Monday, August 31, 2009

Who is Lord over us?

“Help, Lord, for the godly man ceases to be,
For the faithful disappear from among the sons of men.
They speak falsehood to one another;
With flattering lips and with a double heart they speak.
May the Lord cut off all flattering lips,
The tongue that speaks great things;
Who have said, ‘With our tongue we will prevail;
Our lips are own own; who is lord over us?’
‘Because of the devastation of the afflicted, because of the groaning of the needy,
Now I will arise,’ says the Lord; ‘I will set him in the safety for which he longs.’”
Psalm 12:1-5

In our fallen nature we frequently think of ourselves as independent, free from all restraint. We consider ourselves autonomous, a rule unto ourselves. We want to define our own reality, to say what is good and right, what is fitting, what is just, what is lovely. This rebellious spirit is reflected in David’s words today. [Quote] “[The wicked say] With our tongue we will prevail; Our lips are our own; who is lord over us?” [End Quote]

Because we imagine ourselves independent, we use our tongue to achieve our own ends – to serve ourselves rather than to serve God and others. The psalm today identifies three ways we abuse the tongue for our own ends. First, we speak falsehood to one another. In other words, we lie to one another. We fail to honor God and our neighbor by giving the gift of truth. Instead we speak falsehood. Why would we do such a thing? Perhaps we have spoken a falsehood to our brother to get something we want, “Mom says you have to give the lollipop to me.” Perhaps we have lied to our parents to avoid punishment, “No, Mom, I didn’t hit junior with this bloody stick – he’s just whining.” Perhaps we have made excuses to our employer to retain our job, “Really, sir, that wasn’t my fault, Ralph is the one who passed the bad information along to me.” Perhaps we have pretended innocence for hurting our spouse to avoid sexual sanctions. “Honey, I didn’t know that you thought our 25th anniversary dinner was important.” Whatever our situation, whatever our justification, when we lie we are not numbered among the faithful of the land, among the godly who fill the earth. “Lying lips,” Solomon says, “are an abomination to the Lord, but those who deal faithfully are His delight.” [Proverbs 12:19]

Not only do we speak falsehood to one another, we also flatter one another. Flattery is, of course, another type of lying. But whereas falsehoods are like vinegar, flattering lies are like sugar water. They are sweet and syrruppy and tasty to those who hear them – until they discover the bitter poison at the end of them. “A man who flatters his neighbor,” Solomon tells us, “Spreads a net for his neighbor’s feet.” [Prov 29:5] The flatterer is he who speaks to his neighbor not for the truth’s sake, not to secure his neighbor’s well-being, but simply to advance his own selfish agenda. When asked for counsel, the flatterer does not consider, “What is true? What is the right thing to do?” but rather, “What does this person want to hear so that I can get what I want from them? “A lying tongue,” Proverbs 26:28 tells us, “hates those who are crushed by it, And a flattering mouth works ruin.”

The culmination of falsehoods and flatteries is deceitfulness. There is, David tells us, a man who speaks with a double heart – who pretends to be your most earnest and heartfelt friend but who is really reserving his heart for another. He speaks out of both sides of his mouth – his heart is not with you. He is like Judas who betrays His Master with a kiss. Solomon warns us to beware such a man:

“Do not eat the bread of a selfish man,
Or desire his delicacies;
For as he thinks within himself, so he is.
He says to you, “Eat and drink!”
But his heart is not with you.
You will vomit up the morsel you have eaten,
And waste your compliments.”
Proverbs 23:6-8
But as we consider the charge of being double-hearted, is this not manifest in our own lives. How often do we betray those to whom we are supposed to be loyal in order to avoid embarrasment? “No, that snivelling little kid isn’t my brother.” Are we not all prone to deceit? Prone to seek our own advantage at the expense of others?

In the psalm today, David warns us and reminds us that fallen men are selfish creatures. Rather than submit our tongues to the Lord, we use them to gratify ourselves. But in the paradox of fallen man, what we think will gratify us in the end destroys us.

Reminded of our failure to submit our tongues to the Lordship of the incarnate Word of God, let us kneel and confess our sins in His name, seeking the forgiveness of our Heavenly Father.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Good Life

“How can a young man keep his way pure?
By keeping it according to Your word.
With all my heart I have sought You;
Do not let me wander from Your commandments.
Your word I have treasured in my heart,
That I may not sin against You.
Blessed are You, O Lord;
Teach me Your statutes.
With my lips I have told of
All the ordinances of Your mouth.
I have rejoiced in the way of Your testimonies,
As much as in all riches.”
Psalms 119:9 – 14

What is the good life? And who has the capacity to define it? Is it a can of Michelob on a camping trip? A can of Coke that somehow makes one bounce about the room? What makes something good?

Among no class of men are these questions more urgently and ardently asked than those who are young. Children and young adults are gifted by God with an appetite to have their questions answered, a desire to find and secure the good life. As they gaze out over the future, they want to know, “What will bring me joy and pleasure forevermore?”

Because this is true, Solomon meditates on this question in the Scripture that we have just read. How can a young man keep his way pure? What is more valuable than riches? Where should he find his delight?

Solomon’s repeated and steady answer to these questions is that we find purity, riches, and delight in heeding the Word of the Lord. God’s word is the foundation of all life. His revelation of Himself and explanation of the world around us, is what enables us to make sense of the world and to truly identify what the good life is all about. Finite creatures are unable to identify what is truly good for them. For how do we know, infallibly, that some trend we have jumped on today will end up bringing joy and happiness in the end?

At no time in history have the brokers of the good life been more prolific and skilled in their marketing. Whether the good life is to come through technological advances, organic foods, high protien diets, treatments for balding, or exercise machines – these peddlers never ultimately know that their recipe for the good life will not end in disaster. “There is a way which seems right to a man, but in the end it is the way of death.” We are not omniscient and so we are unable, as humans, to identify the good life. The most that we can identify on our own is what brings momentary happiness or pleasure. But we can never be sure whether these momentary pleasures will bring devastating consequences in the future. One thinks of the radical reversal that has come in the last century over the issue of smoking cigarretes. Once admired as the item of the fashionable, the discovery of its ill effects has relegated it to the addictive pasttime of the down and out. How do you know that the microwave popcorn you’ve been sneaking after the kids go to bed won’t prove your undoing?

Do we then have no hope in the world? Must we live our lives in constant uncertainty, blown about by every scheme for the good life that fills the Sunday paper? Are our youth unable to answer the questions which they most hunger to know? Are we left without a sure foundation?

No – Solomon gives it to us. God has defined the good life. And because He is omniscient, He knows all the end roads, all the results of various actions. He knows that homosexuality is destructive; that sexual immorality saps one of character and strength; that life is more than what enters the belly; that humans can have no greater pleasure than when we find our satisfaction in Himself. And the glorious thing is that He has revealed all of this to us in His Word. We can know what the good life is – for the Creator of all has revealed it to us and makes life understandable and meaningful as a result.

Despite the clarity of God’s revelation, however, we often spurn His revelation. Attempting to run our lives on our own sense of what is good and right, we find ourselves repeating the sin of our First Mother who, judging for herself, saw that the tree was pleasant to the eyes and desireable to eat, and so spurned the Word of God in favor of her own ideas.

Reminded of our failure to rely upon the Word of the Lord and our tendency to trust rather in our own wisdom and wit, let us kneel and confess our sins in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, seeking the forgiveness of our Heavenly Father.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Contentment and Happiness

Philippians 4:10-13 (NKJV)
10 But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flourished again; though you surely did care, but you lacked opportunity. 11 Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: 12 I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. 13 I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

There is an ancient Roman proverb that states, “Who is it that has the most? Is it not he who desires the least?”

What Paul and this short proverb are endeavoring to communicate to us is that our contentment and happiness are directly proportionate to our expectations. We imagine that we need more, deserve more, are entitled to more and so we are not content with what we already possess. We set our expectations so high that they are never met and so we are never content. And our discontent reveals itself in a lack of thankfulness to others and to God. For thankfulness is an expression of contentment—an expression that the expectations we have set have been fulfilled and even exceeded.

These expectations come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Sometimes, as in the text before us in Philippians, they are monetary expectations. Paul had learned, he tells us, to be content both with prosperity and with poverty, both with being filled and going hungry, of having abundance and suffering need. As a result, he was able to give thanks regardless of his circumstances.

But our expectations can also be non-monetary. We can set unreasonable expectations upon our spouses, our employers and employees, our children, our friends—and so we never thank them for the meal on the table, for the folded towels in the closet, for the daily labor at the office, for the opportunity to work, for the work performed, or for the frequent sacrifices made on our behalf. It’s his or her job to do all those things, we say to ourselves, and so we never express thankfulness—never look at others with a twinkle in our eye and a full heart and say, “Thank you.” Our expectations are set so high that no one could ever possibly meet them. No circumstances, however favorable, could transpire to make us happy.

But this was not Paul’s situation. He tells us that he had learned the secret of being content. What is that secret? Paul came to understand that what is most important in life is not our circumstances but the God who has given these circumstances to us. Let us ask ourselves, when tempted to be discontent and unthankful – Is God sovereign? Is God in control of every event in our lives both good and bad? Has God orchestrated every moment of our past lives as He sees fit? Clearly the answers to these questions are, “Yes!” And since this is the case, what is our calling? Is it not to trust Him? To rest in His good providence and be overflowing with gratitude? As Paul says, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” True contentment comes not by having high expecations of our circumstances but by trusting the goodness of our Heavenly Father.

Reminded of our failure to trust the Lord in any and every circumstance and our failure to be thankful, let us kneel and confess our sins in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Tremble, and Do not Sin

“Tremble, and do not sin;
Meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still.
Offer the sacrifices of righteousness,
And trust in the LORD.”
Psalm 4:4 – 5

The call of God upon us as His creatures is very simple and straightforward – he wants us to serve Him, not man; to trust in Him, not in created things; to love and cling to Him, not to the idols which we create with our own hands. As our Lord Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

Each of us is called to make this most determinative and fundamental choice. And it is not a choice that admits of middle paths – there is no third option; no opportunity of pleading that we have been placed in a false dilemma. The dilemma is real; the antithesis stares us in the face; we must choose whom we shall serve. Who will be our God?

The challenge comes: who is your God? Have you given yourself to the gods of this age? To glamour, wealth, power, academic prestige, simplicity, health? Do you sit and worship at their feet?

Or have you given yourself to the Triune God, the Creator of heaven and earth, the fountain of true glamour, of lasting wealth, of real power, of profound wisdom, of unpretentious simplicity, of blessed health? Do you sit and worship at His feet?

It was here that David sat and notice the way he describes the calling of all men on earth:

Tremble, and do not sin; – Fear God, do anything except offend him, remember that our God is a consuming fire. Since sin is that which causes a separation between us and God – if he is our Lord then we must put away sin, we must forsake it to serve Him.

Meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still – As one who fears God and not men, don’t let your thoughts go wild; be anxious for nothing, but in everything with prayer and petition present your requests to God and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. If we meditate on the Word of God, if we let our thoughts race not on our own anxieties but on the Word then we shall be equipped to be still – and this is why our Lord Jesus follows up His remark that we cannot serve God and mammon with an exhortation not to be anxious.

Offer the sacrifices of righteousness, and trust in the Lord – Serve the Lord with gladness of heart; rejoice in his precepts; delight in His law; pray; for with such sacrifices God is well pleased. Don’t succumb to the allurement of idols – many of them are carved quite cunningly, beautiful with their gold and silver accents – but remember that despite all their cunning beauty they cannot do anything for you.

So what is God’s call upon us as His creatures? David tells us:
“Tremble, and do not sin;
Meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still.
Offer the sacrifices of righteousness,
And trust in the LORD.”

Reminded of our failure to trust wholly in the Lord, let us kneel and confess our sins in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, seeking the forgiveness of our Heavenly Father.

The Leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod

In Mark 8, Jesus warns his disciples about the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod. What exactly is Jesus warning them about? What is meant by their "leaven"?

To answer the question, Mark 8:1-21 must be viewed as a cohesive whole revolving around one basic issue: the nature of kingship and therefore the kingdom. The chapter begins with the feeding of the 4000, announcing in no uncertain terms that the way in which Jesus will manifest his reign among the Gentiles will be fundamentally the same as the way he does in Israel (recall the feeding of the 5000 in Israelite territory earlier). Jesus will rule by serving; He will gain by giving. You see, some might be able to get this with Israel. Sure, they might say, He’ll serve the people of God, He will serve in Israel. But surely with the nations He’ll put them in their place; surely He’ll spread His rule among them by force of conquest; He will squash them, this is what Messiah will do.

But Jesus says NO – I have come to serve, not to be served. I will extend My rule among the Gentiles, I will manifest My rule over the Gentiles, in the same way – by sacrificing and giving Myself for them. I will feed them; I will care for them.

It is in the context of this declaration that we come to the demand of the Pharisees in vv. 11-12. The conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees has been intensifying throughout Mark’s Gospel. Here in our verses the Pharisees are once again testing Jesus. Mark is bringing us back to the issue of vindication. In the previous chapter the Pharisees endeavored to vindicate their authority to speak for God by pointing out that they observed the tradition of the elders, unlike Jesus. But this plan backfired. Jesus demonstrated that far from obeying Moses with their traditions, they were actually disobeying him, undermining the Word of God. Now Jesus returns from abroad and the Pharisees, in frustration, demand visible evidence of His authority. Can you prove that you speak for God? Show us some visible sign from heaven! Prove it! Show us!

What lies behind their demand is a false conception of Kingship – the King that we’re looking for will be dynamic, powerful, awe inspiring. He’ll be like (dare we say it and reveal their sin?), he will be like SAUL – tall, stately, kingly, powerful. So show us Jesus! Prove it.

But Jesus spurns their demand. Already, according to Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, Jesus has faced this temptation. Remember that in the wilderness temptation Satan took Jesus up to the top of the temple and declared, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here and the angels of God will protect you. You’ll get all the acclamations of the crowd! You’ll prove that you really are the Messiah!” And this is the temptation, the demand, that the Pharisees lay before Jesus now. “If you are the Messiah, if you really are the Son of God, then prove it! Prove that you’re the one with God’s approval; that you’re the spokesman for the true Israel. Manifest your power!”

But Jesus repudiates them and their notion of Kingship. No. No sign will be given to this generation. You’ll get nothing for which you are seeking because your eyes are so blinded that you can’t see all the signs that God has already been giving you! You foolish men! You read the signs of the seasons but you can’t even figure out what God is doing right now. Your misconceptions have so poisoned and blinded you that you can’t even figure out who I am. You fools!

And so Jesus in disgust leaves them abruptly. He goes back into the boat toward the other side of the lake, toward the city of Bethsaida. The last time Jesus was on the sea with the disciples, he was walking on the water, revealing to them His glory; but they were too dull to figure it out. They couldn’t see exactly what Jesus was doing.

In our text, we find that they are still dull of hearing. They don’t quite have it figured out yet. For Jesus tries to give them this warning about being like the Pharisees, and all they can think about is bread.

Jesus warns the disciples, “Beware the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.”

The leaven of the Pharisees makes sense – we’ve just seen it have we not? But what of the leaven of Herod? Is it not fundamentally the same? We have seen that whatever differences the Pharisees and Herodians may have had with one another – and there were many – both were united in their opposition to Jesus (cf. 3:6). Why? Because for all their disagreements the Pharisees and Herodians were united in their conception of the Kingdom, or at least in their conception of Kingship. Kingship is a display of power, a show of force. Kingship subdues, conquers, destroys, overthrows. Jesus warns the disciples – beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Herodians. This is not the nature of My Kingdom. The Pharisees and Herodians had the same basic vision – personal or national greatness at the expense of others. Jesus rejects such a program. “No! In me, as the Scripture says, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

And this is a message the disciples themselves stood in dire need of learning. What does it mean to be the Messiah? What does it mean to be one of His disciples? It is this lesson that Jesus is forced to teach again and again and again in succeeding chapters (8:33; 9:33ff, 38ff; 10:13ff, 35ff).

What then can we learn from the passage before us today? What principles does Jesus give to guide us in our understanding of the nature of His Kingship and His rule?

First and foremost, note the whole point of this section: the Pharisees and Herodians had mixed up notions of Kingship. Herod was a cannibalistic king, building his kingdom on raw power. The Pharisees objected to Herod not because his notion of kingship was fundamentally askew but simply because they weren’t the one’s with the power and he was too accommodating to other nations. You see, Herod was a syncretist, the Pharisees separatists. Jesus rejects both of them. He gives an entirely new paradigm of Kingship – the King is one who serves and who gives his life for the benefit of his people. He truly is a public servant.

Jesus displays this in His ministry. He is no Saul. He is not stately, kingly, powerful in appearance. He is lowly. He is like David, a youth, not of remarkable appearance. He is a servant. And so God will raise Him up and exalt Him higher than any other name.

Philippians 2:5-11 (NKJV)
5 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, 7 but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. 9 Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Notice then that Jesus’ feeding of the 4000 undermines all attempts to carry out the Great Commission by force or cruelty. There is no Islamic jihad here. No spreading the faith of Christ with the sword. Jesus extends His rule by serving; he extends His rule by sacrificing; he extends His rule by giving.

And He calls us as His people to imitate Him, to live the same way, to manifest the same type of giving and sacrificing, to the end that the Nations might know, that peoples might come to understand the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Alfred the Great Academy

My friend Robin Phillips has recently opened a new website offering mentoring to homeschoolers in middle and high school years. Check it out:

Refined in a Furnace

8 Oh, bless our God, you peoples!
And make the voice of His praise to be heard,
9 Who keeps our soul among the living,
And does not allow our feet to be moved.
10 For You, O God, have tested us;
You have refined us as silver is refined.
11 You brought us into the net;
You laid affliction on our backs.
12 You have caused men to ride over our heads;
We went through fire and through water;
But You brought us out to rich fulfillment. Ps 66:8-12

When trials come our way from whom do they come? Shall we curse some blind fate? Shall we lay the blame at the feet of our enemies? Shall we scorn our own folly?

The psalmist today reminds us that trials come upon us, ultimately, from the hand of our loving and personal God – our God who loves us and desires nothing more than to see us grow and prosper.

But why does God do this thing? Why does he bring trials our way? The psalmist provides us with a couple reasons. First, God wishes to refine us as silver is refined. “For You, O God, have tested us; you have refined us as silver is refined.” There is simply no way to get the impurities out of the precious metal silver without heating it up and burning them out. And there is no way to get the sin out of our lives without trials and struggles. Without them, we become slack and lazy, coddling our sin and thinking that truly we are upright people. It is only when God brings trials upon us that we throw ourselves at Jesus feet like Jairus when his daughter lay dying, and say, “Help me Lord!”

Second, He wishes to reveal to us how great His determination to bless us is. He wants to bring us through trial to an abundant and fruitful life. “I have come,” our Lord Jesus assured His disciples, “that you might have life and have it abundantly.” And so we go through fire and water, we get caught in the net, we have affliction laid upon our backs. Why? Because God is a masochist? No – because He delights to rescue us from our afflictions and demonstrate His great power. “You brought us into the net; You laid affliction on our backs. You have caused men to ride over our heads; We went through fire and through water; But You brought us out to rich fulfillment.” God delights to bring us to a land flowing with milk and honey. But we can’t get there without going through the Red Sea.

And so what should our response be to trials that come our way? Well listen to the voice of the psalmist: “Oh, bless our God, you peoples! And make the voice of His praise to be heard, who keeps our soul among the living, and does not allow our feet to be moved.”

But what is our response instead? Is it not to grumble and complain? To curse the day we were born? To accuse our God?

Reminded of our failure to trust our Heavenly Father in the midst of our trials and hardships, let us kneel before Him and ask Him to forgive us and grant that we might be as silver refined in a furnace seven times.