Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Holy, Holy, Holy

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
Isaiah 6:1-3

There I was- twenty-four years old and ready to ask the woman I loved to marry me. It had hit me all at once. One day, I just knew I was ready to marry this woman, but I needed to buy a ring before I could ask her. So I did what most young men in that situation do. I begged a woman to help me pick out a ring! There are only a few mistakes in life that really stick with you but mucking up your engagement with a bad ring is one of them. Thankfully, my future sister-in-law came through for me. Seven and a half years later and my wife still likes her engagement ring.

It isn't uncommon at a wedding ceremony to hear the pastor wax eloquently about the symbolism of the wedding ring. How its circular shape pictures the couple's endless love, etc., etc... But today I want to use the engagement ring as a picture of God's holiness. In the prophet Isaiah's vision, as he saw God Almighty seated on a throne, there around Him were powerful angels called seraphim who cried out, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty." Holiness can be a hard concept to wrap your head around, but our God is three times holy. He is holy to the third degree. So it is worth the effort for us to try to understand this important aspect of His nature. 

Three elements of the engagement ring makes it easier for us grasp the concept of holiness.

  1. Engagement rings almost always have a diamond in them. Diamonds of course are very valuable because they are relatively rare. You can't get them just anywhere. And the more rare the diamond, the more valuable it is. This is a great picture of God's holiness. God is set apart by the fact that He is one of a kind. King Solomon said of Him, "There is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below." (I Kings 8:23) More to the point, Hannah prayed "There is no one holy like the LORD; there is no one besides You; there is no Rock like our God." (I Samuel 2:2) God is holy, exalted, and completely different from anyone or anything else.
  2. Another thing about diamonds is that you want one with the least amount of impurities or inclusions in it. If the diamond has cloudy parts, dark spots, or cracks then it is worth less. In other words: the more pure it is the more valuable it is. God's holiness means that He is completely pure from sin and imperfection. He is separate from all evil and darkness. In fact, Scripture often depicts God as shining with brilliant light. I John 1:5-6 says, "This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all."
  3. Lastly, the engagement ring signals to the watching world that the two of you are set apart for one another. To be holy also means to be set apart for a special purpose- God's purpose. It may seem odd to say that God is set apart for His own purpose. But He is. Imagine how weird it would be for God to serve some other lesser purpose, for Him to spend His time accomplishing lesser goals or worshiping false gods. No. For God to be holy He must spend His time accomplishing His own perfect ends and extending His own awesome glory. We too are called to be set apart to serve God's purposes. The Apostle Paul said, "'Come out from them and be separate,' says the Lord...Therefore, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God." (2 Corinthians 6:17a & 7:1) We are called to be set apart from sin and the world, so that we may be used by God.  
It is important for us to understand God's holiness because it is such a singular and vital part of His nature. But it's also important because God calls us to be holy like Him. In Leviticus 19:2 God tells Moses to call all Israel together and give them the following command. "Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy." 

Are you holy? Has your life been set apart for use by God? Are you becoming increasingly free of sin? Are you different from those around you? God promises to conform believers into the image of His Son. Each day we seek to become more like Christ. As we do, we increase in holiness and become more like the Father as well. So my prayer for you and for me today is that we would throw off the sin that entangles us, that we would stop conforming to the pattern of this world, and that we would be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we might increase in holiness as we are made into the likeness of Christ. (Hebrews 12:1, Romans 12:2 & 8:29)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Water at Sea

On May 27, 1943 a B-24 bomber named "The Green Hornet" went down in the Pacific Ocean while flying a search and rescue mission. Louis Zamperini was on that plane. He and another crew member survived the crash and for 47 days fought for survival on the open seas in a small inflatable raft. They had very few provisions and went as many as six days at a time without drinking water. Water became one of their most precious resources. They prayed for rain and perfected techniques of capturing as much as they could.* Imagine the irony of literally being surrounded by a sea of water while you are dying of thirst. As far as their eyes could see in any direction there was only water, yet none of it was able to quench their thirst. In fact, because of its high saline content, this water would only dehydrate them more.

This is the spiritual situation we all find ourselves in. We are dying of thirst for something spiritually real, something that satisfies, someone who can put us right with God. And we are surrounded by a sea of options that purport to be able to satisfy this thirst. We are tempted to turn to horoscopes to give us hope for the future; to other religions for a more palatable view of God; to love to give us self-worth and meaning; to entertainment to provide rest, and to nature to explain our origins and give purpose to our lives. But just like saltwater none of these solutions satisfy our thirst. They leave us worse off than we were before. Only Jesus satisfies!

Jesus highlights this aspect of His mission at the Festival of Booths. This festival is a celebration of God's provision for His people as they wandered in the dessert. No small part of that provision was that God provided water for so large a group of people in a dessert setting. Thus, Jesus stands on the last day of the celebration and says in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” (John 7:37-38)

Whether you are in a dessert or an ocean, you can't live very long without water. Water is one of the most basic human needs. Jesus is telling us that He is much more than one helpful bit of spiritual nourishment among many options. He is the only one that truly satisfies, that meets our needs. It is easy to forget this though. You would think I would have this figured out. I'm a believer and a pastor, but still I sometimes forget that only Jesus satisfies. He is the one source of living water.

In so many ways I am like Martha. Remember the sisters Martha and Mary. As Martha swarms around Jesus busy with the details of hosting an important teacher and His disciples, her sister sits at Jesus' feet idly taking in His precious presence. So often I am like Martha- lost in a swarm of activity and missing the blessings of Jesus' presence. I'm starving over here, working my fingers to the bone because I think it's what Jesus wants me to do. But what does Jesus say? "Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:38-42)

Help us all Lord to choose the better portion. As we drift in this sea of false hope and false gods, gently remind us that only You satisfy. Only You solve our real problem, the problem of sin. Only You can truly give us the hope of Heaven. Draw us to Your feet through Your Word and through prayer. Help us Jesus to feast on Your presence today.

For further reading...

  • John 6:32-40- Consider also Jesus' statement that He is the bread of life. 

*Details taken from the book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Chafing Under God's Authority

The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, “Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.”
Psalm 2:2-3

As soon as he shoved that musty cushion over the opening to block me in I knew I had made a mistake. I was one of the younger kids in the back of the van. The older kids had found a small square storage space tucked underneath the back row and were testing their courage by taking turns getting "locked" in for increasing amounts of time. After a while my urge to fit in with the older kids was too strong. My sister advised against it, but I volunteered. An older elementary boy, who was somewhat of a bully, was to serve as my jailer. I made him promise to let me out after five seconds, and I crawled into that small square opening. He shoved the cushion over the opening and locked me in with his legs. I started to panic immediately. I pushed against the cushion and screamed. I realized that I was completely under his control, at his mercy, and I did not trust him. 

That's the thing about being totally under someone else's control. It's a quick way to reveal how you feel about the person, whether or not you trust them. That's the idea we get in Psalm 2 as well. Pagan kings have been subjected under God's Messiah and His rule is intolerable for them. They have decided they do not like this God or His King, and are determined to rebel against His authority. They want to break their chains and throw off their shackles of servitude to this God. The sign of God's authority feels unbearably oppressive to those who hate God and rebel against Him. 

But how do similar signs of God's authority feel to His children? Do they feel oppressed? Do they also wish to be free from the bonds which tie them to their Savior? The Apostle Paul certainly did not. He was fond of introducing himself as a servant of God. (Romans 1:1, Gal. 1:10, Eph. 3:7, Phil. 1:1, Titus 1:1) In Acts 21 we learn that God's plan for Paul's life literally puts him in chains like the kings in Psalm 2. (Acts 21:31-33) Paul's response is telling in its contrast to that of those kings. He made no effort to escape imprisonment. In fact, God revealed to him through the Holy Spirit ahead of time just what would happen and Paul continued on toward that end. When other believers tried to convince Paul not to go up to Jerusalem where he would surely be imprisoned, he responded like this: Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus. (Acts 21:13)

Paul trusted God. He was happy to be in chains as long as it was God who was still in control. Paul was simply happy to be spent in service of his Master. For the believer the idea that God is in control is a comfort because we know that God can be trusted. But for the sign of His authority on their lives makes them chafe.

Our response to God's commands, His providence in our lives, and even the difficulties we face reveals the nature of our hearts toward God. It can give us an indication of sin in our lives. Do you trust God or do you rebel against Him? Do you resent the direction He is taking your life or are you simply happy to be spent in the service of your Master? Join me in praying for a heart that trusts God in all circumstances and welcomes service in His kingdom. 

For further reading...
  • Acts 3:13 & Phil. 2:1-11- Jesus Himself was called God's servant. He was willing to humble Himself under God the Father's authority even to the point of death on the cross.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Other Parable about Two Brothers

"There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?"

“The first,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.
Matthew 21:28-32

She's not quite two years old yet but my daughter is already using the two words that parents everywhere detest. I've never actually seen any data on this but I feel confident that if a poll were taken parents would unanimously agree that the words "no" and "why" raise our blood pressure more than any others. My sweet little girl says "no" or "why" to nearly every instruction now, but that is only her first reaction. And as parents we are gently working with our little twenty-three month old rebel to help her understand our authority and our reasons for telling her to do certain things. Though it may take her some time to get there she is obeying remarkably often in the end. And as it turns out, that's what is really most important to her Heavenly Father.

In the story above, Jesus makes two points. Let's look at them each in turn. 
  1. It isn't about what you say; it's what you do that matters. 
  2. It's not about what you've done; it's what you've believed that determines how God sees you.
It's not about what you say. It isn't our words but our actions that ultimately matter to God. The Pharisees to whom Jesus was speaking were experts in the Jewish traditions, in politics, in the law, and in one more thing: hypocrisy. Jesus said many times that God is not impressed with smooth speech or big shows. He wants ordinary, everyday obedience. This is the fruit produced by a changed heart. Is your Christian faith displayed in action?

It's not about what you've done. God doesn't care where your relationship with Him begins. He cares where it ends. It isn't your first state that matters but your last that is important to Him. Consider the Apostle Peter. He had many foibles, faults, and missteps. But upon His bold declaration of faith in Jesus as the Christ, Jesus began to prepare Him for a leadership role among the twelve. (Matthew 16:13-20) After denying Christ at His trial, Peter would repent and be restored. He would later become the first person to take the gospel to non-Jews. (Acts 10:1-11:18) History tells us that he died a martyr's death after a long and fruitful life of ministry. So don't worry about where you started or what you've done in the past. Don't even focus too long on where you are now. Look ahead to where you want to be in your faith when Jesus returns and begin moving forward in faith so you can be sure to end well. 

Here are some ways you can start doing, believing and moving forward in your faith in 2015. 
  • Read your Bible. It's not too late to start a Bible reading plan to try to make it through the whole Bible this year. Invest in your own spiritual health in the New Year.
  • Repent and believe. What sin is still hanging around your life holding you down in repeated patterns of shame? Believe that God has set you free from sin through Christ's death and resurrection. Repent of that sin and begin the arduous process of casting it out of your life for good.
  • Commit to honesty and accountability. The church doesn't need any more believers who are too insecure to admit their struggles. Don't make yourself out to be holier than you are. Be honest with other believers so they can pray for and encourage you.
  • Cast off shame. Refuse to be weighed down by the shame of actions that Jesus has already paid for. He didn't suffer for us and save us so we could wallow in self-loathing. Rejoice in the greatness of your undeserved salvation and get to work telling others your story.