Monday, January 31, 2011

Big Bang - Creation - or What?

Every now and then Dad sneaks up on me.
Recently, after reading one of my posts he acknowledged his lack of "institutional training," saying his was more the "school of hard knocks".  Then he lowered the following tease on my institutionally-conditioned brain:
"Maybe the men of faith and the recorded time (whenever that began) after the flood doesn't explain the beginning with Adam and Eve in the garden?  Where would we be if the atheists are right about the billions of years and the one small cell that started it all? (nobody has explained just where that little one came from)  
Perhaps God performed that little miracle(?) and guided it to the beginning of recorded history?" 

Don't ya?
Don't you just hate it when they sneak up on you?
My answer back to Dad:
Hey Dad,
This is a topic that's been giving people "hard knocks" for a very long time.  I don't hold the keys to the wisdom vault, but I have also thought a lot about it.  Either way (creation in 6 24-hour days, or over a long time) you have to begin somewhere.  
For all the debate (nobody I know was there when it started) neither creationists or evolutionists can PROVE a thing.  With one is a reality.  For instance, when I press "send" on this email, I'm exercising faith that you will receive it (among the billions of possible other computers out there).
Faith in little things presupposes bigger things as well.  If you travel that beam of light back up to the source (should I say "Source"?) doesn't take a rocket scientist to connect those dots. belief is that it could have been either a "young earth" - created in 6 days
Or....a single atom that exploded in the "big bang" and evolved to everything else.
Bottom Line
I don't really care which one anybody else chooses to believe....if it is young earth, then OK, God did it; if it was the "big bang" I'm well acquainted with the "Banger".  Either way my faith isn't damaged.
But....we still would like to know, wouldn't we?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Passionate Worship

A third-grade boy had just heard the story of Abraham and his young son Isaac going to Mt. Moriah to offer sacrifice to God.  Of course the part of that  drama which would stick in the mind of a boy that age would be the fact of Isaac’s starring role – Isaac was the sacrificial lamb!   The next Saturday it was really pretty weather, so the family decided on a picnic.  They drove up to the Blue Ridge Parkway and found a clearing to put their blanket on the ground.  Everything was going fine until the Dad said to his son, “C’mon Junior, let’s go get some firewood.”  The boy whined, “Why, Daddy, why?”
Do we know why we're here?
"Why" questions are important.  I have a friend who says that he has an alarm clock to tell him when to get up, but some days (particularly on Mondays), he needs one to tell him why!
Why should we worship; because Daddy said so, or because Momma and Grandma always did?  Is God some self-centered infant that needs the positive strokes of all us mere mortals bowing and scraping?  Why should we worship?
John 4 gives us the "whys" in the incident known as "The Woman At the Well".  The first 19 verses describe the encounter of Jesus with the woman of Samaria at a well dug in ancient times by Jacob.  Jacob was even buried nearby.
The Samaritans and Jews had a centuries-old feud that centered-around religious judgment.  Around 720 BC, Jewish Samaria had been conquered by the Assyrians.  Most of the people had been carried off in captivity.  Those who remained in the land intermarried with the foreigners who moved in.  This made the Samaritan descendants half-Jews, totally unacceptable to the "racially pure" Jews of Galilee.
When Jesus met this Samaritan woman at the well, he spoke of "living water"  and the curious woman began to ask some "why" questions of her own.  The Lord then takes the opportunity to share some of the living truth with her.  In the exchange, the woman brings up the subject of worship.  Jesus gives us (at least) four reasons why we should worship...
Because Of His Sovereignty
20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”  21Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  John 4:20 - 21 (NRSV)
The Sovereignty of God's Nature
Sovereignty indicates complete control.  God is sovereign, and has complete control in the entire universe.  The nature of God, therefore, is unbounded by dimensions as we experience them.  Time, space, height and depth are only meaningful to God as He chooses.  The Bible tells us that one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as but a day[1] .  God transcends dimensions.
God is worthy of worship just because He is so much higher than us.  If there had never been a cross, a tomb and an Easter resurrection, God is still worthy of worship because He is God.
The Sovereignty of God's Actions
As the creator and sustainer of all life, God is worthy of worship.  One author said, "Worship is an end in itself, and it requires no further justification than that God is God.  We do not go to church simply to receive benefits from the Lord; we also go to give him the honor due his name."[2]
A sovereign God can't be figured out, placed in a three-volume set of commentaries placed on an appropriate shelf -- God must simply be worshipped because He is sovereign.
How then shall I honor and worship a sovereign God?
And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.  Hebrews 11:6 (NRSV)
John MacArthur said, "Worship is all that we are responding rightly to who He (God) is." [3]  The woman at the well said her ancestors worshipped at Mt. Gerizim, and the Jews held that worship should happen at Jerusalem.  Jesus countered with the right response for all of us, in that true worship recognizes the sovereignty of God, not some local address.  The act of genuine worship, ascribed to a holy, sovereign Lord, is taking the local address of our heart, and offering it to Him in faith; nothing less, nothing more.
Theologian Karl Barth described a scene during the war, in a monastery in Alsace.  The monks were chanting "The Magnificat."  ("My soul doth magnify the Lord...").   They were aligned in perfect rows, concentrating on lifting up praise to God.  A French bombshell suddenly tore through the roof and exploded in the rear of the church.  When the smoke and dust had cleared, the monks were still there, chanting the Magnificat.  God is never thrown off course by circumstances, but His heart is touched by those who bend the knee to an absolute sovereign.
We also worship...

Because of His Salvation
22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.   John 4:22 (NRSV)
This is an interesting exchange.  Jesus seems to be condescending to the woman, telling her she just doesn't know what she's doing in worship; salvation is from the Jews.
Actually, Jesus is pointing to the shortcoming of both Samaritans and Jews.  The Samaritans limited their holy library to the first five books of our Bible, the Pentateuch, or law.  They worshipped God sincerely, with fervent hearts, but they chose to ignore parts of scripture with which they disagreed.
On the other hand, the Jews indeed had the truth, for God had chosen to reveal Himself to the world through the nation of Israel.  They had Moses' Pentateuch, and the history of Israel and the prophets.  They had truth, but worshipped like tombs full of dead men's bones.  They were empty and blind.  When the embodiment of truth, and the full revelation of God stood before them on the very next Passover, they shouted "Crucify him!"
It is empty to have only one part of the equation in focus.  Later Jesus would say to the woman that you must worship in Spirit and truth.  It is good to be enthusiastic in worship – but without having that enthusiasm based and founded in essential doctrinal truth, you will wind up with emotionalism that only seems right when it "feels" right.
But there is also the risk of orthodoxy without genuine heart worship.  For instance, some churches major so heavily on evangelism that a new convert could get the idea that there is nothing else involved.  He might even start to believe that worship is a matter of maintaining his salvation through doing evangelism.
In Kentucky a little boy heard his parents say they go to church to "waarship."  From that point on he told his friends that he was going to church to "warsh up!"  It is certainly true that there is a cleansing effect to worship, but that throws the focus on us, not Him.  Worship is for God alone.  The salvation He brings is not for sale.
How then shall I worship the God who saves me?
1I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Romans 12:1 (NRSV)
The correct response to God who saves is to place all you are at His disposal -- all the time.  Continual, consistent worship is the evidence of truly being saved.  The "Easter & Christmas" crowd comes to church to pay dues, do the right thing, or please Mama.  Don't you be that way.  Come with your Bible open, having studied, willing to have an open mind for the things of God.  Come with your heart open, so there will be enthusiastic worship which leads to compassionate and joy-filled service.
We worship because of His sovereignty, salvation, and...
Because of His Seeking
23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  John 4:23 (NRSV)
What God is seeking
Please note that God is seeking true worshippers.  God is in the people business.  God is building a kingdom of the Spirit.  If He wanted more things He'd just create them with a thought or a wave of his hand.  What He is seeking in you and me, is the true worship of spiritual response.  He wants our hearts.
What God expects to find
Does God judge our worship?  Yes, indeed!  Jesus said the hour now is, of true worship – in spirit and truth.  We have all the revelation of truth we will ever need.  Jesus said I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No man cometh unto the Father but by Me.  We are in the age of true worship -- not perfect worship (that will only be in heaven).
We are expected to worship with our whole heart.  The reality is that worship occurs from the inside out.  Only God is equipped to judge that!  For that reason, we must be ready to make room for every one who walks through the doors of this place to worship.  Why?  Because God is constantly seeking for those who will worship Him.  He is constantly the holy God meeting with profane man.
Jacob was a profane man, a deceiver, a street-wise con man.  God met with him at Bethel.  Jacob went to sleep and had a vision of angels ascending and descending on a ladder that reached to heaven.  And in the morning?
And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not.  --  Genesis 28:16
When a profane man meets a holy God, something is going to give.  Our business in God's service is to be ready to cooperate with holy God as he seeks to meet with profane men to change them.
We worship because of His sovereignty, salvation, seeking, and...
Because Of His Spirit
God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.  --  John 4:24
The Nature of God is Spiritual
William Barclayhas it:
 "If God is spirit, a man's gifts to God must be gifts of the spirit.  Animal sacrifices and all man-made things become inadequate.  The only gifts that befit the nature of God are the gifts of the spirit -- love, loyalty, obedience, devotion.  A man's spirit is the highest part of him." [4]
Oswald Chambers wrote "My Utmost For His Highest."  This same thought is contained, that it is the spirit alone within us that can truly commune with God.  It is a devoted spirit that God seeks, not some automated robot who attends church 156 times per year and gives the tithe of his income, accurate to the twelfth decimal place.
Money, things, comfort and entertainment are important to us because they are human symbols of what we can accomplish.  God doesn't need or want these.  He wants our love.  Whatever material things or works of obedience He may require are symbolic to Him of that love.  Beloved, if you love God, He will have your time, your service and your wallet.  Love responds in the realm of spirit to Spirit.
The Nature of worship of a Spiritual God is spiritual
3For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh.  Philippians 3:3 (NRSV)
To worship in spirit and truth means the spirit reveals truth to us, and we accurately reflect that back to God in the way we live.  The word "truth" has its root in a sense of unveiling.  That is what God did for us.  He unveiled Himself in a manger two thousand years ago.  He spoke our language so we'd understand.  He lived as a man so we could see clearly.  Then He died as only a perfect man could -- a sacrifice for you and me.  Jesus revealed perfectly God.
I have been asked before, "Are you one of those?"  The questioner wanted to know if I was a Jesus person.  I have to answer yes without hesitation.  I worship Him with my spirit, because His Spirit has revealed truth to me.  What truth?
The woman saith unto him, I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things.   Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he.  John 4:26
On that day at the well, the woman said, "I'm waiting for God's man, the Christ."  To the woman that day Jesus said, "eimi" (Greek meaning:  “I am”)   Jesus gave her so much more than that for which she bargained.  She was waiting for a messenger from God, Jesus said "I AM."   That was what God spoke to Moses.
Beloved, realize your opportunity with your spirit.  You have truth abounding.  
You know God who spoke the stars and planets into existence.
You know the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph
You know Moses' God of the burning bush.
You know God who can part the Seas with his breath and crumble Jericho's walls with only trumpets.
You know God who uses a shepherd boy's slingshot to bring down any giants in any life.
You know God who whispers so a Solomon writes ageless wisdom.
You know God who overshadows a virgin and brings together the holy and profane in spiritual victory.
You know God who healed the lame, the deaf, the blind.
You know God who is Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, God's only Son.
You know God who told us in words that He loves us.
You know God who told us in suffering on the cross that he loves us.
You know God who told us he loves us by ripping death and Hell apart on Easter morning.
Who are we to not worship a God like that?
Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations
This series of messages, and the study we have been doing on Wednesday evening conversations, is something the leadership of our church chose.  A number of weeks back we met in Administrative Council to decide between three studies; this was the one we chose.  But it wasn’t a slam-dunk!
After deliberating for two meetings over which emphasis to use, we finally came down to choosing time.  Wilma Allen, our Lay Leader and Admin Council president was conducting the meeting.  She asked the 25 people there, “OK…which one do you want?”  For the next half-minute you could have heard a skinny hair hit the floor.  Not a word was spoken.  Finally, Wilma said what I have wanted to say to a congregation for 30 years…Silence is NOT an option!
These are 5 PRACTICES and that word implies action, doing, breathing in and out.  If we want to be fruitful, obedient to our God we must be:
radically-hospitable, welcoming people in Jesus’ name,
extravagantly generous as we invest in ministry,
intentional about stretching our faith so we develop into disciples
willing to risk to serve others and fulfill our mission
and passionate about worship, because He is worthy!
Father, help us be passionate.  Too often we are guilty of counting the ceiling tiles until the service is over.  Help it to be that fire is lit in this congregation for worship.  Complete what we need to be people who worship in spirit and truth.  You’ve been seeking us; may we be found.  We pray in the Name of the Father, Because of the Son, Cooperating with the Spirit…Amen!
1]  1 Peter 3:8
2]  Fisher Humphreys, Thinking About God, (Insight Press, New Orleans, 1974), 183
3]  Grace To You radio broadcast 5/4/95
4]  William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Vol VI, (Westminster Press, Phila, 1975), 161

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Why Die Here?

Matthew Henry said, God’s….time to appear for his people is when their strength is gone.[1]  The strength of the people of God was gone.  Years of siege by the Arameans had sapped every resource within the city walls.  Starvation was becoming the fate of God’s people in the northern kingdom of Samaria.  Some of them were even resorting to cannibalism. 
In our text, four lepers were sitting at the gate.  They were unable to go into the city because of their disease, and they were unwilling to leave, but living in abject fear as they waited for the enemy to strike; talk about a rock and a hard place!
   Twenty-first century culture (and particularly America) is like that today. We are feeding, cannibalistically on our heritage of righteousness; the backbone of Godliness has been under siege for decades.  Even the church, the bride of Christ is on the list of endangered species.  Turf wars dismantle local congregations one after another.  Like lepers sitting at the gates we await starvation or the enemies’ arrows. 
Let’s take a closer look at this incident in Israel’s history and see if there isn’t some help for us…
The Lepers Needed a Miracle
There is little doubt that the lepers were in the worst possible position.  They didn’t even have the city wall for protection between them and the Arameans.  They needed a miracle!  So did the people inside the city.
A miracle is what happens when the laws of nature are suspended by the Giver of those laws.  Many people would list some requirements for a miracle as:
·  the need for a miracle to exist,
·  faith that God would provide, and
·  a certain type of prayer. 
I suggest to you that the only necessary ingredient for a miracle to take place is God.  For instance, the creation itself was a miracle.  When God said, “let there be light” there were no people, no needs, and, therefore no prayer or faith.  God was all there was in the beginning.  God is all that’s necessary!
The Lepers Got a Miracle
Many people read this story of the lepers taking the faith-initiative; that it was their faith that provoked a miracle.  I say Not so!  The soldiers had fled the night before the lepers got there.  God had already done the miracle; the lepers were simply the first to witness the miracle.  Their courage was a God-given inspiration; they made a decision to do something different.
·  When Jesus changed the water into wine, no one saw the transformation – they only knew it for sure when some wine was poured into the cups and delivered to the master of the feast. 
·  When Jesus, the dead man, got up and out of the tomb, no one witnessed the resurrection.  He was gone before that stone rolled away! 
Miracles are always God’s business…and His alone!
There were actually two miracles on the day the lepers found the empty camp.  The first, certainly, was that the enemy soldiers had run away, literally, over nothing.  They heard things that went “bump” in the night…and there they go…all heels and elbows making for home as fast as feet will go!
The second miracle was the change in the lepers.  After plundering around for a while like a winner on one of those giveaway free shopping sprees in a toy store, the lepers began to think of all the hungry people back over the hill.  These lepers had their hearts genuinely transformed.
Actually, the miracle is that they couldn’t wait to get back to tell the good news.  You might say, not so, preacher; those lepers had gotten such a blessing; they just had to tell everyone.  Folks, I might agree with you, except for the fact that I have known many, many people who have been saved by the good news of the cross, yet are in no hurry to tell anyone.  In fact, many seem rather ashamed. 
Miracles are Not Good News to Everyone
If you recall from the first part of the story, Elisha had prophesied that the famine and siege were going to be over in one day – and the king’s messenger had said, surrrrre……I believe that!  If you recall, Elisha said, you will believe it…but you won’t like it…there will be no place at the table for someone with your unbelief.  When the lepers got back and began to tell about how the siege and the accompanying shortage of food were over, the stampede was on; the people trampled the king’s messenger to death right at the city gate.  The word of God is always completely accurate!
Is not my word like fire, says the LORD,
and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?                                                                                           Jeremiah 23:29 (NRSV)
Now, that is the story – the question is, what do we make of it?  And what do we do with it?  One thing is for certain, if the Bible is not speaking to us today, there is never a time when we ought to listen.  Bible truth never goes out of style. The Lord Himself even proclaimed, I am the Lord, I change not.[2]  He told us to acknowledge Him in all our ways,[3] not just back then…but always. 
Today…Let’s Hear (and do) God’s Word
The “seed” of this story is sown in every church, every family and every community.  From time to time – especially in hard times, economic frenzy, times of crisis – the seed of unbelief blossoms into a full-blown crop of strife.  This strife is the kind of contentiousness that nourishes division in the church and communities.  That, in turn, always keeps God’s people from their mission.
In many ways we are as the lepers and the city people of Samaria.  Hard-heartedness and individualism can lay siege to the church and wall us in like prisoners.  Anger and accusation can cannibalize a congregation; we wind-up fighting anyone and anything but the enemy.  You have, perhaps, watched a movie or read a book with this story line.  A team faces a formidable opponent.  Then, division happens, tempers flare – that team is defeated before the game begins!  It can be that way – and often is – in the church!
Enter God’s Miracle:  the Least of These
The lepers are often seen as the least-powerful of society.  Yet here they represent those among us who have managed to stumble across the truth that the enemy is really powerless to defeat us, if we will but come out from behind the walls and go loot the camp.  In the case of the Samaritans and Elisha, it took some trust to believe the enemy really was defeated.  They sent out a few chariots and drivers to check it out first.  Eventually all came to believe and enjoy the victory…except the unbeliever who got trampled in the stampede of faith. 
Here are the choices I believe this miracle lays open to us:  just two, Reconciliation or Death!  The real enemies of any church or community are anger and pride.  Spiritually-speaking, anger and pride are products of unbelief, and the father of that is Satan who revels in that atmosphere; but God is grieved whenever His children are at war with each other. 
Anger is like the enemy camped at our gates; it will hang around as long as there is no belief in a miracle called reconciliation.  As long as we have no trust in the table of reconciliation, we will be imprisoned with the cannibals.  We will devour each other until the doors eventually close. 
Will Rogers was a comedian who understood this need for reconciliation.  Once he was talking on stage about people having constant squabbles – he compared them to two snakes he saw once as he was walking along.  They each had bitten down on the other’s tail end – they formed a perfect circle.  He said it was an odd sight, but odder still was the fact that in just a second, sure enough they had swallowed each other.  And that’s what anger and pride do!

By the way…Will Rogers wasn’t THAT smart, he got his image from Paul:
15If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.                 Galatians 5:15 (NRSV)

We are still only three weeks into this New Year.  (Perhaps some of your resolutions are still surviving?)  It’s not too late to add some peace resolutions to the list.  Here are three related “leper-at-the-wall” decisions that can help plunder the enemy’s camp in your life…

Get over your past….Learn to forgive 

There is not a single person here today who doesn’t have some hurts, unmet expectations or disappointments.  Things which have happened cannot be undone…but ruminating on them like a cow chewing the cud, makes it worse.  
It is so easy to become an expert complainer.  One man complained about the breakfast his wife cooked every morning.  If the eggs were scrambled, he complained he wanted fried; if they were fried, he wanted scrambled.  His wife finally got frustrated and brought him one scrambled and one fried.  His complaint was, “you fried the wrong egg”.  Forgive what’s been done to you.
Get over your anger…Learn to let God help you forget 
Too often Christian folks allow others to rob their joy.  Whether it be the Interstate joy-robbers…the ones who cut you off, or some other insignificant irritant in life, we need to get a hold on what is truly important. 
A good question I use for judging whether something needs to be put in the sea of forgetfulness is this:  Is what’s bothering me going to matter in 100 years?  In another church I once served there was a lady who was a McCoy.  She was a genuine descendant of the West Virginia McCoys; you might recall they had a slight falling out with the Hatfields?  She married into our family, became my step mother-in-law.  I asked Nanny once what the feud was all about.  She told me, I don’t think anybody remembers.  And it’s been over a hundred years!
Learn to forgive, AND forget, and then…

Get on with your mission…be God’s instrument of peace 

This may be the most important piece of the puzzle…just getting busy for God!  Without joy and a sense of forgiveness, it will not make a difference how right you are, or how diligently you work; God works through people who are ready to hear and follow His Spirit’s leading.  You can’t do that when all your energy is taken up with fighting fights that don’t matter.
Getting on with the mission requires that most critical step in a journey of a thousand miles – the first one.  My daughter Carrie and her husband have two small prophets at their house –Jonah, who is 2, and Micah, age 6.  After church last week they went to a Japanese steak house.  You know what the cooks do there, knife-juggling, vegetable’s as much a show as it is a meal. 
Their chef was a master, flipping things up into his chef’s hat, blowing flames all over the grill, all the while engaging everyone around the seating area with chatter and jokes.  About 15 minutes into this delightful experience there was a slight pause, and in the dead silence, the kind that a 6 year-old is good at picking, Micah spoke for the crowd, would you just cook?  I’m starving!
The lepers outside the city gates knew their time was limited…and so is ours.  Don’t waste a moment on past anger…just get on with the mission!  It’s better than dying at the gate!
Father, the past and all it holds is in your hands. 
People and actions which have disappointed us are also yours to judge.  What you have placed in front of each of us is the mission…to step into it, live with it….and know that we are called to it. 
Thank you for the opportunity, the high privilege of walking with you and serving You by serving all peoples here and now. 
Grant us success in putting away the past which robs our joy, and putting away anger which would corrupt our present and destroy our future.  Lead us ever in the pathway of reconciliation with all people; both those like us, and those so different from us we cannot imagine how You’ll do it.
We pray in the Name of the Father, Because of the Son, Cooperating with the Spirit…Amen!

[1] Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible, Quickverse Electronic Ed, Parson’s Technology.
[2] Malachi 3:6
[3] Proverbs 3:6