Sunday, June 26, 2016

"Just As I Am"

Evangelist Billy Graham employed the hymn “Just As I Am,” as the invitational song at nearly all of his crusades, where, according to his staff, more than 3.2 million people have responded to "accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior.”[i] The hymn writer, Charlotte Elliott, suffered from a weakened physical condition, and knew that Jesus took her just as she was. She also knew that the Savior takes everyone who comes to God just as they are. In His ministry, Jesus proved it time and time again.

In Mark 2, when Jesus calls Levi (Matthew) the tax collector to be a disciple, the Master knows what kind of man he is. He knows how hated Levi is by his own people, due to his position with the Roman government and his tendency to overcharge in order to make a profit. Backed by military power, Levi extorts money from his own people—yet it is Levi that Jesus wants, just as he is. Without telling him first to pay anything back, without making him publicly apologize or even telling him that he has to quit his job, Jesus simply says, “Follow me!” And Levi does.

God’s grace will go anywhere and do anything in order to make people whole. God’s grace reminds me of an “advertisement on the side of a plumber's van in South Africa: There is no place too deep, too dark or too dirty for us to handle. What a wonderful explanation of the Gospel![ii]” Jesus calls us, just as we are. Even though he has to go down into the dark and dirty places to call us, He does so, because He’s a redeeming kind of God.

In the Gospels, Jesus is always getting himself in trouble for choosing the “wrong” kind of people. After Levi follows Jesus, he invites his friends to a party at his house, to meet the Master. Perhaps peeking through the windows, the fundamentalist Pharisees ask, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners (v. 16)?” Jesus replies, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners (v. 17).” Even though He has a right to, Jesus doesn’t think He is better than anybody. Instead, he is willing to get his hands dirty, and to even soil his reputation, by hanging out with the people everyone else rejects as unworthy. They’re no unworthy to Jesus. To Him, they are friends.

Too often, we are afraid of encouraging people, for fear we’ll be seen as advocating their actions. Yet sometimes God calls us to celebrate even mistakes that people make it, if those mistakes indicate that they are learning. In Tell Me All About It, Jeffrey Zaslow writes:

Years ago, my father coached a team of eight-year-olds. He had a few excellent players, and some who just couldn't get the hang of the game. Dad's team didn't win once all season. But in the last inning of the last game, his team was only down by a run. There was one boy who had never been able to hit the ball--or catch it. With two outs, it was his turn to bat. He surprised the world and got a single!
The next batter was the team slugger. Finally, Dad's players might win a game. The slugger connected, and as the boy who hit the single ran to second, he saw the ball coming toward him. Not so certain of baseball's rules, he caught it. Final out! Dad's team lost! Quickly, my father told his team to cheer. The boy beamed. It never occurred to him that he lost the game. All he knew was he had hit the ball and caught it--both for the first time. His parents later thanked my dad. Their child had never even gotten in a game before that season.
We never told the boy exactly what happened. We didn't want to ruin it for him. And till this day, I'm proud of what my father did that afternoon.[iii]

Rather than worrying that we’ll be seen as supporting the wrong behavior, God’s people need to be more concerned with supporting people. If you’re concerned that by showing compassion, we’ll be seen as too permissive, then listen to the words of Robert Farrar in Between Noon and Three:

You're worried about permissiveness--about the way the preaching of grace seems to say it's okay to do all kinds of terrible things as long as you just walk in afterward and take the free gift of God's forgiveness. . .While you and I may be worried about seeming to give permission, Jesus apparently wasn't. He wasn't afraid of giving the prodigal son a kiss instead of a lecture, a party instead of probation; and he proved that by bringing in the elder brother at the end of the story and having him raise pretty much the same objections you do. He's angry about the party. He complains that his father is lowering standards and ignoring virtue--that music, dancing, and a fatted calf are, in effect , just so many permissions to break the law. And to that, Jesus has the father say only one thing: "Cut that out! We're not playing good boys and bad boys any more. Your brother was dead and he's alive again. The name of the game from now on is resurrection, not bookkeeping.[iv]

In order for Christianity to truly embrace this concept of radical grace, we need a change of heart and mind. Jesus addresses this needed change in verses 21-22, when He says, “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.” In the case of the patch, it must first be pre-shrunk so that the fabric will accept it. In the case of the old wineskin, it must first be treated and made suppler before it can be used again. Jesus says it’s impossible to accept new ideas without a renewed mind. First, like the wineskin, God has to prepare your mind to accommodate the new idea. Then, like the preshrunk patch, the idea has to be put in such a way that you can accept it. So what’s the new idea we need to receive? Jesus says it in Mark 2:17b: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Let that one soak in for a while—I hope you have a new wineskin to accept it—that God calls people “Just as I Am.”

[i] Barry M. Horstmann (June 27, 2002). "Billy Graham: A Man With A Mission Impossible.(Special Ssection)"Cincinnati Post. Retrieved August 18, 2007.
[iii] Jeffrey Zaslow, "Tell Me All About It," 1990.  June 15, 2016.
[iv] Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three  June 15, 2016.

Monday, June 20, 2016

"Chasing Shadows"

Do you remember that great old movie, Singing in the Rain, with Gene Kelly? Falling so hard in love that he just doesn’t care that it’s pouring outside, he dances in the street with complete joyful abandon. His umbrella becomes a dancing prop, light posts and puddles dancing partners, so enraptured is he with the freedom and joy of love. Until, of course, a police officer silently saunters into the scene, arms folded in judgment. This puts a damper on his enthusiasm. When he finds himself beneath the judgment of the law, he quiets down, quits dancing, and walks away. Jesus came to set us free from the power of the law that binds our spirits. Our natural response should be one of overflowing joy. Yet, when we are reminded of the presence of the law, so many Christians once again become bottled up, giving up their newfound freedom in exchange for the burden of legalism.

In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul writes to the church about the importance of freedom from legalism. Referring to the Law, he says, “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (v. 6).”[i] Even in the Corinthian church, which was known for its problems with immorality—Paul emphasized freedom in the Spirit over following the letter of the law. The law he calls “the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone (v. 7).” It had a purpose, a glory of its own, in that it guided Moses’ people and helped them to establish themselves as a God-fearing nation. Yet by the time of Jesus, that law had become something that condemned people more than it liberated them. Paul says, “For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it (vv. 9-10).” So Jesus came, setting free those who were captive to legalism, and introducing new freedom in the Spirit.

Yet early on, believers forgot that “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed (John 8:36).” If the Old Testament was full of rules that they couldn’t follow, they simply added a book called the New Testament to give them even more rules. Then they started adding even to that. Here is one dialogue that dates back to ancient Christianity:

"I am in earnest about forsaking 'the world' and following Christ. But I am puzzled about worldly things. What is it I must forsake?" a young man asks. "Colored clothes, for one thing. Get rid of everything in your wardrobe that is not white. Stop sleeping on a soft pillow. Sell your musical instruments and don't eat any more white bread. You cannot, if you are sincere about obeying Christ, take warm baths or shave your beard. To shave is to lie against Him who created us, to attempt to improve on His Work."

Elizabeth Elliot comments on the above dialogue, "Does this answer sound absurd? It is the answer given in the most celebrated Christian schools of the second century! Is it possible that the rules that have been adopted by many [modern] Christians will sound as absurd to earnest followers of Christ a few years hence?"[ii]

Paul dealt with Christians who felt that even though they were freed, they were still obligated to the law. Yet, Jesus gives us hope. Paul writes:

Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed (vv. 12-16).

I used to think that this mean that Paul was comparing Christians with Jewish people, and saying that Hebrew hearts were hardened. Then I realized that Christians can have hardened hearts too—that whenever the Law is emphasized, a veil seems to come over us and darken our eyes. Yet when the freedom of Christ is exalted, the veil is taken away. Why would a Christian, once having been set free from the power of the law, keep chasing after the law anyway? David Dykes, the pastor of Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas, writes about his childhood dog Rex:

Sometimes when a bird or a flock of birds flew over on a sunny day, Rex often chased their shadows on the ground. I can recall watching as one bird flew around in a circle with Rex chasing the circling shadow on the ground, barking the whole time. Poor, dumb, bird-brained Rex–he never figured out the shadow wasn’t real. Sadly, there are many well-meaning Christians who are doing the same thing. They are chasing shadows: They are still trying to please God by keeping religious rules and observing religious rituals.[iii]

2 Corinthians 3:17-18 says, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” When we are saved, when we receive the Spirit of the Lord, we receive freedom. The darkness is removed, and we enter the light of His glory. Why then would we choose to remain in the darkness of the Law? This past week at Vacation Bible School, our kids learned that following rules can’t make you closer to God, but following Jesus will, because He is the Light of the World. Charles Spurgeon wrote, “I have found, in my own spiritual life, that the more rules I lay down for myself, the more sins I commit.”[iv] Rules may shine a little light in the darkness, but Jesus is brighter than the sun. Nobody who fumbles around with a flashlight or glow stick for a while, who then emerges into the sunlight, chooses to return to the darkness and dim lamp light. So why should Christians who have been set free, return to legalism, after Jesus has set us free? Why should we chase shadows that way? Psalm 118:27a says, “The Lord is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us.” Jesus is the light—let us walk in His light, and never return to darkness or lamplight again.

[i] Unless otherwise noted, all scriptures are from the ESV.
[ii] Elizabeth Elliot, The Liberty of Obedience, Nashville, Abingdon, 1968, pp. 45-46.
[iv] Charles Spurgeon, in Wycliffe Handbook of Preaching & Preachers, W. Wiersbe, p. 235.  June 13, 2016.

Monday, June 13, 2016

"From Woe to Wow!"

            I am eternally fascinated with the origins of words.  Recently, I came across the word “woe” repeatedly when Jesus proclaims his eight woes upon the Pharisees.  Online Etymology Dictionary gives the origin of the word “woe” as “late 12c., from the interjection, Old English wa!, a common exclamation of lament in many languages (compare Latin væ, Greek oa, German weh, Lettish wai, Old Irish fe, Welsh gwae, Armenian vay).”  Today, we don’t use the word “woe,” but perhaps the best approximation we have might be “woah!”  A “woe” is something that stops us in our tracks and makes us drop our jaws—in a negative way.  Recently when reading Matthew 23 it struck me that just as many people have problems with the church, Jesus gave eight complaints against the religious establishment of his own day.  Yes, if you have problems with the church, you’re in good company.  Let me see if I can sum up Jesus’ complaints, and then let me re-frame these “woes” into “what-ifs.”

            In verse 13[i], Jesus says, “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.”  What the Lord is saying is, What if the church were less exclusive and judgmental, and more inclusively demonstrated God’s grace?  If Jesus could say “Neither do I condemn you,”[ii] then why can’t we?  We could turn the church into a welcoming place rather than one that makes people feel like they will be rejected by the holier than thou.

            In verse 14, Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows' houses and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive the greater condemnation.”  What if the church were less concerned with receiving endowments than sharing its wealth with the poor?  I’ve known many churches with overflowing accounts that did nobody any good because they refused to use the gifts God gave them to help those in need.  Instead, of being righteous, they were content to look righteous by their show of piety.

            In verse 15, Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”  It’s important to share our faith and lead people to a relationship with God through Christ.  But What if church members were more concerned with helping people to be like Jesus than forcing them to be like us?  Jesus knew that the Pharisees’ goal of making converts was to reproduce little Pharisees.    It should be our goal to produce more Christ-followers, not to produce people who look and act like we do.

            In verses 16-22, Jesus pronounces a woe upon nitpicky people who are bound up in their own customs and rules that they want to impose on other people.  “If you’re going to make an oath, you have to say the words my way,” they would say.  What Jesus was really saying is, “What if the church were less interested in words and formulas, and more interested in the heart?”  Last night I watched a comedian who made fun of his own awkwardness when attending a church where he didn’t know the proper response to the liturgy.  While he made a funny routine of it, what’s not funny is the way we make people feel when we make them feel like outsiders or tell them that they’re doing it wrong.

            In verses 23-24, Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.  You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!”  The Old Testament Law required tithing real produce, but the Pharisees were so over-scrupulous that they tithed even their kitchen spices.  Similarly, many in the church are so stuck on legalism that they neglect the weightier matters of mercy and faithfulness.  So, what if the church was more interested in the spirit of the Law than the letter? 

            In verses 25-26, Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.”  Jesus might have asked, What if the church cared more about getting its heart right than appearing righteous?”  What if it didn’t even care about how it appeared on the outside, as long as the inside was clean?  God might do a lot with a church like that. 

            Jesus’ next woe is much like the last.  But in verses 27-28, He says it even more offensively: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”  I’ve been to cemeteries with whitewashed tombs just like Jesus talked about—beautiful on the outside but rotten on the inside.  What if the church were more interested in being alive than in looking alive?  What if it cared more about beautiful souls than it did about beautiful buildings?

            In verses 29-30, Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’”  Jesus is telling the legalists of his day that they wouldn’t have been any less legalistic had they lived in another time.  We tend to glorify another time, to remember some golden era or to look forward to some glorious future when things can be better.  What if the church cared more about the here and now than either the good old days or the sweet by and by?

            Jesus didn’t blast the Pharisees in order to condemn them, but to challenge them to be something better.  He wanted them to change the woes to “what if’s.”  If the church can take a little helpful criticism, if we can ask some hard “what if’s” then maybe we can go from “Woe” to “Wow!”  Instead of “Woe is me—our church is declining,” or “Woah—look at where our society’s headed!” we can make some changes and say “Wow!” We can step into the bright and glorious future that God intends for God’s people.

[i] All scripture taken from the ESV.
[ii] John 8:11

Monday, June 6, 2016

Journey with Joseph # 8 - "Dearly Departed"

Recently, my mom and I were reading over some family history and came across my uncles James and Thomas Lemon, who fought with the Virginia 8th Infantry during the Civil War. How chilling it was to read Col. Eppa Hutton’s report after the battles of Boonsboro and Sharpsburg, yet how stirring to remember the bravery of men who fearlessly defended their home state! This past Monday, we celebrated Memorial Day, which has a long history of honoring our heroic dead. The holiday originated as Decoration Day at the end of May, 1868. In the wake of the Civil War, the United States declared a day for decorating the graves of fallen American soldiers. The South, however, refused to acknowledge the day, observing a different day to remember Confederate soldiers. However, after World War I, Memorial Day was declared for the last Monday in May to honor all slain soldiers from all American wars. Today, Memorial Day part of a three-day holiday during which we honor the slain who died defending the country. The way we honor the dead (not just fallen heroes but all of our dearly departed) says a lot about what kind of people they were, and who we are as well.

Today as we close our journey through the life of Joseph, we see how the dearly departed deserve the reverence we give them. Verses 1-14 talk about the death of Jacob (Israel), and how he is honored not only by his own descendants, but by the house of Pharaoh himself. Joseph throws himself on top of his father and weeps, demonstrating how appropriate it is to display the deep emotions you feel at a loved one’s passing. Probably on the government dime, Israel is mummified Egyptian-style. Then, Joseph honors his dad’s final request, which was not to be buried in Egypt, but to be buried back home in Canaan. So in royal procession they return with the body and bury him in a family-owned grave near Mamre. From these verses we learn how important it is to show our grief, and also to do our best to honor the memory of our dearly departed by fulfilling their final requests, whenever possible.

Then, in verses 15-21 (NASB), we learn that part of good grieving is to make peace with our past. Joseph reiterates his forgiveness for his brother’s failures. “But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive. So therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ So he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.” Just as Joseph’s family needed to make peace with their past, so we need to reconcile, when possible, with those who have wounded us. Recently, I buried my uncle Harry. Because that side of the family had been feuding for years, I took the opportunity during the eulogy to remind them that life is short and we have too much living to do, to hold grudges. I called them out on their petty squabbles, encouraged forgiveness, and asked them to let this tragedy reunite them. And to some degree, it has. Parts of the family that have been long disconnected are reconnecting, and it’s beautiful to see. Honoring our dearly departed means making peace with each other, and peace with the past.

Then we read of Joseph’s death, and how it teaches us to honor the past but look to the future. Joseph prophesies that one day his family (the Jewish nation) will return to Canaan from Egypt. Verses 24-25 (NASB) say, “Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am about to die, but God will surely take care of you and bring you up from this land to the land which He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob.” Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, ‘God will surely take care of you, and you shall carry my bones up from here.’” Joseph wanted them to honor him by mummifying him in the same fashion as his father. But then he wanted his descendants to have their eyes focuses forward rather than resting on the glories of the past. He knew that just as the past can teach us, it can also bind us. He did not want his sons and daughters to remain in Egyptian slavery simply that’s where their heritage lay. He wanted them to carry their past with them into the future that God was giving them. God wants the same thing for you—to be able to cherish the past but venture into the plan that God has for you. In a way, we all carry our ancestors into the Promised Land, if we honor our dearly departed but then forge our own way.

Exodus 13:19 (NASB) says, “Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for he had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, ‘God will surely take care of you, and you shall carry my bones from here with you.’” Joshua 24:32 (NASB) continues, “Now they buried the bones of Joseph, which the sons of Israel brought up from Egypt, at Shechem, in the piece of ground which Jacob had bought from the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for one hundred pieces of money; and they became the inheritance of Joseph’s sons.” Shechem was remembered as the place where Jacob buried false gods (Genesis 35:4), so that’s where Joseph wanted his remains to rest. Joseph knew that people have a tendency to turn the past into an idol, to worship relics and to cling to the ways of their ancestors so that they don’t move into the future. Joseph knew that when his time was gone, he should be remembered but then he should be laid to rest. He wanted his people to be able to honor their dearly departed without worshiping them as false god. In the same way, we need to be able to look to the past but press on to the future.

2 Corinthians 5:7 (NLT) says, “For we live by believing and not by seeing.” When we live by sight, we set our sails by what we’ve known in the past. That only keeps us going backward. When we walk by faith, our course is set in a direction that we don’t understand, but we believe that God has a Promised Land ahead of us, and that the best is yet to come. I pray you’ll look to the undiscovered country that God has in store, and that you’ll do it by looking ahead.