Sunday, January 5, 2020

Time and the New Year

January, 2020!  A new year.  Again.  A new year inevitably raises the question of what we will do with this new year that the Lord has given us.  The tradition of New Year’s Resolutions reflects this attitude for Christians and non-Christians alike.  Truly, time is a gift.

As usual, though, I am reluctant to embrace the New Year’s Resolution routine, and to be honest, I am not fond of To Do lists of any kind.  That said, time remains a gift, and the question of what we do with the time the Lord has given us remains.

I would suggest that a wonderful way to begin this new year is to focus on the One who is the Beginning and the End.  Our eternal Lord, who reigns over all and is not bound by time, has given us days, seasons, and years in a rhythm that sustains us, refreshes us, and propels us forward.  Our God is the God of new as well as old.  He is also the Lord of renewal.  As we come out of the busy and tiring holiday season and waken to chilly mornings, usually cloudy skies, and a new year, we need the renewal in this new year that only the Lord can give.

Please consider with me the following passages:

Lamentations 3:22-23—The LORD’S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.

Psalm 51:10—Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Isaiah 40:31—Yet those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary.

Isaiah 43:19—Behold, I will do something new, now it will spring forth; will you not be aware of it?  I will even make a roadway in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.

Colossians 3:5-11—Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry.  For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience, and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them.  But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth.  Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices,  and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him—a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.

Psalm 33:3—Sing to Him a new song; play skillfully with a shout of joy.

Jeremiah 31:31—Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.”

Isaiah 65:17—For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things will not be remembered or come to mind.

Ezekial 11:19—And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them.  And I will take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh.

Luke 22:20—And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.”

II Corinthians 5:17—Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.

II Corinthians 3:4-5—Such confidence we have through Christ toward God.  Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Colossians 3:10—and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him.

Hebrews 9:15—For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.

Romans 6:40—Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

II Peter 3:13—But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.

Revelation 21:1—Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea.   And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband.

Revelation 21:5--And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.”

First and foremost, our Lord is the Lord of all, and it is He who makes all things new.  As we walk (or run) into this new year, may we remember that it is the Lord who bestows upon us His mercies day by day.  It is He who cleanses, refreshes, and renews our hearts, transforming our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh as we turn away from our sin.  All praise to our God!  Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ initiated His new covenant with us by the shedding of His blood, so that in Him we are new, renewed, conformed to Him, and equipped to be His servants.  And as we walk in newness of life in Christ, may we walk in faith and in the confidence that the Lord is making us new even as He will make all things new.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Emmanuel: God With Us--God Incarnate!

It is December, a time when we are reminded to focus on the Advent, or coming, of our Lord Jesus Christ.  While traditional celebratory activities generally dominate the landscape of our days, believers understand that Christmas is all about Christ.  

But just what does it mean to focus on Christ during this season of Advent?  Some Christians admonish us to keep Christmas in perspective, that Easter is the really important Christian holy day.  Others would remind us that we need to be looking for Christ’s second Advent, when He comes to initiate His kingdom.  Both of these perspectives have merit: Christ’s coming is in fact culminated by His death on the cross on our behalf.  And even while Christ was on earth as God incarnate, He admonished His followers to be prepared and watchful for His return.

Any consideration of Christ’s birth would benefit from the inclusion of Easter and His return.  But the more I consider Christ as God incarnate, the more I believe that there is plenty to ponder in the incarnation.  Beyond the mystery of the event itself is the reality that Jesus Christ, our Creator, walked among us as God and man.  Can we imagine His joy at experiencing His glorious earth, or the agony of seeing what His creatures have done to it and to one another?  His mission was to proclaim the kingdom of God and to call men unto Himself for eternal relationship and glory.  In doing so, He demonstrated the love, grace, mercy, and power of our God.  It seems to me that He must have felt both incredible sorrow and enormous satisfaction in straightening one of His creatures who had been twisted by sin.  His abhorrence of death was highlighted by His raising to life a few who had died.  But even as He wielded His redemptive power, He knew His miracles were only temporal.  

Without minimizing the horror of the cross, I would like to suggest that Jesus’s time on earth as God incarnate before the crucifixion also consisted of enormous suffering.  As He walked among us, He could not escape seeing the destructive wages of sin.  His creatures bloodied and broken, sick and dying.  All creation groaning.  And any relief that He would provide, while satisfying, was only a down payment for the future.  As we deal with our own sin and suffering during the celebratory Christmas season, it might be constructive to resist jumping ahead to Easter and/or the second coming of Christ.  We would do well to consider that Jesus hates our suffering more than we do—He knows what we’ve lost; we can only imagine a life without sin and the fall.  And then we get to what scholars sometimes describe as the “now and not yet.”  Jesus has come; He has made us His own; He has promised to complete the work He began in us and to bring us to heaven as heirs of the Father.  But the trumpet has not yet sounded.  We remain fallen people in a fallen world.  As we wait for the culmination of the kingdom of Christ, may we take comfort and joy that our Lord and Redeemer is waiting alongside us.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Food To Eat, Clothes To Wear

 For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on.  Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  (Matthew 6:25)

These well-known words of Jesus are often used as an antidote for anxiety, and this passage is an excellent resource for this purpose.  Our pastor preached on this passage not long ago, reminding us take care to not let worries over our needs distract us from pursuit of the Lord and His kingdom.  The women of Perisseia looked at this passage as part of a series on anxiety.  But as we head into the holiday season, it seems to me that this passage can be a most helpful caution about the busy-ness that could distract us from the spiritual business at hand.

The Apostle Paul reminds us to give thanks always.  As important as this message is, we take time in November to pay particular attention to cultivating a thankful heart and identifying our abundant blessings as we give praise to the Giver of all good gifts.  And then Christmas follows Thanksgiving and we are called to remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, the Messiah, our Savior and eternal Lord.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are significant holidays, worth celebrating.  They give us a wonderful opportunity to build and reinforce relationships and bless those who are less fortunate. But as we plan our celebrations, questions as to what we will eat and what we will wear are unavoidable.  I plan our holiday meals with a good bit of care, and as we approach Christmas, each of my children and grandchildren (as they become old enough) are asked to choose their favorite sweet treat for me to make.

The challenge is, of course, to plan and prepare appropriately within the context of Jesus’s words.  I can plan and prepare for holiday celebrations without becoming anxious and without becoming distracted from the real God show.  May God Incarnate enable us by His Holy Spirit to take His words to heart and consider that food, drink, and clothing are only the accessories of this season of gratitude and celebration.

Friday, October 18, 2019

The Lonely Only

After the Lord created man, He observed that it was not good for Adam to be alone.  And while the animals God created were plentiful, diverse, and wonderful, not one was a suitable mate for Adam.  Adam needed a companion of his own kind, like him.  As creatures made in the image of God, we are, at the very core of our being, made for relationship with Him and with one another.

God created mankind to first and foremost have unrestricted relationship with Him and then to exercise relationship with one another in managing His creation.  Relationship with their Creator would define their identity and value and provide significance and security.  This foundational relationship would make it possible for person-to-person relationships to develop without tension or conflict. 

But when Adam and Eve chose pride over obedience, their capacity for relationship became a casualty.  No longer satisfied to find their identity and value, significance and security in their relationship with their Creator, they turned to one another to have those needs met.  And so began a new strategy to feel good about themselves: compare and compete.  By the time Cain and Abel came along, we see Cain take this to the extreme—when his offering was not as well received by the LORD as Abel’s, he eliminated the competition.

As King Solomon has observed, there is nothing new under the sun.  As a matter of practice, we humans look to one another to find ourselves.  The consequences are devastating.  We continually find ourselves falling short of cultural (even Christian cultural) standards and looking to fit in and to meet the expectations of our peers.  And as we do so, we lose sight of who we are in Christ and short-circuit the process of becoming who He has created us to be.

If we find ourselves not fitting in, feeling like we don’t belong, not able to go with the flow, we find ourselves feeling alone.  My experience in high school was one of isolation as I sought academic challenge in a learning environment that expected mediocrity.  Our adopted daughter Ruth struggled with feeling that she did not fit in at home among her light-skinned family members and at school as she faced learning disabilities that her classmates did not share.  Some young men feel like they’re the only one among their friends who isn’t athletic, or tech-savvy.  I often hear young women bemoan the fact that they’re “the only one” who isn’t married or at least dating, or the only one without a baby.  Cancer patients are often encouraged to participate in a support group so that they do not feel alone.

It is lonely to be alone.  Aloneness is not good.  We are created for relationship.  But our experience in society does not tell us the truth.  We are never alone.  Our Creator is always with us, and we have a place of belonging in Him and in His body, the church.  He always intended us to find ourselves in Him and not depend on one another for this basic need.  This is a crucial truth because only our Creator knows how He has designed us.  And when we try to tell the potter that we want to be the kind of vessel that is like other vessels, we are failing to appreciate the creativity of the Lord of the universe.  The Apostle Paul regularly used the human body to exhort his readers to appreciate their unique roles in the body of Christ.  We can also use Paul’s analogy to appreciate the unique roles the Lord has created our brothers and sister to fill.

There may indeed be times when we are an “only.”  But those times are wonderful opportunities to appreciate who we are in Christ and to remember that only does not mean alone.  And as we support and encourage one another to be and become who the Lord has created us to be, being an only does not need to be lonely.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Justification By Faith

Those who consider themselves to be Christians embrace a fundamental Biblical truth: we are justified by faith in Christ. We trust that Jesus’s sacrificial death on the cross on our behalf has satisfied our sin debt before God. And so we stand before God’s throne clothed in the righteousness of Christ.

Justification by faith is a theme that runs through the New Testament. It is a prominent topic in the letters of the Apostle Paul. Paul frequently found it necessary to exhort those under his care to remember that a believer’s life of faith requires dependence on the Lord for their justification and not on their Christian performance. Salvation—righteousness before God—is a gift that we receive when we enter into a faith relationship with Jesus Christ.  Salvation by faith and not by works was at the heart of Martin Luther’s reformation message.

I often remind my counseling clients that bond-servants of Christ are the freest people on the planet. We are free from the penalty and power of sin. We are free from the opinion and expectations of others (even and perhaps especially ourselves). And, we have nothing to learn and nothing to prove.

Justification by faith is not merely about our relationship with the Lord. It is my experience and observation that even while we trust the Lord for our justification before Him, we relate to others as if we have something to prove. How often, when we are confronted by someone who has been hurt by a manifestation of our sin nature, do we say, “I was just….” ? We may trust Jesus to restore our relationship with Him, but we nonetheless feel the need to try to justify ourselves—never successfully—in our relationships with others. 

Please consider with me the relational power that Jesus offers us if depend upon Him for our justification as we deal with others. If Jesus is the source of our identity, value, and security, then we have the freedom to engage with others without the need to prove our worth. We need not defend ourselves when our sin nature surfaces. Instead, we can confess and repent. In doing so, we exercise important spiritual muscles as we rest in who we are in Christ. And, we bless the person we have hurt as we affirm their worth instead of defending our own. As we depend upon our Justifier, we become better able to build deeper and more intimate relationships with one another, which in turn reinforces our relationship with our Lord. It is in our relationship with the Lord and in our relationships with our brothers and sisters that we can truly know the joy of the Lord, and it is in the expression of these relationships that others will know us by our love.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Becoming Ourselves

"The more we let God take us over, the more truly ourselves we become--because He made us. He invented all the different people the tyou and I were intended to be.... It is when I turn to Christ, when I give up myself to His personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own."

                                                                                                              C.S. Lewis
                                                                                                              Mere Christianity

Saturday, August 3, 2019

The Law Of Love, Part 2

Matthew 22:34-40:

But when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered themselves together. 35One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question,testing Him, 36“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37And He said to him, “‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ 38“This is the great and foremost commandment. 39“The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ 40“On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

In my last Chapel Challenge installment, I made some observations about Jesus’s powerful words recorded in Matthew 22.  It is essential for believers to make the connection between loving God and loving others.  There is a fundamental truth that our love of God manifests a dynamic faith-relationship with our Lord, and it is in the context of this relationship that the Holy Spirit does His work in us and enables us to love Him in return and to love others.  We love, because He first loved us (I John 4:19).

But there is a third component to this passage: We are to love others as we love ourselves.  The inference is that we have an appropriate regard for ourselves and exercise commensurate self-care that we can then translate into an appropriate regard and care for others.  I suspect that trying to put this law of love into practice often leads to confusion for some and frustration for others.  Many of us do not love ourselves well; nor do we know how to do so.  

It is only as we accept and come to experience God’s love for us that we can begin to truly love ourselves.  Most of us spend a good part of our days and our lives trying to become or prove ourselves lovable and to hide any evidence to the contrary.  We gather symbols of success and serve the opinions and expectations of those around us in order to be perceived as “nice” or “good.”  We justify our unkind words and insensitive behavior and distance ourselves from them as quickly as we can.  But we are not nice, or good.  Our attempts to demonstrate our lovability fall short.  We are left with the awful truth that we are indeed difficult to love. And since we know ourselves and our shortcomings better than anyone else, each of us is in the position of knowing just how difficult it is to love himself/herself.  Our unloving words and behavior simply expose the truth that we are sinners in need of a Savior and Redeemer.

We are loved by the Creator and Lord of the universe.  As astounding as that is, it is one of the central truths of God’s Word.  This is where love and life begin!  It is also where we can begin to love ourselves. God loves us as His personally created expression of Himself, uniquely designed to glorify Him as we pursue the good works of eternal significance for which He has created us.  We are image-bearers of God with eternal significance. When we accept Christ as our Lord and Savior, we become heirs of heaven, princes and princesses of the King.

God loves the world and everyone in it. But it is only by faith that we can access that love and establish a love relationship with the Lord.  Believers are in the unique position of seeing God’s personal love for each of us as his uniquely created image-bearer of Christ.  We are loved because God is the lover.  He loves us regardless of our appearance or performance. We do not earn or merit God’s love.

And herein lies the challenge.  We are sinners, and it is all too easy to follow our prideful sin nature and try to do life ourselves.  Like Eve, we are the perennial two-year-old who insists that “I will do it myself.”  Even as we know that God loves us and Christ died for us, we want to feel worthy of that love.  And so we focus on performance.  Our inevitable shortcomings in the performance arena remind us that we are not as lovable on our own as we would like to be.  And if our response is to simply try harder to perform we will continue to encounter those reminders; a performance mindset also leads to a competitive perspective that will never help us to feel worthy of love (there is always someone “better”).  At the same time, the insistent and demanding competitor within us makes it all the harder to love others.

This conundrum brings us back to the initial concept of this passage: our love relationship with the Lord.  God is love.  It was for love that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners (Romans 58). It is in and through Christ that we are known and loved anyway.  By grace through faith we encounter Love Incarnate; as we experience the powerful, tender, unconditional love of our Creator and Redeemer, we become better able to love ourselves without the ball and chain of performance.  And as we become able to love ourselves, we are in a position to genuinely love others without needing anything back from them.  To be sure, our fallen nature can make it exceedingly difficult to feel beloved and then make the translation from beloved to lover; but persevering in this exercise is at the heart of Jesus’s words.  

We are to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and mind.  As we pursue a love relationship with the Lord, we are brought into His presence. Relationship is about knowing: we open ourselves to be known by God, and we also come to know Him.  The give and take of this builds a new perspective. We are, on our own, filled and covered with the ugliness of our sin.  There is nothing we can do to cleanse ourselves.  But God is the Lover, and He loves us anyway!  We are beloved!  As we experience God’s love and try to love Him in return, we are brought deeper into the mystery of God’s love.  Trusting in Christ as Lord and Savior means that He has covered our sin and we are ugly no more.

Loving the Lord with all our heart, soul, and mind is a response to His love of us.  But as we do so, we are changed.  He becomes more; we become less of our prideful selves and more of who He created us to be.  We become able to accept being a beloved heir of the King and find less need to earn it or prove it.  As William Young would say, learning to live loved is an expression of our love relationship with our Lord.

As we walk in a growing love relationship with our Lord, and as we love Him with all our heart, soul, and mind, we learn to rest securely in His love and in our identity as an eternally beloved child of God.  We are better able to see our God-value and exercise self-care and stewardship over what the Lord has entrusted to us.  Our relationship with the Lord defines us, and we have no need to see others as a means to feel good about ourselves.  Loving others becomes a dynamic and powerful fruit of loving the Lord.