Saturday, April 30, 2016

 

A Sad Anniversary and a Reminder--The Holocaust

Recently we remembered a sad page in the history of humanity, we recalled the liberation of prison camps and the people in them from the nightmare of Nazi oppression and tyranny. Annually I try to remind myself of the depth of depravity to which humanity can slip, especially humanity that justifies its inhumanity and brutality by science. The Nazis showed the dark beastial side of humanity, the side we all possess to some degree (although most of us will never admit it). The Nazis were more than thugs or brutes or even barbarians, they were humans that (in C. S. Lewis' words from The Abolition of Man) were humans without magnanimity, they were "men without chests." Here are Lewis' own words about such people:

"They are not distinguished from other men by any unusual skill in finding truth nor any virginal ardour to pursue her. Indeed, it would be strange if they were: a perservering devotion to truth, a nice of intellectual honour, cannot be long maintained without the aid of sentiment . . . It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so." (C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001, p. 25).

These oppressors were not less human than the rest of us, they just acted as people without that emotion that makes our "better angels" show up instead of the "brutes" in each of us. They became the "elites" who judged other races in humanity as mere brutish nature to be studied. They were Social Darwinists who wanted to keep their race pure, and who ultimately participated in that which Lewis deems "the abolition of man." They were people like us. In many ways we hate to admit, they were us. As one survivor records the event of his liberation:

"The full record of the pseudo-medical experimentations came to light. Prisoners had been used as laboratory animals, without the humane restrictions placed on vivisection. Hannah Arendt suggested that `the camp was itself a vast laboratory in which the Nazis proved that there is no limit to human depravity.' For it was remembered that these experiments were not planned or conducted by identifiable psychopaths. They were performed or supervised by professional scientists, trained in what had been once considered peerless universities and medical schools. Reverend Franklin Littell called them `technically competent barbarians.' Indeed the procedures had the full approval and cooperation of Berlin's Institute of Hygiene." (Sachar, Abram L. The Redemption of the Unwanted. New York: St. Martin's/Marek, 1983, pp. 8-10)

Let us remember with sadness the number of innocents lost and the reality of our own potentially brutish nature. Let us never forget that without grace, we are all irredeemably lost. Could Dachau or Auschwitz (or the others) happen again? Only if humans let it, only if we deny once again our own humanity and treat our fellow humans as mere animals. Yes, it can happen again. Let's pray that it doesn't. Let's make sure it doesn't.

This topic is heavy and sad. I don't apologize for that, but I do want to put the weight down now. Thanks for reading.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

 

Sounds of Silence--A Repeat


Nine years ago I was in the middle of trying to write and to establish a new program of study at Liberty University, and I found myself a bit overwhelmed.  You might even say that I was drowning in busy-ness and work.  Today I often find myself right back in that same ocean . . . swamped by a sense of "things to do" and "work, work work".

I think we all have been there.  The waves of life crash around us, and we sense we are sinking in the foam of life and finding ourselves stuck in the mire of everyday expectations.  The thunder and bluster of life's storms cause fear, and we lose focus on what really matters.  We succumb to the slumber brought about by drowning in activities--e-mail to answer, calls to be made, classes to prepare, friends to meet, people to impress, notes/articles to write, family expectations or obligations, to do lists full of things that just HAVE to be done today, etc.  The raging waves lull us to sleep as we are rocked steadily into a coma of concern.  The cacophony of our activities becomes the lullaby to our souls, and we yield to the siren's call, surrendering to what we think is really important.  We forget that we sometimes need a pause, a moment of Selah, a time to come apart before we fall apart.

In the middle of such a situation nine years ago, I wrote the following words.  They spoke to me then, and they convict me now.  How often I forget to sit silently in the presence of the Father who genuinely cares!  I come into his presence with my own agenda, dropping my "to do" lists in his lap as though they were a heavenly call that cannot be avoided.  Anyway, today I want to remind myself to sit with God, to just be silent in his awesome and awful presence with no agenda except to be with him.  I need some "quiet time", how about you?

Silence, cold eerie silence.

In this post-modern day and age, we rarely find ourselves in a place that is so utterly silent as to be practically without sound. We are surrounded by noise—the chattering of talk radio, the booming of the latest music craze, even in the shopping centers and elevators of life we encounter the ever-present reminder of Muzak to keep us company. At work we are assaulted with myriads of sounds, from the boss handing out assignments to the response of the assistant or the ringing of the phone. Even the internet is now wired for sound so that you can search for the latest piece of news or information with surround sound convenience. We return home from work only to turn on our cable TV to act as a kind of “white noise” in the background of our family lives. Some of us even go to sleep with the latest tunes playing on the radio to soothe our tired souls and “give us rest.” Today a human can actually go from womb to grave completely surrounded by the music of their own chosen personal soundtrack. Surely we are rarely without noise in our lives!

In this post-modern life we seem to have grown afraid of silence. We avoid it. We try to fill it with something that will give “meaning” to the emptiness. Why do we do that? Why do we fill our lives with sound?

Could it be that we are afraid of what we may actually hear if we are silent?

Could we be afraid that we may hear nothing? That we may be drowning in silence?

I believe we have grown accustomed to sound as a substitute for genuine communication with the transcendent. We have blocked out the very voice of the cosmos with our sound track so that we do not have to give our souls pause and just listen.

When was the last time you listened, really listened, to nature around you? I heard a mockingbird this morning, the bark of my dog, the jingling of my cat’s tags as he walked up the walk. It was so quiet I swear I could hear the sun groaning as it rose from its sleep!

I sat there, in silence. I listened. After a few seconds I grew jittery, even panicky. I really should be doing something, listening to something, “accomplishing” something worthwhile with my time.

I heard a voice, quiet and still—“Hush, be quiet. Be still and know . . . .” I listened, and in that silence I found a reverence for life that I hope only grows throughout the day. The quiet voice didn’t offer any startling revelations, but my basking in silence lent a kind of sacred feel to my morning. God was there. We had coffee. We sat quietly like two old friends for whom words would be a waste of effort. We silently toasted the beginning of a new day, and I felt as though the Almighty smiled at me. That stillness of that moment had created an almost “holy” space for the two of us to share. I know he was there. I long for a few more quiet moments with my Father and Friend.

Shhh . . .

Listen. . .

Was that the whisper of his voice?

Thanks for reading!  

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Monday, February 29, 2016

 

Borrowing Grace . . . Do You Hear Him?

Some recent reading prompted me to pen the following thoughts.  I am indebted to people like C. S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer for the thoughts below. They not only compelled my thinking, their writings provide the source of some of the "grace" I tend to "borrow" the most.  So, "borrowing grace" refers to receiving something of worth unexpectedly.  Here is today's "borrowed grace".

C. S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity:

The real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.

Each morning there is a voice calling to us. Do we hear it? Oh there may well be a cacophany of voices in your mind/heart! I know there often is a raucous and rowdy group of them in mine!

"Don't forget your work! Don't forget that review you promised! Don't forget to play with your children! Don't forget to read your Bible!"

The voices vie for my attention even as my mind tries to shake the cobwebs of sleep and regain some semblance of focus. I hear them every morning. As Lewis notes, they rush at me.

What voices call us away from the Voice?

Do you hear him?

God is calling--"come to me, all who are weary and I will give you rest."

"Take my burden upon you."

"All you like sheep have gone astray."

"Come to me, all who are burdened."

The imagery of coming out of the wind is a good one. Lewis reminds us to leave the wind of the voices calling us to busy-ness so that we can stop to listen to the one voice that matters.

God's call matters.

There is something about the call of God that transforms us when we hear it and respond. It isn't what we do, it is the very fact that God in his grace and kindness "called" us, spoke to us, singled us out, so to speak.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer says in The Cost of Discipleship:

The call of Jesus makes the disciple community not only the salt but also the light of the world: their activity is visible, as well as imperceptible. "You are the light." Once again it is not: "you are to be the light," they are already the light because Christ has called them. They are a light which is seen of men, they cannot be otherwise, and if they were it would be a sign that they had not been called. How impossible, how utterly absurd it would be for the disciples--these disciples, such men as these!--to try and become the light of the world! No. They are already the light and the call has made them so. Nor does Jesus say: "You have the light." The light is not an instrument which has been put into their hands, such as their preaching. It is the disciples themselves. By an amazing act of mercy, they are the light.

When God speaks, something changes. The very call to discipleship changes us.

As in the beginning when God simply spoke things into existence, his Word continues to breathe creative life into the heart of humanity (see John 1). His Word enlightens us, illuminates our dark lives, transforms us into the light of the world.

God speaks, something happens. Light comes into being. Darkness is confused, overcome, ruined.

God speaks, light breaks forth.

God calls, and we become salt and light. Every part of us becomes a testimony to the kindness of God. Every aspect of our life bleeds his kindness, his love, his grace, his mercy, his call.

God speaks, stuff happens.

Wow!

Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!

Thank you for reading!

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Sunday, January 31, 2016

 

Paul's Parting Word: Fulfill Your Ministry

This is a sermon I preached to seminary students in the Spring of 2015 in a seminary chapel.  Here is the outline of the sermon.  I am indebted to many sources for the material below, and I wanted to make sure my students understand that these notes represent my reading of other sermons, some commentaries, and lexicons/dictionaries.  I hope it is a blessing to you.  

Paul’s Parting Word:  Fulfill your Ministry!

2 Timothy 4:1-5

1. Fulfill your ministry because Jesus is coming, and when he does, he will judge. 

“His Appearing”: The word epiphaneia could be used in two special ways. It was used for the obvious intervention of some god, but it was specially used in connection with the Roman Caesar. His ascension to the throne was his epiphaneia; but it was also used to describe his visit to any city or province. When the Emperor was due to visit any place, everything was put in proper order. Streets were swept and decorated and all work was brought up-to-date so that the town might be fit for Caesar's visit. So Paul says to Timothy: “You know what happens when any town is expecting the visit of the king; you are expecting the coming of Jesus Christ. Do your work in such a way that all things will be ready whenever he appears.” So we should so order our life that at any moment we are ready for the Christ's appearing.

Paul understands that God is omnipresent and we cannot escape him or his gaze, but soon we may well be in God's presence in a more literal way. It is as if Paul cautions us to remember that God is watching us. Jesus will one day return and then there will be judgment. Some will rise to be blessed and will receive the reward due them. Perhaps most urgent, when He returns it’s too late to do his work. What a sobering charge! One day we will all face the Lord Jesus Christ as a righteous judge. We will stand before Jesus one on one, and give an account for our lives. Romans 14:12 says, "So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God." What will we have to show for our time spent on earth as believers? What will we say? Will we be able to say anything, or simply bow our heads in shame? Every generation of Christian leaders faces that same prospect!

2. Fulfill your ministry by preaching/teaching: Proclaim the message, preach the Word—Paul refers back to chapter 3:12-17 here. Paul is telling Timothy to proclaim the inspired Scripture, but it is also to proclaim the message.  What message?  The one Paul has diligently passed on to Timothy.  There is a reminder of discipleship here.  Paul is writing a letter to his disciple, his son in the faith, and it is a last word or a dying wish if you will.  He is telling Timothy, “I entrusted these things to you, now you pass them on to others.”  2 Timothy 2:2 “And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, commit to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”

A W Tozer: "I heard of one graduate of a theological school who determined to follow his old professor’s advice and preach the Word only. His crowds were average. Then one day a cyclone hit the little town and he yielded to the temptation to preach on the topic 'Why God Sent the Cyclone to Centerville.' The church was packed. This shook the young preacher and he went back to ask his professor for further advice in the light of what had happened. Should he continue to preach the Word to smaller crowds or try to fill his church by preaching sermons a bit more sensational? The old man did not change his mind. 'If you preach the Word,' he told the inquirer, 'you will always have a text. But if you wait for cyclones you will not have enough to go around.'”  

"Preach the word." The word "preach" means to herald, or proclaim publicly. Paul encourages Timothy to boldly and vigorously proclaim the Word of God. The Word of God, the Bible, Sound Doctrine, the kind of things you should be learning in seminary.  These are the things you need to entrust to others.  Let the text determine your message.  Stick to the context.  No need to try to help the text out with your own flourishes, simply let God’s Truth speak and let the Spirit convict. 

Persist in preaching the word: “in season and out of season” Verse 2 continues, "..be instant (ready and prepared) in season, out of season." It didn't matter if the time seemed favorable or not. It didn't matter if Timothy felt well or not. It didn't matter if there was a ready audience or a rebellious audience. It didn't matter if there was a big crowd or just a few. Timothy must always see himself on call, on duty, ready and prepared to serve, ready and prepared to share, the Word of God. 

Barclay says: The Christian teacher is to be urgent. The message he brings is literally a matter of life and death. The teachers who really get their message across are those who have the note of earnestness in their voice....Any man with the note of urgency in his voice demands, and will receive, a hearing from other men. The Christian teacher is to be persistent. He is to urge the claims of Christ "in season and out of season." As someone has put it: "Take or make your opportunity." 

The Greek here for “Be ready” means something like "Stand right up to it" (according to Spurgeon), be prepared, take a stand, carry on, stick to it. “In season and out” carries the idea of urgency.  We must do this urgently and at all times. We must preach when it is convenient or inconvenient, whether we feel like it or not! We should always be on duty and take advantage of every opportunity for service.

Teach with patience:  Timothy must preach the Word impartially.  We must preach to all equally. Verse 2 concludes, "..reprove, rebuke, encourage with all patience and doctrine." Timothy was to administer the Word of God as it was needed. The Word of God is described in the Bible as a fire, hammer, and a sword, and as such it has many applications! To some, it meant reproof. The word "reprove" means to correct, which involved pointing out their faults and errors. As pastor, Timothy must tell people where they have gone wrong, and what they need to do to correct it. To some it meant "rebuke." The word "rebuke" means to confront using sharp words with authority. It involves warning someone in order to prevent an action. As pastor, Timothy must not mince words when it came to turning people from sin and destructive behavior! This alone is enough to get most pastors of churches in America, fired (according to Leonard Ravenhill). If a pastor starts reproving and rebuking today, he may not last long. To some it means "exhortation" or encouragement. The word "exhort," means to comfort or encourage. Once someone is rebuked, the pastor must come along side of him or her in love, with encouraging words.

Timothy is to do all this with patience and sound teaching/doctrine. Timothy's words must be rooted and saturated with the truth of God's Word.  “Patience” here means “longsuffering” or “endurance” or some such.  The idea is that we are to fulfill our ministry of proclaiming God’s Word/Jesus with an eye toward the long haul.  This is not a sprint, it is a marathon.  Isaiah 6:11-13—"How long, Lord?" And He replied: “Until cities lie in ruins without inhabitants, houses are without people, the land is ruined and desolate, 12 and the LORD drives the people far away, leaving great emptiness in the land. 13 Though a tenth will remain in the land, it will be burned again. Like the terebinth or the oak, which leaves a stump when felled, the holy seed is the stump.” Keep proclaiming God’s message until God tells us to stop or until God finishes his work. We do not determine the “fullness of time,” that is God’s job. We should simply obey. The key to success as a disciple of Christ is simple—obey. Fulfill your ministry even if the crowds leave. 

3. Fulfill your ministry even if everyone runs from it:  Paul does not minimize our difficulties. He comes right out and warns us that we may well encounter some very frustrating conditions as we fulfill our ministry. We will attempt to make God’s Word known with all our might, and like Isaiah we will find that people aren’t really interested in that. They may find somebody who suits them better. They may complain about sound doctrine. Eventually they may also believe anything but the truth. Remember that this section of 2 Timothy comes directly after Paul's reminder that all Scripture being inspired. In other words, people may well reject the truth.  It is not always enjoyable to hear.

The phrase "itching ears" in verse 3b, speaks of people who are more interested in being titillated, excited with pleasure, than being set straight. They will seek entertainment instead of enlightenment. People will often want to hear something that is positive instead of a message that convicts or speaks truth. “Itching ears” here has the idea of “hearing” that focuses on pleasure. Like my dog loves her ears rubbed, sometimes people will not tolerate truth. They will want to have their ears rubbed. Paul tells us that Biblical teaching and preaching often involves telling people what they do not want to hear, and making demands that they do not want to follow.

4. Fulfill your ministry with a clear head, endurance, and evangelism: If we’re going to attempt this, we must be personally fit for it: Be clear headed or sober minded. Know what we may face.  Be aware of the potential problems and make up our minds to endure. We should know by now that suffering may be part of the call. Regardless, do your job in spite of these things. Yes, it really is that simple.

Stay calm, collected, and focused in all situations. Verse 5 begins, "But watch thou in all things." The word "watch" means to remain calm and collected. It has the sense of being in control or temperate. There was once a Dry Idea deodorant commercial that said, "Never let them see you sweat." Unfortunately a pastor is never afforded the luxury of losing it. He must always stay in touch with his call and the expectations of his office.  

Always be ready to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Verse 5 continues, "....do the work of an evangelist." The word "evangelist" speaks of the bearer of good news! The "good news" of course is the gospel of Jesus Christ! Timothy was to share the message of the gospel at all times with all people. Timothy's preaching must always point people to Jesus Christ! Peter Wagner gives three parts to evangelism:  Presence, Proclamation, and Persuasion. We are to be living, breathing representatives of Jesus.  Serve others in word and in deed, that is true evangelism.


So, we are called to fulfill our calling and ministry. Verse 5 concludes, ". . . make full proof (make the most) of your ministry." The apostle Paul was telling Timothy to fulfill his ministry, to do all that God had called him to do. Timothy was no Paul. There was only one Paul. Timothy was gifted differently and given a different assignment. He was to fulfill his own ministry. The same is true for us.  As my mentor Dr. Bill Lane used to say, "Never covet another person's gift, and never despise your own."  Whether we are teaching a Sunday school class, working in a small group, greeting visitors with a warm smile and welcome hand shake, or preaching to thousands, we are to fulfill our ministry in our own way and with God's guidance.  We are not to endeavor to be "like" another minister, we should strive to be like Jesus in our service to others.  We must each fulfill our own calling.  What has God called you to do?  Do it with all your might!  Complete it as a humble servant looking for his king's approval. 

This solemn charge given by Paul needs to burn within each of us as believers in Jesus Christ. We are living in the "last days." These are "perilous times." We never know just when we will be called home, or when Jesus Christ will return to catch us out. Are you committed? If Jesus returned today, would He find you faithfully and effectively serving Him? How are we doing?  What are we building for Jesus?  What is our call, and how are we doing in fulfilling it for Christ's sake?  

It may be as simple as completing the degree to which God has called you, or writing that paper, or taking that test, or loving your neighbor or spouse or child . . . it may be something like sharing the love of God with someone who has been overlooked and denigrated . . . it may simply mean doing the right thing when nobody is looking.  Whatever it is, let us hear the great apostle to the Gentiles reminding us. . . Fulfill your ministry.  Finish what he has called you to do.  Be faithful, and get it done!  

Thanks for reading! 

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Saturday, January 09, 2016

 

Beautiful Mess: Appearances can be Misleading (Genesis 29:1-30)

Several months ago I was privileged to preach at Gospel Community Church in Lynchburg, VA.  We are going through a series on the book of Genesis, and our pastor (Andrew Moroz) asked me to speak on Genesis 29:1-30.  They recorded the sermon, so if you'd like to see and hear me preach this message, follow this link:  GCC Appearances can be Misleading .  I will also post the notes I used for the sermon below.  Please feel free to comment if you'd like.  I hope this sermon is a blessing to you.

Beautiful Mess: Appearances Can Be Misleading Gen 29:1-30

Intro: The Story so far:  Pursuit of the Seed (Gen 3:15) to destroy the Serpent and Sin. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. Jacob vs. Esau. Esau is angry, so Jacob has to leave. His mom encourages him to go to her hometown and find a wife there. On the way, he “meets God” in Bethel (i.e., Jacob’s Ladder—referenced in John 1 as being Jesus himself). Now, he makes his way to Haran. 
The Fairy Tale: Once upon a time a strong prince came to a magical well where sheep were watered. The stone covering the well was so enormous it could only be moved by all the shepherds working together. The prince saw a beautiful princess at the well… she was so beautiful he fell in love at first sight, and kissed her, weeping for joy. His love was so strong it enabled him to move the enormous stone, to uncover the well, and to water her flock. They went to see the king, who was overjoyed at the love match. The end.
But appearances can be misleading.  There was once a man who loved cars.  He saw an ad for a car a Cadillac for $100, so he went to see the car.  As he looked at the car, he realized that it was worth more than $100, and said to the woman selling the car:  "Ma'am, this car is worth more than $100."  She replied, "Yes, I know that.  But what you don't know is that my husband recently left me to be with his secretary, and he called me and requested that I sell his car and send him the money.  So I am."  Appearances can be misleading.  
The Real Story . . . Jacob is not quite as noble as he pretends, the beautiful princess is not God’s intended goal, and the king is not as honest and caring as he appears.  Three points—Jacob Takes a Trip, Jacob Takes a Job, Jacob Takes a Wife

Jacob Takes a Trip (vv. 1-12)
“lifting up his feet”—he has a new spring in his step since Bethel, but has he really changed? He travels 400 miles from Bethel to Haran.  Haran is his mother’s home town, so he hopes to find family there.
The well? (Remember Rebekah’s story here). Tries to get rid of the shepherd’s kind of like a boy getting rid of his kid brother so he can have time alone. The shepherd’s don’t buy it.
Jacob is unlike his father’s servant in that he is acting on behalf of God instead of letting God act on his behalf.  Jacob is still trying to make things happen on his own terms.  He sees Rachel, and he decides to pursue her.  He doesn’t ask for God’s direction, he simply bulls his way in. 
               Jacob shows off—he moves the stone by himself (to impress Rachel?  Here Jacob acts more like Esau), he waters her sheep, and he kissed her (the first kiss recorded between cousins “kissing cousins” and the first kiss in which a man kisses a woman that is not his mother or wife).  Jacob is being a bit presumptuous, it seems, and running ahead of God.  He pursues Rachel, he does not wait on God.  
               It appears here that Jacob may be casting off conventions in an effort to make a good impression. He is actually the despised son of his father, a man who cheated to get what he wanted from his brother, and a man who is even now trying to “help God out” in fulfilling the promise.  Jacob is not yet broken, he still thinks he can “fix” things.  Fresh off of his radical experience at Bethel and after hearing God’s promise, Jacob doesn’t humble himself and seek God’s guidance.  As usual, Jacob wades into the situation with his self-confidence in tow and tries to help God complete the promise.  Proud Jacob sees Rachel and decides to claim his territory without even asking if that is what God intended! 
               How are we like Jacob?  Where have we heard the promise of God about our situation or lives and yet keep trying to “help” God out? 

Appearances can be misleading—The manipulator tries to be a hero, but he is still manipulating

Jacob Takes a Job (vv. 13-20)
After Jacob introduces himself to Rachel, she runs to get her father.  Laban in turn runs to meet this young man.  Do you think Jacob made an impression on Rachel?  The fact that his mother’s family are running to meet him would indicate that the old Jacob charm was still working.  Of course, giving what we learn about Laban later, it may just mean that Laban thought he had a “sucker” on the line. 
“Kiss” and tell—Jacob receives a customary greeting and shares his story.  Does he tell all? Including the details of his trickery to his brother and father? Laban’s response “You are my own flesh and blood” could warn of issues to come.  We could hear these words as Laban’s ringing endorsement of his nephew. Or… maybe there the tiniest hint of warning. If Laban is perfectly suited to his nephew, might that mean that the deceiver has at last met his match? Time will tell—Appearances can be misleading.
Lonely Jacob finds a welcome place, a place to call home. For one month he enjoys hospitality and rest. He got to know Rachel better, and Laban got to see what kind of suitor/employee Jacob may be. This month brought both Laban and Jacob to the conclusion that a continuing relationship between them could be of mutual advantage.  But, appearances can be misleading, and the month-long vacation may be about to end as we move to the next scene.
Laban makes a proposition, and Jacob offers a counter.
Lackluster Leah vs Ravishing Rachel-- Please note the irony here: Laban has two daughters—an older one named Leah and a younger one named Rachel.  Jacob has an older brother too, remember their relationship?  Esau lost everything a first born could hope for, and he lost most of it by means of Jacob’s manipulation. Rachel and Esau were desirable, but Leah and Jacob not so much. “Cow” and “delicate” eyes versus “Ewe” and shapely beauty. Jacob chooses beauty over character. 7 years of labor=over $200,000 today.
Breaking convention yet again, Jacob responds to Laban’s proposition with a counter-offer, and both men think that they will win.  Appearances can be misleading, and this seven year engagement will not end exactly as Jacob plans!

Appearances can be misleading—What looks like help, may really be deception

Jacob Takes a Wife (and gets Taken) (vv. 21-30): The big day arrives.  After seven years of labor, 364 weeks, 2,555 days, Jacob goes to Laban and demands his pay!  “Give me my wife!”  Jacob may well have had this day marked on his calendar, the day the woman he loved enough to work for her for 7 years would finally become his wife . . . the beautiful romance will finally be fulfilled.  Most couples today wouldn’t wait 7 days to have sex, but Jacob has waited 7 years (and worked hard during that time) just so he can marry the woman he desires.  He wants to be paid. Laban calls a feast—but this won’t end well for Jacob. His emotion is boundless, his excitement is off the charts. He is finally getting the beautiful woman he desires! Jacob is focused, and after the proper amount of feasting, he heads to the marriage tent. But remember, appearances can be misleading.   Things are not as they seem.
Laban has replaced Rachel with Leah. We aren’t sure exactly why the switch is made (except for Laban’s excuse later). Perhaps Laban realized he could get more free labor out of Jacob? Greed could be the motive. On the other hand, imagine how the women here may have felt. Why did they go along with their father? Were they victims or participants? Was their competition between the two for Jacob (next week’s sermon)?
Jacob is deceived, but how did he not figure this out—the wedding veil and the alcohol may have contributed. The darkness of the tent may have been a factor. Remember, appearances can be misleading. In the dark, Leah may seem a lot like Rachel. (Jesus calls us to walk in the light).
Imagine the next morning. Jacob wakes up, light is streaming into the tent. He rolls over to kiss Rachel, and “Look! It’s Leah!” I can imagine he jumped five feet into the air, wrapped a blanket around him, and said, “What are you doing here?” I wish that conversation had been included. Jacob grabs his robe and heads to confront his father-in-law about the change in wages! What is this you’ve done? Why have you deceived me?
What irony that Jacob should repeat almost the identical words of Pharaoh to Abraham (12:18) and almost the same expression of Abimelech to Abraham (20:9) and Abimelech to Isaac (26:10).  Interestingly, the Hebrew verb translated “deceived” is cognate to the noun used in 27:35 to describe Jacob’s deception of Esau. Jacob is discovering what goes around comes around.  The deceiver is deceived. The trickster is tricked. The younger brother who supplanted the older brother finds that the younger sister whom he loves has been supplanted by her older sister, to his great dismay. And now it is Jacob’s turn to suffer.
Laban had a response (older marries first), but note the irony. Jacob had dishonored the principle of the firstborn by cheating his brother out of the birthright and the blessing. Now God forces him to honor the principle he had violated by marrying Leah first. And who had Jacob deceived? His father, Isaac. Now the deceiver is deceived by his father-in-law! Everything that goes around comes around.  Laban is going to change Jacob’s life forever. Up until this point, Jacob has lived by his wits. He has survived by relying on his native intelligence and his shrewd ability to take care of himself in any situation. Now, he finds himself agreeing to another seven years of labor for his love for Rachel.  Appearances can be misleading—the happy wedding day has turned into a bit of a disaster.
God trains Jacob by allowing him to meet his own sins in someone else. Now he knows what Esau felt when he was tricked out of something that was precious to him. Jacob is being made to see just how despicable his tricky ways are. It is all a part of the training in his life. If Jacob hadn’t stolen Esau’s blessing and had patiently waited for God’s intervention and timing, he would have had the financial resources to acquire Rachel immediately, rather than having to invest 14 years of his life, laboring for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Lesson: Taking short cuts and failing to trust God is costly! What a heavy price sin requires! Galatians 6:7 says, “Be not deceived; God is not mocked. Whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.” Jacob has been sowing for a long, long time. Reaping day has come. He’s been sowing the seeds of deceit, and the harvest is about to come.  Jacob is deceived, yes, but he is also receiving God’s discipline (cf. Hebrews 12).
The story of Genesis is the quest for the “seed” to destroy the work of the serpent and the sin that came as a result.  Abraham receives a promise that his descendants would bless the nations.  Isaac carries the same promise (as does his son Jacob).  While Jacob looked to ravishing Rachel for the fulfillment of that promise, it will actually be lackluster Leah through whom God provides the seed.  Of the many children Leah produces for Jacob, two of them are named Judah and Levi.  From Levi the children of Israel will find a model prophet/leader named Moses.  From Judah they will receive a model king/leader named David.  These two men become the models for the future Messiah who will be known as a prophet, priest, and King.  Oh, and it is through Judah that Jesus is born according to human lineage. 
Appearances can be misleading—What looks like a problem may actually be a blessing

Leah is actually God’s provision (Things are not always as they seem)

Conclusion— We must remember that appearances can be misleading.  What we think are negative things may in fact be positive things.  While those things we sometimes cherish may turn out to be not as precious as we thought.  In fact, they may turn out to be stumbling stones for us.  The invisible or overlooked things in our lives may well be the vessels through which God provides the teaching and the lessons we need to become the children of God he intends us to be.
1) Make sure what you cherish is genuinely precious: Jacob loved Rachel, and his love for her is evident. Nonetheless, it was through Leah that the world would be blessed, and Jacob later realized that when he was buried next to Leah and honored her. What are the beautiful things we try to grasp? Are they really important to our lives spiritually, or do they just get our attention because they are flashy and pretty? Do we need to repent about putting too much faith in things that are not that precious?
2) What is overlooked may be vessels of grace: Jacob overlooked Leah, and she was the vessel of grace. Pay attention to the “overlooked” things in our lives. We may find a blessing there. God sometimes works out godly character in hard situations (Romans 5:3-4). God also will sometimes use weakness to reveal his strength. Or he will work through our weakness to show himself great (1 Cor 1:26-31).  

Appearances can be misleading

Application—1) Evaluate your situation: Are we trying to manipulate your situations? Are we trying to help God out? Where are we pretending to be a hero when we are not? Where are we trusting what looks good instead of seeking God’s guidance?  How are we like Jacob here?
 2) Value those who are overlooked: Who in our world needs attention?  Maybe we are the invisible and overlooked Leah, where do we go? Proverbs reminds us that to have friends we must be friends. Look around, and see who is “hidden” or “overlooked,” we may find a blessing. Remember, things are not always what they seem.
3) Accept God’s help/guidance: we must quit trying to be boss and let him lead. Where do we need God’s guidance? Where do we need his help? Will we be bold enough today to step out of our invisibility and come to the front of this building to say we are turning to him? Will we repent of putting our faith in what looks good on earth, and start looking for our help from God?

Thanks for reading!  

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Friday, December 25, 2015

 

The Mystery of Christmas--My Annual Christmas Post

Hey y'all:

I started this blog years ago, and every year I have posted a piece I wrote around Christmas 2003. It kind of sums up for me what is the "Mystery of Christmas" as I meditate on the Incarnation and its implications for humanity (and perhaps for God as well!). The very idea of God becoming "one of us among us" (Immanuel) still fascinates and overwhelms me. God, the creator of all things, humbled himself, became of no reputation, and entered his own creation so as to renew and to redeem us (and, ultimately, to do these things for all of creation as well). God, the Creator of all things, became flesh so that he might accomplish the plan to make his grace and glory known in humans and in all of creation. The God who never knew death would die for us. The God who never knew sin would become sin for us. He would break the power of sin, condemn sin in his own flesh, and provide for all of us the victory needed to be the people God always intended us to be.  What amazing love! Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift! As you celebrate the first advent of our King Jesus the Messiah, I hope you enjoy this rerun. Feel free to make comments if you'd like.
A little over 2000 years ago, a tiny child was born in some pretty bleak conditions. Oh, he wasn’t the only one born in a bad state. In fact, in some ways, he was one of the lucky ones. He and his mother actually survived childbirth and thrived. Still, this story is unique and amazing on several levels.

First, this child would literally change the way time is reckoned in the world. His life and abilities would so impress generations of others that a brand new movement would be created, one that would radically change the very face of the earth (sometimes for good, sometimes not). His name would become recognized among the names of the greatest of humans, yet he never forgot his humble beginnings or lost a sense of who he was.

The second thing about this child is tied to the first in that this baby, this helpless lad full of spittle and mush, was born as the very Son of God. When Mary held his little head to her breast, he drank human milk. Yet, he was (and is) the God of the universe. Can you picture this simply ridiculous yet somehow poetic scene? God, who calls the stars by name, pressed to the human breast for sustenance. Humble yet awesome, is how some folks would no doubt recall this child.

A little over 2000 years ago, God proposed that the only remedy for the human condition of sin would be if he humbled himself, stepped out of eternity and into human flesh, and suckled at Mary’s breast in preparation for the greatest, most impressive conversion of all. God, in Mary’s arms, toddling around Joseph’s home, learning to talk, learning to walk, tasting and touching things with human hands! As the Psalmist says in Psalm 139, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for us, we cannot contain it!”

God knew that the only way to redeem us was if he did it himself. Haven’t you ever had that thought? You know, the one where you say, “If I want something done right, I’ll just have to do it myself?” Imagine God having that thought about bringing us to proper relationship with him. Imagine again that the only way he knew he could do that is if he came to earth as a baby. Think of it—-how vulnerable the almighty God was at that moment, how paradoxical that the God of all creation had to learn to walk! And why did he put himself in this situation? Out of his divine sense of justice and righteousness and mercy, out of his inexpressible love for each of us he acted in this manner.

God humbled himself.  In a sense, he took on our insanity so that we may be sane. He became flesh so that we might walk in his Spirit. He became sin that we might be righteous. He became poor so that we might be rich. He who had the reputation of Creator became a humble servant with no reputation. He became a toddling, dribbling, helpless babe so that we could become mature humans in the image of the almighty Son of God. What wondrous love! What humility and service! How then can anything he asks of us be too difficult?

Lord, in this Christmas season, remind us of your sacrifice and love so that we might be a light shining in darkness to others. Teach us to live a life of humble service like your Son did on our behalf so many years ago. As we celebrate the babe in the manger, may the glory he revealed in his life shine through us towards others that they may know God. May the grace of God and the peace of Christ rule in our families and our lives.

Thanks for reading!

Merry Christmas!  May you know the blessings of the God who humbled himself and served! 

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Monday, December 21, 2015

 

No Reputation: The "Gift" of Christmas

A few years ago I posted this little meditation on Christmas, and as I read through it today I realized that I needed to hear it again.  It is easy in our society today to be a bit too full of ourselves, to think a bit more highly of ourselves than we ought,  . . . but I am quickly coming to the conclusion that that is not the Spirit of Christmas, and it certainly was NOT the Spirit of Christ.  Bear with me, if you will, while I contemplate what it means to have no reputation as a follower of Christ.  

Philippians 2:5-8 HCSB

"Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage.  Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death-- even to death on a cross."

This passage may not usually be associated with Christmas, but for some reason that is how it comes to me this year. Look closely at the passage above, then read the quote from The Jesus Style by Gayle D. Erwin below.

“Christ Jesus . . . made himself nothing.

 “He made himself nothing, he emptied himself—-the great kenosis. He made himself no reputation, no image.

 “I can recall my father shaking his head and repeating over and over to himself, ‘If only I knew what this meant. There is something powerful here. If I only understood it.’ Maybe that is why this Scripture has glued itself to my mind and equally disturbs me. Reputation is so important to me. I want to be seen with the right people, remembered in the right light, advertised with my name spelled right, live in the right neighborhood, drive the right kind of car, wear the right kind of clothing. But Jesus made himself of no reputation.”

Christmas in America means lots of things to lots of different people.

For some it becomes a political event that pits “the true meaning of Christmas” against the bias against religion. For others Christmas is just another time to visit families and to pretend to get along with each other. For others Christmas is a season that involves incredible profits (or expenses) and lots of activities. This year some may see Christmas as a bleak season filled with bad news and the dread of a new year. For still others Christmas is simply a winter break, a time to regroup for a new year.

I know I’ve left a large group out! There are those who see Christmas as the celebration of the birth of the world’s Savior and the Incarnation of God. I want to twist the prism a bit and look at Christmas from a different angle.

Almost all of the views above look at Christmas from the perspective of what humans gain from the season. I wonder if we can look at the season as something we can offer to others, a gift of sorts. I wonder, can we make a gift of Christmas? Can we this year find a way to give the "spirit" of Christmas to those around us?

Hear me out . . .

This passage from Philippians reminds me that Christmas for Jesus wasn’t about what he would gain.  In fact, he lost just about everything! He left the comfort of his Father’s place, he became a tottering, dribbling little baby, he had to learn to talk, to walk, to eat, he left his riches behind for the starkness of a feeding trough, and ultimately he would even become sin and die for humanity even though he was innocent.  Remember, dead and sin were two things he had never experienced before in his eternal existence. 

As Paul says, he made himself of no reputation.

Imagine what Christmas would be like this year if those of us who follow Jesus would do as Paul admonishes here and have this approach to the season. Imagine if we actually attempted to have the same attitude towards others that Jesus has towards us! What would Christmas look like if we didn’t care about what we got out of it but became more concerned about what we could give to others? How would our world change if we laid down our lives . . . our reputations . . . our desires in order to bless others this Christmas? What if we even went further and did it anonymously, with no expectation of reward or recognition?

Ronald Reagan is credited with the saying “There is no telling what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” We don’t like that approach though, do we? We kick against it! I mean, we deserve to be recognized, don’t we?

You came up with the idea that made the company money, shouldn’t you be rewarded? Maybe you found a problem and fixed it, and that fix saved someone’s job. Shouldn’t you be shown gratitude? Maybe you did some kindness for someone you knew couldn’t pay you back, shouldn’t you get credit for that? You gave that money to charity, shouldn't someone say "thank you"? You gave of your time to that charitable organization, shouldn't there be some "benefit" in it for you?

Don’t we all think that we should be center stage, center of the world, the most important person in the world? How many times have you heard “I quit going to that church because MY needs weren’t being met”?

No reputation.

Let that sink in.

NO Reputation!

No fame, no credit, no automatic acceptance, no celebrities, and no place where who you know or what you know earns you admittance or recognition.  That requires true humility!

Jesus made himself of no reputation; he humbled himself. The very God of the universe became nobody. He emptied himself, he became a servant. As Isaiah said, he was not handsome or attractive in such a way as to draw attention to himself. He lived to give attention only to God. Jesus was truly humble.  He had "no reputation."   

Ouch!

We love our awards, the acceptance of others, the glamor of being “somebody,” or the wonderful happiness of fame, don’t we? We like to be recognized, remembered, acknowledged, accepted, and celebrated.

“Don’t neglect me” of "It's all about me" could be the slogans of many in our society.

The motto of Christ followers should be “No reputation.” God chooses such people to further his agenda. Will we be involved, or do we like our perks too much?

In Job 1, Satan appears in God's court. God acknowledges the good job done by Job, and asks Satan if he has noticed what a righteous person Job has become. Satan's response is a tough challenge: "Does Job fear God for nothing?"

Think about what the evil one is implying here. He is asking, "Will a human serve God with no expectation of something in return?"

Will humans serve God for nothing?

That hurts, doesn't it? Even the mere thought of it as a possibility smarts a bit. Surely the mighty God of the universe wouldn't expect me to show him respect and serve his purposes without expectation of payment for services rendered, right?

Can we humble ourselves to the point where we realize that God owes us nothing? Quite literally, we have done nothing to merit a reward from him. Even our service is a response to his continued mercy.

Will we, like Christ, humble ourselves to the point of no reputation? Are we willing to be "nobodies" in God's service, among his people, even among those who ought to "recognize" us?

What would Christmas look like this year if we (all of us) decided to give with no expectation of return? What if we humbled ourselves and expected no acknowledgment? What if we chose to serve anonymously and to bless others without receiving a blessing in return? What would happen?

What can you do this Christmas season that will bless others and garnish no reputation for you? Who can you serve that can't repay you? This year let's commit ourselves to serving, giving, and loving as Christ did. Let's look for opportunities to bless others in a way that does not give us recognition.  Instead of asking for things for ourselves, let's give to the needs of others. Instead of expecting gifts, let's give our lives away in blessing others.

How would that change Christmas in your neighborhood?

Thanks for reading!

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