Sunday, January 29, 2017

Blessed are the Meek, Matthew 5:5

Shiloh Lutheran Church
State College, PA

We're going to focus on the third beatitude this morning, “blessed are the meek,” but we need to know that all the beatitudes belong together. They're not intended to describe different kinds of people, but taken together they describe what a Christian is intended to look like. Christians recognize their poverty of spirit, that they have nothing to bring into God's presence. This leads them to mourn their sinfulness, and in this way seeing the truth about themselves, they become meek both in their attitude toward God and in their treatment of others. But they're not content with where they are spiritually, so they hunger and thirst for righteousness. Because they've received mercy, they are merciful toward others, are in the process of being purified before God, and seek to make peace between their fellow humans and between people and God. And because they are seriously out of step with the world, they experience persecution. So these beatitudes all belong together, but this morning we're going to focus on meekness.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones has a good description of meekness in his Studies in the Sermon on the Mount: “Meekness is essentially a true view of oneself, expressing itself in attitudes and conduct with respect to others. It is therefore two things. It is my attitude towards myself; and it is an expression of that in my relationship to others.... The meek man is not proud of himself, he does not in any sense glory in himself. He feels that there is nothing in himself of which he can boast. It also means that he does not assert himself. You see, it is a negation of the popular psychology of the day which says ‘assert yourself’, ‘express your personality’.... The meek man likewise does not demand anything for himself. He does not take all his rights as claims. He does not make demands for his position, his privileges, his possessions, his status in life. No, he is like the man depicted by Paul in Philippians 2. ‘Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.’ Christ did not assert that right to equality with God; He deliberately did not. And that is the point to which you and I have to come” (pp. 72-73). So this word in Matthew 5 includes both our inner disposition–meekness–and, flowing from that, gentleness in the ways that we act toward other people. We’ll be looking at both of these things this morning.

The primary thing implied by meekness is submissiveness to God’s will. It doesn’t have anything to do with weakness or lack of assertiveness. It’s not about “niceness,” or being an agreeable, easy-going person. It doesn’t mean living as a doormat, just letting other people do whatever they want to us without protest. It’s not about being passive, resigning ourselves to endure whatever happens. These things come to mind when we use the word meek, but that’s not what the biblical writers have in mind. A meek person is, above all, someone who has submitted to God’s will. This implies a number of things.

First of all, saying that we are submitting to God’s will implies that we are living in repentance, because this is not our natural state as sinners in a fallen world. Ever since Adam and Eve gave in to the temptation to “be like God,” the human race as a whole has been headed in the wrong direction. As Isaiah said: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6a). In our natural condition, we go our own way; we want to run our own lives. We’d like God’s help when we’re in trouble, but we don’t want to submit our wills to Him. Israel is described over and over again as a “stiff-necked people,” people who consistently put their own desires ahead of God’s will. To be stiff-necked is the opposite of being meek, and this is our natural condition. We’re stiff-necked and rebellious, going our own way. Repentance is a change of mind, a realization that we’ve been headed in the wrong direction and a determination to turn around and go the other way.

This also implies that we’ve been humbled before God. The problem is not just that we’re headed in the wrong direction. If you take a wrong turn on the road, all you need to do is turn around and go the other way. But what happens if you’re too proud to admit that you’ve made a mistake? You keep on driving, getting further and further from your destination. Admitting that we’re headed in the wrong direction implies that we’ve been humbled. We’re not just saying that we’ve made a mistake along the way; we’re saying that our whole way of life is under God’s judgment and needs to be rejected. We’re confessing not only that we’ve done wrong, but that we are wrong. We’re confessing that in our flesh there is no good thing, nothing that can become pleasing to God. We’re “dead in trespasses and sins,” incapable of doing anything to remedy our situation. All we can do is humble ourselves before God and cry out for mercy: “Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to the cross I cling. Naked, come to thee for dress; helpless look to thee for grace. Foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me, Savior, or I die.”

Being submissive to God’s will also implies that we’ve denied ourselves. This is more than practicing isolated acts of self denial. We may practice rigid self-discipline in order to get something we really want. It’s a good thing to be able to do this, to not be ruled by our own desires and whims, to be able to lay aside our immediate impulses to accomplish our long-term goals. But self-interest can motivate us to do this sort of thing, simply calculating that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. But denying ourselves in the context of repentance means laying aside our right to be at the center of things. It means surrendering the control of our lives, giving up our right to call the shots. It means recognizing that much of our problem is our self. We spend too much time thinking about ourselves, watching ourselves, thinking about what others think of us. It’s one thing to cry out to God and say, “O God, you know that I’m a miserable sinner, that I’m self-centered, egotistical, insensitive, that everything I do revolves around my own desires.” But what if you overheard someone else praying for you in that way? Would you be grateful for their prayers? Becoming meek means that we’ve accepted the truth about ourselves and that we don’t feel the need to defend ourselves when we hear that truth from other people. We’ve denied ourselves, and we don’t feel the need to protect ourselves any longer. Our self has been dethroned. We’re not touchy and defensive about ourselves.

Alexander the Great succeeded in conquering much of the known world during his lifetime. He had been tutored by the Greek philosopher Aristotle and was gifted in many areas, besides being a great military leader. During a drinking party, his best friend, the son of his nurse, reproached him for taking all the glory for the things his soldiers had done. Alexander became enraged at this, and he grabbed a spear from one of the guards and killed him. He was immediately overcome with remorse, but it was too late to go back. His self-importance–his lack of meekness–led him, in a moment of anger, to kill his best friend.

Something similar happened in Numbers 12: “Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite. ‘Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?’ They asked. ‘Hasn’t he also spoken through us?’ And the Lord heard this” (Numbers 12:1-2). This is very similar to what happened with Alexander the Great. Miriam and Aaron were Moses’ older siblings, and they began to criticize him for claiming too much authority. But notice the difference in what followed: “(Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth)” (v. 3). Some translations use the word “meek” here, but the point is that Moses wasn’t concerned with defending his territory. Aaron and Miriam were rebuked by God for their presumption, and then they were able to carry on. Moses didn’t fly into a rage and order them to be killed. He was meek and humble; he didn’t need to defend his honor.

Being submissive to God’s will also implies that we have a teachable spirit. We admit that we don’t know everything, and we’re willing to submit ourselves to God’s Word. When I was a new Christian I remember talking about small group Bible studies to my aunt, who had been a churchgoer for many years. She agreed that this could be a good thing as long as there wasn’t anyone teaching, “telling us what it means.” She preferred, she said, groups where everyone could just say what it means to them. That spirit had led her to reject virtually all the major doctrines of orthodox Christianity: things like the Trinity, the deity of Jesus Christ, sin and judgment, justification by faith. She didn’t have a teachable spirit. She was willing to talk about what the Bible meant to her, but she wasn’t willing to submit her will and her opinions to the authority of Scripture.

That’s the first thing. Meekness implies submission to God’s will. We’ve repented of our sinful attitude in wanting to go our own way, and we’ve determined to bring every area of our lives under God’s lordship. We’ve humbled ourselves before God and accepted His verdict about ourselves, which has led us to lay aside our desire to be first, to have our own way. We’ve repented of our self-centeredness and are asking God to occupy the throne of our lives. And we’re sitting at His feet, submitting ourselves to the authority of His Word.

But when we see ourselves in this way, it affects the way we act toward others. The way we think about ourselves, the way we perceive ourselves, will have an impact on the way we treat other people. What we think affects the way we act. The 19th Century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, was the son of a Protestant pastor, but he grew to hate Christianity. He said it led to a slave morality, and he despised the ideas of repentance, denial of self, and redemption through God’s mercy and grace. Here’s something he said: “What is it that we combat in Christianity? That it aims at destroying the strong, at breaking their spirit, at exploiting their moments of weariness and debility, at converting their proud assurance into anxiety and conscience-trouble; that it knows how to poison the noblest instincts and to infect them with disease, until their strength, their will to power, turns inwards, against themselves–until the strong perish through their excessive self-contempt and self-immolation: that gruesome way of perishing, of which Pascal is the most famous example” (quoted by Bertrand Russell, in A History of Western Philosophy, p. 766). Nietzsche exalted the will to power and said that the ideal ruler would recognize the importance and value and usefulness of cruelty and wouldn’t hesitate to crush others in his exercise of power. Adolph Hitler was an admirer of Nietzsche, and his cruelty was consistent with Nietzsche’s philosophy.

In the same way, following Jesus will lead us to become like Him. Jesus is the supreme example of meekness in laying aside His rights as the eternal Second Person of the Trinity and submitting Himself to a shameful death in our place. And He expresses His gentleness toward others in His invitation at the end of Matthew 11: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). He is both meek and gentle.

George Verwer is the founder of Operation Mobilization, the mission group Anne and I worked with in the 70's and 80's. George, by nature, is a very driven person. He’s a strong leader, the sort of person who can lead others to do things they never would have attempted on their own. But he’s not, by nature, a gentle or meek person. He’s intent on getting things done, and he’s full of vision for reaching the world with the gospel. People like this often end up hurting other people in the process of pursuing their goals, but as George has followed Christ he’s become a very meek and gentle person. One of the mechanics I knew in Nepal was very difficult to work with. Alan had some severe emotional problems, and he often came into conflict with others. Very few people in OM were willing to work with him for any length of time. But he told me several times about George’s attempts to reach out to him and minister to him. George had heavy responsibilities for leading the work of OM, but he went out of his way to cultivate a relationship with Alan, who was often difficult and abrasive.

This emphasis on meekness and gentleness presents us with a choice between two alternatives. We either bow our wills before God’s lordship or we continue seeking to assert our own will. Nietzsche’s ideas are simply a logical result of refusing to bow before God’s authority, of proudly seeking to live as if there were no God. Nietzsche was a brilliant thinker, but he refused, over the course of a lifetime, to accept the limitations of his existence as a creature made in the image of the Creator. In January of 1889, he collapsed in the street in northern Italy and was taken to an asylum, totally insane. A short time later he was released to the care of his family and spent the last 11 years of his life needing constant help from others (who, presumably, didn’t buy into his ideas about the will to power). He never recovered his sanity. We don’t know what happened to him; it seems likely that his insanity was brought on by a syphilitic infection, but the point is that he was powerless to do anything about it. He who had made so much of the will to power spent the last 11 years of his life in a powerless condition. “But man, despite his riches, does not endure; he is like the beasts that perish. This is the fate of those who trust in themselves, and of their followers, who approve their sayings. Like sheep they are destined for the grave, and death will feed on them” (Psalm 49:12-14).

Saul of Tarsus was also a proud man. He was born a Roman citizen and was a Pharisee with a strong family heritage. He had the best education available in his day and was diligent in seeking to follow the Law. As a Pharisee, he deeply resented the teachings of these followers of Jesus, and he committed his life to exterminating them from the face of the earth. But then he met Jesus face to face, and he turned around and went in the other direction. And, near the end of his life he was able to look back and say: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day–and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

The world’s wisdom says that we need to assert ourselves and grasp for all we can. If we don’t take care of ourselves, nobody else will. Meekness and gentleness will only cause us to be run over in the real world. But the reality is that when we assert our own will and seek to live for ourselves, we lose the very thing we’re trying to get. The truth is that we are powerless. We weren’t created with the ability to live that way, and when we try, it destroys us. Those who are gentle and meek may be run over in this world, but that’s not the end of the story. As Jesus says in the second half of this verse, it is the meek who will inherit the earth.

Jesus said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul” (Matthew 16:24-26). Here’s how Jim Elliot, who died as a martyr at the age of 29, expressed this idea: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep in order to gain what he cannot lose.” Which direction are you headed? Are you living for yourself, trying to get everything you can, insisting on your own way no matter what? Or are you seeking each day to lay your life before the foot of the cross, submitting your will to God? If you’re crying out to God each day for grace and mercy, you may be discouraged with the lack of meekness and gentleness in your spirit, but God is at work in ways you’re not aware of, transforming you into His image. Don’t worry about the amount of progress you’ve made; just be sure you’re headed in the right direction. As we continue to seek Jesus, spending time in His presence, we are being transformed into His image, whether we realize it or not. “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Purpose of the Law, Galatians 3:15-29

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
State College PA
January 1, 2017

At one point in Jesus’ ministry, the people asked Him a question that was very important to them: “what must we do to perform the works of God?” “What do we need to do to become people who are pleasing to God?” And Jesus gave them a surprising answer: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:28-29). It wasn’t what they expected; it wasn’t what they were looking for, and as the discussion continued, many of His own disciples turned away and no longer followed Him. They wanted something more tangible, something they could do, that everyone could see and know that they were people who performed the works of God.

The Galatians were asking a similar question, and they were receiving a very definite answer from some teachers who had come into the area. They were asking, “what must we do to perform the works of God,” and these teachers were telling them: “be circumcised and submit to the law of Moses.” The people who questioned Jesus were looking for this sort of answer; it’s just the kind of thing they were hoping for: “If you want to perform the works of God, do this and everything will be fine.”

This question doesn’t seem as urgent to us, living in the 21st Century. We live in a very different kind of society, and “doing the works of God” is not as high on our agenda. But here’s a question we do ask: “how can I be successful?” “What do I need to do to become a success?” It really doesn’t matter what kind of success we’re concerned about: financial prosperity, personal happiness, a fulfilling career, a good reputation, or a leadership position in the church. We want to be successful; we don’t want to be failures. We want to know that our lives have counted for something. And when we come into God’s presence, very often the most pressing question on our minds is this: “what do I need to do to become successful?” That’s one reason there are so many self-help books in Christian bookstores. We want to know how to succeed in life.

Eugene Peterson makes this interesting observation: “Among the apostles, the one absolutely stunning success was Judas, and the one thoroughly groveling failure was Peter. Judas was a success in the ways that most impress us: he was successful both financially and politically. He cleverly arranged to control the money of the apostolic band; he skillfully manipulated the political forces of the day to accomplish his goal. And Peter was a failure in ways that we most dread: he was impotent in a crisis and socially inept. At the arrest of Jesus he collapsed, a hapless, blustering coward; in the most critical situations of his life with Jesus, the confession on the road to Caesarea Philippi and the vision on the Mount of Transfiguration, he said the most embarrassingly inappropriate things. He was not the companion we would want with us in time of danger, and he was not the kind of person we would feel comfortable with at a social occasion” (Traveling Light, p. 95).

The teachers at Galatia are telling the churches there how to become successful before God, but they’re off track because they don’t really understand the purpose of the law in God’s plan of redemption. They’re telling the Galatians how to become successful by using the law, when the purpose of the law is to show them their failure. The law has a place in God’s work of redemption, but it’s different than they’ve been assuming. The law, in God’s purposes, is not the main thing. God’s primary way of dealing with His people is through the promise; the purpose of the law is to show us our neediness. The purpose of the law is not to give us the secrets of success; the purpose of the law is to underscore our failure and show us our need.

Paul points out, in verses 15-18, that the promise was given long before the law. Paul was being accused of starting a new sect. The false teachers were accusing him of departing from the teaching of the Old Testament, of laying aside God’s revelation in the past. So Paul wants the Galatians to know that this is not true at all. God dealt with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, on the basis of promise, not law. And God not only made a promise to Abraham, but to his descendants as well. The law, which was given more than 400 years later, can’t override God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants. The Judaizers who were teaching in Galatia were assuming that law is God’s primary way of dealing with His people. They had made obedience to the letter of the law the fundamental thing that defined their relationship with God. So Paul shows here that they’re off track. God’s primary way of dealing with His people is through the promise. The law can’t be the primary thing, since it was added so much later. God is faithful to His Word; when He gave the law to Moses, He wasn’t canceling out His promises to Abraham.

Why do we have binding contracts drawn up by lawyers who exercise great care trying to eliminate loopholes and escape routes? Why are so many marriages disintegrating in our society (which means that people who’ve taken a solemn vow to remain together ‘till death do us part’ have decided to lay aside their promises)? Why are so many children embittered toward their parents for promises they’ve made, but haven’t kept? We’re not faithful to our promises. We say we’re going to do something, but then we find that it’s not as easy as we expected, so we change our minds. Sometimes we fail to keep our promises though simple human weakness; we find that we’ve promised to do something that we’re unable to do. But much of the time we’re just unfaithful. God isn’t like this. He is true to His word. He’s not going to change His mind in the future, and He’s not going to be hindered by weakness in the way we are. God began His work of redemption with a promise to Abraham and his descendants. When He gave the law, 400 years later, it wasn’t that He said to Himself, “well, I can see that this isn’t working; I’d better try something else.” The law doesn’t cancel out the promise in that way. God’s fundamental way of dealing with people in this fallen world is through the promise.

There’s a reason God doesn’t deal with us through the law. Paul makes this point in verses 19-22: “if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.” The problem is that the law can’t impart life. But the problem is not with the law. The problem is with us: “What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions.... But the scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin.” The law can’t give us life, because we are sinners; we’re people who are guilty of violating the law. The law can’t save us, because we’ve broken it.

Suppose we could take hold of ourselves and begin faithfully obeying the law from now on until the end of our lives. That’s the idea of legalism: we save ourselves by faithfully observing the law, without any lapses, until we stand before the judgement seat of Christ. Well, suppose we could do that. Would it do any good? We’ve already broken the law, so what we’re hoping is that our obedience in the future will outweigh our disobedience in the past. But the law doesn’t give us that hope. The law condemns us as sinners. The law shows us how many times we’ve failed to keep it. Even if we obey more than we disobey over the course of a lifetime, the law calls us to account for our disobedience. There’s no provision in the law that says “five acts of obedience cancel out one sin.” And, of course, the problem is not only with past sins. No matter how hard we try, we continue to fail in our attempts to obey the law. When we try to save ourselves by obeying the law, we only lead ourselves into deeper condemnation. The law is always there to show us how many times we’ve failed to keep it. Martin Luther discovered this; he was diligent in trying to do everything he could to live in obedience, but he ended up coming to the point where he said he hated God and saw Him as an impossible taskmaster.

So, what is the purpose of the law? If it was given so much later than the promise, and if it’s unable to rescue us from our sinful condition, why did God give it at all? Paul explains this in verses 23-25: “Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.” The purpose of the law is to lead us to Christ.

Paul uses an interesting word to describe the law’s function: “He calls the law a custodian: ‘The law was our custodian until Christ came.’ The meaning of the Greek word paidagogos that lies behind the English word custodian often loses something in translation. Greek families that were well enough off to have slaves chose one of them, usually an old and trusted slave, to be in charge of their child or children from the ages of six to sixteen. This custodian went with the child to school to see that no harm or mischief came to him. He was not the schoolmaster. He had nothing to do with the actual teaching of the child. It was only his duty to take him safely to the school and deliver him to the teacher. That, says Paul, is how the law works: it delivers us to the place of faith, to Christ” (Peterson, Traveling Light, pp. 104-105). This idea comes across clearly in The Message: “Until the time when we were mature enough to respond freely in faith to the living God, we were carefully surrounded and protected by the Mosaic law. The law was like those Greek tutors, with which you are familiar, who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure the children will really get to the place they set out for.” The purpose of the law is to keep us oriented to God, and to point out our need, our failure, which points us to our need of grace and mercy through Jesus Christ. The purpose of the law is to lead us to faith in Christ.

Maybe you’re not asking the question, “what must I do to work the works of God.” If you’re like many today, you’re far more interested in learning how to live successfully. Here are some phrases from church advertisements I’ve seen: “What if there was a church... where... real life issues are discussed?” “Real life issues,” not all that religious stuff that most churches talk about. “At [our church] we believe that finding real answers for life’s toughest problems is important” (and the context of this phrase makes it clear that they’re talking about the practical “how-to's” of ordering our lives successfully). This same church advertised a new sermon series: “How to Succeed at the Speed of Life.”

The message of the gospel is not “how to succeed.” The message of the gospel is “you’ve already failed in more ways than you know, and you’re going to fail again in the future (and you’ll fail even more if you try to do anything worthwhile), but God in His mercy has provided for this. Listen to the law, and acknowledge the truth about yourself, then come to Jesus Christ to receive mercy and grace. Trying to pretend that you’re a success (either at obeying the law or at having all of life figured out) will lead only to bondage.” The Galatians were being told how to be successful in God’s sight, and it was leading them into bondage. The free life of the gospel is a life lived in recognition of the truth about ourselves.

Eugene Peterson sums it up like this: “There we live by faith and failure, by faith and forgiveness, by faith and mercy, by faith and freedom. We do not live successfully. Success imprisons. Success is an unbiblical burden stupidly assumed by prideful persons who reject the risks and perils of faith, preferring to appear right rather than to be human” (p. 106). People who are obsessed with success are also inordinately concerned with appearances. Too often how we appear is more important than the truth of what we are.

In the middle of the 20th century, A.W. Tozer made this observation: “Much that passes for Christianity today is the brief bright effort of the severed branch to bring forth its fruit in its season. But the deep laws of life are against it. Preoccupation with appearances and a corresponding neglect of the out-of-sight root of the true spiritual life are prophetic signs which go unheeded. Immediate ‘results’ are all that matter, quick proofs of present success without a thought of next week or next year. Religious pragmatism is running wild among the orthodox. Truth is whatever works. If it gets results it is good. There is but one test for the religious leader: success. Everything is forgiven him except failure” (The Root of the Righteous, pp. 8-9).

The Corinthian church was full of pride. They were a “successful” church. So Paul decided to remind them of the truth: “Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of ‘the brightest and the best’ among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these ‘nobodies’ to expose the hollow pretensions of the ‘somebodies’? That makes it quite clear that none of you can get by with blowing your own horn before God. Everything that we have – right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start – comes from God by way of Jesus Christ. That’s why we have the saying, ‘If you’re going to blow a horn, blow a trumpet for God” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31, The Message). We’re not successes, and when we pretend otherwise we dishonor God. God is glorified when we acknowledge the truth. God’s way of redemption is to lead us to salvation in Jesus Christ by first showing us our failure to keep the law.

“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:28-29). “There we live by faith and failure, by faith and forgiveness, by faith and mercy, by faith and freedom.” The law brings us into bondage, whether it’s the Mosaic law or a current Evangelical law about how to live a successful and happy middle class American life. Life in this world is full of sorrow and failure. Our vision of the Christian life needs to be in touch with this reality, and the foundation of our Christian lives is this: God has dealt with us, not as successes, but as failures. God knows all the truth about us. We don’t need to pretend. The law condemns us, but it doesn’t leave us in a state of condemnation; it leads us to a life of freedom in the grace of Jesus Christ. That’s the most fundamental reality of our lives as Christians. It’s not that we’ve learned the secret of living successfully. It’s that we’ve been reconciled to God and are in a relationship with Him which begins in this life and will continue throughout eternity.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Finding God in Our Disappointments, Matthew 1:18-21

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Second Sunday of Advent, 2016


In the late 80's, we lived for a few months with a family in Lancaster County. I was, at the time, working with a mission organization in Villanova in addition to my graduate studies at Temple University, so I spent a lot of time traveling. One day, as I was leaving, I heard that we were having chicken pot pie for dinner. I spent the whole day looking forward to that, expecting to arrive home and enjoy chicken pot pie in a crust; after all, when I was growing up and put a chicken pot pie in the oven to bake, this is what it was. But when I got home, what we had for dinner was soup, not pie. There were noodles, or pieces of dough, in the soup, and somehow this justified the name “chicken pot pie.” By my understanding it wasn't pie at all, and I've had a grudge against Lancaster County ever since that day. We really ate very well during the time we stayed with this family, so I can't complain, but this experience stuck in my mind because I was expecting something different from what actually happened, and that's what disappointment is. Disappointment doesn't necessarily result from bad experiences; disappointment results from things not turning out the way we expected or hoped. Sometimes disappointments are bad experiences, but not always. Often they're just different than what we were expecting.

The first thing I want to take note of, in our passage, is the discovery of Mary's pregnancy in verse 18. The discovery is made, but no one apart from Mary knows the cause of her pregnancy. She was visited by the angel Gabriel, who told her what was going to happen. It was a wonderful thing, the announcement that she was going to experience something utterly unique. So she knew that her pregnancy was miraculous, but no one else had any reason to believe that. We're not given any details into the discovery of Mary's pregnancy, but we do know that everyone, including Joseph, assumed that she had been unfaithful to him. Jewish marriages at the time involved three steps: first the engagement, followed by betrothal, which usually lasted about a year during which the couple did not live together. But this was a binding arrangement, and a divorce was required if either one decided not to go ahead with the marriage. The third step was the marriage itself. Mary's pregnancy is discovered in the second step, after she is betrothed to Joseph.

Here's the thing: Mary has been chosen to give birth to the Messiah, the Son of God, as a virgin. What is happening in her body has never happened in the history of the world. So wouldn't you expect God to make some kind of public announcement to this effect? Wouldn't you expect Him to tell someone else what is going on, especially since all the people around her are going to assume the worst? But He doesn't, and even Joseph, at this point, is in the dark, and no one is going to believe it when she tells them about Gabriel's words, even if she has the courage, or even the opportunity, to tell them.

Everyone knows that Mary has been unfaithful. There's no other explanation for her condition. Women don't become pregnant for no reason. But they don't know the whole story; their assessment of the situation is wrong. And we often get things wrong because we don't know the whole story. Anne and I, in the early 80's, spent two years on a ship called the Logos, which was run by Operation Mobilization. There were many Americans on OM from very conservative Evangelical backgrounds who believed that drinking alcohol was completely off-limits for Christians. There were even some books written during that time arguing that Jesus, at the wedding in Cana in Galilee, turned water into grape juice, not wine, because it was unthinkable that He would actually do a miracle involving alcohol. I read two of them, but neither is really worth reading, because all the evidence in Scripture is against what they're trying to prove.

The ship we lived on had previously been owned by a shipping company but had been renovated for our purposes. But one day the captain decided to do a thorough cleaning in his cabin, and way back inside the bulkhead (or wall) he found a half-empty bottle of whiskey. He didn't want it in his cabin, so he took it to the chief steward, who was in charge of all the food, and said “I just found this in my cabin; I thought you might be able to use it for cooking or something, but in any case I don't want it in my cabin.” And he left. While the chief steward was standing there with the bottle in his hand wondering what to do with it (and thinking that he also didn't want it in his cabin), there was a knock on the door. So he put the bottle down on the table and answered the door. The zealous young person who was at the door saw the bottle and came to an obvious conclusion. Being chief steward is a stressful job and he's coping with it by drinking. Why else would he have this bottle sitting on his table? “I probably interrupted him just as he was taking a swig.” We need to know that there's often more to the story than what is apparent to us on the surface. This was certainly the case with Mary, but it's also often true in our daily lives, and we need to be careful about drawing conclusions too quickly.

The second thing to take note of is Joseph's response to the news of Mary's pregnancy in verse 19. Here it is in The Message: “Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.” His duty, as he understood it under the Old Testament law, is to divorce her. Deuteronomy 24:1 allows for divorce if “something indecent” is found in a wife, and in Joseph's understanding this is certainly true of Mary. But he wants to do so in a way that at least shows some mercy. That will mean divorcing her with the minimum number of witnesses (only two) and not pressing charges against her. The fact is that she is going to be disgraced no matter what he does, but he's trying to do all he can to protect her from shame. But he's disappointed in her. He thought she was a godly woman, and she's been unfaithful to him, something he never would have expected of her. He wants to do the right thing, but he's not willing any more to spend his life with a woman like her.

Imagine being Mary in this situation. Her pregnancy is unlike any other in human history, so who is ever going to believe her if she reports the words of Gabriel? We don't know how long this situation continued after Joseph received the news and then deliberated about what he was going to do. But even a day or two of this kind of suffering would be overwhelming, knowing that she is innocent while everyone else is certain of her guilt. Mary was visited by an angel and given the most wonderful news imaginable, but then her life had been plunged into shame and suspicion as a direct result of God's work. God's interventions often lead to things we never expected or wanted. Joseph is disappointed in Mary, and I don't doubt that Mary is disappointed in Joseph's response; but I also suspect that Mary is tempted to be disappointed in God. Why hasn't He told someone else what is going on? It's a great thing that He sent Gabriel to announce Jesus' birth to her, but what's going to happen now? Is God just going to leave her hanging like this?

The last thing is that God intervenes, in verses 20-21. In the end, God lets Joseph in on what is happening by speaking to him in a dream: “that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” So Joseph now knows that there is something extraordinary going on, that Mary's pregnancy is not the result of unfaithfulness and that God is at work in a way that has never happened. “Joseph, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” God is bringing a Redeemer into the world. But despite God's extraordinary work in their lives, Joseph and Mary will continue to live under the shadow of misunderstanding and suspicion. God intervenes to let them know what He is doing, but others will continue to suspect Mary of unfaithfulness, and they're not going to believe it if Joseph tells them about his dream.

When I was a young Christian, I was enamored with the importance of miracles. I and my friends thought that if we really had faith we would be doing things that made people take notice of God's presence among us. But I've since learned that God more often works in a hidden way, as He is doing here with Mary and Joseph. Mary's pregnancy is miraculous, but not in a public, demonstrative way. No one around her can tell that there's anything out-of-the-ordinary about her pregnancy. And Joseph's dream is also only given to him; it's not the sort of public thing that causes everyone around him to sit back and take notice. But in this time when everyone around them is whispering about Mary's unfaithfulness and maybe wondering whether Joseph himself is the father of the child or whether he is just going ahead with the marriage to protect her, both Mary and Joseph experience God in a truly extraordinary way. No matter what everyone around them thinks, they are both faithful to God and continue to trust Him, and He makes Himself known to them, even though He does so in a hidden way.

So how can we learn to experience God in our disappointments, when things aren't turning out the way we hoped or expected? I think the first thing is to stop. Don't act in haste, and don't start drawing premature conclusions. Joseph didn't fly off the handle when he learned about Mary's pregnancy; he didn't do anything right away. He took time to deliberate about what he should do and how he could, despite his disappointment in her, still preserve her dignity as much as possible. He waited, and when God did intervene Joseph hadn't acted in a way that he came to regret.

The next thing is to bring our disappointments into God's presence in prayer. The temptation is to allow them to drive us away from God, to become bitter and turned in on ourselves. “God hasn't held up His end of the bargain, so why should I continue listening to Him?” What happens then is that we shut ourselves off from whatever God is planning to do in our lives. Things we experience as disappointment could be a step toward something better that God has in mind, but if we allow our disappointment to drive us away from Him we'll likely miss whatever God is doing.

How do we bring our disappointments into God's presence? Partly by abandoning pious notions about prayer. Too often we express things in prayer that we think should reflect our feelings but really don't. But listen to Jeremiah: “Woe is me, my mother, that you ever bore me, a man of strife and contention to the whole land” (15:10); or “O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me” (20:7). Jeremiah is not living a life he would have chosen for himself. He doesn't enjoy pronouncing judgment and being at odds with the people. But he copes by telling God how he feels about it, bringing his complaints to God. That's one of the great things about praying the Psalms; the Psalms help us give voice to things we might not otherwise know how to pray about. God is able to handle our truthful words in prayer; and when we cry out to Him in anger or disappointment, He is able to hear the cry of our hearts and then continue molding us into His image. He is not threatened by our anger and is able to transform it once we bring it into His presence in prayer.

But we need to know that encountering God will not necessarily change the situation that we're disappointed about. The only direct intervention from God in this passage is His appearing to Joseph in a dream to tell him what is going on. This enables Joseph to accept the situation and go ahead with his plan to get married. But both Mary and Joseph are still surrounded by gossip about her pregnancy. Most of the time we really don't know what God is doing, and the most important thing is to come into His presence and cry out to Him for help. He knows what we need to keep going, and He will come to us and give us strength, even though it may not be evident until later, when we look back and see that He was with us in a hidden way.

Listen to these words by St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible. In the first coming he was seen on earth, dwelling among men; he himself testifies that they saw him and hated him. In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God, and they will look on him whom they have pierced. The intermediate coming is a hidden one; in it only the elect see the Lord within their own selves, and they are saved. In his first coming our Lord came in our flesh and in our weakness; in this middle coming he comes in spirit and in power; in the final coming he will be seen in glory and majesty” (The Liturgy of the Hours, vol. 1, p. 169). During this season of Advent we look back on Jesus' first coming as we anticipate the celebration of His Incarnation in the Christmas season; we look forward to His return in glory and majesty; and we pray that He will come to us both individually and as a church as we wait on Him and bring all our concerns into His presence.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Leading People or Managing Projects?

Published under a different title in the January 2014 issue of the Evangelical Missions Quarterly

Alan was a difficult person. We lived in the same house in Kathmandu for several months, and he could never get to dinner on time; the rest of the team usually waited a half hour or more every evening, and he’d explain that he couldn't stop work, that there was too much to do. When we suggested that he should just stop at the end of the day, he’d respond “I’m messed up; it’s because of my father.” He could be argumentative and had become a strict vegetarian because an outing to a Muslim restaurant for meat curry ended in a heated disagreement; when he reflected on what had happened, Alan said to me “I think God is telling me to stay away from meat.” And he did, for a number of years.

He was difficult to live with and work with, but he had a warm heart and he truly desired to follow Jesus Christ. So, despite his antisocial tendencies, he repeatedly signed up to work with Operation Mobilization, a very team-oriented mission agency. He was a trained mechanic and had a lot to offer an organization with a large fleet of old vehicles. But he had frequent conflict with his co-workers, so over the years he’d spend a year or two with OM, followed by a return to secular work, only to join OM again because he wasn’t satisfied with where his life was going.

During one of the years when he was at home in England, he went out regularly to distribute literature and talk to people about Jesus. He told me that one day George Verwer, the founder and (at the time) International Director of OM, had knocked on his door, asking if they could go out evangelizing together. George knew of his struggles and wanted to support and encourage him. Alan spoke of this often, that a man in major leadership, with so many burdens on his time and resources, would take a day off to spend time with an emotionally troubled ex-OMer. George had nothing personally to gain from this, but he believed it was a worthwhile use of his time.

My first perception of George Verwer's leadership was in the Summer of 1977, during an OM conference. As George was preaching I came to a sudden realization: “he really cares about us; he’s not just interested in getting some work out of us this summer, he wants us to survive and grow to spiritual maturity.” And that was the kind of leadership I experienced during the four years I spent with Operation Mobilization. For the most part, the leaders were concerned to see us grow spiritually and develop our gifts; they were more concerned about our long-term survival and growth than they were about accomplishing their goals through us.

Many years after leaving OM, a pastor in my denomination was approached by the bishop and told it was time for a change in leadership, that it was time for him to leave. He had been pastoring for over 20 years and had taken on some difficult jobs for the denomination. He had served on a number of general conference boards and was a good, solid pastor, who preached the Word and provided pastoral care for those in his church. But he didn’t fit into the bishop’s plans, so he had to move on.

I spoke to him three years later, and he told me that after he submitted his resignation not one leader contacted him to find out how he was doing. There had not been a single attempt during those three years to make sure he was OK, even though it was generally known that he had left the denomination and was no longer pastoring. His impression, he told me, was that they simply didn’t care. He wasn’t useful, in their opinion, so they were glad to have him out of the way.

The bishop who pushed for his resignation was known as a sort-of “leadership guru,” but his approach to leadership is pretty-much the opposite of George Verwer’s. I suspect he would attribute this to a difference in personality, but George’s approach is not the one that came to him naturally. (I heard once that an early team member compared his leadership style to that of Adoph Hitler!) Caring for people in trouble is not, for George, a matter of personality. But he knows that God has shown him mercy and grace beyond anything he could ever imagine, and this motivates him to show mercy and grace to others. His approach to leadership is a matter of Christian discipleship, not personality. It’s a result of the work of God over many years of following Jesus Christ. It's an issue of obedience: "As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive" (Colossians 3:12-13).

These are two very different approaches to leadership. The first type of leader is concerned about leading all those under his care to grow and develop their gifts as followers of Jesus Christ. The second type is focused on accomplishing his goals and sees those on his team as useful but expendable instruments for accomplishing them. The first approach seeks to build up and disciple all members of the church, including those in leadership roles, while the second is focused almost exclusively on bringing new members into the church. The first approach, in other words, has a larger, fuller vision for making disciples.

Jesus warned against the danger of adopting the world's assumptions about leadership when he said "You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you" (Mark 10:42-43). In addition to the specific thing He was addressing, Jesus was saying that leadership among His people is fundamentally different from leadership in the world. Oswald Sanders expands on this: "Bishop Leslie Newbigen even goes so far as to question how far the conception of leadership is one that we really ought to encourage. It is so difficult to use it without being misled by its non-Christian counterpart. The need is not so much for leaders as for saints and servants, and unless that fact is held steadily in the foreground, the whole idea of leadership training becomes dangerous. The pattern of training in Christian leadership must still be that given by our Lord in His training of the twelve" (1980. Spiritual Leadership. Chicago: Moody Press, p. 219).

The second type of leadership follows the North American corporate world in its treatment of people as a means to an end, as a way of fulfilling one's goals (often described as a God-given vision). This kind of leadership doesn't have time for people like Alan or the pastor I mentioned earlier, because they are seen as obstacles to achieving the vision. And those who are important are important primarily for their instrumental value, their usefulness. The real priority is measurable growth focused on bringing new people into the church. Those who've already been counted, or who have moved into leadership roles, are expendable.

Because it doesn't seek to care for and lead those already inside the church or in positions of pastoral leadership, this approach is inconsistent with Christian discipleship. It reflects the ambition of success-driven leaders, who, in pursuit of their goals, have lost sight of the centrality of grace and mercy in the Church and forgotten the long-suffering patience of Jesus in training His apostles. It forgets that making disciples doesn't mean completing a long list of projects in His name; it means seeking to lead all those under one's care to know and follow Him for a lifetime.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

What's So Spiritual About Spontaneity?

The pastor stepped into the pulpit and announced, "I don't have a sermon today. I have a word from the Lord." We were supposed to be impressed; not a mere sermon, a message directly from God. He then proceeded to ramble for about half an hour or so. I remember thinking afterward that he hadn't said anything that qualified as a "word from the Lord." It didn't even rise to the level of a mediocre sermon.

It's a common assumption in many churches that when God speaks He always does so right at the moment without any preparation on our part, that the work of the Holy Spirit takes place spontaneously when we're speaking, not when we're studying and preparing in advance. C.T. Studd expressed this when he advised a co-worker on the mission field, "Don't go into the study to prepare a sermon -- that's nonsense. Go into your study to God and get so fiery that your tongue is like a burning coal and you have got to speak." Preparing sermons is foolishness; what we need to do is get ourselves into a state where we are able to speak out spontaneously under the inspiration of the Spirit.

Of course, there's no reason, in principle, why God can't lead one through the process of preparation and study; there's no reason to assume that God won't speak through a preacher who has diligently prepared a sermon. The pastor with a "word from the Lord" led his congregation to expect something special that morning, when in reality what he said was predictable and mundane, pretty much what one would expect from this particular preacher speaking off the top of his head. His claim to be speaking a word from the Lord struck me as presumptuous in the extreme.

The same assumption is applied to worship and prayer: the most spiritual worship is free and spontaneous, while liturgy is what happens when the life of the Church is in decline. It's an indication of spiritual deadness. I visited an elderly man in the hospital who'd suffered one setback after another; he said to me, "I don't even know what to pray anymore," so I suggested that the Psalms could give voice to the things he was feeling. He responded with disgust, "I thought we were supposed to pray from the heart." In his mind, prayer had to be the spontaneous utterance of the moment or something was wrong with it; it was unthinkable to take words written by someone else, even the words of Scripture, and offer them to God in prayer.

Thomas Howard tells of growing up with a deeply ingrained prejudice against liturgical prayer, then finding himself enriched by worshiping in an Anglican church while he was studying in England. As he was struggling to come to terms with this, he realized that even the extempore prayers he'd learned growing up were not as spontaneous as he'd assumed and were, in fact, "made up of stock phrases strung together" (Evangelical is Not Enough, p.48).

"Spontaneity is impossible sooner or later; there only remains for us to choose which set of phrases we will make our own. The prayers of the Church lead us into regions that, left to our own resources, we might never have imagined. Also in this connection, it is worthwhile remembering that prayer is as much a matter of our learning to pray what we ought to pray as it is expressing what we feel at given moments."

When Jesus instructs his disciples, in Mark 13:11, "when they bring you to trial and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit," He's speaking about a very specific sort of situation. He's not saying "don't ever prepare in advance for anything." He's saying, "when you find yourselves in this situation, don't worry; the Spirit will give you wisdom." He's not promising the immediate, direct assistance of the Spirit every time they speak; He's promising that He will help His people when they're in over their heads and are called to speak in His name.

The idea that spontaneity in prayer, preaching and worship is the norm is based on the expectation of a direct and immediate influence of the Holy Spirit apart from any preparation and the assumption that the Spirit is quenched by the use of set forms, things prepared in advance (either by ourselves or someone in the past). Thomas Howard identifies this mindset with a second-century sectarian movement:

"No century since the first has been free from Montanism, the claim, that is, to be acting on the spur of the moment in direct response to direct and unmediated messages from the Holy Ghost. Today Montanism, more popularly known as spontaneity, is sovereign in immense reaches of both Protestantism and Catholicism" ("Contra Spontaneity," in Touchstone Journal, online).

Those who buy into this mistakenly believe they are following the example of the early Church. While there were indeed things that took place under the immediate influence of the Spirit, worship in the ancient Church had a very definite form and structure.

The Didache, parts of which were written during the apostolic period, quotes the Lord's Prayer and says, "Pray like this three times a day." It then goes on to give very explicit instructions on celebrating the Eucharist, including the prescribed prayers to use in the service. Justin, who was martyred in the mid second century, describes worship in which, after the offering of prayers

"There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands.... And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion" ("First Apology," chapter 65).

Worship in the early Church had a definite order and form; it made use of prayers and responses prepared ahead of time, which were handed on to the next generations of believers.

So, in answer to the question, what is so spiritual about spontaneity? Nothing. Spontaneity, in itself, is of no importance. Overemphasizing it is actually harmful, leading to the presumption that we are speaking in God's name and worshiping in the Spirit, when in truth we are simply rattling off our own ideas and experiencing a purely natural exhilaration that doesn't rise above the level of what one experiences at a good concert. Worship and prayer are a response to God, which implies patient listening to His Word then being trained in the responses handed to us by His Church. Rather than the pressure to have a "worship experience," we enter and find the words there waiting for us. Whether we feel exhilarated or not, we offer worship to God in faith that He hears and is pleased. And as we continue doing this over a lifetime, we internalize this responsive language and are increasingly transformed into people who are ready to worship before God's throne.


Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Light of the World, John 8:12-59

The first thing we need to know, as we come to this passage, is that Jesus’ public ministry is at a real low point. His conflict with the religious authorities has continued to escalate, so that now they are seeking to kill Him. Many of His disciples have turned away, because they can’t make sense of the things He’s been saying. They were impressed with His miracles, but His teaching is just too much for them. During this low point in His public ministry, Jesus continues to preach the Word (the very thing that led to all these problems in the first place). Chapters seven and eight revolve around the Feast of Tabernacles, or Feast of Booths. This is one of Israel’s three main liturgical feasts. During this seven-day feast, the people would live in rough shelters made of Palm branches and boughs of trees, to remember the time the nation spent wandering in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt.

In chapter seven, Jesus travels secretly to the feast, and then appears suddenly in the Temple. On the eighth day, the greatest day of the feast, He offers Himself to all those who are spiritually thirsty: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Rivers of living water will brim and spill out of the depths of anyone who believes in me in this way, just as the Scripture says.” Each morning, during the seven-day feast, a priest would lead a procession to the pool of Siloam, fill a golden pitcher with water, and then return to the Temple and pour it out with the morning sacrifice. This was a reminder of the time God provided water out of a rock in the wilderness, and it pointed forward to the Messianic age, as Isaiah prophesied: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3). This water ritual was carried on each morning for seven days, then on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly. This eighth day was the “last and greatest day of the Feast.” On this day, the day when they were not offering the water ritual, Jesus stood and cried out in a loud voice, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.” What’s the point of this? All the things they’re doing at the feast point to Him. If they’ll come to Him, He’ll give them the Holy Spirit, who will become “streams of living water” flowing from within them. The whole celebration points to Him. The fulfillment of all their hopes and prayers is there in the Temple.

This passage in chapter 8, beginning at verse 12, follows naturally from chapter 7. The story of the woman caught in adultery is not found here in the best ancient manuscripts of the New Testament. In manuscripts that do have that story, some place it here at the beginning of John 8, some in John 7, and others in Luke 21. I believe it’s a genuine story from the ministry of Jesus, and I believe it belongs in the Bible. The New English Bible has it as an appendix to John’s gospel, which may be the best solution. It belongs in the Bible, but not here at the beginning of John 8. It interrupts the story line and obscures the connection between chapters 7 and 8.

In chapter 7, Jesus offers Himself as the water of life, the only source of spiritual refreshment in this dry, weary and waterless land. In chapter 8 He offers Himself as the light of the world. He’s still at the feast, and He’s drawing from another ritual. It’s the same day, the last and greatest day of the feast. Each evening of the feast, large lamps were lit in the Temple, and all evening, in the light of these lamps, the people would sing and dance in celebration of God’s salvation. The lamps were a reminder of the time during the Exodus when God accompanied His people in the pillar of fire at night. So on this last day of the feast, maybe in the evening, within sight of these great lamps, Jesus proclaims Himself to be the Light of the World. He’s the One they’ve been celebrating for the past seven days. He’s the One all this points to. The lamps not only point backward to the Exodus. They point forward to Him. Jesus is the Light of the World. Apart from Him, we’re in the darkness.

The first thing I want to point out is that He is the only safe place in this world of darkness. In verses 21-30, Jesus reminds them of the fragility and uncertainty of their lives: “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe the I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins.” This dark world is a dangerous place, and our lives are fragile. We never know whether this day might be our last. The order for night prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours reminds me of this each night. It leads me in confession of sin and in entrusting myself to God’s care, then it closes with the words, “May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.” It reminds me that, just as I lay aside all my work, all my unfinished projects, and entrust myself to God’s care for the night, one day I will lay aside all my unfinished projects and leave this world forever. We live in a fallen world, and we don’t know when our lives here will end.

Jesus is the only safe place of refuge in this dark world. “The Lord is my light and my salvation–whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life–of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1). Listen to these words from Hebrews: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity, so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil–and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (2:14-15). They’re in slavery to the fear of death because they know life here is uncertain. They hear of people dying all the time, people who were going about the business of their lives with no expectation that it would all end so soon. But in Jesus, the Light of the World, there is refuge from the fear of death, because He’s gone ahead and tasted death for us. “The sting of death is sin.” We’re afraid to die, because we’re alienated from God. But we don’t have to die in our sins. Jesus is a safe place of refuge in this dark world.

The second thing I want to point out is that He is the only source of true freedom in this dark world. Verse 30 says that “many put their faith in him,” as a result of the things He’s been saying. So He responds to them: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They’re in bondage, although they don’t know it.

What does it mean to be free? Does it mean the liberty to do whatever I feel like doing? That’s what most people in our society seem to mean when they use the word “freedom.” I saw an interview once with a heroin addict. She described how she’d become addicted but said she was going to quit in the next week. She didn’t want to remain in that condition forever. She received pleasure from using heroin, but her life was miserable. She hated being an addict. The people who interviewed her checked back over the next several weeks, and, of course, she hadn’t quit. She wasn’t free. She was in bondage. The question to ask in this area of freedom is not, “do I have the freedom to do this?” The question to ask is, “will this bring me into bondage?” “Will I have the freedom to stop?” If you can’t stop, you’re not really free.

Several years ago I had a conversation with a man who was struggling with depression. He was married and was involved in a long-term affair with another woman; and he was addicted to pornography on the Internet. When I confronted him about the relationship between his lifestyle and his depression it was clear that he wasn’t going to make any changes. He was free to do what he wanted, but it was making him miserable. He was in bondage. He hated his life, but he couldn’t let go of his sin. He was free to do the things he was doing, but he wasn’t free to stop, and it was ruining his life (and the lives of his family members). Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” Sin brings us into bondage; it destroys our freedom.

The message of Jesus Christ is a message of freedom. The picture of Christians as grim, unhappy legalists is a caricature. Many Christians fall into legalism, but it’s because they’ve lost sight of the gospel. Listen to these words from Eugene Peterson: “There are moments when a single truth seems to cry out for focused proclamation. For me one of those moments came in the early 1980's; freedom in Christ seemed the truth in need of focus. The end of a millennium was in sight. It would soon be two thousand years since Christ lived and died and rose again. The world had seen a succession of political and social revolutions that had featured the word freedom. Especially in the Western world, but hardly confined there, aspirations to freedom were very strong. But when I looked at the people I was living with as pastor–fairly affluent, well educated, somewhat knowledgeable about the Christian faith–I realized how unfree they were. They were buying expensive security systems to protect their possessions from burglary. They were overcome with anxieties in the face of rising inflation. They were pessimistic about the prospects for justice and peace in a world bristling with sophisticated weapons systems and nuclear devices. They were living huddled, worried, defensive lives. I wanted to shout in objection: Don’t live that way! You are Christians! Our lives can be a growth into freedom instead of a withdrawal into anxious wariness.... I became convinced that the experience of freedom in the life of faith is at the very heart of what it means to be human” (Living the Message, pp. 184-85). Jesus, the Light of the World, the only light in this dark world, offers us freedom from the things that enslave us. Our lives, in Christ, “can be a growth into freedom,” the freedom to be ourselves, the freedom to become the kind of people God created us to be.

The last thing I want to point out is that Jesus is the only One who can rescue us from the destruction that is coming upon this fallen world. He alone can rescue us from eternal death: “I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” This dark world is headed for destruction. But it’s not just that He rescues from destruction. It’s too common to see salvation as a rescue operation that amounts to nothing more than forgiveness of sins. We come to Jesus for forgiveness and then go on with our lives, assured that we have a place reserved in heaven. Salvation in the New Testament isn’t like that. Jesus doesn’t just rescue us from eternal death in that negative sense. He gives us eternal life: “And this is eternal life, to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” Jesus, the Light of the World, frees us from the eternal death that is coming upon this dark world, and He brings us into a relationship with God that begins now and extends into eternity.

So Jesus stands in the Temple on the last day of the feast, the day when the lamps will be extinguished, and He says to the worshipers there: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” This raises the question, “who exactly is He?” How can He make such outlandish claims for Himself. That’s what the religious leaders keep asking over the course of this chapter, but for the most part they don’t seem to understand what He’s saying. They’re blind, groping in the darkness.

The more clearly Jesus reveals His glory in this chapter, the more clearly He reveals the truth about His enemies. The Pharisees are already antagonistic; as soon as Jesus speaks, in verse 12, they jump on Him: “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid.” When Jesus says to some would-be disciples that knowing the truth will set them free, they’re insulted. Just what is He implying about them? They liked what He was saying before, but they didn’t come to be insulted. They’re not willing to accept His diagnosis of their spiritual condition. The discussion goes back and forth until Jesus says: “Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire.” The more clearly Jesus reveals Himself, the more clear their true spiritual condition becomes. These aren’t genuine disciples at all; they’ve had a superficial attraction to His message, but they’re not people who are going to continue in His Word.

Jesus last invitation in this chapter–“if anyone keeps my word he will never see death”–leads into a discussion about Abraham. How can He make this claim, since Abraham and the prophets died? Who does He think He is? How does He dare say such things? And Jesus responds to their questions with these amazing words: “I tell you the truth... before Abraham was born, I am!” He’s not just claiming to have existed before Abraham was born. He’s claiming to be the eternal God, the One who said to Moses, “I am that I am.” He’s identifying Himself with the One who said these words in Isaiah: “Who has done this and carried it through, calling forth the generations from the beginning? I, the Lord–with the first of them and with the last–I am he” (Isaiah 41:4). He’s claiming, in a way that they can’t miss, what John says about Him in the Prologue: “the Word was God.” This time they don’t miss it. They understand what He’s saying, and they respond by picking up rocks to stone Him for blasphemy.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” This is the One who’s present in the Temple during the Feast, who offers Himself as Living Water and as the Light of the World. Because He is the eternal Son of God, the Incarnate Second Person of the Trinity, He is able to be our refuge in this dark, fallen world. Because He is both our Creator and our Savior, He is able to offer us freedom from the things that bring us into bondage. And because He is the source of all life, knowing Him is eternal life. Knowing Him fulfills the deepest desires of our souls. Our hearts are restless until they find rest in Him; but in Him we do find rest. Jesus is the water of life, the only source of spiritual refreshment in this dry, weary, and waterless land. And He is the only source of light in this dark world.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Worshiping the King of Kings, Psalm 96

I first read The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien, when I was recovering from hepatitis in 1978. I was in Kathmandu, Nepal, at the time, and a Christian believer there gave us access to his library. As I was rummaging through the shelves, looking for something to read, a friend who was with me picked up the series and said, “you’ve got to read this.” Since then I’ve read it over and over again, a total of more than ten times, and each time I read it I feel like I’m taking a vacation in Middle Earth. I've recently been listening to it in audio form while I'm driving to work.

With the movie versions produced by Peter Jackson, Tolkien’s fantasies have become popular with a whole new generation. People see the movies and then they want more, so they go out and buy the books. But then, I sometimes hear questions about the value of stories like this. Is fantasy really a worthwhile thing? Shouldn’t we be concentrating on the real world, rather than escaping into a world of fantasy? Several years ago I read an article by a Christian journalist who commented, “yes, this is a very good story, but reality is actually much more interesting and exciting.” She was saying, in effect, “I suppose this sort of thing is OK, but it’s much better to be engaged in real life.”

The question is, is it true that works like this are irrelevant to “real life?” Is it true that we’re better off without these kinds of imaginative stories, that these kinds of things are OK – at least we’re not sinning by entering into them – but that it’s far better to give our time to “the real world?” What I’ve noticed is that these stories help me see things I would have missed otherwise. Living a full Christian life involves using our imaginations: projecting ourselves into the biblical stories, wondering what it would have been like to have been there, and also imagining ourselves in the future kingdom when we will live in God’s presence and see Him face to face. God hasn’t only given us minds to extract principles from Scripture; He’s given us imaginations, and He calls us to use them. Works of fantasy, like The Lord of the Rings, train us in using our imaginations. They help us to see things that we wouldn’t see otherwise. One year, as I was reading The Return of the King (the final volume in The Lord of the Rings trilogy), when I came to the section after the ring has been destroyed and the dark lord is overthrown, it was like being given a glimpse into the joy and freedom we will know when God’s kingdom arrives in its fullness. Imaginative works like this can help us see more clearly, they can give us a glimpse into that “new heaven and new earth” that God is preparing for us.

They can also help us think more clearly about this present world. There’s more to reality than what we see on the surface. That’s the problem with those who smile condescendingly and say, “well, you know, that’s not how it is in the real world; it’s fine to be young and idealistic, but someday you’ll be just as jaded and cynical as I am; you’ll learn that all this Christian stuff doesn’t work in the real world.” They’ve seen something of the truth; they’ve seen that in a world where people are selfish and dishonest you’re more likely to be successful if you compete on their terms. If you take advantage of others, you’re less likely to have others taking advantage of you. That’s true, at present. But it’s not the whole truth. The truth is that this is an abnormal state of affairs, and it’s not always going to continue this way. We need help in seeing beyond what appears on the surface.

Eugene Peterson, writing about the story of David and Goliath, says this: “There’s something just beneath the surface of everything, something invisible but just as real, maybe even more real, than what we’re seeing and hearing and touching.... The only person fully in touch with reality that day was David. The only fully human person in the Valley of Elah that day was David. Reality is made up mostly of what we can’t see. Humanness is mostly a matter of what never gets reported in the newspapers. Only a prayer-saturated imagination accounts for what made holy history that day in the Valley of Elah – the striking immersion in God-reality, the robust exhibition of David-humanity” (Leap Over a Wall, pp. 38, 44-45). “Reality is made up mostly of what we can’t see.” Works of fantasy can help us see this reality more clearly. Psalm 96 does the same thing. It gives us a larger picture of the truth: despite all the evil and mundaneness of life in this world, the Lord is king, and He calls all people everywhere to worship Him. But rather than describing and explaining, this psalm declares the truth and invites us to begin participating in this larger reality as worshipers of the one true God.

The first thing that’s here is the call to worship the Lord: “Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.” This call is given, not only to the people of Israel, but to “all the earth.” During this period, God’s purposes were focused on the nation of Israel. But His purpose in choosing Israel was to bring salvation to the whole world. God’s promise to Abraham was: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). God is not a tribal deity, like the gods of the surrounding nations. He is the Creator of all, and His purpose is to make worshipers of all the nations. So Psalm 96, even at this stage of Israel’s history, calls all people of the earth to worship God.

The call is “sing to the Lord a new song.” All these nations, in turning to the true God to worship Him, will be singing a new song, a song they’ve never sung before. But it’s also a new song because they’re singing to the Lord, who makes “all things new” (Revelation 21:5). Paul says that in Christ we become new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17). Listen to this description of the worship before God’s throne in Revelation 5: “They sing to the Lord a new song: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). The song we will sing in the new heaven and new earth will be a new song, a song to the Lord who makes all things new.

It’s interesting to notice how often the word new comes up in advertising. Advertisers are trying to get our attention, and one of the surest ways is to convince us that their product is new and improved. It’s better than what they were selling last month. It’s not the same old thing. They’re appealing to our longing for something better, our sense that things aren’t all they should be. The word new appeals to our sense of hope that things will be better in the future, that everything isn’t just going to continue as it is right now. We long for something new, something better. Advertisers are right about us; but the things they’re selling can’t possibly fill the void. Our longing for newness is a longing for the kingdom of God, a longing for that day when we will see Him face to face. God has made us for Himself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in Him (St. Augustine). So the call, “sing to the Lord a new song,” is an invitation to enter into the reality that will fulfill the deepest longing of our hearts.

The second thing is an answer to the question, “why should we obey this call?” The psalmist is inviting us into a larger vision of reality, so he doesn’t just tell us what to do, he goes on to list reasons why we should worship the Lord: “For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.” It’s right to mention the subjective benefits of worship, that worshiping God fulfills the deepest longings of our hearts. But that’s not enough in itself. We don’t worship God because of all the good things we’re going to get. We worship Him because He is worthy. We worship Him because He is God, the Creator of heaven and earth. He’s the one who created us; we long for meaning and fullness because He created us with an innate desire to know and worship Him.

Several years ago I was talking with a young man who was preparing for ministry. He told me he always assumes there’s something wrong with him if he doesn’t feel uplifted in worship. If he doesn’t feel exhilarated and moved, if he doesn’t have a great “worship experience,” he assumes that either he’s doing something wrong or the worship leaders aren’t doing their job. I’ve seen an increasing tendency in evangelical churches to do away with the reading of Scripture in corporate worship. Instead, the songs flow together, one into the other with increasing intensity to create an emotional response, to lead the congregation into a “worship experience.” In that kind of worship, we are at the center; we’re doing everything we can to achieve the feeling we want (and when we get that feeling we assume that God has blessed us). The importance of worship is not that it makes us feel good all the time. The importance of worship is that God is worthy, and since He is worthy we should do everything we can to keep Him at the center. We need to hear from Him through His Word, and sometimes hearing from Him will make us feel worse before it makes us feel better. When we hear from Him we’re humbled and led to repentance; often it turns our lives upside down. But the important thing is not how we feel; the important thing is that God is exalted and glorified in our midst, because He is “most worthy of praise.”

The third thing is that when we respond to this call to worship God, we participate in the life of the coming kingdom. It’s not only that we perceive deeper realities with our minds; we become fellow-worshipers with those who are worshiping before God’s throne: “Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy; they will sing before the Lord, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth.” The whole creation is bursting with joy in anticipation of what God is about to do. And what is He about to do that brings such joy? “He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his truth.” The psalmist is not thinking of personal judgment here, but of the fact that God is going to set everything right. This world that so often leads people into cynicism and despair will not always be this way, because God the Judge is going to set things right.

When we come into God’s presence in worship, we enter, in a very real way, into that future kingdom. Thomas Howard grew up in a very prominent evangelical home; Elizabeth Elliot is his sister. But he tells of discovering that worship involves more than he had realized or been taught when he was young: “I had never heard the idea, taught in the Church for centuries, that in the act of Christian worship the scrim that hangs between earth and heaven is drawn back, and we in very truth join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven who forever laud and magnify the Divine Name” (Evangelical is Not Enough, p. 57). When we gather for worship we are joining together with the glorified Church in heaven. This is part of what the author of Hebrews is saying in chapter 12: “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:22-24). So the invitation at the beginning of this psalm is not only an invitation to a future inheritance; it’s an invitation to enter into a larger reality right now by worshiping the Lord of heaven and earth.

We look forward to joining all the saints in the new heaven and new earth, singing together a new song before the throne of God. And Jesus will be at the very center of that new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). And in the meantime, we are invited even now to join in this new song. “Sing to God a brand-new song! Earth and everyone in it, sing! Sing to God – worship God! Shout the news of his victory from sea to sea, Take the news of his glory to the lost, News of his wonders to one and all! For God is great, and worth a thousand Hallelujahs. His terrible beauty makes the gods look cheap. Pagan gods are mere tatters and rags. God made the heavens – Royal splendor radiates from him, a powerful beauty sets him apart.... An extravaganza before God as he comes, As he comes to set everything right on earth, Set everything right, treat everyone fair” (The Message). “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.” Since this is true, and since we’ve been given such a gracious invitation, let’s make it the priority of our lives to “sing to the Lord a new song.”