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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.

 

Made Whole

Luke 17:19-Your faith has made you whole.

One day as Jesus travels he is encountered by ten men who are lepers. The horror of their predicament is illustrated by the fact that they cannot even approach Jesus but, from a distance, plead for his pity.

Jesus issues simple instructions to go show themselves to the priests; a requirement for anyone healed of leprosy to have it verified. And the text says, “as they went, they were cleansed.” Interesting—not “they were cleansed and went” but as they went. They obeyed and were healed.

Then one of them, only one, seeing he was healed returned to praise God and thank Jesus.

Does this incident surprise you?  It did Jesus!  I find it hard to say that and wondered if I could (I know the theological difficulty).  In one sense Jesus is never surprised.  He is God.  But, he is also human and in a human sense, he was surprised.  He was also apparently very disappointed.  It shows in his words: “Were not all ten cleansed?  Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Then Jesus adds the words that put a whole different light on this story.

“Rise and go; your faith has made you well [whole].” Did you notice? All were “cleansed” or “healed.” But only this man was said to be made whole. Or as the Message has it: “Your faith has healed and saved you.”

Physical healing is great but it is not salvation. Fixing some problem we have, helping us be a better person, giving us insight into a puzzling situation all are things for which to be grateful. But only our faith in Jesus provides salvation, makes us whole.

The point of it all is to be made whole.  To stop short of that is to accept a treatment that deals with the symptoms rather than radical surgery which produces a cure. God wants to make you whole.

The nine received a touch from God, and they probably went on to do what they were told, but they were not made whole. It made them better able to fit into the community, better citizens but it did not produce the indelible stamp of faith: gratitude. When God touches us, then our praise, gratitude takes precedence over everything else!

God, don’t let me settle for anything less than being made whole.

What God Offers That No One Wants

For you have been given…the privilege…of suffering. –Phillipians 1:29

Last week a young man in our community in his mid-twenties died suddenly and unexpectedly. Something like that raises questions which we can’t answer. But, for most people death, however untimely, can be accepted as part of the order of things.

Something much more problematic for those who believe in God is suffering. In fact we often try to deal with a loved one’s death by saying, “She/He doesn’t have to suffer any more. It has been said that Americans know only one stance toward suffering—“get rid of it.” Dr. Jack Kervorkian, who assisted dozens to die, said that he was helping end suffering.

Carmen Benson, in the midst of a long struggle said, “I can bear suffering for a little while, but after years of it—pain heaped upon pain, with never a day of respite—I find it just too much! Surely that cannot be God’s will for anyone!”

Is it just possible that our preoccupation with escaping pain, suffering run counter to God’s working in our lives and thus prevents us from maturing spiritually?

This is a delicate matter, a holy matter and we need to enter only in humility and caution. Benson wrote “Our minister spoke glowingly of all that suffering does to refine the character…. tender… compassionate. The only thing lacking was that he doesn’t do much suffering.”

No one in their right mind wants suffering. To seek it, for its own sake, a martyr’s complex is a sickness itself.

That being said, suffering is a part of life, even a Christian’s life. Oswald Chambers once wrote, “An average view of the Christian life is that it means deliverance from trouble. It is deliverance in trouble, which is very different.”

There is, of course, needless suffering—humanly caused, or that can be avoided, or healed by God’s grace. But the Biblical message is that suffering is a means of grace when faced in trusting obedience to God. Benson is right—“It is always God’s will to make us whole, but not to heal us physically [or to rescue us from suffering] —it is to cure us.”

Dave Dravecky was a young baseball pitcher for the San Francisco Giants. A cancerous tumor was discovered in Dave’s pitching arm. After a lengthy battle his arm had to be amputated. Dave and his wife, are Christians. He said, “Looking back, [my wife] Jan and I have learned that the wilderness is part of the landscape of faith, and every bit as essential as the mountaintop….Both places should bring us to our knees: the one in utter awe; the other, in utter dependence.”

Jesus attained His goal by suffering. Likewise, it may be said that our goal of spiritual maturity does not come without suffering. But suffering is not eternal. It does end. That is God’s promise to us.

The Great Experiment

Your light must shine before people, so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven. -Matthew 5:16b

Today is July 4th, Independence Day in the United States. It is the birthday of this country, what has been called “The Great Experiment.” Christians living that experiment have become different from most other Christians in history. We have enjoyed a favored status. The government and larger culture have accommodated, even in some ways supported those calling themselves Christian. Many have seen this as a “Christian” nation, at least in name if not in fact.

Christians in most other countries for most of history have had a different and often more difficult journey as followers of Jesus. They have had to live as minorities with governments and societies less than friendly toward them or even hostile. So they have learned to live the life more nearly matching Jesus’ words, “in the world you will have tribulation.”

But things have changed for Christians in our country. We are becoming a more secular country and more and more find ourselves in opposition to decisions of our government and opinions of our neighbors. And we often do not know how to react.

Some express and become motivated by anger, fear or defeatism. None of these are characteristics that Jesus has taught and modeled for his followers.

So, how can Christians in our society avoid either compromising our Biblical principles or becoming angry and bitter self-imposed cultural exiles?

I believe the answer is found in one word—grace. We saw it modeled in Charleston. We heard it proclaimed by President Obama at the funeral for the slain pastor. It shows when we don’t get our way, when we are good losers. So when a law is passed by the democratic process which we don’t agree with, we respect it. It shows when we are mistreated, misunderstood or misrepresented. We don’t return evil for evil or hatred for hatred but overcome them by good, by love.

The “Great Experiment” was that people, all kinds of people would live together with their differences intact but accepting of each other. Jesus’ followers in such a place are to be “salt and light” and full of grace.

Don’t Get Over It

 When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Romans 5:6 (NLT)¹

Some years ago I read about a story Garrison Keilor told of a family Thanksgiving dinner:

The table was laden with food. But the hostess made the mistake of calling on Uncle Joe (not real name) to give thanks. We all knew that Uncle Joe would talk about the cross and when he talked about the cross he would cry. Sure enough he did.

There’s nothing that makes people more nervous than to hear a grown man cry. We shifted from foot to foot.

“We all knew that Jesus died for our sins, but Uncle Joe never got over it.”

I wonder if a lot of us haven’t gotten over it.  We’ve moved on to God helps me in my troubles, comforts me in my sorrow, heals my sickness, provides resources to make me successful at my job, in my relationships.  All good and important things. But the bottom line is Jesus died for our sins.

Dear God, don’t let me get over it.

¹Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007, 2013 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved

Listening To God (2)

“God…has spoken” –Hebrews 1:1,2-
“Listen and understand. –Matthew 15:10

Listening is the primary starting place for a journey with God. The Bible is the primary place we hear God. That’s not a misprint. In spite of the problems our culture sees with it, the Bible is what God says to us, in writing.

There is no denying it can be daunting, at least in the beginning. There is no denying there are some things we don’t understand. According to Eugene Peterson, classicist, Gilbert Highet “used to say that anyone who reads the Bible and isn’t puzzled at least half the time doesn’t have his mind on what he is doing.” But every period of renewal and revival, reformation has come as God’s people returned to the Book—reading, studying, teaching. It is there we hear God. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.

It is important to remember that the reading, studying are not ends in themselves but means to hearing God. As Jim Cymbala puts it “Christianity is not predominantly a teaching religion…The teaching of sound doctrine is a prelude, if you will, to the supernatural.”

Need direction? Need understanding? Need encouragement? Need correction? Need salvation? Listen; God has what you need.

To Tell the Truth

The truth will set you free. -John 8:32

Have you ever thought about how hard it is to tell the truth in church. Surprised? Do you believe the church is the place of truth? Do you assume that unlike other institutions, places, and people the church is different because here we find the truth? Of course, the church is the custodian of truth, specifically the gospel truth. Of course the church is the place where you don’t expect people to lie to you, and most of the time they don’t.

So when I talk about it being hard to tell the truth, I don’t mean we tell lies to each other (though it’s not unheard of). Rather, it is how we often fail to think about or talk about the negative, the problems, the unflattering things. Of course some people see only negative and some who are never happy with anything. Some of them use every chance possible to point out shortcomings (real or imagined).

We are often guilty of trying so hard to “sell” our story, our church, ourselves to others that we distort the truth by only talking about the positive. Sometimes, we also hide unpleasant matters by “creatively” interpreting facts so that we maintain an upbeat atmosphere.

We sometimes “kid” ourselves about our own spiritual condition. We don’t express our real opinions because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings or cause problems. We accept shoddy efforts because after all, they’re just volunteers.
Usually this is not done for wrong motives but because we have mistaken notions about protecting image and feelings. In some cases we just don’t think. I know that I’ve probably been guilty myself. I want people to feel good about the church, themselves and (I have to admit it) me. So I don’t notice or don’t mention anything that might prevent that.

Now some of this is simply using good judgment. For example you don’t write a brochure for prospective new people and talk about negative issues (You don’t mislead either). We see that the positives far outweigh the negatives, and rightly emphasize them to prevent a “negative spirit” from discouraging us.

The point of all this is that we need to learn to trust each other and God enough so that we can face real problems and issues that affect our ability to grow as disciples, to reach the unchurched and make all disciples. As a church we have a lot of strengths but like all churches we also have weaknesses. While I do believe we need to focus on our strengths, we also need to deal with weaknesses. Identifying them, acknowledging them, talking about them is never easy but necessary so that we can deal with them in constructive ways.

My prayer is that God will help us be honest with ourselves and speak the truth to one another in love.