Saturday, November 30, 2013

God and Us Part 1: Gace and Gratitude

All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God (2 Co 4.15).

When I was young my family said "grace" before every meal. The short prayer, learned by rote,  acknowledged God's gift of the food we were about to eat. I thought this was simple politeness, since the Bible tells us, Give thanks to the Lord for he is good; his love endures forever.” 

Does it seem a little contrived to demand thanks? From a young age we are taught to do good regardless of whether or not someone says thank you. How do we explain God’s demand for thanks?

When God in the Flesh walked the earth, he helped all who came to him, including foreigners and despised Samaritans. One day a company of ten lepers called out to Jesus for mercy. He sent them to the priests.

Imagine how the lepers felt to find themselves healed as they went along. While the rest continued to the temple where the priests could verify their healing according to law (Lev 13-14), one returned and prostrated himself with thanksgiving at the feet of Jesus. This one, Jesus pointed out, was a Samaritan.

True, the others were only doing what they were told. But wasn’t that Jesus’ problem with the religious Jews? It strikes me that gratitude is not the first impulse of those who presume God will answer. Not so the Samaritan leper. He knew God’s favor was undeserved, his healing touch an act of grace. And his response was gratitude that overflowed to the glory of God.

Paul makes this point in Romans when he accuses us all: we are without excuse. Everyone knows God, says Paul, because we can see God’s eternal power and divine nature in what he has created. No, the wrath of God comes because people would rather suppress the truth by their wickedness than honor God or give thanks to him.

That may be the world, but what about Christians? Paul encourages us to hold gratitude in our hearts to God, to let it rise in a spontaneous song of joy. He goes further: this is God’s will for us in Christ Jesus.

Understand that God does not require anything of us that is not for our good. His self-existence needs nothing from anyone. So his demands are for our benefit not his. How then, you ask, is thanking God good for us? Thanksgiving and glory are linked, and that link is joy.

You see, being thankful is not enough. The ten lepers had reason to be grateful; Jesus cleansed (healed) them all. I think what God is requiring here—what Jesus commended—is not the feeling of gratitude but the expression of gratitude.
Scripture points out that the one wretched man who “saw he was healed” turned and came back to the place where he found God. This teaches us something. There’s a point at which we must leave off with mere religious behavior and return to God himself.

That’s the connection Paul made between grace and gratitude. Every opportunity to give thanks stands us at the crossroad between formality and affection, between religion and relationship.

Grace is so much more than just meeting someone’s needs. Think of the “graceful” dancer, the lightness, the charm, the fluidity, the extension. Grace is greatness bending low. When we recognize the stoop, we respond—rightfully—with a sense of undeserved favor.

Grace is God’s goodness to us, his irrepressible instinct to lavish benevolence and love on those whom he has chosen. His grace is behind every redemptive act in our lives, in all history, for that matter. His grace moves him to help and to comfort and to sustain and to bestow and to bless in a million other ways. 

Gratitude, well, that’s what happens when grace finds us.
Goodness without charge awakens wonder.

Let your heart respond.
Express the joy that rises in you.

Give thanks.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Valley of Achor: God Does Not Forget


And they raised over him a great heap of stones that remains to this day. Then the LORD turned from his burning anger. Therefore, to this day the name of that place is called the Valley of Achor.              Joshua 7:26 

The Old Testament portrays God as bloodthirsty and demanding and judgmental. No one was ever good enough. His people constantly fell short. What’s more, for an infinite God, his fuse was remarkably short. When it blew, you didn’t want to be standing in the way.
That’s what happened to a man named Achan during Israel’s first days in the Promised Land. He disobeyed a command and God withdrew his help. The people stoned Achan to death in order to appease the “burning anger” of the Lord. Few stories in the Old Testament better illustrate this point. 
Today, this is the impression many have of Yahweh, the God of ancient Israel. From his devastation of Egypt in order to deliver his people, to their banishment in exile to Babylon, Yahweh did nothing in half-measures. His people grumbled in the wilderness; he smote them and many died. Korah rebelled against Moses; the ground swallowed his family. They worshiped the golden calf; three thousand were killed in the Lord’s name. They didn’t trust him to give them the land trod by the patriarchs; they died in the wilderness. David counted the fighting men; a plague swept the country. Ahab introduced Baal worship; no rain fell for three and a half years.
Clearly, not an easy God to get along with.
Christians have no ready answer to this, but we should. We live in the fullness of mercy; judgment has passed us by. We’ve seen God bless despite disobedience, felt his patience under repeated provocation. We believe in his unfailing faithfulness to every word he ever promised. Yet like unbelievers we often ask why the God of the Old Testament seems so radically different from Jesus.
After all, Jesus is God and God is always who he is. That’s what Yahweh means: I AM.
The difference lies between the face of Jesus and the face of Yahweh. Although Jesus was God, he counted equality with God not as something to hold on to but as something to surrender. He became like one of us to show us something unseen in the old covenant. God in the flesh still hated disobedience but he had come to do something far beyond what Old Testament-style wrath could achieve. 

Think about it. If God were to put to death every person who offended him, who would remain? No one. Except Jesus.
Imagine the great scales of creation. On one side stands Jesus, on the other, Adam and all humanity. God accepted the life of Jesus, handed over at Calvary, in exchange for the rest of us. 

It’s important that we understand this if we hope to answer those who object to the wrath of God.
God will never stop hating sin. His holiness will always destroy the unholy. But as we saw in the life of Achan, God’s wrath can be turned aside. The ancient Israelites put Achan to death to appease Yahweh’s wrath. Jesus was put to death to appease the Creator’s wrath. Jesus reconciled us to God not because God lightened up on a few matters that used to bother him. No, reconciliation happened because someone lived a God-perfect life, and that life was enough.
Although God doesn’t change, he gives new meaning to what happens in our lives. The Valley of Achor, literally the “valley of trouble,” stood for centuries as a memorial to God’s response should his people disobey. Late in the days of the kings when Israel had again turned away, God brought up this painful reminder. Through his prophet Hosea, he promised to draw the nation to himself and to speak tenderly to her, turning “the Valley of Achor [into] a door of hope” (Hosea 2:15).
Unlike his creatures who need to be told, “Remember,” God does not forget. God speaks and his words are true. His commands bring us life, because obedience draws us near to him. His promises bring us hope, because knowing him surpasses everything. 
 Remember the golden calf and the three thousand who died for worshiping that idol? Because God does not forget, he added back to his people three thousand believers on the day of Pentecost.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Abounding in Hope

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.    Rom 15:13

Abounding in hope. The phrase elicits images of a little child who can’t sleep because tomorrow is Christmas. A bridegroom on the eve of his wedding. A mother about to give birth to her firstborn.

If there’s one thing this world needs, it’s hope. Things look pretty dark, from the international scene of war and terrorism, to the local landscape of unemployment and broken families and illness. The reasons for despair are numerous; the evidence equally so.

The apostle Paul conjures a picture of our Creator as the God of Hope, etched with glorious words like fill, joy, peace, believing, power, Holy Spirit, abound. The sentence rises to a resounding crescendo: HOPE.
In fact, so central was hope to Paul’s message that he used the word more than 50 times in his letters.

As you read through the following phrases, preferably aloud, let the waves of God’s grace and goodness roll over you. Our hope is in him all day long (Ps 25.5). The LORD is trustworthy in all he promises and faithful in all he does (Ps 145.13).

We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. (Ro 5.2)
On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us. (2 Cor 1.10)
Christ in us, the hope of glory. (Col 1.27)
For a helmet, the hope of salvation. (1 Th 5.8)
We eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. (Gal 5.5)
We hope in Christ to the praise of his glory. (Eph 1.12)
Hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people. (1 Ti 4.10)
Christ Jesus our hope. (1 Ti 1.1)
Hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages. (Tts 1.2)
Our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ. (Tts 2.13)
The hope to which he has called us (Eph 1.18), laid up for us in heaven (Col 1.5); the hope of the gospel (Col 1.23).

Hope does not put us to shame. (Ro 5.5)
We are heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Tts 3.7)
In this hope we were saved. (Ro 8.24)
And since we have such a hope we are very bold. (2 Cor 2.12)
Faith, hope and love abide. (1 Cor 13.13)
Rejoice in hope. (Ro 12.12)

Friday, November 8, 2013

The First Priest

Jesus is our high priest. What does that mean? According to Hebrews, he enters into the heavenly Holiest Place on our behalf. Does where he stands in heaven make any difference to our daily life here? It should, but if we don't understand priesthood, it may not.
Priesthood carries the sense of mediation, of standing between humans and the Divine. Never do we feel the need for a mediator more than in  acts of worship: sacrifice, confession, intercession, petition, praise. With an innate sense of unworthiness before God, we seek someone more “qualified” to represent us. We expect them to know what God requires and to make sure he gets it.

Anthropologically speaking, religion probably became part of the human experience in response to the wildness of creation. In the face of nature’s vast power to do them harm, people turn to supernatural beings with greater power still. To this day, witness the human instinct for religion in times of natural disasters and accidents and unpreventable disease. At such times, a person will pray to any gods who can bend the forces of nature to their will.

The Bible
Biblically, this self-preserving human need to win over the gods shows up as early as the first post-Eden account: Cain and Abel both presented offerings to the God of Eden. In the days of their younger brother, Seth,men sought help from the Creator as they began to call upon and proclaim the name of the Lord (Gen 4.26).
Fast forward through the centuries leading up to the flood, when humanity all but forgot the goodness of Eden.
Speed past the subsequent arrogance of the tower builders who wanted to take the dwelling place of God by storm.
Pause to watch the first patriarch of our faith stroll onto the stage.
Abraham’s contemporary, Job, regularly offered sacrifices on behalf of his children for fear they had offended God during one of their frequent parties (Job 1.4-5).
Not until Abraham found himself in the promised land, however, do we meet the first figure the Bible calls a priest: Melchizedek (Gen 14.17-20).

Abraham and Melchizedek
Genesis gives no backstory to this man, merely declares him to be the king of Salem (Jerusalem) and priest of God Most High. In this atypical city-state the offices of king and priest were combined.
Here’s what happened.
Upon his successful rescue of Lot and other captives from the marauding armies under Chedorlaomar, two kings approached Abraham with very different motives. The king of Sodom sought a treaty by offering spoils to Abraham. Surely anyone who could defeat the eastern king would make a powerful ally. Melchizedek, on the other hand, mediated blessings between God and Abraham. Using elements that have so much symbolic meaning for us today, he set bread and wine before the man whose faith founded a priesthood of believers.

High Priest
More than five centuries later, God “remembered” his covenant with Abraham and rescued his descendants. In deep detail, he provided the terms by which they might enjoy his fellowship, although few of those heirs demonstrated the same faith or obedience.
The biggest obstacle lay in their unholiness; for this, atonement had to be made. So God chose Aaron, the brother of Moses, and gave precise instructions for how the priest should be cleansed and dressed, and how he must behave in the divine presence.
Until the covenant should be fulfilled, only an heir to the house of Aaron could appear before God on behalf of the people. This was as much to protect the man and the people from the burning fire of God’s holy being as it was to shield the Holy One from their sinfulness.
This priesthood endured until the temple itself was destroyed and the Jewish nation disbanded in 70 AD. By that time, a new and lasting high priest had arisen. (Nice pun…)

In light of how important Aaron’s priesthood was to Israelite culture, it is more than a little surprising to read in the book of Hebrews that Jesus became our high priest not in the order of Aaron but of Melchizedek. Because perfect fulfillment could not be attained through the Levitical priesthood, another priest was needed. A forever priest without origin or end, a king of righteousness and a king of peace. A once-for-all mediator, a sinless priest of the eternal order of Melchizedek (Heb 7.11).
What’s the difference, you may ask.
Well, Aaron’s priesthood daily demonstrated the separation between the Holy God and his chosen people. The priesthood of Melchizedek shows forth the means by which the Holy God himself blesses those who relate to him in faith.
The bread set before Abraham nourished his body. The Bread of Life set before the heirs of faith nourishes our souls.
The wine set before Abraham quenched his physical thirst. The wine set before the heirs of faith is the blood of the new covenant. It gives life to our spirits.

God’s Promise Fulfilled
God made a promise to Abraham to bless all nations through his descendant. The childless patriarch put his faith in God’s word.  God responded with Melchizedek blessing Abraham.
Abraham would never know the details of the Law of Moses, the sacrifice of atonement, that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.
But perhaps in the symbols of Melchizedek’s blessing, he saw the promise of worldwide blessing fulfilled. 
In the presence of the Most High, Jesus stands as mediator between the Holy God and the heirs of faith.
Think about this.
No human can see the face of God and live, yet here Jesus stands. He looks upon the Holy Fire and is transfixed by the infinite beauty.
This Beloved Son is one of us. In him, God sees all of us.
Imagine what passes wordlessly between them, heart to heart. All that God ever imagined when he created man in his own image now stands before him. Not one single speck of otherness, of unholiness, incites the Consuming Fire to break out against it.
May that moment--that lingering gaze of love and approval and joy--may it go on forever.
How can I not worship the One who made it possible for me to be there with him?

Friday, November 1, 2013

New Wine

No one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins.  Luke 5. 37-38

I love the story of the Last Supper when Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Passover in Jerusalem. How fitting that this should be their last meal before his passion.

Passover is one of three annual festivals that God required Israel to assemble for in Jerusalem. It was a joyous holiday. People came from all over the world to be reminded of their covenant relationship with God and to reaffirm their national identity.

Passover commemorates the exodus of God’s fledgling people from Egypt. God’s many miraculous wonders culminated in the death of Egypt’s firstborn, both people and livestock. Only then did God deliver his people from slavery and set them on the road to the land he had promised to their forefathers.

The first leg of their journey led them to Mount Sinai. There, God spelled out the terms of their relationship with him and carved the Ten Commandments on stone tablets. In so doing, he set forth the standard of righteousness. The Mosaic Covenant went further, though, making provision for the people when they failed to meet that standard. Herein lies the need for blood sacrifices. The life is in the blood. Without the shedding of blood there’s no forgiveness. Nearly everything must be cleansed with blood. Blood, blood, blood. So much blood.

As Jesus celebrated Passover with his disciples this one last time, he made a curious substitution. Where Moses had sprinkled half the blood of the sacrifice on the altar and half on the people, Jesus told his companions, “This is the cup of the new covenant—in my blood.”

Maybe we don’t get how startling that thought would have been to these men. We hear the phrase so often—every Lord’s Supper—we hardly hear it at all.
But these guys were used to taking a Passover lamb to the temple to offer it for their sins. They saw the rivers of blood around the bronze altar as the priests slit the throats of thousands of such lambs. Crowds and crowds did this every year, then shared the Passover meal with their families.

And here Jesus was, claiming to be God’s Passover lamb, whose sacrifice would suffice for all our sins.

The disciples understood what he meant. He was going to die. His blood was going to be shed. He had been telling them for a while now that he would suffer at the hands of the religious leaders, that he would be executed. Now Jesus put that death in the context of covenant. A new covenant. Sealed with his own blood.

The ramifications were staggering. Jesus was talking about a whole new way of entering into relationship with God, a whole new means to righteousness.
Jesus had lived his life in such a way that everything he did was in agreement with the Father’s will. Every thought, every word, every deed was always what the Father wanted. He was faithful not just to the letter of the law but to its spirit as well. So when he offered his blood to the Father on behalf of humanity, it truly was the blood of a perfect lamb.

This reminds me of the parable of the old garment and the new patch. The old religious system had worn out. Its imperfection made keeping the law more important than loving God or people. Those who practiced it most diligently were the least likely to recognize God-in-the-Flesh when he stood before them. So Jesus told them that like a seamstress, God knew better than to try to patch the old with new fabric. No, he planned to provide a whole new garment. The new covenant in his blood.

Likewise, the old wineskins of religious thought and tradition—the need for scrupulous obedience to the law as the means to righteousness—could not survive the new wine of God’s grace. In the same way that used wineskins lose the flexibility necessary to ventilate the fermentation process, rigid legalism leaves no room for faith to work itself out in love.

I’ve often thought it tragic that this particular night, arguably the highest Jewish holiday, should be the night on which Jesus was betrayed.
Now I understand why Jesus, even knowing tonight was his last, could truthfully say to these few precious friends, “I have eagerly wanted to share this meal with you.”

He wanted to propitiate his Father’s wrath, to turn it aside from the ones he had come to know and love.
He wanted to pay the debt they never could.
He wanted to earn the name that is above every name.

Gladly do I bow my knee to this Savior, this perfect Lamb of God, who has taken away my sin.

And I can’t wait to share a toast with him when he drinks new wine in the kingdom of his Father.
Can you?