Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What sins?

"In those days and at that time, says the LORD, the iniquity of Israel shall be sought, and there shall be none; and the sins of Judah, and none shall be found; for I will pardon the remnant that I have spared."
(Jeremiah 50:20)

As we read through the Old Testament, we encounter indictment after indictment of the Hebrew people by God.  They were not living as a people "set apart" in righteousness.  God sent prophet after prophet to bring them back to Him.  This had little impact.  So God allowed 2 major exiles to take place.  The people were carried away from their homeland & forced to live for 2 generations in a foreign land (Assyria for the Northern tribes & Babylon for the Southern tribes).  So it's somewhat surprising to read Jeremiah 50:20... "the iniquity of Israel will be sought, and there shall be none; the sin of Judah and none shall be found."

The truth is that the Hebrew Scriptures contain a laundry list of the sins of Israel (Northern tribes) and Judah (Southern tribes).  But int he eyes of God, their sins are no more.  Gone. Vanished.  Wiped Clean.  Forgiven.  (What sins?!?)

Sometimes we get the picture that God is like a Divine Judge who calls us into court & listens to the evidence against us before choosing to give us leniency.  "Despite all I see against you," we hear God say, "I'm going to let you off with a warning.  BUT DON'T LET IT HAPPEN AGAIN, you hear!?!?"  According to Jeremiah 50, however, it's a bit different.  It's more like God is that friend who always stands up for us - even when we're in trouble.  'You ain't got nothing on him,' he says to others about us.  'Go look it up and see for yourself!'  And sure enough, our past sins are nowhere to be found. 

We've all got things in our past (and present!??!) that we're not proud of.  Things we know we've done that we're ashamed of.  Thing we know have let God (and others) down.  We know, however, if we confess our sins, God has forgiven us.  But there's also that nagging feeling in the back of our minds that God still has "the list" of all our bad deeds somewhere in "safekeeping" - in case He needs to use it against us somewhere down the road.

The truth, my friends, is that there is no list.  When asked about it, God replies with all sincerity, "What sins?"

Wow.  Just wow!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"I surrender!"

"Then Jeremiah said to (King) Zedekiah, 'Thus says the LORD, the God of hosts, the god of Israel, If you will only surrender ot the officials of the king of Babylon, then your life shall be spared, and this city shall not be burned with fire and you and your house shall live.'"
(Jeremiah 38:17)

Faced with an onslaught by the invading Babylonian army, King Zedekiah of Judah was in a precarious situation.  "God will save us," cried many of his trusted advisers.  Jeremiah knew otherwise.  Defeat was immanent.  So his message to the king was simple: surrender!  Surrender & live.  Surrender & save the city.

Human nature is a flawed animal.  Pride reigns supreme - especially in us leaders.  To submit is to admit defeat (and weakness).  Zedekiah refused.  But instead of "fighting to the end," he and his officials chose to flee in the middle of the night.  They were caught, punished (his eyes were gouged out), and the city was destroyed.  If only he would have listened to God...

We're taught to "tough it out." To "fight to the end."  To "never give up & never surrender!"  And yet, could this story be telling us that there MAY be times when God might want us to surrender?  And I'm not talking about "surrendering our lives to Jesus," either.  We at least know how that's going to turn out.  No, I'm talking about surrendering in situations where it looks like we're giving in to "the enemy."  Where it seems as though to do so is to admit failure.  And yet, could it be that God might be wanting us to, on occasion, do just that?!?

In the 'BIG PICTURE' of things, the people of Israel needed to have those 70+ years in Babylonian exile to get re-centered and re-focused on God.  They'd been on a downward spiral for multiple generations prior and nothing God did seemed to make a difference.  So God allowed "the enemy" to win.  For a season at least.  Zedekiah tried to fight it (and look how that turned out!).

Now I'm not suggesting every calamity that strikes us is from God... nor that we should "give in" all the time.  But if God sends word to us - "Don't fight this... surrender... accept the momentary pain & humiliation, for I have a bigger picture in mind for you!"  Could we trust God through this kind of situation?  Could it be that God has a greater good in store for us, if only we'll surrender?!?

How crazy is that?!?

Monday, October 26, 2009

No 'Take Backs'!

"The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to make a proclamation of liberty to them - that all should set free their Hebrew slaves, male & female, so that no one should hold another Judean in slavery."
(Jeremiah 23:8-9)

Jerusalem was under siege!  The Babylonians were attacking & things weren't looking good for the "home team."  In the midst of the entanglement, God sent a message to the people through the prophet Jeremiah: "Release all your Hebrew slaves.  Now!"

Scholars postulate why this command might have been given God... the food supply was running low (releasing slaves would be less mouths to feed!)... freed slaves might help defend the city (D-FENSE!)... or even in the midst of crisis, it would turn many hearts (back) to the LORD.  And King Zedekiah listened and obeyed.  All Hebrew slaves were freed.  Hallelujah!

But then the Egyptian army (with ties to Judah) approached from the south & the Babylonians retreated (momentarily) to meet that resistance.  Jerusalem was given a reprieve (if only for a moment)!  Praise God!  So what did they do to celebrate?  They took back their (former) slaves.  WHAT!?!?  How sad is that?!?

God noticed.  He sent word back with Jeremiah that since the people disobeyed His directions to release their slaves, he would "grant them a release" - a release of pestilence, famine & sword!  God wanted no take backs!!  When He gave a command it was to be followed.  Period.  Not "when it's convenient" or "under stressful situations only" or "when it seems to your advantage."

I think if we're honest, we're guilty of this all the time.  God has given us the words of life in the Bible... not a follow-this-instruction-sheet kind of a listing, but a take-this-in-and-allow-God's-spirit-to-direct-your steps kind of thing.  But we often have "selective hearing" (or is it "selective reading?")... choosing to follow/obey when it's convenient or practical or to our advantage.  Whether it's an issue of financial stewardship or caring for the environment or working for peace or loving our enemies or reaching out to help the poor (the list could go on and on!)... there are numerous times we "take back" a commitment we've made to God.

May we have the courage to follow through on our discipleship with the Lord.  May we trust that god knows what He's talking about when He calls us to obey.  And may we come to know the joy that is a life lived in obedience!  AMEN.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Save us (on our terms!)...

"Save us, we beseech you, O LORD!  O LORD, we beseech you, give us success!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD."
(Psalm 118:25-26)

"Save us!" is the cry.  By and large, I think this world wants to be saved.  It's hard to argue against that.  But one's definition of "being saved" probably varies greatly.  The Hebrew word for "save us" is HOSHIANNA.  It's where we get "Hosanna!"  In fact, the very next verse in Psalm 118 goes hand-in-hand with "Hosanna!"  Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the LORD.  It's what the crowds cried out to Jesus on what we in the Christian church refer to as Palm Sunday.

Jesus was entering Jerusalem (for what would be his last week of life on earth), riding on a donkey (a sign of humility)... and the people were shouting, "Hosanna!  Hosanna!" I guess I'd always thought it was like saying, "Praise God!" or "Oh Yah!" or "You're the Man!"  But no.  It means "Save us!"

Now here's where it gets complicated.  My idea of what "being saved" means... and God's idea of what it means for me to be saved may very well be two completely different things.  Look at Psalm 118:25b... "O LORD, we beseech you, give us success."  Ah, there it is!  Success.  Of course!  We want success!!!  The crowds in Jerusalem on that Palm Sunday were ready for the occupying Roman government to be overthrown and the Hebrew people given autonomy once again.  "Save us... on our terms!"  But Jesus had another idea of what it meant to be saved... and it involved sacrifice, humility, submission to God's will (not ours)... it modeled servanthood, love & inclusivity.  The crowds who'd shouted, "Hosanna!  Save us!" on Sunday, changed their tune to "Crucify Him!" on Friday.

We are a fickle people, we humans.  We want to be saved... we really do... but on our own terms & conditions.  God doesn't work that way.  So if "Save us!" is truly our heart's cry... then it should be followed by the word of Jesus, when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before he was killed: "Not my will, but Yours be done, O Lord." Wow.

Hosanna!  Save us!  Please.  Please...

Monday, October 19, 2009

It all starts with goodness...

"For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love."
(2 Peter 1:5-7)

Interested in support your faith (well, who isn't, right?!)?  The author of 2nd Peter has a few suggestions: goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection, and love.  Now maybe he was simply listing a bunch of things that all come in to play when "supporting your faith."  Then again, maybe it's something more...

As I thought about these, I wondered if there was a natural progression to these attributes?  Could it be that it all starts with goodness... a desire and willingness to do the right thing!?  Then you add knowledge... insight & understanding - which can expand one's horizon's greatly!  With that new-found knowledge, add self-control... here's where the "rubber meets the road," so to speak.  Knowing what's right and wrong and choosing to obey.  Self-control is greatly underrated in our society.  What can aid self-control?  Endurance!  Having a vision of "the big picture" or "the long haul," and not settling for anything temporary or fleeting, no matter how enticing it may be.  Once endurance has kicked in, godliness starts forming... a consistent lifestyle that echoes what God desires from us.  With an increased sense of godliness, one is able to have mutual affection towards others - no longer focused solely on self, a believer is open to having affectionate feelings toward all.  The ultimate progression of faith, however, culminates in genuine love.  Not an "I love this!" passing fancy... but a deep & sincere love.  A love that can change people and transform the world.

Sound hard to believe?  Sound too good to be true?  It's not as far away as you might think... and it all starts with goodness.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

That's deep!

"Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart."
 (1 Peter 1:22)

We "love" a lot of things... from this new song ("I just love it!") to a good hamburger ("I LOVE this burger!") to a day off ("Gotta love a vacation day!") to acquaintances ("I Love you, man!").  Okay, so we probably overuse the world LOVE a bit.  The author of 1 Peter reminds us that when we're "obedient to the truth," we will have GENUINE MUTUAL LOVE.  Genuine... real, sincere, & rooted (not surface-level only).  Mutual... denotes a relationship; reciprocal - we must be involved in the lives of others!  Love... more than "like" or affection; concern, feeling, investment, commitment.

To this end, we're encouraged to "love one another deeply from the heart."  I consider myself a fairly friendly guy.  In fact, I probably have more than the average person's friendships, because of my role as a pastor.  And yet, if I'm honest about things, very few would qualify as "deep" relationships.  The deepest, of course, is with my wife, Jody.  But beyond that, I can probably count on one or two hands the other relationships that I "love deeply from the heart."  (At least ones that I've invested a significant amount of my love into!)  WHY?  Fear of intimacy?  I don't think so.  Unwillingness to "let others inside"?  Not really.  Lack of desire?  Nope.  Why, then?  Laziness?  Possibly.  For some reason, it's easier to go through life with a plethora of  "nice friendships"... than to be intentional about "loving one another deeply from the heart."

And yet... the Christian Church should be the place where deep relationships are cultivated!  That's where some of life's greatest abundances can be found - if we're willing to go there. 

What can I do TODAY to start cultivating deep relationships!?!?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

No Guarantees

"Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place.  Do not trust in these deceptive words: 'This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.'"
(Jeremiah 7:3-4)

"If you build it, he will come," was the famous phrase from the 80's movie FIELD OF DREAMS.  It worked for a baseball field in Iowa... but Jeremiah tells us that it won't necessarily work for temples and churches.  Oh sure, people may come... in droves!  But don't expect God to show up just because it's a "house of worship."

In Jeremiah 7, God has the prophet chastise the people for their actions, not their worship.  They'd been acting unjustly - oppressing orphans, widows & foreigners, "shedding innocent blood," swearing falsely, committing adultery, stealing, following other gods, etc.  Then they'd waltz into worship and assume that God would be there waiting for them with outstretched arms.  WRONG!  God called their so-called houses of worship, a "Den of robbers" (a phrase Jesus would use later, when he confronted the temple moneychangers!).

"Don't trust in these deceptive words," Jeremiah is told.  "The temple of the LORD..."  Hymns, songs, prayers, rituals... no matter what we may say about God in our churches, that's no guarantee God is "on board" with us.  We have to walk the talk with our actions.  How sad that our failure to live out our faith may have caused God to leave our churches - and we may not have even noticed!  Ouch...

Friday, October 9, 2009

In our own time...

"LORD, I have heard of your renown, and I stand in awe, O LORD, of your work.  In our own time, revive it; in our own time, make it known."
(Habakkuk 3:2)

Every time I read the 3 short chapters of Habakkuk, I come away with a new 'gem.'  One of my all-time favorite passages in all of scripture is Habakkuk 3:17-19 (and I thought I'd be journaling about that today - wrong!)... and yet it was the 2nd verse of chapter 3 that spoke loudest to me today.

I picture a person of deep faith... yet weathered and worn from life.  Someone who knows about God, believe in God - probably even has a vital relationship WITH God... but recognizes God has been silent of late.  This is a person rooted & grounded in the great history of God's majesty and power... and yet desires that same experience now - in his time and era.  "In our own time, revive (your work); in our own time, make it known."

Those of us "in the church" stand in the stream of the great tradition of faith.  Once we've personally experienced God's presence & power, it's life-changing.  But not everyone has that experience.  There are many people today who LONG for that kind of personal experience of God.  Not necessarily a "parting the Red Sea" kind of thing - but something that echoes of Truth, Assurance, and Grace.

What might happen if this became our prayer today?  "In our time, revive your work, O Lord!"  Not to build up any particular church or denomination - but to connect people to The One who brings abundance to life!  Might I (we) be willing to pray that prayer on a regular basis?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

DO provoke me!

"And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching."
(Hebrews 10:24-25)

I have a tendency to get a bit over-competitive.  When I was in high school, it sometimes affected me during play (especially basketball).  I'd come to literally hate my opponent while we were playing.  I had to make a conscious decision to change that aspect of me.  I retained the competitive drive, but let go of the anger component (big help!).  I've noticed, however, that it's manifesting itself on occasion now as I'm watching my son's soccer games.

Ezra is a very talented striker, playing on a very talented club (Abunai 95).  They're currently playing in 2 leagues where they play teams that are 1-2 years older than they... and they do very well.  However, at some of the more evenly-matched competitions, I find myself getting riled at the following:
  1. What I perceive to be bad/unfair calls by the referees (or missed calls!)...
  2. Rude comments by the opposing fans...
  3. (Did I mention bad calls yet?)
I tend to revert to "encouraging sarcasm" - a precise & highly effective method of couching biting sarcasm in the guise of encouragement to our players.  This is never directed at the kids, mind you... but at the referees & opposing fans.  For example: "Don't worry Steve, maybe NEXT time the ref will call the foul!"

A week ago, with our team down 0-1 in the closing moments of the game, Ezra buried a blocked penalty kick into the back of the net for what should have been the game-tying score.  Instead, the ref blew the whistle signifying the end of the match just as he was kicking the ball.  It literally was a matter of 2-3 seconds from when his teammate took the PK, to when Ezra pounced on the blocked ball.  AND THE REF STILL BLEW THE WHISTLE.  No goal.  Game over.  I'd never seen anything like it (usually a ref will wait until the ball is out of immediate goal-scoring danger!).

Well, I was so frustrated that I stood up and shouted, "Merry Christmas (insert opponent team's name here)!!!!"  Well, some of the opposing parents got a bit upset at this and started shouting back at me (including telling me to "Shut up!").  Nothing came of it, of course... (except embarrassment to unnamed family members).

So when I read Hebrews 10 today... "Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds"... I realized it was a message for me.  Will I "use my powers" (creative language skills!) for good or ill?  Will what I say bring encouragement or discouragement?  For the most part, I'm a very encouraging guy... but maybe I can stand a bit of improvement nonetheless (especially outside of my role as pastor).

How might YOU 'provoke' someone to love and good deeds today?

Friday, October 2, 2009

An Indestructible Life

"It is even more obvious when another priest arises, resembling Melchizedek, one who has become a priest, not through a legal requirement concerning physical descent, but through the power of an indestructible life."
(Hebrews 7:15-16)

The author of Hebrews spends chapter 7 talking about the great high priest Melchizedek from the time of Abraham.  In contrast, he presents Jesus - who surpasses even "The Great Mel."  What struck me as I was reading this today was the qualification... Jesus wasn't "born into" his priesthood (well, technically the whole Son-of-God thing might be construed this way, but let's put that thought aside for now).  He didn't get his title from his family line (which is how the priesthood was passed down back then - through the tribe of Levi!).  Instead, it was "the power of an indestructible life."  Wow.

An indestructible life... doesn't mean "impervious to harm," for Jesus was ultimately crucified.  Maybe Jesus' "indestructibility" refers to his focus... his passion... his purpose in life.  He knew who God was calling him to be.  He didn't let anyone push him off of or dissuade his resolve - even to the point of giving up his life out of love.

We're not Jesus, of course... but could we strive for "an indestructible life," too?  How might our lives echo Jesus' mission of love, grace, and acceptance of others?  Can we be grounded in a life that focuses on "giving ourselves away for the world"... and thereby find something that no one (or no thing) can ever take away?