Death Devoured

April 18, 2017

This morning part of my Bible reading included Psalm 90. Moses’ words in this Psalm are very sobering. He writes “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” A few verses down he writes, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” Both of these verses are rather jolting. I’m less than nine years away from seventy. I say that I’ve started my descent into the Celestial City (to use Bunyan’s moniker). More than this, I can see the lights running down the runway off in the distance.

The verse calling us to number our days that we may have a wise heart has always resonated with me. However, even at this point in my life, I’m not happy with my heart-wisdom. This coupled with the Celestial City off in the not too distant distance is somewhat troubling.

Of course, when any believer evaluates his or her life, he or she will be somewhat disappointed. We know that we’ve frittered away many, many opportunities to grow and serve. When this happens, we need to be reminded of the gospel. After my Psalms reading this morning I read some Calvin. I’m working my way through the English translation of his 1541 French edition of the Institutes. I’m reading the section where he is explicating and supporting the Apostles’ Creed, and I ran across these sentences talking about Christ’s death:

By dying he ensured that we would not die; in other words, by his death he obtained life for us. He differed from us, however, in this respect: he chose death as if it should consume him; yet not to be devoured by it but to devour it was his purpose, so that it should cease to have dominion over us. He chose to be overcome by death, not to be crushed and oppressed by it but to destroy the rule it wielded over us. Finally he died, that in dying he might destroy him who had lordship over death, that is, the devil, and might deliver those who all their lives were captive to the fear of death (Heb. 2:14-15).

Great truth, huh? Christ’s purpose in dying was to devour death. He died to destroy the rule death had over us. He died so that he might destroy the devil. Unless Jesus returns soon, your death is a certainty. However, because of Christ’s death, death for the believer is simply that instant when the wheels touch down and we wake up in the Celestial City. As Calvin writes, “We will not die.” Jesus has devoured death for us. I want that heart of wisdom. I will keep pushing for it. The good news is that even the believer with a heart that is marbled with a great deal of folly will still land in the Celestial City simply because Jesus devoured death. The Good News is truly good news!

Recently I listened to a This American Life podcast entitled Switched at Birth. As you might think, this episode is about two baby girls who went home with the wrong mothers. I found the story that was told to be very intriguing. How can a mess like this be cleaned up, especially when one of the mothers was pretty certain as to what had happened right from the very beginning?

My purpose isn’t to retell the story; rather, I’d like to focus on one very interesting dynamic. Even though the girls weren’t raised with their biological families, they still retained many of the characteristics of the gene pool from which they came. One girl came from a family that was nervous, studious, and serious. Even though she was raised in a family that was much more lighthearted and given to jokes, this girl didn’t adopt the other family’s characteristics. She remained serious. The baby from the more lighthearted family retained her biological family’s jokester personality. Her parents never could tell when she was being sarcastic and couldn’t understand her interest in athletics. It goes without saying that the each girl retained the physical looks of the family from which she came. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. The chip retains the block’s characteristics even if the block has been removed. Depending on our own struggles with sin, this might, or might not, be a good thing.

Think of the story of Joash. I’m referring to the Joash from Judah. He wasn’t raised by his father Ahaziah, who had been killed by Jehu. Rather he was instructed by a priest named Jehoiada. However, after Jehoiada died, Joash revived Baal and the Asherah worship that his father, Ahaziah, had promoted. In the end, he had the prophet Zechariah, the son of his mentor, Jehoiada, put to death. Even though Dad had been dead for nearly 50 years, and Joash never had a conversation with him, his influence was inescapable.

I’d like to apply this experience to several situations. First, there is application for those who adopt. Even it one were to adopt a completely healthy newborn, more than likely, that newborn is going to retain some of the personality traits and proclivities from the birth parents. In a way, there are four (assuming a man and a woman did the adopting) people who have a hand in how the adopted child will turn out. Just as intelligence and physical appearance is passed to one’s children, so are other proclivities and tendencies. Therefore, parents who adopt even an infant might be in for an interesting ride, especially if the biological parents of the adopted child are very different from those doing the adopting. I mention this to explain why adopted children can be a challenge to raise.

Second, Christians are adopted children. We’ve been adopted into God’s family. We all start out with the devil being our father (John 8:44). We are born children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). This to say, just as adopted children retain some of their parents’ tendencies, so do believers. We can all look like our diabolical father at times. But then, I don’t need to tell you this.

Here’s the good news: grace is stronger than family ties. This is why, if you are a believer, you are in the family of God. Not only is grace stronger than family ties, but it is stronger than sin. Jeremiah 31:29 says, “In those days they shall no longer say: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’” You get the point. A parent’s sin and its consequences aren’t necessarily passed on. Grace is stronger than sin. Then there is that wonderful verse in the same passage (34) that says “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” God’s grace can overcome anything, both family and personal sin.

So, we raise our children whether adopted or not, trusting that God’s grace can and will overcome parental sin. After all, God’s grace not only forgives but it also conforms us into the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29). In this life, we, nor our children, will ever completely look like Jesus. This is why we’re always “groaning,” looking forward to the next life. Rom. 8:23 says, “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” One day, we’ll no longer be chips off the old block.

“90 Days in John 14-17, Romans & James” is a helpful resource in a number of ways. First, the authors walk one through the interpretation of the text. This is facilitated by the use of both probing questions and insightful interpretation. While there are certainly remaining questions related to the text, overall the readers are left with a good sense of what is being said.

Second, not only is the text explained but it is also engaged. Put differently, questions are asked that are designed to help the reader think though the impact of the text. This is very helpful. It is one thing to understand what the Bible is saying, it is another to understand how the truth of the text should impact one’s heart.

Finally, help is offered in the area of prayer. As the text is unfolded challenges are exposed. The authors help readers think about how one should request the Father’s aid in applying His word.

In summary the book aids in understanding the Biblical text. Help is offered in the area of application and prayer. Perhaps the greatest value of the book is the help it offers in thinking about how scripture should be understood and applied. The model employed might be applied to any Biblical text. In other words, the book helps one understand how to take the raw Biblical text and think about how it should look in one’s life. 

Some Thoughts on Aslan

January 11, 2017

Our middle child and her husband bought me a first printing of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” for last Father’s Day. There is a wonderful backstory to this gift that I won’t tell at this point. Suffice it to say that I just reread the book. Again, I was blessed by Lewis’s symbol and metaphor. You are probably aware of the conversation about Aslan, the Christ figure, between Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, Susan and Lucy. Aslan is the good King who should make us nervous.  It goes like this:

Aslan a man? Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the woods and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh!” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about being safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

This time through the book I noticed a few lines that I hadn’t remembered. Once again they were about Aslan. They are at the tail end of a long, pregnant paragraph describing Lucy and Susan frolicking with Aslan. It expresses the tension of the previous quote in a more tangible way. The paragraph ends this way:

It was such a romp as no one has ever had except in Narnia; and whether it was more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten Lucy could never make up her mind. And the funny thing was that when all three finally lay together panting in the sun the girls no longer felt in the least tired or hungry or thirsty.

Who knows all that Lewis had in mind with these words? Certainly there is the idea that Aslan (Jesus) is the One who is both the thunderstorm and the kitten. It is good to keep both ideas in mind. He both kills and delights. Finally, when in the presence of Jesus our needs are met (Or, is it that the glow of His presence overwhelms the senses to the point that we find fulfillment?). It seems to me that Lewis is pointing to Jesus reminding readers of who He is and how He satisfies. This is truth that I need to be reminded of every day.

2402a36600000578-2872595-eerie_a_beautifully_decorated_christmas_tree_and_nativity_scene_-a-113_1418482540317

I had several hours to kill in a coffee shop last week. What follows is the fruit of that time. I apologize for its length. It wasn’t my intent to be this long. Because this is so lengthy I feel that I’m the pastor recently cited in the Babylon Bee where only four people read his post.

Do you ever wonder if we should celebrate Christmas? There are those extreme groups that are either outside the pale of orthodoxy or on the edge of heterodoxy who tell us that it is wrong to “deck the halls.” Then there are the solitary Scrooges and cranky curmudgeons who can’t “bah humbug” enough. Do these surly folks have a point? After all, there is no admonition in the Word of God to celebrate Christmas. Then there is the secular component to our Christmas. Most of us decorate our homes, buy presents, and hum along to the tune of White Christmas. This to say, the religious element of our celebration is at lest sullied, if not almost completely buried. Finally, there is the historical background of Christmas. It certainly wasn’t celebrated until the fourth century. The early church celebrated deaths not births. Then many would argue that Jesus wasn’t born on the 25th of December. Again, should we celebrate Christmas?

Even with the cultural baggage associated with Christmas, I would argue that the celebration is worth it. Granted, it takes work to get to the truth, but how great is the truth! What theology does Christmas remind us of? The list is too long. Christmas highlights God’s love, power, humility, salvation, and justice. As the old carol says, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Many, if not all, of God’s attributes are highlighted in Christmas. God is our Savior, and Christmas underlines this glorious truth. This is why preachers have no problem spending the month of December preaching about Christmas. Our Christmas is like eating lobster or crab. It is work, but it is certainly worth reveling in the glorious truth of the season.

What about the date? Why the 25th of December? I would say that the date doesn’t really matter. I think there is value celebrating “God with us” regardless of whether we get the date right or not. In fact, we almost certainly have the date wrong. Only God really knows when Jesus was born, and he isn’t telling us. While the date might be wrong, I think the general season is correct. There are reliable commentators who believe that the the 25th makes sense. It is a complex issue, but again, I don’t think the actual date matters. Some argue that the date was fixed on the 25th of December to coincide with the pagan festivals already in place. Rename a solstice party and you have an engaged crowd. However, the 21st isn’t the same as the 25th. It’s in the neighborhood, but I don’t think that the solstice has ever occurred on the 25th. Interestingly, as early as 200 there were those that believed that Jesus was conceived on March 25 (Feast of the Annunciation). Do the math; nine months from March 25 is December 25. But again, I don’t think the date is significant, and the church almost universally has celebrated Christmas on the 25th for well over 1,500 years.

I think we have freedom when it comes to Christmas. Paul writes in Rom. 14:3 “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.” Christmas is a gray area. Celebrating Christmas isn’t addressed in scripture. The wiggle room that applies to eating and drinking certain foods and drink applies to Christmas. Romans 14:5-6 says, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.” The issue with celebrations like Christmas and Easter, celebrations that aren’t instituted by the Word, is whether or not one can celebrate with a clear conscience. We have freedom that we shouldn’t let others take from us. While there is no commandment in scripture to celebrate Christmas, I would suggest that there isn’t anything that prohibits it. And, more to the point, scripture is clear that as long as we do it to honor the Lord, we have freedom. If you don’t have freedom to deck the halls, I completely understand. On balance, if you appreciate the glorious message of the season, sing away!

I think there is a wonderful upside to Christmas. Because there is a secular/cultural component to our Christmas, we have a ready opportunity to move conversation to the real meaning of the season. In fact, the many symbols of the season from the tree, to presents, to great food, to family all provide handy access to the Christmas story and the heart of the Christian message. Also, people who never ever go to church will gather with family at a Christmas service. Even completely secular people have no qualms attending a Christmas service where the Christmas story is told. This (preaching) is God’s preferred way of communicating the gospel (Romans 10:14). By God’s extravagant grace, God might save your dear loved ones through the preaching of a Christmas message. Christmas is the gift that keeps on giving!

I would argue that the truth of Christmas is too good not to celebrate. But, on balance, I would adjust some things. I think the gift giving this time of year is inappropriate. The pace of the season is exhausting. That said, the truth of Christmas is too good not to celebrate.

I haven’t posted in a while. This might be the last piece of the year. Anyway, with the New Year in mind, here’s a great rework of Auld Lang Syne. By the way, you probably know that John Newton wrote Amazing Grace for his church’s New Year’s service in 1773. Thinking about God’s amazing grace is a wonderful way to kick off the New Year.

How’s Your Serve?

September 14, 2016

This morning on my yearly trek through the Bible I read Matthew 25. While reading the Sheep and the Goats passage of Matthew 25 I couldn’t help but think of its connection with the sermon passage last Sunday (Hebrews 6:9-12), where the text in describing things that accompany salvation (9) mentions, “the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints” (10). The truth of the passage is clear: saved people love God’s name and this love is expressed in serving the saints.

The Sheep and the Goats passage is scary. Those who enter eternal life (25:46) are those who serve Jesus. Jesus says in Mt. 25:35-36 “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” The “righteous” are stunned by this statement. They ask (37), “When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink?” Then Jesus said (40), “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” So, in this passage the sign of eternal life is meeting the needs of Jesus’ brothers, particularly the “least” of Jesus brothers.

This begs the question, who are Jesus’ brothers? Jesus in Mt. 12:50 says, “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Putting all of this together, we might ask, what is one of the indications of salvation? Answer: we will serve the saints, Jesus’ family. We are saved by grace through faith, however, a key sign of life is that we will serve our brothers and sisters in Christ.

You see, if we love Jesus we will love what he loves. He loves the church. Therefore we will too. We will love no matter how needy, how broken, how irritating, and how reckless our brothers and sisters might be. We will love our brothers and sisters.