Wednesday, December 31, 2008
1 Cor 9:9-10. 9 For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.” Is it oxen God is concerned about? 10 Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope.”
Much ink has been spilt and much furor unleashed in the past several weeks here in North Idaho and throughout the nation. Condemnation has come from all directions: actors, athletes, farmers, politicians, writers. The collective conscience has awoken. “Cruel, insidious, monstrous, criminal, immoral”, these are only a few of the words of censure that have been leveled.
What is it that has caused such a stir in our otherwise calm demeanor? What activity has inspired such prophetic ire? Is it the systematic termination of human life in our abortion clinics? Is it the repeated lying, cheating, and stealing practiced by our public officials? Is it the rank idolatry of our populace? The exploitation of the poor and needy by our welfare state? Or perhaps the exploitation practiced by the Indian Casinos? Or the extreme fighting sponsored in and by them? Is it the widespread growth of prostitution? The explosion of pornography via the internet? The lies and deceit practiced by homosexuals to advocate their perversity in America? No, the nefarious practice that has animated the cultural conscience is dog fighting. It seems that Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick has landed himself in a heap of trouble for organizing dog fights at his mansion.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Dog-fighting is a bad thing - for the Scriptures tell us that the righteous man cares for the life of his beast. But the idea that dog fighting is the activity that should be animating the moral consciousness of the public in our day is absurd.
When a culture loses its moral compass, it inevitably strikes out with Puritanical indignation at random “sins” in order to hide the very real sense of guilt and pollution that it senses as a result of its transgression of God’s law. As R.J. Rushdoony in his book, Politics of Guilt and Pity, says, “The guilty person [or culture] conceals a greater crime by open profession of a lesser one.” The question for any civilization is not whether it will be indignant – the question is what it will be indignant over. And what is our culture indignant over? Dog-fighting. Global warming. Homo-phobia. Smoking. Trans-fats. How does this compare to the Scriptural priorities? Should we follow the fad? Should we jump on the band wagon and say, “Yeah, crucify Michael Vick! Let him be the scapegoat for our sin.”
Well Paul offers us a bit of perspective in the text before us today by citing the OT regulation regarding muzzling oxen. “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,” God had declared through Moses. And Paul asks, “Is God really concerned about oxen?” Now on one level the answer, of course, is yes – He is. He created the oxen, He gave this regulation regarding the oxen; He expected His regulation to be obeyed. But Paul notes that in another, more important sense, God is not concerned about oxen at all – the regulation serves to highlight the importance of principles that apply to people – those made in the image of God. And what is this principle? That those who labor should enjoy the fruit of their labor. That is why God says don’t muzzle the ox.
And so, why should we oppose dog fighting? Because it highlights the barbarity so prevalent among the men and women in our culture today. What else explains the rise of extreme sports? The rise of battered women? The popularity of reality TV shows like Survivor? Do we really need to repent of dog-fighting? Or do we rather need to repent of the greater sin of hating and despising other men and women who are made in the image of the Triune God, which God we have abandoned that we might bow before our idols?
Reminded of our tendency to hide our guilt under the show of moral indignation, let us kneel and seek God’s forgiveness and cleansing.
Sunday, December 28, 2008
Much has transpired in the last week. We have moved out of the time of Advent and into the time of Christmas. And in the season of Christmas we celebrate! We celebrate the arrival of the long anticipated One; we celebrate the fulfillment of God’s promises in the life and death of His Son, in the work of His Servant.
Last Sunday we noted that Jesus was called to be a Learned Servant. He was called to meditate and muse upon the Word of God. The Servant of the Lord was awakened morning by morning by His Lord, his ear was awakened to hear as the learned. And so we found that in the ministry of our Lord Jesus, He spent thirty years in preparation, thirty years studying the Word of God and meditating upon it, so that He might fulfill three years of ministry and achieve that which the Father had set before Him. And during His earthly ministry He kept His eyes fixed upon the promises of God – and this enabled Him to endure the pain and sorrow and humiliation through which His path took Him.
Our text in Hebrews today urges us to have this same type of faith. We are to be diligent to enter the rest of God – the final rest when heaven and earth will be one and God will be all in all. We are to strive to enter into this very rest, to keep our eyes fixed on the goal. Even as Jesus, for the joy set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame, we are to keep our eyes fixed on the joy, the rest set before us.
But notice the next thing the author of Hebrews tells us. He directs us to the Word of God, which is able to slice and dice us, able to show us our faults and illumine our shortcomings. Why direct us here? Why direct us to the Word? Because this is the same place that our Lord went to direct His own walk with His Father. He was a student of the Word of God. He allowed the Word of God to make and fashion Him into the type of man His Father desired Him to be. And though He was free from sin, free from the necessity of going back and redoing things that he had messed up, He nevertheless grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man through the things that He learned in the Word.
And so the author of Hebrews directs us to be students of the Word of God. We are called to be disciples. To hear what He says to us that we might correct our faults and that we might be reminded of the great promises that He has made to us.
Reminded of our calling to be learned disciples, let us kneel and confess that we have failed to meditate on His Word as we ought.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
Last week we noted that the Servant Songs of Isaiah serve not only as descriptions of the ministry of our Lord and Savior but also, frequently, as commissions for us. The character of our Lord is to be lived out in the life of His people.
But perhaps we have gotten ahead of ourselves? Did the New Testament really think that these Servant Songs with their lavish promises were being fulfilled through Jesus? Perhaps these things weren’t going to be fulfilled for many years yet to come. It is this suggestion that Paul’s words today completely undermine. He has just finished discussing the purpose of the death of Jesus. God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. And so God is urging us, through His preachers, through His Church – be reconciled to God. Paul concludes this thought with our words today –
We then, as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive thePaul urges His audience not to delay in calling upon the Lord to save them, to deliver them. They were not to be distracted by the deceitfulness of sin or by the winsome words of others but rather to trust in the Lord and believe His Word. To prove His point, Paul quotes from one of the Servant Songs. “In an acceptable time I have heard you, and in the day of salvation I have helped you.”
grace of God in vain.
The questions this raises are who is “I” and who is “you”? The answers are that “I” is God and “you” is the Servant of the Lord. Listen to the passage:
Isaiah 49:8 (NKJV)8 Thus says the Lord: “In an acceptable time I have heard You, And in the day of salvation I have helped You; I will preserve You and give You As a covenant to the people, To restore the earth, To cause them to inherit the desolate heritages; that you may say to the prisoners, ‘Go forth,’ to those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’”So the question we posed at the beginning was this – does the New Testament teach that these lavish promises of restoring the earth, of rescuing prisoners and giving sight to the blind, are being fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus? Well what does Paul declare in our text today?
Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.The long promised restoration from exile is upon us. God has acted to deliver His people from their sin; He has lifted up the cross as a standard to the nations and is, by His Spirit, drawing all men to it. And so the call to us is the same – don’t miss out. Don’t miss God’s call and fail to join ranks with His people. He is remaking the world through His Christ – will you be part of this new world of life and joy or will you continue to dwell in the old world of death and war?
Reminded that we often fail to keep the contrast between the world that God has introduced in Christ and the world as it once existed in death; reminded that we too often coddle our sins, coddle the path of death; let us kneel and confess our sin to the Lord.
Friday, December 19, 2008
In the passage before us today, we find Paul making use of the Servant Songs of Isaiah, the very texts that we are studying in this season of Advent. Paul vindicates his ministry to the Gentiles by applying the statement of the Servant Song to himself and to Barnabas. “I have set you as a light to the Gentiles, that you should be for salvation to the ends of the earth.” The question we should be asking is, “How can Paul do that?”
After all, these Servant Songs, as we saw last week, speak clearly of the ministry of our Lord and Savior Jesus. He is the Servant of the Lord. But Paul doesn’t apply the words of the Song to Jesus; rather, he applies the words to Barnabas and to himself. He declares that the Servant Song is being fulfilled in his ministry, in the life of the Church. The Church is called to be a light to the Gentiles, to be for salvation to the ends of the earth. How can this be?
What Paul reveals is that in the Servant Songs we have not only descriptions of what our Lord and Savior Jesus was like but also commissions of what we as the people of God are to be. The Church, after all, is the body of Christ. And so the descriptions of what our Lord was like are simultaneously descriptions of what we are to be like.
So what did we learn last week in our survey of the first Servant Song, in our study of Isaiah 42? We learned that Jesus was humble, gracious, and patient. He does not raise His voice in the street, He does not break the bruised reed, and he will not fail nor grow discouraged until he has established justice in the earth. This is who our Savior was.
If what Paul says is true, then alongside these descriptions of our Lord come commissions for us as the people of God. We are to be humble. We are to be gracious. We are to be patient. Yet I fear that frequently it is not so. Frequently we draw attention to ourselves; frequently we wound those in need of healing; frequently we grow discouraged in our tasks.
Consider the calling to be gracious. Our Lord does not quench the smoking flax, he does not break the bruised reed. What of us? How do we treat those in need of encouragement around us? Siblings, brothers and sisters, how do you use your words with one another? Do you use your words to build up or to tear down? To plant or to uproot? The Lord calls us to the former and in the life of our Lord exhibits how it is done – have we done it? Whether we are speaking with our spouses, our parents, our children, or our siblings – are we gracious? Are we encouraging those around us or are we breaking them down? Are we breaking the bruised reed, quenching the smoking flax? “Let no corrupt word,” Paul exhorts us in Ephesians 4:29, “proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.”
Reminded of our calling to imitate that Great Servant, the Lord Jesus Christ, let us kneel and let us confess our failure to do so to the Lord.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
Wright hammers again and again at the Gnostic tendency in modern Christendom which identifies heaven as our final dwelling. As a junior high school teacher, I often found it humorous and humbling while teaching early church history to query my students on various points of Christian doctrine. One of the issues most misunderstood was the resurrection of the body. Our churches simply are not teaching it! Whenever I would endeavor to convince the students that heaven is not our final destination, that in point of fact these bodies would be raised from the dead, one would think I was from the moon. Our children are simply not getting the message - and if our children are not getting the message it means that we are not teaching it.
As Wright argues so forcefully in this book, the New Testament has far less to say about life after death than about life after life after death. While acknowledging the blessedness of those who die in the Lord, the New Testament is much more concerned with the consummation of all things when our bodies shall be raised and we shall be transformed into the image of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ - not only in terms of our character but also in our bodies. These bodies will be raised immortal.
Further, Wright does a phenomenal job discussing the new heavens and the new earth. He insists that in Christ the power of the age to come, the power of the renewed creation, is present in the here and now. Through the Spirit, the resurrection life of Christ is alive in the Church. And so we are called as the people of God to live in light of what God has promised ultimately to do. We are to live in light of the promises of God to renew all things.
This entails both moral reformation and societal transformation. While I have problems with some of Wright's analyses of how this societal transformation should flesh itself out, his insistence that the coming of the Kingdom of God produces a certain type of culture is a much needed corrective to the shallowness of Christian thinking on these matters. When Isaiah envisions the work of the Servant of God, he talks about the culture that the Kingdom of God creates (cf. Is 61). These are the types of things that Jesus is in the business of doing through His people.
While avoiding traditional millennial terminology, Wright's book is very earthy and postmillennial. It does a great job emphasizing the meaning and implication of the Lord's Prayer. If we really do pray, "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven", then we need to expect that God will answer! We are praying for the growth of the Kingdom of God and the expanding impact of the will of God on earth. And these are the things which we as the people of God are to exhibit and incarnate.
Read and enjoy!
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
One should always start, of course, with positive comments and attempt to be fair. So my attempt to be fair and appreciative: The story was in itself engaging. Young's attempt to portray the dynamism in the relationship among the persons of the Trinity was ambitious. Perhaps the most insightful portions revolved around Mack's failure to trust the goodness of God and the nature of emotions.
During a conversation in which Mack is wrestling with the injustice which has been perpetrated on his daughter, the Father figure "Papa" remarks: "The real underlying flaw in your life, Mackenzie, is that you don't think that I am good. If you knew I was good and that everything - the means, the ends, and all the processes of individual lives - is all covered by my goodness, then while you might not always understand what I am doing, you would trust me. But you don't." To which I would only say, Amen. We frequently doubt the goodness of God displayed in the face of Christ - and this doubting is no piety but impiety.
Also profitable was his handling of emotions. When Mack asks for help understanding emotions, Sarayu responds, "Paradigms power perception and perceptions power emotions. Most emotions are responses to perception - what you think is true about a given situation. If your perception is false, then your emotional response to it will be false too." Peter calls us to sanctify Christ as Lord in our hearts - and our hearts include not only what we think and what we do but also how we feel. Every area of our lives is to be subject to the Lordship of Christ, including our emotions. So, once again, Amen.
These were highlights for me from the book. Problems? Well there are many. The book is pervasively Arminian. As a good lover of Pauline and Augustinian election (cf. Eph 1), I find this troubling and ultimately an empty solution to the problems the main character faces. Young's conception of the Trinity is problematic, verging on modalism. He has a hard time with masculinity and so begins his tale by presenting God in female imagery - something Scripture avoids intentionally. This problem with masculinity is pervasive throughout the book. These criticisms have been made compellingly and winsomely by Tim Challies and Doug Wilson.
The single most pervasive problem in the book was Young's tendency to draw various dualisms between "relationship" and whatever phenomenon he doesn't particularly like. So he has a dualsim between rules and relationship (198), between roles and relationship (148), between institutions and relationship (178), between hierarchy and relationship (124), between religion and relationship (179). While the last has been extremely popular in evangelicalism for many years, the other dualisms are related much more to modern American culture than to any sort of biblical wisdom.
Take, as one example, his dualism between rules and relationship. Frequently we find the author criticizing the notion of a rules based faith and insisting instead on the need for a relationship free from such shackles. A rule based faith is inherently anti-Christian and destructive.
Now on the one hand there is certainly a legitimate distinction to be made here. We are not to pursue the law of God, the statutes of God, the (dare we say it) rules of God with any kind of merit mentality. We do not keep the law of the Lord as some means to earn God’s favor. Rather as those who stand in a right relationship with God, we hunger and thirst for His commands.
Consider the way in which the Servant of the Lord approaches the commands of God in Isaiah 50:4ff. He listens to the Word of God, meditates upon it, and in faith obeys what the Lord has revealed. He obeys in the knowledge that the Lord will help Him, that he will not be ashamed. His labor is not in vain in light of the promises of God.
But The Shack proceeds far beyond this legitimate Scriptural insight and instead embraces the modern dualism between rules and relationships. Scripture embraces no such dualism. The Servant of Isaiah is characterized by being attentive to the teaching, the doctrine, the rules and laws of His Master. In addition, we find in verse 10 of the Song that we are exhorted to give ear to the Word of the Servant.
Note the attitude toward the law that is reflected in the calls of Isaiah to "Listen" after this Servant Song. Isaiah 51:4 declares
“Listen to Me, My people; And give ear to Me, O My nation: For law will proceed from Me, And I will make My justice rest As a light of the peoples.”
Law will proceed from Him (cf. Isaiah 2:1ff) - and this is a good thing. The Scriptures certainly do recognize that adherence to rules simply because they are rules is deficient and inadequate. It also confesses that the goal of piety is to move beyond the simple recitation of rules to the internalization of those rules. This is the whole point of Psalm 119. We also see it in the passage we are examining in Isaiah. Look at 51:7-8:
“Listen to Me, you who know righteousness, You people in whose heart is My law: Do not fear the reproach of men, Nor be afraid of their insults. For the moth will eat them up like a garment, And the worm will eat them like wool; But My righteousness will be forever, And My salvation from generation to generation.”
Rules and relationships are not contrary to one another, in other words, but complementary to one another. We experience this in any relationship. When a relationship is just starting or when it has been rocky and is beginning to recover, simple rules are where things start. “OK,” the counselor will advise, “don’t do that anymore, do this instead.” Obviously the relationship should not stop there – the knowledge should grow and deepen so that the laws become internalized, so that they become habits of behavior. But when you’ve got bad habits, the initial destruction of them comes via baby steps of obedience, putting to death old habits and giving life to new habits. Scripture knows no dualism between rules and relationship.
We could likewise analyze the various other dualisms that Young has established, demonstrating that each of them has far less to do with biblical wisdom than with modern American culture. The danger of this approach to "relationship" is that it makes "relationship" a new idol - and God is not particularly fond of idols. And this is my final critique of the book - the god displayed in its pages simply cannot deal with the portrayal of God in the Scriptures, especially the prophets. Young's god is not sovereign, not holy, not just. He is all about "hanging-out." But the God of Scripture? He is the High and Holy One, the Lord God is His Name.
Monday, December 8, 2008
In our passage today Isaiah calls upon the Lord to fulfill the promises that He is making through Isaiah himself. The Lord has promised through the prophet Isaiah to rescue His people from exile; indeed, not only to rescue His people from exile but to rescue the entire earth. And so Isaiah, seeing the promise, longing for its fulfillment calls out to the Lord in the midst of writing these promises – Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord!
Isaiah calls to the Lord’s mind His previous acts of deliverance and implores Him to act again. Was it not You, Lord, who acted to destroy Egypt, was it not You who dried up the Red Sea, who made the depths of the sea a road for Israel to cross upon? Yes it was You, Lord, who did this.
And so Isaiah calls upon this same Lord, the Lord who delivered Israel from Egypt and who was presently revealing His purposes to Isaiah – Awake! Awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord!
And this brothers is the heart of true prayer. The heart of true prayer is to consider the promises of God and then ask Him, plead with Him, urge Him to do the very things that He has promised to do. Lord, act! Lord, save!
Today is the second Sunday of Advent – the beginning of the Church calendar. In this time we have the immense privilege of recalling the cries of our fathers – Lord awake! Lord act! Do that which you have promised.
But we too find ourselves in this position. For the Lord has yet to fulfill all His promises. The Lord has yet to fill the earth with the knowledge of His name, yet to spread justice to all the ends of the earth. And so we are instructed by our Lord Jesus to cry out, Lord awake! Lord act! Thy Kingdom come! Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven! Vindicate your Name, O Lord! Rescue your people!
One of the chief ways that we as the people of God issue these cries is in our singing – we praise the Lord who has acted and beseech Him yet to act! And this is what Isaiah tells us. “So the ransomed of the Lord shall return, And come to Zion with singing.” For what was the response of Israel following the Exodus? Miriam and the daughters of Israel composed a song and praised the Lord for his deliverance. But now Isaiah is asking for more – deliver us yet again. Israel praised the Lord for His deliverance and looked forward to deliverances yet to come. And we, brothers and sisters, are in a similar position. Christ has come – Hallelujah! Christ has yet to extend His rule throughout the earth – Maranatha!
You’ll notice that the hymns and psalms we have chosen for Advent are endeavoring to give expression to this reality. We are endeavoring to be consistent with the thrust of the season. And so as you sing – consider. Why are we singing what we are singing? Is the song a song of praise for deliverance accomplished or is it one of deliverance desired or is it one of both? For we as the people of God have the immense privilege of celebrating the incarnation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and of praying that His Kingdom would reach its full fruition. We are praying as we sing, Thy Kingdom come! Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
And so how ought we to sing? Well, what is the tone of Isaiah’s call? Awake! Awake, put on strength O arm of the Lord! Is it not one of passion, conviction, entreaty, hunger, robustness?
Reminded that we are yet in need of the Lord’s mercy, that the Lord has exhorted us to sing and pray for the full arrival of His Kingdom, let us kneel and confess our complacency to the Lord.
The passage before us in Matthew should be very familiar. We have recently explored Mark’s telling of this same event. But Matthew’s emphasis falls differently thank Mark’s – Matthew wants to make sure that his readers always keep before them an essential distinction – there are those things that are human traditions and there are those that are commandments of God. When we fail to make the distinction between these two things we inevitably run the danger, which the Pharisees failed to avoid, of substituting human traditions for the Word of God or of imagining that our own traditions have equal weight with the Word of God.
Traditions are not inherently bad. In fact, traditions are inevitable. They are one of those things that we cannot avoid. And when we try to avoid having traditions we simply end up with a new tradition – namely, not having traditions. Traditions then are not the problem.
The problem arises when we don’t make a distinction between our traditions and God’s commands and we soon become incapable of differentiating them. This then leads us to the point where our traditions take precedence over the Word of God and we find ourselves incapable of seeing the way in which our traditions actually undermine the Word of God. This was the situation of the Pharisees. So much did they laud their traditions, that they could no longer see the way in which their traditions were making the Word of God of no effect.
This morning we have instituted a change in our call to worship and it is always good on such occasions to understand why we have done so. Among the various reasons – which would include the beginning of the Advent season this Lord’s Day – one of the central ones is reinforcing the distinction between the Word of God and our traditions. We are firmly convinced that our basic order of worship is reflective of biblical principles. We are just as firmly convinced that the details of our worship, while also reflective of biblical principles, are nowhere absolutely commanded in the Word of God. They are our own local traditions. And so, as a means of ruffling feathers and making sure that we don’t get so set in our ways that we imagine all the little details of our liturgy are found in Deuteronomy somewhere, we periodically change the liturgy.
And so, as we come into the presence of our Lord this day, let us remember to draw the distinction between the commandments of God and the traditions of men – and let us confess to our Lord that we have too often failed to make this distinction.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Today we close our series of exhortations from the book of James. And it is fitting that the book closes with a promise that James himself kept in mind as he wrote his epistle. He who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.
James wrote his epistle to encourage his audience to love, serve, and obey the Lord with fullness of joy and diligence. He wrote to those who were tempted to compromise; tempted to soften the demands of the Lord and Savior Jesus. He wrote to call them back to their senses – call them back to righteousness and holiness. Why? So that he might turn their souls from death and cover a multitude of sins.
The way of sin, in other words, is the way of death. When we walk down the path of transgression, we are walking the path of death. Satan lured our mother Eve to sin by promising the knowledge of good and evil – if you eat of the fruit then you will have a true and full life.
But Satan was a liar from the beginning. What he really held out before Eve was not life but death, not liberty but slavery, not knowledge but ignorance. And when Eve ate of the fruit, she plunged headlong into destruction. And when Adam joined her, the fate of mankind was sealed. We became corrupt, demented, distorted, full of wickedness and deceit, the living dead.
But Jesus came to give us life, to free us from the ghoulish state of unbelief. He came to breathes into us the breath of life so that once again we might become real men, freed from the curse of unbelief. But what are we tempted to do? We are tempted to forget; tempted to wander away from the one who has loved us and given himself for us; tempted to embrace once again the culture of death. And so James reminds us – he who rescues an erring brother, rescues him from death.
And so this morning, let us be reminded to pray for all those who have turned from the truth and who are walking in the paths of death. In particular, let us pray for --------. And let us also pray that God would forgive us for so often believing the lies of the evil one and embracing the culture of death. Let us kneel together.
Sunday, November 16, 2008
We evangelicals are not, for whatever reason, particularly passionate about prayer. Those of us in the Reformed portion of evangelicalism are especially dispassionate. Hold a feast – folks will come; hold a bible study – still folks will come; hold a prayer meeting – get ready to pull teeth. Why is this?
Perhaps it is because we do not think prayer very significant. Perhaps we reason that since God has ordained all things whatsoever come to pass that our prayers are not important. Perhaps we have failed to consider the promises of God.
Whatever the cause, James draws us up short with his exhortation and promise today. He has already urged us to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another that we may be healed. He follows that exhortation up with the promise that the effective, fervent prayer of the righteous man accomplishes much.
As proof of his assertion, James cites the life of Elijah. No doubt you have heard of Elijah. One of the greatest of the Old Testament saints, Elijah stands as the forerunner of the various other prophets. He is the prototype of the prophet. And God used Him marvelously. Healings attended his ministry; fire from heaven; visions of God; miraculous provision; raising from the dead. Elijah was a very unusual man.
But in our text today, it is not the unusualness of Elijah that James wishes to highlight but rather his usualness. Elijah, James reminds us, was a man with a nature like ours. He was a sinner; he was subject to discouragement; he was fearful at times; in himself, he was incapable of doing great things. Elijah was a very human figure, James wants us to remember.
So how then was Elijah able to accomplish so much? How did he manage to achieve victory over the followers of Baal? How did he manage to avert capture by Jezebel? How did he cause a drought in Israel? Elijah served the living God and prayed fervently that God would vindicate His Name through Elijah’s ministry. And this is what James wants us to understand - the same God who was active in Elijah’s day is active in our day also. God reigns, let Israel rejoice; the Lord reigns, let the Church praise His Name.
Precisely because the same God that Elijah served lives and works in the world today, James’ exhortation has force. Brothers, pray for one another. Pray that God would bless and strengthen; pray that God would open doors and solve problems; pray that God would heal sickness; pray that God would bring repentance; pray that God would restore joy. Pray.
Why? Because the effective, fervent prayer of the righteous man accomplishes much. Elijah controlled the weather for three years. And he had a nature just like ours. So just imagine what you could do?
So let us pray that God would forgive us for our unbelief and grant us fervency in our prayers. Let us kneel together.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Monday, November 10, 2008
Isaiah lived at a very tumultuous time in Judah’s history, in many respects a frightening time in Judah’s history. For about two hundred years the separate kingdoms of Judah in the south and Israel in the north had squared off against one another in an ancient cold war. Occasionally the ice would break and outright fighting would take place; but even when outright fighting wasn’t occurring, tensions were high.
In Isaiah’s day, the ice had broken and the northern kingdom of Israel was preparing to invade and conquer her smaller sister of Judah. Israel joined forces with the land of Syria and together they planned to conquer Judah and place a puppet king upon the throne in Jerusalem.
Many in Judah were understandably afraid. How could Judah possibly withstand the combined might of Israel and Syria? Destruction seemed inevitable. The conspiracy among the kings of Israel and Syria would certainly undo them.
And so the great temptation among the people of Judah was to look around for a Savior. Who will deliver us from our dire circumstances? Shall we call upon Egypt? Shall we call upon Assyria? Perhaps, some suggested, we should seek counsel on the course to take from the dead – we should consult the mediums and spiritists.
In the midst of this situation, this angst, God spoke His word through the prophet Isaiah. “Do not regard as a conspiracy everything that these people regard as a conspiracy.” You see the people of Judah were tempted to look about them and conclude that the attack upon them by Israel and Syria was a result of a conspiracy between Israel and Syria. Well, wasn’t it? Yes and no. Certainly it was in the sense that Israel and Syria had joined forces to overthrow Judah.
However, in our text today, Isaiah reminds his hearers that in another sense the answer was no – there was no conspiracy. How’s that? Because God Himself had planned and orchestrated this event for this very time in Judah's history. Israel and Syria weren’t the real players on the scene – God was. And God calls His people in the midst of political turmoil to look to Him as their Savior. Do not look to Egypt; don’t look to Assyria; look to me and be saved all you ends of the earth. The Lord Him shall you fear and of Him shall you be in dread. He is the one who has orchestrated this to instruct and chastise to the end that all the ends of the earth might know that there is a God in Judah who rules and reigns over the sons of men.
Events this week have been the cause of much consternation and hand wringing among many Christians. Barack Obama has been elected as the 44th President of the United States of America and the Democratic Party has achieved majority control of the legislative branch of government. If you are disturbed by this turn of events then the message from Isaiah is very relevant – “Do not say, ‘A conspiracy,’ in relation to all this people says, ‘A conspiracy.’” The Lord of Hosts – Him you shall fear, Him you shall dread. This turn of events is first and foremost from the hand of God and is a call upon us as the people of God to seek His face and ask Him to show mercy to our nation and to teach us to fear Him.
Reminded that we so often in the midst of political changes look to the proximate causes rather than the ultimate cause – namely, the hand of God – let us kneel and confess that we miss the point of these events and fail to grow in our fear of the Lord.
Last week we learned that sickness is always a result of sin. As a result of our rebellion against God in the garden all evil things, including sin, sickness, and death, entered into human experience. As a result, when we are ill we are to look to God for healing, seeking his blessing and forgiveness through the voice of the Church.
Today James continues that exhortation and broadens it. He urges us, as the people of God, to confess our trespasses one to another. Why is this? Here’s the reason. Sins against our brothers and sisters are the most destructive to our personal health. While we can sometimes cover over our private sins for an extended period of time, living hypocritically, cherishing idols, etc. But when we sin against Sally, the consequences of my sin are right in front of me.
So I yell at my children – and what happens? I have to live not only with my own guilty conscience, I have to live with the estrangement that my yelling has created between me and my children. Sin destroys relationships. First and foremost it destroys our relationship with God. But sin also destroys our relationships with one another. And when relationships are destroyed, our health suffers as a result.
But notice that James holds out a great promise. Our ill health need not remain a fact of our existence. We can be healed. We can be made well. What is the cure? The cure is honest confession to one another and intercession for one another.
When you sin, go to the person against whom you sinned and ask their forgiveness. Reconcile the relationship. Do not permit the broken relationship to break your health as well. In Christ the broken relationship can be restored; and because the broken relationship is restored, our health need not suffer as a result.
But not only should we be confessing our sins to one another – we should be praying for those who have sinned against us. When our brother or sister comes and confesses a sin which they have committed against us, James exhorts us to pray for them. Pray for them that God would not only restore the relationship but preserve the health of our brother or sister. And the promise is that the effective, fervent prayer of the righteous man accomplishes much.
Reminded of our calling to confess our sins to one another, to deal with sin as it occurs rather than sitting on it and letting it destroy our health, let us confess our sins to the Lord and restore our relationship with Him.
Saturday, November 1, 2008
What are we to do when facing the ups and downs of life? When we are suffering and weighed down, heavy of spirit – what are we to do? On the other hand, when cheerful, full of joy and wonder at the world in which we live – what are we to do? Today James tells us. “Is anyone among you suffering – feeling poorly, enduring trouble? Let him (an imperative, a command – this isn’t simply good advice) Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him (again, an imperative, a command), Let him sing psalms.”
James tells us straight that when we are suffering we are to pray. We are to take our troubles straight to the Lord. Lord, I don’t understand; God help me; Father, lift me up; My God, my god, why have you forsaken me, why are you so far from my groaning? When we are suffering it is not simply a good idea to take our pain to the throne of God, we are commanded to do so. Cry out to God; He wants to hear; He wants to be the one to whom you direct your cries.
Balancing this imperative comes James’ imperative for times of joy. When we are cheerful, we are to sing psalms. Why? Because singing enables us to funnel the joy that we are experiencing in the right direction – in praise and thankfulness to our Creator and Redeemer. When we are joyful there is only one proper response in James’ mind. What is it? Praise and thanksgiving.
Note then that the role of the psalms, in James’ mind, is first and foremost an expression of wildly exuberant joy and gladness. When joyful, James tells us, that which should first come out is the psalms. But as you think about the psalms, you will perhaps remember that some of the psalms are expressions of grief and longing for God’s presence – how do they fit with this theme of thanksgiving? It is here that we are directed back to James’ command to pray when burdened. James’ exhortation to pray also directs us to the psalms – for the psalms embody for us what despairing cries to God look like.
Notice then the priority that James places upon the psalter for the life of the people of God. What are we to do when suffering? We are to pray. And where do we find examples, patterns of prayers offered up in the midst of suffering? In the psalter. What are we to do when joyful? We are to sing psalms. And where do we find these psalms to sing? In the psalter.
So here’s the question for us – do we know our psalter well enough to fulfill James’ exhortation? How well do you know your psalms? Do the psalms, when you are burdened and weighed down, come to your mind and fill your soul with cries to God? Do the psalms, when you are cheerful and lifted up, come to your mind and fill your home with praise and thanksgiving?
I dare say that if you are like me there is some lack in this regard. Not many of us grew up singing the psalter. This is a new experience for us. Many of the psalms may be strange and foreign to us. Some of the tunes that we have in our English psalters are hard to learn. Some of the words of the psalms are difficult to understand and believe. But is the problem with the psalter? Hardly. It is with us. We need to grow in our ability to sing and to understand the psalms. And so, one of the things we are committed to do as a congregation is to become more excellent in our ability to sing the psalms and more knowledgeable of their content. And one of the things that we do every month to enable us to fulfill this duty is hold a psalm sing. The psalm sing is specifically geared to help us fulfill the exhortations given to us by James – is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms.
Reminded that in our suffering and in our joy God expects us to cry out to Him with the psalms and to praise Him with the psalms, let us kneel and confess that we have neglected to do so.
When we are sick, to whom do we look for deliverance? Particularly today, in our technologically and medically advanced society, to whom do we direct our eyes? Certainly, we must confess, we direct our eyes primarily to pharmaceutical companies and doctors.
But today James directs our attention elsewhere. He commands us to look first and foremost to the Lord rather than to physicians for our deliverance. This, of course, does not mean that it is wrong to consult physicians – James’ imperative does not exclude other imperatives alongside it. But James tells us first and foremost to seek the blessing of God in our illness.
Why is this? Two reasons. First, God is our Healer and Savior. When anyone recovers from illness, it is fittingly and appropriately ascribed to the hand of God. Physicians themselves will very often be the first to acknowledge this. The healing of illnesses is a great mystery accompanied by all kinds of unexpected complications. Frequently, treatment plans don’t do what they are supposed to do. And this is our reminder that healing comes ultimately from the hands of God – whether we are healed from a minor cold or a severe case of cancer.
But there is another reason James urges us to direct our attention to God in our sickness – sickness is always a consequence of sin. Sickness is a consequence of mankind’s original rebellion against God in the garden. As a result of our rebellion, all evil things – sin, sickness, death – entered into man’s experience. But sin is also sometimes a consequence of personal sin. If we are engaged in sin and refuse to confess it, the Lord will – in His mercy – visit us with sickness to bring us up short and call us to repentance. Paul writes to the Corinthians that because of their scandalous conduct at the Lord’s Table, many among them were sick and suffering.
The second reason, therefore, to seek the face of God when we are sick is to keep short accounts with him. If we have committed any sins, James assures us, and we confess them, then our sins shall be forgiven.
Thus far our application of James’ words is fairly commonly accepted among God’s people. But note the central exhortation in James’ epistle that we find hard to grasp. James urges us to seek the face of God in our sickness by calling upon the elders of the Church. The elders, James implies, function as the representatives of God Himself. And in a service of healing, the elders proclaim to the sick person the blessing of God and the forgiveness of their sin.
Note this – they are to anoint the sick person with oil. Oil is very frequently a sign of blessing and favor. The elders in a service of healing proclaim to the sick person – as we put this oil on you, it’s not just us blessing you, God Himself is blessing you. And not only do the elders speak with the voice of God in blessing, they also speak with the voice of God in forgiveness – having confessed your sins, you are forgiven.
What does this mean practically? First, in every illness large or small, alongside seeking medical assistance, look to God – look to him as your Healer and Savior. Second, as the case warrants – I wouldn’t necessarily counsel in every illness, but certainly in serious cases – call upon the elders of the congregation to come and assure you of the blessing and forgiveness of God.
Reminded of the gravity of our sin and the way in which our sin has practical consequences in the world – causing sickness and death – let us kneel and confess our sin to the Lord.
Monday, October 6, 2008
The words of James in our text today are very similar to the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. It seems that within Jewish culture at the time it had become fashionable to redefine the nature of truth telling and lies in order to avoid accountability.
The Ten Commandments had specified quite clearly that in the taking of oaths, one was not to take the name of God in vain. In other words, one was not to swear an oath in the name of the Lord and then lie. Why? Because God would not hold him guiltless that takes His name in vain. When we swear in the name of God to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – God takes our oath seriously and holds us to it.
But God’s people had, as sinners, studied for years ways to avoid the thrust of God’s clear words and came up with all kinds of subterfuges by which they could avoid telling the truth. They argued that as long as they didn’t invoke the name of God explicitly then all was acceptable. We can swear by heaven, or by earth, or with some other oath based on some creaturely item and then later break our word. How so? Well, we haven’t explicitly invoked the name of God.
In our passage today, James, like Jesus, denounces such a practice in the strongest terms. He exhorts us to be men and women of our word – men and women who, when we say something, mean it and follow through with it. For what is the origin of added oaths? When Billy is sharing some outlandish tale about martians landing on the roof of the supermarket in Buffalo, New York and his buddy expresses skepticism, Billy has to reinforce his word. He has to get his buddy to believe. So what does he do? He swears an oath. “I swear, I’m telling the truth – cross my heart and hope to die.” In other words, the origin of frequent oath taking is a propensity for lying and stretching the truth. And this doesn’t just happen with martian stories. Why do you think we are so burdened with legalese in the writing of rental contracts, sale contracts, employment contracts, etc? Because we are not people of our word.
So James exhorts us – let your yes be yes and your no, no. Be a man or woman of your word. And beware; if you aren’t, James warns us – just as God did in the giving of the commandments – if you aren’t a man or woman of your word, God will judge you.
So how are we doing? Are we men and women of our word? Or have we too resorted to various means to avoid responsibility for our speech and our commitments? Do we make promises to friends and family and then fail to keep them? Do we make frequent excuses for failing to fulfill our obligations? Do we endeavor to avoid our responsibilities under contracts that we have signed or handshakes that we have exchanged? There was a day in our culture when one’s word meant something – what does your word mean?
The righteous man “swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Ps 15:4b). Reminded that we violate our promises, that our word means little, let us kneel and confess our sin to the Lord.
Monday, September 29, 2008
September 28, 2008
This morning we face an unusual and grievous circumstance as we approach the Supper of the Lord. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:
1 Corinthians 11:27-32 (NKJV)27 Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. 28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. 30 For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. 31 For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world.In this text, we are told that it is our duty as the people of God, when coming to the Supper, to discern the body rightly. What does this mean? Throughout 1 Corinthians Paul has insisted that discerning the body rightly means recognizing all the members of the Church and their relationship to me. It means waiting for others before pigging out on the Supper. It means acknowledging that Billy over there really is my brother in Christ even though we find it hard to get along. It means acknowledging that those sinful men over there who compose the Session of elders really do have authority in the Church. To recognize the body is to look outward, around the room, and make sure that we are at peace with our brothers and sisters in the Lord and filling our proper role in the body.
If we fail to do this, then Paul tells us, we shall be judged. Indeed, he notes that this was already happening in the Corinthian church. As a result of their failure to judge themselves, the Lord intervened and starting judging on His own. It is to avoid just such a scenario that we are bringing a matter before you this morning.
Today we face the heavy task of suspending a member from participation in the Supper of the Lord. This morning we announce the public suspension of ------ from the table of the Lord for scandalous conduct unbefitting a disciple of Christ. Simultaneously our mother church in Spokane is announcing the suspension of ------. We do not do this lightly or frivolously. This is a sober moment. Suspension means that ------ is living in a way that does not become a follower of Christ and that informal, private confrontation has failed to turn him from the error of his ways. We are now bringing the matter to you in accordance with Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18. What can you do?
First and foremost pray for him and for ------. Beseech our Heavenly Father, the giver of all good gifts, to grant him the gift of repentance, that his eyes would be open to see his own unbelief and that he would return to Jesus.
Second, the mailing address of ------ and ------ will be made available to the members of the congregation. We would ask you to consider writing him or her or both of them separately a letter. But let me give guidance. The letters are not to be shrill; not to be harsh. Rather, remind them of your love for them, insist that you are praying for them, and encourage them to reconsider the path they have chosen – to choose life and not death. We would ask that all members of the congregation consider doing this – from the smallest to the biggest, youngest to the oldest.
Third, pray that our Lord would protect the purity and peace of His Church. Details substantiating the course the elders have chosen will be presented in the appropriate time and place. Meanwhile, ask our Lord to bless His Church and pray for us as we work through these details.
Sunday, September 28, 2008
Authority is not a popular subject in the Church today. We talk frequently of love and kindliness, of patience and longsuffering, of compassion and sympathy, but rarely of authority. As this text in Titus makes clear, however, Paul had so such inhibitions. He spoke quite freely of different authorities and our responsibility to them.
In the text today, Paul speaks quite frankly with Titus about his duty as an officer in the Church, his duty as one in authority, and about the duty of the congregation, their duty as those under authority.
So what is Titus’ duty as one in authority? He is commissioned by Paul to speak the truth, to exhort the people of God, to rebuke them with all authority, and to remind them of their duty. Paul commands Titus to let no one despise him. In other words, if Titus were to allow someone to despise him, he would be sinning. What does Paul mean “to despise”? The Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament remarks that to despise in this context means “ to refuse to recognize the force or power of something—‘to invalidate the authority of, to reject, to disregard.’” It is the last sense of this word to which I want to draw your attention. If Titus were to allow someone to disregard his authority, rightfully delegated to him by God through the laying on of hands, then he would be sinning.
The same thing goes for others in positions of authority. Whether parents, employers, magistrates, or babysitters – those who have been entrusted with a measure of authority must exercise that authority. They must use that authority for the benefit of those under their charge and the glory of the one who gave them the authority in the first place. What does it look like to use this authority?
Well, Paul gives us some pointers. At the very least it involves instruction and exhortation. Titus is to remind the members of the congregation of their duty. He is to remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to show all humility to all men. He is to plead with folks to do what is right, to admonish them and beseech them to act in such a way that it adorns the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect.
But what if this fails? What if Titus admonishes and exhorts and pleads with a brother or sister and he still doesn’t listen, he rebels and refuses to acknowledge Titus’ authority? Once again we come to Paul’s words – “let no one despise you.” Let no one, Titus, disregard your authority. As any parent or magistrate knows – when you lay down the law and then fail to discipline when the law is broken, you get more disobedience. And so Paul exhorts Titus later in the letter:
“Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition, knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned” (3:10-11).If folks failed to give heed to the voice of authority vested in Titus as an officer of the Church, then Titus was to proceed to discipline the fellow as any good parent would.
Notice, then, that Titus’ duty as one in authority is to use that authority for the building up of the body and the instruction of those under his charge. Simultaneously, the duty of those under authority is to honor the authorities that God has placed over them, showing all good fidelity and being well-pleasing in all things. This is the ideal relationship. Those in authority looking out for those under authority and those under authority honoring those in authority.
Unfortunately, this ideal relationship is often not the real relationship. As those in authority we frequently abdicate our responsibility and fail to shepherd those entrusted to us. As those under authority we frequently kick against the goads and disregard those who have been entrusted with our care. Reminded of our sin, let us kneel and confess it to the Lord.
Monday, September 22, 2008
When you think of the compassion and mercy of our Lord, what comes to mind? Perhaps occasions, like in our sermon text this morning, when Jesus stoops down and heals those in pain and anguish? Perhaps occasions when God, despite Israel’s great sin, sends one deliverer after another to rescue them from the predicament that they have gotten themselves into? When we think of God’s compassion and mercy, these are the types of scenarios that come to mind. And appropriately so.
But today, James points us to another evidence of God’s compassion and mercy, an evidence that we would be unlikely to see. What is this evidence? The evidence that James cites is the suffering endured by God’s prophets throughout the Old Testament.
Think, for instance, of Jeremiah who is called the weeping prophet – called to bear witness to a people under judgment, his message rejected and refused, he himself thrown into a pit, left for dead, forced to witness the destruction of Jerusalem and dying in exile in Egypt. Take all of this as evidence, James tells us, of the compassion and mercy of the Lord. Think of Ezekiel, taken into exile into Babylon, told to make a fool of himself before his friends, forced to lie on his side for so many days, to play with tinker toys and army men in the city streets as a grown man, forbidden to weep when his wife died. Take all of this, James tells us, as evidence of the compassion and mercy of the Lord. Think of Job, robbed of his family, robbed of his wealth, robbed of his health, lectured by his friends. Take all of this as evidence, James tells us, of the compassion and mercy of the Lord.
Suffering and hardship as evidence of the compassion and mercy of the Lord? What is this? What is James talking about? Evidence of His power, maybe. Evidence of His inscrutable wisdom, perhaps. Evidence of His mysteriousness, certainly. But evidence of His compassion and mercy? Yes – but in order to see it, we must also see something else. We must see what it is that God is really about in the course of our lives - the end toward which He is aiming.
You see, if God is all about making us happy, carefree, and successful then suffering is not a sign of God’s compassion – it is a sign only of His discipline and disfavor. But suffering, James tells us, is a sign of His compassion. Therefore, God is not all about making us happy, carefree, and successful. Rather, His purpose is to make us men and women and children of faith; men and women and children who trust Him, rely upon Him, cling to Him, and obey Him no matter what the cost. This is what God is about. And if this is what He is about and if suffering creates us into these kind of people, then truly suffering is a sign of God’s compassion and mercy, is it not? For by suffering God trains us in patience and endurance. And these are the very things James highlights.
So what of us? Have we considered that the sufferings through which God is making us pass right now, and that the sufferings through which He shall have us pass in the future, are evidences of God’s compassion and mercy? Or have we instead looked upon them in unbelief, seeing them as evidence of how screwed up the world really is, or how rotten we must be, or how little purpose there is in the world?
Reminded of our failure to look upon suffering as a sign of God’s compassion and mercy, let us kneel and confess our sin to Him.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
The medieval historian Gregory, the Bishop of Tours, recounts for us numerous events from the tumultuous 5th and 6th centuries in modern day France. His tale is well told and his characters are multi-faceted – some full of faith and wit, others of wickedness and treachery.
Among the stories he tells, one of the most gripping is his account of the local priest of Clermont-Ferrand, a man by the name of Anastasius. Anastasius was apparently a righteous man, a faithful priest, and a good husband and father – this was before the days when the Roman Bishop interfered in the government of the Church and forced celibacy upon her leaders. As a reward for his labors, the lately departed Queen of the Franks, Clotild, had left him a piece of property so that he might be able to provide for himself and his family.
But not all was well in the Church in Anastasius’ day. There were greedy, money-grubbing priests alongside the good ones. Indeed, there were greedy, money-grubbing bishops in charge of the the good priests. Unfortunately for Anastasius, his bishop was such a man. Since Clotild had died and since communication back then was not nearly so effective as now, Anastasius’ bishop set his eyes on Anastasius’ property and, like a new Jezebel, determined to use whatever means necessary to obtain it.
He began with flattery, endeavoring to convince the priest as a dutiful subject of his superiors, to sign over the property to him. The priest refused. The bishop then began to make threats, Anastasius still refused. And so the bishop followed through on his threats – he had Anastasius arrested and locked up in an abandoned prison, stating that he would starve him to death unless he signed over the property. Anastasius still refused saying that he would not be so base as to leave his children destitute.
At this point, Gregory tells the tale better than I ever could:
“In the church of Saint Cassius the Martyr there was a crypt which had been there for centuries and where no one ever went. It contained a great sarcophagus of Parian marble, in which, so it seems, lay the body of some person dead these many years. In this sarcophagus, on top of the body which was mouldering away there, they buried Anastasius alive. The stone slab which they had removed was put back and guards were posted at the crypt door. These guards were convinced that Anastasius must have been crushed to death by the slab. It was winter time, so they lit a fire, warmed some wine and fell asleep after they had drunk it. Meanwhile our priest, like some new Jonah, from the confines of his tomb, as if from the belly of hell, was praying for God’s compassion. The sarcophagus was quite big, as I have told you. Anastasius could not turn over completely, but he could stretch out his hands in all directions. Years afterwards he used to describe the fetid stench which clung about the dead man’s bones, and tell how this not only offended his sense of smell but turned his stomach over. If he stuffed his cloak into his nostrils he could smell nothing as long as he held his breath; but whenever he removed his cloak, for fear of being suffocated, he breathed in the pestilential odour through his mouth and his nose and even, so to speak, through his ears! To cut a long story short, God finally took pity on him, for that is what I think must have happened. Anastasius stretched out his right hand to touch the edge of the sarcophagus and discovered a crowbar. When the lid had been lowered on top of him, this had been left between the stone slab and the edge of the sarcophagus. He levered the crowbar to and fro until, with God’s help, he felt the lid move. Once it was edged far enough along for the priest to be able to stick his head out he was able to make a bigger opening and so creep out of the tomb.” (205-206)
From there, Gregory tells us, Anastasius fled to the king, Clotild’s son, who was horrified to hear of the bishop’s wickedness. He confirmed Anastasius in his property and sent a subtle threat to the bishop. The bishop was so taken with fear, both of the king and of God whom he had for so many years scorned, that he died shortly thereafter.
James tells us today that we are not to grumble against our brethren. The story from Gregory gives us perspective – if you think your brothers are bad, just consider Anastasius' bishop. And when you do, thank God that the biggest thing you have to grumble about is that Sally didn’t smile at you last Sunday.
Reminded that we grumble against our brothers and forget that God is the righteous Judge who oversees all our relationships, let us kneel and confess our sin to the Lord.
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
As many of you are aware through our Head of Households Meeting this week, we in company with Christ Church in Spokane have been wrestling through a discipline situation. Thankfully, we appear to be making some progress in dealing with the issue and so I would ask you to remember to pray for the elders and for the folks involved - for wisdom, soft hearts, repentance where appropriate, and a hunger to honor the Lord. When engaged in such situations, it is always good and wise to remember why we are doing what we are doing so that we might conduct ourselves in a way that honors Christ and builds up His Church.
In the passage before us today, James reminds us that the Christian life is comparable to the life of a farmer. That which most characterizes farmers in the harvesting of a crop, James tells us, is patience. They don’t plant the seed today and expect the harvest tomorrow. They have to wait; they have to be patient; they have to wait on the Lord, wait on the early and latter rain, wait for the seed to sprout, to grow, and come to its fullness.
While the farmer is engaged in this waiting game, however, he is not idle. He tends the crop, he watches for weeds and pulls them when so doing doesn’t endanger the plant itself, he puts out fertilizers to help enrich the soil, and sometimes provides water of his own in addition to that supplied from the heavens. Farming is hard work – demanding patience, a love for the land, and attentiveness.
Life in the Church demands the same characteristics. We must be patient, looking to the Lord to cultivate within our midst the fruit he has promised – 30, 60, and 100 fold. We must love God’s people, overlooking minor transgressions and forgiving others even as we have been forgiven. Finally, we must be attentive, both to the health of the farm and to the benefit that the owner of the farm expects and demands from the crop.
It is this last duty, the duty of attentiveness, that requires the Church to use her authority in calling erring members of the Church to account. Sin, in all its varied shapes and sizes, is a noxious weed – not only sucking life from the soil that might go to the crop but actually poisoning the plants in its radius. When this sin is public and comes to the attention of the Church, the worst thing that can be done is to ignore it. Ignore a noxious weed and soon you’ll have more – indeed, soon you’ll have a bumper crop. And so, the Lord of the farm has entrusted to His Church the task of holding folks accountable for their sin and, when they refuse to repent, of disciplining them even as a loving father does his children.
Our Lord declared:
Matthew 18:15-17 (NKJV)15 “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ 17 And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church.And so discipline situations occasionally come to the attention of the entire Church. Why? Not so that we have a new scandal about which to create a vicious rumor mill. “Have you heard what so and so has done now?” “No. But I did hear . . .” We do not solve our brother’s sin by engaging in our own sin of gossip. Rather the matter is brought to the Church so that we might love our brother, pray for Him, encourage him to reconsider his ways, and ultimately gain our brother back. So that the noxious weed that has taken root in his life is uprooted, the soil is refreshed, and an even more abundant crop produced.
Reminded of our need to approach life like the farmer – full of patience, full of a love for the land, full of attentiveness as well – let us kneel and let us confess our failure to do these things to the Lord.
Sunday, August 31, 2008
It seems from our text today, does it not, that James takes the exploitation of workers by their employers very seriously? It seems, does it not, that James warns such folks that judgment is sure to come and that the additional riches they have obtained at the expense of others will only add fuel to their fire of their own destruction on the Day of the Lord?
And so, reminded of the necessity of justice; reminded of the necessity of showing mercy to those entrusted to our care; reminded of God’s hatred for those who exploit others; let us kneel and let us confess our injustices to the Lord.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
"We civilized men . . . build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment . . . . Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. . . . [Nevertheless, our instinct of sympathy moves us to provide such care.] Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.” Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man.
Rarely in the consideration of Darwinism today do we reckon with the societal implications of the theory. Endeavoring to restrict the theory to mere science, we overlook the larger philosophical questions that are raised by it. If, for instance, we have all evolved from some lesser developed creature into a more sophisticated one, why not apply this within the human race? Could it not be that some portions of humanity have evolved more than others and that, for the good of the race, those weaker members should be eliminated? Darwin himself didn’t shrink from such questions, as the above quotation makes clear. He felt it imperative to address these issues because he was advocating, not just a scientific theory, but an entire worldview--a way to view politics, social relationships, and science. He was convinced that evolutionary theory was the key which would unlock the full potential of the human race.
The vision for societal transformation which emerged from Darwin’s theory was coined Social Darwinism. In light of its abuses in this century, it has been abandoned by those who otherwise praise Darwin’s work. Social Darwinism is the skeleton in the evolutionary closet--and evolutionists are careful to bar the door with a nervous smile whenever Christians try to get a peek inside. But their smiles don’t fool us here at St. Anne’s. Let us shove the evolutionists aside and take an honest look at Social Darwinism in the life of one of its most zealous advocates--Sir Francis Galton, cousin of the famous Charles Darwin. I am Stuart Bryan and this is Ancient Biography.
Sir Francis Galton was a highly regarded pioneer of evolutionary research in the late 1800s. Knighted in 1909 for his achievements, he openly acknowledged the way in which his theories depended upon Darwin’s book The Origin of Species and was praised by Darwin himself for his work. Not surprisingly Galton’s “science” turned out to be more personal prejudice than scientific inquiry.
The blue ribbon for Galton’s most absurd theories goes to his“Beauty map” of England. Convinced that heredity had drastically affected the physical appearances of ladies in different counties, Galton studied the women in the streets and inns of all England. As he traveled, he rated the women he saw according to their level of beauty, “attractive, indifferent, or repellent.” Galton remarked that he “found London to rank highest for beauty; Aberdeen lowest.” Such pontificating seems absurd today. Yet this is an example of the “scientific” observations common in Social Darwinism. Unfortunately the men in Aberdeen didn’t find Galton ogling at the lasses and give him a reward for his impudence.
Predictably Galton’s prejudices pressed themselves into more serious realms than Miss Universe pageants. The most serious of these was Galton’s application of evolution to what he called the “science” of Eugenics.
What is Eugenics you ask? Well, eugenics is a sophisticated name for the selective breeding of the human race. The “science” of Eugenics purported to study human breeding to determine which elements of the race should be permitted to reproduce just like a breeder of poodles selects the best stock to continue the poodle family tree. In his Autobiography Galton wrote:
"I cannot doubt that our democracy will ultimately refuse consent to that liberty of propagating children which is now allowed to the undesirable classes, . . . . A democracy cannot endure unless it be composed of able citizens; therefore it must in self-defence withstand the free introduction of degenerate stock.”This degenerate stock included such “weaker” races as the negroes and the aborigines and such “weaker” elements of society as the poor, the lame, criminals, and the mentally ill.
Galton shied away, somewhat inconsistently, from the use of force in the accomplishment of this goal.; however, the early part of the 20th century witnessed the consistent application of his philosophy in Nazi Germany, a self-professed Darwinist state. Applying the views of Galton in a logically consistent manner, the Nazi’s argued that they were doing the human race a favor by eliminating the weaker stock--Jews especially--from the gene pool. Dr. John Hunt remarks that
"within a year of coming to power, the Nazis had started some 250 eugenic courts whose function was to decide who was worthy to procreate. These eugenic courts took applications from social workers and physicians urging sterilizations, taking decision-making from tens of thousands of individuals. The purpose of Nazi use of eugenics courts and forced or pressured sterilizations was to keep the "unfit" from reproducing.”With this quote in mind, meditate upon Galton’s remarks on Eugenics in his Autobiography:
"I take Eugenics very seriously, feeling that its principles ought to become one of the dominant motives in a civilised nation, much as if they were one of its religious tenets. . . Individuals appear to me as partial detachments from the infinite ocean of Being, and this world as a stage on which Evolution takes place, principally hitherto by means of Natural Selection, which achieves the good of the whole with scant regard to that of the individual. Man is gifted with pity and other kindly feelings; he has also the power of preventing many kinds of suffering. I conceive it to fall well within his province to replace Natural Selection by other processes that are more merciful and not less effective. This is precisely the aim of Eugenics. Its first object is to check the birth-rate of the Unfit, instead of allowing them to come into being. . . . The second object is the improvement of the race by furthering the productivity of the Fit by early marriages and healthful rearing of their children. Natural Selection rests upon excessive production and wholesale destruction; Eugenics on bringing no more individuals into the world than can be properly cared for, and those only of the best stock.”
Note then Galton’s assertion: Eugenics is the merciful replacement of Natural Selection. Truly the Nazi’s did mankind a favor and we should be grateful for their endeavors. They purified the race; made the world safer for the rest of us. That is, if we are part of the strong stock. But who gets to define the strong? Ah, that is the nagging question.
“. . . the ideas of [Augustine] furnished the themes for the piety and theology of more than a thousand years. No one possessed the ‘whole’ Augustine, but all lived upon the fragments of his spirit . . .” Reinhold SeebergAugustine, the Bishop of Hippo from 396 to 430 AD, towers above his predecessors, contemporaries, and pupils. Few match his keen spiritual insight; few achieve his profound self-understanding; few approach the breadth of his theological vision. Phillip Schaff, the great 19th century church historian, remarked that Augustine “is a philosophical and theological genius of the first order, towering like a pyramid above his age, and looking down commandingly upon succeeding centuries. He had a mind uncommonly fertile and deep, bold and soaring; and with it, what is better, a heart full of Christian love and humility.”
A man of such merit deserves to be well known, and his writings to be well studied, within the Christian community. Unfortunatly, few have cracked any of his numerous works; and, worse still, some of those who have attempted to explore his writings have chosen the wrong place to begin. I remember as an undergraduate picking up a copy of Augustine’s On the Trinity, one of his most difficult treatises, and feeling at once confused, overwhelmed, and ignorant. I didn’t get far and gave up reading Augustine for several years--convinced that he was too abstruse and complex for my simple mind to comprehend. It is to encourage others to avoid such a mistake, and to prod others even to try to make such mistakes, that we have reviewed Augustine’s Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love.
Enchiridion is a Greek word meaning “handbook.” Augustine’s Enchiridion, then, is somewhat of an ancient Mere Christianity, an exposition of that which Augustine deemed most essential in the Christian faith. He himself claims that the book is neither so burdensome so as to load down one’s shelves nor so brief as to leave important questions unanswered. It is a tribute to Augustine’s genius that in the relatively short compass of 140 pages he is able to express his most mature theological convictions.
The immediate purpose for which Augustine wrote was the instruction of an educated Roman layman named Laurentius. Laurentius posed a number of questions to Augustine, desiring that Augustine might compose a short handbook for future reference. To make the book readily accessible, Augustine organized it around the three virtues of faith, hope, and love. Augustine reasoned that since these three virtues constitute the essence of the fear of the Lord, or true worship, one can discover the essence of the Christian faith by discussing each in turn. What are we to believe? What are we to hope for? What are we to love? These are the three questions Augustine sets out to answer.
The lion’s share of the Enchiridion, 105 of its 122 chapters, is devoted to the question, “What are we to believe?” To answer, Augustine works his way through the Apostle’s Creed beginning with our knowledge of God the Creator and ending with the nature of heaven and hell. Clearly and affirmatively, yet without mentioning any of them by name, Augustine refutes the heresies of Arianism, Apollonarianism, Manichaeism, and Pelagianism by demonstrating the necessity of the Trinity, the goodness of the creation, the sinfulness of humanity, and the priority of divine grace in redemption.
Augustine repeatedly urges the necessity of the Trinity upon his readers. “It is enough,” Augustine says when explaining the opening confession of the Apostle’s Creed, “for the Christian to believe that the only cause of all created things, whether heavenly or earthly, whether visible or invisible, is the goodness of the Creator, the one true God; and that nothing exists but Himself that does not derive its existence from Him; and that He is the Trinity--to wit, the Father, and the Son begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeding from the same Father, but one and the same Spirit of Father and Son.”
In addition to defending the Trinity, Augustine safeguards his readers from a distorted view of the created world. Because God is the Creator, the created world is in itself good. Evil, for Augustine, has no separate being but, like a parasite, is dependent upon goodness for its existence. Augustine explains:
“Accordingly, there is nothing of what we call evil, if there be nothing good. But a good which is wholly without evil is a perfect good. A good, on the other hand, which contains evil is a faulty or imperfect good; and there can be no evil where there is no good. . . . Therefore every being, even if it be a defective one, in so far as it is a being is good, and in so far as it is defective is evil.”While Augustine’s defenses of the Trinity and the goodness of creation are exhilarating, nothing equals his vigorous attack upon the notion of free will and his robust vindication of the priority of divine grace in redemption. Augustine demonstrates that while Adam possessed free-will when first created, he lost it for himself and all his descendants by rebelling against God. “For,” he explains, “ it was by the evil use of his free-will that man destroyed both it and himself. For, as a man who kills himself must, of course, be alive when he kills himself, but after he has killed himself ceases to live, and cannot restore himself to life; so, when man by his own free-will sinned, then sin being victorious over him, the freedom of his will was lost.”
Because of this bondage, Augustine argues that we are unable to rescue ourselves from our fate of death and damnation. And it is this dismal picture which highlights, both in Scripture and in Augustine’s theology, the wonder of divine grace. Our entire salvation, he maintains, is an outgrowth of God’s mercy. God chooses us, gives us life, enables our wills, prompts us to holiness. Augustine’s summary is well worth quoting:
“After the fall a more abundant exercise of God’s mercy was required, because the will itself had to be freed from the bondage in which it was held by sin and death. And the will owes its freedom in no degree to itself, but solely to the grace of God which comes by faith in Jesus Christ; so that the very will, through which we accept all the other gifts of God which lead us on to His eternal gift, is itself prepared of the Lord, as the Scripture says.”Expanding on the same theme later, Augustine demonstrates the way in which this renewal of will inevitably leads to a godly life.
“This is our first alms,” he declares, “which we give to ourselves when, through the mercy of a pitying God, we find that we are ourselves wretched, and confess the justice of His judgment by which we are made wretched, . . . and praise the greatness of His love, of which [Paul] says, ‘God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us:’ and thus, judging truly of our own misery, and loving God with the love which He has Himself bestowed, we lead a holy and virtuous life.”The Trinity, the goodness of creation, the destructiveness of the Fall, and the beauty of divine grace are only a smattering of the topics Augustine addresses under the head, “What are we to believe?” In the remainder of the book, Augustine briefly addresses the two questions, “What are we to hope for?” and “What are we to love?” The answers? Hope in God not in man who is ever fickle and changeable. Love the Lord and love your neighbor as yourself, for this is the law and the prophets.
The Enchiridion, then, lives up to its name: it is truly a handbook of essential Christianity summarizing as it does the profoundly biblical theology of Augustine, that man who “furnished the themes for the piety and theology of more than a thousand years.” So curl up in your favorite chair, grab a glass of Chablis, crack The Enchiridion, and enter into one of the great classics of Christian literature.
Monday, August 25, 2008
We as sinners like to imagine that we are in control. We buy Franklin Planners and chart out our responsibilities. We rank them with our As, Bs, and Cs. We check them off when we’re done and get the little rush of endorphins. “Ah, I’m in control,” we say to ourselves. “I’ve got it all together. I am the master of my own destiny. Nothing shall stop me.”
It is this type of sin that James addresses with these words to his audience. They boasted in their arrogance. They imagined that they were the ultimate shapers and molders of their own destiny. But James calls them up short – you don’t even know, O foolish man, what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. You are nothing; your plans are nothing; your Franklin Planner is nothing; you are not in control. You are a vapor hovering over the ground subject to the blowing of the wind, the rising of the sun, a change in the temperature. If the wind begins to blow, you float away. If the sun rises, you vanish. If the temperature changes, you get lighter or heavier depending on the change. You are not the master of your own destiny.
Well, if I’m not, who is? God is. God is the master of your destiny. Solomon tells us in Proverbs 16:9, “A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” Our lives rest in the hand of God; He is the Lord. He causes the wind to blow; He causes the sun to rise; He causes the temperature to change. He is the One who wields the nations like a woodsman wielding his axe. “Come and do my bidding,” he declares. “Invade the northern territories of Georgia. Unsettle their population. Uproot their democracy.” And then He declares, “And afterward I shall punish the pride of your heart; I shall overthrow your wickedness. For shall the axe boast itself over the woodsman who wields it?”
So what does James have to tell us today? When you are making plans and decisions – which we all must do – when you are orchestrating a move, making an investment in some new business, selecting a spouse, organizing a date with your beloved, driving to the store to buy groceries, do so in faith, saying, “If the Lord wills, we shall do this or that.” Acknowledge the sovereign Lordship of God and hold all your plans, even those closest to your heart, in uplifted hands that are open to the sovereign intervention of our Lord. He is in control.
Unfortunately, rather than plan in faith, we plan in unbelief. We plan as though we are the master and so we get bent out of shape when our plans are thwarted. We gather all the kids and pack them in the car, getting ready to head to the store and what happens? Junior hits his sister. What is our response? Do we take this as an opportunity given to us by the hand of our loving Father to intervene and train our son? Not likely. How do we respond? With frustration and anger that our plans, orchestrated so carefully, have been thwarted. “Don’t you know, junior, how long it takes me to get everyone dressed and in the car?” But here’s the question – who thwarted your plans? Did your son? No – not ultimately. God did. He crafted this moment just for you. “A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.”
Reminded that we often plan in unbelief and not in faith, let us kneel and confess our sin to the Lord.