The Old Preacher

Viewing the World through God's Word

Page 2 of 68

Judgement Seat

Jonathan enjoys a beer once in a while.   Has for years.  Pre-Christian and since.  Mark believes  drinking is a dangerous  habit that dishonors the Lord.  They each argue with the other over who’s right.

When I first read today’s text (about Christian liberty and personal convictions) I thought it a non-issue today.  Then I read John Calvin:

“He who proposes to summarize gospel teaching ought by no means to omit an explanation of [Christian liberty].  For it is a thing of prime necessity, and apart from a knowledge of it, consciences dare undertake almost nothing without doubting; they hesitate and recoil from many things; they constantly waver and are afraid.  But freedom is especially an appendage of justification and is no little avail of understanding its power.”

Okay, Brother John.  I’ll take your word for it.  But I just haven’t seen many 21st century Christians “hesitate and recoil” from drinking wine or dancing or working on the Sabbath (Sunday).  But, maybe there’s more here than meets the eye.

Paul does seem to say “Jonathan” and “Mark” go all the way back to the church in Rome.

“Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them” (14:1-3).

The Greek proslambabesthe means “receive hospitably, welcome”.  But it’s not Paul’s emphasis in this sentence.  “ . . . those who are weak in faith” is.  He uses the word (in a different form) of Abraham, who “who did not weaken in faith” as he considered his circumstances (4:19).  Here the “weak eat only vegetablesin contrast to other Christians who “believe in eating anything”.   Meat-eaters “must not despise (look down on, condemn)” veggies-only eaters.  And veggies-onlys “must not pass judgment (sit in personal judgment on, criticize, condemn)” meat-eaters.

Why must meat-eaters welcome veggies-onlys?  Because God has welcomed them.”  He receives them as true believers in Christ.

Who are “those who are weak in faith”?  The veggies-only believers (like Mark, who believes drinking is wrong) are “weak in faith”.  They’re “weak in faith” in that they brand certain secondary issues, issues on which the Bible is silent, as immoral.

Douglas Moo (New Testament professor Wheaton graduate school) explains:  “Paul is not . . . simply criticizing these people for having a ‘weak’ or inadequate trust in Christ as their Savior and Lord. Rather, he is criticizing them for lack of insight into some of the implications of their faith in Christ. These are Christians who are not able to accept for themselves the truth that their faith in Christ implies liberation from certain OT/Jewish ritual requirements. The ‘faith’ with respect to which these people are ‘weak’, therefore, is related to their basic faith in Christ but one step removed from it. It involves their individual outworking of Christian faith, their convictions about what that faith allows and prohibits”.

The “strong”, then, understand that their faith in Christ implies freedom from certain ritual requirements.  Jonathan believes his beer-drinking neither commends him to or condemns him by God who has justified him by faith in Christ.

It’s likely that this belief regarding certain foods are a carry-over by Christians Jews from the Old Covenant.  In this case, the thinking is, “Meat will bring God’s disapproval, so I’ll eat veggies only”.  This, obviously, is creating disunity, opposite to the “one Body” and “genuine love” Paul is calling for.  So he confronts the judgment-passers . . .

 “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.  We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living” (14:4-9).

Did Paul fling his question at the meat-eaters, who were passing judgment on the scrupulous veggies-only crowd?  More likely, he’s aiming at both.  The ones they are judging are not their servants, but the Lord’s.  Before him they will either stand (in their devotion to Christ) or fall (in their devotion to Christ).

We’re now shown another secondary issue over which the Roman Christians have difference—the observance of certain days.  Paul makes this (obviously implying the same for food practices) a matter of conscience.  Observe or not.  Eat or not.  Both “the weak” and “the strong” are doing it to thank God and honor him.

In other words, both are (or should be) practicing their liberty or abstinence to the Lord.  They are living out their submission to his lordship.  And disagreeing brothers just respect that.  Jonathan is not Mark’s lord, nor Mark Jonathan’s.

So, Paul explained to the Corinthians, “And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Corinthians 5:15). 

“Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.’ So then, each of us will be accountable to God” (14:10-12).

Why do we dare to judge our brother, when we will all stand before God’s judgment seat (Greek baymati—“judicial bench”, used of Pilate’s “judgment seat” when he judged Jesus—Matthew 27:19)?  “ . . . each of us will be accountable to God.”

This is why judging our brother is wrong:  God alone is judge.  We must all give a personal account  in his court.

* * *

Having walked this far through Romans 14, I see abstinence as a misunderstanding of justification by faith, as Calvin warned.  But Paul doesn’t correct that misunderstanding.  Instead, in the remainder of the chapter he’ll call the “strong” to relinquish his freedom for the good of the weak.  And in today’s text he reminds us we’re all the Lord’s servants and accountable to him.  So, Brother John, I get your point; but I don’t think it’s Paul’s.

Which brings me (with trepidation) to the judgment seat of Christ (bayma).  Paul has referred to it earlier–

“So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:9,10).

” . . . what is due him” refers to recompense or rewards.  Judgment at Christ’s seat, therefore, doesn’t concern justification (which is by grace through faith), but how we’ve lived our lives as Christians.  In Romans, the issue is personal moral choices as the Lord’s servant.  In 2 Corinthians, the issue is more general–making it our aim to please him in all things.

Honestly?  Accountability at the bayma hides in the back of my head.  Not often do I think, “I’m accountable for what I do today.  How I live will affect my eternal reward”.  Eternal reward, however, doesn’t motivate me so much.

The thought of standing before Christ does.  It’s like final exam day.  It doesn’t determine heaven or hell.  But standing before Jesus as he judges my life frightens me. And makes me fear judging my brother.

 

 

 

 

New Year’s Eve

A million people will cram into New York City’s Time Square to brave temperatures close to 10 degrees (with no bathrooms!) in order to welcome the new year at the drop of a 12,000- pound ball.

I’ll be asleep.  Unless neighbors are shooting fireworks.

As I write late morning on the 31st, already Australia, Japan, North and South Korea, the Philippines and China have partied.

REASONS

I’ve always wondered what people are celebrating.  Surviving a painful year?  Hope of a better new one?  Opening a clean page in one’s life?  Making resolutions to “do better”?  Just an excuse for partying?

“Psychology Today” magazine claims good luck rituals are part of the New Year celebration, an attempt to control fate. The Dutch eat New Year’s Eve donuts, because the circle symbolizes success.  Greeks bake a special cake, hiding a  coin inside.  Get the slice with the coin and you’ve got good luck for the new year.  Thousands of years ago the Chinese started shooting off fireworks to ward off evil spirits.  The Japanese hold “forget-the-year parties” to wave goodbye to last year’s problems and get ready for a better new year.

“Everywhere, New Year’s is a moment to consider our weaknesses and how we might reduce the vulnerabilities they pose—and to do something about the scary powerlessness that comes from thinking about the unsettling unknown of what lies ahead. As common as these shared behaviors are across both history and culture, it’s fascinating to realize that the special ways that people note this unique passage of one day into the next are probably all manifestations of the human animal’s fundamental imperative for survival” (“Psychology Today”).

Maybe the magazine over-pyschoanalizes.  But behind even innocently eating round donuts to have new year’s success, lies the desire to control one’s destiny, whether by warding off evil spirits with fireworks or resolutely waving goodby to last year’s problems with a party.

What about most Americans?  Are we shooting rockets to celebrate another year of survival?  Are we making resolutions to control our fate?  Or are we mindlessly making noise and just resolving to be a better person?

ROOTS

“The earliest-known record of a New Year festival dates from about 2000 BC in Mesopotamia, where in Babylonia the New Year (Akitu) began with the new moon after the spring equinox (mid March) and in Assyria with the new moon nearest the autumn equinox (mid September)” (Encyclopaedia Britannica).

“Among ancient peoples the beginning of the year was determined by one of various events, such as the spring or autumnal equinox or the winter or summer solstice. In Egypt, for example, beginning about 2773 BC, the year began with the heliacal rising of Sirius, which coincided with the start of the flood period of the Nile and came not long after the summer solstice” (Encyclopedia Americana).

“Many ancient peoples…performed rituals to do away with the past and purify themselves for the new year. For example, some people put out the fires they were using and started new ones. The Celts celebrated the new year on November 1, marking the end of summer and the harvest, and the beginning of the cold, dark winter ahead. (This was a precursor to Halloween.) They built “sacred” bonfires to scare off evil spirits and to honor their sun god” (World Book).

“In early times, the ancient Romans gave each other New Year’s gifts of branches from sacred trees. In later years, they gave gold-covered nuts or coins imprinted with pictures of Janus, the god of gates, doors, and beginnings. January was named after Janus, who had two faces—one looking forward and the other looking backward” (World Book).

New Year’s celebrations clearly grew from pagan roots.

RELIGION

During my growing-up years in church, we held “Watch Night” services on New Year’s Eve.  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica . . .

“The tradition of Watch Night may be traced to the early 18th century in Moravian churches, when churchgoers began marking the occasion with a vigil to reflect upon the year past and to contemplate the one to come. John Wesley adopted the practice for his Methodist followers, who held similar vigils monthly with the full moon. It was given new significance among African Americans on December 31, 1862, when, according to tradition, slaves in the Confederate states gathered in churches and private homes on the night before Pres. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was expected to go into effect, pending his signing of the document. The soon-to-be-free slaves stayed awake all night and watched the night turn into a new dawn while waiting for news that the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued, thus making all the slaves legally free.”

Our “Watch Night” services didn’t celebrate what those slaves did.  But we told how God had blessed us over the past year.  We expressed our commitment to him in the coming year.  And the midnight hour found us on our knees is prayer.

New Year’s Eve makes me anxiously wonder what it holds.  Will my PLS worsen?  Will my melanoma spread?  Or will the Lord command, “Stop!”, as he said to the sea? Will my sense that the Spirit “spoke” his Word to me and for me hold true?  (“I will not die but live and proclaim the works of the Lord”–Psalm 118:17).  Will I be able to keep writing?

I’m reminded of another psalm–31.  Twice David writes of anguish turned to assurance (31:1-8 and 31:9-24).  One verse (really just part of a verse) leaps out at me yet again.  David prays . . .

“My times are in your hand”

” . . . times” implies transience and change.  Enemies may rise up.  Adversity may strike.  But not by chance.  “My times are in your hand.”

I won’t eat a round donut for success.  I won’t hunt for a coin in a cake for good luck.  I won’t shoot fireworks to ward off evil spirits.

But I will say to the Sovereign, Loving Lord:  “My times are in your hand.”  And I’ll remember that that hand is nail-scarred for me.

 

 

 

Last Day Lovers Like the Lord

What’s the church to “look like” in the last days?  Bodies holy and acceptable as a living sacrifice to the Lord.  Minds free from the world’s ways and renewed by the Spirit to learn to walk in the Lord’s way.  In today’s text (Romans 13:8-14), loving with an urgency.

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ’Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (13:8-10).

You’d think Paul is condemning our overwhelming credit card debt!  Actually he’s telling the Roman church and us that we’re obligated to “love one another”.  Commentators are fond of explaining that we’re indebted to the Lord for his grace, but that we should “pay” it by loving one another.  First of all, the idea of repaying the Lord for his grace contradicts the concept of grace.  Grace isn’t grace if we “pay back” for it. Second, Paul explicitly explains that we’re obligated to love one another “for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law”.

It’s important for us justified-by-grace-through-faith Christians to understand God’s law still stands.  It’s still wrong to commit adultery, murder, steal or covet.  God hasn’t changed his laws; he’s changed us.

“God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do:  by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (8:3,4).

Paul claims by loving others we fulfill those commandments.  Love doesn’t transgress a marriage; it upholds it.  Love doesn’t take a life; it gives life.  Love doesn’t steal what belongs to another; it respects it.  And love doesn’t lust over what it doesn’t possess; it rejoices in the good the other has.

Why, though, are we obligated to love others?  Precisely because God’s love still stands.  Though we are not made right with God by trying to keep the Ten Commandments, God hasn’t abrogated them.  Here Paul explains how we can keep them, however imperfectly.

But, like justification, this too is grace.  Only by the Spirit given us through Christ can we self-centered sinners seek someone else’s highest good.

“Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (13:11-14).

Clearly, in the mid-50’s A.D., about 25 years after Christ’s ascension, Paul expected Jesus could return any time, even soon.  (This is what he means by “salvation”—the consummation of Christ’s saving work at his coming.)

Jesus took Peter, James and John with him deep into Gethsemane that night, telling them to watch with him while he went deeper in to agonize in prayer over the looming cross.  When he returned, he found them asleep (Matthew 26:36-40).  So Paul reminds the church that it’s time to be alert and watchful.  “For salvation is nearer now than when we became believers.” 

This is “night”, and it’s “far gone, the day is near”.  Night symbolizes the reign of sin and rule of the evil one.  But it’s almost over.

Why must we be awake?  Might we literally sleep through the Second Coming?  No.  But we might become ensnared by “works of darkness” and not be ready.  Christ may come and find us caught up in “revelry . . . drunkenness . . . debauchery . . . licentiousness . . . quarreling . . . jealousy”.  In other words, we might fall prey to the moral darkness.

In his last letter, Paul will write of Demas, who deserted him, “because he loved this present age” (2 Timothy 4:10).  This danger haunts us all.  That we would desire this world—its physical pleasures, everything we see in it, all that we posses–more than Jesus.

I grew up in church hearing, “Jesus may come tonight!”  Let’s say since I was ten.  64 years.  Six decades.  No Jesus.  I’m not criticizing my pastors.  They preached Bible.  Jesus (“salvation”) is coming.  But no one knows when.

The problem with hearing the message often is that it becomes “crying wolf”.  Pretty soon we hear it without effect.  Who goes to sleep at night thinking, “Jesus may come tonight”?

Paul is concerned, however, not so much with the time of Jesus’ coming, as with the “dark” condition of the times preceding it.  They are “dark”—and growing darker. According to Pew Research Center, despite Scripture’s male-female marriage institution, “white evangelical Protestants . . . support [of] same-sex marriage has grown from 27% in 2016 to 35% today”.  Might this increase be because Americans’ support in general has increased to 62%, while 57% opposed it in 2001?

When I was a teenager, sex before marriage was a sin.  Today some professing Christian couples openly “live together” before marriage.  Might this moral “darkness,” pictured in movies as a natural thing, be creeping into the church?

Paul urges, “Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”  “ . . . put on the Lord Jesus Christ” always reminds me of “dress-up”.  Dress up like the Lord Jesus Christ.  But this is no childhood game.  Earlier Paul told the church to “put on the armor of light”.  So, dress up like the Lord Jesus Christ for war!  By faith, act like Jesus.  Say “no” to the darkness and “yes” to the light.  Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold.  Be radically righteous like Jesus, especially as the darkness deepens.

* * *

The last days began with Jesus’ first coming.  So all of us have lived our whole lives in the last days.  But they get “last-er”.  Jesus implies that the “last-er” the days, the more self-gratifying sin and the less love.  “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold . . . ” (Matthew 24:12).

So we—the church—must fight against the growing darkness.  Not just by holding to true doctrine.  But by loving one another (even enemies) as Jesus did.

“’Father, forgive them–‘”

“The three words impale [the Roman soldiers) as the three spikes they used to impale him.  They all look up, transfixed, as Jesus finishes his prayer.

’—for they do not know what they are doing.’

“Not only does Jesus ask his Father to forgive them, he offers a kind word in their behalf, explaining their behavior.

“The calloused ears of those soldiers have heard all kinds of words on that hill.  All kinds.  And in every language.  But they have never heard words like these.  Never like these.  Not once.

“Until now” (Ken Gire, Intense Moments with the Savior).

That’s the last days lover.  May that be us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Authorities Are God’s Servants

Christmas came between Romans 12 and 13.  So, to best understand 13:1-7, a brief review is in order. In chapters 1-11, Paul proclaimed God’s mercy in Christ:  all have sinned against God and fall short of his glory, but are made right with God through faith in the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Now Paul turns a corner.  “ . . . in view of God”s mercy”, here is how the church should live . . .

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God– this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is– his good, pleasing and perfect will” (12:1,2).

How is the church to live that body-sacrifice and that moral transformation?  By humbly exercising spiritual gifts as members of one body (12:3-8).  By genuinely loving one another in the church and living in peace with outsiders (12:9-21).

By living in subjection to ruling authorities (13:1-7) . . .

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities . . . ” (13:1a).

This grows out of Paul’s appeal for the church to do good to enemies (12:20,21).  For, even though the Roman Empire largely treated the church with indifference, tension ran beneath the surface between the two.

For example, just six years earlier Emperor Claudius had banned Jews (Christian and non-Christian) from Rome.  Although a new emperor, Nero, allowed them to return, they became his scapegoats.  Then when fire ravaged the city, Nero blamed Christians.l/.

Paul’s reasoning is radical—and takes submission to government far beyond 1st century Rome all the way to us in the 21st century.

“ . . . for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (13:1b).

All authority comes from God.  Not from the emperor, as in Rome.  Not from a written Constitution, as in the U.S.  From God.  And those who have authority to rule, whether an empire or a democracy, have been appointed by God.  He is the sovereign authority of his creation.

In Israel, only a Jewish king could be recognized.  Now Christian Jews were urged to subject themselves to a pagan king.  Because “those authorities that exist have been instituted by God”.

God institutes authorities.  If a government exists, it is ordained by God.  The government—dictatorship or democracy—derives its power from God and is limited to what he intends for it.

This has a serious implication for resistors—and the church under Roman rule might resist . . .

“Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (13:2).

The “therefore” is obvious—and frightening.  Resisting a king appointed by Rome was risky enough.  He wielded the full weight of Roman authority—and judgment.  But, worse, God had appointed that authority, so to resist him was to resist God’s authority—and to incur God’s judgment.

“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer” (13:3,4). 

Years ago, in a Sunday Worship Gathering, we honored out local police.  Many came.  I preached from this passage and found it strange to speak of them as God’s servants, especially since I knew many were far from believers.  But Paul doesn’t mean Emperor Nero is personally God’s servant, but positionally.  Nero is God’s servant without knowing it!

What does Paul mean “[the authority] is God’s servant for your good”?  He may mean for the church’s moral good.  That is, living under a pagan emperor tests Christians’ faith and so develops character.  Or he may mean for the church’s benefit—though its rather hard to see how a pagan emperor’s edicts could benefit the Christian church.  Unless Paul means the authority benefits the church, because it keeps society from anarchy.  In any case . . .

“Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience” (13:5).

In other words, writes Paul, the church must obey the laws of the land, not only because of possible punishment if they don’t, but out of moral obligation to God (“conscience”).

So, another occasion, again years ago, Lois and I are driving north on an empty Sunday morning stretch of U.S. 19.  Headed for church.  Speed limit’s 50.  I’m pushing 60.  Suddenly, a Tarpon Springs cop in my rearview mirror.  Sick fear stabs my stomach.  Ticket for sure.  But, know what?  Even on my way to worship, no stab of conscience because I’ve broken my moral obligation to God.

This is what God deserves.  Not our submission to civil laws fearful of punishment, but out of a deep and full submission to him.

“For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them — taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (13:6,7).

The State holds the right to levy taxes (even if the system is corrupt, as was often the case with Rome’s tax collectors”) and citizens have a moral obligation to God to pay them.  But payment isn’t enough.  “ . . . the authorities are God’s servants”; therefore, Christians owe them respect.  The church must not merely tolerate government authorities, but honor them as God-appointed.

* * *

Paul isn’t writing a theology of church and state.  (For instance, he doesn’t discuss how Christians are to respond when the state demands something God forbids.) His concern is pastoral.  He wants the church at Rome to be submissive and “to do what is good”. And, because all authority is God’s and the authorities that exist are God-appointed, he’s exhorting us.

To see government as a God-appointed agent instead of the church’s opponent.  I never think of our government as God-appointed for our good.  Holy Spirit, renew my mind so my thinking is transformed, and I see our government as appointed by you.

I have to confess:  it’s hard to “wrap my brain” around governments being God-appointed.  Does that include Hitler’s?  Russia’s?  Syria’s?  North Korea’s?

To respect governing authorities.  I think the key here is God-appointed.  How can I respect congressmen who are so partisan they refuse to work with the party “on the other side of the aisle” for the country’s good?  Who are involved in sophomoric sexual-escapades and worse?  Who with straight face lie “under oath”?  Who “play” to their (voter) base rather than do what’s right for the country?  Who do their job to keep their job rather than to promote national well-being?

Holy Spirit, renew my mind so my thinking is transformed, and I respect our leaders’ position, if not their practice.

Bob Deffinbaugh (Texas pastor) wrote, “There may be reason for disobedience to certain laws, but there is no excuse for our spirit of insubordination and for an obedience which is more compliant than it is cooperative and supportive.”

To that, how can I not say “Amen”?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas: God Up to Something?

Maybe God was up to something.  You decide . . .

An angel appeared to an old priest serving in the silence of the temple sanctuary.  The angel told Zechariah his barren wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son, and that son would prepare the people for Messiah’s coming.  The priest was shocked by the angel’s appearance and his message.  He wanted a sign.  Instead, the angel struck him dumb for disbelief (Luke 1:5-23).

Soon, barren Elizabeth conceived (Luke 1:24,25).

In her sixth month, another angel-visit.  This one to a young virgin in Nazareth, Galilee, who was pledged to  marry a descendant of King David, Joseph.  “The Holy Spirit will conceive the Messiah in you.”

After a while, Mary went south to Judea to visit her relative Elizabeth.  Nothing unusual about that.  Except when Mary greeted Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s baby jumped in her womb, and she was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me” (Luke 1:26-45).  Important note:  this being before phones, e-mail and social media, Elizabeth knew nothing about the angel’s visit to Mary.

Suddenly, Mary magnified the Lord, with a beautiful poem of praise by which she affirmed her belief that the Lord had looked on her with favor, would upset the world’s power structures with her child, and would help Abraham’s descendant as he’d promised (Luke 1:39-56).

Elizabeth gave birth. A son.  Eight days later neighbors gathered for the circumcision and naming.  “John,” she said.  (Apparently, Zechariah had written to Elizabeth the name the angel wanted.)  Neighbors protested.  “Name him after his father!”  Then “dumb” dad wrote it again with an exclamation point:  “His name is John!”  The note loosed the old priest’s tongue to tell the whole story.  The neighborhood buzzed with a question:  “What will this child become?”

Suddenly, Zechariah answered.  “The Lord God of Israel is remembering his holy covenant with Abraham.  John will become a prophet of the Most High.  He’ll go before the Lord to prepare his ways so his people will know the way of salvation.”

Things settled down after that. The child grew.  Years wound by.  Until John was a young man.  Then he went off to live in the wilderness (Luke 1:57-80).

Then, in far-off Rome, Caesar Augustus issued a decree.  The emperor’s whole world had to travel to ancestral homes to register.  (More taxes were coming.)  For Joseph in Nazareth, that meant an arduous hundred-mile journey to Bethlehem with pregnant Mary.

Finally arriving in the little town, Mary atop a donkey groaned, “Joseph, it’s time!”  But they had no shelter—no room in the inn crowded with travelers.  Joseph frantically rushed to find a cave.  A haven for farm animals became a temporary home for the baby’s birth, and a straw-strewn animal trough became his bed (Luke 2:1-7).

Outside town, shepherds were tending their flocks at night.  Time and place for another angel-visit.  This one momentous.  “Don’t be afraid, the angel told the afraid shepherds.  I’ve got good news of great joy for everyone.  Today in David’s town a Savior has been born—the Messiah.  You’ll find him wrapped in cloth-bands lying in a manger.”  At that, a majestic choir of angels appeared, singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 

When the heavenly display ended and shepherds closed their hanging jaws, they found their tongues.  “Let’s go see.  Whaddaya say?”  So they did and saw.  There was the child in the manger and mom and dad hovering nearby.

On the eighth day, he was circumcised and named:  “Jesus.”  That was the angel’s idea (Luke 2:8-20).

* * *

Now:  was all this God up to something?  Or maybe Zechariah got caught up in spiritual ecstasy about an angel at the incense altar and Mary was just daydreaming as young girls are wont to do.  Maybe Elizabeth wasn’t really barren after all, and she and Zechariah just “got it right.”  Maybe Joseph and Mary were just, you know, “fooling around” and things got out of hand and well, you know.  Perhaps those shepherds had just spent too many nights out in the field tending dumb sheep and a group hallucination struck them.

Or maybe the whole thing is just a fairy tale that’s persisted over the centuries–part of the Christmas tradition as unreal as Santa Claus.

Or maybe God was behind the whole thing.

If you decide that it was God, you can have a really Merry Christmas.  That’s what Lois and I wish for you.

Christmas: The Hiding Woman

A disgrace, and a sadness:  Elizabeth was barren.  No son to carry on Zechariah’s name. No tiny squeals of delight to fill their home.  No baby to suck her life-giving breasts. Breasts, like the rest of her old body, that could no longer give life.

But . . . Elizabeth conceived.  At first, she dared not believe it.  “ . . . for five months she remained in seclusion” (Luke 1:24).  But her body began to prove it.  Still she hid.  Did she fear her body would yet cruelly disappoint her?  Did she have to ponder her husband’s words about that fearful day in the temple?  Simple words he crudely scribbled after being struck dumb for disbelieving an angel’s words.

Zechariah the priest.  That day he, from among so many, had been chosen by lot to serve in the sanctuary.  He had been humbled—and grateful.  At his age it was likely his last opportunity.

He’d stepped solemnly into the sanctuary to offer incense.  Suddenly, to the right of the altar (he wrote to her), an angel had appeared.  Even if his words were abbreviated, they were enough to make her gasp.  The angel had announced Zechariah’s wife would give birth to a son who would be great before the Lord and be filled with the Spirit even before birth.  Was he now, she wondered, as he grew inside her womb?

But it was this prophecy that most astonished her.  “With the Spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him . . . “ (Luke 1:17). Zechariah had been quite clear about those words.  And about how the angel had struck him dumb, because he hadn’t believed any of them.

Her son . . . her son . . . would go before him–Messiah!

So Elizabeth hid herself.  At least until her tummy proved the prophecy.  Secretly she rejoiced in the removal of her disgrace.  Quietly she pondered if her son’s mission were true and  how her boy–her boy– would announce the Messiah.

A month after Elizabeth’s seclusion, her young relative Mary visited.  “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.  And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?’” (Luke 1:41-43).

Two mothers-to-be.  One impossibly un-barren.  One pregnant without a man.  Both caught up in the wonder of miraculous births of miraculous sons.  Two women rejoicing at what the Lord had done.

Neither knew the suffering that lay ahead.  Mary’s son, the Messiah,  would be rejected and put to death by Israel’s religious leaders and Rome’s self-centered king.  Elizabeth’s son would call Israel to get ready for the Messiah by a baptism of repentance.  And would publicly condemn a king for adulterous sex.  In the end, the woman of that affair would shrewdly take his head.

* * *

How foreign such words sound at Christmas!  Christmas is about good-news angels, worshiping wise men, a cuddly baby in a manger, peace on earth.  We barely notice the holy family escaping to Egypt from Herod’s rage that slaughtered Bethlehem’s young boys.  We sing happy songs that welcome the king.  But we forget powerful men didn’t.

Our country celebrates while disconnecting the child from the man the world crucified.  And John?  John the miracle born to an old barren woman.  We last see him led from prison to satisfy the spiteful wish of an immoral woman–a wish by  a sex-and liquor-drunken king afraid to look small before other small men.  John’s good story ends with his head presented on a platter.

Would Elizabeth, if still alive these many years later, have crept into seclusion?  Would she have feared for her own life?  Would she have doubted God and condemned Zechariah for bringing such outlandish “angel talk” to her home?  Or would she have  stood as tall as her old bent frame allowed to cry “Amen” to John’s now-silent words?

And what of us?  We’ve domesticated the message of Christmas.  Separated it from the violence it brought.  Allowed the world to make it a sweet fairy tale or a religious bedtime story.  Might it be that the church in America has largely gone into seclusion, like Elizabeth?  Have we hidden the angel’s prophecy to Zechariah within the four walls of our sanctuary?  Maybe we need to find ways to come out.  To trust the Holy Spirit to fill us.  And to endure whatever opposition we must to tell the whole Christmas story.

Maybe we need more John the Baptists this Christmas.  And more Elizabeths, who come out of hiding.

 

 

 

 

Christmas: The King

The new king settled into his palace.   Peace reigned in Israel.  David and his devoted armies had defeated the Philistines.  “ . . .the LORD  had given [David] rest from all his enemies around him” (2 Samuel 7:1).  So, the king wanted to build a house for his LORD, a place to enshrine the ark of God.

But the prophet Nathan received a word that night.  The next day he told the king.  “The LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house.  When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you . . . and I will establish his kingdom.  He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Samuel 7:11b,12).

David  humbly accepted the prophet’s word and gratefully praised the LORD for his greatness and goodness  to Israel.

The promise stirred David’s heart.  His son would build a house for the Lord.  And a dynasty was born.  Israel would always have a son of David on the throne.  But might “I will establish the throne of kingdom forever” mean more?

After Solomon, civil war split Israel.  The twin nations repeatedly broke God’s covenant.  A Davidic king reigned in Jerusalem.  But the kingdom was crumbling under the weight of sin and God’s judgment.

Three hundreds years after David, amidst the sin-ravaged kingdom, prophets told of a coming Davidic king:  “See, a king will reign in righteousness and rulers will rule with justice” (Isaiah 32:1) . . .“Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. ” (Zechariah 9:9,10) . . . “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2).

Words of hope gleaming in the darkness.  Mysterious words:  “He will proclaim peace to the nations” . . . His rule will extend to the ends of the earth”.  Israel watched and waited.  For the king who would build God’s “house”, the son to once again rule from David’s throne with righteousness and peace.  And maybe his rule would extend to the earth’s ends!

* * *

Only one thing frightened King Herod—an enemy usurping his throne.  So when he heard news that wise men from the east arrived in Jerusalem looking for “ . . . the child who has been born king of the Jews”, his fears were fueled.  “Where is the Messiah to be born?” he asked his priests.  “Bethlehem, according to Micah 5:2.”  “Tell me when you find him, so I may go worship him too,” he told the wise men.

That evening, the star that had led the magi from the East, reappeared over the place where the child was. When “ . . . the wise men saw the child with Mary his mother . . . they knelt down and paid him homage.  Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11). 

They didn’t return to Herod. When he realized he’d been tricked, he was enraged.  If he couldn’t kill the one child, he’d kill every child under two in Bethlehem.

“Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:  ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more'” (Matthew 2:17).

Was this horrific violence just the ravings of a mad king?  Or did Herod’s murderous tirade portent how the world would receive this child-king?  For now, he was safe.  The Lord’s angel had appeared to Joseph in a dream,  “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you . . . ” (Matthew 2:13).

Was this child to reign on David’s throne over a whole-earth kingdom?

Would violent rejection plague him wherever he went?

Did the prophet Nathan (or the Lord) mean this son of David would reign forever?

Were the wise men’s gifts just rich presents or did they mean more than even they understood?  Did gold represent the child’s kingship.  Did frankincense symbolize his priesthood of intercession for his sinful people.  Did myrrh prefigure his terrible atoning death?

Were the magi’s words prophetic beyond their understanding.

And did these foreigners, these men from the East, symbolize the day when all of heaven will sing to this child, “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.  You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9,10)?

 

Christmas: God Himself Will Provide the Lamb

The mountain loomed above the horizon:  Moriah.  Yet a day away.  Its sight signaled the end of Abraham’s journey.  He heaved a sigh of relief, welcoming the day because he dreaded the end.

The old man shuffled down the dirt path, leading his donkey bearing wood for a sacrifice.  Behind the animal, two servants followed.  Isaac, the son he loved, the son of God’s promise, walked stride by stride at his father’s side.  Isaac, the sacrifice.

Two days earlier, Abraham had heard the Voice—the One he’d heard occasionally for decades, the One that promised a son from old Sarah, the son to be the first of descendants as many as the sands of the sea.

But, this time the Voice spoke dreadful words:  “Abraham take your only son Isaac who you love.  Go to Moriah.  Sacrifice him there—a burnt offering on the mountain I will show you.”

The sun burned.  A hot breeze breathed on the land.  But Abraham’s blood ran cold.  He thrust a wrinkled hand through wispy hair.  How could the Lord God demand Isaac’s sacrifice?  His death would break the promise.  Worse, it might kill the old man and woman.

Even so, before the next day’s sun broke the horizon, Abraham had gathered wood, saddled his donkey and set out for Mount Moriah, his son by his side.

On the third day, the ground grew steep.  Moriah looked desolate now.  “Stay here with the donkey,” Abraham told the servants.  “I will take my boy a little farther.  We will worship and then come back.”

The words escaped the old man’s mouth.  “We will worship and then come back.” Were they words of faith?  Of insight deeper than knowledge?  Or a hope that  sacrifice would somehow not end in death?

Isaac shouldered the wood.  Abraham held the fire and knife—the knife with which he’d slaughter his son.  “Father,” bewildered Isaac asked as they trudged up the hill,  “We have wood and fire.  But where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”

Silence.  Abraham’s breathing was labored. Then he spoke.  Resolutely in hope.  Firmly in faith.  More than he knew. “My son, God himself will provide the lamb for the sacrifice.”

They reached the summit.  The place of sacrifice.  Isaac still held the wood, while Abraham stooped to gather stones.  He built an altar.  Took the wood from Isaac.  Laid it on the altar.  Led Isaac to it and lay the boy on the wood.  Isaac looked up fearfully, questioning, at his father.  “God will provide a lamb.”  Father and son remembered the words.  But when?  Where? The words mocked Abraham now as his shaking hand took the knife.  With feet firmly planted, but tottering with desperation, he raised the knife high toward the heavens.  One thrust to kill his boy.

He tightened his grip and tensed his muscles.  Now!  A shout came from heaven:  “Abraham, lay down the knife.  Do not hurt the boy.  For now I know you truly fear God.  You have not withheld even your beloved son from me.”

Abraham looked up.  Movement in a nearby bush drew his eye.  A trapped ram.  A sacrifice would be made that day.  But not a seemingly senseless one of the promised son.  Rather an offering of thanksgiving.  As his sacrifice burned toward heaven, Abraham breathed a name for that holy ground—“The Lord will provide.”

* * *

As years passed, Abraham’s descendants multiplied.  But so did their sin.  They lived estranged from their Lord. As did all mankind.  Prophets made it plain their sin was a snare and God’s wrath must fall.  Yet through the centuries, Abraham’s words echoed:  “God himself will provide the lamb”.

* * *

The cave sheltered animals.  But this night it would give sanctuary to a frightened teenager about to give birth and to her anxious husband.  Moments passed unnoticed as birth pains increased.  The girl moaned, screamed, pushed.  And “she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).

“God himself will provide the lamb.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Being the Transformed Community of Christ

Fyodor Dostoevsky (19th century Russian philosopher) said, “If God does not exist everything is permitted.”

He does, and everything is not permitted.  Though you’d think enforcing morality wouldn’t be necessary among people in whom the Spirit is fulfilling the just requirements of God’s law (Romans 8:1-4).  However, the church must learn to think and act together with the inward sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. (It doesn’t happen automatically.)

Therefore, in Romans 12 Paul begins to help the church learn to think and act together with the inward transformation of the Spirit.  He begins with a majestic appeal . . .

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God– this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is– his good, pleasing and perfect will” (12:1,2, NIV).

Just a few brief observations, since I commented on this passage before.  All the thinking and conduct Paul urges on the Rome church is to be done “in view of God’s mercy” in Christ (chapters 1-11).

Worship explodes out of the Sunday sanctuary into everyday use of our bodies.

This world, which is under the evil one’s power (1 John 5:19b), must not be allowed to squeeze us into its mold.  Rather we must allow the Holy Spirit to transform us into thinking “new”.

From those majestic-sounding appeals, Paul gets down into the “nitty-gritty” of church life—how it should be lived.

SPIRITUAL GIFTS

“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness” (12:3-8).

Apparently, some Roman church members have a “high and mighty” attitude about their spiritual gifts.  Paul exhorts them to think sensibly about themselves “according to the measure of faith that God has assigned”.  They must believe the church is the Body of Christ.  They must believe each of them belongs to all the others; no one is superior.They must believe their gifts have been given according to grace. They must believe each gift is important for the body’s sake, as each part of the physical body is important for the body’s sake.

LOVE TO ONE ANOTHER

“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (12:9-13).

Church members must love one another.  By clinging to what is good and so building up one another.  By trying to be best at honoring and valuing others.  By serving the Lord with passion, because passion is contagious.  By responding to suffering, whether one’s own or others, with patience, with joyful hope and with persistent prayer.  By giving to needy believers.  And by extending that giving even to strangers, so the Body of Christ becomes a welcoming haven to lost outsiders.

Sound idealistic?  A church with that kind of love is possible“[B]ecause God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (5:5a). 

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. (Or [give yourselves to humble tasks] ). Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (12:14-18).

It’s curious to me why Paul wrote, “Bless those who persecute you . . .” among other imperatives that clearly have to do with loving one another.  Perhaps because sometimes persecutors can be found in the church.  In any case, the loving response is to speak well of them, even to call down God’s gracious power on them.  If some members are rejoicing, don’t be jealous—rejoice with them.  If some are weeping, don’t just pat them on the shoulder and promise to pray—weep with them.  Don’t “pay back”; do what is good and beautiful for all to see.  Live in peace with everyone.

LOVE TO ENEMIES

 “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:19-21).

Emperor Claudius had exiled all Jews from Rome in 49 A.D.  But Emperor Nero undid the 49 A.D. ban on Jews in Rome.  But, as always, they became easy prey for persecutors, especially if they were Christians.  Paul warns the whole church against taking revenge against their abusers.  The day is coming when God will right all wrongs.  But refraining from revenge is not enough for a Christ-like church.  If their enemies are hungry or thirsty, they must give them food and drink.  This will “heap burning coals on their heads”.  A quote from Proverbs 25:21,22, commentators explaining that burning coals on the head signifies contrition.  So, showing love to enemies may move them to repent.  In any case, the persecuted Christian, by helping his persecutor in need, will actually “overcome evil with good”.

Jesus once referred to property kept safe by a strong man.  “But when one stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he . . . divides his plunder” (Luke 11:22).  By doing good to persecutors, the church can be that strong man who overcomes evil.

* * *

The church must hold to sound doctrine (1:1-11:36).  But the church must live out the ethical ramifications of those doctrines.  Only then can we be more than a classroom; only then can we be the transformed community of Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So the Pope Said to the Interviewer . . .

Sounds like the start of a joke.  I wish.

According to “The New York Times”,  Pope Francis, in a TV interview, said the common translation “lead us not into temptation” was “not a good translation from ancient texts”.  He suggested, “Do not let us fall into temptation might be better, because Satan, not God, leads people into temptation.”

“Do not lead us” comes from the Greek word, icephero.  A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament by Arndt and Gingrich cites its literal usage in the New Testament.  Of the men who broke through the roof, since they could find no way to “bring in” their paralyzed friend (Luke 5:18,19).  Of the fact that we have “brought” nothing into the world (1 Timothy 6:7).  Of the blood that is “brought into” the sanctuary (Hebrews 13:11).  And to forcefully drag in (Luke 12:11–“When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say . . . “

Figuratively, icephero is used of bringing something to someone’s ears (Acts 17:20–“You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.”  The only other place where it’s used in the New Testament is the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 5:13; Luke 11:4).

So the Greek is not ambiguous.  To change the meaning to suit one’s theology is bad translating.

Why is this important?  Words are the objective revelation of God.  Think about this for a moment.  God has supremely revealed himself to us in his Son.  But we know of the Son, and what he did and taught, through words.  God has also revealed himself in creation.  But we need God’s Word to interpret creation’s revelation and to know the gospel by which we’re saved.  So words are crucial.  And getting the correct translation of the Hebrew (Old Testament) and the Greek (New Testament) is also crucial.   If we pass over the clear meaning of words, we corrupt the objective revelation of God.

So, what does, Do not lead us into temptation” mean?  Denny Burk (professor of Biblical Studies, Boyce College) makes these three points:

One, “A negative request does not necessarily imply that the positive is otherwise to be expected.”  If a man says to his wife, “Don’t ever leave me”, it doesn’t mean she’s planning to go.

Two, God may lead us into temptation to test and fortify our faith.  Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am”” (Genesis 22;1).   “Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments” (Deuteronomy 8:2).  Testing almost always involves temptation to disbelieve or disobey.  Hence, the Lord’s Prayer is a request that God not put us in such a situation.

Three, we’re right to pray for deliverance from temptation and testings.  Jesus did–“And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want'” (Matthew 26:39).

Paul did–“Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me” (2 Corinthians 12:7,8).

It’s uncomfortable to think God may lead us into trials, even temptation.  Some reject the idea entirely making Satan the agent.  But, if Job’s narrative is true, Satan is the culprit only by God’s permission.

“Lead us not into temptation” is a good prayer.  It humbles us before God.  It expresses our dependency on him in the face of trials.  It reminds us of the possibility of God leading us into painful circumstances we don’t want.  It brings us face-to-face with a humbling, but gracious, truth . . .

God’s loving, providential care reaches to every part of our lives–even trials which often contain temptations to our fallen desires.

 

 

 

 

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