Friday, December 27, 2013

Boxes to Be Checked or Stepping Stones on a Journey?

“Being sensible that I am unable to do any thing without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him, by his grace, to enable me to keep these Resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake.” (From Ch 3 Vol 1 The Works of Jonathan Edwards.)

So began 19-year-old Jonathan Edwards in 1722, as he committed to live toward his eternal home. He read 70 resolutions to himself once each week until he died in 1758, more than 35 years later.

I encourage you all to look up his resolutions, yes, but that’s not my point today.

Why do so many New Year Resolutions fail? Mostly because of the way we view our lives. Latent in our thinking is the mistaken idea that we get do-overs. We failed last year but we can always try again. As if last year’s failure doesn’t count or hasn’t shaped us for the future.

Well, I’m here to tell you, that kind of thinking does more harm than good. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for second chances. That’s what grace is all about. But grace is not the only virtue.
One problem is that this reasoning doesn’t integrate our length of days into one seamless event. 

Jonathan Edwards shows us a better way. His resolutions were not boxes to be checked but stepping stones on a journey. He determined early on where he was going and planned his way well. Then he stuck to the plan. Year in and year out. For decades. Every moment of his life was subject to the priority he put on living for the glory of God in this life, in order to attain his greatest reward possible in the next.

Learn to see your temporal life as preparation for your eternal destiny. This is a beautiful strategy for simplifying your life. Find out what on earth you are doing here. I promise you, every life has a purpose. Each of us is like a poem written by God, Paul told the Ephesians (2.10), created for good works prepared in advance for us to do.

Why not make this your New Year’s Resolution? Your life matters. You matter. Find out why. Discover what makes your heart pound. What are your passions? Your pleasures? Your purpose is rooted in those things. Search them out.

Or try this. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. When you imagine the curtain coming down on you for the last time, what do you want the audience to take home with them?
Resolve to live in such a way to make it happen.

May this new year find you closer to fulfilling your life’s purpose, even as it brings you closer to your eternal home.

Friday, December 20, 2013

'Tis the Season

Let’s face it, December has a lot of holidays.
Between paying politically correct attention to the melting-pot of cultural traditions, and last-ditch defiance in the face of Old Man Winter, the last days of the year hardly qualify as “happy.”
More like frenetic, and that’s not a jolly word.

I watched a sitcom the other day in which a young, politically correct father insisted that his Christmas-celebrating in-laws not teach their traditions to his son.
Why not? He didn’t want to exclude other cultures.
His premise, based on erroneous anthropology, was that being sensitive to all cultures validates them all. In reality, he ended up passing on a pointless holiday medley that made no sense, least of all to those who genuinely celebrate the respective holidays.

Some claim that Christmas—the original seasonal celebration for Christians who founded America—has become commercialized, it’s true meaning lost. I think not. While I acknowledge that the timing of Christmas is rooted in pagan traditions associated with the Winter Solstice, none of them has achieved popularity as widespread as Christmas. Well, who celebrates bitter dormancy?

The beauty of Christmas lies not in multicolored decorations and picturesque scenery and pretty wrappings. No, its beauty lies in celebrating relationships through the exchange of gifts. We give and receive because we love and are loved.

Christians acknowledge the gift of God in the baby born in Bethlehem. The Father of the heavenly lights gave his Son to the world he loves. It’s up to the world—you and me—to receive that gift of love.

So step back this holiday season, whatever your cultural background. Share the joy of love and loving. Give, if that’s your way, but receive as well. Put aside your differences and be kind to each other. Peace on earth. Good will toward men.

This world is not yet the Kingdom of Christ but, just as the newborn baby was already a Savior, so may this yuletide bring you a foretaste of the righteousness and peace to come.

Every good and perfect gift is from above… (James 1.17).

Friday, December 13, 2013

Blessings Come in Strange Packages

A Canaanite woman … came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David…” Mt 15.22

It’s a busy time of year, early December. Knowing that the last few days before Christmas will be hectic, we pack all our special holiday events into the first two weeks or so. We go from one place to the next with scarcely time to breathe, let alone go home and bake a dessert to share, shop for a present, or wrap a grab-bag gift. We fall into bed exhausted at night and can’t sleep for fretting about what we didn’t get done for tomorrow. And heaven forbid life hits us with an untimely tragedy or the death of a loved one.

Well, I’m here to tell you that Jesus has been there.

We pick up his story late in the year, about six months before he died. In the thick of public ministry, Jesus kept a merciless pace of activity and emotional turmoil. He’s just heard that his cousin, John, was beheaded by the king. Crowds interrupted his mourning—over 5000 thirsty souls and hungry mouths. Unable to resist their pleas, he healed them and fed them.

Desperate to pray alone yet mindful of his disciples’ exhaustion, he sent them ahead by boat. Time slipped by until a storm arose. Knowing his disciples needed him, he set out—still without sleep—to join them on the rolling sea. That’s right, walking on the water. In a storm. At night.

As soon as they landed, the locals mustered their sick and hurting. So many came that he couldn’t possibly deal with them individually. They begged to touch his garment. These, too, he healed.

Into this ministry frenzy came a delegation from Jerusalem to plague him with picayune points of law, hoping to catch him in a doctrinal trap. Mindful of the attending crowds, Jesus switched from healer to teacher. You can tell by the bluntness of his answers that he’d had enough, that he’d reached a turning point.

It wasn’t just that the crowds and the religious rulers had tapped into his reserves. He’d also drawn the attention of Herod, that ruthless and frivolous beheader of prophets and reigning tetrarch of the area. In his humanity, things may have looked dim to Jesus. On the one hand he could not escape the never-ending needs of the masses. On the other, he was not blind to the paltry abilities of his chosen band.
Jesus wisely took his disciples and departed for Tyre and Sidon. There a local Canaanite woman soon discovered him. Like this woman pestering him for a blessing, discouragement dogged his every step.

Think about what Jesus was going through. His heart aching over John’s death. His body exhausted from ministering to the crowds. His mind outraged by the falseness of the religious leaders. His soul burdened to equip his disciples before time, already running short, ran out altogether.
How could he have known that his Father had sent this pesky “dog” of a gentile woman to hound him into hope?

Some tell this story as if Jesus only intended to demonstrate to the disciples that the Gentiles would believe in him. I don’t think so. Otherwise he would not have been so surprised by her faith. In fact, it doesn’t look like he intended to heed her cries at all. She followed behind calling for mercy but “he answered not a word.” If he wanted to make an example of her, would he have hesitated?

The disciples had come here to get away from this sort of thing. Perhaps concerned lest she spoil their anonymity, they urged Jesus to send her away. He could easily have done just that, since “he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” To grant her request, he told the woman, would be like giving the children’s food to dogs. Undeterred—Jews commonly referred to Gentiles as dogs—she appealed to his mercy, not to her merit.

You can’t miss the unexpected pleasure in his reply. “O woman, great is your faith!”

Here in a land historically full of evil, Jesus found faith. Faith to marvel at. Faith to answer prayer. He had chided his disciples for their lack of faith. He had tangled with faithless religious leaders. He had known grief due to Herod’s contempt for faith. Faithful John who recognized Jesus as Messiah from the beginning was now gone. But here in this foreign land, a desperate mother recognized the Son of David. Here was a breath of heaven to sustain its weary Son.

How I love this God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! I love that he took Jesus’ plan to build up his disciples and used it to encourage Jesus. I love that our faith can take Jesus by surprise.

When you are swamped in a morass of ministry or personal tragedy, our heavenly Father sees your weary soul. Seek solitude, by all means, but don’t despair if it gets interrupted. Get away from routine, sure, but even there his blessing will find you. Don’t be surprised if it comes in what looks at first like just another burden.

You who serve the King of kings are always within his loving embrace. Has he not promised (Is 41.10), “Fear not, for I am with you. Do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand”?

Friday, December 6, 2013

God and Us Part 2: Promises and Faith

When Joshua finished conquering the land and dividing it among the tribes of Israel, he told God’s people, “Not one of all the LORD's good promises to Israel failed; every one was fulfilled” (Jos 21:45).

Solomon said the same when he dedicated the temple: “Not one word has failed of all the good promises [the Lord] gave through his servant Moses.” (1 Ki 8.56)

God promises and God fulfills. The Bible has been telling us this since Moses: “God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” (Nu 23.19)

I love this about our God.
He puts himself in a position to be counted on.
No one makes him speak. No one forces him to commit to something he might otherwise avoid.
No, his words come out of the depths of his own being, his compassionate-and-gracious, slow-to-anger-and-abounding-in-love nature, in accordance with his eternal purpose.

What’s more, when God speaks he calls things into being. As Ro 4.17 puts it, he “calls into existence the things that do not exist.” This has been the pattern from the beginning when God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light (Gen 1.3).

I take this to mean that we can rely on God. He will do what he has promised. His word is his bond and he does not lie.

But isn’t this a little contrary to traditional religious thinking?
I’ve heard preachers say that we must exercise faith in order for God to keep his promises. They go so far as to say that all God’s promises are conditional: if we don’t do what God requires—have faith—he won’t keep his word. Can that be right?

Where does faith fit in?
Without faith, says Hebrews 11.6, it is impossible to please God.
Jesus attested to this truth both when he found faith (in the Sryo-Phoenecian woman and the Roman centurion), and when he didn’t find faith.

His disciples earned a strong rebuke when they failed to drive a demon from a boy. Jesus defined deliverance as a pillar of his ministry when he took Isaiah 61.1-2 as his commission from God: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” (Lk 4.18-19).
These men had seen Jesus do the same miracle multiple times. They had no excuse for their lack of faith.

No story better captures quintessential lack of faith than the disciples’ panic in the storm on the Sea of Galilee.
Ever stop to consider just what Jesus expected them to believe? The answer won’t surprise you: they should have believed the impossible.
And why not? OT verses talk about God stirring up the sea. Job 38.11 tells us (as it should have told them) that God tells the proud waves where to stop.
Furthermore, they had seen Jesus exercise power over nature every time he healed an illness, or restored sight, or multiplied bread.
Sadly, their reason for waking him up was not because they expected him to still the storm. Otherwise he would not have rebuked them.
Nor would they have been so amazed when he did it.

God has made himself and his ways and his will known. He does this through the written Word, through the Living Word, through the indwelling Spirit, through everyday experience.
Yet we fail to let that revelation produce faith in us. In this we sin.

Why does faith please God? Because it takes him at his word.
We trust that he is truthful and powerful and loving. We show that trust in how we act, especially when we ask him for what we need.
Think about how this appears to God. We come to him as our beloved Father. We know his heart is good and kind. We know he loves us and we know he is willing and able to do what we ask. Our confidence is based not on our worthiness but on what he has already done and said, especially in his Incarnate Word.

Oh, if only we would truly believe him!  
He makes himself known because he delights to be known.
This is our great hope (1 Co 13.12) and in this hope we were saved (Ro 8.24).

God has made promises. All those promises are granted through Christ (2 Co 1.20) and in Christ (Ro 8.32). That is God’s part.
Our part is to lay hold of those promises and take him at his word, to count on him to come through for us, and to act in such a way that shows we do.

That, my friends, is the faith that pleases God.