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Humble Striving

Saturday, January 05, 2019

Our congregational theme for 2019 is “Growing in Grace” (2 Pet. 3:18), particularly in the seven areas Peter points out in 2 Peter 1:5-7. He puts a great deal of emphasis on our part in the development of these Christ-like qualities using phrases like “make every effort” (v.5) and “be all the more diligent” (v.10). Knowledge of the gospel should evoke a maturing and practical moral response from us. But Peter makes sure we understand this doesn’t all depend on us. Far from it!  He points out that God is the one who has “richly provided” us with everything necessary to transform us into the people we were meant to be (v.3) and bring us to glory (v.11).

This combined effort of humanity and divinity, human exertion and divine grace, is the key to unlocking our salvation and entrance into the eternal kingdom (2 Pet. 1:11; Eph. 2:8-9). Paul sums it up best: “… as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:12-13) 

Does this much emphasis on “our part” of salvation contradict the doctrine of grace? Does our effort somehow negate God’s grace? Does our diligent striving turn God’s gift into a wage? (Rom. 4:4-5)

We understand no one is justified in God’s sight by earning their salvation (Rom. 1-4). But obedience to the gospel is clearly required (Rom. 6). In fact, on this side of the cross, everything we do for God and others is a direct response for what God has done for us. Our faith and humble obedience is always initiated by God’s gracious work. “We love because He first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19). Humble effort in no way contradicts God’s grace. The contradiction to grace is pride. Jesus lived in humble obedience as an example for us! (Heb. 5:8-9) 

James 4:6 says, "But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Peter teaches us in 1 Peter 5:6, "Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you." Check out the handy chart by Doy Moyer below.

GRACEPRIDE
HumbleSelf-righteous
Trust in GodTrust in self
ServeBeing served
Obey to pleaseDo to get
SubmissiveSelf-willed
Salvation givenSalvation earned
ContentDiscontent
God-exaltedSelf-exalted

 

Thank God

Sunday, December 30, 2018

In Luke 17:11-19 Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem when he stopped at a village where he met ten men suffering from leprosy. Standing afar off from Jesus they cried out to him saying “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

Lepers were shunned by society, put out of the city and away from direct contact with others. In fact, they were to yell out to passersby, “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn them of the possibility of physical and ritual contagion (Lev. 13-14). So not only were lepers ostracized from their community and family but they were also often forced into poverty. The sores that covered their bodies were seeping boils that were incredibly painful and would be in constant threat of becoming infected over time if not properly cared for.

We can only begin to imagine the pain, both physical and emotional, and the ridicule these men endured on behalf of their skin disease. So when they saw Jesus of Nazareth, having known the great miracles he was capable of performing, they cried out to him in desperation. Jesus sent them to the priests and they were cleansed.

The miracle itself was astounding and teaches us many things about Jesus, but there is another lesson in the reaction of the cleansed lepers. “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, "Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" (Lk. 17:15-18)

Only one man took the time to come back to thank Jesus! Are we like the nine or the one Samaritan who remembered his Savior?

In the midst of our agony we cry out to Him to makes things right. Sometimes He waits a little while to answer our prayers. But when the time comes that He, in His mysterious and perfect way, has answered our prayers, we often fail to return to Him in gratitude. We go on our merry way continuing to ask for this or that treating Him like our very own cosmic vending machine.

Paul teaches us how we ought to pray if we desire to be at peace spiritually. “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Phil. 4:5-6)

Praying with thanksgiving takes a lot more effort than a simple prayer of supplication. Our problems are always on our mind, ever present and easily recalled. And God is eager to hear about our problems and answer those requests (1 Pet. 5:7). But digging through the past and recognizing God’s gracious providence and abundant provision in His answers to previous prayers takes more mental muscle.

Let us resolve to live like the one Samaritan leper who, when he discovered Christ had made him well, turned back to Him praising God and giving thanks.

Profaning God's Name

Sunday, December 23, 2018

“But when they came to the nations, wherever they came, they profaned my holy name, in that people said of them, ‘These are the people of the Lord, and yet they had to go out of his land.’ But I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations to which they came.”
(Ezekiel 36:20-21)

What does it mean to profane God’s “holy name”? This does not mean to curse, swear or blaspheme God’s name as our modern word “profanity” might suggest. To the Israelite, all of life was divided into two broad categories – the “holy” and the “common”.

Most of life was common. There was nothing wrong with this. Ordinary people, places and things were simply common. If they were set apart for sacred use (‘sanctified’) then that made them holy. The entire nation of Israel was holy, set apart from the rest of the nations of the world for God’s special purpose (Ex. 19:4-6). But for the most part, ordinary things in life were either clean (normally) or unclean (because of some ritual or moral defilement).

So, the word “profane” is not necessarily derogatory or negative, it just means common or ordinary, no different from anything else in that category. Now we are getting closer to answering our question. All holiness flows from the LORD, the one who is uniquely other, separate and exalted above everyone and everything. He is utterly distinct from all other things and His name cannot be classed among other things or other gods. He can never be common because He could never be one in a class of many. He is in a class all by Himself, which is the very definition of holiness.

Levitical priests were given the important duty to instruct the rest of the people on the distinctions between the holy and common (Lev. 10:10-11). In Ezekiel’s day, far from teaching the distinctions, the priests taught that there was no distinction, thus doing violence to God’s law and profaning His name (Ezek. 22:26).

Babylonian exile was another huge step in the wrong direction for the nations to take notice of Yahweh’s holiness. You could imagine the discussions when God’s people were taken to Babylon. The locals would be asking, “Who are these vagabonds?”

“These are Israelites taken from Judah by Nebuchadnezzar.”

“What is the name of their God?”

“I heard they call him ‘Yahweh.’”

“So, they are Yahweh’s people but they’ve been kicked out of Yahweh’s land? This Yahweh doesn’t sound very powerful. He’s probably not that much different that all the other nations’ gods our king has conquered. Praise Marduk!” (cf. 2 Kgs. 18:33-35)

This is how the ancient world thought about gods. The defeat of a nation meant the defeat of its god. And gods were only effective within the boundaries of their land. The Judean exiles were proof, according to the nations’ wisdom, that either Yahweh had abandoned His people because He was powerless (what Moses feared in Num. 14:16) or He was malicious (what Moses feared in Ex. 32:12). Either way, to the Babylonians, Yahweh was defeated, no better than the rest of the national gods that had succumbed to the might of Babylon. Yahweh’s name would be mocked as a loser.

In exile, “wherever they came, they profaned my holy name.” (Ezek. 36:20) Instead of being Yahweh’s royal priesthood, shining His holiness to the rest of the nations (Ex. 19:4-6), Israel had become the exact opposite, a landless, roving band who profaned God’s name and gave His reputation a black eye wherever they went.

The New Testament authors show how God “had concern for [His] holy name” (Ezek. 36:21) and acted to save us in Christ (1 Pet. 1:18-20; 2:24-25) by calling us with a “holy calling” (2 Tim. 1:9). In this act of salvation God turns the tables in His (and our) favor. In Christ, we are saved from forever profaning God’s holy name and liberated us to proclaim His holy name to the world abroad.

As Peter says, Christians “are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Pet. 2:9-10)

This holy calling in Christ makes living a holy life reflective of our holy God possible (1 Pet. 1:15-16). In Christ, we are taught afresh to distinguish between the holy and the profane, proclaiming his excellencies in our thinking and behavior as is befitting a royal priesthood and a holy nation. And others should be able to tell the difference.

In fact, Peter expects others to see the difference in the life of a Christian and ask about it (1 Pet. 3:15). No one should ever say of a Christian, “These are the people of the Lord, and yet… they don’t look any different than anyone else.” To wear God’s holy name and be viewed as common by others is to profane God’s holy name. And yet ironically, this religious hypocrisy is one of the most commonly lodged complaints against Christians today and one the most vehemently denounced sins by Christ Himself (Mt. 7:1ff).

The more unique our neighbors view us the clearer we are reflecting God’s holy image. After all, wasn’t it the Lord Himself who said people have a right to judge a tree by its fruit (Mt. 7:20)?

God's Will is Life

Sunday, December 09, 2018

“Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?”
(Ezekiel 18:23)

The above passage (cf. 33:11 along with the Lord’s self-designation in Exodus 34:6-7), is one of the most beautiful affirmations about God’s character in the entire Bible. The rhetorical questions asked by God to His suffering people expect a clear “No” and “Yes” answer respectively. Here is God’s emphatic declaration: “Just so we’re clear Israel, I want you to live and not die!”

Why does the Lord have to speak in such an emphatic way here? Shouldn’t God’s desire for life be obvious? Shouldn’t everyone know the One who spun this universe into existence and breathed life into it is a God who delights in His creation living and not dying? Shouldn’t Israel especially know that not only is God rooting for them but that He has a purpose for them that requires them to live?

Well, considering God’s stark denunciations of the wicked and the terrifying descriptions of His wrath found elsewhere in the prophets it’s at least understandable that one might be tempted to answer at least the first question (“have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked?”) with a “Yes.” The wicked are so repulsive to God, as outlined with such poetic and legal force by Ezekiel, that one might believe that God would love to wipe Israel from the earth as we might take pleasure in swatting an annoying gnat from the air.

This got me thinking. Many who superficially read the Old Testament find within its pages an angry, vengeful God who does nothing but punish sinners. Why isn’t He more loving like the God of the New Testament? This tragic misrepresentation of the God who changes not has led many to picture Him as an unjust monster. To be fair, the chances of opening your Old Testament and finding God angry with Israel or a surrounding nation, perhaps even threatening to punish them, is actually pretty good.

But is this who God is? Let me put it to you this way: If a neighbor was walking by your house with the windows open and heard your child screaming, “Stop hurting me daddy!” while you were trying to remove a splinter from his hand, would that scream be an accurate representation of your relationship with your child?

The answer is a resounding “No!” God must punish the wicked based on His just nature. His moral integrity simply will not allow unrepentant sin to continue unchecked or to get the last word. But the exercise of punitive justice gives Him no pleasure at all. What pleases Him is that moment when a sinner repents which liberates Him to exercise His unique divine ability to grant the gift of life (Lk. 15:7; Rom. 6:23). Giving life to His beloved creation is His favorite thing to do. It has been His greatest “pleasure” since Genesis 1.

Remember the very God who came as Israel’s enemy in the form of Babylon appointed a sentry to warn them He was coming! (Ezek. 3:16-21; 33:1-10) And what was the point of that warning if not to give Israel the chance to repent and save their lives? (Ezek. 18:32) In passages like Ezekiel 18:23, God is pleading with the wicked for them to see their desperate situation and to turn their lives around. In our wickedness, we face a God who warns us with no pleasure at all that the “soul who sins shall die.” (Ezek. 18:4) But if we turn to Him in repentance, we face a God who promises with pleasure that the soul who repents shall live! (Ezek. 33:11)

An Addiction of Epidemic Proportions

Sunday, December 02, 2018

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.”
(1 Corinthians 6:12)

At the breakfast table, Bob’s wife tried to engage him in conversation but to no avail. He assured her he was listening and mumbled some “uh-huh’s” and slowly nodded his head at all the wrong places while he kept glancing down at the article open on his phone.

Later that morning, at the packed waiting room in the doctor’s office Bob filled out the necessary forms and began to wait for the nurse to call his name. It might be 5 minutes or an hour so he pulled out his phone and began to mindlessly swipe, like all the others in the room.

At work, Bob’s team met for their 1 o’clock meeting to discuss next week’s agenda. Frank said he was running late so he pulled out his phone and checked Twitter. Until Frank came in a few minutes later, no one even lifted their eyes to the other faintly glowing faces in the room to engage in conversation.

At his desk, Bob typed away at his computer while his phone laid face up between his arms in front of his keyboard. Every so often he would check it for any notifications. By 3 o’clock he hadn’t received any so he decided to tweet something controversial to create interest. He hungrily checked and rechecked his phone relishing in the heated responses he had provoked. Satisfied, he laid the phone to the side so he could get his work done. At first, he laid it face down but thirty seconds later thought better of it and flipped it over.

Walking in the hallway to leave work Bob’s colleague asked if he could talk about something serious for a moment. “Sure,” he said while holding his phone, “what’s on your mind?” The man began to disclose some marital issues he was having when Bob’s phone buzzed. He looked down to see who it was. “I’m not getting that.” He saw he did not have Bob’s full attention and decided not to confide in him.

Bob came home to his wife checking her phone to see how many digital reactions the selfie she took during her Starbucks run earlier had garnered. He could see on his wife’s face it provided a much-needed boost to her self-esteem as she read comments praising her physical beauty. Bob commented in like fashion… on Facebook, not in person.

The two exchanged pleasantries and packed in the car to take their 10-year-old daughter to the Verizon store. Her iPhone screen broke so Bob bought her a new one before they went out to eat together as family. This was important family time. At the restaurant, they spoke less than 100 words to each other while they stared at their phones.

At this point, you may be surprised to discover that Bob calls himself a Christian. After dinner, they went to the church building to offer up their worship to God. During the study, Bob tried to follow along on the Bible app on his phone. But then a message popped up. The study wasn’t very intriguing and the teacher was not a good speaker so he justified spending the rest of the time swiping.

Bob doesn’t realize it but he is addicted. He is a slave “dominated” by social media. When he receives a notification on his phone his brain’s pleasure centers also receive a small shot of a chemical called dopamine. This makes him feel good so he finds himself, like a drug addict, chasing after this ever elusive pleasure high. All the while, the neurological pathways are being rewritten in his brain. As a result, all the research shows Bob will be less creative, less productive, less likely to communicate effectively while growing more anxious.

More importantly, every relationship in his life is slowly falling apart. He will not create meaningful relationships at work, in the community or in the home. To make matters worse, he buys his daughter a smart phone at an age when her brain is even less equipped to cope with the dopamine brought on by social media. One addict creates another.

This addiction not only destroys Bob’s relationships but it also warps his self-image and plunges him into anxiety and depression. After all, when he compares his miserable life with all those apparently happy and fit people taking pictures of their perfect families traveling to exotic destinations without a care in the world, why wouldn’t he be?

But Bob is busy doing the same thing, trying to fool other people into thinking his life is better than it really is. Like others, he tends to paint himself in the best light, highlighting the good and digitally nipping and tucking the bad until he has a perfectly photoshopped version of himself that is a far cry from reality. In the process, Bob has manufactured a little shrine to himself hoping to receive the digital praise of men. In the end, Bob will have his reward. (Mt. 6:2)

Many people are going through life like Bob, living in a culture addicted to social media. In the age of social media, the breadth of communication has never been greater, but the depth of communication has never been shallower. As a culture, we are, at once, more connected than ever and, yet, lonelier than ever.

Why? Because relationships are made during those times in between moments, the very moments we pull out our phones to escape having to talk with people. We are essentially robbing ourselves of our own lives. And the devil is laughing while we wait for hours in line to fork over $700 for a rectangular idol-factory.

Our phones are amazing tools but when they become more than tools it’s time to unplug. Here are few suggestions if you find yourself in Bob’s situation: 1) take two weeks off social media, 2) turn your phone off at a certain time every night, 3) leave it in the car when worshiping God, 4) catalogue your screen time to see how often you use your phone, 5) do something fun without documenting and posting pictures of it. Whatever we do, we must begin healthy habits of self-evaluation and self-control. Life is too short. Put down your phone and live.

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