Monday, July 25, 2016

"Always Reforming"

Next year will mark five hundred years of the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg, Germany. With this document, he sparked the Protestant Reformation, insisting that Scripture alone is the sole guide to faith, and that faith in Christ alone is sufficient for salvation. Since then, new Protestant denominations continue to spring up. Sometimes they do so out of fractious dissent, but other times it’s simply because Christians realize the truth of a statement made by Hans Kung and Karl Barth, “Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda.” In English, that is, “The Church reformed, always reforming.” Thinking Christians realize that faith is not a static thing, and that in order for it to stay relevant to every believer of every generation, it must always be active and reforming.

In 2 Kings 23, young King Josiah brings reform not only his own faith, but the faith of his people. If you find yourself in need of personal revival, maybe it’s a good idea to consider Josiah’s reforms, which began with a revival of scripture. Verse 2[i] says that “he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of the Lord.” God’s renewal in your life must get started with a renewed commitment to reading God’s Word.

Next, verse 3 indicates a return to sincerity. “The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord, and to keep His commandments and His testimonies and His statutes with all his heart and all his soul…” Too many people make rash spiritual decisions, and only give God half of their heart or part of their soul. As Josiah determines to give God his whole self, holding nothing back in his commitment to the Lord, renewed Christians need to do the same.

Then, Josiah proceeds to restore the sanctuary that has been defiled by idolatry. Verses 4b-5a say that Josiah commands the priest to “bring out of the temple of the Lord all the vessels that were made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven; and he burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron, and carried their ashes to Bethel. He did away with the idolatrous priests.” Since the Bible says that YOU are the new temple of God, then it’s clear that spiritual renewal comes with a restoration of physical health. Is there anything that’s unhealthy in your life that you need to get rid of? A habit or behavior that is displeasing to God? Restoring the sanctuary of your body leads to spiritual health.

Part of this involves renewed sexuality. Verse 7 says, “He also broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes which were in the house of the Lord, where the women were weaving hangings for the Asherah.” Both men and women were involved on cult prostitution. Here, the males were prostitutes and the females were in charge of the hangings and other decorations for the temples. Josiah understood that for real spiritual reform, the people needed to renew their commitment to only engaging in the kind of sexuality that pleases God. As you seek God’s renewal, ask God about how you should renew your sexuality.

In verses 13-14, 19-20, Josiah removes strongholds from the land. He tears down altars to foreign gods, not just in the temple, but throughout the country. He puts to death the priests of idols who are corrupting the people. In verse 24, Josiah retires the sorcerers who practice divination and magic. What spiritual strongholds exist in your life, that may be impeding the gift of God’s blessing and grace? How can you tear down the false gods in your life in order to let God’s revival flow?

Finally, verses 21-22 say, “Then the king commanded all the people saying, ‘Celebrate the Passover to the Lord your God as it is written in this book of the covenant.’ Surely such a Passover had not been celebrated from the days of the judges who judged Israel, nor in all the days of the kings of Israel and of the kings of Judah.” Josiah isn’t just re-establishing Passover, but all the Jewish festivals that had fallen by the wayside. He is restoring the seasons to their proper place. Sometimes our lives can get out of whack. Our seasons and rhythms can get out of balance, and need to be restored. If you want spiritual renewal, then maybe it’s time to get back to church, return to your daily quiet time, take a Sabbath rest, and let your rhythms be restored.

Just like Josiah, the reformers of the past five hundred years have known that the church must be reformed, but that it also must be always reforming. When people have rejected God, they need to turn back. And even when things are going well, it’s best to avoid getting into a spiritual rut. On a grand level and on a personal level, the spiritual life means reformation. I pray that you’ll have the courage to create your own 95 Theses, to topple your own idols, and to cleanse the temple that is YOU.

[i] All scriptures taken from the NASB.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

"No Fear"

When I was a kid, I was afraid of lots of things. I was afraid of monsters in my closet, shadows under my bed, and noises in the wind. I remember when it was my job to carry the table scraps to the edge of the woods after dinner, how sometimes if it was dark, my imagination would get the best of me and I would go running at the sound of a squirrel in the leaves. I was sure some terror of the night was after me. Some of my fears I outgrew, but some have persisted since childhood. When I go to the beach, I’m constantly scanning the water for a dorsal fin—and I never even saw Jaws! I have to remind myself that it’s actually more dangerous driving to the beach, than being at the beach, and that most of the things we fear never happen anyway.

Living without fear is a challenge for most of us. We find our lives troubled by the pain of loss, giving up of our desires, ignorance, impatience, desperation, despair, sickness, loneliness, death, and so many other things that threaten us. Yet even with all of this, the psalmist makes a bold statement. “We will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling (Psalm 46:2-3 ESV).” How can this be so? Because, as verse 1 states, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” This seems like an overly-simple solution to fear, so let’s see how it works. Verses 4-7 say:
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

What is this river that makes God’s home (that means YOU) glad? It’s the River of Life, that’s found in Revelation 22.1-2 (ESV):
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

This river isn't simply a water feature in some faraway Heaven. It flows from the altar, from the very Temple of God in the New Jerusalem. As the Bible says that you are God's Temple (1 Cor 6.19), this also applies not only to an otherworldly landscape, but to the soul of the believer. Jesus said of the believer: Jesus said, "The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life...Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water (Jn 4.14; 7.38 ESV).’”

This River of Life is the flow of Holy Spirit within you. Like the ebb and flow of breath within your lungs, this Life moves through your soul, gladdening the heart and giving peace to your spirit. When you become sensitive to the Spirit's flow within you, peace overwhelms the fear that threatens. God is at your center, and your center is in God; you shall not be moved.

Psalm 46.5 says, "God will help her when morning dawns." The morning the psalmist speaks of is God's illumination within the heart of the person who prays. By centering yourself in God, practicing His presence in the River of Life that flows through your soul, you find yourself strangely calm, though the nations rage and the kingdoms totter around you. The morning dawning reminds us that: God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6 ESV)."

So the light of God (illumination of dawn) and the life of God (river whose streams make glad the city of God) keep the believer in perfect peace, even when surrounded by natural and human disaster. In verse 9 we learn that God is the bringer of peace. How can we know God's peace, even as the world rages around us? “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth (v. 10)!"

Practicing the presence of God, allowing His light to dawn on you, feeling His living water flow through you, knowing God's peace that conquers fear--all these things are accomplished by one simple act: Be still, and know that God is God.

Yet, as simple as that seems, how rarely do God's people avail themselves of this peace! In contemplative prayer, we do not rehearse our fears and then ask God to take our fears away. Instead, we simply rest in God. As we find the word "Selah" (Hebrew: "Pause and reflect") three times in these eleven verses, the believer must get still, get quiet, and listen to God. In meditation, we repeat God's words of assurance to our hearts, until His promises become a reality in our souls. When it becomes a reality, our fear is replaced with the courage that comes from a heart filled with God’s love.

Fear is a dangerous thing. It can stifle, cripple, and destroy the spirit. It can rob you of the joy of the Lord, and “the joy of the Lord is your strength (Nehemiah 8:10).” Fear is a robber that can terrorize your soul.
Black Bart was a professional thief whose very name struck fear as he terrorized the Wells Fargo stage line. From San Francisco to New York, his name became synonymous with the danger of the frontier. Between 1875 and 1883 he robbed 29 different stagecoach crews. Amazingly, Bart did it all without firing a shot. Because a hood hid his face, no victim ever saw his face. He never took a hostage and was never trailed by a sheriff. Instead, Black Bart used fear to paralyze his victims. His sinister presence was enough to overwhelm the toughest stagecoach guard.[i]

In contrast, the Bible say that “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4;8).” Perfect love teaches you that, as the Veggie Tales song says, “God is bigger than the boogeyman.” He’s also bigger than Black Bart or your bills, legal or health problems, broken relationships, educational issues, or anything else that comes against you. When you get quiet and know that God is God, you can know God as perfect love, as your refuge and strength, as your River of Life. You find God when you practice Selah, when you pause and reflect. I pray that this summer on vacation, this Sabbath rest, this day, you will be still and know.

[i] Today in the Word, August 8, 1992.  June 20, 2016.

"Fresh Fruit"

It’s the season of the year when gardeners are bringing in their fresh produce. Those without green thumbs stop by farmer’s markets and roadside stands, eager to buy farm-fresh fruit and vegetables. There’s just something about a fresh summertime peach dripping with juices, snaps that were snapped just that evening, or ripe strawberries on shortcake. I don’t gardening, but already many people have stopped by the parsonage and brought me gifts from their abundance. Though it’s good to get homemade canned vegetables or frozen fruit from somebody’s tree, there’s just nothing like fresh-picked.

From Genesis to Revelation, God’s Word makes a big deal of fresh fruit. In Eden, humanity sinned by eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. As a result, we were cast out of the garden and forbidden from eating of the Tree of Life. Yet the Bible’s final chapter describes the River of Life flowing from the throne of God, on either side of which grows “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree [are] for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22.2[i]).” Not only does the New Covenant with Christ restore our ability to eat from the tree of life, to be nourished and healed—but God desires all Christians to become fruit-bearing believers. Psalm 52:8 says, “I am like a green olive tree in the house of my God.” Every believer should bear fruit like that! In God’s creation, fruit-bearing is expected. In John 15:1-6, Jesus says,
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does not bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit….Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide I me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.

It’s clear that not only does God expect fruit-bearing, but God actually has no use for plants and trees that bear no fruit. Though non-fruit-bearing believers may have all the outward appearance of Christianity, God will know a true Christ-follower by the fruit he or she bears in life. Keith Copley writes about useless Christians who bear no fruit.
In the Greek Islands, one can seek out the home of Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine. In the area, one can also find an olive tree, supposedly dating from his time. If this is so, this tree would then be some 2400 years old. The trunk of this tree is very large but completely hollow. The tree is little more than thick bark. There are a few long, straggling branches, but they are supported by sturdy wooden poles every few feet. It has an occasional leaf here and there and might produce a few olives each year. In the fields around, however, are olive groves in many directions. The strong, healthy, young trees with narrow trunks are covered with a thick canopy of leaves, under which masses of olives can be found each year. The tree of Hippocrates can still be called an olive by nature, in that it still shows the essential unique characteristics, but it has long since ceased to fulfill an olive's function. Tourists file up to inspect this ancient relic, having some link to a dim history, but the job of the olive tree passed long ago to many successions of replanted trees. Do you know any churches (or even people) like the tree of Hippocrates? The form is there, but the function is not. They have stopped reproducing and are satisfied just being big, or having a noble history.[ii]

What is the fruit that Christians are supposed to bear? Christians are supposed to not be known as keepers of the Law, but as followers of the Spirit. Galatians 5:18-23a says:

If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalires, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these…But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

Too often, people think that a Christian will be known by being a rule-follower. But Christians aren’t rule-followers; they’re Christ-followers. Instead of being consumed with the works of the flesh, true believers ought to bear the fruit of the spirit. Churches that operate in fleshly ways are full of these works of the flesh, but churches that follow the spirit reproduce with bountiful harvests of new believers, because they operate in these fruits and gifts of the Spirit. In Jeremiah 17:5-8, the Lord says:
Cursed is the man who trusts in man
and makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from the Lord.
He is like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see any good come.
He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.
Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
whose trust is in the Lord.
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.

I’ve heard people say that while we’re not supposed to judge one another, we are called to be fruit-inspectors. But the last time I read the Bible, that was still Jesus’ job, not ours. God plants the seeds of the gospel in the heart of every believer so that we can bear much fruit. In John 15, Jesus says that it is God who prunes us so that we can bear fruit, and God who decides which branches or trees are fit for the fire. Our job is not to judge one another’s harvest, but to abide in Christ, so that we can produce fresh fruit for the Lord.

[i] All scriptures are taken from the ESV.