Archive for November, 2010
God is in the Manger contains daily devotionals from the collected works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer for the four weeks of Advent, plus an additional 12 devotionals for the Twelve Days of Christmas and Epiphany. Edited and compiled by Jana Riess, this simple, inexpensive book serves as an excellent resource for the Christmas season.
No season is more associated with waiting than Christmas. We count down the days, planning and preparing to celebrate the holiday with family and friends. We shop until we drop, by and large purchasing gifts we don’t really need with money we don’t really have. We bake and decorate to create an atmosphere that conveys warmth, security and joy, all the while watching the calendar.
But imagine for a moment that on Christmas Day all of your problems would be solved. Each of your worries would be eliminated. Your fears would be relieved and your enemies vanquished. Imagine that all that you hope for would come to pass. How might that vision shape your anticipation for Christmas to come?
That’s exactly the kind of anticipation and hope that filled Israel some 2000 years ago. They too were waiting for Christmas, but in a different kind of way.
Most often when we think of waiting we think of it as the waiting of imposition or inconvenience. Long lines, heavy traffic, a late lunch appointment, the overscheduled doctor’s office, the check in the mail, the repairman who hit a snag at his previous house call. Those kinds of things.
But the waiting we read about in the Bible is not a waiting of imposition. It was a waiting for deliverance. Bible people in Bible times were waiting for someone to come and save them. They were waiting for someone who would come to right every wrong and save the day.
We celebrate Advent because the Deliverer has already come. Deliverance is available now. That is why the message of Jesus is called the “gospel;” it’s good news! Jesus is the joy of all people and the hope of the nations. Jesus is the fulfillment of all of the promises of God. We celebrate a waiting that has been already fulfilled.
While deliverance has already come, we now wait for the final consummation of the Kingdom of God—the second Advent—the second coming of Christ. Jesus has come and we have been redeemed. But Jesus will come again and we will be fully restored. In Revelation 21:5, Jesus said, “Look! I am making everything new!” On that day our redemption will be full and complete. Humanity and creation will be fully restored. And that is something to look forward to!
Perhaps no other question is more frequently asked than how to discover God’s will. Certainly it’s an important question, because God does have a will. If God has a will, then we have a significant responsibility to discover it and live in compliance with it. But before a person goes through the steps of discerning God’s will, I think its important to first of all discover what the Bible has already said about the matter. The reason this is important is that people waste a lot of time fretting over looking for answers to questions concerning things that God has already gone on record about.
Think about whatever it is that you’re concerned about. Is your concern really a question of legitimately needing God’s will and direction? Or do you need to simply obey what God has already said? If you’re “seeking the will of God,” hoping that his “will” will come in contrary to the Bible, you’re wasting your time. Obey. That’s the will of God for your life.
The Great Commission of Jesus Christ can be understood in three parts. Make no mistake, its one command, yet it contains three significant elements. Jesus said that we are to make a lifestyle of gospel proclamation. Those who respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ are then to publicly profess faith in Jesus through the waters of baptism, thus identifying with Christ as Lord and Master of their lives. After those two steps, Jesus then said we are to teach obedience to his commands. Sometimes we soften this final component through nomenclature like discipleship or spiritual formation. Those are great words that we should not throw away, but we cannot forget that at the root of discipleship and becoming spiritually formed is a lifestyle of obedience to Christ.
How then do we teach obedience?
In the initial stages we obey because we have to. Plain and simple rote obedience, primarily motivated by a sense of obligation that seeks to avoid punishment. As we mature we then begin to obey because we understand that we need to. Here, we may view obedience as our response to God that is motivated by personal benefit we may receive. In other words, we see the value of obedience, determine it is good for us, and practice obedience for our own good. But as we mature further we move past obeying because we need to and obey Christ because we want to. This is the simple motivation of love. We no longer obey because we have to or need to, we obey because we want to. We want to obey because we love Christ and want to please him. Rather than finding our motivation in some element of personal fulfillment, we seek to obey for the glory of God.
Thinking about this I believe it can be easily illustrated in parenting. As a parent of three teenagers, I’ve seen this evolution first hand. When you have a preschooler, you teach them to obey because they have to obey. There is no democracy with a preschooler in the house! You don’t want your toddler running out into the street or wandering off in stores or sticking paper clips into electrical outlets so you teach them that they have to obey.
As the child gets older and communication becomes easier and more natural, they begin to obey because they need to. Want to go to the movies? Clean your room. Want an allowance? Do your chores. Want to have a sleepover? Get your homework done. Children understand the value of obedience because they perceive obedience is good for them.
But wait, there’s more! Children don’t stay children, they continue to grow and mature. As your relationship with your child matures, they value you as a person as well as a parent. They understand that you love them and have their best interest at heart. They also learn that your love for them is so deep that you would literally give your life for them. That’s when they begin to obey because they love you and want to please you and don’t want anything to come between you.
Jesus said that his church is to teach obedience. But obedience for the sake of obedience is often reduced to legalism. The goal is not obedience in and of itself. The goal is a love relationship with Jesus Christ, where your life in Christ is natural and your obedience is reflexive. My point is that you don’t start there. But you can certainly get there. It just takes some time and commitment.
“Then He (Jesus) returned to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them” (Luke 2:51).
“When He appeared in human form, he (Jesus) humbled himself in obedience to God” (Philippians 2:7).
“Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8).
Sandwiched between stories of malice and betrayal we find the account of Mary of Bethany who was noted in the Gospel of Mark by her extravagant gift to Jesus Christ. The first 9 verses of chapter 14 describe the episode this way: 1 It was now two days before the Passover celebration and the Festival of Unleavened Bread. The leading priests and the teachers of religious law were still looking for an opportunity to capture Jesus secretly and put him to death. 2 “But not during the Passover,” they agreed, “or there will be a riot.” 3 Meanwhile, Jesus was in Bethany at the home of Simon, a man who had leprosy. During supper, a woman came in with a beautiful jar of expensive perfume. She broke the seal and poured the perfume over his head. 4 Some of those at the table were indignant. “Why was this expensive perfume wasted?” they asked. 5 “She could have sold it for a small fortune and given the money to the poor!” And they scolded her harshly. 6 But Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. Why berate her for doing such a good thing to me? 7 You will always have the poor among you, and you can help them whenever you want to. But I will not be here with you much longer. 8 She has done what she could and has anointed my body for burial ahead of time. 9 I assure you, wherever the Good News is preached throughout the world, this woman’s deed will be talked about in her memory.”
During the month of November I’ve been speaking on the subject of giving. That may seem unnatural, given the state of our nation’s economy. Prices are rising as well as unemployment statistics. Giving to not for profit organizations is significantly down from 2009, yet members of our nation’s faith communities continue to be faithful in their regular tithes and offerings.
I found an incredible passage that really spoke to me about the kind of attitude we should have toward giving. 1 Chronicles 29 is set in history at the end of King David’s life. Like many who are in their twilight years, he was concerned about the legacy he would leave behind. The legacy he desired to leave was the construction of a permanent Temple for the worship of God. Though God has relayed to David through the prophet Nathan that he was not the one to build the Temple, David stayed the course and put together the blueprints for the project and raised the funds to insure its success. Like any good fund raiser, David began by sharing his own commitment: over 100 tons of gold and 262 tons of silver, plus other important building materials. He would leave everything he had for the project. Imagine the surprise of his family when they discovered there would be nothing bequeathed to them!
As David offered his prayer to God, he simultaneously offered some wonderful advice for how the listeners then and the readers now will find beneficial.
1. Acknowledge God’s ownership of all things (1 Chronicles 29:10-11).
David began by stating something critically important to our understanding of giving: it all belongs to God. I think the biggest myth around today concerning giving is the myth that as long as a person gives to God, say 10% for example, they can do as they wish with the remainder. That is simply not true. It’s all God’s.
2. Every blessing we have comes from God (1 Chronicles 29:12-13).
Think of every blessing in your life. Is there a single one we can take credit for? One of the first Bible verses I memorized was James 1:17, which says that “every good and perfect gift comes from above, from the Father of lights with whom there is no variableness or shadow of turning.” God not only owns all things, but also gets the credit for every good gift we enjoy.
3. When we give we are responding to God as the owner of all things and the giver of all blessings (1 Chronicles 29:14-16).
Here’s a thought you may not have thought of before, but even the very gifts we offer to God is God’s. We can’t even claim credit for our own generosity.
4. When your heart is in tune with God, you will give (1 Chronicles 29:17-20).
Not only will you give, but according to David you will give joyfully and willingly. Not only that, your giving will inspire others to give.
Back in my days as a Bible beater…err college student…I can recall making fun of preachers who preached from the book of Psalms. “Soft,” I’d think. “Sissies,” I’d judge. “Dumb,” I was. Thankfully I’ve matured a bit, recognizing that the Psalms contain more than gentle musings and platitudes about sheep and sunsets. The Psalms are the prayers and worship lyrics of David and other writers who experienced some real world challenges. Through prayer and worship they discover God in the midst of their messes, even when their messes are self inflicted.
Psalm 116 caught my eye in my daily Bible reading this week. Clearly in despair, the Psalmist rejoiced in God’s miraculous deliverence from his trouble, whatever it was. Meditating on the Psalm revealed a simple pattern for how we can respond to trouble that is beyond our ability to resolve.
First, the psalmist encourages us to pray with the expectation that God will come through (Psalm 116:1-11). Check out this sampling: “I love the Lord because he has heard my appeal for mercy. Because he has turned his ear to me, I will call out to him as long as I live. The ropes of death were wrapped around me, and the torments of Sheol overcame me; I encountered trouble and sorrow. Then I called on the name of the Lord: ‘Lord, save me!’”
Next, the Psalmist commits to worship God. Psalm 116:13 says, “I will take the cup of salvation and worship the Lord;” and again in verse 17, “I will offer you a sacrifice of thanksgiving and will worship the Lord.”
Finally, he determines to live with integrity. “I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people” (Psalm 116:14, 18).
Pray with expectation. Worship God. Live with integrity. That’s how we ought to live when things are going good, let alone when times are tough. Don’t let the adversity that invades your life keep you from doing life the way you’re supposed to do life. In other words, your problems are not an excuse to bail on God. Keep praying, keep worshipping, and keep living with integrity in front of your peers.
Acts 10 is the story of two people. The scene opens with a man named Cornelius, a prominent Roman military leader who was compassionate toward others. You get the feel that he was well respected by those who knew him. He was a good man; in fact, one of only five men in the Bible who are called “good.” That’s quite a compliment! But despite all of his goodness and his many acts of charity, he still had a huge hole in his heart. There was a vacuum within. He knew it, and God knew it.
Cue the next scene. The story transports the reader to another location where one finds Peter atop a roof deep in prayer. While in prayer, Peter had a vision. In his vision, a sheet descended from heaven filled with a variety of animals that didn’t exactly fit the Jewish dietary laws. A voice came from heaven that instructed Peter to kill and eat the animals. Peter protested to God and passed on the ham sandwich. After the vision repeated itself the third time, Peter got the point.
What was God doing? He was trying to get the gospel to Cornelius, but in order to do so he had to disturb and disrupt Peter from his comfort zone. As I thought about this passage, it made me wonder how willing I was to get uncomfortable for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. How about you? What comprises your spiritual comfort zone? Religious tradition? Dress? Political party? Socio-economic status? Skin color?
We must never forget that the call of the gospel is a call to become like Jesus Christ and not like ourselves. In order to make an impact in today’s culture, it may require people like you and me to leave the limits of familiarity and take some steps into new territory.
We are usually most comfortable in the comfort and security of our own homes. The farther away from home we venture, the greater our level of discomfort. Think of Jesus. Bethlehem’s manger was a fair piece from the throne of glory. Yet Jesus left his comfort zone and took on flesh and came to our polluted planet. It seems the least we could do is walk across the room.
I believe for every one of us there is at least one corresponding person like Cornelius who is waiting for us to be willing to take the risk leaving where we want to be to head to where we need to be. Think about it. It could change your life, and someone else’s, too!