Thursday, November 29, 2012

Hero Worship

We have a desire for heroes - for those that we can count on; for those with unusual courage; for those that are better than us. Sometimes, we anoint those as heroes who are very like us.

Last week, we saw how both Moses and Elijah were considered by  Peter as heroes along with Jesus. Perhaps because only Peter, James and John were invited along to be a part of this spectacle, they were to be considered “heroes-in-training.” But alas, we will find that there was only one hero in the group.

For all of Moses’ wonderful humble-servant qualities, he was not perfect. He was not hero caliber. Those who are humble servants will struggle with times of feeling taken-for-granted. While they love to serve, they can also feel used. These people are easy to walk on, and it gets tiring. And so, one day, when God instructed Moses to serve once again by merely speaking a word, he instead took to swinging a stick. And it cost him passage to the Promised Land. Thankfully, it did not cost him fellowship with Jesus, and so we see him on the Mt. of Transfiguration - not a hero, but a sinner, beholding the glory of the One and Only Hero.

Elijah’s job was to be strong and clear in the face of an evil king and queen. His role required great courage since it entailed great risk. Once you risk your skin a few times, it is easy to conclude that you deserve a few perks from God. It is easy to feel important in God’s plan, essential, indispensable. It seems that Elijah felt that he was more zealous for God than God was zealous for Elijah. And he had to be put in his place. He had to be removed from the scene.

But I’m glad that Elijah is included in the scene in Mark 9, not because he is a hero, but because the One and Only Hero, Jesus, forgives sinners, just as he did Moses, and Elijah, and Peter, and me.

Is your Soul a Muscle?

I’ve heard there are different kinds of muscle, and different types have different characteristics. Skeletal muscles can be built up, and they can regenerate. So if we have an injury or a surgery, muscles that have been cut or damaged can often be restored to their former condition. Or, if you want to build muscle, you can engage in a weight training program in which muscle tissue is ‘torn,’ but then mends and heals larger and/or stronger. 

If the soul is this kind of muscle, then it might seem as though God will ‘grow’ our souls through difficulty and adversity. The tearing of our souls will result in a larger and stronger faith. And if that is the case, then we can give thanks for trials - something Scripture tells us explicitly that we should do.

On the other hand, what if our souls are more like heart muscle? My understanding is that this particular muscle is damaged in a heart attack, and that the remnants of this heart damage are detected in the bloodstream. But the heart muscle does not degenerate. It does not come back larger and stronger. What you lose in a heart attack is lost for life.

If the soul is this kind of muscle, then our study of Mark 8:34-38 this past Sunday makes a lot of sense. Our ‘deals with the devil’ result in lost ground, lost opportunities, lost capacities. 

Now, our souls are not muscles at all. They are immaterial and spiritual. And yet, how will we care for these souls of ours, in which our faith finds its space to exercise and work? To at least borrow from the images above, we submit to God in love and trust, even in times of unpleasantness; and we flee from sin and the devil, knowing that he is the enemy of our souls.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Brain Bath, or, Renewing Your Mind

Some days I know I need a brain bath. The stains of wrong-headedness; the grime of worldly perspectives; the migraine of bad attitudes; the filth of knuckle-headed desires - these all need to be washed away. But how? Jesus served the disciples with foot-washing. Would he also serve us with mind-washing? Yes, by the renewing of our minds. It is not something that we do to or for ourselves. But it does involve our willing participation (see Peter’s sparring with Jesus on foot-washing in John 13). 

Being renewed in our minds has much to do with the truth. Ephesians 4:20,21 (in anticipation of the invitation to “be renewed” in v. 23) mentions learning, hearing, being taught, and the truth. Colossians 3:2 (in anticipation of the promise of renewal in v.10) says to “set your mind on things above, where Christ is.” I think we could even argue that the “Therefore” in Romans 12:1 (anticipating “the renewing of your mind” in v.2) harks back to the arguments of what we should “know” and “consider” or “reckon” in Romans 6. This truth has everything to do with Jesus, and our union and participation in the reality that came to light and life in his incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension, and in the preaching of the Gospel ever since. Our past, and the release from condemnation, and the expunging of the record of our sins, is bound up with Jesus. Our hope and expectation that this is not all there is; that this world will be released from the grip of sin and death - is wrapped up in the victory of Jesus. Our recognition that we live by Him and for Him comes from the truth that there is a throne that we cannot see, upon whom sits the One whom we love, and under whose feet are all enemies.

Somehow, this truth of Jesus has to be more real and more obvious to us than any other earthly/worldly truths. Whether we have a burning interest in the standings of our favorite teams, or the latest poll concerning the next election, or the fluttering of the stock market like a flag in a fan factory, we must have our eyes and minds first fixed on Jesus. It is our convictions about and impressions of Him that must control our mood and confidence. Romans 6:3 gives us the image of baptism for this identification with Christ. We are to be drenched with him. He is the shower that we take every morning, washing our bodies and clearing our minds from the fog of sleep and confusion. We are not prepared for the day without being clothed in Christ. This is so important, that I risk foolishness to press the point. He is the Alarm clock that rouses us every morning; the constant Companion in the car; the Time clock that records our arrivals and departures; the Desk that reads every one of our reports, and the first One to greet us at the door of our homes. It is this truth of Jesus that insulates us from the lies and deceits of the world.

In addition to being cloaked with the truth of Christ, it is commanded that we take action by “laying aside the old man” (Eph 4:22; Col 3:8,9). It is as simple as saying no (Titus 2:12), and it is as difficult as dying (Mark 8:34,35). But that is what we are to do: to say no to ourselves as we are inclined to follow the ways of the world, and to submit to a crucifixion of self for the sake of the new, post-crucified life.

There is the constant temptation to begin to assume that we “renew our minds” on our own. With regard to the earlier point, it is not so much that we master the truth, as that we are mastered by it. And on this point, we don’t so much crucify ourselves, as submit to crucifixion. Think literally for a moment. If you wanted to crucify yourself, you might nail both your feet first, and then one hand to the cross. But who nails the other hand? There is no hand for the hammer. You can’t do it. It is done to you. And so this art of dying daily to sin; of saying no to the self, is not a case where we drum up enough determination to take ourselves in hand and master ourselves. No, it is more dragging ourselves to God, handing over to Him and His Spirit each one of those things that grips us and pulls us away from Christ. And even as we “present” these things, they cling to us, tearing at our flesh. We don’t want to give them away, or to lay them aside. But we do, for the sake of the renewing of our minds. 

This must not be mere theory. Test yourself. To what have you said “no” today? Not sure? Then you stand in need of the renewing of your mind. I am bold to say this because of the absolute fact of daily dirt. In Bible times, the need for foot washing was a given, as is the assumed need of hand washing today. If every shopping cart and stair railing is riddled with germs, then there is certainly no way for you to maneuver your way through your day without being contaminated by sin. And a man or woman who is unaware and unconcerned about his/her own sin simply cannot experience renewal of mind. Do not be so foolish as to think that the Holy Spirit will agree to drop “Holy” from his name for the sake of your unaddressed or closely held sin. So instead, we ask God, by His Spirit to inspect our lives for every trace of sin, to bring it to our attention, so that we might present it for crucifixion. And frankly, many of our sins are more like elephants in the room than some invisible, hidden cell. Whom are we trying to fool?

Let’s close with some review and clarification. This subject of the renewal of our minds is not merely or primarily a human activity. The Gospel teaches us that we must not put confidence in ourselves, but rather in Christ. Just as we do not raise ourselves from the dead (whether physically, or spiritually), so we do not renew our own minds. Galatians 5 helps us here. Remember that there are two lists in this chapter. One is “the works of the flesh.” The other is “the fruit of the Spirit.” On our own, we can do all kinds of dreadful things. But we are not a good-works factory (manufactured behavior). If we try on our own to produce good works, we instead produce only “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). Instead, the text changes the imagery from a factory to that of a fruit-bearing branch (Galatians 5). The branch (or, you and I) is not the active force in the production of fruit, though it is involved. We are a channel, a territory, in which the Spirit works. And for this to happen, God has planned for the renewing of our minds. But don’t make the mistake. We are not here merely trading self-expression for self-discipline. We are instead rejecting the self-principle in favor of the Spirit-principle. 

As the front-door of faith is repentance, the needful activity for being clothed in Christ is to shed the snakeskin of our sins. The needful activity for the renewal of the mind is to submit to the Spirit who, as Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, will bless us with a brain bath.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

True Religion

"Religion" has gotten a bad name. What is being advocated is "relationship" over "religion." A relationship is personal and dynamic. A religion, it is said, is formal and dead. I'm not sure that James, and the Holy Spirit, would agree. Here is his Biblical text, in an outline form:

James 1:26   If anyone thinks himself to be religious, 

and yet does not bridle his tongue 
but deceives his own heart
this man’s religion is worthless. 
27 Pure and undefiled religion 
in the sight of our God and Father is this: 
to visit orphans and widows in their distress, 
and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

In the center, out-dented section of the outline, we can see that James contrasts worthless religion with pure and undefiled religion. He is not throwing out all religion, though he admits that there is indeed a false and useless type of religion. As we work out from this center, we will observe how he contrasts the two different types.

Worthless religion is internal. It is a discussion with oneself, whereby we evaluate ourselves and our life based on the intuitions of our own mental/emotional world. This is patently unreliable and will certainly steer us astray. On the other hand, pure and undefiled religion is defined and evaluated from outside ourselves. God is the King; not me. God is sovereign; not us. Popular opinion and personal opinions matter little. It is what God thinks and says that matters. We must look to Him for definition and direction.

In light of this first point, then, we find that much of both "religion" or "relationship" in our culture are subjective, and thus, worthless. If there would be a recovery of what is pure and undefiled, we must return to the objective standard of God's Word, in repentance, and start again, working out our religion, not in self-sufficiency, but in conscious, intentional submission and in the fear of the Lord.

In the next set of contrasts that are spaced in parallel in the outline, we see that worthless religion is primarily an exercise of the tongue, but that pure and undefiled religion demands also the exercise of one's feet in "visit(ing) orphans and widows." James is famous for his insistence on faith and works, or, a faith that works. A real vital faith will express and exercise itself in obedience.

Here again we can easily see that much of what goes on is worthless religion. When we talk more about prayer than actually bend the knee in actual prayer, we are participating in worthless religion. When our doctrine is not properly attached to life, we are involved in worthless religion. When we do not practice what we preach, we are giving witness to a worthless religion. Again, this requires obedience, a dying to self, a stripping off of the old man, and seeking the renewal that Word and Spirit alone can accomplish.

Finally, the outline contrasts how we like to think of ourselves, with radical actions taken in the light of reality. This point borrows from the two previous points. It is not how I feel about myself that makes a lick of difference. It is how I am viewed by God. The doctrine of justification by faith is essential here. We are clothed in Christ's righteousness, and that is good news that I need to preach to myself every single day. But the companion idea is that I am a sinner who is "prone to wander." The world has an allure that must be battled. Worthless religion may be able to buddy up to the world, but I cannot afford to place myself in that magnetic field. True religion desires personal purity. An essential part of my mission, whatever else it may involve, is to walk with Christ in integrity. And as I stumble, I am to confess that sin and forsake it, as thoroughly and quickly as possible. Any religion (or relationship with Jesus) that does not include a hatred of sin is worthless. We need a religion that proclaims and reinforces that theme.

Only God can create a pure and undefiled religion. He does so through a relationship with His Son, Jesus. This religion will be centered in God, touching all areas of life and conduct, emanating from a heart that has been re-placed and is being re-formed by God's grace.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Clothed in Christ's Righteousness

Rarely heard: “I like what you are wearing.” 
Reply: “Oh, I didn’t realize I was wearing anything.” 
We may not always be conscious of our clothes, but we are generally confident that we are indeed clothed; that we are not unclothed. And if we were in fact naked, I think of that we would be quite aware.
Christians are clothed in the righteousness of Christ. But we are prone to compartmentalized thinking, of separating our Sunday conversations from our weekday lifestyles. We are clothed in Christ’s righteousness every single minute. Of course we have many things to think about and many things to do. And we cannot be fixated on our clothes, whether material of spiritual, all of the time. But there is a settled confidence in knowing that we are properly and fitly clothed. We never get far from the clothes that we are wearing. 
“For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” (Galatians 3:27 NAS95)
Let’s dig a little deeper. We have clothes of different kinds. I laugh when my wife distinguishes between her “summer” and “winter” clothes. I suppose that I have some as well, but not so much. But the garment of Christ’s righteousness has been gifted to us. It is not so much what we laid eyes on it and just had to have it; not so much the bargain that we scored at the re-sale. Christ graciously gave us what we most needed, and we are still only beginning to understand how valuable it is.
So it is not enough to know that I am clothed. I could be clothed in “filthy rags.” It is the quality of the clothing and what the clothing says that is also important. Have you ever been at a gathering where you have been clothed inappropriately? You didn’t know that it was going to be so formal, or you got dragged into a room where you had not planned to go. Do you remember the self-consciousness of not being clothed properly?
In a world where God is always watching, you don’t want to be caught in “filthy rags.” You want the righteousness of Christ. So today, I want to be more aware of Christ’s gift of righteousness. I want to feel it’s presence on my arms and shoulders. I want to be aware, and I want to be grateful as well. And, though this is fodder for another post, I don’t want to dirty Christ’s garment from the inside.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

You’ve Been Served

To certain people, these words might bring back some unpleasant memories and feelings. But I am not referring to being served with a summons. Rather, I am speaking of the fact that we have been served, royally, by God.
To be served fits alongside Jesus’ statement in Mark 10:45: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” If Jesus came to serve, then the people he came to serve have indeed been served. It’s not much about what they did for him; it is what he did for them.
But this doesn’t fit so well when pastor-types (like me) begin to rail against “consumer-Christianity” and to complain about pew-sitters who just want to be entertained. “We need more Christians to serve instead of just sit,” you might hear one of them (like me) say. I am afraid that this (convicting) emphasis dulls the sharp edge of the gospel.
We don’t join the family and fellowship of God by our service. We join the community of believers by grasping and accepting God’s service to us in Christ. we begin to understand how deeply we stand in need of this service, and that we are helpless to achieve its ends on our own. This is humbling, even crushing to realize, especially for the do-gooders of the world, and the self-sufficient.
So we have to be very careful about urging people to serve (even though they may). We must be very sure that those who are eager and willing to serve are not doing so with a dulled sense of the gospel, from which they might think they will find greater acceptance with God by virtue of their service. We do not earn points by our serving. All the points a Christian scores were scored by Christ alone, from whom alone we receive a perfect righteousness and clean record.
This potential for confusion is why service in the church should be done by believers. Unbelievers are already confused about the value of their works, often thinking that they can self-atone by doing good things or by cleaning up or by improving. I am not saying that all service should be done by members. That’s another issue. But the church is made up of believers, and its service is carried out by believers whose service is not a work deserving a wage, but a gift of gratitude in response to God’s grace. We seriously degrade our building materials (1 Corinthians 3) when the unredeemed use service in attempts to aid their own redemption.
You’ve been served, by God, who loves to serve. Yes, He is the great and awesome God who is worthy of the deepest respect and highest honor. It seems that He is the One who should be served. But He is also the King who loves to serve, even if it means washing the disciples’ feet (yes, I know that was Jesus, but the Father and Son share the same value system). Peter said, “You will never wash my feet!” (John 13:8). Jesus said, “If I don’t wash your feet, then you have no part with me.” Our fellowship with God and His Son requires that we be served; that we submit to His service.
We are honored to be served. We don’t deserve it, but we enjoy it and grown in our desire for it. We desperately need to be served by God, and it humbles us. But it also provides the believer with a warmth and intimacy that replaces short-lived and diminishing-returns comforts that the world offers. Child of God, you have been served, praise God, yesterday, today, and forever.

Monday, June 11, 2012

New Definitions

Already in James 1 we have studied how sin is generated. It all starts with temptation that lingers long enough to mix with evil desire. All of a sudden, the sin you were entertaining in your mind now masters you. You have been carried away and enticed, and sin is born. It results, in the end, in death. It is the sin-cursed life cycle, or, this fallen world’s sin-cycle.
But, thankfully, that is not the end of the story. Because God is able to produce another kind of generation; a life-cycle that ends in life, not death. In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures.(James 1:18 NAS95) We are not now as we were when we were first-birth born. This second birth produces something quite different. And we need to learn to live according to the new definitions.
On the other side of this envelope, we find that God makes use of the word implanted, which is able to save your souls.(James 1:21 NAS95) God has placed and is placing in us his dynamic, powerful word that continues to re-fashion us into what we are to be and become. We desperately need this word, and we receive it humbly. This is where we will learn the new way of living; the new definitions.
Inside this envelope we find the famous admonition: be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger;(James 1:19 NAS95). We are toput() aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness(James 1:21 NAS95). We need to live by new definitions. We must not do what comes naturally. We must not follow our instincts. We must not imitate the crowd. We must listen up and slow down so that we can prayerfully evaluate how we act and respond in every situation. This is the Christian life, the life of discipleship. And there is precious little of it in our fast-paced, worldly world.
Ask yourself these questions. Maybe your answers will be better and more perceptive than mine. Maybe we could learn from each other.
Why don’t I listen? Because I think I already have all the answers, and because I think I’m mostly right most of the time. But, I don’t, and, I’m not. And there is so much I could learn if I would listen. Listen to other perspectives. They may be wrong, or right. Learn to listen to the Spirit. Learn the art of active listening, asking questions in prayer, that God would graciously guide.
Why do I talk so much? Because I’m proud. My talking needs heavy editing. There must be a difference between Spirit-prompted speech and self-prompted, self-promoting speech. Learn the difference. Take a (selective) vow of silence.
Why do I become angry? Because people don’t rightly regard my quick wit and lofty perspectives; because I’m not loyally listened to and heeded; because people don’t treat me with the kind of dignity that only God deserves. 
As children of God, you and I are not nothing. God has done something special, that he might create something in us and do something with us. But it is not us, apart from God, that is of any value. And so we must learn the new definitions of what it means to be a child of God, and we must learn to choose this new kind of life where it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.(Galatians 2:20 NAS95)

Monday, June 04, 2012

Stop Trying So Hard to Pretend

For the LORD GOD is my strength and song,(Isaiah 12:2 NAS95)
This song of praise in Isaiah 12 follows God’s earth-defying promises of Isaiah 11. We sense that Isaiah has re-discovered the wonder of God anew. One of the phrases he sings is, “For the Lord God is my strength and song.” I wonder if it had always been that way for this prophet. It hasn’t for me.
Sadly, much of Christian life in conservative evangelicalism is shaped by “try harder” and “pretend.” Failures are met by renewed efforts, often accompanied by human strategies of mental determination and behavior modification. The key word in such action is not so much “grace” as “sweat equity.” Preachers urge their people to Just Try Harder. And that is right after the song leader urges the people to Just Sing Louder, and, by the way, Sing Like You Mean It. Understand, it doesn’t really matter if the song is a good song or a bad song, so long as the person singing is just going through the motions and playing the part and putting on an act. And so, I am afraid that this is what we get when the Lord God is not our strength and our song. 
Now what happens when a person actually and practically finds God to be his/her strength? No doubt, this discovery comes about due to the strange mercy of God - strange, because is sets itself upon strange people; and strange also because this mercy is often discovered in painful circumstances. So we can safely assume the person has been humbled and very well may have turned to God in desperation or as a last resort. Nonetheless, he/she is now convinced of one’s own weakness, and is living in regular and consistent dependence upon God. Prayers are not far spaced. Pausing for spiritual direction is the order of the day. Asking for the right thing to say, or, not to say, guides conversation. There is a sense that one is not alone in any situation, but that God’s Spirit is in the wings or on the shoulder. Waiting to see what develops is not unusual or maddening. Can you see that this is not a “try harder” religion? “The Lord God is my strength.”
Similarly, we can understand that “God is my song” in much the same way that “God is my strength.” If I am more aware of my sin than that of others, then I am also more aware of God’s perfections than I am impressed with my abilities. The pattern of God coming through characterizes life as an adventure, as an exercise of discovery, and each new experience is God-soaked, and it makes you want to - sing. “The Lord God is my song.”
We can know our theologies and study our Bibles and preach and teach, etc., but if the Lord God is not our strength and our song, then we really need to Stop Trying So Hard to Pretend.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Vivid Word Pictures in Isaiah 1

The title of this post is bland and boring compared to Isaiah’s writing. He spices up his communication with mental images that are useful for setting our brains and hearts on fire. I need to learn this communication technique.
“The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib,” (Isaiah 1:3 ESV). Today, we might think of the loyal, domesticated dog that is “man’s best friend.” But that would spoil the image. God’s people are not being contrasted with animals of high intelligence. Rather, we are on the unflattering end of contrast with a dumb ox or stubborn donkey.
“The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and raw wounds;” (Isaiah 1:5–6 ESV). This is systemic illness. We are described as septic. What is wrong on the outside has penetrated to the inside, and what is wrong on the inside is spilling out in ugliness on the outside. No bandage strip is going to cover this mess. The picture describes the size of our problem.
“like a booth in a vineyard, like a lodge in a cucumber field,” (Isaiah 1:8 ESV). What was to be glorious is worse than humble - it is embarrassing. How can Jesus the Cornerstone be the foundation for something so crooked and unstable as a field shack.
“though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18 ESV). The blood-soaked rag indicates that something has gone terribly wrong. The blood “cries out,” as it were. Whiteness indicates a return to a former condition, completely wiping away the transgression. In fact, it may indicate that this new cleanness is even better than the pre-sin condition. 
“like an oak whose leaf withers, and like a garden without water.” (Isaiah 1:30 ESV). This would be the tree that stands in stark contrast to the one described in Psalm 1. “Withered” and “without water” may describe a botanical problem, but they are powerful terms for a spiritual problem as well.
“And the strong shall become tinder, and his work a spark, and both of them shall burn together, with none to quench them.” (Isaiah 1:31 ESV). Burning is undeniably an eschatological, judgment activity. This kind of arrogant, worldly strength is mere kindling when God comes to judge with fire.
And so, I have most likely ruined vivid word pictures by commenting on them, kind of like explaining a good joke. But perhaps you will be encouraged to watch for word pictures, and let your imagination be fired and your spirits sensitized to Biblical truth. 

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

A man may believe what he pleases, provided he does not believe anything strongly enough to risk his life on it - Machen nothingnew

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Don't Put Your God Under a Bushel

Jesus said, "No one puts a light under a bushel" (Mk 4:21). God is light (1 Jn 1:5), so I don't think I am stretching the point to say, "Don't go putting your God under a bushel."

Imagine a wife who purposes to speak well of her husband. That is commendable. We do not suppose that the man is perfect. But this wife will not speak in public of his imperfections. Maybe he has an anger problem. Maybe he drinks too much. Maybe he is proud and self-centered. Nonetheless, this devoted wife will not out her husbands faults.

But Christian, God is not a partner whose flaws we must cover. God is perfect in His mercy, but also in His judgments. Yet we act like devoted wives, wanting people to think well of Him, covering God's fault of judgment. Christian, God has no character defects. His judgment is glorious, whether or not we can see it or explain it. It is not something that should be kept secret.

Why should the public have any respect for a God concerning whom we act embarrassed? 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Not the one commending himself, but the one the Lord commends, 2Cor10:18

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Here's how John Knox (1517) ends a letter: "The mighty Spirit of the Lord Jesus rule your hearts in the true fear of God, open your eyes to consider your duties, and give you strength to execute the same." - here's praying you have that kind of day!

Monday, March 26, 2012

God in Garden and Field (Mark 2:23-28)

God walks in the Garden with Adam. They fellowship, discussing and enjoying the beauties and varieties of God’s creation. Adam proudly relates the names he has given to the different animals, and how he has joyfully worked to tend through arrangement and cultivation. If this could only go on forever.
Jesus walks in the field with his disciples. They fellowship, forgetting for a moment that they live in a sin-cursed world. Their progress is soon interrupted by the critical questioning of the religious-types: “Why do you do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” This is not the first attempt at death-by-a-thousand-questions. It won’t be the last. It seems like these attacks will go on forever.
The first instance is an unhindered fellowship in a good creation. The second is an uphill discipleship on the road to redemption. This second road, our road, is marked by conflict and persecution, but also by peace and hope. 
Jesus directs attention to David on-the-run from the passing-away administration of Saul in 1 Samuel 21. It is a cruel and desperate existence. He asks for, and receives, the holy bread which only the priests were allowed to eat. Why is this permitted? When the law enforcement official breaks the speed-limit, he is fulfilling his calling. When the boss gives away his product for free, it is generosity. When God’s Anointed steps into the room, the room bends to his will. When the Creator walks in the field, any day, Sabbath or not, all is for His pleasure and purposes, shared with those who are with him. When disciples walk in fellowship and mission with their Creator and Redeemer, there are no outside accusations that pertain. When God is pleased in the Garden, any supposed violation of law is a contradiction of terms. 
Granted, in this mean-time, the fellowship/mission of Jesus’ disciples is flawed. Our hearts are tested and exposed by God’s Spirit, using the blade and burn of the law to cut and cauterize our sinful hearts. But remember, it is this same Spirit who facilitates that fellowship/mission with/of Jesus. That is His goal, and ours, as we are Spirit-led.
Jesus, the One and Only, teaches different than us (Mk 1:22). 
Listen and learn. 
He does not merely counsel; He cures (Mk 1:27). 
Seek his transforming power from the inside out. 
He forgives sins (Mk 2:5). 
Receive His forgiveness. 
He touches what is diseased (Mk 1:41), and eats with the unclean (Mk 2:15). 
Hold out your hand, and invite him to your life. 
He accepts the rude and crude into his retinue (Mk 1:16-20; 2:14). 
Follow him. 
"Yet you are a man and not a god, though you have regarded your heart as that of a god" (Ezekiel 28:2b).
Nothing discredits religion quite like the gap that often yawns between what believers profess and how they live. (Douthat), NYT, 3/25/12)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Jesus, defending his disciples (Mark 2:18-22), explains that their identity and and measure of life has been changed through their relationship with himself. They are now "sons of the bridegroom." Jesus was their life. Jesus was their reason for living. Since Jesus' ascension, Jesus' disciples now live "in between the times," already experiencing a measure of the joys of fellowship with Jesus, but not yet experiencing the fullness of face to face relationship with Jesus. So "the sons of the bridegroom" today will both fast and feast (in fellowship); they will both mourn and rejoice; they will both confess their sins and celebrate God's grace. It is a paradoxical kind of live in which the brightness of the heavenly reality continually pierces the gloom of earthly tragedy. We do not live as though the are not both pains and problems. But we also do not live as though our lives are defined by our pains and problems. Also, we do not live fleeing and fearing those unpleasant patches, nor do we frantically search for those brief flashes of earthly joy that only serve as distractions. Jesus is our Rock and our Joy in all situations.

Jesus continues in this passage with two short parables: one about the garment that needs to shrink, and the other about wineskins that need to expand. Since neither will, or can, they need to be re-made, or re-placed. They need to be Jesus-sized. As "sons of the bridegroom," we are clothed with the new garment of Christ's righteousness, in which Christ is no mere patch, but our whole set of clothes. Concerning wineskins, with the Spirit of Christ inside of us, we are able to stretch as He sees fit as the body of Christ, in the service of Christ. Our lives are marked both by constriction and expansion. We do not expect that Christ will accommodate Himself to the shape of our lives, as if we were the designers of our own lives. Rather, we submit to His Lordship and ask that He would re-size us according to His pleasure.

As followers of Jesus, we live both under the hand of God, and we walk by the Spirit of God. And we cannot really walk in the Spirit if we do not submit to God's hand.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

"for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,"
Praying for the tornado-stricken.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Digging Deeper

Jesus healing/forgiving of the paralyzed man (Mark 2:1-12) invites us to dig deeper. Just as the four friends engaged in the risk and trouble to dig through the rooftop in order to lower their friend to Jesus, Jesus was willing to engage in the risk and trouble to dig deeper into the lives of his listeners. And just as breaking up the roof must have made a real mess and drawn the ire of those standing below, so Jesus words caused a commotion. But he wanted to dig deeper.
The four friends could have been content to continue in their act of service for their friend, carrying him around day after day. Sure, he still would have been paralyzed. But they would do what they could. And Jesus could have been content to merely heal the body of the paralyzed man, entertaining the crowd and inviting another thousand or so illnesses to crowd around him. Sure, the man still would have died in his sins, facing eternal punishment. And with that, the scribes would have been content. But Jesus wasn’t.
So he said, “Son, your sins are forgiven you.” He dug deeper. He was not content with social action. He was not content with physical relief. He penetrated to the heart of the matter, a depth with which the religious types were not comfortable. They said, “Why does this man speak like this? It is blasphemy. No one can forgive sins but God alone.” And they would have been right, had Jesus not been the One and Only Son of God. But they needed to dig deeper. And they didn’t.
The paralyzed man walked out free and forgiven. The scribes sat there, paralyzed.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Soak Your Hard Heart

Hard bones, soaked in vinegar and ashes, grow so soft that they can be cut with a thread. Permit me to soak your hard heart for half an hour in such a mixture! It may so soften your heart, through the work of the Holy Spirit in the Word, that you become wise unto salvation. (George Swinnock, The Fading of the Flesh and the Flourishing of Faith, 1662, Reformation Heritage Books, 2009, p. 30

Monday, January 30, 2012

An Achilles Heart

In Greek mythology, the warrior Achilles dies from a poison arrow that pierces his heel. His mother had sought to protect him from such a predicted outcome by dipping him in the river Styx. But she lowered him into the river, holding him by the ankle, prohibiting the medicinal water from washing over his heel, leaving him unprotected in that one spot.

Wow. For a preacher, this exposes a boatload of material. “you shall bruise his heel.” Baptism by (almost) immersion. Goliath’s exposed forehead.

But I was reading Titus this morning, and was struck with my own problem: not an achilles heel, but an achilles heart. Whatever our strengths, our hearts are terribly vulnerable to the darts of the devil. “For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another.” (Titus 3:2–3 NAS95) The next verses show us how God has changed our situation, but we find that it is easy to revert back to sinful patterns.

Let’s ask God to protect our Achilles hearts. Pray that He would protect us from the poison darts that would lay us low.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Double Commands in Mark's Gospel

Six times in Mark’s Gospel, there are double commands: do this and this. I would like to organize these in a chiastic structure, folding the first in relation to the last, the second with the fifth, and the third with the fourth.
A 1:15 - Repent and believe the Gospel
B 1:25 - Be quiet and come out of him
C 2:9 - Get up, pick up your pallet, and walk
C’ 10:21 - Go and sell, and come, follow me
B’ 11:23 - Be taken up and cast into the sea
A’ 14:38 - Watch and pray
Let’s start from the middle and work out. As you can see, these are not merely double commands, but triple. They are both instances of Jesus speaking to individuals in the midst of conflict. In the first conflict, there is outside resistance to Jesus' authority to say, “Your sins are forgiven.” So instead, he says, “Get up!” In either case, it is obvious that Jesus is able to reach into this person’s life and make a directional different. On the other hand, in C’, Jesus’ words to the rich, young ruler expose an internal conflict that remains unresolved since he is unwilling/unable to deny himself in obedience to Jesus’ command(s).
Our B and B’ references highlight a larger, supernatural conflict. Jesus opposes an evil force in 1:25, and wins. Jesus instructs his disciples in 11:23 that they have access to a power through faith that is more than natural. This theme of beyond-human-ability power is key in Jesus’ ministry, and in the early church. One wonders what has happened to it.
Finally, our A and A’ references are evangelistic and discipleship instructions. If “repent and believe” are essential instructions for the lost, then “watch and pray” are just as essential for the conduct of the saved. In both cases, an epochal change is occurring, and the wise hearer will respond to both commands. Christians who adopt a lifestyle which is not characterized by “watch and pray” behaviors are just simply not preparing themselves for the inevitable conflicts that they will face as followers of Christ in this world (cf the C and C’ references), and will not avail themselves of the power needed for spiritual ministry (as illustrated in the B and B’ references).

Friday, January 13, 2012

depending on where our heart is, every wilderness can be a garden; every garden a wilderness

Don’t Waste the Wilderness

We live with the benefits of a great civilization. We enjoy tremendous blessings from national stability and military security; from an economic system that, though damaged, still works; and from technologies that, along with stupefying distractions, bring amazing remedies and conveniences. And we know that all this could change.
“Wilderness” is a big theme in the Bible. Wilderness is the sphere into which the organization and comforts of civilization have not taken hold. The Biblical wilderness is no cultivated and patrolled preserve into which you venture with your best friend along with unused and untested REI gear. No, the wilderness is a testing ground, a place that will bring you to your knees. It is the place over which the curse of God hangs, and in which, if you are to survive, will need to discover something of the mercies of God.
In personal terms, you may be experiencing some aspects of wilderness life. To gain your attention or to accomplish some improvement, God may be resting a heavy hand upon your life. He, in a moment, can remove prosperity and pleasure, health and success. He can instantly bring us to our knees, and make us completely and immediately dependent upon him. All the securities in the world cannot protect us, nor can new technologies deliver us. God scatters us to wilderness experiences so that He can gather us to Himself. 
Looking way, way back, Israel must have remembered those years of “wilderness wanderings” as the best of times. No, they were not without their tests and hardships. There were many failures of faith. But the desperate need for God was so real, they could taste it. And I wonder if Jesus, reviewing his earthly ministry, did not look back with fondness on those 40 days in the wilderness. There was the gnawing privation from fasting, and the spiritual battle with that Tempter, Satan. And yet there was the clear and steady reliance on the Word of God in the context of undistracted communion with God. Afterward, there would be the constant press of people, of the business of ministry. The wilderness provided deadly peril, but also genuine blessing.
Don’t waste the wilderness experience into which God may be thrusting you.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

"Little is Much," by Downhere

One of my favorite songs:

What is the measure of a life well lived
If all I can offer seems too small to give
This is a song for the weaker, the poorer
And so-called failures

Little is much when God's in it
And no one can fathom the plans He holds
Little is much when God's in it
He changes the world with the seeds we sow
Little is much, little is much

Who feels tired and under-qualified
Who feels deserted, and hung out to dry
This is a song for the broken, the beat-up
And so-called losers

Consider a Kingdom in the smallest seed
Consider that giants fall to stones and slings
Consider a child in a manger
Consider the story isn't over
What can be done with what you still have

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Excited about starting a series on the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus is presented as the One and Only Hero that we need. This week: Jesus' Front Man, John the Baptist (Mark 1:1-8)