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It’s a Covenant

“I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” -Hebrews 8:10b (NIV)

For more than 200 years many Christians have begun a new year with a worship time called a “Watch Night Service.” Influenced by a Moravian practice, in 1740 John Wesley held the first Watch Night Service. It was a time of reflection, testimonies, singing, and prayer. Later Wesley would call them “Covenant Renewal Services.”

In the book of Hebrews, the writer places this statement in the context of God’s dealing with His people in the Old Testament: “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Hebrews 8:10)

Few concepts or terms are more basic to the Bible story than that of covenant.  It is not a concept unfamiliar to us either, though the term may not be as common as some others—contract, agreement, deal.  God’s relation to His people (from the Biblical perspective) is a covenant relationship.  It is about a relationship governed by promises, obligations.  God is the initiator and prime determiner but His people have a part to play.

The blessings of the covenant are more than part of a ceremony. They become reality in the life of His people.

The Bible makes clear that at the heart of the covenant is God’s love. You are important to God, more important than the whole world.  And that applies not just to the saints.  Whoever you are, whatever your past or present state, even your future, God loves you.

The Old Testament story shows a people who are hard-headed, unfaithful, ungrateful, unloving, and untrustworthy who repeatedly break their promises to God and break His heart.  The book of Hosea compared them to an unfaithful wife, an adulteress.  His book is 14 chapters of sins and shameful behavior.  In dramatic fashion, God compares his love to that of a husband to an unfaithful wife:

The LORD said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.” (Hosea 3:1 NIV)

What does God say about all that?  I love you.  I have chosen you. God’s love (graciousness) is prior to everything else—our sins, our faith, our righteousness and it lasts beyond all else, in spite of all else. Even if we have been a total disaster as a person, a church; no matter how long the list of charges against us might be; how far we have left God, He is pursuing us like the “hound of heaven.”  Should we ultimately make our bed in hell, it will be over the broken pieces of God’s heart for He will still love us.

In 2017, can we assume our part of the covenant and love God back with all our heart, soul, and mind? It is my prayer for you and for myself.

 

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Always Encouraging

Encourage one another daily. (Hebrews 3:13)

Since I attended the University of Iowa and spent more than thirty years of my life in Iowa, I was especially interested when Iowa played Duke in the NCAA basketball tournament some years ago. You see I have been a Duke fan for all my life. When Duke won the game I’ll never forget the reaction of some of the Iowa players. The thing that impressed them about the Duke team was “They’re always encouraging each other.” Not they’re great shooters or rebounders or ball handlers but they encouraged each other.

Encouragement is a powerful element for success in any facet of life. And nowhere is that more true than in the life of living for Jesus, being Christian. As you read about the early Christians in the book of Acts you get this refrain “they encouraged” one another.
Just one of many examples: “Paul sent for the disciples and, after encouraging them, said good-by.”

Sisters/Bothers, God has made provision for Monday morning, for the discouragement that lurks around the corner, for the draining effect of the battle. It is encouragement. That is the primary ministry that we are to have to one another—“always encouraging.”

Power AND Love

More than once I have heard God say that power belongs to him and that his love is constant. –Psalm 62:11,12 b (GN trans)

Recently a young woman came to our church saying she was overwhelmed with life.  She thought it hopeless and didn’t see how she could go on.

Do you sometimes feel a little overwhelmed with life?  Does it sometimes seem like no matter how hard you try, no matter how many times you overcome particular obstacles, life just keeps relentlessly eroding your strength, your resolve, your confidence?  Does it seem to you, that life just becomes more and more complicated and harder to keep together?

Flip Wilson once expressed it this way.  “If I had my entire life to live over, I doubt if I’d have the strength.”  Dilbert, the comic strip character had this advice: “When you don’t know what to do, walk fast and look worried.  Eat one live toad the first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”

Jesus warned his disciples these times would come.  He paints a rather gloomy picture of the course of history.  We are specifically told that it is not about progress—things aren’t getting better and better.  To the contrary, civilization will become more and more dangerous, more and more ungodly, more and more inhuman.  Only God’s personal intervention will bring this to an end.

He warned of the threat it poses to our spirit.  He described it in terms of its effect on the heart.  Hearts will fail for fear.  There is the danger of our hearts becoming “weighed down” so much that we would be unable to keep our spiritual perspective and could even be caught unprepared for God’s glorious intervention.

At her request, I prayed with the young woman mentioned earlier.  I also shared with her these words from Psalm 62: One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard: that you O God, are strong, and that you O Lord, are loving.  It is critical that we hold those two things together.  But it is not easy.  We tend to either emphasize God’s love or God’s power.  Put those two things together and nothing is hopeless.  God cares about you and will use his power for your good.

Yes, we live in perilous times for the human spirit.  Yet we live in times of unprecedented opportunities and are closer to God’s final victory than any people have ever been.

Me First! ?

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake. I Peter 2:13.

Over the years I have received two criticisms which I consider to be two of the best compliments I ever got.  One was that I talked “too much about Jesus.”  I only hope that I have talked as much about Jesus as that suggests.  The other was that I had “quit preaching and gone to meddling.”  In this case, I believe that, in the best sense of the word, the Gospel is meddlesome.  It has to do with where we live.  Peter certainly thought so.  This verse is the heading for a section (2:13-3:12) on a Christian’s relationships.  It identifies a basic relationship principle: submit.  (Do not read this as “submit to evil” or unhealthy domination.  It is qualified by “for the Lord’s sake” and the other’s best interests.)

          The title of a little book by Paul Tournier,  names the fundamental human dilemma—To Resist or to Surrender.  He says,

“Whether it is a farmer selling a cow at the fair or two theologians discussing doctrine, an adolescent who is trying to extract a privilege from his unwilling parents or diplomats who are negotiating war or peace, there are always two interests, two convictions, and in the last analysis, two wills which confront each other” (Tournier, To Resist Or To Surrender, 13).

          The prevailing emphasis in our culture is on assertiveness and the Biblical text seems so naive when it makes submission the foundation stone of human relationships:  others first, give vs receive, serve vs be served.  Some sample Bible verses echo it:

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.  (Eph 5:21)
Honor one another above yourselves. (Roms. 12:10)
In humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each of your should look not only to your owns interests, but also to the interests of others. (Phil 2:3b-4)

Conventional thought says, “if you don’t watch out for yourself no one else will.”  The Bible says, “yes—the Christian will.”

          Since we live in a day, as someone has said, “The words of the Christian community have outrun its exemplary living,” we need to renew our commitment to this principle. (IB,113).

Loving Life

Whoever would love life… -I Peter 3:10

          How important is life to you; to most people?  Who wants to die?
The rather normal and expected answers are that everyone (unless something is wrong with them) believes life precious and clings to it.
        So the text which says “whoever wishes to love life” seems strange to us.  The suggestion that ordinary, normal, healthy people may not love life is met with disbelief.  Is Peter so out of touch with reality?  Or, is he talking to people for whom life is so painful and difficult that anything would be better?
          At first glance, the latter seems to be a likely explanation—these people are in the midst of, or at least facing terrible persecution.  This is an underlying theme of the whole letter.  Certainly that would be an important message for people for whom life has dealt a cruel hand.
          However, giving that its due credit, when you see the solution he suggests, it becomes clear that this applies to everyone not just a hand-full of persecuted first century Christians.
          It is a fact that not everyone loves life.  In the Bible, the writer of Ecclesiastes is direct:  “So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me.  All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” (Ecc. 2:17)
          Peter wrote in a day of much cynicism about life and it is a growing attitude in our time.  Earnest Hemingway expressed it when he said, “I live in a vacuum that is as lonely as a radio tube when the batteries are dead and there is no current to plug into.”  For many, life is characterized by frustration and boredom.
Do you love life?  I don’t mean do you want to live as the better of two alternatives.  It is one thing to say we love life in the abstract and quite another to love the particulars of our life.
          The pursuit of satisfaction in life is major preoccupation of an affluent society.  Some seek it in success.  Others believe possessions, things deliver what they long for.  Years ago I read this story:

A wealthy man moved into a new house, next-door to a Quaker.  Quakers believe in plainness and simplicity.  The Quaker watched as the moving company unloaded a great amount of furniture, clothes, and decorative things.
Finally, he walked over to his new neighbor and said, “Neighbor, if thee hath need of anything, please come to see me and I will tell thee how to get along without it.”

            To those early Christians, persecuted and suffering, Peter tells the secret to loving life whatever one’s circumstances: “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep their tongue from evil and their lips from deceitful speech.  They must turn from evil and do good; they must seek peace and pursue it.”
In short, do good.  Goodness is not just what you ought to do, it is also the best way to live.  It is living in tune with God and His ways, it is living the way we were intended, the way we work best.  What you say and do, the way you relate to people is the key to loving life.
The kind of goodness called for begins with love for Christ.  “In your hearts give Christ a unique place.”  I Peter 3:15 (Barclay)
Do you want to love life?  Make Jesus Lord of your life.

Be My Valentine

For God so loved…that He gave…His son…. John 3:16

Today, Valentine’s Day, love is on everybody’s mind, everywhere you look and crosses lips where it’s seldom at any other time mentioned.  We are told by retailers to say it with flowers, chocolate, jewelry and anything else they’re trying to peddle.

But we have a problem with the word “love.”  We say, “I love ice cream, my house, baseball, to swim, listen to good music and my wife” (not necessarily in that order).  We can really get confused about what love means.  I once heard Stuart Briscoe say we think love means “to like an awful lot.”  However, it is possible to love someone and not like them at all.

The benchmark, the standard of love’s expression is found in these words: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever heart-cross-thumb12673094believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)  And that provides us with the clearest idea of love.  It is not in words but deeds.  It is not about how we feel (as nice as that might be) but what we do.

Even in the church we are not always clear.  I heard someone say that Jesus came to show us God’s love.  It is as if our only message to the world is “smile, God loves you.”  It’s great to know that but the real message is because of God’s love Jesus died on the cross for my sins (yours too).

Then Jesus really set the bar for us when He said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)  Nothing less than to love the way God loves will do.  The only way that can happen is to receive God’s love and let God express that love through us.

Whom Shall I Love?

Love your neighbor as yourself  Luke 10:27 

” Few stories have so made an impression on the world as this.  It has been called most practical of parables.  Read the story

A lawyer asks the most important question―Jesus was often asked.  “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?  A difficult question, he thought.  “Love God, Love your neighbor,” Jesus answers simply.

Now the lawyer asks what he thinks is an unanswerable question.  “Who is my neighbor―whom shall I love?  The theologian, Helmut Thielicke calls this ”theological fencing.”  He says, “He is itching to slip like an eel from his grasp if this Jesus would reach out for his soul.  He had rubbed his inner man, as it were, with soap.  Countless people do that.  Any pastor can tell you about these slippery souls….As long as a man has some pious questions to ask he doesn’t need to act.”  To speculate and brood about theological questions to escape responsiblity is wrong!

This shows a basic misunderstanding of love.  It has no boundaries to love except need and ability.  “Love ‘like the sun, which does not ask on what it shall shine, or what it shall warm, but shines and warms by the very law of its own being’” (William Trench).

Jesus tells the story, the story most often called “The Good Samaritan.”  A man beaten and robbed along the road and left for dead is helped not by the religious who pass by but by one normally an enemy to this man.

And Jesus asks, “Who was the neighbor to the man?  A different question than the lawyer had asked, one which reverses the question.  A neighbor is one who shows mercy, has compassion, one with a “big heart.”  And we are reminded that, “Anybody who loves must always be prepared to have his plans interrupted.”(168).

          To whom am I a neighbor?  To whom are you a neighbor?