Friday, February 21, 2020

How Can It All Be True?

         Unbelief comes so easily to us.  The unbeliever, of course, lives in denial and has absolutely no problem with unbelief - at least religious unbelief.  The unbelieving man or woman can be liberal about some things, and conservative about others.  They can be warm and compassionate on one issue and heartless, cold, cruel and unthinking on another and never have a reason to recognize that they are inconsistent.
Christians cannot have it both ways.  We must have a center in our lives, and that center is Christ.  Sin in our flesh will often push us toward inconsistencies, but we strive deliberately toward being God’s holy people all of the time.  We have the commission of Christ to be His disciples, to walk in a manner worthy of the Gospel, to love one another, and show forth His glory by living lives which are, by the mercies of God, living and holy sacrifices to Him, which is (or so the Apostle Paul wrote) our spiritual service of worship.
This is where unbelief become a problem for the Christian.  We don’t usually have problems with the big things: Jesus is the Son of God, the Trinity, Creationism, big doctrines like those we just accept on the authority of the Word of God.  We generally accept them easily because they don’t challenge us in our daily lives.  The divinity of Jesus Christ doesn’t directly impact the way we do our taxes, or how we approach evangelism, or even which denomination we belong to - within reason, of course.
The trouble comes when living out our lives requires living out the faith that we confess.  We confess that God answers prayers, but when trouble comes, we are often slow to pray, and impatient with God to answer in a way we recognize as an answer.  We talk about God guiding our lives and blessing us, but when we are not delighted with how life is going, we often imagine that something is wrong, rather than trust God and confess that He is God and we are not.  We live a theology of glory even while we confess a theology of the cross.
God does not work according to our sense of how things ought to be.  He tells us in Isaiah, “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.”  The course of the world around us is not going to accommodate us, and the work and the plans of God are not going to accommodate our desires either.  We may find financial distress more frequently than we would like to.  Illness may dog our steps now and then.  People may not like us or recognize our true worth.  In short, life may not seem ‘fair’ to us.
The reality is that life is almost never fair to anyone.  It is not fair that someone should win a lottery and wind up wealthy.  It is not fair that you should work for years to establish your nest egg only to have a market “adjustment” steal it away.  It is not fair that you work hard and the opportunities fall toward someone else.  It is not fair, it is reality.
It is also not fair that you should be healthy and another suffer heart disease or emphysema.  It is not fair that your car starts on a cold morning and someone else’s does not.  It is not fair that fame, popularity, unbridled success, or whatever, should fall upon one person while another, who works just as diligently, and seems no less worthy, misses out.  It isn’t fair, it is simply what is.   These facts make me see the wisdom of God revealing the truth that “Godliness with contentment is great gain.
Would we really want what we deserve?  We deserve no good thing, according to our faith - at least the one we confess publicly.  We don’t measure our ‘deserving-ness’ on the scale of sin and absolute justice.  We measure it on the scale of the goodness God has shown us in the past, and take it for granted that He must be just so good to us – and in the same way - today and tomorrow.  If we can arise in the morning, breathe in and out, and begin our day with our morning food and customary baths, showers, or washing and brushings, we should be shouting for joy and raising prayers of thanksgiving for God’s undeserved and immeasurable goodness and kindness to us.
That we don’t is due to the patient teaching of false doctrine to us by the world around us.  It tells us that today is the minimum life ought to be, and we should only expect things to get better from here.  Our lack of praise and thanksgiving is a manifestation of unbelief in us.  We don’t actually believe that we deserve anything less.  But few of the world’s inhabitants get out of such nice beds, arise to such fine food, or have the assortment of clothing to put on that we consider a minimum.  Even fewer know who the provider of these blessings is.
Then we set out into the world.  Usually, we think it is too hot or too cold.  We have to work harder than we want to.  The people around us do not treat us as well as we think they should.  Our situation in life is often somewhat less than what we dreamed it might be, and we find ourselves chafing under the reality in which we live.
But our faith teaches us that God is with us, guarding us and guiding us.  He has planned good works for us to do throughout the day, and sets them in our path to do.  So, while we do not understand why the world around us does not see our true worth, we can be sure that whatever we find before us to do is what God would have us do.  If sin presents itself, we are to resist and flee from it, and that is our good work.  If temptation arises, we are to resist it, and turn our backs on it.  If menial tasks are required of us, we are to do them as though this is the work we are to do to worship God - because it is.
Our circumstances and our daily activities don’t have to strike us as special or important or earth-shaking.  Our faith teaches us that we are where God has placed us, to do the things God would have us to do for the blessing and benefit of our neighbor - just as they do what they do for our blessing and benefit, whether they realize it or not.  When we chafe at life and its demands, we are forgetting God’s hand in our lives.  When we despair of our situation or lose hope, we are forgetting God’s love and promises, and act as though it all depends on us, and not on God at all!  When you forget the promises of God and act as though He were not aware of your life or involved in your circumstances, that is a species of unbelief.
Of course, the difficulties we confront can be an opportunity to change things, make things different and better.  We can find a better job, one for which we are better suited.  We can take the opportunity of a broken relationship to repair it by humbling ourselves to confession, repentance, and forgiveness.  If we can find the courage to say, “I was wrong.  I sinned.  Can you, will you forgive me?”, we may also discover the joy of being forgiven, and find ways to put back together relationships that we imagined were broken beyond repair.  More than that, however, we may model the very things we confess; faith, forgiveness, humility.  We may have the chance to show someone how powerful the gospel is by acting out our part in it.
            We Christians talk a lot about grace, forgiveness, humility, and repentance.  Now and again, God gives us opportunities to put those things into practice.  Just being confident that God has forgiven us can give us the strength to admit errors, or open the door to forgive someone who has sinned against us.  Sometimes, people need to see Christ in us before they are going to be willing to hear about Him from us.
We can never tell what God is working through us in the various circumstances of our lives.  A hospital stay can be the platform for showing the reality and power of the hope of everlasting life to a nurse or doctor, another patient, or someone just visiting a friend.  Economic difficulties can position us to confess Christ without the one who hears our words thinking, “Yeah?, I bet you wouldn’t say that if you were in my shoes!”  Just being a decent and kind person, and doing all to the glory of God without hardly ever speaking a word can earn you the respect of those around you, who learn respect first, and then wonder, when they find that you are one of those “church people” who go to that church down the road.  Your witness - and your stock in their eyes - may never be noticed by you, but you cannot tell what God is doing by means of your faithful, holy, daily walk in the Lord.
Jesus never had much money.  He never drove a car, used a cell-phone, flew in an airplane, or appeared on television.  He was never what we would call popular, and He occasionally said things that drove many of those who followed Him for a time right up a wall, and out of His life.  He didn’t measure what He was doing by the reaction of those around Him.  He measured them by their reactions to God’s Word and God’s works.  What Jesus did do was keep the whole will and Law of God flawlessly, so that He could then die when He did not deserve to - and in doing so take our place, and die our death, and pay what was owed to the justice of God for our sins for us.  He redeemed us.
Because He died where and when and how He died, and because He rose from the grave, we are forgiven.  And we know the love of God for us.  And we know that God is with us and watching us and guiding us and blessing us.  We also know these things because Jesus said so, for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from the Father.  (John 16:27)   We have seen the love which the heavenly Father has for us - and we know the promises about resurrection and life eternal which lie ahead of us.  So we can live every day as though every bit of your faith is true - and we really should - because we believe what Jesus has done, promised, and given to us.  The only way anyone else can see that it is true is by your faith leaking out into your daily living.  Let us pray that God guards us and keeps us so that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us nor seduce us in to misbelief, despair, and other great shame or vice.

All You Need Is . . .

If you are a fan of the Beatles and their music, the half-line above set music playing in your mind and you instantly knew how to end that phrase.  All you need is love!  Of course, that phrase is practically pure tripe.  It is not complete rubbish because it can be understood in the proper sense and be true, but that is not how most people would read it.
February is the month of Valentine's Day, the holiday in which we celebrate the grisly death of a third-century Christian Martyr (actually there seems to have been two or three Valentines) by giving one another little heart-shaped pictures and various candies, typically chocolate.  I know that is the way I want to be remembered when I am gone – hearts, flowers, erotic love, and dark chocolate.  If that is the kind of love you associate with the Beatles’ song, that is NOT all you need.
February is also the month of Ash Wednesday this year.  We begin the season of Lent, preparing to remember the greatest exercise of love in history – the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ for our forgiveness and salvation.  If that is what comes to mind when you hear the Beatles’ tune, the phrase is accurate, and your mind functions in a very peculiar way.
The Beatles were not known to be great Christian theologians, favoring Hindu thought instead, and their use of the language of love tended to be more secular than sacred.  The world around us means something entirely different when it uses the word “love” than Christians do – at least when we are speaking theologically.
The worldly idea of love is self-centered.  We love because it makes us feel good or because we have an expectation of good and pleasure or some other benefit arising from love.  Couples profess love as they approach marriage, for example.  Through years of pre-marital pastoral counseling, I have found that people generally mean that they enjoy the way the other person makes them feel, or does things for them, or they find their physical relationship satisfying or exciting or whatever.  It is a rare individual, and almost never a couple, that intends by the word “love” to indicate that they want to care for the other and enable them to be all that they can be, fulfilling themselves rather than making the one who loves feel something special.
Love that is patterned after the love of God for us – and remember, God is love – is a love that sets the beloved above one’s self, loving that person for who they are and wanting to protect and nurture that and advance the one who is loved to be the best and most complete and satisfied they can be.  Jesus loved us in that way. 
He loved His heavenly Father by listening to Him and putting the plans of the Father into action even at great personal cost.  He did not first love the Father, and then He acted as a response to that love, but rather He loved the Father by acting out the will of the Father which included the Passion and the crucifixion.  That was how He loved God.  We also are tempted to think that because He was also true God, Jesus approached the passion calmly, knowing how it would end and seeing with divine foresight the resurrection and ascension.  We think this way because we cannot imagine a love so great as to take up that cross.  Jesus probably knew what was coming, but in the passion and in the resurrection because the Scriptures told Him, but He denied Himself the insight and the comfort of that knowledge beyond what we might find.  The passion was real and the stress and power of the fear were real – as the passion narratives in the Bible tell us over and over.
The love of the Father for us caused Him to plan such a salvation, and the love of the Son for His Father and for us brought Jesus to the cross.  All we really need is THAT love, and we have it!  It is that love that overshadows our lives, walking with us daily in our joys and sorrows, our triumphs and our defeats and failures.  That is the love that provides us with food and clothing and all of the needs of the body for this life.
The worldly sort of love makes us feel good at times, but it also makes us miserable at times.  It is a powerful drug, and once you have a little of it, you want more and you can be miserable without it.  The difficult part is that it is usually all about you and not about the one you love.  The love of God, and love like God’s love, is about the one you love.  When it is the love of God, it is his love for you and it stays with you through good times and bad to bless you and strengthen you and bring you through, with the ultimate goal of everlasting life in glory.
So, on February 26 beginning at 6:30 p.m., we will begin our Lenten observance with the Lord’s Supper and prepare our hearts for a season of repentance by looking at the Seven Deadly Sins.  They include (using the names of the sermons) Camel-like Pride; The  Green-Eyed Monster of Envy; That Old Dragon of Anger; The Three-toed Sloth; Greed, the Scrooge; The Twin Sisters of Gluttony and Lust – and a look at the Passover on Maundy Thursday, finishing up with the Nature of Sin on Good Friday.
We will discover once again how great is our sin, how undeserved is the love and grace of God, and how full and compelling is the love of the Father for us, and of the Son for His Father and for us.  All we need is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.