Thursday, December 12, 2013


Matthew 3:1-12
3:1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,

3:2 "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."

3:3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'"

3:4 Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.

3:5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan,

3:6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

3:7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

3:8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

3:9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

3:10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

3:11 "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

3:12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

This second week of advent, we look at preparing ourselves for the coming of Christ.  In our gospel reading, we see something that John the Baptist introduces into the Jewish community as a way of preparing ourselves for the coming of the Lord: Baptism.  What is this new innovation from John, and what does it mean to us?

Well, when a Gentile wanted to become a Jew, he had to do two things: he had to make a confession of faith in the Mosaic law and he had to be circumcised.  Now, there was no anesthetic back then, and so Gentiles tended to balk at the second requirement, and so the Jews just said, well, instead of the circumcision, just take a bath.  You Gentiles are unclean, and so the ritual bathing will take care of that second requirement.

Now, here comes John the Baptist on the scene, and he does something shocking: he tells all the Jews that THEY are unclean, too, and THEY need to take a bath, and it is URGENT that they cleanse themselves NOW, because the Kingdom of Heaven is AT HAND.  John uses some powerful imagery: the axe is laid to the root of the tree and the winnowing fork is in God's hand.  The time to get clean is now because the day of the Lord is not a feel-good experience, and one wants to be WHEAT and not CHAFF.

Well, this seems a radical innovation on the part of John, but does it count as law?  Well, yes it does, for two reasons.  First, John is considered to be the LAST prophet of the Old Testament.  Even though he is only mentioned in the New Testament, he is an Old Testament Prophet.  Second, Jesus comes on the scene and gets baptized himself, approving of the new law.  Here are three verses beyond what we have above:

Matthew 3:13-15
Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. But John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” But Jesus answering said to him, “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he permitted Him. 

There's another reason why Jesus was baptized.  Sometimes Jesus getting baptized is a confusing thing, because Jesus was without sin.  Why did he need to be baptized?  He was already clean.  Even John asks this question, but Jesus responds that they must fulfill all righteousness.  What does that mean?

Well, we must ask, why did Jesus come to earth?  In order to save us from our sins.  In order to die in our place.  Children can respond in this way.  Yes, that is true.  Is there anything else?  Why did Jesus not just come down on Good Friday, die in our place on the cross, and then ascend, all in one day?  Why was he born as a baby and live on earth for a life?

Jesus lived a full, sinless life, but he also kept the whole Mosaic law, and that included being baptized in the river Jordan.  He could not overlook a single jot or tittle of the law, because he needed to fulfill the law.  He needed to live not only a sinless life but a life that obeyed the law to the letter.  Why?  Because two things happened.  It's called double imputation, but all we need to know is that not only did Jesus take our sins--past, present, and future--on himself, but he bestowed his sinless, lawkeeping life on us.  Now when God the Father looks upon us, he sees Jesus' righteous life.  Jesus had to live a whole life.  He had to go through the same temptations as we do, over and over, the same number as an average person would have.  The sins of our childhood are covered by the righteousness of his childhood.  The sins of our teens by his teens.  The sins of our adulthood by his adulthood.

How do we receive this blessing of God's grace?  We ask. Baptism is a symbol of God's promise to us to accept us as clean individuals.  When we baptize an infant or an adult.  We are asking God to claim this person as one of his own.  When that person afterward comes to faith in Christ, that is actually God fulfilling his promise to us.  You don't need to be baptized again after coming to faith, because the baptism itself was the symbol of the promise.  The coming to faith is the result.

Each Sunday we reaffirm our baptismal covenant with the words of the Nicene Creed.  Please, let us all stand and reaffirm our faith now.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Rebuke, Repent, Remember

Last week I talked about the three things that the thief on the cross said: first he rebuked the other thief and his false doctrine, second he showed that he understood the Gospel, and third he asked Jesus to remember him.  Not only can these three things be applied to our confession of faith, but they can be employed when we approach studying the Bible, and I use them when I preach the Gospel.  Let me demonstrate with the following passage:

Matthew 24:36-44
24:36 "But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

24:37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

24:38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark,

24:39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.

24:40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.

24:41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.

24:42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

24:43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.

24:44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

First, rebuking false teaching about this passage.  We live in a time where everyone seems to be predicting when the world will end.  Everyone, from the secular humanist to the scientist to the religious.  This is not something new.  Predictions about the end of the world have been going on for millennia. Martin Luther said the world was going to end before 1600.  John Wesley gave a range.  Cotton Mather kept having to revise his date when they kept passing and nothing happened.  Cults, Churches, Wisemen, Popes, Techies: all have predicted the end of the world.  Go to Wikipedia and see the lengthy list.

And yet here, right here in the Bible, in verse 36, it says, Jesus says, that no one will know the time.  No one will know the hour or the day.  In fact, in verse 44, Jesus says that not only will no one know, the time will be the least expected time!  My NASB says "the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will."  The angels don't know, Jesus himself doesn't know, and certainly man does not know.  Why am I talking about this?  Because we need to beware those who claim to know.  They are false teachers.  Thankfully, Luther and Wesley gave RANGES.  But they still shouldn't have given anything.

Here's another: the rapture.  The whole Left Behind culture says that the saved are going to disappear and leave the unsaved behind to fight things out on earth.  This very passage says that the coming of the Son of Man will be like the days of Noah, when Noah got in the ark, saved, and the ones outside the ark, the unsaved, got washed away.  You WANT to be left behind.  This is the separation of the chaff from the wheat.  Just like the pitchfork throws up into the air both wheat and chaff but the wheat is heavier and so it falls to the threshing floor but the chaff gets blown away, so if the coming of the Son of Man.

Here's something I saw by carefully reading scripture: there will be two men in the field, there will be two women grinding at the mill.  It's not one man working and the other gambling.  It's not one woman at the mill and the other engaged in prostitution.  Both of the people seem identical on the outside, engaged in identical activity.  But God has chosen one for salvation and the other for destruction.  This is the doctrine of election shown in two short verses.  Remember to abhor evil and embrace the truth by reading the Bible carefully.

Second, we can find the Gospel in this passage.  Where is Jesus?  He is all through the Bible, but where is he in this passage, besides the one speaking?  He is the ark.  He is our vessel of salvation, the lifeboat.  By being in Christ, we are boarding the second ark and surviving the un-creation of everything.  Jesus is the only route through destruction to the other side.

Finally, let's ask by praying: Heavenly Father, save us!  Remember us when you come into your kingdom and place us on the second ark, lift us up out of the realm of darkness and carry us to safety in Jesus Christ.  Let us reject false doctrine, embrace the power of the Gospel for salvation, and beg God for his grace, by which, through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ, we are saved.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013


Luke 23:33-43
23:33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.

23:34 Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots to divide his clothing.

23:35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!"

23:36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine,

23:37 and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!"

23:38 There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews."

23:39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!"

23:40 But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?

23:41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong."

23:42 Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

23:43 He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

Look at what the thief on the cross says.  He lived his whole life apart from God, and yet here, when he "gets it," he does three things.

1. He rebukes evil.  The other criminal does not get it.  He mocks Jesus and says, "Are you not the Christ?" (He does not believe that Jesus is).  "Save yourself and us!"  Show us a proof, a sign, a miracle.  When someone demands a miracle, we can be assured that he won't believe, even if the miracle takes place.  Abraham tells the rich man that his family will not believe, even if someone comes back from the dead.  Also, Jesus IS in the process of saving the thieves.  He is in the process of saving the whole world, but only those who accept the gift will receive it.  Even though Jesus' sacrifice on the cross is sufficient for the whole world, the only people who receive it are the ones to whom the Holy Spirit applies it.

So, the saved thief rebukes the lost thief.  "Do you not even fear God?"  There seem to be two kinds of lost people: those who do not believe in God and those who do not fear God.  Belief in existence is not enough.  One has to know who God is, and when we know God, we fear him: a healthy respect, awe, and worship.  So many people do not believe in God, but when they do, they don't take him seriously.  They are essentially deists.

2. He confesses the gospel with repentance.  Next, the thief confesses his understanding of the gospel.  He says to the lost thief that both of them are under the same condemnation as Jesus but that they DESERVE the penalty and the punishment but Jesus does not.  This is the gospel in a nutshell.  Once we understand the magnitude of our sin and the righteousness of Christ, and that he suffered on our behalf, and that this switch is the ultimate divine act, we actually understand more about Christianity that most.  This is also a form of repentance, the idea that we understand that we DESERVE the penalty, and we turn from our sin and toward Christ.

3. He ASKS the Lord to remember him.  As Christ says in the sermon on the mount: Ask and it shall be given to you, seek and you shall find.  The last thing the saved thief does is ask Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom.  He acknowledges who Christ is: the king!  He merely asks to remember him, with no expectations that he will be there too.  Just as Joseph asks the cupbearer to remember him, and the cupbearer forgets, Jesus, however, not only remembers but has already made plans for the thief to be with him in paradise.

When we despair and say, how hard it is to get to heaven!  The way is so narrow!  Remember, all we have to do is ask.  Ask as the thief asked: remember me.  Of course, we won't ask if we don't reject evil and understand the gospel, but never fear: according to Colossians 1:13:

1:13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 

God overcomes our rebellion.  He compels us to reject evil, he leads us to repentance, and he prompts us to ask.  

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Our Redeemer Lives

Job is a popular book of the Bible, but it is also one of the most difficult to grasp.  We realize that God has caused all this misery on Job, and yet we make excuses.  Well, we say, Satan was actually the one who did it, but God allowed Satan to inflict Job, so it is God's fault.  Atheist's hold up this book against the goodness of God, and we, as Christians, have to admit that we really don't know what true goodness is.  God is pure goodness, but goodness, when exercised, doesn't necessarily look like what we conceive it to be.

We have to realize several things.  One, everything is God's.  He giveth and he taketh away.  Not because he's mean, but because he knows our hearts better than we do.  Sometimes goodness means "for our good," and not necessarily "doing nice things."  So, yes, Job's life was essentially taken away.  He was inflicted with sores.  He lost everything.  He despaired.  But let's see how he reacts to this affliction.

He has three friends with him, and what they are doing to him is torture.  These three are essentially espousing the prosperity gospel to him.  This is the false gospel that is permeating our Christian culture today.  What this false gospel says is that with positive thoughts, you can have great health and prosperous wealth, and IF YOU DON'T get those things, that means you don't have enough faith.  You are failing as a Christian.  You must have done something sinful.  This is essentially what Job's friends tell him, and he finally screams at them: "you are worse than the affliction!  You are twisting the knife in deeper!  Leave me alone!"  He knows that the Lord has done this to him, but it is not because he did something particularly sinful.  We are ALL sinful.  We all deserve what has happened to Job and WORSE, but it is the Lord's discretion what happens to us.  Job's three friends deserve what he has gotten.  They are misled, because they think they do not deserve that, but they do.  God is only delaying their affliction till a later time, probably at actual death, and that affliction is everlasting ruin.

Here is what Job says:

Job 19:23-27a
19:23 "O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book!

19:24 O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever!

19:25 For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;

19:26 and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God,

19:27a whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.

He wishes his words would be preserved forever, and indeed they are, and the following words are some of the most well-known in all of scripture.  Let's look at them closely:

Verse 25 actually begins with the words, AS FOR ME.  This means that Job cannot speak for his friends or anyone else, for that matter.  Likewise, we cannot speak for others.  Each person has an individual walk with the Lord or not.  I can't speak for anyone in this room, but AS FOR ME, I can speak.  I can speak for myself.  What are Job's friends doing?  They are speaking for him.  They are telling him all that he has done wrong, and what his problem is.  Have you had friends who try to FIX your life?  They tell you what you should do.  They tell you were you should go.  They tell you how you should live.  Job says he only speaks for himself.

I KNOW that my Redeemer lives.  He doesn't think.  He doesn't hope.  He doesn't postulate based on the available evidence.  He KNOWS.  There's a fellow I know who tells me he has serious doubts about the Christian religion.  He is PLAGUED with doubts.  He fancies himself a Christian, but he has many doubts about Jesus, about the New Testament, etc.  He tells me that he would love to sit down with me and converse over coffee, but he is afraid that his doubts might rub off on me and ruin my walk with Christ.  Really?  I shook my head and told him that it would never happen.  Why?  Because I KNOW THAT MY REDEEMER LIVES.  I'm not just convinced through lots of reading the right authors, and if I read the wrong authors, I'll fall out of faith.  I KNOW.  There is not a DOUBT.

MY REDEEMER.  Jesus Christ, the only begotten son of God.  God got Job in this mess, in order to bring Job low and close to God, and God in the end will pull him out of the depths.  The only person he could be talking about in history is Jesus.  LIVES.  When does the story of Job take place?  Chronologically it's at the end of the historical books and right before Psalms.  But it is only there because it is wisdom literature.  Job lived somewhere in the time period of the book of Genesis. Job is a very early book, chronologically.  And Job KNOWS THAT HIS REDEEMER LIVES.  Jesus was alive at the time of Job.  He was alive at the creation of the world.  Jesus has always been and will always be. He is our redeemer, too, and he LIVES.

Not only does Job see the beginning and everlasting nature of Jesus, he sees him at the end of all things.  Job says that AT THE LAST, the end of everything, Jesus will take his stand on the earth.  He is seeing him at the end of everything as well as the beginning of everything.  Jesus permeates everything.  Even after Job's flesh, and our flesh for that matter, has been destroyed.  Yet, from his eyes, and from our eyes, we will see all these things take place.  Next week I will talk about how we will be witnesses of recreation.  This is possible, because we will receive new bodies from our Lord, and we will see through actual eyes.

The whole of verse 27 says, "Whom I myself shall behold, and whom my eyes will see and not another.  My heart faints within me."  Not only will we behold the risen Christ with our own eyes, but we will not see anything else.  As it says in Isaiah 65: the former things will be forgotten and not even come to mind.  Everything involved in our future lives revolves around God.

Does this mean that heaven is one long Church service?  No.  I think it means that, because we are the bride of Christ, it is like one long marriage feast.  Christ is our lover, and we collectively focus on him, because he is our true love.  Someone once asked whether there would be chocolate in heaven, and the answer may be yes, but even if there was a truck load of chocolate in the corner, we wouldn't notice, because our attention will be on Christ.  The only way we will taste chocolate in heaven is if and when our lover places it in our mouths.

In the midst of despair, Job says these amazing words.  Why?  Because when we are at our lowest, that is when we find our redeemer, and we find that he is alive.  We know it to be so.  What about those who lose faith in God when they hit rock bottom?  Well, the world has misled them, and they have been given a false god in place of the true God.  When Jesus was at his lowest, death on the cross, the Father was right there with him, working salvation for us all.  At his lowest, Job knew that his redeemer lived.  Do we?

We know the verse that says, "the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away," but have we ever read it as, "the Lord taketh away and the Lord giveth?"  That order is just as true.  Everything created is the Lord's.  We are created beings.  We are the Lord's.  Pray that he will give us himself, because he is the most important possession we need.

Monday, November 4, 2013

In Christ

There's a period of time between when we come to a "head" knowledge of God and a "heart" knowledge.  The head knowledge is when we "get it," when we actually figure out that it's all true, that there is a God and that the Bible's representation of him is true.  I came to this head knowledge through the works of C.S. Lewis, and I devoured everything I could find about theology and about living a Christian life.  But I didn't have the heart knowledge.  To get this heart knowledge, God himself actually picks you up from the place you are, and he places you in a new place, a place where you begin to grow into a child of God.  This place is "in Christ."

I want to define two terms.  The first is "in Christ."  This is an actual place where God puts Christians.  Many professing Christians still belong to the "head knowledge" category, but being in Christ is something only God does, and it is defined Biblically as being "elected."  The elect are the group of professing Christians who are being supernaturally transformed into the image of Christ.  Hence, this is why they are in Christ.

Another word we hear is "saint."  What is a saint?  Is a saint a special, noteworthy Christian who performs miracles on earth after death, and so is written into a pantheon of saints in some book in a palace?  No, according to Paul, the elect are saints.  He wrote to the saints in Ephesus.  These aren't the leaders but the whole body of elect, of people who God has picked up and placed in Christ.

What does a saint look like?  We usually call each other saints under two circumstances.  One is derogatory.  When we rebuke someone, they may respond, "oh, well, you're such a SAINT," being ironic.  Essentially it's like calling someone a hypocrite. The other is when we witness someone persevering through horrible trials, someone who is able to withstand the onslaught of hostile words or actions.  We watch them go through hell on earth and the term is used during the ordeal, "you are SUCH a saint."  The implication is that the speaker would NEVER be able to hold out the way the saint is holding out.  "I'm astonished that you are able to put up with that."  This way saint is used is closer to what a saint looks like.

When I was in my period of head knowledge, in between understanding the Christian worldview and being put "in Christ," I had tried to evangelize the unbelieving people in my workplace.  As being born in America, living through the prosperous 80s decade, and being steeped in individualism, I interpreted the scriptures that talked about living the Christian life for all to see in a distinctly American way.  To hear that my new Christian life will actually draw unbelievers toward me and compel them to investigate my life, I took that to mean that I needed to look PROSPEROUS.  I needed to demonstrate that my life was BETTER than it had been, since I became a Christian.  So, that meant that I needed to be the best worker, the one that brought in the most clients, the one that solved all the problems, the one that never got sick or missed a day of work, the one that had the shining family, that one that had the happiest marriage, the one who had it ALL TOGETHER.

How did this work in practice?  I wasn't the best worker.  When there was no work to be had, I goofed off with the rest of them.  I didn't bring in the most clients.  Convincing people to give you a chance is hard stuff.  I'm living that now, trying to grow a church.  I didn't have the complete knowledge necessary to solve the company's problems or to make each individual project work smoothly.  I got sick, my family got sick.  I missed days of work due to sickness or family emergencies.  Sometimes I'd get into arguments with friends and family, and then I'd try to PRETEND that nothing was wrong. What I was broadcasting to the unbelievers in my office that there was NO change in my life, and worse, it was obvious that I was trying to cover it up and be deceitful in regards to my level of prosperity.  I was pushing people AWAY from Jesus.

What is the change then?  What is it that people are supposed to notice about you?  How are you supposed to be different now that you are a Christian?  Because we're Americans we expect God to weave a miracle about us, so that people will say, "wow," but the truth is that the miracle God provides is unexpected.  God doesn't fix our circumstances or solve our problems; God changes our hearts so that we can persevere through our problems.  We have the same problems as the ungodly, but all the ungodly have in response is despair.  We have hope in Jesus Christ.

Look at this passage from Luke:

Luke 6:20-31
6:20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

6:21 "Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

6:22 "Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.

6:23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

6:24 "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

6:25 "Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. "Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.

6:26 "Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

6:27 "But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,

6:28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

6:29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.

6:30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.

6:31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

We have hope, because no matter what happens to us in this world, we have inherited the next, simply by being "in Christ."  We can be poor, we can be hungry, we can be sad, we can be hated, excluded, reviled and defamed.  None of that matters, because by being in Christ, all of that will be undone in the next world.  Our knowledge of the truth of that promise from our Lord provides a hope that shines through all of the hardships, all of the trials and tribulations we face.  People SEE that.  People see how we react and that makes them curious.  God doesn't change our circumstances, he changes how we RESPOND to our circumstances.  People see THAT, and that is what makes them unsettled and intrigued about us.

In fact, if things are going our way, we should be worried.  Why?  Because it is when we are at our lowest that God is working in our lives the most.  It is at rock bottom where God is really touching our lives.  This is a place--a place of trial and tribulation--that we should be embracing, even though we don't want to, because it goes up against our American sensibilities.  See the list of actions Jesus demands we take in the passage above.

Love your enemies, 
do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, 
pray for those who abuse you.

We steel ourselves up and say to God, "ok, I get it.  If ever I have an enemy, I will try to love him.  If ever someone hates me, I will try to do good to them.  If I am ever cursed, I will bless in response.  If ever I'm abused, I will try to pray for the abuser."  The change God has done in us involves much more than trying, it even involves more than doing.  If ever I have an enemy?  How about, "LORD, SEND ME AN ENEMY SO THAT I WILL LOVE HIM."  Lord, make me hated, so that I can do good in return.  Lord, make someone curse me so that I can bless him.  Can we pray those?  Our brains won't let us.  How about, "Lord, send me an ABUSER so that I will pray for him."  Only God can bring those prayers out of us.  We can only pray such things if we are IN CHRIST.

It is when we feel God the LEAST, then he is working the MOST in our lives.  Have you ever felt that God was far away and that things were empty in your life?  Guess what.  That's when God is building you up.  We don't like this sort of gospel; it's an unsettling gospel; but it is the true gospel.  When God seems furthest away, that is when he is nearest.

Jesus died on the cross, and at one point, when all the sins of the world were being heaped upon him, he lifted his head and cried out, "Lord, why have you forsaken me?"  For the first time ever, our sins had separated the Son from the Father, and Jesus could no longer feel the Father's presence.  Was the Father really gone?  No, that was when he was working the hardest.  That was when the salvation of the world was taking place.

Pray that God will pick you up from where you are and place you in Christ.  Pray that he will bring you low, so that he will sanctify you.  Pray that you will be poor, hungry, grieved, hated, excluded, reviled and defamed.  Those are the qualities of the saints.  Consider those qualities joy.  The joyous saints are the ones who draw the attention of the ungodly world.  The joyous saints are the ones who inherit the kingdom of God.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Some thoughts from Rev. David Green

On "delivered" vs. "saved" - in the Joel text and many others it is much simpler.  The Hebrew is delivered and the Septuagint is saved and of course Peter quotes the Septuagint.  Often "delivered" is translated "saved" though the OT context may be a military situation.

And as to calling on the Lord, of course this is a "pregnant" phrase that includes 1)conviction of sin - not just wanting help -2)faith in Jesus' person and work as alone sufficient to justify; and then as you wrote, 3)a continual calling on him in trust for the necessary strength and holiness to live as a true regenerated Christian.

Carry on, brother!


Joel 2:32: Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.

The KJV and NASB translations of this passage use the word "delivered" instead of "saved."  Indeed, Peter expanded the word to "saved" in his reading of the passage in Acts 2, so later translators altered the Old Testament to match Peter's interpretation.  What is the difference between "delivered" and "saved?"  Well, "saved" is broader.  We picture a hand plucking a brand from the fire.  But where does the brand then go?  "Delivered" implies a transition from one side of a crisis to another.  Someone is being delivered TO THE OTHER SIDE of a danger.

What is this danger?  What are we delivered FROM?  Let's look at the previous verses:

2:30 I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke.

2:31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.

Blood is the life substance within living things.  This verse says it will be on the OUTSIDE, as if life were being turned inside out, UNDONE so to speak.  Fire is the transition of a substance of function, something solid, into ashes and gas.  Once again we have UNcreation.  However, the sun, which is always burning, is going to turn to darkness, its own turning inside out, its own uncreation.  When does the moon look like blood?  When gases and smoke are in the air.  This description of the Day of the Lord coming is not a pretty sight.   What we have is a time where everything that was created is uncreated and will be no more.

We probably won't live to see that day, but that doesn't mean that the day doesn't apply to us.  Each of us is going to die, and death is the same kind of transition into uncreation.  Each of us will have a personal "Day of the Lord."  God says here through Joel that he is going to deliver us through this uncreation to the other side of it.  The creator of the universe, who created EVERYTHING, is going to UNCREATE everything, and yet he will deliver us through that uncreation to the other side, as created beings who have not been uncreated.

Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be delivered.  Everyone will be delivered?  No.  Only those who call on the name of the Lord will be delivered.  Mother Theresa will be delivered, surely.  Surely, if she called on the name of the Lord, she will be delivered.  Hitler?  If Hitler called on the name of the Lord, then yes, but he probably did not call on the name of the Lord.  Ghandi?  If he called on the name of the Lord, then yes.

Well, what IS calling on the name of the Lord?  Calling on the name of the Lord is praying.  The word is also present tense: "calls."  It is a continuous call.  Whoever is continually praying to the Lord will be delivered.  Something that we have all been working with in our congregation is the Jesus prayer.  It's a simple prayer that encapsulates the entire Gospel within it: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."  This simple prayer can be learned to the point where one can be continually calling on God, even when he or she is doing other things.

Here is the text from our Gospel reading today:

Luke 18:9-14
18:9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:

18:10 "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

18:11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.

18:12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.'

18:13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'

18:14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

Who is the one who is going to be delivered?  The tax collector.  He is merely saying the Jesus prayer.  The Pharisee is not calling on the name of the Lord.  He is only praising himself.  Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.  Who is the Lord?  Yahweh, the creator God, the great I AM.  Not Buddha.  Not Vishnu.  Not Zeus.  Not a tree.  Not the devil.  Not an angel.  Not a person.  Not a celebrity.  Not a politician.  Only the creator God can deliver us, and so only his name is to be called upon.

And he has given us the name by which we are to be saved: Jesus Christ.  The name actually means, "he saves."  The Hebrew word is Jeshua, translated into Greek as Iesus, and into our modern language as Jesus.  Joshua in the Old Testament, delivered God's people from one side of the Jordan River to the other side, into the promised land.

So, whoever calls continually on the name of the Lord will be delivered.  Whoever continually prays to Jesus Christ will be saved.  This sounds like the easiest thing in the world, but at the same time, to continually pray to God sounds impossible.  Also, our fallen nature refuses to pray to the Lord.  We don't WANT to call on the name of Jesus.  We resist with every fiber of our being.  Does this mean that we shall not be delivered after all?

The good news is also in the last verse of the Joel passage:

Joel 2:32: Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.

Those who call on the name of the Lord are the ones whom the Lord calls.  Yes, God is previous yet again, and his calling on our hearts comes first.  He gives us his Spirit, who intercedes for us, calling on the name of the Lord when we are unable to.  Listen to Romans 8:

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

The best news of all is here!  God will not let us be lost in the uncreation.  He calls us to call on him.  We will not fail to call on the name of the Lord, because the Lord has called on us first.  He has given us his Spirit, and the Spirit does the impossible work for us, so that we can make the transition from darkness to light, from destruction to salvation, from death into life.  Lord Jesus deliver us!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Prayer with Thanksgiving

Last week we talked about the duty of a Christian.  Here was part of the reading from last week from Luke 17:

17:7 "Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, 'Come here at once and take your place at the table'?

17:8 Would you not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink'?

17:9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?

17:10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, 'We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'"

Our relationship to God, as Christians, are like slaves to a master. Our function, what we were made for, is service to our lord WITHOUT REWARD, without merit.  We were created for such a purpose.  When God created Adam, he set him to work in the garden.  It is our function, and we rebel against it, because we are fallen.  The effects of sin from the fall are not just us hurting each other and ourselves, it is merely the focus on self, instead of God, which prevents us from being full-time slaves.  When we DO serve, we serve only for a short time, and we get exhausted, and we begin living for ourselves again.  We can't seem to help it.

I touched on this last week, but a big part of the work that the Lord has purchased us to do, is the work of prayer.  This is good news, because we don't have to be in the trenches with Mother Theresa 24/7, but it is also bad news, because we don't want to pray.  When Philip inquired of prayer to our Lord, he didn't say, "teach us HOW to pray."  We know how to pray, we just don't.  He said, "teach us TO pray."  Give us the wills, Lord, to drop on our knees, and beg you to empty ourselves of all self, and ask you to use us as our slaves.

Here is today's reading from Luke 17.  It's no accident or random occurrence that this passage is right after what we read above:

17:11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.

17:12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance,

17:13 they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"

17:14 When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were made clean.

17:15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.

17:16 He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.

17:17 Then Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?

17:18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?"

17:19 Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."

When Jesus meets these ten lepers, they lift up their voices in united prayer.  And the prayer is the most simple yet deepest prayer of all: the Jesus prayer.  It goes like this: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."  This is essentially what the lepers say, and as sin is spiritual leprosy, we should be saying this every minute of every day.

Jesus sends them all to a priest, who is the one who would judge if a leper is cleansed and can return to society.  He hasn't healed them yet.  They didn't ASK to be healed.  It is pointless to show themselves to a priest.  They obey, all ten obey.  On the way, they are healed, and they continue to obey, continuing on to the priest.  However, one DISOBEYS.  One of the lepers turns back to praise God and throw himself to Jesus' feet in thanksgiving.  The others haven't disobeyed. They are still healed.  They aren't going to become lepers again.

But the one who turned back is not in trouble.  He is DOUBLY BLESSED, because he has given thanksgiving.  He has prayed with the others, but unlike the others, he has given thanksgiving.  The kind of prayer we should be engaged in is not just prayer for ourselves, not just prayer for others, but prayer with thanksgiving.  This is an advanced form of prayer that is blanketed in thanksgiving.  We have heard about the three answers to prayer.  God says one of three things in answer to prayer: yes, no, or later.  When do we give thanks?  We give thanks after "yes" answers.  Do we give thanks for "no" answers?  No.  Do we give thanks for "later" answers?  Well, that depends on whether the later answer is yes or not.  Do you see what we do?  We should be giving thanks in ALL circumstances.

Philippians 4:4-7 says the following:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  

Couching our prayer in thanksgiving brings us the peace that passes all understanding.  It's the Christian life there in a nutshell.  Giving thanks in all circumstances, allows us to empty ourselves to Christ, allows him to use us as vessels for his ministry.  It is the difference between merely praying for others and allowing God to use us to help others.  This prayer, "Lord use me to help my friends," is a far more advanced prayer than a mere, "help my friends."

The best example of this is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Here we get to peer over Christ's shoulder and see what he prays about in secret.  This is probably how he prayed all the time: Lord not my will but your will. Use me to help my friends.  That is exactly what happens.  Christ dies on our behalf.  He may not have actually said THANK YOU to the father, but his whole posture is one of thanksgiving.  He sweats blood, he empties himself.  He is thanking the Father for the answer NO.

Pray that the Lord will empty us.  Throw ourselves down on his mercy.  Let him use us for his ministry.  Lord, use us as your slaves.  And let us be thankful for such slavery.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Duty v. Faith

Luke 17:5-10
17:5 The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!"

17:6 The Lord replied, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.

17:7 "Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, 'Come here at once and take your place at the table'?

17:8 Would you not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink'?

17:9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?

17:10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, 'We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'"

What is the Christian life?  What does it mean to be a Christian?  What are the fruits?  Helping the poor, right?  Helping widows and orphans.  On the Outer Banks we have Ruthie's Kitchen that feeds the poor.  We have Room at the Inn that houses the homeless during the winter months.  The Dream Center gives them a place to stay during the day.  We have a Food Pantry.  We have many other programs and helpful tools that aid us in reaching out to the downtrodden.  We are servants to the world.

But this is what makes the above text from Luke all the more alarming.  Above, Jesus says that this is our DUTY as Christians.  This is the bare minimum of what our roles are.  Of course we are to serve. We are SLAVES to Christ, and our roles on earth, as Christians, are to serve others WITHOUT REWARD.  It is our job, and if we expect something out of it, we are not thinking of our roles properly.  Also, it looks like that if we are not working constantly, and are taking too many breaks, we are failing in our role as Christians.

This is our duty.  It does not require anything special to do, Jesus seems to be saying.  To prove the case, look at the secular world.  The secular world is just as adept at serving the poor and the downtrodden as Christians are. They fail, just like we fail, because the poor will always be with us, but they put in as good as an effort as us Christians.

It seems that we can only be successful at doing our Christian duty by having the necessary faith in Christ to do it.  Indeed, this parable by Christ seems to be a response to the statement from his disciples when they plead with Jesus to, "increase our faith!"  But actually, the pleading from the disciples is in response to something Jesus said that isn't printed above.  Here it is:

Luke 17:1-4

Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” 

As Christians, it is our duty to serve the poor.  The secular world also feels its duty to do this, too.  Unique to Christians is what Jesus describes above.  The worst kind of sinner is the scoffer: the one who not only actively sins but encourages others to sin, too. These are the ones through whom stumbling blocks come, and they can come through the ungodly world, but many time they come through brothers and sisters: fellow Christians, oftentimes Christian leaders.

What is unique to believers is our ability to rebuke scoffers AND THEN forgive them when they repent.  How many of us do that on a regular basis?  I see no hands, not even my own. Why?  Because it is the hardest part of the Christian life.  We don't want to rebuke anyone, because we don't want anyone to dislike us.  We don't want to forgive anyone, because it wouldn't be fair.  We have a sense of justice where it shouldn't be, and we have a sense of compassion where it shouldn't be.  We should feel justice in our rebuking of scoffers.  Instead we feel justice in our lack of forgiveness.  We should feel compassion when we forgive the repentant scoffer.  Instead we feel compassion in our lack of rebuking.

Indeed, these are the hardest things for a Christian to do, and so that is why the disciples respond with the desperate, "Increase or faith!" to their Lord.  The good news, is that we can utter this cry, too.  We can also shout out, "Increase our faith," and Jesus will respond with his faith-giving Spirit.  It is as simple as that, but we are unwilling to ask the Lord.  We are too proud, and we are too selfish to ask for help.  We think we can do it alone.  Helping the poor is easy; even the unbelieving world does it.  Rebuking and forgiving is impossible for us, but with God all things are possible.

Lord, increase our faith!

Friday, October 4, 2013


Luke 16:19-31
16:19 "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.

16:20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,

16:21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.

16:22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.

16:23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.

16:24 He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.'

16:25 But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.

16:26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.'

16:27 He said, 'Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house--

16:28 for I have five brothers--that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.'

16:29 Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.'

16:30 He said, 'No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.'

16:31 He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"

We've been looking closer at the Lukan parables, finding depths that we never supposed were there before.  This popular parable is no different.  It seems to be another parable espousing the social gospel.  It seems to have a Marxian context: rich v. poor.  We even can remember other things that Jesus has said elsewhere: it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Yes, it seems as if Jesus is saying here that the poor of the world are blessed and the rich are damned.

But something Abraham says in this parable reveals depth greater than that of shallow Marxism:

16:25 But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.

This goes beyond rich versus poor.  This is a comparison of one having received good things on earth versus having received evil things (or "bad" things).  Now, many times these receivings DO fall along the lines of rich and poor, but there are also many times that the financially rich may receive evil things and the financially poor may receive good things.  Think of our luxurious country.  Many of the poor have good things: food, shelter, a TV, hundreds of DVDs (usually horror movies), a car, liberty to do as one pleases.  Worldwide, American poor is in the top 4% of the wealthy. Am I saying that the poor don't have it tough?  No, a lot of the time they do, but we need to look at another criterion for deciding who is blessed and who isn't.  "Blessed are the poor" is in the sermon on the mount, so let's look at that:

The Beatitudes (Matthew 5)
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are the poor IN SPIRIT.  What does that mean?  Well, read the other beatitudes.  They describe someone who is poor in spirit.  Someone who mourns.  Someone who hungers for righteousness.  Someone who is merciful.  These aren't separate people Jesus is describing.  This is one blessed person.  Now, who are the people that the bible describes as in the most need of comfort?  Who are the people that, over and over again, the people of Israel are asked to take care of?  And Israel continually fails to look after these persons.  Who are they?

Widows and orphans.  Why?  Well, we tell ourselves, they just represent "the poor."  That is what we call them now.  So, we're back to socialism again.  But the bible goes deeper than that.  Being a widow or an orphan didn't necessarily mean that you were financially poor, then as well as now. Why widows and orphans?  What to they have in common?

Loss.  The orphan has lost his or her parents.  The parents are God's authoritative representatives on earth to the child.  Obeying parents is one of the commandments.  Parents are to be the source of Godly wisdom to the child.  Parents are the source of Godly love.  Without Godly parents, the orphan is at a HUGE disadvantage in life.  That is poor in spirit.  We aren't looking at monetary worth now.  We are looking INSIDE.  Same with the widow.  His or her partner in life is gone.  The one who gave her authority, Godly wisdom, and love, or the one who gave him (the widower) respect, love, companionship, and Godly help.  Gone, and there is a terrible loss there. 

Widows and orphans are the best tangible examples of those who are poor in spirit.  To have such a loss is to live through the beatitudes.  As Abraham says in the parable, it is to receive evil things on earth.  It is a form of martyrdom.  To be a financial martyr is not deep enough.  We talked about last week how in general money is unrighteous mammon.  Loss of it is NOT a loss of wisdom or Godly authority.  In fact to lose wealth is to be in a blessed state on earth.  You are actually receiving a good thing to lose wealth.

Ask someone who has lost a loved one, and he or she will tell you that there are times, when all is quiet, when all is peaceful, that the widow or widower or orphan has a sense that the lost loved one is still with him or her on earth.  There's that quick sense of disorientation and forgetfulness that the loved one is gone, and one may even cry out the lost one's name, but then the realization comes that the loved one is truly gone, and the loss rushes back, and it is deeper than ever.  The spirit gets poorer.

Living the Christian life is difficult, I'm discovering, because we don't have that sense of loss when it comes to Christ.  We know that Christ is alive--he is risen--but we do not have the experience of his incarnation, like the apostles did.  We don't have that sense of loss that the apostles had when Jesus died, and after the resurrection when he ascended.  He is alive, yes.  He has given us the comforter, the Holy Spirit, to live with us, yes.  But do we really have the sense that Christ is alive and working in our lives right this minute through the Holy Spirit?

Have you ever read a book or series of books by someone, like Dickens or CS Lewis, and wished that the person were still alive, so you could interact with them or hear what they are saying today?  That is the feeling we SHOULD have with Christ.  We should read the Gospels and have that overwhelming sense of loss and the desire to hear him speak today.  We should have that sudden awareness of his presence that the widow and the orphan have with their lost loved ones.  We cannot seem to have that awareness of his presence in our lives until we first experience the loss.

When we feel Christ's loss, the Holy Spirit, the comforter, fulfills his duty to us, the reason he is here.  He comforts us in our loss, reminds us that Christ is alive, reveals him to us in the scriptures, reveals his presence in our lives today, this very minute.  Pray for God to make us poor in spirit, so that we will know that sense of loss and then can know our savior's presence.  Lord give us that sense of loss, so that we may find him with us.

Friday, September 27, 2013


Luke 16:1-13
16:1 Then Jesus said to the disciples, "There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.

16:2 So he summoned him and said to him, 'What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.'

16:3 Then the manager said to himself, 'What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.

16:4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.'

16:5 So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?'

16:6 He answered, 'A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.'

16:7 Then he asked another, 'And how much do you owe?' He replied, 'A hundred containers of wheat.' He said to him, 'Take your bill and make it eighty.'

16:8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

16:9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

16:10 "Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.

16:11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?

16:12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?

16:13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."

This is one of the toughest parables in the canon of parables of Jesus, because it seems like he's preaching the exact opposite of what he preaches everywhere else.  I've seen lots of godly people turn somersaults to interpret this parable.  Lots of commentaries try to address this by changing the meaning of certain parts to mean something else.  Well, I prayed and mediated on this passage, and I didn't want to avoid it any longer.  I'm going to tackle it.

First, we should look at what it's NOT.  We have so many parables from Jesus that are about the kingdom of God (the KoG is like, etc) and about how to live a Christian life, that we assume that this is another such parable.  For example, Jesus could be saying that the kingdom of God is something that is gained deceitfully, or if you are unable to cheat your way into the kingdom, then quickly put yourself at a disadvantage so that God will say, "well done, crooked and deceitful servant!"

But Jesus never says that this is a "kingdom of God" parable.  He's just telling a story about a worldly, ungodly person.  His point is that if this person, who is chaff, is able to figure his way out of his problem when the chips are down, why cannot the children of light?  If, with the aid of the money he has stolen, the wicked steward is able to quickly right his wrongs, why cannot the children of light use their money for God's kingdom in the same way?

The confusing phrase, the one that upsets the apple cart, is "dishonest wealth."  The NASB uses "unrighteous wealth."  What confuses us Christians is that when we read that phrase, we assume it means "wealth gained dishonestly."  Why, as a Christian, would I even be in possession of dishonest wealth?  But here is Jesus assuming that his children all have this sort of money lying around and they aren't using it properly.

Now, everywhere this phrase "dishonest wealth" is used there is a footnote.  Down at the bottom of the pages we find that the direct translation is "mammon."  What is mammon?  Well, we've seen that word before, and we know that it means money, right?  It's just the word they used in ancient times for money.  Well, I think it is much more than that.  Mammon is a god--a false god, but a god nonetheless--an idol that we bow down to.  Mammon is the god of wealth, and because every single person on earth is affected by it--from the Amish to the celebrity to the starving child in the third world--we can't just destroy the idol.  We can't just burn all the money we have, because it is a necessary tool for life.  That's why it is the worst competing god in existence.  Notice in the last verse above that Jesus doesn't say "you cannot serve God and Baal" or even "you cannot serve God and Satan."  He says God and Mammon.

So, this dishonest wealth was probably not gained dishonestly, but Mammon as a whole is dishonest, unrighteous, ungodly.  We are in possession of ungodly things and there's nothing we can do about it.  Jesus is telling us in this parable how we must handle this god we interact with each day.  Just as the wicked steward used his wealth to make friends among the ungodly, we are to make friends among the saints.  We are to use this money to build Christian community here on earth.

This is not the only place where the final, recognizable verse is used.  Here is the context of the verse in Matthew 6:

24 “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 

26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 

27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?

28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 

29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 

30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 

31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 

32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 

33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

The parable of the wicked steward is nowhere near the verse this time, but the verse leads into the popular passage about not worrying about food and clothing.  Why?  Because Mammon will overpower you the most through those two necessities.  We spend our money on food and clothing for survival, and then we quickly move onto food and clothing as luxuries.  It's the slipperiest of slippery slopes.

The passage ends with one of the most famous verses in scripture.  Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.  This mirror's Jesus' exhortation to us in the parable.  We must use mammon for the kingdom of God, to build his kingdom on earth.  We must not use it selfishly.  Even the wicked know how to use the money wisely when rubber meets the road.

Let's look at one last passage about mammon, to tie all of these thoughts together:

1 Timothy 6
Teach and urge these duties. 

3 Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness, 

4 is conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words. From these come envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, 

5 and wrangling among those who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.

6 Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; 

7 for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; 

8 but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. 

9 But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 

10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

11 But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. 

12 Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 

13 In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession...

Paul is exhorting Timothy concerning false teachers, but notice where he quickly goes.  Arguments and contesting among leadership is founded in that false god mammon.  And the antidote is being content.  We are content by pursuing righteousness, godliness--the kingdom of God--just as Jesus says in the sermon on the mount.  We fight this good fight by making a good confession.  Does this mean confessing all of your sins in front of many witnesses?

Does it?  The next verse answers that.  Jesus made the good confession in front of Pontius Pilate.  Did Jesus confess his sins?  No he didn't have any.  Jesus confessed to Pilate that he was the son of God, that he WAS the king that they were about to crucify him for.  He confessed his divinity.  And so, too, are we, in front of many witnesses, to confess that Jesus is LORD.

That is how we seek the kingdom of God, that is how we use mammon for the kingdom, to make friends among the saints: by first confessing Jesus as LORD.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Faith Applied

It seems that every few weeks we discuss faith.  This is important, because something that seems so simple is actually very deep and complex.  We have discussed how faith isn't believing IN God but believing God, his promises, that he is truthful.  A few weeks ago we went deeper and discussed how faith in Christ involves not only believing in Christ, believing Christ, but also believing that he is our savior, and that we NEED a savior, because we are guilty of crimes against God and humanity.  If we don't believe in the whole package, we aren't truly believing in Christ.

1 Timothy 1:12-17 is a short passage from Paul that explains how we get this faith.  We have faith in things all the time: faith in people, in things, in ideas.  But faith in Christ is something that we naturally reject.  This sort of faith--that involves our guilt and Jesus' salvation--comes to us from Christ himself, through his Holy Spirit.  We tend to have faith in things we can see, not the immortal, invisible God.  Let's take this passage one sentence at a time:

1:12 I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service,

1:13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. 

Jesus has done something incredible here.  He has judged Paul to be faithful EVEN THOUGH he was a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.  Saul was a scoffer, a sinner's sinner, who not only sinned but encouraged others to sin and applauded them.  Jesus judging him faithful would be like Hitler getting a Nobel peace prize.  We are not even talking about Jesus giving Saul of Tarsus faith.  That comes later.  This is about Jesus JUDGING him faithful even though he is still a scoffer.  As it says in Romans 5, while we were still sinners, Jesus came and died for the ungodly.  He is judging Saul as faithful, because it is actually Jesus who is faithful.  He was faithful to the point of death on the cross.  Now he is imputing that righteousness to Saul, without Saul having done anything to deserve it.

You would think that Saul would now respond to Jesus' judging him faithful by having faith.  No, Saul doesn't even do that.  We are still incapable of building up our own faith in Jesus, even though he judges us faithful.  Here is the next sentence:

But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief,

1:14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

Through grace, the Lord imparts upon Saul the faith and love that is required to be saved.  So, while he was a sinner, Jesus judged him faithful, and now while he is still completely ignorant of who God is, he is given the faith and love of a Christian.  Everlasting life is knowledge of God, and in order for Saul to be a scoffer, he has to be completely ignorant of who God is and how he is opposition to him.  This is no excuse.  Saul is still guilty of crimes against God and humanity, but the point here is that Saul did not wake up when he was judged faithful.  He was still as lost as he could be, and yet God gave him the faith and love he needed to be called a child of God.

1:15 The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners--of whom I am the foremost.

1:16 But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.

There are two sentences this time.  The first is the gospel.  Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.  It is also a confession that Paul is the worst of sinners.  This is important to say, because it reveals that he is no longer ignorant of the gospel, and it reveals that there is nothing special about Paul that merited his receiving this faith and knowledge.  Everything is under God's sovereign will, even who is judged as faithful and who is not, because we are all unfaithful sinners at the time, like Saul.  God wills who is given faith and love and who is not, because we are all ignorant in unbelief, like Saul.

But the second sentence now gives us the "why."  Why are we given faith at all?  If Jesus is just going to judge us faithful, why are we then given faith?  So that Jesus might display the utmost patience, making us examples to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.  We know the story of Paul.  He was blinded by Christ, Ananias came and prayed over him, he received the Holy Spirit, the scales came off his eyes, he visited with the disciples in Damascus, and then he was immediately preaching in the synagogues.  He was no longer ignorant.

Does this mean that our service to the Lord as Christians is to merely educate the ungodly?  We know we have an epidemic in this world where people are completely ignorant of the gospel, even if they have heard it before, but does that mean that we are to argue our point until they "get it?"  We are to make disciples, so is this the case?  C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity brought me to Christ, but does that mean that all we have to do is get everyone to read that book and we will have a world full of Christians?  No.  In fact, there are many who have read Lewis' book and found it unconvincing.

What did Paul do that convinced the people to follow Christ?  Was it his well-reasoned argument?  No, it was the fact that he was NOTORIOUS for being anti-Christ, and now here he was preaching in the synagogues FOR Christ.  All he had to do was show up, because everyone knew who he was.  We don't have the same luxury, because none of us were notorious anti-Christians, but neither are we commanding large audiences, either.

So, our service to the Lord, the way that Christ can display the utmost patience and use us as examples is on a one-to-one or small-group level.  No one knows who we are, so we have to tell our stories, and we have to tell them in such a way that people can identify themselves with us.  "I used to be just like you," is the phrase we need to use.  We need to be able to show people who we used to be and who we are now, so they can see that Pauline transformation in us.  We need to know our testimonies backward and forward.  We need to be examples for those who would come to believe in Jesus for eternal life.

And those are the ones who Jesus judges as faithful.  They are the ones to whom he gives faith and love through the grace of God.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Between Slaveries

We are all slaves.  I'm not talking about physical slaves, though sometimes our hearts turn us into physical slaves, but we are slaves nonetheless.  According to Romans 6, we are either slaves to sin or slaves to righteousness.  This affects all of us.  Every single man woman and child.  No matter their condition.  We have trouble getting our minds around that fact.  Everyone is a sinner, even babies.  Here is a conversation from M*A*S*H that I find interesting and frustrating:

I know Hollywood has trouble writing priests, because overall they don't understand the gospel and how to defend it real life, much less on paper.  But here are the changes I would make to the above conversation.  Instead of "Sinners, I believe," I would have the priest say what every priest SHOULD say, "EVERYONE is going to Hell: women, children, old ladies, the handicapped, EVERYONE not saved by Jesus.  If "wise" Hawkeye continues, I would, after the last panel, have the priest say, "there are no innocent bystanders on Earth, either."  Everyone is a sinner.  Everyone deserves Hell unless Jesus saves him or her.

No one is untouched by this slavery.  We are either a slave to sin or a slave to righteousness.  There is no middle ground.  Everyone is a slave to sin, unless Jesus saves him or her, and then that person is a slave to righteousness.  You can't go back and forth between the two.  You can't dabble in either or be neither.  You are a slave.  Listen to the whole passage from Romans 6:16-23:

16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 

17 But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, 

18 and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 

19 I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.

20 When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 

21 So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. 

22 But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. 

23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Examples of these two slaveries abound in the Bible.  The Prodigal Son is a good example: he is a slave to every kind of sin, but then he comes to his senses and returns to his father, willing to become a hired hand.  The father accepts him, slays the fetted calf, has a party, but the Prodigal Son is not going to run off again.  He is going to serve the father for the rest of his life.

Saul of Tarsus was a slave to the worst kind of sin.  He was a scoffer, someone who not only sinned but encouraged others to sin.  He watched Stephen get stoned by others, and he encouraged them.  He is on his way to persecute some Christians in Damascus, when the Lord "knocks him off his horse."  From that point on he becomes a slave to righteousness.

What is the transition?  What is that place in-between the slaveries?  Obviously this is the place where Jesus meets us, but what is the instance?  What does it look like on the surface?  I think this verse in Romans 6 tells us:

17 But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, 

There is a point where the gospel, as a form of teaching, hits you on an intellectual level, which informs your emotions, your heart and mind being affected, your soul being affected.  This moment of transition is the moment you hear the gospel and understand it.  The moment when you suddenly have ears to hear and eyes to see.  The Prodigal Son only "comes to his senses," but it is a parable.  Saul loses his sight, goes into Damascus, and prays.  After his sight returns, he meets with the disciples and then proclaims Jesus in the synagogues.  Immediately he is informed of the truth; he is entrusted with the right form of teaching, and can preach it immediately.

When Charles Simeon became a Christian, he did it alone, without another human being.  He read the scriptures and convinced himself of their truth. Obviously Christ opened his heart to the truth, but there was no other human being there to share his conversion with.  Indeed, the whole campus of King's College was filled with non-Christians, and he had no one to even share his excitement with.  It was over a year before he found others who had also been entrusted with the same form of teaching.  But the key is, he eventually found them.  What happens when we become Christians is that we seek out a community of like-minded believers.

This is the Church, and it is the body that has been entrusted with the teaching of Jesus.  We cannot be Christians in a vacuum.  There is always a community that we must seek.  The Prodigal Son returns to his father.  When Ananias lays hands on Saul, he calls him "brother" even though he knew Saul as a persecutor of Christians.  Saul then spent time with the disciples in Damascus, his new family.

Onesimus, an actual slave in the book of Philemon, runs away from his master, finds Paul, becomes a Christian, and the relationship with Paul is described as that of a father to a son.  Paul sends him back to Philemon, this time not as a slave but MORE than a slave, as a brother in Christ.  Because, you see, no matter what Onesimus does, he is still a slave, and so is Paul, and so is Philemon.  This time it is to righteousness.

With us today, as slaves, we are to be in community, because this church is the place where the true form of teaching is kept.  We have the gospel.  God doesn't just give it to individuals, he gives it to the body of believers, the church.  We need to be in community, to encourage each other, to learn from each other, and to be a family.

They will know we are Christians by our Love, the hymn says.  Only as a true family, a family entrusted with the gospel, a family of slaves, servants to each other and to righteousness, will we be able to show the love of Christ to the world.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Love as Identity Loss

The amazing thing about the Bible is that it can always take you deeper into a topic than you had previously been.  You think you know everything about love, even Christian "Agape" love?  Look again.  There are verses that take us even deeper into what agape love is.  I want to look at a few of those verses.

Let's start with the verse that the whole world, even the ungodly and all other religions, can get behind: Matthew 7:12:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Every religion and philosophy has some sort of variation of this verse in it.  Usually it is written in the negative sense--don't do evil to others, or it will come back to bite you--bringing out the karmic theme of the verse.  Even in the Christian, positive sense, it still appears to be karmic.  Love is like a bank, we think, and so whatever I put into it, I will get out of it.  Do nice things to other people and they will treat me nice.  The focus returns to us as the recipient of the love.  We are only loving to get love in return.  Even our pop culture says, "the greatest thing you'll ever learn is to love and be loved in return."  So, we now have to go deeper into the golden rule to see how it's not karma but grace that propels love:

Luke 14:1, 7-11
14:1 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

14:7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable.

14:8 "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host;

14:9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, 'Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.

14:10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.

14:11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

Great idea, Jesus!  I never would have thought of that one.  Now I know how to work the system.  If I want the place of honor, the key is to take the lowest place, and then the host will elevate me.  Great!  We are still in karmic mode, and Jesus knows this, and so he follows it up with another teaching:

14:12 He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.

14:13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

14:14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

Even though this lesson is aimed at the host, it is really for everyone at the party.  To truly love, you have to humble yourself, but you must not expect anything back in return.  You must be constantly in a state of giving and NEVER receiving.  In fact, if we target people who cannot repay us--even if they wanted to--we are sure that we are loving for the right reasons.  Did we get a little deeper into the Christian way of loving our neighbor?  Let's go even deeper:

Hebrews 13:1-6
13:1 Let mutual love continue.

13:2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

13:3 Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.

13:4 Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers.

13:5 Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, "I will never leave you or forsake you."

13:6 So we can say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?"

13:1 tells us we are talking about Christian love.  The next verse is a popular one, and one that is in danger of slipping us into karmic thinking again.  Well, if I help strangers out, some of them may be angels, and then they'll put in a good word for me with the big guy upstairs! Once again we are immediately corrected with the next, very important verse.

Remember those in prison as if you were in prison too.  Remember those who are being tortured as if you were being tortured, too.  We've all heard about how to have empathy: put ourselves in the other person's shoes, but in order to remove ourselves completely from the equation, we have to actually remove ourselves.  I think this is what these two verses mean.  We are not to just pretend that we are in prison.  We are not to just pretend we are being tortured.  We are to take that person's place.  We are to completely give up self and be that other person.  There is no "you" anymore, there is only the one loved.

So it's not just loving someone without expecting anything in return.  There is no YOU.  There is only them.  Expecting something in return is as far from you as possible now, because there is no you.  We can't even put ourselves in someone else's shoes.  If we do that, we can always step out of those shoes again and back in our own.  But there is no YOU.  You have lost your identity.  You can't get out of the other person's shoes.  You must stay there.

The next couple of verses seem to be shifting gears, as if they were items in a proverbs laundry list, but these verses tie in most intentionally.  To honor marriage, to keep the marriage bed undefiled, what must we do?  We don't just put our spouse first.  We don't just put ourselves in our spouse's shoes.  We don't just think "what if my spouse did the same thing to me?"  There is no YOU.  There is ONLY the spouse.  You aren't supposed to think of yourself AT ALL, because there is no you.  That's what it means when we say a married couple is one flesh.  Because there are no longer two individual people in the marriage.  There is only one, and that one is the OTHER PERSON, not YOU.  What vanishes is the "I did something nice for you, so do something nice for me" attitude that all marriages seem to have, and what appears in its plac is mutual service to the other.

The next verse is about money.  In this culture, we are always comparing what we have to what others have.  The only way to be completely content with what we have is to realize that there is NO YOU TO HAVE ANYTHING.  There is only the other person that we are helping.  If there is only the person we are feeding or clothing or giving to, we will give more, we will give EVERYTHING, because there is no US to keep what is left over.  There's no more, "well I need something to live on!"  There is no you.  Read the Sermon on the mount, especially Matthew 5:38-42 about retaliation.  Those verses make sense when we realize there is no more us.

Mother Theresa is a great human example.  She gave up everything and went to Calcutta to serve the poor there.  At the end of the day, she didn't go back and sleep at a hotel near the airport.  She stayed with them.  She lived with them.  She was them.  She was in prison, too.  She was tortured, too.  There was no "her" at all.  There was only the poor of Calcutta.

Jesus is our best example.  He was God, and yet he humbled himself and became one of us, lived with us for 33 years.  He was one of us.  He gave up his identity as the Lord almighty, so he could be fully human.  He was still fully divine, but he emptied himself.  He didn't ascend each night to go sleep in Heaven with his father.  He stayed with us the whole time.  He became one of us.  There was NO him.  For him, there was only us and our salvation.

Am I saying that we need to go empty our banks accounts out now?  Am I saying that we need to sell our houses and move to Calcutta?  God reaches each of us in a different way, and he is working on us, and we will see opportunities now for us to completely forget ourselves and help others.  These opportunities happen every day, right where we are, and the more we take the opportunity, the more frequent these situations become and the longer they last, so that in the end we are living our lives as if there were no us, but only the loved.  This is true Christian love.  Not just self-sacrifice but self-extinction.

And the last two verses of our Hebrews text affirm this.  The Lord says, "I will never leave you or forsake you."  He is our helper in this.  He is going to transform us from selfish, karmic beings into selfless acts of grace.  This is the work of God in our lives.