Tuesday, October 16, 2012

New Heart, New Engine

     Hearing an excellent message at our recent District Conference by Jonathan Shively, director of Congregational Life Ministries for our denomination, got me thinking. His message was on Pentecost (the theme for our Conference), but it was his sharing of background that caused me to store some thoughts in my head even as I enjoyed the remainder of his message.
     Jonathan reminded me (and us) that Pentecost (or the Feast of Weeks, as it was known to the Jews) was not only a celebration of harvest, but a time to remember the giving of the Law. What, then, would be the connection between the Law of Moses given on Mount Sinai and the gift of the Holy Spirit to God's church?
     The promise of the coming New Covenant, found in Jeremiah 31:33 and following, gives us the first clue, when the prophet writes: "This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people." So the motivation to please God will now come from within.
     Ezekiel weighs in on this in Chapter 36, verses 25-27. This is God speaking through His prophet. "I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep My laws."
     We each need a new heart, in order to truly obey God's Law. Why? The Bible says that we have a fundamental glitch in our system (we call it sin, the natural born instinct to reject God and all of His ways, and to seek to run our own lives). It's like a car being out of alignment. You can stay on the road if you grip the wheel, but the natural bent is to drift toward the ditch. Society exhorts us to drive straight and curb our endless struggles, but it's a losing battle - until we come to Christ. This is somewhat like getting a front-end alignment The pull toward the ditch is corrected from the inside. Sure, there will still be bumps and potholes that will try to jar us off the road. Temptations and challenges will always call us to be alert to steer a straight course - and we dare not fall asleep at the wheel. But the basic skew in the moral mechanism has been repaired. We have been born again and given a new heart. Indeed, we cannot obey God's laws from the heart until the heart is made new.
     So when Jesus spoke that night to Nicodemus, He told him of the need for a new birth, an alignment, if you will. When Nicodemus missed the point and took Jesus literally (as so many did), Jesus said, "You are Israel's teacher and do not understand these things?" (John 3:10) And I believe that in the back of Jesus'mind were Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36. "Don't you understand, Nicodemus, that you need a new heart with God's law written on it, before you can truly love the Lord your God with all heart, soul, mind, and strength? And that's what I have come to give you, if you will receive the gift, bought through my blood that will be shed on the cross and validated by my resurrection that will follow."
     Therefore, it was the most natural thing in the world for God to send the Holy Spirit during the Feast of the Celebration of the Law, because now the Spirit would write that Law on new hearts, which would be careful to and would desire to follow it. So how does this work?
     One more car analogy. Some years ago, when I pastored in Indiana, PA, I had the privilege of hearing Juan Carlos Ortiz speak at the nearby Graystone Presbyterian Church. He gave an illustration that night which I still remember, using as his text - guess what? - Ezekiel 36.
     He pointed out that under the hood of the car is a powerful engine. You can get into the driver's seat, buckle your seat belt, turn the ignition on and gun the engine - but you're still not going anywhere until you put the car into gear and put your foot on the gas pedal, at which point all the power under the hood becomes available to you to move forward.
     Do you want to follow Christ? Do you want to please Him? Then decide to obey and step out in faith. When you do, all the resident power of the Holy Spirit within you will be available to help you to do what you want to do. Real freedom is not the freedom to do whatever we want. Real freedom is the freedom to do what we know pleases the Lord. We did not have that freedom until we received a new heart through the new birth. Now with our alignment repaired, we can put on the gas and trust the power of the Holy Spirit to propel us forward in our walk with Christ.
     "He is the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything He might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him ...in Him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." (Colossians 1:19-19; 2:3). So let's drive on like this is true.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Faithful with His Treasure

     "This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed." (1 Corinthians 4:1)
     In Luke 19, Jesus told a parable on the eve of His triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of the last week of his earthly life. The NIV calls it the Parable of the Minas; older versions call it the Parable of the Pounds.
     Context is everything in Bible study and interpretation. The context here is that Jesus had just given the purpose statement of His life after the transformation of the tax collector, Zacchaeus: He had come to seek and to save the lost. That was not the purpose His disciples and many others had for Him. I am reminded of a comical statement I heard a while back regarding the work of pastors: God loves you, and everybody else has a wonderful plan for your life!
     Everyone else was expecting Him to declare Himself King and drive the cursed Romans out of Israel and then bring in a new era for the nation. And now Passover was at hand, and they were only 17 miles from Jerusalem, where it would all take place. Now the disciples should have known better. Jesus had already declatred to them three times that He would be betrayed, mocked, tortured, and killed, only to rise again on the third day. But then, the twelve were never known for their mental and spiritual acumen on this issue.
     And so Jesus told the parable. There are three specific groups He mentioned in the story, but that part of it is for another time. I want to focus here on the minas themselves. (A mina represented about three months' wages, a fairly healthy sum in those days.) What do they represent? The key to understanding this is to not confuse it with a similar parable He told the twelve later that week on the Mount of Olives. We know it as the Parable of the Talents, found in Matthew 25. There are a lot of things that overlap between these two stories, but there is at least one significant difference: in the latter parable, each person received different amounts to signify the different gifts we get from the Lord for service (Romans 12:6). But in Luke 19, each servant receives the same gift, and the same amount. Now both stories talk about faithfulness with what we have been given, but I still believe our Lord had a different point to make in each.
     If the talents in Matthew 25 speak of our gifts and abilities, the minas speak of something else we have each been given. I checked out a number of commentators, pastors, and scholars, and for the most part, they agree, and I agree with them. The minas represent the gospel message itself. Christ, our treasure, has entrusted us with a treasure of His own - the story of who He is and what He has done for all who believe. Check out just a few texts:

     "On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts." (1 Thessalonians 2:4)
     "...the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me." (1 Timothy 1:11)
     "Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge..." (1 Timothy 6:20)
     "And the things you have heard me say in the prsence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will be qualified to teach others." (2 Timothy 2:2) (emphasis mine)

     We have been entrusted with the gospel, and so we are stewards of it. Now of course, pastors and teachers have a special respinsibility in this area to proclaim it faithfully, passionately AND accurately. But in the parable, all the servants received minas. The gospel is a treasure that we ALL carry around in our jars of clay.
     We may not have all the same degree of success, because the "earnings" are in God's hands. But we are all called to share it. The one servant who did not was severely chastised for his lack of risk, as he played it safe, and buried his mina. He didn't steal it, he simply didn't use it. That person will suffer loss of reward and, possibly, the loss of the privilege of service. So resist that temptation:

     Hide it under a bushel? NO! I'm gonna let it shine.

     Are we investing the truth of what He has done for us? Are we investing the truth of what He can do for others? Are we investing our resources? In Luke 16, Jesus concluded another parable with these words: "I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings." (Luke 16:9). Welcomed by whom? By the Lord, of course, but also by those who heard the gospel because of our generosity.
     Are we investing our prayers? Prayer for our lost neighbors and loved ones and friends and co-workers and fellow students, prayer for those on the mission field, prayer for open doors and boldness to share, and more.
     Are we investing our deeds of compassion and mercy that show His love and that may gain us a hearing?
     And are we investing our words - the gospel story, our testimonies, our invitations to worship. Sooner or later, they have to hear it, because "...faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ." (Romans 10:17)
     No Christian is exempt from this responsibility. The parable has the king, in essence, say, "I am leaving for a time. While I am gone, take this treasure and invest it in the lives of those who are lost, the ones I have come to seek and to save. And when I return, there will be an accounting."
     Let us regularly ask ourselves, Am I investing well with the treasure of the gospel that I have been given - the gospel that saved me and the gospel I have been given to share with those who do not yet know Him?
     "And He is the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything He might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him ... in Him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." (Colossians 1:18-19, 2:3) So let's invest like this is true.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

You Ask ME How I Know he Lives?

   Three days until Easter. This has become my favorite time of year, even over Christmas, which, I guess, is as it should be. Christmas woud be meaningless without Easter. The resurrection of Christ is the central focus of our faith. Christianity stands or falls on whether or not Christ is alive.
     And He is. But how do we know this? Ever since I was growing up, I have heard sung in the church every year the Easter hymn, "He Lives." It was a favorite of my mother's. I like it, too. However, I have become increasingly aware of one problem in the lyric. Not that it's wrong exactly, but it is incomplete. The last line of the refrain says, "You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart." Well, if you have given your life to Him, He does dwell there through His Holy Spirit. But that is not the final arbiter of whether ot not Jesus is alive.
     The fact is, anyone can have warm feelings in their heart from time to time about Jesus. Christians and non-Christians both can be moved by a song, a verse of Scripture, a kind deed done in His name. But feelings are not the proof that He is risen. Neither is the empty tomb. (Gasp!)
     What sets Christianity apart from any other faith is that it claims to have happened as a real space/time event carried out by a real flesh and blood man who just happened to also be God in the flesh. The Gospel writers, Luke especially, set the life of Christ in the context of history, during the reigns of actual historical rulers.
     But the real kicker comes to us in the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3 and following: "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance." He is about to give us the gospel in a nutshell. And just a reminder: The gospel is NEWS. It's not something we do, or something we live (a popular expression these days). You don't live news. You declare it or hear it, and if you hear it, then eventually you either accept or reject it. Now here comes the Good News: "...that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures..." That is a fact. It happened on a particular day at a particular location (just outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem around AD 33), "...that He was buried..." (that is the proof that He died. They checked first, remember, and He was actually dead, which is why they pierced His side with a spear instead of breaking His legs as they did the thieves so they would die faster before Sabbath began. The blood and water that came out of His side was proof of death - so they buried Him). Next, ..."that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures"... (another fact) and here it comes, sports fans, the proof: "...and that He appeared..." See the pattern? Fact (died) Proof (buried) Fact (raised) Proof (appeared).
     Paul goes on to say that He appeared to Peter, then to all the apostles, then to a crowd of over 500, then to his half brother, James, and finally to Paul himself a few years later. And he is careful to mention that many of these were still alive at the time of the writing of the Corinthian letter (at least 15 years later), and these were credible eyewitnesses.
     Paul's entire argument about the resurrection in the remainder of the chapter is predicated on the fact that Christ appeared to eyewitnesses, all of whom were willing to die for what they had seen and believed. You don't die for something you know in your heart of hearts to be untrue. And you certainly don't die for a hallucination (one of the many silly attempts to deny the bodily resurrection of the Lord).
     So does Christ live in my heart? Yes, as I hope He does in yours. But that's not how I know He lives. I know He lives because credible and courageous eyewitnesses said so and preached it throughout the whole known world and, in many cases, died martyrs' deaths for it. My faith is based on real historical fact and on time and space events.
     Yes, I will continue to sing "He Lives!" But I will sing with even more conviction, "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" and "Up From the Grave He Arose." and "Because He Lives, I Can Face Tomorrow." You ask me how I know He lives? I know because reliable people saw Him and touched Him and ate with Him, and then proclaimed Him and lived and died for Him - and their spiritual descendants still do. I am blessed to count myself among them. He is risen! He is risen indeed!
     "And He is the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything He might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him ... in Him are hidden all the treasures if wisdom and knowledge." (Colossians 1:18-19, 2:3) So let's celebrate Easter like this was true - because it is.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

A "Holy Trinity" of Bible Texts

     Over the years, I have been guided by three New Testament verses that I might call "a holy trinity" (not to be confused with THE Holy Trinity). Together, they form a basic theology of humility that should guide our living and our witness as believers in  Jesus Christ. They are holy because they are set apart, they stand out as prime examples of what our continual posture ought to be as we live coram deo (in His presence).
     First, in 1 Corinthians 15:9-10, after Paul lays out plainly what the gospel is and how Jesus appeared to many following His resurrection, last of all to Paul, as to (literally) "an abortion," he writes these words under the Holy Spirit's inspiration: "For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them - yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me." Paul said, "I am nothing without the grace of God. I deserve only punishment without it." The gospel is what changed it all, the fact that Christ died according to the Scriptures (fact) and was buried (proof), and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures (fact) and appeared to many (proof). The gospel is not something we live or do, it is news of something that has happened, something upon which we stake our very lives and destinies. God's grace gives me my gifts, my personality, produces the fruit of character within me, molds me through joy and pain and continually reminds me how loved I really am.
     The second verse is found in 1 Corinthians 4:7: "For what makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?" One danger of being a Christian in the United States is that we can get sucked into this "American" philosophy of "rugged individualism," the self-made man or woman, the one who pulled themselves up by their own bootsraps. I have heard this philosophy repeated in the church way too often over the years (not in those exact words, of course). Do we really think we earned what we have? I am reminded of Deuteronomy 8:10 and 17-18: "When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the LORD your God for the good land He has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God ..... You may say to yourself, 'My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.' But remember the LORD your God, for it is He who gives you the ability to produce wealth..." Yes, even your paycheck comes, ultimately, from the Lord's grace and not from your hard work, although without the work, there is no check. Do we thank God regularly for our blessings, no matter how great or small they may be - or do we reserve that for Thanksgiving Day once a year, when we give our "nod to God" before heading into the other room to watch football? I'm just sayin'.
     Here's the third verse: Jesus was speaking to His disciples in the upper room hours before His sacrficial death, and He reminds them in John 15:5: "I am the Vine; you are the branches, If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." I guess we have a choice  - to be like Samson, who went about as normal, but not knowing that the strength was gone from him, because it was in the LORD, not in his hair (Judges 16:20) or like David, who, in spite of his sling and five smooth stones, knew that his real strength was in the name of the LORD Almighty. (1 Samuel 17:45). Whose strength, whose energy, whose wisdom, whose love are we depending on today as we go about our tasks? Our own? That will be like an electric car - about 40 miles before it poops out. When we trust the Lord and obey His call and press forward, we will find that all of the capacity we need will be there - like a V-8 engine purring under the hood of our car - the car won't move until we shift into drive and press on the gas pedal (obey), but once we do, all that power under the hood is at our disposal to get us where we need to go. If we don't turn the engine on or let it sit idling, we won't be going anywhere.
     So there it is, my "holy trinity" of verses to inform my daily life. Without Christ and His grace, I AM nothing; without Christ and His grace, I HAVE nothing; without Christ and his grace, I CAN DO nothing.
     My story is simple. I grew up in the church, participated in its life from my earliest recollection: Sunday School, children's choir, youth choir, youth group, adult choir, etc. And I was relying pretty much on that. I was a "good" boy, not like so many of my friends who hung out on Saurday nights to see who could get drunk the fastest. I did not "smoke, drink, chew or go with girls who do!" But about a year out of high school, I came to the understanding, by seeing one or two former "bad boys" who had come to Jesus Christ and had been radically changed, that I needed to be saved from my own goodness, my own self-sufficiency, my own sense of accomplishment. And before long into my growth as a believer, I came upon these verses. They have been a steady guide over the years. Not that I have followed them perfectly, far from it, but they keep bringing me back, as needed, to the realization that my life, my hope, my strength are only in Christ. To Him be all the glory!
     "And He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything He might have the supremacy, For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him ... in Him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." (Colossians 1:18-19, 2:3) So let's depend on Him like this was true.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Full of Grace and Truth

     A dichotomy, according to dictionary.com, is "a division into two parts or kinds; a division into two mutually exclusive, opposed, or contradictory groups."  There are all kinds of dichotomies created in Christian thought; to name a few: God's sovereignty and our free will, the kingdom already and the kingdom not yet; God's grace and our responsibility, to name a few. There can be valid discussion and debate over these matters without breaking fellowship.
     Sadly, today, some would have us believe we can have varying opinions on essentials of the Christian faith. Believe what you want about salvation, justification, the authority of Scripture, Christ's deity, virgin birth, bodily resurrection and personal return. Sorry. I believe that disagreement about these is out of bounds, and if carried to extremes, disagreement about these could bring about the breaking of fellowship, because those who would deny these things would be showing themselves to be not truly of the faith.  But that is not the main point I wish to make in this post.
     There is another man-made dichotomy that has crept into the church these days. Some Christians feel they can only express their faith by sheltering themselves from or by attacking the culture. Others feel they can be faithful by serving others, but that their moral life doesn't matter. They can follow whatever dictates the current culture espouses on moral issues. So we either isolate ourselves from the culture, or we imitate the culture. There is a third way - we are to penetrate and seek transformation in the culture, to be in the world but not of it. As a former pastor/mentor of mine used to say, "It's great for the boat to be in the water, that's where it belongs. But God help you if the water gets into the boat."
     History shows that the early church was known for its compassionate love toward all, especially the least, AND for their high moral standards. It was not either/or but both that attracted new disciples and turned the Roman empire upside down. But more importantly, the New Testament is clear about these issues as well. Let me cite several key texts.
     James 1:27 says that "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." See the both/and emphasis? Yes, we care for the needy and marginalized. But we also do not let ourselves get sucked into the zeitgeist, the worldview of the prevailing culture.
     Peter weighs in on the topic in 1 Peter 2:11-12. "Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day He visits us."
     This is not new to the apostles. On the first matter, "the abstaining from sinful desires," Paul 's counsel is to run from these things as fast and as far as we can. But Jesus is even more graphic. He takes our sexual purity so seriously that He tells us not to even look at a woman lustfully, to cut off our hands or pluck out our eyes if they offend us. Now we know this is figurative, because He says clearly in Mark 7:21 that the source of our sin is the heart. But at the very least, He means that we are to "be careful little eyes what we see, little ears what we hear..." We watch our intake from television, movies, popular fiction and the internet.
     On the second matter, Peter is obviously echoing Jesus' words from the Sermon on the Mount about being the light of the world (Matthew 5:16). The Greek word for "good" speaks speficially of compassionate, caring kind of works on behalf of others.
     Paul's take is in a slightly longer passage from Colossians Chapter 3, where I am preaching for several weeks. First he talks about "putting to death" all sorts of sexual sins and dirty-mindedness, as well as sins of the tongue (verses 5-9). This is followed by a directive to "clothe" ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (verse 12). So our life is to be a balance of continually taking off the old graveclothes of worldly sins while, at the same time, continually cultivating virtues of compassion in our lives. This is called Christlikeness.
     My point is that we do not get set the agenda. Too many in the church today are opting for the social ministries of kindness to the poor while advocating thr acceptance of sexual lifestyles and sinful habits which are declared out of bounds by Scripture. We simply do not have the freedom to do this and be true aliens and exiles in this world. If our citizenship is in heaven, it must be shown both by what we reject and leave behind and by what we show forth in ministry to the last, the lost, and the least. This is not a cafeteria, brothers and sisters, where we get to pick and choose. This is a family dinner where we are expected to eat everything on our plates.
     Nothing else honors and treasures Christ to the degree that we ought. We are called to be both holy and compassionate in our living - just like Jesus. He was able to walk that fine line - which reminds me of a great song from a few years back by Christian artist Wayne Watson:
     There's a fine line between taking bread with a lost man
     And being consumed by his way while reaching out in love,
     Temptation's right at your door, guard what you're thinkin' of;
     It's a fine line. When I hide my eyes
     From the darkest of life's insanity, from the worst of the world's profanity,
     I've gotta be careful I don't miss someone in need of me,
     It's a fine line.
     ...not talkin' about walkin' fences, not talkin' about compromise,
     But living and breathing as pleasing in His eyes.
     So where do I walk, where is my place,
     The straight and the narrow, the road of grace;
     Holdin' fast to You, walkin' at Your pace, walkin' on the fine line.
     Jesus is our example, and Jesus is our power to live this way. He was "full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). And in Him, we can be, too.
     "And He is the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything He might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him ... in Him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." (Colossians 1:18-19, 2:3). So let's walk like this is true.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Prophet, Priest, and King

     As we prepare the celebrate the birth of our Lord, I am reminded of a hymn (not a carol) that we sang recently at our worship service - Fanny Crosby's "Praise Him! Praise Him!" One line in that song says, "Praise Him, Praise Him, Prophet and Priest and King." Jesus was indeed the fulfillment of every one of these offices of redemptive history. I just wanted to take a moment and reflect on Jesus Christ in the fulness of His Messianic work.
     For Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed (literally, the "smeared") One. Smeared with sacred oil, the oil of the Holy Spirit, to "proclaim good news to the poor ... to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-9, quoting from Isaiah 61:1-2, NIV). How did He fulfill this calling?
     First, Jesus was and is the ultimate PROPHET. Now when most people say today that Jesus was a great prophet, that is no small thing. A prophet was one who heard and spoke the very message of God to His people. Prophets were anointed by God in the Old Testament to proclaim His Word. They did not give their personal opinions, but they prefaced what they said with, "Thus says the Lord..." They were not always appreciated at the time of their ministry, but they were given respect in hindsight. God had promised Moses, "I will raise up a Prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words into His mouth. He will tell them everything I command Him." (Deuteronomy 18:18, NIV). But what made Jesus the prophet stand out was that He was not just a first among equals, but was in a class by Himself, because He not only delivered the Word, he WAS the Word (John 1), living and incarnate. Remember, Jesus taught by saying, not, "You have heard it said..." but "I say unto you..." You don 't have to read much of what Jesus said about Himself, especially in John's Gospel, to understand this: As a prophet, Jesus declared, prophetically, that He was more than a prophet. In other words, as R. C. Sproul puts it, "the central message of the prophetic ministry of Jesus Christ - was Jesus Christ!"
     Second, Jesus was and is the ultimate PRIEST. This is what the disciples didn't get until after Easter. They were very ready to accept Him as a prophet, right up there with Elijah or Jeremiah, and even to declare Him to be the Messiah. But when Jesus referred to the priestly ministry He would have to perform to fulfill His mission, Peter said, "Never!" and had to be rebuked by Jesus. Priests were literally anointed with oil for their office in the Old Testament. Now the difference between the work of the Prophet and the Priest was simple: The priest would speak to God on behalf of the people, and the prophet would speak to the people on behalf of God. The way the priest would speak for the people was to pray for them and to offer sacrifices for them, so that their relationship to God could be restored whenever it was broken. But again, Jesus stood out from the rest in His priestly ministry, because he not only offered the sacrifice for the people, He BECAME the sacrifice. You can see this in what we commonly refer to as the seven last words from the cross. In the first three statements, Jesus was acting as priest, as offerer and intercessor on behalf of others ("Father, forgive them..." "Woman, behold your son..."   "Today you shall be with Me in paradise..."). But after 3 PM, when all became dark, and He bagan to bear our sin and God's wrath, His words became the words of the offering itself, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world ("My God, my God, why...?"   "I thirst."...  "It is finished!" ... "Father, into Your hands...") He offered the supreme sacrifice to God for us and He WAS the supreme sacrifice to God for us. Hallelujah, what a Savior!
     Finally, Jesus was and is the ultimate KING. Kings were also anointed for their role with the people of God. Jesus came, even in His humility, born of the line of David through Hs foster father, Joseph, and showed dominion over death, over demons, over disease, over nature itself, and over the souls of men and women. Now he lives and reigns as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The shepherds and the Magi understood this and bowed before Him. He was given gold, a gift fit for a king. Simeon and Anna understood this. The thief on the cross got it, too, and asked for Jesus to remember him when He came into His kingdom. And one day, the promise of the book of Revelation will come true once and for all, the promise that we sing every year at this time: "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He will reign for ever and ever. Hallelujah!" (Revelation 11:15, NIV)
     This is why we treasure Him and worship Him and Hold Him as supreme. The Messiah had to be a prophet like Moses, He had to be of the line of David and the head of an everlasting kingdom, and He had to be a priest after the order of Melchizedek. Only one Person in history perfectly fulfilled this resume - the one we welcome again at this Christmas season. All glory goes to Him forever.
     "And He is the Head of the body, the church; He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything He might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him. ... In Him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and
knowledge." (Colossians 1:18-19; 2:3, NIV). So let us honor Him at Christmas like this is true.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

It Starts in the Mind

"Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth. Worship the LORD
with gladness; come before Him with joyful songs. 
Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are His;
we are His people, the sheep of His pasture.

Know that the LORD is God. It is He who made us, and we are His;
we are His people, the sheep of His pasture.

Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise;
give thanks to Him and praise His name.

For the LORD is good and His love endures forever;
His faithfulness continues through all generations.
(Psalm 100, NIV)

     I preached from this Psalm on Sunday, the "Old One-Hundredth." Every so often (and it is rare) a text just outlines itself as you prepare. This is one of those texts. Five verses, four stanzas. The first stanza (verses 1 and 2) and the third stanza (verse 4) speak of things we are to do in worship. The second stanza (verse 3) and the fourth stanza (verse 5) speak of what we need to know in order to do what we are called to do.
     What are we called to do? Worship with a focus on God, not on ourselves. See how many times the name of the LORD (Yahweh, the great "I AM") or God shows up in this Psalm. It really is all about Him. In this narcissistic age we live in, we really need to hear this again and again.
     And worship with exuberance. Look at the commands of verses 1,2 and 4: "Shout," "worship" (or serve) with gladness (not out of obligation); "come with joyful songs"; "give thanks", "praise", and (the second "praise" in verse 4, "bless" (literally, to bow, give homage). There is true overflowing joy combined with deep reverence and awe of God.
     The same idea can be found in Psalm 95, where we are told twice to "come." (Latin, venite) Remember, "Venite adoramus - O come, let us adore Him." First the Psalmist says to come with singing, shouting, thanksgiving, extolling. Then further down he says to come bowing down and kneeling. Both of these are expressions of exuberance, and we do not need to pit them against one another.
     This is obvious, and yet many Christians come to church with an apparent attitude of boredom. When the Willow Creek Church near Chicago was just starting out in the 80's, they surveyed whole neighborhoods to ask why people had stopped going to church The number one and two answers given were, "Church is boring," and "Church is irrelevant." So what's the problem?
     I think the answer is found in Psalm 100, verses 3 and 5. Verse 3 begins with the command, "Know..." We do not know God as we should. We do not know that God is GREAT (verse 3). He is God, the only God. He made us, He is our Creator. We are not products of chance or evolution. We are not merely the product of our parents. Our genes do not determine who we are, God does. And then He redeemed us through Christ, so that "we are His people." He made us. He bought us. If we are believers in Jesus Christ, we are twice His. What an awesome God!
     But wait, there's more! (I've always wanted to say that.) In verse 5, we are told that God is GOOD. He is good, He is loving, and He is faithful. And He will be these things forever. And we, as New Testament Christians, only need to look at Calvary to know how true this is. He died for us while we were yet sinners, and when we look to Him in faith as our Savior and our Substitute, He will keep his covenant with us, no matter what.
     God is great. God is good. When we really know this, worship becomes the easiest, most natural thing in the world. No wonder Jesus, when asked what the greatest commandment was, quoted the Shema from Deuteronomy 6. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our soul and all our strength (exuberant worship and service); but don't forget the last part - and with all our mind. We need to know God to worship Him - and knowing God starts with knowing about God. This is why Bible study and active listening to sermons is so vital - because theology leads to doxology, and orthodoxy is the only true way to orthopraxy (that is, right doctrine leads to right practice). Treasuring Christ, worshiping Him from the heart, really does begin in the mind - so crack open that Bible and ask Him to show Himself to you more and more. As He does, your response of worship will also grow more and more each day.
     "And He is the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything He might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him ... In Him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." (Colossians 1:18-19; 2:3, NIV) So let's start worshiping like this is true.