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Never Look Back

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

(Luke 9:62)

Someone once said, “I don’t want to live in the past, but it is nice to visit for a while.” Memories are like that: places we can go for comfort, instruction and renewal. It is tragic when, as we age, more and more of those precious memories slip away. But while we have them, memories are there for us to draw upon like water from a well.

Memory was a vital part of Israel’s corporate life and worship. God warned them of the danger of forgetting where they came from (Deut. 4:9, 23; 6:12; 8:11, 14, 19; 9:7, etc.). To prevent this, God designed Israel's worship to reenact the past through symbolic festivals, rituals, and sacrifices as a way to keep those memories alive. Sadly, all it took was one generation after Israel entered the Promised Land to forget their heritage and plunge the nation into ruin (Jdg. 2:10-11).

Memory is a necessary tool for us, so long as we are looking back at the right things in the right way. Like Israel, the people of God today are called to remember their past (Eph. 2:11-12) through retelling the story of their deliverance and taking part in symbolic actions like eating the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:26).

But memories can also be poisoned and hinder our faith. For example, suffering in the present has a way of altering our memory of the past (Num. 11:4-6; cf. Ex. 14:11-12). This kind of mental distortion can even warp our minds enough to lure us back into old destructive habits that lead us away from God (Heb. 3-4; 2 Pet. 2:22).

Or we may be seduced into creating versions of the past that never existed. The Preacher exhorts those of us prone to creating these fantasy memories, "Say not, "Why were the former days better than these?" For it is not from wisdom that you ask this." (Ecc. 7:10) Contrary to the opinion of many, the past was not altogether better than the present. All it takes is reading the Bible, the newest documents of which are some 2,000 years old, to see that despite many  advancements people haven't really changed much.

Even if our memories are clear and accurate we can grow so fond of the past that we begin to mentally “live” in the past at the expense of our future. But faith requires us to look to things “hoped for” in the future (Heb. 11:1). Faith, by its nature, is forward thinking and is therefore forward acting. We live in accordance with the "new" person that Jesus has created in us through his resurrection (Col. 3:10; Eph. 4:24). We are meant to live resurrected lives in anticipation of our bright future (Rom. 6:3-4). In Jesus' resurrection and ascension God's glorious future has come rushing right into the present so that we may taste the "powers of the age to come" (Heb. 6:5).

In the gospel which announces God's heavenly reign come down to earth we are invited to live as part of that kingdom (Mt. 28:18-20). Even though God's reign is currently contested (Heb. 2:6-8) we live in view of his victory over death experiencing all the spiritual blessings of that victory here and now (Jn. 5:24; Eph. 1:3). Yes, even though things aren't perfect now, we dare to live in “hope” for a brighter future where death will be no more (Rom. 5:3-5; 8:24-25).

Remember Lot’s wife who, after escaping from the destruction of Sodom toward God’s salvation, “looked back” and was destroyed (Gen. 19:26). We cannot afford to be like her - frozen in the act of looking backwards. An unhealthy fixation on the past will immobilize us in the present and cost us our future.

Our Lord demands this kind of single-minded, forward-looking devotion: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Lk. 9:62) When it comes to our commitment to Jesus, we never forget our past but we must also confidently progress toward our future with our eyes fixed on him.

The Consequences of Freewill

Sunday, July 14, 2019

"I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live..."

(Deuteronomy 30:19-20)

Sometimes God is accused by critics as having created evil based on passages like Isaiah 45:7 which reads, "I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things" (KJV) However, what the King James Version renders as "evil" is speaking more broadly of the distress and disaster which people experience as a result of their sin (Ex. 34:6-7). In this passage, God is not claiming to be the author of moral evil but rather that he has the power to bring calamity as a just judgment (Amos 3:6). But if Isaiah 45:7 doesn't teach that God created evil is he no at least responsible for its existence?

Let’s examine a few possibilities of God’s creation of the universe of which there can only be four:

  1. That God would create nothing - where there is no possibility for good or for evil to exist.
  2. That God would create an amoral universe - where there is no such thing as good or evil.
  3. That God would create a universe without freewill - where there is no possibility of evil.
  4. That God would create a universe with freewill - where there is possibility of both good and evil.

The only universe in which love can exist is the fourth possibility, a universe where we have the power of choice. This is the universe God chose to create, a universe filled with human beings who are designed both to love and be loved by others. Love is the supreme ethic and the deepest longing of every human heart, hence the echoes of the great commandments (Mt. 22:34-40).

If we erase freewill, we also erase the possibility of giving and receiving love. These two concepts, love and choice, depend on one another. For love to truly be love it must be expressed by freewill and not by force. Love cannot be coerced or cajoled only given freely.

However, while freewill opens the door to love it also opens the door to suffering. The possibility of love makes us all extremely vulnerable to pain and loss, the effects of sin. In a close relationship, love is what makes loss and betrayal cut so deep. But those of us who have loved deeply will agree to keep the heart open is well worth the temporary pain (cf. 2 Cor. 6:11; 7:2-4). Tennyson said it well, "'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."

In human relationships, love can be fickle and tenuous, depending on meeting certain criteria. Not so with divine love, which has no expiration date or conditions. To receive the eternal benefits of God's love, however, is a choice of freewill. Eternal residence either with God or away from him is ultimately a choice God has left to us.

C.S. Lewis once famously stated, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.”

A father who takes his son to the doctor for a vaccination may appear cruel from the son's limited perspective. But the father’s decision that once perplexed and angered the son is clearly understood when he is safe from the disease ravaging his town years later.

Time and trust are necessary components to making sense of the evil in our world and the existence of our all-powerful and ever-loving God. In time, those who choose to wait on the Lord will understand their pain and learn to even rejoice in it (2 Cor. 4:16-18). Thank God for His love and the ability he has given each of us to return it.

The Spirit's Frequency

Sunday, July 07, 2019

“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

(Colossians 3:2)

The phrase “set your mind/heart” is used throughout Scripture to describe the orientation of one’s thoughts, will and affections. It is a metaphor for fixing one’s life-attention on a thing (1 Sam. 9:20). A heart may be “set” to do God’s will or one’s own. It may be “set” on things above or below (examples - 1 Chron. 22:19; 2 Chron. 11:16; 12:14; 19:3; Ezra 7:10; Col. 3:2; Mt. 16:23; Rom. 8:5; Phil. 3:19, etc.).

Whenever I hear this phrase “set your mind”, I always think of tuning a radio. Growing up a Cleveland Indians fan in the 1990’s meant hearing the voice of Tom Hamilton. It was imperative to find the exact frequency on the radio so that all the distortion would fade away until his voice was crystal clear. When I got my own radio, I would flip back and forth between my preset FM music stations and AM 1100 for the Indians game with the push of a button. It was that easy. One click from Pearl Jam to MLB playoffs, from Eddie Veddar to Tom Hamilton. Would that tuning our hearts and setting our minds could be so easy!

Echoes of God's voice can be heard throughout creation (Psa. 19) but the voice itself is only clear on one distinct frequency, the Scriptures. We are tasked with tuning out all the distortion of the world to find the  heavenly frequency of our Shepherd's voice. And once finding that divine voice to "set" our hearts and minds diligently upon it.

“The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers… My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” (Jn. 10:3-5, 27) Sheep follow the comforting sound of their shepherd's voice. In the same way, we are to recognize and follow the sound of our Shepherd's voice.

Later, the apostle John wrote of the distinction between the different voices and audiences of teachers, “They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us...” (1 Jn. 4:5-6) Spiritual frequencies are constantly competing for our attention. One can tell where one is "from" based upon who one chooses to listen to. Children "of" or "from" God "know" Him and, like a child, can pick their Father's voice out from a crowd. The truth has a certain ring to it, a familiar flavor, a distinctive tone.

However, it is entirely possible to tune into the "heavenly" station for only a few hours in a week while allowing the world to win our attention the rest of the time. We may flip back to God’s station on Sunday but tune out heaven’s song throughout the week in favor of the seductive rhythms of the world.

The attention of our heart and focus of our mind are ours to give to whomever or whatever we will. We must be careful to tune into the right frequency. The Lord warns us to “take care then how you hear… My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (Lk. 8:11-21, esp. vv.18, 21) Those who devote themselves to do God’s will are those who are spiritually “tuned-in” to God’s voice. They listen actively, deliberately, and carefully.

Also, true listeners of the heavenly station hear evangelistically. That is, what they hear they also proclaim to others (Mt. 10:27; 1 Pet. 2:9; Phil. 2:15-16; 1 Jn. 1:1-3). So, today, do not harden your hearts or stop your ears but "tune in" to and "set your mind" on the voice of Jesus! (Psa. 95:7-11; cf. Heb. 3:7-11, 15; 4:7; Deut. 4:36; Mt. 17:5)

Into the Wilderness

Sunday, June 30, 2019

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”

(Matthew 4:1)

In the beginning, God placed the first human in the perfect living conditions, a literal paradise where all his needs were met. His work in tending  the garden (Gen. 2:15) was a joy until, because of a foolish decision to mistrust his Creator, he was forced  into exile away from  paradise and away from God Himself (Gen. 3:22-24). Not only this, but the once pristine ground had become “cursed” and his cultivation of it burdensome (Gen. 3:17-18). In a manner of speaking, Adam was sent “into the wilderness.” His mistrust of God resulted in him trading  life in a perfect world for life in a much harsher, corrupted one.

A “wilderness” is a desolate and lonely place devoid of vegetation. Theologically, it is the place where the Satan, represented by the serpent in the garden, took up his domain as  “ruler” (Jn. 12:31; 14:30 etc.). The Bible consistently depicts the “wilderness” as a place of judgment. Let’s notice a few examples that demonstrate this.

When Abraham's wife Sarah punished her servant Hagar, she “treated her harshly and she fled from her presence” (16:4-6). And where did Hagar run? Into the “wilderness” (16:7; 21:14, 20-21).

When Moses’ attempt at revolt in Egypt failed he fled to the “wilderness of Midian” away from the presence of Pharaoh to escape a death sentence (Ex. 2:15; 3:1).

The entire Exodus generation was forced to “wander in the wilderness forty years” as a punishment for their unbelief (Num. 32:13).

David fled from Saul “to the hill country of the wilderness” to escape persecution (1 Sam. 23:14). Later in life, David fled again “to the wilderness,” this time from his own son Absalom (2 Sam. 15:23).

The nation of Israel was carried off into Babylonian captivity because of their rejection of the Lord and His covenant. While in Babylon the land of Israel literally became a “wilderness” (Isa. 64:10).

But Isaiah prophesied of a time when a voice would cry, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (40:3). He described Israel’s spiritual condition metaphorically as a desolate land. But God promised that He would “[make] her desert like the garden of the LORD” (51:3). God was going to transform the barren, desert-like lives of His people into a flourishing garden. Israel’s rejuvenation would, in a sense, bring them back to the garden and back to the presence of God.

But first, God had to send His “messenger” who would “clear the way before” Him (Mal. 3:1). What better place to “prepare the way of the LORD” than in the wilderness (Mt. 3:3)? This messenger, John the Baptist, lived in the “wilderness” of Judea as a symbol, meeting Israel where they were spiritually, in a desert of sorrow and sin (Mt. 3:1).

Then the Lord finally arrived! After he was proclaimed God’s “beloved Son” (Mt. 3:13-17) we find Him being “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Mt. 4:1). Jesus did not accidentally stumble "into the wilderness." He wasn’t there fleeing from some evil like David nor was he being punished like Israel. He was “led” there “by the Spirit” for a purpose: to confront evil at its source. The lying serpent who started this whole mess in the first place was about to meet his arch nemesis in Jesus (cf. Gen. 3:15).

While in the “wilderness,” Jesus suffered greatly at the hands of the evil one but overcame temptation as a human, succeeding where both Israel and Adam had failed and opening up for us the pathway back to Paradise. In Jesus, we are no longer doomed to wander in a barren land but are being drawn back to the Garden and to God!

A Key Witness

Sunday, June 23, 2019

“But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost [sinner], Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”

(1 Timothy 1:16)

Trial lawyers know the importance of evidence and the value of a witness. But things get challenging when a witness has something to gain by testifying one way or the other.

The “Hearsay Rule” says that statements made out of court by a witness can’t be admissible in court if they are being used to prove the truth of the matter asserted by the statement. This is a convoluted way of saying out-of-court statements can’t be trusted because they can’t be cross-examined in court. 

There are a number of exceptions to the “Hearsay Rule” and one of them is an admission by an opponent called a “statement against interest.” In other words, when someone on the other side of the case makes a statement that admits the weakness of his own case and the strength of the other.

For example, if a major corporation is being sued for dumping chemicals into a river and the CEO of the corporation admits (out of court) he ordered the dumping, he has made a “statement against interest.” Since his statement harms his side of the case it carries more weight and can be used in court.

Now let’s pretend you were trying to prove the validity of  the resurrection of Jesus and the inauguration of God's kingdom in a court of law. Who would be the best witness for such a case? Whose testimony would carry the most weight?

Some say that the Bible was written by Christians who had a vested interest in Christianity being true. I think there are good answers for that, not least of which is the fact that the apostles and early Christians lost a great deal for their convictions. But, for the sake of argument, let's grant this criticism. A more credible witness would be an enemy of the Christian faith, one who actively opposed and publicly denounced the movement.

Can you think of anyone who would fit this description?

In a court of law, Saul of Tarsus would be the most valuable witness for lending credibility to the good news of the King. A good trial lawyer would put an eyewitness like Saul, a former enemy turned ally (Gal. 1:13; Phil. 3:4ff), on the stand and let him sing his song to the jury over and over again. Saul was willing to change his mind and it cost him dearly. He was severely persecuted for “switching sides” which gave him credibility as a witness for the truth. 

And how did God use Paul in the book of Acts? In every place, He was in a position to share his testimony publicly. When Paul was eventually arrested and put on trial in front of a string of government officials, none of the charges for treason or rebellion stuck. But he used this ready audience not simply to defend his innocence but as a platform to promote the message of good news. Paul was a key witness. (Acts 1:8; 9:15)

“I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” (1 Tim. 1:12ff)

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