Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Good and Evil

"Woe unto those who call evil good and good evil,
who put darkness for light and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter" (Isa. 5:20).

When I was 18 years old in 1973, I got hired for a non-speaking part on a TV Show called, The Streets of San Francisco. You see, I was intent on becoming an actor, so I studied at the American Conservatory Theater's Summer Training Program. At the end of my time, I got an agent in San Francisco and she got me this part.

I only tell you this story, because I met an African American kid with whom I shared the scene. We were talking about the main actors on the series, Karl Malden and Michael Douglas. He said to me about Michael Douglas, "He's bad!" 

I thought this was rather rude. I said back to him, "I actually think he's pretty good."

The kid said back to me, "That's what I mean. 'He's bad' means 'He's good.'"

This was the first time I had heard this rhetorical phenomenon; using "bad" to mean "good." In fact, later I would hear someone say something was "fat" to mean something was good. Or another one, saying something was "dope" to mean it was good. Or even, "That's sick," to mean that it's good.

There is a trend in our culture to call good evil and evil good. And I don't think it's just a random rhetorical phenomenon. There is an underlying spiritual dynamic that feeds it. 

The crumbling of our moral foundations as a society has been following age-old patterns. 

Gangsta Rap has led the trend in making lawlessness "cool." Your street creds are often based on how many swear words you can amass in your lyrics and how many lawless acts you can glorify. 

I recently had someone get married in Las Vegas and they were shocked at the state of "undress" of the women wherever they went. Female pop singers have led the way in becoming more and more risqué. As a result, girls think they must emulate this kind of seductive, lascivious fashion. 

When I grew up, I joined the Boy Scouts. This is the Boy Scout Oath:
"On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight." 

And the Scout Law:
"A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent."

Do you react to these Scout slogans with something like, "Wow. That's really corny?" Or square or old fashioned or out-dated? Or do you think, like me, "What a sad state of affairs that we should think that this is no longer admirable?"

Unfortunately, Scouting has come under attack from people in the culture who want to cancel anyone or any institution that does not agree with their agenda. Scouts did not support the entire LGBTQ agenda, therefore they must be destroyed. Beyond that is the underlying spiritual agenda to undermine the desire for "goodness" in our culture.

The Old Testament tells us that one of the trees in the garden was "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." The Hebrew word for good is "tov" and the word for evil is "ra'". Mankind's disobedience lay in the fact that they ate from the forbidden fruit of this tree. Tov represents the goodness that mankind would experience by obedience to His command not to eat the fruit. In fact, not to eat the fruit would have been an expression of trust in God because mankind would be demonstrating that God's word was good for them. The keeping of that command meant keeping goodness in its place.

But the eating of the fruit also meant demonstrating distrust in God, and therefore experiencing the fall, and thus the brokenness apart from God. Ra' is the state of walking in separation from God and experiencing the full implications of disobedience and thus, evil.

We have an enemy who is intent on deceiving and undermining God's moral authority. Jesus tells us, "When [the devil] lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies" (John 8:44b). In Revelation 20, we are told that Satan will be loosed at the end to go into the world to deceive.

It is time for the Church to rise up to speak the truth to a culture that has been flipped upside down. Goodness is our highest moral goal. Evil is to be resisted and utterly rejected. Search your own heart. Ask yourself, "Have I embraced a culture that calls evil good and good evil? What must I do to embrace God's greatest good for my life? How can I become a force for God's good agenda in this world?"

It is time for the Church to repent and to turn entirely back to God. He is Goodness incarnate. We are His children, embracing what is Good and utterly rejecting what is Evil.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

A Whole Lot of Shaking Going On

In the book of Hebrews, the writer quotes from Haggai 2:6 to issue one of the many warnings in the book. "At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, 'Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens'" (Heb. 12:26).

The writer is comparing two mountain experiences. The first is the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai in the wilderness, the act of which created Israel, the people of God. The second is the consummation of God's new redemptive order through Jesus, and the mountain is Zion.

The first mountain experience was terrifying to the Israelites. Fire, darkness, gloom and storm--and an earthquake. It was the formation of a new people who needed to respect the holiness of God and to learn to respect the Law. 

But the writer says that Haggai prophesied a time when not only would the earth shake, but the heavens as well. The formation of the new people of God is also a dreadful experience for those who want to approach God and His exalted presence. "For our 'God is a consuming fire'" (Heb. 12:29 quoting Deut. 4:24).

Why all this shaking? The writer says that it is for "the removing of what can be shaken--that is created things--so that what cannot be shaken may remain" (Heb. 12:27).

I believe God spoke this word to me recently about the state of the church. The closing of businesses to slow the spread of the coronavirus has resulted in a shaking of all the churches that I know. Online meetings and live-streaming services are not the same thing as gathering together. After all, the Greek word ekklesia means "those who are called out into the public square to assemble together." The children of Israel in the Old Testament are called the church, called out of Egypt to assemble before God.

The Church is being shaken by God right now. Both because of the pandemic and because of the civil unrest over perceived systemic racism and leftist/anarchist activities. God's purpose for shaking us must be seen in light of this passage. He is removing the things that are impermanent and not desirable so that the permanent and desirable things can remain.

Threshing is the process of beating the heads of wheat to separate the grain from the chaff. Then, on a windy day, the whole thing is tossed repeatedly in the air so that the chaff is blown away but the actual grains of wheat remain. 

As John the Baptist says about the soon-coming Messiah: "His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Matt. 3:12).

And in John 15, we hear a similar metaphor. The Father is the vinedresser who prunes the branches that are not producing fruit in order to increase the harvest. 

I believe that the Church needs to wake up to God's judgment and submit to His correction through our obedience to Him. No longer will it be good enough to go to good meetings and act like going to church is the same thing as being the Church.

In the 80's, we were all wondering whether there were any Christians left in China. The Cultural Revolution of the 60's destroyed the existing churches and the church hierarchy. Yet, the first smuggled films showed us a vital and growing underground church, alive with the Gospel. The same thing is currently happening in Iran where, if reports are true, under intense persecution, the Church is growing more rapidly than anywhere else in the world.

I don't know about you, but I want to be with the desirable things that remain after the shaking is done. How about you?

Friday, February 28, 2020

Are Christians Promised Protection from Plagues?

As we contemplate the current societal anxiety over the possibility of declaring the COVID-19 (Corona virus) a pandemic, it behooves Christians to take a step back and remember who our God is. 

One of the most beloved of the Psalms is 91: 
“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. 
I will say of the LORD, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust’” (Ps. 91:1-2).

These opening two verses use four names for God: Elyon(Most High), Shaddai(Almighty), Yahweh(I Am—the personal/covenant name of God), and Elohim(God). This sets the tone for the rest of the Psalm. The one Almighty God and Creator of the Universe is ultimately our safe refuge whenever we are threatened in any way.

It reminds us of other wisdom passages. “Trust in the LORD with all your heart…” (Pr. 3:5-6). “Do not fret…Trust in the LORD…Delight in the LORD…” (read all of Psalm 37). “The salvation of the righteous comes from the LORD; he is their stronghold in time of trouble” (Psalm 37:39). And of course, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Ps. 23:4).

The Psalmist in 91 asserts that, if we place our trust in God and take up shelter in His protective presence, then we will only observe God’s judgment as it falls on the world around us. But we will know peace.

But this begs a big question, “What about Christians who suffer during times of distress? Is God showing favorites? Do we charge people with not having enough faith if they get sick? With not trusting God good enough? What if they die? Where is God when we suffer?”

I love the testimony of the “three Hebrew children” as my Sunday school teachers used to call them. Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego—if you ever have boy triplets, consider these names, huh?—were about to be thrown into the fiery furnace by Nebuchadnezzar for not worshiping his image. This is what they said, “’If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up’” (Dan. 3:17-18).

God is like a protective parent who is reliably there for us when we call to Him, even when we have an “owie.” Since we live in a fallen world, we might be affected by what is going on around us, but He is always there to carry us through the storm. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” (Rom. 8:35). “ For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).

Even death will not ever, in any way, separate us from God’s love.

Very much like Romans, Psalm 91 ends with God speaking a series of direct affirmations to anyone who places their trust in Him. “’Because he loves me,’ says the LORD, ‘I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call on me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation’” (Ps. 91:14-16).

Place your trust in Jesus, let go of anxiety, and experience the shalomof God.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Experiencing Joy Now and Forever

“Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness;
Come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the LORD is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving
And his courts with praise;
Give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the LORD is good and his love endures forever;
His faithfulness continues through all generations” (Psalm 100)

Psalm 100 is perhaps one of the greatest hymns of thanksgiving and joy in the Bible.

The Psalm contains seven verbs in the imperative. That is, they are commands from God:
Shout (for joy),
Worship or serve (the LORD),
Come (before him),
Know (that the LORD is God),
Enter (his gates),
Give thanks (to him),
Praise (his name).

All people are created to worship and serve the God who created us.
St. Augustine said in Confessions,“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

But do we have to wait until we pass away from this life to enter into that place of rest? 

The answer is "No." By living a life of devotion, we can experience, not only rest, but joy here in this life. We can learn to “Shout for joy to the LORD” now in this life. We can “Worship the LORD with gladness today.” We can “come before him with joyful songs” at any time.

A life of worship is a life that demonstrates the truth that “It is he who made us and not we ourselves.”

You see, that is the definition of God. He is the One who is the Creator, the One who is worthy to be placed first in my life. When we get that right, then we come into alignment with all that He intended when He created us. “He’s God and I’m not. And that’s a really, really good thing.”

But another aspect of God revealed in this Psalm is that He is the Great Shepherd of the sheep. We are the flock of God, tenderly watched over and protected by Him. “We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.”

The picture of God as Shepherd changes our conception of Him from just a great, all-powerful and impersonal force--to a tender, loving and relational Person.

This is the God that we are called to know and, entering into that relationship, we are called to experience real joy.

And this is why, at the end of our life, we can be assured that our heavenly Father will be there at the gates of heaven to usher us into His loving presence. “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise.”

Finally, the Psalm ends with the punchline. You see, God is good.

As it says in the other very famous Psalm 23, which talks about God as our shepherd, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”

He is God and I’m not, and that’s really really good.
He is the loving Shepherd who will take care of me here and will lead me into eternity.
He is really, really good, the loving and faithful one who can be trusted with my life.

What about you? Have you placed your trust in God? Turn to Him in faith and place your life in His hands today. I guarantee that He will bring you joy that can be experienced both now and into eternity.

“For the LORD is good and his love endures forever;
His faithfulness continues through all generations.”

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Jesus and Hanukkah

Did you know that Jesus celebrated Hanukkah?

"Then came the Festival of Dedication (Hanukkah) at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon's Colonnade" (John 10:22-23).

Hanukkah wasn't one of the festivals required for observant Jews to travel to Jerusalem. In fact, many Jewish families would observe this festival in their homes: a sign of the shift from Temple-centered to synagogue-centered Jewish religion.

Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Torah because it arose out of an event that occurred in 165 B.C. The story is told of the great military leader, Judas Maccabaeus, in 1 & 2 Maccabees, of the recapture and cleansing of the Temple after it had been profaned by Antiochus Epiphanes. He had sacrificed a pig to Zeus on the altar and placed pagan statues in the Temple.

The great Jewish historian, Josephus, tells of the institution of the Festival of Dedication in Antiquities 12.316-25: "And from that time to the present we observe this festival which we call the festival of Lights, giving this name to it, I think, from the fact that the right to worship appeared to us at a time when we hardly dared hope for it." During the time of Jesus, the reality of God's great deliverance from pagan oppression and the reclaiming of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem would engender intense thankfulness.

So, there are two names for this festival: Dedication and Lights. I believe we Christians can benefit from understanding these aspects of Hanukkah.

Christians can not only celebrate the recapture, cleansing and rededication of the physical Temple in Jerusalem, but in many ways God would have us think about the way that "temple" is used symbolically for the Christian.

The Church is likened to a temple: "Don't you know that you yourselves (plural) are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in your midst? " (1 Cor. 3:16). Should we think about the things that we have allowed to become idols in our midst, clear them away, and rededicate our churches to following and serving Him?

We are also each individually a temple. God wants us to be cleansed of sin and wholly dedicated to Him.

But why is Hanukkah also the "Festival of Lights?" With the Dedication of the Temple, the Jews decided to celebrate a delayed Sukkoth (Feast of Booths) which lasts eight days. A later Talmudic tradition says that a miracle occurred at this celebration where a one-day supply of oil for the Temple light lasted for the eight days of the Feast. Whatever actually occurred, the menorah, a stand of eight candles with a ninth center candle to light the others, has become one of the national symbols of the state of Israel. Each night of Hanukkah, another candle is lit until, on the last night, all eight candles are blazing.

For the Christian, Jesus, the Light of the World, has penetrated the darkness and brought God's salvation into the world in the form of the infant born in a stable in Bethlehem. "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 8:12).

"In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:4-5).

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

The Manifest Presence of God

"Then Moses said to [Yahweh], 'If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?'" (Ex. 33:15-16).

One of the important aspects that distinguishes the People of God from all other peoples on the face of the earth is that we experience "The Manifest Presence of God."

It is true that the Bible teaches that God is omnipresent, that is that He is everywhere at all times. It is impossible to go anywhere that God is not also there. "Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, 'Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,' even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you (Ps. 139:7-12).

Yet, there are numerous times throughout scripture where God's Presence becomes tangibly real and localized to His people. He led His people through the wilderness as a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. He met with Moses at the tent of meeting. He filled the newly dedicated Tabernacle in the wilderness and the newly dedicated Temple in Jerusalem. And in the New Testament, he came like a mighty rushing wind in the upper room and filled His people on the day of Pentecost.

This is what Jewish scholars have called the "Shekinah" glory of God. And what John Wimber used to call the "Numinous" of God.

I am a sucker for video's of returning military people surprising their family when they return home. I sob like a baby. But in today's connected world, I know that military families are in constant contact through email, Skype and even texting. It is not like the families are not communicating regularly. But there is something about the reunion of family members that brings an emotional bond that is impossible without their physical presence.

The Manifest Presence of God is the only thing that distinguishes His people, the church, from all other peoples and groups. What makes the church any different than the Rotary Club or the Elks. We are all associations that gather to benefit society and do benevolent works. But the Church is different because of the Presence of God.

Having grown up in a liberal mainline denomination, I can say that, without the Presence of God, we can go through the motions of church liturgy--sing the songs, tithe, eat donuts and drink coffee, perform baptisms and take communion--but without the Presence of God, it is empty religion.

God promised Abraham that He would bless him and through him He would bless all nations. Walter Kaiser, Jr., in his book, Toward an Old Testament Theology, says that the blessing is in three parts and is stated in part or in whole throughout the Bible. "I will walk among you, and I will be your God, and you will be my people" (Lev. 26:12). You see the blessing of Abraham is the promise of God's eternal Presence.

And what happens at the end of the Bible, when God wraps up all of redemptive history? "And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Look! God's dwelling place is now among people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God'" (Rev. 21:3).

I think it is time for the church stop settling for religious activity and instead pursue the Presence of God. Let's call out to Him, "Don't send us from here if Your Presence does not go with us! What else will distinguish us from all the other societies and social groups on the face of the earth unless Your Manifest Presence comes with
us?" Amen.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Doin' the Stuff

"Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says" (Jas. 1:22).

I believe the North American Evangelical church has been afflicted with a particular malaise. We seem to be obsessed with knowing the Word, but deficient in doing it. 

One of the most common questions I hear from people new to a church is "Do you have a Bible Study I can join?"

Don't get me wrong. I believe in learning more and more about the Bible. It is our only infallible guide for faith and practice. It is the authority upon which the church must build. Neither tradition, nor church hierarchy nor charismatic leadership can substitute for the Word of God. I personally have a regular reading and study routine and I participate in Bible Studies. When I preach, I try to expound God's Word so that people can grasp it and conform their lives to it.

However, with that said, I recall a story of John Wimber's (founder of the Vineyard Movement). When he started attending church, he asked one of the elders, "Where do we go to do the stuff?"

"What stuff?"

"You know, the stuff in the Bible. Healing the sick, raising the dead, preaching the Gospel to the poor."

"Oh, we don't actually do that stuff. We study about it, we hear sermons about it, but we don't actually do it."

"You mean I gave up drugs for this?" (Of course this was said tongue-in-cheek.)

This led to one of John Wimber's most famous pithy Wimberisms, "Doin' the stuff." That is, God wants us to actually go out, just like Jesus and His disciples did, and demonstrate the presence of the Kingdom of God by doing the same stuff that they did.

Are you satisfied with a Christian life that merely listens to the Word but does not actually do it? I must admit that this has been a constant struggle for me. It takes a major effort for me to take what I have received within the safe confines of the church and go into the streets where I might encounter resistance, rejection and failure. But when I do, God meets me there, and I think He is smiling.

It would be nice to hear someone at church ask, "Where do we go to do the stuff?" And it would be even better for us to be able to answer, "Come with me."