous

Our Sunday morning discipleship group has been reading A.W. Tozer's The Pursuit of God, and in the very first chapter, Tozer writes that God is always previous.  Our desire to pursue God ONLY comes from God himself.  He plants that desire in us.  Without God planting that desire, we would pursue something else, like punk rock or action movies at best, sex and drugs and pain at worst.

The idea that God is always previous helps take us out of the “helpful gospel” realm.  That is the realm in which we believe that we are really working out our own salvation, and God is on the sideline, like a football coach, cheering us on as we run the ball across the goal line.  Woohoo!  God shouts.  You did it!  You remembered all the things I told you.  When we realize that God instills the desire in us, we move away from the idea that we are saving ourselves.

Then there's the other extreme: that we are merely robots without free will.  If God is first, then he must be controlling our actions, and there's really nothing we can do, so why talk about God to anyone?  Why live a Christian life?  God is just going to save us anyway.  Turn up the punk rock!

But Tozer writes that God may be previous, he may have instilled the desire to pursue him, but we still RESPOND, with our free will, and actively pursue him.  Even though God gives us the grace to pursue him, we must positively build on that grace.  God is the foundation, but we are building on the solid rock of Christ.  And as we build, he supplies us with even more grace, and our Christian structure grows more and more.  It's a collaboration.

But that previous grace is always there—that foundation.  Without it, we are building a structure on sand—pretty much like every building here on the Outer Banks—and that will not last forever.  God being previous should always be in our minds when we read Paul saying, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”  This doesn't mean we're doing it all alone.  God provides the foundation, the hammer and nails, the concrete, the drywall, and, most importantly, the DESIRE for us to build, and the more we build, the more desire he gives us.

The letter of James is such an important book of the Bible, because when it is read on a foundation of God being previous, we can see where that teamwork between us and God is taking place. The last verse in our James reading, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you,” sounds like we are acting first, but keeping in mind that God is always previous, we see that God gives us that desire to draw near to him.

Working backwards: we can resist the devil because God gives us the power to resist the devil.  The verse before that one is key: Submit Yourselves to God.  God gives us the desire for submission, of course, but it is that submission that is truly our work in this partnership.  Even after all this talk of teamwork, we still can't shake the image of us crossing the finish line with Coach God on the sidelines, jumping up and down and cheering.

But when we get the image that our part of the teamwork is really SUBMISSION, everything changes.  We suddenly get a glimpse of the big picture, because submission is exactly what we have the most trouble doing in all circumstances.  Our pride keeps us from submitting, but submission IS the work that we do.  Suddenly we stop being the quarterback with God being the coach, and God starts being the quarterback and we're the BALL.  Our job is to stop trying to play the game by ourselves, realize we are just a ball, and stay in the quarterback's deft hands.

It takes great amounts of free will to subvert our free will.  Without God's guidance, our free will goes crazy and we start choosing between all of these horrible paths for our life.  God gives us that initial push for us to actually crucify our free will and submit and cling to God's will.  Then we're like a surfer, riding God's wave.  Our job is to stay on the board, and God takes us in to shore.  There's my first surfing metaphor in almost two years of living here.

Models of submission are throughout the scriptures, and when you realize that its not just our submission, but it's God's electing us and drawing us and influencing us and the world around us, we suddenly understand how blessed we are.  Remember, in Genesis, Joseph had the dreams first.  God knew where he was going to go, and how he was going to get there, and what the end result was going to be.

Moses resisted his calling with every effort, but God called him to submit, and submit he did.  David was a small man but his victories in battle were enormous.  His life was blessed by God.  He submitted to God and everything went his way.  It was when he refused to submit to God's will and began to run his own destiny, that's when his kingdom began to crumble.  Not because God was punishing him, but when we take the reins, we drive the stagecoach off a cliff, each and every time.

The ultimate submission was Jesus Christ.  What is most incredible was that Jesus is God in the flesh, and still he perfectly submitted his will to the will of the Father.  Jesus had to let go of his own will when it came to suffering under the authorities, being tortured and killed.  None of us would be able to submit like that.  Thank God that Jesus was able to subvert his will and submit perfectly on our behalf, because that was our place that he took on the cross.  We were supposed to submit, but we cannot.  We fail.  Jesus does it for us.  Perfect submission.

Before I wrote this message, God laid the foundation for it.  Before you heard this message, God drew you to this place first.  If you find it easier to submit to God after today, thank God.  He has laid the foundation for your submission and has given you the tools to do it.  God is always previous.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Do Not Tell Anyone

This passage of Mark 8 is a popular one.  We have the disciples confirming Jesus' identity as the messiah.  Peter is actually the one who gets it right on the nose.  We have Jesus' teaching about how he was going to die, and then we have Peter immediately pulling a one-eighty and rebuking Christ for his prophecy.  Then we've got the whole taking up our cross deal, if we are to follow Jesus.  We save our lives by losing it.  Gaining the whole world will lose our lives, etc.  This is a very quoted passage of scripture.

There are two very small things I want to talk about today.  The first is something that occurs often in the Gospel of Mark: Jesus orders his disciples and others who witness his miracles to not tell anyone about him.  We see that after miracles, and we see that after Peter correctly identifies him.  Verse 30: “And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”  There are numerous times in this gospel that Jesus does this, and each time we ask ourselves, “Why?  Don't you want to let the world know that God is in our midst?  How are you going to save the world unless people know about you?”

But there's a second little thing that is just as important as the first one.  In fact it is more important, and it is more important because it comes DIRECTLY after the first one.  In fact, we need both of these verses taken TOGETHER in order to make sense out of them, and so that the second verse carries the impact of the first plus its own impact.

After verse 30, we have verse 31: “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

Now the crucial verse with the crucial word, verse 32: “He said all this quite OPENLY.”  Do you see it?  Jesus performs a miracle or reveals his identity as the messiah, and he immediately tells everyone to keep silent about it.  THEN, he reveals the manner in which he is to die, and his resurrection, and he is quite OPEN about it.  He WANTS everyone to know these things.  He wants everyone to pass this information on.  Peter tries to silence him, and he rebukes Peter sternly.  This is information that CANNOT be silenced.  This is information that must be spread!

Why?  Because it is the gospel.  The gospel is not that Jesus is the messiah.  That may be part of the gospel, it may be PROOF of the gospel, but it is not THE gospel.  Jesus performed miracles.  He healed many.  Is that the gospel?  No.  It's an aspect of the gospel, it is the PROOF of the gospel, but it is not the full gospel.  There is only one part of the gospel that can stand alone as the full gospel.  There is only one part of Jesus' life that can be called the “saving part.”  Knowing that Jesus was the messiah does not save us.  Knowing that Jesus could physically heal people and cast out demons does not save us.

Jesus' death and resurrection saves us.  Jesus' death: not just that he died, but the manner in which he died.  The torture, the rejection, and both of these by the most important people: this is what his death was.  His was a death of rejection by the important people of the world, by the fallen world.  Jesus' resurrection: after three days he would rise again.  He would be alive again.  All the significance of this: death being defeated, our sins being destroyed, the world being saved—all of these things are compressed in that one small idea.

Jesus' death and resurrection are the gospel.  They are the big idea that has changed the entire world.  Of course Jesus would want this idea preached openly from the beginning, even during his ministry.  Everyone getting the word out that Jesus heals people doesn't save people.  It burdens our Lord down as everyone rushes over and tries to get Jesus to heal them.  Getting the word out about Jesus being the messiah doesn't save people.  It floods our Lord with disgruntled Jews who want to overthrow the government with Jesus in the lead chariot.  Healing and fulfilling prophecy were the ways that Jesus PROVED that he was who he said he was.  Those cannot be our target.  If we are seeking after the proofs—the healings, the prophecies—in the Bible, then we are only seeking after the benefits of God.  We are not seeking God.

This is why Jesus wanted everyone to clam up about the proofs.  Without the cross, the reason Jesus came to earth, the SAVING aspect of the incarnation, the proofs become false idols.  If we are coming here for the wonders of Jesus—what he can do for us, how we can be successful, where we can get God's help in our lives—then we seeking after the wrong thing.  We are engaged in idolatry.

Seek GOD.  The only way to seek God is to seek his salvation, and that is not through his miracles NOR through his fulfillment of prophecy.  Jesus' salvation is through his DEATH and RESURRECTION.  Jesus without the crucifixion and the resurrection is not a God that we need.  Without those two things, Jesus is not a savior.

Understand the death and resurrection of our Lord.  Study every aspect of it.  Learn the meaning and significance of it.  By this knowledge of God are we saved.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Rich in Faith

There is a distinction that is made all throughout scripture.  It is a distinction between the rich and the poor.  The distinction is this: rich = evil and poor = good.  This distinction is important, because, as we know, it's much easier to be evil if one is rich.  Now, in our country, we are the wealthiest people in the world, our poor are in the wealthiest top 4% worldwide.  Our poor here are rich by comparison.  This should come into mind, when we are thinking of rich v. poor in America. All of you probably know someone who is American poor who has taken advantage of someone who is American rich.  It's because, in general, we don't really have poor in this country.  We are all rich by the world's standards.

The point I'm trying to make here is this verse in our proverb reading today: “The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all.”  As Paul writes in Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, man or woman: all are one in Christ Jesus.”  There is really only one distinction: Godly (those in Christ Jesus) and Ungodly.  Again it's very much easier to be ungodly if one is rich.  But what we have to work with in America is a difficult task.  We can't know people by their bank accounts here.  We must know them by their fruits.

We live in a country where many wealthy people voluntarily share their wealth with the needy.  Christians give to more charities in addition to church than any other group.  We have more liberty to decide where our money goes, and so we choose the best charities where our money will do the most good.  As John Wesley said, “Make All You Can; Save All You Can; Give All You Can.”  So, we can't tell who is ungodly by their wealth.  We have the “givingest” people in history living here.

So, we must know who is godly and ungodly by their fruits.  This helps us live out the psalms in our lives, fleeing from evil, and embracing the good.  In our epistle of James this morning, we have many clues as to what these fruits are.

Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? (James 2:6-7)

We tend to judge people by appearances, reacting to how people look, not how they act.  As James says, we make distinctions among ourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts. But here in verses 6 and 7 are three attributes of an ungodly person.  It says “rich” but we know by now that we cannot judge by appearances, neither in the positive nor in the negative.  The three attributes are oppression, litigiousness, and blasphemy.  We also can extrapolate the attributes of a godly person from these verses.  A godly person is kind, peaceful, and reverent.

James writes, “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?”  We have to judge someone on their faith.  Is the faith rich?  That is where the distinction comes in.  Again, it is easier for poor people to have rich faith, because they are free from worldly distractions.  Again, not in America.  The poor in this country have just as many distractions as the rich.  Maybe even MORE.  The distractions are of a different ilk.

James says the rich drag the poor into court.  Again, we can't have that distinction in our time and place in history.  The poor drag the rich into court just as much, if not MORE, than the other way around.  We can't distinguish between rich and poor, but we CAN judge by seeing WHO is dragging people into court instead of exercising a rich faith in God.  How is dragging people into court different from simple oppression?  By being litigious, one is getting another to do his “dirty work” for him.  Using a lawyer or the government to oppress another is, in many ways, WORSE than being simply oppressive.

And by contrast we have the attributes of a godly person: kindness, peace, and reverence.  This past Wednesday Evening Prayer Service, we read the parable of the Good Samaritan.  The parable was in response to the lawyer's question, “Who is my neighbor?”  It was obvious from the parable, that our neighbor is the one who is kind to us, even if that person looks like he was dragged behind a truck, has a long bad history with our family (remember Samaritans and Jews did NOT like each other), and has a different way of worshiping.

The Samaritan has a rich faith, and it came out in his kindness.  These are the things we look for.  How does he ACT?  Does he seek revenge on others through the government or personally?  Does he have a healthy respect for our Lord and Savior?

In our Mark passage, we see rich faith play out in Jesus' ministry.  He has come to minister to the Jews, but this gentile woman has shown a rich faith, and so he heals her daughter.  Once again, his healing was based on the rich faith of the woman, demonstrating that outward appearances, nor family history, nor being familiar with Jewish tradition stand in the way of being IN CHRIST.

Jesus died on the cross for all who have that rich faith in him.  We can be very successful in this world and be healthy and look our best.  We may be shrewd and smart.  And we may come to church every Sunday and read our prayerbook every day and pat ourselves on the back for knowing our Bible and keeping the law.

But all that means nothing without a rich, saving faith.  Without kindness, without peace, without true reverence for God we are lost.  There is no rich or poor, there is no slave or free.  There is only being IN CHRIST or out of him.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Forgetting the Exodus

In our Old Testament passage this morning (Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-9), we have a great promotion of the law.    Moses commands Israel to heed the law, so that they may LIVE to enter the promised land.  The law is LIFE.  The law also is PERFECT.  In other words, we must not add anything to it or take anything away from it.

In past weeks we've talked about how people outside the covenant observe our behavior, and when they see us keeping the law, they say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!”  There may be people outside the covenant with God who belong INSIDE the covenant with God, and our behavior, which is a way of preaching the gospel, is a way of evangelizing them.

This law is JUST, and it must be passed on to our children.  Now, wait a second.  We're Christians, right?  We don't NEED the law anymore.  We now live under God's grace, and we can just throw the law out.  In fact, let's just throw the whole Old Testament out.  Good idea?  Why not?

It has to do with order.  We have drilled into our minds this whole Old Testament/New Testament thing.  We have been told that the law is over with, and the gospel of grace is here to stay.  We know that we don't have to try anymore, because Jesus Christ has come to do away with man-centered religion and bring us all into God-centered religion.  Our minds think of OLD WAY and NEW WAY in that order.

Here is something shocking: It was NEVER this way.  There was never an OLD WAY that has been abrogated and now there is a NEW WAY in its place.  The old way IS the new way.  It's just that Israel was doing it wrong, and so we think from our time and place today, “Well, we had better throw that all out, because it didn't work.”

THERE ARE NO OLD AND NEW WAYS.  There is only God's way, and the way we do not follow God's way, which is man's way.  Look at this line in our Deuteronomy passage that doesn't seem to fit in: Verse 7: “For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him?”  We tend to forget that God is in the midst of Israel all this time.

The problem with OLD and NEW is we think that the old way didn't work, and the new way works.  But God rescued Israel out of the clutches of Egypt FIRST.  He saved them FIRST.  The law was given AFTER.  The law does not save.  We know that from Paul.  God saves first, and our response is to keep the law—naturally.  We naturally keep the law.  Not because we studied the words chiseled in stone, but because we remember that God has saved us already.

Look at verse 9: don't forget the things that your eyes have seen and make them known to your children.  What are the things their eyes had seen?  The laws and statutes?  The ordinances?  No, they saw the glorious works of God in saving them out of Egypt, in preserving them in the wilderness, and before their parents died, they passed on those visions to their children, who are now about to enter the promised land.

The law is not a bunch of rules to follow as it is a list of attributes of someone who KNOWS HE HAS BEEN SAVED.  But what did Israel do?  They forgot their fathers, and they began to follow the law as if it were the BEGINNING of salvation, not the result, not the effect.  Paul says this following of the law as the beginning of salvation leads to death, because we can never achieve an effect.  We forget that God is in the midst of us.  We are trying to keep the law, so that God will enter into the midst of us, when what we should know is that God HAS already entered into the midst of us, has saved us, and that our turning to him gives us the faith to keep the law.  Since we are doing it backwards, we forget that God is already here.  We turn our backs on him as we look for him.

I've talked before about the prison cell.  We stand with our hands gripping the bars, and we are looking out there for God to come to us with a key, so we can get released from the cell.  We do all these things, so he will notice us, and open our cell door.  What we never do is TURN AROUND.  There is no BACK to the prison cell.  God has ALREADY taken the back wall away, and the freedom of everlasting life is right outside.  God whispers in our ear, “turn around,” and when we do, our hearts are filled with such gratitude that he has already feed us from our cells, that we live our lives as law-abiding citizens.

In our gospel reading today (Mark 7:1-23), we see the clashing of the two worldviews that I have just been telling you about.  The Pharisees and scribes are arguing for ceremonial washing, which is the tradition of the elders, but as we have just been understanding, the tradition of the elders is based completely on a false understanding of salvation.  All of the ceremonies of the Pharisees is based on God saving us in response to the law, not the TRUTH, which is that God saved us first, and we respond by keeping the law.  Keeping the law is the fruit of our faith.

Jesus argues: God's salvation changes the heart, and the one with the changed heart is able to keep the law.  The Pharisees are trying to change their hearts by keeping the law.  See the difference?  One is not able to change his heart by keeping the law.  God changes the heart first, through salvation, and then the law is able to be kept.

Jesus said, “It is from within, FROM THE HUMAN HEART, that evil intentions come.”  Keeping the law will not change our heart, but God's salvation will.  The Israelites had a physical salvation to look to, the Exodus from Egypt.  They saw it with their own eyes, they taught it to their children, and the people were able to keep the law.  God showed them what a true changed heart looked like.  But then they forgot the Exodus.  They forgot what God had done for them.  They forgot he was in their midst.  Their hearts changed again.  They could not keep the law.  They were then trying harder and harder to follow the letter of the law, to merit their own salvation.

Jesus Christ died on the cross, and like the Exodus, this is an actual, physical salvation for his chosen people, Israel, of which everyone sitting here is a part.  The gospel writers saw it with their own eyes.  They passed it down to their children, to Paul and the church fathers, through saints throughout the centuries, to us today.  The true story of Christ's salvation on the cross: we hear that and our hearts are changed.  The Holy Spirit changes our hearts as we hear the gospel message and understand.  The good news is that there is no forgetting this time, like the Exodus.  God will not let us forget this.  We will not forget that he is in our midst.  Our hearts cannot change back.  This is good news.