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Our God Is Near

Sunday, January 19, 2020

“We give thanks to you, O God; we give thanks, for your name is near. We recount your wondrous deeds.”

(Psalm 75:1)

Psalm 75 is a prayer celebrating the joy found in recounting God’s great reversals, when God “puts down one and lifts up another” (Psa. 75:7). Our God is one who turns the tables (Lk. 16:19-31), who exalts the humble and humbles the proud (Jas. 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5; cf. Obad. 1:3-4), who has the power to shake up the status quo (cf. 1 Sam. 2; Lk. 1:46-55).

Our grateful praise springs from remembering and recounting those  times (cf. Psa. 78:4). In fact, Israel was to re-tell the story of God’s deliverance publicly every seven years (Deut. 31:10-13) on top of observing their monthly and annual feast and their daily routine of teaching the story to their children (Deut. 6:4-9).

Keeping the story fresh in the minds of God’s people still remains an integral part of our worship today. We are to take the Lord’s Supper every week to recount God’s wondrous deeds because when God’s story of redemption is retold, his “name is near” (Psa. 75:1). But what is meant by God’s “name” and how is it “near”?

God’s “name” stands for all he is. When God disclosed himself on Mount Sinai he gave his name: “YHWH, YWWH, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” (Ex. 34:6-7, cf. v.14)

God’s “name” is also an invitation to call upon him. Peter quoted from the prophet Joel, saying, “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Acts 2:21; 22:16; Rom. 10:13)

God’s name is brought “near” in all his actions. At no time was his name more clearly expressed than in the appearance of his Son. Jesus prayed to the Father, “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world…” (Jn. 17:6) “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known.” (Jn. 17:26) When Jesus left heaven to dwell among us (Jn. 1:14), the unseen Father was “made known” to us in a way he never has before (Jn. 1:18; Heb. 1:3).

The clearest revelation of God’s “name” (his power, character, grace, glory, etc.) was manifested in his most “wondrous deed” of all, that ultimate act of self-sacrificial love, the death of Jesus on the cross. God is nearest to us, “with us” and even “in us,” in the person of Jesus (Mt. 1:23; Jn. 14:17).

But practically speaking, what does all this mean? How can we have access to the power of that name? God is closer than we think (Acts 17:27). The psalms  sing about the nearness of God.

He is near to all who call on him in truth. 

“The LORD is near to all who call on him,

    to all who call on him in truth.” (Psa. 145:18)

He is near to the brokenhearted and crushed in spirit.

“The LORD is near to the brokenhearted

    and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psa. 34:18)

He is near to all those who fear him.

  “Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him,

      that glory may dwell in our land.” (Psa. 85:9)

When something is “near,” it is close in distance, not far away. To be “near,” is to be close in relation, available. When someone is “near,” they are close in involvement, not idle. God’s nearness, in all its aspects, is found in Jesus today.

When you are hurting, discouraged, and weak you may feel like God is distant, aloof, and idle. But God sent his Son to walk through the valley of the shadow of death with you so that he could understand your suffering, share in it, and give you hope to overcome it (1 Pet. 2:21; Heb. 2:17-18; 4:14-16). Jesus is the Father’s final, ultimate revelation to us that his name is near.

Feeling Left Out?

Sunday, January 12, 2020

“…we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

(Ephesians 4:15-16)

Though it’s clear in many Scriptures like the one above (not least of which, 1 Corinthians 12) that every Christian has an integral part to play in the church, many still feel left out. We know that, in Christ, God has joined us together through faith and that these feelings of exclusion are out of step with the fellowship we share in the faith. So what are we to do if we still feel like we don’t belong? The answer Scripture gives is to take initiative and act.

If you feel left out, ask yourself the following questions:

When it is announced that someone is sick,

  • Do you: Send them a card, a text, an email, a phone call? Offer to help in some way? Go and visit them?
  • Or do you: Pay no attention? Forget them as soon as they are mentioned? Not even know the person being mentioned?

When you think we don’t get together enough,

  • Do you: Invite Christians into your home? Plan and carry out activities for other Christians?
  • Or do you: Wait for someone else to do something about it?Complain that no one is doing anything about it?

When a person becomes a Christian,

  • Do you: Invite them over to get to know them better? Organize a study to encourage them? Pray for them?
  • Or do you: Wait for someone else to do these things? Complain when the new convert shows signs of weakness?

When the church doesn’t seem friendly,

  • Do you: Go out of your way to greet guests warmly? Greet members you don’t normally talk to? Make efforts to get to know members you are not close with?
  • Or do you: Wait for others to do something about this unfriendly spirit? Complain no one is friendly to you?

When Bible classes seem dull & unimportant,

  • Do you: Make sure you are attending each class? Come prepared to make discussion and ask questions? Dig into the lesson to make the most of it?
  • Or do you: Not show up for class? Come to class but never contribute with questions or comments? Complain that the class is uninteresting and not challenging?

When a member misses the assembly,

  • Do you: Find out what is going on? Check up on him regularly? Make sure he has a ride to the assembly?
  • Or do you: Complain about his weak faith? Gossip about him to others? Not even notice he is missing?

If you feel left out, perhaps the first thing you should do is look inward instead of outward (2 Cor. 13:5; Mt. 7:1ff). Waiting for someone else to do something about it only perpetuates the problem; complaining behind closed doors or bickering to others only makes things worse. If you notice things are not the way they should be, take initiative and be the agent of change.

If you feel left out, get to work and you will quickly find your place. Souls need saving, classes need teaching, events need planning, the sick need visiting, saints need encouraging, prayers need leading, hearts need comforting. There is work to be done and we all have our role. We each find our place when our faith is working together through love (Gal. 5:6).

Taking Criticism

Sunday, January 05, 2020

“The ear that listens to life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise. Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence. The fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom, and humility comes before honor.”

(Proverbs 15:31-33)

I dreaded critiques but they were unavoidable. In upper level painting class a project wasn’t finished until it had been raked over the coals of public scrutiny. We often think of critique as being negative but to critique something simply means to evaluate it. The goal of critique is to point out the good, the bad, and, in the case of many of my paintings, the ugly, so as to improve upon it. But it always seemed like a raw deal to me.

After spending forty-plus hours on a painting we were forced to endure an entire class period of round robin nit-picking, pretentious displays of knowledge, and worse, vague and unthoughtful comments such as “I like the color,” “It makes me feel sad,” “I wish it was bigger.” Oh, and don’t get me started on the endless search for subtext! “What is the significance of the green dress?” Significance? The model just happened to be wearing a green dress when she showed up that day!

These are the thoughts of College Jerome: impatient, puffed-up, and generally not interested in what you have to say. Even if there was a worthwhile critique, I wasn’t apt to hear it let alone allow it to shape me as a painter. Why, you ask? Because I was young and foolish. Now, all young people are not fools in the same way that all old people are not wise, but I certainly was a young fool.

Surely then, you think, Christian Jerome does better with criticism. Well, on a good day when I’m focused on the right things, yes. But old habits die hard. That’s no excuse but it’s the truth. At the very least, I’ve learned the value of critique. When it comes from a place of love, (hey, even if it doesn’t!) reproof is “life-giving” and makes wise the simple. We ignore it to our peril and we die as fools without it.

Of course, this is not just about critiquing the art of painting but, rather, the art of living which counts a great deal more. Receiving criticism requires humility. You would be hard pressed to find a quality emphasized more in the Bible than humility. Only the poor in spirit will inherit the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 5:3). If you’re full of yourself, there’s no room for anything else. If you’re self-righteous, you’ll never grow (Mt. 5:6). If humility is the precursor to grace, and it is (1 Pet. 5:5), how can we respond humbly to criticism? Here are some I try to keep in mind:

  1. Be slow to speak & quick to hear (Jas. 1:19)
  2. Be slow to anger (Jas. 1:19-20)
  3. Do not retaliate (1 Pet. 2:23; Prov. 24:29)
  4. Resist the urge to defend yourself
  5. Evaluate yourself in light of the critique (2 Cor. 13:5)
  6. Respond gently (Prov. 15:1)
  7. Consider the source

Don’t rush to that last one. We need to weigh the critique before we weigh the one giving it. Even if the critique is designed to injure or is given tactlessly, there may be some truth to it. We know that people, even (especially?) religious people, can judge others hypocritically (Mt. 7:1-5). Just remember, life follows repentance, repentance follows conviction, conviction follows knowledge of sin, and we don’t always see our own faults.

A true friend tells you when your fly is down, when your hair is sticking up, or when you have mustard on your chin. A true friend pulls you aside and tells you “the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). A true friend calls you out when you’re out of line (Gal. 2:11; 2 Sam. 12:7). Humble critique is an act of sacrificial love that limits the reach of evil (1 Pet. 4:8). Receiving criticism is an important part of our Christian walk. We must have both the grace to take it and the love to give it.

How To Answer A Fool

Sunday, December 29, 2019

“Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”

(Proverbs 26:4-5)

How should a person answer foolish arguments? When is it appropriate? These two statements, which at first glance appear contradictory, give a balanced approach for dealing with foolishness in a godly way.

Who is the “Fool”?

The “fool” in Hebrew poetry and wisdom literature has less to do with a person’s mental faculty and more to do with his unwillingness to hear the voice of divine wisdom (Prov. 1:20-33). The road to knowledge, wisdom, and living well in general begins with “the fear of the LORD” (Prov. 1:7; 9:10; Psa. 111:10). A person may have a very high IQ and still have a foolish outlook on life (Psa. 14:1). So, foolishness is not a result of a lack of education, intellectual training or natural mental acuity. Rather, one becomes a fool and remains a fool by choice.

The Apparent Contradiction

The above two proverbs say, “Answer not a fool according to his folly…” and, “Answer a fool according to his folly…” What is going on here? The Rabbis solved the issue by saying that v.4 referred to secular things while v.5 referred to sacred or religious controversies. While this does not resolve the issue, it does give a sound application for the two verses together – in negligible issues, one should just ignore the foolish person, but in issues that matter, the fool must be dealt with, lest credence be given to what he says (W. G. Plaut, Proverbs, 266).

I believe each verse gives separate instructions. Taken together, they give us a balanced, more comprehensive approach to dealing with foolishness. Verse 4 gives us the rule while verse 5 gives us the exception. So each verse has a different purpose depending on the situation.

Most of the time, to answer “a fool according to his folly,” or by his own mode of reasoning, will only perpetuate folly. The interchange will never end and you will end up looking like a fool in the process. But to answer him not at all may create a new problem. If a foolish remark is never answered others may think the fool is actually wise and cannot be answered. “Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” (Prov. 26:12) So how do we know when to keep our mouths shut and when to speak up?

When Not to Answer the Fool (v.4)

The general rule is to remain silent. Arguing with a fool hardly ever gets anywhere. Most foolish statements are too ridiculous to dignify with a response. “Like snow in summer or rain in harvest, so honor is not fitting for a fool.” (26:1) “Fine speech is not becoming to a fool…” (17:7a) Besides, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” (18:2)

To answer a fool according to his own reasoning is to allow one fool to make another. Foolishness is contagious; we need look no further than the news coverage of the upcoming election for proof! So silence is usually the most effective reply to foolishness. “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” (17:28) Therefore, before jumping into an argument, make sure you won’t be lowering yourself into the fool’s arena only to become one yourself.

When to Answer the Fool (v.5)

There are times, however, when suffering a fool to speak is too great an evil. If a fool is never answered he may gain confidence and be considered wise by others. Others may be duped into believing the fool’s arguments are true and that his positions are unassailable. To meet the fool on his own ground may puncture his inflated ego and stop his stupidity from spreading to others.

Examples of Answering the Fool

During the 19th century, the expression “poor as Job’s turkey” was used in popular literature. In one assembly with a question-answer format, a preacher unfolded a paper containing a submitted question and read it aloud: “When did Job’s turkey die?” The audience laughed. The preacher then replied, “From the looks of the scratching on this paper, he hasn’t died yet.” Even more laughter. The fool was answered according to his folly.

The apostle Paul answered the foolishness of the false teachers who questioned his legitimacy as an apostle with a little foolishness himself. And boy did he beat them at their own game! “I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness. Do bear with me!” (2 Cor. 11:1) he said to the Corinthian Christians, who thought themselves a very wise bunch.

He wrote about things in which a fool would boast of. “I repeat, let no one think me foolish. But even if you do, accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little. What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not as the Lord would but as a fool. Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast. For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves!” (2 Cor. 11:16-19, 20ff)

Though Paul’s words were dripping with sarcasm, he hated to be lowered to this kind of reasoning (2 Cor. 12:11). But  the circumstances called for it. These insufferable fools needed to be answered according to their own folly! There was no other way.

We need wisdom to know how to answer foolishness. Most cases call for silence; but some situations demand a bold response. With that being said, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Col. 4:6) It’s easy to respond to folly with “obscene talk” (Col. 3:8), a kind of low, tit-for-tat, retaliatory speech. Rather, our words are to be designed to build up, fit the occasion, and give “grace to those who hear.” (Eph. 4:29)

What Sort of Human is Jesus?

Sunday, December 22, 2019

In Matthew 8:23, Jesus got on a boat to escape the crowds and cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. After being interrupted on his way to the boat (vv.19-22) he took some much needed rest. It’s not hard to imagine why he was so exhausted. He had been going non-stop from his sermon on the hill (Mt. 5-7) straight to a stream of miracles (Mt. 8:1-17). And he must have been tired because he slept through a “storm” so savage that the boat was being “swamped by the waves” (v.24)!

During the storm, Jesus’ disciples woke him, saying, “Save us Lord; we are perishing!” (v.25), to which he replied, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” (v.26a) This probably didn’t seem like an appropriate time for a lecture on faith. After all, the boat was about to break apart. a perfectly good time to panic if there ever was one.

So why did Jesus scold them for their fear and lack of trust? First of all, he already told them they would go to the other side of the lake (v.18). And let’s not forget all of the previous miracles they had witnessed (vv.1-17). Jesus expected his word and his past displays of power to be enough for the disciples to trust him.

After rebuking the disciples, Jesus “rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was great calm” (v.26). The disciples had seen the hand of God at work in Jesus before. After all, prophets like Elijah healed sick people in the Old Testament. But this miracle was of a different magnitude altogether because there was only one being who could control the weather with the sound of his voice and he wasn’t a human. He was the Creator God of Israel.

So the stunned response of the disciples is understandable. The question is one of identity, “What sort of human is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (v.27) The psalms exclusively attributed this power to the Lord, setting him high above every created thing and far apart from every so-called “god.”

One poem speaks about sailors caught in a terrible storm, rising and falling on towering waves, desperately crying out to the Lord for rescue. “…He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. They were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven.” (Psa. 104:28-30) “O Lord God of hosts,” says another, “who is mighty as you are…? You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.” (Psa. 89:8-9) “…at your rebuke the waters fled, at the sound of your thunder they took to flight.” (Psa. 104:7)

Telling a storm what to do is a divine thing, an exclusive thing, a heavenly thing. And yet… Jesus had just done it. What sort of a human is he? This episode on the Sea of Galilee forced the disciples to see Jesus in the same light as they viewed the God of Israel. It broke every convention and challenged every notion about who God is and what was possible. Who is this Jesus?

Merciful Jesus, who shows kindness to social zeros. Compassionate Jesus, who heals the suffering. But here, Jesus, who commands the winds and the waves? Jesus, the God of Israel?  The God of the Exodus? The God of Creation? Yes.

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