The Gift

December 17, 2014

It is one of our funny, family Christmas stories. By funny, I mean awkward, painful, and only slightly humorous at the time. It has become funnier with time and retelling.

My wife and I purchased a Christmas gift for one of our nephews. The gift was a hardback copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, one of the books in The Narnia Chronicles. This C.S. Lewis children’s story is a favorite in our family. I had read it in college and had wished it had been read to me as a child (and yes, the books are old enough that it could have happened). Before our son was born, we had purchased a set of The Narnia Chronicles, so they were his first, earthly possession. I say this to indicate from our point of view, this was a precious gift.

Our nephew opened our gift and immediately his face fell with disappointment. He threw the book on the floor and stormed off nearly in tears. The adults experienced the laughter of awkward moments. As I said, it’s become funnier with the retelling.

To be fair, he later read the book and enjoyed it, and maybe he wasn’t old enough at the time we gave it. But I suspect that many of us have that awkward, painful, and only slightly humorous gift story to tell.

Gift giving involves the transaction between two parties: the giver and the recipient. What is precious to the giver may not be precious to the recipient. If in doubt on this point, please check the gift exchange line the day after Christmas at your nearest, busiest store.

This brings me to the most important gift. God gave his only son. God had no more precious gift to give. The gift was costly beyond measure. The price included the suffering of crucifixion and death. It was costly to be a sin offering for others, and our need for the gift couldn’t be greater.

So how have your responded to this precious gift? Have you headed to the exchange line for what the world can offer in its place? Or have you received with joy and learned how precious is the gift!


The Prophesied Christ

December 6, 2014

Early Christians did not counterfeit the prophesies about Christ. The first century Jewish understanding of the messianic prophecies and the Christian’s claims about those prophecies are not far apart as Arlie J. Hoover notes in his book Dear Agnos: Letters to an Agnostic in Defense of Christianity (pp. 209-210).

The best proof that Christians didn’t invent the messianic argument is that long before Christ the Jews had a body of messianic literature that agrees substantially with what Christians said of Christ. Both Jew and Christian expected that the Messiah would be a descendent of Judah and David, be born at Bethlehem, be filled with God’s Spirit, be a king and priest, rule with justice, bestow peace, have a glorious and enduring kingdom, subject the gentile nations to his law, and so on.

What some of the Jews in their unbelief failed to recognize was the fact that along side the passages that depicted the glory of the Messiah were those darker passages that also depicted his death and resurrection.

The important point to note is that the prophesies were written before the birth of Jesus. We can know that from the Jewish literature of the time, the manuscripts of the Old Testament that date before the first century A.D., and the translation of the Old Testament into Greek which dates from 200 to 100 B.C. We do not have to worry about the criticism that would claim the prophesies were written after Christ to make it look like Jesus had fulfilled them.

That means the messianic prophecies need to be taken seriously as evidence about Jesus. The number of prophecies to consider are numerous. James E. Smith in his What the Bible Teaches about The Promised Messiah treats 73 prophecies. Alfred Edersheim listed 456 passages which were interpreted as Messianic in ancient Jewish literature. J. Barton Payne in his Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy identified 1239 predictions in the OT (6,641 verses) of which 127 (3,348 verses) were personal Messianic predictions.

Josh McDowell in Evidence that Demands a Verdict (p. 167) gives an interesting statement on the odds of Jesus fulfilling the various Old Testament prophecies. McDowell notes that one mathematician calculated the odds of fulfilling eight key prophecies as 1 chance in 100,000,000,000,000,000. The fulfillment of these prophecies by Jesus is evidence of God’s intervention and omniscience. They are an important part of the evidence to authenticate Jesus as God’s promised Messiah.


Calendars and Hearts

November 22, 2014

Governor William Bradford declared the first Thanksgiving Day on December 13, 1621. The Plymouth Colony’s first severe winter had killed nearly half the settlers. The summer of 1621 coupled with the harvest had given them renewed hope, so they observed a day of feasting and prayer.

On November 26, 1789, President George Washington also issued a general proclamation for a day of thanks, but for many years after there was no regular national Thanksgiving Day. Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, promoted the idea for 30 years. Finally, in 1863, President Lincoln issued a proclamation setting aside the last Thursday of November “as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father.”

Presidents since Lincoln have issued official proclamations of Thanksgiving on behalf of the nation. President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the date to the fourth Thursday in November. Congress approved this in 1941.

A nation’s strength depends on the moral and spiritual fiber of its people. As Psalm 127:1 says:

Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. ESV

Security and blessings come from God. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17, ESV).

That is why ingratitude is such a serious matter. It cuts us off from the Gift Giver. Paul’s description of society’s downward spiral begins with “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (Romans 1:21, ESV).

Our country has a long history of setting aside this day of Thanksgiving. It is a rich tradition, but traditions have the danger of losing their meaning. May Thanksgiving not only be something on our calendars but also within our hearts.


Grumbling vs. Groaning

November 14, 2014

We live in a time of groaning according to Paul in Romans 8. Paul’s view of the world includes the fact that Christians may undergo hardships and distress. We are not alone, for God is with us, but hardships will still come. The issue then becomes one of how will we face difficulties. Will we conquer them, or will they break us? Romans 8 gives us the confidence that there are resources available in God to help us through the difficulty and bring us into a time of glory. But difficulty presents us with a change and a danger: will our groaning turn into grumbling?

It may seem at first that there is a thin line between groaning and grumbling, both after all both are responses to the problem of suffering in our world. But there is a world of difference between the two. Our groaning is an expression of pain, grief, and stress. Grumbling is also a reaction to pain, but it packs into its response an arrogance, a harshness, and an attitude of rebellion that spoils one’s view of life. In Romans Paul tells us that we groan, but in Philippians 2, he warns us not to grumble.

Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. (Philippians 2:14–16 ESV)

If we want to know what grumbling can do to people and how displeasing it is to God, we only need to take a look at Israel as they wandered in the wilderness. They forgot God’s past deliverances and failed to trust in their current crisis. They tested the Lord: “Is the Lord among us nor not?” Surely the God who brought the plagues and delivered through the Red Sea could quench their thirst in the wilderness (see Exodus 15-17)! Psalm 106 sums up the grumblers’s experience with these words:

Then they despised the pleasant land,
having no faith in his promise.

They murmured in their tents,
and did not obey the voice of the LORD.

(Psalms 106:24–25 ESV)

Israel in the wilderness wandering is our prime example of grumbling and a clear warning of God’s displeasure about it. Their grumbling lacked faith and obedience. We may groan in the midst of life’s problems while casting our anxieties on God. We may groan and still trust and obey. Faith and obedience are the primary differences between grumbling vs. groaning.


The Steadfast Love of the Lord

November 10, 2014

It was the darkest days for the nation. The siege of Jerusalem lasted for several months. The population grew hungrier, the situation grimmer, and the unthinkable possible. Lamentations expresses grief for this destruction in a series of five poems. The Septuagint, the Targum of Jeremiah (1:1), and the Talmud (Baba Bathra 15a) attribute Lamentations to the prophet Jeremiah.

The first poem paints the picture of the siege and its aftermath. Jerusalem has become like a widow, like a slave (1:1). Exile and captivity are her lot. The princes of the city are hunted down like deer (1:6). The enemy has looted the precious things of the city (1:10). The people must search for bread (1:11). “In the street the sword bereaves; in the house it is like death” (1:20, ESV).

The second poem laments that God has scorned his own altar and disowned his sanctuary (2:7). The walls and gates of the city have been torn down. Jeremiah weeps and vomits at what he sees in the streets (2:11). Abandoned, hungry children are everywhere, and women have been reduced to eating their own infants (2:20).

The fourth poem presents the holy stones of the temple as scattered in the streets (4:1). The dire circumstances have brought out cruelty in people who are now worse than jackals (4:3). The siege has left people famished with their skin shriveled on their bones (4:8) – maybe those who died by the sword were more fortunate (4:9).

The last poem is a prayer for God to remember. In the midst of rape, torture, and forced labor, there is the realization that the Lord reigns forever. It is God who can restore and renew.

It is the third poem that is the longest and also at the heart of the book. Jeremiah feels that God himself has besieged him (3:5). God has blocked his ways. God has made him a laughingstock. It leads to even momentary doubt: “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the LORD” (3:18). But it is in the midst of prayer, that the following thought comes:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;

his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning;

great is your faithfulness.

“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,

“therefore I will hope in him.” (Lamentations 3:22-24 , ESV)

We too live in the wilderness between our redemption from slavery to sin and our entrance into the Promised Land. Dark times can occur that test our faith and endurance. These words are a bright light shining out of dark times. May God’s faithfulness to the covenant and his many mercies remind us of our hope. “The LORD is my portion.”


Learning How to Worship

November 1, 2014

Somewhere along the way, I went from being a child in the worship assembly to worshipping in the assembly. It was a learning process. The first step to learning how to worship is being in a worship assembly. I had my mother to thank for that, but being in the room where people are worshipping is not yet worship.

My first step was participation in singing. I learned to follow along in the songbook, and then, I began to sing as well. Songbooks have a learning curve to them. The person opening a songbook for the first time may need some help in being oriented to it. I had some advantages in that I had learned to read music. It made it easier. If you don’t read music, the easiest beginning point is to sing along with the melody. Many people can eventually learn a part by ear. In time, I tried to think about what I was singing. What did it mean?

How do you participate in a sermon? You listen, obviously. But my own experience suggests that’s not always easy to do. I remember as a teenager being very, very sleepy in some sermons. One Sunday it hit me. I liked the preacher. The bits I was hearing were meaningful. I realized the problem was I had stayed up until 1 a.m. (I suspect that the total cure for staying up too late is adulthood.) But I became more aware of my part in the sermon event.

Sermons also have a learning curve. When you first begin to worship, you may not know where books of the Bible are. That makes it initially difficult to find readings. A lack of Bible knowledge may make some things harder to follow. If we deal with the Bible in too simple of a way, the danger is the church will be biblically illiterate. That is one of the issues of our time. Hopefully, lessons can be accessible, but still challenge us to grow. I try to give outlines with the scriptures we will look at on it, so someone could always look up these passages again privately. The good news is that as we work at this, we become better at finding Bible references, and our knowledge of the Bible grows.

During a sermon, I want to have my Bible open. I like to have some means of making a note if I want. I take occasional notes, but most importantly, I’ve learned to mentally follow the lesson. As we grow in our knowledge of the Bible and our experience in worship, we grow in our ability to meaningfully and actively listen.

Worship is a learned experience. It needs our participation. We must be mentally active and not passive. It is something that we grow in our ability to worship and our appreciation of worship.


Faith Not Sight

October 21, 2014

I don’t like the fact that our bodies disappoint us with aging or disease or both. Somehow it just doesn’t seem fair that the best body we will ever have is at age 18 (at least in this life). We see the aging process in others, but eventually we have to admit to it in ourselves. What Paul called “the outer person wasting away” is observable in life (2 Corinthians 4:16).

Yet Paul placed beside this unwelcome fact another wondrous observation. In Christ, the inner person can continue to grow and become better. “Our inner person is being renewed day by day” (1 Corinthians 4:16). God is transforming us to become more and more like His Son. Our character, our kindness, and our love can grow and mature throughout our lifetime. The best our inner person can be in this life may be the day we breathe our last.

Paul compared this body that disappoints us to a tent (1 Corinthians 5:1). Tents are temporary. They are fragile and frail in comparison to a permanent structure. The disappointments of our bodies are reminders we are sojourners here. We are just passing through; this is not our enduring home. A tent may become frayed and worn until it wears out, or it may be suddenly pulled down, but it is never permanent.

The God who renews our inner person also builds us a permanent dwelling. As Paul wrote, “[W]e have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (1Corinthians 5:1b, ESV). In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul described our physical bodies with words like “perishable,” “dishonor,” “weakness,” and “natural”. While the resurrection body that we await at Christ’s return is described by words like “imperishable,” “glory,” “power,” and “spiritual.” The transient will be swallowed up by the eternal.

The processes of the outward wasting away and inward being renewed take place in the course of daily life. Daily life filled with its ups and downs, its trials and temptations, and its moments of doubt and faith. Paul used the word, “groaning,” to describe this present life. He spoke of “slight momentary affliction,” although slight affliction doesn’t seem to adequately describe Paul’s life (see 2 Corinthians 11:23-28). He could only call it that when weighed on the balance with eternal glory. The eternal outweighs the transient and makes the walk of faith worth it all.

Paul had confidence that to be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord. The God who is doing a great work of renewing and transforming in our inner person is also preparing for us a permanent dwelling place. Eternal glory is worth it all “for we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7, ESV).


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