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Psalm 51

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

According to Your lovingkindness,
O God, be merciful to me;
In Your great love, blot out transgression,
And wash me from iniquity.
My sin is constantly before me;
I practiced evil in Your sight,
So when You speak, You will be blameless,
And when You judge, You will be right.

In sin my mother has conceived me,
But You desire Your truth within;
With hyssop, cleanse and purify me,
Like snow unstained by any sin.
Relieve the bones that You have broken,
And teach me gladness in Your grace;
Blot out the guilt of my offenses,
And from my failings, hide Your face.

Create a righteous heart within me,
Renew a steadfast mind, I pray;
Do not dismiss me from Your presence
Nor take Your Spirit far away.
Restore the joy of Your salvation;
Sustain my willing spirit too;
Then I will teach Your ways to sinners
And lead transgressors back to You.

Defend me, God of my salvation,
And then my tongue will gladly sing;
You take no joy in sacrifices
And do not love my offering.
But You desire a broken spirit;
Contrition You will not despise;
Then by Your grace, do good to Zion
So gifts that please You may arise.

Suggested tune:  “Poor Wayfaring Stranger”

Let There Be Light: Wisdom Over Folly

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

One of the most unusual accounts of the creation in the whole Bible appears in Proverbs 8:22-31.  The speaker claims to have been with God since before the beginning, but it isn’t Jesus, and it isn’t the Holy Spirit.  Instead, as is true throughout Proverbs 8, the speaker is the personification of wisdom.

As Clay pointed out last week, when God said “Let there be light,” it was an orderly act.  However, we see here that it was a wise one too.  Ultimately, it is God’s wisdom that underlies God’s order.  Any foolish toddler can destroy, but only the wisdom of God can give structure to the creation.

Even today, God’s light operates in our world to enlighten us.  This is true in a physical sense.  It’s much easier to walk through the woods at noon than in the middle of a pitch-dark night! 

However, it’s also true spiritually.  As Psalm 119:130 says, “The revelation of Your words brings light.”  Our physical eyes can’t see the light radiating from the Bible, but the eyes of our heart can!  This morning, then, let’s consider how the light of God brings us the wisdom to overcome folly.

If we want God to illuminate us, the first thing that we must do is to CHOOSE THE RIGHT SOURCE.  Consider the contrast that Paul draws in 1 Corinthians 2:6-7.  Here, he distinguishes between two kinds of wisdom:  the wisdom of this age and its rulers on the one hand and the hidden wisdom of God on the other.

This is vital for us to recognize.  It warns us that not everything we encounter that claims to be wise truly is wise.  There’s the wisdom of God, which is genuine, but there’s also the wisdom of earth, which is a demonic counterfeit. 

I guarantee you, brethren—the devil is constantly trying to get every one of us to buy into counterfeit wisdom.  We hear this counterfeit wisdom on the lips of worldly people.  We see it on the screens of our TV’s and computers.  The more we pay attention to those things, the more we set our hearts on the concerns of this life, the more the devil will be able to reduce our wisdom to foolishness.

The only way to counteract this constant erosion of wisdom in our lives is to replenish it from its divine source.  We need to pray for wisdom, constantly, and we need to seek out wisdom in God’s word. 

Speaking of God’s word, I want to challenge you to find some wisdom in our daily Bible reading this week.  For the first time this year, it will take us away from Acts—into James, in fact.  When first I noticed that, I was a little perplexed.  “Why did Clay put that there?” I asked.  Then, after I finished the reading, I understood. 

I’m not going to tell you why he did that.  Instead, this week, as you’re going through the reading, try to figure out what James has to do with the early part of Acts 8.  I think you’ll find that it puts some familiar passages in a whole new light!

Second, if we want to benefit from God’s wisdom, we must LET THE EYES OF OUR HEART BE ENLIGHTENED.  Look at Ephesians 1:17-19.  First of all, notice the connection between light and wisdom here?  Receiving a spirit of wisdom is the same thing as having our hearts be enlightened.

In order to understand this passage, though, I think we also need to unpack the Greek concept of the heart.  This isn’t about the blood pump in our chests, nor is it even about our emotions, the way that we use “heart” metaphorically in English today.  Instead, the Greek “heart” is a concept that our language really doesn’t have.  It refers to the times when our feelings and our thoughts come together.  In English, we might call it our mind-and-heart.

Thus, when Paul says that he is praying for them to know the hope of their calling, the wealth of their inheritance, and the greatness of God’s power, he’s not praying for them to develop some disembodied intellectual understanding.  He’s praying for them to get those things, so that those concepts are not only intellectually interesting but also emotionally powerful. 

Our second assignment for the week, then, is to spend 15 minutes meditating on a passage, trying to get it.  Meditation, of course, is a perfectly Scriptural concept.  There’s nothing New-Agey about Bible meditation.  It’s just taking a text and dwelling on it, turning it over and over in our minds, savoring it.  We can do this in the shower, when we’re out for a walk, or even when we’re sitting on the couch right before bed, thinking about the day’s events.  Anytime can work, really.  It’s a no-big-deal process, but it can help us to enlighten the eyes of our hearts.

Finally, we can choose the light of wisdom in our lives by WALKING THE BRIGHT PATH.  This comes from Proverbs 4:18-19.  By the way, if you want to pick a passage to meditate on but don’t know which one to choose, this one would be an amazing choice! 

Notice the contrast here between two walks:  a bright walk and a dark walk, a wise walk and a foolish walk.  The path of the righteous gets brighter all the time, so that constantly you can see more clearly.  However, the path of the wicked stays completely dark.  As a result, you remain ignorant of what’s in front of you and trip over all kinds of stuff.

This idea should be familiar to us.  We all know the layout of our own homes, and when the lights are on, we walk around without any problems.  However, turn those lights off, and suddenly home becomes a minefield.  In my own house, I will generally still know where all the major items of furniture are, but if the kids left out a stool or a pair of shoes or, heaven forbid, a pile of Legos, I might end up crippled for life!

That’s what it means to be a Christian.  We walk in the light instead of the darkness.  We see.  We know.  People in the world don’t know because they don’t have their pathway lit by God. 

This week, then, when you encounter some difficulty or problem, pause to let God illuminate the solution.  Pray about it.  Ask yourself if the Bible offers any guidance.  If we will only look for God’s wisdom in this way, I think we will be amazed at how problems that seem insoluble and complex suddenly become very simple.  The devil loves darkness and confusion, but God brings clarity and light.

James 2 Isn't About Baptism

Monday, February 01, 2021

When I was growing up, I attended many Bible classes about the necessity of baptism for salvation.  Clearly, that’s a good and worthwhile thing to teach children, but not all the arguments I heard in defense of that Biblical truth were equally good. 

In particular, I remember being taught to use James 2:14-26 as a counter to Ephesians 2:8-9:  “You say that we’re saved by faith apart from works, and baptism is a work, so we don’t have to be baptized?  Well, here’s a passage that says we’re saved by works, so we do have to be baptized!”

There are several problems with the above exchange.  First, despite the multitude of claims to the contrary, Ephesians 2:8-9 isn’t about baptism.  Baptism isn’t even referred to in Ephesians until 4:5, which describes baptism as an essential ground for the unity of the Spirit.

Instead, 2:8-9 is an abbreviated form of the arguments Paul makes in Romans 3:19-4:12 and Galatians 3:1-14.  In those passages, he contrasts justification by faith with justification by the works of the Law, especially circumcision.  There is no reason to read any other meaning into “works” in Ephesians 2 than the meaning Paul repeatedly assigns to it elsewhere, particularly when no Biblical author ever describes baptism as a work.  All Paul is saying in 2:8-9 is that we cannot be saved by perfect Law-keeping.

In short, the argument against baptism from Ephesians 2 is a bad argument.  The text doesn’t come anywhere close to supporting it.  Sadly, when we argue for baptism from James 2, we implicitly accept the false equivalence between works and baptism and concede the validity of this bad argument.

However, James 2 in context isn’t about baptism either.  As far as I know, baptism is not mentioned anywhere in the entire epistle.  Instead, where Paul is concerned with defeating Judaizing teachers, James has a different objective.  He’s addressing brethren who have gone to the opposite extreme, who claim that because they are justified by faith in Christ, they don’t have to make any efforts to live righteously. 

In response, James points out that the faith that does not produce spiritual fruit is useless, dead, and ineffective for salvation.  The “Christian” who agrees that Jesus is the Christ but lives wickedly is no better than the demon who agrees that God is one and shudders.  We cannot be justified by works in the sense that we keep the Law perfectly, but we are justified by the works that complete our faith and give it life.

This is a valuable argument, and one that ought to apply a boot to the backsides of do-nothing disciples everywhere.  It does not, however, prove that baptism is necessary for salvation, nor do we need it to.  There are plenty of other passages for that! 

The Rest of Stephen's Sermon

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Acts 7:2-53 contains the longest sermon in the New Testament by anybody but Jesus.  The speaker is Stephen, on trial for his life before the Sanhedrin, and he is accused of a number of crimes.  According to Acts 6:11-13, he is accused of blaspheming God and Moses, speaking against the temple and the Law, and advocating the destruction of the temple and the Mosaic customs. 

As one might expect from an inspired prophet, Stephen’s defense is ingenious.  He points out that from time immemorial, the true custom of the Jews has been disregarding God’s law and God’s chosen.  Indeed, God commonly has used those rejected by His people to bring about salvation.  According to Acts 7:9-16, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers but later saved them all from famine.  In 7:17-36, Moses is the rejected deliverer. 

In 7:37-50, Stephen turns his attention to the temple.  Once again, true Jewish custom is not to worship God, but to worship idols, as revealed by the idolatry of the Israelites in the wilderness.  When they built the tabernacle and the temple, they failed to realize that God did not truly dwell in any human creation. 

In 7:51-53, though, Stephen abruptly switches course.  He accuses his audience of being as evil as their fathers and, in the rest of the chapter, is dragged out and stoned to death.  Admittedly, the text doesn’t say this straight out, but my impression is that Stephen realizes the Sanhedrin is about to jump him and skips to the end of his sermon.  He never finishes developing his arguments.

However, it’s not hard to figure out what the full sermon might have been.  In Acts 2, Peter uses the evidence of miraculous spiritual gifts, prophecy, and eyewitness testimony to establish that Jesus, though rejected by the Jews, had been made Lord and Christ by God.  Stephen would have been familiar with Peter’s argument, and he easily could have shown that as a rejected deliverer, Jesus fits into the pattern established by Joseph and Moses.  If his audience had been receptive, he could have invited them into the salvation offered by Jesus just as their fathers had benefited from Joseph and Moses.

Similarly, his comments about God not dwelling in temples made with human hands could have led easily into Jesus’ teaching on the subject.  In Matthew 24:2, Jesus predicted that the temple would be destroyed.  However, this loss would not be as dire as the Jews might think.  According to John 4:21-24, Jesus predicted a time when true worshipers would worship the Father not in a particular earthly location, but in spirit and in truth.

Today, these things are still vital to us.  We recognize that the name of Jesus is the only name under heaven by which we might be saved.  We understand that when we come to the Father through the Son, we can come to Him anywhere.  This is the truth that saves us, and it could have saved the Sanhedrin too, if only they were willing to listen.

Are Conspiracy Theories Your Religion?

Thursday, January 21, 2021

The other day, I read a fascinating article (https://medium.com/curiouserinstitute/a-game-designers-analysis-of-qanon-580972548be5) posted by my brother and friend Tim Thompson.  In it, the author argues that QAnon functions much like the live-action games he designs for a living.  In particular, he points to a quirk of human psychology that is significant to both.  It’s called apophenia, and it’s the tendency to see a pattern and form connections where none exist.

This is why, for instance, most people will look at the overflow faceplate in the picture and see a face.  It is not a face.  It is not even designed to look like a face.  Nonetheless, we glance at the plumbing fixture and see eyes, nose, and face. 

We also enjoy figuring things out for ourselves.  We get a dopamine hit out of putting a puzzle together, and our memory does a better job of retaining the answers we arrive at than the ones that are handed to us.  We tend to be more emotionally invested in those answers too.

 Other human blind spots play into this as well.  We are communal creatures and are prone to accepting what our community accepts, whether in person or online.  Conversely, we mistrust those we consider to be “other” and regard what they say with skepticism.

QAnon, and other online conspiracy theories much in vogue, exploit all of these things.  They feed their audiences “breadcrumbs”—isolated, random facts—and encourage them to assemble the breadcrumbs into a pattern.  They suggest that most media outlets are fundamentally deceptive, but that the discerning mind (note the appeal of “I figured this out!  I’m smarter than everyone else!”) can ferret out the truth.  They provide a community of true believers to help enlighten new initiates.  Once someone has bought in, they are nearly immune to counterclaims.

The author argues, and I agree, that this infatuation with conspiracy has religious overtones.  Faith, after all, is the evidence of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  I don’t think that a bunch of random celebrities flashing hand signs is the evidentiary equal of eyewitnesses who died for their faith.  Nonetheless, in both cases, once we put it all together, our new conviction transforms our worldview.

This is a problem because the Christian worldview and the conspiracy-theorist worldview are incompatible.  The Christian believes that God controls everything.  Nations rise and fall according to His will.  However, the QAnon initiate believes that a vast, shadowy conspiracy controls everything, and They are the ones who shape reality according to Their desires (world power, sex trafficking, etc.).

This is blasphemy.  It is attributing one of the attributes of God to human beings.  In my life, I have read a whole, whole lot of history.  From beginning to end, the annals of humankind are filled with blundering, incompetence, false starts, and foolishness.  The greatest and most powerful people ever to live (with the sole exception of Jesus) made wagonloads of clumsy mistakes. 

By contrast, QAnon posits a cabal that has enrolled hundreds of thousands of people, operated for decades if not centuries, succeeded in its objects, and avoided exposure (“until now!!!”).  That doesn’t sound like the human race.  It sounds like Ephesians 3:8-11.  It sounds like God.

To brethren who are worried about these things, then, I say, “Relax.”  Even if there are people out there who want to control or harm you, they aren’t that capable.  If they do come to power, it will be clumsy, bloody, and obvious, like the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, etc.  Even the Chinese, as competent as they are, can’t take away democracy in little ole Hong Kong without a lot of noise and stink.  Subtle schemes to steal away our freedom are beyond our enemies, as they are beyond all of us.

Instead, worry about God.  Trust in Him, and trust that He will keep His promises to you.  Here, I can do no better than repeat the words of Isaiah 8:12-13.  “Do not call everything a conspiracy these people say is a conspiracy. Do not fear what they fear; do not be terrified.  You are to regard only the LORD of Armies as holy. Only He should be feared; only He should be held in awe.”

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