Monday, March 29, 2010

Monday of Holy Week: Follow the Leader

Today's readings: Matthew 21:12-13, 18-19; Mark 11:12-18; Luke 19:45-48; John 12:20-50
As I sought the Lord about the word He had for me today from Monday of Holy Week, I noticed many interesting things about these passages. I noticed that there was a lesson from the withering of the fig tree. I observed the obvious missional message of the coming of the Greeks signaling Jesus' "hour has come". I saw the sad truth that many fail to confess Him because they "loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God." But none of these, I sensed, were His word to me.

Here's a secret about teaching and writing: There is a constant temptation to read Scripture for lesson preparation and God's Word to "them" - whoever the audience might be at a given moment. This morning, as I dialogued with God about Monday of Holy Week, I was reminded of a basic lesson that the Teacher taught this teacher: If I'm not digging into His Word devotionally and studiously for myself, just for what He wants to teach me, then I have nothing to say to you or anyone else. One of the earliest prayers He taught me to pray over my teaching was "Lord, make the lessons that I teach manifest in my life." He has never failed to do that. I'm convinced one reason Scripture tells us that teachers incur a stricter judgment is just this very principle. Nothing will shut my mouth faster than realizing I'm about to say something that I only know academically. Because God is far too faithful to His body to let me get by with that one. So please, pray for your teachers and pastors and church leaders. You can rest assured that God won't let them get by with an abstract understanding of truth.

So - back to today's lesson. As I processed all of the above yet again, I told God to show me what the lesson was for me. What I needed to be reminded of in these familiar words. Two verses jumped out at me:
John 12:26: "If anyone serves me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there shall My servant also be; if any one serves Me, the Father will honor him."

John 12:49 "For I did not speak on my own initiative, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me commandment, what to say, and what to speak."
When I read these I immediately thought of Henry Blackaby's Experiencing God Bible study. One of his key teachings is that God is always at work and invites us to join Him in His work. That's key because it's His work, not ours; we don't invite Him to join us, He invites us to join Him. I should look for where He is at work and join Him. The first passage reminds me to follow Him - where He is, His servant should desire to be. The second passage tells me that He models what He expects of me; He spoke not on His own initiative but the Father's.

All of this reminds me of the childhood game "Follow the Leader." I am in a season of rest following an intense focus on getting a master's degree. I don't know what God has next for me, but this is yet another remind that He wants me to let HIM be the leader. I have to trust Him.

Here's the beautiful thing about this level of submission: Colossians 3:3 tells me, "For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God." Yes, I am not "the leader". But in that death to self, I am in the most secure place possible. As Corrie Ten Boom described it, Christ cups me in His hand and God cups Christ in His ... so I am doubly-covered.

It's a lesson that I can never learn enough!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Palm Sunday of Holy Week: Do we recognize His presence?

Today's passages: Matthew 21:1-17; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:29-44; John 12:1, 9-19

For over a decade now, I've set aside whatever Bible study I've been doing, pushed the pause button on wherever I am in my on-going read-through of the Bible, and pick up my Parallel Gospels to focus on the happenings of Holy Week. Each day, I read through all 4 Gospel accounts of the events leading up to Jesus crucifixion. This practice has helped me stay focused on the cross, fully feel its crushing blow to the disciples, and rejoice on Resurrection Morning as I realize afresh why the message of the early church was, "He is Risen! He is risen indeed!"

Another habit I've developed in conjunction with this is praying for God to reveal something at a deeper level each time I read the now-familiar passages. I don't want to check something off a list. I've learned that Scripture is like an onion with many layers and as we seek to know and obey Jesus, the Holy Spirit will peel back more layers. As I prayed that prayer this morning, I began to see a theme throughout the Palm Sunday readings: Do we recognize His presence? The passages give us several portraits of individuals at various points on a spectrum of awareness that can be instructive to the church today. I pray that the Lord will use these portraits in your life and in the life of your church or small group as we seek Him during this most significant of all weeks on the church calendar.

Clued in: The owner of the colt and Jesus' 2 disciples. (Mark 11:1-7; see also Matt. 21:1-3 and Luke 19:29-34)

(Mark 11:1-7 NASB) - As they approached Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, He sent two of His disciples, and said to them, "Go into the village opposite you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, on which no one yet has ever sat; untie it and bring it here. "If anyone says to you, 'Why are you doing this?' you say, 'The Lord has need of it'; and immediately he will send it back here." They went away and found a colt tied at the door, outside in the street; and they untied it. Some of the bystanders were saying to them, "What are you doing, untying the colt?" They spoke to them just as Jesus had told them, and they gave them permission. They brought the colt to Jesus and put their coats on it; and He sat on it.

On our spectrum, these individuals are as aware as they could be prior to the day of Pentecost and the eye-opening Holy Spirit. What strikes me the most about these individuals is their unqualified obedience. The 2 disciples, of course, had been around Jesus and realized that He could make some, shall we say, unconventional requests (see: Loaves and Fishes, Water to Wine, Mud for healing blind man). What intrigues me about these disciples' obedience is that as far as we can see in Scripture, there is no questioning or second-guessing. While the disciples certainly felt the freedom to ask questions - Scripture records numerous occasions - by this point these two disciples apparently had learned enough to just go along. They were clued in to His presence enough to know that if He asked them to go do something, He had a reason.

The owner of the colt also exhibits a high level of "clued in". We don't know any more about this man other than an important quality: He surrenders what he had to the Lord. Did he know "the Lord" was Jesus? We really don't know. But for nearly 2000 years his obedience has set a high bar for believers in Jesus. Like this man, anything in our possession should be available if "the Lord has need of it". 2 Corinthians 8:12-15 provide our best understanding of how this might look in our lives: God wants us to meet the needs of others with our resources. If we have more than our basic needs, then "if the Lord has need of it" through the needs of one of His people, we should be willing to supply.

Interestingly, neither the disciples nor the owner of the colt are named. Like so many shining examples of the faith, they remain anonymous except in His eyes. It didn't matter that we know their names. What mattered is that He knew they were willing to obey ... and that they were clued in to His Lordship.

Getting a clue: The crowd. (Matthew 21:8-17; see also Mark 11:8-11; Luke 19:35-40; John 12:12-18)
(Matthew 21:8-17 NASB) - Most of the crowd spread their coats in the road, and others were cutting branches from the trees and spreading them in the road. The crowds going ahead of Him, and those who followed, were shouting, "Hosanna to the Son of David; BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD; Hosanna in the highest!" When He had entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, "Who is this?" And the crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee." And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves. And He said to them, "It is written, 'MY HOUSE SHALL BE CALLED A HOUSE OF PRAYER'; but you are making it a ROBBERS ' DEN ." And the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that He had done, and the children who were shouting in the temple, "Hosanna to the Son of David," they became indignant and said to Him, "Do You hear what these children are saying?" And Jesus said to them, "Yes; have you never read, 'OUT OF THE MOUTH OF INFANTS AND NURSING BABIES YOU HAVE PREPARED PRAISE FOR YOURSELF'?" And He left them and went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.
Further down the spectrum we find the crowd that welcomes Jesus into Jerusalem, the Triumphal Entry that fulfilled prophecy. This crowd always intrigues me, since we know that it is likely many of the same people who, 5 days later, will be calling for Jesus' crucifixion - people in Jerusalem for the great Passover feast. In that, the crowd represents our human condition and the fickleness that we have toward those in whom we place great hope. But today, I see something different in the crowd. I see glimpses of understanding. I see a group of people who don't completely realize the significance of what they were doing, and yet who still present a picture of praise.

The crowd gets a lot of things wrong. They have Messianic expectations that are focused on political solutions - treating Jesus as a king coming to overthrow the Romans and retake Jerusalem. They readily recognize Jesus as a prophet, but fail to submit to His unqualified Lordship as the disciples and owner of the colt do. They praise God for the miracles that Jesus had done and continues doing even in their midst as He heals the blind and lame in the temple. John tells us that many were drawn to the gathering after hearing that He raised Lazarus from the dead (see John 12:17-18). Their focus seems more on what He can do and what they hope He will be, than on who He has revealed Himself to be. From the vantage point of 2000 years, we could pick apart their theology for hours. And yet ...

Jesus does not condemn the crowd. In fact, He defends them. When the Jewish leaders call for Him to rebuke the crowd in Luke's account, Jesus responds: "I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out." (Luke 19:39-40). In the passage above in Matthew, when the leaders are indignant over the children's worship of Jesus, He pulls out a passage from the Psalms and defends their praise. In Jesus' reaction I see both the obvious - He was the Messiah, and He was being very public about it - and the subtle. He doesn't condemn them not only because what they are saying is true, but because He is the Messiah who, in the words of Isaiah, does not break bruised reeds or extinguish faintly burning wicks (Isa. 42:1-3). He doesn't condemn us for our less-than-perfect understanding, our faltering faith, or our human errors in methodology. He knows when the focus is on Him, and when our eyes are rightly focused and our hearts willing, He can teach us and correct us.

Don't get me wrong. Sound doctrine is critical within the church on essential matters. When we have the full counsel of God's Word and the indwelling Holy Spirit, we should not be easily swayed (see Ephesians 4). However, I see the crowd as more like those who are trying to understand, who have a limited awareness of Jesus because they come from a background where He wasn't known or if known, not honored and His Word not taught. Even within the church, our awareness of Him should constantly be growing (compare 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians and rejoice!). But especially for seekers and new believers, I believe it's important to point toward Jesus as the object of worship, and the Holy Spirit and Word of God as the tools for revelation. If those with the Ephesians 4 gifts (apostles, evangelists, prophets, teachers, pastors) consistently teach and speak God's Word and point new believers back to it, helping them learn to discern the Holy Spirit's voice, those early errors will quickly be corrected. When dealing with those 'getting a clue', let's learn to match the gentleness of Jesus as He defends their imperfect praise.

The clueless: The Pharisees, the chief priests and the scribes. (Matthew 21:15-17; Luke 19:39-40; John 12:10-11, 19).

Jesus' words of rebuke are leveled at the religious leaders who, in their minds at least, knew the truth. Never mind that Jesus had made clear early in His ministry that they sought the Scriptures but missed Him (John 5:39-47). These "leaders" clearly had their own agenda already; they determined to put Jesus and Lazarus to death after He raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:53 and 12:10-11). John 12:19 reveals the heart of their concerns: The Pharisees therefore said to one another, "You see that you are not doing any good; look, the world has gone after Him."

"The world has gone after Him." What a clueless reaction. Of course the world would go after Jesus - the Messiah, the Savior, God incarnate. They had tried unsuccessful to thwart His ministry and now, on the day of His triumphal entry, failed to stop the praise that He was rightfully due. Their plan to kill Jesus now begins to gather steam and it will culminate later in the week.

What a rebuke to the "religious elite" whose focus lies everywhere but Jesus and who, by their actions, try to stop what God intends to allow. We see it every day: established churches critique a new start-up; denominational churches denounce non-denominationals; non-denominationals judge denominationals; we hold up this or that method and verbally blow holes through it; and on it goes. Again, I'm not talking the fundamental doctrines of the faith. So much of this happens over non-essentials, preferences, even cultural issues like whether to use African drums in worship! We fail to take a step back and see if we can recognize His presence in a non-traditional format. We fail to examine whether the unfamiliar paths lead to the cross.

I don't know about you, but I don't want to be "clueless" - I want to be "clued in". Hopefully I'm at least "getting a clue", because I don't want Jesus to say to me, as He said of Jerusalem in Luke 19:44, "you did not recognize the time of your visitation." May we always recognize His presence.

See previous Palm Sunday posts here and here.  

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Psalm 124

If the Lord had not been on our side - let Israel say -
If the Lord had not been on our side when men attacked us,
When their anger flared against us, they would have swallowed us alive.
The flood would have engulfed us,
The torrent would have swept over us,
The raging waters would have carried us away.

Praise be to the Lord who has not let us be torn by their teeth.
We have escaped like a bird out of the fowler's snare;
The snare has been broken and we have escaped.
Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.


Wholeness. That's the word that comes to mind when I think about what the psalmist was dealing with in these verses. Again flowing perfectly with the previous Psalm in which they entrusted themselves to God's mercy, here the Psalmist leads Israel in remembering a time when God's mercy led to deliverance.

The anger is pictured vividly in these verses - words like attack, flare, and raging; animal imagery like tearing by the teeth and a bird in the snare, all combine to help us visualize the problem facing Israel. We don't know exactly which struggle was remembered here, and that's okay, because we know what happened. God stepped in.

Anger is probably the emotion I struggle with the most. For a host of reasons, nothing shuts me down like being around an angry person. And there is no emotion I have a harder time expressing. So as I've memorized this Psalm, I haven't had any trouble at all personalizing the deliverance.

But this Psalm also reminds me of another type of deliverance: spiritual. When I look back over my life and the person I was 20 years ago, I know without a doubt that "the snare has been broken, and [I] have escaped." I also know that "if the Lord had not been on my side" ... I wouldn't even want to finish the sentence. I don't want to know where I would be.

One thing God's been teaching me this year is wholeness. A new insight for me is that freedom in Christ doesn't truly come until there is wholeness. Deliverance from a besetting sin or captive situation doesn't equal freedom until something healthy is embraced instead. For example, I've been struggling to lose weight for years now. I've embraced the concept that overeating is a sin and that I need to be healthy. But my "default" until recently has been unhealthy choices. I would eat healthy because I "had" to, not because I wanted to. But on a vacation my husband and I had trouble finding a meal with veggies one day due to limited choices in the small towns we visited. By the next day, we both wanted salad. I knew then that I had turned a corner. I knew that true freedom was coming because I had replaced an unhealthy desire with a healthy one.

Wholeness is a critical concept. There are a lot of false teachings out there about freedom. One places everything on "the devil". I call this "devil made me do it" theology. There's a demon around every corner, and an entire industry exists to help you get rid of them. There is a much stronger focus on the enemy than on God.

Another false teaching about freedom is a belief shared with Buddhism; it's the idea that the desire itself is the problem. Now many Christians would be shocked at being accused of harboring Buddhist beliefs; but the reality is that while we rarely put it in those terms, we act as though desire is the problem. This is especially seen in areas of sexuality but can be reflected in any number of spheres of life. I work at a University and I have talked to Christian students who were taught, implicitly or explicitly, that considering their passions and interests in determining a career choice was wrong and even selfish. They had truly never considered that God had placed within them a unique set of skills and interests and that He might be using their passion to guide them to the field in which He had uniquely designed them to excel.

Another area I've seen this tendency to squelch "desire" - and been guilty myself - is personality. When I began walking with the Lord I thought that my personality had to go. I had to become this "ideal Christian woman" which meant quiet, unopinionated, always spiritual, and loving to work on crafts and shop at Branson malls on the way home from retreats. Well, none of those things are me. I'm frequently loud, very opinionated, growing spiritually but not always spiritual, hate crafts, and would pull my hair out if after 3 days with a group of people I had to stop and shop at a mall. I had to learn to quit denying who God made me to be. I had to embrace my personality to be free - and whole.

Freedom is a journey. If the Lord had not been on my side, I wouldn't have even known I was in a snare. He set me free. I could list the ways for hours. But tonight, I am most grateful that when He freed me from that fowler's snare, He didn't just turn me loose. He cupped me in His nail-scarred hands and began the lifelong process of making me whole.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Psalm 123

I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven.
As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till He shows us His mercy.
Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us, for we have endured much contempt.
We have endured much ridicule from the proud, much contempt from the arrogant.

"Eye-hand coordination." That's what ran through my mind the entire time I was memorizing this psalm. When I memorize, I look for repeated words that can help me link sections of the passage. So as I studied this psalm to find memory cues, what quickly jumped out was the repetition of "eyes" and "hand".

I'm focusing on improving health lately, so eye-hand coordination is a concept I'm familiar with. It's one thing that can be an indicator of cognitive function as well as physical ability. This Psalm helps us to see that eye-hand coordination is significant spiritually as well.

At the heart of eye-hand coordination is a simple concept: Where are you looking? Where do you trust? Where do you look to have basic needs met. "Give us this day our daily bread." That's a Biblical prayer, and one that reminds us where we should be looking. Whether basic needs, significant problems like the Psalmist will address in the next chapter, or ridicule and contempt that he addresses here ... we need to look to one place: the hand of God.

The Psalmist's request is interesting. When he looks to God, he doesn't ask God to come against those who are ridiculing him. There's a Biblical basis to expect that God would take seriously ridicule and attacks on one of His own. Acts 9:4 records Jesus asking Saul "Why are you persecuting me?" when he was attacking Christians. Gen. 12:1-3 records God's call of Abram and His promise that those who bless Abram would be blessed and those who curse him would be cursed. As the descendant of Abram, the Psalmist could have prayed this passage and asked God to curse the enemy. In fact, we see other Psalms where the Psalmist does just that. But here, we see the Psalmist's cry at what I believe is a deeper heart level: mercy.

Mercy has been defined as "not getting what we deserve" while grace is "getting what we don't deserve". That's a good Biblical definition of each from a New Testament perspective. The Old Testament word for mercy, however, combines the concepts. So the Psalmist is saying, Lord, we're waiting on you until you give us what we don't deserve and not give us what we do deserve. It's a concept that is echoed three times in two verses; they beg for mercy because of the ridicule and contempt they have endured. They leave it in God's hands how that mercy will look.

Sometimes ridicule and contempt are important in shaping us. I love a quote from Francis Frangipane:

To inoculate me from the praise of man,
He baptized me in the criticism of man,
until I died to control of man.

If God knows that I need to be inoculated from the control of man, removing all ridicule and contempt would not be merciful. Yet in His mercy, God can strengthen me to focus on Him and enable me to learn the lessons I need to learn. Other times, God's mercy might step in and apply a balm to the relationship to end the contempt. Still other times, His mercy might remove me from the situation.

God has a character of mercy. He is ALWAYS merciful. Yet each of us have our own walk with God and our own lessons to learn. As a result, the application of His mercy will look different for everyone. When you cry out to God for mercy, He knows how to respond.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Psalm 122

I rejoiced with those who said to me, "Let us go to the house of the Lord."
Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is built like a city that is closely compacted together.
That is where the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, to praise the name of the Lord, according to the statute given to Israel.
There the thrones for judgment stand, the thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: "May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels."
For the sake of my brothers and friends I will say, "Peace be with you".
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God I will seek your prosperity.

Just as Psalm 120 seemed to flow seamlessly into Psalm 121 - a distress call becoming a turning to the Lord - Psalm 122 continues the thought of Psalm 121. Knowing these were sang as a unit on a journey to Jerusalem, I can really see the connections that our artificial chapter divisions hide.

Psalm 121:7-8 contains a promise that God will watch over our lives, and over our coming and going. Psalm 122 opens with a rejoicing in going to the house of the Lord. This speaks to me of what He wants us to do with the freedom we have in the Lord. He gives us security. As believers we know that He is FOR us (Romans 8:31). We know that He will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:4). So - what to do with all that security and freedom? Psalm 121:7-122:1 gives us a portrait of the Psalmists answer to that question: WORSHIP. Free in the knowledge that God would watch over all his comings and goings, he chooses to go to the temple and rejoices at the journey.

Wow. What an amazing thought - that our joy, our freedom, could be so wrapped up in Him! That is upside-down thinking, but completely Biblical. Our joy and worshipping Him are not at odds. In fact, only in Him will we find true joy. John Piper puts it this way: "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him." He is about creating willing worshippers - people whose heart wants to worship Him - not reluctant religious robots.

Worship is far more than the service we have on Sunday mornings - though we should gather as believers and experience the unity of corporate worship. Worship, according to the whole counsel of the word of God, is a life focused on loving God and loving others, on glorifying Him through our thoughts, words, and deeds. Worship is what we do at church and at home and at work and at the Wendy's drive-through. Worship occurs when we gather and sing and hear the Word; it also occurs when we turn off a movie that dishonors God and blasphemes His name; when we embrace the outcasts of our society; when our passion for God exceeds our passion for food or money or drugs or sex or work. All these things aren't bad. Some are quite good, under the control of the Spirit. But they are to be experienced secondarily to a passion for Him.

How can we have that kind of passion for Him? I think verse 2 contains a hint: "Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem." How easy it was to worship when standing in front of the temple ... when the Holy of Holies was only feet away ... when the Shekinah glory fell. In my life, the times of strongest passion for God have occurred when I recognized the reality of His presence ... when I knew that through Christ I could get closer to the Holy of Holies than these travellers ever dreamed of - I can go right into His presence (Hebrews 10:19-22). I can confidently enter His sanctuary - and He has made ME His temple! That is almost unfathomable. No, it is more than that. It IS unfathomable, because my past is anything but glorious. I'm not just talking about my pre-Jesus past. I'm talking about last week - yesterday - this morning! Yet because His Spirit indwells me, because His blood covers me, I am His temple. And so are you. Are you feeling the passion with me yet?

When things get routine or ritualistic, when I struggle to have that passion, inevitably I realize that I have stepped into my own flesh and quit believing Him for the dailyness of His presence. That doesn't mean that we don't go through what St. John of the Cross called "the dark night of the soul." We all at times don't have the feelings of passion. But we can still have it by faith, by trusting that He is with us and for us and in us and using us and hearing us, and we can rejoice at what He is doing or will do ... even if we don't "feel" it at the moment.

So the Psalmist then moves into a focus on Jerusalem. This passage is rightly used to challenge us to pray for Jerusalem, and we should. This Scripture even tells us HOW to pray. I love that we have permission to pray for Jerusalem to have peace. If there is any place in the world that needs it, that town does. And yet I seem something more in this passage. I see a missions Scripture (surprise!).

Acts 1:8 tells us that the disciples became Jesus' witnesses in "Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth." I'd like to use verses 3-9 to challenge you to prayer for YOUR Jerusalem. I want you to think about this along two tracks:
1) Your spiritual Jerusalem (your place of worship, a church or small group)
2) Your ministry Jerusalem (the town in which you live and work and do life)

The answers are going to be different for each of us, but I'd like us all to follow this pattern for both your spiritual and ministry Jerusalems based on vv. 3-9:

1. Describe how your Jerusalems are designed (not necessarily literally) (v. 3) - for example, for my hometown I can say that God has placed me in "Fayetteville, an eclectic city filled with people from all over the world." For my church I would say, "Calvary Chapel, a church devoted to sound doctrine and the teaching of the Word of God." Your approach will be unique to your situation.
2. Next, describe what happens in your Jerusalems (vv. 4-5). This can be related to your description, or unrelated if you have something else on your heart. For Fayetteville, I have said, "You have brought the nations to our door. They have a chance here to hear of Your name, to know You through our love." For my church I would say, "This is where people come to hear truth and find a place that tries to find a Biblical balance to many of the non-essential issues that divide Christians."
3. Write a prayer for your Jerusalems. (vv. 6-7)
4. Determine what you will do out of love for God and others (vv. 8-9).

I hope this exercise helps you as it has me. It's hard to know how to turn passages like this into practical application for today, but I believe that the pattern it sets is one that can help us whatever the current situation of our church and ministry "Jerusalems".

Sunday, March 07, 2010

The Priority of Love

You study the scriptures thoroughly because you think in them you possess eternal life, and it is these same scriptures that testify about me, but you are not willing to come to me so that you may have life. (John 5:39-40)

My friend has a book title in her head: "Exercises in Missing the Point." She constantly files away examples when someone majors on minors to the point that they miss the forest for the trees. In John 5, Jesus address the Pharisees who have completely missed him in their deep searching of Scriptures. This is a passage that should give pause to all of us who love Bible study, because we too can miss the point.

I love truth. Perhaps because I walked in deception for so many years, I am vigilant about not believing any more lies. This vigilance, however, has a shadow side. I could easily become a portrait in my friend's book if I allow myself to miss the priority of love.

Love - the greatest commandment. Love God, love others. Love permeates the New Testament. We're told it's the way we fulfill the law. We're instructed to love deeply, sincerely, and continually. Even our presentation of truth is to be done in love. In fact, in one of the most well-known New Testament passages, Paul tells us that without love we are "nothing". We're not just falling short, we're completely failing to communicate when love is not behind every word we speak. Love is our defining mark as believers in Jesus. Our love for God, for each other, and for the world authenticates our message. Our failure to love speaks louder than any words.

Within the body of Christ, we are called to pursue sound doctrine. But even here, love should reign. The reality is, sound doctrine does not equal perfect theology. As you read this blog you will find times when my theology falls short. Bible studies, however well-researched, well-written, and well-presented, are not Scripture. The only perfect theology is found on the pages of the Bible, and the minute we start interpreting our biases and prejudices and cultural lenses can lead us astray. That's why God gives us the Holy Spirit and the body of Christ.  The Holy Spirit leads us into all truth, and we can help each other stay within the bounds of sound doctrine on the essentials of the faith.

But that won't mean we won't have differences on non-essentials, or approach essentials from different angles. That's why we need to be in unity with other believers who can enrich our understanding within the bounds of sound doctrine. For example, sound doctrine about Jesus attests to both His full humanity and full divinity. Some churches emphasize His humanity without diminishing His deity; they remind us that He knows our weaknesses, understands temptation, and entered into His suffering with full physical consequences, so He has compassion on our physical suffering as well. Other churches emphasize His deity without diminishing His humanity; they remind us that He is Lord, that He gave up communion with the Father to come to earth, and that His priority for us is spiritual and eternal. Approaching a different emphasis with love rather than judgment will enable us to learn from the best of each other.

Paul had plenty of people picking him apart. In Thessalonica, Jewish leaders acting out of jealousy led the citizens in an uproar against Paul's team, picking out the doctrine of the Lordship of Christ and using it as a hook to get the people to reject the teaching. Paul's next stop introduced him to a completely different bunch of people. The Bereans are often held up as examples when assessing doctrine. However, it's not usually noted that they weren't looking for errors; instead, they were seeking to confirm truth. Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. (Acts 17:11). 

The Bereans were eager, and they went back to Scripture for confirmation. The Bereans give me to the sense of someone who wonders if the Gospel could be too good to be true and then find out that it is indeed true! What joy, what thrill to hear an awesome teaching and then see it confirmed in the Word! I'm so thankful that God gives us teachers, evangelists, prophets, pastors, to teach us His Word and help us see things from a different angle. Yes, we have to go back to Scripture. We have to test everything against the Word of God, and He's given us the Holy Spirit to assist in that process. But in an attitude of love, we can seek what we can learn from others who are sound on the essentials, even if they differ on non-essentials or approach Scripture from a different angle or with a different cultural background.

In our quest for truth we must never forget that truth is ultimately a Person, Jesus Christ. We encounter a person, not a boxed-in set of beliefs to check off  our list. When we pursue Him, He will lead us to a unity of faith around some key doctrinal essentials. As we walk together in those truths, we must never forget the priority of love. What we do will speak louder than any theology textbook or Bible study, regardless how accurate it might be.

Love God, love others. Take it in and live it out. And let's help each other not miss the point. Like John wrote in his second epistle, let us love in truth.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Ezekiel 8 Moments

Idolatry. That's not really a word we think about a lot these days. Few Christians in the west have to decide what to do with the household idols. We mistakenly think that idolatry is outright, blatant worship of a false god. Scripture gives us a vivid picture to the contrary. In Ezekiel 8, we see idolatry as a spectrum, ranging from false compromises to false worship, with stops at false beliefs and false focuses along the way. 

As I read this chapter today, God immediately struck my heart with the realization that there are many ways idolatry can take place right on the grounds intended to worship God - in our personal temples and corporate places of worship. The visual associated with this text would be that each stage of idolatry was associated with a more intimate part of the temple. On the grounds of the temple, a "statue of jealousy" was erected - blending worship of Yahweh with worship of a false deity. At the entrance to the court of the Israelites, tools intended for worship of Yahweh were used in idolatry, because the people rejected the truth of God and embraced a lie. At the Nicanor gate, women focused on a false god. And in the inner court, the people's backs were turned to the temple and they engaged in full-blown idol worship of the sun. The closer to the holy of holies, the worse the idolatry became. Why? Because it was accepted at the earlier stages, by the time it reached the inner court the people were experts at rationalizing.

I thought a lot about this. The reality is that the more we accept false compromises, the easier it becomes to believe lies and focus on the wrong things and ultimately find ourselves worshipping someone or something other than God. The examples in italics below helped me wrap my mind around how incredibly easy it is to exchange the truth of God for a lie.

It seems like such a small thing. Nothing, really, if you think about it logically. Talking about God and spirituality without reference to Jesus and the cross just makes me more relevant, opens more doors, keeps me in a place of influence. I'm just waiting for the right moment. Paul did it in Acts 17 - appealed to the people of Athens from their level of understanding. Of course, he did make it clear that he was there to proclaim truth. I haven't quite gotten to that point yet. But I will, really. I'm just waiting for the right moment. A false compromise.

8:5 He said to me, “Son of man, look up toward the north.” So I looked up toward the north, and I noticed to the north of the altar gate was this statue of jealousy at the entrance.
8:6 He said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing – the great abominations that the people of Israel are practicing here, to drive me far from my sanctuary? But you will see greater abominations than these!”

There is no way that I can reconcile this tragedy with the sovereignty and goodness of God. I can't really admit it at church, but I think God isn't as involved with our lives as we'd like to think. So now as I face these people at work and try to help them, I need to give them something they can understand. I used to think God was watching everything I did but now I'm not so sure. I think I'll just Google some self-help phrases, and lead the staff in a positive thinking exercise. That should be sufficient. When I go to church I'll try to think about this from God's perspective but right now, I just need something that makes everyone feel better. A false belief.

8:7 He brought me to the entrance of the court, and as I watched, I noticed a hole in the wall. 8:8 He said to me, “Son of man, dig into the wall.” So I dug into the wall and discovered a doorway.
8:9 He said to me, “Go in and see the evil abominations they are practicing here.” 8:10 So I went in and looked. I noticed every figure of creeping thing and beast – detestable images – and every idol of the house of Israel, engraved on the wall all around. 8:11 Seventy men from the elders of the house of Israel (with Jaazaniah son of Shaphan standing among them) were standing in front of them, each with a censer in his hand, and fragrant vapors from a cloud of incense were swirling upward.
8:12 He said to me, “Do you see, son of man, what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the dark, each in the chamber of his idolatrous images? For they think, ‘The Lord does not see us! The Lord has abandoned the land!’” 8:13 He said to me, “You will see them practicing even greater abominations!”

Our church has to be relevant. People just don't want to hear doctrine and sit through long sermons. Besides, who are we to say we have a handle on the truth. It's a new century. Some people say we have to hold on to our roots in the midst of a shifting landscape. Maybe that's not the case at all. Maybe letting go of our roots is the only way we can see where this new world takes us. Besides, look at all the failures of the church through the ages. Those roots haven't really helped, have they? A false focus.

8:14 Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the Lord’s house. I noticed women sitting there weeping for Tammuz. 8:15 He said to me, “Do you see this, son of man? You will see even greater abominations than these!”

Seriously, did people ever believe that? We have found a new idea, a new way to relate to truth. Our church has embraced this new approach and we boldly move forward. A false worship. 

8:16 Then he brought me to the inner court of the Lord’s house. Right there at the entrance to the Lord’s temple, between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men with their backs to the Lord’s temple, facing east – they were worshiping the sun toward the east!
8:17 He said to me, “Do you see, son of man? Is it a trivial thing that the house of Judah commits these abominations they are practicing here? For they have filled the land with violence and provoked me to anger still further. Look, they are putting the branch to their nose! 8:18 Therefore I will act with fury! My eye will not pity them nor will I spare them. When they have shouted in my ears, I will not listen to them.”

I wrote these examples not in judgment but in understanding, because at one point or other in my life I've faced each of those struggles. The answer for me - for all of us - can be found in the first verses of the chapter, before Ezekiel was shown these visions.

8:1 In the sixth year, in the sixth month, on the fifth of the month, as I was sitting in my house with the elders of Judah sitting in front of me, the hand of the sovereign Lord seized me. 8:2 As I watched, I noticed a form that appeared to be a man. From his waist downward was something like fire, and from his waist upward something like a brightness, like an amber glow. 8:3 He stretched out the form of a hand and grabbed me by a lock of hair on my head. Then a wind lifted me up between the earth and sky and brought me to Jerusalem by means of divine visions, to the door of the inner gate which faces north where the statue which provokes to jealousy was located. 8:4 Then I perceived that the glory of the God of Israel was there, as in the vision I had seen earlier in the valley.

When we encounter the glory of the living God ... when we perceive His presence and His hand seizes us ... when our focus is on Him and we are increasingly knowing Him ... when we love Him more than life itself ... we find Him fully sufficient. We find clarity that allows us to compromise on non-essential things like worship style but refuses to yield ground on essentials like the object of our worship. We find intimacy that gives us an understanding of the character of God and the person of Christ, and we quit believing lies. We find ourselves so enthralled with Him that we can't focus anywhere else. And we find that false worship holds no appeal whatsoever. Like a newlywed madly in love, we simply don't want anyone else. And in His presence, we find true wholeness.