October 31, 2013

Cross-bearing and amazing joy

The biblical idea of taking up our cross is often thought to refer to endurance in the difficult circumstances of life. That is, a cranky mother-in-law is a “cross I must bear” or a handicapped child, or anything we cannot change, so must endure and consider our cross.

However, that is not the idea of cross-bearing intended by Scripture. When Jesus bore His cross, He was on His way to die. He was going to make the ultimate sacrifice for the eternal good of others. All through the New Testament, God speaks of sacrifice in terms of giving up what my human self wants in order to glorify God and edify others. The example of Christ is used saying I’m to have His mind, think the way He thought, that I might put others first and die to self.

The Old Testament prefigures the death of Jesus Christ in those sacrificial offerings for sin. A lamb was burned on an altar in place of the sinner or sinners who deserved death for their rebellion and disobedience. While smaller sacrifices were made, the ultimate sacrifices were about blood and death, about yielding all on the altar.

We who believe in Jesus Christ know that we are to be sacrifices. Romans 12 says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, 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).

In presenting myself to God, I am making a sacrifice that involves dying to my old life. This happened in salvation where the Spirit of God regenerated the old me and the new person now lives. I think of it as an identity change, sort of like becoming a soldier. However, when God enlisted me, I had no idea how a soldier should think, talk, or behave. I’ve been in boot camp ever since, learning the ways of Christ and how this new person should live.

One of my early lessons was about dying to self. The Bible uses various terms, but this means choices. When push comes to shove, I am to ignore, even put to death, my old ways and obey God. While this is at first difficult, there is great joy in it.

This “obey-die to self-experience joy” described in the New Testament is also prefigured in the Old Testament. One example is how a a wicked king led the people of God astray for many years, then a new king came to the throne and “he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” and restored worship in the temple . . .

Then Hezekiah commanded that the burnt offering be offered on the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song to the Lord began also, and the trumpets, accompanied by the instruments of David king of Israel. The whole assembly worshiped, and the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded. All this continued until the burnt offering was finished. When the offering was finished, the king and all who were present with him bowed themselves and worshiped. And Hezekiah the king and the officials commanded the Levites to sing praises to the Lord with the words of David and of Asaph the seer. And they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed down and worshiped. (2 Chronicles 29:27–30)

Later, Jesus was the ultimate burnt offering for sin. The Bible says we need to look to Him now, “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1–2).

After the horror of His great sacrifice for us, Jesus experienced great joy. It was in anticipation of this joy that He endured the suffering and shame of yielding, of saying, “not my will but thine be done” and then willingly experienced the excruciating agony of dying.

Today’s devotional says, “It is not till the burnt offering begins that we ever hear a single strain of music.” The author of this says that every human life has got its cross and we need to distinguish that from only the shadow from the cross. The shadow is something we enter and pass out of, but the cross must be taken up and carried to that place of death.

I know that the cross is about sin, my own and the sins of others that give me pain. A deep question is how I think about these. Do I cling to and cherish my own sin, wanting my own will to be done? Do I hate the sin of others and want to condemn and fling them away from me? The reading says that if those are my choices, there will be no song, only hardening of heart and a growing bitterness.

But if I can take up that cross and consider myself dead to sin, most certainly to my own, but also to the sins of others in that I do not let them affect me personally, my heart experiences the strangest thing — joy. There is harmony, even perfect music that begins only when I yield to the will of God and become that living sacrifice. When the burnt offering begins, so also do the songs of the Lord.

October 30, 2013

The power of worship

Autumn fades, but the glory of gold and orange lingers in the trees. The sky is still dark this morning, but the moon and stars brightly shine. I cannot see the mountains from my window but we have gazed up at their snow-clad peaks often enough that I can remember their glory. I can look even at photos of rivers and the sea and remember the sounds and smells. Our nearby pond is beginning to freeze yet a few geese remain. I stop on my daily walk and appreciate them, sometimes singing a few lines of, “It is my Father’s world . . . .”

Some say they can worship God in the woods better than in church. I’m not sure that is so, but respect it for God can be worshiped in any place and at any time. Even those who don’t know Him and don’t think of Him, can be in awe over creation. 

Yet even though the splendor of what God has made awes the mind, deep inside tugs a deep desire, unnamed, but that only God can satisfy. We may not name it, but as today’s devotional reading says, “our thinking is a mutilated fragment without God, and our hearts can never rest unless they rest in him.”

God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. (John 4:24)

Worship is a good thing. At times, it is the only thing that can soothe my sorrows and calm my anxieties. When all else fails, when I have no words to ease the pain of others, or to comfort those who have lost loved ones,  I want to point them to God. Sometimes I feel that I cannot do it and afterward feel sad or ashamed that I didn’t because I know looking at Him is true comfort.

My own heart finds comfort and deep joy in worship, in submitting to God and trusting Him. He has taught me that He knows what He is doing. He sees the end from the beginning, and in all things works for the good of those who love him.

As well, worship aids me when I am tempted. Mere thoughts of “this is wrong” are not sufficient. The idea that sin is destructive and not beneficial cannot help either. I can recognize the enemy’s lies in the bait he dangles before me and still struggle. I may know what I ought to do, but that isn’t enough. As Paul said,

For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. (Romans 7:18–19)

But worship puts all of it where it belongs. Moral behavior cannot live on ideas and values. Morals might be rooted in a strong sense of obligation, but that will not keep my heart pure. However, the desire to do right reveals a glory about human beings; we are made in the image of God. Yet I find that without worship, even a strong sense of moral obligation will give way to sin.

Worship does many things. It nourishes my understanding that God is a high, moral, spiritual Being who made me for himself. I belong to Him. As I worship Him, it also nourishes in me the highest and best as it points me to the One who can rescue me from sin and temptation. When Paul lamented his sinfulness and lack of power to overcome sin, he ended his lament with . . . 

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:24–25)

Worship heightens the mind, lifts me above sin and those desires of the flesh, but without Jesus Christ, I would be unable to get from those base desires to holiness and higher ground. Because the Lord has delivered me from the power of sin, then worship gives me an increasing desire to serve Him instead of those selfish desires.

God is worthy of worship and that is sufficient reason to do so. All that He is and all that He does reminds me of the wonder of His great love, His almighty power, His amazing goodness. Worship is due Him, yet in the way that He created the human heart, worship is also good for me.

October 29, 2013

Even my ability to worship depends on God

My fleshy self cannot worship God. Unless I am “in the spirit” my worship bounces off the ceiling or the lowest cloud. My flesh is selfish, focused on me. In my heart, I might even be applauding the “goodness” of what I am doing and not thinking about God at all, even as I sing hymns of praise or lift my hands toward the sky.
God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. (John 4:24)

Worship is about God, not about me. My mind may desire to adore Him, for all of us love goodness. God is pure goodness, to be admired and exalted, but pure selfishness cannot do that without some sort of “what is in this for me” thinking. I’ve come to this conclusion as the Holy Spirit shows me my own heart.

Jesus said that God is spirit, which is packed with meaning and implications. That word is actually about a breath of wind. He used it to define the One who cannot be defined. Some translators say Holy Spirit, others say Holy Ghost, but ghost isn’t even close to describing God. He is not an apparition floating in the sky. He is a very real person, yet we cannot see Him. 

This is one reason why He became a man. We need to see — and He honored that. The reality of God the Father can be seen in the face of Jesus Christ . . . who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. (Colossians 1:15) 

But the invisibility of God is not the only issue. He revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, but our sinful minds cannot perceive God in Christ either. That requires two more acts of God. First, the Son of God must reveal God to us. On the road to Emmaus after His resurrection, Jesus walked with two of His disciples and they did not recognize Him. They needed a revelation . . .   

All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. (Luke 10:22)

This is not the same kind of revealing as when a person opens a door and then you can see them. It is more like having a new understanding, a new ability to see, for us something like an ah-ha moment when “the lights come on” and now the identity of this person is plain reality. God has to do that.

The second need is another change in us so we can see what Jesus has revealed. This is like the first one, but a bit different in that it is an unveiling but the viewers are wearing blindfolds. Others can explain the vision, but until the blindfolds come off, they cannot see this unveiled thing. 

(God) has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13–14)

Those who cannot see God are living in the wrong kingdom. I’ve recently heard it called the “second kingdom” or the kingdom of self. In that frame of mind, God is there, but we are not. We need to turn from that to Christ, and this is the work of God’s Spirit. He does it using His Word and people who share His Gospel. And as we hear and respond, we are moved from that dark place into a new place where He can be seen, just as the Lord told Paul . . .

But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me. (Acts 26:16–18)

This is the place of the Spirit, the spiritual realm. Once in that realm, I’m secure, saved by God and forever His child. However, I can wander. Whenever I am in disobedience to God, my sin is like a blanket thrown over my head. I may be in the kingdom of light, but my eyes are not able to see it as well. Sin dims my vision and also dims my ability to worship God. Because sin is always based on a lie believed, instead of worshiping God in spirit and truth, my spirit is hindered by those lies as well, and I cannot worship.

Everyone has a moral nature and appreciates goodness, even as uninvolved spectators. Most also long to see the goodness of God, but as Jesus said, that ability is tied to our spiritual state. I can worship only because He revealed Himself to me. I can keep that vision true only because of His grace as He keeps me in the spirit — walking in the truth and out from under that blanket.

October 28, 2013

Each obedience counts . . .

A beach was littered with starfish washed up by the surf then abandoned there as the water receded. A young man walked the shore, picking up starfish as he went and tossing them back into the ocean. An older man appeared and said to him, “With so many, what possible difference can you make by tossing a few back in the water?”

The young man reached down and picked up another starfish and as he threw it, he said, “It makes a difference to this one.”

Today’s devotional writer asks a similar question. He points out that during the trial of Jesus before Pilate, Pilate left it up to the crowd what to do with Jesus, thinking that because Jesus was so popular that they would set Him free. But they did not; not one person voted for Christ.

None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1 Corinthians 2:8)

What was the “this” that they didn’t understand? This passage in 1 Corinthians says it is the mystery that had been hidden but was now revealed by the Holy Spirit to those who love God. Obviously Pilate did not love God, but neither did the people shouting “Crucify Him” for they didn’t get it.

But were there no others? Where were the people who did love God? Were they standing on the other side of the street thinking, “My voice will never be heard in that crowd” and so remained silent? Were they thinking this didn’t involve them? Or that rescuing Jesus was not their responsibility? Or that their to-do list was more important? Maybe some of them were worshiping in the temple, or they had seen Jesus walk through a riotous crowd in the past so figured He would do the same this time?

Jesus had to die. We know that from the Scriptures that reveal that this was the plan of God. His holy Lamb would be sacrificed for our sin. He was the One who would redeem souls and secure eternal life for all who put their faith in Him. If the situation before Pilate proved nothing else, it proved the need for the human heart to be redeemed. Jesus was innocent, but the crowd wanted Him silenced and dead.

Today’s reading says that Jesus died an unnecessary death. I do not agree. Because of sin, because of the great love of God for sinners, He had to die. There were no people who cared enough for the spotless and pure Lamb of God to intervene and rescue Him, and that alone proves that His death for sin was needed. If no one can love the most loveable person ever born enough to speak up for Him, then surely human hearts are corrupted beyond hope and God’s intervention must happen.

These thoughts do point to another issue in my heart, the problem of “let someone else do it” and the excuse of “what difference can I make anyway?” As any city, ours is full of social problems, such as homeless people facing winter that can go to -40, children who are being abused, people without enough resources to eat properly, ill and elderly who languish alone without anyone to visit and cheer them, youth whose parents live in addictions leaving them to fend for themselves, and so on.

So easily I can be like those who claimed to love God but stood on the other side of the street when the important decisions were being made. So easily I can be like the man who said, “What difference can you make with so many” when God asks me to be like the other man who did what he could, one starfish at a time. 

October 27, 2013

Floating downstream?

God must not be finished with me on this issue of what Pilate did. Today’s devotional reading uses the same verse as the past several days . . .
None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1 Corinthians 2:8)
While I understand that it was the plan of God that His Son would perish so I could have eternal life, I also realize that my sin put Him on that cross. This is a sober thing, yet I find myself taking forgiveness and peace with God for granted. Sometimes sin comes easy. That is, I don’t take it seriously enough to stop or even fight it.

Many Christians fall into this trap. Sins like gossip, complaining and covetousness are easily part of life. Instead of resisting them, we say something like I just said, “Everybody does it” and if not that, “It really isn’t so bad” or “This is just the way I am.”

That is rubbish. God says all sin is evil. He is in the business of changing who I am, and those excuses are not reasonable or biblical. However, I just realized a new one; fighting sin is hard work, deadly hard work. It means dying to self in that area of life where I still live for me and not for Jesus. That is, I have my own little kingdom and to be rid of sin means to abandon it for God and for righteousness. Since my enemy, the devil, does not want that to happen, a spiritual war begins. Actually, the war is not with him but with God for the Bible is clear about such things . . .
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (James 4:7)
The order in this verse is no accident. If I am going to be free from all spiritual harassment, I must submit to God, meaning I must give up control over how I think, talk and act, and yield to the Spirit of God in every area of my life. This is the price of righteousness. It sounds desirable, even easy, until the battle to resist the devil begins and shows me that my desire to rule my life is much stronger than it first appears.

Part of the problem is the same as the problem Pilate faced. He was in a political pickle and had to make an on-the-spot judgment call. He took a long look at Jesus and knew that if he set this innocent man free, he would have a bloody riot on his hands. He decided that was too costly and to avoid a battle, he voted for peace which seemed the easier solution.

The devotional reading rightly says that those who have once seen war have no desire to see it again. He speaks of physical battle where warriors “hurl chunks of metal at each other” and that we do well to make it a bad dream and a forgotten horror. Normally war is a bad thing. Yet for a Christian, the pursuit of a comfortable peace can be in conflict with the pursuit of righteousness.

How much simpler to fight for a cause, or fight for justice, or fight for the rights of the down-trodden than to fight for personal righteousness. The former fights are easier, not because of the battle itself, but because winning the battle for righteousness means losing personal control. It means giving up the right and the ability to govern my own life, whereas those other battles involve gaining ground than yielding.

In the desire for righteousness, how far will I go? Can I give up that little and totally useless kingdom of “mine” without a whimper? Can I let God have everything? 

This sounds good, even easy in some things. I don’t want to rule in those areas where I am convinced that God is the better ruler and where my needs are fully met. But what about those things where it seems if yielded, I would be left feeling needy? Even that very question reveals that in those things, I am not trusting the provision of God.

Besides wondering what will happen if I lose control, I wonder if God does not care or leaves me without whatever I might want, can I live and be happy in such a state? Will I lose that wonderful sense of peace that He gives? Or am I confusing it with the personal satisfaction that is mine when all is right in my little kingdom — because I rule it? 

Ekken, a Japanese philosopher said, “If a man will not give his life for righteousness he does not know the relative values of righteousness and life.” That means Pilate was not right, and neither am I. Pilate ruled his little kingdom. For him, when the day came that he could not have both peace and righteousness, peace was more important. He let Jesus be crucified rather than do the right thing.

As  for me, each time the enemy challenges my status quo, it seems as if God is letting it happen so I might realize areas of my life where my rule has become more important than righteousness. My experience is that dying to my own rule means a fight. Giving up sin and selfishness is not without pain and scars. In name of easy, and peaceful and going with the flow, will I be like Pilate and just decide to let Jesus die?