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Out of the Depths

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

The other day, I was talking on the phone with a dear friend of mine who is writing a book about the fear of God.  She’s doing this in part because of her concern that the Lord’s people aren’t discussing the fear of God as much as they should be.  We like to hear about grace and mercy, but we’re not so fond of teaching about the fear due our Creator.

I found this particularly striking because like sin and grace go together, fear and mercy go together.  If it is not a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, then God’s mercy to us doesn’t matter much either.  None of us are deeply appreciative when the doctor fixes our hangnail!

It’s obviously true that God’s fear leads us to appreciate His mercy.  Though it’s less obvious, it’s also true that His mercy leads us to fear Him.  Indeed, if our appreciation of the forgiveness of God doesn’t produce the fear of God, we’ve missed something.  This morning, then, let’s see how this idea emerges, along with many others, when we cry to God out of the depths.

Naturally, we’re going to be studying Psalm 130, and the first portion of this psalm concerns A GOD WHO LISTENS.  Look at Psalm 130:1-2.  Even in this introductory section, there are two valuable lessons for us to consider, and the first is that even God’s people can find themselves in the depths.

Even in English, the idea of crying out to God from the depths is powerful, but in Hebrew, it is even more so.  To the Israelites, the depths were a place of primordial chaos, and if you were in them, it was a sign that you had been cast out from the presence of God.  This is why Jonah is swallowed by a great fish that goes down into the depths.  We can end up there too, whether because of sin or tragedy.  Things can get so bad in our lives that we feel isolated from every source of goodness.

This certainly is where the psalmist believes himself to be, but even though he is there, even though we might be there, calling on God is always possible.  This one seems like a sin problem.  The psalmist has sinned so egregiously that he has ruined himself, but even there, he cries out to God in the hope that God will listen.

So too for us.  It’s possible for Christians to wreck their lives utterly, and some do.  Nonetheless, as long as we are alive, it’s never too late to seek the Lord.  Everything else may be gone, but if we humble ourselves and come to God, we are sure to find Him.

The second part of the psalm is about FORGIVENESS AND FEAR.  Let’s keep going in Psalm 130:3-4.  This is not the way that any of us would have written it.  We might have said, “If You marked iniquities, we would be afraid of You, but since You offer forgiveness, we rejoice in You.” 

That’s not where the psalmist goes, though.  Instead, he asks rhetorically who could stand before a God who remembered sin.  We know the answer to that one.  Not I.  Not any of us.  Imagine if that were what existence was like.  There is a God, He knows everything we do, and one day He will condemn us, fairly but unmercifully, according to His perfect standard.  I haven’t found many depictions of the afterlife that make nihilism look attractive, but that one does.  If all we had to look forward to were eternal torment, we would long not to exist, and there would be no point to anything.

However, that is not who God is!  He will execute justice if we force Him to it, but He longs to forgive, and His forgiveness makes fearing Him make sense.  Who would worship a God who is just going to squish them no matter what?  On the other hand, because mercy is on the table, we have a reason to honor Him, to revere Him, and to follow His commandments.  Mercy and fear aren’t opposites.  Instead, they work together.

In the third part of this psalm, we see a truly beautiful description of WAITING FOR THE LORD.  It appears in Psalm 130:5-6.  The first part of this section, though, explains why waiting for the Lord makes sense at all.  We wait because we hope in His word.  The better we know the Bible and its promises, the more motivation we have to trust God.  Conversely, if we don’t know the Scriptures, we will find waiting on the Lord to be very hard.

This tells us, then, that Bible study is one of the most important tools we have for preparing for disaster.  My crystal ball is broken these days, but this I know:  the day will come for every one of us when we have no other hope but God.  The time we spend with the word now will give us the assurance we need then to persevere through trial.

This is necessary because in the midst of disaster, waiting for the Lord isn’t easy.  In one of the loveliest figures of speech in the whole Bible, the psalmist says he waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for morning.  I’ve never been a night watchman, but I can imagine what it’s like, especially back in the day when every little village needed one.  It’s boring, it’s frightening, it’s miserable, and it’s dangerous.  How grateful the watchman would have been to see the sun rising and realize that he had made it through the night without being eaten by a lion or slaughtered by a Philistine!

Waiting for the Lord is like that, only more so.  There have been times in my life when the seconds dragged by, when the minutes felt like hours because of the depth of my despair.  And oh!  How eagerly I waited for deliverance from God.  In times like that we long for Him because nothing and no one else can help.

The final portion of the psalm explores further the value of HOPING IN THE LORD.  Let’s conclude our reading with Psalm 130:7-8.  Hoping in God isn’t only for the psalmist.  It’s for all of His people.

This is because of God’s faithful love.  As always, when we see “faithful love” or “steadfast love” or “lovingkindness” in our Old Testaments, we should think chesed, that untranslatable word that is probably the best single-word description of the whole Bible.  Chesed is the great covenant love of God, the love expressed in action that continues despite everything.

Right now, God regards every single one of His people with chesed.  He feels this faithful love for me and for every Christian in this room, right now.  Because it is faithful love, we can be sure that God will make His goodness known in our lives again.  However massive the mess, however deep our grief, sooner or later God will make it right.

His chesed for us also leads him to offer redemption that is not minimal or grudging but instead abundant.  Because of God’s faithful love for His people, He eagerly overflows with grace for all of our transgressions.  We don’t have to worry that the greatness of our sins has exhausted His mercy.  As long as we return, He always has more to give.

Bearing a Different Gospel Beautifully

Monday, September 06, 2021

The apostle Paul was fond of sarcasm, not because he didn’t love people, but because he did.  When Christians he had converted turned aside from Christ, it drove him to distraction, and that distraction often found its expression in heartfelt exasperation. 

One such expression appears in 2 Corinthians 11:4.  In contrast to the stubborn resistance the Corinthians put up to Paul’s teaching, they listened eagerly to the false teachers who followed him.  Paul tells them that they bore a different gospel beautifully, implying that the attention they devoted to the workers of deceit was the attention they should have devoted to him.

Today, there are far too many Christians who bear a different gospel beautifully, and it is entirely understandable that they should do so.  In the sense of 1 Corinthians 2:14, the gospel is unnatural.  It does two things in particular that humans don’t like.  It demands that we do hard things ourselves, and it keeps us from adopting easy workarounds.  When a different gospel diminishes the former and permits the latter, we tend to bear it beautifully.

To see how this works, let’s pick a simple example:  hospitality.  The Bible commands us to be hospitable, a sacred tradition that stretches back to the days of Abraham if not earlier.  Hebrews 13:2 tells us that we should follow Abraham’s example because he entertained angels without knowing it.  This refers, I think, not only to the possibility of supernatural visitors but also to the impact that hospitality can have both on others and on us.

Hospitality reveals the generosity and kindness of Christ.  As we practice hospitality, we become more like Him.  It surely is a part of walking in a manner worthy of the gospel!

However, there’s a problem.  Hospitality is hard.  It goes against the grain of our culture.  Either we invest a lot of time in cleaning up and preparing a nice meal, or we expose our messy fast-food reality. We might even have to invite over a rampaging mob of church kids.  Not surprisingly, many modern-day Christians struggle to show hospitality.

There are two solutions to this problem.  Either we do better at hospitality ourselves (still hard), or we outsource hospitality to the church.  The latter is much more appealing.  Sustaining that fellowship hall at the church building will cost some money, but we have more money than time.  We drop a check in the plate, and we never have to open our home to anybody again.

As elegant as this solution seems, there are issues with it.  First, it’s different.  First-century Christians were in the hospitality business, but the first-century church wasn’t.  Second, the fellowship halls, gyms, and so forth might produce hospitality of a sort, but they don’t produce a congregation of hospitable Christians.  Anything that subverts the gospel goal of godliness is hostile to it.

Walking in the ancient paths is difficult and frustrating.  We are inclined to Americanize our faith by departing from it in ways that seem good to the wisdom of our time.  Consequently, the words of the agents of change often fall on receptive ears.

However, we do better to consider the wisdom of the One who laid out those ancient paths in the first place.  His ways are not our ways, and He always has reasons for His commandments and His silence, even if those reasons are not apparent to us.  Rather than bearing a different gospel, we should strive instead to bear our cross.

A Gouge in a Pew

Friday, September 03, 2021

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a friend’s funeral in an unfamiliar church building.  I took a seat by an aisle and shortly noticed a gouge in the back of the pew support in front of me.  The gouge was at knee height.  To the left/exterior, it was narrow and shallow; to the right/interior, it broadened and deepened to about a quarter inch.  Another, fainter horizontal scrape appeared two or three inches above it.  None of the other pews around me bore similar markings.

I will never know for sure, but I would guess that the scrapes came from a walker or similar piece of assistive equipment.  An older Christian once sat (has sat?) there for years because that was Their Pew.  They shuffled into the auditorium on their walker, gingerly lowered themselves to the seat where I sat, folded up their walker, and dragged it into the same row. 

As they were doing so, their lack of stability forced them to brace the walker against the pew in front of them.  Every time, something (a walker brace?  screw heads?) raked across the pew support.  Service by service, year by year, those feeble hands wore away the gouge that I saw.  That Christian may well be dead now, but the gouge still bears witness.  They assembled.

Sometimes, it is the faith we display in our weaknesses that makes the deepest mark.  Lots of strong, healthy Christians strode into that auditorium, worshiped, and departed without leaving a trace.  However, the pew support remembers the Christian who probably couldn’t drive to church anymore, who couldn’t walk unassisted, whose pace was slow and even doddering.  They certainly inspired pity, perhaps contempt, perhaps frustration from the custodial crew, but they came.  No one would have faulted them for not coming.  They came anyway, and the pew support testifies to their faithful obedience.

So too with the marks we make, and not only on pews.  Some of the Christians whose singing I remember most are those who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.  They knew it and sang anyway.  Loudly.  They were humbled, but God was exalted. 

How about the introvert who, with white knuckles and sweaty palms, welcomes a visitor to the assembly?  Or the octogenarian who shows up to help a relocated brother unload the moving truck?  Or the song leader who can’t read a note of music but listens to a new hymn over and over on YouTube until he feels comfortable introducing it to the congregation? 

How about the apostle Paul, who struggled with covetousness but learned from Christ the secret of remaining faithful through poverty and prosperity alike?

We often seek to glorify God through our strengths.  This is our wheelhouse.  This is the thing we are good at.  Look at this wonderful thing we are doing (for God)!

Perhaps, though, He is best glorified through our weaknesses.  This is not our wheelhouse.  We are terrified.  We are a hopeless disaster.  We would not be doing this for anybody but God, but He told us to do it, and we are. 

The ungodly might be laughing at us, but God isn’t laughing.  He is pleased.  He loves not only the sacrifices that arise from effortless self-confidence but also those offered in weakness, fear, and trembling.  Against all worldly wisdom, we surrender our two mites, knowing it can’t possibly matter but trusting that it will be enough.

Godly Living in an Ungodly World

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

The older you get, the better able you are to see the changes around you.  I find that this is increasingly true for me, even though I’m only middle-aged.  I remember what it was like to be alive in the 1980s and 1990s, and when I look around now, I see that things are very different.

These differences are perhaps most striking when it comes to the moral decline of our society.  Sins that I didn’t even know existed when I still was in high school now are openly promoted and celebrated.  For the first time in many years, most Americans are not associated with some house of worship, whether church, synagogue, or mosque.

Though this new world may be unfamiliar territory for us, it is not foreign to the experience of the people of God.  In fact, the climate of the first century was much like the climate of our time.  Most people back then were ungodly and immoral too.  As a result, Scriptures that may not have mattered much before now are increasingly relevant.  This morning, let’s look at one such context from 1 Peter to see how we can live godly in an ungodly world.

In this context, Peter gives three basic commands to Christians.  The first of these is to ABSTAIN.  Let’s read from 1 Peter 2:11-12.  Here, we see Peter’s famous admonition to abstain from fleshly lusts.  It’s tempting to read this as being about sexual desire only, but I think we need to read it more broadly than that.  We need to watch out not only for thoughts that are impure, but also for thoughts that are bitter, contemptuous, greedy, and self-righteous.  If it wasn’t in the Lord’s heart, it doesn’t belong in our heart either.

Next, we need to consider Peter’s call to excellent behavior.  Notice, though, that he has a particular kind of excellent behavior in mind.  It’s excellent behavior in the areas where the people of the world slander us.  In other words, in order to apply this passage, we must listen to our enemies.

What kind of things do they say about us?  They say we’re judgmental and vicious.  They say we care more about politics than we do about Jesus.  They say that we hypocritically condemn sin in our political enemies while overlooking it in our political friends.  They say that we covertly support white supremacy and don’t care about the plight of black and brown people.  Make no mistake, brethren!  There are people who used to worship here who never will return because they believe these things about us.

It’s tempting to fire back when we hear things like this, but that’s not what Peter urges us to do.  Christians don’t reply to slander with angry rebuttals.  We reply to slander with good deeds.  We use our lives to show Christ even to our enemies.

This means that today, we must be people who are quick to show mercy because we have received mercy.  We must spend more time with the Bible than we do with cable news.  We must apply the standards of the Bible to everyone without partiality.  We must prove by the way we treat others that we care about everyone with a soul.  On the other hand, if we aren’t willing to do these things, we reveal to others that maybe those slanders aren’t slanders after all.

Second, we must SUBMIT.  Consider Peter’s words in 1 Peter 2:13-16.  As always, it’s worth noting that our political system is very different than that of the Roman Empire.  Christians then had zero influence in selecting their political leaders, but today, we can vote and even advocate for the candidates we believe are best.  There’s no sin in doing any of those things.

However, when the election is over, our role is clear.  We are to submit to the government, whether our candidates got in or not.  We don’t have to agree with the decisions the government hands down, but we have to obey them anyway.  The only exception, of course, is when the laws of the government require us to disobey the law of God.

Interestingly, though, Peter’s reasoning here is different than Paul’s in Romans 13.  Rather than being concerned with submission to God, Peter tells us to submit in order to silence the ignorance of the foolish.  Here again, this has a strangely modern ring.  Aren’t people right now slandering Christians because they claim we won’t submit to the government?  Once again, our response is clear.  We silence them by doing right.

Finally in this section, let’s consider Peter’s warning against using freedom as a covering from evil.  For the past year and a half, I’ve shied away from talking about vaccines and masks, but this is a place where I believe I would not be honest with the text if I didn’t discuss those contentious issues.

In recent days, I’ve heard a lot from Christians about their freedom to refuse masks and vaccines.  As long as earthly authorities like governments and employers allow us that liberty too, there’s no Biblical issue with that.  However, when those governments and employers start mandating masks and vaccinations, we must use our freedom to submit.  If we insist on being free from those things instead, that’s not heroism.  It’s ungodliness.

I’ve heard Christians say that their conscience does not allow them to mask or vaccinate, so the obeying-God exception applies.  The problem is, though, that our conscience is not equal to the commandment of God, and there is no divine commandment about masks or vaccines.  Obeying God by submitting is the right thing to do, and if our conscience says otherwise, we have to squash it.

Lastly, we must HONOR.  Look at 1 Peter 2:17.  The first thing for us to notice here is our responsibility for honoring the king. As I said earlier, it’s lawful for Christians to participate in political discourse and advocacy, but when we are participating, we must participate in godly ways. 

Unsurprisingly, the way the world does politics is ungodly.  Commonly, we see political partisans attacking elected officials with sarcasm, slander, and lies.  Every mistake is an occasion for mockery.  Every policy decision is an opportunity for misrepresentation and distortion.

Because this bad behavior is so common, it’s easy for us to conclude that it’s acceptable.  It isn’t.  We are free to express disagreement, even strong disagreement, with our nation’s leaders, but we always must do so in a respectful way that honors them and honors God.  When we adopt worldly words to express our contempt and amuse our friends, we dishonor the name by which we have been called.

Note also that the king isn’t the only one we are supposed to honor.  Indeed, Peter says we are supposed to honor everyone.  We are supposed to speak to everyone and about everyone with courtesy and respect, always. 

This is hard!  As you know, I have a snarky sense of humor, and when somebody irritates me, I want to react by turning that snark on them.  It’s satisfying in the moment, but it also makes me blend right in with the snarky, meanspirited world.  If we want to stand out instead, if we want to shine as lights in the world, we do that by taking the high road.  When we are kind and respectful, even when others would not be, we show others the value that God places on everyone.

Finishing What We Start

Monday, August 30, 2021

All of 2 Corinthians 8-9 is taken up with Paul’s discussion of the collection for the needy saints in Jerusalem.  Paul envisions this collection as an opportunity to bridge the gap between Jewish and Gentile churches, so these two chapters contain a host of reasons why the Corinthians should contribute.  Many of these are specific to the subject of generosity and material things, but some are not.  In particular, Paul points out in 2 Corinthians 8:10-12 that the Christians there already had promised to contribute.  Now they need to finish what they had started.

This argument implies that Paul was concerned that the Corinthians would not, in fact, do what they had said they would.  This is a familiar spiritual problem, not merely when it comes to contributing to the Lord’s work (though it certainly shows up there!) but also in every other aspect of our walk with God.

How often have we resolved to begin a Bible-reading plan but give up on it after a couple weeks?  How frequently have we decided to have a discussion with a neighbor or friend about the state of their souls, yet never actually get around to it?  How many bulletin-board signup sheets have we filled out without following through on the commitment we made?  Our intentions are good, but our lives are unfruitful.

This is the thorny-ground problem from the parable of the sower in Mark 4.  The word has been sown in our hearts and taken root, but it is competing with worry, greed, and worldly desires.  Today, we can add plain old distraction to the list too.  All of us know the dispiriting feeling of getting online to accomplish something but spending the next two hours looking at bright shiny objects on social media instead!

All of this suggests that our follow-through problems are really overcommitment problems.  Paul was worried that the Corinthians wouldn’t have money because they had spent it on other things.  In the same way, we often don’t have the time and energy to carry out the Lord’s work because we have spent it on other things.  When we spend all day rushing around from morning till night, there’s no room for extra service to God.

If we want to solve this problem, we must beware of the allure of busyness.  American society is obsessed with busyness, and few among us are willing to tell our friends about how we spent a whole day doing nothing.  We feel pressured to cram in after-hours work, extracurricular activities for our children, and involvement in a million and one different projects and causes.

However, if we want to say yes to God, we must learn to say no to many of those things.  A life that doesn’t have space for work of eternal significance is a life that has too much in it.  If we want to finish what we start, we must make sure that the resources are in place to allow us to finish.  Only then will we be the fruitful workers in the kingdom that we want to be.

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