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Where Transformation Starts

Friday, August 20, 2021

To most of us, the spiritual future of the United States looks pretty bleak.  A Gallup report that was released earlier this year proclaimed that for the first time in any of our lifetimes, fewer than 50 percent of Americans claim to be members of a house of worship.  Though much of this decline comes from the progressive denominations that are progressing themselves right out of existence, the numbers reveal that more conservative churches haven’t exactly thrived either.

In the face of such widespread moral decline, many Christians want to Do Something.  They see all the ways in which the outside world is constantly becoming more wicked, so they turn to politics as the answer to these social ills.  If asked, I suspect that many of these brethren would say that a more godly nation would be a better environment for raising children, spreading the gospel, and so forth.

However, the Scriptures suggest that this course, as reasonable as it appears, is not the one that God would choose for us.  If we live in a time of moral decline (Is the pansexual truly less obedient than the hard-shell Baptist?), it is not the first such that God’s people have experienced.  Indeed, the book of Judges chronicles a repeated cycle of spiritual decline, suffering, and spiritual renewal. 

Within Judges, one of the most famous heroes of the faith is Gideon.  Probably only Samson surpasses him in fame, and Gideon certainly surpasses Samson in righteousness!  As the conqueror of the marauding Midianites, Gideon is enshrined forever in the roll call of Hebrews 11.

Many of us learned as children about the pitcher-torch-and-trumpet stratagem Gideon employs against the enemies of the Israelites in Judges 7.  As we grew older, we may well also have encountered the story of Gideon’s fleece, in which God assuages the doubts of His chosen deliverer.  However, the first command that God gives Gideon has nothing to do with either Midianites or fleeces.  Instead, its object is much closer to home.

Gideon lives in a village called Ophrah of the Abiezrites.  No less than the rest of the Israelites, the people of Ophrah have abandoned the Lord in favor of the worship of idols.  Gideon’s own father, who apparently is a prominent man in the village, has set up an altar to Baal and an Asherah beside it.  In Judges 6:25-26, the Lord tells Gideon to tear down Baal’s altar, chop down the Asherah, build an altar to Him, and offer sacrifices to Him using the wood of the Asherah. 

Given that God already has told Gideon that he will defeat the Midianites, this instruction may well have perplexed the reluctant hero.  What does some religious remodeling in the hinterlands of Manasseh have to do with getting rid of the foreign plunderers? 

God’s point, I think, is that internal renewal had everything to do with solving the external problem.  Gideon, as revealed by his panicked attempt to rescue the harvest, thought the Israelites had a Midianite problem.  They didn’t.  They had a God problem, and the Midianites were nothing more than a symptom of the real issue.  If the Israelites addressed their God problem, soon they wouldn’t be troubled by the Midianites either.

The lesson for us here is powerful.  We serve the One who ordains the rise and fall of nations.  If we have good rulers in our country, it is because He has sent them.  If we have wicked rulers who are leading the people astray, that too is because He has sent them.  Our job is not to rearrange the rulers.  It is to ask, humbly, where we ourselves are spiritually and why God might be sending us trials.

The Lord’s church today is not so wicked as the world, but neither is it so righteous as the Lord.  Far too much of the time, the people who fill the pews on Sundays fill the rest of their weeks with worldliness.  We don’t know our Bibles, we aren’t committed to reaching the lost, and our striving against sin looks more like compromise.  To the extent that we are declining, does the blame belong to Hollywood, or does it belong to us?

Most of us would benefit from a reawakening of Gideon’s spirit, both within our churches and within our own lives.  It’s time to tear down altars, chop down idols, and present to the Lord offerings in righteousness.  It’s time to stop watching shows that we wouldn’t watch if Jesus were sitting next to us on the couch.  It’s time to stop pretending that our porn habit is acceptable because it’s common.  It’s time to confront the lie of a life that doesn’t have time for daily Bible study and prayer yet seems to have plenty of time for social media.

We cannot expect this program to be popular.  Gideon tore down the altar of Baal at night because he was afraid of the reaction from his own community, and events proved him right.  When the men of Ophrah figured out what had happened the next morning, they wanted to kill him.  Ironically, they regarded the steps that would lead to their deliverance as a deadly threat.

So too for us.  We do not cling to worldliness because we do not love it.  We cling because we do.  Seeking the Lord will be painful, certainly within our churches, but especially within ourselves.  If we want to have success in chopping down our brother’s Asherah, we first must lay the axe at the foot of our own.  We must confront our imperfections with relentless self-honesty and relentless determination to do better. 

If we do, who can say what the future holds?  Religious feeling in any country waxes and wanes through the centuries, and it certainly is possible that the COVID pandemic is sowing the seeds of a third Great Awakening.  However, greater obedience is not fundamentally the duty we owe our country.  It is the duty we owe our God and ourselves.

This article originally appeared in Pressing On.

The Rich Young Ruler and Grace

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Last week, a Facebook friend of mine posted a lengthy complaint about what they perceived as too many rich elders and rich preachers in the brotherhood.  Their discussion of Scripture focused on the story of the rich young ruler, and they illustrated the post with a cartoon of a camel trying to force its way through the eye of a needle. 

As you might imagine, this post caused several things to come to my mind, but one of them was my conviction that there is more to the story of the rich young ruler than we commonly think.  Simply because two different gospel writers tell the same story doesn’t mean they’re using it for the same purpose, and I believe that the story of the rich young ruler is one that is used differently in different gospels. 

In Mark and in Luke, it’s about the problems associated with wealth, no doubt, but in Matthew, something else is going on.  Matthew tells the same story, but he adds a parable to it, and that parable should transform the way we understand his account.  This morning, then, let’s consider the connection between the rich young ruler and grace.

Not surprisingly, we’ll begin with Matthew’s discussion of THE RICH YOUNG RULER.  It is found in Matthew 19:16-22.  This is a familiar story, but I want to highlight some different elements this time through.  The first concerns the rich young ruler’s problem.  If you ask any of our Bible-class kids what his problem was, they’ll probably tell you, “He was rich and loved money.”  That’s true, but it’s incomplete.

Let me suggest to you, in fact, that his most serious problem is the one that reveals itself from the first time he opens his mouth.  He asks, “What good must I do to inherit eternal life?”  In other words, he wants to save himself through his own good works.  This sounds praiseworthy, but it’s impossible.  We should read everything else that Jesus says to him as an attempt to get him to see that he’s trying to get to heaven on the wrong road.

The rest of the conversation unfolds from here.  The ruler brings up all of his spiritual strengths, but Jesus zeroes in on his spiritual weakness—greed.  Let’s not miss the forest for the trees here, though.  Greed happened to be the ruler’s problem, but it didn’t have to be greed, and no matter what it was, the conversation would have gone the same way.  There is something in every one of our lives that we don’t want to give up, and we know that there is because we haven’t stopped sinning.  If we came to Jesus wanting to justify ourselves by works, He would be able to call us out on our weaknesses too—because wanting to justify ourselves by works is the problem.

Next, Jesus’ conversation shifts to THE APOSTLES.  Let’s follow this through Matthew 19:23-29.  Once again, this is a familiar text, and here we encounter the camel-and-needle’s-eye comparison.  Some of you probably have heard that the needle’s eye was a narrow gate in Jerusalem, through which a camel could pass with great difficulty.  However, there are a couple of problems with this claim.  First, there’s no solid evidence that such a gate existed.  Second, both Jesus’ discussion with the ruler and His later words make clear that this isn’t about great difficulty.  It’s about impossibility.

It's impossible for a rich man to enter heaven through his good works, but you know what?  It’s impossible for a poor man too.  Indeed, it’s impossible for all of us.  We all must depend for salvation on the God who makes all things possible.  Without Him, we are in camel-through-needle’s-eye territory too.

Notice, though, Peter’s response to this.  He hasn’t really been paying attention to Jesus.  He’s been comparing himself to the ruler, and he likes what he sees.  Peter points out that what the ruler wasn’t willing to do—leave everything behind for Jesus—he and the other apostles did.  Justification by works, back on track!

Jesus replies that those who have followed Him will indeed receive an immeasurable reward.  However, He also knows something that Peter doesn’t.  Very soon, Jesus is going to ask Peter to do something, and Peter is going to deny Him three times.  Peter will leave Jesus sadly too.  Earning your way to heaven doesn’t even work for apostles.

In Mark and Luke, the context ends here, but in Matthew it keeps going, and its final section is THE PARABLE OF THE VINEYARD WORKERS.  Let’s conclude this morning with Matthew 19:30-20:16.  Notice first of all that we’ve got another one of those bad chapter breaks that Clay and I love talking about so much, and here’s how you can tell.  Matthew 19 ends with Jesus’ statement about the first being last and the last being first, but almost same statement appears in 20:16.  Jesus is offering this parable as commentary on His discussions with the ruler and the apostles.

As we read through the story, though, part of us can’t help feeling that the whiny workers have a point.  If they had to work all day long to get a denarius, shouldn’t the guys who only worked for an hour get one-eighth of a denarius?  They got the same thing, and that’s not fair! 

In reply, the owner of the vineyard points out that his generosity to others doesn’t give anyone else the right to complain.  The application is obvious.  Even if somehow Peter did what he thought he was doing—earning his way to heaven—he would get the same reward as the Christian who came to the Lord late in life and never did much work at all.

Of course, Peter was not earning his way to heaven, and neither are we.  I’m not willing to claim that I’m responsible for even one-eighth of my salvation!  All of us depend on the generosity of our Master.  We must not be like the rich young ruler and think that we don’t need Him.  Neither should we be like the apostles and be impressed with ourselves because we think we’re doing better than someone else.  Instead, we must seek diligently after His mercy and be thankful that we serve a God who gladly extends it.

The God of All Comfort

Monday, August 16, 2021

There are all too many people who want to hold God to promises He’s never made.  They get sick, and they blame Him for not keeping them healthy.  They run into financial hardship, and they grumble because He hasn’t helped them prosper.  They’re single and unhappy, and they claim it’s His fault that they aren’t married.

The problem is that God never has promised Christians that they would be healthy and rich and have great family lives.  We might have set our hearts on these things, but that’s a sure sign that we are seeking treasure on earth, not in heaven.  The God who unfailingly grants them is the God of our own imaginations, not the God of the Bible.

However, God has made us some astounding promises, and one of them appears in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7.  He does not promise to shield us from suffering.  Indeed, the structure of the passage implies that the godly can expect to suffer.  However, in the midst of that suffering, God will bestow His comfort.

As do all Christians who have sought the Lord through trial, I’ve experienced God’s faithfulness to His promise.  It is true in my current distress, and it was true 13 years ago when my daughter was unexpectedly stillborn at full term.  Lauren and I suffered.  Indeed, we suffered greatly. 

Our suffering, though, did not overwhelm us.  We did not commit suicide.  We did not get divorced.  We did not become alcoholics or drug addicts.  We avoided the double disasters that befall parents who lose children.

This is not to our credit, except to the extent that we chose to lean on the Lord and His people.  Instead, it was due to the brethren both far and near who cared for us in our grief.  They came to the funeral (some traveled hundreds or thousands of miles), they brought food, they visited, they sent cards, they sent money, and they prayed.  It was due also to the God who worked through them and in ways beyond my understanding.  We mourned (and still mourn), but we were (and are) comforted.

However, Paul points out that this blessing carries an obligation with it too.  We are supposed to take the comfort that God showers on us and use it to comfort others.  Lauren and I certainly were on the receiving end of this.  Some of the most memorable, helpful conversations we had during that dark time were with Christians who also had lost children. 

Ever since, we have tried to pay it forward.  Most Christians are at a loss about how to deal with others whose children have died.  We aren’t.  That’s familiar country to us.  When we hear of someone in that position, we try to reach out.  We call.  We write.  We attend funerals with heartbreakingly small caskets.  We trust that the God who used others to bless us will use us to bless others.

It’s easy for human beings to camp out in their misery and affliction.  I know the temptation well.  However, as disciples of the Man of Sorrows, we have a higher calling.  We must allow our griefs to refine us and teach us compassion.  When we do, God can use us in even the greatest tragedies to reveal His comfort and love.

A Spectacle

Friday, August 13, 2021

Language is a funny thing.  Over decades and centuries, words shift in meaning, sometimes dramatically.  One such word in English is the word “spectacle”, particularly in its adjectival form.  Rather than merely referring to that which is attention-grabbing, “spectacular” now is generally that which is both attention-grabbing and good.  People today would not describe the Hindenburg disaster, for instance, as spectacular.

However, every major English translation of the Bible uses “spectacle” in its older sense in 1 Corinthians 4:9.  When Paul writes there that he and the other apostles have become “a spectacle to the world”, he doesn’t mean that they are surrounded by people applauding their virtue and skill.  Instead, he compares the spectacle they offer to that of a man condemned to public execution. 

The Romans were thrifty people.  To them, executions weren’t only an opportunity to rid the world of someone they considered undesirable.  Instead, they also sought to shame and disgrace the condemned as an object lesson to anyone in the crowd who might consider defying the might of Rome.  The humiliating subtext of the crucifixion of Christ was typical for the Romans.

This, then, is the kind of spectacle that Paul and the apostles are presenting.  They are being held up for mockery, reviling, persecution, and slander.  More provocatively, Paul says that they are being displayed in this way not by the Romans or even the Jews, but by God.  He is allowing them to be exposed to mockery so their mockers could see their faith, to reviling so the revilers could receive their blessing, to persecution so their persecutors could see their endurance, and to slander so the slanderers could see their graciousness.  In the end, the spectacle is not of humiliation.  It is of glorifying God by imitating Christ.

I have become a spectacle at two times in my life.  The first was when my daughter died; the second is my terminal diagnosis.  Neither of these are positive.  I believe that both are evils conjured up by the devil and permitted by God.  My struggles with ALS already have exposed my vulnerability to mental illness.  I anticipate that in future, they will reveal the weakness and failure of my body and perhaps even my mind.  These are the things that my disease will highlight in me.  Nonetheless, I am determined to turn each, so far as I am able, to the glory of God.

I say these things, though, not to elicit either sympathy or admiration.  I am only what Christ has made me, and I never will be anything more.  Instead, I want to point out that for all of us, the worst times in our lives, the times that shock others and elicit their pity, are also the times when God is exhibiting us as a spectacle. 

When we are so exhibited, we choose the kind of spectacle that we will be.  Will we display only suffering and shame, human frailty and human failure?  Or, instead, will we imitate Christ and His apostles?  In the face of trial and tragedy, will we shine with faith, resolve, courage, and hope?  We usually cannot choose to avoid becoming a spectacle.  However, we can determine that regardless of what the devil throws at us, our spectacle will honor God.

Language is a funny thing.  Over decades and centuries, words shift in meaning, sometimes dramatically.  One such word in English is the word “spectacle”, particularly in its adjectival form.  Rather than merely referring to that which is attention-grabbing, “spectacular” now is generally that which is both attention-grabbing and good.  People today would not describe the Hindenburg disaster, for instance, as spectacular.

However, every major English translation of the Bible uses “spectacle” in its older sense in 1 Corinthians 4:9.  When Paul writes there that he and the other apostles have become “a spectacle to the world”, he doesn’t mean that they are surrounded by people applauding their virtue and skill.  Instead, he compares the spectacle they offer to that of a man condemned to public execution. 

The Romans were thrifty people.  To them, executions weren’t only an opportunity to rid the world of someone they considered undesirable.  Instead, they also sought to shame and disgrace the condemned as an object lesson to anyone in the crowd who might consider defying the might of Rome.  The humiliating subtext of the crucifixion of Christ was typical for the Romans.

This, then, is the kind of spectacle that Paul and the apostles are presenting.  They are being held up for mockery, reviling, persecution, and slander.  More provocatively, Paul says that they are being displayed in this way not by the Romans or even the Jews, but by God.  He is allowing them to be exposed to mockery so their mockers could see their faith, to reviling so the revilers could receive their blessing, to persecution so their persecutors could see their endurance, and to slander so the slanderers could see their graciousness.  In the end, the spectacle is not of humiliation.  It is of glorifying God by imitating Christ.

I have become a spectacle at two times in my life.  The first was when my daughter died; the second is my terminal diagnosis.  Neither of these are positive.  I believe that both are evils conjured up by the devil and permitted by God.  My struggles with ALS already have exposed my vulnerability to mental illness.  I anticipate that in future, they will reveal the weakness and failure of my body and perhaps even my mind.  These are the things that my disease will highlight in me.  Nonetheless, I am determined to turn each, so far as I am able, to the glory of God.

I say these things, though, not to elicit either sympathy or admiration.  I am only what Christ has made me, and I never will be anything more.  Instead, I want to point out that for all of us, the worst times in our lives, the times that shock others and elicit their pity, are also the times when God is exhibiting us as a spectacle. 

When we are so exhibited, we choose the kind of spectacle that we will be.  Will we display only suffering and shame, human frailty and human failure?  Or, instead, will we imitate Christ and His apostles?  In the face of trial and tragedy, will we shine with faith, resolve, courage, and hope?  We usually cannot choose to avoid becoming a spectacle.  However, we can determine that regardless of what the devil throws at us, our spectacle will honor God.

Winning an Argument with Jesus

Thursday, August 05, 2021

In all of human history, there never has been a more devastating debater than Jesus.  He knew the Bible like He’d written it—because He did.  He could read hearts, and He had more wisdom than any mere human being could possess.  As a result of these attributes, He routinely wiped the floor with His adversaries.

This was no mean feat!  We might read the record of Jesus’ confrontations with the Pharisees and scribes and conclude that He was up against the clown squad, but these were no clowns.  These were the smartest men in the Jewish nation.  They had been trained in the Law and the subtleties of argument.  They presented Jesus with conundrums that, if we didn’t already know the answer, we wouldn’t be able to solve.  These were no clowns, but Jesus made them look like clowns.

However, there is one person in the gospels who bested Jesus rhetorically, who won their point over Him.  It wasn’t a scribe, Pharisee, or lawyer.  In fact, it was the last person we might have expected to succeed.  However, their success tells us a great deal about them and about Jesus too.  This morning, then, let’s turn to the story of how somebody won an argument with Jesus.

The first segment of our study concerns Jesus’ antagonist, THE CANAANITE WOMAN.  Look at Matthew 15:21-22.  Even though Mark’s account of this story is generally shorter, it offers some additional information here.  Jesus and His apostles haven’t come to the region of Tyre and Sidon because they wanted to enjoy the beautiful views of the Mediterranean.  Instead, they came because it was a Gentile area, and they wanted to get away from all the Jews who believed Jesus was a prophet and were pestering Him for healing.  This should remind us that it wasn’t easy to be Jesus.  His ministry was about as serene and peaceful as the Nashville rush hour!

We see, then, that Jesus and His apostles came to this region to escape all the people who were bugging them.  However, they find that their troubles have followed them.  The Jews have been left behind, but now one of the Canaanite locals has started pleading for help.  We’ve talked before about how the Jews had nothing to do with Samaritans.  How much more did they shun the Canaanites!  These were the people they were supposed to have destroyed 1500 years ago.  This woman’s very existence is a reminder to the disciples of their ancestors’ failure to obey God.

However, even though this woman is not a Jew, she uses Jewish language as she approaches Jesus.  She calls Him the Son of David and appeals to Him to cast a demon out of her daughter..  I hope I’m not spoilering anybody here, but one of the most important lessons of this story is that anybody can seek the Lord.  Make no mistake:  2000 years ago, this woman was the lowest of the low, yet she comes to Jesus and calls on His name.  So too today, whoever you are, whatever your background, whatever you’ve done, call on the Lord, and He’ll listen.  His compassion is the same for everyone.

Next, we’re treated to a display of THE WOMAN’S PERSISTENCE.  Matthew 15:23-25 tells the tale.  Jesus starts off by giving her the silent treatment.  This should strike us as strange.  Isn’t this the One who said, “Come unto Me, all you who labor?”  Interestingly, though, neither here nor at any other point in this story does Jesus tell her that He’s not going to help her.  He’s not giving her any encouragement, but He’s not shutting her down either.

This, I think, tells us something important about prayer.  Sometimes God says “Yes,” sometimes God says “No,” but sometimes God says “Not yet,” and waits to see what we will do with that.  Why this is, I don’t know.  Maybe He wants us to grow through our trials before He rescues us.  Maybe He wants to see the proof of our faith.  However, I do know that whenever we don’t immediately get the answer we want, we should keep praying.

Notice, though, that the disciples have no compunction about getting rid of the Canaanite woman.  They tell Jesus to send her away so that she’ll leave them alone.  Their motivations are obvious.  In addition to being a woman and a Canaanite, she’s filling their quiet retreat with obnoxiousness.  She’s about as welcome as a work email in the middle of a two-week vacation! 

The lesson here for us, I think, is that we need to beware of discouraging those who are seeking Jesus.  We can do this in any number of ways.  We can glare at the woman who visits our assembly in a miniskirt or the man who comes in with a Diet Coke.  We can icily inform the visitor that they are sitting in our pew.  We can tell our friend who is asking us about our church that they wouldn’t like it where we go.  We need to be careful, brethren!  A tiny action may have eternal significance.

Notice, though, the response that Jesus gives to the disciples.  He makes a statement that appears forbidding but still leaves a crack for the woman to squeeze through if she wants.  Yes, Jesus was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but that still leaves open the possibility that He might help a sheep who isn’t from that house.

The final act of the story is about BREAD FOR DOGS.  It unfolds in Matthew 15:25-28.  Despite this apparently indifferent treatment from Jesus, the woman is not deterred.  She kneels before Him and pleads for His help. 

For the first time, Jesus directly addresses her.  Again, He still doesn’t straight-out say no, but His words are crushing nonetheless.  Piggybacking off His comment about being sent to the Jews only, He says that it isn’t right to take the bread meant for the children and give it to the dogs instead.  As if being a woman and a Canaanite weren’t bad enough, now she’s a dog!  She’s not even human anymore!

However, the woman takes that on the chin and counterpunches.  Until she gets that final, definitive “No,” she’s going to keep hammering.  Indeed, her counterargument is a good one.  Dogs might not get the bread, but they get the crumbs, and if Jesus is willing to give her crumbs, she’s willing to be a dog.

Before this combination of humility and refusing to quit, Jesus concedes the point, or, rather, He does what He had intended to do all along.  He casts the demon out of her daughter before she gets home.  Even a Canaanite woman can find help and healing in Jesus!

Really, this story gives us all we need to know about seeking the Lord.  It boils down to two simple rules:  be humble, and don’t give up.  Be humble.  Recognize that God is in heaven, and you are on earth.  Admit that you have to follow His word rather than your own bright ideas. 

Then, don’t give up.  Seek Him passionately, relentlessly, every waking hour.  Come after God like a bill collector.  If you do, He will honor your faith, and He will lead you to blessing.

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