Monday, February 15, 2021

Love Without Romance

  

It is said that in polite society, we do not discuss politics or religion.  Today, I am going to do both, at the same time.  As residents of the United States, we find ourselves in a veritable morass of political, racial, and economic divisions that reach across all religious beliefs and practices.  I am not interested in mounting a soapbox and making my case about what convictions we hold.  I am much more concerned about how we come to our convictions and how we express and exercise them.  Even though the news has been calling our current times as unprecedented, the writers of the Bible do not seem to be strangers to conflict and controversy, even among believers.  We would do well to consider their words.

 

It matters what we believe.  Both Matthew and Luke record words of Jesus that are as relevant in our no-absolute-truth culture as they were in the first century:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock.  And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock.  Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.  The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.  Matthew 7:24-27.

 

No one can avoid all the storms of living as a fallen creature in a fallen world; but building our lives on the foundation of Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life can enable us to avoid at least many of the pitfalls of these storms.  Yet Scripture does not give us a blueprint for what that looks like.  The Christian life is not about religious performance; nor does Scripture provide a flow chart for us.  The Christian life is about cultivating a growing and intimate faith relationship with the Lord of the universe and then expressing that relationship in what we do and how we treat others.

 

Romans 14 has become one of my favorite passages in the New Testament.  I would encourage you to spend some time reading it and processing the words of the Apostle Paul.  In this epistle, Paul is addressing a dilemma that is causing controversy among believers living in the very secular city of Rome.  At issue is the eating of meat sacrificed to idols and/or eating meat of unknown origin, that might have originated from pagan worship practices.  Some believers are so horrified at the thought any association with idol worship that they are choosing to avoid meat altogether and eat only vegetables.  Others see nothing wrong with eating meat sacrificed to idols in whom they do not believe and who, according to their faith, are not real.  Some of us may be surprised to see Paul take the position of freedom: he sees nothing wrong with eating meat sacrificed to idols who do not represent anything that is spiritually material.

 

But Paul is not pronouncing his position in order to prescribe appropriate Christian behavior.  He does not denounce those who are abstaining from meat; nor does he exhort those who hold his “freedom” position to straighten their brethren out.  Instead, he uses the division of opinion to teach two important principles.  The first is that each believer is responsible for living before Christ, with the help of the indwelling Holy Spirit.  We are to develop and practice our convictions in the context of our dynamic relationship with the Lord.  Our convictions are the outworking of our faith and walk in Christ and often reflect our personal history, experiences, and maturity of faith.  The conviction held by one believer may not be appropriate for a brother or sister to hold!  So while there is the absolute truth of Christ, there is not necessarily one right way to translate that truth into our lives.  The second principle is that we are not to regard our convictions as a standard to be used to judge one another or to feel superior to someone who holds a different—and sometimes contradictory—position.  We are to be sensitive in our interactions with and behavior toward one another so that none of us is caused to stumble or is the cause of stumbling.  Paul warns us that as important as convictions of faith are, using them to achieve self-righteousness is utterly. un-Christian.

 

In his letter to the Philippians (the well-known Chapter 13), Paul reinforces these thoughts by reminding the believers in Philippi that doing great things in Christ has no eternal value if they are not done out of love.  If we speak in tongues, if we prophesy with power, if we move mountains in faith, if we give all we have in ministry, and even if we die a martyr’s death, such activity will fail to advance the work of Christ and His kingdom if it is not generated by our faith relationship with Christ, manifested in love, and expressed as the outworking of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

 

Paul calls the body of Christ to unity: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  (Galatians 3:28).  In these days of division, in the United States I would love to add that there is neither Republican nor Democrat; neither black nor white; neither Hispanic, Latino, Asian, nor White.  Paul underscores his point with this admonishment a bit later in his letter: For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.  For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.”   But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.  Galatians 5:13-15.

 

Jesus told His disciples that the world would associate His disciples with Him not by their strident convictions, not by their self-righteous behavior, but by their love: By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.  John 13:35.

 

Our God is a God of restoration, reconciliation, and redemption.  This is illustrated no more powerfully than in Jesus’s death to cover our sins and restore our relationship with our loving Creator.  While the conflict, controversy, and division of these times could be used as tools by Satan to rip us apart, they also represent opportunities for the members of Christ’s body to prosper the work of the Holy Spirt in us and among us, to deepen our love for one another so that as a body, we may manifest God’s goodness and glory to a world desperate for genuine Good News.

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday, December 24, 2020

A Christmas Eve Meditation

 One of my favorite Christmas books (and subsequent film) is Dr. Seuss’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas.  In this timeless classic, the Grinch, who has a heart that is two sizes too small, decides to prevent Christmas from coming in the village of Who-ville by cleverly stealing all the food, decorations, and gifts as the Whos down in Who-ville slept on Christmas Eve.

                                                            

After his hard night’s work, the Grinch was eagerly anticipating the disappointment in Who-ville when its residents discovered that Christmas had been stolen.  Much to his amazement, Christmas came anyway!  

                        Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,

                        Was singing!  Without any presents at all!

                        He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming!

                        It CAME!

                        Somehow or other, it came just the same!

 

And so it was on that Christmas morning that the Grinch learned that Christmas means more than decorations, more than feasts, more than gifts.  And with that knowledge, the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day, and he was able to join the Whos in their celebration.

 

And in 2020, it may seem like the pandemic is trying to steal Christmas.  May we remember that Christmas will indeed come, just the same!

Sunday, December 20, 2020

An Advent Meditation

 Ready. Or. Not.  Christmas is coming…soon!  To be sure, the holidays are different this year.  Many of us are enduring grief, hardship, and stress.  Celebrations require a large measure of sensitivity, caring, compromise, and sacrifice.  We may not have much in the way of holiday spirit.  But that is exactly why Jesus came.

 

Jesus did not come because we—the human race—had our act together.  He came because we are—individually and collectively—a mess.  We are so in need of the Messiah.  And His coming is not so unlike the ages-old children’s game of Hide and Seek.  The hiders hide.  The seeker waits, and then shouts, “Ready or not, here I come!”  And then the seeker comes looking….

 

We may not be ready; or alternatively, we may be hiding in what we think is a very secure place or in a very good disguise.  But regardless of our location or circumstances, regardless of how ready we are or how we are doing, we can be absolutely certain that the Seeker is coming for us.

 

Of course, Hide and Seek is a game, and the coming of the Messiah is anything and everything but a game.  The advent of the Messiah is about eternal life and death.  But we can learn something important from the game: The glee in which the seeker in the game finds the hiders is a mere shadow of the joy that the eternal Seeker experiences when He seeks and finds the lost or seeks and comforts those who are already His own but are suffering and struggling.

 

 

Come, Lord Jesus…!

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Quote Of The Day

 "One thing this vaccine will not solve or cure is selfishness."

                                                        Tennessee Governor Bill Lee

Sunday, December 13, 2020

An Advent Meditation

 ‘Tis the season for decorations, special music, (virtual) gatherings, gifts, parties, and…nativity scenes.  Representations of the circumstances of Christ’s birth appear as ornaments, in church plays, and on lawns.  Although we don’t know the details of this momentous event:  We don’t know if Jesus was born in a stable, a cave, or even in the stone tower known as Migdal Eder.  But we often find it helpful to imagine them so that our minds have something of substance to ponder.

 

Of course nativity scenes feature the baby Jesus with His mother Mary and human father Joseph.  Usually included is a donkey that may have accompanied Mary and Joseph from Nazareth and often a cow and a lamb.  It is a warm, rural scene that emphasizes the contrast between the glories of heaven and the humble circumstances of Christ’s birth and earthly life.  

 

There is one animal that is consistently and remarkably absent from our nativity scenes.  We never see a snake.  Modern-day Israel is home to over forty species of snakes, and ancient Israel no doubt had a robust population.  It is not in the least unreasonable to speculate that a snake was present at the birth of Christ.

 

But it is not a generic snake that is in question here.  It is the serpent of old, Satan in the Garden of Eden, whose presence deserves our consideration.  After Satan, in the form of a serpent/snake, tempted Eve and provoked her to disobey God and initiate the fall, God pronounced judgment upon all involved.  His judgment upon Satan included a promise of redemption for Adam and Eve and their descendants—the Seed of Eve would crush the serpent’s head even as he would bruise this Seed’s heel.

 

And so even though we do not know if there was an actual snake at the birth of Christ, the serpent of old plays a prominent role in this drama.  His presence—literally or metaphorically—reminds us that the wondrous birth of Christ is a scene set in the battlefield of Good versus evil, of sacrifice and suffering to defeat the serpent, to purchase redemption, and to reclaim eternity for those who believe.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

An Advent Meditation

 In.  The.  Beginning.  Powerful words that begin the books of Genesis and the Gospel of John.  And while these phrases were originally written in different languages, they share the same meaning and are translated with the same words.  This has been recognized since the Old Testament was first translated into Greek by the scholars gathered together for that purpose.  En arche God created the heavens and the earth.  En arche was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

 

As we walk through this Advent season and prepare to celebrate Christmas, the connection that the Apostle John makes with the book of Genesis is powerfully relevant.  The God who was and is the beginning of all things is the very same God who was and is the Word who came to live among us, to be our Immanuel, God with us, to reveal Himself in flesh and to save us as the Lamb of God.  

 

Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem, in time and space, was not a random event.  It is firmly anchored in the beginning of time; it is promised by God after the fall; it is prophesied by the prophets.  The I AM by Whom, through Whom, and for Whom all things have been created (Colossians 1:16) has emptied Himelf, taking the form of a bond-servant and being made in the likeness of men (Philippians 2:7).  

 

As we prepare to celebrate our Lord’s first coming and consider the reality of His second coming, may we remember and appreciate with awe and reverence the wonder of Immanuel, God with us. 

Sunday, November 29, 2020

An Advent Meditation

 Today marks the first Sunday of Advent.  Many Christians all over the globe mark Advent as an important season to prepare for our celebration of the birth of Christ: Christmas.  Preparing our hearts and minds to celebrate the first coming of Christ and to welcome His second coming is of primary importance.  John the Baptist declared the arrival of kingdom come, and Jesus exhorted His disciples to remain alert and prepared for His return.  

 

Even the most spiritual of believers can become distracted by the peripheral preparations for Christmas: gift lists and purchasing, party planning, baking and meal preparation.  And in this COVID-saturated holiday season, we face stress and anxiety, frustration and fatigue, grief and loss.  It seems to me, though, that we can take comfort and encouragement from Matthew’s account of Joseph as the time Jesus was born:

 

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.  When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.  Matthew 1:18-25.

 

Joseph is a humble carpenter, looking forward to marriage and a predictable life in his Jewish community.  And then he finds his world turned upside down!  Joseph’s wife-to-be is expecting a child despite the fact that they are not yet married and have not been intimate.  Matthew’s account is sparse, but it is easy to imagine the shock, grief, anger, and confusion filling Joseph’s heart and mind.  But even as he decides to separate from Mary in the most gracious way possible, an angel interrupts his grief and upends this plan.  Not only does a heavenly messenger appear to Joseph, but the angel addresses him as “Son of David,” reminding Joseph that he is descended from Israel’s greatest king.  The very real struggles of Joseph’s personal life are suddenly eclipsed by the angel’s revelation of God’s greater purposes.  Again, Matthew gives us few details.  We are left to ponder Joseph’s departure from his “micro” personal life and his entry into a life that is intertwined with the fulfillment of God’s eternal purposes and promises.  Matthew tells us that Joseph is a just man, a good Jew.  Without doubt, he knows God’s Word and is waiting with all faithful Jews for the Messiah.  As the angel reminds Joseph that he is a descendant of David, the Law and the Prophets converge, centuries of Jewish history come into sharp focus, and Joseph is confronted with the enormous reality that the LORD is using him to fulfill the LORD’s glorious and eternal purposes.

 

And so here we are.  In some ways, at least, we are not unlike Joseph.  We do our best to live by faith in our day-to-day lives.  We are beset by the trials and troubles of life as fallen people in a fallen world.  And we are sometimes blind-sided by unexpected interruptions in our plans if not by outright tragedy.  Without minimizing in the least the significance of our trials, we can take Joseph’s story as an encouraging reminder that we are, in fact, part of the Lord’s larger, glorious, eternal plan.  Even as we find ourselves reeling from life on this side of the kingdom, even as we continue to adjust to life in a pandemic, we can be comforted that the Messiah has come, and we can be confident that He is returning—to redeem us for all eternity.  The season of Advent is an invitation to remember not only that Jesus came because He cares about our trials and troubles but also to remember that those trials and troubles are only a part of our story.  Advent is our opportunity to prepare for redemption and to proclaim it.  The kingdom of God is at hand!