Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Set Free

Do you ever find yourself occasionally longing for another time or place in your life?  A time when you recall certain things or circumstances with fondness, and you have a desire to return there, if only for a moment?  I know that I do.

For me some of these longings include a time with my children or a particular scene on a vacation. And in all honesty, in my case more often than not these longings involve running.  I'll be out on my run and find my mind wandering back to a particular day and I long to be able to run at a certain pace again, or to re-live a particular competitive moment.  Those days are, as they say, in the history books.  I might recall them fondly but there is no going back.

When I was a new Christian I used to look back on some of my sins that way.  Sure, I had learned that I shouldn't do them because God said so, but they felt so good!  It hardly seemed right that something that delighted me in a particular way should have to be left at the wayside.  Turns out that for God's people this is a way of looking at things that is very old, and likely very common.

I was reading from Exodus and the Hebrews were in a tough spot.  They were fleeing from slavery in Egypt and reached the Red Sea, a seemingly impassable barrier.  Faced with the sea in front, they also know that the army of Egypt is chasing them and closing in from behind.  And so in this predicament the people cry out to Moses, saying:

"What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt?  Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: "Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians'?  For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness."

The Hebrew people see the choice starkly.  Serve as slaves or die in the wilderness.  What they have lost track of is the fact that they are God's chosen people and that they are in the wilderness because He is leading them there.  In a moment of crisis they long for the familiarity of slavery. 

But the thing is that God loves them too much to let them remain as slaves.  He is leading them to freedom.  The road may be bumpy but He is, as they say, "driving the bus."

This God, the One True God, is doing the same thing today.  He is reaching into the lives of His children, snatching them from slavery to sin, and setting them free.  And I might add that He does this without asking anyone's permission.

As a person grows as a Christian they learn that those "good old days," separated from Christ and oblivious to that fact, weren't so good.  They learn that those sins that felt so good weren't just an illusion.  They were a delusion.

As a child of God, know that God loves you too much to let you stay in slavery to sin.  He has set you free in Christ and He is taking you to an infinitely better destination.  The road may be rough at times but nothing will compare to the joy you'll know when you arrive.  Amen.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Are You Offended?

"And blessed is the one who is not offended by me."

We live in a society where it seems easier and easier to be offended by someone or something.  This seems to be especially true, or at least very apparent, in politics.  If the politician representing group A says virtually anything then the people in Group B are instantly outraged. And vice versa.  Offense and outrage are present in the church too, something Jesus was quite clear about in Luke 7:23.  But Jesus was also clear in noting that it was he himself who was the source of offense, stating that it you weren't offended by him then you were blessed.

And what is it about Jesus that is so offensive?  To understand that in Luke's gospel we have to go back to Luke 5:32, where Jesus said:

"I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance."

In a world that so very much does not want to draw lines in the sand about anything controversial, Jesus draws lines that are firm and in which a person is either on one side or the other.  People need to see that they are sinners who need to repent before God.  People will be offended by Jesus or they will be blessed by him.

Throughout all the Gospels Jesus is direct in speaking about human sin and what sinners are called to do about it.  They are called to see their sin for what it is, as being something offensive to God, and then to turn from it and turn towards God.  This is repentance.

The problem comes when we don’t see the things we do for what they are.  We want to say that they really aren't that bad; that everyone else is doing them; or that it is someone else who is doing really bad things and not us.  We excel at making excuses, but Jesus will have nothing to do with our excuses.  Look at God on the one hand and your sin on the other, and choose which way you will turn.  

It is in our response to those words where we find the point at which Jesus becomes personally offensive or not.  Will we just ignore him and go about our business?  Or will we see that he speaks the greatest truth that the world has ever heard?  It is when we are not offended by the news that we are sinners in desperate need of a savior and turn towards him that we begin to understand what it means to be blessed.

The words of Jesus are not always easy for us to accept, but they are always for our good.  Don't be offended when he calls you a sinner, for he also points you towards your only hope, in that he is a beautiful, merciful and perfect Savior.  Amen.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Chicken Little and Pink Floyd

This week I made an overnight trip to Denver for work.  I drove up on Monday afternoon, took care of some business for the church Tuesday morning and then came home in the afternoon.  I worked in a few errands along the way and logged about 700 miles round trip.

We have two basic choices when driving to Denver, with each option taking us through some beautiful country.  Either route takes us from the San Juan mountains, through the Sangre de Cristo mountains and ends along the Front Range.  I took the same route both ways and the major natural landmarks of my trip were Archuleta Mesa, the Cumbres and La Manga passes, Blanca Peak, La Veta pass, Spanish Peaks and Pike's Peak.

I can easily drive for hours in the relative quiet of the car but on the way to Denver I decided to listen to the radio.  Find a station and listen for a while.  When reception gets bad then hunt for another one. That randomness made for an interesting listening experience. 

For a while I listened to a talk show that had a particular perspective on current American politics.  When that show ended I decided to look for something different, stumbling upon another talk show, from the other side.  Somewhat curiously, both the show aligned with the party in political power and the show from the other side seemed to agree on one key, but unspoken point: THE SKY IS FALLING!

And yet, while driving through the mountains and plains for nearly six hours, the sky seemed just as beautiful and fixed as ever, as did the mountains and plains.

I changed radio stations again and soon heard, what was to my ears, something that was instantly recognizable.  One of those songs that indentifies itself unmistakably within the first two notes.  In this case it was "Wish You Were Here" by Pink Floyd.  I'm not a huge Pink Floyd fan but the song came out just three months after I graduated from high school, nearly 42 years ago, and I did listen to them quite a bit back in those days.

Forty-two years, or seven US presidents ago, when Gerald Ford held that office.  Since then there have certainly been many domestic and international crises, and many genuine tragedies, but at no time was there anything that was truly cataclysmic within our borders.  How unexpected that a Pink Floyd song would serve as a marker of how little things have changed, despite all panicked claims to the contrary. 

This week I am preaching from Mark 15:33-47, which includes what I would hold to be one half of the single most important moment in world history, the death-and-resurrection of Jesus.  Verse 37 says:

"And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last."

A day is certainly coming when for some people it may appear as if the sky is literally falling.  That day will mark the return of the Lord Jesus Christ, in power and glory.  Those of us who know and love him will welcome his return, and those who don’t know him will have quite a different reaction.

As Christians let us be people who live in these days and respond to the issues of our time in ways that serve Jesus well, whether our responses are social, political, cultural or theological.  Let us be people who understand the difference between time and eternity, and may our responses ultimately help others to come to love Jesus in time, so that they can enjoy him for eternity.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Big Things, Small Things

Does your mind wander while you pray?  Mine certainly does.  Some of the times that I spend in prayer are fairly structured and some of them are not. 

I expect the unstructured time to be a bit random and wandering.  These are the times when it just suddenly seems like time to pray.  Something comes to mind, a person or perhaps a situation, followed by the thought of praying over it, and so off I go.

But there is another part to what might be called my prayer life that is more structured.  Spend some time reading from the Bible and then spend some time in prayer. Those times will often include prayer connected to whatever passage I was reading, plus some of the more regular concerns that I keep in prayer, such as for my family and prayer requests that I have received from our church. 

This morning there was an overlap of sorts between the prayer of a structured and unstructured variety. I had had my more ordinary structured time of prayer and then had a bit of time before meeting someone for breakfast.  It occurred to me that I should pray over the time I would be spending with my friend, that it would be time used by God for His purposes, and that I during the time my friend and I would be together that God would show me how best to serve Him.

In a sense, that is a 'big thing' prayer, to put myself out to God that He would use me powerfully within the life of someone else.  But in the midst of that prayer two other thoughts came to mind, two relatively minor things that were distractions that I was hoping to get resolved today.  Two 'small things.'

Then came a flash of insight!  Instead of trying to toss those concerns off to the side, where they would likely quickly clamor for attention again, I lay them before the Lord, and moved back to my original prayer. 

God invites us to bring all of our requests to Him in prayer.  That certainly isn’t the only way we should pray, but doing so is completely biblical.  As a pastor I think my default is to lean towards the big things, that is the things that carry eternal significance and the things that nearly anyone would think are important.  

But the small things matter too, and so God's people can feel as free in lifting the small things to Him as they do the big things.

As today draws to a close both of those small things were resolved, and I can’t even recall anymore what one of them was.  I do know that in praying for them I  was no longer concerned about them, which in its own way was an answer to my prayer.  And answered prayer should result in more prayer, this time in thanks and praise.  Amen.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Stories and Storytellers

I just finished reading a novel by one of the best-selling authors in America.  I had never read any of his work before but when I saw a book of his for sale for 25 cents on the used book rack at the hospital…well how could I pass that opportunity by? 

It turned out to be okay.  Neither exceptional nor barely palatable, but someplace in the middle.  The basic story had great potential but much was lacking in the way it was written, both the turns of plot as well as the author's style.  He had written very short chapters, usually 2-3 pages, making it easy to pause one's reading but also breaking the narrative unnecessarily.  I chanced to see a current book of his at the grocery store this afternoon and noticed the same pattern.  It must just be his style.

Last summer I read a book by another of America's premier writers, this one no longer among the living.  A writer of a sterling reputation, whose work I had not read to that point in my life read.  A volume found on the used book rack of the library for 25 cents…how could I pass that opportunity by?

This author had also taken a story with great potential, but he did amazing things with it.  The contrast stands even more starkly when I consider that the central theme of each story was the same.  A great storyteller can find treasure in a puddle of mud, but a great story in the hands of a great story teller is something that is absolutely marvelous.

I know of people who have their favorite books and they go back and read them again and again.  Just this week I heard of a pastor who has a particular book that he has been reading for about 50 years.  Whenever he finishes he just starts all over again.  I don’t believe he is reading only that book, but that he is regularly picking it up to read a page or two.  I even have that book among my collection and finished it early last year.  An outstanding book…but I have other things of a similar sort that I would not get to if I was continually mining that one particular treasure. 

And yet there is one particular book that I am re-reading, again and again, and that is my Bible.  I'm following a plan that has me read the New Testament and Psalms twice each year, and the remainder of the Old Testament once each year.  It is my third year on this particular plan.  I read of a pastor who followed it for 50 years, which I thought was a good example for me to follow for as many years as God has me preach, and probably afterwards too. 

One of the curious things that has happened as I follow this particular plan, especially when reading from the Old Testament, is that I find myself thinking, with a touch of sadness, that I likely won't read that particular section again for another year. 

But a better thing that has been happening is that as I read and see a familiar passage, or see something new and precious that I don’t recall noticing before, is that I find my love for the both the story, and the Storyteller, growing.

The Bible is the perfect match of story and storyteller.  It is the single greatest story told by the single greatest Storyteller.  I'll admit that some parts of the Bible can be mysterious, some parts can be confusing and hard to read, but so much of it is pure gold.  Pages that one longs to keep turning to see what happens next.  Sentences, or even phrases, that one lingers over, reading and re-reading...pondering...before moving on. 

Whatever else you may be reading, make the Bible the one book that you regularly pick up and read.  A singularly compelling story, told by the Master Storyteller.  Don't let the opportunity pass you by. 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Me? My Feet?

I want to begin at one of my frequent stepping off places, something I read in the Bible that seemed to jump off the page at me.  I was reading the closing of Paul's letter to the Romans, where he writes this in verses 19-20:

" For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you."

In these final words of warning and encouragement Paul includes the somewhat startling fact that the Roman believers themselves will defeat Satan, using an image drawn from hand-to-hand combat, crushing him with their very feet.

Satan, the great and powerful enemy of God.  That he will one day go down to defeat, and not just a temporary setback but an ending that will have no end, should not be a surprise to Christians.  The Bible frequently gives witness to this fact, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly.  But Christians clearly understand that this final defeat of God's enemy will come at the hand of God Himself. 

But still…Paul's words…they seem to be spoken in a very clear way.  Perhaps they are meant like this:

I open my Bible and read.  I read God's good news on every page.

I fold my hands and pray.  I lift up praise.  I confess sin.  I give thanks.  I seek help.

All of these things, as acts of faith, are direct attacks on the enemies of God, chief of whom we often call Satan.  He is powerless in the presence of faith in God. It is as if he was on the ground and my acts of faith are my feet, choking off his breath.

Me?  My feet?  Apparently so. 

And by faith in Jesus, yours too.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Critical Difference

This week I did some reading from the book of Job.  One of the thoughts that comes to mind when I think about Job is his friends, who sit with him as he suffers and then begin to offer him their wisdom.  I have this default idea that the "wisdom" of his friends is not really wise and that perhaps Job would understand his circumstances, and the God who is always present in them, if his friends would just keep their mouths shut and let him grieve and process things on his own time.

That is kind of my default about Job's friends, but on closer examination it just isn’t true, at least not all of the time.  Sometimes when Job's friends speak, everyone should listen. I saw that this week as I read Job 4:17, where his friend Eliphaz says:

"Can mortal man be in the right before God? 
  Can a man be pure before his Maker?"

Whoa!  We can read Job's story and think that God has acted beyond what is reasonable in allowing the tragedy that has come upon Job and his family.  Or closer to home we can think that perhaps God doesn’t really understand something that is going on in our lives or in the world.  God should have intervened sooner. God should have understood how hard this season of life really is.  God should not be absent as so many things are piling up on me.  It is so easy for us to think that in all things we know a bit better than God and that maybe he should check for our advice before doing whatever it is he will be doing next.

But Eliphaz grasps that there is a fundamental difference, a clear and unambiguous distinction, between Creator and created.  And that difference should guide the way that we approach God, no matter what are circumstance are. 

The song may say with a measure of truth "I am a friend of God" but he is not the kind of friend we joke around with at school or work.  First and foremost God is, was, and always will be God.  Therefore our approach to him should always have reverence for who He is, which is as Eliphaz noted, has a purity that on our best days on earth we will never come close to having. 

This is Job's God, who loves him in the midst of tragedy that defies human understanding. May you know and love Him as your God too.  Amen.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.