Friday, July 29, 2016

Justly Justified

Should the 10 Commandments be posted in public places or on public buildings?  There’s a controversial subject.  Some think that they have no business in these public places and some think that the fall of humankinds rests on where they are posted.

For commands that God gave to humankind, people have all manner of opinions about where to put them but don’t seem to be asking God about what he said about where we should post these.  We need only but visit the first part of the Shema. 

 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts.  Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

The Law has purpose.  It is among the many gifts that God gave his people.  He gave them an identity, a sign in the flesh, a land promised to them from centuries before, a blessing and a charge, and through them the Messiah as well.  God also gave his people the law.  

Paul goes so far as to say that the law was entrusted to his people.  It is more than a gift to his people.  It is a trust.  We should not just dismiss the law.

But God’s own people didn’t follow the law very well.  They were unfaithful in many ways.  Paul notes that through his own people’s unfaithfulness, we know God’s faithfulness even more.  You might think that the unfaithfulness of God’s own people would detract from God’s faithfulness.

Not so.  It sets the faithfulness of God in stark contrast to the sinful nature of man.

Paul notes that some would and surely have argued, “If my shortcomings and transgressions make God’s righteousness and glory stand in such stark contrast and people can see his glory even more; why should I be held accountable for my sin.  It seems like I am doing a public service here.”

“Let’s do some more evil so that God will make some good come out of it.”

Paul tells us that such human arguments are terrible thinking.  Think back to Joseph’s 10 older brothers when Joseph told them what you intended for evil, God intended for good.  What if they would have said, “That’s cool.  Let’s go do more evil.”

Paul said that this sort of thinking is out there and needs to be condemned.  It is stinkin’ thinkin’.

We are all under sin’s condemnation—at least at this point in Paul’s build up to God’s grace.  Neither Jew nor Gentile measure up.

Paul reflects upon thoughts that we believe are rooted in Psalm 36.  No person is righteous—not a single person!  The words that we know best are all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

The world takes these words and says let’s just all have a big pity party.  Let’s just wallow in how hopeless everything is and do whatever we want because it really doesn’t matter anyway.

Paul’s letter takes us somewhere else but first let’s bring this matter of the law into perspective.  This law given by God to his own chosen people, entrusted to them, could never get his people to right standing with him.

So what’s the point?

Everyone has fallen short.  Everyone has missed the mark.  Everyone stands condemned.  So what is the point of the law?

Through the law we become conscious of sin.  We are aware of our transgression.  We know that we have fallen short of God’s glory.

Wow!  We can now join the world’s pity party.

No.  Now it’s time for Paul to lead his readers to God’s grace—for there is right standing with God that comes from God but apart from the law.  Compliance with the law could never bring about right standing with God but the law set the stage for the acceptance of the greatest gift that the world has ever known.

And Paul takes us from the total depravity of humankind as John Calvin would later describe it to atonement, redemption, justification, and grace as he concludes this chapter. 

It was as if at this point in the letter, Tertius, Paul’s scribe, stopped writing and said to Paul, “Enough with the hopeless state of affairs among men.  Do you have any good news?”

In this constructive conversation, Paul would reply:  “You want good news?  You want good news?  See if you can handle the good news!”

We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.
 For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins.  For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past,  for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus.
What’s our part in all of this?
To know that we have fallen short of God’s glory and there was nothing that we could do about it, but God—by the blood of his one and only Son—God made us right with him.
God was just.  He dispensed justice.  We were guilty.  Court was held on us—on humankind—after all these centuries and we were found and pronounced guilty. 
The sentence was death.  The sentence was carried out.  The sentence was executed.  Justice was done.
But God’s sentence was carried out upon his own flesh.  Jesus—the only man who ever lived a life without sin—was executed for our sin.  He took our place.  Justice was done.
Because of this, we may freely receive God’s grace.  We are made right with him, and because we receive this gift freely by faith; we have nothing to brag about.
God did it all.
Make sure that we get this part.  We could never make ourselves right with God.  It just was not going to happen.  Try as we may, we could never fully comply with God’s law.  There was and is something missing in us.
What’s missing is not a personality trait.  It is not self discipline.  It is not something that a Law of Moses Boot Camp would ever fix.
What is missing from us is a connection with God.  Compliance with rules and regulations could not connect us.
The rules could show us that we kept missing the mark.  The law was a good consultant and could point out our shortcomings, but only the free gift of God could reconcile us and restore the relationship for which we were made.
Sin is detestable.  Sin must be judged. Sin was judged and justice was done.  On the cross, Jesus said:  “It is finished.”
I like to ask people challenging questions.  I’m not sure if that is my gift or some sort of penance, but in either case; I often ask Christians who are firm in their faith the following question.
Are you a sinner saved by grace?
Many will say that they are.  I challenge them to claim their identity as a child of God.  You are exactly who God made you to be.
Your story, well it surely includes being a sinner saved by grace; but your identity is a child of God.  Through faith alone, we have received a gift that we never deserved but which God’s heart has longed to give us since the foundation of the earth.
We are his kids, his children, his loved ones.
Sin is part of our story.  All have fallen short of God’s glory.
The law is part of our story, not in the way it was in Paul’s time, but we know that this law that was entrusted to God’s Chosen People is fulfilled in our knowing our shortcomings and desiring the free gift of grace.
But our identity has been restored to what it was always meant to be.  We are children of our loving heavenly Father.  Through faith, we have received this gift of redemption and favor and reconciliation and grace.  Atonement for our sins has been made.
We are justified by a just God.  He didn’t skip any steps and bypass his own law.  We paid nothing but we are right with holy God.
The law is important but faith is essential.
The law shows us where we failed to comply but faith brings us to accepting the free gift.
The law was entrusted to a special people until a way to right standing with God was given to all people by faith.
Back to my initial provocation—should we post the 10 commandments in public buildings or not?
If that’s your cause, then go for it.  I would rather see monuments to faith in God by people seeing their own transgressions and turning to God.
I would rather see a nation that seeks God’s kingdom and his righteousness before any secular cause.
I would rather see what the writer of Hebrews called the evidence of things not seen.  I will leave it to you to decide if that is a dichotomy, an oxymoron, or another one of Tom’s paradoxes.
I would rather see faith than monuments or engraved words.
Paul will talk more about faith in the chapters to come.  I ask that we understand where the world knows it falls short and holds a pity party; we see that we too fall short but have all been given a measure of faith to receive God’s free gift of grace to us.
We have received forgiveness that we did not deserve.
We live in the favor that God has longed to pour out upon us.  Now he can and he does for he has justly dealt with sin and has justified us.
It is time for us to live, fully live, in our right standing with God and bring glory to his name.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Cardio Circumcision

Read Romans 2

Romans has been described as Paul’s most systematic and comprehensive theological treatise.  It is sometimes referred to as the Gospel according to Paul.  While it was composed in the format of a letter and delivered as a letter, it very much resembles a theology textbook.

Paul had not yet been to Rome.  He wrote this epistle from Corinth and he would arrive in Rome courtesy of the Empire in a few short years.  He did know many who were associated with the congregation in Rome so these people were not complete strangers.

But the letter is written to someone who needed to start close to the beginning.  Paul started at a different beginning than he would have had he been writing to an entirely Jewish audience.  He started with God and creation in their most evident form.  There is no Adam and Eve, no fall in the Garden of Eden, no first murder, no Noah or Abraham; Paul just starts with God and everyone knowing—or at least should have known--that there was and is a God.

Paul does know that the folks in the Roman congregation do know about the Jewish people and their fixation on circumcision and being sons of Abraham.  There were surely Jews among this congregation in the heart of the pagan world.

The second chapter continues this same discourse.  It can seem like an admonishment, but this is where we need to go into our textbook reading mode.  I don’t think that Paul is chewing out this congregation such as he did in his letter to the Galatians.  He is admonishing all of humankind with a keen awareness that people of that age were categorized—at least by God’s people—as Jew and Gentile.

Keep in mind that Paul is working his way up to introducing Christ.  He is writing to a “Christian” congregation but presuming very little about their foundation.

The Jews had the law and some thought that by that fact alone, they were right with God.  Paul noted that they had the law but did not live by it.  They judged others who did not have the law but would not keep the complete law themselves.

That could be ancient history or it could hit too close to home today.  We are saved by grace and have God’s word to guide us.  We have the Spirit to lead us.  We have direct access to God himself with Jesus interceding for us.

And what do we do?

Too often we pick the parts of the Bible that we like and live by them but also judge others by them.  We ignore or skip over or conveniently forget other parts of God’s word that don’t float our boat.  Sometimes we have filters to screen out where the Holy Spirit might be leading us.

Paul’s point was that people in general don’t always do what God tells them to do even when they know exactly what it is.  In that day, the law prescribed how people were to live.
But the Gentile world didn’t have the law, so were they just out of luck?

No.  Some were directed by something of an inward compass and did what the law would have required in some circumstance even though they did not have the law or know what it said.

People with and without God’s law have tried to live good lives.  They—and that includes us—we can never quite get it right.  If you jump ahead just a little, Paul spells it out.

All have sinned.  We have all fallen short.  Nobody is pitching a perfect game here.

So you can’t claim to be blameless because you have the law and you are not condemned because you never heard of the law. 

This should be no surprise to anyone here but Paul introduced the Romans to something that we know from when the prophet Samuel was selecting a king from among Jesse’s sons.  God looks at the inside.  People judge by outward appearance but God sees the heart.

We know that God’s word judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.  God sees a different person that we see.  God sees the heart.  God sees the true person that he made.

Paul hit the Jews pretty hard in this chapter.  They boasted in the lineage and in their circumcision and in having the law.  Paul said that they dishonored God in knowing who they were and what they should have done and they disobeyed God’s law.

It is sort of like when we send our kids to camp.  We don’t just send our kids to camp to have fun and learn about God.  They are charged to remember who they are and live that way.  They represent this church body and they need to be setting the best examples in the entire camp.

God’s people should have been a light in the darkness for the gentile world.  Instead, they often became the laughing stock of that world.

Paul wrote that the real mark of a Jew—of God’s Chosen People—is not a sign in the flesh but a sign in the Spirit.  It is a circumcised heart—the ungodliness of our human nature cut away and our divine nature that we have received from our creator revealed.

In the context of the letter, Paul is still working up to Jesus and grace, but he gives us this reminder about the condition of our hearts.  He reminds us that God sees our true nature.

Jesus reprimanded the Pharisees many times.  One time he used the examples of cups and tombs.  You clean the outside of the cup but leave the inside a mess.  You whitewash the outside of a tomb but inside are just a bunch of dead bones.

Outwardly you may appear righteous but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

Paul is telling the church in Rome, “You can’t fool God.  He knows what is going on in your heart.”

We will get to where Paul is taking us over the next several weeks but let’s pause for a moment and think about what’s going on with us on the outside and on the inside.

Do we log our time in the pews as a duty—something you gotta do so everyone will know I was there?  And I sure hope that I get extra credit for staying awake.  Or do we sing along with Johnny Russell and sing, “There’s no place that I’d rather be than right here?”

Do we show up for the Walk A Block for Jesus thinking, “There are 20 other things that I could be doing with my Saturday morning but I better show up so the preacher will see me?”  Or do we long to do something like this once a month?  Do we love taking God’s love into the community?

Do we smile at our coworkers so they don’t ask us how it’s going and we have to lie?  Or do we truly have the joy of the Lord in our heart?  Is our joy in the Lord or in our circumstances?

I have filled in at some churches where the service ends at noon and at 12:03 the doors are being locked.  Two people are there to thank me for filling their pulpit but people have places to be and things to do and this Sunday morning thing has been checked off.

Almost every week I am witness to a congregation that has places to go and they just happen to be in one of them and are not in a hurry to be somewhere else.  The service might end at a little before noon or a quarter after, but as 1:00 p.m. rolls around, people are still enjoying the fellowship of one another.

There is joy and peace and fellowship and these gatherings conclude gradually and not abruptly.  Sometimes I head out reminding the last group of folks to turn the lights out when they leave.  Depending who it is, sometimes I also add, “Aim and flush” just in case they need a pit stop before they hit the road.

What is going on in our hearts?  Do we really love being God’s people?

You can fake it on the outside but if you really want to live this life to the full, you need joy and peace in your heart.  

You need to believe that God loves you and that he has reconciled you to himself.  You are his and that will not change.

Regardless of what is going on around us, God’s love for us will never end.

Some of us have dissonance of the heart.  There is no such condition, at least officially.  Dissonance occurs in the mind, right?  Unresolved and conflicting beliefs that won’t be reconciled are all cognitive, right?

Do we long for God’s peace and hope and acceptance and unconditional love; yet want to be a friend with the ways of the world at the same time?  What does our heart long for?

What are the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts?

Are we keeping scorecards of our outward actions and appearance and judging the same in others?  Are we still trying to see how we stack up against everyone else?

Paul has some more writing to do before he gets to the part about God’s grace but we are people who know and should live in and grow in God’s grace.

That means that the condition of our hearts should be good.  Our spiritual cardiologist should be giving us a thumbs up.  But if we really examine our hearts what would we find?

If we find anxiety, we need to scope it out.

If we find condemnation, we need a stint or two to let generosity flow out from our hearts.

If we have despair, we might just need a heart transplant.

We need to remember that Jesus said that we must be born again to enter the Kingdom of heaven.  In that rebirth, we need a new heart.  We need a heart governed by love and joy and peace and understanding and compassion.  We need a heart that is more divine than it is human.

We need a heart that says my smile on the outside truly does reflect my heart’s thoughts and attitudes on the inside.  We need fidelity between what’s going on inside of us and what we portray on the outside—and that should be joy and hope and peace and love.

Paul’s letter will get to grace in due time, but we should be fully living in and growing in God’s grace now.

Our selfish human nature has been cut away and God’s divine heart is revealed.  Let God’s heart rule in our lives.  

Let’s truly be born again by living by God’s heart that is within us.


Sunday, July 17, 2016

What you intended for evil...

This has been a tough year for violence—senseless violence.  Just when you think it can’t get any worse, evil finds a way to do more and more.  In this post-modern century, evil is still at work in the word.

Evil is still at work in the world.   Don’t you just wish that you could turn back the clock to another time?

This morning, we will turn back the clock about 4000 years and introduce a man named Jacob.  He was the son of Isaac who was the son of Abraham.  God would call him Israel.  Read chapters 32 and 35 when you get a chance.

He had many sons himself, from 2 wives and 2 maidservants.  One of these sons was named Joseph.  The Vacation Bible School that just took place centered on this man named Joseph, his dreams, and his journey from prison to palace.

Joseph and Benjamin were the youngest children, born to Rachel, but it was Joseph whom was given a richly ornate robe.   Today we have come to call it his coat of many colors. 

His brothers were jealous.  Imagine hearing, “Dad loves you more” from 10 older brothers.  Benjamin was younger.  Perhaps this jealously would have just played out in wrestling matches and double dog dares, but Joseph had dreams and he shared them.

Sheaves of his brothers bowing to his own sheave and even the sun, moon, and stars bowing to him upset his brothers and even his father.  What are you saying here kid?  You will rule over us?  Is that it?

It seemed that everyone was upset with Joseph, but note verse 37:11.  Jacob kept the matter in mind.  That is, he pondered these thoughts of his young son as more than just the crazy rebelliousness of a young man.

The story of Joseph really comes into full swing when his 10 older brothers are tending flocks and Israel sends him to check on them.  He heads out to Scheckem and finds they are not there.  After some discussion with a local, he believes them to be in Dothan and sets out to find them.

The brothers saw him coming.  Perhaps this is the first known use of the overused saying, “They saw you coming.”  It fits.

They saw him coming and started plotting.  Among the schemes was an option to kill their young brother.  Reuben intervened and convinced them to throw him in an empty well.  Don’t think that Joseph was just going along with whatever his brothers decided.  He did pleaded for his life.

During this time when Joseph was in the cistern, Reuben went somewhere.  We don’t know exactly what happened next.  Perhaps it was Reuben’s turn to watch the sheep, but what happened next transpired without the oldest brother present. 

A caravan of Ishmaelites was headed their way.  The brothers had decided not to kill Joseph.  Even if they hated him, he was still flesh and blood kin.  They decided to sell him to the traders and received 20 shekels of sliver for him.

When Reuben returned he was furious.  Well, not upset enough to go after his little brother.  The question remains unanswered whether or not he took his cut of the 20 shekels.  That’s a good topic for Monday night Bible study.

In any case Joseph was gone and they needed a cover story.  Upset or not, even Reuben would be complicit in this.  They took his ornate robe—no way that was included in the deal—and ripped it to pieces.  They slaughtered a goat and dipped it in its blood.

This is where you get to scratch your head and think, “And out of these men will come the tribes of God’s Chosen People.”

They are each 2 shekels richer by selling their brother.

Surely the flesh of the goat didn’t go to waste.  They had a goat roast party to celebrate their ill-gotten gains.

Finally, they bring the pieces of robe back to their father presenting it to him in feigned innocence saying, “does this look like your son’s coat?”  It’s pretty good as far as criminal thinking goes.  If you let dad draw his own conclusions, you don’t have to get 10 stories straight.

The story shifts back to Joseph.  He was sold to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard.  I’m sure you are wondering the same thing that I am.  What was the price?  The wholesale cost was 20 shekels of silver; what was the retail price of the man who would ultimately save Egypt and God’s Chosen People?

We don’t get that answer but we do get this:  “And the Lord was with Joseph and he prospered.”

Joseph, at whatever price Potiphar paid, was a bargain.  He was successful at everything he did and pretty soon he was running everything that his master could put in his charge.

I can imagine hearing the captain of the guard talking at the officers club.  “You wouldn’t believe the deal I got on this Hebrew kid.  He is smart, industrious, and it seems like everything I give him to do he finds a way to make it work.  I think I made the deal of a lifetime.”

The problem was that Joseph was what we might call a strapping young man and it seems that Potiphar’s wife was something of a cougar.  Yes, she wanted him.

In an encounter where she grabs his robe and he runs away not wanting any part of betraying his master, she is left with his robe and he is fleeing the scene.  The script gets flipped and Joseph is branded the aggressor.

Welcome to the Pharaoh’s prison where we are told that the Lord was with Joseph once again.  He became the warden’s favorite and even made a couple of friends. 

These were the Pharaoh’s former cupbearer and baker.  Each of which would present Joseph with dreams and Joseph would explain them.

The explanation was good for the cupbearer and not so good for the baker, but Joseph asked that when the cupbearer was restored to his position that he put in a good word for him.

Here we see that Joseph is faithful to trust in his Lord but not stoic.  He tells the cupbearer that he got a bum rap.  He was brought to Egypt not of his own free will and once here committed no crimes.

Of course that story goes around a few hundred time a day in prison, but Joseph saw an opportunity to get his case before Pharaoh and he was proactive.

The cupbearer was restored to his position and immediately pleaded for Joseph’s release.  No he didn’t.  He forgot to mention Joseph for a full 2 years.

He didn’t remember of his own accord but because the Pharaoh had dreams and nobody could help him to interpret them.  But the cupbearer remembered Joseph.

The Pharaoh’s dreams consisted of 7 fine looking head of cattle coming up out of the Nile followed by 7 of the scrawniest cows you could imagine.  To top it off, the scrawny cows ate the big healthy cows.

He had a second dream involving grain that portrayed the same message—a message that it took Joseph to reveal to the Pharaoh.  Egypt would be blessed with 7 years of abundance that would be followed by 7 years of famine.

Joseph didn’t stop there.  He prescribed what must be done.  In every part of Egypt, 1/5 of the harvest must be collected and stored for each of the 7 years.  That is 20% of each year’s harvest was to be held back by the government to weather the lean years to come.

Joseph then told Pharaoh that he must appoint a wise man to oversee this most important project.  Pharaoh knowing of no such man among his counselors and commanders and seeing God at work in Joseph, appointed Joseph.

At the Age of 30, this man who was discarded by his own brothers, sent to prison without cause, and seemed to be forgotten was now in charge of all of Egypt—all of it.  Only Pharaoh himself would not be answerable to Joseph.

He was given an Egyptian name:  Zaphenath-Paneah.  We don’t know what the name meant at the time; perhaps it was “Revealer of Secrets” or  “God Speaks.”  He was given a wife.  He was in charge and over all things in Egypt.  Joseph did what he had always done because the Lord was with him.  He executed the plan that would save many lives.

Now we return to Jacob and his sons.  Famine has come.  They are hungry.  Egypt has grain so he sends all but Benjamin to buy grain.  There are stories within stories that transpire next until Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers.

We jump ahead somewhat to God’s chosen people moving to Egypt, being given land in the hill country of Goshen, and beginning to grow into the nation of Israel in this foreign land.

Jacob—Israel lived 17 years in Egypt with all of his sons as this young nation began to emerge.  Then at the age of 147 years, he died.  He had given instructions to his sons that he was to be buried in Canaan in the place that Abraham had purchased long ago.

The Pharaoh granted Joseph leave to bury his father—how could he not.  Joseph had saved a nation, actually two nations.   So Joseph and his brothers buried their father.

Reality sunk in for the brothers.  Dad’s gone.  Our brother Joseph is the most powerful man in the world.  We did him wrong.  Now we are surely going to pay for what we did.

These brothers longed for forgiveness but know at best they can only be slaves.  Long ago they sold themselves into slavery.  These men are without hope.  They fall down at Joseph’s feet declaring themselves to be his slaves.
But Joseph said, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good, and the saving of many lives which is being accomplished now.”

Make no mistake, these brothers acted long ago with malice aforethought against their brother.  They plotted his death but settled for selling him into slavery.

This was hate in action.

They did evil.  They did wrong.  They did it to their own brother.

But Joseph reminded his brothers that he was not God and he did not sit in the judgment seat.  For all that Joseph had been through he was now in a position to save many lives and many lives were being saved.  Joseph’s heart and mind were set on reconciliation, not retaliation.

He told his brothers that he would not only care for them but for their children as well.  We see wisdom and mercy and a heart of reconciliation in Joseph, but we also see that there is evil in the world.

There is evil in the world but God has not orphaned us to deal with it on our own.  In Joseph’s darkest hours, we note that the Lord was with him and he prospered wherever he was.

There is evil at work in the world today.  We hear about it more frequently across more media platforms every year.  It is there.  It is not going away in this age and we should not be surprised.

What is surprising is how many Christians forget that God is with us.  The Lord is with us and will prosper us.

The Lord has given us gifts and talents and special abilities that we are to put to use and then we are to trust in the Lord that he will work things for good for those of us who love him and are called according to his purpose.
Today, let us take a lesson from Joseph.  He was not stoic.  He didn’t go through life saying, “It’s nothing.”  He knew that he had been wronged.  He didn’t like it but he trusted God.

He made the most of every circumstance that was thrust upon him and the Lord was with him and what he did prospered.

We have been here many times before.  We don’t focus on the world.  We are aware of what is going on in the world but we focus on what God has called us to do and trust him to direct our paths.

We work at everything we do as if we are working for God and not for others.

We go into this dark and sometimes evil world as salt and light and love.  People need to taste the goodness of God in us.  We need to be a light in the darkness.

But we must trust God even when our circumstances seemed to be turned inside out and upside down.  We need to trust God and put our gifts and talents to use even when everything seems to be going against us.

It only took a moment for Joseph to go from the depths of prison to commanding everything in Egypt and in a position to save many lives, including those of his own family.  In a single moment everything can change.

For Joseph, Egypt, and God’s Chosen people acts of evil and hate had been stripped of their own selfish intent and replaced with God’s purpose.

The Lord was with Joseph and the Lord is with us.  We will not become discouraged even when evil seems to prevail all around us for the Lord is with us.