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Friday, June 29, 2012

Future Calling ... to Russia

I grew up in Cold-War America, so the Soviet Union, a/k/a Russia, was the enemy.

In 2005, my wife Candy and I adopted 3-year-old Igor, and since then Russia has occupied an huge chunk in my heart.  That's now seven years ago and a lot has happened.

We have adopted Henry (now 5) and Merone (now 3) from Ethiopia.  We have done mission work in Ethiopia.  There is a plan for long-term continued work there, sharing the gospel, providing food and money, helping kids who cannot be adopted.

For his part, Igor has become a fully American kid and other than his very Russian name, Russia is foreign to him.

Yet, as my life proceeds along, I have to continuously step over and around this massive bulge in my heart - Russia.  It keeps coming up.


I read the great authors - Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, Turgenev, Chekov, and of course Dostoevsky. And I think of Russia.  Or, I look at old pictures from our two trips there.  Lately, I've been curious about who reads this blog.  I checked out the stats page and found someone in Russia is looking at it.

So yesterday and today, I went online and looked at English versions of the St. Petersberg Times and Moscow Times.  I am too removed to have anything more than a passing understanding of the stories.  But again, the pull is there.  Today, I will proceed in life, but not without walking around this massive space, a solid object in the middle of my soul.

The organization I now volunteer with in missions - Children's Hope Chest (http://www.hopechest.org/) has done work in Russia and has a trip planned this year.  I want to go.  But I cannot really afford it - either in terms of the money or in terms of (another) 9 days away from my family.

But one day, I'll be back.  One day, I'll be in Russia, drinking in the richness of one of the oldest and most wonderful cultures on earth.  One day, I'll be there with Igor, showing him the place he's from.  One day, I'll go to share about Jesus and to help kids and to encourage Christians.  I know it is so because God is calling.  I know God is calling because there's this huge boulder right in the middle of me called Russia.  I can't get it out or move.  And I don't want to.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Leonard Sweet's Viral


Review of Viral by Leonard Sweet

Waterbrook Press, Colorado Spring, 2012



June 28, 2012



            Pastor/University Professor/Author/Futurist Leonard Sweet identifies a massive paradigm shift in western (and maybe world) culture as humanity moves from the age of printed press to the digital age.  An example of Sweet’s labeling and describing of this shift is seen in his accurate depiction of the word ‘text.’  For people of the print age, people he calls Gutenbergers, ‘text’ is a noun.  It is something you read.  For those in the digital age, the age of the information cloud, ‘text’ is a verb.  You, the user, provides content, and you convey the content by texting.  This is just one of numerous ways Sweet adroitly illustrates his thesis that times are changing.  Furthermore, if you (mostly people over 40) don’t keep up with the change, you’ll be left behind.

            Using the acronym TGIF (texting, Google, iPhone, Facebook), Sweet thoroughly shows the way the world has become conformed to information transfers via electronic media.  A simple example is the series of revolutions in what history will call the “Arab Spring.”  Totalitarian regimes in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt could not suppress the uprisings as rebels communicated by using cell phones and the internet.

            Sweet’s analysis of the TGIF world is good and helpful and inspiring.  Reading his work inspired me to read poetry.  This is something he strongly commends.  Also reading Viral, I felt inspired to begin Tweeting again.  I had stopped Tweeting in early 2011.  My account had been asleep for 17 months.  A sure sign a work is persuasive is when it leads to action.  I, the reader, took up two new actions (poetry and Twitter) as Sweet’s suggestion.  I am glad for both.

            However, I feel Sweet glosses over all that is good about the age of the press (the age of Gutenberg to use his terminology).  This is an age that gave the world Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jonathan Edwards, Watchman Nee, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King JR, Mother Teresa, and Dietrich Bonheoffer to name just a few.  Yet, Sweet, who himself comes from this generation is overly critical of it.  It’s quite hard to understand why he can’t make more of an effort to cite the contributions of the Gutenberg age alongside the wonders of the new age (he terms Google or ‘Googlers’).

            I don’t find fault with the idea that the world is changing quickly and radically.  It is – no question.  I don’t resist the change.  As I said, per Sweet’s suggestion, I am now Tweeting (along with blogging and Facebooking which I already do daily).  I support Sweet’s ideas and am excited by them as he is.  But, what I do not like is his suggestion that the current culture is closer to the notions of community and faith as proposed by Jesus than the previous.

            He thinks Googlers are far more likely to understand, appreciate, and seek out community as Jesus practiced and taught it than Gutenbergers.  Gutenbergers were too rules-oriented, atomistic, and individualistic.  Gutenbergers better understand Jesus’ teachings on community and holistic faith.  I love Leonard Sweet, but that is complete nonsense.  He needs to re-read Bonheoffer’s Life Together or Chuck Colson’s the Body or any of the works of Richard Foster.  Like any age, many Gutenbergers were off track when it comes to the Gospel.  Some, though, truly understand Jesus and their writings based on the Gospel have enlightened all Christians.

            Similarly, many Googlers are truly wise, fresh voices of faith who cast new light on the gospel.  But more Googlers are as lost and confused and far from Jesus as any Gutenbergers ever were.  It is not that Sweet’s observations are wrong; they’re just much exaggerated.  He’s so excited about the theological and spiritual implications of the new age of communication that he goes overboard in praising Googlers and criticizing Gutenbergers.  He plays Monday morning armchair quarterback, and he’s way too sophisticated to do that.  He knows better than to overgeneralize in that way.

            Leonard Sweet is such a compelling writer that I do recommend his book.  I think the reader will be informed and entertained.  But my recommendation comes with this warning.  As interesting and in some places spot on as his observations are, he is guilty of exaggeration and over generalization.  Buy and read his book, but read it with that in mind.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Story Full of Evil


            When Lehigh beat Duke in the NCAA tournament, commentators said “David beat Goliath.”  The Bible is full of incredible stories and David’s victory, a teenager defeating the giant, is one of the most known and retold and referenced.  A basketball team from a small school beats a perennial powerhouse – David beat Goliath.  An individual wins a court case against a massive corporation with a high priced legal team – David beat Goliath.  We know what this means.  We know this story.

            Do we hear it as God, through the story, reaches into our lives?  Imagine, God of the heavens reaching into you, penetrating your heart, taking personal interest in your life.  The Bible is great drama, but more than that, it is God’s word to us.  What is God saying in this story?

“I know the presumption and the evil of your heart,” Eliab said to his younger brother David.  He was wrong about David.  David’s heart was not full of evil.  In fact, he was the man whose heart was most like God’s.  But evil is in the David and Goliath story – it is a story chock-full of evil; evil in various forms that locates in individuals or groups of people.



            For 40 days, Goliath taunted Israel …

            This giant won the psychological battle over his enemy without unsheathing his sword.  They saw his size and heard his voice and that was all it took.  His power was obvious to him, to his fellow soldiers, and to the enemy.  Because of this Goliath was arrogant and mean.

            This evil, the evil of arrogance arises whenever people exploit a power advantage and keep others under heel.  An older brother pushes his brother around, occasionally punching the younger for no reason other than to let him know who’s boss.  A street gang forces a small storefront business to pay them 30% of their prophets.  If the business owners, an immigrant family, don’t pay, the gang will break the father’s legs and smash the business’s windows out.  Power leads to arrogance – evil arrogance.  This evil distorts the vision of everyone.  The victim senses he or she is worth less than he or she really is.  The power-holder sees himself as being much greater than he really is. 

Neither the victim nor the bully can see that they are both small and weak before the holy God.  In fact, when this evil of power and arrogance is running wild, God is not seen or worshiped at all. 

 



            “When the Israelites saw [Goliath], they fled from him and were very much afraid” … (17:24)

            As arrogance is evil, so too is fear.  FDR was wrong – we much more to fear than just fear itself.  There are things to be afraid of.  I’d be afraid of jumping in pool of hungry great white sharks.  Sometimes when I hear a noise at night, I wonder if someone has broken into my house.  If someone ever did in fact intrude, I’d be afraid.  Fear is not a bad thing.  In scripture we are to have an appropriate fear of God.

            But, giving into fear gives fear power it’s not supposed to have.  The Israelites were the people of God – the God who created the Heavens and the Earth.  Goliath was big and bad and scary and mean.  Rather than turn to their God, the Israelites succumbed to their fear and it became the prevailing force which they could not overcome.

            Our enemy, the devil, will use all means to drag us away from God and to assault our faith.  Fear is an evil that is a great tool to control someone.  The Philistines were on the verge of dominating Israel and fear was an insidious means of achieving that domination.  The evil of fear took the Israelites’ focus off trusting in God.



            Eliab, David’s oldest brother and one of Israel’s terrified soldiers, expresses a third evil, one that is born in his jealousy of his youngest brother.  He thought David was bored with sheep-keeping and came to see some bloodshed on the battlefield.  He though David was insensitive to the sacrifices of real soldiers.  He thought David just wanted a show.  So, he accused David of bearing an evil heart.

            Eliab’s evil was an evil of ignorance.  He didn’t know David’s heart or God’s heart.  In his ignorance, he spouted off, said things, spoke on matters in which he knew nothing. 

I have participated in evil of this type.  As a young man, I got in arguments with people over issues of race and issues of poverty.  My problem was I spoke from the privileged position of being white, being male, and being middle class, which is wealthy by the standards of 99% of the world’s population.  It’s not that white, rich men cannot have opinions.  But, I acted as if it did not matter that I didn’t know the perspective of a minority or underprivileged person.  In my ignorance, I spoke authoritatively and judgmentally, and when that happens, it more than just insensitive.  It is more than just brutish and conversationally clumsy.  Insensitivity that ignores another’s suffering and even ignores another person’s reality leads to evil.  Notice that ignoring as opposed to listening and considering leads to ignorance.  Eliab’s evil, one often overlook but one as damaging as arrogance or fear was ignorance.





The final evil I see in this story comes from King Saul.  He was the king and thus had the responsibility of leadership.  He wasn’t just accountable for his own conduct or even his own household.  The safety, wellbeing and flourishing of his people was on him.  Where was he when Goliath was shouting his taunts?  It says Saul tried to outfit David with his armor.  Why wasn’t Saul out there wearing his own armor, confronting this uncircumcised Philistine?

Saul’s evil is an evil of limitation.  This evil is painfully common among Christians in our day and it grows with each new accomplishment of science.  Each new invention and each new discovery is so wonderfully impressive, we begin to trust in science.  What science declares to be reality becomes what we accept as reality.  We then relegate faith to the sideline, an unimportant issue, and we have smaller and smaller views of God. 

Saul’s view of God was sinfully limited.  He could see swords and spears, helmets and shields.  He could see 500,000 Philistines across the valley from his army. He could see the 9-foot tall Philistine shouting and taunting his nation.  But he couldn’t see God and didn’t bother looking.  Even when David came and expressed bold, irrational faith, Saul kept looking through a small lens.  Though he was in the role of leader of God’s people, he didn’t have God-sized vision, not of himself or his task or anything else. 



Four evils – the arrogance of Goliath, which was a failure of vision and led to abuse in relationship; the fear of the people, which was a failure to focus on God and led to surrendering to fear; the ignorance of Eliab, which was a failure of perspective that led him to miss God at work in his brother; and the limited view of Saul which was a failure to live by faith and led him to reduce his view of God – these evils mark this story.

Perhaps the conclusion should be we all need to have a faith like David so we can avoid failure and defeat evils like these. 

Before we say that though, we need to acknowledge evil.  We must name the evils present in this story and in our lives.  Evil is all around us conspiring with our own sinful natures to drag us away from the eternal life we are promise.  The enemy will use all forms of evil to lead us to a death apart from God.  We need to acknowledge evil.

We also must look a bit a David’s life.  When did he defeat Goliath?  It wasn’t when he fired that stone from his slingshot.  It wasn’t when he ran to face Goliath on the battle line.  David’s moxie didn’t unnerve Goliath.  It simply elicited more insults.  It wasn’t when David spoke of his faith to King Saul. 

David defeated Goliath on those lonely nights when it was him, his flock of sheep, and the unforgiving dangers of the wilderness.  He said to Saul,

“Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; whenever a lion or bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it.  Your servant killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them since he defied the armies of the living God.”



            His experience as a shepherd readied him for this.  He may have been physically too small to wear Saul’s armor, but even as an adolescent, he was a fearless, agile warrior.  More importantly, as the Psalms show, David spent the lonely time out on the pastureland in constant prayer.  He wrote songs – great, artful poetry that expressed every emotion that lives in the human heart.  In those Psalms, David praised God no matter the circumstances.  David did not write all the Psalms, but the one attributed to him reveal a faith that was deep, emotional, real, and unwavering.

            Before we say, “We’ve got to be like David,” we have to live like David lived when no one was watching.  He didn’t pray and fight wild animals so he could be ready to defeat a 9-foot tall Philistine or overcome spiritual evils like arrogance, fear, ignorance, and limited perspective.  He prayed because nothing mattered to him more than God.  He put his life on the line for the sheep because tending them was his duty before God and because it was a duty before God, it matter to David more than his own life.

            I believe he was chosen to be king because God saw his character.  I don’t think God predetermined before his birth that David would be Israel’s greatest king and the Messiah’ ancestor.  I don’t believe the story was written ahead of time.  Did God know how it would go?  I am sure he did.  But I believe many shepherd boys in Israel could have become the king.  I believe David did because God arranged it that way.  I believe God arranged it that way because God saw the hearts of all the shepherd boys and young carpenters and tailors and fishermen – God saw all the hearts in Israel and chose the one most attuned to God’s ways.

            Each one of us can have that heart.  It comes as we are ridiculously honest and open with God in our prayer life.  While we won’t all be poets like David, we can pray with passion and desire and need.  We can pursue that relationship with God relentlessly, deciding we would prefer death over life without God at the center of it.  The way for you and me to overcome the evils of arrogance, fear, ignorance, limited vision, and any other evils we might name is to focus on God, long for God, reach for God.  This was what Jesus meant when he rejected the ultimate evil, Satan, by saying “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt. 4:4).

            If we want to resist evil and defeat the giant obstacles in life, we will live like faith is everything and to be away from God is to slowly, agonizingly starve to death.  David’s desperate prayer, later in his life, after he had sinned horribly, was “Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me” (Psalm 51:11).  He could think of nothing worse.  With God, he wasn’t arrogant; he was confident in God’s power.  He wasn’t afraid; he knew God always wins.  He wasn’t ignorant; he knew God would give him all he needed to know.  His vision wasn’t small; he saw what God showed him. 

            Later in that prayer, he said, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).  Those words are an appropriate for us as we meet together as forgiven sinners who receive God’s grace as we put our trust in Jesus.  The world today is full of evil.  Our story in this fallen world is a tale of evil defeated and faith victorious when we thirst for God and put all our life energy into our relationship with God.



AMEN

Monday, June 18, 2012

Who is our God?


Are all your sons here?”

            “There remains the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.”

            “Send, and bring him.”

            Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.  The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.”  Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him.”



            Thus David, the ancestor of Jesus is anointed by God’s prophet Samuel to become King of Israel.  How did the story get here?



“Yes, I have sinned,” Saul replied. “I disobeyed the Lord's command and your instructions. I was afraid of my men and did what they wanted. But now I beg you, forgive my sin and go back with me, so that I can worship the Lord.”

“I will not go back with you,” Samuel answered.  “You rejected the Lord's command, and he has rejected you as king of Israel.”

Then Samuel went to Ramah, and King Saul went home to Gibeah. As long as Samuel lived, he never again saw the king; but he grieved over him. The Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king of Israel.



            Who is this God we worship?  He chooses a people to be his own special people in all the earth, the people through whom he will call all the earth to himself.  His chosen people sin and do not live the holy lives he commanded them to live.  They demand that God give them a king though he has said he would be their king.  Though their intentions are sinful, God stays with his people, communicating through Samuel the Prophet, and God gives the king they request. 

            That King, Saul, is not up to the task.  He falls short and is rejected completely.  What does God do next?  God leads Samuel to another king.  But first, Saul has to get the message that he’s out of God’s plan. 

What is it to discover that you’ve become so distant from God that you find yourself cut off from his work in the world?  God created humankind to be in relationship with Him.  The primary reason we exist is to worship God, know God, and delight in God.  The plan from early on, back to the days of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, was humankind would relate to God through his chosen people.  Saul was chosen to be king over that people.   But his reliance on his own strength was too great; his relationship with God too weak.  He was cut out of the plan.

            In this passage Samuel tells Saul God has cut him off.  No amount of pleading – imagine the king pleading – will alter things.  Samuel emphatically declares.  God will not relent or change God’s mind.  Yet, God is sorry he chose Saul. 

            God is sorry?  Does this mean God made a bad choice?  God messed up?  Or does it mean God knew all along that Saul would fail?  God knew Saul’s sins would eventually disqualify, but though it was Saul’s own fault, God stilled loved him and sorrowed over him. 

Remember Jesus riding into Jerusalem.  He knew his death was imminent.  He still went and wept as he did.  His tears were for the people in the city who had God in the flesh among them and couldn’t see it.  When we suffer pain, loss, disappointment, and rejection, and it all comes about because of our own sins and our failure to rely on God and our insistence on doing things our way and relying on our own strength, when that happens does God weep as Jesus did?  Does God sorrow over us even when our suffering is something we bring on ourselves?

Is that why God was sorry for Saul?  God’s sorry when sin wrecks our lives.  When we hurt, God hurts.

As long as Samuel lived, he never again saw the king; but he grieved over him. The Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king of Israel.

 The Lord said to Samuel, How long will you go on grieving over Saul? I have rejected him as king of Israel. But now get some olive oil and go to Bethlehem, to a man named Jesse, because I have chosen one of his sons to be king.

How can I do that? Samuel asked. If Saul hears about it, he will kill me!



Who is this God we worship?  He’s a God who keeps to the plan.  He’s sorry over sin and love people even when we reject him and hurt ourselves and others as we do, but he doesn’t change the plan to accommodate us.

Saul didn’t fulfill the role God had for him.  God would find someone else for that role.  Samuel’s role was to be God’s voice.  Go to Bethlehem.  When I tell you, announce the king.  And anoint him.

Obviously this was a problem for Samuel because the only ones who knew the change in the story at this point were Samuel, Saul, and God.  The people of Israel and the people of Judah knew Samuel was powerful and a prophet of God.  They also knew Saul still wore the crown and controlled the Israelite army.  And word spread and people knew that Saul and Samuel weren’t on the same page.

As faithful as Samuel was, he didn’t like the plan.  He did what he was told, but voiced his objections along the way.  The villagers in Bethlehem certainly didn’t want to be caught in a war between God and the army.  They were scared.  They trembled, Samuel went forward reluctantly, Saul ruled clumsily and sinfully, and we have this story that leaves us asking, “Who is this God?”

            A God with a plan.

            A God who is sorry.

            A God who sorrows over us and loves us and hurts as we hurt.  But he still sticks to His standard of holiness and His plan.

            A God who helps us be sneaky?



Now get some olive oil and go to Bethlehem, to a man named Jesse, because I have chosen one of his sons to be king.


How can I do that? Samuel asked. If Saul hears about it, he will kill me!

The Lord answered, Take a calf with you and say that you are there to offer a sacrifice to the Lord.3 Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will tell you what to do. You will anoint as king the man I tell you to.

 Samuel did what the Lord told him to do and went to Bethlehem, where the city leaders came trembling to meet him and asked, Is this a peaceful visit, seer?

Yes, he answered. I have come to offer a sacrifice to the Lord. Purify yourselves and come with me.He also told Jesse and his sons to purify themselves, and he invited them to the sacrifice.



            Since when is worship a covert method of avoiding the notice of the king who wants to kill you?  God could reach a divine hand down and flatten Saul.  God doesn’t act that way, at least not all the time.  God made the sun stand still in the sky for Joshua; open a path right through the Red Sea for Moses; raised Tabitha and others from the dead.  Sometimes God does things we cannot explain in any categories we possess.  Much of the time, God acts within history. 

            Within the history of painful racism, God worked through men like William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King JR and women like Rosa Parks to show all people are made in God’s image and all people have beauty, dignity, and worth.  Within the horrors of the Holocaust, God worked through Corrie Ten Boom and others to show the world what His compassion looks like.  Within the history of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the Anointed Son of God there would be a protracted battle – war between David (Jesus’ ancestor) and Saul.  The beginnings of that conflict come when God honors Samuel’s fear and gives him a way of finding the next king even while the current king still reigned.

            Kingdoms and governments and armies and empires have no say in the ways of God.  God is all powerful.  But, God has opted, and God has the choice, to work through existing human systems to accomplish God’s purposes.  You’re a prophet, Samuel.  Go to Bethlehem and worship.  Speak the word of the Lord.  Do what you do.

            You’re a homemaker.  You’re a firefighter.  You’re a nurse.  You’re a student.  You wait tables.  You do research.  Do your work to the very best of your ability, with professionalism and commitment to excellence.  Do your work knowing that God created and sustains the world in which you work.  As you do your work, express the love of God by being patient, courteous, compassionate, and true with the people around you, and when the Holy Spirit prompts, point those around you to Jesus.

            Samuel, you’re a prophet do what you do.



Samuel did what the Lord told him to do and went to Bethlehem, where the city leaders came trembling to meet him and asked, Is this a peaceful visit, seer?

 
Yes, he answered. I have come to offer a sacrifice to the Lord. Purify yourselves and come with me. He also told Jesse and his sons to purify themselves, and he invited them to the sacrifice.

When they arrived, Samuel saw Jesse's son Eliab and said to himself, This man standing here in the Lord's presence is surely the one he has chosen.

But the Lord said to him, Pay no attention to how tall and handsome he is. I have rejected him, because I do not judge as people judge. They look at the outward appearance, but I look at the heart.

Then Jesse called his son Abinadab and brought him to Samuel. But Samuel said,
No, the Lord hasn't chosen him either.

Jesse then brought Shammah. No, the Lord hasn't chosen him either,
Samuel said.10 In this way Jesse brought seven of his sons to Samuel. And Samuel said to him, No, the Lord hasn't chosen any of these.

Then he asked him, Do you have any more sons?

            Who is this God, the one who receives the worship, when we sing our songs and raise our hands and lift our prayers and open our hearts to Heaven?  I do not judge as people judge.  They look at the outward appearance, but I look at the heart.  When the God who works through human systems and sorrows over sin and sticks to the plan and watches over us and whose Holy Spirit resides in us when we put our faith in Jesus sees us doing what we do (fight fires, treat patients, examine data, serve food, etc), what does God see?  This God is a God who looks at the heart – the very essence of who the person truly is.  When God looks deep into you or deep into me, what does God see?

            David had all kinds of problems.  All his marriages were bad.  He routinely took women from other men.  He loved the Lord with all His heart, but he cared little for other people unless they could help him.  He was as far from perfect as Cameron Indoor is from the Dean dome.  But God looked past the sins and flaws and shortcomings, just as God looks past our sins and flaws and shortcomings, and God saw a man who loves God and God said that’s the next king. 

            What does God see when God sees our hearts? 

Jesse, do you have any more sons?

Jesse answered, There is still the youngest, but he is out taking care of the sheep.


Tell him to come here, Samuel said. We won't offer the sacrifice until he comes.12 So Jesse sent for him. He was a handsome, healthy young man, and his eyes sparkled. The Lord said to Samuel, This is the one—anoint him!13 Samuel took the olive oil and anointed David in front of his brothers. Immediately the spirit of the Lord took control of David and was with him from that day on
.



God is not looking for anyone here to become the King of Israel and forbearer of the Messiah.  That job has already been filled.

God is looking – this entire story is about a God who sees.  God already has a plan.  We know it will be carried out.  God is looking for people to be part of God’s story.  How do we qualify?  It’s all about what is in our hearts. 

Do we have a deep desire for God?  Do we yearn to know His purposes and plans?  Do we seek to live lives that are pleasing to Him?  When things are at their very worst in our lives, do we first think to turn to God before anything else?

David, son of Jesse, King of Israel, ancestor of Jesus was a man after God’s own heart.  God wants us to give Him our hearts.  This morning, as we enter into a time a prayer, and you are invited to give God your heart, your belief, your passion, and your love.  Give God your intellect, rationale, and reason. 

Identify where you are spiritually, emotionally, and mentally.  From that place – where your mind and heart are functioning right now – seek God.  Invite the Holy Spirit of God into you, into your mind, heart, and spirit.  Offer yourself to God completely.  Invite God to move to the center of your world – your work, your family, your play, your life. 

Ask God to give you a purified heart and ask God to help you live out the life He’s calling you to live.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Turn to Jesus


            Mark Galli, managing editor of Christianity Today magazine, discusses a question millions of people wonder about: how can I trust that there is a God and that this God is good?  The wondering comes out in a sentence repeated countless times daily.  “I could never believe in a God who would _____” and you fill in the blank.[i]

            “I could never believe in a God who would allow children to die.”  We know children die by the hundreds of thousands every day. 

            “I could never believe in a God who creates gay people then declares gay relationships a sin.”  Every one of us knows someone, probably someone we love, who is gay.  I recently in a sermon offered what I think are two Biblically sanctioned forms of holy sexuality – a heterosexual marriage and celibacy.

            “I could never believe in a God who stands by idly while innocent people suffer.”  We know from Hurricane Katrina to the Indian Ocean Tsunami to the Haiti Earthquake to Japan where there was an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant meltdown that suffering hits people with full force – people who did nothing to deserve such suffering.

            You could make your own version of the sentence: “I could never believe in a God who ______” and you name an injustice of particular interest to you.  Galli in the Christianity Today article points out the obvious.  God’s existence is not dependent on us believing.  Nor is God’s existence on our sense of justice. 

            So, the children die, people have urges and impulses and deep desires that lead to lifestyles the Bible says are sinful, and the innocent suffer through no fault of their own.  The follow-up proclamation is “well, I’d rather spend an eternity in Hell than worship a God who stands with his hands in his pockets while children die or  a God who imposes misery by not letting people marry who they want to marry or who a God does nothing while innocents suffer.”  It’s another version of the same frustration.  “I’d rather go to Hell than worship the God who does that” whatever “that” is. 

            Really?

            It sounds tough when Han Solo or Dirty Harry or one of the X-men brazenly says to his foe, “I’ll see you in Hell.”  I can just hear Charlton Heston saying, “They can take my gun when they pry it out of my cold, dead fingers.”  I remember the t-shirt from my basic training days.  “God said, ‘Let there be infantry,’ and the gates of Hell opened.

            Really?  It sounds fine from Charles Bronson or the Rock or the Marlboro man, but let’s be thinking people for a moment.  If we don’t like what God does, we’ll just do without him?  If we get mad at God and say, “to Hell with you,” it’s an exclamation.  If he says back, “To Hell with you,” well, then we’ve got a problem. 

            We either believe in God or we don’t, I don’t think goodness is a sufficient reason to believe in God and I don’t think pain is a sufficient argument to reject the notion of God.  Do we believe there is a God?  If yes, what do we believe about that God?

            In his magisterial work Institutes, the great 16th century reformer John Calvin writes, “God has sown a seed of religion in all men.”  Furthermore writes Calvin, God has “revealed himself and daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe.”[ii]  The way God made us, we are inherently disposed to belief in Him.  So any atheism is a direct rebellion in how we were created.  We’re made to believe in God.

            Because of the Fall – Adam and Eve’s original disobedience and fall from innocence – we do rebel against God’s creative intentions.  But even when we do, Calvin says that because God is so clearly seen in nature, “[we] cannot open [our] eyes without being compelled to see Him.”  This point comes from the New Testament, Romans chapter 1.  “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things He has made” (v.20).  We are created to believe in God’s existence.  The creation around us is evidence of God’s existence.

            Some continue to hold to atheism, that there is no God, but if we accept that God exists then we still have to deal with some painful truths.  Children starve to death.  Disasters happen and millions suffer, including good people.  Young adults in their prime come down with cancer and other deadly diseases.  Cruel dictators inflict persecution and death on people in their own nations and other nations. 

Mark Galli points out that such non sequiturs, horrible happenings occurring in a world ruled by an all-powerful, all-good God lead to the Gospel of Job.  This is the opposite of “I’d rather go to Hell than worship a God who allows ___ suffering of some kind.”  In Job’s gospel, Job, the virtuous man of the Old Testament suffers tremendously and unjustly.  If anyone had reason to gripe to God, it was Job.  He loses his kids and is afflicted with disease and he did nothing to deserve such misfortune. 

So, he expresses every emotion under the sun.  He complains, wishes for death, wishes he was never born, and then demands an audience with God.  God finally grants that meeting, but in it, Job never speaks.  He meekly listens as God recounts his creative, omnipotent, omnipresent glory.  That means God can do whatever God must do, and Job is too small to understand. 

Job accepts that conclusion.  Even though Job suffered unjustly, after God speaks, Job says, “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (42:6).  Many who go through the paces of (a) belief in God, (b) refusal to believe because of evil and suffering in the world, and then (c) resolution to reject God because God is bad.  Of those who go through these steps of faith, many end up here.  We end up where Job is.  “I cannot understand things, so I just blindly worship God and say that God is good and God is love.”  If I look around and see pain and see suffering, I stop looking around because God is good and God is love and I have to hold to that no matter how much the reality of the world demands another story.  I’ll deny that reality so I can God is good and God is love.

Fortunately, there is more to the story because that blind faith is a sure fire way to drive unbelievers away from God in droves.  It’s not that the Gospel of Job is not true.  It is true that people sometimes – often? – suffer unjustly.  It is true that next to God, each one of us is impossibly small and cannot understand God’s ways.  But, this story, by itself, is not Gospel.  Gospel means good news.  This isn’t good news.  It’s fatalism.  It’s resignation.  It’s the surrender that says, we just want to survive this world, as bad as it can be. Survive and make it to Heaven.

What’s missing?  Jesus!  Jesus is the completion of Job’s gospel.  Job’s defeated submission before God is not good news until we read the Gospel of Jesus Christ – God come earth in human flesh.  Galli points that “I could never believe in a God who ____” is a sentence missing something.  So too is “God is good and God is love and I’ll believe that and ignore any evidence that suggests the world is falling apart.”  Both sentences talk of God, but neither mentions Jesus, and Galli feels and I agree that Jesus is the key.

First John 5:5 – “Who is that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.”  The very next verse states that Jesus came by water and blood.  It makes me think of His baptism.  Like all people who want to trust in God, he was immersed in the water.  But he’s the only who, when he came up from the water, elicited a remark from Heaven.  “You are my son, the Beloved.  With you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).  God spoke when Jesus was baptized.  God was there, a proud father honoring His son.

To say Jesus came by water and blood also calls to mind communion.  When we take the juice and are reminded that he said, “My blood that is poured out is the blood of the New Covenant.  Take and drink.”  Water and blood – Jesus truly is God, and he came for us.  In Jesus, God came for all people. 

At the same time, 1st John’s declaration that Jesus came by water and blood is a declaration of Jesus’ 100% humanity.  When he died on the cross, one of the Roman soldiers thrust  spear into him, and water and blood gushed from his side (John 19:34).  This was a human being nailed to a real cross on a specific day in history, dying a real death.  In 1st John, the confidence of this telling depends on the witness of the Holy Spirit.  Verse 9, hearkening to Jesus’ baptism and the other moments when God spoke in the gospels adds that God the Father also testifies to that Jesus is the Beloved Son and the Anointed one.  The flow reaches a climax in verse 12.  “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”

It’s all about Jesus.  When children die, we turn to Jesus.  When we feel we are imprisoned in a life that isn’t fair and imposes on us impossible expectations, we turn to Jesus.  When disaster strikes, evil lurks, pain rises, and we feel like hope is quickly running out, in prayer, with other believers, in scripture, and in a panicked cry from the depths of our hearts, we turn to Jesus. 

This is not another version of simplistic surrender to fate.  “I just hope Jesus gets me to Heaven.”  Of course we hope Jesus paves the way for us after death.  In fact, we don’t hope that; we confidently declare that he will go and prepare a place for us as he has promised.  But this mantra, turn to Jesus, is for living today.  First John says, “Whoever has the Son has life.” 

In turning to Him, we see the cross, the flow of water and blood, and we see that he has suffered.  He was betrayed.  He was mocked and abandoned.  Physically, he was tortured and killed.  He knows suffering.

His love is perfect and His vision is expansive.  We read statistic that so many thousands of children die of preventable causes.  In turning to Jesus, we discover he knows every one of those children by name.  He knows which ones are good soccer player.  He know which ones laugh loudly, which are talented musicians, and which have scientific genius that would have made discoveries for the good of all humankind had they not succumbed to malnutrition.  We lament the fate of the children.  Jesus eternally weeps with a sadness deeper than we could realize, but we see it when we turn to Jesus. 

When someone is stuck in life, we recall people Jesus met – the woman with the blood flow; blind Bartimaeus; Zaccheus the tax collector; the woman by the well.  These people turned to Jesus and their lives were unstuck.  In turning to Him, we come into a life of joy, laughter, and fulfillment that completes us the way nothing else possibly could.

And there are still unanswered questions.  Why did the tornado hit my house?  And sometimes God still overwhelms people from the whirlwind as he did Job.  But’s that not the only way God speaks.  In Jesus, in the Holy Spirit, God brings grace, mercy, peace, hope, and love to all of us.  When a question is unanswered, we look to the character of Jesus.  That has not changed.  His character was loving and merciful and it still is.  He loved children, weak people, fragile people, the rejected, and the lost.  He still does.  We can cite all kinds of rules about who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell, but a better approach is to turn to Jesus.  We trust His character and His wisdom about the afterlife.  We turn to Him today because we have to make it through today and we don’t want to do that alone. 

Pain guts us – Jesus help me with this.

Injustice frustrates – Jesus, what I do?

Loss devastates us – Jesus, I need you.  And he’s there.  We ask Him to walk with us, and He does!

My whole case here rests on Jesus’ character.  First John is the same way.  The letter’s entire argument rests on the belief Jesus really is the Son of God, really loves us, and really can and will help and be with us.  Life is only truly lived when Jesus is at the center of it. 

As we conclude five weeks in 1st John, each of us is welcomed to bring our lives right to the Word, right to the cross of water and blood, and right to God’s throne room.  All our hopes, all our disappointments, our frustrations and anxieties – we bring it all because he loves us and will guide us in life so that His joy is in us and our joy is complete. 

The final word is similar to what we see in John’s gospel.  This is written to us so that we who believe in the name of the Son of God may know, absolutely, confidently know that we have eternal life with Him (1 John 5:13, paraphrased).  Turn to Jesus and receive eternal life and eternal joy.

AMEN



[i] The conversation on page 1 of this message come from Christianity Today, Mark Galli, “’Crucified under Pontius Pilate,’” April 2012, p.32-35.
[ii] Institutes, book 1, chapter IV.1 and V.1.