Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Truth: "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" Part 3

This is the last part of three posts I've published that are meditations on the theological song "Hark the Herald Angels Sing."  If you want to read the previous two parts, you can find them here and here.  Let me sum up what the first two stanzas of the song have taught us: Jesus is the almighty King worshipped by angelic servants who brings peace and mercy as he paves the way for the reconciliation of God and man.  He has come for everyone on the earth as the Messiah, a fulfillment of prophecy.  Even more amazing, he is God, deity incarnated in a virgin's woman, another fulfillment of prophecy.  He has come voluntarily to dwell with us, to be Emmanuel.  And now, the last stanza.

Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace, Hail the Son of Righteousness
Piggybacking on the previous stanza, this stanza again emphasizes that Jesus is from heaven.  He comes to earth from heaven because he is God.  He is the Prince of Peace, an allusion to another fulfilled prophecy found in Isaiah 9:6.  The Prince of Peace in Isaiah is also called "Mighty God."  No doubt about it, the Prince of Peace is God.  Thus, he can truly be deemed righteous.  He is the son of righteousness, that is, all that is righteous proceeds from him and is in him.  He is truth and morality and holiness.

Light and life to all he brings, Risen with healing in his wings
Now we get to the clincher--the why this king, Messiah, Christ Jesus has come.  The first stanza hinted that he would reconcile man and God, but how?  This stanza says that he will bring light and life.  That he is risen is a hint to his death.  This Messiah will die and yet rise again and come with healing for man in his wings.  As for the wings, I can't help but think of Jesus crying out as he came into Jerusalem, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings."  Indeed, he would rise showing that healing could only come to those who gather themselves under his wings.

Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die
This healing that will come is not for temporary sickness, but for the pervasive sickness that leads all men to death: sin.  In humility, the Messiah left heaven for earth (already described in the second stanza) so that man would no longer die.  If he will no longer die, then this must mean the Messiah will solve man's sin problem.

Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth
Here then is the crux: Through Christ's own death and resurrection, man can himself die and be raised to life.  Man can receive a second birth into life devoid of sin and live eternally.  I am reminded here of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus: "In reply Jesus declared, 'I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.'  'How can a man be born when he is old?' Nicodemus asked. 'Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!' Jesus answered, 'I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.'"  Through rebirth through Christ, man lives again one with the Spirit.  His sin problem and thus death is conquered.  This, then, is the truth of Christmas.  We celebrate the incarnation because it leads to our freedom from sin and death.  The true joy of Christmas rests in our own salvation through the sacrifice of the incarnate God. 

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, 
that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
John 3:16

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas Truth: "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" Part 2

This is the second part of a meditation on the stanzas of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing."  If you want to read the first part, you can do that here.  I am looking particularly at the theology found in the song.  I consider it to be the most theological of all the Christmas songs I know.  We saw last time that the first stanza makes the following declarations about Jesus: He is the almighty King worshipped by angelic servants.  He is the one who will bring peace and mercy as he paves the way for the reconciliation of God and man.  He has come for everyone on the earth.  He is the Messiah and his birth fulfills prophecy.  Let's now see what the second stanza proclaims about the Messiah.

Christ by highest heaven adored, Christ the everlasting Lord
This refers back to stanza one where Jesus is also worshipped by angels.  But why is he worshipped?  The second half of the line explains--He's the everlasting Lord.  The king and Messiah of the first stanza is now declared to be something even greater--the Lord himself.  He's not just a king that lasts for a day; he's the everlasting Lord.  Thus, he is the King of all kings and the Lord of all lords.  He is God himself.

Late in time behold him come, offspring of the Virgin's womb
Late in time does not mean that Jesus was late or should have shown up earlier.  The phrase means here that a long time elapsed from his promised coming to the time he arrived.  He was promised as early as Genesis 3.  The earth has waited in anticipation for a long time.  When he arrives, this Lord adored by angels is conceived in the womb of a virgin.  This is both a fulfillment of prophecy and a hint the reason for why he was to come.  He had to be born a man to complete the mission ahead of him.  (In Genesis 3:15, we see a promise that an offspring will come of woman that will crush the serpent, so this line also bridges the gap between Genesis and the gospels, that the time has elapsed to the promise's fulfillment when the offspring is formed in a woman's womb).

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate deity
This line gives me chills.  Jesus' flesh is a covering for the Trinity (yes, this song declares the Trinity!).  We are staring right at the Trinity when we see Jesus for he exists one with his father and the Spirit at all times.  As he is the God, the Trinity, we are called to hail him just like the angels, to hail God incarnated in flesh.

Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel
Jesus is not forced to come.  He has not been pushed or manipulated or tricked.  He is pleased to dwell with man.  He has a reason to come and he loves man enough to come, to forsake the worship of angels above and live as a human being.  He will know our temptations and trials and pains.  He will walk among us so that he can love us and show us the better way.  He will draw us close with physical arms.  He will be with us, the meaning of Emmanuel.  In fact, through the gospel he teaches us he will never leave us or forsake us.

"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, 
who came from the Father, full of grace and truth."
John 1:14

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Christmas Truth: "Hark the Herald Angels Sing"

A few years ago, my husband and I went to a Christmas concert at a local symphony center.  For the last part of the performance, the symphony and its choir asked the audience to stand and sing, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" along with them.  I've always liked this particular Christmas song because it is sung at the end of my favorite movie, It's a Wonderful Life.  However, I have to admit that as is often the case, I had sung this song many times, but not paid close attention to its words.  It was about Jesus' birth and angels heralding it.  Got it.  But that night, as I followed the words to the song, I found myself floored.  I was struck by the fact that "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" is the most theological Christmas song I've ever heard, and here were hundreds of people singing it, singing truth out to God, even if they didn't personally believe it.

For this Christmas I'd like to offer three meditations on my now favorite Christmas song, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing."  I'm going to approach it one stanza per post because I don't want to rush it.  It's just too beautiful.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing, "Glory to the newborn King!"
In this song, Jesus' entrance into the world is announced with gusto.  He doesn't come silently, just a babe--no, he comes with angelic servants proclaiming that he is a king.  The angels reveal to the shepherds the truth that the king has arrived.  This is a baby born with powerful authority.

"Peace on Earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled."
What has this mighty king come to do?  To fight?  To throw off Rome?  No, to bring peace, not a sword.  He comes with mercy.  His plan is far grander than physical battle, more far reaching than the shepherds could dream.  The king is not coming to concern himself merely with the restoration of Jewish power.  He is coming to bring God to sinners.  Sinners?  Yes, to mankind whose problem is not Rome, but its darkest heart of sin.  This king will wipe clean the darkness of man's heart and fill it with the light of God.

Joyful, all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies
Even more far reaching!  The king has not come only to Israel, but to all nations, to all men.  Every person on earth is to have the joy of reconciliation available to his heart.  Those who are reconciled worship along with angelic servants the one that has drawn them near by banishing their darkness.

With the angelic host proclaim, "Christ is born in Bethlehem"
Oh the depth of this one line!  Those who are reconciled, what do they proclaim?  "Christ is born in Bethlehem."  Such a simple line, but so deeply profound.  The king is Christ, that is, Messiah.  This is confirmed because he is born in Bethlehem, a fulfillment of prophecy.  This then, is not just any king--he is the foretold king from the Old Testament, the Messiah, the Suffering Servant, the Son of Man.  He has come, the one the Jews have waited for, the one who will change all history by his arrival.  You cannot deny his truth, because fulfilled prophecy testifies to his identity.

Wow.  The theology in this song awes me.  In this one stanza we have these declarations about Jesus: He is the almighty King worshipped by angelic servants.  He is the one who will bring peace and mercy as he paves the way for the reconciliation of God and man.  He has come for everyone on the earth.  He is the Messiah and his birth fulfills prophecy. 

"Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel,
praising God and saying,
'Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.'
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven,
the shepherds said to one another,
'Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened,
which the Lord has told us about.'"
Luke 2:13-15

Monday, November 26, 2012

Christmas: Celebrating Advent

Ever since I was a little girl, Christmastime has been tied to Advent.  Advent means "coming" and it involves traditions that point to the night we celebrate God's coming in flesh to earth.  Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas.  On each Sunday, a new candle is lit.  Each candle has a special meaning.  Then on Christmas Eve, a large white candle is lit called the "Christ Candle."  For me as a child (and an adult), Advent does two things.  First, it increases the anticipation of Christmas.  As a child, each candle lit meant Christmas was drawing closer and I grew more and more excited.  Second, it focuses me on what Christmas is about: Jesus Christ.  As a child, yes, I did get excited about presents and snow men and reindeer.  But Advent brought me back to what was truly important: the birth of my Savior.  Through Advent, I learned what Christmas was all about, who Jesus was and why he came.  As an adult, I still cherish Advent.  I think now even more so, I long for my Savior, for the celebration of his glorious coming.

I'd like to explain how you can celebrate Advent, too.  The first thing you'll need are the candles.  There are three purple taper candles, one pink taper candle and one large white candle, and, of course, holders.  (Christian bookstores like Mardel will sell boxes with the purple and pink candles in them).  Each candle has a meaning I'll list below.  Some people put the advent candles within a wreath.  I did that for our first couple years of marriage.  You can definitely set them out without a wreath.  As you see below, the tapers surround the white candle in this set up:

I put the nativity behind the candles to emphasize the meaning of Advent.  One year I put the candles in the middle of our dining table along with a couple small nativities because I was hosting my family.  We celebrated Advent together that night:

The last couple years, since I have a small child whose hands are on everything, I have put the Advent candles on our mantel.  Our stocking holders are the nativity and so I put the white candle behind the stocking holder with the baby Jesus since it represents the Christ child.

Once you have your candles set up how you like, you gather your family and light them each Sunday.  On the first Sunday, you'll light just one purple candle.  The next Sunday, two purple candles.  The following Sunday, two purple candles and the pink candle.  The last Sunday, two purple candles, the pink candle, and the last purple candle.  On Christmas Eve, you light all four tapers and the large white candle.  For us, we have a verse we recite and song we sing for each new candle that is lit.  Below I have listed the verses and songs.

First Purple Candle: Hope 
"Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn."  Isaiah 60:2-3
Song: "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel"

Second Purple Candle: Love
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."  John 3:16
Song: "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus"

Pink Candle: Joy
"The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder...For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."  Isaiah 9:2-3, 6
Song: "Joy to the World"

Last Purple Candle: Peace
"Because of the tender mercy of our God, with which the Sunrise from on high will visit us, to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."  Luke 1:78-79
Song: "Hark!  The Herald Angels Sing"

White Candle: Christ
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: ‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’”  Luke 2:25-32
Song: "What Child Is This?"

I hope that you have found this enlightening and helpful and that you, too, will be able to celebrate the tradition of Advent in your own home!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

George Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation

Every Thanksgiving, I read and post George Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation.  Most people don't realize that the point of Thanksgiving was originally to thank God for the blessings He had bestowed on us.  Days of thanksgiving were declared all throughout our country's early history and did not become associated with the pilgrims and indians until later.  George Washington actually proclaimed the first nation-wide thanksgiving.  Washington declared the point of that thanksgiving day to be a time for people to acknowledge "with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God."  When I celebrate Thanksgiving, I don't mind the imagery of the pilgrims and indians, but I remember that this day is set aside, not to the glory of myself, but to the glory of my God.  It is a day to thank God for the blessings He has poured into my life by enjoying family and food, a reminder that I am thankfully well fed.  I hope you'll enjoy Washington's proclamation as much as I do and it will help you focus on the true purpose of Thanksgiving.

"Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor-- and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be-- That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks--for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation--for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war--for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed--for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted--for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions-- to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually--to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed--to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord--To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us--and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.
Go: Washington"

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Beware Exaggerated Language

So in my English classes, I have harped on something I call "exaggerated language."  Exaggerated language is using words like "always," "never," "everyone," "no one" and so on.  When I grade papers that have these terms in them, I write beside them "prove it."  In other words, prove that no one ever likes to drink coffee.  Prove that everyone knows God is Lord.  Statements with exaggerated language are usually false.

Through the election season, I have been hearing an exaggerated statement (actually two) that I am sick of.  It's this: Conservatives don't care about the poor.  I want to say, "Prove it."  This myth that conservatives don't care about the poor (usually foisted on conservatives when they mention any kind of moral legislation because being concerned about morals automatically means you don't care about the poor) is plain wrong.  Let me give an example.

I'm going to pull from my pool of conservative friends.  Let's see.  At least five couples I personally know have adopted needy children, not to mention half my church.  All of them have gone on mission trips where they did such things as build homes, feed orphans, bring clothes and survival items to those without them.  My husband and I support two sponsor children, not to mention the large percentage of our budget that goes to charities that help the poor.  Our small group is spending its next meeting shopping and filling baskets of food for the needy.  My church partners with a charity working in downtown Dallas to help the homeless.  I could go on.  The point is, the conservatives I know help the poor.  Why?  Because God cares about the poor, so they do, too.  This idea that conservatives don't care about the poor is an outright lie.

So why are conservatives then charged with a lack of compassion for the poor?  What's really at root is not a lack or overabundance of compassion on either side.  What we have are different ideas of how to help the poor through the government.  Conservatives want to equip the poor with the ability to feed themselves and rise out of their poverty.  They want to teach a man to fish so he can fish for life.  They don't want to enable the ability to sit around and do nothing while the government fishes for me.  Others disagree.  They want to meet immediate needs, hand out everything they can so no one suffers in this country.  But understand, both sides care about the poor.  They have different ways of thinking how the government should handle the poor, but that does not mean either side isn't getting its hands dirty helping the poor.

(Here's the freebie, the second exaggerated phrase I've heard during the election: Conservatives hate women.  The catch phrase is "war on women."  Some say they demonize women.  This is so laughable, I don't want to address it with a whole post, a paragraph will suffice.  There are thousands upon thousands of conservative women, including myself.  Let me let you in on a secret: we don't hate ourselves.  Shocker!  This idea of a "war on women" pretty much surrounds one issue: abortion.  As Wikipedia defines it, "a political catchphrase used in United States politics to describe Republican Party initiatives in federal and state legislatures that are seen as restricting women's rights, especially with regard to reproductive rights."  It's any kind of legislation that is perceived to limit women's "rights."  Do you know we have tons of legislation in this country that limits rights?  We can't murder.  We can't steal.  We can't damage someone else's property and so on.  Conservatives do not view it as a right to kill a child.  That is murder.  It's not a war on women.  It's a hate of murder.  Others can argue reasons it is not murder, fine.  But don't pretend that because conservatives hold the belief that killing a child in the womb is murder that they hate women.  That'd be like saying because someone is okay with abortion, they hate children).

(This article will probably get me flamed.  So hear me.  I know there are conservatives who have said bonehead things and are the exception to the rule.  I hear what they say and I think, "That was a stupid thing to say."  There are people on the other side who have said bonehead things, too.  You can't generalize a group of people based on some bonehead sayings).

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Food and God

So I was driving home yesterday and I heard this great sermon by Wayne Braudrick, pastor of Frisco Bible Church, on the radio.  The title of the sermon was "Fact or Fiction: Christians Should Eat Only..."  I have never heard a pastor tackle this subject and Wayne did an amazing job.  Truly, I have gotten quite annoyed at the focus people have on food nowadays and Christians have been dragged into worry over food more and more.  Braudrick mentioned that in our culture today there are so many arguments over food.  I have seen an increasing amount of judgment from certain Christians towards their brothers and sisters, judgment that insists in order to treat our bodies like a temple of the Spirit, we have to eat this and such and not that and such.

A friend of mine said that food has become an idol for many Christians and I agree.  Many in the church have turned food into a legalistic fighting grounds.  Personally, I think Christians have done this for two reasons: 1) We live in a food obsessed culture and we are reflecting our own culture's preoccupation with what goes into our mouths.  2) We have bought into the lie that eating somehow affects our spirituality, that in order to be truly good temples for God, we have to eat certain things and avoid others.  The problem is, number one reveals Christians overtaken by culture, not God, and number two isn't biblical at all.

If you are a Christian who has become consumed with food, obsessing about it day in and out, or, like me, you want a biblical perspectice to wade through all the voices shouting at you about food, I recommend Wayne Braudrick's sermon.  He brings a refreshing biblical perspective to a topic so overwhelming in our society.

For the sermon, click here.  You'll find it on October 23 and 24.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Singles in the Church

I need to start this post off by coming clean and noting that I am not a single.  I did get married later in life than most young marrieds, so I did live in the real world as a single for a little bit, but I am not single now.  I am not writing this post to presume I can sympathize with singles.  I am writing to address a church that has lied to singles over the years and to tell the church, "Stop!"

Now, I have to confess that I have been one of the liars.  No, I never lied on purpose, that is, I didn't think I was lying.  But having several single friends share their struggles with me has opened my eyes to things I said that were outright unbiblical.  I read this article recently and the author, who is single, explains the single perspective on these lies well.  What I want to do in this post is point out the lies we tell singles in the church and call Christians to stop using these lies to "help singles" and instead, to speak God's truth.

Let me also define what I mean by single.  I mean anyone who is not currently married.  That person can be a youth, an adult in college, a working adult, middle-aged, older, widowed, divorced, etc.  I include all singles however they are single.

So, let's take a look at the lies and their truthful opposites:

1. "You need to keep yourself pure and wait to have sex because God is preparing someone you will have wonderful intimacy with."  The problem with this statement is the because.  How do I know God is preparing someone for this person?  Does God promise anywhere in scripture that he is going to provide a spouse for every single person that waits to have sex?  No!  Then why do we say this?  We say it to encourage a single to be pure sexually.  But listen to the implications of this lie: "If you keep yourself pure, you are guaranteed a spouse sent by God."  That is what a single hears!  A single thinks, "I keep myself pure because I want a spouse."  But that is not why we keep ourselves pure.  In fact, nowhere in the Bible does it say this is the reason we keep ourselves pure.  Then why be pure?  Consider these verses: "Love the Lord your God and keep His requirements, His decrees, His laws and His commands always" (Deut. 11:1).  "If you love me, you will obey what I command" (John 14:15).  "This is love for God: to obey His commands" (1 John 5:3).  Why do we keep ourselves sexually pure?  Because we love God!  Our motivation in keeping one of God's commands should always be love of God.  Yes, God gives commands for our benefit, so there are always additional reasons we should follow his commands.  But throughout the Bible it is clear: We obey because we love God.  That is foundational to Biblical truth.  The truth: "Keep yourself pure because you love God."

2. "Maybe you aren't married yet because God is molding you into the kind of person you need to be to be married."  This lie makes me cringe.  I love how we throw in the "maybe" just to make sure we aren't being "judgmental."  But really, what does a single hear when we say this?  "You aren't good enough to be married yet.  You aren't virtuous or spiritual enough.  If you were, you'd be married."  Oh, yes, because all married Christians are perfectly virtuous and spiritual.  Seriously, this lie is so outright ridiculous and yet I have heard people say it over and over.  News flash!  God doesn't require us to be perfect before we get married.  If he did, no one would be married.  So stop implying a single is somehow less spiritual because she isn't married.  Truth: "God is molding you into a reflection of Christ" (and end there, no implications).

3. "Maybe God is just waiting to send you the right person."  This lie is kind of a combination of the first two.  I can ask once again, "How do we know that?"  We don't!  I don't know God's plan.  (Yes, I see the excuse of "maybe" thrown in again, just to soften the blow and make me look less non-biblical when I talk to a single.  I did say "maybe" after all).  What I am doing when I say this is giving a single false hope.  If there is no one planned for their future, I have just pushed them into a hope that is not going to come to fruition.  I have encouraged them, not to seek God's plan, but a future plan that may or may not exist based on their desire.  So once again, a single hears, "Keep waiting and God will surely bring someone."  So will we keep telling a single that when he's on his death bed at ninety and still single?  Truth: Just don't say this.  You don't know God's plan, so don't pretend you have some special insight a single doesn't.

I'd like to give an example from my own life now, but it's kind of odd because it doesn't exactly concern singleness, but its opposite: marriage.  Bear with me.  The point will become clear at the end.  I am a weird person because I had determined that I was not going to get married and remain single, being a single missionary on the mission field.  I told this to a mentor and she said to me, "Do you realize you are telling God what he's going to do with your life?"  That thought hadn't occurred to me.  After all, I was giving myself to him wholly, so didn't he just want to take me that way?  After I talked to her, I had to repent and pray, "Okay, God.  Whatever you want with my life, that's what I'll do."  A week later, my now husband asked me out on our first date.  I write this to say that none of us can assume what God is going to do with our life.  We have to let him have complete control, which is a pretty scary prospect, because at that point, I relinquish my desire to make everything happen the way I want.  This goes for all Christians, single or married.  The point is, we shouldn't be telling singles to wait and be godly and just, you know, God will probably send someone because we don't know that will happen.  We can't presume to speak God's plan into the life of someone else, anyone else.  And I can't make assumptions in my own life.  I need to follow God and say, "Whatever you want."  That may be singleness and it may be marriage.  Who knows?  God and only God.

So, I am a reformed liar.  I don't say any of the above lies to singles anymore.  What I do do is encourage everyone, whether single or married, to seek God now.  Love God now.  Show him you love him by obeying him.  Make him your center.  That is biblical truth and that is what we should be telling everyone in the church, regardless of her marital status.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Divine Service

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
        Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
        From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
        If I lack'd anything.

"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
        Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
        I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
        "Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
        Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
        "My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
        So I did sit and eat

-George Herbert

I've been doing a Bible study this summer on Psalm 23.  Today the author included this poem since the verse that we were meditating on was 23:5, "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.  You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows."  In relating the meaning of the poem, she described anointing with oil as an action a host undertakes for an honored guest.  Then she said this:

"As you sit there, God comes up behind you and begins gently pouring oil on your head to anoint you. This signals to your enemy that you are someone special whom God has anointed and that you are protected. You might imagine God’s palms resting on your shoulders, maybe God even leaning over you in endearment. Can you feel God standing behind you this way?"

I realized I rarely think of God this way.  Like in George Herbert's poem, Love bades me sit and be the honored guest and I object that I am the one that must serve.  I was reminded of Peter when Jesus washed the disciples feet.  I've read that account hundreds of times, but never analyzed where I put myself in the scene.  I'm definitely with Peter.  If Jesus kneeled down to wash my feet, I would ask him to please let me wash his instead.  I don't feel like God's honored guest; I feel like his servant alone.

But doesn't God call us to be like he is?  If God says, "serve one another in love" (Gal. 5:13), then he is telling us to do what he himself does.  God serves us in love and we reflect this to others by also serving in love (1 Pet. 4:10).  God serves me so I serve others.  I learn what devoted service is because God is devoted to me and treats me like an honored and loved guest.  Not only that, but serving others IS serving God (Eph. 6:7).  It's a beautiful cycle of service: God serves me - I serve others - Serving others serves God - who serves me.

In Luke 12, Luke relates a parable that Jesus told about people waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet.  They are waiting for his knock on the door so they can let him in.  Jesus then says this, "It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them."  Jesus pictures his return as a master clothing himself to serve his faithful servants.  His servants recline at the table and he waits on them.  Is this not a startling image?  Do you see Jesus as returning to serve you, delighting to wait on you while you recline in peace?  It startles me.  I don't keep this image at the forefront of my mind.  I think I have to work and work; rest and peace and letting God serve me are far from my mind.

O Lord God, may I capture this image!  May I walk in confidence and peace knowing you have chosen me as your honored guest.  May I rest in this picture so that I can reach out to others, wanting to be to them what you are to me.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Devoured or Strengthened?

"Be of sober spirit, be on the alert.
Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion,
seeking someone to devour."
1 Peter 5:8

How does the devil devour people?  How do I know if I am being devoured?  In the context of the above verse, Peter talks about humbling ourselves before the Lord so he may exalt us.  If we are not humble, we are ripe pickings for the roaring lion.  Our pride propels us away from God and into the mouth of the adversary.  In a previous post I explored what it means to walk humbly with God: It is to "recognize his sovereign rule, to trust his sovereign knowledge, to love and serve him by obeying his commands."  In pride, we reject God's rule and knowledge.  How does this make us weak and easily devoured?  The devil is called the Father of Lies (John 8:44).  The devil feeds us lies and encourages us to doubt God's rule, God's goodness, God's very existence.  He calls us to put our faith in ourselves, to throw off humility and clothe ourselves in pride.  Paul depicts the devil as firing arrows at believers (Eph. 6:16), flaming arrows of temptation and lies.

"For the eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth
to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him."
2 Chronicles 16:9

When I read the above verse, I immediately thought of its similarity and contrast to the verse that describes the devil as a roaring lion. Whereas the devil prowls the earth, seeking someone to devour, God looks throughout the earth to find people to strengthen.*  The context of this verse involves King Asa of Judah, who took gold and silver out of the temple and gave it to the King of Aram so that the King of Aram would join with him against Israel.  In doing so, he demonstrated that he put his faith and trust in another nation to save him and not God.  In other words, Asa did not walk humbly with God.  He did not view God as sovereign ruler and protector of Judah.  Who does God strengthen?  Those whose hearts are fully committed to him.  Those who know God is sovereign and who trust his rule.

It is by trusting God that we are strengthened and defeat the devil's flaming arrows.  Ephesians 6:16 says, "take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one."  The devil is defeated when we defend ourselves with trust in the Lord.  As we stand firm, we are strengthened by God who sees our faith and bolsters our committed hearts.  The more we stand, the more we will be strengthened.

Today, are you a candidate for devouring or strength?  Are you prey for the roaring lion or a faithful heart upheld by the Lord's strength?  We are either one or the other.  We either listen to the lies of our adversary or trust in the Lord's power.

*Another telling contrast in the this verse is that the devil is a lion, a created being with one form who has to roam the earth looking for someone to devour.  God's eyes search the whole earth.  In other words, God can see all at once and strengthen everyone whose hearts are committed to him.  The devil is a limited being who can only devour one at a time.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Following God Is Easy...Kind Of

I don't know about you, but I am a person who likes simplicity.  If you throw a lot of information my way at once, my mind is overwhelmed with the effort to keep it all organized, which makes sense.  I have an analytical mind and whatever I hear is evaluated and connected with other ideas.  Too much all at once means I don't have the time I need to evaluate and connect.  Sometimes, I come to the Bible with this kind of feeling, that there is so much to take in and implement in my life that I get stymied, worried that I can't even figure out what is required of me.

There's so much information in the Bible about what we would should and shouldn't do.  Now, I am the first person that will tell you that the Bible is not a rule book--it's about how to have a relationship with God.  That relationship is what leads to righteous living.  It is precisely because I have a relationship with God that I desire to know how to live a life pleasing to him.  We are blessed that God doesn't let us wallow around trying to figure out what pleases him.  He gives us all the instruction we need.  But with all the instruction in the Bible, I sometimes feel overwhelmed, worrying that I can't do it all or I'm missing something.

Recently, I read a verse I hadn't read in a while.  When I read it, my heart calmed and my mind stilled, for in this verse was simplicity.  It's actually easy to know how I can please God.  The answer is found in Micah 6:8: "He has told you, O man, what is good ; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"  Micah has said it so clearly.  What does God require of me?  1) Do Justice  2) Love Kindness  3) Walk Humbly With Your God.  It's that simple...well, kind of.

Turns out, what God asks of us is simple to state and simple to remember.  If I am doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God, I am living a life pleasing to him.  These three simple descriptions bring the clarity I need to direct my life in a godly way.  It may be simple to state, but I don't think it's always easy to follow.  What does it mean to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly?

Walk Humbly With Your God
So, yeah, I'm starting out of order.  The reason is that, in scripture, it is clear that walking humbly with God comes before doing justice and loving kindness (there is a reason for the order Micah used which I'll explain later).  There is another place in scripture that also states what God requires of  his people:

"Now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require from you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the Lord’s commandments and His statutes which I am commanding you today for your good?" (Deut.10:12-13)

These verses give a perfect description of what it means to walk humbly with God.  Walking humbly begins by fearing God, by recognizing his sovereign control.  Recognizing his right to rule puts me in a position of humility, knowing that God is God and I am not.  Since he alone knows what is best, he alone has sovereign knowledge, I trust his will and give my love to him.  I serve him with all my heart and soul.

To love God is to walk in his ways, i.e. to obey him.  I display my love for God by doing what he instructs.  Deuteronomy 11:1 says, "You shall therefore love the Lord your God, and always keep His charge, His statutes, His ordinances, and His commandments."  Why is love tied to obedience?  Let me use an analogy.  A father gives his life to his child, training his child to be a person of moral character.  The child leaves the father and denies all that he has been taught, living and reveling in evil.  In this act, does the child show love to the father?  No.  The child is showing selfishness, pride and arrogance, declaring the father's authority void and his commands worthless.  But if the child listens and applies what his father has taught him and recognizes his father's authority, the child is in a relationship of love and trust and humility.  This is the same with God.  In obeying God's commands, our love for him is revealed.

Now, some may wonder if any of this truly applies to Christians today.  After all, the verses above are addressed to Israel, not us.  And Christians aren't under the law, so loving God isn't equated with following commands, right?  But yes.  Two verses from Jesus make this clear:

"And He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment" (Matt. 22:37-38).

"If you love Me, you will keep My commandments" (John 14:15).

Jesus himself tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God with all we are.  Jesus is God.  In loving Jesus, we love God.  How do we reveal this love?  Jesus makes it clear in John 14:15: our love is revealed in our keeping his commands.  Once again, to love is to obey.

To summarize, to walk humbly with God is to recognize his sovereign rule, to trust his sovereign knowledge, to love and serve him by obeying his commands.  Then, what are his commands?  Are we back to a whole list of confusing rules?  Not entirely.

Do Justice
I started with walking humbly with our God because this is the foundation for the other two requirements in Micah: to do justice and love kindness.  After loving God, all the other commands God gives relate to other people and all those commands fall under these two headings: to do justice and love kindness.  How we treat others directly reveals the state of our relationship with God, if we are loving him or not.  Remember what Jesus added right after he said loving God was the greatest commandment? "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 22:39).

Part of loving others is doing justice towards them.  The reason Micah lists doing justice and loving kindness first in his list is that the context of this verse is the sin Israel had committed that God was judging.  God's number one indictment against Israel was its lack of being just.  Justice in Hebrew is mishpatMishpat means fair judgment.  The Israelite courts of the time acted primarily in the interests of its leaders.  They were corrupt, unfair courts.

If we are to do justice, we treat others fairly.  God most often mentions orphans, widows, foreigners and the poor as those who need justice.  In other words, we are to treat everyone, from the leaders to the least with fairness.  We can do this today in grand ways as we lend our support to third world countries, go on mission trips, sponsor poor children, etc.  But we can also do this in simple ways at home, treating our spouses, children and friends with fairness, not gossiping about them and being honest with them.

Love Kindness
The Hebrew term for kindness is chesed.  This term is actually translated in various ways in different Bible versions because it holds a deeper meaning than English can grasp.  Chesed incorporates kindness, loyalty and mercy all rolled into one.  It is often translated as lovingkindness, a term most used to express God's love for man.

People display chesed when they treat others kindly and gently, as they put aside anger and selfishness and seek the good of another.  People display chesed when they are loyal, preserving the honor of others.  People display chesed when they act in mercy, not holding offense against someone who has hurt them.

The commands in the Ten Commandments that involve people are all expressions of chesed: honoring our father and mother, not murdering, not committing adultery, not stealing, not lying against others, not wanting what others have.  The majority of the commands in the Bible involve treating others with chesed.

In doing justice and loving kindness, we obey God's commands, showing we love him.  Why does God command these?  Because this is who he is.  What God asks us to be is a reflection of him.  Just as a child reflects a father, so we should reflect God.  "Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne; lovingkindness and truth go before You" (Ps. 89:14).  God's character is just and kind.  God commands us to be as he is.

To evaluate my life is simple.  I only need to ask three questions of myself.  Am I doing justice to others?  Am I loving kindness?  Am I walking humbly with my God?  All other issues can take a backseat to these three.  We worry so much about exactly what God wants us to do when he's already given us the answer.  His will is found in his Word.  It doesn't matter if your role in life is as a housewife or an employee.  It doesn't matter if you stay home or go overseas.  It doesn't matter if you are a garbage collector or a CEO.  The issue is how I live--walking humbly, doing justice and loving kindness.  That is what God requires of those who choose to follow him.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Amen--Part 2

A couple posts ago, I wrote about what the term "amen" really means.  If you have the time, I recommend going back and reading that post before this one.  I'll go ahead and summarize here.  Amen literally means "faithful, true."  God is called "The God of Amen" (Is. 65:16) and Jesus is called "the Amen, the faithful and true witness" (Rev. 3:14), revealing both God and Jesus (who is God) as sources of truth.  In prayer, we say amen and what we supposedly mean when we say amen is that "you believe that God's character is trustworthy...that you are confident He will hear your prayer, be faithful and true to do what He promised, and fulfill His purposes in your life" (Mary Kassian).  When we say "In Jesus' name, Amen" we are saying that God's faithfulness and truth are fulfilled through Christ in our lives.

I took the stance in the last post that the above facts mean that amen is not just the ending to a prayer or a simple "so be it," as I had always been told growing up.  The meaning is far deeper.  It calls into question what we pray before we say amen.  Do we really speak prayers that can end in amen?

I decided to go back to the Bible and look up every instance of amen.  What I found was exciting, stirring and gives me a direction to head in my prayer life.  Here's what I found: 

In the Old Testament, amen is used as a response that affirms what was previously said.  In other words, what was said before is truth.  Amen is spoken in one of two instances: 1) It follows a truth statement.  An example of this is 1 Chronicles 16:36, which says, "Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, From everlasting even to everlasting. Then all the people said, 'Amen,' and praised the LORD."  The truth statement is that God will be blessed from everlasting to everlasting.  2) It confirms that God will carry out what he has said he will do.  A clear example is in Jeremiah 28:6: "[A]nd the prophet Jeremiah said, "'Amen ! May the LORD do so; may the LORD confirm your words which you have prophesied to bring back the vessels of the LORD'S house and all the exiles, from Babylon to this place.'"  There is also a series of "amens" used in Deuteronomy 27, where the Israelites confirm all the curses God will carry out if the people break his word.  Interestingly, and of importance later, is the fact that all amens in Psalms follow the phrase “bless the Lord," the same as in 1 Chronicles 16:36.

I thought what was in the Old Testament was interesting.  What was in the New Testament floored me.  There are 29 occurrences of "amen" in the New Testament, not counting when Jesus says "verily, verily" in the gospels before he utters a truth statement or the Revelation 3:14 verse stated previously (I didn't include his statements because I wanted to focus on how "amen" is used by people).  Here is the break down of when the term "amen" is used:

21 times: The overwhelming majority of the amens in the New Testament follow statements that say "blessed/glory/dominion be to God/Jesus forever and ever."  As stated above, amen means faithful/true.  The majority of the statements in the New Testament are similar to the usage in Psalms.  The term affirms the truth that God is the one to blessed forever, God is the one who has glory forever, God is the one that has dominion forever.

5 times: Amen follows five statements in the New Testament where the author says "God/Jesus be with you all."  Four times, Paul is writing and one time, John is writing in Revelation.  In these instances, the author is affirming the truth that God is with us, a truth that Jesus himself has proclaimed in Matthew 28:20.  (On a separate, but related note, I did a word study recently on when God tells people not to fear; the majority of reasons not to fear are because "God is with you.")

3 times: The last three instances of amen are found in Revelation.  Two of them affirm the truth of Jesus' second coming (Rev. 1:7, 22:20) and the other affirms God’s judgment at the end of time (Rev. 19:4).  Once again, these are statements that are meant to declare truth, the truth that God's future plan is true.

The application question then is, "How should amen be used in our own prayers?"  Every use of the term amen is tied to the truth of the statement proceedingEvery use of the term refers to a truth involving God's character or his actions.  In our prayers, amen should follow truth statements.  The shocking, life-changing truth here, then, is amen doesn't follow such statements as "God, please heal granny."  "Please heal granny" is not a truth statement; it is a request.  We definitely should present our requests to God (Phil 4:6).  But requests are not truth statements, so amen does not apply to them.  Our amen is the affirmation that God is God, that God has the power, that God is with us.  Those are statements of truth.

Somehow we have come to treat "In Jesus' name, Amen" in one of two ways: as a meaningless ending of prayer phrase or as some kind of "in" with God, that by saying amen, God somehow is obligated to answer.  So then we get confused when God doesn't do what we have requested in our prayers.

In my previous post on amen I wrote this "Prayer is fundamentally about shaping my will to God's will.  Prayer is a way to remind myself of God's truth and faithfulness.  I pray, not to get what I want, but to call God's truth to mind and to declare to God that I know what is true about him, that I know he will be faithful to me."  Prayer shapes God's way into my life.  Prayer draws me intimately to God, reminding me that he is powerful and in control, that his will will be carried out.  My amen is an affirmation of this truth.  So I pray, "God, I ask for healing for granny," but I end with "you have the glory forever, your will will be done on this earth, amen."  In fact, I think we should even pray deeper for granny.  Instead of "please heal granny" it would be much more meaningful to pray "show granny that you are in control and that granny can trust you no matter what happens," because those are truths about God's character and can be followed by hearty amens.

Finally, it is instructive what follows Paul's admonition that we present our requests to God.  He writes this, "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to GodAnd the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."  Paul does not say, "Present your requests to God and you will get everything you want."  No, he says, "Take your worries to God, remember to thank him, and he will bring you peace."  Ah!  This is an amen!  This is a truth!  God is the God of peace and God doesn't want us to worry.  We pray to God, not to get what we want, but so that we shape our will to God's, that our worries dissolve into the truth that God is the giver of peace.

Wow and wow.  I am humbled and amazed.  My prayer life has been weak; I have used it as a vessel for request after request.  My amens have been following statements that lack truth.  Could it be that my trust of God withers as I focus on my own selfish desires in prayer and not on truths about his character?  Could my prayer life be transformed if I prayed carefully, not haphazardly, to make my amen a true amen?  Yes!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Good and True Shepherd (No Breaking Legs Here!)

I seem to have fallen into a series of posts at this point about misunderstandings in the church that have often come about through tradition.  Sometimes you can't even tell where the tradition got started (remember my friend Tevye).  A few years ago, I researched an analogy I have heard often in the church.  Before I get to the analogy, I'd like to start with the subject: a shepherd.

God is often described in the Bible as a shepherd.  I did a word study on shepherd to discover what the Bible says regarding God as a shepherd.  Here's a compilation:

The Shepherd led Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Gen 48:15).
The Shepherd shepherds Israel (Gen 49:24).
The Shepherd provides for the needs of his people (Ps 23:1).
The Shepherd carries his people (Ps. 28:9).
The Shepherd leads his people (Ps. 80:1).
The Shepherd gently tends his people, gathering them and carrying them (Is.40:11).
The Shepherd gathers his people to him (Jer. 31:10).
The Shepherd gathers, delivers, feeds, seeks, heals, strengthens and protects his people (Ez. 34:11-31).
The Shepherd rules his people (Mic. 7:14).

Shepherd imagery, when it is used in the Bible of God, refers to God as a protector, guide and healer.  The image is of a tender, gentle shepherd gathering his sheep into his arms.  This is also clear in the New Testament.  In John 10:11, Jesus declared, "I am the good shepherd."  What is Jesus' relationship with his sheep?

Jesus feels compassion on lost sheep (Matt. 9:36, Mk. 6:34).
Jesus lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:11).
Jesus knows his sheep (John 10:14).
Jesus guards the souls of his sheep (1 Pet. 5:2).
Jesus rewards his sheep (1 Pet. 5:4).
Jesus guides his sheep to eternal life (Rev. 7:17).

Once again, the imagery is gentle, a shepherd guarding, guiding, tending and ultimately giving his own life for the sheep.  The shepherd imagery of the Bible applied to God, to Jesus, is positive and loving.

So what is the analogy then that I take issue with?  For years I have heard this analogy: "Shepherds break the legs of willful sheep and then carry them around on their shoulders so that the sheep learns to submit to his will.  This is what God does to us at times to get us to submit to his will."  My problem?  This analogy is no where in the Bible.  No where does it say that God as Shepherd breaks the legs of his sheep.  In my research, I actually found a shepherd's own website that refutes this myth: Sheep 101.  I also found other shepherds that found the analogy ridiculous.  Anyone who says a shepherd would break a sheep's legs, they said, has never had to take care of an injured animal.  A sheep could die from such an action and it would be a shepherd purposefully maiming his own product.  It just plain doesn't make sense.

I did find where this story may have originated from.  A book written by a man named Robert Boyd Munger in 1955 mentions the story.  Then it was placed in a book of sermon illustrations in 1979.  Of course, that means it has found its way into many books of sermon illustrations since then.  This means the story gets used over and over by pastors and repeated by parishioners.  The problem is that shepherds themselves deny this story.  Someone along the way somewhere told this story and in fact, it is myth.

When I did my study on the term shepherd in the Bible, I did find analogies of shepherds treating their sheep wrongly--and they were all human.  God uses the term shepherd at times to describe leaders of people and when they mistreat the sheep he calls down judgment.  He does this to Israel's destructive leaders (Ezk. 34:2), Edom (Jer. 49:19) and false prophets (Zech. 13:7).  God declares of bad shepherds, "Woe to the worthless shepherd who leaves the flock ! A sword will be on his arm and on his right eye! His arm will be totally withered and his right eye will be blind" (Zech. 11:17).

God is not like the bad shepherds.  In fact, God promises a shepherd that will come and be a true shepherd: "Then I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he will feed them; he will feed them himself and be their shepherdAnd I, the LORD, will be their God, and My servant David will be prince among them; I the LORD have spoken" (Ezk. 34:23-24).  This descendent of David, this one that will rule as a Good Shepherd is Jesus Christ.  Thus Jesus declared rightly, "I am the Good Shepherd!"  He is the shepherd who gently tends and heals, protects and guides, dies and lives to redeem the sheep.  Our Shepherd is the Good and True Shepherd.