Friday, June 15, 2018

The mark of genuine Christianity ............. Parables 755

June 11, 2002

“You mean to tell me there are people from seven different denominations in your Bible study group? That’s amazing!”

During the late 1970's when we lived in Fort Saskatchewan, I attended a Bible study that began with two people. It grew, evolved and continued for years, and may still be going to this day. One of its more distinctive features was that ladies from several denominations came and felt right at home in this group.

More than one person expressed amazement at our unity. A common perception is that Christians from different churches do not get along — that we argue over faith issues and other things, thus our reason for maintaining various denominations. Sadly, that is sometimes true, but it is not always the case.

The fact of a variety of denominations demonstrates the freedom God gives Christians to express our diversity. We prefer varying worship styles. Some like older hymns; others prefer contemporary music. We practice various modes of baptism, ways of outreach, and so on.

The New Testament church had distinctives too. The church at Corinth was filled with flamboyant Gentile converts. The church in Ephesus was a mixed group of Jews and Gentiles. Cultural differences made each congregation unique.

Whatever the mix, each group believed in the same gospel and were instructed with the basic commandment: love one another. Jesus told His disciples, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

The apostle Paul added, “You are called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.”

Paul gave Christians no excuse to fight and Jesus gave unbelieving people a criteria by which to judge the church. If believers fight among themselves, we become a news item and a nasty taste in peoples’ mouths. Even those outside the church know we ought to love each other.

Unfortunately, when Christian churches show exceptional examples of love, the public rarely hears about it. For instance, last year when my nephew died of cancer, my brother and his wife knew his funeral would draw too many people to fit into their church. A church of another denomination lovingly offered the use of their larger building.

A few weeks ago, an even more remarkable example surfaced. In January, a congregation in Calgary heard of another church of a different denomination that was growing rapidly and trying to raise money to build a larger building. The first group voted unanimously to give $100,000 to the second church.

Together, these people of God demonstrated their love in an expression of tangible support. It didn’t matter to them that the other church had a different style of worship, or varied from them in their statement of faith. Nor did it matter that the other church is growing rapidly, a possible threat to their own size. They sacrificed a huge offering of financial support anyway.

Differences could be a barrier but they do not need to be. Christ not only tells us to love each other anyway, but we can do it because He lives in us and loves us. Because of His love, we can love each other.

As Paul said, we need to watch out for that old sinful nature. We have the freedom to be different but not the freedom to be greedy, proud, or selfish. Instead, we must find ways in our freedom, to love one another. Jesus makes it clear: if we are not living out our freedom in a genuine love for each other, then the rest of the world has every right to wonder if we belong to Him.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

How to know the will of God ............. Parables 754

June 4, 2002

Most of us would flunk if our pastor quizzed us on last week’s sermon, so it amazes me that I can remember one I heard more than twenty years ago.

The topic was knowing and doing God’s will. The pastor explained God’s will is twofold: moral and incidental. The first is simple to figure out, but less easy to follow. God’s moral will is in the Bible. We can know how to be in His will through the Ten Commandments, Jesus’ commands to love God and love our neighbors, and other clear directions for living our faith.

The second aspect of God’s will is not as easy. Suppose you are faced with non-sinful choices such as which job to accept, which school to attend, which person to marry? How can you know God’s will for these? The pastor showed us five Scripture passages that clearly state the will of God, then added a sixth to show us the answer to that question.

The first passage was in 1 Timothy 2. It says, “God wants all to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. . . .” It is God’s will that a person is a Christian. We cannot expect Him to reveal His will to people who disregard His offer of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.

The second verse came from 1 Thessalonians 4. “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality.” Sanctified means to give your life to God rather than sin or selfish pursuits. It includes sexuality, as in this verse, but also all areas of life. He wants to save our souls, but also wants us to be spared from a life of sin.

The third verse is in the next chapter. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 says, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” God wants those who are saved and sanctified to also be saying thanks. A careful reading of Romans 1 shows that thankfulness is the first thing to go when a person denies or rebels against God. Saying thanks is His will.

Then, 1 Peter 2:15 says, “For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.” Serving others is another important part of God’s will. The pastor told us when he played football he noticed what happens when a player is on the bench. First he criticizes the coach, then the other players. If he stays out of action too long, he will be secretly rooting for the other team. Serving God keeps us from resentment and taking shots at the family of God.

1 Peter 3:17 goes on: “It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” Sometimes Christians think if we do the right things, our lives will be peaceful and people will love us, but God says people may not like the good things we do. They may persecute us for our faith. He wants us to know that suffering for doing good is not outside His will.

Then the pastor read Psalm 37:4. “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” He explained God will not give us anything we desire, but this means if we make Him the focus of our lives we can expect Him to put right desires in our hearts.

This is an important part of decision-making for Christians. God wants us to be holy, thankful, obedient people, but He gives us the freedom to follow our hearts regarding non-sinful choices.

So, if we want to make a decision that fits into the will of God, we need to check: Am I saved, sanctified, saying thanks, serving, and perhaps even suffering, for Him? If we can say yes to those five, and have eliminated any sinful options, then as the pastor said, we can do whatever we want!

Monday, June 11, 2018

The mystery of Jesus Christ ............. Parables 753

May 28, 2002

About thirty years ago, I read a book whose author assumed people were getting smarter and smarter. Therefore, gods from other planets must have once invaded earth. They gave wisdom to the people who built the pyramids and other wonders. Then I read another book that suggested people were recycled from one life form to another. At the same time, I was thinking about my dad’s theory about energy. He said it was not created or destroyed, just changed from one form to another.

These books plus my dad’s theory had me thinking: Did gods ever come to earth? What would happen to me after I died? Were these ideas somehow connected? It did not occur to me that God was setting me up.

The book about reincarnation had a Bible verse in it. It was taken out of its normal context, but as I read, God spoke to me. His voice was not audible, but just as you know the voice of your mother or your child, I knew it was God speaking. He said: “Jesus is God.”

At that moment, the room became brighter, and so did the dark, confusing things in my life. Every part of me knew it was true and at that instant, I knew Jesus. I also wanted to live for Him.

Later, I found out that many people take issue with that statement: “Jesus is God.” Some think Jesus was only a good teacher or a prophet. Others are confused — if there is one God, how can He be a trinity, which must be three gods?

I don’t have a problem with the concept of a triune God. He created the very elements of the world in a triune form. Even H2O illustrates the trinity—it can be steam, water, or ice. Each is radically different in appearance and other distinctives, yet all three are the same H2O.

For me, the dual nature of Jesus Christ is more difficult to understand. The Bible says Christ is both human and divine. He is God but He is also man. How can that be? As a human, Jesus looked like an ordinary man. Isaiah said, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). He also became hungry, thirsty and tired, just as we do.

Yet Jesus did things no man has ever done. He healed the sick with a word or a touch, turned water to wine, calmed storms, knew peoples’ minds, walked on water, raised the dead to life. A Roman soldier said of Him, “No one ever spoke the way this man does” (John 7:46). How can a man be both human and God?

Shirley McLaine thinks she has the answer. She says it is normal—and claims that she is God. She must not realize that statement parallels the original lie Satan used to tempt Eve in the garden of Eden? (“If you eat the fruit, you will be like God.”) Such audacity. We have yet to see Ms. McLaine prove it as Jesus did, by doing the things only God can do.

Despite her bold claim, we cannot grasp the dual nature of Jesus that way. If we honestly compare ourselves as humans with the God who revealed Himself as a human, how can we dare say we are Him or even like Him? Jesus sets the standard. His life was pure and holy. Our human life is nothing like that.

We cannot find fault with the man Jesus. He simply did not sin. He never violated the laws of God. He became hungry and tired, but He never put His personal needs before the needs of others. He sacrificed time and energy to bless people, and, after an amazing, short ministry, He made the ultimate sacrifice; He gave Himself as a sin offering to God as our substitute. No human being would or could do that.

Yet God makes a relationship with Jesus possible. He offers forgiveness of sin and salvation through Him. When we believe, Jesus comes to live in our hearts. The Bible calls it: “this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

With faith, we can become, in a sense, a model of what He is. We fall short in our humanness (we are not perfect), and we are not God, yet we can share in His life. When we know Him as our Lord and Savior, He gives us at least a small glimpse into the mystery of who He is.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Eternally covered!  ............. Parables 752
May 21, 2002

Last summer two young men were caught in a sudden thunderstorm while driving east on the Whitemud Freeway in a yellow convertible—with the top down. They pulled to a stop under an overpass, and sat laughing as the storm rained on everything else. Most people would have stopped and put the top up, but they left it down and stayed dry anyway. Seeing them enjoy their own cleverness brought smiles to more than one passerby.

This made an impression on me. Later I reminisced about the way being covered feels. When I was a child, I sometimes stayed overnight at my grandmother’s house. In the dead of winter, she didn’t have enough blankets to keep out the bone-chilling cold that crept in when the furnace died down. So she covered me with Grampa’s huge wool overcoat. It was rough and smelled like him. I felt so protected.

Now we have lots of blankets but have fallen in love with our quilt. I made it especially for our bed. It has a thin cotton batt inside, and a patchwork front and cotton back, yet that quilt is just right no matter what the temperature is in our house. I washed it today. It isn’t quite dry, so we will miss our covering for one night.

However, another covering comforts me all the time; God covers my sin. But His covering is not quite like an overpass (Passover is a better word), and nothing like an overcoat or a quilt. In fact, it seems somewhat gross, but is precious nonetheless; it is the blood of His Son.

The Bible describes the first sin and tells how Adam and Eve made excuses for what they did. God didn’t believe their reasoning. Instead, He killed an animal and used its skin to cover their nakedness. God’s law about sin was: “The soul that sins must die,” but He mercifully killed an animal in their place.

As He used this covering, His actions foreshadowed the Old Testament sacrificial system based on: “Without the shedding of blood, there is no atonement (or reconciliation) for sin.”

This covering was again illustrated during the exodus when God’s people left Egypt. God told them the angel of death would take the firstborn in each family, but if they followed His instructions, their firstborn would be spared. He said to kill an unblemished lamb and put the blood on the door posts and over the door. When the angel of death saw the blood, he would “passover” those houses and they would be spared.

The psalmist repeated the idea. He said, “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him . . . .”

These “coverings” pointed to a final and triumphant atonement. That is, one day God would send the Lamb of God (Jesus), and He would die in our place. God Himself put His blood over the doorposts of those who believe in Him. Then, when death (eternal separation from God) comes, it will not claim those whose lives are “covered by the blood.”

When I was younger, I tried to cover my own sin, just as Adam and Eve did. I also used excuses and rationalization. I thought my efforts worked, but God showed me that my covering was futile. He could see right through it. Surely, if He could see through it, my cover-ups would offer no protection against the scrutiny of death and judgment.

In mercy, the Lord offered me a covering that eternal death cannot touch, and judgment cannot see. The blood of Christ covers me. This is a perfect protection from all thunder and wrath against my sin, and from the cold darkness I deserve in an eternity separated from God.

Father God, I miss my cotton quilt tonight, but you so graciously offered a covering that I will never be without. Thanks to You, I can climb under the love of Christ and be warm and protected for ever and ever. Amen!

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Escaping Judgment .................Parables 751

May 14, 2002

The witness presented his evidence to my father. He said, “She was at the country dance driving your car, and she appeared to have been drinking. I know she is under the legal age.”

My father listened. He knew where I had been; he’d given me the keys to the family car. He also knew that I took three or four of my girl friends with me, and that when our group did anything together, we had fun and laughed ourselves silly. Dad knew me better than the witness. He quickly made his judgment, “She is innocent.”

At seventeen, I didn’t think much about what would happen had my dad believed this “witness.” My dad knew my attitude toward drinking and my ability to have fun without it. I also knew my dad. He was not a person to jump to conclusions, nor did he believe everything he was told. He was fair. More than that, he loved me too much to let slander turn him against me. He would defend me against any accuser.

Not everyone has such a father. For some, harsh parents have made “judgment” a scary word. Their children fear condemnation every time the gavel falls. This fear carries over to their view of God. They see Him as a harsh “judge,” a stern, frowning, bearded image with a huge hammer and a list of rules. They are repelled by such a god and rightly so.

That does not mean God looks the other way when people violate His laws. He is holy and hates sin. He is merciful and loves sinners. How can such a contradiction exist?

The Bible says God will judge sinners and punish sin: “The wages of sin is death,” meaning those who die in their sin will face eternal separation from God. No one can escape. We are “by nature objects of wrath” because all of us “sin and fall short of the glory of God.”

However, God does not sit on His throne with a hammer and an expression of anger. The Bible says, “God is not willing that anyone should perish but wants everyone to repent (of their sin).”

To partly understand this contrast, I think about my dad. He was not perfect, but he was always quick to show mercy and come to my defense. He would rather declare me innocent than listen to any accuser who brought my sins (actual or not) to him. Yet my dad would also take away my driving privileges if I abused his rules.

Sin against God is far more serious than breaking my dad’s rules. Sin is an offence against Him that requires severe punishment, yet God is also a wise and loving heavenly Father. How does God handle the seeming contradiction between not wanting us to perish, and the fact that our sin demands a penalty?

God’s love solved it. He came to earth, put on flesh and became one of us. Then He took the blame of our sin on Himself and paid our penalty. By dying on a cross, God the Son satisfied the judgment made on sin by God the Father. When we believe this, accept His solution for sin, and turn from sin to God (repentance), He comes to live in our hearts. Then we can confidently say, “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right had of God and is also interceding for us.”

Our sin, and the accusations of any enemy who takes our sin to God, are no match for the grace of God. The Lawgiver on the throne becomes the Law keeper in our hearts, all because His love provided a way for us to escape His judgment.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Can wars be won? ............. Parables 750

May 7, 2002

We attended the April 28 Memorial Service at Sky Reach Center for the four soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Those involved expressed their grief in various ways. The music and military participation were a solemn testimony to human feelings about this tragedy.

All the same, it was an odd event. While God was prayed to, His Son was never mentioned. Jesus said, “No one can come to the Father but by me.” Political correctness and the unpopularity of Jesus Christ ruled over the need for people to hear a message of hope.

A second oddity was the darkness. We could not see the stairs as we tried to get to our seats. My feet had to feel each riser. My husband said it was a safety violation. We wondered the reasoning for turning out all the lights except those in the outer hallways and on the platform. Was this one way to express the blackness of being without hope?

The most profound oddity was the fact of the event itself. I never experienced the first world war but remember Vietnam and Desert Storm. People died. They even died under so-called friendly fire. Neither the United States or Canada held memorials each time. Why now? What is this saying? What are they trying to do?

A memorial simply means “in memory of someone.” The men who died will be remembered. However, even more realities belong in our memory banks. Men die to keep our country free. We need to realize that freedom comes at a price. War is very costly.

Beyond remembering, we also say at a memorial that we do not want this to happen. Aside from the tragic circumstances, that we are at war and that men die is something we do not want. We want to live in peace. We want our young men to marry, raise their families and live out full lives. We do not want wars.

I felt that this particular memorial service was a human attempt to say “no” to war, “no” to the terrorism that threatens our freedoms, and “no” to the downhill slide of the world into violence and fear. If this is an accurate evaluation, then it explains the odd sadness that I felt; a sadness apart from seeing survivors weep, seeing one of them on a stretcher with a patch over his war-damaged eye. My sadness relates to the fact that saying “no” will not stop war, terrorists, violence, or fear.

The Bible talks about the direction the world is going. Jesus made several statements regarding the future. Many of them are already history, but some have not yet happened. They are sobering prophecies about wars and a final war. Fear, and that final violence, will bring greater disaster than anything mankind has seen thus far.

Yet there is hope. Our hope is not in our own ability to make it stop; we have neither the power or the resources. Instead, our hope is in our God, and in His Son. Jesus will return and conquer all fear and evil. His reign will be righteousness and just, without any violence at all. The enemy of our souls, the one who works in the hearts of unregenerate and unbelieving people to cause chaos and harm, will be banished forever. All his followers will go with him, and under the Prince of Peace, peace will govern a peace-hungry world.

This reads like a fairy tale to those who do not know Jesus, to those who hold on to their sin and refuse to give it to the One who died for it and for them. They have only their own determination to make this world work, but without Jesus, they do not have the ultimate power or righteousness to do it. They only have themselves, their darkness, and a futile voice that yells “no” against a force that they cannot conquer.

Trust Jesus. “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Friday, June 1, 2018

No matter the size of the challenge... ............. Parables 749

April 16, 2002

The north side of Maui is a surfer’s paradise. The waves are high, wide and magnificent. However, at certain times of the year the surf reaches thirty to forty feet, and those waves roll in so rapidly that they earn the title “killer waves.” For them, surfers stay on the beach.

The south side of this Hawaiian island is much tamer, so I tried body surfing. My first attempts were exciting but suddenly a wall of water slammed the wind out of me and filled my bathing suit with wet sand. The wave was only thirty to forty inches high, but my husband later told me it had a force of several hundred pounds. No wonder I felt as if I had been attacked by a killer wave.

Like surfing, life’s waves carry a certain degree of relativity. Some people handle challenges easily (like experts on big waves) but in a similar situation the next person (me, a wimpy swimmer) falls apart. Sometimes, even minor things can put some people into a spin.

For instance, these past few weeks I’ve been staring at a painting on my easel. I started it late last year as a gift for my daughter, supposedly for Christmas. Then I got to a point where I could not figure out what to do next. Typical of me, I procrastinated.

Christmas came and went, as did her February birthday. The canvas mocked me. Finally I decided I would work on it but not without praying. “God,” I asked, “What do I do next?”

The Lord uses life to teach me that me being full of confidence is not His way of conquering big challenges. If I think I am unable, I procrastinate or bemoan my helplessness, but if I am sure I am able, I miss the delight of having His guidance and help.

The Apostle Paul had to learn the same lesson (so I’m in good company). He had a problem that he called “a thorn in the flesh.” He does not tell us what it was, so everyone can identify with him for we all have our share of thorns. Paul first pleaded with God to take it away, which is what most of us do. “Calm those killer waves, Lord. Give me a peaceful ocean, or at least the size of waves I can handle.” But God did not answer that request. Instead He said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Paul learned through this and other tough lessons that weakness is not necessarily a bad thing. It enabled him to rely on the Lord’s help and even to say, “I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Paul’s lesson is becoming my lesson, particularly in the major challenges (like killer waves) but also for the smaller challenges lest they slam me onto the beach too.

I’ve learned that God longs to make His power known through His people. As long as I think I can do things myself, I miss out on the goodness and grace He wishes to lavish on me. I may grumble and not enjoy feeling weak and helpless, but I am glad that there is a way out — and He is that way.

After praying about that painting, an old and forgotten technique popped into my mind and I knew this was my next step. I picked up my brushes and conquered my forty-inch wave.