holiness

Think About the Future

Romans 4:13-25 (NLT)

Clearly, God’s promise to give the whole earth to Abraham and his descendants was based not on his obedience to God’s law, but on a right relationship with God that comes by faith. If God’s promise is only for those who obey the law, then faith is not necessary and the promise is pointless. For the law always brings punishment on those who try to obey it. (The only way to avoid breaking the law is to have no law to break!)

So the promise is received by faith. It is given as a free gift. And we are all certain to receive it, whether or not we live according to the law of Moses, if we have faith like Abraham’s. For Abraham is the father of all who believe. That is what the Scriptures mean when God told him, “I have made you the father of many nations.” This happened because Abraham believed in the God who brings the dead back to life and who creates new things out of nothing.

Even when there was no reason for hope, Abraham kept hoping—believing that he would become the father of many nations. For God had said to him, “That’s how many descendants you will have!” And Abraham’s faith did not weaken, even though, at about 100 years of age, he figured his body was as good as dead—and so was Sarah’s womb.

Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God. He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises. And because of Abraham’s faith, God counted him as righteous. And when God counted him as righteous, it wasn’t just for Abraham’s benefit. It was recorded for our benefit, too, assuring us that God will also count us as righteous if we believe in him, the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God.


If you engaged with last week’s sermon, you’ll notice that Paul this week simply continues to discuss Abraham and the nature of faith. I want to focus on a particular idea Paul raises, the importance of hope as an attitude to bolster our faith.

I’m liable to sound a little like a self-help guru today, but frankly, the ones I’ve heard simply repackage ancient concepts found in the Bible, enriching themselves in the process. That’s between the self-help gurus and God, I suppose. Maybe I’m just jealous—I could’ve been rich, if only I were better looking and not feeling bound to give credit where credit is due.

Let’s try a little exercise. I’m going to say a phrase and then we will pause for a few seconds. Here we go: Think about the future.

So, did you get a generally warm, happy feeling, or did you find yourself growing a little anxious? When it comes to the future, are you bullish or bearish?

Some of you felt a twinge of anxiety or fear, and that’s normal. We can always find reasons to be a little anxious. Bad things happen to good people. It’s a fact of life we all learn at a fairly early age.

Whether we let that anxiety control us says a lot about how much hope we carry in our hearts, however. And again, as Paul is telling us, hope and faith are intricately linked. At times, they seem to me to be almost indistinguishable.

Abraham had hope because he had heard from God and kept hearing from God. God was saying to Abraham, I know you’re really old and you don’t have any children by your wife. I promise you, you will. And from that child will come uncountable descendants, and blessings on the whole world.

As we discussed last week, Abraham sometimes struggled with how to move forward in life, but his faith grew even as he made mistakes. He had hope for the future, a future beyond his very long life, and his hope grew stronger as God slowly began the fulfillment of the promises.

He saw those promises fulfilled to the point where he was able to die a happy and confident man, having lived a “long and satisfying life” (Genesis 25:7). He was one who knew God would, in some mysterious way, care for him and his offspring forever.

If you’ll allow me, I also would ask you to think about something else. Think about the promises God has made us. I’m speaking to you as believers, of course—we who call ourselves Christians have accepted as valid and trustworthy these promises I want you to consider.

We are promised that death ultimately is meaningless. Death had great power over us, but Jesus broke that power when he died on the cross. We no longer slam into death and stop. We pass through death, it reduced to a thin veil, and we move on to eternal life with Christ.

We are promised that healing and holiness are available to us now. We are not simply afterlife gazers, people biding our time for a reward to come. We know that a life in Christ means this life, now.

Sure, we remain broken. We struggle, like old Abraham did. We slip and we sin. We carry the pain of wrongs done to us. But the more we engage with God, the more we are changed in this life. We are allowed to taste holiness and heaven now. That means the days ahead in this life should be brighter than the days behind us.

We are promised that the pain and suffering we already have experienced will be put away, reversed, healed in full. This is maybe the most mysterious promise of all, but it certainly should give us great hope. Those terrible events that have happened or may happen will not have everlasting effects. Somehow, God will make even the worst tragedies temporary ones.

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes,” Revelation 21 tells us, “and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

See a bright future before you, Christians. Live as people with an unending future, and let hope and joy into your present lives, strengthening your faith.

And So We Begin

Romans 1:1-7 (NLT)

This letter is from Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, chosen by God to be an apostle and sent out to preach his Good News. God promised this Good News long ago through his prophets in the holy Scriptures. The Good News is about his Son. In his earthly life he was born into King David’s family line, and he was shown to be the Son of God when he was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is Jesus Christ our Lord. Through Christ, God has given us the privilege and authority as apostles to tell Gentiles everywhere what God has done for them, so that they will believe and obey him, bringing glory to his name.

And you are included among those Gentiles who have been called to belong to Jesus Christ. I am writing to all of you in Rome who are loved by God and are called to be his own holy people.

May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace.


Today we begin what will be a relatively long sermonic journey through Romans, but I’m praying it also will be a joyous, productive trip. By the time we finish in November, God willing, I hope we know our redeemer and ourselves a little better, thanks to Paul’s insights during the early life of the church.

Our verses today are an introduction, and we should begin this journey by being sure we fully understand the man, the place, and the plan. By the man, I mean the Apostle Paul, the author. By the place, I mean Rome, home of his Christian audience. The plan is a reference to God’s work through Jesus Christ, a theme that will be at the heart of everything we hear from the Book of Romans these next nine months or so.

Paul was in his day and is unto today a controversial figure. People uncomfortable with Paul’s assertions about specific Christian behaviors sometimes go so far as to separate the faith into what could be called “Jesus Christianity” and “Pauline Christianity.” It is a false separation, and a dangerous one. Instead, it is correct to see Paul and his ministry as flowing directly from Jesus Christ, an extension of the work Christ did among us.

I can make such an assertion because Paul’s conversion to Christ, recorded in Acts in both third person and first person and alluded to in other parts of the New Testament, was a direct experience of the risen Savior. It was a 180-degree turn for Paul, who was a respected, scholarly Jew, a man who had studied under one of the finest Jewish rabbis to ever live. Paul, whose Jewish name was Saul, was actually in the process of pursuing and persecuting Christians when the risen Jesus confronted him in a blinding flash and a voice from heaven.

The link between Jesus Christ and Paul is undeniable for anyone who takes the Holy Bible seriously. We therefore have to take the Apostle Paul seriously, even if he is a teacher who often challenges us through his writings in ways that make us uncomfortable. If you don’t know what I mean when I say he can make us uncomfortable, just keep showing up for these sermons.

In addition to his role as apostle—the title for a person called to preach salvation through Jesus Christ and establish new churches—Paul in many ways functioned as Christianity’s first organized theologian. That is, he began the process of systematically describing what it means to follow Jesus Christ.

As I mentioned earlier, Paul was an educated Jew, having trained under a great rabbi named Gamaliel. Paul’s conversion did not cause him to surrender his education; instead, he began to apply his understanding of Judaism to his newfound faith in Jesus Christ.

You can see evidence of this in his introductory statements we’ve read today. For example, when Paul referred to the Christians in Rome as “loved by God” and “called to be his own holy people,” he was evoking Old Testament language previously applied to the Israelites. Paul was leading the Roman Christians to see themselves as the new beneficiaries of a very ancient promise.

Because Paul flew higher intellectually than most other early Christians, he can be a bit harder to study. That’s one of the reasons we will be using the New Living Translation throughout the year. We may lose some of the subtle nuances of his wording, but we will gain much in readability.

If it makes you feel any better, Peter, a man who walked with Jesus and served in the Messiah’s inner circle, even commented in one of his letters that “some of [Paul’s] comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture.”  (2 Peter 3:15-16.)

Note, however, that Peter’s words indicate he already considered Paul’s writings to have the same force as holy Scripture, which was just beginning to take shape. Other apostles also seem to have held Paul in high regard, once they overcame their initial fear of him as their former persecutor.

So, we’ve talked about the man. Let’s discuss the place a little. Paul was deeply interested in the church in Rome for a unique reason. Christians were already there; no church planting by this particular apostle was needed. But it is clear Paul saw this particular set of Christians as very important, and he wanted to be sure they had a proper understanding of Christianity.

Rome was, after all, at the heart of the known world. All roads ultimately led to Rome, and more importantly to an evangelism-minded apostle, all the roads in Rome led to the far reaches. If Christ’s mandate that the story of salvation be told everywhere were to be fulfilled, then the church in Rome had to be strong and sound.

If you’re a student of history at all, I don’t have to tell you what an incredible insight that was. We will talk more about Paul’s longing for Rome next week.

Paul also took God’s plan of salvation and rooted it in a couple of critically important words, “grace” and “peace.” As we begin this journey, we need to embed those words in our minds and hearts.

Grace, of course, is a particular word we use to describe unmerited love. God sent his Son to die on the cross not because of some sort of rule established for the functioning of the universe, but because God is, more than anything else, love. We will hear of the cross and its effects repeatedly as we explore Romans.

Let us never forget that God’s work through Jesus Christ is a tremendous expression of love. Knowing we are so loved should give us tremendous peace, regardless of what circumstances we may face. If we find ourselves troubled, it is only because we have forgotten the great truth of the cross—we are loved, despite our sins.

As we go through Romans, we will need to return to the words “grace” and “peace” on a regular basis. Understand what I am saying: Paul’s letter to the Romans is going to challenge us. This journey through Romans will at times be hard. Later in this first chapter, Paul makes some assertions about sin that go to the heart of major disputes in churches all over the globe today.

Studying Romans should cause us all to grow in our understanding of salvation, in our faith, and yes, even in old-fashioned concepts like holiness and radical forgiveness.

I, for one, am quite excited.

 

Division

Luke 12:49-56 (NRSV)

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:

father against son
    and son against father,
mother against daughter
   and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
   and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?


After a reading like that, I suppose I should begin with some comforting words.

Yes, God is love. Yes, grace is freely given. Our God is a patient God, doing all he can to draw lost people to him. Forgiveness and the gift of eternal life are being poured out on us in buckets, despite so many people standing under umbrellas of cynicism.

That said, at this point in Luke, Jesus has clearly gone apocalyptic on us. He uses language designed to remind us of the terrible suffering and sacrifice necessary to make all that grace and love possible. And ultimately, we are reminded that we are called to choose sides in a great cosmic battle, with no regard to what our choice may cost us in this life.

Jesus’ apocalyptic language forces Christians to consider our core beliefs. Fire and baptism are purification words. Jesus was saying that despite his lack of sin, he would go through the purifying fire of crucifixion for us, and that ultimately all of creation will be purified through this act. Humans can actually choose where to stand in all of this—with what is pure and what will remain forever, or with the dross to be burned away.

The great gift of the cross is that we now have a choice. Before, we were all just dross, lacking the purity to be in God’s presence.

I think even Christians struggle with some of this tough language because we confuse adherence to the truth with being judgmental. Clearly, it is God’s business to judge, not ours. My own personal approach to this is to be as laissez-faire (libertarian) in my approach to the secular world as possible, while at the same time exercising my right to declare the importance of choosing Christ and living the Christian life.

Don’t ask the state to look like the church, and definitely don’t force the church to mimic the state or society in general. If we’re really convinced the Holy Spirit is at work in this world, we should never doubt his ability to win minds in what is sometimes called the “marketplace of ideas.”

This approach doesn’t satisfy all Christians. If it did, groups like the Moral Majority would have never sprung up. This approach does, however, let us focus on messages that have made Christianity successful for nearly two millennia, rather than getting bogged down in the events of the day. Let’s consider those messages:

Christ is the answer. By that, we mean the answer to all the big questions in life, questions like “Is there meaning to life,” “Why do we suffer,” and “Is there more than just this life?” And yes, Jesus made some exclusive claims to being the answer—he claimed oneness with the Creator, and said the only way to the Father is through him.

C.S. Lewis and other writers and theologians have noted that such a claim creates a “trilemma” for anyone considering following Christ. Taking his claim at face value, Jesus can be just one of three things: divine, insane or evil.

Universalists, people who say there are many paths to God, don’t like exclusivity, but you have to reject significant portions of Scripture to deny Christ’s claim. There may be ways for people to carry in them the light of Christ without having heard Jesus’ name, but once introduced to him, they should recognize him right away.

Being Christian does make you different. Being seen as countercultural seems to be in again. Welcome to the original countercultural movement, the one that challenged the most powerful empire on earth. It is a movement that truly changed the world, declaring early on that people are the same regardless of gender, color or social status. Yes, the body of believers can behave like a cluster of big institutions, and yes, Christians often fail to act like Christ, but this differentiating truth remains.

There is clear guidance from God available to us. People are craving something by which they can steer their lives.  They want something they can trust, something not likely to blow about in the ever-changing social wind. The Bible is God’s long-standing revelation to humanity. Even the newest material in it is nearly 2,000 years old. Its truths about God and how God wants to relate to humanity have served people well in a wide variety of cultures, be they in the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Industrial Age or Space Age. (What are we in now? The Digital Age?)

Yes, not everyone will agree with these basic messages. Some people, maybe people in your own homes, will become angry upon hearing them, turning on you or at least turning their backs on you.

That’s okay. Jesus said it would happen. He also said he would make it all right in the end. Look it up.


The featured image is Joos Van Cleve’s “The Last Judgment,” painted some time in the late 15th or early 16th century.

Burglar Christ

 

Luke 12:35-40 (NRSV)

Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

The last couple of weeks, we have been talking about Bible lessons that boil down to attitude. Today’s passage is similar, even if the examples seem a little strange to us.

The first part of our text reminds me of one of the first lessons a new karate student learns. (We have a karate class at Luminary.) It is a lesson in how to stand when nothing else seems to be going on. We call it a ready stance. The feet are parallel, shoulder-width apart and balanced, knees bent. The hands are lowered, closed and slightly extended from the body.

The odd thing about the ready stance is we really don’t do much with it except stand in it while someone—usually, the teacher—is talking. If you know you are going to spar or work on a self-defense technique, there are better, more obvious ways to stand.

As you might expect, students, especially young students, tend to drift out of the ready stance, letting their arms go to their side or their feet shift. But when they begin to wiggle, they’re demonstrating they’ve not yet grasped an important principle: Be ready—be balanced and aware—even when it seems like nothing is about to happen.

In our everyday moments, it can seem like nothing is about to happen in regard to Christ’s return. After all, Jesus died, was resurrected and ascended into heaven more than 1,983 years ago, and he has yet to come back. That’s 99 generations that have lived and died waiting for but not seeing Christ’s return.

And yet, we are still supposed to be living lives conformed to God’s will, as if Christ’s return could be at any moment. We pray he finds us ready when he comes. Why? Because while we cannot save ourselves, the eternal life Christ gives us cries out for a holy response.

I’m largely speaking to believers, so I also can answer “why” this way: The master says so.

How do you feel about being compared to slaves, by the way? Jesus is speaking in a different time, when slavery was a common part of culture, but his words are still appropriate for us today. Slavery is obnoxious to us today because no human has a right to own another human.

Certainly our creator and redeemer can still demand such complete allegiance, however. Such language is good for us to use now because it can bring a sense of humility to so-called modern people. We can become a little haughty as we look at advancements in technology and society, thinking, “Look what we’ve done.” (A humbling question: How much of the technology around you can you actually build from scratch?)

We also need to take note of how Jesus turns the slave analogy upside-down in a way that would have puzzled the people of his day. When the master in the story does return to find his slaves ready and waiting, he rewards them by switching roles. He girds his clothing for work and begins to wait on those who waited for him, turning slaves into guests of honor.

Strange, but no stranger than the idea of God coming among us in human flesh, surrendering his eternal rights and dying on a cross to save his creation from sin.

Jesus then moves into an even odder teaching, one where we are to see the Messiah as a burglar. Again, he’s emphasizing the unexpected nature of his return. Christ will break into this world in surprising ways, like a thief crawling through a window in the middle of the night.

I think something else may be intended in this analogy, too. While it is odd to think of God breaking into what he created and clearly owns, we have to remember that because of sin, he ceded this world for a time to dark powers. For example, in 2 Corinthians 4, Paul writes of “the god of this world” who works to blind unbelievers from the truth.

There is much confusion in the house we all share. The true owner is coming back to drive out an evil squatter and all who are aligned with him. Until the true owner returns, it is difficult to avoid the squatter and his sinful friends. Sometimes it seems easier just to go along with them.

The question is, How do you want to be found when Christ returns? Ready yourself with Scripture, prayer and worship. Ready yourself for the one who comes at any moment.


The featured image is a 2010 sign in front of Campsbourne Baptist Church and Centre in London. Photo by Julian Osley, licensed for re-use by Wikimedia.

Tough Words

Luke 9:51-62

Tolerance is a catchword these days. Lord knows, we need tolerance. It is not all we need, but it is a good place to start.

Regarding the first part of today’s verses, Scottish theologian William Barclay asserts, “There is no passage in which Jesus so directly teaches the duty of tolerance as this.”

While passing through Samaria, the disciples wanted permission to deliver some tough words. The Samaritans in a particular village had refused to show Jesus and his followers any hospitality—not surprising when you consider how the two groups had been at odds for centuries. In short, the Jews considered the Samaritans half-breeds, the descendants of Jews who had mixed with invaders. Usually Jews avoided Samaria entirely. I suppose the Samaritans saw the Jews as a little uppity.

Feeling disrespected, James and John wanted Jesus to empower them to imitate Elijah, calling down fire from heaven, this time on a village of people rather than an altar. (They also likely had God’s ancient air strike on sinful Sodom and Gomorrah in mind.) We’re told Jesus rebuked the disciples, a “Let it go, already” coming directly from God’s Son.

His tolerant attitude was rooted in the somber task ahead of him. We are told Jesus had “set his face” toward Jerusalem. The point is so important it is repeated. This is Luke artfully saying Jesus was now certain his ministry was taking him toward torture and death on a cross. There was no other way out of sin and death for humanity.

Jesus was about to do a new thing. It would bring life, not death, for everyone, redemption free for the taking. And on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus would not have his redemptive ministry punctuated by a violent act.

The tolerance Jesus demonstrated marks the starting point for how we deal with others, particularly when others have opinions radically different from our own. Tolerance is the basis of civilization. We cannot have a truly modern society until people say, “We may disagree, but we’re not going to destroy each other.”

It is obvious people are struggling with this idea in many places now. Radical Islam is the most extreme example, built on the idea, “Disagree with me and die.” I’m reminded of ventriloquist Jeff Dunham’s terrorist puppet: “Silence! I kill you!” The psychology of Dunham’s routine is pretty obvious: We’re nervously laughing at the very behavior that could destroy modern culture, hoping if we ridicule it, no one will want to behave that way.

Jesus was teaching the same lesson we learn in Luminary’s church-based karate class: If you can walk away, walk away. Words and ideas should not lead to violence. Jesus’ tolerance of the rude Samaritans and of sinners in general was a big shift in theology, an expanded understanding of God’s will.

Tolerance is something anyone in the world can learn. And for Christians, there’s an additional twist, some extra behaviors we must incorporate. In case you haven’t picked up on it in Scripture, we’re supposed to be helping grow the kingdom. Ephesians 1:22 tells us the church is now Christ’s body, “the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

To make the world a different place, we have to be a different people. This is where some tension arises in our lives as Christians. It’s easy to say, “Let’s all be tolerant,” sing “Kumbaya” and head for the house. Today’s text takes us further, though.

We’re told that as Jesus continued along the road, some would-be followers approached him. Finally, Jesus offered tough words, just not the kind the disciples had first sought permission to use.

His responses had a basic theme. Following Christ is going to be difficult. It may cost you home and family, assuming home and family prove to be in conflict with God’s kingdom. And there is truth to be told, the kind of truth people are not always ready to hear. Proclamations are calls to change! Again, people may kill you when they don’t like your ideas. The Jewish leaders killed Jesus because he was an ideological and political threat.

Regardless of the dangers, we are called to be holy examples in an unholy world, drawing people toward what is godly. Understanding God’s will requires much study and prayer. If you believe the Bible, then you from the earliest chapters have to believe our minds and bodies are too broken to fully grasp God’s will on our own. What feels right may be very wrong, simply because our minds and souls are a little fractured.We need guidance, from God’s written word and God’s Holy Spirit.

Intertwining tolerance and holiness can seem strange at first. Our instincts tell us they do not go together, but Christ made it clear they do. Using them together, we help the kingdom grow.


The featured image is the Monument of Tolerance in Jerusalem. Photo by Avishai Teicher, 2009, used with permission via Wikimedia Commons.

Showdown

For the next few weeks, we’re going to be hearing stories of the prophet Elijah. Before I go much further, it will help if you know a couple of the other main characters.

First, there was Israel’s King Ahab. In the Bible, he comes across as a weak king, in particular because he followed the will of his wife rather than God. His wife was Jezebel, daughter of the king of Tyre. She brought great tension to the land of Israel because she wanted the Israelites to worship the gods she preferred rather than Yahweh. In particular, there was the god Baal, a popular deity throughout the lands surrounding Israel.

All of these stories occurred more than 800 years before Jesus was born.

Today’s story involves a showdown, a “one vs. many” faceoff. Such a story is a staple of westerns; think of The Man with No Name vs. the Rojos in “Fist Full of Dollars” or Marshal Kane vs. the Miller gang in “High Noon.” Those are just modern examples of a kind of story that has been told for millennia. The Bible is full of them, as are other ancient texts.

Blog readers, please take time to read the story, found in 1 Kings 18:17-40. You’ll have a hard time following me if you don’t read the story.

You’ve got to love the title Ahab gives Elijah: “you troubler of Israel.” Hearing this, a prophet hoping to make a difference in a bad situation would at least would know he was being effective. Of course, Elijah was quick to point out the source of the real trouble, the people turning away from God with their leader’s tacit approval.

They were, as he noted, “limping with two different opinions.” How often do we do that—pay lip service to God, but then go against God in the choices we make? “Limping” is a good description. We find ourselves hobbled, unable to move forward in life.

I’m reminded of James’ words delivered in the context of “double mindedness”: “Be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” In this story, you can see the people struggling with whether to act on what they and their ancestors have heard for generations. When Elijah told them they needed to choose between Yahweh and Baal, they remained silent, unsure what to do. They would need a sign, another in a long list of signs God sent them to draw them back.

By the way, there is humor in this story. With his life on the line, Elijah showed great wit as the priests of Baal tried to call down fire on their offering. Maybe Baal is meditating. Maybe he took a trip. Maybe he is asleep!

Of course, Elijah had created a situation where it was all or nothing. If the slightest part of his challenge to the 450 priests of Baal had gone wrong—if they had some kind of trick, some kind of way to slip and light the fire during the course of the day—Elijah would have been dead, as would have been the worship of Yahweh in Israel. He had to make the priests look laughable, if only to keep the people standing between the angry priests and him laughing.

The priests did finally give up. It was Elijah’s turn. Might as well pour on the water, right? If God is going to answer, God is really going to answer, with smoke and steam! Let there be no doubt.

And there was no doubt; all that was left was for the people to cry out, “The Lord indeed is God! The Lord indeed is God!” It was a creedal statement, an affirmation of their renewed belief.

The killing of the priests was a brutal solution in a brutal time. We flinch at such accounts now, but we are reminded that ultimately, what is not of God’s will cannot continue to exist.

Thank God that he has made our choices easier. Christ is the choice that dictates eternal outcomes for us. As we choose, we have the full story of God before us in Scripture, and we can test what is in our hearts against what is there.

May we look to Jesus and learn to say, “The Lord indeed is God,” in every moment of our lives, regardless of the choices we face.

 

How to Praise

Just because we’ve finished our series on Revelation doesn’t mean our visions of God must come to an end.

Psalm 97 hearkens to a more primitive time for the Hebrews, when they contended with the notion of other gods around Yahweh and them. And yet, amid this ancient concept, there is a notion of something to come, something that will spread salvation and holiness far and wide, something we experience today.

The vast majority of this Psalm is simply praise in its purest form, a declaration of who God is. The psalm is one in a series declaring God’s kingship. Associated with that declaration are images fitting the ruler over all: dense smoke and fog to conceal his deadly purity, a mighty throne, and fire falling like lightning to consume whoever opposes this great king.

The Psalm calls us to ask ourselves a serious question as we gather in worship. Can we truly say, “The Lord reigns!” It goes on to speak of idols and “ungods,” to quote Robert Alter’s translation. Ungods now would be those things, forces and people other than God who would set themselves up as being of primary importance in our lives. Our idols seldom take the form of statues made of wood or metal anymore, but we have them, just the same.

Also implicit in all of this talk of consuming fire is a call to holiness, to a kind of conformity so unpopular these days, even within the church.  As Christians, we of course like to emphasize God’s love, but in the process it is easy to forget God’s desire for our thoughts and actions to be a miniature reflection of his. We are, after all, made in his image.

We cannot earn salvation or holiness—yes, faith in Christ is what saves us from sin—but as saved people we have to acknowledge that our thoughts and actions often need correcting and shaping. Just because we think it or want it doesn’t make it right.

To quote the German theologian and World War II martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”

I’ve stood in the spot in Flossenburg, Germany, where the Nazis hung Bonhoeffer for his opposition to the great evil that had consumed both his nation and his church. To actively plot against such evil, knowing the kind of death those actions could bring and did eventually bring, required tremendous grace and discipleship.

Thank God for the Bible, where God’s will is revealed through study! Thank God for the Holy Spirit whispering to us in confirmation of what is written in the Bible, strengthening us to contend for the truth!

Let me suggest a question to ask ourselves before we pass through the door separating the narthex from our dedicated worship space. “What in my life is separating me from God?” If we find we have a specific answer, it does not mean we have to turn and leave. After all, grace calls to us.

It does mean we need to put that sin aside in our hearts right there. Then enter and acknowledge who God is, praise him mightily, and leave ready to do whatever else is necessary to eliminate this idol. “O you who love the Lord, hate evil!”

Much comes from such introspection and confession. We are made ready for all sorts of changes, including new life with God. “Light is sown for the righteous,” we are told.

We can hear that verse in so many ways. Christ’s burial was light being sown, and on Easter Sunday that light burst forth. Eternal life was once again available to even the worst of sinners. Light truly does overcome darkness.

And light was not merely sown for a moment in time, but in all time, including our time. We’ll talk more next week—Pentecost Sunday—about the direct experience of God, and what is sown in us when we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s influence.

In the meantime, let us continue to praise God, in the process growing into the people and church God would have us be. The Lord reigns!


The featured image is Hai Knafo’s “Starlight Sower,” 2013, inspired by Psalm 97:11. Made available for general use under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.